Saturday, February 23, 2008

The dilemma of defining a Public Intellectual

What is a public intellectual? How do you become one? Who decides who is or is not a public intellectual? These are some of the question that I have pondered on for the past couple of weeks. Trying to wrap my brain and come up with a simple explanation of a “Public Intellectual.”
In my quest for unveiling this mysterious title I came across various essays and articles, where the writes explain or try to explain in a various ways what a Public intellectual is. So is the case with John Lukacs who brought some historical fact about the word “intellectual” he writes “intellectuals have become recognizable not because of their schooling but because of their opinions.” Still with this simple explanation the matter should be put to rest, on the contrary this opens up new avenues of discussion why their opinions matter more than the other person. Confused already, my head still hurts from thinking about it.
Ok, let us try to make this as simple as possible we need to Jeffery R. Di Leo referred to the public intellectuals as “one sided argument.”
Di Leo comments “From the public point of view they are either Republican or Democrat; liberal or conservative; left-wing or right-wing… Public intellectuals signify or are reduced to nothing than a position, and usually an extreme one-on a topic of contemporary social and political concern.”
This explanation seems very simple enough, Di Leo also separates the concept of public intellectuals into two different spheres the academe and the public-private sector.
“Public intellectuals play crucial role in the circulation, production and identity of knowledge though to the two world they inhabit-academe and the private-public sector-both compete for their allegiances and affiliation. The interests of these two worlds are very different, academe privileges highly specialized modes of discourse, whereas the public-private world favors generalized one.” In a way Di Leo has separated the Public intellectuals into two different spheres the academia that are driven by their ideas whereas the public-private sphere that are driven by selling ideas, he is basically bringing the notion of quality in the academic sphere vs. quantity in the public-private sphere.
He also bring a key component in public intellectual that of public, the size of the public plays a very important role in the value of the public intellectual “ the greater the public the greater value that is ascribed to the public intellectual.”
In a way this separation makes a lot of sense to me. Think about, the academic intellectuals will be talking about thing that matter their field of knowledge and expertise, as for the public-private sphere well their discussions are generalized one to a level that is very simple to an ordinary citizen to understand and relate to.
Although Di Leo has shed some light on the Public intellectuals and separated them into two different spheres he still has not clearly defined what a public intellectual is.
The best example comes from Alan Lightman in his article “The role of public intellectuals”
Lightman bring the example of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his essay “The American Scholar” in this essay Emerson describes the meaning and the function of the intellectual.
In this essay Emerson describes the intellectual as “preserves great idea of the past communicates them and creates new ideas. The intellectual does all of these things not out of obligation to his society, but out of obligation to himself.”
The idea of the intellectual that is described by Emerson feels more of a noble idea, but a very true one, what Emerson describe as an intellectual is by far the most tangible idea ever.
To add to the above notion but with a more political character Edward Said describes “the intellectual’s mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge, this often means standing outside of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the status quo.”
With these two ideas combine together we draw a very distinct picture of what a public intellectual is, although some may disagree with this idea.
Lightman also bring a hierarchy of levels of public intellectuals
-level one: speaking and writing for the public exclusively about his/her discipline, example Brian Green’s book The Elegant Universe.
-level two: speaking and writing about his/her discipline and how it relates to the social, cultural, and political world around it, example James Watson’s the Double Helix.
-Level three: by invitation only. The intellectual has become elevated to a symbol, a person that stands for something far larger than the discipline from which he or she originated. According to Lightman these intellectuals is asked to write and speak about a large range of public issues. Example Einstein was asked to give public addresses on religion, education, ethics and world politics.
As we can see there is a trend in Lightman’s level’s and where these intellectuals stem from, they all come from the academic field with focused public and move on to more general and wider public. As an academic in the field of astronomy he later started to write essays about the human side of science.
The is another aspect of the public intellectuals that we did not cover is the religion side, in his essay “Wicked Paradox” Stephen Mack brings another component to the Public intellectual which is religion. He quotes Beinart “These men and woman have been intellectuals of a special kind-people whose religious training and experience shaped their vision of a just society and required them to work for it.”
Although public intellectuals with religions background in my view are the most beneficial intellectuals to our society but sooner or later their ideology seems to shift to more personal gain rather the greater good.
Those public intellectuals with religious background connect with the public on the levels of harmony, kindness to other and equality in society.

The process of defining public intellectuals may seems very simple, but the fact is that it is more complicated that a physics problem, but thing is with a physics problem there is only one right solution. In the problem of public intellectuals the matter is subjective. For me who I consider as a public intellectual may be a ranting person for someone else.
So before you decide who you think is a public intellectual think about his/her responsibility towards you and your fellow citizen.
As a last though I will leave you with a poll that the Prospect a British magazine did for the top 100 public intellectuals in the world and guess who is number one?
These are the top 10 only:
1-Noam Chomsky
2-Umberto Eco
3-Richard Dawkins
4-Vaclav Havel
5-Christopher Hitchens
6-Paul Krugman
7- Jurgen Habermas
8-Amartya Sen
9-Jared Diamond
10-Salman Rushdie

No comments: