The Changing Role of Philosophers As Public Intellectuals


Via a chock-full-of-philosophy-links post at the wonderful Omnivore blog at Bookforum comes “The Philosopher As Public Intellectual” by Patrick Baert, a sociologist at Cambridge University. The essay is part of a forthcoming collection, Public Intellectuals in the Global Arena: Professors or Pundits?

When compared to the times in which Jean-Paul Sartre or Bertrand Russell held sway, today might seem rather dire for the philosopher as public intellectual. Baert takes aim at this simplistic declinist picture, saying:

This type of public intellectual, epitomized by those two iconic characters, is no longer as viable today as it was in the middle part of the twentieth century. But this is not to say that there is no scope today for philosophers as public intellectuals, or that there is less space for public intellectuals in general… Too often commentators have mistaken the decline of a particular type of public intellectual for the fall of the public intellectual in general… The current climate encourages a type of public engagement, whether from philosophers or non-philosophers, which is of a very different kind from the one exercised by the likes of Sartre and Russell.

Baert admits that “a changing socio-political landscape has indeed made it more difficult for authoritative public intellectuals to emerge and gain respect and attention.” The emphasis is on “authoritative.” He explains the circumstances under which authoritative public intellectuals flourish:

They thrive in societies in which a significant section of the population value intellectual life and in which nevertheless the cultural and intellectual capital is concentrated within a small elite. They thrive in a hierarchical educational context, with ‘hierarchical’ referring to a clear distinction not only between elite institutions and other higher education establishments but also between high and low status disciplines. They can exist independently of academic appointments because of independent resources, gained from family wealth or successful exploitation of the media of the time (book-writing and print journalism in the first half of the 20th Century, broadcasting in the 2nd half and beyond). They tend to surface when the academic setting is more amorphous, with limited specialisation, and especially when the social sciences are poorly professionalised. It is in this very specific context that authoritative public intellectuals like Sartre and Russell have a field day. Steeped in a high profile disciple like philosophy and mathematics and with the confidence of the right habitus and an elite education, they can speak to a wide range of social and political issues without being criticised for dilettantism. The early part of the twentieth century,especially in parts of Europe, fits this ideal type remarkably well. It was the era of the philosopher as public intellectual.

These circumstances have now changed.

For example, “philosophy has lost to a certain extent its previous intellectual dominance.” This Baert attributes to both some authority-undermining lines of thought (e.g., post-modernism) and the professionalization, growth, and improvement of the social sciences. The result is that it is “more difficult for philosophers or others without appropriate training and expertise in the social sciences to make authoritative claims about the nature of the social and political world without being challenged.”

Additionally, “with high educational levels for larger sections of society, the erstwhile distinction between an intellectual elite and the rest does no longer hold to quite the same extent,” at least in this crucial respect: “with higher education also comes a growing scepticism towards epistemic and moral authority, an increasing recognition of the fallibility of knowledge and of the existence of alternative perspectives.” So, “speaking from above and at their audience, as authoritative public intellectuals do, is no longer as acceptable as it used to be.”

Baert says that though the climate is less hospitable to authoritative public intellectuals, other kinds have emerged: “expert public intellectuals” and “dialogical public intellectuals.”

Expert public intellectuals “draw on their professional knowledge, whether derived from their research in the social or natural sciences, to engage with wider societal or political issues that go beyond their narrow expertise.” Examples include Foucault, Bourdieu, and Chomsky. 

Dialogical public intellectuals, in contrast to authoritative and expert types, “do not assume a superior stance towards their publics. Rather, they present themselves as equals to their publics, learning as much from them as vice versa… and engage with their publics in a more interactive fashion.”

Baert does think that “philosophy is less compatible with those new types than it was with the authoritative public intellectual.” He writes that it is 

difficult to see how, within the new cultural landscape of expertise, dialogue, and declining aura, philosophers can still make the kind of public inroad which they used to make. If they manage to do so, it is more likely that their interventions will be of a hybrid kind, part philosophy and part empirical research. Philosophy, as practised in the realm of the academy, has become quite removed from the rough and tumble of contemporary society… [This is] partly because the way in which philosophers are being trained, especially within an Anglo-Saxon setting, is not really conducive to a critical and constructive engagement with issues that currently concern the wider public.

This does not mean there is no longer any room for philosophers as authoritative public intellectuals, Baert says. It is just that “societal changes have made it less likely for privileged generalists to be taken seriously and to have an impact, just as it has become increasingly difficult for rigorously trained philosophers to enter the public sphere.”

The whole paper is here.
Illustration by Jungho Lee

Illustration by Jungho Lee

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dmf
dmf
5 years ago

I can’t bear to read the comments/replies to the NYTimes Stone (and the like) any more but they did raise the question of how useful these moments of public voicing are, not unlike most science/health reporting, the ability to deliver material that is both accessible and still accurate is very limited and often instead feeds into people feeling more certain/authorized in their mistaken views.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

It is hard to become as publicly famous as Russell and Satre were, but then, almost nobody ever has. Public philosophy sells well today and we have unparalleled opportunities to bring it to the people. I see no sign of the public being more open to a new type of public philosopher than an old type. What I do see is a lack of interest among philosophers in getting up off their backsides and addressing the public in ways the public can understand, as Russell did. Instead, we speak to one another in technical language and then complain that we have no public impact.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

“What I do see is a lack of interest among philosophers in getting up off their backsides and addressing the public in ways the public can understand, as Russell did.”

You mean besides all the people mentioned here?
http://dailynous.com/2016/08/31/who-does-public-philosophy/

And besides all the philosophers who teach the public at community colleges and public universities?

Seriously, I’m all for critically examining our profession, but let’s not do it in ways that ignore the work that dozens upon dozens of philosophers are already doing.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

I posted to that very thread to praise those people. I’m not ignorant of what they are doing. I wish there were more like them. As a profession, we are not doing nearly enough. Saying that doesn’t dishonor those folks who are doing things.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I guess I just don’t understand you point then. Is the claim that there is a large, still untapped market for the traditional “authoritative public intellectual,” but not enough philosophers writing for it? That seems implausible – if there were, why hasn’t more of that market gravitated to the work already being done in this vein?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Few people are aware that such work even exists. Of those who are aware, few understand what it is. Finally, it has to be dealing with issues that interest them in particular. A “Batman and Philosophy” book is next to useless to someone who isn’t interested in Batman. The books that are published sell well and their popularity has been growing as more books appear. Demand for writers for popular philosophy books outstrips supply.Report

José Miguel Sagüillo
José Miguel Sagüillo
5 years ago

As a professional philosopher (with a university job I mean) I would like to suggest not to forget the issues, the subject matter of what matters instead of only paying attention to the social debate around the issues.
We ought to be experts on the social perception of the problems and experts on the issues whose social impact we perceive if we want to have a respectful and, in a sense, authoritative well grounded opinion on the subject that matters.Report

DocFEmeritus
DocFEmeritus
5 years ago

I agree that philosophers ought to be out there making, well, as opposed to normal comments, rational and argued points. I have written and had published numerous letters to the eds in papers in my state (MI, Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, local papers, etc…and on line). The result?? Little commentary from anyone out there or, when I address academics, knee-jerk responses of “sexism”, “anti-sexism”, and a total lack of response to the arguments or issues — and liberals, as I am, you are the worst for misreading comments. Thus, what is my point? Namely, the culture and climate out there is so negative as to debate and considering alternative views as to be discouraging to endeavoring to engage in public debate and discussion.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  DocFEmeritus
5 years ago

Good on you for trying. I’m not surprised there wasn’t a big splash. Having an impact on society, if we can do it at all, is a grind. I’m disappointed, though not surprised, to hear of your experiences with academics. We are political creatures too and it is hard to have substantive political discussions about important issues with political creatures. It is not true in my experience that liberals are worse than conservatives for misreading comments. In fact, I think we are better, on average, than conservatives. Having said that, liberals are very bad for misreading comments and many who rightly condemn conservative bias scoff at the very idea that “liberal bias” exists.

Yes, the climate out there for discussions is terrible. That means that we are needed very badly. If we can make it a bit less terrible, that would a significant social contribution.Report

Raymond Pfeiffer
Raymond Pfeiffer
5 years ago

I find this discussion and the whole subject nauseating. If you have something important to say, and can say it in a way attracting the interest of gatekeepers of the media, you can be heard! Philosophers have very unique perspectives on many issues, and these can easily be stated in fresh and provocative ways. Simply calling attention to the nature of the evidence for many ideas that are current and popular can itself provide valuable food for thought for many people. However, comparing oneself to legends like Sartre and Russell is simply not helpful. Look at their messages, and note the importance and interest and relevance of their public statements! Let’s learn from the content of philosophy and philosophers’ statements, not from the impact of their panache! Those who, like Baert, try to say something about philosophy as a phenomenon, but ignore the relevant philosophical content, depart from the spirit of philosophy and seem to want to relegate philosophy to a museum of intellectual history and sociology. Doing so is pathetic and counterproductive, and is not even worthy of the discussion I have given it here!Report

RBChessi
RBChessi
Reply to  Raymond Pfeiffer
2 years ago

You are “on to something.” I think television news media is a poor format for philosophy. The media wants quick sound bites and quippy speakers. There is little patience for artful debate and discussion. Besides, we are in a time when the “might makes right” crowd is the loudest and they are not interested in intellectualism. Meaning, the audience is lowly educated and angry. Sad times, indeed.Report

kailadraper
2 years ago

I think that too many philosophers are too willing to become propagandists for their cherished causes. That brings discredit to even the serious public philosophy that is also out there. Perhaps the most common problem I see is a complete disregard for getting the relevant empirical facts right. Quite often, I also see completely one-sided arguments (and other sorts of suppression of evidence), straw men, huge assumptions that are put forward as uncontroversial truths, obvious selective skepticism, and simple logical mistakes. Again, I have also read a lot of great public philosophy. So I don’t want to be too negative here. But if we want public philosophy to be taken seriously, we need to consistently do serious public philosophy. End of rant.Report