Decline of public intellectuals?

Interesting essay here. Jacoby claims that academics over the last generation have become increasingly isolated, and blogs are nothing more than private journals broadcast with a megaphone. (Also a bit shaming, as here I am blogging about it!)

UPDATE: Here is a related essay by Stanley Fish, on the topic of “what’s the use of the humanities?” His surprising answer is that the Humanities are not of any use — their value is not instrumental toward other things, but they are valuable in and of themselves. That’s neat, but I am wary of insulating the Humanities from all practical activities. The Humanities, properly studied, change lives, and complicate them.

An anecdote: last term I taught a big Humanities class, and one of the assigned readings was by Heidegger. The principal claim we discussed is that today we have forgotten the question of Being, and no other question is as important. One student, in his response, wrote that he thought Heidegger was right that the question of Being is fundamentally important. But the student thought we shouldn’t spend much time thinking about it, because such thinking can only get in the way of progress and advancement. (!!!!!) It would seem that a more thorough education in the Humanities might get folks to recognize that some things are more important than ‘progress.’

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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9 Responses to Decline of public intellectuals?

  1. Kleiner says:

    These are just my impressions, they may or may not be at all accurate. But here are my quick thoughts:
    a) My sense, as a young academic, is that “popular” work is not valued by the academy – and might even harm my chances at tenure. In graduate school the ongoing emphasis was that we make a “contribution” to “our field”. “Our field”, of course, is ridiculously specialized. No one ever talked of making a contribution to “public discourse”.

    b) Part of making a “contribution” also seems to mean saying something original. But since there is nothing new under the sun, originality ends up meaning putting more and more obscure spins on more and more specialized topics. But this makes our work more and more irrelevant to the public conversation. The latter, since it would have to be phrased in actually understandable terms, somehow smacked of being less sophisticated, worthwhile, and original.

    As a result, we do become isolated. I work hard not to – that is why I involve myself in the philosophy club, talk about big questions instead of just small ones, and why I teach seminars at my local church. Philosophy should be public. But, I suspect, those efforts will have little to do with my standing as an “intellectual” in the eyes of the academy. Instead, I’ll be judged by my publications (that no one reads) and my conferences (which no one but the scarce few in my field attend).
    Don’t we need people who talk about old ideas and their relevance to current issues, even if it is not altogether original, ground-breaking, or specialized? I think Machuga’s book on Aristotle is a perfect example of this – more academics need to be writing books like that. For generations we would have had professors repeating the wisdom of old. Why can’t we get tenure for doing that?


  2. Kleiner says:

    Aristotle makes the argument that philosophy/contemplation in particular (though I expect we could expand this to all humanities) are useless (see Book X of the NE). Of course, Aristotle takes that to be an argument in support of their superiority – contemplation is, he thinks, the only activity which we do for its own sake rather than for the sake of something else.

    I find myself very attracted to this argument, but it can be mistaken. It might be read to mean that the humanities are, as Huenemann puts it, isolated from practical activities. But I don’t think that at all, and I don’t think Aristotle does either. The contemplative life (humanities) help us to live a life that is well-lived. The best man, Aristotle thinks, has both right feeling but also the ability to think (analyze, judge). In short, the best life is the life of both moral and intellectual virtue. In fact, you cannot have moral virtue without intellectual virtue, phronesis in particular. As it turns out, the moral (practical) life will be, in some manner or another, dependent on the excellence of the intellectual life.

    Philosophy departments have a terrible time articulating this in a way that “sells”. That is why we so often fall into the trap of singing the praises of the instrumental value of philosophical study (the value of logic for LSATs, etc). But going the other way, and insisting that philosophy is useless, does not seem to do us much good either.

    So I suppose we need to be a bit more careful when we say the humanities lack instrumental value. They don’t “do” anything, so to speak (philosophy does not bake bread). But they are themselves activities which will inform all of our practical activities, judgments, and feelings.

    Here is the real problem: though students want to live a happy life (everyone does), they apathetically rush past any thought about what the eudaimonic (happy, excellent) life might look like. They are too busy rushing to fulfill societal idols – money, career, marriage, material goods. They have forgetfullness of the worst kind, the kind that Socrates was bent on attacking. That is, they are convinced that they already know what is good when they really do not! Hence the “usefulness” of philosophy seems useless to them. We need Socrates now, more than ever!!!


  3. Mike says:

    I like what both of you have said but agreement isn’t interesting so…

    Stanley Fish’s bullshit–

    The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged.

    And that, I believe, is how it should be.

    And that’s where Fish doesn’t understand what it means to be an artist. Save the “disciplinary knowledge” for the scientists. I’m not sure a life of meaning can be found in the academy but I’m pretty sure it can be found in the humanities. Humans usually want to know what’s true and how to live. Unfortunately this doesn’t equate with “disciplinary knowledge”. You might get lucky and end up asking/answering some of your own questions and the disciplines as such may thereby become relevant (he’s confusing a defense of the academy with a defense of the humanities). This is why a tutorial type education system would make more sense … we (as professors *cough* educators, ha ha) shouldn’t be trying to teach people how to gain knowledge but rather how to appropriate knowledge.

    That piece revealed more about Fish’s lack of character and vision than anything else. The philosopher might see himself as an artist or craftsman where his work is not only his work but also his self — his life.


  4. ganselmi says:

    “The philosopher might see himself as an artist or craftsman where his work is not only his work but also his self — his life.”

    Mike–Is philosophy a fundamentally a masculine endeavor? Nietzsche might say so, but I’m not so sure…


  5. Mike says:

    I hope not, I’m just no good at writing in gender neutral ways.


  6. ganselmi says:

    I wasn’t trying to be PC: Just wondering how far you’re willing to go with Nietzsche…

    A documentary was released some time ago on Derrida. It’s a generally vapid piece, but still well worth checking out just to see how Derrida operated in person. In one of the interviews, the filmmaker, who herself is clearly a feminist/deconstructionist, asks Derrida: “if your mother was one of the great philosophers–who would she be?” Derrida replies sarcastically: “What do you want me to say?! Hegel?…” (Of course, eventually he says he can’t change philosophy’s past, but he looks forward to seeing more women in the future joining the ranks of great philosophers.)


  7. petersonion says:

    It’s ironic how Heidegger (a very passionate Nazi) admitted at the end of his career that D.T. Sazuki (a Zenist) had said everything he was trying to say.

    But I agree with your student: Being is empty, how can dwelling upon it be of any benefit?

    Consciousness is defined by one central principle, the need for a division of the world into “subject” and “object” so that a thinking creature can distinguish amongst the things in the world. How disastrous would it be if we went around identifying ourselves with everything we perceived? — No, Zen cannot work in a Western context.

    Anyhow, a consequence of Consciousness is the need for a “goal” — progress is only important because it brings mental health, not because of the material fruits of progress.

    I like to go kayaking, and I am happiest kayaking when I am exploring someplace new. I also hate kayaking in open water because it is harder to experience the distance I am putting behind me.

    That being said, the Humanities are very important: however, the Arts are indeed a competition, in the sense that recognized achievement is what brings the real artistic satisfaction.


  8. Jake says:

    “That being said, the Humanities are very important: however, the Arts are indeed a competition, in the sense that recognized achievement is what brings the real artistic satisfaction.”

    I completely disagree with this statement. I also doubt that there is any amount of argumentation that could justify it.

    But the reason for my comment is to discuss this decline in public intellectualism. I personally think that it has to do with education today being seen as a stepping stone to careers. Careers being a modern term representing advancement and progress. And if you are collect all of these terms and their related identities you will come up with an amalgamation that–though blurry–spells out “c-a-p-i-t-a-l-i-s-m.”

    Seeing as I don’t have any Adorno material in front of me, I just pulled a quote from the web:

    “Advice to intellectuals: let no-one represent you.”

    Initial analysis of this statement is enough to apply to this discussion. Additional analysis brings even more fruit though. The word ‘reperesent’ has varied meanings but when applied to capitalism can be interpreted as representative democracy or rather a representative system for supposed democratic governance. Adorno felt that capitalism would slowly crumble any positive use that democratic representation may have once had. You can pontificate on this in regards to the telephone game or in a sense of creeping mythologies slowly infecting a representative chain as dictated by industrial and gothic thought/actions.


  9. petersonion says:

    No, that statement is totally justifiable. If you look at “self-expression” as the most important aspect of art — then no, I would be wrong. But in Art, just like every other well developed and important field, standards count, and who best reaches those standards can be measured.

    Art is indeed its best as a competition. Ask the Greeks.


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