[Paleopsych] Ecnomist: (Posner) American intellectuals: The new phrenology
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American intellectuals: The new phrenology
2.2.7 (note date)
Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline.
By Richard A. Posner.
Harvard University Press; 448 pages; $29.95 and £20.50
"I'M NOT a donkey, and I don't have a field." So scoffed Max Weber, a
great German social thinker, when a faculty non-entity criticised him
for writing outside his discipline. The academic division of labour
has come on apace since Weber's day (he died in 1920), and hardly a
year has passed when someone from the cultural-decline crowd did not
decry the narrowing of scholarship and bemoan what they took for its
consequence: the death of the free-ranging intellectual.
This concern is not foolish. Who does not wish that the worlds and
sub-worlds of science, public affairs and humanities could better talk
to one another? Who does not applaud those valuable souls who can move
between these worlds with even a hint of grace or plausibility?
Richard Posner, an American federal-appeals judge, law professor and
prolific author, puts a new spin on these old anxieties. The trouble
with the (mainly American) intellectuals that preoccupy him is not, in
his view, that they are dying, but that they are not any good.
He starts off by ruling out what most of us would take as archetypal
intellectuals: scientists who explain science to lay people (eg,
Steven Weinberg), philosophers with an influential vision of society
(eg, John Rawls or Robert Nozick) and literary intellectuals of high
Bohemia (eg, Susan Sontag). No, his public intellectuals are really
pundits: people who opine about issues of the day on television or in
newspaper columns. On the theory that if it's real it must be
countable, he ranks what he calls the top 100 on the basis of
scholarly citations, media mentions and web hits.
Though some of his pundits (such as Henry Kissinger) have escaped from
government, most are moonlighters from universities or think-tanks. As
scholars, he tells us, they know much about little; as media
egg-heads, they must talk about almost anything. Naturally, they fall
on their faces: their stock-in-trade is prediction and some of their
forecasts (he doesn't say what proportion) turn out to be wrong.
There are, he adds, too many of them. The supply of commentators
outruns demand, and the quality of comment is therefore falling. To
improve things, he suggests that public intellectuals should pay more
attention to social (particularly economic) realities, spare us their
value judgments and post their columns on university websites (where
colleagues will supposedly spot and correct their errors).
What are we to make of this extraordinary construction, with its
artificial-vanilla-flavour assumptions? Mr Posner was a founder of the
law-and-economics movement, an influential view of law which, crudely,
recommends economic efficiency as the test of fair allocation. Yet
since writing a law-and-economics textbook he has wandered ever
Like Mr Posner himself, "Public Intellectuals" is both brilliant and
maddening. His knowledge and interests are wide. He is, in a sense, a
classic intellectual. His topic, the health of public debate, matters.
A dry, factual take on America's commentariat is--or would have
been--welcome. But he is here too partisan, too hurried and too driven
by the conclusions he wants to reach. In the end, the only
intellectuals he does not scorn, you feel, are those who share his
reductive and utilitarian outlook. Being a serious intellectual is
harder than it looks. That is Mr Posner's point. But need he have
illustrated it with this book?
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