Paul Cartledge finds that wit and name-dropping are no substitute for intellect
We all seem to know what an intellectual is. For example, Harold Cruse published his The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual in 1967, Richard Posner, also American, his Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline in 2002, and Susan Sontag (surely herself a prime candidate, if not obviously in decline) in one of her last publications hailed Victor Serge as a practising intellectual. Over on this side of the Anglo-American pond, readers of Prospect magazine were last year invited to vote for a premier division of five from among a pre-selected list of 100 public intellectuals in Britain. But is "intellectual", though a 19th-century coinage as a substantive, really an anglophone concept at all? Isn't the French slang intello - as applied to Aron, Sartre, Derrida, Bernard-Henri Lévy et tous les autres - far more revealing, both philologically and sociolinguistically?
Steve Fuller, an American professor of sociology at Warwick University and historian of ideas, especially scientific ones, with ten years' domicile within British academia behind him, begs passionately to disagree. He would like to persuade us that the intellectual is or should be as British as - well, what? What is British, these days?
However, after reading his short, fiery but ultimately unintellectual manifesto, I have to say that I found his plaidoyer about as much of an authentic apologia for the intellectual - or more precisely the "public" or "universal" intellectual - as the Apology of Plato ascribed to Socrates was a genuine defence against the capital charges preferred against him in 399BC. One of Fuller's conceits, or riffs, is that the ancient Greek Sophists have had a raw intellectual deal - not least from Plato, Socrates'
most distinguished pupil - and deserve better remembrance, if not imitation, today. For the Sophists are held to satisfy two, and two of the most important, of Fuller's criteria for counting as intellectuals. They were dedicated relentlessly to the project of intellectual criticism, and what they criticised above all else were received opinions and norms, thereby setting at stake the distinctions between culture and nature, value and fact, truth and opinion.
But those are only two of Fuller's many and varied criteria. His intellectuals also practise one or more of the following, and do so of set purpose and with broadly reformatory public-political intent: independence of thought, fearless defence of the free movement of ideas, principled conflict and contrariness ("thinking is a kind of fighting"), manufacture of standards and taste, seeking after the whole truth, assertion of a critical perspective without appearing alarmist or reactionary, commitment to the essentially public character of humanity, eternal optimism and defiance. Fuller also seeks to define his intellectuals by stating what he claims they are not: ideologues, conventional politicians, entrepreneurs, marketers, journalists, lobbyists, lawyers, academics, scientists or philosophers.
I said this was not an intellectual book with some regret. Its smart and sassy format - including a pseudo-Platonic dialogue between a Philosopher and an Intellectual (a Fuller surrogate), and a section of FAQs about intellectuals - in the end counteracts its avowed seriousness of purpose.
It namedrops to no very useful effect, as in "When sizing up scientists, intellectuals should adopt for their purposes a sly remark by one of the greatest Austrian intellectuals, the journalist Karl Kraus", and so on. It is glib and inaccurate on, for non-contemporary examples, Thucydides and feudalism. Its adoption of metaphorical marketspeak throughout gives the impression that it is trying to impress favourably compilers and consumers of how-to, self-help business books and not only to satirise them.
In the end, for all its genuine wit and insight, Fuller's annoyingly jokey little book comes across as a kind of bluffer's guide, too preoccupied with merely seeming clever. The medium muffles the message. As an alternative, or antidote, I would strongly recommend the last chapter of Mark Lilla's The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (2001), titled "The lure of Syracuse". The reference is to Plato's lamentably unsuccessful attempt to reform the dictator Dionysius I of Syracuse and turn him into a philosopher-ruler.
For a key message of Plato's theory-driven Republic had been that the true Platonic philosopher must not content herself with basking in the epistemological and metaphysical Sun but get back down into the Cave of messy and dirty real-world politics, and apply there pragmatically her uniquely privileged insights. Lilla is kinder to Plato, and Socrates, than I would be myself, but his injunction "to master the tyrant within" as our "first responsibility" before seeking to contribute to the right ordering of political entities is a counsel if not of perfection, at least of admirably realistic intellectualism.
Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history, Cambridge University.
Author - Steve Fuller
Publisher - Icon Books
Pages - 184
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 84046 653 7