Intellectuals and their Publics: Perspectives from the Social Sciences

Fred Inglis admires an examination of the place of those who speak truth to power in society today

March 5, 2009

For those many academics who still feel their profession is a calling, the role and meaning of the intellectual must stand and walk always beside them as an ideal, a reproach, a fulfilment, a gripping storybook of object-and-subject lessons and parables about how, in the excellent phrase, "to speak truth to power", even if the power in question is only that of the latest managerial fatuity.

When Edward Said gave his 1993 Reith Lectures - published as Representations of the Intellectual, one of his best pieces of work - he was at pains to emphasise the keen actuality of each individual thinker's day-to-day politics and experience. He declared roundly that the intellectual had best remain secular, for all gods will fail you in the end, that what counts is keeping yourself "alert and solid", that scepticism must not harden into Pyrrhonism, and that your ultimate allegiances can be determined only by great labour.

The admirable book to hand may be used as an extended, inevitably academic (in a slightly too thickly textured way) commentary on the premises of Said's plain-spoken principles. Ashgate, as usual, has made a handsome, compact volume (there must be 200,000 words here, including all-encompassing bibliographies) out of a multinational research venture that is, one is glad to see, a product of the European Commission.

Inevitably, perhaps, many of the 16 lengthy essays start out from or make much of the question as to whether intellectuals are on the decline as part of civilisation's going to the dogs.

Richard Posner, the American dogmatist, in a truly awful book recently returned a loud and self-satisfied "yes" to the question, but these contributors are pretty convincing in their detailed conclusion that the class of intellectuals - always hard to define - is still going strong.

They have, of course, to grapple with the invincible self-righteousness of the French, who after all invented the term. In an admirable piece of special pleading, John Torpey returns Alexis de Tocqueville to the pantheon, while Anson Rabinbach, in pursuit of Tzvetan Todorov's caustic criticism of the French Left's "philo-communism", which largely in the wake of Jean-Paul Sartre's colossal vanity took so long to renounce, exemplarily insists on the intellectual's duty to face up to the existential worst: Buchenwald, the gulags, Hiroshima, Sarajevo, Baghdad.

The deep style of French intellectual life might indeed have been treated more theoretically rather than simply be counted for its contributions to Le Monde, as one rather laborious essay does, for these are mostly political sociologists.

This means that they cannot immunise themselves against banality (the editors voice the generalisation that "Over the years, new groups of intellectuals have entered the public arena while older ones have disappeared"), nor is their ear sharply attuned to the dreadful jargon of the trade.

Stefan Muller-Doohm, in a well-thought-out comparison of two definitive figures, Theodor Adorno and Jurgen Habermas, allows himself to approve of the latter's discovery of "the agonal positionality of the intellectual style of thought". You read this and you just want to hand the poor chap his countryman Friedrich Nietzsche's remarks on style, or Said on "late style", or R.G. Collingwood on thought as literature.

Nonetheless, this is a serious book on serious ground. William Outhwaite, in a very short essay, ends with his enticing A and B lists of European intellectuals. This is a compulsive game to play, and by implication played throughout the volume, for intellectual is an ostensive concept. We find out what it means by pointing to instances.

This is where the collective might have turned from sociology to ethics. Such a move would entail a transformation of subject method, and about time too. Take, for example, Stefan Auer's intelligent and pertinent contrast of the duo Jan Patozka and Vaclav Havel with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Slavoj Zizek. Morally speaking, the first two win hands down: each was in time of great national danger a prudent humanist and a brave hero. Of the other two, each was morally and horribly in the wrong: Merleau-Ponty, Proustian asthmatic, speaking up for the cleansing necessity of violence and terror; Zizek, jackanapes and mischief-maker, cutting an elderly caper on Robespierre's behalf and in derision of wet old liberalism.

Well! Everybody admires Havel, just as they do Said, Max Weber, Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, Edward Thompson (curiously missing here), Pierre Bourdieu, Denis Healey, Dorothy Hodgkin ... the list stretches out to the crack of doom. The deep question, however, is how (the phrase is Perry Anderson's) these "lines of force for transformation" can come through from past to present.

The answer to this, which the book to hand cannot give but the contributors to which know to be crucial, will be found only in a new kind of biographical history in which the key relationship is that between the nature and style of a thinker's thought in action, and his or her attitude towards the ends of life, or as Havel styled things, "living in truth".

Intellectuals and their Publics: Perspectives from the Social Sciences

Edited by Christian Fleck, Andreas Hess and E. Stina Lyon

Ashgate

292pp, £35.00

ISBN 9780754675402

Published 1 January 2009

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