I am currently reviewing ‘Queer Philosophy’ (eds. Halwani et. al). One of the issues in the anthology concerns the role of Philosophers as public intellectuals. The prima facie view of public intellectuals is that they usually assume a platform where they address an audience much larger than the audience for which their professional and publication background would normally mandate. So you would have specialists on very specific and seemingly irrelevant issues speak broadly about some generalised topic. Or is that really the case?
There are cultural issues at hand, as Halwani points out how in the USA, intellectuals are not seen as esteemed as say, France. It almost seems as if people in public gain greater social and authenticity capital if they are non-specialists or outright ignorant about an issue. One really needs to look at Anglophone politicians to see this is the case.
Cynicism aside, ‘Queer Philosophy’ contains some discussion on the (philosopher-)public intellectual. Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Moral Expertise?’ is a superb essay (anything she writes is superb, really) that invokes a distinction between a legitimate and illegitimate case of using a philosopher in a court of law. Engaging with the public means playing the game of short pithy soundbites. In a secular society, intellectuals have no more moral authority than anyone else, and the force of what a public intellectual puts forward should be considered by the merits of its premises.
How ideal this might sound, or how obvious this might sound? However the reality of it is that in the public sphere we all-too-often play with stereotypes and shorthand assumptions that just comes from a person’s name or position. Say the name Dawkins for example and people automatically get some kind of reaction or bugbear. Likewise, statements of the form ‘I believe’ does not have a place in the sphere of public reason. Taking beliefs and convictions as primitives is no form of argumentation at all, even if people attempt to derive premises or corroloraries or scholia as additionals.
Nussbaum gives bad examples of using philosophy in public debate (specifically in a court of law), and gives good examples. Linda Martin Alcoff poses that being a philosopher and public intellectual can involve portraying scholarship closed off to the general world, such as say, journal articles and treatises and conference papers; alternatively, Alcoff gives an example of where being a philosopher and public intellectual can advance original research and original insights on an issue that doesn’t come from journals but through an awareness of a public issue. Perhaps an example of this is the way in which feminist philosophers (and it should be said academic philosophy to an increasing participation) are challenging the conditions that make being an academic difficult for historically underpriviledged groups, this includes women but also minorities of various kinds such as those with disabilities.
Alcoff addresses the pitfalls of being a public intellectual in terms of one’s professional career, citing the examples of Cornel West and Noam Chomsky. Another view was to be negative, now this is negative in the Adorno sense. Where our worry about affirmations and making positive claims which could be appropriated, diluted and modified by others. Alcoff gives the example of the symbolism of the Che Guevara T-Shirt being utterly and cynically drained of any revolutionary fervour. The fear of being appropriated and misrepresented is very real when it comes to public intellectuals, especially when they are dead. I have come across the revisionism and perverting of Kant scholarship and German Philosophy at large during the Nazi period where something like the influence of a Scottish David Hume on Kantian Metaphysics is unthinkably offensive to the nationalist Nazi mentality.
There are many benefits and pitfalls to the different models of being a public intellectual. One can be a negative philosopher like Adorno, but how much of an impact did Adorno really have in his own time? Not much compared to say Sartre or Bonhoffer when it came to social critique. Alcoff’s example of Foucault’s activism is very powerful, to me that seems to be public intellectual work at its best. Foucault’s public activism on imprisonment led to a research programme and a mass of influence in a wide variety of areas in the social sciences, humanities and philosophy at large. There is indeed a space for original as opposed to derivative work in engaging with the public.
These essays in the ‘Queer Philosophy’ anthology were particularly notable to me, because they were so general, and should ideally be read by anyone with an interest in the public intellectual, and that doesn’t just include philosophers, or academics at large. I am particularly drawn by the suggestion that original work can happen through public engagement as a forum, the reality of academic writing is that something like Baumgarten’s Metaphysica will be read by a lot less people than Kant’s essay on the enlightenment, and more public responses and work has come from the latter, even when so much effort went into the former.