Scholars in the humanities have long faced the question of how their work relates to public issues and concerns. The question seeks an answer beyond the disciplinary work we typically undertake. Providing an answer is important only if one believes that the work of humanists—and here I use the term in the broadest sense of theoretical and critical work directed toward understanding and analyzing how thought and expression shape events and constitute a human world—has significance for the character of human life and human community. For many who believe it does, not to mention those who do the asking, this is not a question defending intellectual work as socially relevant but of performing intellectual work in ways that matter in society. Scholarly and lay communities look to the "public intellectual" to perform this role. Yet the meaning of "public intellectual" is far from clear, as are where and how such work is performed.
For some the answer is tied to bringing disciplinary work to bear on social issues and situates socially relevant work in the classroom. By engaging students in our disciplines, it is contended, we provide them with resources to think about public problems. The public intellectual's function is to help students develop analytic skills and lifelong patterns of thought to bring disciplinary knowledge to bear on social issues. In part this was the position Vico took when he challenged the Cartesian educational model of his day. However, is this the function of a public intellectual? For others, the answer lies beyond the confines of professional venues; the social relevance of knowledge is situated within the public sphere. The public intellectual on this account is one who brings disciplinary knowledge into the civic arena to advance a less partisan and more critical analysis of social problems. Yet, can public thought of this sort ever be neutral? For still others, a public intellectual is a person who brings learning to bear on public discussion of the moral issues of the time. Still, doesn't that leave unanswered matters that may have more to do with pragmatic problems or an informed public and that look for an expert to help an intelligent but not technically trained public make sense of the world? [End Page 125]
The question of the nature, function, and role of a public intellectual has robust lineage in philosophy and rhetoric. Are these intellectual practices whose meaning lies in the academy or are they practices that come to fruition in the streets? Are intellectuals prepared by training and, perhaps, temperament to address the contingencies of public issues? This forum brings three positions into conversation on the definitional question of what is a public intellectual and what role this person plays in society.