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Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 224-238

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A Hanging Judge

Denis Dutton

"CORNERING THE MARKET ON CHUTZPAH," blared the headline on one review, and in tone it wasn't alone. It's not often that a book by a public intellectual has received as much media attention—mostly vilification and scorn—as Richard A. Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Harvard University Press, $29.95). Three reasons for this stand out. First, there's the sheer audacity of including a list of the top hundred public intellectuals, drawn from a larger list of 546 names. This invites endless dispute over how the list was generated, who is on it, who is left off, where each one stands, and why. Second, there is the fact that Posner has managed in the book to offend half of the public intellectuals you'd expect to be called on to review it—almost as though he made a list of potential reviewers and worked in a swipe at each. Finally, he has tapped into the deep antipathy humanist intellectuals have to seeing a beloved topic treated quantitatively, with statistics and applications of social and economic theory, replete with graphs and algebraic formulae. And after all, what topic is more beloved by the intellectuals than they themselves? That Posner would actually treat such important people as a demographic type, sorting them in terms of race, age, field, politics, sex—why, he even asks why so many are Jews. It's outrageous . . . and delicious.

Definitions first. The idea of an intellectual, Posner says, should not be identified merely with having highbrow, cultivated tastes, being especially creative, or having high intelligence. All of these things are possible without being an intellectual, which Posner thinks ought to denote the application of the mind to "political matters in the broadest sense of that word, a sense that includes cultural matters when they are [End Page 224] viewed under the aspect of ideology, ethics, or politics (which may all be the same thing)." There is therefore a vague redundancy in the term "public intellectual," since the placing of ideas in a larger public context, acting as social critic, is what the intellectual most essentially does. In our age of vast communication media, it is also done con-spicuously in public, through op-eds, public radio interviews, and on TV clips with the regulation public-intellectual bookcase as a backdrop. This concern with larger moral issues means that for Posner paradigm individuals would therefore include the likes of John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Edmund Wilson, Susan Sontag, and most powerfully in Posner's mind, George Orwell: people who write about literature, art, science, and so forth from a broadly political or ideological perspective. For example, when Allan Bloom writes about rock and roll, he is not doing so as a music critic but as a philosopher who sees it as a symptom and source of social degradation. That's echte public intellectual work (and rather bad work in this particular case, Posner believes). That it is done for a broader public is also a crux for Posner, who leaves omits John Rawls from his list, because as influential as Rawls is as a philosopher, he does not address a larger public in the way that Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum do.

The decline referred to in Posner's title is a decline in the actual worth of public intellectuals' work, not in their media celebrity, which has grown roughly inversely to the value of what they do. This invidious situation has followed, in Posner's view, the proliferation of academics in the ranks of public intellectuals. From the nineteenth century, with such names as Thoreau, J. S. Mill, Herbert Spencer, Matthew Arnold, and Tocqueville, to well into the twentieth, with the likes of Max Eastman, Edmund Wilson, H. G. Wells, and Dwight Macdonald, the great tradition of public intellectuals had its life outside of universities. Although there remain nonacademic public intellectuals today—Susan Sontag, Roger Kimball, Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal—they are a severely diminished species. Universities, which have expanded...


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