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The Public Intellectual as Agent of Justice: In Search of a Regime

From: Philosophy and Rhetoric
Volume 39, Number 2, 2006
pp. 147-156 | 10.1353/par.2006.0013

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Philosophy and Rhetoric 39.2 (2006) 147-156

In Search of a Regime

Steve Fuller

Department of Sociology
University of Warwick

The public intellectual is ultimately an agent of distributive justice. This sounds strange only if we conceive of justice as pertaining exclusively to relationships among people and things. However, the public intellectual's raison d'être comes into view once our sense of distributive justice is expanded to cover relationships among ideas and actions. Just as some people enjoy an unearned advantage over others with respect to access to material goods, so too some ideas enjoy an unearned advantage with respect to their capacity to motivate action. In the latter case, this advantage usually results from the accumulation of time and resources to develop ideas sufficiently to render their practical implications apparent. The advantage is "unearned" because it has been acquired at the expense of other ideas whose applicability would become equally apparent, if they were provided with comparable time and resources.

Now this way of seeing things presupposes a robust sense of the public as a unitary "intellectual ecology" or "collective attention span," which is subject to the usual economic problems of scarcity. It would be difficult to motivate the public intellectual's instinctive sense of justice—often expressed as righteous indignation—without assuming such scarcity. It forces one to consider which other ideas are marginalized simply because only some can receive adequate support. In other words, the public intellectual's animus is born of the view that ideas are never judged exclusively on their own merits but primarily in relation to other ideas.

Often these comparative judgments are made implicitly—that is, not by direct reference to the ideas but to those who seem to stand to benefit from their promotion. If we lived in a world of plenty capable of sustaining each worthy idea without others being crowded out in the process, this "hermeneutics of suspicion" would not be necessary or perhaps even warranted. That we do not live in such a world means that no idea is innocent of the fate of others. What distinguishes the public intellectual from others is that, faced with this situation, she does not become a skeptical fatalist but a sophistic advocate. The relative advantage of ideas is clearly the result of decisions—perhaps many and independently taken—that over time allow a few ideas to dominate over the rest. The task for the public intellectual, then, is clear: To construct situations that enable the balance to be redressed, to reopen cases that for too long have been closed.

In a phrase, the public intellectual is a professional crisis-monger. Should she need a patron from Greek mythology, the obvious candidate would be Eris, who provided the prized apple that occasioned Paris's judgment of the most beautiful Greek goddess, thereby unwittingly sparking the Trojan War—which, in turn, set the scene for the first moment in the Western literary canon. The public intellectual becomes a recognizable role once society—operationalized in terms of the nation-state—is envisaged as an organism, a "body politic," that possesses a collective mind in which a variety of ideas, some long repressed, vie for the forefront of consciousness. This social ontology was characteristic of France's Third Republic, the period during which Emile Durkheim institutionalized sociology as an academic discipline (Fuller 2004a). This was the context in which the novelist Emile Zola became the icon of public intellectuals in 1898 with the charge of "J'Accuse!" to draw attention to the ambient anti-Semitism and an implicit sense of France's declining fortunes on the world stage that led to the framing of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for treason.

Because nearly four years had passed since Dreyfus was consigned to Devil's Island, much of the initial response to Zola's attempt to reopen his case was negative. Indeed, he fled to London to escape imprisonment for libeling the French War Office, as Zola had no new evidence—only a new contextualization—for proclaiming Dreyfus's innocence. Zola was subsequently vindicated as new evidence came to light. As befits the metaphor of the body politic, Zola's intervention functioned as a vaccine to...

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