Monday, December 12, 2011

The Public Intellectual: Democracy's Voice Of Reason

Thought & Politics

The intellectual is different from the ordinary man, but only in certain sections of his personality, and even then not all the time.
George Orwell
Steven Pinker:  The Montreal-born Harvard University professor and researcher's latest book, " The Better Angels of Our Nature” shows among other things that violence has decreased among humans in the last thousand years.  Democracy, the scientific method and medical & social advancements have all contributed to this decline. “Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control," he said in a New York Times article. Pinker, who earned a PhD in experimental psychology at Harvard University, is currently the Johnstone Family Professor at Harvard University's department of psychology.
Photo Credit: Rebecca Goldstein, 2011
Source: Wikipedia

In a recent New York Times article, the writer calls Steven Pinker a "public intellectual," whose inclusion I  heartily endorse for not only his bringing academic ideas of human nature to a wider audience, but also raising important questions about society and civilization. The public intellectual as an unofficial office holder of high ideals and high ideas is a term that was quite popular in the 1990s, but is not well used today, perhaps a reflection of society's current penchant for anti-intellectualism.

Its meaning relates to the life of the mind, of thinking and raising questions that typically go beyond what a university academic or researcher does in his profession. It can involve original thinking, but the chief idea is to raise questions that are broad and deal with society at large.

Of course, it goes without saying, that a public intellectual can only exist in a democratic society that is open to questioning, inquiry and criticism. By dint of such a definition, totalitarian and authoritarian regimes do not support the raising and nurturing of public intellectuals. (People like lists and to rank persons, thus one can be found here of  "The Top 100 Public Intellectuals." It is like many lists of this type debatable as to inclusion and rank.)

One of the simplest, yet elegant, definitions is by Alan Lightman, a writer and physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who in an article entitled, "The Role of a Public Intellectual," writes:
Let me now define what I mean by the public intellectual today" Such a person is often a trained in a particular discipline, such as linguistics, biology, history, economics, literary criticism, and who is on the faculty of a college or university. When such a person decides to write and speak to a larger audience than their professional colleagues, he or she becomes a "public intellectual."
Yet, it's more than presenting academic ideas in an accessible language. It's about thinking and promoting ideas that would better society. If such is the case, then we might have fewer public intellectuals than such lists say. In Public Intellectuals: a study in decline (2003), Richard Posner, a legal theorist, judge, and lecturer at University of Chicago Law School, writes:
I believe that it is fair to say that the position, the contribution, most precisely the social significance of the public intellectual is deteriorating in the United States and that the principal reasons are the growth and character of the modern university. (6)
Simply put, the narrow specialization of the modern university argues against the formation and nurturing of public intellectuals. Perhaps Posner might be on to something, and his central idea worth considering, weighing, debating. In Canada notable public intellectuals of the past were Marshall McLuhan [1911-1980], Northrop Frye [1912-1991] and George Grant [1918-1988].

Sadly, such thinkers and their fine works are little known by most Canadians. Today's list would include John Ralston Saul, Naomi Klein and Michael Ignatieff, who was the leader of the Liberal Party until the last election. He failed to connect with the voters, which says much about the difficulty of intellectuals in politics, an arena that speaks more about likeability than ideas. Ignatieff has returned to academia, to University of Toronto's Massey College, where he and his ideas might be more appreciated.

Yet, the most public of roles is the political head of a nation, where the need for ideas to shape and direct a nation are greatest. In Canada and the United States, many if not most political leaders are lawyers, which is not the place one would usually expect great and original ideas—at least not today. It's generally agreed that intellectuals don't make good leaders of nations, but does that translate to the anti-intellectualism one sees in many election campaigns? This raises the point of what makes a good leader for high public office, a question addressed by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, last week in an op-ed piece ("Intellectuals and Politics") in The New York Times:
Good politicians need not be intellectuals, but they should have intellectual lives.  Concretely, they should have an ability and interest in reading the sorts of articles that appear in, for example, Scientific American, The New York Review of Books, and the science, culture and op-ed sections of major national newspapers — as well as the books discussed in such articles.
It's interesting to note that only one president of the United States has held a doctorate degree: Woodrow Wilson, who earned a doctorate in history and political science at Johns Hopkins University in 1886, and became the 28th president, serving two terms between 1913 and 1921. It's similar in Canada, where William Lyon Mackenzie King was the only prime minister to earn a doctorate degree, having earned one from Harvard University in political economy in 1909. He became the tenth prime minister of Canada and was in office for 22 years from the 1920s to the 1940s, the longest serving prime minister in Canadian history.

Over here, Pierre Elliott Trudeau [1919-2000], the 15th prime minister of Canada, who dominated politics between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, was likely the closest Canada has come to having a public intellectual in high office. Trudeau, a colorful and outspoken figure whose motto was "reason before passion" coined the well-quoted policy that "there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation," a fundamental cornerstone of privacy. Such was a controversial stance to take in the 1960s, but it helped make Canada a more open, democratic and tolerant society.

Michael Ignatieff: A public intellectual in Canada, Ignatieff  currently teaches law and political science at University of Toronto's Massey College. Formerly, he was leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and leader of the Official Opposition from 2008 until 2011, when he and his party were soundly defeated in a federal election, showing how difficult it is for an intellectual to become a nation's leader.  Ignatieff, who holds a PhD in history from Harvard University, has spent considerable time outside Canada, where he has held academic posts, including director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His uncle is George Grant [1918-1988], the noted political philosopher and public intellectual.
Photo Credit: Georges Alexandar, 2011
Source: Wikipedia


  1. Politicians, typically, are driven--ferociously ambitious. They are likely to have scandal-filled personal lives. Intellectuals, to be sure, may also be driven, but they are more varied in their temperaments. The typical intellectual does not have enough ferocity to go through the process of campaigning for office.

  2. Prof Jochnowitz:

    You raise an excellent point about politics and politicians, notably as it applies today. It also takes a lot of money to run a campaign.


All comments ought to reflect the post in question. All comments are moderated; and inappropriate comments, including those that attack persons, those that use profanity and those that are hateful, will not be tolerated. So, keep it on target, clean and thoughtful. This is not a forum for personal vendettas or to create a toxic environment. The chief idea is to engage, to discuss and to critique issues. Doing so within acceptable norms will make the process more rewarding and healthy for everyone. Accordingly, anonymous comments will not be posted.