Why the debate on “public intellectuals” is faulty (pt. 1 of 2)

Hi, Tom Medvetz here, checking in with my fourth OrgTheory guest post (posts 12, and 3 here). Today I’ll sketch a few notes about one of the big issues my book speaks to: the complex relationship between social knowledge and public action in the US. Perhaps the best-known debate on this topic is the one associated with Russell Jacoby’s 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals, which famously lamented the disappearance of “public intellectuals” from American life. In the years since its publication, Jacoby’s book and the idea of the “public intellectual” have earned enormous attention from journalists, pundits, and scholars.

However, reading over some of the major entries in this debate, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the “public intellectual” discussion has yielded more heat than light. In the first place, it’s striking how much disagreement still attends the central question a quarter-century later: Is public intellectualism declining or thriving in America? It depends on who you ask. Three days ago, Henry Giroux’s Counterpunch essay “The Disappearance of Public Intellectuals” seemed to take the basic truth of Jacoby’s thesis for granted. Meanwhile, many other writers have taken the opposite stance by arguing that public intellectuals are alive and well in the US. A good example is Daniel W. Drezner’s 2008 paper “Public Intellectuals 2.0,” which maintained that “the growth of online publication venues has stimulated rather than retarded the quality and diversity of public intellectuals.”

A second glance at this debate reveals a likely reason for the disagreement. Put simply, there has never been any consensus about the proper definition of the term public intellectual. In fact, it’s fair to say that how a given writer operationalizes the term tends to determine where he or she stands on the issue.

Is there a way to contribute to this debate without unwittingly producing another round in the potentially endless cycle of laments and celebrations? I think there is, but only by drawing on certain insights from the sociology of intellectuals. In my book, I make use of a conceptual framework with a long pedigree in this area (particularly the work of Weber, Bourdieu, and Gil Eyal*) to relate the rise of think tank-affiliated policy experts to the debate on “public intellectuals.” The first contribution this framework offers is to clarify the discussion’s conceptual substrate. In particular, it lets us see that the public intellectual concept acquires its rhetorical force from two ideas already familiar to scholars of intellectuals. The first is cognitive autonomy, by which I mean an intellectual group’s ability to enforce positive standards of rigor and competence on its members.

Autonomy is easy to grasp in principle. For example, we could say that doctors enjoy a certain degree of autonomy from patients in their ability to evaluate their medical needs and determine the best course of treatment independently of the patients’ opinions. Yet the operative phrase here is “a certain degree.” Once we think about real-life cases, it becomes clear that perfect autonomy is neither achievable nor desirable for an intellectual or professional group. The same doctors, for example, always face certain pressures to take into account the preferences of patients before deciding on a diagnosis or treatment. Furthermore—and this is a crucial point—how much pressure an expert group faces depends heavily on the presence or absence of rivals who are willing to tailor their services expressly to “consumer demand.” Extending the medical example, we could say that the presence of holistic and New Age healers poses a potential threat to doctors, who can no longer count on being the “only game in town” in treating illness (that is, if they ever could). Doctors might try to co-opt the knowledge of their rivals—witness mainstream medical exhortations about the value of meditation—or they may challenge its legitimacy. But the key point is that a strategy of uncompromising autonomy leaves an expert group vulnerable to competition from less autonomous rivals.

If membership in a highly autonomous group is vital to “intellectualism,” then what could make an intellectual “public”? Here the key notion is what Gil Eyal calls “openness.” Openness is the opposite of closure (in the Weberian sense), which refers to a group’s ability to control the means of entry into its own ranks and exercise proprietary control over its knowledge through credentialing and training mechanisms. Closure also implies a certain degree of esotericism or “mystery,” as when a medical doctor uses an obscure term for an illness or a professor relies on arcane jargon to make an argument. Both acts sharpen the distinction between the doctor and the layperson. The concept public intellectual, on the other hand, suggests a certain willingness to “give away” one’s knowledge by speaking in a language that is accessible to an educated lay public.

Once again, though, we can see why openness is no simple matter, and why it poses a second dilemma for intellectuals. Just as too much closure leads to pure esotericism (and potentially the loss of clients), too much openness leads to the loss of proprietary control over one’s knowledge (and the material and symbolic rewards that come with it). Think, for example, of everyday folk wisdom, which is freely available to everyone and therefore “owned” by no one.

The figure below (pasted from my book and adapted from Eyal) summarizes this framework by depicting the two oppositions I’ve described as axes in a theoretical space of relations. Bourdieu’s contribution to this discussion is to suggest that what Weber referred to as “ideal-types” are better thought of as unstable corner locations in a field of forces and relations. In other words, because the corners of the space are the most dangerous places for real-life intellectuals to exist, most of the “action” occurs closer to the center. As Bourdieu notes, once we’ve used the ideal-types to specify the dimensions of the space and the forces brought to bear on those who enter it, we can discard the ideal-types altogether. Eyal’s contributions are to clarify the dilemmas associated with the two axes and to emphasize the powerful allure of the field’s center. An expert group that wants to keep its consumers, he says, must strike tactical balances between autonomy and heteronomy and openness and closure.


From Think Tanks in America, p. 86

The model sketched here suggests why endless confusion over the status of “public intellectuals” is not surprising—and why writings on the topic often devolve into futile battles over the “true” meaning of the term. In the first place, there are no natural boundaries within this space, only degrees of autonomy and openness. Furthermore, real social agents and groups always have an interest in demarcating the boundary of categories like public intellectual in particular ways. When Russell Jacoby writes, for example, that public intellectualism is in decline because of the “professionalization and academization” of scholars, it’s hard to read this as merely a neutral description of the world. It is also part of an attempt to decry one kind of academic career path in relation to another.

In my book, I use this model to describe the strategic repertoires of think tank-affiliated “policy experts,” which tend to draw them toward the field’s center. At one point, I focus on the case of AEI fellow Charles Murray (Losing GroundThe Bell Curve). Murray’s successful intervention in the 1980s-90s welfare debate depended not on his ability to represent a specific intellectual “type,” but on his ability to exist in between types by merging disparate skills and styles strategically. Murray entered the debate in the early 1980s with all the outward appearances of a “public intellectual,” or someone who could challenge the political orthodoxy of the day from a standpoint of relative autonomy while speaking in terms that were accessible to the lay public. But he also gained a degree of authority from the appearance of technical proficiency that came from his experience as a former government analyst. Once Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, however, Murray repositioned himself as a crusader and spokesman for the anti-welfare movement by testifying before Congress and serving on an official White House commission convened to move the legislation forward. There is even a hint of “ivory tower” scholasticism in Murray’s story. (As he told me in an interview, “In the think tank world . . . I have—and this is not really an exaggeration—I have essentially spent the last 21 years doing exactly as I pleased, every day and all day.”)


Public intellectual?: AEI fellow Charles Murray, described as both an “exemplary social scientist” by Christopher DeMuth (in his Irving Kristol Award presentation) and a “conservative evildoer” and producer of “racist pseudo-science” by Eric Alterman (in What Liberal Media?)

The key point is that the field’s center is the best position from which to fend off challenges from rivals and maintain a stable clientele.

To move the public intellectualism debate forward, I think we should resist the impulse to treat the agent as the privileged unit of analysis. A public intellectual is not a flesh-and-blood person, nor even an ideal-type. Instead, the term is better understood as referring to an unstable corner location in a space of relations. A better approach, then, is to trace the relationships among real intellectual and professional groups within this space historically. In my next post, I’ll proceed with this task in more detail. [To be continued….]



* See, for example, Gil Eyal. 2002. “Dangerous Liaisons between Military Intelligence and Middle Eastern Studies in Israel.” Theory and Society 31, no. 5: 653–93; Gil Eyal. 2006. The Disenchantment of the Orient: Expertise in Arab Affairs and the Israeli State. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; Pierre Bourdieu. 1991. “Universal Corporatism: The Role of Intellectuals in the Modern World.” Poetics Today 12, no. 4: 655–69.


Written by Tom Medvetz

October 12, 2012 at 12:41 am

7 Responses

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  1. Tom, I’ve found your posts fascinating. I’m curious- in this schema, to what extent do the agents’ consciousness of one another’s actions affect the relations between groups of policy intellectuals? It seems to me that with blogs, 24/7 cable news, and so on public discourse is increasingly directed to nobody in particular, but perhaps it has just become more difficult to trace these relationships?



    October 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm

  2. I also wonder if part of what has changed is the audience for public intellectuals. When we look back at say, the 1950s and 1960s, it might seem like there were more influential public intellectuals. People like John Kenneth Galbraith, Richard Hofstadter, etc. were widely read and discussed by educated people. As you point out, there are probably more public intellectuals now because of the proliferation of online/new media, not to mention the globalization of media. But the public is much larger and more fragmented then it was in the 1950s. We have so many more choices that it makes it less likely that any particular public intellectual will become all that influential.



    October 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm

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