April 23, 2008

What is a Public Intellectual?

Polls of the most important public intellectual come out all the time at the moment- the American journal Foreign Policy is doing one at the moment (no prizes for guessing the main subject of that journal) and has a list out of which you can vote the top twenty. Fair enough you might say- accept really what they seem to be talking about here is political polemecists, not intellectuals and that the idea that a vote reflects any kind of intellectual merit is a bit like the idea that a vote could determine the best scientific or mathematical theory, its stupidity is only matched by its inanity.

What do I mean by the first thing I said? Well take a look at the list. At first sight you might see names like Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist, Noam Chomsky, the American linguist, Richard Dawkins, the British Biologist and so on and think aha- this is about a spread of thinkers over a wide area. You would be wrong though. Take Chomsky, I doubt he is there for his linguistic work which has been dominant in that field- I'd suggest his presence there is actually because of his jeremaids against American power. Likewise I'm not sure Dawkins makes the list for his biology, rather than his ability to upset religious people. At least the three I quote above and others like Benedict XVI are distinguished intellectuals (whatever you think of their political thinking- and in some cases (Chomsky comes to mind) their policy ideas are inferior to their other work). But Christopher Hitchens, great polemecist and writer he may be, has contributed very little of intellectual value to the world. His recent biography of Tom Paine is an absolute joke, which would be hilarious if it weren't meant seriously. Likewise Al Gore, good politician no doubt, but I doubt he had anything to do with the intellectual foundations of political theory.

Yes there are some names on the list that I had not come across- Hu Shuli for example the Chinese journalist. But equally there are names which astonished me- as a historian I can name many more intellectually exciting people than Tony Judt and Niall Ferguson (off the top of my head, Quentin Skinner, Sir Keith Thomas and Ira Katznelson all make me think far more than Ferguson with his Telegraph pieties has ever done.) All lists will have names that you don't see- but the difference between the two sets of people is that Ferguson say is a great self-publicist (the man has an ego the size of Olympus to go by his TV appearances and lectures- only exceeded by David Starkey) whereas Skinner, Thomas and Katznelson have made some very original contributions to their periods and to their studies. In a sense this isn't so much a set of interesting people who can provoke and make you think, as a collection of great self-publicists- the list produced by Foreign Policy is about marketting not mastering a leading subject.

The same thing goes for their method of choosing the top twenty- again what does the fact that x wins a vote tell you about the ideas that the winner has expressed? It tells you nothing! To take an example, I am not qualified to tell you how good a physicist Richard Feynman was and how he compared to Enrico Fermi- I have no idea because I don't know about higher physics. I do have an idea about historians but that's because I have a PhD in the subject- and even then with history outside my own specialism, I don't know who has the best knowledge of the sources. To say that I can judge the most original and thoughtful intellectual on all these subjects is crap! And it reinforces something that I think we should be very careful about- to understand the best idea as the most popular idea is not a sensible thing. Subjects are complicated and they require a lot of patience and learning- becoming an intellectual is not writing a blog, its not writing for a newspaper, its learning facts, understanding arguments and thinking deeply. The list from Foreign Affairs includes trivial people and is based on trivial grounds- that is a pity- I want to know who are the most interesting people in other subjects because then I can go and read them- a list that contains Christopher Hitchens is unlikely to give me that.