Intellectuals and Public Responsibility   /   Spring 2007   /    Bibliographic Review

Intellectuals and Public Responsibility

A Bibliographic Review

David Franz

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the navigation software that she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo Project (1969).

The contemporary use of the term “intellectual” can be traced back to the petition signed by more than a thousand French writers, teachers, and students in protest of the 1894 arrest of Alfred Dreyfus. This event became known as “the protest of the intellectuals,” and the word “intellectual” came to describe a person who combined learning and public engagement. Some have also suggested that the response to the Dreyfus Affair set the characteristic mode of intellectual engagement—protest. This fits a certain picture of the intellectual, that of a prophet challenging the status quo, revealing hypocrisy, and skewering falsity. Martin Luther, Enlightenment pamphleteers, and student revolutionaries come to mind as classic protesting intellectuals. But this description is only partial—not all intellectuals are radicals. What is crucial to intellectual identity is not a particular location in political conflicts, but the ability to bring into view what is at stake in these conflicts. Intellectuals attend to the moral depths of public life. While they sometimes turn arguments into political conflicts, they usually turn political conflict into argument, making contests of power into contests of authority.

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