Intellectuals and Public Responsibility   /   Spring 2007   /    Introduction

Intellectuals and Public Responsibility

From the Editors

The idea of “public intellectuals” elicits two opposite responses, among others, that are in many ways fundamentally opposed.

On the one hand, there are those who find the term an oxymoron: intellectuals cannot be public; it is precisely their removal from the public realm that gives their intellectual work its credibility. In this view, once intellectuals enter the public sphere, they compromise their identity as intellectuals and scholars.

On the other hand, there are those who find the term “public intellectuals” redundant. Intellectuals are, by this definition, scholars who engage their intellectual resources towards the public sphere. What distinguishes scholars from intellectuals is precisely the fact that the latter’s work is public.

There’s something important in both responses.

As those who argue that the term is oxymoronic note, intellectual work does need a kind of space and time away from the currents of everyday life—what Virginia Woolf called “a room of one’s own.” It needs distance and time for reflection, perspective, careful thought—a distance and slower pace than the currents of contemporary life allow.

But intellectual work need not, and should not, remain in the ivory tower. The issue here is relevance. Intellectual work should be an integral and relevant part of our public life. Public life needs the careful thinking intellectuals provide; intellectuals need what the public sphere can offer—a weighing and testing of their ideas in relation to the everydayness of life.

In this issue, we are trying to draw out a richer understanding of the public responsibility—or, one might even say, burden—of the intellectual. We are not addressing the question of whether intellectual work or ideas matter or the real problem of the politicization of scholarship, though we plan to address both of these in future issues. Nor are we exploring the ways that so much knowledge has become utilitarian and technical—a topic we broached in our issue “What’s the University for?” and will no doubt take up again. Here we focus more specifically on the tensions between intellectual work and public life.

Our working definition of “the intellectual” is someone who engages in intellectual work as his or her profession. For intellectuals in the public sphere—for example, in magazines, think tanks, and public policy centers—the question of the relationship between intellectuals and public responsibility is already answered by the location of their intellectual work. But for others, the question is more fraught.

Of course, there is not simply one question—the question of intellectuals and public responsibility—but rather several questions that the juxtaposition of these two terms elicits. Can intellectuals offer something to the public sphere in a way that resists, on the one hand, the specialization of academic discourse that makes it impenetrable to those outside the academy, but, on the other hand, also resists the reductive (and, at times, vindictive) tendencies of much of contemporary public discourse? Can intellectuals see a horizon for their work that is broader than their particular discipline but do so in a way that does not abandon the important scholarly criteria and rules of those disciplines? Can intellectuals enrich public debate with their research, data, and careful thinking through of the most contentious issues of our day without using their intellectual capital as an authoritative platform for merely espousing partisan views, either on the Left or the Right? Can they eschew the hubris that so often accompanies intellectual training to acknowledge that reasonable people hold views completely opposed to their own?

We believe that all of the above questions can be answered in the affirmative, but not without careful reflection. By raising anew a set of questions that many people think are already solved, we have tried to create a venue for this kind of reflection.  The life of the mind does carry public responsibilities. Intellectuals shouldn’t claim to have all the right answers, but they should bring the resources of their craft—careful thinking, in-depth studies, data, historical and comparative perspectives—into the public sphere towards the common good.

The contributors to this issue discuss the kinds of resources intellectuals can offer, how they should engage the public sphere, and what some of the pitfalls of this effort might be. That the war in Iraq comes up again and again in the pages of this issue suggests that the contributors see their task not only as exploring the public responsibility of intellectuals, but also as enacting their own understanding of that responsibility. They offer a rich, and sometimes conflicting, array of possibilities that we hope will help readers in their own grappling with these questions.


To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).