Intellectuals and Public Responsibility   /   Spring 2007   /    Articles

The Intellectual’s Responsibilities

John McGowan

“Diogenes and Plato,” Mattia Preti (1649). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Universalism and the Intellectual


The term “public intellectual” is redundant. There is—and can be—no such thing as a private intellectual. An intellectual is someone who, by way of words and arguments, aims to influence others. Like Diogenes in search of an honest man, the intellectual is always in search of a public, an audience.

The “public intellectual,” we are to understand, is a man speaking to men (to recall Wordsworth’s announced ambition) or a citizen talking to fellow citizens. Instead of addressing a coterie of intimates or specialists, the public intellectual seeks a broader audience, loosely understood as the literate members of her society. The ideal is humanist, generalist, and democratic. The speech and/or writing are accessible and available to all.

Kant argues that genius is idiosyncratic and singular, but the pressure of communication calls for the tempering of genius by taste. He insists that “taste…consists in disciplining (or training) genius” and provides “the form of a concept’s exhibition, the form by which this concept is universally communicated.”11xImmanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (1790; Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987) 188, 180. Kant ups the stakes by calling for “universal communicability.” Intellectuals and artists alike, he suggests, should strive to exhibit their ideas in a form all can understand.

Hegel offers his own version of this ideal of universality, when he introduces the concept of “the universal class” that, in contrast with the workers and the capitalists, makes “the universal interests of society” its “business.” He appears to be talking about the philosopher or the intellectual here and hopes that “his private interest may thus find satisfaction in his labour for the universal.”22xG. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. S. W. Dyde (1820; Amherst: Prometheus, 1996) par. 205, p. 202.

Combining Kant and Hegel, we get a portrait of the intellectual as a person who works for the good of the universal and for the good of all humanity with no exclusions and exceptions, and who performs that work in a language that communicates that good and the ways it might be activated in a form all can understand. Form fits content here—and both take their stand on the universal.

Today, the universal still exerts pressures on intellectuals—and I want to argue that those pressures are, for the most part, good things.33xI am influenced here by John Michael’s superb Anxious Intellects: Academic Professionals, Public Intellectuals, and Enlightenment Values (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000); see especially 9–14. That the term “public intellectual” stands as a goad and a reproach to intellectuals is more often productive than not. It represents a felt responsibility to speak to the demos on issues for which all citizens should take responsibility.

But to address one’s fellow citizens is not to address all of humankind. Universalism seems to depend on the suspension of the elementary principles of rhetoric, for every spoken or written utterance is partly shaped by the rhetor’s sense of the specific characteristics of the imagined audience. And it is impossible to take all of humankind as one’s real or imagined audience. For starters, every utterance is only made in one language among the multitude of languages spoken on earth. In addition, the intellectual, like any other producer of language, is joining a conversation, is addressing things that have been previously said and the people who have attended to those previous sayings.44xHere is Kenneth Burke’s description of this “unending conversation”: “Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.” The Philosophy of Literary Form, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973) 110–1. We can add that there are multiple conversations of this sort on the planet. Mikhail Bakhtin argues that:

Discourse—in any of its forms, quotidian, rhetorical, scholarly—cannot fail to be oriented toward the “already uttered,” the “already known,” the “common opinion” and so forth.… The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction.55xMikhail M. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” as quoted in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York: Norton, 2001) 1,204–5.

Since every word is so firmly embedded in its relations to the already spoken and to the anticipated answer of its imagined audience, every word is situated, is bound by the localities of its occasion. No word is self-sufficient—and the meaning of any word will change if we change its context. The Iliad means something different when heard sung by an ancient Greek poet than when read in a “great books” course in 2007. Its “universality” is shattered once we recognize that it signifies differently at different times and in different situations. Charles Taylor develops this point when he insists that any singular act of communication between two people can only succeed if it leans on a whole set of background “assumptions buried in everyday custom.… A word has meaning only within a lexicon and a context of linguistic practices, which are ultimately embedded in a way of life.”66xCharles Taylor, Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) 91, 93. Translated into English, displaced from a Greek setting to an American classroom, The Iliad cannot mean exactly the same thing.

But, surely, it can mean some of the same things. Even if we accept that there are plural “ways of life,” multiple cultures, are we doomed to a complete lack of communication across the lines of difference? Two ways to bridge this gap, one roughly conservative, the other roughly liberal, have frequently been offered, each of which tries to pull us back toward universality. The conservative appeal has been to “human nature” as a common substrate beneath surface differences between languages, cultures, and histories. Human nature arguments are usually (although not always) conservative because they posit limits that cannot be overcome and, thus, designate in advance the impossibility or reprehensible “unnaturalness” of certain human behaviors or imagined social arrangements.

Liberals have preferred appeals to reason. Universal in its indication of truths that all right-thinking persons of any time and any place will acknowledge, reason has the advantage of serving as an ideal. The sway of reason is hardly a fact. Most people are unreasonable. But we all have the potential to be reasonable. When we reach that blessed condition, we will not only all understand each other but also all live in much better harmony, perhaps even in the “perpetual peace” that Kant hoped humans would achieve.77xImmanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” Kant’s Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970) 93–130. If we ever are to attain “universal communicability,” Kant believed it would be the result of having successfully established reason as our lingua franca.

In short, conservatives believe we already possess a common humanity and unity under the appearance of differences—and that that commonality serves as a standard to rein in the production of novel differences and to condemn various existing differences. Liberals, on the other hand, think that commonality is out in front of us, something to be achieved through the attainment of an ideal rationality.88xKant’s most succinct statement of this goal of achieved rationality as out in front of us, still to be attained, is found in “What Is Enlightenment?,” in Kant’s Political Writings, 54–60. It’s important to note that I am only characterizing conservative versus liberal universalisms here. There are also conservative versus liberal versions of pluralism, both of which deny, albeit in different ways, any universalism based on either human nature or reason.

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