Intellectuals and Public Responsibility   /   Spring 2007   /    Articles

The Twilight of the Intellectuals

Richard Wolin

Detail from Albrecht Dürer’s St. Jerome in his study (1521). Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Death of the Master Thinkers

With the demise of a recent generation of European intellectuals, many of whom came of age either during the interwar period or shortly thereafter, one would be hard pressed to name successors of comparable stature. During the early 1980s, a generational cohort of French Master Thinkers suddenly passed from the scene: Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Their influence, both in France and abroad, was titanic. In fact, so great was their impact that it is doubtful whether they would be replaceable, even under the best of circumstances.

A successor generation of philosopher-intellectuals—figures such as Alain Badiou, Marcel Gauchet, and Pierre Rosanvallon—for all their talent, fails to inspire confidence.1 All are significant. Yet their theoretical claims are fundamentally more modest, their interventions in the public sphere distinctly more measured and circumscribed. Badiou, a former Maoist and Althusser student, has combined a Heideggerian obscurantism with a pronounced scorn for parliamentarism and human rights.2 Gauchet, coeditor of the influential monthly Le Débat, laments the fact that liberal individualism has supplanted Marxism, while realizing all the while that to return to Marx would be politically disastrous—a position that, in the end, has left him in a type of intellectual and political no-man’s land. Rosanvallon, the intellectual godfather of the so-called deuxième gauche or “second left,” has written several superb accounts of French political history. Nevertheless, it has proved difficult to transpose his historical findings to other national political traditions.

These facts suggest that there is much more at stake than merely a generational turnover. At issue is a more basic transformation of the nature and function of intellectuals themselves. The visionary and utopian intellectuals of the old stamp have been replaced by a more modest and humble breed. These new intellectuals are less interested in redeeming mankind than they are in righting particular wrongs and remedying specific injustices.

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