Intellectuals & the Public
Ideas can define and transform society, but how healthy is intellectual life today? In recent decades, many observers have expressed concern about the ‘dumbing down’ of culture, noting an increasing tendency toward specialisation within academia, and a resulting demise of ‘public intellectuals’ capable of writing for and engaging with a non-specialist audience. All of these claims are disputed, and the ensuing debates reveal much about contemporary society. The question, however, is not merely academic. The state of intellectual life is inextricably linked to cultural and political life more generally. For ideas to be more than just commodities, there must be a dynamic relationship between intellectuals and the public, and a degree of political room for maneouvre, so that ideas can make a difference to society.
Culture Wars takes a broad definition of public intellectuals: rather than seeing intellectuals as an exotic priesthood, we are interested in all serious thinkers who concern themselves with public life. Here, we review books, talks and television programmes that address the public as citizens as well as scholars and consumers. We are also interested in discussions about public intellectuals and related issues, from the role of popular philosophy to the meaning of academic freedom.
Had your house broken into? Been hustled by some cheeky teenagers? Been harassed by a new law that has made your job twice as hard? Tried to get the police or the courts to come to your rescue and fallen on your face?
The idea that teaching and research are in conflict corresponds with a particularly impoverished model of knowledge, which is revealed in the phrase ‘knowledge creation’. This presents universities as factories of knowledge competing with think-tanks and other private institutions.
Some thinkers have always had ethical doubts about the pursuit of knowledge. Today these often take the form of concern about the consequences of technology, for example cloning. But Neiman pares things down to a single, more profound fear. If we understand the world and all its faults, are we then stuck with it? By explaining evil, do we justify it?