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.

Thursday 7 January 2010

The personal and the political

Conspirator: Lenin in Exile, by Helen Rappaport (Hutchinson, 2009)

A new biography of Lenin recreates his exile years in fine-grained detail, but it intriguingly invokes feminism as a prism through which to makes sense of the past.

Friday 11 December 2009

‘More is good; more is better’

The Jonathan Meades Collection, BBC DVD (2008)

At the heart of the films is the conflict between the imposed, innocuous, uniform, and sterile as opposed to the bodged, unofficial, irreverent and idiosyncratic. While certainly not a Luddite, Meades is firmly on the side of the latter and for this reason, while both ruminative and discursive – his argument rides tangents like a rafter rapids – a consistently polemical filmmaker.

Friday 4 December 2009

Ahistorical analysis

Why Not Socialism? , by Gerry A Cohen (Princeton University Press, 2009)

Cohen’s mental project is clearly within the bounds of analytical political philosophy, and distorts his view of socialism at a number of key points, rendering it sophisticated but an ultimately unconvincing response to the question of why not socialism.

Meekness in the face of the great big unknown

Reason, Faith and Revolution, by Terry Eagleton, (Yale University Press 2009)

Reading Eagleton’s book one begins to suspect that Eagleton would like to believe in the traditional deity of his Roman Catholic Irish ancestors, except his university-acquired reason and rationality prevents it. So instead he examines the nature of that reason and rationality and is pleased to find them heavily laden with belief of an almost religious nature.

Friday 20 November 2009

Not too clever

Jolly Wicked, Actually: The 100 Words That Make Us English, by Tony Thorne (Little, Brown)

Is Thorne correct when he writes of words that ‘make us English’? Do words - by themselves - make anybody anything? Words and meanings feed off each other in a complicated, unchoreographed dance of usage and association. As he shows with wicked itself, a word can undergo ‘ironic reversal’ whereby it changes its meaning.

Friday 23 October 2009

Modern man made flesh

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Or The Murder at Road Hill House, by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury)

Secrets are something the characters both make for themselves and construct themselves around, they form the fulcrum for their engagement with the world, allowing them to have both private and public parts. The content of these secrets frequently goes unrecorded and untold.

Friday 16 October 2009

Stop Motion

The Cinder Path, by Andrew Motion (Faber 2009)

There is still a place for the Poet Laureate in our society. Poetry makes the transition from something private to something that can be appreciated more widely when it strikes, like that errant ‘sun-shaft’, upon emotions and experiences that are in some sense universal, or in other words, human.

Friday 2 October 2009

Legal highs

Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer, by Michael Mansfield (Bloomsbury, 2009)

Mansfield displays a passion for moral argument, which is likely to become rarer and thus considered more and more radical over time, as more and more regulation creeps into the courtroom. It is unlikely that the barristers of tomorrow will dare to talk with any normative authority for fear of missing some vital detail and finding themselves debarred.

Darwin on the couch

Creation, directed by Jon Amiel (2009)

We pity Darwin, not because of the political, academic and religious challenges he faces in trying to get his ideas out, but because of his overwhelming need to gain emotional ‘closure’.

Friday 4 September 2009

Why bother reading?

The future of reading: A public value project, prepared for Arts Council England by Creative Research

The bulk of the document is concerned with finding out why people read. The usual motives surface: escapism, stimulation, and gaining knowledge (whether about Kierkegaard’s response to Hegelian philosophy, or about the times of the number 9 bus the document does not say).

Friday 28 August 2009

‘Adequate listening’ in Starbucks

The Eris Quartet, Starbucks, Edinburgh, 3 August 2009

While blender zuzzes unhappily punctuate a cerebral commission by Charlie Usher and some of the lighter textures are lost underneath the coffee chatter, Sarah Spence’s resonant cello solo opening the Borodin evolves seamlessly upwards into the first violin, and the quartet display a unique togetherness that captivates an unexpectant audience.

A more or less partisan press?

The Political Economy of Media: enduring issues, emerging dilemmas, by Robert W Mc Chesney (Monthly Review Press, 2008)

Counter to the underlying implication in this collection, it cannot be simply business’ bloodthirsty desire for profit that has led to the disintegration of stalwart journalism and civic life today. There is also the matter of a very real defeat of the left, and the discreditating of any alternative, which has hurried on apathy, cynicism and lack of political contestation tout court.

Cold and oppressive yet strangely comforting

Chronicle in Stone, by Ismail Kadare (Canongate 2007)

Overall, the charm of this book lies in the innocent, imaginative playfulness of the young narrator, and the unselfconsciousness of his voice. Whether it was the best book published in English in the whole world in 2005 remains an open question.

Waiting for the pregnant widow

In anticipation of The Pregnant Widow, by Martin Amis (forthcoming from Jonathan Cape)

Speaking in Manchester, Amis likened the relationship between reader and author to that of lovers, and so to expand on the analogy, if Amis were to be our lover: he would be lush, indulgent, too demanding of our attention in his stripling desire to delight.

Friday 14 August 2009

The depraved genius of John Calvin

Lessons for humanism on the five-hundredth anniversary of a sage of anti-humanism

You don’t have to embrace either theological pessimism or evolutionary fatalism to acknowledge that human history since the Enlightenment has dealt many blows to a simplistic belief in progress and human perfectibility. Indeed it is those of us most committed to social and moral progress who must take this most seriously, look into the depravity in our own hearts, even, and not repent but resolve to go on.

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A collection of essays republished from a special issue of the academic journal Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (CRISPP).

Ideas, Intellectuals and the Public [PDF]
Dolan Cummings’ introduction from the above.

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