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.

Friday 29 May 2009

No heated debate

Free Speech. A Very Short Introduction, by Nigel Warburton (Oxford University Press)

Free speech is all about the audience, the listeners, who are there to engage in open debate. Another way of putting this is to say that free speech is about the public and the democratic right of people to make up their own minds rather than have their betters decide what is too offensive for our sensitive ears.

A world of real contradictions

Deception, by Ziyad Marar (Acumen)

Marar begins conventionally enough by invoking Kant’s distinction between reality and ‘the veil of appearance” in which we are trapped. So, he appears to be saying, the world itself is two-faced. The ideas we use in trying to explain how it appears actually cloud the reality that lies beneath. We are duplicitous because the world is.

Friday 8 May 2009

Rational chairs and empty tables

Reason and Rationality, by Jon Elster (Princeton University Press)

Though this introduction still offers an analysis at the level of individuals, it attempts to integrate political scientists’ normative theories of reason with social scientists’ explanatory uses of rationality in a bid to go beyond rational choice theory.

Friday 10 April 2009

Time to think

The Idea of Communism, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanites, London, 14 March 2009

In many ways the mood was similar to that at the early stages of the 1 April G20 protests: there was a strong mix of curiosity and anticipation, but no-one really knew why they were there. As one attendee exclaimed to her friends, ‘with a crowd like this, with the economy as it is and with Zizek, Badiou, Negri, Ranciere all talking about Communism… Something’s got to happen’.

Friday 3 April 2009

Fishing in the afternoon

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain De Botton (Hamish Hamilton)

A rare glimpse into the world of work forgets to reflect on its nature.

Friday 13 March 2009

Desiring ends

Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics, by Terry Eagleton (Wiley-Blackwell)

‘A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference.’ Karl Marx, Capital, Vol I, Chapter 1.

Friday 30 January 2009

Feeling solidarity

Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?, by Zygmunt Bauman (Harvard University Press)

‘Soon we shall breathe our last. Meanwhile, while we live, while we are among human beings, let us cultivate our humanity’, Seneca, De ira

Intentism – the Resurrection of the Author

The beginning of a new movement in art and literature?

Far from being a regressive reaction to postmodernism, Intentism is a small part of what happens next.

The poverty of moral philosophy

Can philosophers rejuvenate ethical debate in the public sphere?

By declaring the ‘solution to the Palestinian problem [is] in no way complex’, Ted Honderich articulates a Western disengagement from ethical debate that has become depressingly mainstream.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Hitchcock’s paths

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The film offers us a Hitchcock that we saw only once. The mood of the film, its visual style, play an expressionist game that is nothing but an ode to the great German silent cinema of the likes of Murnau, Lang or Pabst. We see a director who is learning but also inventing.

Wednesday 17 December 2008

The birth of science as theatre slept

The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes, Wilton’s Music Hall, London

Adriano Shaplin’s play for the RSC dramatises the historically-documented animus between Hobbes and the founders of the Royal Society, and the invented prism of theatre is an intriguing one.

Friday 21 November 2008

Does reality have a liberal bias?

The New Blue Media: How Michael Moore, Moveon.Org, Jon Stewart and Company Are Transforming Progressive Politics, by Theodore Hamm (New Press)

What his book crucially lacks is an analysis of the other side, the rightwing radio talk shows, Fox news and the previously mentioned Bill O’Reilly. Especially as many of Hamm’s heroes are reacting to their success.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

The Truth? - you must be making it up!

A keynote essay from the Battle of Ideas 2008

The Truth concerns a lot more than scientific platitudes: all sorts of figures have laid claim to knowing the truth about the human condition and their societies, from novelists and journalists to campaigners and politicians. In fact, one of the most important things about putting forward new ideas and persuading others is that no particular credentials are necessary.

Thursday 23 October 2008

Slaves to fame

The Fame Formula, How Hollywood's Fixers, Fakers and Star Makers Created The Celebrity Industry, by Mark Borkowski (Sidgwick & Jackson)

The fame game may have been going on for years, but it doesn’t explain just why children, when asked a generation ago what they wanted to be when they grow up, answered ‘a fireman’ or ‘a policeman’, now invariably respond ‘famous’.

Can philosophy change your life?

A Battle in Print essay from the Battle of Ideas 2008

An adequate approach to the relationship between theory and practice would acknowledge the value of the many kinds of intellectual contributions that get called popular philosophy, without over-egging their importance or dismissing them as philosophy lite.

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Resources


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.

Fora TV - the world is thinking

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