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 25 September 2008

Being human without the safety net

Existentialism and Humanism, by Jean-Paul Sartre

Existentialism and Humanism is a fantastic piece of popular philosophy: a route into the ideas of some of the greatest philosophers throughout history, and a manifesto for making philosophy ‘useful’ without losing any devotion to scrutiny.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Physical theatre

The Ethics of Progress, Southwark Playhouse, London

Jon Spooner’s supposition – following a throwaway remark by his collaborator Professor Vlatko Verdal – is that quantum physics is not difficult stuff. In his hands, thanks to careful and patient elucidation, its principles straighten out into clarity.

Thursday 4 September 2008

Untrustworthy popularity

Trust: self-interest and the common good, by Marek Kohn (OUP)

Philosophy’s place in popular culture today is centred on self-improvement and egoism; this demeans the potential of philosophical enquiry whilst enforcing the idea that academic philosophy is completely inaccessible.

Thursday 28 August 2008

Chaotic creativity; critical chaos

Stefan Collini and Peter Conrad, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Friday 15 August 2008

Any view that holds the ‘democratisation’ of criticism and generation of Web 2.0 responsible for the current state of critical thinking, puts far too much emphasis on the technology itself; and at the expense of recognising the superficiality and sometime coerciveness of the supposed democratisation.

History wars

The Curse of History, by Jeremy Black (Social Affairs Unit)

Popular and academic histories frequently capture similar views of the past, even if expressed in different terminologies. Setting them up as ‘enemies’ can caricature or erase the shared social roots and causations that genuinely split communities.

Thursday 7 August 2008

The universal next door

Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers, by Kwame Anthony Appiah (WW Norton and Co)

From neighbourly gossip he has extended his reach across the world through great works of art and construction. Perhaps one or two steps more and he could establish a cosmopolitan web in which, if we cannot declare every man our brother, we can at least declare them our neighbour’s neighbour. But in what should these last few steps consist?

Non-fat fiction? No thanks

Granta 102: the nature of writing, edited by Jason Cowley

Perhaps the simile of the ‘Classic Combo’ is apt here: Granta 101 was the reliable favourite, filled with lots of tasty treats and still on the whole good for you. Granta 102 is the fad diet, grounded in Real Science and somehow different to all those other ones, which advertises itself on the subtext that by following it you will be better (morally and physically) than those boring, die-hard traditionalists.

Friday 20 June 2008

A superficial balance

China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society, by Daniel A Bell (PUP)

Like pretty much everywhere else on the planet nowadays, China is undergoing a cultural malaise triggered by the end of its recent ideology.

Thursday 29 May 2008

Granta’s second century

Granta 101, edited by Jason Cowley

Much of the coverage of Granta 101 has highlighted the title’s anachronism at a time when Britain seems to value vacuous celebritism and disdain anything perceived as ‘intellectual’, worrying whether such a ‘highbrow’ title can survive without softening its intimidating stance. Yet surely that is the point.

Friday 9 May 2008

Ali Shari’ati: between Marx and the Infinite

An Islamic Utopian, by Ali Rahnema (IB Tauris)

Is Ali Shari’ati, the so-called ideologue of the Iranian Revolution, a poster boy for a utopian Islamic left, lost but not forgotten? Or is his legacy rather an allegory of good intentions gone awry and the irresponsibility of pursuing an exotic Leninist eclecticism at the edge of unreason?

Monday 21 April 2008

Too short to play Hamlet

Restul e tăcere [The Rest Is Silence] (2007), directed by Nae Caranfil

Caranfil is nostalgic and frivolous simultaneously. He is glad as a director that the pioneers fought for the independence of cinema as an art-form. More than that, in The Rest Is Silence we find a director who is truly comfortable with making cinema for the sake of it, treating the art as an end in itself.

Friday 18 April 2008

You won’t fool the children of the ‘revolution’

Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy, by William Dinan and David Miller (editors)

Dismissing political opponents’ ideas on the basis of ‘guilt by association’ means adopting a less critical approach than if one actually sets out to argue against them.

Zombies-in-waiting

What Orwell Didn't Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics, edited by András Szántó

Szántó believes that the power of PR and imaging ensures that citizens’ emotions and opinions are shaped without them being able to react. It is a kind of Soma, that we are not aware we are digesting. The goal, he concludes, is not control the public by political means, but rather to ‘seduce them’.

Sunday 13 April 2008

Reading public critical

Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics, by Stefan Collini

Yes, these essays are sometimes difficult and sometimes the subject matter may be unfamiliar, so all the more reason to take up the challenge and learn something new from a real authority.

Grey skies thinking

Creativity: Unconventional Wisdom from 20 Accomplished Minds, edited by Herbert Meyers and Richard Gertsman

The editors’ strange view of creativity, to be fair, is not entirely their fault. We live in a society obsessed with cultivating the creative mind: on this view, the mental attitude is all that matters, regardless of what end product it actually creates.

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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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