Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Public Intellectuals, Richard Posner

I was unable to find a decent review of this work, so I'll substitute the intro from the Harvard University Press

In this timely book, the first comprehensive study of the modern American public intellectual--that individual who speaks to the public on issues of political or ideological moment--Richard Posner charts the decline of a venerable institution that included worthies from Socrates to John Dewey.

With the rapid growth of the media in recent years, highly visible forums for discussion have multiplied, while greater academic specialization has yielded a growing number of narrowly trained scholars. Posner tracks these two trends to their inevitable intersection: a proliferation of modern academics commenting on topics outside their ken. The resulting scene--one of off-the-cuff pronouncements, erroneous predictions, and ignorant policy proposals--compares poorly with the performance of earlier public intellectuals, largely nonacademic whose erudition and breadth of knowledge were well suited to public discourse.

Leveling a balanced attack on liberal and conservative pundits alike, Posner describes the styles and genres, constraints and incentives, of the activity of public intellectuals. He identifies a market for this activity--one with recognizable patterns and conventions but an absence of quality controls. And he offers modest proposals for improving the performance of this market--and the quality of public discussion in America today.

Posner identifies intellectuals as "those who opine to an educated public on questions of or inflected by a political or ideological concern."

My definition of an intellectual is a person whose "product" is ideas. An often-repeated quote allegedly from Aesop is applicable to public intellectuals - 

"After all is said and done, more is said than done." 

Posner spends a lot of time defining who is and is not a "Public Intellectual". I'd be happy with "I know one when I see one", but for those who would like a bit more definition: 

The public intellectual has been with us for a very long time, even if we ignore the ancient world. His exemplars include Machiavelli, Milton, Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu, and his ideologist is Kant, who linked philosophy to politics through the argument that the only morally defensible politics is one based on reason.

I found this quote to be worth some thought: 

One of the chief sources of cultural pessimism is the tendency to compare the best of the past with the average of the present, because the passage of time operates to filter out the worst of the past.

This certainly the case with personal nostalgia as we age. We much prefer to remember the good fondly and forget as much of the bad as we are able. Culturally however, I'd argue that like all human thought, our analysis is heavily tainted by our biases ... chief among them, progressivism vs conservatism.  For a progressive the past is inherently bad while the future would be bright if the nasty conservatives would just be finally defeated. That may take genocide, gulags, and other unpopular measures, but to a progressive, the (undefined) ends justify the means. Conservatives are largely guilty as charged ... we "remember" a past that is largely imagined filtered through rose colored glasses. 

Much of what I try to do in this book is simply to place the public-intellectual market in perspective by showing that, and why, its average quality is low ("disappointing") and perhaps falling.
The problem with being a public intellectual is you get more and more public and less and less intellectual.

I recommend the book to those who are inclined to intellectual commentary vs producing something that is of real value.  I personally "gave at the office" in 34 years at IBM, now I relax and comment from the cheap seats. 

When I've read the book on Kindle and shared my comments on Goodreads, I may try to do more of this sharing for those that want a deeper dive

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