What public intellectuals need, and why we need public intellectuals

By thinking into the public square, public intellectuals help shape dialogue about what things are important - and what to do about them.
March 1 st 2005

Noah Millman defines a public intellectual as someone who is:

  • Making a genuine intellectual contribution—i.e., there has to be something original and important about what you are doing;
  • Communicating with a large, nonsectarian audience—i.e., your work can't be of interest or known only to academics nor, on the other hand, only to, say, Mormons, or lesbians (or Mormon lesbians);
  • Generating a response and moving the debate—i.e., your arguments can't just sit there in splendid isolation, even if they are admired there by many, but have to generate a substantive intellectual response, become part of what the intellectual conversation is about.

Public intellectuals are people who think out loud in the public square about issues of key concern to the society in which they live. Unlike academics they are not highly specialized in a particular discipline, and do not use the careful jargon of scholarship. But like academics, they address the big questions of human life—the questions of philosophy and literature, ethics and politics, economics and religion. Unlike policy wonks, they do not focus on technical fixes or the minutiae of laws and regulations. But like policy wonks, they engage in punditry, and often partisan punditry—they propose solutions to the problems that face a society, they take sides in the arguments about the social questions of the day, and they do so from an overtly articulated point of view.

Every society needs public intellectuals. Public intellectuals help shape public opinion, or at the very least the public dialogue about what things are important, and what should be thought and done about those things. They often help articulate a point of view on behalf of people who do not have the skills to do so, in this way rallying a community of support behind an idea, the merit of which can then be tested in public debates. Sometimes they point out things that are wrong in a society, and that others have not notices, or have chosen to ignore. Sometimes they manage to come up with new ideas that enrich the range of options open to a society as it addresses the complex problems of its time.

But public intellectuals also need certain things, if they are to flourish, or even exist at all. In this little essay I want to suggest a few of the things that public intellectuals need.

Public intellectuals need a point of view, a cause

Public intellectuals are opinion journalists. They think about the big issues of the day and through their writing for a general audience promote certain ways of tackling those issues. To quote Herbert Gans, "... public intellectuals are really pundits. They're the pundits of the educated classes, the pundits of the highbrow and the upper-middlebrow populations ..."

A public intellectual must have not only a set of unconnected opinions, but a clearly articulated and consistent point of view. And this point of view cannot be uncommitted on the issues of the day, but must promote a cause of some kind—a vision for the renewal (or preservation) of culture.

So, for example, the New York Intellectuals who congregated around the journal Partisan Review derived their point of view from a combination of 20th century modernism in the arts and literature (inspired by the style of Eliot) and an anti-stalinist marxism in politics and economics (inspired by the style of Trotsky), and as their cause sought to re-imagine America. A later generation of New York Intellectuals built on that earlier foundation, but in addition derived their point of view from a reaction against the social libertinism and artistic low-browism of the sixties, and from a post-marxist classical liberalism in politics and economics—a mixture now known as neoconservatism—and as their cause sought the elimination of communism as a potent international force.

We live in a time of rising Christian cultural power, of which the new confidence of the present generation of doctrinally orthodox young people is evidence. Many of the present generation of university Christians no longer feel daunted by the secularism of their teachers or their peers. The apologetical work of people as diverse as Schaeffer, Plantinga, and Budziszewski provides the present generation with confidence in the credibility of their Christian convictions. The pioneering work of a handful of cultural activists provides the present generation with encouraging examples of Christian character in action. The recovery of doctrinal and liturgical vigour in many church circles provides the present generation with a reliable base of support in their communities of faith. What we still need, though, is a coherent and robust public philosophy that will leverage this generation's confidence, turning it into the potent cultural force it can be—not in the pursuit of the self-interest of the Christian segment of the population, but in service of the common good, the general renewal of our culture.

Public intellectuals need a little magazine or two, or three

Irving Kristol famously said that "When intellectuals have nothing else to do, they start a magazine." At least, that's how Michael Walzer quotes him in the wonderful study of four New York Intellectuals, Arguing the World. Joseph Dorman, editor of Arguing the World, quotes Kristol as saying that, disgruntled with the political landscape in the 1960s, "... I didn't run for office . . . I started a magazine ... it was the only thing I could think to do. We had an initial circulation of a few hundred, but that didn't bother us. With a circulation of a few hundred you can change the world." Dorman also tells how

Nathan Glazer first set eyes on Partisan Review in the early forties when a fellow radical at the City College of New York thrust a copy of the magazine into his hands, insisting, in the way only one neophyte can to another, "You have to read this. It's very important." In high school, I can remember a teacher placing The New York Review of Books in my hands with the same insistence of tone, that italicized gravity that Glazer had heard, and understanding something akin to what Glazer had seen some forty years earlier: that the pages set before me were a gateway to another, higher world—one Daniel Bell would describe as "a world of imagination, a world of ideas."

While I would not claim that the world of imagination, the world of ideas is a higher world than, say, the world of parental love, or the world of stewardly gardening, it is a world—a sphere—to which gateways are needed. Books serve as gateways to the memory of that world, but magazines serve as gateways to the current conversation.

I was an undergraduate student in the evening programme (working in the day) of a provincial Third World university when I discovered in its library my first journal of opinion: Melvin Lasky's Encounter. I was as excited as I had been as a child to discover libraries, and before that, as I had been when I learned to read.

In 1989 and 1990 we lived in Cape Town, where I discovered in the library of the University of Cape Town bound back copies of Commentary and The Public Interest. I have ever since been in the thrall of the mystique of the New York Intellectuals, and the possibilities of journals of opinion for the nurture of public intellectual life.

Joseph Dorman claims that

Partisan Review and its essays ultimately came to define the New York Intellectual style: a self-consciously brilliant intellectual journalism that was unafraid to tackle almost any issue, cultural or political. The articles in Partisan Review were both densely written and wide-ranging in their scope. More than anything, they exhibited a sense of intellectual engagement that would become the hallmark of the group.

It has been said by several people that even though Partisan Review's circulation never exceeded 15,000, it had a significant influence on American intellectual life—and I would say, on American public life. A journal of opinion like that may not reach the hundreds of thousands of readers that a weekly news magazine or a newspaper does, or the millions reach by television, but it creates a conversation within which both writers and readers can explore issues to a greater depth, and with a growing realization of a point of view that embraces the range of positions taken in particular issues. There is a level of familiarity, a reliability of voice, a continuity of dialogue in the pages of a little magazine. This over time allows for a certain depth of thinking and discursive solidarity that builds up the kind of cultural capital necessary for influencing cultural changes.

I think the New York Intellectuals continue to be very important, perhaps most significantly so (for neocalvinists like me) as an example of how to forge an intellectual cultural movement, and a warning with regard to the importance of inter-generational "traditioning," or perhaps simply a reminder that also intellectual kingdoms rise and fall.

Perhaps the closest thing to a successful little magazine from an orthodox Christian perspective at the moment is The New Pantagruel. Neocalvinists will have to work, over the next thirty years, to found and build several such little magazines—among which I hope Comment will come to serve as a kind of Partisan Review of the neocalvinist movement.

Public intellectuals need regular dinner parties

Michael Wolff has written that

The social habits of writers are, of course, often used as a kind of shorthand to describe the cultural history of an era (this is at least in part because the writers are usually the ones doing the describing): Paris in the twenties; Bloomsbury; Paris in the fifties; the Partisan Review crowd—what Norman Podhoretz in his recently published book Ex-Friends calls the Family.

Wolff continues by discussing the dinner parties of public intellectuals since the 1920s as a key way in which these intellectual circles were forged. Getting together socially, face-to-face, regularly, over food and drink, is an important part of the development of an intellectual community.

Randall Collins argues in his doorstop-sized The Sociology of Philosophy (and in this I think he is correct) that

The emotional energy of creativity is concentrated at the center of networks, in circles of persons encountering one another face to face. The hot periods of intellectual life, those tumultuous golden ages of simultaneous innovations, occur when several rival circles intersect at a few metropoles of intellectual attention and debate.

In his view

The history of philosophy is to a considerable extent the history of groups. Nothing abstract is meant here—nothing but groups of friends, discussion partners, close-knit circles that often have the characteristics of social movements.

Mr. Collins continues to support this claim at great length, arguing further from the example of philosophy that

In the 11 generations from 1600 to 1965, European thought has been organized by some 15 circles: half a dozen circles in the mid-1600s (two of them predominantly scientific); the Whig and Tory literary circles of the early 1700s; then the three great intergenerational successions: the Encyclopedists-Auteuil-Idéologues in France; in Germany the overlapping circles of Berlin-Königsberg from the 1750s to the 1780s and Weimar-Jena-Romanticists in the 1780s to 1810, revolving back to Berlion at the end of the period with the Young Hegelians in the 1830s as the last of this chain. There were a few anti-modernist religious circles in the anglophone world: the Oxford tractarians of the 1830s, the New England Transcendentalists in the 1830s and 1840s, the Green-Jowett circle of Idealists at Balliol College, Oxford, the St. Louis Hegelians in the 1860s and 1870s, and the Society for Physical Research in the 1880s. On the scientific side during the 1800s were the Philosophical Radicals and Evolutionists in London, and an offshoot, the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Metaphysical Society, in the 1870s. Finally there were the three great centres of the early 1900s: the Cambridge Apostles, the Vienna Circle, and the Paris existentialists.

The major and secondary philosophers did not all belong to one or another of these circles, but a large proportion did; if not members, virtually all of the important philosophers were at least connected to one or more circles. The circles energized the creativity; like Hobbes and Rousseau, most successful individuals made contact with the group first, then were sparked into the intellectual action for which they became famous. This is not to say that the most famous philosophers were typically the organizers of these groups. Studies of similar intellectual groups in recent fields show that there is usually a division between an organizational leader who builds the material underpinnings and an intellectual leader who makes the doctrine famous [...]. This is a division of labor which describes the relation between Mersenne and Decartes, or between Bauer and Marx. Some of the greatest philosophers are connected to multiple circles, members of none; especially in the late 1600s, we see in such network positions Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, and Bayle, along with the great freelancing scientists Newton and Huygens. The greatest creativity consists in making new conceptual combinations, playing off the oppositions of existing groups, and laying down the alliances that become institutionalized in the groups of the immediate future. Circles are the accumulators of attention and the resonators of emotional energy; the sparks which fly between them are the thoughts of persons situated at the nodes where the networks intersect.

As part of my continuing enjoyment of the history of the New York Intellectuals I read Ex-Friends: Falling Out With Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer, by Norman Podhoretz, editor emeritus of Commentary (still billing itself as "America's premier monthly magazine of opinion").

Podhoretz has always called the New York Intellectuals "the Family," and in one passage he attempts to explain the nature of the relationships in the Family, beginning with "a consideration of the difference between ordinary friendships and those based on ideas":

In the normal course of events, people form friendships either through physical continuity (growing up in the same surroundings or becoming neighbours as adults) or through shared enterprises (working together at a job or on some project ot in the same profession) or through common cultural or recreational interests. Conversely, such friendships, even when they have become very strong, can be and often are dissolved by nothing more profound than a change in circumstances: childhood buddies drift further and further apart as they wind up pursuing different paths in life; a neighbor who has become an intimate moves to another city vowing to keep in touch, but as time goes by, the contact becomes less and less frequent; a co-worker changes jobs and after a while is no longer heard from; great pals starting out in the same profession become rivals, and envy and bitterness gradually replace affection and loyalty; the election campaign ends, and the warm camaraderie it fostered among the participants fades away for lack of continued nourishment from the source that originally fed it.

The ties between people that are forged of ideas may be reinforced by any or all of these factors, but they differ in one crucial respect: they do not necessarily rest on personal affection. On the contrary, they can endure and even remain strong in the teeth of mutual dislike and even detestation. It was by virtue of sharing a common culture, and not because they were fond of each other, that the writers and intellectuals whose work once appeared mainly in
Partisan Review and Commentary became a Family. They had all read and tended to value books which had relatively few other readers in the culture at large, and they not only were conversant with the great works of literature, music, painting, and philosophy of the past but also were at home with and sympathetic to the avant-garde currents in the arts and in the intellectual sphere that the general public found too difficult or esoteric or irrelevant or even repulsive.

I think that Mr. Podhoretz is correct in distinguishing between friendships-as-such, grounded in mutual affection, and the coteries of public intellectuals, grounded in common cultural concerns—but then I would not call the relationships among intellectuals "friendships," nor, however, deny the possibility that some of them, in addition to a co-belligerent camaraderie, might come to feel in addition the kind of affection for each other that is necessary for the establishment of friendship as such.

That said, I think the use of metaphors like "family" and "friendship" in trying to understand the New York Intellectuals points to the necessity of something family- and friendship-like in their relationships: intellectual and cultural movements need something like a spark of affection, something of a shared sociability, some common loves, to become more than eccentric individuals who with a flash of genius streak across the firmament of history only to disappear with no apparent cultural effect. Certainly the bonds among intellectuals are forged of ideas, but it must be bonds that these ideas forge, and these bonds require more than correspondence if they are to acquire cultural purchase—they must be forged in the heat of face-to-face conversation, hammered out in face-to-face argument, tempered with the aid of the cooling waters of food and drink and occasional diversion from intellectual concerns by the amusements of the dinner party or picnic or weekend in the country.

Public intellectuals need cafeteria alcoves filled with young adults arguing about their work

Without underestimating the formative influence of the childhood home I would suggest that the young adult years are when most of us settle on those serious convictions about the way the world works that weave together into a worldview or grand narrative that helps us make coherent sense of life. In the formation of the public intellectual, it is crucial that there be room in the young adult years for "arguing the world." There is the need for an intellectual community in which the young intellectual can find a voice, dialogically, and can evaluate a tradition that can be called one's own. Such a young adult intellectual community needs to stand in some relationship to the dinner parties of an older generation of public intellectuals, but must also enjoy its own space—a space of critical reception, rather than doctrinaire assimilation.

Perhaps the most famous such a space in the self-conscious history of public intellectuals is Alcove No. 1 at the City College of New York, in the 1930s. Alcove No. 1 has been made famous by Irving Kristol's description of it in his "Memoirs of a Trotskyist," where he writes that

Alcove No. 1 was located in the City College lunchroom, a vast ground-floor space which even we, who came from slums or near-slums, judged to be an especially slummy and smelly place. There was a small semicircular counter where one could buy franks or milk or coffee. I suppose they also sold some sandwiches, but I certainly never bought one, and I do not remember anyone else ever committing such an act of unmitigated profligacy The less poor among us purchased a frank or two; the rest brought their lunches from home—hard-boiled egg sandwiches, cream-cheese sandwiches, peanut-butter sandwiches, once in a while even a chicken sandwich—and there was always a bit of sandwich swapping to enliven one's diet. There was also some sandwich scrounging by those who were really poor; one asked and gave without shame or reservation.

The center of the lunchroom, taking up most of the space, consisted of chest-high, wooden tables under a low, artificial ceiling. There, most of the students ate their lunches, standing up. (I looked upon this as being reasonable, since at Boys' High, in Brooklyn, we had had the same arrangement. To this day I find it as natural to eat a sandwich standing up as sitting down.) Around this central area there was a fairly wide and high-ceilinged aisle; and bordering the aisle, under large windows with small panes of glass that kept out as much light as they let in, were the alcoves—semicircular (or were they rectangular?), each with a bench fitted along the wall and a low, long refectory table in the middle. The first alcove on the right, as you entered the lunchroom, was Alcove No.1, and this soon became most of what City College meant to me. It was there one ate lunch, played Ping-Pong (sometimes with a net, sometimes without, passed the time of day between and after classes, argued incessantly, and generally devoted oneself to solving the ultimate problems of the human race. The penultimate problems we figured could be left for our declining years, after we had graduated.

I would guess that, in all, there were more than a dozen alcoves, and just how rights of possession had been historically established was as obscure as the origins of the social contract itself. Once established, however; they endured, and in a manner typical of New York's "melting pot," each religious, ethnic, cultural, and political group had its own little alcove. There was a Catholic alcove, the "turf" of the Newman Society, a Zionist alcove, an Orthodox Jewish alcove; there was a black alcove for the handful of blacks then at CCNY, an alcove for members of the athletic teams, and so forth. But the only alcoves that mattered to me were No.1 and No.2, the alcoves of the anti-Stalinist Left and pro-Stalinist Left respectively It was between these two alcoves that the war of the worlds was fought, over the faceless bodies of the mass of students, whom we tried desperately to manipulate into "the right position" but about whom, to tell the truth, we knew little and cared less.

Later in his essay, Kristol continues:

Which brings me to Alcove No. 1, where pure intellect—a certain kind of intellect, anyway—reigned unchallenged. Alcove No. 1 was the place you went to if you wanted to be radical and have a "theory." I mean that in the largest sense. We in Alcove No. I were terribly concerned with being "right" in politics, economics, sociology, philosophy, history, anthropology, and so forth. It was essential to be right in all of these fields of knowledge, lest a bit of information from one should casually collide with a theoretical edifice and bring the whole structure tumbling down. So all the little grouplets that joined together to make Alcove No.1 their home were always in keen competition to come up with startling bits of information—or, better yet, obscure and disorienting quotations from Marx or Engels or Lenin or Trotsky—that would create intellectual trouble for the rest of the company.

The Trotskyists, with perhaps a dozen members, were one of the largest grouplets and unquestionably the most feverishly articulate. Almost as numerous, though considerably less noisy, were the Socialists, "the Norman Thomas Socialists" as one called them, to distinguish them from other kinds of socialists. Among these other kinds, none of which ever had more than two or three representatives in Alcove No.1, were the Social Democrats (or "right-wing socialists") who actually voted for F.D.R., and the "revolutionary socialists" who belonged to one or another "splinter group"—the Ohlerites, the Marlinites, the Fieldites, the Lovestonites, and the who-can-remember-what-other-ites—which, finding itself in "principled disagreement" with every other sect, had its own little publication (usually called a "theoretical organ") and its own special prescription for achieving real socialism. In addition, and finally, there were a handful of "independents"—exasperating left-wing individualists who either could not bring themselves to join any group or else insisted on joining them all in succession, What held this crazy conglomeration together was, quite simply, the powerful presence of Alcove No.2, and, beyond that, the looming shadow of Stalinism with its threat of so irrevocably debasing the socialist ideal as to rob humanity of what we were certain was its last, best hope.

Obviously, in such a milieu certain intellectual qualities tended to be emphasized at the expense of others. We were strongly inclined to celebrate the analytical powers of mind rather than the creative, and we paid more heed to public philosophies than to private ones. It cannot be an accident that so many graduates of Alcove No.1 went on to become professors of social science; in a sense, what Alcove No. I provided was a peculiarly intense undergraduate education in what is now called social science but which we then called (more accurately, I sometimes think) political ideology, Nor can it be an accident that none of the graduates of Alcove No. I—none who were there in my time, anyway—subsequently achieved any kind of distinction in creative writing or the arts; in that ideological hothouse, the personal vision and the personal accent withered for lack of nourishment.

Alcove No. 1 did not offer the best atmosphere in which to discover a vocation into painting, or poetry, or pastoral care, but it did offer a very fine atmosphere for discovering a vocation into the life of a public intellectual. It provided serious conversation, even heated debate, around big questions as they connected with public life. It provided options and nuances on current affairs, but in conscious interaction with a grand encompassing tradition (in this case, marxism and its nearest neighbourhood, especially as mediated by an immediately preceding generation). It offered companionship around shared concerns, but also over and against a common adversary (stalinism, and in particular the stalinism of the alcove next door!). It was a place where books and magazine articles could be enthusiastically shared and vigorously discussed.

Alcove No. 1 represents the vital importance of dialogue with one's peers and of traditioning one's intellectual inheritance—receiving the tradition consciously, critically, and dialogically, opening it up to the new historical conditions of one's own time, elaborating and adjusting it towards the deeper wisdom of the patterns of creation as best as one can discern them, comparing the tradition thoughtfully—but not in a supposedly uncommitted manner—with the available alternatives. There is not much difference between the dinner parties of a slightly older generation of public intellectuals and the cafeteria banter of a slightly younger generation as far as their internal dynamics are concerned—but it is in the interaction between those milieus and those generations that the true dynamism of an intellectual tradition emerges. Without a younger generation passionately reading the little magazines of an older generation and critically making a tradition of social thought their own, public intellectual life is reduced to idiosyncratic opinionating that may at times be illuminating and entertaining, but that does not contribute in an enduringly significant way to the renewal of culture or the shaping of our common life.


Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.