How to be a public intellectual?

Recently, academics in IR, political philosophy and history seem more concerned than usual with questions like: how to make an impact, how to be ‘public intellectuals’? One of the reasons may be the upcoming REF, the new framework for assessment of academic work which gives some weight to its public ‘impact’. Perhaps this should not surprise us, at a time when exchange of information is made relatively easy, between the public, the government and the academia. Everyone is just one email away. At the same time, academics find themselves challenged to justify the relevance of their research, often simply by the eternal question ‘what is it good for?’, especially if public funding is requested.Nowadays, it has become almost commonplace in the field of Political Science and International Relations that abstract theorizing is not enough – a concrete, practical insight about our world is usually necessary. (Philosophers are still quietly tolerated, but who knows for how long).

This week I’ve been to two academic conferences revolving around the figure of the ‘public intellectual’. Yet based in different disciplines they proposed different dilemmas, and solutions, to the social role of academics today. At the British International Studies Association annual conference, the main question was how academics and political practitioners should interact. Should IR academics advice politicians? Should they write their studies in view of future policymaking? Should they offer ‘big ideas’ or specific tips? Should IR experts take public political stance even at risk of jeopardizing their career by being controversial?

The engagement with the public and the political establishment, by ‘speaking truth to power’, was depicted as an intellectual duty. But most people agreed that relevance to policy was not sufficient to make good research. Moreover, many reminded that ‘power’ was also corrupting, and should be resisted and criticized. Is it possible to criticize effectively the same government that one counsels? Is a political position an intolerable intellectual bias? There were more doubts than conclusions.

Similar questions were raised in Oxford, at the New York Review of Books conference on Isaiah Berlin, Bernard Williams and Stuart Hampshire, where leading public intellectuals discussed the merits of past public intellectuals. Here, there were fewer doubts about the desirability of getting involved in public political debate. The political philosophers on stage were pretty comfortable in stating their views publicly beyond the academic sphere, in the hope that a politician would listen, and celebrated the capacity of Williams, Berlin and Hampshire to do so modestly, honestly and moderately.

Perhaps the picture they were painting was too rosy. Mark Lilla reminded that some ways of being public intellectuals were less than recommended or interesting: academics giving expert policy advice, accomplished academics giving general political visions, and, worse of all, experts contributing advice on other issues beyond their competence. But there was a public role for the caring academics.

The ‘good’ public intellectual should give their views as a well-educated citizen, first among equals, and should not worry if the policy-makers did not take up the hint. It was curious that in the two events, two Oxford women panelists encouraged intellectuals to get publicly involved and thus assume political responsibility: Prof. Ngaire Woods of the Government School, and Baroness Helena Kennedy, the principle of Mansfield College. Both keep one foot out of the academia (in law and government). They argued that public involvement was a matter of individual political responsibility, and called for more intellectual courage among their peers.

At the end of the week, I wondered why the philosophers were less wary than the IR scholars regarding their role as ‘public intellectuals’. Perhaps, the philosophers were more confident of their own stamina against the corruption of power, or less aware of possible perils? Or perhaps the philosophers saw their role as mainly in relation with the general public, and not the policy-makers, and thus more benign and educative in nature? Raymond Aron, a public intellectual par excellence, always felt his ‘public’ engagements undermined his ‘intellectual’ production: by focusing on journalistic writings he did not produce the great philosophical works he saw himself as capable of. Arguably, the balance between the ‘public’ and the ‘intellectual’ is the real challenge, which very few truly master without compromising one or the other.

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