The irresistible Paul Johnson wrote a piece in the London Spectator the other week about intellectuals. P.J. is the author of a book on this subject, titled Intellectuals, in which he cheerfully eviscerates several of the big names in 19th- and 20th-century deep-browdom: Emerson, Marx, Hemingway, Sartre, and so on. For the purposes of that book P.J. adopted a rather negative definition of “intellectual,” “somebody who thinks ideas matter more than people.” That seems to me a bit harsh. There are several people I know and like who I feel fairly sure are intellectuals, but who, if fleeing in great haste from a burning house that contained (a) a human infant of no discernible cognitive gifts, and (b) Alexander Pope’s annotated copy of Boileau’s L’art poétique, would save the child.
P.J.’s essay got me thinking, though. Who is an intellectual nowadays? What does it mean to be one? If I draw a Venn diagram with one blob for “intellectuals” and another one for “academics,” what does it look like? Add a third blob for “opinion journalists”–now what does the Venn diagram look like? How would you react on hearing yourself described as an intellectual? Would you want a child of yours to marry one? And so on.
Let’s restrict the discussion to major names–living Americans whose ideas about big topics are widely discussed and written about. P.J. cites a book published in 1935 titled The Intelligentsia of Great Britain. The subjects were George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes, G.K. Chesterton, Bertrand Russell, D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, Middleton Murry, Dean Inge, Sir James Jeans, Sir Arthur Eddington, E. M. Forster, G. D. H. Cole, Lytton Strachey, T. S. Eliot, and Harold Laski.
That’s a playwright, five novelists, an economist, two essayists, a philosopher, an editor, a theologian, two scientists, two political scientists, a biographer, and a poet. Can we come up with an equivalent list of heavyweight public intellectuals for the present-day United States?
Well, there are a number of job categories there we can strike out right away. I wonder what proportion of my readers can even name a living American poet? I would guess the answer to be in the 25-50 percent range. Even among those, I doubt there are any who would pay good money to hear what, say, Rita Dove has to say about large matters of public interest.
Similarly with playwrights. I think: Pretty much my entire knowledge of the current theater scene is derived from reading Mark Steyn’s theater criticism in The New Criterion, which has left me with the rather strong impression that the U.S. playwrights of today are all left-wing homosexuals. You may wish to remind me that John Maynard Keynes was a left-wing homosexual, and so he was; but he was also a great economist who changed the minds of entire nations and did as much as any man to shape the later 20th century. I hope I won’t be bursting anyone’s bubble if I say that Tony Kushner is just not in that league.
Novelists? Well, there is of course Tom Wolfe, who says interesting things about matters of public consequence, and weaves big ideas into his novels. I don’t know that I’m quite ready to call Tom an intellectual, though. He is a superb observer of humanity, and a skillful entertainer, and for that unusual combination we should be grateful; but the big ideas are borrowed from other people. A U.S. Grade-A intellectual? I don’t think so, and I doubt Tom would claim the title for himself. Who else have we got? Jane Smiley? Barbara Kingsolver? Don DeLillo? Let us pass on…quickly.
We are hardly any better served by philosophers and theologians than we are by poets and novelists. It’s even hard to come up with candidate names. The only active philosopher I can think of is John Searle; but if you were to ask me whether I have read any of his books, I would have to say what Dr. Johnson used to say when similarly cornered: “I have looked into them.” Richard John Neuhaus is, it seems to me, as good a theologian as we have any right to expect in this age, but how many Americans–even educated Americans–have heard of him? Whatever the quality of their thought, Searle and Neuhaus can’t be called public intellectuals if, as I suspect to be the case, less than 1 percent of their countrymen have any clue who they are.
The landscape is a bit brighter when we turn to scientists–though with an interesting twist. I think the physical sciences are very well represented by Freeman Dyson, who is at least the equal of Jeans or Eddington. (I’d even change that “or” to an “and.” And I can’t resist noting that Dyson started out as a mathematician–a number theorist, in fact.) The really prominent scientific intellectuals of our time, though, have come out of the human sciences. Steven Pinker, Edward O. Wilson, Charles Murray, Thomas Szasz, and Jared Diamond all surely qualify as heavyweight public intellectuals. All have deep, interesting things to say on big topics of importance to any thinking person.
(Note, please, that I am being impartial here as to whether these are people I agree with. I think Jared Diamond is flat wrong on the origins of cultural diversity, for example. He is a public intellectual, though, and it would be silly to deny it.)
Now I have got this deep into the topic, I see that it really needs a lot more space than I have available here. Judging whether X is an important public intellectual involves complicated assessments of depth, breadth, gravitas, and prominence, and those assessments need to be argued in each case. All four components need to be present; but you can trade off a little of one for another. “Prominence” introduces an element of unfairness, too. There are plenty of people who I think ought to be prominent public intellectuals, but who just don’t get the air time, often for no reason one can easily discern–Roger Kimball would be an example.
Well, I’m going to try to make a graceful exit by presenting you with two lists. The first list shows ten people, plucked more or less at random, who are, in my opinion, genuine major-league American intellectuals; the second is a list of people who are not. Now of course, that second list could be extended almost for ever. Rather a lot of us 290 million Americans are not nationally-discussed egg-heads–practically all of us, in fact. The point of my second list is that these are people I myself don’t think are intellectuals, but concerning whom you (or they) might disagree. They are, in short, borderline cases.
Are major-league intellectuals:
William F. Buckley, Jr.
Not major-league intellectuals:
If I have really been as impartial as I have tried to be, my first list raises a number of questions, most of them to do with “diversity.” Why, for example, is there no female on my first list? I am not a misogynist, and would have put one there if I could have thought of one. Can you think of one? There has also been a drop-off in what I suppose is called “orientational diversity”–due, I think, to the fact that homosexuals are now free to talk about their homosexuality, as a result of which they speak of little else, to the deep uninterest of the rest of us. Perhaps the closet really is a creative place.
By comparison with P.J.’s 1935 list, mine shows a strong shift towards conservatism. The center of gravity of the 1935 list is well to the left of center; of mine, well to the right. This, I thought, must just be me; I’m just writing down the names of people I know about. To correct the balance, I leafed through some back copies of the reliably left-wing New York Review of Books and The New Yorker to pick out a heavyweight or two. With the best will in the world, I couldn’t. The modern Left simply isn’t competitive above the middleweight category. Considering their near-monopoly of academia, the arts, and the media, this is astounding; but try the experiment for yourself and see. There were one or two names I hovered over–K. Anthony Appiah would have been a fine adornment to my list, not only adding political and racial diversity, but giving me a credentialed philosopher, too–but I couldn’t honestly see him, or any others I considered, making the cut.
If you want to engage with big, original, interesting ideas about life, society, knowledge, the past or the future, your best bet in this day and age is to call on a heterosexual male conservative. Again, this may be just my own inclination showing through; but if you disagree, let’s see what names you can come up with.