The Observer had a piece earlier this month about Britain’s relationship with its intelligentsia, and asked whether we ‘do’ public intellectuals in the way that the French seem to.
You can read the views of ten influential thinkers on the topic here. And here are the opening definitions of four of them.
Being able to provoke a different point of view to the standard current ideological or political perspective as played out in conventional newspaper or radio reportage is what a public intellectual does. But it’s not merely about being oppositional, because that’s too negative. Public intellectuals attempt to widen and deepen the public discourse, by adding further analysis and coming at issues in surprising or unexpected ways.
There’s a trend towards soundbites and simplification. We all desire clarity but a way to reach it means understanding at several layers, folding in different kinds of knowledges; in other words complexity. There is a craving for that thoughtfulness which public intellectuals are able to provide.
What the British seem to like are television historians and naturalists, not public intellectuals. You can’t help feeling that’s because one supplies narrative and the other supplies facts, and the British are traditionally empiricists so they/we have a resistance to theory and to theoreticians playing too prominent a role in public life.
I think the British have always had this view that France is full of public intellectuals and we are hopeless. I don’t agree. To start with, it’s an awful phrase. Have you ever met anybody who avowed to be a public intellectual? We don’t go in for pontificating to the nation, but if you ask whether we have a vibrant form of political, social and cultural debate in which people who are academic, intellectual, clever – and not just media stars – engage, we have loads of it.
I guess I understand a public intellectual to be somebody who moves public discourse forward. Someone who either says something new or says something that everybody knows to be true but is afraid to express.