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richard posner public intellectuals

new statesman, 22 april 2002

Traditionally there have been two contrasting views of intellectuals. One is the romantic picture of the intellectual as outsider, devoted, in the words of the Enlightenment philosophe Condorcet, to 'the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where the priests, the schools, the government and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them'. The intellectual's battle-cry, Condorcet enthused, was 'reason, tolerance, humanity'.

From the other traditional viewpoint, the 'outsider' status of intellectuals is precisely why they are to be distrusted. Especially for conservatives, intellectuals are dangerous and rootless souls, irresponsible, unaccountable, venal, even traitorous. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote of intellectuals that 'Having no genuine authority and feeling always in danger of being unceremoniously told to mind his own business, he must flatter, promise and incite, nurse left-wing feelings and scowling minorities, sponsor doubtful and marginal cases, appeal to fringe ends.' Or, as Paul Johnson put it in his book Intellectuals, 'One of the principal lessons of our tragic century... is - beware intellectuals.'

Today, however, neither of these views seems relevant. Few look upon contemporary intellectuals as either isolated or dangerous. They appear, rather, to be highly professional operators, well dressed, well-paid and highly visible. In America, Florida Atlantic University even offers a PhD programme aimed at 'students interested in an advanced general education and life as a public intellectual.' To be an intellectual today seems little different from being an accountant or an engineer. The dangerous intellectual has transmuted into the safe expert, a narrow specialist with a narrow mind and low horizons.

This transformation of the intellectual is an expression of the changing role our ideas in our society. There has been an attempt in recent decades to professionalise, not just intellectuals, but ideas too. We live in an age in which big ideas or strong opinions are viewed with considerable skepticism, even suspicion, as 'ideology' or 'dogma'. At the same time, there is a widespread feeling that such ideas can have little material consequence. After all, few people still believe in the possibility of social transformation, or in alternatives to a market economy, or to liberal democracy. As the American critic Russell Jacoby puts it, the very idea of utopia is fading away, utopia not just in the sense of 'a vision of future society' but as 'a vision pure and simple, an ability, perhaps willingness, to use expansive concepts to see reality and its possibilities'.

Jacoby, whose 1987 book The Last Intellectuals helped shape the contemporary debate on the decline of the life of ideas, blames the modern university for turning intellectuals into soulless academics. 'As bureaucracies absorb intellectual life', he argues, so that life has fragmented into narrow specialisms, and both the vision and the prose of intellectuals has become 'cramped'. In the end, Jacoby writes, 'intellectuals retreat in the name of progress to narrower turfs and smaller concepts; they disdain lucidity itself, a kin of light and of Enlightenment.'

There is an echo of this argument in Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals. Universities have 'encouraged a professionalisation and specialisation of knowledge', Posner writes, that has proved uncongenial to 'the free spirit, the gadfly, the scoffer'. Posner has no sympathy, however, for Jacoby's utopian visions. Beneath the rhetoric about free spirits lies a utilitarian view of ideas. A judge on the US Court of Appeals, Posner made his academic name as the founder of what has come to be known as the 'law and economics' movement. The role of judges, Posner argued, is not to dispense justice (an abstract concept for which Posner has no time) but to distribute rights and harms in the same way as a free market would have done.

In Public Intellectuals, Posner brings this approach to the study of ideas. Ideas, he believes, are commodities that are sold in the market in the same way as apples and pears. Francis Fukuyama and Stephen Jay Gould respond as would Ford or IBM to the laws of supply and demand. If left-leaning intellectuals were to accrue greater benefits than right-leaning intellectuals, Posner suggests, 'there would then be a tendency for public intellectuals to reposition themselves politically until an equilibrium was restored.'

The market for ideas, however, is not an efficient one, because there is no quality control on the goods on offer. Unlike Ford or IBM, intellectuals pay no price for producing shoddy goods. Because most intellectuals are academics, even if all their ideas are exposed as flawed, they can still 'exit the public-intellectual market at low cost', and simply return to their university post. In any case the public are less discriminating about ideas than they are about cars or computers, largely because they don't take them seriously.

Perhaps recognising how ludicrous is this argument, Posner does not waste his time trying to provide it with intellectual ballast. Instead, the bulk of the book is taken up with bringing to book those intellectuals who Posner believes have come to the market with substandard goods. This includes just about every contemporary thinker and writer (and a few dead ones too), with the singular exception of Richard Posner.

Posner is a formidable critic of academic pretense and sloth (it would undoubtedly be amusing to watch Judge Posner keep order in court) and some of the fights he picks - for instance with what he calls the 'Jeremiad school' of ecological doomsayers and cultural pessimists - are both entertaining and to the point. But there is also much here that is as sloppy and as rotten as the arguments of those he seeks to chastise. Take, for instance, his upbraiding of philosopher Martha Nussbaum for her demand that the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) be banned. Nussbaum, Posner claims, is not up to scratch with the latest anthropological theory that suggests that FGM plays a functional role in third world societies. 'It has been conjectured', Posner writes, 'that among Somali herders... the practice is designed to reduce the emission of female sexual odors, which are disturbing to the herds of sheep and goats, for which the women are chiefly responsible, and also attract predators.' One can but take a deep breath and admire Posner's chutzpah.

The trouble with contemporary intellectuals, Posner believes, is that they write about issues about which they have no specialised knowledge. It's an argument that might seem at odds with his condemnation of universities for having created a culture of specialism that has helped undermine the independent 'gadfly' or 'free spirit'. Posner's concept of a 'free spirit' is, however, a highly peculiar one. Not for him Jacoby's paean to expansive thoughts and utopian visions. Posner, following in the footsteps of his heroes Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Dewey, is a pragmatist, a tradition which he describes not as a philosophy but as an 'anti-philosophy'. Posner agrees with Richard Rorty, the contemporary philosopher with whom he has greatest affinity, that we should ditch philosophical profundity for 'philosophical superficiality and light-mindedness' because only the latter can 'make the world's inhabitants more pragmatic, more tolerant, more liberal, more receptive to the appeal of instrumental rationality'. There are no 'large theoretical ways of finding out how to end injustice', only 'small, experimental ways'. 'Replace philosophers with policy wonks!', appears to be Posner's battle-cry.

Public Intellectuals is not so much an analysis of decline as an expression of it. It is a wretched, soulless vision of the place of ideas in human life. It is also a stale one. In 1929 the Hungarian-born sociologist Karl Mannheim had already laid out the basic arguments in his book Ideology and Utopia. The role of the intellectual, he believed, was to be a disinterested technocrat, not an engaged actor. But, having laid waste to all manner of ideologies and utopias, Mannheim finished with a warning. 'The disappearance of utopia', he wrote, 'brings about a static state of affairs in which Man himself becomes no more than a thing... After a long, tortuous, but heroic development, just at the highest stage of awareness, when history is ceasing to be blind faith, and is becoming more and more Man's own creation, with the relinquishment of utopia, Man would lose his will to shape history and therewith his ability to understand it.' It's a warning we would do well to heed.