The Public Intellectual & The Dodo

In “Whatever happened to the public intellectual?” David Herman asks “Philosophy used to be a staple of television and the newspapers. Not any longer. So where did all the philosophers go?” Two of the better explanations discussed in the piece come from David Edmonds, Ray Monk, and John Gray.

From Edmonds:

According to David Edmonds, the editor of the recently published essay collection Philosophers Take on the World (Oxford University Press): “The idea that you would now commission someone to interview Freddie Ayer in an armchair for 45 minutes with no sound effects, no cutaways, is almost inconceivable.”…

David Edmonds sees the change in tone as “part of the end of deference . . . these great figures like Isaiah Berlin telling you what to think”. He links it with Michael Gove’s infamous distrust of experts. “In some ways it’s democratising. We somehow think we have a right to express ourselves that we didn’t have forty years ago. The stranglehold these great figures had over us has vanished, for good or ill.”…

From Monk:

Today, according to Ray Monk, the situation is very different. “Fewer philosophy books are published,” he says, “because of the RAE [Research Assessment Exercise].” The RAE set out to evaluate the quality of research undertaken by British institutions of higher education. As a result, Monk observes, academics would rather produce articles for eminent, peer-reviewed journals than spend years writing a biography. “Academics don’t make their reputations with books any more, but with articles,” he says. This has led to “the increased professionalisation of every academic discipline, including philosophy”.

Monk spent ten years writing his biography of Russell; he couldn’t have combined that with writing refereed articles for academic journals. He argues that, as a result, whereas in the 1950s it was the big names that counted, today’s philosophical ­debates are more issue-driven – consider “the trolley problem”, otherwise known as “Would You Kill the Fat Man?”. (A runaway trolley will kill five people or, if you pull a lever and divert it, one person. What do you do?)

“In the past,” Monk says, “you had Richard Ellmann on Joyce or Oscar Wilde; Michael Holroyd on George Bernard Shaw. Publishers can no longer hand out big advances [for such books], because publishing has become so precarious. And on the other hand, universities want articles, not biographies.” Consequently, many of the most successful authors in philosophy today are not academics but freelance writers, such as Alain de Botton and the NS’s John Gray.

From Gray:

[John Gray] says… there has been a shift in “the social position of academics, especially academic philosophers. A previous generation had contact with leading ­figures in the worlds of culture and politics . . . That’s gone today. Academics have become marginal.”…

“Academic life has become more professionalised. They write for each other, not for the general reader. Academic political philosophy ­today, for example, has zero influence on the practice of politics.” In the 1980s it was said that Margaret Thatcher was interested in Popper, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott. “I doubt now,” says Gray, “whether any politician could name a leading academic philosopher. No one would know who they were.”

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