Public intellectuals in France and the US

What is the role of the intellectual in France in 2010?  And has that role declined in the past several decades?  Have the media and the internet profoundly eroded or devalued the voice of the intellectual in public space?  The Nouvel Observateur takes up these questions in a recent issue devoted to “Le pouvoir intellectuel” (link).

The line of thought is a complicated one.  Jacques Julliard frames the question by proposing that the public imagination of the intellectual involves a narrative of precipitous decline since the active engagements of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus.  There was a conception of the engaged intellectual who brought his/her ideas and convictions into opposition when state and society were going wrong — Algeria, Vietnam, capitalism.  And, Julliard suggests, the common view is that the current generation of intellectuals have not succeeded — perhaps have not even attempted — at bringing theory, critique, and value into the public sphere.  Jean Daniel captures the idea in his editorial: “Faut-il rire des ‘intellos’?

But — here is the complexity — Julliard refutes this idea.  The tradition of the public intellectual is not attenuated or corrupted in France; rather, the current generation of intellectuals are in fact engaged and involved.  It is nostalgia for a golden age — the age of Liberation, Communism, and Existentialism — that foreshortens the reputation of the intellectual today.  But the golden age is a myth.

Tout cela est faux, archifaux, et prouve seulement que Saint-Sulpice n’est séparé de Saint-Germain que par quelques enjambées et par la piété du souvenir. Et revenons aux faits. [All this is false, badly false, and only proves that Saint-Sulpice is only separated from Saint-Germain by a few steps and the piety of memory.  Let us return to the facts.]

Julliard points out five salient facts. First, we sometimes confuse the intellectual and the literary artist.  The artist is valued for the aesthetic quality of his/her works, whereas the intellectual is valued for the significance of the impact of his/her ideas.  Second, the impact of Sartre and Camus on France’s wars in Algeria or Vietnam was minimal, and later generations of French intellectuals have actually exercised greater influence.  In fact, Julliard argues that Lévy, Glucksmann, and Finkielkraut were more effective in their own interventions about policy in Bosnia than Sartre or Camus on the colonial wars.  Third, Julliard argues that modern media, including the blogosphere, have provided the contemporary intellectual with a much more powerful platform for disseminating ideas and values than was available to Zola, Sartre, or Camus.  He cites debates on the Israel-Palestine conflict, global warming, immigration, European governance, and even philosophy and literature, as locations of debate where modern media have amplified the voices of intellectuals.  Fourth, there is the question of designation: who decides who the “intellectuals” are?  The media select their talking heads; what confidence can the public have that these are the best voices available?  Julliard even suggests that there has been an inversion of quality; the telegenic pundit acquires reputation as a savant, rather than the savant being sought out as a pundit.  And fifth, there was a tendency of the “engaged” philosophers of the generation of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Camus, to be engaged in service to a cause — Communism, most commonly.  So the positions offered by these intellectuals were often enough not “intellectual” at all; they did not follow from the principles, ideas, and methods of the thinker, but rather derived from the position of a party or camp.  Today’s intellectuals, Julliard suggests, are interested in ideas rather than ideologies.  And with this commitment they have returned to the real vocation of the intellectual:

En rompant avec l’idéologie abstraite au profit de l’universel concret, les intellectuels, du moins les plus novateurs d’entre eux, sont revenus à leur fonction essentielle : la critique sociale, et d’abord la critique de leur propre pratique. [Dispensing with abstract ideology, today’s intellectuals have returned to their essential function: social criticism, and especially criticism of their own practice.]

So Julliard’s telling of the story expresses several key points: France needs public intellectuals; there are several overlapping generations of thinkers who are filling this role (and more to come); and in fact, the decline of ideology and the rise of media and the Internet makes the voices of intellectuals more effective rather than less.  In his editorial in this issue Jean Daniel reaches a similar conclusion: “En un mot: depuis que nous n’avons plus confinace dans des idéologies, nous avons un frénétique besoin des idées. C’est-a-dire des intellectuels.” [In a word: since we no longer have confidence in ideologies, we have urgent need of ideas; which is to say, intellectuals.]

In continuing the theme, Nouvel Obs returns to the debate of 1980 by talking again with several of the young intellectuals it consulted in that year.  Pascal Bruckner, Luc Ferry, and Gilles Lipovetsky offer their perspectives on the role of ideas and intellectuals in French society from the vantage point of 2010 (link).  And there is a challenging interview-discussion with Alain Badiou and Alain Finkielkraut on communism (link).  So Nouvel Obs is doing its part — it is helping to bring to the fore debates and thinkers who can help France navigate into the twenty-first century.

There is one form of practical proof of the importance of intellectuals in contemporary France that is not so visible from the United States: the depth and pervasiveness of the presence of deeply thoughtful scholars and writers on French radio and television.  For a taste of the breadth and depth of the voices of intellectuals in French society today, consult the list of podcasts made available from radio programming at France Culture (link).  Particularly rich are Les nouveaux chemins de la connaissance (link) and Repliques (link). These programs exemplify serious voices, serious debates, and nuanced and extensive discussions.

In the United States it seems that the whole issue of the public intellectual plays out differently than in France.  To begin — the great majority of the “public” have virtually no interest in or respect for academic discussions of issues.  Fox News, talk radio, and blistering political blogs fill that space.

Second, however, there is a subset of the American public that does have an appetite for more detailed and nuanced treatment of the issues that face us. has between 5 and 8 million unique readers a month; the Huffington Post logged about 10 million visitors in December, 2009; and logs about 4.5 million readers a month.  The Facebook page for “Give me some serious discussion and debate about crucial issues!” could be huge.

Looking at the question from another angle — the academic world in the United States is itself a meaningful segment of the workforce.  There are about 1.5 million post-secondary teachers (professors and lecturers) in the United States, and the majority of these have doctoral degrees.  Of these, a smaller number fall into traditional “intellectual” disciplines: English literature (74,800), Foreign literature (32,100), History (26,000), Philosophy and Religion (25,100), and Sociology (20,300), for a total of 178,300.  In engineering, mathematics, and the sciences there are another 262,600 post-secondary teachers.  (These data come from a Bureau of Labor Statistics snapshot for 2008 (link).)  So a small but meaningful proportion of the US population have advanced degrees and intellectual credentials.  They are a core segment of the audience for public intellectuals. And, of course, you don’t have to be an academic to be an intellectual.

Further, there are a host of specialists and experts on specific crises — environment, finance, globalization, war — who are called upon to comment on specific issues, and there are specialized “think tanks” that promote and disseminate research on critical public issues.  Moreover, voices like that of Bill Moyers have offered critical and nuanced perspectives on public television (link) (regrettably, now off the air).  And the United States has a number of prominent academics who speak to a broad public — Henry Louis Gates, Jeffrey Sachs, Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West, Michael Walzer, and James Gustave Speth, to name a few.  So there is a domain of intellectual discourse that succeeds in escaping the confines of the academic world and the limiting echo-chamber of cable television; this domain helps to create and feed an intellectual public.

Overall, it seems fair to say that public intellectuals have little influence on public opinion and public policy in the US today.  Perhaps Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) still has a lot of validity.  But maybe, just maybe, it is also possible that the Internet is beginning to offer a bigger footprint for serious analysis and criticism for the American public and American policy makers.  Perhaps there is a broadening opportunity for intellectuals to help define the future for the United States and its role in the world.  And perhaps we can be more like France in this important dimension.

One Reply to “Public intellectuals in France and the US”

  1. The "public intellectuals" in France have very clearly become no more than the spectacle of public intellectuals, with any roots in either actual philosophy, or indeed actual ideology leading their actions, having almost disappeared. Juillard is a member of that coterie of "public intellectuals" so obviously he is coming in their defense. But the basic fact that his newsweekly, that is, the one is serves as "intellectual caution" to, has allied with a strongly right wing president in a bid to own the newspaper of record Le Monde, despite Le Nouvel Observateur being supposedly left wing, shows hypocrisy.The "independence" of the new public intellectuals only serves as a justification for very active turncoating, such as BHL's agreement with every Sarkozy measure despite still claiming to be left wing.The intellectual quality of France Culture would be quite higher if it didn't feel like the radio was regularly promoting M. Finkielkraut who can't seem to help himself from going into racist tirades every time he talks about the French national football team.Anyway, just looking at the cover of the newsweekly shows one of the main reasons the "intellectuals" have lost so much credibility ; the artfully half open shirts, the dramatically flying hair, the thirst for power (how did Luc Ferry ever become education minister ?) shows a group of people who care more about their media appearances, their access to power, than actually developing any kind of intellectual advances. They are able to undertake the appearance of thoughtful debate, but the main reason of their media omnipresence is to prevent the arrival on the public scene of actual intellectuals who could disturb the status quo, such as any actually left wing intellectual (Badiou is not that present on the media scene)


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