There is more to Richard Posner's book on public intellectuals than the Top 100 list. Scott McLemee revisits it....

February 13, 2008

An opportunity to defend the work of a prominent conservative thinker does not present itself very often. Well, not to me it doesn’t, anyway. But Jeffrey Di Leo’s “Public Intellectuals, Inc.” seems to impose that obligation. It is an interesting essay – certainly worthy of being reprinted by Inside Higher Ed from the journal symploke, where it appeared last year. But Di Leo’s treatment of Richard Posner’s book about American public intellectuals is quite problematic. Someone really ought to say something. So here goes.

Posner is a judge and an outspoken man of the right. He was named to the federal judiciary by Ronald Reagan in 1981. He is also a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and the most prominent theorist of a school of thought known as “law and economics.” In most respects, Posner’s outlook is libertarian. He frames political and cultural questions in terms ultimately deriving from a belief that the marketplace is usually the best and most rational means of allocating resources. A very good introduction to Posner’s life and work – though one now several years old – is the profile of him by Jamie Ryerson that ran in Lingua Franca in 2000.

The following year, Posner’s book Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline made rather a big splash when Harvard University Press published it. It drew attention primarily (indeed, almost exclusively) because of a set of statistic tables it presented. The most-discussed pages contained the names of more than 500 prominent public commentators, academics-turned-pundits, talking heads, and the like.

Posner and his assistants calculated how often each figure was quoted or mentioned, as measured by Google, Lexis-Nexis, and various scholarly databases. The researchers then broke this data down in various ways: by gender, political leaning, institutional affiliation, field of study, etc. Those tables were interesting – but not, it seems, as interesting as the one ranking the “top 100 public intellectuals by media mentions” between 1995 and 2000. It was the one that generated the most, well, media mentions.

Henry Kissinger occupied the top slot. Lawrence Summers was in fourth place, well ahead of George Orwell or George Bernard Shaw. And Richard Posner himself was on the honor roll, too, roughly two thirds of the way down. He was less prominent than Susan Sontag, but more so than W.E.B. DuBois.This sort of status index is good for a few bounces around the media echo chamber, as inevitably happened. One sometimes got the impression that nobody read anything in Posner’s book BUT the lists, presumably while looking for their own names. Which is unfortunate, for there was more to Public Intellectuals than that.

Last year, I had occasion to revisit the book while working on an essay for the 20th anniversary of Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals. While Jacoby did not quite literally coin the term “public intellectual” (it was first used, as far as anyone knows, by C. Wright Mills in 1958) his polemic launched the expression into its subsequent vogue.

During the late 1980s, Jacoby pointed out that thinkers who once might have risked trying to write for a general public were tending to restrict themselves to an audience within the groves of academe. And Posner’s book was, in a way, an analysis of the unexpected consequences of Jacoby’s complaint. In the 1990s, the public intellectuals started coming out of the woodwork. For a while there, it seemed like the most dangerous place to be was between an academic and a TV camera.

Jeffrey Di Leo’s essay “Public Intellectuals, Inc.” comes still further downstream in the discussion. To identify – let alone scrutinize – all of his arguments and conceptual elisions would certainly be a demanding effort. (It might take a whole new book, even.) But for now, it might be best just to look at what he says about Public Intellectuals.

“Posner’s taxonomy of public intellectuals,” he writes, “is as worthless in some respects as E.D. Hirsch’s list of “What Every Literate American Knows” in Cultural Literacy (1987) or Robert Maynard Hutchins’ selection of the Great Books of the Western World (1952).... While Posner’s study of public intellectuals is interesting and well intentioned, the fact that his quest for the biggest figures in the intellectual world literally is solely based on quantitative factors, and never on qualitative ones, is disappointing. Posner’s method furthers the notion that public intellectualism is merely a matter of ‘getting noticed’ and never a matter of the quality of contribution one is making, let alone its epistemological, social and political value.”

The comparison of Posner’s effort to that of the canon-mongers is hardly apt. Like equating a croquet ball and a grapefruit, this is understandable for someone looking at them from a distance, or while in a hurry, but the taste does set them apart.

The lists of cultural references and great books that Hirsh and Hitchens offer are prescriptive. They are lists of things one ought to know. By contrast, Posner’s lists are descriptive. He is trying to give an account of what the public-intellectual landscape (or at least certain aspects of it) actually looked like during a certain period of time (the late 1990s). And this was by no means a matter of celebrating “the biggest figures in the intellectual world,” as Di Leo puts it; very much to the contrary.

Far more appropriate would be to compare Public Intellectuals to Charles Kadushin’s sociological study The American Intellectual Elite, first published in 1974 and recently reprinted. Both Kadushin and Posner tried to employ an objective (or at least quantification-driven) approach to determining which intellectual figures exercised the most prominence and influence. Pierre Bourdieu undertook a similar effort, albeit with different methodological tools, in Homo Academicus (1984) – a book which analyzed the upper levels of the French university system. One page of Bourdieu’s book treated the most prominent figures in the arts and social-science faculties in Paris as so many dots on a grid, arranged by their prestige and influence.

Like Posner’s Public Intellectuals, both Kadushin’s and Bourdieu’s books generated little frenzies of discussion over who made the list, and whether it was fair to address such serious matters via cold-blooded quantification. When people express complaints about such efforts, it is only incidentally a matter of concern with whether or not the sampling technique or statistical analyses were valid. Most of us, after all, are in no position to judge.

Rather, objections to Posner et al. tend to manifest a discomfort at treating “things of the spirit,” as the expression once had it, with the same tools one might use to investigate ... well, ordinary life. When sociologists or economists analyze intellectual life, it can have a disconcerting effect. (It would be profoundly disobliging to think that power and authority in academic life bear any resemblance to, say, the transactions taking place in a transnational corporation or a correctional facility. But suppose they do?)

Such efforts to defamiliarize intellectual life – to approach it from an unexpected and even irreverent attitude – will never be to everyone’s liking. And clearly Di Leo is unhappy with the lists it generates in Public Intellectuals. “Work like Posner’s,” he writes, “continues to promote the unfortunate notion that public intellectuals are identifiable and worthy of merit based solely on the size of the market for their ideas, with no methodological allowances made for the quality of their contributions to public discourse.”

Well, yes, this complaint may have a point. Such unfortunate consequences will doubtless follow if people refuse to pay any attention to Posner’s actual argument.

Judge Posner, as mentioned, is a conservative. His book is very much a product of the second Clinton administration (so much so, in fact, that parts of it feel quite dated now). During l’affaire Monica, various liberal academics made solemn arguments about the case against the president – without having any depth of expertise at all in matters of constitutional law.

They were out of their depth, at least by Posner’s lights. Yet they got a hearing.And if pressed about what business they had intervening outside their fields of demonstrated competence, the plausible answer would have been that they were acting as “public intellectuals.”

In some ways, Posner’s misgivings on this score is an echo of the denunciations heard almost a century before, when the term “intellectual” first came to prominence during the Dreyfus affair in France. Back then, one sarcastic conservative asked what right a professor of Tibetan history at the Sorbonne had to comment on a matter of national security. But Posner’s argument went beyond the familiar complaint that some scholars and authors tended to intervene in political affairs they didn't really understand.

Jacoby, writing in 1987, had lamented the disappearance of thinkers who wrote for a nonspecialist public. By contrast, Posner’s critique, in 2001, was almost exactly the opposite: He thought too many academics were being lured by the fleshpots of the mass media into letting their guards down and making total asses of themselves. An explosion in the growth of the mass media (the proliferation of cable news programs, for example, as well as the internet) had created a demand for public-intellectual commentary.

A star system emerged that rested on “the unfortunate notion that public intellectuals are identifiable and worthy of merit based solely on the size of the market for their ideas” – as Di Leo puts it. Unfortunately, he implies that Posner himself was in favor of this situation, which is precisely the opposite of the case.

The problem is hardly that Posner wrote his book with "no methodological allowances made for the quality of [celebrity intellectuals'] contributions to public discourse." The problem, which Posner makes very explicit, is that no such allowances are made by the media lending public intellectuals the microphone. Nor does he see any reason to think it will change.

“The market for public intellectuals,” wrote Posner, “operates without any rules or norms, legal or customary...and, unlike some other information markets, with little in the way of gatekeeping consumer intermediaries. The print and electronic outlets through which public intellectuals reach their audience do little screening for quality. Little is not none, but little may not be enough, especially given the multidimensionality of the public-intellectual product – the fact that it is bought for entertainment and to create solidarity, and not just for information, so that the truth value of the product must compete with other consumption values.”

This seems a trenchant enough critique -- and worth every bit as much attention as Posner's lists.

Then again, the lists, too, might well be thinly disguised attacks on the entire realm of “public intellectotainment.” Any list showing William Bennett as a more eminent figure than Thomas Mann – or ranking Alan Dershowitz six times higher than Albert Camus – seems like a pretty blistering condemnation of the reality it describes.


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