In this timely book, the first comprehensive study of the modern American public intellectual--that individual who speaks to the public on issues of political or ideological moment--Richard Posner charts the decline of a venerable institution that included worthies from Socrates to John Dewey.
With the rapid growth of the media in recent years, highly visible forums for discussion have multiplied, while greater academic specialization has yielded a growing number of narrowly trained scholars. Posner tracks these two trends to their inevitable intersection: a proliferation of modern academics commenting on topics outside their ken. The resulting scene--one of off-the-cuff pronouncements, erroneous predictions, and ignorant policy proposals--compares poorly with the performance of earlier public intellectuals, largely nonacademics whose erudition and breadth of knowledge were well suited to public discourse.
Leveling a balanced attack on liberal and conservative pundits alike, Posner describes the styles and genres, constraints and incentives, of the activity of public intellectuals. He identifies a market for this activity--one with recognizable patterns and conventions but an absence of quality controls. And he offers modest proposals for improving the performance of this market--and the quality of public discussion in America today.
This paperback edition contains a new preface and and a new epilogue.
Posner is, despite it all, a marvel. He is hyperactive like Harold Bloom, audacious like Christopher Hitchens and a practical man of the world like Alan Greenspan. About how many Americans can that be said? So he deserves attention no matter how infuriating he can be. Moreover, he charges gaily into the fray, voraciously aware of his own superiority.
The marketplace in ideas is no mere phrase to Mr. Posner, an alarmingly prolific federal judge, author and scholar who has decided that the traffic in opinions can be usefully described in economic terms, with numerical values assigned to dozens of opinion-mongers who offer their wares in the great media bazaar. The book has been catnip to journalists and intellectual scorekeepers, who have been bickering over the standings for weeks. The ups and downs of American intellectuals, especially the New York variety, fascinates the more bookish part of the population in the same way that college football rankings or Baseball Hall of Fame elections mesmerize sports fans.
In Public Intellectuals Posner turns his poison pen on scores of public intellectuals, including the likes of Noam Chomsky, Edward Luttwak, and Paul Ehrlich, those "talking heads" who disseminate their thoughts to the wider public on issues of political and ideologically import. Of particular interest are environmental decay, the darker side of realpolitik, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, former President Bill Clinton's impeachment, and the deadlocked 2000 presidential election. Through the application of market economics and statistical analysis, Posner first identifies the seemingly endless supply of and demand for public intellectuals to pontificate on these matters and their various genres...He also highlights the fact that market discipline is sorely lacking...[Posner's] marshaling of arguments, combined with his copious footnotes and extensive source material, makes for an engaging and thought-provoking read.
[Posner] writes faster than you can read. And he's a public intellectual in the specialized sense he describes and decries in his book: a "critical commentator addressing a nonspecialist audience on matters of broad public concern"...Judge Posner's main argument is that "public intellectuals are often careless with facts and rash in prediction." They lack, moreover, "insight and distinction, the filling of some gap in intellectual space"...Posner's writing is indeed limpid and muscular, but it's grounded (the celebrity-intellectuals tables notwithstanding) in substantial evidence carefully marshaled into showy and sometimes pedantic footnotes. His conclusions follow from his fully disclosed, if controversial, analytical methodology.
In Public Intellectuals...Posner trashes fellow smarties who expound on public issues outside their expertise. He says they abandon rigor when they write general interest books and op-ed pieces, publish open letters, and speak on television. They are in decline, he says, because more of them than ever have safe jobs as professors, protecting them from the consequences of bad predictions and stupid proclamations...Posner fires both left and right, nearly always hitting the mark.
Richard Posner is a polymath, a one-man think tank, the grown-up version of the kid who always sat in the front row and knew the answer to the teacher's questions...The latest of his countless books is an occasionally insightful, often maddening effort to kill off all rival claimants to the throne.
It is an intense and often angry book, a high-spirited, richly provocative moral diatribe against trivialization of the national culture...This is an intense and studious book--brilliant with energy, commitment and proper zeal...Posner's mind is so acute and often so surgically ironic that his prose can be delightful.
- Harvard University Press
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