Day By Day

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What are Intellectuals Good For?

That's the question posed by Geoffrey Kurtz in his review of George Scialabba's latest collection of essays in Logos.

It's a pertinent question these days for two major reasons:

The explosion of information available to people at all levels of society is an immense problem for generalists. It is impossible for them to master more than a tiny bit of the information overload. Much that is important will simply pass them by.

Moreover, today's world is dominated by specialists who deal in esoteric language and concepts particular to their disciplines. A generalist, in order to comment competently on any subject, must spend months and years mastering just the linguistic and conceptual frameworks in which practitioners of the discipline operate. 

Scialabba writes:
[T]he very ideal of cosmopolitanism, of the intellectual as “anti-specialist,” uniting political and aesthetic interests and able to speak with some authority about both, is obsolescent…Perhaps the demise of the “public intellectual,” of the “dilettante-connoisseur,” is a symptom of inevitable crisis, a sign that intellectual wholeness is no longer attainable and that the classical ideals of wisdom as catholicity of understanding, and of citizenship as the capacity to discuss all public affairs, must be abandoned.
He suggests that although the day of the generalist intellectual has passed there is still room for specialized intellectuals who have mastered specific subject areas and bring to their understandings a critical humanist perspective.

What it means is that being an "intellectual" is no longer the province of the dilettante. Instead intellectuals will have to get to work and actually learn something about economics, or law, or climate science, or whatever so that they can comment with some degree of authority on that subject.

I suspect that few of the self-described "intellectuals" I have encountered are willing to make that effort.

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