Public intellectuals

We may be familiar with what academics and professors do.  They lecture, they do research, they advise students on their theses, and, hopefully, they also publish.  Some — not all — are scholars in the sense that they commit their entire lives rigorously working and writing on the same problems and questions.

But, the term “intellectual” is more elusive in its meaning. It suggests a thinker whose influence extends beyond academe or a particular field of specialization. He may often not be a professor or a university-based scholar. In the 19th century, such a person might be called an “ilustrado” – someone shaped in the mold of European enlightenment liberalism, who thinks differently, like Rizal.

Whatever it might mean, the word “intellectual” has been a favored label throughout the 20th century, acquiring in the course of its usage many affirmative connotations. Paired with the term “public” to form the trendy appellation “public intellectual,” it becomes a contentious label. I have yet to meet anyone who bears the title “public intellectual” on his calling card, or identifies himself as such.

Yet in the last decade or so, despite its ambiguity, the term has been used extensively and in a very positive light.  In cooperation with the Nippon Foundation, for instance, the Ateneo de Manila University runs the “Asian Public Intellectuals Fellowship Program” that awards research and writing fellowships to qualified individuals who wish to do comparative research and travel in Japan andSoutheast Asia.  A quick look at the profiles of past recipients, however, is not helpful in arriving at a more concrete understanding of the term.  What one sees is a wide range of qualities that one typically encounters in any program that offers professional sabbatical fellowships.

In one of its preferred usages, the term “public intellectual” suggests a predisposition to stand up to power, to employ ideas as weapons against tyranny, and to use the arena of public discourse to wage war against obsolete ideas and various types of dogmatism. But, perhaps more than this, the image the term conjures is that of influential thinkers who not only resist power but disavow it.  They are very political in the sense that they use ideas to challenge power, but they are not politicians because they are not themselves pursuing political power.

In contrast to the private scholar, public intellectuals are not only read or studied, they are also seen, read, and heard in the modern mass media.  As protagonists of the public sphere, they are sought for their views on a broad range of issues.

But, acquiring a public image poses the most daunting problem for intellectuals.  By the public nature of their interventions, they gain, in time, not just a loyal set of readers and listeners, but a constituency that expects them not only to write or criticize, but to lead.  Michel Foucault, one of the great French intellectuals of his time was deeply aware of the dangers of the public adulation of intellectuals.

In an interview he gave to “Le Monde,” he made the unusual request that only his views be recorded, that his name be not mentioned. “In our societies,” he said, “characters dominate our perceptions…. Why did I suggest that we use anonymity? Out of nostalgia for a time when, being quite unknown, what I said had some chance of being heard….A name makes reading too easy.”

Once intellectuals go public, it doesn’t take long before they become “celebrities.”  People begin to assign value to what they say not because of the wisdom it expresses, but because of who said it. The exercise in anonymity, Foucault said, is “a way of addressing the potential reader, the only individual here who is of interest to me, more directly: ‘Since you don’t know who I am, you will be more inclined to find out why I say what you read; just allow yourself to say, quite simply, it’s true, it’s false. I like it or I don’t like it. Period’.”

Intellectuals who are seduced into becoming media pop stars or politicians run the risk of compromising the critical role they play in society – which is to sharpen the public’s sense of reality in the face of the confusing plethora of information made available in media.  This role can only proceed from a habit of thinking differently and boldly. The moment intellectuals actively seek popularity, power, or profit, they become sensitive to ratings and begin to behave no differently from other media celebrities that trade in images.

Energized by public adulation, they are often moved to broadcast or write everything that comes to their minds, no matter in what state it is, “leaving no thought unpublished” — to borrow Christopher Hitchens’ memorable phrase.  In quest of constant affirmation, they become mouthpieces for all kinds of advocacies and movements. Before they realize it, they give up the hard work of reflection, preferring to dwell in one comforting delusion after another.

But, let me not overstate these dangers, lest we think the genuine intellectual is one who has to retreat into the rarefied air of academe, or seek shelter in the aristocracy of incommunicable thoughts, to produce worthwhile ideas. That would be farthest from the public intellectual’s vocation in society.  The intellectual must engage her society and her time.  She must speak to the public, make herself understood.  She must learn to make use of all available media, never fearing that the discussion of lofty ideas in the popular media cheapens them. What is important is the impact they create on the self-understanding of society.