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Thursday, January 10th, 2002


Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline

by Richard A Posner

The Fame Game

A review by Alan Wolfe

Any method for ranking the top one hundred public intellectuals in America cannot be all bad if it includes my name among them. Opening Richard A. Posner's book to the chart that most of his readers will immediately consult, I find myself barely making it at number ninety-eight, one step ahead of Lani Guinier (and one step behind William Butler Yeats). But alas, any sense of accomplishment that I might feel is immediately undercut by two of the decisions that Posner made in conducting his study of public intellectuals. One is methodological. The other is substantive.

The criterion for inclusion on Posner's list is media recognition. He relied on the Lexis/Nexis database to count the number of times between 1995 and 2000 that the names of intellectuals appeared in major newspapers, stories, and transcripts. But to obtain his list of one hundred, he first had to assemble an ever larger list from which to choose; and to get that list (which includes five hundred forty-six names), although he consulted an earlier work on the subject and refers to Web hits and media mentions as proxies, he essentially made it up. As Posner correctly states, there is no census of public intellectuals that defines the whole group from which one can sample. What he should have said explicitly is that, because no such census exists, any list that is generated will be highly subjective.

To downplay the problem of subjectivity, Posner informs the reader that individual names will be included or excluded based on the categories to which they belong. Hence John Rawls is not on his list because, although his work is widely discussed outside the academy — indeed, he receives more media mentions than Thomas Nagel, Martha C. Nussbaum, or Richard Rorty—he is primarily a scholar. But so, without question, are Nagel and the others; the only difference between them and Rawls is that, in addition to their considerable scholarship, they sometimes write an op-ed piece or a book review. Categories, in other words, can be as subjective as the items that they contain. To exclude Rawls but not the others is to judge public intellectuals by their motives in presenting their work, not by their work itself; but surely it makes more sense to call a public intellectual one whose views have seriously influenced the public, which Rawls has done to an admirable degree.

And so it goes with all of Posner's seemingly firm categories. He excludes politicians who write books, such as Richard Nixon, but he includes policy-makers who write books, such as Nixon's secretary of state. (Kissinger ranks first in media mentions.) Journalists such as Maureen Dowd are left out, although her colleague Paul Krugman, because he is also an academic economist, is kept in; but Nicholas Lemann, Nat Hentoff, John B. Judis, E.J. Dionne, Thomas L. Friedman, Janet Malcolm, and Lewis H. Lapham are all journalists who do not hold academic appointments, and Posner includes them as well. Foreigners are included because their work appears in America (which means that most of them are primarily British, Australian, or Canadian), but while such Continental thinkers as Pierre Bourdieu and Jurgen Habermas are on the list, Adam Michnik, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Tzvetan Todorov are not. It is OK to be dead and still be included, as the presence of Yeats suggests, but you can also qualify if you were born in the past forty or so years, as were — I am presuming — David Brooks and Ann Coulter. Posner says that he did not want to include novelists such as Hemingway, but why then does his list mention Toni Morrison and Aldous Huxley, let alone poets such as Allen Ginsberg or Adrienne Rich?

"I acknowledge the arbitrariness of many of my decisions on whom to classify as a public intellectual," Posner writes. But his decisions are not merely arbitrary; they are nonsensical. Five hundred forty-six is a large number of people — so large that Posner's first cut at the problem reaches down fairly far into the fame game. In this, at least his decision was sound, for if a smaller list is to be drawn from a larger one, then the larger one should be as inclusive as possible, erring on the side of generosity rather than strictness. Surely that explains why Posner includes among his five hundred forty-six such not especially well-known figures as Jonathan Turley, Stephen B. Presser, Nancy Sherman, Henry Manne, and Carol Iannone.

At the same time, Posner's large list manages to pass over a number of thinkers whose work literally free-associates with the term "public intellectual," including Fouad Ajami, Paul Berman, Robert Brustein, Ian Buruma, Frederick Crews, Robert Dallek, Andrew Delbanco, John Patrick Diggins, Michael Eric Dyson, Gerald Early, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Jerome Groopman, Hendrik Hertzberg, Robert Hughes, Michael Ignatieff, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Tony Judt, Wendy Kaminer, Robert Kuttner, Jonathan Lear, Jackson Lears, Sherwin B. Nuland, Kevin Phillips, Marge Piercy, Robert Pinsky, Katha Pollitt, David Remnick, David Rieff, Philip Rieff, Edward Rothstein, Alan Ryan, Juliet Schor, Simon Schama, Jim Sleeper, Peter Steinfels, Margaret Talbot, Sam Tanenhaus, Terry Teachout, Deborah Tannen, James Traub, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, C.K. Williams, Ellen Willis, James Wood, and Fareed Zakaria. Posner knows that he has a problem here; he informs the reader that he later expanded his list from five hundred forty-six to six hundred seven "by adding names that occurred to or were suggested to me" after he assembled the tables he presents in this book — a clear indication, if any were needed, of how inapplicable his statistical methods are to a subject as slippery as this one.

Posner himself is often mystified by the results his methodology produced. He points out that among those in the five hundred forty-six who did not make the top one hundred are Daniel Bell, Allan Bloom, Wayne Booth, Ronald Dworkin, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Robert Putnam, and David Riesman, as well as Nussbaum and Rorty. (Considering how influential many of these thinkers have been to me, you can see how my own sense of accomplishment begins to fade.) But rather than put the blame squarely on his methodology, he attributes this odd outcome to "the undiscriminating, short-memory-span character" of the market for public intellectuals — an odd interpretation considering that George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Timothy Leary, and C.S. Lewis not only make his short list of public intellectuals but appear among the top thirty-one. The more appropriate reason Posner's results are so often counter-intuitive is because he simply forgot some people, while including others because their field or their political views were close to his own—and because some public intellectuals influence the culture due more to the quality of their work, which is admittedly harder to measure, than to the quantity, which measures all too easily.

Since no list can ever be as good as the larger list from which it is derived, not much ought to be made of Posner's findings. Posner himself says that his list should be "used with the greatest caution," but then he adds that caution should be exercised in making generalizations about the distribution of intellectuals across fields or races. When it comes to the more important question of making generalizations about intellectuals as a whole compared to other groups as a whole, Posner in fact generalizes with wild abandon, rarely stopping to consider the extent to which the basis for his generalizations lacks solidity.

And it is the generalizations made by Posner — the substantive conclusions he wants to reach — that constitute the other reason why I am not very happy to find myself among his top one hundred. For Posner is determined to show that being a public intellectual is no big deal, especially when compared with academic recognition. Each of the five hundred forty-six intellectuals on his list is checked for media citations, Web citations, and scholarly citations. Since public intellectuals who are also academics — there are fifty of them among the top one hundred — have high visibility and usually write well, their work ought to be cited by other scholars. But Posner informs us, after running the appropriate statistical tests, that there is no positive correlation between public visibility and scholarly reputation. And even when some public intellectuals, such as Stephen Jay Gould, are cited by other scholars, they are often cited outside their academic fields. Although the negative correlation between public recognition and academic recognition that he found was not statistically significant, Posner nonetheless concludes that public intellectual work makes little contribution to, and may even detract from, serious academic work.

The "decline" in Posner's subtitle therefore refers to a decline in quality. Posner reaches for as unflattering words as he can find to describe what public intellectuals do: "A proclivity for taking extreme positions, a taste for universals and abstraction, a desire for moral purity, a lack of worldliness, and intellectual arrogance work together to induce in many academic public intellectuals selective empathy, a selective sense of justice, an insensitivity to context, a lack of perspective, a denigration of predecessors as lacking moral insight, an impatience with prudence and sobriety, a lack of realism, and excessive self-confidence." This has all been said before, of course. There exists a long history of diatribes against intellectuals, best represented by Julien Benda's The Treason of the Intellectuals, published in 1928. But never before has it been said with correlation coefficients.

There is a problem that requires some explanation here. One individual not on Posner's list is the former Nixon administration official Martin Anderson. True to his libertarian sympathies, Anderson in 1992 published a book called Imposters in the Temple, which blamed the inferior quality of academic work on the fact that, protected by tenure and adept at the guild system by which they decide who should join their ranks, professors are immune to the force of the market and, facing no razor of competition, have no incentive to sharpen their ideas. Posner, widely known as a legal scholar who has urged judges to rely more on economic reason to make legal decisions, should be firmly in Anderson's camp. But he is not; and this suggests that Posner is caught between the two objects of his love: the market and the academy. Faced with having to make a choice between them, he opts for the academy, thereby joining a long list of writers who find that they simply cannot abide the results that markets produce.

Posner makes much of the fact that public intellectuals exist in the world of markets, exchanging their ideas for money or (more often) fame. At the same time Posner also finds that the market for public intellectuals is a distorted one: it "operates without any rules or norms, legal or customary...and, unlike some other information markets, with little in the way of gatekeeping consumer intermediaries," sounding to all the world as if he were defending such gatekeepers as those nefarious consumer-products litigators routinely denounced by conservatives. Moreover, the publications that feature the writings of public intellectuals "do little screening for quality," Posner writes, thereby presupposing, against all economic reasoning, that markets are devices to make goods well rather than to make them cheap. Posner manages to chastise commercial publishers for emphasizing the "marketability" of their books, assuming, rather in the spirit of Jonathan Franzen's recent anxieties about the "brow" of his own writing, that popularity is an indication of intellectual and artistic corruption. He even looks with dismay on the fact that university presses are increasingly interested in publishing books that people might actually read. This determined advocate for law and economics has as much snobbish disdain for the commercial aspects of New Grub Street as anyone among the most left-leaning subscribers to public television.

Actually, Posner goes even further than the Upper West Side crowd in his hostility to laissez-faire. The public-intellectual market, in his view, performs "badly" compared with other markets. What the market for public intellectuals lacks, Posner tells us, is "credence goods." For a market to work properly, people need some reassurance that the goods they buy will be of quality. Posner doubts whether the publicintellectual market can provide such reassurance, for "there are no enforceable warranties or other legal sanctions for failing to deliver the promised quality, no effective consumer intermediaries, few reputational sanctions, and, for academics at any rate, no sunk costs — they can abandon the public-intellectual market and have a safe landing as full-time academics."

Ever the tinkerer, Posner comes up with a plan to make the market for public intellectuals work better — which is to say, to make it work the way he thinks that a market ought to work. Posner would have universities require faculty to post their writings on the university Web page. Each year the Web page's content would be downloaded and sent to libraries around the country. This way, he thinks, anything a public intellectual writes would be out there, available for public inspection. Posner fudges his proposal considerably, waffling back and forth from requiring it to suggesting that it be adopted voluntarily, which is actually a major issue if one believes, as Posner used to believe, that government regulation is often cumbersome and counter-productive.

But the idea behind Posner's proposal is clear enough. "Academics who abuse the privileges that the modern academic career confers, by writing or speaking irresponsibly in the public arena," he writes, "should be hauled before the bar of academic and public opinion." Along similar lines, Posner would regulate what public intellectuals do in ways that are analogues to the ideas of those advocating campaign finance reform; he would have intellectuals disclose all their income from their marketplace activities "in order to enable the public to monitor their honesty and application and their compliance with the rules against financial conflicts of interest." When it comes to a market like the one in which he himself operates, Richard Posner turns out to be a progressive reformer willing to use the powers of government to get the results that he wants.

The oddest aspect of this diatribe is that the market for public intellectuals actually works fairly well as it is. To ensure themselves outlets and readers, public intellectuals, who are not quite entertainers in the way that Posner sometimes imagines them to be, have little but their credibility to sell. Let public intellectuals destroy their credibility by taking the extreme and insupportable positions of the sort that Posner believes they inevitably take to gain market share, and the result will be — as Noam Chomsky has discovered by now — that they will be shunned by mainstream publications and confined to the margins of the debate. Contrary to everything that Posner says, the market, as Martin Anderson originally argued, improves the quality of public ideas. And it is not the money that acts as an incentive, though money helps. It is rather the notion that readers are not fools; and so if you want to reach a large number of them, you had better know what you are talking about, and be prepared to defend your ideas against letters to the editor and argumentative e-mails.

Need a sociologist remind an economist, moreover, that tinkering with the way markets work can have unanticipated consequences? One of Posner's proposals would encourage a norm designed to prevent magazines from publishing book reviews by individuals criticized in the book under review, or to require such reviewers to identify the potential conflict of interest. There are a number of problems with this recommendation. Posner seems to assume that readers lack the intelligence to find out for themselves whether the reviewer might be biased. He also believes that it is relatively easy to determine what criticism is. (Posner makes a number of references to me in his book, some of them supportive, some of them critical, so I am not sure whether, under his proposal, I would be required to disclose what I just disclosed.) But the most serious objection to his proposal is that, if followed scrupulously, it would quash the exchange of ideas, leading writers to avoid criticizing anyone who might be a potential reviewer and leading reviewers to avoid books that they have a natural interest in discussing. It is hard to imagine any reform that would take a relatively well-functioning market and subject it to the predictable dead hand of the planner more completely than the one that Posner suggests.

Richard posner's disdain for the market in ideas makes sense only against his love of academic standards. Like Marjorie Garber, whose work Posner never cites, and who is also left off his list of five hundred forty-six, Posner contrasts the professionalization of the academy with the amateurism of the public intellectual — and much prefers the former. One reason public intellectuals are in decline is that academic specialization is in the ascendancy. As he puts it, "Philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and history are all fields that, like literary criticism, or for that matter, astronomy, were once far less technical and specialized, thus far more open to intelligent contributions from amateurs, than they have become." For this reason, we can no longer have many figures such as George Orwell because each of the many areas in which he worked — literary criticism, ethnography, political science — is now dominated by experts. Public intellectuals, Posner writes, trade scope in return for power; academics, by implication, renounce power in order to gain depth.

Although he distances himself somewhat from arguments in favor of pure specialization, Posner frequently contrasts scholars with intellectuals in ways that are invidious to the latter. "High up on the norm hierarchy of the scientific community," he writes, "are accuracy, open-mindedness, disinterest, and logicality," all of which leading public intellectuals "flout." Public intellectuals could be found on all sides of the Florida electoral debacle of 2000, but Posner singles out those who were shocked by what they witnessed, only to condemn their "emotionality," which stood "in particularly striking contrast to the official image of the academic."

Scholars, who pride themselves on their mastery of method, tend to look down on public intellectuals as people who just cannot make it in the more rarefied world of academic scholarship, and Posner sympathizes with them. "Other things being equal," he writes, "we would expect the ablest scholars to be the least drawn to the career of a public intellectual." Posner goes on to say that other things are not equal, but he circles back again to his main point. Some famous scholars do become public intellectuals, but generally at the end of their careers, when they no longer have the capacity for sustained work.

The purpose of these frequent contrasts is to underscore what Posner thinks his correlation coefficients reveal: the quality of the academic market is superior to the quality of the market for public intellectuals. But what kind of market is the academic market? To make an effective comparison between the market for scholars and the market for public intellectuals, Posner ought to say something about the supply and demand of the former; but he never subjects the academy to the scrutiny that he imposes upon public intellectuals. Of course the academy is not, strictly speaking, his subject in this book; he is writing about public intellectuals. But it is Posner who introduces the comparison in the first place, so it would not have been that difficult for him to draw up a list of scholars who disdain writing for the general public — people, in short, like John Rawls — and find some method for comparing the quality of their work with the quality of those who believe that academics — who are paid, one way or another, by the public — have an obligation to give the public something in return.

Were these two markets directly compared, I have no idea which one would come out looking better. But it is still preferable to make the comparison than simply to assume, as Posner does, that one must have higher standards than the other. Grounds for thinking that the hypothesis ought to be tested are furnished by the many examples of hiring decisions made by universities that suggest the possibility of market failure. In Making Harvard Modern, Morton and Phyllis Keller recount how members of the department of history at that university, persuaded that no one out there was quite as good as themselves, passed over C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter for appointments and settled instead on Frank Friedel. And members of Harvard's department of political science horse-traded appointments, blending conservatives and liberals, or devotees of one approach and followers of another approach, in order to achieve consensus.

A similar pattern continues until the present day. Harvard recently hired Homi K. Bhabha away from Posner's beloved University of Chicago. (Bhabha is on Posner's larger list, though not on his smaller one.) Whatever one thinks of Bhabha's scholarship — his prose is the very model of academic jargon so frequently ridiculed by public intellectuals — it is difficult to believe that Harvard simply wanted to hire the best possible person that it could find to raise the quality of its English department. Whenever elite universities make hiring or tenure decisions, quality is the public criterion — but faddishness, contacts, race, ethnicity, ideology, and envy are the unspoken but nonetheless decisive criteria.

There is no reason to conclude, without examining any evidence, that the standards by which strictly scholarly work is judged are higher than those by which the work of public intellectuals is judged. Commercial publishers decide whether to accept a manuscript based on a guess about how many consumers might buy it. Academic presses, at least in theory, accept a manuscript because it has been given positive reviews by at least two scholars in the author's field. Can we really be sure that the latter procedure produces better quality? In many fields, the number of specialists is so small that reviewers have been known to praise a manuscript because they like the author, or want to curry favor, or expect a similarly positive review in return. (This is not the case with Posner's book, which was published by a university press: someone I know was one of the anonymous reviewers, and he is not only a scholar of considerable impartiality and discerning judgment, he is also an exemplary public intellectual, although he can be found on none of Posner's lists.) As with university presses, so with many journals, where, if anything, the range of available experts is even smaller. To be sure, prospects for commercial success may not produce better results, but it is also the case that books published by trade houses, like articles published in magazines of opinion, get much better editing and much tougher reviews than many an academic production.

Since the market for scholarship has its own flaws, Posner's comparisons between it and the market for public intellectuals quickly begin to crumble. Posner rightly points out, often with considerable relish, that there are academics with tenure who have all but given up scholarship for the sake of public recognition. But he does not emphasize that there are a surprising number of non-academic public intellectuals who make contributions to academic scholarship, including Ian Buruma, Garry Wills, and Jack Miles. When all is said and done, Posner's book is more about celebrity than about accomplishment, and the interesting question of whether there is any relationship between them is not a question that he ever considers.

Posner is both an academic (he is a federal judge who retains an affiliation at the University of Chicago) and a public intellectual. (He ranks himself seventieth among the one hundred leading public intellectuals, between John Kenneth Galbraith and Ralph Ellison, but, unlike many other public intellectuals on his list, he also ranks high on the list of scholarly citations, although that may be because law professors cite each other so copiously.) So how should his own work about public intellectuals be judged?

By his own criteria — accuracy, open-mindedness, those kinds of attributes — Posner is not a very scholarly social scientist. One of the first rules of the scientific temperament involves an alertness to one's own possible fallibility, hardly a characteristic of Posner's approach. Quite the contrary. He rushes into print with problematic data, and he brooks no doubt about the proper conclusion to be drawn from his data. And so on the crucial point of whether the market for public intellectuals "is performing badly compared to other markets in symbolic goods, particularly the academic market," he tells his readers that "the theory and the statistics buttress the anecdotes; the trio of proofs is convincing." No serious social scientist would be so quick to reach such a judgment — and to announce it with so few qualifications, as if, because the evidence cannot speak for itself, the person who presents the evidence must speak on its behalf. Scientific modesty compels the conclusion that the anecdotes are scattered, the theory impoverished, and the data absurd.

Since Posner writes more like a public intellectual than like a scholar, does his own contribution to the genre support or contradict his assertions about the decline in quality of this way of dealing with ideas? The answer that immediately springs to mind is that Posner confirms his own thesis. It is not just the slapdash quality of his methodology or the breathtaking scope of his unproven generalizations that offend notions of quality. Rather than sustaining an argument from beginning to end, his book is sloppily put together, cutting and pasting from essays written for other occasions whether or not they are directly relevant to the topic at hand. The editing is often terrible, allowing the same thoughts to be repeated from one page to the next.

Posner has a voracious intellectual curiosity and a discipline for work rivaled by almost nobody in the United States. He is clearly capable of writing books that would meet anyone's standards for thoroughness. Instead he hastens his books into print as quickly as he hastens his data to conclusions, and their quality inevitably suffers. If this book is representative of what public intellectuals do, I can well understand his reservations about them. Still, I am reluctant to conclude that Posner is so anxious to prove his point about the low quality of public-intellectual work that he wrote a book designed to confirm it.

I have no way of knowing what his motivations are for writing, but I would seriously doubt that he presents his ideas for either money or fame. I would prefer to believe that Posner writes books because he is consumed with ideas and wants to persuade others of their validity. Whether he is good or bad in his efforts has nothing to do with the market in which he operates. It has everything to do with the quality of his mind and the care with which he presents his arguments. If the latter were up to the standards of the former, Posner's book would have made a valuable contribution to American letters. Instead he leaves his readers frustrated as much by his unexamined convictions as by his data-cloaked glibness.

Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor at TNR.

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