The notion of a “public intellectual” dates back to the early formulation of human societies where certain individuals valiantly expressed ideas surrounding a given topic relevant to the larger, public concern. Although they might not have been deemed worthy of such a title at the time, public intellectuals have been able to challenge conventional thought and bring about the possibility for both social and political change. In other words, a public intellectual is not someone who decides to ‘go public’ with his ideas, but rather someone who takes a set of ideas relevant to the masses and makes them public. Still confused? I know I am…
Lets look at the work of Antonio Gramsci, one of Italy’s most profound political theorists, who clearly represents qualities of a public intellectual. An important part of his discussion centers on the idea of counter-hegemony and its importance in maintaining a capitalistic state. Before looking at counter-hegemony, we must first understand hegemony, which revolves around two key ideas: first, dominant ideologies do exist, but they rule by consent, not coercion, and they are often presented as “common sense” and second, that these dominant ideologies are always in tension with other forces and thus are constantly in flux. These two concepts suggest hegemony can be seen as a framework for a group or society to share a set of common ideas, but also provides the basis for counter-hegemonic forces to exist. Counter-hegemony, then, relates to those ideas and views that do not fit in the dominant positions of the larger, mass population. Counter- hegemony, although seen as a threat by some, is essential and important for what they offer, an opportunity for oppositional forces to be heard fostering the possibility for social and political change. Counter-hegemonic ideology may go against the larger and more accepted viewpoints but acts as a necessary form of checks and balances to ensure one dominant group or ideology does not rule authoritatively. Gramsci’s work serves to inform the ‘public’ of a particular knowledge that is relevant to every individual; it informs them on how capitalism functions and how to preserve it in the most democratic way. He clearly is a ‘public intellectual.’
As we continue to move forward in the current ‘information age,’ an air of uncertainty attached to the term perpetuates as a multitude of scholars attempt to define what it means to be a public intellectual in their own unique way. Richard A. Posner, a judge on the United States Court of appeals for the Seventh Circuit, is regarded as one of the most influential legal and political theorists today. He has written nearly forty books and has touched upon the subject of the ‘public intellectual.’ He suggests that a public intellectual is “that individual who speaks to the public on issues of political or ideological moment,” but refuses to recognize those outside of “academics” as true public intellectuals. As William Dean explains in his review of Posner’s work, which seems so to be more of a critique, “Posner’s main claim is that the arts and humanities should be kicked out of public intellectualdom 1.” What about the vital influence of the great philosophers such as Aristotle, Descartes, St. Augustine? What about the political implications of Machiavelli’s The Prince that directly manifests throughout American democratic and republican ideals? And Shakespeare? Should we discount the political and social undertones/messages throughout his works because his knowledge stems from the arts and not this “privileged” world of academia?
What is important to recognize is that public intellectualism should not be exclusively open to only those who have a direct connection to the academic world, but all individuals who have a genuine knowledge on a particular issue that is both relevant and important to the public. The public connoted by the “public intellectual” should not consist of only middle and upper class policy makers, administrators, and professionals, but also the knowledge from all communities, particularly the ideas and thoughts that stem from local communities dispersed throughout the nation. In the United States, we are now faced with an economic recession that has dragged the economy into political and social unrest. We must rely on our citizens, whether their knowledge stems from academia or humanities, to fornicate significant topics of conversation that will aid in propelling our country’s image, economy, and political climate forward. As Stephen Mack notes, “our notions of the public intellectual need to focus less on who or what a public intellectual is- and by extension, the qualifications for getting and keeping the title. Instead, we need to be more concerned with the work public intellectuals must do, irrespective of who happens to be doing it 1.”
By failing to implore this “broad” definition of a public intellectual, we intentionally reserve part of American democracy for guidance by experts, inferring that the average citizen needs direction and management in order to survive. I firmly disagree with this submission, for the power of American democracy lies in the country’s ability to recognize the knowledge, information, and ideas that every American citizen promotes: Democracy!