Laying down the Challenge: Public Intellectuals and our Time

By Niamh Cullen

In a recent invited lecture at UCD, the distinguished German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas was asked how he would define the role of public intellectuals. The difference between an expert – academic, scientist, policy adviser and so on – and an intellectual, he replied, was that an expert gave counsel only when asked , while an intellectual will speak out wherever there is a need, and not only when invited to do so. The bearer of uncomfortable truths, the intellectual often looks beyond the narrow confines of his or her discipline, making connections, drawing observations and providing insights into some of the wider issues that affect contemporary life; governance, society, memory, community.

Although the tradition of society’s best thinkers offering their counsel to the king or the people is an age old one, the late nineteenth century French novelist Emile Zola is often credited as being the first modern day public intellectual. Zola famously wrote an open letter entitled ‘J’accuse’ to the newspaper L’Aurore, denouncing the injustice of wrongly convicting Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason because of anti-Semitism in the establishment. Printed on the front page of the newspaper, Zola’s letter caused huge controversy at the time and he had to flee France to avoid imprisonment for libel. However, his bold statement of accusation opened the case up to a wider debate at home and abroad, and eventually Dreyfus’ conviction was overturned; Zola’s outspoken intervention through print confirmed his commitment not just to literature but to wider society.

However, the ‘golden age’ for intellectuals came only in the aftermath of war and widespread destruction. It was from the rubble of World War II that the now familiar names of Sartre, De Beauvoir and Camus in France, Bobbio in Italy and Habermas in Germany – to name just a few – emerged. These men and women had all grown up under the shadow of dictatorship – either at home or close by – and had often fought as antifascists during the war. Having experienced the loss of liberty, they were all concerned with intellectual freedom, but while some were fiercely protective of democracy, others were attracted to the ideology of Marxism. What characterised their collective vision most of all was a certainty in the uncertainty of the post war world.

However, amidst the destruction and anxiety about the future, the shape of the emerging post-war world had to be debated and articulated; whether the subject was architecture, politics, literature, art or social policy. Those who had previously been writers or academics catering to specialised audiences, now felt the need to be ‘engaged’ with the wider world, bringing their own ideas to bear on the problems that were faced collectively. French intellectuals termed this feeling ‘engagement’, in Italian ‘impegno’. Optimism, determination and a flurry of action resulted in new newspapers and magazines emerging across Europe – L’Umanite in France; Rinascita (Rebirth) and Il Ponte (The Bridge) in Italy, to name just a few – their titles reinforcing the newly felt social commitment of intellectual climate. Films too, from a moving examination of poverty and hardship in post-war Rome in the Bicycle Thieves to Godard’s Breathless (A Bout de Souffle), reflected this renewed sense of engagement with issues of poverty, social justice, resistance and liberty.

Habermas is one of the last great twentieth century European intellectuals who still survive from this period of intense engagement with the wider public debates and concerns of the time. However, we are now in the throes of a new crisis, and new voices are needed more than ever to help us articulate the new shape our society should take. While the counsel of the experts is undoubtedly necessary, we also need others to stand back from the details of the various issues we face, and begin to piece together a vision of we would like our collective lives to be. Here in Ireland, the Irish Times ‘Renewing the Republic’ feature is one welcome step in this direction. Blogs like the excellent Ireland after Nama are also making a valuable contribution to this debate. Meanwhile, through his work on the history of sexuality and child abuse in Ireland, UCD historian Diarmaid Ferriter shows us that history can have a very real impact on the concerns of the present day.

However, it is only through constant and robust debate about how we would like our society to look – and a vision rooted not in the past but in the present and the future – that we can hammer out the ideas, articulate the vision. Even the ideas don’t seem directly ‘useful’ – and perhaps even especially those – are still necessary; a perspective enriched by insights from art, literature, history and philosophy is one certain to help create a more reflective, interesting and multi-faceted society. In twenty-first century Ireland, we might do worse than to look to our continental counterparts of the twentieth century for inspiration.

What are your thoughts on intellectuals in Ireland? Who are our great public intellectuals and who do they speak to? Are they effectively communicating with the Irish people or working in isolation? Is there a dynamic vision for a new kind of Ireland in their collective utterance or is a new intellectual energy needed?

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2 Responses to Laying down the Challenge: Public Intellectuals and our Time

  1. Pingback: Tony Judt: A passionate historian remembered | The Little Review

  2. Pingback: CACE Book Talk; Discussing and Experimenting with Ideas | CACE

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