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Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline [Hardcover]

The Honorable Richard A. Posner
2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 21, 2002 067400633X 978-0674006331 0

In this timely book, the first comprehensive study of the modern American public intellectual--that individual who speaks to the public on issues of political or ideological moment--Richard Posner charts the decline of a venerable institution that included worthies from Socrates to John Dewey.

With the rapid growth of the media in recent years, highly visible forums for discussion have multiplied, while greater academic specialization has yielded a growing number of narrowly trained scholars. Posner tracks these two trends to their inevitable intersection: a proliferation of modern academics commenting on topics outside their ken. The resulting scene--one of off-the-cuff pronouncements, erroneous predictions, and ignorant policy proposals--compares poorly with the performance of earlier public intellectuals, largely nonacademics whose erudition and breadth of knowledge were well suited to public discourse.

Leveling a balanced attack on liberal and conservative pundits alike, Posner describes the styles and genres, constraints and incentives, of the activity of public intellectuals. He identifies a market for this activity--one with recognizable patterns and conventions but an absence of quality controls. And he offers modest proposals for improving the performance of this market--and the quality of public discussion in America today.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Any free society thrives on public discussion, much of which is instigated by public intellectuals journalists, academics and writers who convey their ideas through a complex array of media. In this extensive, if idiosyncratic, study Posner charges that the quality of American public intellectuals' thinking and writing has steadily declined over the past seven decades. Posner admits that his subject is huge and "formless." But even after he painstakingly creates his own definitions that "demarcate a coherent albeit broad body of expressive activity," this topic still feels unwieldy. Noting that "not all intellectuals are professors... but most are," Posner casts his net wide discussing writers as disparate as Milton Friedman, Martha Nussbaum, Lani Guinier, Noam Chomsky, Gertrude Himmlefarb and Stephen Jay Gould, as well as nonacademics such as Andrea Dworkin and George Orwell. Posner, formerly a tenured academic and now a U.S. Appeals Court judge, uses a wide variety of criteria (hits on Web pages, mentions in print media and books sold) for judging the appeal and effectiveness of public intellectuals, and covers such a wide range of topics and types of intellectuals (from the "politically inflected literary criticism" of Stanley Fish and Michael Warner to the "Jeremiah school" of Christopher Lasch and Robert Bork) that his attempts at synthesis often fall short of satisfactory cohesion. While he makes many good points in charging that much public intellectual and academic writing is flawed by sloppy thinking, overt political advocacy and conflicts of interest, his conclusions and remedies which include a public Web posting of "public intellectual activities" feel impractical and, as he admits, politically dangerous. While offering the provocative beginning of a public discussion, Posner falls far short of his intellectual goals.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

A U.S. Court of Appeals judge and senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, Posner (An Affair of State) defines a public intellectual of which he himself is a distinguished example as one who plays the role of critical commentator for nonspecialist audiences on matters of broad public concern. After extensive theoretical and statistical analysis, he concludes that few modern public intellectuals have the requisite temperament, perspective, character, and knowledge to sustain the high level of performance demonstrated by pundits of earlier years. Furthermore, today's public intellectuals are often not prudent or even sensible in their commentaries and predictions many of which are wrong. He shows how the combination of more media outlets and more narrowly focused academics has led to a greater proliferation of inaccurate public discourse. Yet Posner's proposal for improvement a fuller disclosure of the activities and earnings of public intellectuals that would make them more accountable is not very convincing. An optional purchase for academic libraries. Harry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter Coll., New York
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 21, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067400633X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674006331
  • Product Dimensions: 1.3 x 6.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,165,506 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard A. Posner is a judge of the U.S. Court Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. He is the author of numerous books, including Overcoming Law, a New York Times Book Review editors' choices for best book of 1995 and An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton, one of Times' choices for Best Book of the Year in 1999 and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist, 2000.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Maverick or Monarch? January 21, 2002
Many years ago, Voltaire said something to the effect that we should cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it. I was reminded of that caveat as I worked my way through this book. Posner defines a public intellectual as one of those "who opine to an educated public on questions of or inflected by a political or ideological concern" and asserts that many (most?) contemporary thinkers thus defined become academics and then, over time, specialists in their respective fields. As a result, public issues of various kinds are denied the circumspection they require from those once capable of providing it. In Part Two, Posner claims to substantiate claims made in Part One "and goes beyond definition to an explanation of the varied genres of public-intellectual expression, and deals in depth with some of the most interesting and ambitious, and not merely the typical, public intellectuals active in the United States today." He identifies the usual suspects: Robert Bork, Noam Chomsky, Paul Ehrlich, Stanley Fish, Milton Friedman, Stephen Jay Gould, Lani Guinier, Gertrude Himmlefaub, Christopher Lasch, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, and Michael Warner. He evaluates each, damning with faint praise, praising with faint damnation, or simply dismissing entirely as unworthy of serious consideration. In many instances, Posner suggests, these and other "public intellectual" wannabes embraced what Posner calls "false beliefs" (e.g. "collectivist public policies") and thereby rejected or simply ignored the practical implications and consequences of such convictions. (It is important to keep in mind that Posner sees himself as a "pragmatist.") Other reviewers have taken issue with Posner's evaluations of various individuals. Read more ›
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good thesis. Tedious exposition. January 16, 2002
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is not what you think. It's not so much a U.S.News-style ranking of public intellectuals, per se. It's even less another of a never-ending stream of "dumbing-down" theses intended to convince us that things were so much better during the Roman Empire. No, it's not that. It IS an indictment of academic specialization.
More specifically, Posner uses a greatly oversimplified microeconomic model to show how the "market" for intellectual products forces would-be public intellectuals into the academy. Within the academy they are encouraged to specialize. Here's the kicker: Academic specialization undermines the intellectuals' ability and motivation to make meaningful statements about broader public matters. The results are a largely academic intellectual debate dominated by esoteric, jargon-ridden theses which fail to engage the general public and are frequently dubious in merit.
Worth a read if you're interested in such matters but, beware, the presentation itself is tedious and repetitive. The best bit is the chapter debunking modern, "jeremiad," decline literature. The polemical material of Bloom, Rorty, and Berman doesn't hold much credibility with Posner.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought Provoking March 1, 2002
Mr. Posner raises the question: Why are we suffering from a lack of intellectual excellence? It's not hard to agree with his premise, ask any thinking person today to name a great mind in the public domain, and most people will be left scratching their heads. For centuries Western Civilization has produced talented people who have added to our intellectual tradition, ranging from Socrates (arguably the first "Public Intellectual") right through to George Orwell. But today, we seem to be at the mercy of a group of mental midgets and charlatans, people whose thoughts are geared more toward selling books and stirring up controversy than actually improving our intellectual landscape.
As proof of this, Posner quotes from intellectuals of both the political left and right. For example, in the Clinton impeachment, he points out that both sides put forth dire predictions which turned out to be wrong. Republicans predicted that failure to remove Clinton from office would result in moral chaos, while Democrats predicted the impeachment would bring on an era of sexual McCarthyism. As it turned out, the impeachment saga played itself out without any dramatic effects on American society.
More to the point, Posner rips into the rants of intellectuals from both sides of the political fence. He devotes the better part of an entire chapter deconstructing Robert Bork's "Slouching toward Gomorrah", but also spends plenty of time destroying the arguments of Dr. Paul Ehrlich and Noam Chomsky. He effectively argues that intellectuals who make dire predictions should be held accountable when their predictions fail to pan out.
In sum, this is not an easy read, but a very worthwhile one.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scrutiny of Media-Centered Public Deliberation May 28, 2002
This is a marvelous meta-book. Posner studies in detail the personalities and the arguments that receive prominence in public debate. The result is the solid documentation of a paradox: The public intellectuals that dominate the media are not particularly good. In a deliberative democracy, this should be of profound concern. Posner's thesis, in addition to being painstakingly proven, is not only disturbing, but also undermines our confidence in the quality of public discourse and, consequently, in the quality of this society's democratic decision-making. Like every one of Posner's books, this too is profound, thought-provoking, and unsettling.
One cannot resist thinking about the thesis further. In a way, the idea of inadequacy of public debate is trite. Distinguishing a high-quality deliberative democracy from a debasing kowtowing to crowd impulses and manipulation is difficult. The difficulty has been recognized since Socrates and Pericles; the history of Classical Greece seems a perfect case study of the issues involved. Is Posner losing confidence in democracy? Is this book a justification for undemocratic features of our governmental structure? One cannot help but be reminded of the unelected federal judiciary-of which Posner is a leading member-and the extraordinary secrecy in which the judiciary operates. If public deliberation is defective, a secretive undemocratic deliberative body like the federal judiciary is a highly desirable component in an otherwise very public and democratic structure of government. A constitutional structure that denudes this high-capacity body from material power-from budgeting and military authority-prevents its dominance and preserves democratic balance. Thus, disquieting as this book may be, my confidence the judiciary makes me find it agreeable.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars A Critique of the Public Intellectual in Contemporary American Life
I've always been interested in the idea of the intellectual, and especially our ideas about whether or not the intellectual has special work to do in the public sphere. Read more
Published 14 months ago by A Certain Bibliophile
5.0 out of 5 stars An impressive intellect at work
I don't understand the negative reviews; I thought this was a terrific book. Posner skews intellectuals on both the left and right who make wrong predictions, foolish statements,... Read more
Published on September 19, 2010 by J. Davis
1.0 out of 5 stars The book was never received
The book hasn't been delivered since the order was placed in early March. An inquiry was emailed but so far no satisfactory response.
Published on April 5, 2010 by Stanley Chetkowski
3.0 out of 5 stars It's Not the Economy, Stupid
Richard Posner is the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He gained notoriety - aside from writing 30 plus books - as the court-appointed... Read more
Published on September 27, 2005 by Izaak VanGaalen
1.0 out of 5 stars A definite study in decline
I found this book sophomorically disorganized, rambling and the author's obvious lack of concern for the reader presumptuous if not insulting. Read more
Published on January 21, 2005 by J. Morgan
1.0 out of 5 stars A decent book. Not Posner's best.
In Public Intellectuals, Judge Richard Posner sets out to understand why academics, philosophers, and commentators in the American media have so little influence over public... Read more
Published on November 19, 2002 by James Daniels
2.0 out of 5 stars like public intellectuals, my attention span also declined
The prolific and erudite Judge Posner turns out books at such an astoundingly rapid rate that you'd swear the man has two brains. Read more
Published on October 14, 2002 by PARTHO ROY
1.0 out of 5 stars Biased / Intellectually Dishonest / Morally Bankrupt
Judge Posner of the 7th Circuit is a noted "conservative's conservative" and one of the leading exponents of the law & economics theory that says only the immediate... Read more
Published on April 29, 2002 by Former Rater
1.0 out of 5 stars Deep nonsense
UPDATE 12-28-2004

The Judge may be gratified by this year's and last's great Public Intellectual Die-In, which winnowed Susan Sontag today, Jacques Derrida last October,... Read more
Published on April 23, 2002 by Edward G. Nilges
1.0 out of 5 stars Save your money...
...if you're truly interested in the subject of public intellectualism. This is the man who, in "Breaking the Deadlock," excused the conduct of the Bush king-makers in... Read more
Published on April 15, 2002 by Ronald Barth
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