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Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline 0th Edition

2.9 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674006331
ISBN-10: 067400633X
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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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 21, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067400633X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674006331
  • Product Dimensions: 9.7 x 6.2 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,906,916 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 21, 2002
Format: Hardcover
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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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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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