Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Public intellectuals and linguistics

I'm surprised that I haven't seen this in the world of lingblogs (or maybe it showed up a while back and I've forgotten it?), but last month Prospect magazine did a survey about the most important public intellectuals. (You can see results here.)

Chomsky is the runaway winner – basically doubling the vote tally for Umberto Eco, in second place. He's not there for the Minimalist Program, I imagine, but the list has some other linguistics (Pinker), cog sci (Dennett) and more general language-y stuff (Eco).

I'm a little puzzled at the graphic they used (shown here). I get a kind of low-key, professorial thing there, but what's with the facial expression?


pc said...

I remember hearing about this. I think it's a little bizarre what constitutes a "public intellectual" - I'm not really sure what this is supposed to mean nowadays. Is it just academics who are willing to talk to the press? Academics who publish popular books? What about academics who blog? Does the subject they go public about have to be *politically* hot somehow, to count (looking at the Prospect list, you might think that)?

And I'm not sure what to make of this statement, from David Herman's analysis: "I said last month in my commentary on the original Prospect/Foreign Policy list of 100 names that it seemed to represent the death of that grand tradition of oppositional intellectuals. The overwhelming victory for Noam Chomsky suggests that we still yearn for such figures—we just don’t seem to be able to find any under the age of 70."

Doesn't it somehow take age to make people believable, or respectable, or achieved enough to be listened to? How old was Chomsky when people really started listening to him about politics (forget about linguistics)? It seems like the giants at the top *ought* to be the older folks, who have had more time to be more public. I'm honestly asking about this - I'm not sure what role "public intellectuals" play in the US in particular, or what constitutes one, or who's a likely candidate. Thoughts, Verb???

Mr. Verb said...

Thoughts? You've come to the wrong person, I fear!

Chomsky was very prominent during the anti-war movement, from all I know, and that's an era when a lot of public debate was driven by relatively young people.

What's kept me pondering rather than responding until now, though, is your first question: What IS a public intellectual? And that's where I just don't have any thoughts. I know there was a fair bit of talk some years (maybe decades!) back about the 'death of the public intellectual', basically from conservative circles, I think.

In some sense, 'intellectual' is going to typically mean 'academic' and 'public' has to mean some kind of popular presence. Consider a non-US example: Sartre was surely a major public intellectual in France, right? His literary work doesn't strike me as popular in the usual sense (and god knows, L'Être et le Néant is not a popular work!)

The list from Prospect is kind of odd to me where it deviates from academics and writers ... Wolfowitz? The Pope?

So, PC, I don't quite know what to make of this.