cover image PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS: A Study of Decline


Richard A. Posner, . . Harvard Univ., $29.95 (408pp) ISBN 978-0-674-00633-1

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. (Jan. 14)