Thursday, November 13, 2008

Two Questions, Same Answer

Maybe I'm just feeling like a reductive ol' pragmatist lately, but I feel like these two very problems both have the same answer.

  1. Daniel Drezner, "Public Intellectual 2.0": "In the current era, many more public intellectuals possess social-science rather than humanities backgrounds. In Richard Posner's infamous list of top public intellectuals, there are twice as many social scientists as humanities professors. In a recent ranking published by Foreign Policy magazine, economists and political scientists outnumber artists and novelists by a ratio of four to one. Economics has supplanted literary criticism as the universal methodology' of most public intellectuals. That fact in particular might explain the strong belief in literary circles that the public intellectual is dead or dying."
  2. Kevin Kelly, "Anachronistic Science": "I've been wondering why science took so long to appear. Why didn't China, which invented so many other things in the first millennial, just keep on going and invent science by 1000 AD? For that matter why didn't the Greeks invent the scientific method during their heyday? What were they missing?... But they could have been, even back then. Aristotle appears to have lacked no materials which would have prevented him from doing simple experiments and observations. There were many things he could not see without telescope and microscope, but there is still hundreds, thousands, if not millions of things he could have measured with tools he did have. But he did not because he didn't have the mindset."
The answer is: methodology and mindsets are both circumlocutions for a more basic notion -- what problems do you need to solve?

I have lots of ideas about public intellectuals. For one thing, the academy is, if anything, WAY MORE publicly accessible than it has ever been, and more artists, critics, poets, novelists than ever have a home in universities. Folks like Walter Benjamin and Ezra Pound were "public" intellectuals because they couldn't get work anywhere but newspapers and magazines.

But I think the more interesting question to ask, rather than why public intellectuals have faded or shifted or drifted or whatever, is this: what problems would/do we need public intellectuals to solve?

Ditto science. It's a bit like asking why Charles Babbage didn't develop a "computer" like ours, with a typewriter and a screen. The guy made a machine that could print calculation tables. That was the problem he needed to solve.

Maybe this is less of a razor than I think it is. Readers, please help.


Andrew said...

Bit of a tangent, but the working Difference Engine at the Computer History Museum is probably the most beautiful machine I've ever seen.

rachel said...

I like the problem-based approach myself. I think one of the reasons that the notion of intellectuals in the so-called 'third world' is so tied up with national (and nationalist) politics is precisely because the nation *was* the problem to be solved, then, as perhaps it still is now.

For a subtle & wonderful examination of the idea of the intellectual, and a critique of the commonly-held thesis that they (British ones, at any rate) are some how 'disappearing', see Stefan Collini's 'Absent Minds'.

Robin said...

i like this approach too, esp. b/c i feel rather adrift when it comes to defining problems below the scale of, say, GLOBAL POVERTY or RAMPANT EPIDEMICS or whatever.

that's where real expertise comes into play: people who are on the ground (everyone from journalists to researchers to members of a community) and can see the solve-able problems, and (crucially) articulate them.

you can't solve GLOBAL POVERTY. but there are many sub-problems, and sub-sub-problems, that you can start to meaningfully address.

and i actually feel a bit of a personal poverty of understanding when it comes to those sub-problems. i'd like to have a few more in my head -- so i could help solve them!