On Public Intellectuals

Corey Robin

I’m ambivalent, as I’ve said before, about the category “public intellectual.” It’s precious and pretentious, and unfairly denigrates the virtues and vocation of talented scholars who devote themselves to obscure questions no one else is asking, questions that may not interest broader audiences at the time but that may, one day, be of vital importance to more than a narrow few. Or that may, regardless of people’s interest, simply advance our understanding of some small part of the universe.

But if we are going to hold onto and repeatedly invoke the category, I wonder if there may not be a fundamental problem at the heart of it. Public intellectuals are thought of as not only generalist writers speaking to non-academic audiences about issues that matters, but also as moral voices and political actors, men and women who say the unsayable, speak truth to power, confront injustice and oppression, and any one of a number of…

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