what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Friday, August 21, 2020

Le Trahison des Clercs?

This phrase - the title of a famous little French book which was published in 1927 - still reverbates almost a hundred years on. "Clercs" can be translated literally as "scribblers" with the english title "Betrayal of the Intellectuals" giving its true sense. Its basic argument was that the increasing nationalist tone of French intellectuals was a betrayal of the Enlightenment project.
This polemical essay argued that European intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century had often lost the ability to reason dispassionately about political and military matters, instead becoming apologists for crass nationalism, warmongering and racism. Benda reserved his harshest criticisms for his fellow Frenchmen Charles Maurras and Maurice Barrès. Benda defended the measured and dispassionate outlook of classical civilization, and the internationalism of traditional Christianity.Human aspirations, specifically after power, would become the sole end of society.
French intellectuals have, of course, been a more numerous and vociferous bunch than their anglo-saxon counterparts - with Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, William James and Walter Lippmann being amongst the few of the latter at the time. And the French tradition of challenge to power is clearly longer and stronger - stretching  recently from Zola's famous J'Accuse campaign through the French resistance to American culture and La Pensee Unique to Stephane Hessel's Indignez-Vous .

But the massive academic expansion of the past 50 years means that academics and journalists are so numerous these days that we tend to trip over them as they vie for our attention.  The question I want to pursue here is whether this new breed doesn't also deserve to be accused of a massive betrayal of public trust - this time by virtue not of political passion or ideology but of its absence!!

The last post concluded with a suggestion that most of the products of political and social science is of little use to us as citizens.  A spate of books in the past decade about populism and democracy such as Runciman's "How Democracy Ends?" (2018) about which I wrote very positively earlier this year  ; and Yascha Mounk's "The People v Democracy – why our freedom is in danger and how to save it"  (2018) would suggest I may have been a tad critical.  And the list of books at the end of the next post seems to indicate that there has been a reasonably healthy ongoing debate about the reinvigoration of the discipline and a more explicit connection between political science and contemporary politics and public debate.

But the social sciences have, in the past half-century of explosive university expansion , been thoroughly professionalised - with a concomitant increase in their aspirations to scientism. Matt Flinders has a useful discussion about this in his article "The Tyranny of Relevance and the act of translation" which argues that academics do feel incrrasingly under pressure to justify their existence and relevance to those in power - both in the private and public sectors. Indeed such links have attracted occasional criticism - particularly in such sectors as armaments and energy
But what about their sense of duty to the wider public of citizens? How many academics take the trouble to try to communicate with the wider public on issues of public concern? 

Younger academics certainly cannot afford to engage in anything that might smack of popularisation - let alone of politics. Which leaves it up to their older colleagues with tenure to engage in the important but neglected task of communicating with the wider public.
Although there is certainly a welcome increase of popular writing by academics, it is still a tiny percentage of the millions of such staff - and the motives in all too many cases have more to do with reputation than with edification! And consist too often of rehashed dissertations. The thousands of titles on capitalism are a good example - full, as Shakespeare so nicely puts it, "of sound and fury" but offering little to the wider public that bis actionable......
Chomsky is perhaps the most famous of the intellectuals prepared to comment on worldly affairs and demonstrates the risks involved - of being both pigeon-holed and vilified. Here is one of Chomsky's classic statement on the role of the public intellectual - from 1967!

The post is proving more complicated than I had realised - so will be continued........

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