the complete review Quarterly
Volume III, Issue 2   --   May, 2002

Reactions to Richard Posner's
Public Intellectuals

Another Study in Decline


I. The Sample
II. "Public Intellectuals"
III. The Question of Decline
IV. The Lists
V. Improving the Performance of the Market
VI. Errata
VII. Serious / Satire
VIII. The Other Half



       Public Intellectuals is a nearly 400-page Study of Decline (see our review), published at the end of 2001. Its author is the highly regarded (and prolific) Richard A. Posner -- judge, academic, sometime mediator -- and it was published by the estimable Harvard University Press.
       Public Intellectuals quickly achieved some notoriety. In large part this appears to be because Posner made a list of 546 people he determined to be "public intellectuals" (Table 5.1 in his book, pp.194-206) -- and then determined who among these were the "Top 100 public intellectuals by media mentions (1995-2000)" (Table 5.3, pp. 209-211) and the "Top 100 public intellectuals by scholarly citations (1995-2000)" (Table 5.4, pp.212-214). Popular fascination with lists and rankings seems limitless, and these lists too attracted a great deal of attention. From who was included (and excluded) to who ranked where, Public Intellectuals was apparently a much-referred to and much-debated work. It was also, clearly, not a much read work.

       Public Intellectuals was fairly widely reviewed and received a considerable amount of media attention. The reactions to the book seem to us, in many ways, almost as illuminating as the work itself, odd reflections of (and on) Posner's theses.

       There are many valid criticisms to be found in the reviews and reactions considered here: Public Intellectuals is a book that is easy to find fault with. What is striking, however, is how poorly commentators presented Posner's position and claims -- even the many dubious ones. The impression the casual review- and newspaper reader could get from these pieces is often far removed from Posner's intentions. That does him, his work, and, most of all, the audience he wishes to reach a grave disservice.
       Posner argues that public intellectuals often do sloppy work, that it is often "little better than kibitzing", reflecting "only a superficial engagement with the facts". (p. 2) The same can apparently said for reviewers and other commentators -- at least the ones who had their say about Public Intellectuals (several of whom are Posner-certified public intellectuals). The reviews are often entertaining, and most usefully point out faults and weaknesses in Posner's work -- but almost all are undermined by glaring misstatements, omissions, and errors. (Except, of course, that these aren't so glaring to the reader who has not carefully studied the work under discussion.)

       In this survey, we are not even so much concerned with the biases and (mis-)interpretations found in the commentaries -- though one can (and probably should) argue about these as well. This piece focusses on facts: to our consternation we found that many of them were misrepresented, misconstrued, and ignored. That, surely, is entirely unacceptable.

       There is no single standard for book reviewing, and many reviewers have different aims in mind in reviewing a book -- especially works of non-fiction. Some merely try to give readers an impression of what the book is about, and why it might appeal to certain audiences (or why not). Others offer additional information about the topic the book concerns itself with, while others go so far as to consider the arguments of the book, analyzing or criticizing them (and/or the presentation of the arguments and facts)
       Public Intellectuals saw all these reactions, and more. In our opinion, few commentators did a good job of conveying to readers what Posner's intentions were. Many did explain why they thought Posner failed -- but they used the wrong standard, as the failures they found too often did not take into account Posner's intentions. In other words, too often they found that the book was not what they wanted it to be, rather than not the book Posner wanted it to be.
       There are many valid criticisms of Public Intellectuals in the reviews, but far more prevalent are sloppy arguments, misstatements, and misreadings. Public Intellectuals is, possibly, a book well worth damning, but too much of the damning by the various commentators was based on a weak reading of the book (or parts of the book).
       One of the problems with Public Intellectuals is that it is so easy to criticize parts of it -- or, indeed, the whole. Nonetheless, there is no excuse or reason for the criticisms not to be well-founded and rigorously thought through. And here they weren't. Commentators took broad aim, and overlooked many of the significant smaller points. In doing so, we contend, almost all mistook or ignored Posner's own caveats and warnings, which suggested a careful and limited reading of certain parts of the book (which were instead blown out of all proportion). In particular, reviewers paid too little attention to Posner's definition of the term at issue ("public intellectuals") and made entirely too much of his tables and rankings (while at the same time ignoring what Posner meant to use the tables for).
       In the case of Public Intellectuals, the commentators' misrepresentations of the text were particularly disturbing because there was a lot of press coverage of the book and many people relied entirely on this coverage. Posner's "top 100" lists have been twisted completely out of context in public debate. Unfortunately, also, few readers seem to have bothered turning to the book itself to determine for themselves what Posner meant. Their entire picture of the book is instead formed by the dismissive reviews and jokey commentaries.
       Again: Public Intellectuals is perhaps worthy of being dismissed or being considered an elaborate joke -- but none of the reviews persuasively demonstrate this. They demonstrate it only on their own terms, not Posner's -- and that simply isn't fair.

       Reviewers generally only have a limited space in which to present their findings (though a number of reviews of Public Intellectuals were of considerable length). It is difficult to address the many significant parts of a book such as Public Intellectuals concisely and clearly. But how much of an excuse can that be ? Most of the reviewers failed in at least some respects, and few managed to convey an accurate impression of the book. Many conveyed a strong -- and usually highly critical -- impression of the book (often entertainingly presented), but while strength of conviction sounds good (or reads well) that doesn't make it correct.
       So, are these reactions to this book an example of the decline of the book-reviewing art ? Are they an example of a market failure, as Posner might like to see it ?
       Certainly they are sad and sorry examples, by and large. Consider them for yourself:

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I. The Sample

       This survey considers many of the reactions to and reviews of Public Intellectuals that appeared in the first months following its publication. No doubt, some were overlooked (and others were inaccessible); considerations in a variety of periodicals also continue to appear at this time. Still, we believe we have surveyed a representative sample, especially of the initial (and generally most influential and widely read) reactions to the work.
       The following reviews are the basis for our discussion:

       - Highlighted magazine-titles link to online review
       - Reviewers' names in bold indicate the reviewer was included on Posner's list of 546 public intellectuals (Table 5.1 in his book)
       - An asterisk (*) indicates the publication in which the review appeared is included in Table 5.6 among the "major venues for public-intellectual expression"
       (In addition, we also refer to the complete review's review. Note that there are a number of other reviews of the book available online; see links)

       The following articles were also considered for this survey:        (Note that there are many other articles on the subject, including several available online; see also links.)

       Among the points of interest about the reviews, the reviewers, and the commentators is their number and prominence. Serious, mass-circulation newspapers and periodicals devoted considerable space to the book (most within a one-month span of intense interest). Almost a third of the reviewers considered in this survey (five out of the seventeen) made it onto Posner's list of 546 "public intellectuals", and each of them found at least one mention in the text itself (though coverage ranged from a footnote reference for David Brooks all the way to the extensive dismantling of Gertrude Himmelfarb). In addition, one of the commentators -- Christopher Hitchens -- was widely named as a person who should have made Posner's 546-person list but wasn't, with even Posner acknowledging he probably belonged on it (as reported by Jeet Heer).
       While the reviews are not extraordinarily long when compared to other reviews in these same publications, some do stand out. Gertrude Himmelfarb's piece is over 5000 words long, Alan Wolfe's certainly more than 3000 -- review space and coverage that few books are deemed worthy of nowadays.

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II. "Public Intellectuals"

       Fundamental to any understanding of Posner's book is, surely, an understanding of what he means by the term "public intellectuals". That is the subject of the book, after all. Despite Posner's contortions in trying to explain what he means by the term (offering a fill of both definitions and examples), many reviewers and commentators did not bother much with this aspect of the book. Many apparently felt the term's meaning was self-evident. Others offered their own take on it, while only a few really paid much attention to what Posner wrote.


       Posner's book is about "Public Intellectuals" (hereafter generally referred to as PIs). Sensibly, he begins his book by trying to define what he means by this term; the first subsection of his first chapter is even titled: "What Is a Public Intellectual ?"
       Posner hems and haws and hedges around the term. (Actually, he simultaneously hems and haws and hedges around the term "intellectual", of which PIs are the very public subset -- a distinction not clear (or of interest) to all the reviewers.) He offers a number of definitions. Early in the book he suggests PIs are:
intellectuals who opine to an educated public on questions of or inflected by a political or ideological concern. (p. 2)
       Later he restates it slightly differently:
a public intellectual is a person who, drawing on his intellectual resources, addresses a broad though educated public on issues with a political or ideological dimension. (p. 170)
       Elsewhere he also defines the term "intellectual" more closely (though also acknowledging doing so "to an approximation only"):
the intellectual writes for the general public, or at least for a broader than merely academic or specialist audience, on "public affairs" -- on political matters in the broadest sense of that word (p.23)
       Posner's definition of PIs excludes certain people that might generally be considered "intellectuals" -- including many academics, or people with refined cultural tastes. It excludes those who do not publish widely or do so only to a specialist (rather than a more general) audience, those that only publish in a specialist area for a general audience (writing popular accounts to explain science, for example), and many with other, primary jobs -- politicians, in particular (specifically if their "public intellectual work was completely overshadowed by other aspects of their careers" (p.171)).

       Posner acknowledges -- even emphasizes -- that:
Mine is not the correct definition, but merely the best for my purposes, which are not everyone's. (p. 25)
       Given that it is his book, he should presumably be allowed to define PIs however he wishes. Moreover, one would imagine (at least we did), it is his definition (and only his) that should be used in considering his arguments. Many of the reviewers apparently did not quite see it that way.
       (It must, however, also be noted that Posner does not help his case by offering so many variations on his definition -- not all of which are entirely reconcilable with each other.)

       On the Origins:

       Posner attributes the origin of the term "public intellectual" to Russell Jacoby, noting parenthetically that: "It was coined by Russell Jacoby in a book published in 1987." (p. 27) Gertrude Himmelfarb goes along with that in her review in Commentary, unquestioningly (she parrots Posner: Jacoby "coined the term"). Others aren't so sure: Christopher Caldwell, in his review in the National Review, is willing only to go so far as to say the term "was popularized only in 1987, when UCLA historian Russell Jacoby used it". Caleb Crain, in The Nation, goes a step further: he acknowledges that "Russell Jacoby popularized it in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals" but adds: "Jacoby did not coin the term -- he quoted C. Wright Mills using it in 1958".
       The final voice to weigh in on the matter is none other than Russell Jacoby himself, writing coyly in The Los Angeles Times: "Posner credits me, in my The Last Intellectuals, with coining the term". Dancing around -- or rather: completely ducking -- the issue, Jacoby does nothing to clear up the question of whether or not he coined the term.
       While it does not really matter, in discussing Posner's book, where the term comes from or how it -- and the more basic term: "intellectual" -- have been used, it is indicative of the general approach by the commentators that there is no consensus (or much clarity) on what should be the simplest of points.

       The Commentators:

       The origin of the term is not a particularly important question here, and most of the reviewers wisely did not concern themselves with it. What matters is what Posner means -- and specifically what he means within the context of his book. It is surprising then to find that most of the commentators did not find it a particularly important issue. Few focus on what Posner means (or might mean) -- and some who do actually get it wrong.
       About half the reviewers simply ignore the question of what Posner means by the term entirely, and use it as though it were clear to any reader (i.e. as if PIs was a term as commonly used and understood as "auto mechanic" or "librarian") -- and a few even conflate the terms "intellectual" and "PI". Given how much space Posner devotes to trying to clarify what exactly he means this seems an inappropriate approach in discussing the book, and especially in reviewing it for potential readers.
       Numerous reviewers obliquely describe what Posner means, apparently not wanting to get bogged down in trying to convey what Posner states in his own fumbling definitions. Some of these do reasonably convey Posner's definition(s) -- so, for example, Alan Wolfe in The New Republic (though he begins as though the meaning of the term were self-evident).
       A number of commentators chose the safe route and quoted Posner's definition -- though even here Posner offers them the opportunity of being selective, by offering several definitions (and a large number of caveats). Gertrude Himmelfarb quotes one of the longer definitions, and does address the question of what Posner means by the term fairly closely; her review is among the most admirable in this regard.
       Others only chose simpler quotes -- already a far more dangerous undertaking. Adam Liptak, in The New York Observer, says of Posner:
And he's a public intellectual in the specialized sense he describes and decries in this book: a "critical commentator addressing a nonspecialist audience on matters of broad public concern".
       Offering no other definitions of PIs, Liptak's readers might be led to believe that this is all that Posner had in mind with the term. But Posner wrote of:
(...) the public intellectual's most distinctive, though not only, role, that of critical commentator addressing a nonspecialist audience on matters of broad public concern. (p. 5)
       Liptak's definition is not wrong -- he even uses Posner's own words -- but, since it is the only definition of PIs he offers in his review, it is definitely misleading.
       Also less to the point, Christopher Caldwell refers back to a previous use of the term ("Russell Jacoby used it to describe academics who pontificate on passing political issues for a general audience" -- suggesting that this is perhaps not how Posner uses it) and then offers only a peripheral Posner-description of PIs:
At best, they do (in Posner's words) "what journalists would do, though perhaps with a lag"
       Again: readers surely do not get a fair sense of what Posner means from these selective quotes and circumlocutions.

       Finally there are those who offer only paraphrase, or their own summary-definition. Among them:        Worst, certainly, are the paraphrasers who get it wrong. In the Times Literary Supplement Thomas Nagel writes:
By a public intellectual he means someone who applies general ideas to contemporary issues, writing for the educated public from a political or ideological perspective.
       Close, but no cigar: Posner writes that PIs address "a broad though educated public on issues with a political or ideological dimension". (p. 170) Surely that means the issues have "a political or ideological dimension" -- not, as Nagel states, that the PIs address them "from a political or ideological perspective". (It is a fairly big and significant difference.) And Posner nowhere claims anything like that PIs apply "general ideas to contemporary issues". (And what on earth are "general ideas" anyway ? And "contemporary issues" ?)
       (Amusingly, Nagel -- who made Posner's list of 546 PIs -- also writes that he "would reject the label" (for himself), despite not having a clear idea of what the label (as Posner means it) actually is.)
       Most disturbing is William Grimes' paraphrase in his article in The New York Times, "Another Top 100: This Time It's Intellectuals" -- if only because it was surely the single piece on the book that found the greatest readership. Grimes tells his readers there:
Anyone who expresses himself or herself in an accessible way on matters of general public concern meets Mr. Posner's definition of a public intellectual.
       Posner emphatically never broadens the PI-definition to include any- and every-one. Only a certain group of people expressing themselves (in a certain way) qualify as Posnerian PIs. Posner also makes a big deal of PIs having an audience -- merely expressing oneself accessibly is not enough if there isn't an audience -- which is further specified, several times, as being an "educated public" (rather than merely the general public). Finally, Posner is more specific about the subject-matter as well: "matters of general public concern" includes far more than the "issues with a political or ideological dimension" (p. 170) Posner allows for -- today's weather or traffic, or how the local sports teams are doing may be of "general public concern" but are not PI-subject matter.

       Are these commentators' misstatements or simplifications trivial ? We would argue: no. The definition of the term "public intellectual" is surely the single, fundamental most important piece of information about the book that must be clear if one wants to have any hope of understanding it. Are the commentators' close enough to what Posner means ? Possibly. But precision -- at least greater precision than can be found in almost any of the reactions to the book doesn't seem to be too much to ask for.
       (Some commentators do also argue, specifically when discussing who is in- and ex-cluded from the 546-list, that Posner's understanding of what a PI is isn't very clear, but almost no one refers back to Posner's definition(s) in trying to make their case.)
       As was noted, about half the reviewers (and most of the other commentators) do not even bother explaining the term "PIs" in any way, imagining perhaps that, like pornography, readers know what a PI is when they see one. This, too, does not seem entirely adequate, given Posner's own strenuous (and not always successful) efforts at explaining what exactly he means.

       Not a good beginning.

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