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B+ : a curious and bizarrely entertaining undertaking
See our review for fuller assessment.
Note: names in bold are included on Posner's list of 546 public intellectuals (Table 5.1).
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The complete review's Review:
"Public intellectuals" ? By this Posner means:
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)It's his book, so he can define it any way he pleases (though readers should, of course, keep his definition in mind, and not impose their own). It seems adequate enough. He also acknowledges -- repeatedly -- a certain arbitrariness in his selection of who to include under his definition.
A hint that Posner also has a more specific target in mind actually comes in the opening sentence of the book, before he has even defined the term "public intellectuals", when he writes of his long-standing interest in "the phenomenon of academics' writing outside their field or (...) for a general audience." So: not so much public intellectuals, but rather public academics. (The book isn't exclusively concerned with academics -- only half the "top 100 public intellectuals by media mention" are academics (though almost all the top-100 "by scholarly citation" are) -- but it is a central concern to Posner.)
Posner isn't happy with public intellectuals (hereafter also referred to as PIs). He believes that especially (but not only) when writing outside their field of expertise PIs do an essentially horrendous job. (Reading the coverage of his Microsoft-mediation efforts, Posner found the commentary even from "economists and law professors" (in their roles as PIs) to be "little better than kibitzing".) And he wonders why this is -- and how the PIs get away with it (generally with little damage to their reputations).
Posner famously likes to take a law-and-economics approach to ... everything, it often seems. Public-intellectual work ? It must be a market ! And so he does his best to examine it that way.
Free markets are thought to be wonderfully efficient. All sorts of things that make them less than free can skew or distort them (regulation, absence of information, barriers to entry, etc.), but ideally they should function with marvelous efficiency. And, at first sight, the market for public-intellectual work looks like a very free one -- so good public-intellectual work should be prized more highly than bad (and, unless cost is a factor -- which it generally isn't for consumers --, should displace it). The cream, as it were, should rise to the top, while the fools are left by the wayside. Public-intellectual work even has certain advantages many markets don't -- an almost complete absence of regulation, for one. But, to his dismay, Posner finds a curious "absence of the quality controls that one finds in other markets".
He sets out to explore why this is, and along the way covers many of the ills he finds in current public-intellectual work.
The book is divided into two parts. The first is "taxonomic, theoretical, and empirical". It concludes with ten already notorious tables that sum up his "statistical study of public intellectuals" (which he writes is: "the first comprehensive such study"). These include the much-cited table of "top 100 public intellectuals by media mentions (1995-2000)", as well as the table of "top 100 public intellectuals by scholarly citations" (the former, in particular, has been transformed into a "best-intellectual" list in the media and the popular imagination).
The second part "substantiates claims in Part One" and explores some "fundamental deficiencies in public-intellectual work". Here Posner explores the work of various PIs more closely, pointing out the many errors of their ways (and, oh yes, there are many such errors).
It makes for a big mess of a book -- though admittedly an often entertaining and thought-provoking one (as well as an occasionally aggravating one).
Posner bills his book as: A Study of Decline (so the subtitle). Oddly, then, there isn't much historical comparison to be found here. Posner even finds that: "The term 'public intellectual' is not yet used with sufficient frequency and consistency for a search of databases that use the term to yield a meaningful list". I.e. there is no consensus on what the term means -- and it is a relatively new idea. Posner decides on his own definition (fair enough), but historical comparisons with the equivalent of pre-twentieth century PIs are largely missing. (John Stuart Mill is a notable exception.) Comparisons with PIs from early in the twentieth century (quite a few of whom figure on the list of PIs he settles on) are too; except for Orwell, almost all those discussed at length are contemporaries. The decline Posner is studying is in fact presented as a fait accompli -- and, to a lesser extent, a warning of a perhaps even more dire future to come.
In examining the state of the PI world Posner needs to figure out who -- or rather: whose work -- to look at. So he went about making a list of 546 PIs (later expanded to 607). He carefully explains how he made the list (and why), and acknowledges the many obvious flaws and weaknesses of his list. He admits to nothing stronger than that the list he comes up with (immortalized in Table 5.1) "probably includes most public intellectuals who enjoy prominence today in the United States, and is at least a representative sample of them." Accepting his definition of PIs (which excludes, for a variety of reasons that he explains, many people that others might include), his statement seems entirely reasonable.
Unfortunately, it is the tables that catch the eye and draw much of the attention. Posner just wants a sample to work with, but many readers apparently focus almost exclusively on the "rankings" of the PIs he considers. The PIs are, in fact, ranked on only two of the tables -- by "media mentions" and "scholarly citations". (Kissinger and Foucault head the respective lists.) These are fairly straightforward rankings, merely counting the total number of mentions and citations. Posner makes something of these rankings, but not very much. He also acknowledges the many obvious weaknesses of them (as well as of the "Web hits" which he also considers) and of relying on them.
Most of Posner's arguments and his exposition on PIs and their work has little to do with these lists. He focusses on a relatively small number of PIs and examines their work more closely, considering it representative for PI practice in general. He writes that the second part of his book "deals in depth with some of the most interesting and ambitious, and not merely the typical, public intellectuals active in the United States today". In determining who these interesting and ambitious PIs are he obviously did not rely mainly on his popularity lists -- only one of the ten highest ranked PIs "by media mention" (William J. Bennett) is even mentioned in the second part of the book. (Meanwhile, George Orwell's 1984 is covered extensively (including, as noted in the index, pp. 253-280) -- though George Orwell doesn't seem a particularly active PI in the US at this time (at least not to us -- but maybe we're just not reading the magazines where he is currently publishing his opinion pieces).)
Still, it is especially this second half of the book that provides the most entertainment value, as Posner cites all sorts of shoddy PI work. Remarkably, as he notes repeatedly, PIs do not suffer for spouting stupidities. Their reputations are rarely damaged by claims that do not stand up to any sort of scrutiny or are later disproven. Consumers apparently don't hold PIs accountable for anything -- a fact that Posner finds shocking and disturbing.
Posner takes on PIs from both the left and the right, and finds most of them guilty of the same sins. Posner argues that in their roles as academics (or, for example, in the case of Robert Bork, as judge and jurist) these PIs would have to live up to a much higher standard. For one the academic (and the legal) markets would demand it: one can't get away with offering up shoddy work as easily, and the costs of doing so are high (especially in terms of reputation). But as PIs they stray far and wide, offering opinions on any number of subjects beyond their areas of expertise. As Posner also demonstrates, they often get it obviously wrong -- but at almost no cost.
Posner's criticisms of the PIs' work is almost all on target (though he has, of course, selected his material and his examples carefully in order to make his points). The PIs do spout a lot of foolishness, their arguments are often badly reasoned, they handle their evidence too casually. It is a frustrating situation: surely society should protect itself from this, surely the PIs should be held accountable !
But the PIs -- ever more of them, as Posner notes ("we are awash in them") -- continue to do more of the same. The PI-market isn't working very efficiently at all. He suggests a variety of reasons for this sad state of affairs, noting that:
In the public-intellectual market there are no enforceable warranties or other legal sanctions for failing to deliver promised quality, no effective consumer intermediaries, few reputational sanctions, and, for academics at any rate, no sunk costs -- they can abandon the public-intellectual market and have a safe landing as full-time academics.It is academics who get most of the savaging, and Posner does conclude that: "the chief culprit in the quality problems of the public intellectual market is the modern university." University affiliation -- and the specialization that modern academia demands -- has "shrunk the ranks of the 'independent' intellectual". Not that Posner explores the success and failure of such independent intellectual work at any length, but it certainly strikes him as preferable to the specialist academics who become PIs and provide poor intellectual work (generally outside their areas of expertise) to the public. (He suggests that the academic moonlighting as a PI "is on holiday from the academic grind and too often displays the irresponsibility of the holiday goer.")
Posner is rough on academics and, given the evidence he cites, often with good reason. Still, his antipathy is sometimes striking: "Academics ar not apolitical; would that they were. Rather, they are political naïfs, prigs about power."
Posner clearly believes that the work PIs produce is of some importance and influence -- otherwise, for example, it wouldn't be worrisome or dangerous that academic PIs are "prigs about power" (after all, so are lots of people who don't publish their views) or that they present poorly reasoned opinion pieces on important matters to the public. He acknowledges that the PIs' work is not necessarily very influential, and that much of it might merely be consumed for entertainment value, but he doesn't seem to want to accept that the public's estimation of PIs' work may in fact be extremely low (i.e. that they essentially don't take it at all seriously). This, however, might explain why PIs are not held accountable: the public cares only about the entertainment value (taken in the broadest sense) and not truth. Generalized and ideological arguments are comforting (especially when they employ token labels that readers can interpret as they wish, such as "family values", etc.), while specific, well-reasoned, factual arguments are boring.
But Posner has his ideals, believing PI-work to be something that one should be able to value, that it should benefit consumers (beyond merely entertaining them). He even offers some suggestions as to how this "decline" in PI discourse can be halted or reversed. Accountability tops his list; if only PIs were held accountable is his often-repeated lament. Going right after the academics, he suggests that faculty members be required to post all their non-academic writing that isn't readily accessible (i.e. that wasn't published in a book, magazine, journal, etc.) on their university's Web page, so that anyone can inspect it. He suggests this would be "a deterrent to irresponsible interventions by academics in public controversies". Note, however, that many interventions by PIs are already accessible (newspaper editorials, magazine articles, books, etc.), and -- as Posner shows in this book -- the PIs aren't even being held accountable for that. It would be neat to have a repository of all the pronouncements PIs make (on TV talk shows, in courtroom testimony, etc.), but it seems a dubious proposition that the public will suddenly become more interested in holding PIs accountable. (Of course, other PIs will find fodder for their own criticism of fellow PIs here -- but such backbiting and infighting has gone on for ages too, without harming too many reputations in the process.)
Posner also hopes to see the emergence of a "norm against magazines' commissioning or accepting book reviews written by persons criticized in the book to be reviewed, at least without full disclosure". This certainly seems a worthy ideal -- though amusingly enough several of the reviews of Public Intellectuals were by PIs at least mentioned (and, in some cases, criticized) in the book. There was, apparently, always something like full disclosure in these cases, but Posner is correct in that this is less than ideal for a book review (though such reviews probably makes for higher entertainment value).
He offers a few other suggestions; most are sensible but impractical -- so, for example, the requirement that signers of open letters and the like include a "certification by the signer that he had acquainted himself with the facts pertinent to the position taken".
Posner does not suggest some sort of PI-oversight committee that would, for example, license PIs, rate the quality of their work (based on how well-reasoned their arguments are, how logically consistent, how accurate, etc.), and provide a seal of approval for acceptable PI-work (or perhaps even a grade for every piece of PI-work, suggesting to consumers how trustworthy and valuable it is) -- but we suspect he would approve of such a body. He does come close to this, in lobbying for "a journal that would monitor the public-intellectual activities of academics" -- though in a desperate acknowledgement that no one would be much interested in this he pleads that it be "widely distributed both within and outside the community." And -- the lawyer in him coming out -- he does want academics who are irresponsible PIs "hauled before the bar of academic and public opinion" -- ignoring the fact that the public seems clearly indifferent to almost anything PIs do (as does, by and large, academia).
Posner is correct that the state of PI discourse in the United States is deplorable. This is troublesome only, however, if one accepts the proposition that PIs have some sort of influence when they make their public statements. In the United States this does not seem to be the case. PIs receive many media mentions and scholarly citations (and Web mentions), but that does not mean that anyone is taking their pronouncements (as PIs) seriously in any way.
(Particularly telling is one of Posner's tables, Group A of table 5.6, devoted to "the principal magazines that are heavily devoted to public-intellectual expression". Even before his book was published (i.e. in the time between the final edit and publication), two of the eighteen publications he listed -- The American Spectator and Lingua Franca -- disappeared. (The American Spectator in fact survives, but not as the magazine Posner means (see The Life and Death of The American Spectator, in The Atlantic Monthly). See also Who killed Lingua Franca ? at MobyLives.) So maybe there is accountability: nobody was willing to read this crap any more and so the magazines went belly-up. (The precarious finances of many of these publications (only a few actually make a profit, while most survive through various forms of patronage) is something Posner does not address at any length, though it is also worthy of attention.)The unreliability of all public pronouncements in the United States -- by politicians, journalists, PIs and others -- also seems an angle Posner might have considered more closely. People rarely hold their elected officials accountable for backing down on all the outlandish election promises these usually make (there are exceptions, of course, but these are rare). It appears that people simply expect to be lied to. Similarly, many publications do offer a sort of Journal of Retractions (as Posner hopes for) -- a list of errata and corrections --, acknowledging at least some of their (though usually only factual) mistakes -- but few readers even notice these: they just seem to accept that much of the information they receive will not be accurate and it doesn't seem to matter one way or the other to them.
(Consider for example the outrageous misrepresentation of Posner's book Public Intellectuals in a prominent article in The New York Times (by William Grimes, 19 January 2002). The article begins beneath a picture of Henry Kissinger, who is described as "the top intellectual on Richard Posner's list, which was compiled from Internet hits." In fact, Internet hits were only a component of one of Posner's lists (or rather tables). Not only that, but Kissinger topped only the list of most "media mentions". Looking at "Web hits" on Posner's table 5.1 one finds that Kissinger did not even come close to ranking as tops: his 39,976 hits are dwarfed by the real numero uno, W.B.Yeats (with 218,503), and at least half a dozen others also topped Kissinger's total -- including Noam Chomsky.This "odd and interesting market" may be particularly intractable, and one wishes there were accountability -- in this and many other markets (and indeed all facets of life). Posner perhaps helps to open some eyes by demonstrating the many errors of PIs' ways, but by and large he seems to be tilting at windmills. Still, it is in many ways an entertaining book, and must reading for anyone interested in this odd (and apparently very unreliable) creature, the American public intellectual..
Note: Let us hold accountable .... !
If it is Posner's rallying cry, then let us not forget to turn our gaze on his work. (He acknowledges that he is a PI -- and with this book he is straying beyond his field, in best detested academic-PI fashion .....)
So: kudos to the previously much-maligned William Grimes article, which notes that, for example, the name of André Malraux is misspelt in table 5.1 (as "Andre Malreaux") which presumably accounts for the limited number of Web hits and media mentions he achieved. In table 5.1 "Andre Malreaux" is listed as having received 26 Web hits (great research assistants Posner has -- the fact that "Andre Maurois" got 40 times as many hits didn't tip someone off that maybe there was something wrong here ?). On 7 February 2002 we ran the name-variations through Google, getting:
Also: Posner writes: "Ireland has legalized divorce and abortion." (p. 273) Really ? He is the jurist, so we are inclined to believe him, especially on matters of law. But this is, of course, outside his area of expertise (U.S. law). Last we heard, there were only minimal exceptions to a fairly draconian prohibition on abortion in Ireland. We might be mistaken (and we've heard there is a March 2002 referendum that seeks to change things once again), but it seems to us this is not a correct statement.
Additional note: Posner's ten tables shouldn't be taken too seriously; he just wants a sample to work with and a general idea of what this peculiar creature, the PI, is. Most of the tables are fairly straightforward but should be used with some care (i.e. for example look at the headings to see exactly what Posner is presenting). He usefully explains the tables (and their obvious weaknesses), and though this introduction to them may seem dry it is also helpful in understanding what exactly he is doing. Still, there are some truly bizarre observations. Our favourite:
I note, however, that the average age of the sixty-eight living persons in the table is 64 (...) while the average age of the thirty-two dead is 104Come again ?
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Richard A. Posner is Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He is also a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, and the author of many books.
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