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PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS: A Study of Decline [Kindle Edition]

Richard A. Posner

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Review

In "Public Intellectuals"...Posner trashes fellow smarties who expound on public issues outside their expertise. He says they abandon rigor when they write general interest books and op-ed pieces, publish open letters, and speak on television. They are in decline, he says, because more of them than ever have safe jobs as professors, protecting them from the consequences of bad predictions and stupid proclamations...Posner fires both left and right, nearly always hitting the mark.--Peter Coy"Business Week" (02/11/2002)

Product Description

In this timely book, the first comprehensive study of the modern American public intellectual--that individual who speaks to the public on issues of political or ideological moment--Richard Posner charts the decline of a venerable institution that included worthies from Socrates to John Dewey. Leveling a balanced attack on liberal and conservative pundits alike, he describes the styles and genres, constraints and incentives, of the activity of public intellectuals and offers modest proposals for improving the quality of public discussion in America today. This paperback edition contains a new preface and and a new epilogue.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3934 KB
  • Print Length: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Revised edition (30 Jun 2009)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B005I4EFM2
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #668,055 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Amazon.com: 2.8 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Maverick or Monarch? 21 Jan 2002
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Many years ago, Voltaire said something to the effect that we should cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it. I was reminded of that caveat as I worked my way through this book. Posner defines a public intellectual as one of those "who opine to an educated public on questions of or inflected by a political or ideological concern" and asserts that many (most?) contemporary thinkers thus defined become academics and then, over time, specialists in their respective fields. As a result, public issues of various kinds are denied the circumspection they require from those once capable of providing it. In Part Two, Posner claims to substantiate claims made in Part One "and goes beyond definition to an explanation of the varied genres of public-intellectual expression, and deals in depth with some of the most interesting and ambitious, and not merely the typical, public intellectuals active in the United States today." He identifies the usual suspects: Robert Bork, Noam Chomsky, Paul Ehrlich, Stanley Fish, Milton Friedman, Stephen Jay Gould, Lani Guinier, Gertrude Himmlefaub, Christopher Lasch, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, and Michael Warner. He evaluates each, damning with faint praise, praising with faint damnation, or simply dismissing entirely as unworthy of serious consideration. In many instances, Posner suggests, these and other "public intellectual" wannabes embraced what Posner calls "false beliefs" (e.g. "collectivist public policies") and thereby rejected or simply ignored the practical implications and consequences of such convictions. (It is important to keep in mind that Posner sees himself as a "pragmatist.") Other reviewers have taken issue with Posner's evaluations of various individuals. Some suggest that he invalidates candidates for a position he himself wishes to occupy: in Gary Rosen's words, "king of the public intellectuals." Be that as it may, I found this book to be extraordinarily thought-provoking. It achieves what seems to be one of Posner's primary objectives, expressed in the final chapter: "...my hopes for this book will be amply fulfilled if it merely stimulates a wider recognition of the problematic state of the public intellectual in the United States today and encourages further study of an odd and interesting market."
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good thesis. Tedious exposition. 16 Jan 2002
By Jon L. Albee - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is not what you think. It's not so much a U.S.News-style ranking of public intellectuals, per se. It's even less another of a never-ending stream of "dumbing-down" theses intended to convince us that things were so much better during the Roman Empire. No, it's not that. It IS an indictment of academic specialization.
More specifically, Posner uses a greatly oversimplified microeconomic model to show how the "market" for intellectual products forces would-be public intellectuals into the academy. Within the academy they are encouraged to specialize. Here's the kicker: Academic specialization undermines the intellectuals' ability and motivation to make meaningful statements about broader public matters. The results are a largely academic intellectual debate dominated by esoteric, jargon-ridden theses which fail to engage the general public and are frequently dubious in merit.
Worth a read if you're interested in such matters but, beware, the presentation itself is tedious and repetitive. The best bit is the chapter debunking modern, "jeremiad," decline literature. The polemical material of Bloom, Rorty, and Berman doesn't hold much credibility with Posner.
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought Provoking 2 Mar 2002
By Eric Gudorf - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Mr. Posner raises the question: Why are we suffering from a lack of intellectual excellence? It's not hard to agree with his premise, ask any thinking person today to name a great mind in the public domain, and most people will be left scratching their heads. For centuries Western Civilization has produced talented people who have added to our intellectual tradition, ranging from Socrates (arguably the first "Public Intellectual") right through to George Orwell. But today, we seem to be at the mercy of a group of mental midgets and charlatans, people whose thoughts are geared more toward selling books and stirring up controversy than actually improving our intellectual landscape.
As proof of this, Posner quotes from intellectuals of both the political left and right. For example, in the Clinton impeachment, he points out that both sides put forth dire predictions which turned out to be wrong. Republicans predicted that failure to remove Clinton from office would result in moral chaos, while Democrats predicted the impeachment would bring on an era of sexual McCarthyism. As it turned out, the impeachment saga played itself out without any dramatic effects on American society.
More to the point, Posner rips into the rants of intellectuals from both sides of the political fence. He devotes the better part of an entire chapter deconstructing Robert Bork's "Slouching toward Gomorrah", but also spends plenty of time destroying the arguments of Dr. Paul Ehrlich and Noam Chomsky. He effectively argues that intellectuals who make dire predictions should be held accountable when their predictions fail to pan out.
In sum, this is not an easy read, but a very worthwhile one. If it has any weakness, it is that Posner provides no realistic remedy to the problem of intellectual sloppiness on the part of our so-called intellectuals. He suggests a Web Site that would keep track of their more bizarre pronouncements, but that really isn't the answer. What is really needed is a vigilant news media, one that will hold public intellectuals' feet to the fire and vigorously expose the frauds and charlatans among us.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scrutiny of Media-Centered Public Deliberation 28 May 2002
By Random Joys - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a marvelous meta-book. Posner studies in detail the personalities and the arguments that receive prominence in public debate. The result is the solid documentation of a paradox: The public intellectuals that dominate the media are not particularly good. In a deliberative democracy, this should be of profound concern. Posner's thesis, in addition to being painstakingly proven, is not only disturbing, but also undermines our confidence in the quality of public discourse and, consequently, in the quality of this society's democratic decision-making. Like every one of Posner's books, this too is profound, thought-provoking, and unsettling.
One cannot resist thinking about the thesis further. In a way, the idea of inadequacy of public debate is trite. Distinguishing a high-quality deliberative democracy from a debasing kowtowing to crowd impulses and manipulation is difficult. The difficulty has been recognized since Socrates and Pericles; the history of Classical Greece seems a perfect case study of the issues involved. Is Posner losing confidence in democracy? Is this book a justification for undemocratic features of our governmental structure? One cannot help but be reminded of the unelected federal judiciary-of which Posner is a leading member-and the extraordinary secrecy in which the judiciary operates. If public deliberation is defective, a secretive undemocratic deliberative body like the federal judiciary is a highly desirable component in an otherwise very public and democratic structure of government. A constitutional structure that denudes this high-capacity body from material power-from budgeting and military authority-prevents its dominance and preserves democratic balance. Thus, disquieting as this book may be, my confidence the judiciary makes me find it agreeable. The question that follows is how confident we should be in the decision-making of the federal judiciary. The Supreme Court has severely reduced the role of federal courts. The confirmation process shows no signs of favoring profundity and scholarship over political preferences. When Posner shows the inadequacy of public intellectuals, it would be comforting to be able to rest assured that an army of secretive Posners will continue to populate the courts. Unfortunately, no such indication exists.
Posner also makes the very true observation that contemporary public intellectuals lack a quality monitor. He emphasizes that as fields become increasingly specialized, the lay audience becomes less able to determine the quality and accuracy of the speech of public intellectuals. As a law professor, I should reply that a significant fraction of legal scholarship consists of sieving through other scholarship and presenting the conclusions of a deliberated evaluation of a large body of scholarship.
Although I deeply admire Posner and his work, I must add that he is not immune from errors that he points out in others. The Lewinsky issue rears its ugly head: "By forcing these attitudes [of different private views about sex] into articulate competition, Clinton precipitated a rancorous Kulturkampf." (p. 109) The obvious transgression here is the attribution of causation. When private attitudes are in conflict but hidden, how does one more hidden act-rather than the revelation of the hidden act by those who are politically motivated-"precipitate a war of cultures"?
In sum, this is a much more important book than it lets on. Perhaps unwittingly, it touches the foundational premises of democratic society. The quality of public debate is central to the quality of democratic governance and to the success of our political system. Yet, in this book, a component of political debate that some might have thought was important, is proven to be mostly driven by sensationalism and its entertainment value.
PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS, despite trivial displays of political susceptibility (as the above Lewinski example) should be acceptable to any non-extreme political ideology. It joins other books of Posner that belong to the same group. These books are accessible social science at its best, and this book may not only be one of the leading candidates but also the one that opens the gate for one of the largest and most important research programs, one about the detailed study of the social foundations of democracy. To the extent voluminous scholarship is based on the assumption that public discourse is of high quality, it is roundly debunked.
28 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Book, But Not His Best 9 Dec 2001
By Appellate Advocate - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Having read almost every book written by Richard Posner, I ordered Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline expecting the usual vibrancy and encyclopedic knowledge on display in his books Sex and Reason and The Problems of Jurisprudence. The whit and fluency are here, but the book is a bit of a hodge-podge. What Posner faults the public intellectual for relying on, among other things, is the use of the anecodote as evidence. Though Posner does not soly use anecdotes, the book is short on any deep study on the role of the public intellectual. I expected Posner to expand on has nascent interest in sociology which was revealed in The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, but there is little in the book actually describing the academic milieu, and how it has influenced public intellectuals for the worse.
Don't get me wrong. A so-so book from Posner is better than 99.9% of the stuff published, but there are some things missing in the book.
There are also a lot of things that should have been left out, namely, Posner's retelling of Dworkin's shortcomings as an intellectual. Does Posner have some kind of idee fixe? Dworkin's is a bit of a buffoon, but I already knew that from reading about his role in the Clinton impeachment, which was ably described by -- you guessed it! -- Richard Posner, in An Affair of State.
By replaying the Dworkin wars, Posner gives credence to the claim, which I am sure many will make, that the book is merely an excuse to attack Posner's ideological enemies. That does not mean the books no good, but it does mean that the reader should be suspicious about whether the theory is just true for him.
Nonetheless, it is nice to see gasbags like Chomsky deflated.
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