Richard A. Posner

The Decline of the Public Intellectual

VTR Date: March 11, 2002

Guest: Posner, Richard A.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Richard A. Posner
Title: “The Decline of the Public Intellectual”
VTR: 3/11/02

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And you know in the half century since I began talking to guests on the air there have been any number of fascinating men and women I so very much look forward to meeting. Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Norman Cousins, Fred Allen, Mario Cuomo, Milton Friedman, Margaret Mead, Norman Mailer, Erich Fromm and on and on … the list really goes on and on.

But I don’t think I’ve ever before so much wanted to engage another’s mind, to parse his or her wit and wisdom, to discover what informs his or her sense of the nature of human nature as today, when my Open Mind guest is “a flamboyantly candid judicial activist” as Larissa Mac called him in just what I’ll identify for the moment as a delightfully challenging profile in The New Yorker magazine a few months ago.

Now, though Judge Richard A. Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago is by all accounts one of the most powerful jurists in the country, my guest told The New Yorker “I’m not fully socialized into the legal profession. I’m like an imperfectly housebroken pet … I still have difficulty understanding (and this is something that most people get over in their first two weeks of law school) lawyers spouting things that they don’t believe. If someone is obviously guilty, why do you have to have all this rigmarole?”

Well, Judge Posner certainly writes wells. He writes often, quite often, though it’s not true that he publishes a book every half hour as has been said. But if often feels that way and as The New Yorker quotes Milton Friedman, “he’s a very brilliant fella and he’s written on everything under God’s green sun. What else do you want?”

Well, what I want today starts not with my guest’s controversial recent volumes on Bill Clinton’s affair and impeachment, or on the Supreme Court’s selection of Bush over Gore as President of the United States, but rather with Judge Posner’s provocative Public Intellectuals, A Study of Decline, published by Harvard University Press and reviewed in the Los Angeles Times as “cornering the market in chutzpah.”

POSNER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: And poked fun at a bit in The New York Times for “creating still another top 100 list, only this time, it’s intellectuals,” ran the story’s heading. Now some commentary by Judge Posner’s Public Intellectuals he dismisses as little more than kibitzing.

And for some of them he borrows a French sociologist’s characterization as “le fast talker”. So that, no slow talker himself, I think it best now for me to ask the Judge to illumine his own thesis concerning “Public Intellectuals, A Study of Decline” … who are they these public intellectuals, and why are they declining? Is that a fair thing to throw at you Judge Posner?

POSNER: Sure. Yeah. That’s fair, well, what I mean by a public intellectual is not everyone’s definition. It’s an intellectual in the sense of someone who’s using general ideas from philosophy or history or from the, sort of cultural tradition, to address issues of immediate public interest. But also who’s trying to reach the public directly, through the popular media rather than just being content with a kind of indirect influence that a, an academic thinker might have.

HEFFNER: Richard Posner, for instance?

POSNER: Oh, not really. Because this is an academic book. Most of what I have written is academic. But I’m thinking more of people whose, who are making a big effort to get onto the television and radio talk shows, write OpEds for newspapers, sign petitions and full page advertisements on matters of current concern. I don’t do that sort of thing.

HEFFNER: Why decline though? Why do you call it a “decline?”

POSNER: Because if you think of the great public intellectuals of the past, starting with Socrates and Seneca and Cicero and Jeremiah, if you want, other prophets of doom, and then coming into the 18th and 19th centuries people like Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and then into our, into the 20th century with, you know, Edmond Wilson, George Orwell, Arthur Kessler(???) and so on. Most of these people were not academics. And what they brought to the table was their intellectuality, but also, you know, life experiences, and breadth of interest and … that made them, made it possible for them to address a broad range of issues that were important to people, but address these issues in a very intelligent way. But now most of the brilliant people, the people who have the sort of ability that the ones I’ve names had, they’re almost all professors. And that life and the time of vocation that modern professor has, I think is inimical to being a broad-ranging intellectual dealing with current issues in an intelligent way.

HEFFNER: Does that mean that your study is really a study of the decline of the academic?

POSNER: No, it’s the decline of the, of this particular type of intellectual who addresses current issues in a way that the public an understand. I don’t … in a way, it’s the opposite, its the rise of the Academy, the expansion of universities, the elimination of the barriers, you know based on race and sex and so on, to becoming a professor that have sort of sucked the, the brilliant people into the Academy. And it brings them in and it gives them tenure and it gives them, you know, satisfying work and gives them decent salaries. But in exchange, they lead this cloistered life … you know they never leave school, they go from graduate school to teaching … so the whole life is in the university. And the condition for success, for modern academics, is to be specialized and as specialization becomes narrower and narrower, as there are more and more academics, more and more publishing.

So you have these people who lead rather cloistered lives … in university … and who’s work is just exceedingly specialized. For example, when I was on the Faculty Board of the University of Chicago Press, a manuscript was submitted that …by a historian, it was about the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. And this manuscript was sent out to be reviewed, be referred, by other historians who had written about World’s Fairs. And these historians reported that this fellow’s manuscript on the 1958 World’s Fair was a significant contribution to World’s Fair history. So I realized World’s Fair History had become a field, within history. And when you have people who are this narrowly specialized and then the press comes along and says, “what do you think of [laughter] President Clinton’s impeachment? Or what do you think of the election, 2000 election, or what do you think of how we should fight terrorism … these people, although they have academic credentials, they’re intelligent people and articulate, which makes them attractive to the media. They don’t have the kind of breadth or the kind of … either the intellectual breadth, or the life experiences which would enable them to address issues outside their specialty.

HEFFNER: Where are the Socrates? Where are the Voltaire? Where are those other …

POSNER: Well, I think people like Socrates and Voltaire and George Orwell and John Stuart Mill … Mill the clearest of these … I think they, they would be academics today and they would have very narrow fields of specialization. And as a result, you wouldn’t consult them about general questions, whether it was religion in Voltaire’s case, or the education of the young or political system in Socrates case, or, you know, liberty and the democratic process in those cases and totalitarianism in Orwell’s case.

So, yeah, as I said, the most intellectually enabled people, or I shouldn’t say necessarily … you know they’re brilliant engineers and brilliant businessmen, but people have a kind of an intellectuality and who are very smart, most of them are being sucked into the Academy … some into think tanks, but think tanks are very much universities, and so they’re not having, as I say, the kind of life experiences or breath of reading or breadth of intellectual contacts and interests that characterize these earlier Public Intellectuals.

HEFFNER: Now, you make the point that statistics can be applied …


HEFFNER: … to the question that you raise. How did you do so, and what are the results?

POSNER: Yes. I was interested in whether there were patterns in public intellectual activity and what I did … I complied a list … mostly “catch as catch can”, now there was a book published about 1970 by a Professor named Caduchen (CHECK SPELLING), I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing it correctly … never met him. And he had, he had created a list of 70 Public Intellectuals. Actually many of them, most of them still alive, many of them still active … so I used his list and I … you know, I, I … then the Public Intellectuals that I discussed in my book, I put on the list and eventually I got up to about 546 Public Intellectuals. I realized that the list was becoming unwieldy, but also was radically incomplete … you could easily go up to a 1,000 … and these are just people active in the 20th century. And, but what I wanted to see was such characteristics as how many were academics, how many were Distinguished Academics, how did it break down by race, sex, ethnicity, field of study, a field of their vocation. Where they … how many were foreign, how many American, how many dead, how many living? And, for these … I was worried by the clearly both non-random and non-representative character of my list of 500 plus, so I looked simply … I … so most of my statistical analysis is based on the 100 who received the most mentions in the media. I did a computer search using a program that will count the number of times a person is mentioned in newspapers, in magazine and radio and television talk shows. And so I looked at simply the 100 most cited by these popular media and these are the, sort of the most media celebrated Public Intellectuals. And I was, ;you know, I was interested in these various characteristics of them.

HEFFNER: In this because you believe that in terms of what we, as a people think, these are the people who help us this what we think? These are the people who reach us with their ideas?

POSNER: Oh, yes. These, these are the people who have the greatest access to the public, via the popular media, they’re not necessarily the most influential people, because you can be influential by writing for a small, intellectual coterie but it gets out and is picked up by journalists and communicated to the pubic. But these are the people who are directly addressing the public … they’re directly reaching them and, as a result, they get mentioned a lot in the, in the popular media. So they are a … they are sort of the celebrity Public Intellectuals, though I say not necessarily the most influential. And I don’t know how much they actually sway public opinion because my impression is that mainly the public, those relative small numbers of the public, who pay attention to these public Intellectuals, are mainly listening to the people who have the same views as they do. As I think a lot of this public intellectual activity is sort of solidarity building. A member of the public might have very definite views … Liberal, Conservative, what-have-you, religious, atheistic, doesn’t matter what. And if this person discovers that there are credentialed, articulate, brilliant people who have the same views, that’s very reassuring. And so … I don’t think it’s an accident that the intellectual magazines, like The New Yorker, and the New Republic, and National Review, and American Prospect, and so on … they tend to have, they tend to be rather editorially uniform. You don’t have many magazines that have Liberal and Conservative articles … sometimes like The New York Times OpEd page you have a token Conservative. Or a Conservative magazine, like the Wall … Conservative newspaper, like The Wall Street Journal … has its token Liberal. But, generally, these various organs are monolithic and that’s, I think, because their readership are the people who want to be reassured that their position in the political spectrum is also occupied by articulate and credentialed and brilliant people. They can read them, they can be reassured and they can get arguments which they can use with their friends.

HEFFNER: But, Judge Posner, if they are talking to the convinced; if they’re talking to those who share their points of view, what difference does it make, what’s the significance of this decline of the public intellectual?

POSNER: Well, I, I don’t think it’s, I don’t think it’s some kind of national crisis. I don’t think it’s very serious. Because, as, as you say, yes, I do think much of it … that does have an effect though, I mean. It does tend to polarize opinion. That is, it means that fewer people hold their views tentatively because they’ve gotten reassurance from what appear to be experts. So, it would be nice, I would think, if a lot of people took the view that … about many issues … they didn’t have any view at all. Because they’re too difficult, they’re too complicated. But instead they can point to someone in a magazine or on a TV show who appears to be an expert and has taken their position emphatically and so I think that’s a bit of a problem and I think also … I think the universities are hurt to a certain extent by the antics of some of their …

HEFFNER: What do you mean “antics?”

POSNER: … intellectuals. Well, the fact that people who have full-time academic positions will often engage in extremely irresponsible public intellectual activity in which they will be identified with the university … that will be the first thing said about them, and yet they’re saying things that are … that, that really should, really bring the university enterprise into disrepute.

HEFFNER: You want to make them accountable, don’t you?

POSNER: Yeah, I’d like them … yes, I think accountability is important. It’s … you know, it’s like these accounting problems, business problems … if, if no one is keeping score, no one is monitoring one’s activities, then the temptation to be, to be lazy and to be willful is considerable.

HEFFNER: I was fascinated that you make the point that many economists fall into that group that frequently make irresponsible statements.


HEFFNER: And, ah, you wish there was some kind of publication that the universities maintained which showed what they had predicted, what they had proclaimed …


HEFFNER: … and then what happened really. And reading that, I then read in Paul Krugman’s column, and you talk about, write about Paul Krugman, that on the 22nd of February he wrote personally about whether the recession is over or not, “Personally I find the pessimist more convincing than the optimist, though any economist who honestly keeps track of his own forecasting record quickly learns to be humble.”

POSNER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: And in a sense he was saying …


HEFFNER: … what you were saying, only you want to make this known.

POSNER: Yes. Yes. And, of course, Krugman is speaking in generalities, he’s not saying that his predictions have long been erroneously. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: But you’re saying something like that.

POSNER: Yes. Yes. But, but I’m surprised how these people, economists and many other members of other disciplines have been, have been making wrong predictions for many years, but they continue to be regarded as experts and to be interviewed and treated … taken seriously and their books read, and so on.

HEFFNER: You know, when you made that point, and you make it very well, I wondered if we were to take, if you were to take, or some other scholar were to take the pronouncements of that older, not yet declined group of intellectuals, who weren’t associated with the Academy, to see how prophetic they were. I wonder what we’d discover?

POSNER: We would discover a mixed bag. I mean clearly you would find … see, see, of course the problem is … it’s very difficult, it’s one of the reasons I did try to do some statistical analysis … it’s very difficult to be systematic because when you’re dealing with a vast array of writings that no one has really tried to, you know, encompass comprehensively, but you can certainly … people like John Stuart Mill can be read today with profit because they … or in his case, talking about the mid-19th century, but his discussion of liberty and the tyranny of public opinion and conditions for effective democracy are extremely modern. Another example would be Tocqueville, who’s … you can read his book Democracy In America written about 1830s and 40s, and it’s quite contemporary in many ways. And coming into the 20th century, you know, people like John Maynard Keynes wrote with certainly prophetic knowledge about , well particularly about the Versailles Treaty. On the other hand, even among great public intellectuals of that era, like George Orwell, you’ll find a number of erroneous predictions. I mean, for example, he predicted that World War II would result in a Socialist revolution in England. Now it did result in, you know, a Socialist government coming to power, but not the sort of thing he envisaged. And he probably exaggerated the efficacy of brain-washing by Communist countries. But, but, you know, there’s tremendous insight and occasional mistakes, but the public intellectuals that I focus on in my book … modern, American, academic public intellectuals tend to be people who’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I don’t see the great insights. And, of course, there are exceptions. You mentioned Milton Friedman, that would be a dramatic exception. And I think, you know Henry Kissinger, I think is a very distinguished public intellectual. But some of the people I talk about, like Lester Thurow and Edward Lutwack and Noam Chomsky and Paul Krugman, it seems to me most … their public intellectual writings are really deeply, deeply flawed because of, because of the percentage of erroneous evaluation, mistaken predictions … just seems too high.

HEFFNER: I gather, too, you feel that many of those, or a large proportion of those predictions, not prophecies … because they are “decline-ist” in nature, because they talk about ay de me and “woe is me” …


HEFFNER: That this is, that this is a pattern …

POSNER: Yes. This is another,. I haven’t emphasized this so far in our discussion. One of things that struck me is that this public intellectual activity has a little more structure than has been assumed in the sense that there are these sort of different genres of public intellectual expression and somehow they seem to have their own rules and so if you decide to do a political satire, it’s going to have a particular character and if you decide to do environmental predictions, I have a certain character … and one of the most distinctive genres is this … it really does start with Jeremiah … this is, is “decline-ism”, is the notion that your culture, in this case would be American, you know, late 20th century culture … is in decline, sort of across the board. This kind of unity of culture and, and so … one example that seems to me to be kind of comical is a book, a very recent book by Jacques Barsone in which he talks about decadence and describes ours as a decadent society. And one of the examples he gives is the movement toward informal dress on, you know, Wall Street law firms, restaurants and so on. Men aren’t wearing ties and jackets anymore. And he regards this as a really kind of meaningful symptom of national decline. And, and this, you know, picking on little … Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book, One Nation, Two Cultures, I think that’s the title is another example. That is, you know, you pick on the little things that annoy you [laughter] …

HEFFNER: Well, of course …

POSNER: … vulgarity in popular culture and then you use that to be symptomatic of, of really alarming national decline.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, Jacques Barzone was saying the same things …

POSNER: [Laughter] Was he?

HEFFNER: … then, as he has written most recently and meaning them as intensely as he does …

POSNER: Aha, aha.

HEFFNER: …now. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s wrong. Or that Himmelfarb is wrong. Or that any of the others you mentioned. But you certainly are correct this … there is this tradition …


HEFFNER: … of declining.

POSNER: Well, if one predicts decline … I mean I suppose if you started predicting the decline of the Roman Empire in the year One …

HEFFNER: You’d be safe.

POSNER: … in 250 years you’d be vindicated. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: And your own prophecy, in the half minute we have left.

POSNER: No, I don’t do … I don’t do predictions.

HEFFNER: You don’t do prophecies.

POSNER: [Laughter] No.

HEFFNER: But you are disturbed by this trend in American writing. And you do see it as a decline. You see it as a movement.

POSNER: Yes, but I don’t … I don’t think it has … well, you asked whether I thought it was significant. And I don’t, I don’t think it’s … I don’t think it, you know, poses a danger to this society.

HEFFNER: That’s good because this is the end of our program, and I’m glad we’re not in danger, Judge Posner.

POSNER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.