The Call to Theory

By Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft      

Immediately after the U.S. presidential election results were announced on November 9th, 2016, the calls to action began to ring out. Faster than Minerva’s owl, they were followed by more than a few calls to theory.

One of those calls has been to read or reread the work of the political theorist Hannah Arendt, and her ideas, never out of circulation, are now circulating more rapidly, more visibly.[1] The title of her most frequently mentioned book implies a judgment about the new American administration: The Origins of Totalitarianism. The hope seems to be that Arendt’s account of totalitarianism in Europe (in her work of 1951), or of lying in politics (“Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers,” 1971), or of political action (The Human Condition, 1958), might do something more than theoretical—that her works might, in a rather un-dialectical sense, guide practice as American liberals and leftists resist their new Republican government. As many commentators note, the week after Trump’s inauguration Arendt’s Origins sold so well as to run out of stock on Impressively, this surge of book buying followed immediately after the January 21, 2017 Women’s March, which was the largest single-day political demonstration in the history of United States of America.

Arendt is not the only past or contemporary author to enjoy a fresh reading in darkened times: George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are two notable titles receiving renewed attention. Crisis has also occasioned new responses in a range of small magazines and literary journals—even pre-Trump, some were calling our moment a new “golden age” for publications (pointing to Jacobin, N+1, The Los Angeles Review of Books and others), and a renaissance-born-of-crisis for younger writers on the left. Post-Election, it is a full-time job keeping up with the deluge of essays from liberals and the left, opposing the right.

Photograph taken by the author at Amherst Books in Amherst, MA

Even within my social media feeds I have seen established and prominent scholars encouraged to speak out themselves against the rise of what some began to term “kakistocracy”—government by the worst among us. Their electronic acquaintances told them they should speak out; they said that it is the responsibility of intellectuals to write on politics, and to resist a feared new regime. Such calls, and the ideal of moral stewardship they evoke, did not seem out of place last November, in part because everything had started to seem out of place.

Yet, there is something anachronistic about calling for intellectuals, even as we (more literally, and often weekly) call our senators. It relies upon a feeling for the authority of learned persons, a feeling we have lost, if we ever had it. For one thing, this is because Trump’s electoral victory could be construed as the triumph of American anti-intellectualism.[2] For another, his victory seems to have been made possible by a gradual transformation of the American body politic that goes beyond mere polarization: in recent years we have increasingly been defined by a fracturing of our collective attention into what the literary critic Michael Warner once termed “counterpublics,” or what the political theorist Nancy Fraser called “subaltern counterpublics.” In our case, those counterpublics are defined by political orientation but also sometimes by nationalism, by race, by gender, by religion, and often by Christian faith specifically. It has become a commonplace that right-wing counterpublics define themselves over and against a mainstream “liberal” media, presumed to be controlled by hostile coastal elites. Thus, one would have to ask: What public could an intellectual address? Lastly, but crucially, in recent years arguments about the social role of humanistic intellectuals have begun to seem old-fashioned. They have been replaced by handwringing over the apparent decline of the humanities and social sciences within institutions of higher education, and concern over the ever-increasing public profile of engineers and scientists, not to mention the frequent reinterpretation of social and political problems as prompts for quantitative research and design. Thus conversations about the social role of humanists have become less common than rear-guard arguments for the “relevance” or instrumental usefulness of the humanities. To revive the ideal of the intellectual now, seems to point towards a cultural turmoil beyond the one that attends Trump’s election. It crystallizes the crisis of culture and value at which we have collectively arrived, for intellectuals cannot speak with any authority if the sources of their hard-won legitimacy, in the library or the lab or the field site, are ignored or forgotten.

This essay is not, notably, a criticism of calls for intellectuals to take action, nor is it an effort to take a position among the thousand versions of resistant, progressive and left politics that currently flourish in America. It is, rather, a reflection on the calls for “the intellectual” heard in late 2016 and early 2017. And it is about the fate of culture in the state of Trump, or more properly, about the legitimacy of expertise about culture.

To revive the ideal of the intellectual now, seems to point towards a cultural turmoil beyond the one that attends Trump’s election. It crystallizes the crisis of culture and value at which we have collectively arrived, for intellectuals cannot speak with any authority if the sources of their hard-won legitimacy, in the library or the lab or the field site, are ignored or forgotten.

A political crisis has produced a desire to reoccupy a cultural logic that once appeared passé: the moral or political legitimacy of intellectual life lived in public, and grounded in cultural work, often informed by serious scholarship. But this has happened at a moment when any notion of living in a unitary culture—i.e., possessing a set of canonical texts whose contents have ethical authority—has become laughable. For many liberals and leftists, the unitary and the canonical suggest an unappealing form of cultural conservatism, whose concrete political manifestations might include, but are not limited to, efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, ban abortion, restrict marriage rights to heterosexuals, and restrict transgendered persons to the bathrooms of their birth-assigned sex. And interestingly, the reoccupation of an old cultural logic is taking place at a moment when not humanism, but business and engineering (and science, but usually applied science) have the public’s eyes and ears. Calls for humanistic intellectuals to speak against Trump et al reach for a cultural form whose content seems to have drained away but whose structure nevertheless remains in place, available to be given new life. This structure is the notion of the social or political authority of people of learning, and of the legitimacy of their social and political commentaries.


Was the post-election call for intellectuals to speak out against Trump (a call that many, including Rebecca Solnit and Jedediah Purdy to name just two, have answered) simply a question of mobilizing resources for politics? Perhaps for some, the answer is “yes,” and the figure of the intellectual becomes an appealing icon of resistance against Trump, his retinue, and regime. For others, beneath the call stands a wish for a world in which reason and some hypothetical general public could harmonize at least a little – not necessarily a world of shared traditions, but one of reasonable publics. It is worth comparing both of these ways of invoking intellectuals and intellectual life, to a third idea about intellectuals, namely that the figure of the intellectual represents not only critique (if there is a single word that the left, and perhaps especially the academic left, associates with intellectuals it is “critique”) but also a secularized version of what religion once provided: shared cultural scripts, a sense of metaphysical grounding, the stewardship and interpretation and transmission of a set of common texts, whether those texts are literal books, or other artifacts of culture. With a nod to the intellectual historian Hans Blumenberg, we might say that religion supplies a basic paradigm for many figurations of the intellectual, regardless of the fact that “the intellectual’s” work is normally measured against political benchmarks for impact and salience.[3]

Of these three ways of invoking intellectuals and their texts, the last articulates most plainly the issue of legitimacy, of why a deep preoccupation with the life of the mind should be taken to license political critique. This is worth meditating upon. After all, one of the many ways to frame the contemporary crisis of American culture and politics is in terms of lost legitimacy: our current government refuses the legitimacy of scientific consensus regarding global warming, to offer one glaring example. It is as though facts have become unmusical for our president, because he does not like their tune. We have not entered into a postmodern romp in which an ironic appreciation of the way facts are inevitably embedded in narratives, allows us to think more clearly; we are dealing with liars. The salient question becomes: in the face of the widespread rejection of informed or expert opinion, can thinkers who address the public, not only remind us of the existence of trained and experienced judgment, but give us a feeling for its connection to our mundane lives? It should go without saying that this is less a question about the actions of specific writers and thinkers, than one about the condition of culture.


To invoke the intellectual at a moment of political crisis creates an intriguing historical echo, for the term “an intellectual” originated in a moment of political crisis in France, a crisis fueled by turn of the century populist nationalism. During the Dreyfus Affair, the role of “the intellectual” was invoked first as a kind of slur, and then, subsequently, as a rallying call. The ranks of the conservative anti-Dreyfusards who were, on the whole, Catholic French Nationalists and often pro-military, did include scholars and writers such as Ferdinand Brunetière, a convert to Catholicism who viewed religion as the only sure source of social morality. And yet it was not with the conservative position in the Dreyfus Affair that the term “an intellectual” came to be associated, but rather with the liberal one. To be “an intellectual” meant speaking for a France defined not by blood and soil, or by faith, but by truth, the rule of law, and an inclusive vision of civil society.

It is as though facts have become unmusical for our president, because he does not like their tune. 

Useful as this history may be, efforts to create a grand unified theory of the intellectual (or a theory of such a person’s rights, or duties, or social function) are silly. The “intellectual” or, to use the later North American, term, the “public intellectual,” is not a natural kind. Rather, it is a role that is always local to a particular set of social and political circumstances. Similarly, calls for intellectuals, or admonitions about their responsibilities, are usually more performative than they are descriptive of anything empirical.[4]

Still, two characteristics associated with “the intellectual” during the Dreyfus Affair have been critical for the subsequent career of the term in the twentieth century. First, though that century was populated by Marxist intellectuals, conservative intellectuals, anarchist intellectuals, liberal intellectuals, technocratic intellectuals, and many other sub-types, the figure of “the intellectual” was foundationally associated with publicness of a sort, and perhaps most especially, with addressing the public through media forms such as the newspaper or, later, the radio, television and (more recently, but now ubiquitously) the Internet. The later twentieth-century North American term “public intellectual” thus duplicates a meaning already present in the original French Un intellectuel, as if the decades between the Dreyfus Affair and the term’s American usage, had required a renewal of emphasis on publicness, a reassurance that the “public thing” is at the forefront of our concerns. More pointedly, there is something anxious about the term “a public intellectual,” and it is tempting to wonder if this is due to an American suspicion that without the adjectival modifier, the life of the mind would be willfully private.

And second, expectations for intellectuals presumed that a narrowly trained thinker could speak with merit on topics distant from their area of expertise. Sometimes the grounding notion behind this type of transference was that expertise has a moral content beyond the specifics of the information and methods known to experts, giving them the ability—and sometimes the responsibility—to speak on pressing issues of the day. Thus, arguably, the intellectual at the turn of the twentieth century had as much in common with that old-fashioned English social type of the “moralist” as with that newer, twentieth-century type, the “expert.” Some commentators have observed this moral function of the figure of the intellectual and made it the basis of an intriguing claim: despite the frequent association between intellectuals and a secular public society the intellectual is at root a religious type, even when invoked at moments of political and cultural crisis like the one we Americans inhabit in 2017.

More pointedly, there is something anxious about the term “a public intellectual,” and it is tempting to wonder if this is due to an American suspicion that without the adjectival modifier, the life of the mind would be willfully private.

Writing in 1958, in a very different climate of debate, the sociologist Edward Shils wrote that intellectuals are those members of a society who feel an “interior need to penetrate beyond the screen of immediate concrete experience.” He also called this quality “sensitivity to the sacred.” Whether their connection to the extra-mundane is construed as sensitivity or need, for Shils, “intellectuals” are compelled by it. Intellectuals are distinguished not by having a greater measure of that need than those around them, but rather, by their social role. They are the ones who mediate between the everyday and the transcendent, however that latter concept gets defined. Indeed, Shils wrote, even without having extraordinarily sensitive persons, a society would produce intellectuals to fulfill its functional ends.

Shils’ essay, “The Intellectuals and the Powers,” was not preoccupied with the numinous or with prophecy as modalities through which intellectuals might make the sacred into a source of political guidance. Although he insisted that intellectual work begins with an essentially religious curiosity about things that transcend this world, Shils focused on secularized versions of that curiosity and his real interest was in social function.[5] As his essay ran its course his basis for the intellectual’s role in the clerisy appeared to be motivated by structural rather than spiritual considerations. He noted the role of intellectuals in the formation of nationalism and in the legitimation of specific regimes. And at last, he observed sweepingly: “Through their provision of models and standards, by the presentation of symbols to be appreciated, intellectuals elicit, guide, and form the dispositions within a society.”

Nothing in Shils’ description rules out a critical or even revolutionary role for intellectuals (he took careful note of intellectuals’ role in modern revolutions[6]), but his emphasis was on the intellectual’s guiding and conserving functions, as they ensure that the common life of a society will be lived in contact with its ultimate, and fundamentally extra-mundane, values. Writing in 1958, Shils observed that intellectuals were tending to work more and more often within the confines of institutions (whether those institutions were education and research-based, governmental, industrial, or journalistic) than outside of them. Over the decades since Shils wrote, the issue of institutional affiliation appears again and again in writings on intellectuals, particularly when an academic seat (or even, a chair) is understood to license comments on extra-academic matters, or when that same academic seat is understood to bind up and block energy that might have otherwise flowed into public life. As of 2017, however, Shils’ picture of conserving intellectuals working within institutions, has become somewhat harder to hold in mind. This is due to the collapse of many employment markets, including in academia and journalism, and because of the vast number of credentialed cultural experts unable to find work. Indeed, one of the storylines circulated about the wave of new magazines and journals is that much of their momentum comes from writers who otherwise might be employed as academics.


In 2016, shortly after Trump received the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency, the Christian literary scholar Alan Jacobs published an essay in Harper’s, entitled “The Watchmen,” in which he faced the white Christian resentment running through the nationalist or, more broadly, populist movements on the rise in Europe and North America. In the U.S. case, the feeling that America is no longer a majority white country has been joined to a sense that Christian values are embattled here. Taking no part in this spirit of resentment, Jacobs lamented the disappearance of religious thinkers whose writings had once linked communities of Christian faith and a mainstream liberal order. Why, in other words, is there no-one to counterbalance the public presence of not merely conservative, but actively anti-intellectual, Christians linked to right-wing movements? Conscious that such complex historical shifts are hard to render briefly, Jacobs tried to survey what had been lost. In England, in the mid-twentieth century, his ideal was exemplified by the missionary J.H. Oldham’s Moot, a discussion group and ad-hoc think tank which, for a time, included the sociologist Karl Mannheim, a Jew from Hungary and one of the great theorists of the figure of the intellectual in the Weimar Republic; it also included T.S. Eliot. Turning to the United States, Jacobs looked to the rabbi Louis Finkelstein, who joined with thinkers from other religious traditions in convening a “Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life,” a title at once broad, inclusive, and indicating lofty purpose. Much of the work done by the thinkers of the Moot and the Conference had to do with opposing what were then the great manifest threats to democratic society: communism and totalitarianism. That opposition had to take the form of an argument on democracy’s behalf, effectively (as Jacobs put it) a “metaphysical grounding” for democracy.

The crucible in which the specifically Christian intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century were formed, Jacobs explained, was the use of the materials of religious life as a resource for building arguments on behalf of liberal democracy. This is the political and intellectual context out of which arose C.S. Lewis, perhaps better known for his young adult novels than for his Christian apologetics, and the theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, to name two.

Jacobs’ essay, animated by a regret that we no longer have such voices, tried to account for why they have disappeared. His short-form answer, which feeds into a common narrative about the fracturing of the American electorate around intractable differences, is that they chose to vanish. Christian authors ceased to address themselves to a secular American public, itself available to religion but not politically defined by it, and began to address themselves to other Christians—to a Christian counterpublic, we might say.

Jacobs did not tell another salient part of the story, namely, the rise of Christian fundamentalism and the increasing importance of certain fundamentalists who have access to the wealth and political connections they need to advance their agendas. He was focused on the question of why non-separatist Christian thinkers ceased to address themselves to the public. He took the recent career of Cornel West not as evidence against this argument (as he might have done; West certainly takes the role of the public intellectual as his primary work, and he is vocal about his Christianity), but as evidence for it: Jacobs argued that by insisting his politics are deeply linked to a prophetic Christian witness tradition, West had, over time, hindered rather than helped his influence in a basically liberal democratic public sphere.[7]

Christian authors ceased to address themselves to a secular American public, itself available to religion but not politically defined by it, and began to address themselves to other Christians—to a Christian counterpublic, we might say.

In Jacobs’ story about Christian intellectuals, an increasing gulf between believers and a liberal democratic public sphere placed non-separatist Christian intellectuals in an intractable bind: religion’s position in the secular liberal order would always be contested, and, after the premature declaration of the “end of ideology,” religion was no longer seen as a desirable or necessary source for arguments on behalf of democracy. Meanwhile, and as Jacobs quoted the observation of the novelist Marilynne Robinson, “the right has colonized the word [Christian]” leaving little room for Christians in the center or on the left.

To say that conserving and institutional accounts of the intellectual might be uninspiring at a moment of political crisis, which is also a moment of crisis for the institutions that have often supported intellectuals, would be putting it mildly.[8] And yet Jacobs’ lament about the disappearance of Christian intellectuals recalls, perhaps inadvertently, Shils’ account of intellectuals from nearly 60 years earlier.[9] Once again, Shils saw intellectuals as being, at root, motivated by the pursuit of the transcendental, and as transforming those basic impulses into a relationship with a rich symbolic and ethical inheritance, which can in turn serve a crucial pastoral function for the “laity,” however construed. Conservation and maintenance may seem unglamorous when the songs of the moment are full of resistance; they may seem neighbors to actual conservatism, and thus currently like an anathema. However, for Shils, they never meant conservative fealty to government or tradition, but rather first and foremost, obedience to abstract principles. His essay’s title “The Intellectuals and the Powers,” was meant to evoke the conflict that this produced, for insofar as Western intellectuals tend not to be clerics in a theocracy, they are the ones who observe the gap between present government and ideal governance, present social mores and ideal ones (however construed). There is, in other words, room for critique in Shils’ picture of the intellectual-as-secularizer, a picture that tends towards a kind of lay Platonism in its portrayal of the life of the mind as extra-mundane.

Shils’ account of the intellectual may, from our current vantage point, seem old fashioned and entirely inapplicable. But it bears a striking fidelity to the Dreyfus-era sense that the work of intellectuals shuttles between two sites, one of them scholarly and unworldly, and the other political. It also recalls the contemporary feeling that Jacobs articulated in Christian terms: that intellectuals have stopped imagining themselves addressing a mainstream public, and, in the process they have begun colluding with the fragmentation of that public along narrow sectarian lines. To expand from Jacobs’ account, those lines may be religious but they may also be nationalist, or racist, or congruent with patriarchal or, conversely, feminist interest. There are any number of ways to form a counterpublic.


The loss of an imaginary unified public has proceeded alongside the rise of a technocratic mindset. As Jacobs recounts to great effect, in 1946 the poet W.H. Auden, a Christian albeit idiosyncratically so, read a poem at Harvard entitled “Under Which Lyre” and subtitled “A Reactionary Tract for the Times,” in which he surveyed the difficult plight of humanists, the “sons of Hermes,” at a time when “Apollo’s children,” or, in other words the technocrats, were gaining influence. Among his injunctions to Hermes’ children was, “Thou shalt not sit/With statisticians nor commit/A social science.” Auden’s presentation was not only important because it thematized a conflict that C.P. Snow would re-articulate far more influentially twelve years later in his essay “The Two Cultures,” but also because Harvard’s president James Bryant Conant was present. Himself a chemist, Conant had recently been in charge of the Manhattan Project, and had witnessed the very first test of the atomic bomb. Auden reported that, when meeting Conant, he had felt he was meeting an ideological enemy.[10]

The middle of the twentieth century, which saw the heyday of the “little magazines” and journals such as Partisan Review, and would later become the focus of much nostalgic longing for subsequent generations of intellectuals, was also an important turning point. Thereafter, the scientist or the engineer would gain in prestige, while the humanists would slowly lose theirs. Writing in 1958, a year before C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, Shils insisted that science and humanistic learning both began in the same mood of keen interest in that which lies beyond the mundane world.[11] But talk of root motivations has little traction on worldly careers, and the scientists and social scientists, as Auden observed in his poem, had sometimes encountered very influential people, during the war:

            Professors back from secret missions
            Resume their proper eruditions,
            Though some regret it;
            They liked their dictaphones a lot,
            They met some big wheels, and do not
            Let you forget it.

The same year in which Shils published “Intellectuals and the Powers,” Hannah Arendt took up similar themes in the Prologue to her book The Human Condition. Whereas her 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism had ended with the image of concentration camps, described as if they were artificial worlds built to accomplish the task of dehumanization, her 1958 book began with a different kind of engineering project altogether, namely, Sputnik, the first satellite, which the Soviets launched to orbit the earth in 1957. The Human Condition is most often read as Arendt’s full articulation of a theory of public political action, integrated into a tripartite account of human activity more broadly—labor, work, and action, the account runs. Usually forgotten is that the book begins with a critique of technocracy, with Sputnik becoming a displaced echo of the camps that the world saw as a signal of the future.[12] Arendt would soon become Auden’s friend, after he gave The Human Condition a positive review in 1959, and it is tempting to wonder if Auden’s earlier fidelity with the side of Hermes over that of Apollo had made him an especially well attuned reader of Arendt’s Prologue. Arendt seemed to have no doubts whatsoever that science and engineering stood poised to remake the world to suit the needs of “Man;” the accomplishments she expected, seemed taken from the pages of science fiction magazines.[13] Her judgment was, that the style of expert know-how behind such projects was, in some sense, contrary to political life as such, concerned as expert thought was with the accomplishment of tasks rather than with agonistic public debate regarding the appropriateness, the value, the desirability of those tasks.

What is most salient about Arendt’s mistrust, not of technology itself, but of technocratic approaches to intrinsically political problems, for our own moment? Perhaps it is that, over recent decades, and in a pronounced fashion in recent years, the Conants of the world have received vastly more plaudits than the Audens, and in particular ways that carry consequences for our public culture, either when construed at maximum generality, or when due consideration is given to our fracturing, our status as a plurality of subcultures and counterpublics. The post-election feeling that statistician Nate Silver had not simply been incorrect to predict a victory for Hillary Clinton, but that he had “failed us,” is entirely to the point; statistical modeling has become not only a tool to use, but something in which some of us placed faith.[14] The Arendt of The Human Condition encourages us to ask if our Conants may have misconstrued the character of the problems they are trying to solve.

As David Sessions argues in a recent review of Daniel Drezner’s book, The Ideas Industry, the most visible figures associated with expert ideation in American life have, for some years now, been engineers and scientists and not necessarily those scientists engaged in “basic research” but, rather, those who pitch their work as a solution to grand human challenges. Sessions embraces the framework created by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to understand such persons as “organic intellectuals.” An organic intellectual, according to Gramsci, devises and circulates the ideological justifications for the success of a rising social class, and the social class in question in our own time is that of the ultra-wealthy. “Thought leaders,” Drezner and Sessions write, are the preferred ideation-producers of the extraordinarily rich, and particularly because many of them present “solutions” to global problem areas (which range from disease to malnutrition to education to climate change) that only states, or conglomerates of the very wealthy can imagine themselves getting traction upon. “Thought leaders,” one might say, view the world through an optic that flatters the pretensions of their audiences and clients. The great conceit of what is sometimes called the “big ideas circuit,” consisting of conferences like TED and Aspen Ideas, is that private wealth and public benefit may intertwine in a new way in our new century, often with technology, especially emerging technology, brokering their contact—and often without much handwringing about who constitutes the public, and how they construe their interests, or in other words, without anything resembling Arendtian consideration for democratic process.

It is easy enough to point out what is vacuous about the “ideas industry.”[15] What is much harder is to describe the version of public discourse about ideas (including scientific ones) we might have in its place, and to describe why it might be desirable. The question of who fills the social role of the intellectual is tantamount to the question of who counts for a culture, of who gets to describe that culture’s horizons of value and salience.

The great conceit of what is sometimes called the “big ideas circuit,” consisting of conferences like TED and Aspen Ideas, is that private wealth and public benefit may intertwine in a new way in our new century, often with technology, especially emerging technology, brokering their contact—and often without much handwringing about who constitutes the public, and how they construe their interests, or in other words, without anything resembling Arendtian consideration for democratic process.

And if we deride the “ideas industry,” we must not forget that other versions of culture come with their own industrial qualities, or at least economic ones. As Theodor Adorno reminds us in his essay on cultural criticism (Kulturkritik) and society: to speak of culture may be to speak of abstract values, but it can also, and in bourgeois society perhaps it predominantly is, to speak of a property form.[16] If we find ourselves called by the deeply anachronistic idea that intellectuals (as opposed to experts) are concerned with something beyond the mundane, it is critical to remember that such transcendence is mostly aspiration. Indeed, it might be structurally akin to religion. It is a way of pitching our hopes beyond our means. Politically speaking, it is the capacity to imagine a better world, even if our representations of that world must circulate through this material and economic one. Once again, it is hard to describe a desirable public culture of ideas, but it seems obvious that it must rest on compromise, the appreciation of ideality in the midst of a fallen world.

The question we are left with, however, is what it means to invoke the powers and duties of the intellectual at a time of sundered consensus regarding common culture, and the value of any notion of the transcendental. A time, I might add, when our looming battles are over distinctly material things, including health care and the defense of a survivable version of our planet’s environment. This is the quandary that answers us, when we call for intellectuals. That we do not stop calling altogether is, however, extremely interesting. It suggests a persistent interest in the cultural and social role of persons called intellectuals, even after what we might call the “background metaphysic” of that role, has been lost. It suggests that even after the eclipse of universals, and even in a moment of deep political crisis from which universals are unlikely to free us, there is some desire for thinkers, however construed, to perform a crucial public moral and political function: to help us retain not only hope, but agency, in darkened times.


[1] See Zoe Williams, “Totalitarianism in the Age of Trump: Lessons from Hannah Arendt,” The Guardian, February 1st, 2017. Williams’ article is among the better of the wave of articles and essays that have used Arendt to try to come to grips with Trump. Another excellent example is Jeffrey C. Isaac’s “How Hannah Arendt’s Classic Work on Totalitarianism Illuminates Today’s America,” The Washington Post, December 17th, 2016. See also Karen J. Greenberg, “Beyond the Origins of Totalitarianism,” The New Republic, April 14th., 2017, and Nicolaus Mills, “She Called Out Trump’s Lies Decades Ago,” The Daily Beast, February 13th, 2017. There have been many other, shorter articles, of varying levels of quality. For example, see Olivia Goldhill, “Hannah Arendt’s WWII philosophical study of totalitarianism shows ‘alternative facts’ are nothing to laugh about,” Quartz, February 8th, 2017.

[2] The classic and still-relevant text is Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963).  

[3] For the most relevant example of Hans Blumenberg’s approach to intellectual history via paradigms, see his The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983).

[4] For an example of someone currently striving to serve such a role one might look to professor, blogger, and highly engaged Facebook-er, Corey Robin who shared his thoughts on the subject in an article on “How Intellectuals Create a Public,” published last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

[5] As Shils wrote, “In secular intellectual work, this involves the search for the truth, for the principles embedded in events and actions or for the establishment of a relationship between the self and the essential, whether relationship be cognitive, appreciative.”

[6] Two years later, Shils would write of the “special affinity which exists between the modern intellectual orientation and the practice of revolutionary or unconstitutional politics, of politics which are uncivil in their nature.” See “The Intellectuals in the Political Development of the New StatesWorld Politics, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Apr., 1960), pp. 329-368.

[7] For a deeply personal and appreciative, but also strikingly critical, look at West’s recent career, and the role of “prophecy” in West’s work, see Michael Eric Dyson, “The Ghost of Cornel West,” The New Republic, April 19th, 2015.

[8] Shils’ contemporaries certainly did not share his emphasis on the conserving functions of intellectuals. The year after Shils’ essay was published, Seymour Martin Lipset published an essay entitled “American Intellectuals: Their Politics and Status,” in Daedalus, Vol. 88, No. 3 (Summer, 1959) pp. 460-486. In this essay Lipset noted the anti-conservative (in political terms, but also in cultural terms) bias of American intellectuals in the early 20th century. See Lipset, 461.

[9] Jacobs’ essay is also the Christian counterpart to a story that was told by the intellectual historian Russell Jacoby nearly 30 years earlier in 1987, in a well-known book entitled The Last Intellectuals, which described the loss of publicly-minded writers, mainly on the left, mainly New York-based, and the “retreat” (as Jacoby’s story ran) of many of our best writers and thinkers into the academy. Jacoby’s book’s greatest legacy may be that it entered the term “public intellectual” into circulation in North American circles, crystallizing a set of ideas about the relationship between the life of the mind and public politics that have swirled through European and American life for decades. See Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: Basic Books, 1987).

[10] On the Harvard context for Auden’s delivery of his poem, see Adam Kirsch, “A Poet’s Warning,” Harvard Magazine, November-December 2007.

[11] And, in 1959, Shils would give a speech on the circumstances of developing nations, in which he identified the condition of modernity with a scientific outlook. See Nils Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) pp. 1-2.

[12] I owe this observation to Benjamin Lazier; see his “Earthrise; or, The Globalization of the World Picture.American Historical Review (2011) 116 (3): 602-630.

[13] These included: creating life in test tubes towards eugenic ends, extending the human life span, and escaping from the earth itself through space travel. See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958) pp 2-3.

[14] Notably, Silver has explained the sense of surprise at Trump’s victory as an artifact not of the failure of statistical methods, but as an artifact of emotional, and narrative, thinking, especially in newsrooms in liberal cities. See his March 2017 interview with Christina Pazzanese at The Harvard Gazette, “The puzzle in politics and polling.”

[15] See Drezner’s aforementioned volume, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Another well-established critic of the ideas industry is Evgeny Morozov; see his To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013).

[16] Theodor Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” in Adorno, Prisms, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson and Samuel Weber (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997).


Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian currently based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he writes about the quest to grow meat in laboratories. A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he studied at Swarthmore College and did his doctoral work in European intellectual history at Berkeley. His book Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt was published by Penn in January 2016. He is @benwurgaft on Twitter.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *