Commentary Magazine


Is the Intellectual Obsolete?
The Freely Speculating Mind in America

An acquaintance of mine who knows the Soviet Union well is fond of declaring that in the mid-20th century the intellectual has become an anachronism. In the world of advanced industrial society, he argues, the freely speculating mind has lost its function. While I am not inclined to agree unreservedly with my pessimistic friend—whose cast of thought, I must add, leans toward paradox and exaggeration—I am no more willing to reject his argument out of hand. It deserves serious consideration, I believe, particularly in our own country, where the present discontents of intellectuals strongly suggest the possibility that their expectations no longer conform with reality.

In the Communist world the intellectuals’ dependence on state and party scarcely needs to be argued. These writers and thinkers themselves are constantly revealing the facts of the matter by taking advantage of periods of relaxation like the present to voice their long repressed complaints. Theoretically, organized Marxism has always favored the intellectual estate; and the leaders of contemporary Communism have followed in the established tradition by combating the normal anti-intellectualism of workingmen and arguing for the ideological solidarity of “workers of brain and hand.” Yet the phrase itself betrays the true intention. The brain-workers are to share in the construction of socialist society: like the men on the assembly line, they are to make their proper contribution to the new and better world. In brief—to use a phrase that has a familiar American ring—their efforts find official favor only if they are “constructive.”

Hence my friend argues that those whom the Communists call intellectuals are really not intellectuals in the traditional Western sense at all. They are actually no more than “mental technicians.” Of course, certain true intellectuals still exist in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—theoreticians like Eugene Varga and Georg Lukacs to whom the authorities grant a kind of special license. But these are figures of an older generation, whose minds were formed in a freer society. It is questionable, to say the least, whether they have produced any significant number of successors. If, in some remote contingency, the rulers of the Soviet Union were to direct their intellectually trained fellow citizens to speculate with absolute freedom, it would be diverting to see how few of the latter possessed any clear notion of what they were supposed to do.

The small minority of true Communist intellectuals in Eastern Europe can, of course, still speak a common language with their opposite numbers in the West. And the leading Communist intellectuals of Western Europe for the most part maintain relations with non-Communists of similar caliber. These latter in turn have been in regular communication with their fellows in the United States. In some sense, then, even in the period of greatest hostility in Soviet-American relations, the chain of international intellectual exchange was never broken. And, since the renewal of Russian contact with the outside world, it has been at meetings in Western Europe that American and Soviet intellectuals have first confronted each other in the flesh.

In terms of the contemporary realities of intellectual life, Western Europe offers the logical meeting ground. For it is there that the traditional definition of the intellectual’s calling has been most punctiliously adhered to. In Britain, in Western Germany, in Italy, and more particularly in France, the status of the thinker or writer as an individual enjoying a special set of privileges and a special kind of respect is very nearly the same as it was two generations ago, on the eve of the great catastrophes that have so profoundly shaken European society. Since then the material circumstances of life have changed vastly—but the central role of the intellectual has remained unimpaired.

At the same time one suspects that more has actually altered than has appeared on the surface. The European intellectuals continue to write and speak with the old abundance, and their personal doings make as good news copy as in the past. But they no longer have the same practical effect. Today a writers’ manifesto could not possibly precipitate a government crisis or start a revolution. Similarly the efforts of intellectuals to launch new political movements have proved uniformly unsuccessful. From these failures the more honest and perceptive of European writers have begun to draw the deduction that they may be throwing their words into a void—that the old exchange between the intellectual and his public is turning into a weary and repetitious monologue. Few of them are thinking of abandoning their calling; but a great many are searching for a redefinition of it that may give it greater contemporary relevance.

The apathy and lack of understanding for things intellectual of which American writers complain may very well, then, be a contemporary phenomenon extending far beyond the confines of the United States. In fact, the situation in our country may represent some sort of halfway point between the declared hostility to free speculation characteristic of the Soviet Union and the traditional (and increasingly hollow) respect that the public in Western Europe accords. Moreover, there is a genuineness in the American attitude that makes it easier to examine: where few merely inherited reasons exist for pretending to a higher regard for the things of the mind than one actually feels, the realities of the matter emerge with greater sharpness. For purposes of argument, at least, one may suggest that the intellectual situation in the United States presents a kind of paradigm for the whole of industrial society in the 20th century.

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Initially it is well to remind ourselves of those things in the American intellectual heritage that have set it off from the European. Here I think we can safely accept my friend’s distinction between “mental technicians” and true intellectuals. A distinction of this sort has been implicit in the attitude of Europeans since the role of the free intellectuals first differentiated itself from that of the clergy. When in early modern times the lay thinker and writer began to break the original Church monopoly of intellectual life, he inherited most of the respect and sense of differentiated function that adhered to the priestly status. Although no longer bound by holy orders, he remained a “clerk” in spirit and function. Hence Julien Benda was simply holding true to tradition when thirty years ago he sharply rebuked the modern “clerks” for a betrayal of their historic mission.

It was not, however, all those of mental training who inherited this sort of benefit of clergy. The sense of differentiated status did not apply to physicians, engineers, architects, or technical advisers to government. Only those who performed the same sort of functions that the clergy had once monopolized—and, in a more restricted area, continued to perform—enjoyed the latters’ special immunity. Only those engaged in abstract speculation, in the posing of general problems of universal concern, were able to make a valid claim to a privileged status.

Moreover, as opposed to technical pursuits on the one hand and to merely personal investigations on the other, the function of the new and the old “clerks” in Europe always bore a public character. The respect these individuals enjoyed did not derive simply from the splendor of their mental operations: it reflected their position as the custodians of the higher values of society. As the Church had once enunciated the general principles that were to guide public conduct, as the clerically dominated universities had elaborated the rules of argumentation and served as the guardians of orthodoxy, so from the 16th century on the new class of lay intellectuals began to elaborate a richer and less confined pattern of behavior to offer to their fellow citizens. When Erasmus or Bacon wrote he did not write for a narrow coterie of intellectuals: he spoke to the princes and governing elite of Europe.

It was only by a series of slow and cautious adaptations that this definition of public responsibility began to be widened into a concept of the liberty of the intellectual to speculate without restraint on the frontiers of knowledge. The modern idea of the complete freedom of the mind certainly does not much antedate Milton—and even Milton, we may remember, showed no tolerance toward Papists and atheists. In fact, it is doubtful whether such an idea could ever have won its way at all if those who advanced it had not been surrounded by some of the sanctified respect derived from their clerical origin, and, concomitantly, if it had not been implied that the claimants to intellectual freedom would always be comparatively few in number.

And so by the 18th century there had come about that radical change that converted the characteristic European intellectual from a defender and rationalizer of existing institutions into their implacable critic. This latter role is so familiar to us today that we seldom stop to recall that it represented nearly a complete reversal of the older function. Throughout the century and a half immediately preceding our own era it was generally assumed that the most alert and active section of the intelligentsia would be engaged in What Joseph Schumpeter called “nibbling away at the foundations of society.” And this is still what an old-type European intellectual like Jean-Paul Sartre thinks that he is about.

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Never in its history—except perhaps briefly in the 1930’s and early 1940’s—did the United States conform to this European model. Starting from a similar clerical monopoly of intellectual leadership, the American colonies never developed a true intellectual caste. When the domination of Protestant divines was shaken off, no native-grown intelligentsia stepped into their place. In the early days of the Republic, the life of the mind was still inextricably entangled with statesmanship: one has only to think of Franklin and Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. Later there appeared the sages of Concord and the wits of Manhattan—but they never formed a homogeneous class exerting a cumulative influence on a national scale. Until the 20th century the educated American might be a statesman or a preacher, a littérateur or a technician, but only a handful of isolated figures such as Henry Adams behaved like intellectuals in the European sense.

It was Henry Adams who in the 1870’s trained some of the first American Ph.D.’s. The creation of a substantial group of individuals with doctor’s degrees brought the United States closer to European conditions. For the man endowed with an academic doctorate—and usually with a job that he considered unworthy of his talents—had become a kind of type figure in the Continental intelligentsia. Simultaneously the American institutions of higher learning began to convert themselves into universities in the European sense: professors ceased to be mere pedagogues and sought to supplement their teaching with independent thought and investigation. Yet in the population at large the older attitude still dominated: the characteristic young man of brains and promise became a “mental technician” rather than an intellectual. It is symptomatic that today the physician ranks higher than the professor or writer in the scale of public prestige.

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Hence the substantial influence that American intellectuals enjoyed in the period from 1933 to 1945 was something unprecedented in our history. And it is not surprising that it proved rather heady to modest professors who suddenly found themselves pulled out of quiet campuses into the bustle and excitement of Washington. What is not so justifiable, however, is the fashion in which many of them began to take their new situation for granted and to treat it as their normal due. In this case the wisdom of Napoleon’s mother—”pourvou que ça doure“—would have been a more sensible attitude. Once the extraordinary conditions of depression and war were over—and once a corps of technical career administrators had been trained to fill the gaps in the service for which it had been necessary to improvise talent from the outside—the more normal American attitude toward direction by intellectuals quite predictably resumed its sway.

In judging the anti-intellectualism of the last decade, then, it is important to separate what is truly new and threatening from what is merely the reassertion of an earlier and more usual attitude. Certainly at least part of the American intellectual’s sense of endangered status stems from an exaggerated notion of what that status had actually become. It was not true—as both the critics and the defenders of the intellectuals frequently seemed to assert—that a group of doctrinaire thinkers and professors had held the destiny of the country literally in their hands. Nor was it true that any but a tiny minority of them had consciously sought positions of influence. Rather they had accepted, often with reluctance, duties that their country had urged upon them. And these they had accomplished with conscientiousness, if necessarily in somewhat amateurish fashion. When the crisis—or rather, series of crises—was over, they were dropped from the service or, more usually, left of their own accord, drawn away by nostalgia for the campus and the sense that there was no longer interesting or useful work in Washington to be performed.

Thus when American intellectuals voice their grievances—and I would be the last to deny that many of these grievances are very real—they would do well to omit the charge of ingratitude on the part of their government. They would do well to combat in themselves the sense of hurt feelings that has produced the two equally undignified attitudes of recrimination and self-flagellating apology for past errors of judgment. It would be far better for them to remember that they were neither obliged nor entitled by right to work for the government: they chose of their own free will to serve the state and in so doing they took certain inevitable risks. They stuck their heads into the lion’s den and it was only to be expected that now and then the lion would bite.

Finally, American intellectuals would do well to recall that in their government service they did not function as intellectuals but as “mental technicians.” They had assigned jobs to do: they were not free to speculate as their fancy directed. Or, if they did choose to speculate in academic fashion, they ran the danger of going astray and of saying or doing something that in retrospect would look rather foolish. In short, by serving their country they lost some of their independence. Again, as intellectuals, their position was diminished rather than enhanced. And the same is true of those who in the postwar period have accepted the favors of government or of business. The intellectuals who in the years after 1945 retired from public service and returned to far lower incomes in teaching or writing displayed a surer sense of where their own peculiar values could best be cultivated. Without his freedom to speculate at will, they saw, the intellectual could function only haltingly.

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In the period from the Presidential election of 1952 to the Congressional election of 1954, the American intellectuals closed their ranks and manifested an unprecedented corporate solidarity. For the first time in recent history the intellectual leadership of the country in its overwhelming majority backed a single political party. Earlier, in the depression and war years, American writers and professors had divided along the usual political cleavages: while the most vocal and active of their number had supported the New Deal, a relatively quiet minority had remained Republican and a smaller although more advertised minority had espoused Communism or near-Communism. By 1952, both left and right had disappeared. Overnight virtually everyone seemed to have become a Stevenson Democrat.

The unity of the years 1952 to 1954 reflected a clear sense of a very real danger. It suggested that American intellectuals had at last come of age and knew how to go about defending the values that gave their lives meaning. They had correctly sensed that the agitation directed by Senator McCarthy and his like struck at the whole notion of free inquiry, and that supporting the Democratic party offered the only realistic method of hitting back. For it was apparent that the Republican leadership was “soft,” to say the least, toward the enemies of intellectual values, and that if elected to office it would give no very reliable protection to the personal security of the writer or scholar.

The conduct of the Eisenhower administration during the first part of its tenure proved this assumption correct. And the changes that have occurred since 1954 have largely come about independently of or even against the will of the administration. In an election year one may indulge the congenital inclination to set the record straight by recalling that it was not the President or his immediate advisers that reduced McCarthy to impotence, but rather a group of Senators only loosely associated with the administration and backed up by a gradual revulsion of public sentiment. One may add that the Republicans notably extended the range of arbitrary security procedures until they were brought up short, not by a spontaneous attack of conscience, but by a series of peremptory orders from the Federal courts. This is all a matter of record: except in the vague sense of exuding a spirit of fairness and eliminating the main pretext for civic bitterness by bringing the Korean war to an end, President Eisenhower cannot be held responsible for the freer intellectual atmosphere of the past two years.

In fact, what has occurred has not been so dramatic as the self-congratulations of Americans would lead one to believe. The personalization of the threat to intellectual freedom under the name of “McCarthyism” has obscured its true nature and extent. Senator McCarthy is only the most spectacular and extreme representative of a way of thinking that in some form or other has gripped the greater part of the American citizenry. His political collapse did not end the agitation for setting practical limitations on free speculation: it simply institutionalized it and made it respectable. The recent improvement in the civic atmosphere has concealed the permanent fashion in which that atmosphere has changed during the past decade. We are living at a higher level of freedom than in 1953—but this level is far below that to which we were accustomed before 1945. We have learned to take for granted official and semi-official procedures—a whole ramifying network of “clearances,” denunciations, and nearly invisible taboos—that are novelties in the American Constitutional tradition. In fact, questions of personal freedom have largely passed outside the sphere of partisan debate. In the current campaign the two parties are virtually in agreement that the present combination of allowing the more notorious administrative innovations to lapse, and regularizing those that remain, is just about what the country requires.

The experience of the years 1952 to 1954 tended to make the Democratic party appear as more pro-intellectual than it actually was. In their fear of McCarthy and adulation of Stevenson, people forgot that President Truman had not been particularly hospitable to intellectual talent and that it was he rather than the Republicans who in 1950 had inaugurated the more sweeping type of security procedures. Today the Democratic incumbents of certain Congressional committee chairmanships are not at all reassuring from an intellectual standpoint. It should be obvious that a Democratic victory—whatever may be the personal preferences of Mr. Stevenson—would not result in a dramatic revision of security measures or a wholesale return of academic talent to the capital.

In short, the situation may be settling down to what can be considered as “normal” for the postwar period. Under these circumstances, it is incumbent on American writers and scholars to rethink their relationship to their fellow citizens and to the state—that whole “public” aspect of their endeavors that has never been absent from the Western intellectual tradition.

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In this re-evaluation, the American intellectuals should first of all consider the question of their own threatened obsolescence. In a highly developed industrial society like ours, to pose the problem of whether the freely speculating mind has lost its function is more than mere paradox-mongering. Certainly the range of such speculation has been drastically reduced: what part public pressure has played in this process, and what part is due to a failure of mental initiative, is by no means clear. In any case, it is apparent that a vast number of questions that used to be hotly debated have now passed outside the sphere of relevant controversy. We are living in a society and in an era where there is scope for comparatively few intellectuals. Supply is outrunning demand: the colleges and graduate schools are turning out in ever increasing numbers individuals who at least fancy themselves to be dedicated to free speculation. But there is really not enough for all of them to do. Why should people write more and more when the public seems to be reading less and less?

Eventually, of course, the job market will take care of the matter. Already—as opposed to two or three years back—there are positions available for all the Ph.D.’s that the universities are currently producing or are likely to produce. Within a decade there will be a real shortage of intellectually trained personnel. But these present and future vacancies will not be for intellectuals: they will be for “mental technicians”—experts for the business world, civil servants, and, above all, pedagogues to teach routine courses. Such jobs will not be what their incumbents originally aimed at—but the genuinely intellectual outlets will be no more numerous than before.

For the possible comfort of these future intellectuals manqués, one may suggest that they will at least be filling an urgent national need. The true writers and scholars, on the contrary, may be assailed by ever greater doubts as to the usefulness of their traditional pursuits. Moreover, the financial rewards will probably more than ever go to the mental technicians rather than to the intellectuals (except for a selected few of the latter, who will rank as bizarre adornments on a monotonous landscape). Eventually even the intangible factors of leisure and prestige may begin to favor the mental technician over the creative writer or scholar: already the latter, despite his nominal nine-month year of employment, usually works harder than his opposite number in the service of government or industry. It is more than likely that the intellectual life will become an increasingly lonely and misunderstood affair. Those who embark on it should have clearly in mind the rigorous sort of personal commitment that it will entail.

From what I have said earlier it should be apparent that I believe they will have to make a sharp choice between intellectual independence and government service. This is a facet of the case of Robert Oppenheimer that has not been adequately noticed. So far as I can tell, the essence of the charge against Professor Oppenheimer was that he had set his personal judgment of public morality and human relations against what had gradually become official policy. Certainly his stand was justifiable and indeed noble from the standpoint of the private ethics of an intellectual. But was it equally valid in his capacity as a public servant? I confess that for me this is the doubtful part of the Oppenheimer case and of other similar “security” questions. And I suggest that the only way to resolve the insoluble conflict between the ethic of the free intellectual and the ethic of the public servant is a withdrawal from one function or the other. Would it not have been better in the case of Professor Oppenheimer and his like simply to have submitted a dignified resignation?

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In this era, in which, at the risk of perilous misunderstanding, one must dot the i’s and cross the t’s of one’s argument, I suppose I should add that all the foregoing in no way derogates from the duty of the government to defend itself from spies and saboteurs, and the corresponding duty of the citizen—including the intellectual—to offer with scrupulous correctness the evidences of exclusive loyalty that the national state requires of him. Indeed, rather more than the rest of his countrymen, the intellectual should be meticulous about performing his civic duties. It is only by so doing that he can win the general confidence that will enable him to continue what may look like increasingly peculiar activities.

If, then, the intellectual of the future will be obliged to opt decisively against service to government or business—except for purely temporary arrangements which will be of an episodic or crisis character—this does not mean that he will have to go it alone. The sense of solidarity that the American intellectuals acquired during the tumults of a few years back has by no means disappeared. The beginnings of corporative organization that have reinforced the position of writers and scholars will doubtless be further developed. And this is quite as it should be. In an era in which labor, business, and other groups of citizens bound together by common interests are accustomed to exert pressure on government and the public through some sort of corporative organization, the intellectuals are gradually coming to realize that they also need to be similarly equipped. Such groupings as the American Association of University Professors, the Civil Liberties Union, and the numerous ad hoc pools of financial resources that have seen threatened individuals through a series of victorious court battles have proved their permanent worth.

But the newly found corporate solidarity among American intellectuals will prove of no avail unless the group in question is narrowly and rigorously delimited. An indiscriminate welcoming of mere hangers-on will do no good and may greatly harm the cause of liberal inquiry. For at a time when the whole notion of the freely speculating mind has been called into question and will almost certainly continue to be subject to periodic attack, the intellectuals will be able to defend themselves only if they convince their fellow citizens of the responsibility and seriousness of their calling. Dilettantism will not help—nor will the production of bright ideas for essentially practical purposes masking as intellectual activity. Those undertaking a career as a writer or scholar would do well to put themselves some searching questions as to whether they are psychologically equipped to face these conditions.

I do not believe, then, that the intellectual—and more particularly the American intellectual—is obsolete. But I do believe that he faces a dubious future. He will confront a public only sporadically (and then often dangerously) interested in what he does. He will be obliged to withstand the almost irresistible pressures urging him in subtle fashion toward conformity to the role of a mental technician. Robbed of both of his historic functions—as the ideological bulwark of society and as its Utopian critic—he may himself begin to doubt the relevance of his pursuits. His path will be a very special one: it will not be for the half-hearted.

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