Commentary Magazine


Talking Heads

To the Editor:

In his article, “Intellectuals—Public and Otherwise” [May 2000], Joseph Epstein focuses on a peculiar sort of American writer (though he does mention a European here and there)—typified by Dwight MacDonald and Robert War-show—whom I would hardly classify as an intellectual at all. Most of those mentioned by Mr. Epstein were really journalists who trafficked in what might be called mandarin materials and performance, speaking mainly to a certain club or coterie.

While Mr. Epstein throws into his list of traditional intellectuals some very curious figures like James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, and Max Beerbohm, he does not mention John Dewey, whose work had an important influence on education. He mentions Henry James (as a nonintellectual) but not his brother Wlliam, who was significant in shaping certain currents of American thought.

There is an (admittedly imperfect) distinction to be made between the journalist-intellectual, who argues from aperçus based on a selection of examples that confirm his argument, and a genuine scholar-intellectual, who handles a topic with formidable and disciplined intelligence drawn from a seriously wide and inclusive base of data. I would give Thomas Sowell as an example of the latter.

The most important aspect of Mr. Epstein’s subject was missed altogether: the differences between American and European intellectual life, and how each has changed with the advent of mass education. Mr. Epstein may have bitten off more than anyone can chew outside the covers of a rather thick book, but even in a short discussion of the subject there are distinctions to be made.

Herb Greer
Manchester, England

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Joseph Epstein accurately portrays traditional intellectuals, but his attacks on the new public intellectuals seem rather baseless. Despite their tenured status, one cannot say of today’s public intellectuals that they have rested on their laurels. No one asked Edward Said to write outside literature or Richard Rorty outside philosophy. They may be more specialists than belletrists, but we the public have benefited from those whom Mr. Epstein calls “publicity hounds.” Unfortunately, the purpose of his taxonomy is not merely to distinguish but to accord a privileged position to the “traditional” form of intellectuality.

Peijin Chen
Seattle, Washington

_____________

 

To the Editor:

In his stimulatingly provocative article, Joseph Epstein makes one significant omission in his list of intellectuals—Walter Lippmann. From his high perch as pundit-journalist par excellence during the tumultuous decades preceding, during, and following World War II, Lippmann dispensed his “wisdom” on the world’s problems. And yet, despite being a Jew (although a self-hating one), he never wrote a word about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, and did nothing to encourage the admission of the war’s refugees to the United States.

There have been, of course, intellectuals of courage: one thinks, for example, of Émile Zola and Vaclav Havel. But Mr. Epstein’s conclusion that intellectuals (both traditional and public) are a fairly futile faction is essentially true. The paradigmatic portrait is given by Paul Johnson in Intellectuals:

[Edmund] Wilson quoted with relish a vignette of Walter Lippmann in his big Washington house during a rainstorm, in full evening dress, holding out a small frying pan with which he was trying to contend with a veritable inundation from a leak in the ceiling—the perfect image of the intellectual coping impotently with crisis.

Milton Birnbaum
American International
College
Springfield, Massachusetts

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Joseph Epstein writes:

Herb Greer’s complaint seems to be that I did not write the article he would have written. Should he one day get around to doing so, I hope I shall remember to send a letter to the editor of the magazine in which it appears, complaining that his is not the article I would have written.

Peijin Chen is more fortunate than I in having benefited from the writings of Edward Said and Richard Rorty in their capacity as publicity intellectuals. My own view is that they are merely academics pushing their political views, which is not at all my notion of an intellectual.

I thank Milton Birnbaum for reminding me about Walter Lippmann and greatly regret my having neglected to mention him. He was the first of the American public intellectuals, and none other has ever come close to wielding the same degree of influence.

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