The subtitle sounds bad, but keep in mind that Thorstein Veblen considered subtitling his book on academics “A Study in Total Depravity.” The really bad news concerns the title: The term “public intellectual” is practically obsolete.
It’s dying young. Although the subject of much hoo-ha lately, it has not been current for very long. Russell Jacoby popularized it in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Jacoby did not coin the term–he quoted C. Wright Mills using it in 1958–but he found a congenial semantic niche for it: to distinguish unaffiliated from college-based thinkers. In the old days, there wasn’t any need to make the distinction, because the generation born in and around 1900 doubted that intellectual life could take place in academia. “To be an intellectual did not entail college teaching,” Jacoby wrote of the era that formed Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson; “it was not a real possibility.” By the time of Jacoby’s book, however, contemplative lives were being led on campuses, or so it was claimed, and since the campuses had the dollars to back the claim, the old-fashioned independent intellectuals were marked with the delimiting adjective “public.”
Now the adjective is about to disappear, because the independents are on the verge of losing even their right to the noun. In his new book, Richard Posner hints that there is today “a certain redundancy in the term ‘public intellectual.'” One would expect Posner to be highly sensitive to the use of the term, because he lives the role it describes. Profiled in Lingua Franca and more recently in The New Yorker, and invited to post his diary on Slate, Posner is a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, a founder of the field of law and economics, and the author of books on everything from the rational-choice theory of sex to the 2000 presidential election.
The term is redundant, Posner suggests, because an intellectual is by definition someone who addresses the public. Writing for fellow experts may take just as much brainpower but is merely academic. For practical reasons Posner is not concerned, as Jacoby was, with the brave last stand of independent thinkers. “There was a time when an intellectual could do as well (or rather no worse) for himself financially by writing books and articles as by being a professor,” Posner writes. “That time is largely past. The opportunity cost of being an independent public intellectual has skyrocketed because of the greatly increased economic opportunities in the academic market.” Nowadays the term “public intellectual” merely refers to an academic in his capacity as a moonlighter. The qualifier “public” is expendable once all intellectuals have day jobs.