Intellectualism, Expertise, and the Risk of Idiocy

At AmSpec, Chris Orlet hints at something important:

Jacoby complains that conservatives “have turned the word intellectual into a dirty word,” particularly conservative intellectuals like Tom Wolfe who once quipped that “an intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who only speaks out in others,” or Richard Posner who said that “a successful academic may be able to use his success to reach the general public on matters about which he is an idiot.”

We all know that this can happen. But add the Wolfe quote and the Posner quote together, and you get a concept of the public intellectual that strikes me as not just unconservative but deeply impoverished and perverted. A public intellectual, according to this indeed rather popular concept, is either an expert working dutifully within the confines of his expertise or a fool at best and fraud at worst. Public thinkers who act as gadflies, daring to presume an entitlement to address the world whole, are not only dangerous but despicable creatures, the snake oil salesman of common discourse. Think as freely as you like in private, we are told, but in public, respect above all the great compartmentalization of knowledge that is the source of power for all management and bureaucratic order.

Max Weber knew this well enough. Hannah Arendt railed against it. Arendt’s vision of politics is far from perfect, just as Susan Sontag — who called a polymath one “interested in everything, and nothing else” — leaves much to be desired. But shouldn’t we aim for a culture in which we can afford to risk idiocy in the quest for a truly flourishing public discourse? How can we conduct meaningful conversations, much less produce great thinkers, if public talk is condemned whenever the speaker ventures out of his or her appointed cubbyhole? How can there be arguments at all when only the experts are allowed to have the answers?

Because guess what: even in a world where expertise is supposedly rigorously enforced, where public thinkers are categorized, corporatized, and rewarded for intellectually caricaturing themselves, we still wind up with successful idiots.