BOOKCASE : Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?

• Frank Furedi • Continuum • $29.99

One easy way to pick fight in academic and cultural circles is to start talking about the role ideas play, and the value they have, in public life. Fights and friendships are won and lost over questions about such things as whether we should value knowledge and art for their own sake, or only to the extent they can be turned into something purposeful. Seemingly simple questions are lost among contested claims as to what counts as knowledge in the first place.
Much of this is due to the increasing influence of relativist approaches to knowledge (with perhaps the best known being post-modernism). Here, multiple ‘knowledges’ have replaced ‘Knowledge’, and the ‘truth’ has become notoriously slippery concept. Or, in the words of Paul Feyerabend, “anything goes”.
For those who celebrate this change, the shift away from universal truths has emancipated different viewpoints, and those who hold them. From here, ‘dumbing down’ is celebrated as an ‘opening up’. Instead of being seen as lowering standards, the new approach is seen as ‘democratising’ education and ‘empowering’ those historically excluded from cultural life.
Frank Furedi is not one of those who celebrates this change. For him, this ongoing undermining of the traditional role of ideas in public life signals the rise of ‘New Philistinism’. Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone? is largely call to resist this Philistinism, and an argument that ‘intellectuals’ should be the ones in the vanguard of that resistance. For Furedi, intellectuals are those who (in Lewis Coser’s memorable phrase) ‘live for rather than off ideas’.
But it’s with his definition of ‘intellectual’ that Furedi exposes his argument to the most criticism. For instance, as Theodore Dalrymple writing in The Spectator pointed out, intellectuals have often been more interested in political aims than the pursuit of some abstract notion of truth. Others have argued that Furedi’s notion of ‘intellectual’ is rooted in particular time and place and, subsequently, misses some of the ways in which globalisation is challenging business as usual in intellectual life.
As polemic, this book is wonderful. But while I enjoy good polemic as much as the next sociologist, I couldn’t help leaving this one feeling short changed. quick scan of the readers’ reviews on Amazon reveal similar division of opinion: for some this book is “the first shot in war against the new Philistines” while for others Furedi provides an example of the “new Philistinism” he sets out to criticise. You decide.

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