What Is Public Intellectualism and Why Should We Care About It?

A clear definition of public intellectualism isn’t easy to come by today. Much of the current conversation on public intellectuals makes it seem like thought leadership is all about joining an exclusive club—getting on an “A list” of the “Top 20” or “Top 100” public intellectuals of our time. As our team of writing experts recently researched and created a 15 Day Reading List on Public Intellectuals, we found that most thought pieces on the topic are really judgments of who is and who is not a public intellectual. And while we all need intellectual heroes, the list-building approach to public intellectualism has got it all wrong.

If all we do is measure the influence and status of the world’s most renowned thought leaders, we miss the critically important work of fostering everyday habits of knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing within ourselves and our communities. All this talk about who’s on or off the list merely distracts us from the true definition of what public intellectualism is:  the shared societal pursuit of knowledge.

So what is the answer to the question, “Who is a public intellectual?” It does the public far less good to define a public intellectual based on their prestige, audience size, media attention, social influence, or even “genuine” regard for the unencumbered pursuit of knowledge (there’s truly no action un-impacted or un-influenced by power structures, after all–even if some pursuits of thought leadership are more transparent and authentic than others). Instead, we define public intellectuals as individuals in pursuit of knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing–those with an irrepressible belief in the importance of fact-finding, researching, sharing insights, and hearing diverse perspectives of both decision-makers and those impacted by them.

What is Public Intellectualism and How Do We Pursue It?

Public intellectualism is something bigger than any one public intellectual or even laundry list of public intellectuals. It is the larger movement of a people towards insight. Here’s our definition of public intellectualism:

Public Intellectualism Definition

Why is this view of public intellectual work more fruitful than the current list-building approach? Defining the public intellectual as someone with a commitment to sharing knowledge, and public intellectualism as a collective movement to do so, is empowering. This definition equips all of us–experts and leaders as well as members of the general public–to learn, teach, investigate, share, debate, negotiate and realize truths that impact the decisions we make. In this way, public intellectualism fosters public good and works toward the benefit and well-being of the public. Knowledge and intellection are non-rivalrous, non-excludable public goods. And if that is the case, then our focus needs to be on how we can all strengthen our own habits of public intellectualism in both our personal and professional lives.

The public is ready, capable, and deserving of receiving and making knowledge. So let’s dive into what an age of public intellectualism might look like.

The 8 Axioms

Don’t be scared away by the word “axiom.” We could’ve used countless other terms, such as habits, tenets, pillars, or principles to depict the guidance we’re about to offer. What you are about to explore are the key foundations that must be present in a society pursuing public intellectualism. These are both big picture heuristics as well as everyday practices you can implement to check whether you, your colleagues, and your communities are adding knowledge to the world in a way that promotes public good. We chose to depict the following principles of public intellectual life as axioms because of the term’s historic roots in Ancient Greece, where the foundational art of rhetoric was formed. From the Greek term axios, meaning to “deem worthy” and “be in balance,” axioms are statements that all hearers agree to be true; they are foundational premises and starting points for further reasoning.

The following eight axioms of public intellectualism form the foundation of a thriving intellectual life. In order to make and share knowledge, we must identify which aspects of intellection are worthy of our focus and energy. To effectively promote public intellectualism, knowledge must be 1) accessible; 2) translatable; 3) interdisciplinary; 4) collaborative; 5) ethical; 6) authentic; 7) entertaining; and 8) factual. Public intellectuals live out these axioms in their knowledge-making practices.

Let’s dive into each of these axioms of pubic intellectualism:

Knowledge should be accessible: Consider all the things the majority of us can get our hands on these days. We can access word processing software and publish what we write. We can access social media platforms and freely circulate what we publish. We can access local news, national news, international news, the opinions of friends, strangers, trolls, and bots. Yet, academic, peer-reviewed knowledge is too often confined to university libraries and paid-access databases. The insights of industry experts are protected under veils of intellectual property. The shift from a culture where people passively consume information to one where they read, write, and repurpose what has been written, and then discuss, requires access to the intellectual material that will build a more well-informed public. And keeping in mind the diverse individuals who make up the public, accessibility also means information-sharing that promotes the full inclusion of all members of society, no matter their socioeconomic status, literacy level, race, identity or disability

Knowledge should be translatable: The public deserves information that can be understood and put into practical use. Otherwise, all the access in the world is pointless. Making information translatable means communicating the information itself while always, always being clear about why it matters. Cornel West doesn’t just define neoliberalism. He makes the case for why discussions about neoliberalism matter right now. Translatable also means, simply, writing like a human who is writing to other humans. Without translatability, you get jargon or “academese.” As Jill Lepore puts it: “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.” Public intellectualism demands we say things in ways all people can understand.

Knowledge should be interdisciplinary: Creative prompts that promise success and innovation via “thinking outside the box” are all well and good, but the real challenge to creative problem-solving means creating bridges across diverse areas of expertise. Today’s problems are just too complex to understand and solve in siphoned-off specialty silos. Automation. Globalism. Digital literacy. Income distribution. Nuclear non-proliferation. Climate change. We need to value contributions across fields, including the always-under-assault humanities. After all, those fields often viewed as disparate can and do make good partners. As a wise friend once put it while watching Jurassic Park: “Science will teach you how to bring dinosaurs back from extinction. The humanities will remind you that could doesn’t always mean should, and let’s just all steer clear of dino eggs, shall we?”

Knowledge should be collaborative: Industry and academic work require testing ideas against the theories, the data, and the wisdom of the thinkers who have built and maintain their businesses and research programs. Academic publishing requires peer-review on any research that’s going into print. In this sense, it is always collaborative. The public deserves this same support. This may begin with better access to research, but should continue with promoting collaborations across stakeholders who are making decisions that will affect the public. Which individuals, groups, and entities will have the most valuable insights to share? They deserve a seat at the table.

Knowledge should be ethical: What is the motive that drives the choice to share an information tidbit or a perspective? C. Wright Mills’ 1945 pronouncement serves as a reminder to consider the ethical concerns impacting knowledge-sharing today: “Between the intellectual and his potential public stand technical, economic, and social structures which are owned and operated by others.” Public intellectuals sometimes receive flak for using their celebrity status to beef up their CVs or profit from speaking engagements. After all, an additional CV line is currency in academia. It can influence promotion and tenure decisions. In reality, the constraints of the companies, organizations, communities—private and public—where we operate all come with their own priorities that affect the work we do. Again, no activity is divorced from power structures. A commitment to ethics means continually questioning the motives that drive our work and asking if it’s ultimately adding to the public good.

Knowledge should be authentic: Authenticity is hard to define, but we all know it when we see it. It is a close cousin to ethics, but a more right-brained relative. Authenticity is fundamental to public intellectualism. Think James Baldwin speaking out against racism in the U.S. by recounting his experience on the Dick Cavett show (yes, it’s worth a 3 minute watch). Baldwin’s perspective is authentic because it involves emotional risk-taking. Authentic messages score highest when it comes to translatability. On a fundamental level, they answer the So what? question by just telling the truth.

Knowledge should be entertaining: Consider the argument that our foremost intellectuals today may not be intellectuals in the traditional sense at all. They may be comedians. Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah. They’re always tackling politics, but they make the news accessible through comic delivery. The choice to point out the absurd in an era of alt-facts and truthiness may be just what the public needs at this particular moment to make current events more digestible. This sensitivity to what tone fits what context is what the public deserves across venues.

Knowledge should be factual: Regularly, we are told that we are awash in a sea of information. Add to the sea a more recent figurative twist:  Not only are we awash in a sea of information; now we are awash in a sea of misinformation, thanks to the ease of information-sharing online. Clearly, we need an anchor and a collective agreement to deal a death blow to “alt facts.” While universities are prioritizing teaching the digital literacy skills that help us separate fact from fiction (and from opinions that pretend to be facts), the task requires a collective commitment to fact-checking even if—and especially when—those facts don’t align with our individual worldviews.

So Why is it Critical to Pursue an Age of Public Intellectualism?

In a sea of information, we’ve developed an odd relationship with the concept of the public intellectual. By holding celebrities up as our intellectual heroes, we give them all the responsibility for action. But a new view of public intellectualism–one grounded in the shared pursuit of knowledge–empowers us all to call ourselves public intellectuals. To embody the axioms of intellectual work. To pursue public understanding, and as a result, promote public good. As we aim for a society in pursuit of knowledge, we remember that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. We have proof of success from intellectuals who have proven what it means to “communicate the work of thinking” to the public. Their leadership should encourage all of us to join in the movement. Because in the current divisive era defined by the death of expertise, the moment to empower the public with knowledge is now. 

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