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“Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline” by Richard A. Posner Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 408 pages, $29.95 “The man for wisdom’s various arts renowned,” said Homer, as translated by Alexander Pope, to introduce his hero Odysseus. His words apply, millennia later, to Judge Richard A. Posner of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In “Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline,” he demonstrates again not only an extraordinary depth and acuity of thought but also an awe-inspiring breadth of knowledge. He propounds a thesis with which not every reader will agree but from which he or she, this reviewer predicts, will learn a lot. As a principled scholar, Posner begins by defining his terms. In his introduction, he calls public intellectuals “intellectuals who opine to an educated public on questions of or inflected by a political or ideological concern.” He cites George Orwell as “one of the twentieth century’s preeminent intellectuals, as Dickens was of the nineteenth.” As another example, he quotes Richard Wolin thus: “Hannah Arendt was the consummate embodiment of … ‘the public intellectual,’ putting her philosophical training to good — if often controversial — use by commenting on the major political themes of her day.” The decline to which the author refers in his subtitle arises, he maintains, out of the increasing domination of academics, notable university professors, in the realm of public intellectuals. “The independent intellectual,” he argues, “has been giving way to the academic intellectual.” In support of this point, he lists a throng of 19th-century public intellectuals who lacked academic standing. The list includes Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx, Charles Dickens again, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and many others. He concedes that some nonacademic public intellectuals achieved prominence in the second half of the century just past (e.g., Lewis Mumford, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Ayn Rand and Betty Friedan). Yet he insists that “the number was fewer than in earlier periods. … ” He concludes that “ for the foreseeable future the dominant type of public intellectual will be the full-time, or at least nominally full-time professor.” But why does this represent a “decline”? As his principal thesis, the author maintains that with increasing frequency those with academic credentials consider themselves entitled to and are permitted to express publicly opinions on matters far outside the area of their specialties. As an extreme example he cites Noam Chomsky. He calls him “the most influential figure in modern linguistics.” He then elaborates on Professor Chomsky’s outspoken views on domestic politics and international relations. He notes that Elaine Scarry, “a professor of English, … writes about the technical causes of celebrated airplane crashes.” He provides a host of other examples, not all of them so extreme as the two just mentioned. As an honest scholar, Judge Posner tries to deal with his subject objectively. Some readers will wonder whether he succeeds or whether his known conservatism shows through here and there. Taking up a subject on which he has been heard before, he launches a multipage attack on the stand that a group that included public intellectuals took in support of Al Gore’s claim to Florida’s electoral votes in the 2000 presidential election. Without denying that Gore got more votes nationally than did his adversary, he dismisses as “gibberish” the group’s claim that Gore had been elected president “by a clear constitutional majority of the popular vote.” He devotes, on the other hand, less than half a page to conceding that “some conservative public intellectuals displayed a partisanship, and at times an irresponsibility, to match that of the liberal public intellectuals who commented on the matter.” The author’s treatment of the stands of public intellectuals on the Clinton impeachment may also arouse suspicions of onesidedness. In a relatively brief chapter, Posner proposes a couple of solutions. He suggests that university professors publish annually, perhaps on a Web page, the text of every extracurricular statement, including speeches, expert testimony and advocacy of any kind that they have made during the year. He suggests also that professors disclose publicly the details of their nonacademic income. He points out that many opinions of public intellectuals, although ostensibly objective, have been paid for. The author does not express great confidence in the efficacy of either idea. He warns that both would have to be adopted voluntarily lest they raise First Amendment problems. The value of Posner’s book, at least to the nonscholastic reader, lies less in the rightness or wrongness of his ideas than in what might be called the book’s byproducts. In support of the successive arguments that he makes, the author ventures with impressive command of each aspect of his subject matter into a variety of fields. They include not just law and politics but also literature, drama, economics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, capital punishment, divorce and abortion. As just one of a multitude of possible examples, Posner’s extended analysis of the anti-Semitism in “The Merchant of Venice” should help many readers appreciate and enjoy the play with untroubled consciences. No one should open “Public Intellectuals” expecting an easy go of it. Posner’s exhaustive scholarship and painstaking reasoning may strike many a reader as tedious. Some will wonder whether the problem with which he deals deserves so monumental an effort — yet for those who stick with it, the book makes worthwhile, rewarding reading. Walter Barthold is a lawyer in New York City.

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