years, my wife and children have grown accustomed to seeing
me drift off into the world of my own thoughts -- it might be
during a car ride or listening to my daughter tell me a story,
or I might even be talking myself -- when, I'm told, my face
dissolves, my eyes get glassy, I'm gone, useless to them, an
absent father and husband. Being a person who works with ideas
and books, an academic or a writer, is a terribly selfish activity,
because it's hard to turn your mind off -- you're always at
work, to the suffering of your family and friends. So I'd like
to say a few things in justification of this kind of life, put
it in larger perspective. In short, what is the role of the
intellectual in the world at large? I wish my long suffering
family and friends could be in this room at this moment to hear
with some remarks by a famous intellectual of the past, Ralph
Waldo Emerson, and a famous intellectual of the present, Edward
Said. I then want to describe a sort of hierarchy of categories
of the public intellectual and the increasing responsibilities
as one moves up the hierarchy. I'll finish with a few remarks
about the extraordinary recent phenonmenon in which people trained
in the sciences have become some of our leading public intellectuals.
years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson considered the meaning and function
of the intellectual in his great essay "The American Scholar,"
delivered not far from where we sit now. [Address to the Phi
Beta Kappa society, 1837].
put forth the idea of the "One Man," by which he meant the complete
person, or the person who embodies all dimensions of human potential
and actuality -- the farmer, the professor, the engineer, the
priest, the scholar, the statesman, the soldier, the artist.
(If Emerson had lived today, surely he would have used the term
"The One Person.") The intellectual is this whole person while
intellectual, while enriched by the past, should not be bound
by books. His most important activity is action. Inaction is
intellectual preserves great ideas of the past, communicates
them, and creates new ideas. He is the "world's eye." And he
communicates his ideas to the world, not just to fellow intellectuals.
Emerson's intellectual does all of these things not out of obligation
to his society, but out of obligation to himself. Public action
is part of being the One Man, the whole person.
political tone to the concept of the public intellectual was
suggested a few years ago by Edward Said of Columbia University,
in a series of lectures called Representations of the Intellectual
(1993 Reith Lecture).
to Said, an intellectual's mission in life is to advance human
freedom and knowledge. This mission often means standing outside
of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the
status quo. At the same time, Said's intellectual is a part
of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public
as possible. Thus Said's intellectual is constantly balancing
the private and the public. His or her private, personal commitment
to an ideal provides necessary force. Yet, the ideal must have
relevance for society.
ideas raise some interesting questions: How does the intellectual
stand both outside society and inside society? How does the
intellectual find common ground between what is of deeply personal
and private interest and also what is of public interest? How
does the intellectual engage him or herself with the changing
issues of society while at the same time remaining true to certain
of Levels of Public Intellectual
now define what I mean by the public intellectual today" Such
a person is often a trained in a particular discipline, such
as linguistics, biology, history, economics, literary criticism,
and who is on the faculty of a college or university. When such
a person decides to write and speak to a larger audience than
their professional colleagues, he or she becomes a "public intellectual."
contemporary people I would place in this Level III category include:
Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, E.O. Wilson, Steven Jay Gould, Susan
Sontag, John Updike, Edward Said, Henry Louis Gates, Camille Paglia.
In my opinion, our other two distinguished panelists, Gerald Early
and Steve Pinker, have recently entered, or are in the process
of entering, Level III.
I: Speaking and writing for the public exclusively about your
discipline. This kind of discourse is extremely important,
and it involves good, clear, simplified explanations of the
national debt, the how cancer genes work, or whatever your
subject is. A recent book that illustrates this level is Brian
Green's excellent book The Elegant Universe, on the
branch of physics called string theory.
II: Speaking and writing about your discipline and how it
relates to the social, cultural, and political world around
it. A scientist in this Level II category might include a
lot of biographical material, glimpses into the society and
anthopology of the culture of science. For example, James
Watson's The Double Helix, or Steven Weinberg's essays
about science and culture or science and religion in The
New York Review of Books. Gerald Early's book, The
Culture of Bruising, with essays on how racial issues
are played out in prizefighting, would fit into this category.
Or Steve Pinker's op ed piece in the The New York Times
a year or so ago about the deeper meaning of President Clinton's
use of language in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
III: By invitation only. The intellectual has become elevated
to a symbol, a person that stands for something far larger
than the discipline from which he or she originated. A Level
III intellectual is asked to write and speak about a large
range of public issues, not necessarily directly connected
to their original field of expertise at all. After he became
famous in 1919, Einstein was asked to give public addresses
on religion, education, ethics, philosophy, and world politics.
Einstein had become a symbol of gentle rationality and human
nobility. Gloria Steinheim has become a symbol of modern feminist
thought. Lester Thurow has become a symbol of the global economy.
these various levels and categories are not as distinct as I
have made them, boundaries are blurred, etc.
move slowly and even unconsciously upward through these various
levels I have described. But I would argue that one should be
conscious of the movement, and especially the increasing degree
of responsibilites. In particular, Level III should be entered
with caution and respect. Here, there is the greatest responsibility.
The public intellectual is often speaking about things beyond
his or her area of expertise. Some people will refuse such an
invitation, others will accept the responsibility that has been
given them. Einstein, an inward and essentially shy person,
but at the same time a man of great self confidence and awareness
of his stature, and accepted the responsibility of the Level
III public intellectual.
person must be careful, he must be aware of the limitations
of his knowledge, he must acknowledge his personal prejudices
because he is being asked to speak for a whole realm of thought,
he must be aware of the huge possible consequences of what he
says and writes and does. He has become, in a sense, public
property because he represents something large to the public.
He has become an idea himself, a human striving. He has enormous
power to influence and change, and he must wield that power
Jay Gould is asked to speak about the recent Kansas ruling that
Creationism must be taught along side Evolutionary Biology in
science classes, or when Salman Rushdie is asked to speak to
the National Press Club about freedom of speech, these people
have been asked to accept a great responsibility. They are private
citizens but they are also public servants, they are individual
thinkers but their individuality also dissolves and rises and
merges with the spirits of all the men and women who have thought
and imagined and struggled before them.
to end with a few brief remarks about a recent new feature in
the geography of the public intellectual: many more such people,
these days, have come from the sciences.
I have a part of an explanation. For many years, it was considered
a taboo, a professional stigma, for scientists to spend any
time at all in writing for the general public. Such an activity
was considered a waste of precious time, a soft activity, even
a feminine activity. The proper job of a scientist was to penetrate
the secrets of the physical world. Anything else was a waste
of time, it was dumbing down.
began to change in the 1960s with the books Silent Spring
by Rachel Carson, The Chracter of Physical Law by Richard
Feynman, and The Double Helix by James Watson. Then the
big sea change occurred in the 1970s. I think of such books
and Awakenings by Olive Sacks,
of a Cell by Lewis Thomas,
Since Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould,
of Eden by Carl Sagan,
Ascent of Man by Jacob Brownoski,
the Universe by Freeman Dyson,
First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg.
popular books, written by major scientists with unquestionable
stature in their scientific fields, had the effect of legitimizing
public discourse as a worthwhile activity for scientists.
When I myself began publishing essays in the early 1980s,
and I know that I was influenced by the examples of Thomas,
Gould, and Sagan.
last ten years, we have seen an explosion of popular books
written by scientists, and a fraction of these authors will
move into the Levels II and III that I have described.
a few words about my own case: My professional career began
as a physicist, but I was always passionate about th humanities
and the arts as well, from a young age. After becoming an
assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard, in the mid 1970s,
I started in the late 1970s writing popular articles about
science, magazine pieces, encyclopedia articles. The stigma
within the scientific community of this kind of soft activity
was very real at that time, and I could feel it. However,
I had spent a couple of years at Cornell and was inspired
by Carl Sagan.
1980s, my public activities drifted into essays about the
human side of sience, and then in the 1990s, books of fiction
based upon the scientific mentality. My next book will take
the final reckless leap, a novel about the American obssession
with speed, efficiency, and money, and what this obssession
has done to our minds and our spirits. The novel has no science
in it all, yet I think it has been shaped by my having lived
in that world and its mentality.