The Public Intellectual as Agent of Justice: In Search of a Regime

Steve Fuller
2006 Philosophy & Rhetoric  
The public intellectual is ultimately an agent of distributive justice. This sounds strange only if we conceive of justice as pertaining exclusively to relationships among people and things. However, the public intellectual's raison d'être comes into view once our sense of distributive justice is expanded to cover relationships among ideas and actions. Just as some people enjoy an unearned advantage over others with respect to access to material goods, so too some ideas enjoy an unearned
more » ... an unearned advantage with respect to their capacity to motivate action. In the latter case, this advantage usually results from the accumulation of time and resources to develop ideas suffi ciently to render their practical implications apparent. The advantage is "unearned" because it has been acquired at the expense of other ideas whose applicability would become equally apparent, if they were provided with comparable time and resources. Now this way of seeing things presupposes a robust sense of the public as a unitary "intellectual ecology" or "collective attention span," which is subject to the usual economic problems of scarcity. It would be diffi cult to motivate the public intellectual's instinctive sense of justice-often expressed as righteous indignation-without assuming such scarcity. It forces one to consider which other ideas are marginalized simply because only some can receive adequate support. In other words, the public intellectual's animus is born of the view that ideas are never judged exclusively on their own merits but primarily in relation to other ideas. Often these comparative judgments are made implicitly-that is, not by direct reference to the ideas but to those who seem to stand to benefi t from their promotion. If we lived in a world of plenty capable of sustaining each worthy idea without others being crowded out in the process, this "hermeneutics of suspicion" would not be necessary or perhaps even warranted. That we do not live in such a world means that no idea is innocent of the fate of others. What distinguishes the public intellectual from others is that, faced with this situation, she does not become a skeptical fatalist but a sophistic advocate. The
doi:10.1353/par.2006.0013 fatcat:phkxqkgp5ralpeemu6anhoi7fa