If you were a certain sort of ideas-oriented young person coming of age in the 20th century, it was very likely you would give yourself a label and join some movement. You would call yourself a Marxist, a neoconservative, a Freudian, an existentialist or a New Deal liberal.
There would be certain sacred writers who would explain the world to you — from Jung to Camus, Dewey or Chesterton. There would probably be a small magazine where the doctrines of your sect would be worked out.
People today seem less likely to give themselves intellectual labels or join self-conscious philosophical movements. Young people today seem more likely to have their worldviews shaped by trips they have taken, or causes they have been involved in, or the racial or ethnic or gender identity group they identify with. That has changed the nature of the American intellectual scene, the way people approach the world and the lives they live.
In his book “The Ideas Industry,” Daniel W. Drezner says we have shifted from a landscape dominated by public intellectuals to a world dominated by thought leaders. A public intellectual is someone like Isaiah Berlin, who is trained to comment on a wide array of public concerns from a specific moral stance. A thought leader champions one big idea to improve the world — think Al Gore’s work on global warming.
As Drezner puts it, intellectuals are critical, skeptical and tend to be pessimistic. Thought leaders are evangelists for their ideas and tend to be optimistic. The world of Davos-like conferences, TED talks and PopTech rewards thought leaders, not intellectuals, Drezner argues.
In a low-trust era, people no longer have as much faith in grand intellectuals to serve as cultural arbiters. In a polarized era, ideologically minded funders like George Soros or the Koch bothers will pay for only certain styles of thought work. In an unequal era, rich people like to go to Big Idea conferences, and when they do they want to hear ideas that are going to have some immediate impact — Jeffrey Sachs’ latest plan to end world poverty or Amy Cuddy’s findings on how to adopt the right power stance.
Drezner does not call this a decline, just a shift (let us not underestimate how silly and wrong some of the grand, sweeping intellectuals could be). But I am struck by how people’s relationship to ideas has changed.
In the first place, public thinkers now conceive of themselves as legislative advisers. Drezner writes a book called “The Ideas Industry,” but he is really writing about public policy. When George Orwell, Simone de Beauvoir or even Ralph Waldo Emerson were writing, they were hoping to radically change society, but nobody would confuse them with policy wonks.
Second, there was a greater sense then than now, I think, that the very nature of society was up for grabs. There was a sense that the current fallen order was fragile and that a more just mode of living was out there to be imagined.
Finally, intellectual life was just seen as more central to progress. Intellectuals establish the criteria by which things are measured and goals are set. Intellectuals create the frameworks within which politicians operate.
Doing that sort of work meant leading the sort of exceptional life that allowed you to emerge from the cave — to see truth squarely and to be fully committed to the cause. Creating a just society was the same thing as transforming yourself into a moral person.
It also meant joining a tradition and a team. There were a whole set of moral tests involved with obedience to the movement, breaking ranks when necessary, facing unpleasant truths, pioneering a collective way of living, whether feminist, Marxist or libertarian.
The 20th century held up intellectuals like that, and then discredited them — too many were too wrong about communism and fascism. But we have probably over-adjusted and deprived a generation of a vision of the heroic intellectual. It is good to have people who think about North Korean disarmament. But politics is most real at a more essential level.