Žižek and the Myth of the Public Intellectual

Forgot to post this at the time. Oh well.

I was dismayed at Žižek’s endorsement of Trump, and in the name of justice I took the my noble steed: my blog. I seemed to pip the post slightly with my “intervention”. But, before long, many of my fellow and more prominent keyboard warriors followed me over the top and trampled me into the dirt as they passed me, shouting ardent personal attacks against the integrity of our Slovenian opponent. I should have expected the anti-continental-philosophy brigade to come out in full force, but I now feel as though I’ve ended up on the wrong side. While I was content to simply point out that Žižek’s argument was flawed, this is a prime opportunity for his inferiors to launch ad hominem attacks as part of a subconscious oedipal struggle.

ad homenem is the most addictive logical fallacy, and it works both ways. I could speak at length of Žižek’s intelligence, learning and contribution to knowledge. This brilliance did not prevent his error, his authority does not guarantee against mistakes. And, running the same principle backward, the fact he was wrong in this instance does not mean that he is alwayswrong, unintelligent, unlearned, and without any contribution to make.

A common theme in comment on this incident has been to suggest the reason that Žižek is so prominent to be that real philosophers decline to be public intellectuals. The fullest form of this argument can be found here. The author, Goldhill, does acknowledge Žižek’s rightful renown, but the implication that the real problem is that ‘there are few other philosophers’ who engage with the public, and his interview has ‘highlighted philosophy’s failure to engage in contemporary public discourse’.

Goldhill uses anecdotal evidence to suggest that philosophy, forgetting its public roots, has now locked itself in the ‘ivory tower’. This is to the point of ‘Ivy League professors’, i.e. proper philosophers, daren’t write popular texts for ‘fear of being penalized’. This argument would hold more weight if Žižek’s books actually were popular philosophy books. They are serious, detailed, and scholarly treatises that require an understanding of the history of philosophy and critical theory to be rightly understood. What makes them “popular philosophy” is not their form, but the fact that a lot of people buy them. The real reason Žižek is so prominent is that he has something to say that people want to hear.

But, is it really the case that philosophy has forgotten its civic duty and become a recluse in the ivory tower? I personally doubt this, and think it comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of philosophy. Goldhill gives the following factoid about the origins of philosophy to support her claim that philosophy, before its fall from grace, was once all about public engagement.

It wasn’t always this way. Philosophers once considered it their civic duty to engage with the public. In Ancient Greece, Socrates would address crowds in the marketplace, while Plato wrote accessible dialogues, rather than convoluted papers, to appeal to a wide audience.

At best, this depiction of Socrates and Plato is anachronistic. At worst, it is simply untrue. In the Apology, Socrates explicitly contrasts what he does with public engagement, describing his practice as as ‘busying myself in people’s private affairs, and yet never venturing publically to address you [the Athenian people] as a whole’ (31c). Additionally, Plato did not write in dialogue form ‘to appeal to a wider audience’, but for intricate philosophical and pedagogical purposes. In the Seventh Letter, he outright condemns public engagement, saying that no one serious about philosophy ‘will ever think of writing about serious realities for the general public so as to make them a prey to envy and perplexity’ (344c). This is not because he is an elitist, but because philosophy is an intrinsically transformative discipline. It is not, in Plato’s view, something that can be done without an education because doing philosophy is identical with teaching philosophy.

The dialogue form is designed to teach philosophy, i.e. it is designed to turn ordinary people into philosophers. It is a form of education. But education is not “public engagement”, or else the hundreds of students we academics teach every year would be sufficient to give the lie to the myth of philosophy’s agoraphobia. Essential to the idea of public engagement is that the member of the public not be educated by the intervention. Public engagement means “going out to the real world” and explaining what you have to say in such a way that no action is required the listener other than they consume your “research output”.

Indeed, underlying the tired “ivory tower” criticism of philosophy and academia is a commodification of knowledge. Knowledge is a product that can be packaged in such a way that a consumer can take it or leave it on a whim. Research should be instantly understandable so that no education is required and, a fortiori, leave the reader fundamentally unchanged and indifferent to what has been said except as a form of entertainment. In contrast, philosophy is rooted in Plato, for whom knowledge is always an ethical transformation of the self. In the Republic he calls philosophical education a ‘turning around of the soul’ (518d).

The task of the philosopher is to teach philosophy, and as such public engagement is an a priori impossibility for it, so long as we are doing our job properly. My point is not to say that philosophy is something that must remain esoteric and for an elite. (I am working class and from the North East of England, and so am already excluded from the traditional clique.) Equally, writing accessible philosophy is a good thing. But, that does not mean that all other forms of philosophical activity are deliberately inaccessible and convoluted. We academic philosophers are always already out of our armchairs, in a seminar room, with ordinary people, engaging them in the esoteric tradition of philosophy.

I will never be “a Žižek”, but because I am unwilling to engage with the public. I have a blog, I write articles like this, and I’ve spoken at the odd public event. The real reason that you’ve heard of Žižek and not me or the alleged huddled mass of philosophers yearning to be allowed to talk to the public is that he’s a lot better than us. He was absolutely mistaken in his endorsement of Trump, but he is still one of a handful of inventive philosophical figures. But, that does not mean for one moment that I or my colleagues around the world have abandoned the historical roots of our tradition or the civic duty of the philosopher. I for one engage with the public every time a new cohort of students arrives. And, if the rest of the public chooses not to engage with me, it’s quite understandable.

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