Thursday, June 16, 2005

Hwaet!

The first post is, I suppose, the place to reveal the origins and purposes of a blog.

I created this blog at the promptings of my colleague Glen R. Gill, who had himself started his own blog. I was, truth be told, only vaguely interested in the idea; I saw more potential ill consequences than good. I was won over, however, when he made the argument that all professors should be public intellectuals.

The term "public intellectual" is often abused through misapplication; as often as not, it is applied to people who are public figures but who are not intellectuals, or to people who are intellectuals but make no intellectual appeal in their public figure. For the most part, the term "public intellectual" is, I'm sorry to say, someone who occasionally uses big words on a cable news outlet. The distinction between a pundit and a public intellectual is ... er... indistinct.

This conflation is really unfortunate, because I set the bar pretty low for someone to be a public intellectual. First, as for being public, all I require is some standing beyond one's immediate circle of friends and colleagues. In the case of professors, students do not count -- I consider them part of a professor's immediate circle. I don't think one has to be on television, or have any national standing. The "public" can be a rather small audience, just so long as it is affected in some way.

As for "intellectual," I set that bar rather lower than most. Sometimes in common parlance, we use the word "intellectual" to imply a certain set of leftist beliefs along with a snooty attitude. While neither leftist beliefs nor snootiness are disqualifiers, they do not an intellectual make. If we use the term that restrictively, figures like Aleksandr Solzhennitsyn could not be considered public intellectuals. Furthermore, no one before the modern era (i.e. before our current ideas of "right" and "left" existed) could be a public intellectual, which would leave out Homer, Socrates, Augustine, Bede, Abelard, Christine de Pisan, etc. For me, the word "intellectual" simply means someone concerned with the life of the mind, the nuos ("mind" or "spirit"). It is unnecessary (though of course, extremely helpful) for an intellectual to be well-educated, cultured, articulate, artistic, or even literate. In every case I can think of, an intellectual has at least one of these qualities. For example, Caedmon seems to have lacked all these qualities except for being thoughtful and artistic, yet he was certainly one of the most prominent public intellectuals in Anglo-Saxon England, even though such a term did not yet exist.

So, for me, a public intellectual is simply someone who is openly concerned with the life of the mind, and tries to affect the nuos of those around them while edifying their own in that same public discourse. Of course, there are many poseurs who are less concerned with then nuos than they are with appearing to be concerned with the nuos -- walk into any coffeeshop and you'll see at least one or two of these -- but we'll not let those people spoil it for the rest of us.

Dr. Gill is right -- ideally, all professors should be public intellectuals, trying to advance intellectual discourse outside the realm of scholarly journals and the classroom. Herein I hope to post my thoughts and ideas in their half-baked form. I do this both to instruct and learn. Perhaps by seeing my ideas evolve -- all the false starts, backtracks over logical fallacies, mental revisions, and just plain contraditions -- others might see a model of how one man's nuos grapples with the world around him. I hope that comments by readers and links from other bloggers will create an intellectual discourse that further teaches me. As Chaucer said, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”

6 comments:

  1. Interesting stuff. I intend to visit as often as I am able.

    BTW, I "discovered" your blog through the good graces of the Sultan of Brunei, the Poliblogger himself, Dr. Steven Taylor, of your own Troy University. For this, as in so much else, I am in his debt.

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  2. I enjoyed your first entry, Dr. Nokes. Looking forward to more.

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  3. cagey one1:42 AM

    Diverse scoles maken parfyt clerkes.

    I'll be back to read you, & I hope you had a fine Bloom's Day.

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  4. Anonymous8:33 AM

    I would almost say the opposite, and argue that a public intellectual is rather one who directly influences public life. So, most university professor are more like private intellectuals, because their influence and thought is only attainable to a few. Not because information is not available (the internet and blogs would contradict this), but because the words and thoughts dipersed by university professors are intended for a minority of people who are for the most part educated and wealthy (or somehow otherwise fortunate enough to become educated within the university). So, public intellectuals may actually be mothers, or public school teachers -- i.e. those who truly occupy the public realm.

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  5. Two things:

    Anonymous, though I understand (but disagree with) your treatment of the term "public intellectuals," the application of it to "mothers, or public school teachers" doesn't make much sense to me at all, since that would seem to violate the part of your definition that the "words and thoughts dispersed" not be "intended for a minority of people." My mother was a foster-mother, so she had somewhere around 300 children over the ages, but even that number strikes me as a minority. Ditto public school teachers.

    The other issue is that, a year-and-a-half after I posted it, someone pointed out that I misspelled "nous" in the post -- not just once, but every single time! I'm glad I didn't include "good spelling" in my definition.

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  6. Anonymous4:38 PM

    The story of how I stumbled into your blog started, roughly, - and I say roughly because as Durs Grünbein* wrote, "the when only incites to a hectic search for original actions, and behind every origin is another origin, every first cause masks another" - when I was researching supplemental material for an independent study class I am currently undertaking on Paradise Lost. Google led me to a particular online discourse wherein one participant in the thread copied and pasted your blog entry titled, "Distance from Heaven to Hell". After sharing it with my much-beloved and highly-honored British Literature professor, who out of the kindness of heart has obliged us, 'Miltoneers', with her time and instruction without pay as our Independent Study faculty advisor, I began to peruse your blog.

    I think this blog is a wonderful idea. For a Medieval Literature neophyte, reading the quote in your heading brought such glee to my heart. My nascent love finds such invigorating delight when coming across intellectuals such as you who share in this tender affection for the language, history and culture of authors like Chaucer and works like Beowulf. Please continue what you are doing. The modern world of current technology needs more true “public intellectuals” willing to brave this digital frontier for the sake of propelling this continual improvement of the nous. I will most definitely bookmark your blog for frequent readings as well as share it with my fellow British literature enthusiasts, all young and eager proselytes of the brilliant professor I mentioned above.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    *The Dars Grünbein essay I alluded to above can be found in here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=238634

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