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.”