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THE MAKING OF THE MODERN PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL

Law is not the source of its own moral authority and legitimacy.

A setback to democracy

  • Speaking in the context of the colonial rule M.K. Gandhi reiterated that a law is binding only if it satisfies the unwritten codes of public ethics.
  • Democratic regimes ought to respect the right of citizens to dissent.
  • The arrests on scholars/activists in recent times are a depressing commentary on the nature of the present government.
  • Sophisticated societies respect intellectuals because they subject the present to historically informed investigation, interpretation, critique and prescription. This is integral to the idea of democratic politics as self-critique.
  • Politics establishes rules that govern multiple transactions of society. It cannot be its own defendant, judge and jury.
  • If politics is, as Aristotle put it, the master science (science for Greeks is knowledge), it has to accept reflective and critical activity.

Mob mentality

  • Mobs are fickle, their rhetoric is blood-curdling, they hate debate, detest institutions, and hero-worship leaders.
  • When intellectuals follow the mob or, worse, the leader, they pave the way for fascism, the destruction of institutions, the emergence of the hero, and pogroms of the minority.
  • When intellectuals fail to live up to codes of public ethics, they uphold injustice. Their commitment to truth, reason and justice lapses; they become partners in injustice.

The Dreyfus Affair in history

  • The first public intellectual was, of course, Socrates.
  • The modern notion of the public intellectual, however, took shape in the tumultuous days of what has come to be known as the ‘Dreyfus affair’ in France in 1894.
  • Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Army officer, had allegedly handed over important government documents to the Germans.
  • He was convicted of treason (later exonerated) amidst a roar of revolting anti-Semitism. When Dreyfus was stripped of his medals, the crowd shouted ‘Death to the Jew’. The atmosphere was charged, mob mentality ruled, and sane voices were drowned in the din.

Moral conscience of society

  • The Dreyfus affair legitimised the idea that a public intellectual has to denounce injustice despite the power of the mob.
  • Since then it has been held that intellectuals are not defined by what they are — professors, writers, artists or journalists — but by what they do.
  • Intellectuals have to be reflective, philosophical beings, philosophical in the sense that they think about issues, addresses contemporary social problems and see them as the legacies of previously unresolved issues of social injustice.
  • Public intellectuals can be the moral conscience of society, simply because they think.
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August 2022
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