Constructing the ‘Public Intellectual’ in the Premodern World
A notable feature of intellectual history has been the role of translation in the evolution and contestation of key cultural concepts, including those involved in the negotiation of power: we may think here of the extent to which modern terms such as ‘politics’ and ‘democracy’ derive ultimately from classical Greek, often mediated through different languages. Translation and other forms of mediation are similarly implicated in renegotiating the concept of the public intellectual in different historical and cultural locations.
The role and future of the public intellectual in the contemporary world continues to inspire academic and non-academic debate. In his 1993 Reith lectures, Edward Said gives voice to what might be called a ‘common-sense’ vision of the public intellectual. At first glance, Said’s description of the fiercely independent, incorruptible intellectual whose writing and thought serve as a lifelong calling to relentlessly and selflessly oppose injustice has a timeless quality. Closer examination reveals, however, that Said’s vision is very much a product of his time and personal circumstances. Several assumptions underlie Said’s vision. For example, Said insists on a strict division between the public and the private sphere. He declares that the public intellectual’s main task is making enlightened representations in language that assess actual states-of-affairs against the prescriptions of universal moral precepts. For Said, the public intellectual must be secular, being staunchly opposed to religion spilling outside ‘private life’. Finally, Said holds that the norms that serve as the public intellectual’s moral compass are the principles of liberal democracy. These ostensibly universal elements of Said’s portrait – the division between public and private realms, the view of democratic liberalism as a universally valid moral system, and a robust secularism that staunchly opposes religion spilling outside ‘private life’ – are all in reality the product of the particular historical experiences of Western Europe.
Research undertaken by the Genealogies of Knowledge team serves as a challenge to such contemporary constructions of the public intellectual as a timeless and culturally ubiquitous figure in human societies, and demonstrates that the figure of the public intellectual has also been inscribed into historical representations of premodern society and politics. In the premodern world, perhaps more than today, the status of ‘public intellectual’ derived from access to cultural capital associated with particular bodies of knowledge – often but not necessarily religious as well as secular – and in particular from the construction of intellectual authority via expertise in a privileged learned language (Greek, Latin, classical Arabic, Sanskrit).