The Vanished Intellectual

Steve Fuller
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences

This spring marks the centenary of the birth of two all-round intellectuals, those ideological avatars of the Cold War era, Raymond Aron and Jean-Paul Sartre. Aron was born on March 14, 1905, Sartre on June 21.
Sartre and Aron began their 50-year acquaintance with a shared elite French education that included a formative period in Germany just before the rise of Nazism. Each in his inimitable way displayed the contrariness both loved and loathed in intellectuals: Aron fancied Anglo-American liberalism before it became fashionable, while Sartre remained a Communist sympathiser after the fashion had passed.
Aron wrote cool, sleek prose about the most heated geopolitical conflicts, while Sartre could turn any triviality into an existential crisis. Yet they often stood together against the French political establishment. Both joined the Resistance when France was a Nazi puppet state, and both called for Algerian independence after France regained its sovereignty.
Unfortunately, Sartre and Aron are also joined in death: both have been disowned, ignored, or underrated by all the academic disciplines - philosophy, literature, sociology, politics - to which their voluminous works might be thought to have contributed. Silenced by death, Sartre and Aron are remembered more for the attitudes they brought to whatever they wrote about than for what they actually said.
Theirs is a fate perennially suffered by intellectuals. Great intellectuals like Abelard, Erasmus, Galileo, Voltaire, Zola, and Russell each challenged the pieties of his era, and we now regard their success as a good thing. But most of us are likely to recoil at the methods they used in their work as intellectuals: caricature, deception, and even fabrication. Consider three examples.
Abelard is credited with the introduction of theology as a critical discipline in Christianity. Yet, he did so by juxtaposing contradictory quotes taken out of context, showing that neither the Bible nor the Church fathers speak in one voice and that readers must decide for themselves.
Similarly, Galileo is now known to have committed what we now call "research fraud" in his famed physical experiments. Assuming he conducted them at all, they very probably did not produce the neat results that he used to assail his opponents.
As for Zola, who defended Captain Alfred Dreyfus from charges of treason fueled by anti-Semitism, he was easily convicted for libel because he merely questioned the motives of witnesses without offering any new evidence.
All three were subsequently vindicated - sometimes in their lifetimes, sometimes not. What they shared is a paradoxical ethic common to all intellectuals: the end cause of truth justifies whatever means happens to be at your disposal. This is because the whole truth is rarely what passes for the truth at any moment.
Such an ethic is abhorrent in today's world, where knowledge is parceled out to academic disciplines like bits of real estate. To an intellectual, an academic may look like someone who mistakes the means of inquiry for its end. But to academics, intellectuals look like ramblers freely trespassing on other people's property, picking the fruits and despoiling the soil.
Intellectuals differ from ordinary academics in holding that the truth is best approached not by producing new knowledge, but by destroying old belief. When the Enlightenment philosophers renovated the old Christian slogan, "The truth shall set you free," they imagined a process of opening doors, not building barricades.
In short, intellectuals want their audiences to think for themselves, not simply shift allegiances from one expert to another. The intellectual's ethic is both exhilarating and harsh, for it places responsibility for thinking squarely on the thinker's shoulders. Every act of deference thus becomes an abdication of one's own intellectual authority.
The slogan "Knowledge is power" may be familiar, but only intellectuals see its full implications. Obviously, greater knowledge enhances our capacity to act. What is much less obvious is that such empowerment requires the destruction of socially sanctioned knowledge. Only then is a society's space for decision opened up, enabling its members to move in many more directions than previously deemed possible.
Aron and Sartre developed contrasting, but equally controversial, styles of destroying received belief. Aron preferred demonizing fellow intellectuals as alarmists than conceding that the Cold War might eventuate in a nuclear holocaust. Sartre castigated those who failed to resist oppression when they could have, while excusing those who enforced oppression given the chance.
Aron exaggerated the power of reason, while Sartre inflated the power of action. Each wanted to take French society in radically different directions, but both never ceased being critical of the status quo. In the end, the two appear to have thought both in and out of their time. While this makes them awkward candidates for any academic discipline, such is the ambivalence of any intellectual's legacy.

Steve Fuller is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of The Intellectual, a book inspired by Machiavelli's The Prince.