Interview conducted by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri
The longer you stare at the words “public intellectual” the harder they are to decipher. They imply the application of thought to everyday life, they imply that the “intellectual” has something of value to give to a “public.” But they are also so grand as to push their own ambitions into the realm of pure fantasy: who counts as an “intellectual,” and how are they supposedly improving a “public” with their opinions? At least, difficulty grappling with the gap between what a public intellectual is and ought to be is a symptom of reading Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s new book, Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
Wurgaft shows just how young the word “intellectual” is— it arises as a description of a type of person in France during the Dreyfus Affair — yet it…
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