Theory & Science (2000)

ISSN: 1527-5558

The Role Of The Intellectual In Public Affairs:
Changing Perspectives In The Modern Era

Charles Gattone
Oberlin College

The early Enlightenment thinkers Auguste Comte and Henri de Saint-Simon assumed that they had answered the question of the proper role of the intellectual in politics and economy. From their point of view, the men of knowledge or the “savants” should be given the responsibility of decision-making in the new order. Their superior intellectual talents and training in the techniques of positive inquiry enabled the members of this stratum to transcend the narrow conceptions of local viewpoints and rationalize the process of policy formation. In a position of leadership, they could govern on the basis of faultless conclusions, solving problems of previous generations and establishing superior forms of societal organization (Comte 1822; Saint-Simon 1822).

Within the framework of this logic, the rational knowledge of science would provide a stable grounding for the progressive advance of civilization. Although the social sciences were still in the process of developing, they would ultimately yield the universal laws needed to guide the evolution of humankind toward improved modes of existence. Just as the findings of the physical sciences had uncovered new truths about the workings of the natural world, so too would the discoveries of social science reveal the inner secrets of the social world. When applied directly to the management of the social order, this form of inquiry would gradually eclipse the irrational beliefs and unscientific traditions of the feudal era and set humanity on a more rational course in the future (Comte 1830; Saint-Simon 1825).

The naiveté of Comte and Saint-Simon in this regard stemmed from their limited ability to predict the course of modernity and from their unwavering belief in the infallible nature of social scientific knowledge. They were able to see that the material and ideological foundations of the feudal order had collapsed, but they could only speculate as to the future directions of the new society. Their hope that the intellectual would be placed in a position of authority was grounded in their underlying assumption that human consciousness was moving from a metaphysical to a positive state and that in this newer context, “the men of knowledge” would be the only individuals capable of operating at the level of complexity needed to bring politics into the domain of science (Comte 1830).

More recent theorists focusing on this issue had the advantage of being able to observe the consequences of Western rationalization with their own eyes. Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen could see that the structure of modern society had in fact changed, but not in the ways the earlier theorists imagined. Rather than being organized on the basis of a broad understanding of the social world, policy in the newer order was increasingly formulated in terms of shortsighted bureaucratic and administrative concerns. As the state became more directly involved in matters of the economy, a new type of political leadership emerged in which decisions were made not on the basis of a politician’s insight and experience, but in relation to the technical requirements of a rapidly growing network of interconnected institutions (Weber 1919; Veblen 1921).

From their newer vantage point, they could see that social inquiry had not lived up to the expectations of the early moderns. It did not develop into a mode of understanding capable of transcending cultural values, but continued to be an essentially normative and subjective form of investigation. Weber and Veblen argued that while this approach to the study of society could indeed offer new insights into the phenomena of the social world, its interpretive nature limited the extent to which it could act as a positive guide in the realm of policy. They could see that political decision-making in the modern order was ultimately the result of conflict between groups of varying orientation and objective, and was not reducible to scientific analysis (Weber 1904a; Veblen 1919a).

They also observed that while the course of modern society had indeed grown to become more rational in its organization, this change did not nurture a greater freedom of the individual but contributed to a rising level of bureaucratic control. A consequence of this trend was a growing irrationality in the social world, where human emotions and premodern habits of thought remained prevalent. Many of the beliefs and superstitions of the feudal era continued to thrive in industrial society and these shaped the course of political and economic development in the West. Weber and Veblen addressed the question of the relationship of knowledge and politics from the point of view of the ways intellectuals had chosen to react to this trend as well as how they might respond to it in a manner that did not seek to systematize decision-making (Weber 1919; Veblen 1918). Their writings set the tone of debate on this question among the later twentieth century thinkers who were also concerned about the increasingly mechanized and controlling nature of politics in this period. 1

Prior to and during World War II, Karl Mannheim and Joseph Schumpeter developed these insights further, but they did so within the context of modern day military conflict. They also saw that as the techniques of political and economic administration in the Western world had become more functionally rational in terms of their formal organization, a growing irrationality spread in the social world. The traditions of nationalism, ethnic strife, and war had persisted and, in some cases, escalated throughout the course of modernity in contrast to the expectations of the early Enlightenment thinkers. Mannheim and Schumpeter sought to reevaluate the assumption that relying on social scientific knowledge in the political and economic order would necessarily yield favorable consequences. They echoed the perceptions of Weber and Veblen that Western society had become more rigid and controlling in recent history and developed their conceptions of the role of intellectual in relation to this concern (Mannheim 1951; Schumpeter 1940).

After the war, C. Wright Mills and John Kenneth Galbraith reaffirmed these earlier analyses in observing the influence of postwar bureaucracies on the character of policy-making in the industrialized nations. They saw that political and economic decisions had come to more closely reflect the objectives of established institutions than in the past and that Western society was increasingly administered as opposed to governed in the postwar period. They also witnessed the rationalizing tendencies of bureaucratic administration and the irrational consequences that followed. Decisions were now formulated on the basis of pecuniary and technical demands, leaving basic human concerns unaddressed. Propaganda and emotional appeals continued to influence popular viewpoints and undermine the potential for reasoned political debate. Mills and Galbraith noted that informed democratic participation in the political realm was being replaced by a more subtle form of administrative control where the newer techniques of persuasion served as a way to bring mass sentiment in line with the policy objectives of established institutions and the goals of management-oriented political leaders (Mills 1956; Galbraith 1973). They also formulated their views of the role of the intellectual in public affairs in relation to these changes.

Although writing in different periods, these thinkers collectively observed the trend toward bureaucratic leadership as not only the product of technological and industrial development, but as evolving in relation to the particular cultural norms of their time. They did not expect changes in the outlooks and practices of intellectuals to yield the reforms they envisioned, but understood that history did not unfold in a pre-determined fashion. Their belief in the potential of ideas to shape the future course of society motivated them to form analyses of the intellectual in a reserved, but prescriptive manner. They provided both explicit and implicit images of this role as an ideal, with the hope that their writings would inform the positions of their colleagues as well as those of intellectuals in future generations.

While they were critical of the early Enlightenment views on this question, they did not fully reject the notion that intellectual knowledge could enlighten public policy. Decisions in the modern world were of a very complex and interconnected nature and political leaders could benefit from the participation of intellectuals approaching this task in the proper way. The increasingly bureaucratic character of political decision-making in the modern order and the consequences of this in terms of freedom and reason motivated them to outline the role of the intellectual with the objective of resisting these trends and infusing an element of wisdom into the realm of public affairs. They did not suggest that intellectuals be placed in positions of authority or that their work serve as a guide in the modern order, but expressed their hopes that a broader understanding would inform political leaders and public debate on the issues at hand. Rather than seeking a narrow, technical form of leadership, they outlined the manner in which intellectual involvement could expand the available knowledge of political questions within a framework of respect for individual autonomy and democratic participation.

In the work of these theorists, one can find the dual assertion that intellectuals should take a reserved approach in forming their analyses and that they should also strive to become more directly involved in the formation of policy. While these different ideals seem to contradict one another, they can also be read as suggesting that the intellectual’s role in the modern order is not of a monodimensional nature. One can draw from these writings the conclusion that in the realm of public affairs, there is a need for both the political and the social scientific intellectual. Each of these two types can offer an important contribution to the formation of public policy, and each has its own set of standards within which to operate. The differences between these two can be found in Weber’s characterizations of the social scientific and the political intellectual as well as in the distinction Mannheim drew between the knowledge of social science and that of politics (Weber 1919; Mannheim 1936). These divisions serve not as a way to give priority to one type over another, but to illustrate the contributions each could make in the realm of a rapidly changing economic and political order.

The Intellectual as Researcher

In the writings of these later thinkers, one can see that the domain of social research is not limited to the objective observer. Both political and social scientific intellectuals are able to contribute to the formation of new knowledge, in spite of their different orientations and goals. Approaching research from the standpoint of a predetermined set of political objectives can be valuable in the modern order in that it motivates political intellectuals to search for hidden weaknesses in the argumentation and program of their opponents, fostering a competitive atmosphere in the world of ideas. This may pressure members of different political camps to address the gaps in their respective analyses and possibly lead them to reform their positions on the basis of external criticism.

Nevertheless, the sum of these analyses does not in itself constitute a broad view of the social order. Findings of a political nature can intersect without influencing each other and without contributing to the formation of a larger whole. Social scientific intellectuals are not limited by the requirement that they develop conclusions supportive of one political agenda or another and are therefore better able to openly acknowledge the evidence at their disposal on a given topic. Although social scientific intellectuals cannot achieve a transcendent objectivity, the requirement that they minimize the values in their work enables them to broaden their analyses and potentially raise the standards of public debate on issues relevant to their research.

Weber and Mannheim revealed in their writings that the obligation of researchers to pursue an objective analysis does not imply that they can approach an investigation of their subject matter without an orientation. Although this type of inquiry is not aligned with any single narrow set of political values or goals, it is grounded in the normative standards and traditions of social science developed in the West throughout the course of modernity. Central to this approach, for instance, is the belief that withholding judgment on a given political issue can enable researchers to understand aspects of their inquiry that might have otherwise escaped analysis. The responsibility of intellectuals operating from this perspective is to seek to develop an awareness of the underlying assumptions of this outlook and recognize that these serve as the foundation of their investigations. They cannot simply ignore these standards or attempt to hide them to maintain an image of absolute objectivity, but are to acknowledge them and develop a sense of the ways their work can inform political decision-making within the framework of an interpretive grounding (Weber 1904; Mannheim 1932).

By the same token, the expectation that social scientific intellectuals approach inquiry in a reserved fashion does not mean that they are free to assume the orientations of the institutions with which they are affiliated. The standards of social scientific research are grounded in a set of values that cannot be alternately embraced or ignored depending on the particular circumstances of a given research project. Central to this value system is the expectation that intellectuals of this variety maintain a sense of the implications of their conclusions and avoid contributing to goals that do not meet these underlying standards. Their task is not simply one of applying the principles of science toward any and all objectives, but to build on past traditions in developing their own informed perspectives and to operate within the framework of these perspectives in choosing the questions that inform their investigations.

These theorists also took the position that the value of social scientific work could be found in its capacity to foster innovative analyses of the social world. To the extent that researchers organized their investigations on the basis of their own curiosities and scholarly interests, social inquiry could indeed act as a source of enlightenment. The goal of intellectuals of this type is not to convey a set of neutral findings about a given situation, but to reveal some degree of personal insight into the social world that may have been missed without the benefit of their research. The rapid changes of the modern order require the ongoing creation of qualitatively unique assessments. Older formulations can become static and lose their ability to explain newer developments. The role of the intellectual in this context is to formulate creative interpretations of the world in relation to the trends leading up to the present. While ideas that do not conform to the mainstream of social thought may land in the margins of political debate, they can nevertheless contribute to the thinking of others interested in pursuing alternative viewpoints. The perpetual need for new interpretations also raises the possibility that these ideas may find their way into the center stage of public life. Contemporary social research, whether of a political or scientific variety, may ultimately have far-reaching consequences, and intellectuals operating within the framework of these two sets of ethics can be influential in shaping the future directions of the modern social order.

The Intellectual as Political Advisor

This raises the question of the role of the intellectual acting in an official capacity. When in the position of advising political leaders, intellectuals are faced with the question of whether to attempt to infuse their own worldview into the formation of policy, or to assume a reserved stance and offer analyses to political leaders who are then to make decisions on the basis of their own convictions and sense of responsibility. Weber pointed out that the realm of politics is not one in which decisions are made solely on the basis of moral concerns. It is a harsh and deceptive milieu, where cunning, strategy, and an intuitive sense of the proper action to take in difficult circumstances are among the necessary qualities of one in this position. The intellectual attempting to enter this world with a pious or rationalistic attitude toward policy-making will likely be brushed aside as the more contentious political actors follow the course of their usual routine (Weber 1919). Schumpeter and Galbraith affirmed this view, arguing that political matters are often poorly understood by the intellectual whose primary locus is in the area of scientific research (Schumpeter 1942; Galbraith 1979). Those without a sense of the demands of political leadership are inclined to offer suggestions that are naively idealistic and lacking in applicative ability.

But these theorists did not present this image to argue that intellectuals should refrain from engaging in political activity of any kind. They offered their criticisms to highlight the shortcomings of social scientific intellectuals in the world of politics. Although researchers of this nature play an important role in expanding the knowledge upon which decisions can be made, their ability to carry that knowledge into the political arena and translate it into practical policy options is limited. This task is the proper domain of political intellectuals. Having a hand in both research and in politics, the political intellectual can provide the crucial link between social scientific inquiry formed in a reserved manner and the intensely conflictual and committed world of policy-making (Weber 1919; Mannheim 1943; Mills 1944).

The role of political intellectuals acting in an official capacity is not one of forming policy single-handedly, but providing leaders with a well-informed perspective of the broader trends of their contemporary social order. Their task is to reveal the larger problems of their time and to suggest the goals that might be derived from this broad view. Rather than seeking to directly control the course of political events, the advisor’s responsibility is to draw the attention of leaders to the long-term consequences of the actions being considered and to suggest ways to proceed within the framework of an informed analysis of existing circumstances.

While political intellectuals characteristically refrain from attempting to directly shape policy decisions, they have a responsibility to avoid being overly accepting of the ideology and goals of the administration with which they are affiliated. They are not required to passively accept the decisions of their superiors regardless of lax ethical standards or strategic flaws, but to critique these in a constructive manner, seeking to offer workable alternatives. While the extent to which an administration allows dissent is a factor that political intellectuals are forced to consider, the range of their tolerance for poorly formulated policies must also be tightly circumscribed. Advisors are expected to be team players and accept a measure of deviation from their ideals, but they can do so only to the extent that this conformity does not limit their long-term ability to influence policy in a manner consistent with their own personal values and goals (Weber 1919; Mannheim 1951). The task of intellectuals acting as political advisors is thus to maintain a critical perspective relative to all proposed policy suggestions and hold these up to the standards of their profession as well as those to which they subscribe as individuals.

More recent authors writing on this question could see that while intellectual involvement had become a crucial component of the rising industrial-political leadership, a shift had also taken place from a reliance on the broad-minded intellectual -- one capable of developing creative and well-informed interpretations of contemporary issues -- to the technical intellectual -- one poorly qualified to address the variety of philosophical and historical aspects of the policy decisions to be made. Mills and Galbraith observed that while decision-making in the modern order required the involvement of intellectuals with the ability to see the larger picture, their colleagues were becoming more specialized and narrow in their focus, shunning this important aspect of their role. In the absence of intellectuals of this variety, policy formation would continue to fall into the hands of bureaucratically oriented managers with little sense of the relation of their immediate experiences to the broader historical trends within which they were intertwined (Mills 1959; Galbraith 1979).

A crucial component of this role involves developing an understanding of the range of options available to an administration in a given context. Intellectuals operating in an advisory capacity cannot assume that the world around them is made up of objects that can be manipulated at will. Fulfilling this task wisely requires an awareness of the interpersonal and relational consequences of their actions as well as insight into the ways people’s lives will be changed by the actions being proposed. Political intellectuals cannot fall into the trap of romanticizing a final set of goals to the point of disregarding the harm that may befall individuals as society bends to meet these glorified expectations. They must take into consideration the consequences of their actions and not lose sight of the human dimension of their work. The role of the advisor is not one that can be approached in an instrumentally rational fashion where the ends are assumed to be given, but it requires an acceptance of the principles of democratic participation and a willingness to yield to public concerns, even when these may stray from one’s own personal vision of society’s future (Weber 1919; Mills 1959; Galbraith 1979).

The role of intellectuals in this capacity is to develop a sense of the range of viewpoints circulating among members of the broader population and to recognize that the outlooks prevalent in the social sciences do not routinely inform the orientations of individuals outside of this realm. Advisors deeply embedded in the logic of scientific research often run the risk of projecting a rationalistic mind-set onto others and forming proposals that fail to consider the meanings these suggestions may have for those who do not conform to systematic ways of seeing the world. Intellectuals in this position can raise the standards of their work by seeking to offer policy suggestions that take into consideration the interpretive nature of human understanding and avoid assuming the inherent superiority of intellectual frames of knowledge (Veblen 1919a; Schumpeter 1942).

Adopting a rationalistic stance in relation to policy is also problematic in that it can lead intellectuals to assume that the evolution of society is something that can be predicted in a positive manner. While they are obligated to consider the likely consequences of their suggestions, political advisors should also recognize that future developments are largely subject to unexpected change. The logic of planning may be appealing from the point of view of rationally-oriented thinkers seeking to apply their knowledge to the development of society, but the unpredictable nature of the social order limits the effectiveness of this approach when attempting to forecast events over an extended period of time. Public policy should not be created in a way that relies too heavily on a narrow range of expectations (Weber 1919). While political intellectuals must refer to the larger trends of the past to formulate a sense of where current circumstances will likely lead, they should do so with an awareness of the possibility that these may change course without warning in the future.

The attempt of an administration to organize the social order within the framework of a given vision of the future requires establishing an apparatus to bring that vision to life. But doing so involves forming commitments on the basis of existing conditions and can limit the potential of a society to alter its course as unexpected developments unfold. The obligation of intellectuals in this regard is to resist the tendencies of political administrations to adopt a managerial attitude toward public affairs. Those in this situation should ground their suggestions in an awareness of the nebulous nature of the social order and stand in opposition to narrow-minded attempts to direct civilization toward a utopian ideal.

Political intellectuals can thus play a key role in the formation of public policy. They can bring to the political arena an element of Socratic irony and point to the fragile nature of the existing order while raising alternatives to technically minded policy proposals. Their task in this setting is to draw on the work of intellectuals outside of the sphere of politics and to find ways to creatively incorporate the best of this work into their own policy suggestions. Their goal is not to seek to provide a rational foundation for the sphere of political decision-making as Comte and Saint-Simon suggested, but to consider the irrational and interpretive nature of human existence and stand in opposition to the bureaucratization of political leadership.

The Intellectual as Educator

This raises the question of the role of intellectual knowledge in relation to the perspectives of members of the broader population in industrial-technological society. Is the role of the intellectual to become directly involved in efforts to influence public opinion or is it to provide assessments of the social world that are limited in their persuasive appeal but enlightening to those who may seek them out on their own?

Political intellectuals working in an official capacity have the potential to be valuable contributors to the formation of institutional propaganda. They might, as Mannheim asserted, participate in this activity to encourage a broad acceptance of a multiplicity of perspectives and work against a rising cultural uniformity. Within the framework of this logic, their talents in the techniques of institutional persuasion can best be used to expand the outlook of members of the broader population and preserve the principles of liberalism that are crucial to informed participation such as a respect for the freedom of the individual and reasoned thinking (Mannheim 1951).

But Mills and Galbraith raised the point that the centralized and bureaucratic administrations of the type that emerged following the war were inclined to exploit these newer techniques of propaganda to build support for their own institutional goals (Mills 1959; Galbraith 1979). While intellectuals working in an official capacity might aspire to the ideals that Mannheim outlined, the dynamics of administrative leadership typically require that they apply their innovative skills in the formation of persuasive appeals to strengthen institutional authority. In this setting, official propaganda rarely broadens the perspectives of members of the population, but more often nurtures a complacency toward officially sanctioned norms and objectives.

Rather than act as an aide in the formation of institutional propaganda, the task of political intellectuals in this regard is to offer a knowledge of the structure of power relationships to a wider segment of society, highlighting the ways regimes use techniques of persuasion to further their own goals. In this way, political intellectuals can provide “publics” with viable alternatives to the established outlooks of reigning authorities (Mills 1959). Taking this approach limits the extent to which dominant institutions are able to gain a hegemonic hold on public opinion. Schumpeter pointed out that while the state had become much more involved in the task of opinion management during the war, a measure of tolerance for critical viewpoints remained a necessary feature of industrial-technological society. Leaders in the postwar era could only restrict challenges to their authority by placing the freedoms of their clients in business and industry at risk. Political intellectuals can utilize this opportunity to promote alternative views and act as a check on the actions and orientations of established institutions (Schumpeter 1942).

The goal of the political intellectual on this question is not to steer the consciousness of members of the larger population toward a uniform orientation, but to offer alternatives to worldviews formed at an official level. While the trend toward the massification of industrial society may have restricted the ability of many to participate wisely in public affairs, this does not necessarily imply that sound policy formation requires the management of public opinion on a grand scale. The task of the intellectual confronting this question is to offer interpretations of the contemporary world that enhance the capacity of poorly informed individuals to participate in matters of politics in an enlightened manner (Mannheim 1951; Mills 1959). To the extent that participatory democracy is able to survive in a bureaucratically organized society, the work of the political intellectual in challenging the ideas and actions of established institutions can provide a valuable contribution toward this end.

But there is also an important role to be played by intellectuals choosing to retain a more reserved attitude toward public debate and political rhetoric. Social scientific intellectuals are needed in the modern order to offer a relatively balanced and comprehensive view of the world in the classroom and in their scholarly writings. Weber suggested that the university professor has a responsibility to avoid using the podium as a means through which to preach a political agenda in the name of science. The goal of educators operating from this perspective is not to shape the orientations of their students, but to teach them to think critically in the classroom and at the level of scholarly interaction (Weber 1919).

Although they do not typically attempt to promote their views to a wider audience, social scientific intellectuals can inform individuals interested in the topic of their research. Students and colleagues wishing to develop their own knowledge are inclined to seek out analyses that meet this need. As they incorporate new formulations into their work, the ideas of social scientific intellectuals can become more widely known and influential of the consciousness of those outside academia as well (Veblen 1918; Mills 1959; Galbraith 1979). While their analyses are not designed to lead to any particular set of goals, they can ultimately have political implications over an extended period of time.

The issue of the influence of intellectuals on the ideas of others leads to the question of whether or not it is their responsibility to provide moral guidance in the newer order. Comte and Saint-Simon eagerly asserted the view that it was among the foremost tasks of the intellectual in the modern world to strengthen the moral fiber of the masses and to ground the morality of modernity in the findings of positive inquiry. From this perspective, every society requires a common set of moral standards within which to function and the failure of intellectuals to develop and teach these standards to the masses could result in a social order of a disjointed and chaotic nature (Comte 1822; Saint-Simon 1822).

But the inability of intellectuals to develop positive conclusions about the social world calls the logic of this assertion into question. The notion that intellectuals are obligated to bring the less educated into the circle of their own morality is based on the belief that their vision of the world is inherently superior to that of others. It also assumes that they themselves are capable of developing a uniformity of worldview. An awareness of the fallible nature of intellectual knowledge suggests that the task of political intellectuals is not to seek a universal set of moral standards to be applied in all instances, but to engage in debate on moral questions that takes into consideration this variation. They might examine the different morals of a given culture, assess them, and develop critiques of them, but the limitations of systematic inquiry prevent them from being able to conclusively assert the superiority of one collection of morals over another.

While the more recent theorists did not expect intellectuals to formulate a morality to be applied in all circumstances, they did concede that every analysis is grounded in a specific theoretical orientation with its own set of assumptions and its own values. Their call to intellectuals to avoid participating in inquiry on the basis of career aspirations or institutional concerns was grounded in the expectation that they approach their task from within the boundaries of a moral framework. They recognized that political intellectuals might be forced to compromise their moral standards as a necessary part of their work and that social scientific intellectuals might have to withhold moral judgment while discussing political issues in the classroom. But they collectively asserted the viewpoint that the work of the intellectual, when approached properly, is at its very core a moral task.

This leaves intellectuals with the question of how to reconcile this moral imperative with the expectation that they refrain from the attempt to develop a universal morality. They can find the solution to this seemingly paradoxical challenge in developing a sense of the value of individual freedom and of the negative consequences involved in the effort to rationalize the social order. From this perspective, intellectuals can see the importance in drawing a distinction between their own set of moral standards and those to which they hold other members of society. While a key component of their role is to work toward a given set of ideals, their efforts should be tempered by a sense of the dangers involved in seeking to control the morality of others.

The Role of the Intellectual in Public Affairs

Key thinkers writing on this question in the twentieth century observed the structure of Western civilization shifting from a liberal democratic order grounded in the principles of the free market to one in which the state and the economy had become more rigidly interconnected. They expressed their concern regarding the consequences of this transition in terms of the autonomy of the individual and the fate of participatory democracy in the future. Their analyses of the role of the intellectual in politics and economy were drawn in relation to the specific conditions of their respective milieux and in terms of the ways intellectual involvement could work against the institutionalization of political decision-making taking place in this period.

They challenged the beliefs of the early Enlightenment thinkers that intellectuals should assume a position of authority in the newer order and sought to illustrate the multidimensional nature of this role in industrial-technological society. They saw the intellectual as best able to engage in public affairs not as a political leader, but as one involved in broadening the knowledge needed in the wise formation of policy. Unlike Comte and Saint-Simon, these later thinkers understood that political matters were not absolute and could not be reduced to scientific calculation. Their ideals in this context were grounded in the hopes that analyses formed on the basis of a critical viewpoint could reveal new and relevant insights into the conditions of the social order and into the long-term trends of their time.

While they did not expect social scientific knowledge to guide humanity to new levels of consciousness, they did see it as potentially enlightening to the political actor. Their concern regarding the trend toward the rationalization of society and their interest in the knowledge of intellectual inquiry reveal in their work the sense that studying social phenomena in a critical manner could serve to raise the standards of debate on political issues both inside and outside the halls of power. Each of these authors engaged in their own work from this point of view, seeking to challenge the dominant paradigms of their time and question the major decisions being made within the framework of these paradigms. The ideals they outlined for future generations of intellectuals grew out of an affinity with this approach to inquiry.

The task of intellectuals in this regard is not only to question the frames of knowledge dominant at the time of their writing, but also to develop creative analyses of the world around them. While intellectuals are not able to formulate conclusions that transcend all cultural and historical limitations, they can examine their surroundings to offer insight into the events of their day that might not be apparent from within the confines of the more narrow and conformist interpretations of their less innovative colleagues.

The role of intellectuals is thus to study society in a way that considers both the immediate and the future consequences of their analyses and policy suggestions. Although the allure of research funding may lead many to subscribe to the narrow orientations of established institutions, there is an appeal associated with approaching inquiry from a non-conformist point of view. The work of intellectuals that does not fall in line with the norms of contemporary social thought may provide the analyses that inform future critiques and find its way into the mainstream of social thought as the character of society changes over time. The task of the intellectual in this regard is to question existing frames of knowledge and view established hierarchies of authority with a critical eye.

An awareness of the threat to individual freedom posed by the rationalization of the social order should not lead intellectuals to reject the philosophical discourse of modernity, but inspire them to consider the aspects of its orientations that require critique and reevaluation. The goal of intellectuals in this setting is to develop analyses with an informed but skeptical attitude that relies not only on the traditions of past knowledge but also on their own insight into the events of their time. They should become familiar with the existing assessments of the social world at their disposal as well as cultivate a sense of the ways these may fail to adequately reflect contemporary trends. Valuable insight into the nature of society does not stem from deductive reasoning or positive observation. Its origins lie in the ability of creative thinkers to synthesize the analyses of their predecessors and build on these to develop qualitatively new interpretations of the world around them.

While intellectuals are expected to investigate their milieu in an analytical manner, their conclusions should not rely solely on utilitarian considerations. They must recognize that the structure of modern society is grounded in the meanings individuals bring to their everyday experience and that these should not be subordinated to the more practical considerations of the established order. To the extent that intellectuals are able to incorporate the human dimension into their work, they can provide a valuable contribution to the ongoing reformation of traditional knowledge as well as to the future directions of modern civilization.


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Weber, Max. (1919), “Science as a Vocation,” “Politics as a Vocation,” “The Sociology of Charismatic Authority,” “Bureaucracy,” “Structures of Power,” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Weber, Max., Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.


1. In this essay, I use a broad definition of the term intellectual, including those individuals in and outside of academia with a well-informed view of the social world and the ability to communicate effectively through writing, speaking, music, art, and other forms of expression.