Demise of the “Free-Floating” Intellectual

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Commitment to the values of individual intellectual freedom and independence has been increasingly degraded. Karl Mannheim used the concept of the “free-floating” or socially disconnected intellectual during the 1920s to describe those of independent mind who possessed the courage to critique power wherever their journey led. But Russell Jacoby says that even when first written: “Mannheim’s defense of independent intellectuals earned him the ire of both left and right.” [1] Jacoby goes on to suggest that: “If Mannheim’s analysis of the “free-floating” intellectuals seemed questionable [even] in the late 1920s, eighty years later it is outright impossible. Today intellectuals are increasingly “attached,” affiliated or institutionalized. Mannheim can [therefore] be seen as the last theorist of the independent intellectuals, not the first. After Mannheim, the older vision of intellectuals as independent and rootless makes way for a view of intellectuals as dependent and connected.”[2]


The conflict between the five ideals of scholarship I introduced in a recent post—A Preliminary Note On Five Scholarly Ideals and continued in Red Giselle–is due to a distinction between the first three ideals, those of discovery of original knowledge, refinement of existing knowledge and objective social critique, and the individual and collective activist ideals in which the “truth” of a scholar’s proposition is largely (or entirely) accepted and the scholar often becomes part of an effort to change the reality that has been critiqued. The distinction results in a difference not simply in degree or orientation but in kind.


The processes of individual and collective scholarship of an activist bent–are aimed at achieving preferred outcomes in which committed university-based intellectuals ranging from traditional legal scholars to “true believers” seek to influence systemic behaviors and reshape institutions in ways they consider more fair or just. Those presenting their positions inside the systems of scholarship are aiming to “win” rather than dispassionately and objectively offering all facts and arguments that would allow an independent fact-finder to determine the argument’s actual truth. It is this commitment to “winning” that alters the nature of the scholarly enterprise.


A result is that we see the emergence of “cliques” of scholars. The problem at this point is that in many instances these “attached” scholars are not pooling their intellects in efforts to advance knowledge for itself but are in pursuit of particular political agendas. This by itself is not inevitably bad because creativity can be stimulated in some ways through the sharing of insights, but when the cliques are comprised of “true believers” and ideologues convinced of the rightness of their positions or submerged in a collective in order to gain the security and benefits of membership they constrain the full range of potential work by their members. Although we all yearn for the social justice many of these groups claim as their goal within the construct of issues a collective is advocating, something is lost in the trade off between political outcome and intellectual merit.


Similarly, the intensity of politics and ideology generates a deadening aura once those who believe deeply in a particular mission and agenda achieve a significant presence in an institution and gain the power to define agendas. It is not inappropriate to suggest that by their very nature many scholars are easily intimidated by the politics and assumptions of an intensely political faculty group trumpeting what they claim to be “moral” leverage. A result for some is to join the “in crowd”. Others alter their own work. They do this to avoid conflict by suppressing themes they might otherwise pursue, choosing non-controversial areas of inquiry and making sure that they do not criticize anything of concern to the dominant cliques of “scholars”.


The conflict among factions for power suggests strongly that postmodernists are correct about the historical fact that law is an instrument of interest group power. As one commentator observes, postmodern critics may not believe in a search for truth, but “[t]hey do, however, believe in politics—and most especially in identity politics.” Pinsker further suggests that for postmodernists, “academic freedom” has come to represent the struggle for equality by these interest groups, while “truth” may be seen as an obstacle to that equality. [3] But such critiques seem oblivious to or even seek to obfuscate the fact that such behavior is intrinsic to anyone or any group who occupies a position in which power is wielded. This means that those who have been successful in challenging the older applications of power against them by what they consider discriminatory or self-interested groups with different agendas are themselves inevitably subject to the same tendency to serve the agendas of their own identities and ideologies.


Deborah Tannen describes a “culture of argument” that has emerged within academic and political circles as one in which we approach public dialogue as if it were a fight, concluding the “argument culture” causes us to be adversarial. She describes the path she followed to her insight, revealing: “The answer crystallized when I put the question to a writer who … had misrepresented my work: [I asked] “Why do you need to make others wrong for you to be right?” Her response: “It’s an argument!” Tannen realized the fact that her critic perceived what was going on as argumentation rather than reasoned discourse was the answer. She concludes: “[w]hen you’re having an argument with someone, your goal is not to listen and understand. Instead, you use every tactic you can think of—including distorting what your opponent just said—in order to win the argument.” [4]


As Arthur Schopenhauer observes, the search for “truth” in any kind of public discourse is a fiction—the universal goal of the base human beings who engage in such discourse is to win, not to understand.


[I]n a dialectical contest we must regard objective truth as an accidental circumstance, and look only to the defense of our own position and the refutation of our opponent’s. Truth is in the depths. At the beginning of a contest each man believes, as a rule, that right is on his side; in the course of it, both become doubtful, and the truth is not determined or confirmed until the close. Dialectic, then, has as little to do with truth as the fencing master considers who is right when a quarrel leads to a duel. Thrust and parry is the whole business. It is the art of intellectual fencing: and it is only when we so regard it that we can erect it into a branch of knowledge.[5]


Daphne Patai makes the point of how this political culture works within the university. She explains that quite some time ago: “[Walter] Metzger and [Richard] Hofstadter argued that academic freedom hangs by a slender thread. Today, instead of heeding their warning and giving serious thought to a tradition in danger of dissolution, throughout the university people convinced of their political righteousness challenge the very concepts of academic freedom and free speech, and they back that challenge with the coercive power of rules, codes, and disciplinary tribunals.” [6]


Much of academic scholarship has become a form of advocacy and advocacy cares about truth only when it serves the advocates’ interest. The problem with the advocate/activist focus is as Anthony Kronman observes: “The indifference to truth that all advocacy entails is likely … to affect the character of one who practices the craft for a long time and in a studied way.” Since a great deal of modern noncumulative scholarship in areas such as philosophy, law, politics and literature contains an activist/advocacy element we need to be concerned about its effect on the scholar’s clarity of vision as well as aim and motivation.[7]


If, for example, the university scholar’s motivation is a dispassionate search for original knowledge for itself or refinement of the highest forms of existing knowledge, the inclusion of an activist agenda by other scholars represents a threatening challenge. The sense of activist mission, however noble in some areas of action, infuses the activist scholar’s work with an aggressiveness and bias toward achieving the underlying agenda. This bias intuitively offends the values of scholars committed to advancing pure knowledge for its own sake according to processes that are as demonstrably objective as can be achieved. The same can be said for any scholar who is simply attempting to offer a full and balanced view on an important topic. Advocacy does not seek balance as opposed to outcome. This is shown clearly in Aristotle’s message in his Rhetoric.


Eric Hoffer argues that one “of the characteristic attitudes of the modern intellectual—his tendency to see any group he identifies himself with as a chosen people, and any truth he embraces as the one and only truth….” [8] This kind of prophetic intensity of belief and identification with a cause easily blinds the activist scholar to the fuller implications of his or her work. To the extent the scholar is pursuing the implementation of a specific agenda the blindness may well be willful or seen by the actor as a legitimate method of achieving political change. Scholarship thus becomes just another weapon in the pursuit of agendas.


The goals, methods and cultures are fundamentally different between the practitioners of the five ideals. Much of modern activist scholarship is self-consciously and aggressively political in nature and is to a large extent highly subjective. It has been argued that a political monoculture has come to dominate academia, one in which the vast majority of academics think the same, share the same values, and collectively fail to evaluate the foundations of their own assumptions while rejecting and denigrating others. The figures on political diversity in the university world are extreme. [9]


The problem is that politics is not about truth in any strict sense but is concerned with attaining power or challenging power and gaining influence. The rightness of the protests by the collective interests and their goals of fair treatment, opportunity and non-discrimination should not mask the fact that the language used by each collective movement (and counter-movement) has been language of attack, protest and opposition—not reasoned discourse. It is language used as weapons to gain or defend power. [10]


While truth is not necessarily irrelevant to many activist scholars it is often subordinated to a stronger priority or is subsumed by powerful and often untested or partial assumptions on which the subsequent analysis and conclusions are based. Keynes observes: “[The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the ruled is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist….” [11]


I suspect it is a characteristic of activist-scholars that many not only have allegiances with their primary university discipline but are also devoted members of political collectives working outside the university. Avoiding the blurring of the lines becomes very difficult when one is embedded in a political interest group. The strategic and goal-oriented behavior of activist-scholars inevitably leads to the use of political speech. Activists who are seeking to build new paradigms through critique and active reform can be expected on occasion to be abrasive, deceptive, aggressive, and irritating. Just as are those they challenge, they are hostages of their own experiences and allegiances even to the extent they become intellectually blinded to alternative perspectives and are intolerant of anyone who disagrees with their particular vision of a brave new world. They become what Hoffer called “true believers” in the rightness of their cause and will do virtually anything to advance it.[12]


A result of loose collections of scholars working within institutions operating according to these multiple ideals is a decreased ability to evaluate, value or even tolerate work done within a different scholarly paradigm than the one served by particular scholars. There is a conflict for power, priority and dominance just as in any other political system that distributes rewards, status and opportunity.   It too often becomes a contest between competing propagandists rather than a legitimate search for knowledge.


The problem is that political speech is inherently manipulative, not through the attempt to persuade by demonstrated truth and balanced analysis but through rhetoric, polemic and propaganda.   I argue that a substantial amount of activist noncumulative scholarship of the kind found in American law schools involves rhetorical deception–both conscious and subconscious–aimed at achieving political ends whose truth and justice are taken for granted or ignored in order to achieve power, group identity or status.[13]


Maxine Greene warns that slogans and propaganda have replaced intelligent dialogue. She states that slogans are, “rallying symbols” that “in no sense describe what actually exists, yet they are taken—wishfully or desperately—to be generalizations or statements of fact.”[14] What we are calling lies involves confusion, accidental misapplication of “truths” to inappropriate contexts, and category mistakes. But it also includes an increase in overt lying, obfuscation, deliberate misinterpretation and falsification of data, biased interpretations, and out-of-context arguments and analyses. Many in pursuit of agendas in the “culture war” consider it allowable and necessary to deceive as part of the strategy of conflict.   They consider their noble ends to justify the means.


While we might assume that there is room within the university for all the cultures to coexist, the culture of each ideal threatens the fundamental beliefs, agendas and goals of the other. The rise to dominance of one version of the university ideal seems to require the suppression of others. The emergence of “identity sects” that provide meaning and psychological security to their members creates a situation in which it is dangerous to question the avowed tenets of the group whether from inside or without. As a result, challenging the assumptions of factions brings accusations of heresy, disloyalty, and bigotry.[15]   Of late we have seen the powerful sanctions involved in being labeled as having “phobic” mindsets in which an interest group can condemn those of whom they disapprove as being homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, sexist, racist or, failing that, “insensitive” or “intolerant.”[16]   These are powerful condemnatory terms that, once leveled, are virtually impossible to dispel.[17]


Our dilemma is that, like all hypocrites or true believers, we cannot afford to admit that all our fundamental norms are assumptions and choices. This is because we must have reasonably consensual criteria on which social choices are grounded. Otherwise we are adrift in a limbo where there is neither stability nor consistency. We elevate Reason to the highest levels, but Reason is only a tool and method. It does not provide the initial substantive premises on which it operates. Freeman and Appel remind us that: “All we can do by reasoning is to learn that if our first assertion is true, then all the implications, which follow from it according to the laws of valid reasoning, must also be true. But the laws of reasoning are silent concerning the truth of the crucial first premise.”[18]




[1] Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia, at 110.

[2] Jacoby, End of Utopia, at 111.

[3] Sanford Pinsker, “Tenure can rescue the academy,” Wash. Times, Oct. 31, 1996, at A23.

[4] Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (1998).

[5] See Arthur Schopenhauer, The Art of Always Being Right 33-42 (2009).

[6] Daphne Patai, “Speak Freely, Professor — Within the Speech Code,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 9, 2000, pg. B7. See also, Patai, Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998).

[7] Anthony Kronman, “Legal Scholarship and Moral Education,” 90 Yale L. J. 955, 964 ( ).

[8] See, Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change, at 43, 45.

[9] Davenport, “Few universities are open to conservative views”. See also, The Chronicle Review, Page: B7, “Inside the Mind of an Ivy League Professor,” Frank Luntz, | August 30, 2002. Luntz writes: “A new survey of Ivy League professors conducted by the Luntz Research Companies on behalf of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture reveals an indisputable and painfully evident lack of diversity when it comes to the attitudes and values of Ivy League faculty. Not only is there an alarming uniformity among the guardians of our best and brightest minds, but this group of educators is almost uniformly outside of mainstream, moderate, middle-of-the-road American political thought. So much for diversity.”

[10] Max Lerner, Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas (Transition, 1991).

[11] Keynes adds: “[T]he power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas…. [S]oon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.” Keynes, at 383, 384.

[12] See, Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements 120 (1951), and his discussion of how the “fault finding man of words” attacks a dominant orthodoxy in order to undermine its perceived legitimacy and hold on power.

[13] Brinton, Ideas and Men, at 13.

[14] See Maxine Greene, Teacher As Stranger at 70.

[15] Seth Stevenson, “The Thought Police,” January 2003,

[16] William F. Allman, The Stone Age Present: How Evolution Has Shaped Modern Life—From Sex, Violence, and Language to Emotions, Morals, and Communities (1994). Allman quotes Yeats. “Civilization is looped together, brought under a rule, under the semblance of peace by manifold illusion.” Id. at 220. Allman goes on to describe the increase in complexity that has generated some of the conflict between factions and the need to label and antagonize opposing groups. Specifically, Allman notes that for most of human existence, survival depended upon the ability of individuals to identify with and support small groups comprising family members and close associated friends. See id. at 221. With the development of large-scale societies, individuals and family groups suddenly had to deal with the conflict between minds adapted to identification with small family groups and the need for interrelationships with complete strangers. See id. Arguably, factions and their conflicts with other factions are the natural result of the human mind’s search for group support coupled with distrust of the “other” who is not part of the group.

[17] The power to condemn is seen by the collectives as a one-way street. This has been demonstrated in university speech codes that reflect academics’ agreement with the suppression of open discourse. Seth Stevenson, “The Thought Police,” January 2003, available at

[18] See Eugene Freeman and David Appel, The Wisdom and Ideas of Plato 71 (1963).



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