Monday, November 17, 2014 3:50 pm
By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
Africa’s Premier Public Intellectual?
I’m entirely unsure why I was chosen to lead a conversation on Wole Soyinka (Kongi) as a public intellectual, convinced as I am that I am probably unqualified for that role. It is, nevertheless, proper to acknowledge the utility of convening this conversation in honour of a man for whom no thank you note is adequate.
It is arguably beyond my brief and certainly beyond my ability to say who is or isn’t a public intellectual. Few would dispute that Wole Soyinka is one but it is still necessary to establish this point rather than merely assert it.
Chielozona Eze describes Kongi as “one of Africa’s premier public intellectuals and moral voices”, pointing out that “[i]t is symbolic of Wole Soyinka’s career as one…. that his play, A Dance of the Forest, was presented at the Nigerian Independence celebrations in 1960.” Ngugi wa Thiong’o agrees that Kongi is both “a writer and public intellectual who has voiced his concerns over major happenings in different parts of the continent over the last fifty years and more, he has become the moral and democratic conscience of Africa.” Olúfémi Táíwò acknowledges Kongi as “one of contemporary Africa’s most important of philosophers… given his books, his lectures, plays, films, …. the sublimity of true intellectualism.”
Who is a Public Intellectual?
Being an intellectual is not necessarily a nice thing and being thought of as a public one is not universally seen as a virtue. The line “[h]e made love to me like an intellectual” from Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting was not intended as an endearment nor did it mean to flatter the intellectual. AC Grayling reminds us that “that the word ‘intellectual’ made despisers of the term reach for their guns; the term ‘public intellectual’ assuredly makes them reach for a bomb. To critics, the term connotes the cheap and easy option of pontification, of commentary without responsibility, rather like the luxury enjoyed by a political party in opposition—the luxury of having to move nothing but your lips.” Russell Jacoby declaims the public intellectual as a category with “big brains; small impact”.
Not everyone is necessarily as damning of the public intellectual. Many trace the origin of this label if not necessarily of the species to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 lecture/essay “The American Scholar”, in which he describes the intellectual as “One Man” – One Person – or what Alan Lightman, himself an accomplished member of the club, describes as “the complete person, or the person who embodies all dimensions of human potential and actuality.” In his 1993 Reith Lectures, “Representations of the Intellectual”, Edward Said thought the public intellectual had the role to “advance freedom and knowledge,” at once part of society but outside it and its institutions; with a capacity to balance both private and public, reaching out to the widest possible publics and with a capacity to disturb the status quo.
In answer to his own question “Who is a Public Intellectual?” in the New York Times in June 2008, Barry Gewen responds that s/he is “someone deeply committed to the life of the mind and to its impact on the society at large.” AC Grayling suggests that “[t]here is no bar to anyone’s being a public intellectual other than having nothing to say. One thing this implies is that public intellectuals are, generally speaking, a self-selected group; they are those who step voluntarily forward, as enfranchised citizens of ancient Athens once did in the agora, to make a point”.
But, Alan Lightman says of the public intellectual that s/he is “often a trained in a particular discipline, such as linguistics, biology, history, economics, literary criticism, and who is on the faculty of a college or university. When such a person decides to write and speak to a larger audience than their professional colleagues, he or she becomes a “public intellectual.” He distinguishes between three possible hierarchies or classes of public intellectual:
•Level I public intellectual speaks and writes for the public exclusively about his or her discipline or field of expertise;
•Level II public intellectual speaks and writes about his or her discipline “and how it relates to the social, cultural, and political world around it.”
Lightman recognizes what he calls “[t]he Level III” public intellectual membership of which is “[b]y invitation only”, is the intellectual as “a symbol of gentle rationality and human nobility.” About this category, he says:
The intellectual has become elevated to a symbol, a person that stands for something far larger than the discipline from which he or she originated. A Level III intellectual is asked to write and speak about a large range of public issues, not necessarily directly connected to their original field of expertise at all. After he became famous in 1919, Einstein was asked to give public addresses on religion, education, ethics, philosophy, and world politics.”
When a person enters the world of the Level III public intellectual, therefore, he “become(s) in a sense, public property because he represents something large to the public….he is an idea himself, a human striving. He has enormous power to influence and change, and he must wield that power with respect.” The Level III public intellectual in this sense is both activist and intellectual. But Lightman equally cautions: