One does not need to possess expert knowledge of the intricacies of a field, let alone a solid theoretical basis, to fit Manne’s definition. A scholarly dealing in ideas is hardly the exclusive domain of academics. A 2006 list of Australia’s Top 40 Public Intellectuals, courtesy of the immodestly named ‘API (Australian Public Intellectuals) Network’, neatly split into 20 academics and 20 freelance authors, novelists, and politicians, go to the rewording website to know more.
If being a public intellectual were essentially just giving ‘interesting’ opinions, it would be a role in which any engaged scholars ought to downplay their credentials. It would not be something done truly in the course of employment, however many brownie points it earned with their university’s external relations unit. The better definition of a public intellectual’ is a generalist who is informed by philosophical positions and contextual understandings.
Listing public intellectuals has become a parlor game. Besides the API list, the Sydney Morning Herald produced a top 10 in 2005. In both, legal academics are conspicuously absent, although two lawyers, Justice Michael Kirby and Father Frank Brennan, appear. Instead, the lists are dominated by historians. This may reflect a country perennially grappling with its history and identity, particularly when the ‘history wars’ were raging. Few scientists appear either, only the ubiquitous Dr. Tim Flannery and Professor Fiona Stanley (and the latter for her family advocacy rather than her day job as a health academic).
Australia is a distinctly utilitarian society. It is not that people knowledgeable in technologies (whether the professions or the sciences) are undervalued. Rather, technologists are experts in narrow domains and not free-rangers. Amongst scientists, cosmologists are an exception, as Professor Hawking, Sagan and Davies attest. But having insight into the origins of the universe justifies a certain celebrity, given the goose bump’ effect.
The role of public intellectuals is also context-specific. They proliferate in the US, for instance, where media markets are more diverse. The more broadcasting hours and miles of newsprint there are to fill, the more opportunity there is for talent’. However, diversity can create a clamorous din in which voices are lost, so that the quantity of media speech may vary inversely to its impact. Modesty thresholds matter also: outspokenness is highly valued by most Americans. But this does not guarantee fame for mere outspokenness. Law Professor Cass Sunstein claims his greatest media impact was not made by dint of his intellect or even personality. Rather it occurred when, bored of repeating arguments against impeaching President Clinton, he convinced CNN to let him appear with his Rhodesian ridgeback. Viewers responded enthusiastically, wanting to know how to acquire such a beast. Sunstein’s anecdote reveals the primacy of infotainment. It also confirms the definition of the public intellectual as having significant agency. He not only bargained an appearance for his pet, he convinced CNN to run a later story on the legal incidence of an airline losing one’s dog.