Richard Wolin: Says there's been a shift in intellectuals' priorities





There has been a "basic transformation of the nature and function of intellectuals," writes Richard Wolin, a professor of history, comparative literature, and political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "The visionary and utopian intellectuals of the old stamp," he argues, "have been replaced by a more modest and humble breed."

Mr. Wolin, whose essay is part of a special issue about "intellectuals and public responsibility," says that intellectuals used to work for the greater good without giving any consideration to constraints created by realpolitik. "In the face of the sordid, Machiavellian realities of power politics," he writes, they stood "as the guardians of a higher law." The 19th-century French intellectual Émile Zola, for instance, "realized that, when fundamental questions of justice were at issue, politically motivated compromises ... were unacceptable," Mr. Wolin writes.

That intellectual outlook came to an end in the 1980s, he says, with the deaths of such thinkers as Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre. Their successors, he writes, "are less interested in redeeming mankind than they are in righting particular wrongs and remedying specific injustices." For instance, "human rights violations, famine, ... racial discrimination, prisoners' rights, and so forth."

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