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The missing history of the practical intellectuals

One of my pet hates is the legacy of the ‘intellectual’, with its connotations of heroic figures speaking truth to power. This is recognised even by those who seek to retain the notion, as was the case with Foucault’s project “to break with the totalizing ambition of what he called the ‘universal intellectual'” as Bourdieu ably described it in his tribute to the philosopher after his death:

For him, the critical vision was applicable first of all to his own practice, and in this respect he was the purest representative of a new kind of intellectual who has no need to mystify himself as to the motives and themes of intellectual acts, nor to foster illusions about their effect, in order to practice them in full knowledge of their cause.

Political Interventions: Social Sciences and Political Action, Pg 139

For words to have influence, for knowledge to make a difference through speech, intellectuals require a platform. It is a platform which by its nature, facilitating a broadcast mode of one to many, can only be occupied by a chosen few. The figures who have occupied such platforms linger on in our imagination of the public role of the humanities and the social sciences, even amongst those who explicitly repudiate the role. This is problematic for many reasons but one which I’ve been reflecting on recently is how it marginalises other modes of intellectual engagement with the world and the people who undertake them. For instance Ann Oakley describes the often overlooked history of women ‘practical intellectuals’ on 4703 of her Father and Daughter:

We’re quite ignorant about the connected histories of women ‘practical intellectuals’, who combined learning, action and public policy. We don’t know the extent to which interlocking networks of women reformers/ researchers/ social scientists/ practical intellectuals have operated in different countries at different times and with what consequences. For example, the Swedish social researcher and reformer Kerstin Hesselgren was trained as a sanitary inspector at Bedford College in London in the early 1900s (having already learnt nursing and home economics and, most extraordinarily, acquired a certificate as a barber-surgeon). She practised her passion for research-based social reform by being one of the first Swedish women MPs, the first female factory inspector in Sweden, the instigator of many social investigations, a prime mover in the first social workers’ union, and a network-builder for women across political parties and classes. When the Swedish government set up a Committee on Women’s Work in the late 1930s, Hesselgren was its Chair, and another social scientist/ reformer/ politician, Alva Myrdal, was its Secretary. Networking, especially women’s networking has, like friendship, been neglected as part of the story of 20th-century social science. A childhood exposure.

The reach and influence of these networks was remarkable, as well as the obvious solidarity which characterised them. Though the manner in which they have been overlooked invites many explanations, I find it hard not to wonder if the oversight would be so pronounced were it not for the residual hold which the (usually male) public intellectual, pontificating from on high, retains on our imagination of how learning and action can be combined.

Categories: Digital Universities public sociology Thinking

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