Saturday, April 14, 2012

Idiosyncrasy as a Tool of Knowledge: Social Criticism in the Age of the Normalized Intellectual

    Saturday, April 14, 2012   No comments

Axel Honneth, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main and Columbia University

Contrary to repeated claims of the disappearance of the intellectuals, their participation in public discussion has never been livelier than in today’s advanced democracies, Axel Honneth argues. Instead, he traces an epochal transformation that has brought about two fairly distinct types of reflexive positions: the constantly growing number of normalized intellectuals as the cultural byproduct and manifestation of the successful establishment of a democratic public sphere on one hand, and the marginal position of the social critic on the other. The public learning processes initiated by the latter are of much greater persistence and durability than any day-to-day intervention of normalized intellectuals could bring about, Honneth argues. His essay for our Academia & the Public Sphere Essay Series comes from the concluding chapter of his most recent translated essay collection.–ed.

In an article with the suggestive title “Courage, Sympathy, and a Good Eye,” Michael Walzer energetically sets the debate about social criticism on the track of virtue ethics.[1] The argument with which he grounds this reorientation initially sounds as plausible as it is timely. Since social theory can provide neither necessary nor sufficient grounds for successful social criticism, its quality cannot be measured primarily by the merits of its theoretical content but, rather, more urgently by the qualities of the critic. According to Walzer, he or she must have developed a capacity for sympathy and finally a sense of proportion when applying it.

What sounds plausible in this conclusion is the fact that the forcefulness and practical effect of social criticism seldom results from the measure of the theory in which it is invested but, rather, from the perspicuity of its central concern. And today this results in a turn to the virtues of the critic, since it feeds the devaluation of sociological knowledge and meets up with the tendency to personalize intellectual contexts. All the same, the self-evidence with which Walzer still regards even the intellectuals of our day as born governors of social criticism is surprising. He does not speak of bold Enlighteners—we might think of figures on the model of Émile Zola—but of the ubiquitous sort of author who participates with generalizing arguments in the debates of a democratic public sphere. Is this normalized intellectual, a spiritual agent in the fora of public opinion formation, really the natural representative today of what was once called “social criticism”? Here I first trace an epochal transformation in the form of the intellectual before outlining a completely different physiognomy of the social critic than that found in Walzer’s work.


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