Great Public Intellectuals and Philosophers, Part II

The concluding part to a previous post, below I lay out five(-ish) figures worth examining if you are interested in public policy, politics and philosophy. Like the previous post, these figures do not necessarily agree with each other in all respects, and I do not totally agree with any of them across all their positions. If education is about anything, it is about critically examining viewpoints with which you do not agree, and thinking hard about our own beliefs.

Camille Paglia
A self-described “Amazon Feminist” who has long courted controversy, Pagila is often alone in her beliefs but is as happy in being solo and she is fierce. After a half-dozen other publishers passed on her first book, she finally had success in 1991 in publishing Sexual Persona. Since then she has been a cornerstone of dissident feminism, decrying Gloria Steinem as a Stalinist and highlighting the biological foundation of gender roles. Later that decade she helped launch Salon.com, which she laments has lost its way since her departure. While her books are thick and dig deep into subjects as diverse as the last thousand years of art and the best forty-odd poems in the west, she still finds time to write frequently about everything from Angela Merkel’s rise to why Lady Gaga marked the death of sex. Like most people on this list she holds positions usually seen as untenable; atheist but fond of religion, a sixties radical who likes the family unit, a gender ‘transgressive’ who sees current gender politics as a mark of civilizational decline. Unlike many self-described intellectuals, Pagila still has a day job teaching fulltime at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Based on her ability to rapidly speak her mind and her insatiable curiosity, one wonders if she bothers with a syllabus.

Related: Fellow Democrat Christina Hoff Sommers comes close to Pagila in range of interests and tenacity. The French revolutionary figure Marquis de Sade has had a great influence on Pagila, both in the dizziness of freedom but also the need for tradition and society to place checks and level expectations upon its citizens. Oh and here’s Pagila getting mad at Christopher Hitchens.

Karl Popper
The late Karl Popper was born in Austo-Hungarian Vienna and passed away in the mid-nineties, but in-between had a profound effect on science, history and philosophy. After groundbreaking research in logic and scientific discovery, Popper’s reputation grew as a political thinker in the postwar period as his books The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies provided a robust intellectual defense of liberalism. The former book a critique of the totalitarian view of history of having a destination and the latter an examination of how the views of Plato, Hegel and Marx constitute an illiberal ideology at odds with Popper’s idea of the open society. Such a society is described as the only kind that can make substantive improvements to itself without violence by having liberal democratic institutions and a pluralistic society. In the world of listicles that tell us there’s only four (or five or six) things we “need to know” in order to understand complex political events and books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers argue that individuals simply exist to be acted upon by historical trends, Popper’s thought is at once refreshingly new and immediately intuitive.

Related: Popper had an antagonistic relationship with Ludwig Wittgenstein, a more positive one with Bertrand Russell and was a friend to Friedrich Hayek.

Thomas Sowell
Recently retired from his weekly column, Thomas Sowell may be the most prolific author on this list. Writing over thirty books and hundreds of columns, Sowell began his career as a Marxist in his 20s, only to lose his faith when his academic work forced an encounter with US federal bureaucrats. After receiving his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, he took several academic jobs in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. At the onset of the Reagan Administration he joined Stanford’ Hoover Institution and has been there ever since. Sowell’s work is characterized by its straightforward prose that makes complicated concepts easy to understand for the economic layman. In his seminal Basic Economics, his simple explanation of the inescapable reality of scarcity requiring economic systems that ration resources is one of the most straight-forward arguments for capitalism. His tome Intellectuals and Society presaged the current populist moment and the growing sense that perhaps our elites are not as elite as they portend.

Related: Sowell was a friend of William Buckley, whose show Firing Line was a great piece of televised politics that has not been surpassed. Josef Joffe, another fellow at the Hoover Institution is also worthy of attention.

Richard John Neuhaus
Like others on this list, the late Neuhaus had a long intellectual journey in his life. Born in Canada in the mid-1930s, he became a prominent liberal Lutheran preacher in impoverished Brooklyn during the turbulent 1960s. Preaching against the Vietnam War and marching with civil rights leaders, he was one of the most well-known religious figures of the period. His revulsion at the Roe v. Wade decision was the start of his journey toward political conservatism. After establishing several institutes and centers in the 1980s, his Institute on Religion and Public Life in 1990 founded First Things, a magazine focused on public policy informed by religion. The monthly magazine featured writings from across the political and ecumenical spectrum, but more than any other magazine helped create an intellectually strong social conservative community within the United States. In the midst of this, Neuhaus converted to Roman Catholicism and later joined the priesthood. Neuhaus passed on in 2009 at the onset of the Obama Administration, and one wonders what he would have made of that false dawn, the populist revolt it preceded, and the turbulent period in which we find ourselves.

Related: George Weigel was a good friend of Neuhaus and continues to write about public policy and philosophy. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat was greatly influenced by Neuhaus’ writings.

The politicians
There is not much to like about most politicians. Beyond the typical deception and power hungry machinations, most of them are simply boring. Talking points and stock answers are always much safer than standing out–something true for the common person and especially true for politicians. At the moment, there are a handful that bring intellectual rigor and contrarian thinking to the political arena. The leftist Democratic Congressman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is a figure with whom I mostly disagree, but her full-throated arguments against the conventional wisdom in her party and unrelenting stances on foreign policy stand out. The libertarian Republican Congressman Justin Amash from western Michigan is the head of the House Liberty Caucus and is often a lone voice for constitutional principles. Another Republican, Senator Ben Sasse, is more conventional but still stands out in his robust and well-considered defense of limited government and a concise diagnosis of the institutional decay in his chamber. At this rate he may very well surpass the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose old desk Sasse now occupies. Across the pond, the Tory MP Rory Stewart is among the most interesting people in politics. The rights to his biography already purchased by Brad Pitt, his understanding of the United Kingdom’s security threats as well as the nature of modern democracy are worth considering. Finally, the retiring Independent MP Douglas Carswell may be one of the most successful politicians to never hold ministerial office. By leaving the Conservative Party for UKIP and standing with the Vote Leave campaign, he helped mainstream a position that had lingered on the fringes of British politics for decades. As he leaves politics, he leaves with his fundamental purpose accomplished and his nation transformed.

Related: The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a towering intellect and a controversial figure despite his patrician tone. Tory Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan is also worth examining, not least because of his excitement of finally being fired from his job, come 2019.

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