With one state after the other tottering on the brink of insolvency, the European Union is experiencing not only an economic meltdown but an identity crisis. Could there be any better occasion for public intellectuals to leave their salons and seminars and put their ideas to good use? What else is the point of them?
The debate about what role an intellectual ought to play is older than that about the misery and splendour of the jumble of states, regulations, histories and high-minded ideas that we call Europe. And yet, right now it is as if both point to one conclusion: the idea of European unification has failed and with it, the public discourse about the consequences of its failing.
Public intellectuals are supposed to rise above the narrow preoccupations of the rest of society and engage with a higher truth. Earlier thinkers such as Auguste Comte argued that those of superior intelligence should also be entrusted with political decision-making, an idea that still reverberates in their self-perception today. Many were delighted by the election of Barack Obama, whom they saw as one of themselves.
But there are also critics who argue that many of the current crop of public intellectuals are in fact ill-equipped for the task. In a bout of introspection, some intellectuals even go as far as flagellating themselves. The American philosopher Richard Rorty warned of the dangers of civic irresponsibility. Others deplore their own lack of impact on public debates. This array of self-doubt, desire for a sea-change in public perceptions, and thundering rallying-calls finds its foil in attitudes towards Europe — but not in the way one would expect.
Take the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas — perhaps one of the few who truly deserve the label “public intellectual”, precisely because he’s not a “publicity intellectual”. If Habermas epitomises the dry and serious German sage, the suave and glib Bernard-Henri Lévy does it for the French to an almost comical extent. While Habermas blames the rise of euroscepticism on politicians who fail to explain the EU’s achievements in ways that people can relate to, Lévy argues that Europe’s identity resembles America’s, whose main achievement is the symbolic unifying of all its disparate parts: “Europeans need something that we can point to and call ours.”
But Lévy is wrong on both counts: the United States is much more than just a symbol, and anyway the last thing we Europeans need are more lofty symbols. Isn’t it high time to get on with the job of lifting the Continent out of its seemingly endless crisis? What use is a republic of letters if it doesn’t get down to business with the messy world of politics, what the classical world knew as the res publica?
This is a question one would be hard pressed to find debated among intellectuals on the Continent — no matter how enthusiastic some are about realpolitik, intellectualism is always in part utopianism, a move away from reality rather than a way of exploring it. No one knew this better than Bertrand Russell — who, as one of the founding fathers of analytical philosophy, couldn’t be further from a metaphysical schmoozer. “Intellectuals appear to have had more influence in former periods than in our own,” Russell wrote in 1939. However, he continued, “This influence today has been exaggerated. Intellectuals may influence people’s talk more than their actions. They are thought to have caused changes when they merely have been foreseeing them a little sooner than the rest.”
Russell’s insight takes intellectuals down a peg or two, but it also highlights the importance of talk over action, and the ability to “scout” ideas. Isn’t this the role an intellectual ought to play? After all, it’s the duty of a thinker to be something of an outsider, and to stir up opinion rather than to soothe it.
Sitting in the capital of the biggest economy in Europe, and the home of Hegelian idealism, I cannot help but feel a rather English empiricism and look to Russell again. On the brink of the most terrible of all the Europ-ean wars, he wrote: “Anti-intellectualism arises in situations where strong passions that cannot be gratified exist.” Today’s task is to channel these passions into a mutually productive relationship between the republic of letters and the res publica.
Now, most continental intellectuals are in favour of the European idea. The notion of a United States of Europe is not foreign at all. It would be good for the debate if that notion were to be questioned more often and in a constructive tone.
One question remains, however. How will Europe’s cultural elite cope with the possibility that the dream of a united Europe not only hasn’t come true but may be turning into a nightmare?