American Intellectual Life, 1465-1992

American Intellectual Life, 1465-1992

Daniel Bell

Daniel Bell, the esteemed Harvard University sociologist who died recently at the age of 91, surveyed America's intellectual scene in this essay, which originally appeared in 1992.

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There is no longer any intellectual center in the United States. And, for that matter, very few intellectuals remain, if by intellectuals one means those socially unattached individuals devoted solely to the search for truth. The existence of such a stratum was, for the sociologist Karl Mannheim, one of the more distinctive facts about cultural life in the 20th century. As he wrote in 1929:

"One of the most impressive facts about modem life is that in it, unlike previous cultures, intellectual activity is not carried on exclusively by a socially rigidly defined class, such as a priesthood, but rather by a social stratum which is to a large degree unattached to any social class and which is recruited from an increasingly inclusive area of social life. This sociological fact determines essentially the uniqueness of the modem mind, which is characteristically not based upon the authority of a priesthood, which is not closed or finished, but which is rather dynamic, elastic, in a constant state of flux, and perpetually confronted by new problems."

How dated all this seems more than a half-century later. How many intellectuals are there, outside institutional attachments? There is a considerable amount of intellectual activity—in universities, think tanks,and research centers of public policy; in centers of literary studies in universities, libraries, and museums; in various "institutes of advanced studies," most of which are attached to universities; and in government and busi-ness, usually among "planning staffs."

We do not have intellectual inquiry or discussion but "research," "policy analysis," and, in literature, "theory." Increasingly, intellectual life is specialized, professionalized, jargonized, and often hermetic in its focusand language. There is little attention to the "common reader" of the kind that Virginia Woolf sought to address, while, ironically, the life of Mrs. Woolf has itself become a cottage industry and her work (despite her strictures) an icon for ardent feminist critics.


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