The idea of the “public intellectual” dates back to the American philosopher John Dewey. Before the advent of the multimedia age Dewey, and his style of philosophy, played an important and significant role in American intellectual life. His ideas and influence were not confined to the academy but carried considerable weight in political discourse, social movements, and on education as well. Dewey’s came to age the emergence of the American Progressive Movement and this explains, in part, for the impact of Dewey’s ideas on American culture. The Progressives were concerned with the reigning in the ravages of an unbridled capitalism that was inflicting damages working class Americans across the United States towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
Cornel West and Fredric Jameson are two contemporary examples of Dewey’s idea of the public intellectual. West has a much higher public profile and persona among the American public than Jameson. This is due to a few reasons. In addition to his academic career as a philosopher West has been busy as an activist, social critic, actor, and even rap artist. He is much in demand as a public speaker. West follows strongly in Dewey’s footsteps in the desire to speak to an audience outside of the university or academy. West’s first book, The Evasion of American Philosophy, is an effort to interpret John Dewey’s philosophy in a contemporary context. West supplements Dewey’s pragmatism with elements of Marxism and Black Christianity. The latter refers to the social element of the African American church experience that West grew up in.
Jameson has chosen to operate mainly inside the academy. Jameson’s writing style is anything but an easy read. It is dense and opaque as it straddles the border between literary criticism, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. Jameson, however, has emerged as the one of the most astute cultural critics of his generation.
One of the hot issues among cultural critics, philosophers, social theorists, and artists is the idea of the “postmodern.” The idea of the postmodern came into vogue in the late 1950s and early ’60s and dominated the intellectual landscape ever since. Jameson’s analysis and critique of the idea of the postmodern is one of the most insightful and also one of the difficult to get a grip on. In an essay on Jameson West refers to him as the “most challenging American Marxist hermeneutic thinker of the present scene.” The reference to Marxist hermeneutics is a reference to the role and influence that Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School have played on Jameson’s thought. Adorno was a 20th century philosopher and social critique who played a prominent role as a public intellectual in post-war Germany during the 1950s and ’60s.One of the primary tenets of Adorno’s philosophy is the idea of reification. To summarize the point in a nutshell, reification cast an impenetrable veil over the world making critical insight nearly impossible. The upshot of this is that the role of the public intellectual, as someone who can see behind the veil, disappears. This is the perspective embraced by many theorists in the postmodern tradition and it is a view that West and Jameson strongly disagree with. Adorno developed a theory of critical hermeneutics as a means of penetrating the veil. Jameson, following Adorno, sees an intricate link between global capitalism and the new era of the postmodern. West has his areas of disagreement with Jameson but both desire to maintain a role for the public intellectual as a social critic.