I like the take that Alan Lightman took on the role of public intellectualism in his essay “The Role of the Public Intellectual.” He started off by using quotes from Emerson and Edward Said. Emerson’s quote came from someone who lived long ago while Said’s quote is contemporary. Both capture the multiple aspects of the public intellectual. Emerson’s view is that a person engages in intellectual pursuits as a way to develop the whole man and in this way action and experiences count as much as actual book learning. “Emerson’s intellectual, while enriched by the past, should not be bound by books. His most important activity is action. Inaction is cowardice,”
Lightman writes that for Said, an intellectual is a person who pursues knowledge in the interest of the public good. Said’s intellectual must be willing to speak truth to power. “this mission often means standing outside of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the status quo.”
Lightman uses the two views of the intellectual enunciated by Emerson and Said to develop the three levels (or waht he calls the heirarchy) of the public intellectual. The first speaks primarily about his or her discipline. The second expands on that by speaking and writing about his or her discipline and how it relates to the social, cultural and political world. The highest level includes those public intellectuals who can step outside of their chosen discipline and address a wide variety of topics or issues. These thinkers have achieved a level of gravitas that allows them to do so and are willing to be well versed in whatever subject they choose to address.