More On Intellectual Decline

Austin Bramwell

I am a freelance opinion-monger living in New York City.

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6 Responses

  1. Jim Manzi says:


    Your friend is correct, I ain’t Menken.Report

  2. Rufus says:

    Okay, I know the blowback will be immense here, but if we accept that Andrew Sullivan is still a conservative- and, at least, I don’t buy that he’s a liberal- then he strikes me as more of a maverick than most conservatives, especially those who call themselves mavericks.Report

    • Austin Bramwell in reply to Rufus says:

      @Rufus, I see no reason not to consider Andrew Sullivan a conservative (that is, if “conservative” means something other than “what the movement says ‘conservative’ means”). So, I agree, he’s maybe not a bad example. I disagree with him a lot, but he is sincerely trying to apply some general conservative principles to particular circumstances.
      Of course, I myself gave up caring about general conservative principles some time ago, so I have no stake in whether Andrew is a “true” conservative or not.Report

  3. Ian Marcus Corbin says:


    Thanks for directing me to these postings, but I’m afraid that prima facie, your argument seems a bit beside the point. You attack some rather frivolous window dressing on Epstein’s argument – the business about eschewing money, etc., but it seems to me that you leave the more substantive point unexamined. I would simplify it thusly: Our public intellectuals used to do useful and impressive things that they no longer do. If you grant that a broad, relatively sophisticated analysis of art, culture, religion, society, politics, etc. is useful and impressive, then I can’t see how you could reject Epstein’s claim.

    Arendt, Trilling, Sontag, Bell, Greenberg – who are their equals right now in contemporary letters? That group produced serious, in-depth, conversation-changing (and sometimes deeply flawed) writing on totalitarianism, representation and interpretation in art, existential philosophy, the relationship between capitalism and culture, the relationship between art and culture, etc., etc., etc. And all of this in addition to commenting on pressing political, cultural and artistic issues of the moment.

    How many of our present day thinkers have the mix of broad, deep learning and intellectual chutzpah to attempt this today? I see only one or two really world-class literary critics writing in America right now. One is of course James Wood (praised as such by such old-school types as Sontag, Bellow and Bloom), and when he turns to non-literary matters he’s still rather good – see his denunciation of the New Atheists in the New Yorker last summer – but he rarely does this. There are lots of other people who frequently have interesting things to say in the public square (Wieseltier, Wyatt Mason, Nussbaum, Eagleton, Elshtain, Douthat come to mind) but this seems like rather slim pickings compared with the efflorescence of in-depth criticism about which Epstein is waxing nostalgic.

    Those were different times, of course, and we ought not be surprised if conditions today are less conducive to the sort of long-form intellectual journalism of Partisan Review, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t lost anything of value with its passing.



    • Austin Bramwell in reply to Ian Marcus Corbin says:

      @Ian Marcus Corbin, Thanks Ian. Sorry I haven’t been able to respond earlier.
      I think this is coming down to an unanswerable “battle of the books” type question. You have list of impressive intellectuals from mid-century, and a list of impressive intellectuals of today. There’s no obvious way to compare the two. Plus, there’s always a danger of cherry-picking. (Although I admit that there are some rather unimpressive names in your list of contemporaries.)

      As a world-class intellectual today, how about my friend’s example of Richard Posner? His range is quite extraordinary. I have a feeling that defenders of the “ancients” against the “moderns” would dismiss him as a philistine because, I don’t know, he’s analytically rigorous and reductive in his approach. Well, in my view, that’s precisely what makes him superior.

      In rejecting Epstein, I am really just making three points: (i) you can’t really know that the mid-century intellectuals were superior and (ii) their implicit (if not explicit) claims to actually be superior should be treated skeptically, especially given their intellectual limits visible in hindsight.Report