Intellectual liberation: Linking knowledge, human interest and liberation


Universities and science councils are increasingly constructed as spaces for intellectual life that promise independent thinking and for the task of translating knowledge for the public good. Public intellectuals, who participate in public-affairs discourse and engage with society about its problems, in addition to their academic pursuits, play an important role in influencing public agendas. But, what constitutes the public good and is the public intellectual always a force for good? Universities and research councils are not the only entities that produce intellectuals. We need to adopt a wider conception of the “public intellectual” to include those who work on behalf of the public. This is at the heart of political freedom and social justice, writes Prof Vasu Reddy.

Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci distinguished between an "organic" and "traditional" intellectual.
Source: Origafoundation, Wikimedia Commons

“Intellectual liberation” is a contested concept in the knowledge field. At a basic level, it is a type of freedom that allows people to think about or study what they want, based on curiosity and questions of their choice. It is about clarifying, analysing and interpreting a social world and its problems. But, that is not all it is.

There is a multidimensional link between knowledge, human interest and human liberation that underlies intellectual liberation. It is not only about questioning what exists, but also about how we come to have knowledge about things. We may go even further and ask why we should know something, which might be a question of ethics.

Defining “public interest”
In a paper, The contribution of public intellectuals in defining public interest in South Africa, delivered at a Harold Wolpe Seminar in February 2005, former Higher Education Minister Dr Blade Nzimande asked us to clarify the meaning of the terms “intellectuals”, “public” and “public interest”. He wanted us to consider the conditions under which these terms were used, interpreted and understood. We must acknowledge that these terms may mean different things to different people. For example, almost a century ago, the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci distinguished between an “organic” and “traditional” intellectual. The former is linked to particular classes, movements and institutions (for example, workers) whose job it is to counter hegemonic ideas and ambitions. Traditional intellectuals focus on reason and truth that are bound to a particular order, such as the clergy, priests and professors. But the real question is about the issue of their location and public role. In other words, the idea of “public interest” depends on which members of the public are at stake, for example, the interest of workers, the unemployed, business owners or the media.

The “public interest” is contested along the lines of class, race, gender, language and other identities. These identity markers shape people in various ways because of the broader struggles in society. Therefore, there is no single, neutral, objective position here.

Speaking truth to power
Also, the performance of intellectual labour in public engagement is directly contingent on our entanglement with the local and global “wicked problems” of our time that are difficult to resolve and show increasing resistance to resolution.

The term “wicked problems” was introduced by the American philosopher West Churchman in 1967, when he discussed the moral responsibility of operations research to “inform the manager in what respect our ‘solutions’ have failed to tame his wicked problems”. These problems are understood to be largely economic, environmental and political, and can be broken down into more descriptive components. According to millennials who participated in the Global Shapers Survey 2017, the biggest problems in the world today include:  political freedom and political instability; economic opportunities; food and water security; education; safety, security and wellbeing; government accountability, transparency and corruption; poverty; religious conflicts; wars; and climate changes and the destruction of natural resources.

The persistent problems and public questions of the contemporary world are mediated by a variety of powerful forces - political, social, economic, cultural, mass-media, and religious, for example -  that require an engaged public to foster responses that speak truth to power, as explained by the philosopher Prof Philip Kitcher in Science, Truth, and Democracy, in 2001.

Whether the intellectual liberation project indeed speaks truth to power is a valid concern. An understanding of the meaning of intellectual labour in wicked times enables opportunities to think deeply about how better to make sense of the messiness in the world. It demands debate, compromise and change.

Prof Edward Said depicted on a Palestinian cultural mural
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Implications for science
Nuanced work on the public intellectual lies at the heart of humanism and critical responsibility, and is central to the meaning of science. There are many who bemoan the lack of public intellectuals in South Africa today, especially in a context where wicked problems persist, and where trust in public officials and politicians to resolve such problems is virtually non-existent or, at best, completely eroded.

The turn to public intellectuals as crucial agents of change who champion, in the words of the literary and cultural critic, Prof Edward Said in 1996, the ideas of “secular humanism” and “intellectual responsibility”, provides a foundational framework to rethink the intellectual condition in today’s world and to facilitate different perspectives on the human community. Said’s conception has resonance with, and bearing on, the contributions of the liberal arts and humanities in the context of ongoing calls for a decentring of western and northern models of thought, aligned to the decolonial turn, in favour of localised and situated knowledge.

Intellectual labour and knowledge production is intricately interwoven in the thinking about intellectual liberation and the role of the intellectual. It is contingent on a “culture of critique” – to interrogate what is taken for granted, that being the currently accepted truths or social norms and values. Intellectual freedom is therefore about bringing new ways of thinking and learning through multidimensional ways of interpretation.

Author: Prof Vasu Reddy, Professor of Sociology and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria