[Event] Constructing the ‘Public Intellectual’ in the Premodern World. 5-6 September 2019, Chancellors Hotel, Manchester, UK.

Constructing the ‘Public Intellectual’ in the Premodern World

Dates: 5-6 September 2019
Location: Chancellors Hotel, Manchester, UK
Registration: 6th May 2019 – 30th August 2019 (http://genealogiesofknowledge.net/events/public-intellectual/#registration)
A two-day conference co-hosted by the Genealogies of Knowledge project, the Division of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, and the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies, University of Manchester, UK.

A notable feature of intellectual history has been the role of translation in the evolution and contestation of key cultural concepts, including those involved in the negotiation of power: we may think here of the extent to which modern terms such as ‘politics’ and ‘democracy’ derive ultimately from classical Greek, often mediated through different languages. Translation and other forms of mediation are similarly implicated in renegotiating the concept of the public intellectual in different historical and cultural locations.

The role and future of the public intellectual in the contemporary world continues to inspire academic and non-academic debate. In his 1993 Reith lectures, Edward Said gives voice to what might be called a ‘common-sense’ vision of the public intellectual. At first glance, Said’s description of the fiercely independent, incorruptible intellectual whose writing and thought serve as a lifelong calling to relentlessly and selflessly oppose injustice has a timeless quality. Closer examination reveals, however, that Said’s vision is very much a product of his time and personal circumstances. Several assumptions underlie Said’s vision. For example, Said insists on a strict division between the public and the private sphere. He declares that the public intellectual’s main task is making enlightened representations in language that assess actual states-of-affairs against the prescriptions of universal moral precepts. For Said, the public intellectual must be secular, being staunchly opposed to religion spilling outside ‘private life’. Finally, Said holds that the norms that serve as the public intellectual’s moral compass are the principles of liberal democracy. These ostensibly universal elements of Said’s portrait – the division between public and private realms, the view of democratic liberalism as a universally valid moral system, and a robust secularism that staunchly opposes religion spilling outside ‘private life’ – are all in reality the product of the particular historical experiences of Western Europe.

Research undertaken by the Genealogies of Knowledge team serves as a challenge to such contemporary constructions of the public intellectual as a timeless and culturally ubiquitous figure in human societies, and demonstrates that the figure of the public intellectual has also been inscribed into historical representations of premodern society and politics. In the premodern world, perhaps more than today, the status of ‘public intellectual’ derived from access to cultural capital associated with particular bodies of knowledge – often but not necessarily religious as well as secular – and in particular from the construction of intellectual authority via expertise in a privileged learned language (Greek, Latin, classical Arabic, Sanskrit).

‘Constructing the public intellectual in the premodern world’ is based on the premise that the term ‘public intellectual’ can meaningfully be used either of individuals or of groups in the premodern world. It has two aims. The first is to examine the specific historical conditions, including both the continuities but also the changes in conceptual and cultural categories, which served to construct this figure in the premodern world. The second is to understand how modern representations of the premodern ‘public intellectual’ have been used to inspire and shape modern ideas about the role and remit of public intellectuals in the contemporary world.

The conference welcomes proposals for individual papers or panels (ideally of three papers) that grapple with how the ‘public intellectual’ was constructed in premodern societies, and how their legacy influences how we understand the public intellectual today. The conference invites scholars to present research on, but not limited to, the following broad themes:

Constructing categories. Focusing on the historically and culturally specific categories from which representations of the public intellectual are constructed. Topics include: the premodern ‘public’, premodern textual and visual political representation, premodern ‘intellect’ and ‘intellectuals’, premodern sites of representation, power and representation in the premodern world, the self in premodern politics, political life in the premodern world.

Constructing authority with language and translation. Focusing on privileged languages of learning as a mode of access to political privilege. Topics include: politics of translation, constructing scientific lexicons, language and power in the premodern world, premodern lingua francas, politics and vernacular languages.

Constructing authority with knowledge. Focusing on the historical changes and cultural differences in the specialised forms of knowledge that give its possessor the power to govern the lives of others. Topics include: political knowledge; specialisation and professionalism in the premodern world; the relationship between specific learned languages and particular areas of expertise such as religious learning, legal learning and medical learning; political authority and privileged languages of learning; premodern education and political power; patronage and patrons; centre and periphery in premodern intellectual geography; public intellectuals on the move.

Utilising the premodern public intellectual. Focusing on how portraits of premodern ‘public intellectuals’ influence our ideas about what the public intellectual should be today. Topics include: using ancient models for making the modern public intellectuals, contemporary legacies of ancient philosophers, ‘practical philosophy’ in the modern world.


Plenary speakers

Khaled Fahmy, University of Cambridge
To Whom Does the Body Belong: Modern Medicine and Medical Professionals in Times of Upheaval

Abstract: Forensic medicine played a central role during the Egyptian uprising of 2011-2013. From determining the cause of death of hundreds of demonstrators, to deciding whether or not the deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, could stand trial; and from performing infamous “virginity tests” that the army enforced on female demonstrators, to adjudicating hundreds of torture cases, forensic doctors found their expertise called upon to speak on behalf of mute, sometimes dead, bodies. Drawing on historical research on nineteenth-century Egyptian forensic medicine as well as ethnographic research on the present Egyptian Forensic Medicine Authority, this talk will analyze the role of the forensic doctor in moments of national upheaval, and how her/his expertise often proves decisive in people’s quest for justice.

Chris Stray, Swansea University
The Politics of the Classical: Language and authority in the 19th century

Abstract: For several centuries, the languages and civilisations of classical antiquity occupied an exemplary status in European culture and society. This paper looks at the maintenance of and challenges to this status, and the ways in which its demise led to new forms of knowledge and to new kinds of intellectual authority. ‘Classics’ is seen as form of social action in which exemplary pasts are deployed to maintain stability and universality against change and relativity. In the nineteenth century this was undermined by the normalisation of change (historicity) and the emergence of powerful alternative sources of value. Classical languages (Greek, Latin, and to some extent Hebrew) had been used for both communication and boundary maintenance; their declining status led to the modern academic formations, in which an interim phase (academic knowledge exemplified by the rigours of Latin) gave way to the formal parity of all academic knowledge.