Every issue of The Point contains a “symposium” section organized around a question that takes the form: What is x for? Since the magazine’s inception in 2009, we’ve asked what sport is for, what privacy is for, what marriage is for, and what America is for, among other questions. The impetus behind the symposium is our sense that public debates about such topics are often hobbled by a lack of clarity regarding the different ways of establishing what a thing can be good for. Is Facebook’s gathering of personal information a violation of privacy? Should gay marriage be legal? Is it important for America to have borders? To even satisfactorily ask such questions, much less to debate or answer them, requires that we first reflect on the different things we might mean—as political agents, as members of society, as inheritors of historical and spiritual traditions, and as individuals—when we speak of privacy, or marriage, or America.
Usually, we cast a wide net as we prepare a symposium, with the aim of representing as diverse an array of approaches to the topic as possible. This includes views that we as individual editors disagree with, sometimes strongly. We seek out such contributions, provided they are thoughtful and well argued, not because we think every perspective is equally valid, or because we get a kick out of being contrarians, but because we believe that no view is invulnerable to counterargument or criticism, including our own. Sometimes, we would like to think, symposium pieces will convince readers to change their mind about something, or at least to see the reasoning behind an argument they previously found incomprehensible or stupid. Other times, a symposium piece may help us appreciate why we prefer the view we do, or show us where its weak points are. In either case, the reader hopefully leaves the symposium with a better awareness of the scope and range of thoughtful potential opinions about the topic, and with the sense of having experienced the adventure of genuine dialogue—increasingly rare these days, but for that reason all the more valuable.
The symposium for this issue, What are intellectuals for?, is different. Instead of seeking out opinions that diverge from our own, all of the responses have been written by editors of The Point, and they all speak, in one way or another, to what it means to spend one’s time today writing and reading essays for a magazine like this one. What are the kinds of articles about ideas, politics, literature and culture that we find helpful? What can intellectuals hope to accomplish in those spheres? And aren’t there better things we could all be doing with our time? Contributions include: Jesse McCarthy on the historical responsibility of black intellectuals in America, Ollie Cussen on why today’s intellectuals are so obsessed with the Enlightenment, Rachel Wiseman on the Russian intelligentsia and the virtues of “switching off,” Jonny Thakkar on whether philosophers are always—or only sometimes—jerks, Anastasia Berg on how “Cat Person” made us all into bad readers, Robert Kehoe on “thinking in opposites,” and me on the intersection between political and intellectual life at think tanks and little magazines.
We decided to break with our usual practice for this symposium for two main reasons. One is that, given how often we promote the virtue of self-examination, we thought it made sense for us to reflect on why we continue to publish this magazine. (Hint: it’s not for the money.) It is a truism that intellectuals are often navel-gazing and like to talk about themselves: as we document in this issue’s “Further Materials” section, intellectuals have a long history of declaring that they are an endangered species, disrespected, debased, underpaid and in crisis. Although our symposium does not begin with a sense of crisis or belatedness, we believe that such statements, hyperbolic though they may be, are the products of a genuine anxiety, which the intellectual, if she wishes to be responsible, must face up to: Does anyone really need intellectuals? And if so, why? The truth is that the value of intellectual writing is not self-evident, including to many of us who do it. In order to convince others that what we are doing matters, we should first be able to convince ourselves.
A second reason for the symposium has to do with clarifying what The Point stands for as a magazine. Because The Point has never presented itself as advancing a specific literary or political agenda, we have found that some readers (as well as some non-readers) make assumptions about who we are or what we are trying to do. Common ones include that we are “centrists,” that we are, or pretend to be, somehow beyond politics—“post-ideological” or “apolitical”—or that our goal is simply to give equal time and respect to every viewpoint, as they used to do on the network news and still aspire to do in many kindergarten classes. The assumption that the lack of a clearly pursued ideological mission indicates a lack of interest in, or a naïveté about, political life reveals at least as much about our current culture as it does about The Point. In any case, we do not much recognize ourselves in these characterizations, and we hope that the articles in this symposium will help show the extent to which they fail to account for what it means—politically, morally, aesthetically and philosophically—for a magazine to be dedicated to the examined life.
It is worth noting that this issue’s symposium, although limited to Point editors, still does not advance a uniform or fully consistent answer to the question of what intellectuals are for. A final aspiration for the section is to show the range of perspectives and voices that exist on our current staff—a range that is much wider and richer than when I helped start this magazine, along with Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick, two fellow graduate students at the University of Chicago, nine years ago. The Point in 2018 is not the same, happily, as The Point in 2009. Yet just as there are threads of continuity running across our editors’ different contributions to the symposium, so we hope you will recognize continuities between the magazine in 2009 and the magazine today. For those (few) stalwarts who have been with us from the beginning, we hope this symposium—not to mention the rest of the issue, which includes important contributions from many non-Point editors (e.g. Nora Caplan-Bricker on #MeToo and feminist utopia, Philippa Snow on the missed connection between Lindsay Lohan and David Lynch, Andrew Kay on wrestling in Paris, Frank Guan on why fiction needs ideology)—offers a reminder of what you’ve always enjoyed about the magazine. For our newer readers, welcome, and please read on: we hope you find something worth thinking about.