“‘Publicist,’” wrote Jacoby, “if it once connotated an engagement with the state and law, is almost obsolete, victimized by Hollywood and ‘public relations’: it now signifies someone who handles and manipulates the media, an advance or front man (or woman). A public intellectual or old-style publicist is something else, perhaps the opposite, an incorrigibly independent soul answering to no one.” But it had to have another overtone as well: “The definition must include a commitment not simply to a professional or private domain but to a public world—and a public language, the vernacular.”
At this point, one can almost hear a chorus of ten thousand graduate students reciting, “But difficult ideas require complex language! Anything else is mere journalism!” Be that as it may, Jacoby insisted on the vernacular as a necessary corrective to the tendency of intellectual discourse to ossify, thereby excluding readers. The example of scholastic Latin came to mind. The turn to common language “characterizes modern culture since the Renaissance,” wrote Jacoby. “The adoption of the vernacular was not always simple or peaceful, for it meant that groups excluded from religious and scientific controversy could now enter the fray.”
Beneath this historical analogy, another set of references may have been active in shaping this call for a new public-intellectual vernacular. Jacoby’s earlier writing included studies of the Frankfurt School, and there were obvious echoes of Jürgen Habermas’s work on the public sphere—the space of free and open debate emerging in the eighteenth century, in which arguments must be made (and unmade) without respect to rank or privilege. But that may not have been the only Frankfurt School overtone. Jacoby complained about the tics and routines of academic prose—not just the jargon and the tone deafness, but the acknowledgments section, with its compulsive recitation of every colleague ever met (no back left unscratched). Any critical intent toward the larger culture was expressed in a form that served constantly to signal its participation in a subsystem of what Herbert Marcuse had called one-dimensional society.
As a student of both theology and philosophy, I have often marveled at the differences between the prose styles of various thinkers. Reading St. Thomas, for example, either in the original Latin or in translation, the first thing I discovered was the clarity of his writing style. This is not to say that the ideas he offered were either clear or easy to understand. His presentation, however, offered an opportunity for easier understanding precisely because it is a medieval example of Strunk & White in action.
Contrasted with, say, Immanuel Kant or G. W. F. Hegel, Aquinas appears almost simplistic. Kant and Hegel's ideas are no more complex or labyrinthine than the great Doctor from Paris; their nearly impenetrable prose, however, has too often leaving me wishing that "editor" had been an invention of the 18th century.
This is one reason I like Richard Rorty. He is not only a subtle thinker, provocative and subtle; he is an excellent prose stylist. Cornel West is another whose commitment to making his deep understanding of western cultural traditions, and the traditions that arose in protest to them as accessible as possible to as large an audience as possible is palpable.
One need not hide behind the jargon of the discipline to be thought "deep". Too often, opacity of style is a clue that, in fact, not much is really going on. I would much rather spend an evening reading an essay by Rorty, West, or Karl Popper (another philosopher committed to presentation as part of a means to a larger end) than wrestle through a chapter of Kant or Heidegger (perhaps the greatest style criminal in philosophy). The argument from necessity as McLemee presents it is unpersuasive precisely because, if the ideas intellectuals are pursuing are not done with at least a glance from one eye at the larger public and its benefit, it is nothing more than intellectual masturbation, which may relieve tension in the author, but does nothing to propagate public discourse.