The Intellectual’s Role in Society


A debate on who are intellectuals and what is their role in contemporary society was held in Café Europe. It brought together the French philosopher, teacher and writer Alain Finkielkraut, the writer Patrik Ouředník and Jiří Pelán, expert in French and Italian literature and translator. The discussion was moderated by Book World's artistic director Guillaume Basset.

To begin with, Patrik Ouředník introduced Alain Finkielkraut. He quoted, among other, Milan Kundera, who had the following to say about Finkielkraut: "He's unable not to react and feels an incessant need to raise his voice every time he encounters any sign of ignorance [...] - in other words, a man with a unique talent to increase the number of his enemies". According to Ouředník, progress is symbolised today by multiculturalism, neofeminism, political correctness, and, last but not least, the fight for the protection of the planet. These were also the topics being debated.

Ouředník presented his own definition of an intellectual. He believes that an intellectual must be erudite on many subjects, which presupposes a burning interest in current topics. Any intellectual must be endowed with intellectual honesty - to consider the search for truth to be superior to our internal beliefs and to seek confrontation with the ideas of others. And finally, social courage is also a must. He sees the French philosopher as fulfilling all these conditions. "In my eyes, Alain Finkielkraut represents what we used to call the intellectual aristocracy. Let me add that this elite position is available to anyone who shows real interest," Patrik Ouředník added.

"Understanding reality means not understanding what is going on. Yes, I am in a situation when I am fascinated by the things that happen. Kundera has nicely defined me as a man who can't not react. But maybe I would like to expand a bit. In the general understanding, an intellectual is someone who stops working in order to serve what he thinks is truth and justice. In my case it is slightly different. I think of myself as rather dumb. But when an event shocks me, an idea is born within. I can't not react, yes, but I can only think in those moments when I am surprised by a certain event," Alain Finkielkraut added.

According to Jiří Pelán, the main task for present-day intellectuals is to have the capacity to differentiate: "I think today this ability is on a substantial decline. I see a tendency to present certain theses which are perceived as the only meaningful and possible perspectives. I see a decline in the willingness to discuss." Pelán added that besides all the topics listed above it is also important to deal with the model of education for the future. He also said that for his generation, which spent most of its life under communism, it was natural not to accept all the information being presented. Today, however, he again sees this tendency in some young people.

Finkielkraut believes that today equality comes close to nihilism, i.e. that everything is equal, everything is the same forever and all the time. "When we speak about values, each discrimination is potentially criminal, which brings us to nihilism. Today we are the prey of progressivism. For me the basic question is how to get out of it. For this reason they call me a reactionary, a conservative, and the like," the philosophers explained his point of view.

What can we change - a member of the audience asked. "There's this madness that tells us we must change. I think we should again become able - and I speak more about France now than about Central Europe, about which I'm not that well informed - to settle into our civilization, to like it, to uphold our heritage and to retain it for the future. To really become heirs that are worthy of the name," Alain Finkielkraut concluded.