Where Have You Gone, Harold Rosenberg?

Weirdly enough, here’s David Prychitko talking about Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing in a blog post, which definitely argues for my being embarrassed at having never heard of the guy. I trust Prychitko’s judgment about Marxist thinkers, so what does he say about Arrighi’s book?

It is challenging, and he does have interesting and even fruitful things to say about the importance of decentralized, spontaneous development at the local level.  But I’m unimpressed with the concepts of natural and unnatural [economic development], as if history follows, or can be expected to follow, such a course.

As far as I can tell, the main point of the book relies on the distinction Prychitko rejects. So I guess I’m still not embarrassed.

I wonder if the n+1 guys have read much or any William Robert Fogel, Douglass North, Joel Mokyr, Avner Greif, or Acemoglu and Robinson — that kind of thing. One of the attractive features of intellectual life throughout much of last century was the sense of a common canon. But as intellectual specialization has developed, it has become harder for literary or philosophical intellectuals to stay abreast of developments in history, psychology, and the social sciences. I think that’s why I come away with an impression of erudite incompetence when I read something like a Tony Judt essay. The paradigm of the public intellectual has shifted and continues to shift away from Susan Sontag types toward Steven Pinker types, and this must be frustrating for those of us who still feel the allure of the old-timey New York literary intellectual who pops into gallery openings between psychotherapy sessions and lively coffee-house debates about “mass culture” or the elusive American class structure. Would Harold Rosenberg have kept up with the Journal of Economic Perspectives and Behavioral and Brain Sciences?  Probably not. And that’s probably why our latter-day Harold Rosenbergs matter less than Tyler Cowen.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

5 thoughts

  1. This line from n+1's blog was interesting, considering what you're saying about the new intellectuals:”Marxism, by contrast, is a discipline of deep memory and long anticipation. It situates the effervescent eternity of our current way of life in the long sequence of the modes of production, from hunter-gathering, to early agriculture, through slave society, feudalism, the notorious “Oriental despotism,” and our own capitalism as, over four centuries, it has swamped the globe.”Contrast that with you're quote above: “But I’m unimpressed with the concepts of natural and unnatural [economic development], as if history follows, or can be expected to follow, such a course.” With all the new data coming in, you really don't have time to often develop the grand sweeping narratives like Marx created. But those narratives come across as being impressive due to their vastness, and the umpteen million specific criticisms against them come across as minor because of their scope.

  2. Yes but Tony Judt is preferable in terms of his realistic promotion of social democracy vs. the Zizekian 'idea of communism' crowd, which seems to be gaining a certain momentum.It would be interesting to hear you elaborate though on what you mean by 'matter' – have literary intellectuals ever mattered in terms of having even an indirect influence on either public opinion or policy circles? And that raises the question whether the Pinkers or the Cowens are having any greater effect. It would appear that then it was Galbraith, and now Krugman would be better examples of influential intellectuals, and they appear quite similar in their profile and role.

  3. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    Funny you should say that, considering what Krugman said about Galbraith. He gets a nice swipe in at Gould there to boot.

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