Some Thoughts on the Role of the Critical Intellectual in Contemporary Germany

Erich Steiner


The paper starts by relating the notion of the "critical intellectual" to the notion of "agent of social change" on the one hand, and to other potential types of agents of change on the other: women in revolt, artists, exiles and queer agencies. Proceeding to a brief characterisation of the socio-cultural and political context "Germany", we shall explore some meanings of attributes such as post-modern and consumer for contemporary German society and culture, arguing that these are cultural and economic terms, which denote current forms of expression for what continues to be a capitalist economy and a bourgeois democracy. One recurrent question will be what the contours might be of the figure of the "critical intellectual" under present day conditions.

This is followed by a brief sketch of the meanings of "kritische(r) Intellektuelle(r)" in a historical ("geistesgeschichtlicher") perspective, mainly from the enlightenment onwards. We shall move on to a methodologically very different, but complementary, perspective, which is the consideration of current usage of the term with the help of large-scale electronic corpora of spoken language and an on-line search on the web. As we shall see, an important share and quality of the relevant meanings of a term lies in current usage, which may or may not be directly related to what we know from the history of ideas and/ or etymology.

I shall then use examples from my own professional field of work for an exploration of what the role of a critical intellectual in a German context might be, discussing the field of natural language technologies. These examples will illustrate the fact that such a role has to involve participation in, rather than exclusively detached contemplation of, the sphere of production. They will also show that the role of the critical intellectual is, indeed, a locus of contestation in several respects.

We finally broaden our perspective into a wider set of questions relating to the role of the critical intellectual, in German (and other) contexts. One of these questions will revolve around the notions of "values" and "ethics": Do we assume that the role of the critical intellectual is inherently connected to some systems of values, either in the sense of the enlightenment, and/or Marxism, and/or some other Weltanschauungs-system, or else do we believe that the position of a critical intellectual could be defined within some entirely market-driven ideology? Is there something like "truth", "progress" or "justice", other than what is successful on the market? Another one of these questions will focus on whether we can identify some force that motivates change in societies, and cultures, and what the role of the critical intellectual might be vis-à-vis such a force. One of our arguments here will be that among such forces may well be "contradictions", that this category of "contradiction" is in no way exhausted by the category of "difference" as currently debated. It will be argued, finally, that whereas the figure of the "critical intellectual", as we have tried to sketch it here, may be situated in a German context, its essential characteristics defy any attempts at claiming it for any one particular culture.


Linguistics; researcher responsibility; critical assessment; discussion

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