20 May, 2022


Public Intellectuals – Some Private Thoughts

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

The term ‘Public intellectual’ is a title, a designation, a label and an honorific, given to men and women battling with ideas in the public domain writing, speaking and by just plain thinking aloud.

In essence the expression ‘public intellectual ‘is an opinion arrived at by the general public. In ancient Greece public intellectuals lectured in the agora- a place of public assembly which also served as a market.

In his famous essay ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isiah Berlin said that intellectuals could be classified as either Hedgehogs which knew one big idea or a Fox that had many ideas. Intellectuals would either relate everything to one idea or explore a diversity of ideas.

One of the books I cherish possessing and reading with a great degree of effort is “ISAAC & ISSAIAH ‘impulsively bought by my daughter Rashmi for my last birthday. In it, David Caute describes the feud and the ideas of the two great public thinkers of the 20th century Isaiah Berlin and Isaac Deutscher. They are great minds but essentially human. Something we must bear in mind.

Public Intellectuals came to prominence first in 19th century France. It was a scandal involving a Jewish officer who was accused of disloyalty to the French state. It is important. Similar travesties are attempted today by leftovers of the national security deep state in our own backyard. Emile Zola in his J’accuse an open letter accused the army and the French state of falsely accusing Dreyfus who was Jewish. The establishment at the time called Zola and others who opted for intellectual integrity over false patriotism as ‘Intellectuals’ in a pejorative sense.

By bowing to reason and intellect over simple patriotism these public intellectuals endeavored to kindle the conscience of general and larger audience.

Yes. Martin Wickramasinghe was a public intellectual. A giant at that. Not only because he wrote the trilogy Gamperaliya, Yuganthaya and Kaliyugaya that captures the social transformation of our society from the twilight years of colonial rule to post independence value reversals , upheavals and revisions. The Koggala Pragnya earns the title because he wrote ‘Bavathranaya ‘that made Sidharatha Gauthama an ordinary human and also because he wrote his life story “Upandasita’ in the form of a social commentary.

Yes. Victor Ivan is a fearless editor who founded and sustained a Sinhala broadsheet weekly, a trailblazing, successful alternative media experiment. He thinks publicly. He campaigns against corruption. But he is not a public intellectual. He is a civil society activist whose vituperative comments and polemics in ‘Chaura Rajina’ places him not a few blocks away in the same town but in a different province altogether. Intellectual rigour is different from polemical prancing.

I can think of two outstanding public intellectuals who stood up to J.R. Jayewardene the first executive president who institutionalized state coercion under guise of fast-tracking economic development. They are Bishop Lakshman Wickramasinghe and Queens Counsel S Nadesan. That they are not remembered is proof of our sorry predicament. If Bishop Lakshman Wickermesinghe were alive he would not have permitted his nephew Ranil Wickremesinghe to sit on the report on the Welikada Massacre. He would have also enlightened his other nephew Rajiva Wijesinghe how the 18th amendment eroded our cherished democratic rights.

N. Shanmugathasan the Maoist Trade Unionist with his Memoirs of an unrepentant communist and Hector Abayawardena the Trotskyite theoretician with his ‘Categories of Left thinking claim their place in the pantheon of our public thinkers.

Despite occasional foibles, our dear Professor Carlo Fonseka is a public thinker although I will never comprehend why he lends his good name to the mischief of the Buddhist priest Elle Gunwansa.

Reggie Siriwardene and Mervyn De Silva were public intellectuals whose spirit of inquiry went far beyond their professional remit. B.A. Siriwardene was a curious mixture of polemicist and public intellectual. All three spoke truth to power.

Chandra Jayaratne who writes on public finance and Dr. Gederick Uswattearachi writing on Education are two eminent public intellectuals.

Personally I hold Arundathi Roy as a public intellectual on par with Economist Amartya Sen and Historian Ramachandra Guha in neighboring India.

The Oxford English Dictionary elucidates public intellectual as “…an intellectual who expresses views (especially on popular topics) intended to be accessible to a general audience.”

Some public intellectuals speak on any subject that interests them while some take care to confine themselves to domains they claim some expertise on.

Who is a public intellectual? A public intellectual is he or she who earns the recognition of the public as upholding justice, respects life and the cause of life. They help us to recall the past, understand the present and construct our future.

Then again, why do we need public intellectuals? Because we live in an age of Economic Darwinism and tribal politics. We have Charitha Ratwatte and Paskaralingam on one side. G.L.Pieris and Dayan Jayatilleka on the other. Tweedledums and Tweedledees!

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Latest comments

  • 2

    What your list shows is “Public Intellectuals” according to a person with high analytical & Logical mind like yours……. Then who are the Public Intellectual to “General Public”.. For the general public in SL, I believe Nimal Weerawanse, Udaya Gammanpila like individuals are very high in the list…. most popular “Sadus” are public Intellectuals accepted by the masses ..

    Gandhi had NOT become “Mahatma Gandhi” unless general public in India were NOT capable to see Gandhi as a “public Intellectual”… If we go to recent past in SL, were EW Adikaram , Walpola Rahala, AT Ariyaratna like people Public intellectual to the general public? To some extent , yes. .. If the above type of people were publicly accepted Public Intellectuals in the past, then present general public would NOT accept Weerawansas, Gnanasaras as Public Intellectuals..

  • 2

    Dear Sarath,
    These are important elaborations on the concept and role of public intellectuals. However, it is useful to understand the distinction between for example what Gramsci called ‘traditional intellectuals’ vs ‘organic intellectuals’ in this discussion. Some of the figures we mention in our contributions on the topic are actually cultural intellectuals rather than organic intellectuals both of whom represent class interests. Gramsci also writes about ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ intellectuals,class hegemony and how organic intellectuals contribute to it? His writings can be accessed via the net by typing the words ‘ Gramsci on intellectuals’. Hegemony is maintained not only by physical power. The dominant class, in the Sri Lankan context the political class, requires the power of ideas that only intellectuals can provide. Thus some of the public intellectuals we recognise as such may be serving the interests of the dominant class. So, one of the exercises we have to do is to identify who the cultural or organic intellectuals who serve the interests of the least advantaged classes in this era of globalisation,neoliberal free market economy,free trade,capital movement etc. I personally believe that intellectuals concerned with the dire economic,political and cultural conditions in the global south should get together and develop an intellectual project as Ranjit Guha and colleagues did without character assassination in order to develop ideas for social progress,class liberation, and well being of the disenfranchised. Organic intellectuals can serve the interests of the dominant class by using false patrotism and othe tactics. We need to identify them for their true colour. We also need to recognise cultural intellectuals and their contributions. But the need of the hour is to develop a social and political philosophy suitable to global South and its needs with a feel for those who are disadvantaged by the current systems. Siri Gamage

    • 7

      Very well articulated.

      What you and Sarath have written are excellent pieces; very much overdue. More-so, in the 21st century, when Sri Lankan “public intellectuals,” are clamoring for and making the case-for, to install a serial-killer/murderer as the next president, as if nothing had happened! When you sit back and observe, can things get any crazier?

      My complain – an eternal one at that – is that, you guys take these valuable and much needed discussions/writings to an esoteric rarefied stratosphere in language and in the presentation of ideas, that very few ordinary citizens, the plebeians out here like me are able to read; let alone comprehend.

      I may be wrong, but feel, that guys like you, who attempt to write the truth, should present your ideas in a manner that many more out here can comprehend. After all they are the ones who need it. And there are 20 odd million of them. It’s much more than an argument among a few intellectuals.

  • 2

    The first requirement and ingredient to be a Public Intellectual is that S/he MUST “SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER”.

    Today’s so boru intellectuals – like Dayan Jayatillekee, do the opposite. These pseudo intellectuals run behind power and perks – corrupt local politicians and foreign donors .

    the second is that she must be a critical and cutting edge thinker – willing to challenge official narratives and the illiberal narratives and liberal consensus, locally and globally , including powerful and dangerous institutions like IMF and WB that pretend to be doing development and poverty reduction but work for the global 1 percent.

    A public intellectual is a critical thinker and advocate for social and economic justice – like Professor Saviti Goonasekera.

  • 3

    Beautifully written compact presented in a transparent and revolving global ball.

  • 1

    Many are tempted to separate affective and moral dimensions of learning from cognitive dimensions. They argue that the cognitive and affective are obviously separate since many intelligent, well-educated people lack moral insight or sensitivity and many less intelligent, poorly educated or uneducated people are morally good.
    By distinguishing “strong” and “weak” senses of the terms ‘critical thinking’, ‘moral integrity’, and ‘citizenship’ , Richard Paul an internationally recognized authority on critical thinking, with eight books and over 300 articles on the subject , for example, suggests a novel answer to this objection.

    “Critical thinking, understood as skills alone separate from values, is often used to rationalize prejudice and vested interest. Moral integrity and responsible citizenship, understood merely as “good heartedness”, are themselves susceptible to manipulation by propaganda. The human mind, whatever its conscious good will is subject to powerful, self-deceptive, unconscious egocentricity of mind.
    The full development of each characteristic — critical thought, moral integrity, and responsible citizenship — in its strong sense requires and develops the others, in a parallel strong sense. The three are developed together only in an atmosphere, which encourages the intellectual virtues: intellectual courage, intellectual empathy, intellectual good faith or integrity, intellectual perseverance, intellectual fair-mindedness, and faith in reason.
    The intellectual virtues themselves are interdependent.

  • 1

    Professor Siri Gamage ,
    Gramsci invoked organic intellectuals to countervail the pope and the Vatican. I did not deal with the issue of organic intellectuals/elite in the Viyathmaga conclave precisely because it is a futile business. Can we expect these organic intellectuals to stand up to the hegemony of the Buddhist church? I don’t think they are inclined or have the necessary ‘indriya’. Pun intended.

    Some time ago I met a Japanese academic who was living and teaching in Sri Lanka. He told me of the pressures and difficulties he encountered from the local Sangha when he desired to to a study of the concept of ‘Dana’ in Sri Lankan Theravada tradition. I will be misleading if I were to expand on the subject because I took no notes and it was about six or seven years ago.

    Just as Gramsci had to contend with the Vatican under pope Pius we have to contend with the mercenary Sangha bankrolled by the Patrons of Viyath Maga..

    “The dominant class, in the Sri Lankan context the political class, requires the power of ideas that only intellectuals can provide.” That was another country. Another age. GVS de Silva advising Ilangaratne, Mailvaganam advising TB Subasinghe, Shirely Amarasinghe advising Mrs.B etc

    I salute your faith in reason. Can you explain why Eran Wickremeratne is a junior minister with no responsibilities while Akila Viraj is Minster of Education ?

    • 0


      In my opinion Eran Wickremeratne should not have been given even a junior minister position for after all he did not have the wisdom to understand what being in Sri Lankan politics means.The only change he has managed to achieve by entering politics is to tarnish his image

      As for Akila Viraj ,he ofcourse is eminently suitable and qualified to hold such a position under current political environment for he possess no image to protect

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