Intellectuals (again) in question

Florestan Fernandes at a demonstration in defense of public education


In times of social media, the role of intellectuals needs to be called into question again

“Everything is wrong, brother, so take a look”
(Planet Hemp, “Dystopia”)


In April 1994, the magazine Literary Magazine published part of the correspondence between Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre (MERLEAU-PONTY; SARTRE, 1995). These letters highlight the reason for the rupture between philosophers: a divergence over their conceptions about intellectual engagement.

A few months later, the newspaper Folha de S. Paul published a translation of these letters made by Renato Janine Ribeiro. This Sunday edition of the newspaper also featured texts by Marilena Chaui (1994b; 1994c), Alberto Muñoz (1994); Manuel da Costa Pinto (1994) and Janine Ribeiro himself (1994) about Merleau-Ponty and Sartre.

On Thursday of the previous week, the newspaper had published two other texts that mentioned Sartre. In the midst of the presidential campaign that had FHC and Lula on the list of candidates, Marilena Chaui (1994a) and Otávio Frias Filho (1994) analyzed a phrase by actress Ruth Escobar: “In this election we have two options: vote for Jean-Paul Sartre or a plumber” (SILVA; PASCOVITCH, 1994, p. 8).

In addition to criticizing the class prejudice implicit in the phrase, Marilena Chaui cites an article in which Jânio de Freitas denounces the arbitrariness of a question that would have been asked in an Ibope survey: “Mr. I would prefer for president of Brazil: someone like Lula, who is really close to the poor population and workers, but who has little education and little experience for president, or someone like Fernando Henrique, who is not so close to the poor population and workers, but who has the education and experience necessary to be president?” (FREITAS, 1994, p. 5).

In his text, published on the page before Chaui's text, the director and one of the owners of the Folha de S. Paul advocates the analogy created by Escobar: “as prejudice always takes as a general truth a finding that is partially true, or at least partially justifiable, it is worth asking whether FHC is not in fact 'Sartre' and Lula a 'plumber'” (FRIAS FILHO, 1994, p. 2).

In an interview given during the campaign, FHC states that Lula was prepared to be a union leader, but perhaps he was not ready to be president (FHC ACHA LULA PREPARADO, 1994). In the same edition in which FHC's speech is recorded, the Folha de S. Paul highlights that, according to Datafolha, the lack of study is one of the main reasons for rejecting Lula (TOLEDO, 1994).

In this electoral context, the rapprochement between FHC and Sartre has more than one meaning. Author of important books on philosophy and literature, Sartre was also recognized as a man of action. Committed to left-wing causes, the writer engaged in several popular campaigns. The statement that FHC is Sartre therefore suggests intellectual (theoretical) and political (practical) capacity to the candidate.


The figure of the man of action is central to the debate between Merleau-Ponty and Sartre. In his letters, Sartre (1994a; 1994b) seeks to refute the criticisms that Merleau-Ponty made of him in a class to students at the College of France. In this class, published with the title Praise for philosophy, Merleau-Ponty (1986) outlines a historical overview of the relations between philosophy and politics. Sartre's position is criticized in the last part of the text.

At the end of his letter, Merleau-Ponty (1994b) summarizes his class to students, highlighting the theme of engagement. In the class and in the summary, Merleau-Ponty criticizes the intellectualist tradition (CHAUI, 1994c), according to which consciousness, located outside the world, would dominate everything through thought. According to Merleau-Ponty, the philosopher does not occupy an absolute place in understanding reality (CASTANHEIRA, 2002).

Between philosophy and politics there is a horizon of ambiguities. You need to be careful before making any decision. This position of Merleau-Ponty clashes with the figure of the man of action that Sartre represents. In certain circumstances, Sartre states, the urgency of political issues requires him to make a decision: “as a man, as a Frenchman, as a citizen and as an intellectual” (1994a, p. 6).

In his defense, Merleau-Ponty argues that his philosophy is always committed to social reality, in any case: “There are events that allow, or rather demand, to be judged immediately and in themselves: for example, the conviction and execution of the Rosenbergs …but, most of the time, the event can only be appreciated within the global framework of a policy that changes its meaning” (1994a, p. 7).

In the text that inspires this essay, Maurice Blanchot recognizes that the anti-authoritarianism of May 68 put intellectuals in question: “When some of us (intellectuals) took part in the May 68 movement, they hoped to be able to avoid any claim to singularity and, In a way, they managed not to be considered apart, but like everyone else” (2003, p. 114).

At the end of 1971, a demonstration against racism in the Goutte D'Or neighborhood, in Paris, brought together several intellectuals (DOSSE, 2010). One of the photos from the demonstration shows Michel Foucault speaking with a megaphone. In 1975, the Literary Magazine republished the photo with the following caption: “Sartre, Foucault, Glukcsmann: the philosophers are in the street” (RANCIÈRE; RANCIÈRE, 1978, p. 13).

In an article entitled “The Legend of Philosophers”, the couple Danielle and Jacques Rancière identify in the photo of the three illustrious protesters: “the constitution of a new philosophical power sealed between intellectual representatives and political representatives of the masses” (1978, p. 12). The legitimacy of Sartre and Foucault's positions would be certified by the figure of the Maoist militant André Glucksmann.

During this period, the magazine D'Arc published a conversation between Gilles Deleuze and Foucault about intellectuals and power. Taking the work carried out by the Prison Information Group (GIP), coordinated by Foucault, as an example, Deleuze maintains that it is not up to the intellectual, the party or the union to be the representative or representative conscience of anyone: “In my opinion, you He was the first to teach us – both in his books and in practice – something fundamental: the indignity of speaking for others” (1979, p. 72).

Regarding the work organized by the GIP, Foucault states: “And when the prisoners began to speak, it was seen that they had a theory of prison, of punishment, of justice. This kind of discourse against power, this counter-discourse expressed by prisoners, or by those who are called delinquents, is what is fundamental, and not a theory about delinquency” (1979, p. 72).

From Deleuze's perspective, “a theory is like a toolbox” (1979, p. 71). The intellectual must identify or construct theories that work, that are useful for people fighting for justice. Theory-practice relationships are partial and fragmentary, a theory is always local, relative to a small domain. If a theory does not respond to practical needs, new theories need to be created.


The political movement of 68 also marked the guidelines for intellectual engagement in Brazilian universities. In a collection of texts about the impact of the movement on the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of São Paulo, former student Eder Sader states that the Faculty: “was not only an important setting for intellectual life, but also a center of lively political debates” (1988 , p. 159).

In his youth, in addition to studying social sciences, Eder Sader was active in two organizations resisting the military dictatorship: the Revolutionary Marxist-Political Workers' Organization (ORM-POLOP) and the Communist Workers' Party (POC). With the creation of Operação Bandeirante (OBAN), most of the militants from resistance organizations were arrested and tortured, some were murdered (KILSZTAJN, 2022).

In his notes, Eder Sader (1988) points to the discrepancy between the militant seminars on Marx and the boring Introduction to Sociology classes, taught by distinguished professors, such as Octávio Ianni and FHC. The inspiration for this type of course, focused on the bibliography of North American functionalists, would be the academic and sociological stance of Florestan Fernandes.

To corroborate his analysis, Eder Sader refers to an inaugural class by Florestan Fernandes, given in 1950, to students at the Faculty of Philosophy: “There he highlights the break to be made both with 'popular cosmology' and with ' socialism', to enter the field of social sciences. The relationship between sociological activity and political practice would occur to the extent that the latter could take advantage of the former's scientific knowledge, which, for this very reason, should have a consistency different from that of political engagements” (1988, p. 161).

This class by Florestan Fernandes, published in the magazine of the Faculty of Philosophy, was designed for students who were starting the course. Without a doubt, Fernandes seeks to distinguish social sciences from the other two types of explanation of the social that many students usually have access to: popular cosmology and socialism. However, Fernandes emphasizes that the knowledge produced by social sciences “is linked both to our most immediate problems and to our most intimate concerns and desires” (1951, p. 96).

In a way, Eder Sader's criticism of Florestan Fernandes and his disciples is close to Sartre's criticism of Merleau-Ponty. However, distinguishing the horizon of research in philosophy or social sciences from the spontaneous engagement of citizens does not imply rejecting intellectual engagement (RIBEIRO, 2005). In this sense, Deleuze and Foucault highlight the centrality of theory in philosophy's interventions in the social world.

In ancient Greek, “Theoria” means contemplation, the corresponding verb is “theoreo”, which refers to the action of observing carefully. In the wisdom of rappers, the theory-practice relationship can be translated by the expression: catch the vision. In communities, people of all ages use it regularly. Even boys and girls conceive their own visions of the reality that surrounds them.


In these times of social media, the role of intellectuals needs to be called into question again. Many university professors use the virtual space as an extension of the academic space: they publicize their productions and those of their partners, present their course programs, expose details of the negative opinions they received for their research and articles, among other things.

His texts posted on social media deal with numerous issues in the national and international context. They are polymath intellectuals. Some dedicate themselves to reviewing articles published in the mainstream press on a daily basis. His most popular texts evoke the main vocation of social networks: to instigate the moral lynching of people. There are plenty of opinions, there is a lack of fruitful theories.

Social networks enhance your academic projects, bringing a larger audience to your activities and helping to sell your books, lectures and courses offered by private companies. Networks also facilitate your entry into an academic career, even in areas completely foreign to your original training. Those who can give their opinion on any topic can also teach on everything.

Some position themselves as digital influencers, always ready to get involved in any event. As in the photo of Foucault next to Sartre and Glucksmann, photos of themselves with microphones or megaphones appear on their social profiles. They are virtual activists. The selfies in the most diverse manifestations attest that these intellectuals take to the streets (with their smartphones).

Certainly, it is an indignity to speak for others. Even if there is a social demand for leaders or gurus. People are aware of the oppressive situations they are subjected to, and can create their own theories to change reality. It is up to philosophers, social scientists and other intellectuals to formulate new theories, as toolboxes that can be used.

* Paulo Fernandes Silveira Professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and researcher at the Human Rights Group at the Institute for Advanced Studies at USP.


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