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With one state after the other tottering on the brink of insolvency, the European Union is experiencing not only an economic meltdown but an identity crisis. Could there be any better occasion for public intellectuals to leave their salons and seminars and put their ideas to good use? What else is the point of them?

The debate about what role an intellectual ought to play is older than that about the misery and splendour of the jumble of states, regulations, histories and high-minded ideas that we call Europe. And yet, right now it is as if both point to one conclusion: the idea of European unification has failed and with it, the public discourse about the consequences of its failing.

Public intellectuals are supposed to rise above the narrow preoccupations of the rest of society and engage with a higher truth. Earlier thinkers such as Auguste Comte argued that those of superior intelligence should also be entrusted with political decision-making, an idea that still reverberates in their self-perception today. Many were delighted by the election of Barack Obama, whom they saw as one of themselves.

But there are also critics who argue that many of the current crop of public intellectuals are in fact ill-equipped for the task. In a bout of introspection, some intellectuals even go as far as flagellating themselves. The American philosopher Richard Rorty warned of the dangers of civic irresponsibility. Others deplore their own lack of impact on public debates. This array of self-doubt, desire for a sea-change in public perceptions, and thundering rallying-calls finds its foil in attitudes towards Europe — but not in the way one would expect.

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