Constructing the ‘Public Intellectual’ in the Premodern World

A medieval Islamic illustration of Socrates. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A medieval Islamic illustration of Socrates. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Constructing the ‘Public Intellectual’ in the Premodern World

A two-day conference co-hosted by the Genealogies of Knowledge project, the Division of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, and the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies, University of Manchester, UK

5th-6th September 2019 | Chancellors Hotel, Manchester

Call for papers Keynote speakers Important dates

Venue Programme Registration Bursaries Contact


Call for papers

A notable feature of intellectual history has been the role of translation in the evolution and contestation of key cultural concepts, including those involved in the negotiation of power: we may think here of the extent to which modern terms such as ‘politics’ and ‘democracy’ derive ultimately from classical Greek, often mediated through different languages. Translation and other forms of mediation are similarly implicated in renegotiating the concept of the public intellectual in different historical and cultural locations.

The role and future of the public intellectual in the contemporary world continues to inspire academic and non-academic debate. In his 1993 Reith lectures, Edward Said gives voice to what might be called a ‘common-sense’ vision of the public intellectual. At first glance, Said’s description of the fiercely independent, incorruptible intellectual whose writing and thought serve as a lifelong calling to relentlessly and selflessly oppose injustice has a timeless quality. Closer examination reveals, however, that Said’s vision is very much a product of his time and personal circumstances. Several assumptions underlie Said’s vision. For example, Said insists on a strict division between the public and the private sphere. He declares that the public intellectual’s main task is making enlightened representations in language that assess actual states-of-affairs against the prescriptions of universal moral precepts. For Said, the public intellectual must be secular, being staunchly opposed to religion spilling outside ‘private life’. Finally, Said holds that the norms that serve as the public intellectual’s moral compass are the principles of liberal democracy. These ostensibly universal elements of Said’s portrait – the division between public and private realms, the view of democratic liberalism as a universally valid moral system, and a robust secularism that staunchly opposes religion spilling outside ‘private life’ – are all in reality the product of the particular historical experiences of Western Europe.

Research undertaken by the Genealogies of Knowledge team serves as a challenge to such contemporary constructions of the public intellectual as a timeless and culturally ubiquitous figure in human societies, and demonstrates that the figure of the public intellectual has also been inscribed into historical representations of premodern society and politics. In the premodern world, perhaps more than today, the status of ‘public intellectual’ derived from access to cultural capital associated with particular bodies of knowledge – often but not necessarily religious as well as secular – and in particular from the construction of intellectual authority via expertise in a privileged learned language (Greek, Latin, classical Arabic, Sanskrit).

‘Constructing the public intellectual in the premodern world’ is based on the premise that the term ‘public intellectual’ can meaningfully be used either of individuals or of groups in the premodern world. It has two aims. The first is to examine the specific historical conditions, including both the continuities but also the changes in conceptual and cultural categories, which served to construct this figure in the premodern world. The second is to understand how modern representations of the premodern ‘public intellectual’ have been used to inspire and shape modern ideas about the role and remit of public intellectuals in the contemporary world.

The conference welcomes proposals for individual papers or panels (ideally of three papers) that grapple with how the ‘public intellectual’ was constructed in premodern societies, and how their legacy influences how we understand the public intellectual today. The conference invites scholars to present research on, but not limited to, the following broad themes:

Constructing categories. Focusing on the historically and culturally specific categories from which representations of the public intellectual are constructed. Topics include: the premodern ‘public’, premodern textual and visual political representation, premodern ‘intellect’ and ‘intellectuals’, premodern sites of representation, power and representation in the premodern world, the self in premodern politics, political life in the premodern world.

Constructing authority with language and translation. Focusing on privileged languages of learning as a mode of access to political privilege. Topics include: politics of translation, constructing scientific lexicons, language and power in the premodern world, premodern lingua francas, politics and vernacular languages.

Constructing authority with knowledge. Focusing on the historical changes and cultural differences in the specialised forms of knowledge that give its possessor the power to govern the lives of others. Topics include: political knowledge; specialisation and professionalism in the premodern world; the relationship between specific learned languages and particular areas of expertise such as religious learning, legal learning and medical learning; political authority and privileged languages of learning; premodern education and political power; patronage and patrons; centre and periphery in premodern intellectual geography; public intellectuals on the move.

Utilising the premodern public intellectual. Focusing on how portraits of premodern ‘public intellectuals’ influence our ideas about what the public intellectual should be today. Topics include: using ancient models for making the modern public intellectuals, contemporary legacies of ancient philosophers, ‘practical philosophy’ in the modern world.

Submissions are welcome from diverse fields, including but not limited to: history, linguistics, translation studies, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, political science, religious studies, development and regional studies, and classics.

Individual abstracts and panel proposals should be sent to Kamran Karimullah ( by 1st March 2019.

Please see the Bursaries section below for more information about the bursaries available to postgraduate students and early career researchers wanting to attend this event.


Keynote speakers

Rebecca Gould (University of Birmingham)
Title: Multillinguilism as a stimulus to Islamic literary theory

Chris Stray (Swansea University)
Title: The Politics of the Classical: Language and authority in the 19th century


Other confirmed speakers


Important dates

  • Extended deadline for the submission of abstracts: 1st March 2019
  • Notification of acceptance: 15th March 2019
  • Registration opens: 6th May 2019
  • Early registration closes: 28th June 2019
  • Standard registration closes: 30th August 2019



For those coming from outside Manchester, the registration fee payment needs to be made via credit card, using the e-store online registration link that you can access by clicking the button below. (In the case of those who are currently members of the University, there may also be the alternative option of paying via internal account transfer: please contact Dr or Dr if you are wanting to arrange this).

Register via Online Store 

Delegate fees are as follows:

Delegate fees:
Before 28th June (early registration):  Standard rate: £110
Student rate: £80
After 28th June (late registration):  Standard rate: £130
Student rate: £80

This includes a hot lunch, tea, coffee and refreshments on both of the two days.



Thanks to the generosity of our co-sponsors, including the Classical Association, the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, and the SALC Graduate School, modest bursaries are available on a competitive basis primarily to PhD students, including those who are attending but not giving a paper: the deadline for bursary applications was 28 June, so this link has now been closed.



The conference will be held at Chancellors Hotel, Manchester.

Information on how to get to Chancellors Hotel can be found here: 

Overnight accommodation at this venue can be booked via their website:

A range of alternative accommodation options can also be found via the Visit Manchester site:

Lunch at Chancellors Hotel on both days of the conference is included as part of the registration fee. Dinner (at own expense) will be organised for those who want it on the Thursday (5th), but for those who would prefer to make their own arrangements, local restaurant recommendations can be found via



For more information about this event, please contact Kamran Karimullah (



The organisers of this event would like to gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the following sponsors: