(MOVED TO THE FRONT by Leiter from April 17, since it's generated a good discussion.)
A common topic among my friends is the tension between writing for philosophers and writing for a broader audience. A small minority of the philosophers widely acknowledged by philosophers as the greatest philosophers of recent decades (e.g. Rawls, Fodor) have had substantial impact on certain fields outside philosophy. But most have not, and none of them have had a broad impact within the humanities at large of the sort that less respected philosophers such as Derrida have had. Furthermore, the philosophers who are widely acknowledged by philosophers as the greatest philosophers of recent decades have not been public intellectuals. Their audience has consisted of other specialists in philosophy.
There are two issues here. The first concerns discussions within the academy. Judith Butler is not by any stretch of the imagination a public intellectual. But her work has greatly influenced the direction of the humanities. The second concerns non-academic audiences. An academic such as Stephen Pinker writes for a highly literate non-academic audience. Does the fact that philosophers tend to write for other philosophers, rather than for other humanists or for the literate public at large, show that their values are in tension with the core mission of the university?
I tend to be attracted to the following position. The greatest philosophers are those who are able to construct new arguments or new philosophical positions (including new ways of understanding philosophers of the past). These are the contributions that matter most to the development of philosophy; the philosophical importance of a time period and a place will later be judged by their quality and their quality alone. The philosophers we still read from the past were not the public intellectuals of their time. Rather, they are the philosophers who affected subsequent generations of specialist philosophers. But it is just such contributions that will be least accessible to the educated layperson or even the educated academic not in philosophy. They will always seem considerably more baroque and complex than clear re-statements of age-old philosophical arguments and positions.
There should always be a space for philosophers who simplify and translate philosophical positions and arguments for a broader audience. But a university’s primary mission should be to advance the disciplines it represents. In short, a university should seek to promote work that will give that university prestige in the future and not in the present. So, a university’s mission with regard to its philosophy department should be to support those who are attempting to formulate new positions and arguments, rather than those who seek contemporary relevance.
I suspect this point holds across a number of disciplines. Administrators who prefer public intellectuals to specialists are confused about the core mission of a research university. The intended audience of most scholars in a university should be the future scholars of that discipline, not contemporary non-scholars.
UPDATE: Harry Brighouse of crookedtimber has further discussion here.