So You Want To Be An Intellectual?

By: John D. Ferrer
Originally:  4 February 2014; updated 28 September 2014

Some of us make our living off of ideas—discussing them, teaching them, writing about them, broadcasting them—without necessarily having to apply them. Whether an idea works or not is irrelevant to our employment or success. We “idea-people” are what famed economist and social commentator Thomas Sowell calls intellectuals. In his book, Intellectuals and Society (NY: Basic Books, 2009) Sowell gives a chilling and insightful look into the presumptuous place of intellectuals in society.

The “intelligentsia” or “the anointed” as he collectively calls them are typically not subject to the filters of the free-market or the popular wisdom of the masses—yes, wisdom of the masses. Those who assume the masses are foolish, unlearned, and unfit to determine basic measures and laws for themselves are precisely the kind of “intellectuals” Sowell means to correct. Meanwhile, Sowell argues there are some sorts of imbecility so deadly to society, so destructive to humanity, and so patently absurd that we would never believe them except that ivory tower scholars vouch for them. Unguarded by corrective external measures—their ideas on society and humanity don’t have to “work”—they are prone to assuming a kind of authority that is just as capable of authoritarianism as any other field might be. Key “intellectual” ideas include socialism, judicial activism, subjectivism, and moral relativism.

As an intellectual myself I find this book to be strangely comforting, a reminder that ideas can and do matter, that ideas should be tested against reality; that scholars can be wrong; and that we career-thinkers are not necessarily wise or even smart just because we’re educated. The book is hefty, and a thorough analysis of it would take some time—indeed I would not be surprised if this becomes a “great work” in western literature, or at least a staple of conservative libraries. So let me illustrate Sowell’s insight with an example.

In contrast to the vision of today’s anointed [left-leaning intellectual class], where existing society is discussed largely in terms of its inadequacies and the improvements which the anointed have to offer, the tragic vision [the conservative social perspective] regards civilization itself as something that requires great and constant efforts merely to be preserved—with these efforts to be based on actual experience, not on “exciting” new theories. In the tragic-vision, barbarism is always waiting in the wings and civilization is simple a “thin crust over a volcano” (pgs. 77-78).

Like much of Sowell’s writing, his insight here is broad and must be read with some grace since, philosophically, he’s only speaking in generalities and estimations. He speaks not as a skeptic, or even as a philosopher (i.e.: analytic), but as a social commentator waxing philosophic. He has in a few lines characterized a worldview difference in approaching society problems. I find myself at this crossroad. Do I think that societal change tends to be good, and do I welcome radical and progressive efforts at innovation? Or is society a delicate chemical combination of values and ideals, prone to degrade or explode, difficult to improve, prone to instability can only be maintained by strident efforts to avert disaster? Am I a humanist or a realist? An optimist or a pessimist? These are good questions that students and professors alike should ask themselves. And they might do well to wait for an answer before broadcasting their views/ideas as if good intentions and book-learning were enough to rescue bad ideas from social explosion.

Broadly conservative, capitalistic, and down-to-earth Sowell is a refreshing voice in the academic world. Contrarians should find in his work a fine distillation of conservative thought, a solid example of gracious and self-critical scholarship. Advocates might find in this book a refreshing elixir to drink on the porch while the world goes mad.  This book is a must read for anyone seriously interested in the life of an academic, where the currency is ideas, and the market is conversations and classrooms. Happy Reading!

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