Quasi-Book Review: Sowell’s “Intellectuals and Society” Discounts 100 Years of Ideas

Whenever you hear the phrase “ideas have consequences,” be skeptical. It’s basically a shorthand, designed to conceal the fact that the writer is about to invent his own, fanciful set of consequences for a wholly innocuous set of ideas. So it goes with Thomas Sowell’s new book, Intellectuals and Society, heralded as one of the year’s “hottest conservative titles.” Tragically, Sowell saw fit to blog his book’s thesis, thus depriving us of the pleasure of having to read his tome before commenting on it. Ah well.

On trial in Sowell’s book is nothing less than the entire corpus of knowledge earned during the twentieth century, accused of, quite simply, destroying the century. It’s the kind of affair that would make Q smile.

Naturally the villains, though, are the producers of ideas — the “intellectuals,” a caste of effete liberals who’ve never done a damn bit of good in their sorry lives. Now hold, you may say. Technology cleans our water, protects us from disease, and prolongs our lives. These inventions, and their “intellectual” creators, can’t be naturally evil. True. But technology is a product of ideas, not an idea itself. Ideas are evil, as are their creators and their consequences; their intended physical products, however, are not. Only one who thinks towards a concrete, tangible goal can avoid being reckless, or indeed evil, by generating useless ideas.

All these people [twentieth century engineers] produced a tangible product or service and they were judged by whether those products and services worked. But intellectuals are people whose end products are intangible ideas, and they are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public.

Yes; Thomas Sowell’s “hot conservative title” is an argument against thought for its own sake, be it art, philosophy, or even (one imagines) music, because the consequences of such reckless thinking are unpredictable.

What makes someone write a book like this? We’ve long acknowledged, candidly, that ideas can be dangerous, but the answer has always been (and should always be) temperance and trust. Sowell takes this modern lesson and extracts from it an unresolvable class warfare, between those who keep to themselves, dependent presumably on “common sense,” and those who invent, for better or worse. Is it just anti-elitism run amok? Surely his argument for intellectual complacency deserves NRO’s “conservative” appellation, at least by one definition of the word, but there’s a line between “standing athwart history,” and actively pushing humanity back into the past.

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11 comments

  1. Ok, so intellectuals are, on balance, bad. And intellectuals are people who produce intangible ideas. But Thomas Sowell, as an economist and commentator, himself produces intangible ideas.

    Hmmm.

  2. lanfranc,
    That’s a great analogy! Sadly, Mr. Sowel will miss it entirely, because he’s too busy not thinking about anything that isn’t concrete.

  3. “We’ve been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture!”

  4. This isn’t a review. It’s a lousy argument aimed at certain segments and ideas of “Intellectuals and Society” that don’t actually exist. For instance, you say that Sowell makes “an argument against thought for its own sake”. Sowell himself has said that thought for its own sake isn’t dangerous – but thought that doesn’t have real-world consequences. If someone doesn’t make good music, people won’t buy it. If an artist isn’t very good, he won’t succeed. But if an intellectual comes up with an outrageous idea, s/he’s not held accountable for its negative outcomes.

  5. If someone doesn’t make good music, people won’t buy it. If an artist isn’t very good, he won’t succeed.

    An interesting theory, but I wonder how someone like Kenny G or similar artistic non-entities fit into it.

  6. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the the dictators that Sowell describes as being supported by intellectuals; were opposed by many more intellectuals. More important than that fact is that these dictators made it an order of business to discredit, intimidate, silence, or even kill all of the intellectual castes in their cultures. If Sowell didn’t exist, the Right would need to invent him. Honestly, I’m afraid, very afraid.

  7. Thank you for writing this. Since discovering Sowell’s book, I’ve been so agitated that I have unable to rest finding nothing and no one to challenge the obvious holes in his thesis. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the dictators that Sowell describes as being supported by intellectuals; were opposed by many more intellectuals. More important than that fact is that these dictators made it an order of business to discredit, intimidate, silence, or even kill all of the intellectual castes in their cultures. If Sowell didn’t exist, the Right would need to invent him.
     
    On a side note, I know that no intellectual of any renown would engage Sowell in a true debate. It’s as if Sowell, wild eyed and self-righteously were to producte a man in a Mickey Mouse suit to a prestigious biologist and say, “Behold! A talking mouse!” The Biologist could take it as their mission to discredit this assertion and unzip the suit, but Sowell’s argument is so perverse that to do so would only give credit to Sowell and disparage the seriousness of the biologist.

  8. @chris You say you “know that no intellectual of any renown would engage Sowell in a true debate.” The idea that arguing against Sowell would only “disparage the seriousness” of an intellectual with more valid ideals is completely unfounded. Saying someone else’s argument is invalid doesn’t make it so. Besides, I know of a few intellectuals who would engage Sowell in debate:

  9. Common Sense · ·

    You didn’t read the book. Hell, you didn’t read the synopsis. Disprove what he actually says and I will listen to you. What he terms as intellectuals aren’t the people who produce computers, or machines that “clean our water”. He shows the consequences of policies that very smart people have come up with, welfare, the fed, social security, the new deal, medicare, rent control, etc.

  10. Wow. Did you actually write a book review for a book you never read? That is classic. Thanks for the laugh.

  11. I reviewed the guy’s summary of his own book and explicitly provided that caveat. It’s nice that you think you can discount the analysis on that basis.

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