Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Review: Intellectuals and Society

Intellectuals and SocietyIntellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was disappointed by this book. It does have some very interesting analyses; and there is much that Sowell explains and discusses here that is important. But more than anything, this seemed like an airing of grievances against intellectuals. Sowell has many gripes with intellectuals. Many of these (though not all) I agree with and think Sowell provides sufficient grounding for these. Yet, there is probably too much overgeneralizing and oversimplifying. And I think there are several points that Sowell is not being fair or charitable to those who he is criticizing as well.

Sowell’s general point is that intellectuals have had a far too great influence on society and often that influence has been harmful to society. He defines intellectuals as those whose careers are primarily about working with ideas. There has been a tendency, as Sowell describes it, for such people to see themselves as what he calls the ‘anointed.” The anointed see themselves, because of their intellectual work, as having special or higher knowledge, and that this endows them with superior insight on how to run society. But, because of many of the features Sowell elucidates, they end up making a mess of things (or would if more had listened).

Two of the most impactful features he highlights are the lack of accountability and the presumption of general knowledge from specialized fields. That is, because they work with ideas (but not the real-world consequences), intellectuals rarely are held accountable for the impact of the ideas. And though intellectuals often are experts in specialized academic disciplines, they feel empowered to speak out more generally on general issues about which they are about as knowledge as anyone else (meaning about as ignorant). Sowell also argues that intellectuals engage in and are enamored by what he calls “verbal virtuosity.” Using clever turns of phrases, intellectuals are often able to avoid argument or engagement with opposing ideas.

Sowell runs through various areas where intellectuals have an impact: law, war, education, the media, etc. After a while, it gets a bit repetitive. The book could have been a third the size and been much stronger for it. Or it might have been two or three different books. Some parts where far more interesting than others. The sections on the intellectuals influence on war was the most engaging. Sowell lays out, in fairly convincing ways, how the intellectuals’ arguments for pacifism and disarmament lead time and time again to war.

There are certainly much better works by Sowell to read than this. There is some good stuff here, but I get the sense that much of the good is recycled from his earlier works.

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