- Paperback: 680 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books; Enl Rev edition (March 6, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0465025226
- ISBN-13: 978-0465025220
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.9 x 9.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 203 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #79,478 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Intellectuals and Society: Revised and Expanded Edition Paperback – March 6, 2012
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He doesn't just talk statistics, though there is some of that, what Sowell presents is a nuanced critique of the psychology and philosophy of social justice, of the left and liberals in general, and much more. Everything is covered, from top to bottom. Every nook and cranny is put under the microscope and asked for empirical evidence. It is rarely found, if any is found at all.
A must read.
In such a tumultuous time politically, it feels easy to let our own emotions, or the words of those we see as on a higher intellectual plane, dictate how we see the world. Dr. Sowell does an exceptional job of looking at and dissecting the Intellectuals words throughout the history of America and the western world in general. When Sowell says "Intellectual," he specifically means those whose final products are ideas. The most damning point that Dr. Sowell makes is that unlike other careers who work or think on a high intellectual plane, such as doctors, engineers, or architects, the "Intellectuals" who's end products are ideas rarely, if ever, end up being held accountable for when said ideas don't work in practice. In fact, these ideas have in fact had devastating effects around the world, and caused millions upon millions of lives to be wrecked or downright destroyed.
It is worth noting that Sowell himself may be considered an "Intellectual," but I believe that he is able to practice far more restraint and acknowledge the intellectual limitation far more than many, if not most, of his peers are won't to do. Sowell spends a good chunk of the book looking at empirical, historical data which shows the folly and utter fallacies of intellectuals throughout history. Many totalitarian regimes, specifically in the early to mid twentieth century, have been found to have been supported quite fervently among many intellectuals of the time, specifically many on the left such as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, among others. Other examples of the folly among intellectuals include many of the prevalent views they had surrounding making piece treaties with totalitarian leaders, such as Adolf Hitler, as a means to avoid war. This was particularly evident among Neville Chamberlain. When future prime minister Winston Churchill expressed (in hindsight) very reasonable criticism of this piece treaty, he was scorned, and mocked, rather than actually challenged or debated. Ultimately, the refusal to hear out those like Churchille led not to piece, but to the most bloody war in human history in the form of World War II.
The most interesting and worthwhile fallacy that Sowell points out is how real, flesh and blood individuals have been described by Intellectuals. The most notable hear is none other than chief justice Clarence Thomas. Sowell points out that while Thomas is accused of being a recluse, due to the fact that he doesn't like to attend political gatherings (and isn't too keen on self-promotion.) In actuality, Clarence Thomas enjoys speaking with regular people, and loves going on road trips around the country. he often likes to strike up a chat with regular people without so much as mentioning his role on the Supreme Court. This is yet another example of how the ideas of Intellectuals matter more to them and their ilk than actual, flesh and blood people.
Dr. Sowell's book is dense, and is written in a way that may come off as somewhat inaccessible to some, though that isn't really a fault of the books, or of Dr. Sowell's writing style. As a matter of fact, it is a testimony to the craft with which Dr. Sowell wields his pen that the book remains as intriguing and informative as it does from start to finish. Thomas Sowell is a man who has done extensive and thorough research in every topic in which he covers, whether it be the economic fallacies of many Intellectuals, to law and order, to geopolitical issues, to more besides. Regardless of where one stands on any of these issues, I would highly recommend that you rent, or even purchase a copy of Thomas Sowell's brilliant, insightful, and meticulously well-written book. While Sowell himself thinks on a high intellectual level, he never condescends to the reader or his audience. This book will surely be of use if you're someone with a desire to think for yourself and have a desire to filter out the "spin" that it seems like we see all too often from those in politics, academia, the media, entertainment industry, and so forth. With that said, I highly encourage you to give this book a read.
He defines his subject matter as those persons who have ideas as the end product of their work. It seems fair to say that he is focused on those whose ideas are about social issues as opposed to, say, mathematics - issues such as economics, law, and war. In addition he deals with the intelligentsia, which along with the intellectuals "... would include those teachers, journalists, social activists, political aides, judges' clerks, and others who base their beliefs or actions on the ideas of intellectuals."
Among the observations Sewell makes about the subject of his investigations the following seven stand out.
1. The end product of intellectuals is not amenable to immediate testing in the physical world. Engineers, doctors, and football coaches are subjected to such tests but not intellectuals. That raises the question: how are the end products of intellectuals - their ideas - judged?
2. They are judged by their peers, that is, by other intellectuals. Consequently, a kind of prevailing consensus arises which with the help of the intelligentsia permeates the culture.
3. They have a compulsion to put their ideas into action. It isn't enough to just sit on their hands and bask in the glow of intelligentsia approval.
4. They are inextricably connected to their ideas. It's as though to challenge their ideas is to challenge their life.
5. They view themselves as the anointed whose task is to enlighten the populace. One thinks of Obama resonating with San Francisco intelligentsia when he referred to his opposition as Bible thumping, gun toting rednecks.
6. They are never held accountable for failure. As time passes and history demonstrates the error of their ideas they do not fall into disgrace as would, for example, a doctor who killed his patients.
7. They are never right. Well, hardly ever. He does document one case where they were on the right side. As the saying goes even a stopped watch is right twice a day.
The foregoing does not do justice to the rich narrative, the logic, and the numerous examples from history which make Intellectuals and Society so enjoyable to read. What I found particularly valuable was that certain insights fell into place for me.
The testing of the end product by peer review rather than by physical reality is a case in point. The upshot of peer review as the standard of truth is that intellectuals as well as the entire amen chorus of intelligentsia are drawn into the world of social metaphysics.
Nathaniel Branden, who coined the term social metaphysics, defined it as "... the psychological syndrome that characterizes a person who holds the minds of other men, not objective reality, as his ultimate psycho-epistemological frame of reference."
To illustrate with a caricature, a social metaphysician sitting in a room feels water dripping from above. He doesn't look up to see if there is a leak in the ceiling; instead, he asks the person next to him if the ceiling is leaking. An affirmative answer gives him a feeling of certainty in his "knowledge" that seeing it with his own eyes would never do.
If reality is the contents of other persons minds and if the contents of those minds are the intellectual's ideas that have passed peer review, it simply will not do to have those ideas challenged. To challenge those ideas is to destroy reality and you along with it. That explains why members of the intelligentsia get in such a tiff when they meet opposition.
Von Mises must have had the intelligentsia in mind when he wrote "Most men endure the sacrifice of their intellect more easily than the sacrifice of their daydreams." Mayor Bloomberg would deny gravity before he would give up denying soft drinks to New Yorkers.
Why is it that intellectuals have such an uncanny talent for being wrong? One would think they would be right maybe half the time. It can't be because there is only one right answer and many wrong ones; some issues such as going to war have only two alternatives - either you go or you don't go.
It seems that part of the explanation is the premium put on novelty. Who among the intelligentsia would applaud an intellectual who simply stated the common sense obvious? Why not get attention with novelty when there is no penalty for failure? Perhaps some future investigator will provide a better answer to the question.
In any event their penchant for leading society in the wrong direction is a very serious problem. As currently constituted the intelligentsia is a cancer on society. Many thanks to Thomas Sowell for enlightening us about the nature of this malady.