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Intellectuals and Society

“There has probably never been an era in history when intellectuals have played a larger role in society than the era in which we live. When those who generate ideas, the intellectuals proper, are surrounded by a wide penumbra of those who disseminate those ideas – whether as journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges, and other members of the intelligentsia – their influence on the course of social evolution can be considerable, or even crucial.” (Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell)

As this passage from the preface of Thomas Sowell’s book Intellectuals and Society suggests, we currently live in an era where intellectuals have immense influence. With that being said there have been few examinations of the role that intellectuals have played in course of societal development over the past several generations. Sowell’s book, however, does just this providing an in-depth examination and critique of the intellectual class.

For the purpose of his book, Sowell defines an intellectual as:

“an occupational category, people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas – writers, academics, and the like. . . At the core of the notion of an intellectual is the dealer in ideas, as such – not the personal application of ideas – as engineers apply complex scientific principles to create physical structures or mechanisms.” (Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell)

To understand the role that intellectuals have played over the last several centuries – for better or worse – Sowell emphasizes early on in the book that it must be recognized that intellectuals are just as likely to promote ideas that lead to mistaken conclusions and undesirable outcomes, as they are to put forth ideas which reflect a coherent understanding of how societies function. In fact, Sowell argues that intellectuals of the 20th and 21st century, have to a large degree championed ideas which have resulted in immense suffering, hardship, and death. A prime example being the strong support of intellectuals for communism in the 20th century, as Sowell writes:

“George Orwell said that some ideas are so foolish that only an intellectual could believe them, for no ordinary man could be such a fool. The record of 20th century intellectuals was especially appalling in this regard. Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was without his intellectual supporters, not simply in his own country, but also in foreign democracies, where people were free to say whatever they wished. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler all had their admirers, defenders and apologists among the intelligentsia in Western democratic nations, despite the fact that these dictators each ended up killing people of their own country on a scale unprecedented even by despotic regimes that preceded them.” (Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell)

A question that Sowell spends a considerable amount of time examining is how and why the intellectual class has been able to get away with promoting ideas that have proved so devastating. One reason Sowell identifies has to do with the criteria by which the ideas of intellectuals are judged as compared to the criteria of success used in professions such as engineering, medicine, or scientific research.

If an engineer, for example, builds a bridge and makes a mistake and the bridge collapses, then the reputation of the engineer is ruined. In fields such as engineering, as well as scientific research, medicine etc… there are usually external criteria which allow others to judge the success or failure of one’s work. In the bridge building example, the external criteria was whether the bridge supported the load; in medicine it would be whether a certain course of treatment rids one of the disease.

The problem in evaluating the ideas of intellectuals, however, is that often the consequences of the ideas they promote cannot be judged by clearly discernible external criteria. For example, in promoting an economic doctrine such as a raising of the minimum wage or the artificial suppression of interest rates, it is difficult to evaluate whether such ideas lead to beneficial outcomes or not, due to the complexity of an economy. Thus even if a policy the intellectual class supports produces negative outcomes they can claim that other factors were to blame – not their ideas.

The absence of clear external criteria to judge the merits of an idea has led to a situation where intellectuals are often judged merely by how their ideas fit with the prevailing worldview of the intellectual class. This allows intellectuals to promote ideas which do not properly reflect the workings of a society and this capability can be especially dangerous when the intellectual class becomes closely tied to those that rule a nation, as Sowell explains:

“When the only external validation for the individual is what other individuals believe, everything depends on who those other individuals are. If they are simply people who are like-minded in general, then the consensus of the group about a particular new idea depends on what that group already believes in general – and says nothing about the empirical validity of that idea in the external world.

Ideas sealed off from the outside world in terms of their origin or their validation may nevertheless have great impact on the external world in which millions of human beings live their lives. The ideas of Lenin, Hitler, and Mao had an enormous – and often lethal – impact on those millions of people, however little validity those ideas had in themselves or in the eyes of others beyond the circles of like-minded followers and subordinate power-wielders.” (Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell)

The criteria by which the ideas of intellectuals are evaluated is but one of many issues which Sowell identifies as having contributed to the ability of intellectuals to impose their often undesirable ideas on societies. Examining things such as the knowledge problem, the growth of centralized power structures, the relationship between intellectuals and politicians, and some the presuppositions or assumptions which many in the intellectual class hold concerning the workings of society, Sowell provides a devastating critique of the intellectuals’ role over the past several generations. Near the end of the book he writes the following, and for those interested in a full explanation of such a claim, Intellectuals and Society is a highly recommended read:

“What have the intellectuals actually done for society – and at what cost? . . .The areas in which we have seen great advances – science, industry, and medicine, for example – are largely areas outside the scope and influence of intellectuals, as the term has been used here. In areas more within the scope and influence of the intelligentsia, such as education, politics and the law, we have seen significant, and even dangerous, retrogressions.” (Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell)