An excess of stupidity, and not from nature: Why moderns should watch out for intellectuals

A review of Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society

Basic Books, 2009, 398 pages, $37.95.

Reviewed for C2C Journal by Patrick Keeney.

How is it that “intellectuals” so consistently embrace ideas which are theoretically indefensible, politically pernicious, or socially devastating?

The 20th century abounds with examples: the infatuation of Martin Heidegger and Ezra Pound with, respectively, Nazism and Fascism; Bertrand Russell’s call for unilateral disarmament during the 1930’s; Bernard Shaw’s enthusiastic embrace of eugenics; and Sydney and Beatrice Webb’s purblind whitewash of the atrocities committed by Stalin. When the Nazis occupied France, George Orwell was taken by how quickly the French intelligentsia transferred their loyalties to the Third Reich. Orwell had no illusions about his countrymen. “If the Germans got to England,” he wrote, “similar things would happen.” Little wonder that when the historian Robert Conquest published “Reflections of a Ravaged Century,” he had wanted to call it, “I Told You So, You F****ng Idiots.”

Thomas Sowell’s new book is an investigation into why intellectuals are prone to foisting so many disastrously wrong ideas on society. Sowell stipulates that for his purposes, “intellectual” is an “occupational description rather than a qualitative label or an honorific title.” An intellectual’s work “begins and ends” with ideas, which are the key to the intellectual’s function, as well as the source of the “often dangerous seductions of the occupation.” As with every other occupation, intellectuals are not necessarily paragons, but come in all sizes. For Sowell, there is nothing oxymoronic about railing against “stupid”, “inept”, or “silly” intellectuals.

Two further notions flesh out his definition. First, for intellectuals, ideas function as “axioms for thinking, rather than as hypotheses for testing,” and so are immune from empirical falsification. That is, intellectuals test their ideas against purely internal criteria, which easily become “sealed off from feedback from the external world and remain circular in their methods of validation.” In this sense, Freud, Nietzsche and Marx are intellectuals, whereas Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg are not, in that the latter group dealt with ideas where were testable against experience.

Second, while a great number of workers – doctors, lawyers, ministers, engineers, carpenters, accountants, and so forth– require intellectual processes in their daily work, they are not intellectuals in Sowell’s sense, in that their mental exertions result in something other than mere ideas: doctors seek to heal, carpenters build houses, and so forth. In these occupations ideas are used for tangible results in the real world. Unlike intellectuals, these occupations do not “begin and end in ideas.”

On the face of it, those individuals whose stock-in-trade is ideas, who possess advanced degrees, and whose professional remit is to further understanding of the human condition, should be better equipped than the general population to sort sense from the nonsense. One might reasonably expect that professors and scholars would demonstrate what Sir Charles Osgood called the “supreme end of education” namely an “expert discernment in all things — the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit”.

Yet the evidence points the other way. As Sowell’s book soberly attests, it is the intellectual who is frequently the most credulous, the most prone to “bad and counterfeit” thinking, and who is least able to see past the conventional pieties of the age. Intellectuals inhabit a sort of twilight world where ideas are insulated from empirical falsification. Instead of testing ideas against experience, words and verbal performances — what Sowell calls “verbal virtuosity” — become the coin of the realm. It is a world that George Will once characterized as a “grating blend of knowingness and unrealism.”

In the book’s nine chapters, Sowell paints an unflattering portrait of the role of the intellectual in economics, the media, the law, academia, war, and in engendering various social visions. But whatever the field of human endeavour, certain premises hold constant.

For Sowell, intellectuals exhibit little appreciation that all actions entail costs “which have to be taken account of to arrive at a rational decision.” Sowell is an economist by training, and is quick to point out that in this world nothing is free. In his chapter on economics, he shows how left-leaning intellectuals, enamored of schemes to redistribute wealth, too often proceed in blissful ignorance of the basics of economics. As Sowell points out, understanding that wages are determined systemically rather than volitionally is “not a matter of being on the left or not, but of being economically literate or illiterate.”

Further, intellectuals are prone to self-flattery. They mistakenly think that because they are experts in one small area of human understanding, they are therefore entitled to pronounce on matters far beyond their expertise. Judges and lawyers, for example, are experts on legal principles. It is less apparent that when it comes to matters of social policy that judges are any more competent than the man in the street. Yet Anglo-American jurisprudence has been marked by activist courts, in which judges are only too ready to use the law as an instrument of social change, “making amateur decisions on complex matters extending far beyond the narrow boundaries of their professional expertise.”

Predictably, in one the few areas of intellectual consensus, what the experts all agree on is the need for more expertise. They embrace “a vision of the anointed,” which posits that decision making needs to be in the hands of empowered elites, who perform as surrogates for popular opinion. Those who possess mere intellectual ordinariness are prone to ignorance and the herd mentality, and so can never quite be trusted to arrive at the approved conclusions. But as the author sardonically notes, “The ignorance, groupthink and prejudices of an educated elite are still ignorance, groupthink and prejudice.”

One of the book’s recurrent themes is that intellectuals simply don’t know enough to engage in the large-scale social undertakings they advocate. They are guilty of overreach, of engaging in a sort of Promethean hubris, where abstract ideas too frequently result in disaster for real flesh and blood people. Perhaps the social engineering most favoured by intellectuals involve efforts to ameliorate poverty. Yet as the author demonstrates, it is the poor who, time and again, pay the price for the failed ideas of academics.

For Sowell, what is lacking in these schemes is a sense of limits, and these limitations can grow organically only by embracing the tragic vision of existence. In opposition to the zealous vision of the intellectuals, which posits that society consists of endless problems to be “solved” by a morally anointed intellectual elite, the tragic vision posits that humans are, and could ever only be, imperfect, inherently flawed creatures possessing imperfect and partial understandings of the human condition. The tragic vision regards society not as a series of endless problems to be solved, but as something that requires “great and constant efforts merely to be preserved.” It is a darker, conservative vision of society, in which civilization consists of a thin veneer, which can be preserved only by moderation and prudence.

Finding fault with intellectuals as a class is entirely different from despising the intellect. To be “anti-intellectual” in Sowell’s sense doesn’t mean that one is opposed to intellectual pursuits themselves; what it means is that one is alert to the self-delusions, special pleading, and corruption of thought that too frequently typify the ideas which emerge from the thinking classes.

There is much to recommend this book. It is a book about academics, but it is written in a language which is transparent and accessible for the general reader. Sowell is scrupulous in supporting his ideas with evidence, and the book contains extensive notes and references, and a very thorough index.

It is somewhat depressing to ponder the reasons why so many intellectuals continue to allow themselves to be misled by so many bad ideas after so many egregious examples. How is it that intelligent and capable individuals, after years of advanced study, are able to spin so many dangerous castles in the air, and embrace idiocies that would make first-year undergraduates blush? As Dr. Johnson, referring to an intellectual of his own age, remarked: “it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, Sir, is not in Nature.”

Sowell has gone a long way to showing how, in our own time, this “excess of stupidity” has come about.

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