Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Book Review: Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell

Intellectuals and Society
By Thomas Sowell
Basic Books

When things go wrong politicians face flak, even though the intellectuals exercise a much deeper influence on national and international affairs. In Intellectuals and Society, Sowell describes the different forms of the symbiotic relationship that exists between the intellectuals and the politicians. The intellectuals and politicians work together because their goals are closely aligned; they aim to increase the size of the government and take the decision-making powers away from private individuals and organizations.

The ideas proposed by the intellectuals get propagated by a wide array of journalists, artists, teachers, bloggers, politicians, judges, activists and other members of the intelligentsia. “The power of the intelligentsia is demonstrated not only by their ability to create a general climate of opinion that strikes fear into those who oppose their agenda but also by their ability to create a climate of opinion which richly rewards those political leaders whose decisions are consonant with the vision of the intelligentsia,” writes Sowell.

As the intellectuals deal in ideas, they are seldom blamed when the actual implementation of their ideas results in devastating consequences for millions of people. Sowell points out that we seldom apply to the intellectual class the exacting external standards by which we judge the ideas of the engineers, doctors, bankers and other professionals, who in their line of work deal with concrete things. The ideas of the intellectuals are evaluated on the basis of the merits or demerits that other intellectuals see in those ideas. Sowell says that the evaluation is non-empirical and illogical.

“The very terms of admiration or dismissal among intellectuals reflect the non-empirical criteria involved. Ideas that are 'complex,' 'exciting,' 'innovative,' 'nuanced,' or 'progressive' are admired, while other ideas are dismissed as 'simplistic,' 'outmoded,' or 'reactionary.'"

Sowell finds it difficult to think of any benefit that the intellectuals have conferred on anyone outside their own circles. In the final chapter, Sowell bluntly asks: “What have the intellectuals actually done for society—and at what cost?”

The problem with Intellectuals and Society is that it is a tirade against the liberal and progressive intellectuals—it does not inform the readers about what must be done to bring improvement in the intellectual environment. A tirade, howsoever justified, is not a solution. The entire book seems to project the idea that the intellectual class as a whole is completely worthless. But this is not true—the leftists and the progressives are not the only intellectuals.

There are in the world intellectuals with a better vision. John Locke’s political principles led to the founding of America. Ideas of intellectuals like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and many others also played a decisive role.

Sowell has made a tepid acknowledgement that not all intellectuals are bad and that intellectuals with differing visions exist in society. But this acknowledgement is a description of the existing state of affairs; it is not a blueprint for improving the intellectual environment. In the Part III of the book, Sowell explains his theory for dividing the modern intellectuals into two broad categories—those with 'Vision of the Anointed Elite,’ and those with the 'Constrained or Tragic Vision.'

Many contemporary intellectuals think of themselves as an anointed elite, or people with a mission to lead others in one way or other towards better lives. They think that only they have the insight and the knowledge to guide others in developing a better way of life. The second kind of vision that Sowell describes, the constrained, or the tragic vision, regards civilization as something that requires great and constant effort merely to be preserved. Those with the tragic vision believe that the world cannot be made a better place by merely changing the institutions, by compassion, or by commitment to leftist or progressive ideas.

The categorizing of intellectuals on the basis of different kinds of social visions is fine, but Sowell leaves far too many questions unanswered. For instance, he doesn't analyze what is the root cause of any type of intellectual vision.  Sowell writes: “When a story fits the vision, people in the media do not always find it necessary to check whether it also fits the facts.” But why do such intellectuals enjoy disproportionate influence on the media and on the consumers of the media?

Sowell does not say anything about the philosophy that forms the basis for the ideas that the intellectuals propagate. From the early 19th-century, vast majority of American intellectuals were the followers of European philosophy which was dominated by the ideas of the likes of Immanuel Kant and David Hume. John Dewey, who is rightly criticized by Sowell for propagating ideas that have led to disastrous consequences in education, was a follower of both Kant and Hume. Kant and Hume are philosophical godfathers of leftism, and also liberalism and progressivism.

The only major philosopher to merit a mention in Sowell’s book is David Hume—Hume’s name comes up in context of the role that he played in urging his fellow eighteenth-century Scots to master English. The book has no mention of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke—the three philosophers whose ideas have played a seminal role in the development of the Western civilization. Most of the contemporary intellectuals are anti-capitalism because they have rejected Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke, and accepted Kant and Hume.

Sowell is an intellectual—he is an intellectual with the right philosophical ideas. If his terminology for describing the intellectuals were to be applied to him, then he would be regarded as an intellectual with tragic or constrained vision. Why is he losing the argument against the intellectuals with the anointed vision? Why are the tragic vision intellectuals unable to find support for their social, economic and political ideas? Sowell has not answered these crucial questions.

Intellectuals and Society is full of quotable lines, as any book by Sowell is bound to be, and it presents lot of useful ideas in a clear and colourful language. But in my view there is very little scope for the book to make any improvement in the state of affairs, because it does not go beyond criticizing the leftist and liberal intellectuals. It does not offer any solutions. An intellectual renaissance can happen only when there is a revival of the philosophy of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke. But Sowell has not spoken about the importance of good philosophy. 

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