U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Info for Historians of Conservative Thought and those interested in Anti-Intellectualism in the US

I just noticed that Thomas Sowell has a new book out called “Intellectuals and Society.” In a column in the Jewish World Review explaining the book, he argues that

Those whose careers are built on the creation and dissemination of ideas — the intellectuals — have played a role in many societies out of all proportion to their numbers.

But certainly, for the 20th century, it is hard to escape the conclusion that intellectuals have on net balance made the world a worse and more dangerous place. Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was without his supporters, admirers or apologists among the leading intellectuals — not only within his own country, but in foreign democracies, where intellectuals were free to say whatever they wanted to.

Given the enormous progress made during the 20th century, it may seem hard to believe that intellectuals did so little good as to have that good outweighed by particular wrong-headed notions. But most of those who promoted the scientific, economic and social advances of the 20th century were not really intellectuals in the sense in which that term is most often used. [People who created tangible things that flew or did not fly (in the example he gives of the Wright Brothers) rather than the intangible products of “intellectuals”]

He continues in a second article:

If there is any lesson in the history of ideas, it is that good intentions tell you nothing about the actual consequences. But intellectuals who generate ideas do not have to pay the consequences.

Academic intellectuals are shielded by the principles of academic freedom and journalists in democratic societies are shielded by the principle of freedom of the press. Seldom do those who produce or peddle dangerous, or even fatal, ideas have to pay a price, even in a loss of credibility.

He gives Rachel Carson as his first example, arguing that her crusade against DDT led to the resurgence of malaria. For his second example, he argues that Woodrow Wilson advocated changes for the sake of change in the aftermath of WWI, leading to the disastrous totalitarian regimes of WWII.

Intellectuals and their followers have often been overly impressed by the fact that intellectuals tend, on average, to have more knowledge than other individuals in their society. What they have overlooked is that intellectuals have far less knowledge than the total knowledge possessed by the millions of other people whom they disdain and whose decisions they seek to override.

What do you all think of his argument? It seems to me like Sowell is at once giving intellectuals more power than they actually had (Wilson did not create self-determination in a vacuum, absent the desires of those elasticities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the Ottoman Empire was not carved up just because he said so) and then criticizing them for the outcomes. He also seems to think that Wilson is generally praised for his efforts; that isn’t the case in the history I study.

Some of his arguments remind me of those who criticized American and Western European communists in the 1950s and later. The ideas they played with were much too dangerous.

Do you have a sense of how influential Sowell is these days? I have the impression that a few years ago, he was a major presence. Is he still?

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I don’t think anyone outside the right has taken Sowell very seriously in years. These days he largely produces run-or-the-mill rightwing hackery. Just judging by the material you’ve quoted above, it looks like the pat repetition of tired conservative talkingpoints: a whole heap of trahisons des clercs with a healthy dash of the “Rachel Carson is a mass murderer” lie that conservatives from novelist Michael Crichton to my Junior Senator Tom Coburn have been selling like its been going out of style for years (Googling “Rachel Carson malaria” gets over 25,000 hits; here’s an old Salon story that attempted to set the record straight).

    But while I don’t think Sowell has anything new to tell us–he’s more a symptom of the continuing spectacle of rightwing would-be intellectuals attacking the intellectuals (you might as well just real Paul Johnson)–just because something is old doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false (though the Carson nonsense is).

    IMO, there are a number of problems with the trahisons des clercs meme. To be brief: the 20C certainly was distinguished by its murderous regimes, totalitarian and otherwise; regimes tend to have ideologies; ideologies tend to be supplied by intellectuals. Intellectuals who support murderous regimes deserve to be criticized for supporting murderous regimes, as do non-intellectuals who do so. But…

    1) It’s not clear to me that intellectuals were any more likely to support these regimes than anyone other sector of society was.

    2) The mere existence of supporting ideologies for these regimes does not mean the ideologists were responsible for them. The cock crows then the sun rises, but the cock’s crowing doesn’t cause the sun to rise. Each of these regimes also produced vast quantities of official art and literature, but nobody suggests that novelists and painters are particularly responsible for genocide. In short, I agree, Lauren that these views tend to overestimate the importance of intellectuals, especially to these regimes.

    3) The suggestion that intellectuals’ claims to knowledge and/or wisdom make them necessarily more morally culpable than, e.g. Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front or Khmer Rouge party cadres (who, for what it’s worth, targeted intellectuals among others) seem to me to rest on a fundamentally elitist notion of moral capacity that, in fact, has no inherent relationship to intellectuals’ actual status claims (which do not necessarily involve claims of moral superiority). Incidentally, Sowell’s assumption that intellectuals necessarily seek to “override” the opinions of the masses also seems off base to me. From George Bancroft in the 19C to James Surowiecki today, plenty of intellectuals have endorsed the “wisdom of the crowd.”

    All that being said, in the case of particular individuals who cozy up to horrific regimes, legitimate questions can–and should–be asked about the relationship of their thought to the murderousness. Obvious examples might include: Martin Heidegger and Nazism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Alexander Kojeve and Stalinism, Milton Friedman and Pinochet (though I doubt this last is what Sowell has in mind). In each case, however, one needs to carefully draw the connections between the ideas for which the thinker is famous and the regime he supported. People are complicated and we make decisions (even tragically mistaken ones) in complicated ways. I’m a huge Oakland A’s fan. I doubt that you’d find that fact in any way reflected in my scholarship. While some brilliant people think thoughts that lead them to hideous political conclusions other brilliant people support horrible causes incidentally.

  2. One additional (thankfully shorter) thought:

    I think an interesting comparison can be made between this strain of rightwing critique of the intellectuals and the leftwing critique of them exemplified by Chomsky’s famous 1967 NYRB piece on “The Responsibility of the Intellectuals.” (Totally off the cuff addendum: in the family tree of these two very different lines of thought is Randolph Bourne a common ancestor?)

  3. I’m with Ben in that Sowell seems to have confused correlation with causation. Sowell also seems to confuse the role of ‘academic intellectuals’ with intellectuals who operate outside the academy—a distinction he makes in his own writing.

    This line from Sowell particularly irritated me: “But intellectuals who generate ideas do not have to pay the consequences.”

    I shouldn’t reply to this, but I can think of a boatload of counterexamples from my own research: R.M. Hutchins and the isolationists leading up to WWII (only his vigorous support of the war exonerated him), M.J. Adler and his late-life support for the ossified Britannica Great Books set (his reputation still hasn’t recovered from that episode in his life), etc. And many intellectuals are much more popular after their lives than during because of the stands they have taken in their writings.

    But, overall with regard to Sowell, it’s interesting how he’s cutting off his nose to spite his face. I mean, wasn’t he first admired for being thoughtful–for being an intellectual? If his writings are not as popular now, they gained popularity at first because he presented a reasoned, unique perspective. But maybe I’m giving his past work too much credit? – TL

  4. Thank you, Evan, for letting us know about this article and dialogue.

    It opens with quite a provocative sentence for this blog: “Is there anything new to say about intellectuals?”

  5. Pardon me for posting late (I just came upon this blog. I’m psyched it’s out here!). First two caveats: I’m not an intellectual historian (though my adviser was), so some of my comments may be way off the mark. Second, I haven’t read Sowell’s book, only his columns mentioned in the above post. That said, his argument seems to be contradictory an attack on idealist philosophy more than anything else. Contradictory because some ideas he likes, some he doesn’t. And that opinionated preference seems to be the foundation of his argument.

    His central question itself is clunky and simplistic: “Whether [intellectuals’] role has, on net balance, made those around them better off or worse off is one of the key questions of our times.” First of all, is it one of the “key questions of our times”? Who’s asking this question? Populist-baiting conservative pundits, certainly, but few others. Maybe among “intellectuals” like Sowell it’s a “key question.” But really, is it the historian’s job to be so judgmental of the past? I would answer, again, no. Our job is to take the past on its own terms, to assess causality and contingency, to figure out how societies have been put together, and why they changed over time. But even if we are here to judge, where are the quantitative metrics? Better? Worse? Sowell’s critique collapses in on itself for “better” and “worse” are themselves idealist measures: platonic forms floating somewhere far outside of the material world that he wants us to live in.

    So, just when are we supposed to be idealist and when are we supposed to me materialist? My head hurts.

    But my real problem with Sowell is actually a problem with intellectual history. Who are these “Intellectuals”? Sowell’s list in the Jewish World Review, “journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges,” seems haphazard; and his definition — those who “create ideas” — also seems like a fairly flimsy straw man. I thought that cultural history has taught us that “intellectuals” don’t have a monopoly on either creating or disseminating ideas. Those who lack either the access or desire to formally codify their ideas in places that we have defined as the purview of intellectuals still create ideas. Those ideas have currency in society. They move people as much as the “ideas of intellectuals.” In other words, the class of folks that we traditionally call intellectuals — those who produce texts and art specifically geared to the explication of ideas — simply don’t operate in a vacuum. I recognize the distinction between intellectuals and others, but in place of the wall that some traditional intellectual history places between them, I would substitute a road.

  6. Thanks for stopping by and posting such an interesting comment, Ryan! One thought about that odd list of folks who Sowell calls “intellectuals” (“journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges”): is this just that old neoconservative saw “the New Class” dressed up in slightly different clothing? I suppose the bureaucrats are missing, but his legislative staffers (hardly what most people mean when they use the word “intellectuals”) come close.

  7. Thomas Sowell is a sad case of a very intelligent and accomplished academic/public intellectual devolving into quackery. He should have stopped writing about twenty years ago. His best work in my opinion is _Conflict of Visions_ which intellectual historians will certainly enjoy engaging, dealing as it does with epistemic issues. I also enjoyed reading _Ethnic America_.

    As someone who spent time inside the conservative movement I should point out that Sowell was never considered a leading intellectual of the conservative movement. Popular, yes, but not groundbreaking. For instance, his most celebrated work, Knowledge and Decisions, is widely understood to be a popularization of the work of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, two actual luminaries of the American right.

    The rest of Sowell’s work is pretty awful, and the recent work is almost a parody of rightwing nuttiness. His columns in Forbes and elsewhere are positively cringe-inducing. By all means, though, read A Conflict of Visions.

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