Thomas Sowell has a new book about intellectuals that looks very interesting. The National Review has a review:

Sowell writes that it “was part of a long-standing assumption among many intellectuals . . . that it is the role of third parties to bring meaning into the lives of the masses.” Many people were shocked when in early 2008 Michelle Obama proclaimed, “Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. . . . That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.” Sowell probably just shook his head in knowing disgust.

Sowell’s observation is true.  In many circles, especially , I think, in sociology, anthropology and philosophy, meaning is something created and imposed on human beings by the ruling class. Meaning is understood to be something that we create, not something we discover. Because we make it, we can change it, and we can change it for the better.  This is the source of the intellectual temptation to create meaning for other people. A lot of intellectuals, especially in the aforementioned fields, spend their time thinking about how people’s lives could be better spent.  Intellectuals convince themselves they can create a better purpose for the lives of the masses.  Devotion to the cause of social revolution, however vaguely defined, is surely more noble than devotion to an invisible God.

It is important to be conscious of intellectual vices, and it looks like Sowell’s book will aid us in this task.  If we are to be persuasive, we need to constantly practice intellectual humility, to limit the scope of our understanding.  In a world that believes in constant progress and limitless change, this can be difficult,  but it is no less necessary.

9 Responses to Intellectuals

  1. Joe Hargrave says:

    ::waits for the routine and stale charges of “anti-intellectualism” to descend upon Zach from certain familiar persons::

  2. Joe Hargrave says:

    btw – what a frightening quote from our First Lady. He won’t “allow”? I’d love to inform her just how cynical I’ve become since her husband broke almost every one of his campaign promises.

  3. Donna V. says:

    I am a great admirer of Prof. Sowell and will certainly read his book.

    In his book “Intellectuals,” Paul Johnson defined intellectuals as those who believe ideas are more important than people. If the hopes and dreams of ordinary individuals get in the way of ideology, well, those ordinary individuals have to be reeducated or even imprisoned or killed because nothing must stand in the way of the ideology that will create Paradise on Earth.

    The right is often accused of anti-intellectualism. In fact, this conservative has a deep respect for scholars. Ideologues with an agenda who know what’s best for “the people” are an entirely different cup of tea.

  4. restrainedradical says:

    There’s a difference between creating meaning and preventing meaninglessness. I find nothing wrong with using the strong arm of the state to discourage people from becoming suicidal meth addicted prostitutes.

  5. It sounds like the term “intellectual”, does not denote intelligence, common sense, competence, or independence of thought.

    I’ve met plenty of blue collar working class people who could run intellectual circles around some of these “educated” elitists. Maybe they’re not as glib or presumptuous, but they know that 2+2=4.

    Well, intellectuals are important, and there are intellectuals both on the right and the left, theres just alot of pseudo-intellectuals who can’t handle an honest debate and have to play dirty.

    I don’t put my faith in intellectuals, scientists, doctors, scholars, nor the common man either. i will hear them out, but in the end of the day i like to think that i put my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

  6. Zach says:

    Haha Joe..I hope not!

    As you know the intention is not to be anti-intellectual, quite the opposite actually! True intellectualism is the humble search for the truth, not the imposition of ideology from above. This is an important distinction and I think Sowell’s book helps to bring it out.

    Donna I look forward to reading this as well. Sowell is a great philosophical thinker.

  7. Tito Edwards says:


    I like that distinction.

    True intellectualism is the humble search for the truth, not the imposition of ideology from above.

  8. Zach says:

    restrainedradical, I think I agree about saving meth addicts and stuff… but I’m not sure that’s what this criticism is going after. I don’t know that the state can prevent meaninglessness. do you think the state can serve that function?

  9. Joe Hargrave says:

    I value genuine scholarship that is as disentangled from private opinion as possible. If a scholar wants to include an opinion, it ought to be done in a clear and distinct way from the objective facts.

    I have been accused of “anti-intellectualism” in the past; it would be more accurate to say that I am skeptical of academia, and not intellectuals as such. Academia is the “closed circuit”, the echo-chamber where isolated opinions are transformed into a consensus that one must accept on pain of exclusion and ridicule.

    We must always think for ourselves. A degree does not signify any greater or lesser ability to read and interpret material. An academic position does not do so either. What takes place in academia is as petty, meaningless, and irrelevant as what takes place in the world of fashion – there are fads, trends, crazes. If you aren’t hip to the latest trend – that will probably be yesterday’s news by the time you really understand it and want to achieve something with it – then you’re out.

    This is how smart people continue the same stupid games that they were on the losing end of in grade school. Noting is more violent, offensive, odious, and contemptible to me than when an “intellectual” or pompous grad student proclaims “uh, well, this is what everyone in the field currently believes, so…”

    SO WHAT!? Think for yourself!

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