Monday, October 25, 2010

Intellectuals and Society

Book Club... And Then Some!

Intellectuals and Society


by Thomas Sowell

Book Review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

This is a 398-page book with 50-pages of notes.

I found this book repetitive, deep, verbose, complex, and extremely difficult in holding my attention.  To provide readers of my reviews a fair shake, I quote here from reviews provided at

The following are the ideas Sowell covers in this book:
    1: Intellect and Intellectuals
    2: Knowledge and Notions
    3: Intellectuals and Economics
    4: Intellectuals and Social Visions
    5: Optional Reality in the Media and Academia
    6: Intellectuals and the Law
    7: Intellectuals and War
    8: Intellectuals and War: Repeating History
    9: Intellectuals and Society

Robert Kirk of Rancho Cucamonga, CA), wrote the following review of Sowell’s book at, and I’d like to say that it perfectly reflects my feelings about the book: “. . . It's by far his [Sowell's] most difficult book to read because it's subject matter is a bit scattered. However, Mr. Sowell does what many can't do, he makes you think and question ‘conventional wisdom.’ Be prepared to slow down a bit while reading this one since it is a bit more dense than his other books.  It is well worth the effort.”

Callidus Asinus, at, writes this about Sowell’s book: “In his book, Sowell examines the influence intelligentsia (which he defines as all persons who make their living off the production of ideas). Within the class of intelligentsia, Sowell includes such people as university faculty and the media. He excludes people with mentally demanding jobs such as doctors, lawyers and engineers because these people, unlike intellectuals rely on the empirical verifiability of their ideas and practices to survive economically.

Sowell asserts that intellectuals generally have a negative effect on society because their ideas are not subject to the same empirical verification as doctors, lawyers and engineers. Because of this, they can make claims or sweeping judgments on society which they lack the qualifications to make (he cites examples of people such as literature professors making condemnations of the capitalist system without any prior training in economics). Furthermore, he shows that when the ideas of intellectuals are shown to be verifiably wrong, they loose no credibility, and usually use their verbal skills to avoid admitting their errors.”

This lack of accountability among intellectuals causes problems when they begin to sway public opinion in favor of their policies (which are often counterproductive). He cites examples such as the pacifist sentiment in pre-WWII Britain and France which prevented them from taking any aggressive action on Hitler until he had already built up his military. And now we get to the central theme of Sowell's book, which is to have a healthy suspicion of the ideas propagated by intellectuals to mitigate their sway over public opinion. In a democratic nation such as ours, this is an essential quality for the citizens to have so that they can cast their votes more wisely.”

Mindy Rader, at, writes, “Thomas Sowell is a strong critic of intellectuals, traditional and modern, European and American. He specifically discusses definitions of intellectuals and gives us a better understanding of those intellectuals who have for better or worse, had a major influence on society in United States history. He talks about philosophers, government leaders, progressives and intellectual activists. We can learn from the ideas of all those highly respected intellectuals who throughout history have positioned themselves politically on the right or left. The ideas of these scholars, including those of Sowell, are important as they have shaped culture and society. All in all, Sowell's book is interesting and understandable.”

Several reviewers took Sowell to task for concentrating so heavily on liberal intellectuals with whom he disagreed, and if you already know (before reading him) his politics, then you will have some idea of what to expect.  One reviewer even suggested that Sowell should have titled his book, “Liberal Intellectuals and Society.”  I tend to agree. 

This book is available from Intellectuals and Society

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