David R. Henderson  

Sowell's "Intellectuals and Society"

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My review of Thomas Sowell's latest book, Intellectuals and Society, was published in the latest Regulation. I had previous blogged about it on this site. One benefit of blogging: several commenters found one of Sowell's paragraphs that I quoted plodding and wordy. I reread the paragraph and ended up agreeing. You'll see how I used that in my review. Some excerpts:

One senses that Sowell wants to criticize a number of people whom he often refuses to name, and so he lumps them into the "intellectuals" category. The problem is that his generalization does not hold. I think of myself as an intellectual; many of you readers are intellectuals; and don't look now, but Thomas Sowell is an intellectual. In short, his whole argument about intellectuals as a class becomes incoherent.

Or take Sowell's numerate pick-apart of the 1996 "arson of black churches." The Chicago Tribune, he notes, referred to "an epidemic of criminal and cowardly arson." (By the way, isn't "criminal" redundant in that sentence? Is there any arson that is not criminal?) Columnist Barbara Reynolds of USA Today claimed that the fires were "an attempt to murder the spirit of black America." President Clinton added to the plot, claiming that the church fires reminded him of similar burnings of black churches in Arkansas when he was young.
The problem with those statements? Let Sowell tell it:
This story began to unravel when factual research showed that (1) no black churches were burned in Arkansas while Bill Clinton was growing up, (2) there had been no increase in fires at black churches, but an actual decrease over the previous 15 years, (3) the incidence of fires at white churches was similar to the incidence of fires at black churches, and (4) where there was arson, one-third of the suspects were black.

I'm most critical about his discussion of the Vietnam War. Foreign policy is an area in which Sowell has often been careless.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
ChrisW writes:

Agreed. Sowell's constant alternation between general philosophizing and cherry-picked concrete examples doesn't hold up well for skeptical readers. Also the fact that he himself is an intellectual isn't resolved well in the book.

Vipul Naik writes:

Sowell is asked about the issue of counterexample intellectuals in the Uncommon Knowledge interview by Peter Robinson. Quoting from the transcript (PDF):

Peter Robinson: All right, Tom what explains the exceptions, during the 1930’s, intellectual after intellectual visits Russia and says, this is the land of the future. And Malcolm Muggeridge and a handful of others and a tiny number of intellectuals say, no it isn’t, Stalin is a barbarian. After the Great Depression, the entire economics profession is dominated by John Maynard Keynes and then along comes Milton Freedman and he just won’t have it. What explains these exceptions among intellectuals who stand up?

Thomas Sowell: That’s for another book for somebody else to write. In the preface I mentioned that I’ll have very little to say about Milton Freedman, not because he’s not one of the most important people of the 20th century, but because he’s such an exception to the general pattern that I’m trying to explain. I will leave it to someone else to try and figure out the exceptions.

PR: All right, let me try to ask you to figure out one other, one other exception. I’m going to at you one more time on this one, listen to this. Barrack Obama holds degrees from Columbia and Harvard and taught at the University of Chicago. Thomas Sowell who like Barrack Obama emerges from the African American experience in this country, BA from Harvard, MA from Columbia, PhD from Chicago and has taught at Howard, Brandeis, UCLA, Cornell, and Amherst. What accounts for the difference in visions between Barrack Obama and Thomas Sowell?

TS: Oh my gosh, this is like trying to account for every sparrow’s fall.

PR: You’re two pretty consequential sparrow.

TS: Well, here at least but no, you can’t. It’s hard enough to account for a general pattern, when you get down to the individual you have to know so much more than any of us has ever known or will probably know for the next thousand years at least.

Chris Koresko writes:

@David Henderson: The problem is that his generalization does not hold. I think of myself as an intellectual; many of you readers are intellectuals; and don't look now, but Thomas Sowell is an intellectual. In short, his whole argument about intellectuals as a class becomes incoherent.

I don't think I agree with this. What's wrong with making a sweeping generalization, such as "intellectuals", "politicians", "employers", "socialists", etc., when constructing a broad-brush argument about the way society works? It seems to me that such crude descriptions are a reasonable starting point for any detailed analysis. That there are exceptions to the general rule does not prove that the crude analysis has nothing useful to tell us, even if the analyst himself is one of the exceptions.

Alice Finkel writes:

Thomas Sowell assumes far more intelligence and discriminatory power in his readers than is common among most academics, political activists, and government/media apparatchiks.

No, Sowell, Eric Hoffer, Paul Johnson, and other incisive observers have gotten it pretty much right on the topic of "intellectuals."

But it takes persons who are a cut above your average intellectual to comprehend.

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