Book Review: “Intellectuals and Society” by Thomas Sowell

Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Dr. Sowell’s book “Intellectuals and Society” claims to be a critical evaluation of intellectuals — those whose work begins and ends with ideas — on a wide range of subjects, from economics and law to war and society. In actuality, this book is a critique of a specific sort of intellectual: the member of the liberal intelligentsia.

This means that a wide swathe of conservative thinkers are exempted from Dr. Sowell’s analysis: thus, when media bias is the subject of discussion, Fox News receives no mention. This is the sort of one-sided analysis the reader should expect for the duration of the book’s length.

Further, Dr. Sowell gets stuck in a most ironic dilemma when he claims that intellectuals are those who have exceptional knowledge in one narrow subject but who extend their analyses beyond their range of competence (p. 155): this critique applies to Dr. Sowell himself! Either intellectuals can speak with some authority on subjects in which they did not get their PhD, or otherwise this book is itself a waste of time (Dr. Sowell has a PhD in economics).

But, if intellectuals can in fact speak on subjects besides their narrow band of expertise, then many of the leftist thinkers Dr. Sowell writes off are ostensibly speaking with authority, which Dr. Sowell explicitly denies. Rather than address the points of many of these scholars, the fact that they are speaking on subjects outside of their professional expertise gives carte blanche to Dr. Sowell to ignore their actual arguments.

For example, Noam Chomsky is mentioned several times throughout the book (pgs. 11, 284, 287), and in each case is written off as someone speaking beyond his realm of expertise, without any of Chomsky’s actual arguments being addressed. This is most ironic because at one point in the book, Dr. Sowell provides a taxonomy of “arguments without arguments” used by leftist intellectuals to dismiss opposing viewpoints without actually addressing their points. It seems as if Dr. Sowell needs to add an entry to the list for the strategy he himself uses.

If one can accept these limitations, there are interesting points to be gleaned from “Intellectuals and Society.” For example, the section on economics probably has the most insightful arguments, since it is after all Dr. Sowell’s realm of expertise. One example: the obsession of many intellectuals over the ‘plight of the poor,’ who treat the bottom quintile in income distribution (a statistical category) as if it is a static group of actual human beings. To the contrary, from 1975 to 1991, only 5% of those who started in the bottom quintile remained there, and some 29% of people who started there ended up in the top quintile (p. 38). In other words, rather than being an unmoving group of people which are languishing at the bottom of the American economy, the statistical category in question is a place where many people start out when they begin a relatively low-paying job, eventually working their way out as they develop more skills and experience in their chosen profession.

In another instance Dr. Sowell encourages the reader to ask a simple question: what have intellectuals contributed to society? In opposition to scientists, engineers, and the like, it is not as readily apparent what intellectuals have contributed to society or the world. This question should serve as an important check against the self-importance of intellectuals who simply presume what they are doing is of value to anyone besides fellow intellectuals.

In short, “Intellectuals and Society” is a skewed attempt to analyze left-leaning academics in Western culture. The author fails to address the majority of their arguments, simply writing them off as ‘beyond their realm of expertise.’ Further, conservative intellectuals bear no mention — despite the fact that they are surely subject to many of the same fallacies as leftists. Despite these limitations, the reader will likely glean several insights from this book that will make them ponder the role of the intellectual, even if the overall argument of the book is logically inadequate.

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