Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mahoney, Daniel J. "An Independent Mind." CITY JOURNAL June 18, 2010.

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

Thomas Sowell occupies a unique place in American intellectual life, at the intersection of economics, social science, and public philosophy, even as he writes a lively syndicated column. He is equally at home discoursing on “Say’s Law” (or the Law of Market) and exposing divisive and counterproductive affirmative-action programs. He is also among this nation’s most prominent black conservatives, which suggests a certain independence of mind and spirit. That independence, along with truly prodigious learning, is amply on display in his latest book.

Intellectuals and Society is something of a summa of Sowell’s concerns over the last 40 years. It builds upon the “informal trilogy”—A Conflict of Visions, The Vision of the Anointed, and The Quest for Cosmic Justice—in which he first examined the conflict between a “constrained” vision of politics and social change and a vision of society by which intellectuals (“the anointed”) seek permanent “solutions” to social and national problems. Modern intellectuals, Sowell writes, have a “vision of themselves as a self-appointed vanguard, leading towards a better world.” Unlike advocates of the more conservative, constrained vision, this intellectual vanguard tends to take the “benefits of civilization for granted.” The “vision of the anointed” lacks respect for the wisdom inherent in experience and common opinion. Its practitioners value abstractions—dreams for a peaceful, egalitarian world where conflicts have been overcome—over the “tacit knowledge” available to the parent, the consumer, the entrepreneur, and the citizen.

Sowell vigorously defends wisdom—practical reason—against an abstract rationalism that values ideas over the experience of actual human beings. Intellectuals, he argues, are particularly suspicious of the ties ordinary men and women feel to family, religion, and country. They look down upon “objective reality and objective criteria” in the social sciences, art, music, and philosophy. Their “systems” tend to be self-referential and lack accountability in the external world. . . .

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