Acton Institute Powerblog

Intellectuals and Society

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Daniel Mahoney, professor of political science at Assumption College and lecturer at this year’s Acton University, (find his lectures here) wrote an excellent review in City Journalof Thomas Sowell’s new book, Intellectuals and Society. Sowell argues against the hyper-rationalist tradition of modern intellectuals whose theories tend to be divorced from reality and hostile to tradition and what Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowledge” of everyday people. As Mahoney notes, this has been a recurring theme of Sowell’s work throughout the years beginning with his fine book A Conflict of Visions. Mahoney writes:

Sowell, it’s true, denies being an intellectual, and we must take him at his word. He renews the critique of “literary politics” first limned by Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France and Alexis de Tocqueville in The Old Regime and the Revolution. Burke and Tocqueville both observed a new intellectual type: thinkers inebriated by revolution and the dream of a radically new social order, and dismissive of the inherited wisdom of the past. Burke and Tocqueville didn’t hesitate to denounce injustice when they saw it, whether British oppression of Indians and the Irish or chattel slavery in America. But their critiques drew on the best traditions of Western civilization. They avoided the “rationalist” illusion that the world could be created anew. In this spirit, Sowell refuses to judge ideas by their supposed good intentions, but rather by their effects on human beings.

Read the entire review here.

Michael Matheson Miller


  • Patrick Powers

    Intellectual battles seem a tempest in teapot, until on considers that post-WWII studies of German concentration camp staffing. Those with more education tended to be more likely to participate in atrocities than their lesser educated compatriots (Source: Peter Kreeft lectures “What Would Socrates Do?)
    I am reminded of the studies on authority (can’t recall researcher’s name) where subjects would administer electrical shocks to improve test performance of “dummy” respondents. The researcher would only encourage the test subject by saying “The test must continue.” Some subjects would eventually give a lethal shock, because the test must go on. As I watched the President this morning he kept reciting “We must move forward”, without any concern for the humanity of those involved.
    Can anyone picture a tradesman saying “If we approve euthanasia, we can produce a better widget”? But a Princeton philosopher (Peter Singer) will posit that infanticide is okay because a dog or chimp seems smarter.
    Intellect isn’t dangerous, but Intellectuals are (IMHO).

  • Patrick Powers

    The following is an excerpt of an interview of Dr. Peter Kreeft by Marvin Olasky in World Magazine:
    “Is college education overrated? A Harvard sociologist found that in Hitler’s concentration camps the cruelest torturers were the most educated. She expected to find that the more educated you were the more refined you were; she found exactly the opposite. The percentage of atheists is almost directly proportionate to how many years of education you have. Charles Malik in Christ in the University points out that the university is by far the most powerful institution in the world today. It’s doing most of what the church and the state used to do. That’s where the future of the world is going to be decided. If you’re not too smart, you can’t deceive yourself. College professors can.”

  • Sam

    @ Patrick Powers

    Does anyone have a reference to the Harvard sociologist’s study of a torturer’s education level? Kinda strange that no name was mentioned…