Posts tagged with: intellectual history

“Intellectuals and Society,” by Thomas Sowell, (2009) Basic Books, New York, 398 pp.

Arguments about ideas are the bread and butter of the academic, journalism and think tank worlds. That is as it should be. Honest intellectual debate benefits any society where its practice is allowed. The key element is honesty.

Today, someone is always looking to take out the fastest gun, and in the battles over the hearts and minds of the public many weapons are brought to bear. Unfortunately, and too often, among the artillery deployed by both sides in an argument are rhetorical deception, misleading statistics and an air of authority, which can immediately bury facts in the Boot Hill of honest debate.

Seldom held accountable for the violence brought to bear on the verifiable when their ideas lead to long-lasting negative effects, many of these intellectual gunslingers head into battle confident that their wits will save the world from another perceived plight.

Fortunately, Thomas Sowell is one of the fastest intellectual guns in the proverbial corral. His latest, Intellectuals and Society, finds the erudite economist turning his guns on the so-called intellectuals who attempt and too often succeed in swaying public opinion and political policy where the arrogance of intellect too often is the smart bomb dropped squarely on empirical evidence.

Indeed, intellectual folly knows no ideological parameters. However, Sowell divides intellectuals into two classes, where ideological divides are readily identifiable. The first is comprised of those with a constrained, or tragic, view of the world. To a conservative sympathetic to writers such as Russell Kirk and T.S. Eliot, there is an understanding that humankind is fallen and that there can be no heaven on Earth. Eliot and Kirk held that a worldview is only viable inasmuch as it reflects what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination, which he defined as, “the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment …” (more…)

Speaking of the history of morality and moral judgments in historiography, Alister MacIntyre makes a pointed observation about a complementary distinction that arises between what might be called “intellectual” and “social” history:

Abstract changes in moral concepts are always embodied in real, particular events. There is a history yet to be written in which the Medici princes, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Frederick the Great and Napoleon, Walpole and Wilberforce, Jefferson and Robespierre are understood as expressing their actions, often partially and in a variety of different ways, the very same conceptual changes which at the level of philosophical theory are articulated by Machiavelli and Hobbes, by Diderot and Condorcet, by Hume and Adam Smith and Kant. There ought not to be two histories, one of political and moral action and one of political and moral theorizing, because there were not two pasts, one populated only by actions, the other only by theories. Every action is the bearer and expression of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts; every piece of theorizing and every expression of belief is a political and moral action.

After Virtue, 2d ed., p. 61

See also: Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History (1906).