Sowell on "Adolescent Intellectuals"

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Thomas Sowell's latest column over at RealClear Politics is just as interesting for what it fails to say as for what it says.

To a small child, the reason he cannot do many things that he would like to do is that his parents won't let him. Many years later, maturity brings an understanding that there are underlying reasons for doing or not doing many things, and that his parents were essentially conduits for those reasons.

The truly dangerous period in life is the time when the child has learned the limits of his parents' control, and how to circumvent their control, but has not yet understood or accepted the underlying reasons for doing and not doing things. This adolescent period is one that some people -- intellectuals especially -- never outgrow.
Sowell is tantalizingly close to naming a fundamental truth about many intellectual movements, particularly the New Left, and gets even closer when he comments on the proliferation of the common misuse of the term "liberation".

But he never explicitly says that the New Left rejects the primacy of existence, or even goes so far as to note that the cardinal sin of that ideological movement is that it fails to test its theories against reality!

Maturity, apparently "just happens" for some and not for others, and "intellectual" remains an adolescent fixation rather than a potentially valuable vocation -- at least for those intellectuals armed with philosophical ideas that have firm bases in factual data and the uncompromising application of logic.

His error is a common one, in which he treats an implicitly rational, reality-oriented philosophical outlook as a given, rather than as an implicit example of just another possible ideology. My last would doubtless strike many, probably including Sowell himself, as moral relativism at first blush, but it is not. For if the rational, "adult" ideology that Sowell implicitly favors can be judged as an ideology, so must all other ideologies be examined under the cold light of reason, and compared against the facts of reality, which include the requirements for man's survival.

It is easy, but wrong, to hold all intellectuals in such disdain, for to do so is to cede the deadly premise that so many of them have that a rational philosophy is not worthy of consideration in the marketplace of ideas, that ideology is somehow the one realm of human endeavor that is exempt from reason. Indeed, it allows them to go on pretending this is the case. Worse, it allows them to continue their attack against rational morality openly and unashamedly, while doing real damage to our civilization.

Funny that an adult I hold so much respect for -- and an economist at that -- made such a mistake after coming so close to the truth!

-- CAV


Jim May said...

Do not forget that Sowell is a conservative, and is therefore influenced by that movement's fundamental hostility to the notion of a rational philosophy. In that view, the idea of a rational, reality-oriented philosophy is simply inconceivable.

Their conception of reason is what I call the "calculator view", i.e. that reason is a valuable tool, but like any tool is only good for certain things. Trying to use that calculator for the "big things", such as morality, philosophy, life itself -- is "ideology", which inevitably leads to disaster. Their solution to this non-existent problem is religious morality and tradition-worship.

So while Sowell's error is indeed common, it isn't merely taking "rational, reality-orieted" thinking as a given... he doesn't think it's nearly as important or fundamental as we do. That is regrettable, as it hobbles some really brilliant minds.

Gus Van Horn said...

These are good points, Jim, and the post would have been better with them, so adding your comment does improve it.

You also indirectly bring up a point I have been thinking about lately: the value of blogs as intellectual activism. I certainly don't expect this post to change Sowell's mind. But I might provoke thought from someone interested in what he has to say who finds this post.

In fact, this post was linked from the front page of RealClear politics for awhile yesterday, and there is always Google for later on.

madmax said...


What an awesome and brilliant summary of conservative thinking. Thanks so much! I learn something from all of your comments.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, madmax. Having a merry band of intelligent commenters is, as your rightly indicate, yet another benefit of blogging!

khartoum said...

Great post! I am just wondering whether people like Robert Spencer and Ayaan Hirsi Ali exhibit the mentality Sowell does. For instance, although they have condemned Islam as evil, they still actively advocate human rights, and a "liberal" democracy.

Are they the same or do they differ in any fundamental fashion?

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, Khartoum.

I think so. As you point out, Hirsi Ali and Spencer both are generally sympathetic to individual rights, and yet seem to take the idea for granted, as if it were some norm for adult, civilized behavior (which it is) that is so obvious (which its isn't) as to need no justification (which it does).

I have to admit ignorance of the details of their intellectual backgrounds, but all three strike me as being fundamentally the same in this way.