The Enlightened Caveman


Notes from Intellectuals and Society

In case the radio thing isn’t your bag, here are my takeaways from Thomas Sowell’s latest (and perhaps most important) book – Intellectuals and Society.  Most is paraphrasing what I took to be important points from the book, but some of my own interpretations are mixed in, as well.

1.  Intellectuals are defined by Sowell as people who make their living off ideas.  So this would be someone like a historian or sociologist, not a brain surgeon or engineer.  This is key because the circumstances associated with being supported monetarily by the production of abstractions lead directly to many of the problems that are discussed in this book.

2.  Intellectuals generally have very little likelihood of achieving mass acclaim by succeeding at their chosen area of expertise.  For example, it is unlikely that a historian who is an expert on the Civil War will ever be famous for that expertise.  Yes, he or she may be well-known among Civil War buffs, but that’s about it.

3.  There are normally no external criteria for determining the success or failure of an intellectual’s ideas.  Whereas an engineer who builds a bridge has objective external evidence of success or failure – the bridge stands safely for an extended period of time – intellectuals need nothing more than the approval of other intellectuals to succeed.  For example, one intellectual is granted tenure by a group of other intellectuals.

4.  Intellectuals find themselves in an emotionally unsettling place after they “arrive” in intellectual circles.  Far from being the smartest person around – as most no doubt are as they are growing up – being a tenured PhD in a sea of other tenured PhDs leaves little room for distinction.  In other words, the status engine that was stoked all through life is suddenly sputtering and choking.  (This is my addition – connecting the book to the Enlightened Caveman concept.)

5.  To assuage this emotionally unsettled feeling, many intellectuals venture thoughts and opinions in areas for which they have no expertise.  For example, Naom Chomsky, the esteemed linguist, fancies himself a political affairs and history expert, so he holds forth ad nauseum about politics and foreign policy.  Truthfully, he has no more expertise in these topics than the typical above-average college-educated person.

6.  The reason an intellectual ventures beyond his or her expertise is due to perceived status.  (Again, my interpretation.)  That is, many, if not most, intellectuals think themselves cognitively superior to the masses – mainly because they have been treated as such for most of their lives.   They “get it,” while the rest of us do not.

7.  When intellectuals venture beyond their expertise, they almost always do so in an iconoclastic way.  In other words, they say the opposite of what most people believe.  (Yet again, I’m extending Sowell’s thesis based upon my own observations in the context of the Enlightened Caveman concept.)  This only makes sense because an intellectual holding forth about something everyone already believes would have little, if any chance, of getting mass attention.

8.  Mass attention, by the way, is always available to intellectuals who stray beyond their expertise to alert the masses of how wrong they are about this and that.  This is because of what Sowell calls The Intelligencia – “…individuals would include those teachers, journalists, social activists, political aides, judges’ clerks, and others who base their beliefs or actions on the ideas of intellectuals.”  The Intelligencia loves intellectuals because, by peddling their ideas, the halo of superiority of rubs off on them.  They, too, can think themselves cognitively more advanced than the average rural dolt, since they can both recognize “the truth” when they see it and they have the job of delivering that truth as far and wide as possible.  This, incidentally, stokes their status engines, which is why the distribution of nonsense is so pervasive.

9.  By being insulated from reality, intellectuals are free to see the world as they would like it to be (versus as it really is).  They, therefore, reject the constrained vision, which suggests that man is deeply flawed by nature, and that no institution or understanding is going to change that.  Instead, they prefer to see mankind as unconstrained – that is, humans are perfectible if only the broken institutions and culture surrounding them are fixed.  This unconstrained vision underlies the ideas that emerge when most intellectuals stray beyond their areas of expertise.  (Examples – capitalism is bad, poverty is responsible for crime, etc.)

10.  Sowell distinguishes between what he calls special knowledge and mundane knowledge.  Special knowledge is what intellectuals have – it is very narrow in scope, but deep and comprehensive in understanding.  Mundane knowledge, however, is very wide in scope and often is very simple.  Intellectuals naturally think of special knowledge (which they alone have) as far more important than mundane knowledge, which is distributed haphazardly among the masses.  In other words, knowing about the mating habits of the Kalahari in Africa is much more important than knowing how to frame a house.

11.  This disregard for the critical importance of mundane knowledge in the day to day affairs of most people leads intellectuals to conclude that their special knowledge (confined as it may be to a particular area of expertise) gives them the right, nay, obligation to direct the social and economic affairs of society.

12.  Intellectuals, therefore, frequently weigh in on matters for which they have very little knowledge, no stake, and no consequences for being wrong.  For example, rent control.  Intellectuals assert that rent should be affordable to poor people, so rent prices should be controlled.  However, they know nothing about the role of the price of rent in conveying the realities of real estate scarcity in a particular area.  They have no stake in the property they seek to control – that is, they lose nothing by not being able to charge enough for rent to cover the mortgage.  And there are no consequences if the objective – providing affordable rent to poor people – is not achieved.

13.  In fact, success for an intellectual pursuing a policy is the enactment of that policy, not the results of the policy.  Intellectuals do not go back to see if the policy and/or program they advocated actually led to what they wanted to happen.  And if the results of those policies turn out to be the opposite of what they asserted, they will either attack the person bringing the results as biased with an axe to grind, or they will suggest that the policy was not executed properly.  In no case will they admit that either the vision – affordable housing for all poor people – was flawed (i.e. not possible) or the means by which they chose to achieve it – rent control – was intractable.  Again, there are no consequences for being wrong when you’re an intellectual.

14.  Intellectuals, though they claim to be the purveyors of reason and intellect, rarely engage in logical, dispassionate discussions with people who disagree with their assertions.  This, in my opinion, is directly tied to their perceived status.  How dare we, the inferior masses, question them?  Instead, they resort to personal attacks as to the moral (or rather, immoral) driver behind the criticism.  If you’re against rent control, they accuse you of wanting poor people to freeze to death.  They rarely, if ever, actually discuss the pros and cons of whether rent control actually helps poor people.  (Here’s a hint – it doesn’t.)

15.  In summary, in conjunction with a willing Intelligencia, intellectuals are ruining our Republic at a breakneck pace.  No doubt, they occasionally help push us forward when the grip on the status quo has long since been unnecessary (i.e. legalizing gay marriage).  However, on the whole, the damage they do far outweighs the good.

16.  To counter this, we need only return to reliance on the principles of logic in our public discourse.  Obviously, we need intellectuals in society, but we need them to stick to what they know, and we need a society that knows when they venture too far afield.  For example, if a person offers an assertion, he or she must be willing to be met with a counter-assertion and must be willing to defend the first assertion on logical grounds, if possible.  When this does not happen – because the critic is attacked or there are no logical grounds – we must reject immediately the original assertion.  Next, we must cease conferring credibility on experts in one field when they hold forth in another for which they have no expertise at all.  And when the media is a party to this intellectual shell game, we need only change the channel or stop reading.

I think that’s a little more organized version of what I took away from Sowell’s book.  (More organized than the hour-long radio rant.)  As I said, it’s an important book, and nothing would please me more than the general recognition of the doom that is being brought upon our society by these alphabet soup children who know nothing of reality and who are clamoring to be important at any cost.

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2 Comments so far
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“Intellectuals are defined by Sowell as people who make their living off ideas.”

Doesn’t this also define you and your enlightened caveman work to a T? You have an idea, a theory about society and what would be better for the masses, and that you know better than most people, and then proceed to make money from that theory.

I’m new to your work (as of this afternoon) and have a totally open mind on it so far, neither for nor against, so I’m asking to find out if you’re postulating an “us and them” situation re intellectuals, not trying to cause contention or anything.

Comment by Patrick

Oh, if it were only true that I make my living off the Enlightened Caveman ideas. Sadly, what little I make from this is a far cry from a living.

That said, there’s nothing inherently bad about being an Intellectual as it is defined by Sowell. He just uses that definition to distinguish between people one might consider to be intellectuals – brainiacs and fans of philosophy, etc. – and the people he is talking about. From there, he draws some generalizations about them and their role in society. It is, however, very significant that their livelihood comes from putting forward ideas, and that there is never any accountability for the validity of those ideas.

In my business, I put forward ideas all the time. And when they’re bad, I pay for it. That’s pretty much the case everywhere but in academia. That’s Sowell’s big point – with no accountability, people are free to say whatever gets them the most attention and notoriety. And there’s the heart of the problem.

Glad you found my stuff. It’s a little dated, but I think everything is still relevant.

Comment by Chris Wilson




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