Thomas Sowell has a new book about intellectuals that looks very interesting. The National Review has a review:
Sowell writes that it “was part of a long-standing assumption among many intellectuals . . . that it is the role of third parties to bring meaning into the lives of the masses.” Many people were shocked when in early 2008 Michelle Obama proclaimed, “Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. . . . That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.” Sowell probably just shook his head in knowing disgust.
Sowell’s observation is true. In many circles, especially , I think, in sociology, anthropology and philosophy, meaning is something created and imposed on human beings by the ruling class. Meaning is understood to be something that we create, not something we discover. Because we make it, we can change it, and we can change it for the better. This is the source of the intellectual temptation to create meaning for other people. A lot of intellectuals, especially in the aforementioned fields, spend their time thinking about how people’s lives could be better spent. Intellectuals convince themselves they can create a better purpose for the lives of the masses. Devotion to the cause of social revolution, however vaguely defined, is surely more noble than devotion to an invisible God.
It is important to be conscious of intellectual vices, and it looks like Sowell’s book will aid us in this task. If we are to be persuasive, we need to constantly practice intellectual humility, to limit the scope of our understanding. In a world that believes in constant progress and limitless change, this can be difficult, but it is no less necessary.