Commentary Magazine


The Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays, by Edward Shils

Social Theorist

The Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays.
by Edward Shils.
University of Chicago Press. 481 pp. $12.50.

The great tradition of Western sociological thought has been preoccupied, not with the family, small groups, occupations, or any of the other specialties into which the current sociology curriculum may be divided, but rather with explaining the governing institutions of society, the sources of their legitimacy, and the contradictions and evolutionary processes in which they are embedded. Sociological theory, as practiced by its masters, has been political sociology (even when, as with Marx, what is “political” is derived from what is economic), so much so that it has been almost indistinguishable in focus, if not in language, from political philosophy. Graduate students may debate the fact-value distinction, or accuse one another of either dustbin empiricism or moralistic attitudinizing, but far above that debate there endures the legacy of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, thoroughly intertwined with the teachings of Hobbes, Mill, Rousseau, and Burke.

Edward Shils is one of the world’s most distinguished social theorists in the grand tradition—a bit of praise no doubt likely to set off a burst of his well-known temper. The present volume, the first in a series that will bring together his selected papers, is an important event, not only for the interest of the papers themselves, but because Shils has never published (though he has probably written) a major book, other than perhaps Toward a General Theory of Action, of which he was co-author and co-editor with Talcott Parsons. Because of his reluctance to bring forth a single systematic piece of writing, he is not as well-known to the general public as he deserves to be, or as his great influence on British and American scholars merits.

Shils, who divides his time between the University of Chicago and Cambridge University, edits Minerva (“A review of science, learning, and policy”) and has served for some time on the editorial board of Encounter. But he has no doctoral degree, rarely supervises a Ph.D. dissertation, is a member of no government commissions, and rarely appears on the pages of the more familiar literary and policy journals in this country. Nonetheless, his standing as one of the leading intellectuals of the English-speaking world is absolutely secure, and for the simplest of reasons: he has addressed himself, with immense erudition, to some of the major issues of contemporary society.

His first volume of essays is concerned with the most important of these issues: the nature of the intellectual calling, and the relationship between that calling and the coherence of society. Max Weber, whose influence on Shils was profound, described in Economy and Society the central tendency of modern societies as the growing rationalization of corporate and public life, the emergence of bureaucratic centers of power, and the stratification of society along lines of class (i.e., the distribution of income), status (the distribution of honor), and party (the distribution of political power). This rationalization and these principles of stratification were influenced by objective conditions, but (in disagreement with Marx) did not derive exclusively from them: what people believe, and especially what they believe to be the legitimate basis of authority, is crucial in understanding the development of their political, and even their economic, institutions.

Weber himself never gave a systematic account of the sources of those beliefs, other than to stress the importance of their religious and ceremonial foundations, as suggested by the title of his best-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. But even as Weber wrote, the religious tradition of Western society had begun to fade and secularism was making relentless advances. In his analysis of bureaucratic organization he thought that political authority could derive from the mere fact that officials held offices made legitimate by the “legal-rational” rules defining the powers and limits of the organization.

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For Shils, it is to a great extent the modern intellectuals who both shape (in the long run) the bases of political authority and who by their fitful participation in governmental institutions create new forms of authority—that of “expertise” as opposed to mere office. Intellectuals have thus exerted two partially inconsistent forces in both modern and backward societies: that of redefining the nature of the sacred and of operating, on the basis of professional (and thus allegedly arcane) knowledge, the institutions of a complex technological society.

Shils did not come to these concerns by reflecting on theoretical matters but by observing what was happening about him. In the 1920′s and 1930′s, he asked the question that since has governed all his writings on intellectuals: “Why did the writers, historians, philosophers, and other intellectuals . . . feel such revulsion for their own societies, for the institutions through which they were ruled and the persons who ruled them?” He observed this revulsion in the destructive tactics of the anti-Weimar German intellectuals, in the captious dishonesty of those men and women of letters who mortgaged their minds to the Communist party in the 1930′s, in the brittle snobbery of many of the postwar critics of “mass culture,” and in the shrill utopianism of some of the colonial intellectuals who seemed to want only one thing more than national independence, and that was the failure of national independence.

At the same time, Shils was witness to (and participant in) what he later called the “civil politics” of intellectuals (as opposed to their “ideological politics”), notably in the formation of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and in other efforts to bring under reasonable control some of the consequences of the new technology. Out of his own wartime service came his classic article with Morris Janowitz (not reprinted in this volume but I hope in a later one) on cohesion and disintegration in the Wehrmacht during World War II.

The power and richness of Shils’s study of intellectuals arises not out of any grand theory he proposes but in the care with which the intellectual tradition is placed in a long historical perspective and viewed across many cultural boundaries, as well as in the ambivalence of the author’s judgments. Intellectuals are indispensable to any society, and the more complex the latter the more important the former. But they are also enemies of any society, and especially of one in which a large fraction of the population consumes intellectual products. Nowhere is this contradiction more apparent than in the fact, recently noted by Seymour Martin Lipset, that the most productive intellectuals and those who have most frequently given their services to the regime are those most critical of the regime and most likely (especially when speaking outside their own intellectual specialties) to denounce and deride it.

Shils fears the demagogue. His most influential work, The Torment of Secrecy, was a lucid but anguished explanation of and protest against the populism of Joseph McCarthy. The Wisconsin demagogue exploited the latent fear of secrecy, the dislike of politicians, and the hostility to law that from time to time erupt to challenge legitimate authority, especially that form of authority based on democratic procedures. (Kings and autocrats may be assassinated but they are rarely ridiculed; the electors of the people, by contrast, are frequently ridiculed and sometimes murdered.) Legitimate authority in contemporary society depends, in ways Weber did not foresee, on incessant flattery of the citizens and self-abnegation by the officeholder. It is taken to be a mark of sincerity to despise the authority one wields and to denounce the regime one serves. What a reprehensible Senator began is now the stock-in-trade of those intellectuals who he once thought were his enemies.

The tension in the intellectual role arises, Shils argues, from the difficulty of reconciling the sacred and the civil. Intellectuals are the inheritors of a religious tradition having priestly, theological, and chiliastic components, which has been converted into a secular tradition having technical, philosophical, and revolutionary elements. All that has been lost in the transformation is the capacity for coherent belief. From time to time a great purpose—such as winning the war against Hitler—unites intellectuals and integrates them into society as a whole, but no such purpose has existed for over twenty-five years, and thus an entire generation of intellectuals has arisen who have felt free to compare the imperfections of society unfavorably with various conceptions of the ideal state while at the same time struggling to win place and power in the regime they despise.

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What Shils explains on sociological and historical grounds Leo Strauss, his former colleague at Chicago, would explain on philosophical ones. The intellectual can neither manage his own conflicts nor enter into a proper relationship with the regime because he has lost, or wrongly denied, the capacity for philosophical thought. Intellectuals are not simply alienated from the regime, they are alienated from the possibility of moral reason. They have become positivists, which is to say moral relativists, and thus they must choose either between serving the technocracy with little regard for the ends it seeks or serving themselves by concocting ideologies, theories, and slogans whose first premises are rarely stated seriously because the intellectual does not believe that anything serious can be said about first principles. Their formulations are defective, not because they are chiliastic or unrealistic, but because they are arbitrary and without foundation.

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Shils does not address these issues, but of course he is aware of them. Though he writes of intellectuals, whose natural discourse one would suppose is that of philosophy, he describes them as if their proper realm were that of prudence. He objects to ideological politics because of its obsessive concern for totality, animosity, and separatism, and its impractical and self-destructive tendencies. But he does not object—or does not write as if he objected—to any particular ideology because it is wrong. In opposition to ideological politics he describes “civil politics,” by which he does not mean politics carried on with good manners, but politics as carried on by prudent men willing to accept responsibility for the consequences of their own actions, men who are aware of the difficulty of reconciling moral imperatives:

Civil politics requires an understanding of the complexity of virtue, that no virtue stands alone, that every virtuous act costs something in terms of other virtuous acts, that virtues are intertwined with evils, and that no theoretical system of a hierarchy of virtues is ever realizable in practice.

Some might rejoin, perhaps Professor Strauss among them, that the problem with intellectuals is not their tendency to impose “a theoretical system of a hierarchy of virtues” but the fact that they have no such hierarchy, and indeed have no virtues to profess but only sentiments to express. Surely a country that has watched some of its most prominent (it is hard to say “best”) minds switch abruptly from Marxism to anti-Communism, from isolationism to internationalism and back to isolationism, from despising the masses to romanticizing them, from espousing equality of opportunity to preferring equality of condition, would be hard-pressed to state exactly what consistent theoretical scheme underlies the apparent confusion. To say that what has been at work here is the excessive operation of abstract principle may be to mistake style for substance.

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The intellectual may be especially mischievous today, not because he is unable to decide whether to dream or to scheme, but because there is no religious or philosophical tradition (except the tradition of skepticism moderated by benevolence) of which he feels a party. Since he relates to society chiefly through the nexus of complex ideas (rather than, as with most people, through the nexus of either simple ideas or personal benefits), the absence of ideas of (to him) compelling truth destroys or makes episodic that relationship. When Thomas Jefferson wrote (and believed!) that there were “self-evident” truths having to do with men being “endowed by their Creator” with “unalienable rights,” no one thought it necessary to complain of the practice of “ideological politics.” Indeed, it is possible to argue that it was precisely during a period when there existed widely-accepted moral beliefs about the legitimacy of the regime and of the rights and duties of men in it that ideological politics, though not intemperate politics, was absent.

Shils might agree. We all might agree, for there is a general tendency among men not blinded by rage or dazzled by Utopias to adopt a Burkean stance: to defend certain principles, but to agree that principles alone cannot determine politics, and to resist the effort to state or apply those principles as if they could. The position of Burke is a comfortable one—not because it provides a convenient defense against change (Burke scarcely opposed that, even when it involved a colonial revolt), but because it leads one to base political arguments on temperament, experience, and history rather than on philosophical analysis. For most of us, that is all anyone has a right to expect, and most of the time that is all that is necessary. But on occasion, it becomes important to take issue with the substance, rather than the form, of intellectual conduct, to evaluate the institutional influence and not merely the social role of intellectuals, and to decide whether the less attractive features of intellectual involvement in politics are the result of such persons having too many ideas, too few ideas, or wrong ideas.

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About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.




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