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A Man of Letters, Thomas Sowell

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John McCarthy is credited with saying that "He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense." This suggests a corollary that is abundantly evident in reading the letters of Thomas Sowell.

As a trained economist, Sowell began his career dealing with the history of economic thought. A Man of Letters follows his correspondence through that five decades of that career and the life of which it is a part.

Sowell can be scathing.

You may think that you have seen Kilson at his silliest and most pompous, but I can assure you from experience that you have not.

He can be unsparing in his judgment, as he was in a critique of a student's presentation. Ultimately, however, he is doing what a good educator does: challenges the student, allowing no room for ambiguity about whether the student is in fact demonstrating proficiency in the topic at hand.

More profoundly disturbing than the lack of analytic thinking in your presentation was an apparent unawareness of any distinction between analysis and cursory conclusions. Even after analytic points were spelled out to you, your response was “but didn't I just say the same things?” No. You did not say the same thing. Many people noted that apples fell off of tress long before Newton, but they did not say “the same thing” as Newton. It is precisely the systematic development of whys and wherefores that constitutes physics—or economics.
System, structure, logic, and definition are not mere traditions, like etiquette. They are the very guts of what reasoning is all about. They are what enable you to distinguish between some words that have a good ring to the ear and an idea that makes sense. That distinction is more than formalistic. It has a been mater of life and death in such places as Jonestown and Nazi Germany, and California abounds with little groups that prey on those who cannot make such distinctions.

He can be witty. I spent a fair bit of time chuckling as I read passages. For example, after he joined the Center for Advanced Study right near Stanford University, he wrote to a friend:

The people at Stanford think that all we do is play volleyball at the Center, but I tell them it is “gruelling” work: “Nothing but profound thoughts all day long.”

Another passage I found amusing was in a letter to an old friend of Sowell's from the Wharton School in Philadelphia. The excerpt concludes:

The vigor of your disagreement with Walter [Williams], and the courtesy and friendship that went with it, were priceless (if a Chicago economist may use that word).

Thomas Sowell is a powerful thinker, whose analytic talent and determined pursuit of answers to meaningful questions has done much to help us understand the world around us—often in ways that economists were not necessarily imagined to be most helpful. He is consequently a prolific author. A Man of Letters gives us a glimpse into his thinking behind the scenes. It's an easy read, one that Sowell fans will find rewarding.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2008-09-06 04:59 PM
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