Shils and the intellectuals

in The calling of social thought
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This chapter traces Shils' distinctive conception of the intellectual—as indispensable to, but all too often an opponent of, social order. Shils’ aversion to intellectual disloyalty was a constant throughout his adult life, though his specifically ‘Shilsian’ take on the intellectual and his society would only cohere, in a sophisticated, original, and consistent way, in the late 1950s. The chapter reconstructs Shils encounter with the downcast intellectual, first as a precocious reader of Gustave Flaubert, Hippolyte Taine, and, above all, Georges Sorel. It was Sorel’s chiliastic politics of heroic violence which, in its purist clarity, helped disclose the transcendent moral impulse that, to varying degrees, leads intellectuals to judge their societies harshly. When, after World War II, the moral ideal seemed spent even within socialist movements, Shils observed its traces in the complaints of ex-radicals. Society’s loose consensus depends on public belief, he argued, which in turn depends on the social picture put forward by intellectuals. These ‘persons with an unusual sensitivity to the sacred’ could help support the fragile achievements of civil politics, but Shils was not optimistic.

The calling of social thought

Rediscovering the work of Edward Shils

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