Arnold Kling  

A Hazy Question

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Stephen Dubner looks at a reader's question of who is the greatest modern thinker.


I love this question. It first requires you to define what a “thinker” is, and also raises the question of what incentives exist in the modern world to be a thinker. Also, is someone a great thinker if they’re never able to communicate their thoughts to a broad audience?

On a related note: The Times recently ran a piece about a rise in college philosophy majors; interestingly, the Wall Street Journal published a piece shortly thereafter (sorry, can’t find a link, but here’s a reprint of the pertinent info) ranking the first-year salaries for 16 selected college majors: engineers were first (at $48,707) and philosophers were dead last (at $28,234).

And I said I'd invest in philosophy majors! (But I still think they have the best option value, and that a few of them will be very rich in a decade or two)

The question of the greatest modern thinker is hazy in several ways. What is a great thinker? What is modern (can I nominate John Locke)? Do your ideas have to be highly original? Highly influential? Both?

Tyler Cowen suggests Tim Berners-Lee or Marc Andreesen. By implication, he is saying that, in C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" terms, the greatest thinker is no longer a humanist but a scientist.

If we go with the Internet or the Web as the greatest achievement of modern thought, then I think we have to give some credit to its governance structure, which I associate with Vinton Cerf. The governance structure is designed to minimize central authority and permanent government. The Internet protocols are put together by IETFs (internet engineering task forces) that assemble to solve problems and disband when the problems are solved. I fell in love with that concept the first time I saw Cerf explain it in 1993. You could say that right then and there I resolved to secede from the physical world and join the virtual one.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Ryan writes:

If we're willing to go back a few decades in history I would like to nominate Ludwig von Mises. I recently began reading several of his books and it's remarkable how pertinent many of his insights are to the arguments that are occuring today--think: "green" environmentalism, many of Mises' arguments against the varying -isms of his time could be used to combat the "green" enviros. Also, I think his theory of intervention has been more or less neglected compared to some of the other economic contributions of top past theorists (Ricardo, Smith, etc). As a young graduate it continually surprises me how much reverence there is for Hayek on the net, while Mises is only mentioned at Lew Rockwell and the Mises.org people's site, especially when much of what Hayek wrote was predated, though in a less detailed form, by von Mises.

Dr. Kling, what do you and Dr. Caplan think about von Mises? Do you think his works are outdated? I ask because I wonder if other economists think of Mises like apparently some other professors at Chicago think of Milton Friedman.

Ryan writes:

http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2008/06/87-of-faculty-at-elite-colleges-are.html

That's the link to what I was alluding to with Milton Friedman. Sorry I couldn't figure out how to link it in the previous comment.

Dr. T writes:
And I said I'd invest in philosophy majors!
I cannot understand why. Perhaps you are thinking about brilliant philosophy majors at the top schools of philosophy. Even those graduates will do poorly (with very rare exceptions) in the job market. When you consider average philosophy majors at average universities, their employment prospects are bleak. English majors can at least edit books. What will Joe or Jane Average philosophy major do? Who cares if they can discuss Locke, Kant, or Hegel? I suppose they could become (shudder!) professional ethicists. But, thankfully, demand is low. (We have bioethicists in academic medicine who consult for institutional review boards regarding medical research trials. They typically are pontificating wafflers who cannot seem to say yes or no to a proposal.)

I'd like to nominate Frederick Turner, poet and philosopher. There is no thinker I have ever met, seen, or heard who comes even close to Turner.

Travis writes:

I would suggest Stephen Hawking.

Snark writes:

A totally subjective question and one that would rest on our preference for the best and brightest in virtually every field of endeavor: science, politics, religion, entertainment, [pause for effect] …and I suppose economics, for crying out loud! Our choice for the greatest thinker might also be influenced by the circumstances in which we live.

Right now it’s 100 degrees outside, so I’d like to cast my vote for Willis Haviland Carrier.

TED writes:

Milton Friedman. CHI TOWN!!! (chi-school?)

Sciencebzzt writes:

Tyler may be right to focus on the tech geniuses, although I honestly don't know enough about it to make that assumption.

I'd love to say David Friedman, but only because of The Machinery of Freedom;

Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett are up there.

But David Pearce, of hedweb.com fame; thats my pick.

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