Arnold Kling  

Distilling Famous Thinkers

PRINT
The Source of my Anti-Monetari... Double-Digit Inflation Bet Wit...

Dan Klein has thoughts on studying the great minds of the past. This bears on the issue of whether or not one can or should distill Hayek (or any other famous thinker) to five blog posts, as Bryan blithely suggested.

Should we approach famous thinkers by digesting distilled versions, or should we study them in the original? Many great thinkers had some terrible ideas. Isaac Newton supposedly was fond of alchemy. Karl Marx had some bad ideas, although even many non-Marxists credit him with great insights. Apropos our discussion of Hayek, certainly some of his ideas are clunkers. Reading great thinkers in the original forces one to confront their bad ideas.

What about "clarity" as a criterion? We admire clarity, but there are many prominent thinkers who notoriously lacked clarity. Marx and Keynes come to mind. Their lack of clarity is evidenced by the intense disagreements that persist over what these scholars really meant. Distilled versions of ideas often have much greater clarity than the original versions.

I have pointed out in the past that many great thinkers have their influence via folk beliefs. Folk beliefs are excessively distilled, to the point where they may even pervert the original ideas. Again, Marx and Keynes come to mind. Folk Marxism consists of seeing the world in terms of oppressors and oppressed. Would Marx himself have been willing to put race or gender discrimination into the same category as capitalist exploitation of labor, or would he have rejected folk Marxism?

I am a big fan of the distillation of the ideas of great thinkers. I think that distilling ideas is a useful and important skill. I think that much of what I do consists of attempts to contribute to the distillation process. Often, in the case of Hayek for instance, I see myself as distilling the ideas of others who are already working from distilled Hayekian thoughts. I think that the distillation process produces more insights than any individual great mind provides. To the extent that Bryan is arguing that people should read distilled Hayek while Dan is arguing for reading Hayek in the original, then I tend to side with Bryan. Where I disagree is over the number of blog posts it takes to distill Hayek. I think it takes more than five.

One useful distiller of Hayek is Bruce Caldwell, who has a self-recommending entry in the Cato Unbound series.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (9 to date)
pj writes:

Why was alchemy a terrible idea? It was only chemistry without a sound theory. Chemistry would not have been developed unless alchemy had come before.

In the same way, social science today lacks a sound theoretical basis. Economics and sociology are the alchemies of today; not quite scientific, but essential precursors to the sound social science of the future.

fundamentalist writes:

Caldwell: "One way is to agree with Sandefur that Hayek was on these matters simply hopelessly muddled. Another is to try to make sense of what he was saying, and for that, we need recourse to history."

Caldwell's advice is good for reading any great mind of the past. Simple people are quick to see something they don't understand and instead of admitting they can't grasp it claim the writer is just muddled and contradicts himself. When reading a thinker as great as Hayek, it behooves the humble reader to assume that he doesn't understand instead of assuming that Hayek doesn't understand. I find that most of the criticisms of Hayek that I read show an enormous lazy streak on the part of the critiquer. He usely hasn't bothered to read enough of Hayek, or consider the historical context in which Hayek wrote to understand what Hayek meant.

jsalvatier writes:

I am baffled by people who strongly suggest reading the writings of someone who came up with good ideas. Surely it is unlikely that the person who came up with the idea is also the person who can explain it most clearly, especially after many years have passed. Any idea worth its salt will be refined over time.

I suspect these suggestions are more about raising the status of the suggestor than about the idea, but I am not sure how. I think Robin Hanson would say something like "Reading original works is not about understanding ideas".

Chris writes:

Kling - "I think that the distillation process produces more insights than any individual great mind provides."

A very Hayekian notion in itself...

On another note, each new Arnold blog post seems to gravitate further and further away from standard Macro BS (explicitly starting with the Macro Lecture Series), and at the same time finding an appreciate for seemingly disparate theories. It's nice that he is well versed in the usage of Macro tools, but the more we distance ourselves from them in many ways (or accept their limitations), the better.

Ludwig van den Hauwe writes:

Hayek a bad writer? I donĀ“t get it. He is a very meticulous writer. Surely his style is of a different age. I for sure will go on reading him in the original.

DanT writes:

Should we approach famous thinkers by digesting distilled versions, or should we study them in the original?

In the US, St. John's College has a bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts based upon reading selections from original versions of famous thinkers, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._John%27s_College_(United_States) .

If the influence of the thoughts springs from the words as writen, it is usually an indication of being a good read in the original version. Not all famous thinkers are good writers; some strongly benefit from distillation. Good editors are typically under-rated, but can help greatly.

CJ Smith writes:

There are merits and demerits to both approaches.

Distillation can reduce unclear or apparently irrelevant material. In some cases, it can clarify and simplify ideas that were originally overly expounded upon, rendering them easier to comprehend.

Conversely, distillation creates a number of issues. Distillation requires a subjective determination by the editor of what is important (to be included) versus what is extraneous (to be omitted). This may lead to oversimplification and a false sense of completeness. Example: Einstein's final Theory of Relativity was both an original work and a survey, reconciliation and distillation of various issues raised in applied and theoretical physics and mathmatics. The final product appears simple, elegant and complete; the work that led up to E=Mc^2 is actually significantly more enlightening, extremely dense mathematically, and poses a multitude of special case scenarios not encompassed by the final versus. The same can be said of other disciplines - introductory economics courses come readily to mind; this has been demonstrated by some of your blogs on your books. When reviewers and commentators distilled and highlighted matters from your books, your blog comments tended to respond in one of two fashions - in some cases, by showing that the comment failed to consider other arguments or language apparently not addressed by the commentator's distillation; in other cases by noting that the commentator was misconstruing, misinterpreting, or overemphasizing a portion of your original work. Both are perfectly valid responses, and indicate the problem with distillations.

In a best case scenario, I would use distillations as primary source, for the purposes of clarity and brevity, and then encourage or require consideration of the original to "flesh out" understanding of the author's original intent.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

There is the problem that running one thinker's ideas through the mental processes of another person (with variances in relative intellect) changes the "shape, size, flavor, nuance and impact" of the original idea.

The process is not always one of simple "distillation," as in exegisis where only the "excesses" are boiled off. The results are usually quite different.

Tracy W writes:

In the same way, social science today lacks a sound theoretical basis.

What would a sound theoretical basis look like?
For me, I thought that the essential switch to put economics on a sound footing was starting to think about marginal utility. Once everyone was doing that, microeconomics was off and roaring. Macroeconomics hasn't solved the aggregation problem so I agree with you about it lacking a sound theoretical basis. Of course, sound theoretical basis is not the same as right, for example part of the history of chemistry is the development of different understandings of what an atom actually is.

I am baffled by people who strongly suggest reading the writings of someone who came up with good ideas. Surely it is unlikely that the person who came up with the idea is also the person who can explain it most clearly, especially after many years have passed.

But in order to become famous as the person who came up with good ideas you basically have to be a good communicator, don't you? Or have a good communicator nearby willing to produce your ideas (eg Engel for Marx, though we will not comment on the quality of Marx's ideas)? After all, if you come up with a great idea but can't sell it properly people are not going to recognise it as a great idea. Perhaps the exception to this rule is Mendel, whose work was rediscovered.

More generally, this is an argument for starting off by reading a refined treatment, if you can find one, and then reading the original.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top