Distilling Famous Thinkers
By Arnold Kling
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.