Can we judge thinkers by their followers?

Having written recently on what is valid in Karl Marx, I am reminded of an ongoing debate I have with my colleague Bryan Caplan. I like to tell Bryan, only half in jest, that thinkers are responsible for the quality of their followers. Surely if a thinker is bright and rich and multi-faceted, that thinker would attract followers of a similar quality. And a rotten thinker ought not to attract many students of a higher quality. This test is not failproof but it is one way of approaching the question of intellectual quality.

On the negative side, Marx attracted Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky. I’ll go out on a limb and claim that Gramsci, Lukacs, Althusser, and Luxembourg are all vastly overrated, even by many non-Marxists. Who then would I cite as illustrating Marx’s positive intellectual heritage? Here are a few options:

1. Walter Benjamin. His work on mechanical reproduction and aura continues to shape debates over contemporary culture. Plus you can mine his notebooks for incisive nuggets of insight; some of them are no more than a sentence.

2. Michel Foucault. Yes the specialists have poked holes in the histories. And his mechanisms are often murky and insufficiently grounded in methodological individualism. Still his accounts of the dark side of the Enlightenment — as found in prisons and hospitals – remain justly influential. And The Order of Things is an interesting albeit flawed look at the comovement of ideas in many disciplines in early modern times. By the way, he developed a strong interest in Mises and Hayek in the latter years of his life.

3. Juergen Habermas. I find much of his work unreadable; he is the strongest argument extant for the use of mathematical economics (why doesn’t he write down a simple model?). Still the early work on the growth of the public sphere in the eighteenth century is impressive. As a work of intellectual history, it offers enviable clarity, range and depth.

4. Ferdinand Braudel. OK, he didn’t have to be a Marxist to write those wonderful books on the Mediterranean and the rise of modern Europe. Still, the emphases on material forces and the long sweep of history are derived unmistakeably from Marx’s writings.

The summary picture is exactly what you would expect. On the whole Marx had a seriously pernicious influence on both the humanities and social sciences. Still, he inspired some significant thinkers and generated important nuggets of insight.

OK, now here is a challenge for real men. Can you tell me, standing on one foot, what exactly is both important and valid in the writings of Martin Heidegger? I’ll assume I can use your name unless you tell me otherwise; a blogged answer is best of all.


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