Distilling famous thinkers

Following up on a discussion, Arnold Kling asks:

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

I'm for distilling, for reasons Arnold offers, but I'm also for reading the originals.  Here are a few reasons why, drawn from a number of longer sources I have read and digested:

1. Secondary sources are unreliable and they do not capture or understand many of the original insights.  To remove it from the distant past, what I get from John Rawls or Robert Nozick is quite distinct from what I get from their distillers.

2. Truly great thinkers require numerous distillers.  Can you read just one book on Keynes?  No.  So you have to read a few.  Shouldn't one of these then be Keynes himself?  Yes.

3. The errors of top thinkers are often more interesting and instructive than their successes.  Distillers have a hard time capturing these errors and their fruitfulness.

4. We often read great thinkers not to learn what they understood but also to set our minds racing and to find interesting new questions.  Great thinkers are usually better at supplying this service than are their distillers.

5. Sometimes the value is in having read common sources and benefiting from the commonality per se.  Great thinkers are usually more focal than any of their distillers and thus reading them is a good input for discussions with others.

6. Original sources often help you challenge or reexamine your world view or intellectual ethos.  Distillers very often pander to that world view, while pretending to challenge you.

7. Consider a simple comparison.  You can read either Adam Smith's two major books or any ten or even twenty books on him, toss in articles if you wish.  It's a no-brainer which you should choose.

8. The best distillers often are original sources in their own right (and in part unreliable expositors), such as in Charles Taylor's excellent book on Hegel.

9. Distillation works best in very exact sciences, such as physics and mathematics.  If you rely on distillation for an inexact science, you will do best at capturing its exact parts.  You will be left with a systematic bias, and knowledge gap, regarding its inexact parts.

I could say more, but I fear this post is already too long.


10. We have an unfortunate tendency to read things that, on balance, reinforce our biases. If I choose to read Keynes because I believe that his ideas would support my present plans for fiscal stimulus, I will probably go with a series of Paul Krugman blog posts, even though we all know they will reinforce my prior bias.

To balance this:

A. We may put original works in the wrong historic context without guidance. For instance, we may have a notion about the acceptable range of opinions about slavery in the early United States which is in fact incorrect, and proceed to read Jefferson or Adams in that incorrect light, after which we see the author as a monster for owning slaves or a lonely visionary for opposing slavery. Distilling should prevent that caricaturing of the contemporary culture if we insist on the distiller's providing the context that went without saying for the original author.

Absolutely I agree with Tyler. Reading "distillers" is okay if you have some experience with the original. If you have this experience you can "test" the distllers' accuracy on those aspects with which you have first-hand experience. Then you can very imperfectly infer what the distiller is up to.

"Distillation works best in very exact sciences, such as physics and mathematics." Up to a point. I've had to read some James Clerk Maxwell in the original, and found it hard work. (Has physics writing gone through a golden age somewhere between JCM and now?) So distillations can be useful, for the bits they choose to distill. But I did find that there are bits they omit; since the distiller has had to guess which bits will prove relevant to his readers, the reader had better assume that the bits omitted might include bits important to him. The very best distillations I've used have reviewed a writer's views and their changes over time - reading just one or two originals is unlikely to bring you that.

I'll second this point: "3. The errors of top thinkers are often more interesting and instructive than their successes. Distillers have a hard time capturing these errors and their fruitfulness."

Once I actually read the Wealth of Nations and Capital, I encountered the ways in which each author was right about some things and wrong about others. Those nuances are not captured in the simplistic "Smith good, Marx bad" distillation of popular culture (ok, maybe Smith isn't part of "popular culture").

For example, I was shocked when I read Smith termed a host of professions (including teachers) as "unproductive labor." I was also surprised by how much Marx agreed with Smith. In fact, it wasn't until I found logical fallacies in Marx that I discovered that Smith made those same fallacies! Of course, those things don't make it into the "distillations" because they're not politically correct to talk about (Can you imagine anyone trying to sell a book today in the US writing about places where Marx was right?).

In short, reading the original gets you a more complete picture than distillers do, who often weed out the less politically correct aspects about the thinkers' ideas. See Isaac Newton for a perfect example: he claimed to have predicted the apocalypse by deciphering secret mathematical codes hidden in the Bible, but how often do you hear about that?

Sorry, I partly disagree.

What Adam Smith "really" said is immeasurably less important than how he is being interpreted and applied in our actual current world.

This is the argument that Lenin and Stalin got Marx all wrong. So what? "Marxism" as interpreted and applied was what needed to be understood, refuted and fought in the real world.

What was more significant:The "General Theory" or the Hicks-Hansen-Samuelson interpretation? I personally believe Samuelson got Keynes totally wrong, but I also know that it does not matter a whit that Samuelson was wrong.

I don't have unlimited time; therefore I have to choose between, say, Dickens vs Kant vs Xenophon vs Joyce. Should I not get a quick overview of each before deciding where to invest my time?
Further, a good distiller will mention other works which will spark your interest but who you might not otherwise have heard of.

Reading Adam Smith, or David Ricardo, or Karl Marx, or Alfred Marshall, or Leon Walras (and does anyone realize how long it took for Walras' work to be translated into English), or Maynard Keynes, or Milton Friedman, or paul Samuelson, or...is not about "receiving the word" from some master. It's about seeing a mind at work, grappling with problems that still live in the world. By seeing how a great thinker went about it, we can get an idea, not necessarily about the "correct" andswer, but about how to think.

Re: Maxwell
No, math syntax has improved.
Maxwell is so hard to get through because he didn't have the vector calc tools and language that has been invented since then.

A somewhat related question is: should we focus on the main works of the famous thinkers or also try derivative/other works? For example, most know of Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia, but few would dare voyage into Invariances. Although not as direct an issue, you can learn a lot about the author's background, premises, and style, all of which may inform interpretation of the famous work.

this issue is one of the points of contrast between soc and econ. in sociology we read original work nearly to the exclusion of secondary materials. (soc grad programs and good soc undergrad programs only use textbooks for statistics and methods). so soc theory courses have the personality-centric division of "classical and contemporary" rather than a mechanism-centric division like the econ idea "micro and macro." this is despite the fact that if you get them drunk most sociologists will admit that we only still read marx or durkheim out of habit and nobody really cares what they wrote. (however you can still make a strong case for weber).
i wrote a satire of the contrast a couple years ago

I LOVE THIS HOMEPAGE!! Keep up the great work!!!

Common Cents

ps. Link Exchange??

I don't think non-experts benefit that much from reading Darwin's "Origin of Species," and they certainly wouldn't get much out of Newton's "Principia." It's not that Darwin is a bad writer, but that he had to deal with so many side issues Using such amateurish, almost Wodehousian documentation ("Gussie Fink-Nottle, a noted newt-fancier of remote Lincolnshire, kindly wrote to inform me that the male spotted newt ...") that it's a tough slog for anybody just trying to understand the Theory of Natural Selection.

In contrast, in the softer fields, much of the acclaim for a thinker comes not from him being right (many are wrong), but from him being obviously brilliant. To just learn "I think, therefore I am," for example, doesn't do justice to why the French love Descartes. Unfortunately, to really appreciate these guys, you'd need to typically read them in their original languages.

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.

The assumption that one will be able to understand all the details left out of the "distilled" work is unlikely to be true much of the time. One may actually come away with a distorted or inaccurate view of a thinker or intellectual. I think this is true especially for non-specialists - as someone already mentioned, who has the time to deal with all the material needed to properly contextualize a given issue, debate, etc.

Those who are adamant about reading the primary sources are most likely engaging in Hansonian signaling of their intellectual abilities, i.e. I am smart enough that I MUST read the original. But how to tell a meaningful signal from a distorted one?

Why do people keep calling Physics an "exact science"? I really don't understand.

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".

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