Why Read Old Thinkers?

Arnold Kling:

Should we approach famous thinkers by digesting distilled versions, or should we study them in the original? … Many great thinkers had some terrible ideas … Many … notoriously lacked clarity. … Much of what I do consists of attempts to contribute to the distillation process.

Tyler Cowen takes both sides, as usual:

I’m for distilling, for reasons Arnold offers, but I’m also for reading the originals. …  Secondary sources … do not capture or understand many of the original insights. … The errors of top thinkers are often more interesting … [They] set our minds racing and … [offer] interesting new questions. … Sometimes the value is in having read common sources … [They help] challenge or reexamine your world view or intellectual ethos. … If you rely on distillation for an inexact science, you will do best at capturing its exact parts.

Honestly, the main reason most people read famous thinkers is to raise their status via affiliation, and to prepare to signal how knowledgeable they are.  And yes reading old thinkers can, like travel, help you explore alien cultures.  But what if you actually wanted to learn about the subjects on which famous old people wrote?

It seems to me that if a famous old thinker were actually the best person to read today on some subject, then humanity just couldn’t be accumulating much insight on that topic.  Either progress there is extremely difficult, or humanity can’t or won’t retain new insights there.  And this famous thinker probably didn’t originate his insights; he or she was likely just the best presenter of much older insights.

Cynicism often seems this way to me.  Finding deep insight in 350 year old sayings by de La Rochefoucauld discourages me, as it suggests either that I will not be able to make much progress on those topics, or that too few will listen for progress to result.  Am I just relearning what hundreds have already relearned century after century, but  were just not able to pass on?

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  • bcg

    De La Rochefoucauld’s sayings are 350 years old and well-known; isn’t that sufficiently “passed on”? If you mean, “Why are people still dishonest with each other and themselves,” I would interpret that to mean dishonesty is a bit of reverse “King’s clothes” – we all say how much we hate it. Isn’t the failure of any significant population to progress past that point evidence that our own goals for integrity are themselves at best duplicitous status-grabs and at worst injurious?

  • Rob

    “Though we have progressed in some domains . . . it is not obvious to me that we are better psychologists and social scientists than humans were in centuries past. Indeed it is obvious to me that we are not. Nor are we better educators and scholars. And with no irony I can attest to my belief that when it comes to understanding human motivation — no less than to understanding justice and what it means to get even — we are not as smart now as we were when people worried more about their honor than about their pleasure.” — William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye

  • Pietro Poggi-Corradini

    One could read old texts with new eyes and come away with insights that were not intended by the original author. In fact most of the original signaling might be lost to us, so reading old texts is “safer” than reading new ones, in the sense that one is less likely to succumb to the forceful cultural signals that emanate from the text.

  • http://lesswrong.com/lw/1d1/the_value_of_nature_and_old_books/

    Plus, a nice C.S. Lewis quote from the comments:

    “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.

    None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

    • nazgulnarsil

      what a terrible example. thinking that Hitler and FDR are opposites takes willful ignorance.

      • g

        1. They probably looked more opposite in 1944 when this was written.

        2. Lewis’s point is, in fact, that they aren’t really opposites; that they have a lot in common. (More specifically, a lot of things that will later seem bizarre; so, a fortiori, a lot.)

  • I see reading old philosophers becoming less and less relevant as we start doing more and more actual experiments on the topics philosophers philosophized about. For example, hard empiricist epistemology has being just demolished by work in psychology, so why bother to read An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

    • mitchell porter

      “hard empiricist epistemology has being just demolished by work in psychology”

      What are you referring to?

    • yeahno


      Philosophers read Hume because when you formally break down his arguments they are incredibly tight (the same with Descartes, barring the Cartesian circle). The point of this, at least in the analytic tradition, is to train budding philosophers in argumentation analysis and formal logic. Also known as ‘critical thinking’ by everyone else that seems to discard philosophy as the source of this thought.

      What you, and the other annoying (not you) anti-philosophy commentators from the Sailer-sphere, are arguing is that philosophy should be discounted because of the truth of philosophical premises. For the majority of analytic philosophers, they aren’t so much concerned with truth, as they are with logical validity. And you won’t find better examples of validity, and invalid arguments, than within philosophy.

      It’s pretty simple really: train someone to go head-to-head with better arguers, and you get better critical thinkers (another view of this is also true, I had a professor of logic suggest we read up on conspiracy theory and pseudoscientific cranks, as they have good examples of poor argumentation).

      • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is by Locke.

  • mitchell porter

    Robin asks: “Am I just relearning what hundreds have already relearned century after century, but were just not able to pass on?”

    Someone said: “The words of the wise are whispers – to one another and no-one else! They flutter from one sagely heart to another, century to century, as if in joyous ignorance of the clamouring chatter of the masses.”

  • Thanatos Savehn

    When considering the causes of peptic ulcer disease it sure helped to look back at old research even though it employed comparatively primitive techniques and generated hypotheses in sharp contrast with the prevailing dogma.

    Similarly, plenty of clever people seeking nothing more than understanding return to Aristotle’s debate with Zeno for insights into the question of whether the universe is in all respects particularized, whether an actual infinite can exist and whether the calculus describes reality or is just the best model so far.

    Old thinkers, free of the axioms that constrain our thinking, challenge us without threatening us.

    • Great point Thanatos.

      Old thinkers may be less helpful in areas like quantitative analysis, but can be helpful in thought on human aspirations and microsocial qualitative observations. And they may be ahead of us on analysis of topics that have become particularly repugnant in recent times.

  • michael vassar

    For what it’s worth, I agree with 37 of 39 listed De La Rochefocauld sayings, disagreeing with only these two.
    “The defects and faults in the mind are like wounds in the body. After all imaginable care has been taken to heal them up, still there will be a scar left behind.” “We should often be ashamed of our finest actions if the world understood our motives.” Regarding the second, if people *really* understood anything they would respond to it with serene bemusement and aesthetic pleasure at the inevitable. For the first, it seems to me that people have been known to overcompensate for either sort of defect.
    “Few things are impracticable in themselves; and it is for want of application, rather than of means, that men fail to succeed.”
    seems to me to be the opposite of cynical.

  • What if one were to distinguish between “thinkers” (I repeat this useless word merely to tie my contribution into this discussion) who wrote about how we know, as opposed to what we know.
    That new knowledge replaces old knowledge is a fact and gives the latter the status of nice to know at the most (except for historians, of course).
    Personally I have learned more about the human mind by reading the small fragments of source texts of the pre-socratic philosophers than from the other 3,000+ books in my library altogether.
    Shouldn’t fundamental texts be obligatory reading in every school? We can only grow by thinking, and we think a lot better when we know what, why and how we think, c.q. build world views.
    And BTW, this is entirely different from the cash & carry attitude towards old texts which consists of ripping quotes from their context and using them from one’s own purposes.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    Finding deep insight in 350 year old sayings by de La Rochefoucauld discourages me, as it suggests either that I will not be able to make much progress on those topics, or that too few will listen for progress to result.

    Reading the classics is a helpful preventive against thinking that progress is easier than it really is. This can indeed be discouraging.

    But there is an upside. If something new still seems like real progress, your familiarity with history makes your perception of progress more reliable, and this can be encouraging.

  • Constant

    Both very recent and very old books are available in an electronic format. The is a wide gap in between, almost as wide as copyright is long. This influences my reading choices.

  • Millian

    “the main reason most people read famous thinkers is to raise their status via affiliation” – source:

    or is it a strong assumption stated as fact?

  • Bill

    Reading old writers might become more interesting as google copies and publishes old books and puts them in a database.

    You might be able to construct timelines of words, ideas, events, newspapers, other media and read that at the same time to understand the context of an author.

    You could also track the dissemination of an idea, or word, or philosphy by tracking their occurance in other media.

    If you look at old works just from today’s perspective and what you know only about today–you get one picture.

    Now, imagine you are reading in the context of the times.

  • Curt Adams

    I think “distillations” of thinkers are generally a poor choice because of the possibility – likelihood, really – of serious distortions. For the most part, I don’t find reading old thinkers is useful for learning about the world, except that it’s useful for learning about the progress of knowledge, and it’s useful for understanding history, which is influenced by the ideas available at the time.

  • Peter Twieg

    I remember several years ago making a similar argument for why I didn’t feel it necessary to read classic philosophical texts in order to understand major philosophical arguments; naturally, the philosophers to whom I made this argument and who had read these texts (sometimes in their original languages) were aghast at my anti-intellectual notion of their being an opportunity cost of learning that might make it more efficient to read a good summary of Hegel (if such a thing can be said to exist) rather than actually reading Hegel. One regularity which you see when it’s considered important to read old thinkers is that the arguments aren’t really made over the issues that the old thinkers addressed, but they’re made over what the old thinkers really thought about a given issue. You don’t make arguments about platonic forms in general, you make arguments about Plato’s narrative on Platonic forms. Of course, the problem is that you’re then not engaging in philosophy, but in hermeneutics.

    Insisting that people also read old thinkers is largely a not-so-transparent way to raise the “entry costs”, so to speak, of having a voice in any argument which they touch on. It’s generally very easy for an expert on any subject to blunt a non-expert in an argument simply by dumping a lot of terminology and citations that the non-expert would be unable to understand and address, precisely in order to have to avoid actually engaging their argument. Thus insisting on the reading of primary texts allows one greater latitude to simply dismiss critics as insufficiently well-read to be engaged.

    I think this is all part of a broader dirty rhetorical trick: Justifying one’s disagreements by purposely not focusing on one’s strongest arguments, but the arguments which the other party would be least familiar with, and thus unable to address. I see this a lot in arguments over social/economic issues when people will start making arguments about how their points seem to work in obscure studies of obscure societies, instead of focusing on both parties’ shared domain of expertise (insofar as is possible.)

    • nice catch.

    • liz

      Your argument amounts to saying that amateurs in a field should be taken as seriously as experts, and can be applied just as readily to a biologist’s frustration with a biblical literalist as a professor of philosophy’s frustration with an overzealous undergrad. Some things simply take a very long time to learn and master. Dismissing excited amateurs might reveal the dismisser as a poor teacher, but nothing more than that.

      • I would distinguish between subject matter literacy and canonical text literacy for scientific fields.

        It’s the difference between being able to score above the 90th% on the GRE biology and having read a bunch of classicbooks like “The Origin of Species”.

        I’m as credentialist-prone as you, but reading many old, classic, texts in a field strikes me as one of the weaker credential signals for an active, evolving field of science.

  • Thanks for the post (i linked back to it from my site.) I’m not sure i agree with the status and affiliation. I liked your insight on out inability to advance sometimes.

    Farnam Street is dedicated to the exploration of mental models with an emphasis on making our readers smarter.

  • Vladimir

    Curt Adams:

    I think “distillations” of thinkers are generally a poor choice because of the possibility – likelihood, really – of serious distortions.

    Yes! Most people greatly underestimate how bad such distortions usually are; modern “distillations” of old authors should indeed be presumed heavily distorted until proven otherwise. Sadly, even highly reputable authors usually see no problem with relying on N-th hand paraphrases, summaries, and hand-picked quotes unless the old author in question is the central focus of their work. As a result, heavily distorted “distillations” may well proliferate until they completely drown any realistic view of the original author.

    The example that firmly convinced me of this was Adam Smith. For years, I had read countless authors paraphrasing and selectively quoting him in textbooks, press, scholarly books and articles, etc., with everyone more or less agreeing on his basic message. I never doubted that these “distillations” were more or less accurate — until I finally read The Weath of Nations and realized that the real opinions of Adam Smith were in many important ways light years away from what they’re typically presented to be.

    • So what? Unless you are in the history department you are theoretically trying to advance the understanding of economics/philosophy/whatever not discern what in particular some old dead guy felt about the subject.

      Who cares if you end up thinking Smith had a different view than he did. He won’t mind but the world will if that interferes with you learning more actual economics.

  • Vladimir

    C.S. Lewis (quoted by Thursday above):

    Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.

    Prof. Hanson should consider this in the light of his thoughts on philosophical majoritarianism:

    I admit and accept that my judgments are fundamentally flawed and my ability to correct and even perceive my own bias is highly questionable. […] I choose to adopt the view that in general, on most issues, the average opinion of humanity will be a better and less biased guide to the truth than my own judgment.

    But why limit this majoritarian view to the present human population? One could point out many beliefs that are accepted with near-consensus in reputable circles nowadays, but were questioned and rejected by the majority of people, including knowledgeable and intelligent authors, until relatively recently. Thus, it would seem that reading old authors in the original is critically important to evaluate such beliefs, since if the majority opinion of our age on these issues is heavily biased, it’s highly unlikely that their ideas and arguments could ever reach us through modern “distillations” without being fatally distorted in the process.

    Thus, I don’t see how Prof. Hanson can reconcile his philosophical majoritarianism — which, in order to be coherent, must necessarily also apply diachronically — with his disregard for the original texts of old authors.

    • Vladimir

      Oops! My apologies for the gross mistake I made in my above comment. The old post about philosophical majoritarianism that was linked in one of Prof. Hanson’s recent posts, and which link I reproduced in the above post, was not written by him, but by another contributor. I made the inexcusable mistake of automatically assuming that the post was his from the way it was linked. Once again, I sincerely apologize for this blunder.

      Still, the basic point of my above comment stands. One must either strongly reject philosophical majoritarianism, or assign a high value to the original works of old authors on at least some topics.

  • Some ideas go through cycles of fashion. If the idea is right-on but currently out-of-fashion, it pays to read texts written when it was popular (which requires you going into the past). That’s when you’ll hear the pro arguments — cheering on what’s popular. If the idea is misleading but currently popular, it pays to read texts from when it was out-of-fashion — those who wanted to “move beyond” the idea provided a million con arguments.

    It’s sad that — for some big ideas — rounding up all of the pro and con arguments requires us to look at different phases of the fashion cycle, because the how pro or con the arguments are largely depends on how popular it is, but sometimes that’s life.

    To give a few examples: almost all of early work on diet and metabolism up through WWII has been forgotten because it painted a less favorable view of carbs and sugars particularly, and that conflicts with the fashion for anti-fat and pro-carb diets. Gary Taubes in Good Calories Bad Calories rounds up a good deal of that forgotten biochemistry and anthropology work.

    Same for behavioral economics. A lot of the central insights go at least back to Adam Smith, were pushed underground during the mid-20th C, but have recently come back into popularity. I’m talking not about empirical studies, since Smith didn’t do any, but the theoretical framework that guides your thinking.

    So, it’s precisely because we use ideas as a means of affiliation that we have to read old thinkers. What the cool people affiliate with goes through fashion cycles, which introduces the two types of error above.

  • Jonas

    Am I just relearning what hundreds have already relearned century after century, but were just not able to pass on?

    I liked to read the original works of old thinkers – Nietzsche, Max Weber and others.

    I think you are right. What is the use? If you are looking for knowledge, it has already been extracted by others.

    If you are looking for wisdom, there might be some, but nothing you can`t learn from other stuff as well. It just seems to be a prestige thing to read the classics by yourself.

  • Philo

    “[T]he main reason most people read famous thinkers is to raise their status via affiliation, and to prepare to signal how knowledgeable they are.” Like Millian, I wonder about your empirical support for this assertion?

    Famous thinkers from the not-to-distant past have *salience*; a reference to one of them allows one to point to a complex of ideas that is familiar to one’s audience, without having actually to articulate it. Admittedly, the Classic Comic Books’ version of the famous thinker’s ideas–Kling’s “distillation”–normally suffices for this purpose.

    In my experience, the main reason for reading an old-time thinker’s work is that one is a student, the teacher has assigned the work, and reading it will contribute to one’s getting a good grade in the course. Perhaps ultimate the goal is signaling, but there is a much more specific proximate goal.

  • Benquo

    I agree with Vladimir and Curt Adams. If and when high-quality distillations are available, that’s fine, but most second-hand sources are pretty terrible, and it’s usually less work to just try to read the original (heavily annotated never hurts…) than to figure out which sources are trustworthy and read them.

    Also, a lot of the gains from reading the originals comes more from how they thought or wrote than their discrete ideas. Plato is the best example of this — you should expect to get no more out of a distillation of Theaetetus than you would get from a synopsis or summary of Shakespeare.

    I agree with Prof. Hanson that it is discouraging to discover how much can be learned by reading the old masters, as it reflects on how little progress we’ve made. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile!

    • If you would gain nothing from a distillation that Plato is merely producing literature not valid intellectual insights about what’s true.

      I mean evidently you can recognize that Plato has these vital philosophical insights so what could possibly stop you from passing them on? Did he just stumble upon the best possible exposition and unlike any other originator of an idea never got confused….or did he just get lucky and get confused in exactly the right places to help later people understand more?

      On what theory could Plato have had this amazing power that all his predecessors lacked? Do you really think he was that much smarter than everyone who has come since?


      It’s amazing how many people who don’t believe in god will swear up and down the bible is a great work of literature and morality just because they’ve been told that’s what to expect inside. Any writing that admits a minimal level of confusion and imperfect clarity will induce the same effect if that’s what the reader expects. You merely read your own insights into Plato because you are told to ponder it until you have an insight and it’s a poorly written confusing work.

      Obviously if your goal is to understand one particular ancient greek who died 2000 years ago rather than to progress in philosophy I take this all back but why the heck would you do that? Why not go dumpster diving for the guy who lives next door’s journals and mail and memorize trivia about his life instead?

  • Benquo

    Oops – I hope this closes the tag.

  • David J. Balan

    One reason to read old thinkers is that you can be sure that, whatever their faults, their writings are not corrupted by whatever (possibly imperceptible to you) flaws or manipulations infect the discourse of your own time. I wrote a post about this here:


    • If that’s what you mean than stop misleading people about it. Admit you just like the aesthetic/spiritual feelings it induces in you and want to do it for pleasure even though it retards the understanding of economics/philosophy/whatever by waisting time.

      Then we could treat it just like going on a walk in nature and those of us who don’t feel the appeal wouldn’t be sneered at or pushed into it on the grounds of it beeing a good way to learn.

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