Tyler Cowen has an interesting post over at MR:
Following up on a discussion, Arnold Kling asks:There are seven more reasons he throws up so if you're interested you should definitely check out the post.
'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.
There is one thing I have always wondered: Why don't great thinkers distill their own work/their own field's work? Why do we rely on lesser minds (by lesser minds I mean those that have not engaged in the theoretical work themselves) to distill complex work rather than have the great minds that come up with the theories do it themselves.
I just finished reading Stephen Hawking's book "The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe", a series of seven lectures where he essentially distills what physicists believe to be the history of the universe and breaks down some of his own work in the field (his theory of black holes for instance). It is truly fascinating and a hell of a lot easier and less time consuming than going through all of Hawking's papers, which even if I spent all of the time in the world, I wouldn't be able to understand. He does a great job of breaking down the physical universe for those of us with lesser minds. Why haven't other great thinkers taken this same approach and distilled their work for the rest of us?
Some have posited that the comparative advantage of these great thinkers is to think and write great things, not to dumb them down for the rest of us. Others have argued that they simply don't have time to distill these great thoughts. For modern great thinkers, most are working in universities and there aren't any incentives for them to make their work readable for the masses. They are incentivized to publish in academic journals/presses and the publication of distilled work doesn't mean much (if any) in terms of promotion/salary increases.
So why would/should they take the time to distill their own work? Well, the more people are familiar with your work, the greater the probability of it having a lasting effect on civilization. The more people are familiar with some of the great work in physics, biology, chemistry, etc., maybe they'd be more prone to believe that it is the truth and turn away from mystical explanations of the cosmos, evolution, etc. Maybe the ivory tower should incentivize the dissemination of scholarly work in the hopes of making it more relevant to society and comprehensible to the masses. Maybe the people that critique academia for being irrelevant will see the relevance of academic work if they were able to understand it. Maybe not, maybe they still wouldn't read it anyway and don't care about understanding academic work. But, I think we should still try.