2012-04-11

Opportunism and Revisionist History In Ideas

The Following Is Only An Allegory
Suppose I were to begin an intense marathon training program, coached by legendary distance runner and innovative trainer Lasse Viren.

Suppose again that, while training under Mr. Viren, I never competed formally in a race.

Now suppose further that, years later, while writing a book that summarized Mr. Viren's training methods and philosophy, and garnering some support from Mr. Viren himself on an advanced copy of one or two chapters -and making this support public knowledge, implying a direct endorsement - I suddenly decided to turn my book into a magnum opus of my own, personal training philosophy.

Under such assumptions, we would expect the public to believe that my magnum opus is some sort of endorsed continuation of the Viren training regimen - even though that is absolutely not the case.

Sure, I would have been strongly influenced by the ideas of Lasse Viren, but it would be patently untrue to even so much as imply that my magnum opus, containing my ideas, is the next logical step - the modern update - of Viren's ideas. My ideas would have evolved from the same school of thought, but they would be primarily my ideas. Viren's ideas would rank merely as an influence.

Of course, I would have every incentive to advertise my ideas as the next logical chain in the series that began with Viren's. I would want to win support among Viren's fans. I would want to lay claim to Viren's legacy, fusing them together with my own, for both financial and ideological reasons.

But doing so would be dishonest. Viren's ideas would not be mine, and mine would not be Viren's. We would be two different people, with two different philosophies. I would have learned from Viren, that's all. My contribution to the sphere of training philosophies would not - and should not - have anything to do with Viren.

Besides, Viren's legacy is great enough to stand on its own, and ought not be sullied by hangers-on.

Vanity - Interpreting The Allegory
Before I go any further, I have to make it absolutely clear that I don't know Lasse Viren, in fact I have never met him, and my only knowledge of him comes from second-hand sources, stories, books, articles, and so forth. There is absolutely no connection between he and I, other than my profound respect for him as an athlete.

With that disclaimer out of the way, we can proceed.

It would be the height of conceit to claim that my ideas are the next logical step from those of, say, Aristotle or Euclid. In fact, if I did that, I'd get laughed out of any room in which I attempted to make that claim, and rightly so. What makes the Lasse Viren story different is the fact that Viren, having been active during the 70s and early 80s is a recent celebrity. So recent, that it is entirely plausible that I would have learned a great deal from him. In fact, some people alive and active in the running world today can certainly attest to the fact that they have trained with Mr. Viren.

Because Viren's legendary status is recent, it packs less of a "punch" than the celebrity of someone like Aristotle, whose genius has been noted for thousands of years. Of course, Viren and Aristotle occupy different disciplinary spheres, but what if we were to take two people from the same discipline?

What if we were to think about economists? Is it equally laughable to proclaim my ideas to be "the logical continuation of the work outlined by Adam Smith?" Yes, of course! That level of vanity would be profound indeed!

So, consider a living economist who may have studied under, say, Milton Friedman, also very active in the 1970s, like Lasse Viren. Would it be vain if someone who studied under Friedman at the University of Chicago to claim that his or her ideas are the logical continuation of Friedman's own achievements? Here it gets a little fuzzier, but I'm reasonably confident that virtually all economists would agree that such a claim would be incredibly vain.

Friedman is an economic legend. Scott Sumner often compares his own professional views to Friedman's, but he does so in a "What Would Friedman Do?" sort of way. Sumner is a fabulously successful monetary economist in his own right these days. He never so much as hints that "Sumner and only Sumner knows the truth of Friedman's teachings."

My profuse apologies to Professor Sumner for using him as an analogy! I merely do so in order to point out that most reasonable economists - and even brilliant and successful ones, like Sumner - would never be so vain as to claim that his ideas are the only correct interpretation of Friedman's monetary theories.

Instead, most economists see their ideas as a continuation of a dialogue that involves all previous contributors to that dialogue. They quite appropriately see themselves as "standing on the shoulders of giants," as Isaac Newton once said.

Out Of Allegory, Into Reality
But what if I were to tell you that there was once a great thinker, who served as a brilliant teacher and mentor to other great thinkers, and that one of these students went on to claim - or at least, virtually all fans of that student have claimed and currently claim - that his (the students') theories represent the only correct, logical extension of the teacher's ideas?

If I could point fingers and name names, would we all agree that the student was out of line if he made this claim, and that the student's fans and students are certainly out of line for claiming this with a sort of quasi-religious tone?

And, if we agreed on that, how would we feel about that student if he himself had written extensive criticism against his contemporaries for fostering a "cult-like" following?

I believe that such a thinker did exist. I will abstain from pointing fingers and naming names until I have had more time to research the topic and make my claim more conclusively.