You Don't Need to Have an Opinion on Everything!

Over at another blog I sometimes read, in the comments I ran across: "I admit that I’m commenting as someone who’s not intimately familiar with Keynes’ work..."

My interpretation: "not intimately familiar" can be translated as "I have not read a single word of Keynes's." So why does he have any opinion on it at all?

I recall from another blog discussion someone saying, "I don't think that attitude of treating animals as mechanisms started with Descartes... it goes back to Aristotle."

At that point, several people noted how he was about as close to 180 degrees wrong as it is possible to be in a discussion like that. And then he piped in with, "Well, I've never read Aristotle."

So... kj*a8iu^gfhb$cv0wefg4afc@g?! My brain starts to short circuit at that point. "Aristotle" seems to be just a word he throws in a conversation to show he went to college.

There is no shame in not having read Keynes or Aristotle. Or, at the very least, there is far less shame in simply not having read them than there is in not having read them but then spouting off about what they thought!


  1. Well, presumably they were relying on secondary literature rather than their imaginations. Surely there's no shame in that.

  2. "Well, presumably they were relying on secondary literature rather than their imaginations."

    What "secondary literature" on Aristotle, exactly, lists him as the precursor of Descartes' view that animals are pure mechanism? This would be like some "secondary literature" that said Aristotle did not believe in virtue, or thought that politics had no part in human life. Really, PSH, imagination is the kindest hypothesis for how that guy got that view.

    And the Keynes commentator's "secondary literature" was, I'm afraid, Glenn Beck and his ilk.

  3. By secondary literature, I don't necessarily mean respectable literature. Look at the number of people who believe that Medieval intellectuals were wedded to a flat earth; or that the belief in magic was all-pervasive until suddenly the champions of the Scientific Revolution disposed of it; or that the emperor Julian was some sort of modern liberal, rebelling against Christian orthodoxy.

  4. Anonymous2:42 AM

    I'm with you here. This is very annoying.

    The only redeeming quality of the people you quote is that they at least admit not being "intimately familiar" or having "never read" something on which they are offering an opinion. That's more than can be said for the countless other bloggers who show no shame in pretending to be an expert in subjects they're "not intimately familiar" with or have "never read."

  5. Anonymous8:45 AM

    "You Don't Need to Have an Opinion on Everything!"

    ...but... they're free, Gene...

    why should I be deprived of opinions when giving them up is so costly, and aquiring them is so cheap?

  6. Having an opinion just means you care about something. Over time it means you will learn more about that thing.

  7. Avram, couldn't you care about what Aristotle thinks about animals and keep your opinion to, "Gee, I'd really like to know what Aristotle thinks about animals"? Is there some reason you need to initially adopt a false belief in order to eventually learn more?

  8. No there isn't. However I find I learn best when I have "paradigm shifts" as those are the lessons I remember best and keep with me always.

    I do not see anything wrong with people having opinions even if they are not so smart. It means that there is a good culture of love of knowledge, and strong awareness of the importance of ideas.

  9. "It means that there is a good culture of love of knowledge, and strong awareness of the importance of ideas."

    No, no, no! That these people think they can spout off about thinkers they have never read indicates a contempt for real knowledge, and a total dismissal of the importance of ideas!

  10. Apparently my earlier comment was lost, but just to be clear: I don't object to criticizing people for using bad secondary sources. I just think it's too broad a criticism to condemn all characterizations of a person's position not drawn from his own work. Suppose the man on the street says that Galileo believed the earth revolves around the sun. Should he then be embarrassed to admit that he hasn't read Galileo?

    I think the rules for secondary sources are more like these: (1) Don't use a secondary source to argue with someone who has read the primary source. (2) Be humble, and specify whose work you're drawing on. (3) If you're relying on memory, admit as much.

  11. OK, PSH, that's reasonable. But especially in the Aristotle case, I doubt there is any such secondary source. (No one writing about Aristotle could get him *that* wrong.)


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