The All-Or-Nothing Approach

    I've noticed that many people adopt an all-or-nothing approach to knowledge, and stop studying a particular theory once they find a significant mistake. Although time is always valuable, I find that to be a rather crude approach to studying.

    Take Marxism for example. If an engineer wants to learn basic economics, he might look at Marxist economics and go "The labour theory of value is wrong, so this is not what I'm looking for". That's fair enough. However, someone truly interested in economics, or ideas in general should never do that.

    The main reason is that a theory goes beyond its fundamental premises - it's an integrated (even if poorly) set of multiple ideas, some of which might be right. Sticking to our Marxism example: although its fundamental premises are wrong (materialism, collectivism, labour value, etc.), it still has very interesting ideas about the means through which a violent political elite increases its power by corrupting a society's markets and culture. If you take a look at later Marxists, like Gramsci or Mosca, some of the insights are downright genius.

    Another reason is that knowing a theory allows you to truly discuss with proponents of that theory, which might be of value. Still sticking to the example: I've met a few people who were Marxists well into their 40s, and were convinced they were wrong. The sheer amount of information and insights they've accumulated over years of studying makes for very interesting conversation, even though they got them in the context of a bad theory. That's an objective value that would not exist if there was no one who understood Marxism enough to explain to a knowledgeable Marxist why it's wrong.

    In other words, you shouldn't throw away an entire car because part of it is broken, even if that part is something as important as the engine - there might still be many valuable parts of it that can be salvaged. You've already put in enough time to figure out what's wrong with it - might as well put in some extra time to figure out what it got right.

  -  February 11th, 2020