In Defense Of Thinkers: Hold Ideas, Not People


This is one of my biggest pet hates – when thinkers are rejected because of one thing they said or did. It’s prevalent in internet comment sections, where it’s a crime to cite anybody in history, because at one point or another they’ve done something questionable. 

The truth is that nobody is infallible. All great thinkers have had their blind spots, their limitations, they’ve made mistakes and have had prejudices. Ideas have been updated and/or replaced when new data has come to light. That’s why we have conversations – to check our blind spots. 

The process of thinking for yourself includes reading a wide range of people from different backgrounds and perspectives, and arriving at a conclusion on your own. Or not arriving at any conclusion, as the case may be. You can simply take someone’s ideas and let it simmer. What do you know anyway? 

The most respected Idea Men and Women have put forward ideas we think are wrong. Even thinkers that qualify as your intellectual idols have said something that from anybody else would sound positively kooky. Let’s not get into those in history whose personal views were unenlightened. If you’re going to throw out Aristotle because he supported slavery, then be prepared to throw out every idea produced by Western Civilisation. 

I’m going to highlight some ridiculous reactions to certain thinkers that I’ve seen that have particularly got my goat.


Ayn Rand

I’m not a Randian or an objectivist, much less a participant in the cult of personality around Ayn Rand. Nonetheless, popular negative reactions to her and her work are disproportionate and dense. If you cite Rand in any positive context whatsoever, you’re guaranteed to get a commenter saying, “Rand accepted social security.” *Eye roll*

This doesn’t mean we have to throw out everything she ever wrote. Even when someone violates their own principles, just accepting for the sake of argument that she did, it doesn’t violate the principles themselves. Believing otherwise is believing in the cult of personality that Rand critics constantly attack.

At minimum, what I can categorically say about Rand is that I think Atlas Shrugged is a great novel. Someone is bound to mention the wooden dialogue and the gargantuan John Galt speech. Fine, they’re in the book and it’s worth talking about, but if that’s all you talk about, you’re above all doing yourself a disservice. Nobody who has read the book, which is an epic treatise in story form of a worldview that’s massively influential, can honestly can tell you there’s nothing in there worth discussing. 

That said, these kinds of Rand critics are a sight better than those that have never read Rand, yet are appalled by her. They’ll go on for days about how she’s a pernicious influence on American culture, and blame the financial crisis on her philosophy of greed and so on. When you actually read her, it’s obvious this criticism is two-dimensional. When it comes to critizing thinkers many do a poor job regarding her ideas or works.

This is not to mean that I sacrifice my cat to Rand and that I think orphans are parasites on society. Come on, be better.


F.A. Hayek

There’s plenty to critique about Hayek, but jettisoning him from the intellectual canon is dumb. Yes, I’m well aware he conceded a little to the welfarists. Yet without him, our understanding of prices and spontaneous order would be significantly diminished. As far as thinkers go there is much worth reading into with his work.


Murray Rothbard

This is a man who essentially began the American libertarian movement as we know it today. He advanced understanding, popularity and respect of the Austrian school of economics. He made anarchism acceptable to the right and left. Without him, there would be no Ron Paul movement or even the Libertarian Party. He is the most entertaining writer in economics you can find. Yet, he attended a few meetings with conservatives in the early ‘90s so, according to the hall monitors, we can’t read him anymore.


Let’s be as charitable to his critics as possible: let’s accept for the sake of argument that the “paleo strategy” was totally and irrefutably bad, and everyone involved in that movement were raging racists that wanted to implement mini theocratic states and deport racial minorities. That still wouldn’t invalidate his vast, vast, vast work in other areas.


The source of Rothbard’s problems is that he took sides. In the ‘60s, he made pragmatic concessions to radical leftists. In the ‘90s, it was the conservative right. For every senate, congressional, councilman race, he picked a candidate. He saw things in terms of “teams.” I don’t do that, as I shall explain in another article in a series I might title Thinking For Yourself.

I think the paleo strategy was mostly a bad idea and Rothbard wrote things during that time I vehemently disagree with (most notably “unleash the police.”) I can think this whilst also believing Rothbard was a genius and I owe him a lot.

For the critics – just do me this favor: read Anatomy of the State. Tell me that isn’t brilliant.


Sigmund Freud

“Freud was a pseudoscientist.” Yeah fine, a chunk of what Freud “discovered” was mainly conjecture and could not be replicated. However, nobody who has actually read him can deny that he hit on something true about the human condition, and for better or worse, influenced an entire field of study. Even if you think psychotherapy is quack, it exists, and it’s at least interesting to know where it came from.


Roger Ebert

Film critics are constant victims of this. “This critic trashed Film X, so he can’t be trusted.” “That critic endorsed Film Y, which invalidates every review.” If you’re one of these dipshits that do this in the comments on, be prepared to never read a film critic, or listen to anybody’s opinion for that matter, ever again. Even you would admit that there is some subjective element to criticism of any kind of art. There is a matter of taste. Some things get better with time, others wane. People are going to disagree. If you behave like this, you sound like a child having a temper tantrum.

The judge of a film critic should be how fair they are, and whether they are useful to you. A good critic can give a film a bad review, but you could read it and decide you want to see the film anyway. The job of a film critic is to relay accurately what the film is like, as well as whether they enjoyed it. A bad film critic is one that judges the film for what it’s not supposed to be, or doesn’t describe it accurately. Some critics don’t even describe the film, but dogpile on it with either superlatives or insults.

Whether they fall on the side of a recommendation or not is not the most important thing. You don’t have to agree with a critic 100% or even half the time to like them. You can find critics you respect because of the way they write and critique (as I do with Ebert), and then when they differ with you, you can read with interest. Ebert doesn’t like Gladiator, and I do, but I’m glad there are people finding its flaws so that we can look at it more objectively. Another critic I like, Mark Kermode, thinks An Officer and a Gentlemen is a great film. I do not share that opinion. Yet I’m glad at least someone out there is defending it for what it is.

Okay, I know Ebert recommended Cop and a Half. Heck, put it down to a lapse in judgment. It doesn’t mean you have to burn your copy of Your Movie Sucks. By the way, he was right about Fight Club.


Don’t be dense about thinkers

Above all, quoting or referencing thinkers is not a wholesale endorsement of everything they’ve ever said or done. It’s perfectly possible that someone can be wrong on some things, and absolutely dead on on others. It happens all the time.

You can read more by James Smith on Think Liberty here.


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