On Reinventing the Wheel

I am troubled by the fact that many  speakers and writers do not acknowledge or are ignorant of previous relevant writings on a topic, and really repeat saying what others have written; thus, “reinventing the wheel.”

What can explain this phenomenon? Well, it is obvious that people want to have personal success and income from their speaking and writing, and so, they try to get attention.  They want people to view their videos, read their books, and be invited to various interviews, debates, and lectures.

They succeed, in part, because they appeal to a wide ignorant audience, which is attracted by the speaker’s or writer’s entertainment qualities, rather then by his or her scholarship.

For example, what do I want from a writer on a topic such as ethics? I want him to begin with something similar to what C. D. Broad did in his Five Types of Ethical Theories (1930). This is what he wrote: “Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics seems to be on the whole the best treatise on moral theory that has ever been written, and to be one of the English philosophical classics.” p. 143.  And the bulk of Broad’s book — 113 pages our of a total 285 — is devoted to a critical examination of Sidgwick’s ethics.

Instead of jumping right into a topic, I would like an author to start by identifying what he considers to be the best work to date on a topic and write a critique of this work.

I had tried to do something like this in my dissertation in the fields of epistemology and metaphysics . I did not outright say that Wilfrid Sellars is the best contemporary thinker on these topics, but I did so implicitly by choosing to critically examine his views and claiming that he had verisimilitude. Here is what I wrote: “The examined philosopher provides an occasion for developing one’s own philosophy, and this is especially rewarding if the examined philosophy has verisimilitude, as does that of Wilfrid Sellars. The conclusions I reach are very close to Sellars’ own — so close, in fact, that I am not certain whether what I am offering as correction are of things I am only misinterpreting.” Andrew Chrucky, “Critique of Wilfrid Sellars’ Materialism,” 1990.

I myself have not done any systematic work in ethics, but it seems that being able to pursue a critical examination of morals assumes a cultural and political  context of such things as having had an education which gives one the critical acumen to pursue such studies, as well as the leisure to do so; rather than working at some unrelated area for a wage; and the means to pursue such a study — as access to a suitable library or the means to purchase necessary books. And, most important, there is the necessity of cultural tolerance and the political right of free speech.

Although I have a concern with ethics, there are also the more basic problems of how to cope with people who do not have a concern with morals and how to cope with institutions which allow such people to flourish. It is a question how to wage war against such people and such institutions.

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