Following up on Loic’s previous entry, what to do with the most brilliant idea for which you find absolutely no proof or information? It starts with those mildly annoying frantic searches for secondary literature on an issue related to your topic which you don’t want to discuss, but want to refer to in a footnote nevertheless. It includes questions such as Was Adam Smith homosexual? (he must have been – I’m absolutely sure). But above all, it encompasses all those daily questions regarding your topic you simply cannot answer because there is absolutely nothing to answer it with. What to do with them?
And PS: What’s the ratio answerable/non-answerable questions?
3 thoughts on “No tragedy like a great thesis without the slightest proof”
I have a quote pasted to my computer monitor which might help… Not with answering your question, but finding peace.
“Another beautiful hypothesis, ruined by an ugly fact”
What about this one?: ‘Everything that shines is not gold’. More seriously, I do not even consider, that is as a reasonable hypothesis unless I have some reliable fact, or that beginning of it, that tells me that I am not just dreaming. Floris’s post reminds me that I might have had this moto to my post: “Follow the fact (and your intuition), never construct a reasoning on its good look only.”
The Adam Smith Question is a very interesting place to start. What would we gain from the missing archives of Smith?
What if Smith had a half-written treatise on why organized Religion should be banned by law. What would we glean from 1) the fact that he did not publish it 2) the relation that it has to the rest of his writing. It seems if it contradicted our favorite interpretations of Smith’s ambiguity, we would just be confronted with the fact (which we should already recognize) that we cannot perfectly construct the man in our own minds.
Would the interpretations of Smith be any less wild and self-serving if we had a complete archive? My wife recently went to a week-long discussion of Smith’s work and now has added the 2,456,787th unique interpretation of the Adam Smith problem despite my best efforts to sell her the 2,456,786th, which to me seems to best resolve the conflicts everyone has in Smith’s writings.
My fear is that Smith’s work would be less inspirational, less important if some “evidence” were available to bulldog lesser interpretations into submission. What if there exists some “evidence” that would make my wife have to abandon her unique interpretation? Does my own invention gain from from her loss?
Who cares what Smith thought at the end of the day? He systematized a vast body of Greek, Roman, French, Scottish, and English thinking into a new whole that was greater than the sum of the parts. He does not own the debate. The issues are timeless. Smith maybe correctly choose to burn the archives because he knew the tendency of man to confuse the personal character traits of the writer with the questions that writer struggled to communicate.
For me the excitement of reading Book V of the wealth of nations will is always in following a brilliant mind through the construction of a history of social organization. If Smith only arrived at this Lockean foundation by completely rejecting 6 earlier drafts where he had yet to settle on the duties of the sovereign, what do we learn?