Professor Warren Goldfarb recently sent me an e-mail message with the following very interesting and useful comment on my argument that we should read philosophical works in their entirety. Goldfarb is the latest in Harvard’s long line of philosophical logicians – a line that includes my classmate Charles Parsons, his doctoral dissertation director Willard Van Orman Quine, and his dissertation director Alfred North Whitehead. Here is what Goldfarb had to say….I regard thinkers like John Maynard Keynes, Abba Lerner, and Kenneth Boulding as philosophers rather than "economists." And of course, Karl Marx. Their work was far broader than isolated issues in economics. This is also true of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and Murray Rothard, all of whom wrote about liberalism in addition to narrowly economic issues.
Philosophers deal with foundations and they attempt to do rigorously by applying a particular method, sometimes of their own devising. It's not accidentally that of the two groups mentioned above, one is considered left and the other right.
The great economists are, as Robert Heilbroner observed, "worldly philosophers." They are aware that economic issues are seated in social and political issues, and social and political issues in ontological, epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic issues.
The overarching foundational issue is what it means to live a good life in a good society, and in the modern West that becomes what does it means for free individuals to life a good life in a good society.
It is important to give thinkers a full hearing in order to understand what they are saying in terms of the issues they are actually dealing with. Too often, readers rush to conclude with they think a writer is saying, or, worse, look for confirmation of their own position. Then there is misrepresentation both unconscious or intentional.
The Philosopher's Stone
Robert Paul Wolff | Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetts Amherst