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I heard you talk about this at the FEE conference, and I needed to hear it then. I read this, and need to hear it even now, so soon afterward. You should post on this every month or so until it sinks in. I'm sure it needs to sink in for more people than just me. :-)

Great post! I also think blogging is very important for young scholars that may face obstacles to publishing. I love how I can post bits of ideas as I have them, develop them, "develop my voice" as you say, and then there's a record of it as well. I have gone back to old blog posts to collect my past prose to use it in another piece I'm writing.

When you're a prolific and distinguished economist like Peter Boettke, this probably isn't important - but for greener scholars, I think that the ability to simply get something down and get it out there fore review and rebuke is a very good way of overcoming the high start-up costs in academic publishing.

Amen.I just wish I had more people coming to my blog and doing that to help me develop, though. :-)I have a very agonal approach to discussions, but that helps me to work out the problems and get at where I've gone wrong or are unclear.

Great stuff. I always tell my students, "You don't know what you are trying to say until after you have said it."

Troy - I'll make sure to stop by!

Is failure to write really as big a problem for faculty as failure to submit?

I have the failure to submit problem too! No wonder my academic career is stagnant.

Please do stop by. I have a few regulars, but most people are silent. Not like here. :-)

I spent months in 2009 trying to come to grips with a conference about the economics of innovation. the result wasn't that good, but it forced me to read again many things, and to think about them from a different perspective.

Then I spent almost a semester in 2010 trying to think about something more substantial for a more important paper. The amount of things I had to read again and anew was stunning, and I'm still counting how many related topics I should address better.

Now I think I have to write other papers. Only writing can turn an intuition into a step by step argument. Thought discipline. And it is also a source of new ideas.

Thank you for sharing the link! Coincidentally, I happened to have Munger's blog open underneath another tab. His title for his post linking to the article failed to catch my eye; surely not as provocative as the title of this post. Regardless, words to live by.

Pietro's thought discipline is really important. Writing imposes continuity on your reasoning, and a clearer structure. Perhaps most importantly: whenever you write something down, you somehow own it. I'm currently writing a paper on the invisible hand and have the best time of my life. Juhuu!

Absolutely no unpublished geniuses? That seems a bit presumptuous.

It's kinda like the whole Shleifer thing and "top 5" rankings, you overcompensate and say "mainstream" stuff that no "mainstream economist" would ever say.

Yes Agut, because no mainstream economist would ever go with SSCI rankings of impact, and no mainstream person would look to the AEA website advice to graduate students on the rankings.

Yup. you got me. I guess The Chronicle of Higher Education is also a non-mainstream academic newspaper, so why don't you discount everything that was written about writing. I am sure that your ideas are brilliant but misunderstood. And we will learn more about them in the future when the world has finally caught up to you.

Wow, that's certainly quite an overreaction. For one thing, I don't think I've ever claimed to be brilliant but misunderstood or an unpublished genius. Hopefully, in a short while I'll join the ranks of published genius, until then I think I'll just be a mediocre, published economist.

You're kinda making me point for me... Perhaps a mainstream economist might go with SSCI rankings of impact, but we also have a good idea of why we should take Shleifer's ranking with a grain of salt. Perhaps you're following the AEA website advice to graduate students (trust me, in year pasts, I've looked at that advice a whole bunch of times) but prospective graduate student would go to Chicago over MIT or Harvard and nobody really thinks Princeton and Stanford are as good as Cambridge.

Seriously, try decaf.

By the way, I was originally just pointing out that maybe you've overstating your case a little when you say that there's no such thing as an unpublished genius.

(And by their very nature, how would you know if there were?)


I refer to it as a working hypothesis, please read.

And while Cambridge is a fine school, it is not even the best Econ department in the UK, that would be LSE. And LSE would be at the back end of top ten list.

Princeton is very strong, Stanford is very strong. Again look at the NRC ranking and the AEA website.

I might need decaf, but you obviously need some reading glasses.

This is a fine post. The best part from Munger is, I think, this paragraph:

"There is a real transformation, approaching an inversion, as people switch from taking courses to writing. Many of the graduate students who were stars in the classroom during the first two years—the people everyone admired and looked up to—suddenly aren't so stellar anymore. And a few of the marginal students—the ones who didn't care that much about pleasing the professors by reading every page of every assignment—are suddenly sending their own papers off to journals, getting published, and transforming themselves into professional scholars."

The advices are common sense. But when write you have to go work out some of the details of some brilliant, you think, idea and most often you realize that you were wrong. Probably this is why many people remain at the thinking stage.

I meant Cambridge, MA. And MIT and Harvard are clearly better than any of the other top 5 (even though Harvard ranks below them on some rankings).

As I said in the other topic, the rankings are all somewhat arbitrary, but the general perception is that that Berkeley is a better department than Stanford...

As for Cambridge, UK being a fine school... I'm not so sure about that. LSE, UCL, Warwick, Essex, Oxford are all superior in economics.

But... this said, I still might need reading glasses because I did miss your part about this being a working hypothesis. Although, my point still stands.

Writing for publication is clearly the appropriate goal for an aspiring scholar. However, there is a danger in submitting writing that is under-prepared. Writers often become discouraged when they confront rejection after rejection. Too often those rejections are fully deserved because the writer is not on top of his subject. Publishing is a highly competitive business and like any other, the best products tend to rise to the top.

Yes, Charles, that is right. I think Mike is simply trying to give young scholars some common sense advice on how to compete. It is, as you know, the same advice basically that Jim Buchanan gave generations of students. The consistent application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

Actually, there are plenty of unpublished economic geniuses. They're usually successful business owners and participants in private enterprise. Take for example the creator of Wikipedia who based his website on Hayekian ideas. His accomplishment is greater than anything that will ever come out of GMU. Instead of writing about it, he did it.

Real geniuses apply their ideas about economics. If your idea is worth writing down and spreading to the world, that's the first indicator that your idea likely isn't very good or useful.

If I wanted to know about the state of the economy, I would rather have a 30 minute chat with a trader from Goldman Sachs any day over an academic with a 100 published articles.

Some of the biggest geniuses have never picked up a pen. And picking up a pen to write an academic article hardly proves one's intelligence or worth to society and intellectual thought. Plenty of published works are simply useless garbage.

Yes V, but we were talking about academics --- did you read the article that was in the Chronicle? Academics is business of speaking and writing. That is what we were talking about THAT business.

There are geniuses in other walks of life, there are profound contributions made by others in other walks of life. BUT that is not what this conversation is about.

So good point, perhaps you should make it in a conversation where someone is talking about the role of scientific work and its relationship to other wealth-creating endeavors.


Oh, ok. But, I'm a bit confused....

Why are you talking about academics that don't publish? That's like talking about traders who don't actually trade. It's self-evident that if you're an academic, you should probably do your job.

Also, teach the students too. That's advice as well I guess. I thought publishing was just part of the job description. If you don't want to publish and teach, get another line of work. That should be the real advice here.

Read the original article PLEASE before commenting. That would be helpful.

Wittgenstein wasn't day dreaming when he destoyed Russell's scientific project -- and effectively his career as an original thinker -- he was engaging in conversation -- unpublished and never published convertation.

The problem with those who make such statements about geniuses is that they've never encounterd one.

Much of Wittgenstein's work of genius was neve written fopuvlication --

Arguable Hayek's only work of real genus was never published and was not written for publication -- i.e. his original "sensory order" paper.

Hayek only revealed these ideas 32 years later, after taking the time to get them right in book form.

Socrates -- unpublished genus, or just another day dreamer reading and thinking?

Darwin -- for 20 years after falling upon the idea of natural selection Darwin was reading and thinkin and constructing his one long argument. All of it thean effort of unpublished genuis, until the mid 1850s when Darwin had read and thought enough to construct the one long argument.

"There are no unpublished career academics."

That is the valid statement.

I think that the point is that an unpublished work is like a tree falling in a desert forest: whether it makes noise or not (i.e., valid or not), no one can tell, and, above all, no one cares. Intellectual engagement is a sociological and not an epistemological concept: it's about discussing with peers. This is is done in journal proceedings.

The orthodoxy may often be blatantly wrong. White's article on WSJ reveals that a few decades ago many economists believed that price controls were good. But there is no other solution to this problem than engaging them in a discussion by writing papers.

PS I disagree that there are no unpublished geniuses: I still don't have any economics papers. :-D (I'm joking).

After reading the main article closely, it's even funnier to me.

Advice like.... find special times of the day to write. And don't be the guy who talks about doing something and doesn't do it.

You academics are really silly.

If I didn't find the time to do my job in the private sector, I'd get fire. If I gave ideas to my colleagues with no follow through, I'd get fired!

Your job as an academic is to teach and write papers. Do it like anyone else does their job. This isn't rocket science. Obviously, "working" is a strange concept that necessitates discussion in academia.

It's sad that someone can actually be employed in this field without basically doing their job. Pitiful.

Tell that to Bertrand Russell.

Tell it to Socrates.

What matters is what conversational community you belong withing.

Pietro writes,

"I think that the point is that an unpublished work is like a tree falling in a desert forest: whether it makes noise or not (i.e., valid or not), no one can tell, and, above all, no one cares."

And what do you call published material that isn't read by the top professors at the top 5 graduate programs?

Kripke doesn't have to publish anything -- he circulates his stuff to a handful of the very top people, and publishes the stuff for the rest of the world years or decades later.

Burton Dreben hardly ever published, he engaged in conversation, made comments on papers and gave lectures.

But he had the ear of Quine and the graduate students at Harvard, and that is all that mattered.

Pietro writes,

""I think that the point is that an unpublished work is like a tree falling in a desert forest: whether it makes noise or not (i.e., valid or not), no one can tell, and, above all, no one cares."

The exception does not negate the rule, and pointing to someone doing something 100 years ago (let alone 2500 years ago) doesn't really make for an argument regarding the present day situation.

The advice is greatly needed because scholarship consists of many elements. One has to read and take notes, develop ideas, etc. Of course, one can spend a great deal of time doing that and not writing too much. Many take the approach that they will write when they have thought through their ideas. The point being made here -- and it's a correct one -- is that most actual thinking occurs as you are putting ink on the page (or words on the screen). You can surprise yourself with an idea as you are writing about it.

Quine published. I have heard of him. I have read him. Who is Burton Dreben?

Wittgenstein would be a historical footnote had his works not become published eventually. His influence came about much later for the very reason his works were published so late.

Do you know what Socrates believed? Or do you know, rather, what Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes said he said? Yes, he had an influence -- but it is really tangential to the influence of any of these people. At what point did Socrates cease being Socrates and, rather, became the voice of Plato? So we don't know what Socrates said or thought, because we have none of his writings. We have what others said he said and thought.

Better to have people interpret what you said than to interpret what you said through one of your interpreters.

My only point is that true arguments have more persuasive force than false ones.

And the point is valid not just for the intellectual world of 2,500 years ago. Dreben didn't live 2,500 years ago.

I like like and agree with the point being made. The argument for it, however, has the weakness of being false.

If you want to persuade people, esp. intelligent people, I recommend using true arguments. This is the part of argument Krugman, for example, never seems to have understood.

Troy writes,

"The exception does not negate the rule, and pointing to someone doing something 100 years ago (let alone 2500 years ago) doesn't really make for an argument regarding the present day situation.

The advice is greatly needed because scholarship consists of many elements.

No, Socrates lived 2500 years ago.

There is no question that the most important element of argument is its being true. However, that's not what's at issue in this. What's at issue is whether you can make a career of sitting around and talking without publishing. You cannot. People will remember Quine the prolific writer, and not Dreben. I have developed many ideas from discussions with other people -- but to the extent that I can publish my ideas, I will be remembered (and hopefully get a job), while they will not. That is the point.

To the extent that Krugman wanders farther and farther away from truth, the more and more he makes himself a footnote in history.

Troy, I didn't miss the point. I mostly agree with the point.

The argument remains false.

This isn't that complicated.

Understanding is not fully captured in either written words or formal systems.

See Kuhn and Wittgenstein.

Geniuses are distinguished in part by their ability to achieved new understandings of things.

Examples: Charles Darwin, Lugwid Wittgenstein, F. A. Hayek, Albert Einstein, and Larry Wright.

Differences of understanding are not fully reconcilable in mere words on paper or mere formal systems on paper.

And getting folks to the point of achieving changes in understanding is a very difficult thing, with words on paper and mere formal systems on paper often not playing the central role in the achievement of new and different understandings.

See Kuhn and Wittgenstein and the work of Larry Wright.

The point is that real geniuses do have brilliant new understandings, that are rarely fully captured in a short bit of writing found in a journal, and those who read journals (few read most articles) can not be counted on to get the point or fully achieve the new understanding -- conversation is often a better mechanisms for all this.

Wittgenstein destroyed Russell's career as an original thinker through conversation -- nothing was ever published.

Dissertations are another example, even though few dissertations are works of original genius. Most dissertation committees or heads don't just read stuff, they engage in conversations with the Ph.D candidate -- all through the process.

I agree that successful professional academics need to churn out publications for the top journals, giving the profession what it wants and respects.

This has nothing to do with brilliance in the sense of real, original genius.


Larry Wright (1995). "Argument and Deliberation: A Plea for Understanding." Journal of Philosophy 92 (11):565-585.

Once you have tenure at Harvard, you can.

And note well. And the very top of the pyramid, they still today can take people who are true geniuses, and graduate them and but them directly on their faculty.

Dreben's ideas do live, in the work and thinking of untold numbers of Harvard students, with positions all over America.

Power position and connections matter in the life of science.

It's just ridiculous to think they don't.

If Boettke and Larry White and Roger Garrison and etc., etc. had tenure at Harvard, and controlled the faculty, the world would be a different place.

If Hayek and Mises had been at Harvard and not Haberler and Schumpeter, the world would have been a different place.

Troy writes,

"What's at issue is whether you can make a career of sitting around and talking without publishing. You cannot. People will remember Quine the prolific writer, and not Dreben."

I have to come to my man Pete's defense here.

I was not saying....

...and Pete IS not saying there are no unpublished geniuses.

And there are plenty of published goofballs, including me.

But we never said (NEVER) unpublished work is always useless. What we said was UNWRITTEN work is useless. That's why Pete was right about the
1. Golf ball analogy. Practice swing, put the ball down, duck hook the thing into trees on the left.
2. Crack about reading glasses. Try reading, dude. No one said unpublished. UNWRITTEN. If you have something written down, and have tried to get it published and failed, it may well be a work of unappreciated genius. But if it is brilliant because it only exists in your head... epic fail.

ANd how do you get tenure at Harvard? Publishing. Language may not be able to fully encompass understanding, but it's all we have to communicate with. If you can't put your thoughts/understanding into language, then perhaps you don't really have understanding. It's like understanding a difficult writer like Derrida or Heidegger -- if you can't put what they said into language that someone who is not an expert in philosophy can understand, then you don't understand them. (I often wonder at those who engage in obscurantist writing anyway -- do they understand what they are trying to say? and if so, what are they trying to hide?)

No doubt that Dreben's ideas live on in others ideas -- but not really, as they have been transformed in others' brains, to become their own. Thus, Dreben doesn't live. Shakespeare lives. Wittgenstein, to the extent that he published, lives.

One cannot argue against momentary benefits gained by fads such as "important" universities (though those fads may last for centuries). But one can argue that what matters is if you last and if your ideas eventually come to dominate. That's thankfully not determined by being the flavor of the month (year, decade) that allows you to get into the most popular clique (Harvard, Yale). Lynn Ostrom was pretty obscure -- but not any longer. In the end, what matters is the long-term affect, and that can only be achieved through publishing, publishing, publishing. Dialogue with Plato continues to this day. Dialogue with Dreben is over.

You are not listening, Troy. Mostly I'm not disagreeing with your main conclusion -- but you are not listening to my objections to the false argument that was provided for the conclusion.

Munger as explicated by Peter implied something false -- the common but false notion that you don't have actually have a brilliant new understanding of things if your "thought" isn't in written form.

This is bogus.

Darwin had a brilliant new way of thinking of things before he got everything written up in his "one long argument".

Einstein had a brilliant new understanding of things _before_ he wrote up those thoughts in the papers he published.

By saying that "everyone's" unwritten thoughts are "brilliant" Munger is arguing that no one's unwritten new understandings are brilliant. Which is non-sense.

Einstein had his new understanding before he wrote anything.

Munger had his "billiant" thoughts on writing "brilliant thoughts" before he put these to paper.

Munger's argument is self-refuting and refuted by massive counter-examples.

And if Munger is actually talking to anyone worth talking to -- i.e. someone with actual brilliant new understandings of things -- then his arguments is patently false.

Munger is talking to the dullards who can have outstanding academic careers. He is not talking to the truly brilliant with truly new and brilliant understandings of things.

But even given all that, his advice about writing and publishing is important for even the truly brilliant.

What is false is simply Munger's claim in support of his valid conclusion.

You recognize the difference between a conclusion and an fallacious attempted support for a conclusion, don't you?

There are other checks on understanding -- esp. in other fields.

In science, you need to apply problem solutions to new cases.

In philosophy, engaging in a conversation can be a better check of understanding than a written paper -- esp. when dealing with the hardest insights.

Troy wrote,

"It's like understanding a difficult writer like Derrida or Heidegger -- if you can't put what they said into language that someone who is not an expert in philosophy can understand, then you don't understand them."

Hayek's insight about the fallacy of "given data" in economics is a difficult insight (as is Mises related insight about prices and property rights, and their relation to the pure logic of marginal valuation).

It took him a lifetime to articulate this insight in multiple different vocabularies in order to communicate the point.

But most economists NEVER "got it".

Sharing and changing ALTERNATIVE understandings is very difficult, esp. when their are career incentives pushing against the alternative way of seeing things.

I'm baffled that you don't get my point.

Oh the irony!!!!

In other words, Greg, sometimes conversation isn't enough to get a "brilliant idea" across to someone. Perhaps, following Jerry O'D's advice earlier, if you wrote it down and made it available for discussion all in one place, people like Troy might be more likely to be persuaded. Or at the very least, they would be able to grapple with it all in one place, rather than in dozens of comments on blog posts.

"everyone's unpublished work is brilliant"

I think most people know there's nothing that brilliant about their work -- compared to works of real originality, real genius, real brilliance.

Maybe economics is full of students with a mistaken sense of genius, but I've not seen this in other fields.

Steve, Larry Wright has made something close to the point. So has Kuhn.

The point isn't original with me.

I've referenced both above.

"Austrians" would learn alot about teleological explanations and explanation in general reading Wright, who Alex Rosenberg call "the most significant writer on teleological explanation since Aristotle". Rosenberg wasn't joking.

Of course, I never suggested that it was.

Steve writes,

"In other words, Greg, sometimes conversation isn't enough to get a "brilliant idea" across to someone."

The point of Kuhn, Wright, and Wittgenstein have made in their writing is that a background conversational context is important ... and that more conversation is one of the things that helps in producing this.

No one has suggested that written papers and books aren't also important.

On ADVANTAGE of conversation is that it helps to reveal when people don't share a background that lets communication happen.

Papers aren't so good at this.

Note has this function happens all the time in the conversation among top macroeconomists on the web.

Make that:

"Note how this function [of identifying where a shared background understanding stops] happens all the time in the conversation among top macroeconomists on the web."


I think you are the only one who read Munger as meaning that. I certainly didn't. And I would be willing to bet that Munger in no way, shape, or form intended his statement as meaning anything even remotely like that. My understanding of Munger should have been clear by my comments, in which I admitted an important place for discussion, etc. But in the end, if I have a brilliant insight, I better write it down. I have piles of notes precisely because I write down what I am thinking when I am reading, whatever flash of insight I may have, outcomes of discussions, etc. That is all writing. There is, in addition to this, writing as discovery. It is one other aspect of writing. But in the end, you have to write. Darwin wrote, and Einstein wrote. They made notes, wrote things down, etc. in the meantime until they got around to writing their paper, book, etc. The final product is in the end merely the edited end product of one's writing. Thus, you are assigning false premises where I saw none, and you exclude 99% of writing as writing. No wonder we have been talking past each other -- we haven't been talking about the same thing at all.

"By saying that "everyone's" unwritten thoughts are "brilliant" Munger is arguing that no one's unwritten new understandings are brilliant."

I doubt anyone would disagree about Wittgenstein, Darwin, etc, and that nor would they disagree that Ransom's unwritten new understandings are not brilliant.

Not directly on topic, but to help Troy and anyone else who is tempted to spend a lot of time trying to make sense of Derrida, you may be wating your time. Two Australians wrote a fine critique of a certain type of high literary theory, one was a philosopher who, unlike most literary folk,was not intimidated by Derrida's pretence of philosophical learning. This is a 5000 word summary of their book, which has approval from the authors as a fair summary of their arguments.

Troy, if "unpublished work" isn't written work, I have no idea what it might be.

I note that another anonymous ad hominem witu no substance has shown up in the comments.

Will it get deleted?

If I identify this guy as a troll will my post be deleted?


I'm not sure what exactly you're saying, or critiquing, regarding what I said. You seem to think I am equating publishing with writing, and you can find nothing in what I wrote to suggest that.


Derrida is easy, once you figure out what he's doing. Same with Heidegger. The more you read of each of them, the less you find there to be.

"if I have a brilliant insight, I better write it down"

Munger more or less says your insight becomes brilliant only after the point where it has been published.

Here's Pete,

"#5 says "everyone's unpublished work is brilliant.""

It's time to put a fork in all this.

I'm baffled by your comments, and you seem to be baffled by mine.

I don't see any promise that were going to get beyond this.

Munger: "Everyone's unwritten work is brilliant." Note the word "unwritten." Pete errs in his quote. I read the original article, and was refering to it in my comments, not to Pete's misquote of it. You have been refering to Pete's misquote and not to the original article. That seems to be the problem.

Thanks for clearing that up, Troy.

I've been commenting on Pete, not Munger.

It does help when two people are actually discussing the same topic, doesn't it? :-)

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