Good Writing is the Creative Destruction of Bad Ideas

Yesterday, while preparing some brief remarks for my students in a course on the management of innovation in organisations, I came up with what I thought was a pretty good aphorism. A few hours after tweeting it, I realized it could be much improved (for both truth and style) by adding a qualifier. It’s not all writing that is the creative destruction of bad ideas, but good writing almost always is. When done right, our writing exposes our ideas to the winds of criticism. Some ideas stand up, others yield, bend and survive, and some are swept away like so many dead leaves that have served their purpose. The metaphor has its limitations, as all metaphors do, but I must say I am rather fond of it. Let’s see how well it stands up to being written down.

“Schumpeter’s Gale” is the process by which innovation renders existing practices, and even whole industries, obsolete. These practices weren’t “bad” at their inception, of course, but their value diminishes as the new process sweeps the land. New processes themselves, before they take, must of course stand up in the storm and stress of existing market forces. Some innovations don’t ever make it; ask your local venture capitalist how many investments turn a profit. Those that do have proven their worth, at least temporarily.

Perhaps I have an occasion to coin a phrase. Let’s call the creative destruction of bad ideas through critical discourse “Popper’s Gale”. This corresponds nicely with the division of labor between Hayek, Popper and Schumpeter proposed by the Economist.

Hayek and Popper were friends but not close to Schumpeter. The men did not co-operate. Nonetheless a division of labour emerged. Popper sought to blow up the intellectual foundations of totalitarianism and explain how to think freely. Hayek set out to demonstrate that, to be safe, economic and political power must be diffuse. Schumpeter provided a new metaphor for describing the energy of a market economy: creative destruction.

Popper didn’t just propose to think freely, of course, but critically. His signature idea was to define science, not in terms of “truth”, but in terms of the falsifiability of our claims. Science was less about what we today somewhat uneasily call “knowledge production” (as if the point is to produce ever more of the stuff) than about the identification and destruction of falsehoods. Whatever remains standing in the strong winds of criticism is true … but only for now. The point isn’t to believe but to keep testing our ideas, keep looking for their weaknesses and let them fall as they must. An open society, we might say, is not to be measured by how frequently it makes new discoveries but how efficiently it discards false hypotheses.

Steve Fuller has recently taken this further, construing Schumpeter and Popper’s twin gales as harbingers of “the post-truth condition”. The authority of science itself can be seen as undergoing a kind of creative destruction, a sort of secularization applied to itself, as Fuller puts it (2018, p. 108). But, as he’s quick to remind us, this isn’t really some new crisis for our culture. Indeed, he would probably point out that both Schumpeter and Popper appropriated some crucial concepts from the Marxist tradition, which gave us not just “creative destruction” but also the evocative notion of “permanent revolution”. Popper deployed the latter in his engagement with Kuhn, and their disagreement remains an “essential tension” in the philosophy of science.

Let me conclude with one last gesture at the winds of history, call it “Wittgenstein’s Gale”. When he took a job as a country school teacher, his sister famously complained that this was like using a precision instrument to open crates. His response is no less famous:

You remind me of somebody who is looking out through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passer-by. He cannot tell what sort of storm is raging out there or that this person might only be managing with difficulty to stay on his feet.

When we’re teaching students to write we are teaching them to stand up in what must sometimes appear to be a looming storm of criticism. It’s important that they learn to face it because if they just stay in the house they’ll never know how good their ideas really are. Of course, there’s no way around showing them how bad some of their ideas are too. But if they don’t hold on to them too tightly, too sentimentally, if they are willing, sometimes, to give them up to the wind, they will find walking much easier. In science, we might say, revolution is normal. Ideas are destroyed only to make the creation of better ones possible.

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