… is from page 15 of Joseph Epstein’s 2008 essay “A Literary Education: On Being Well-Versed in Literature,” as this essay is reprinted in Epstein’s 2014 collection, A Literary Education and Other Essays:
“To create a concept,” wrote Ortega y Gasset, “is to leave reality behind.” Ortega is saying that no concept, no mere idea, is sufficiently comprehensive to capture the reality of the phenomena it seeks to describe. Concepts do, true enough, serve the function of distracting our minds from the richness of the reality that generally manages to evade us.
DBx: Yes, and thus we’re faced with an unavoidable challenge: Theoretical concepts are absolutely indispensable for gaining a useful understanding of reality. Imagine the confusion of a mind that, for example, is unable to understand that gravity affects airplanes no less than it affects apples. Yet concepts – and the physical things that we use to make them more real to us, things such as words, and graphs, and equations, and data-deluged spreadsheets – necessarily simplify. That’s both a feature and a bug of concepts and their instantiations.
To draw useful knowledge from concepts and their instantiations requires smarts. Of course it does. But much more important are judgment and wisdom, blessings that depend heavily on experience, open-mindedness, and a knack for asking probing questions. (If you don’t like the word “knack” as used here, you’re not alone. But I don’t know what else to call it.)
The greatest economists in my estimation – scholars such as Adam Smith, F.A. Hayek, Ronald Coase, Armen Alchian, James Buchanan, Harold Demsetz, and Julian Simon – brilliantly formulated concepts but never mistook their words, their graphs, or their equations as capturing more than the slenderest slice of relevant reality. For them, economics is an effort to make better sense of – to better understand – the logic of emergent social orders but in a way that makes clear that these orders are made up of details the fullness of which no human mind can discover and catalog, or manipulate with some systemwide goal in mind without wreaking havoc.