Tag Archives: Philosophy

Achievement Gaps

In A Mathematician’s Apology G.H. Hardy estimates that only five or ten people in a hundred can do something “rather well.” Considerably fewer are really gifted. We do not each have a valuable talent waiting for discovery. We may dream of making names for ourselves, but most “talents” are talents only by inflation, and many true talents are never valued. The influence of the cult of achievement extends even beyond its membership. Those who renounce the pursuit of worldly accomplishment often do so with other (more comfortably nebulous) goals in mind: sainthood, perhaps, or self-realization. They’re chasing the same fox by another tail.

Hardy’s calculation is stark, and depressing. I’ve been working on a novel two nights each week for the past four years. I’m well into my third draft and hope to shop it around to agents this summer. Re-reading and re-writing it is a bruising, infuriating, ego-punishing business. What I’ve created is, I think, better than a lot of what gets published today, but that’s saying awfully little when 99% of what gets published is an unjustifiable waste of both writer’s and reader’s time. Almost every book ever written more than deserves its inevitable oblivion.

My book surely will too. Though I’m bold enough to say that it’s “better than many,” I’m not going to fool myself and say “better than 99%.” It may beat fifty or even sixty percent of the schlock printed these days, but I won’t bluff any higher than that. Even if I succeed in getting it published, it’s not something to be too ridiculously proud of. If writing it has taught me anything, it’s that I am no Herman Melville or Henry James. Tonic as it may be to fess up to that inadequacy, my sickness is such that I plod on anyway. I’m even making notes for a second book. Ambition isn’t going to let lack of genius stand in its way.

I may be neglecting avenues for achievement that are better suited to me. Hardy writes that “poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry.” I know nothing about cricket or Bradman, but I’ll agree that you don’t give up on a first-rate talent merely because it happens to be for a second-rate activity. I manage to make a living in the business world without much effort. What might I achieve if I focused my ambitions in that direction? But most days it’s a struggle even to fake a tepid enthusiasm.

According to Hardy, first-rate minds care only for creation. If second-rate minds care for it too, so much the worse for them. They would do better, he says, to restrict themselves to the very second-rate tasks of criticism and appreciation. “Appreciation.” The term, as he utters it, drips condescension. But I want to say that Hardy gets it wrong here. He shows his scheme of values to be debased. It may be that I’m too democratic-minded, or just plotting myself an escape from Hardy’s sentence, but I hate the idea that the worthiest of human endeavors is beyond the reach of most people. Surely it’s not only scarce things that can have ultimate value?

Appreciation, in the sense of pure enjoyment, seems to me a better candidate than creative accomplishment for the title of “man’s true work.” It may sound Jeffersonian (“pursuit of happiness”), or Epicurean, or bourgeois of me to say so. I don’t mean that people with leisure are morally superior to those without it. But though it’s not an idea that lends itself to proof by argument, I do believe that, other things being equal, there’s no nobler human aspiration than simply to enjoy and delight in things. To appreciate a particular face, a meal, a tree, a note, a book, a fact, an idea is something available to most of us. To enjoy something to the limit of one’s capacity is better than to create it.

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Everyone Is Doing It


Twenty years ago I was somehow able to think about sex all day long. I could think about sex even when I wasn’t thinking about it. Temporarily distracted by bus schedules, term papers, potential muggers, or the likelihood of being able to pay my rent, sex still bubbled away undisturbed at the back of the old brain. Somewhere along the way, however, I traded my preoccupation with sex for a preoccupation with mortality. Death is the slow simmer now.

You might think that this would make me no fun to be around, but not so. I can be very charming when I happen to notice you or when I’ve downed a couple drinks. I don’t think my friends would consider me a morbid person. But then no one who knew me as an eighteen-year-old would have considered me a sex-obsessed monomaniac either.

Twenty years ago my experience of sex was, let’s say, comprehensively limited. I knew a bit about it, of course, the various scenarios in which it might occur, the basic biological processes involved. I knew people who had actually had sex. My experience of death today is similarly limited. I know a bit about it, the various scenarios in which it might occur and the basic biological processes involved. I know people who have actually died. But death for me (knock on wood) is still virgin territory.

Faced with the great catalog of life’s alumni, some people will panic at the thought of their own graduation day. Others find comfort in the thought of joining the beloved and admired who have gone before. Some may look to death as a final opportunity for rebellion or individualistic self-expression, but you might just as well see it as the ultimate surrender to peer pressure.

If death is a problem for you, religion may offer some limited assistance. “Limited” because you’ll always question your motives for faith if fear of death is what brings you to it. You may be so scared of dying that you’ll believe anything to make it seem less horrible. Anyway, religious solace only goes so far. If death is mere illusion, then life probably is too, and you’re back where you started. And even if there is a resurrection for dessert, you still have to eat your vegetables first.

Philosophy isn’t very helpful either. Spinoza wrote that the wisdom of a free man is a meditation on life rather than death, but he had to meditate on death a bit even to write that sentence. Socrates said that the whole business of philosophy was learning how to die. He said this because his sort of philosophy was all about cutting the threads that bind the divine and ethereal soul to the stinking, lice-ridden flesh – which is, conveniently, what death does too.

Montaigne wanted to endorse something like Socrates’ notion of philosophy in his earlier essays, but he couldn’t reconcile himself to making life into a death cult. Montaigne’s solution to the problem of death – if you want to call it a solution – was to not think of it as a problem in the first place. In his final essay, Of Experience, he recommends that we gratefully accept the world as God hands it to us, sex and death and all. It’s not as if we’re in a position to negotiate a better deal.

Death manages to feel like a problem anyway. I’m afraid of my children dying, or my wife. I’m less afraid, I think, of my own death, but I may be fooling myself. Twenty years ago I never would have admitted that I was afraid of sex, but of course I was terrified.

I can’t think about any of this without remembering Woody Allen’s 1975 send-up of Russian literature, Love and Death. In one scene, Boris (Allen) gets conscripted into the army that will face off against Napoleon, but before leaving he visits his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), whom he’s always loved. Full of foreboding on his own account, he asks Sonja if she’s scared of dying.

“Scared is the wrong word,” she answers, “I’m frightened of it.” An interesting distinction, Boris says.

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Marginalia, no.231

That is so, said Cebes.

~ Plato, Phaedo

We want to object. Socrates’ interlocutors, as Plato supplies them, are often unsatisfying in this regard: they surrender a mile as easily as an inch. Which may actually be an argument for the reliability of Plato’s reportage. Any philosophic horse will tell you that gadflies are only dealt with in one of two ways: by a well-aimed but ultimately ineffective swish of the tail, or by granting them all they want in the hope that they’ll just go away.

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Marginalia, no.199

If his philosophy freed him from the former fear and not from the latter, it did not hinder him from being miserable.

~ Pierre Bayle, Dictionary

It was rumored that Thomas Hobbes disliked being alone because he was afraid of ghosts. Bayle quotes a contemporary biographer who scoffs at the idea: It’s not that Hobbes was afraid of “spectres and apparitions, vain bugbears of fools,” he says; these he “chased away by the light of his philosophy.” Instead, he feared assassination (hence Bayle’s comment above). This morning I united both concerns when I looked in the mirror and mistook myself for an executioner’s ghostly victim. That’s how nearly last night’s haircut approximates decapitation.

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From the Desk of Answer Man: Fickle Favorites


Dear Answer Man:

I am in fourth grade, which sucks. The other kids at school are always asking me about my favorite food, favorite color, or favorite brand of sneaker. The problem is that I can never make up my mind. Sometimes I want to eat tacos all day, other days I can’t live without pizza. Some days I like blue and other days red. And once I went to school with a Nike on one foot and a Converse on the other – by accident! I’m in big trouble. Who am I anyway?

~ Tommy Thomas, Age 9

Dear Tommy,

I’m convinced that if Socrates were alive today he would spend all his time at the mall. That’s what it means to live the examined life anymore: to be obsessed with your own consumer choices. So, my fickle young philosopher, you do have a problem, but it’s not that you can’t make up your mind. It’s that your inability to make up your mind bothers you so much. Three thoughts to buck you up:

Fickleness is a hedge against tedium. How boring would it be if you were forced to make a once-and-for-all choice between Mexican and Italian food? Not even Mexicans and Italians want Mexican and Italian for dinner every blessed night.

Fickleness is proof that you’re not dead. Trust me, the day will come when you’ll feel like proof is necessary. But cheer up, consistency is the last thing you should expect from yourself. And I mean that literally: it is the very last thing. Only the dead are consistent.

Fickleness is infinite power. It’s the power of self-definition, first of all. It was Feuerbach or Brillat-Savarin who said it first: ‘you are what you consume.’ There you have the answer to the existential yelp at the end of your letter: Today you are a boy who likes tacos and red and Nikes. Tomorrow you will be a boy who likes pizza and blue and Converse. You can be a different person each day. When you’re a little older and get a job you’ll find that all these various selves are required to share a single bank account, which gets a little crowded, but that’s why credit was invented. Because fickleness is economic power too. As an adult, marketing executives that earn more in a year than you will in ten are going to line up to lick your boots for a buck. Really. Whole industries will rise and fall by your sovereign dime. If it weren’t for your philosophical compulsion to constantly redefine yourself in consumer terms, Tom-Tom, the world economy would collapse – we’d all be dressed in rat skins, eating boiled grass and mashed acorns, and licking salt from the walls of slug-infested caves.

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Magic Words

Metaphysics has usually followed a very primitive kind of quest. You know how men have always hankered after unlawful magic, and you know what a great part in magic words have always played. If you have his name, or the formula of incantation that binds him, you can control the spirit, genie, afrite, or whatever the power may be. Solomon knew the names of all the spirits, and having their names, he held them subject to his will. So the universe has always appeared to the natural mind as a kind of enigma, of which the key must be sought in the shape of some illuminating or power-bringing word or name. The word names the universe’s principle, and to possess it is after a fashion to possess the universe itself. ‘God,’ ‘Matter,’ ‘Reason,’ ‘the Absolute,’ ‘Energy,’ are so many solving names. You can rest when you have them. You are at the end of your metaphysical quest.

~ Wm James, Pragmatism

In the first lecture of Pragmatism, William James writes that “the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned.” The unspoken premise is the individual temperament of a philosopher which he may hide under his cloak or pretend is irrelevant but once revealed serves to explain so much of his thought. I am not an academic and can’t pretend to expertise here (hence any sloppiness below), but James’s book might have gained something, I think, if he’d returned to this notion at the end of it and more frankly examined his own philosophy by its light. If he’d been a character in one of his younger brother’s novels, he’d have been forced to do so.

In Pragmatism James wants us to reconsider the Aristotelian correspondence theory of truth, according to which an idea or assertion is true as far as it reflects the way things really are. By this model, the truth of a statement is independent of our having tested it. So, for example, if I were to give you an envelope and tell you it contained a dollar bill, the statement would be either true or false depending on what was actually in the envelope, even if you never opened it to check my statement against reality. Most people are satisfied with this definition. It’s our common-sense notion of truth in the western world.

James suggests that rather than use the word “truth” to describe a correspondence of assertion and reality we reserve it only for things that have, one way or another, passed a test of verification or proven themselves beneficial. Ideas, according to pragmatism, are tools, and if they don’t “work” for us, they’re meaningless. Reduced like that, James’s idea sounds simple enough, and possibly appealing, but James gets overexcited and there are passages in Pragmatism where he seems to want to discard the correspondence theory of truth altogether. To return to my example of the envelope with the possible dollar bill inside, James might say, for instance, that the assertion “becomes true” when and if we open the envelope and find that it does indeed contain a dollar bill. Truth, James says when he gets carried away with himself, is something that “happens to an idea.”

To be fair, James doesn’t really want to do away with the Aristotelian notion of truth, and he apparently spent some sweat and labor after the publication of Pragmatism trying to calm the apprehensions he roused in some of his readers. But James had been impressed by his friend Charles Pierce’s elucidation of the law of errors which states that repeated minute scientific observations inevitably vary along a plottable curve, allowing us to infer an accurate-enough position (of a star, say) but never making for absolute certainty. Unless we want to go for a ride with Bishop Berkeley, then, and deny the independent material existence of sense objects altogether, there is an unbridgeable (if infinitesimal) gap between things in themselves and our perceptions of them. While that gap may look small from an everyday distance, it can be philosophically dizzying. With his pragmatic redefinition of truth James wanted to build a bridge to cross it while keeping the vertigo to an acceptable level.

James was also laboring under the stark shadow of 19th century German metaphysics and a Darwinian scientific worldview that was just flexing its muscles. Whereas the rationalists of the period wanted to describe a world in which matter is governed hierarchically by mind, science made forceful arguments for mind’s governance by matter instead. What James wanted was a way to honor his pro-scientific empiricist sympathies while at the same time respectably making room for God. Pragmatism’s careful adjustment of terms allows James to test his idea of God, find it psychologically or socially beneficial (i.e. a “working” idea) and proclaim it therefore true. I wonder if he might have found it easier to support his theism nowadays as Hegel and Kant recede in the background and science with its quantum theories and dark matter allows more room for interested speculation.

In the end, however, I find I agree with the judgment of the late Martin Gardner who shared James’s theism but felt that pragmatism was more an attempt to rewrite the dictionary than a philosophy in its own right, and that anyway philosophies departing from the common uses of terms and resorting to private definitions can have little enduring value. If pragmatism had “cash-value” for James himself, I suspect that had something to do with his own unspoken premise, a temperament balanced painfully between what he saw as the irreconcilables of materialistic determinism and the hope that, after all, words really are magic – or can be made so by some delicate adjustments.

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Marginalia, no.173

Belief passes, but to never have believed never passes.

~ Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition

It seems an unlikely coincidence the way Hoffer’s statement echoes Leon Bloy: “Suffering passes, but the fact of having suffered never passes.” If Hoffer intended some kind of comment on Bloy’s idea, I’m not sure what it was. But then Hoffer may never have read Bloy at all. It’s a tempting rhetorical construction for persons given to gassy sententiousness, whether in the negative (Hoffer) or affirmative (Bloy). I hereby adopt it: Blueberry pie passes, but to never have eaten blueberry pie never passes. Skateboarding passes, but the fact of having skateboarded never passes.

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