Lisa Levy, Alain de Botton and the meaning of intellectuals and their relationship to sex

Lisa Levy’s How to Be a Pseudo-Intellectual (actual title: “How To Think More (But Not Better): Alain de Botton’s School of Life”) isn’t really about de Botton’s How To Think More About Sex so much as it is about throwing rocks at de Botton’s intellectual middle road from the high road where most supposed scholars are unread, unloved, and unsexed.* It’s true that How To Think More About Sex is de Botton’s weakest book, to the point that I didn’t bother reviewing it because it’s so bad; any pop evolutionary psychology book from the last ten years offers more and better information, and sex is arguably the field least informed by the philosophy and philosophers most often in de Botton’s purview.

But his other books are fun and informative. Levy writes that “he often seems like a grad student who shows up to seminar having done just enough of the reading to participate by jumping on other people’s comments, but who never makes an original observation of his own.” Maybe “an original observation” is overrated in philosophy, especially compared to accessibility. Levy writes that “he tends to meander and summarize after a quotation rather than using it to drive his own argument forward,” but if de Botton meanders in an interesting way—which he usually does, in books like The Architecture of Happiness and his novel On Love, which is charming (a word that never appears among academics trying to prosecute dubiously original arguments)—then he’s at least doing one thing better than 90% of those allegedly being original. For one thing, he’s writing clearly enough to make a judgment about originality; how many doctoral dissertations and tenure books are written in impenetrable, deliberately misleading jargon, such that it’s difficult or impossible to tell whether an argument is original?

Most people trying to make “an original observation of [their] own” don’t seem to make actual original contributions but do bloviate quite a bit. If more people admitted to synthesizing and fewer had to pretend to originality, we’d probably live in a better original world. Levy says that “he’s not exactly Michel Foucault,” and I’d call that a very good thing.

That being said, however, Levy is right that “This might in fact be the most boring book ever written about sex.” Sex might also be the field that, of all that de Botton has addressed, philosophy is the least well-equipped to handle, especially compared to current psychology and biology.

Still, the funniest bits of The Consolations of Philosophy concern the number of aged philosophers in their twilight years who fall for vapid but hot teenage girls and adult women, which could arguably tell us more about the nature of life than all of their books combined; actions speak louder than words, as the cliché goes, and what one wants in the midst of composing a monumental manuscript may be different from what one wants when confronted with real people. De Botton describes how the 43-year-old Schopenhauer “turns his attentions to Flora Weiss, a spirited girl who has turned seventeen,” and feels “revolted” by his gift of white grapes. Nietzsche, similarly, faced rejection from “a twenty-three-year old, green-eyed blonde” named Mathilde Trampedach. From there, “a succession of similar rejections took their toll” in his marriage proposals, caused in part, perhaps, by “his extraordinarily large walrus mustache” and “his shyness.” Later still, he chased around a twenty-one-year-old hottie (my word), who “was more interested in Nietzsche as a philosopher than a husband.”

Perhaps we should consider philosophers’ work in light of their lives, and the lessons we should take are not necessarily those entombed in The World as Will and Representation or On the Genealogy of Morality. Alas, however, that de Botton might have instead worked to write original observations that go unread in a university library somewhere instead.


* Hannah Arendt and a few others famously excepted.

Links: Libido, computers and education, distraction, prisons, art, and more

* Sexually unexcited? There may be a pill for that.

* Visualizing America’s absurd parking requirements; this could be seen as a complement to The High Cost of Free Parking.

* Giving computers to low-income kids does nothing to change outcomes.

* Focusing in a maddening distracting world.

* Flash eBook deals appear; another way of looking at this is seeing the rising value of older books that are just as accessible as newer ones.

* Ten minute lesbian sex scene sets Cannes ablaze; Blue Is the Warmest Color added to Netflix queues everywhere.

* “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.”

* How Capitalism Can Save Art, and has already in my view, though I would say “has changed” rather than “Can Save” art.

* What is happening in Istanbul.

* “To ‘the’ or Not to ‘the’?

Social news sites and forums should encourage users to blog

In online forum culture, there’s a strong bias against linking to a poster’s own blog. That bias often slides into strict rule enforcement that degrades the quality of the forum itself, because most people who regularly produce substantive writing will want their own, ideally non-transient, forum for such writing. A blog provides that and most websites don’t. That means sites like Reddit—which has an overly strong opposition to what they call “blogspam”—tend towards intellectual vacuousness.

I’ve seen people on Slashdot, Hacker News, and most notably Reddit decry blogspam. The decrying is sometimes justified: writing a weak, sloppy post and linking to or submitting it is a play for readers at the expense of the reader’s time. But there’s a very good to encourage linking to longer, more thoughtful writing: it’s often higher quality than most of what one finds in online forums.

Let’s use myself as an example. Some posts here take hours to write and reflects many more hours of deliberate research—which few (though not zero) forum posts do. Forums and social media encourage the ad-hoc and fast (that’s sometimes appropriate). While blogs can do the same, there’s a stronger cultural tendency, especially since the rise of Facebook and Twitter, to write more thoughtfully, more essayistically. Clearly this is not universal. It’s possible to find deeply thoughtful forum posts and dumb blog posts, but as a general tendency the rule holds. Even those who don’t consciously make the distinction between work on a free-standing blog and a temporary forum post probably intuitively feel the difference, though they may not have articulated it.

And there’s a good reason for people writing blogs to prefer depth: on blogs, the writer controls, or should control, their own content. I can export all my WordPress posts and take them with me to whatever the blogging platform of 2020 might be. That’s not true of Reddit. Anyone who invested heavily in a Slashdot identity circa 1999 – 2004 now feels like an idiot: that identity is basically worthless. Few people read Slashdot anymore. Any substantive comments are trapped there, invisible in the eyes of Google and Bing (which is like being invisible in the eyes of God).

By contrast, many of the substantive blogs out there are still out there. Work I published in 2009 can, and often is, still be relevant, while I can’t even keep track of the forum posts I wrote in 2009. They’re too disparate. Blogs act as repositories. Social news sites live in a perpetual present, with little sense of history or books. Few evidence any sign of outside reading, or knowledge that they’re not the first to contemplate most issues or problems.

In addition, the proliferation of social media sites means that the comparative advantage for blog writers has been moving towards depth, since on social media sites one-liners or short responses rule.

Online culture comments obsessively on itself. This is one such form of commentary, and it’s really about the way form tends to shape data—or, to use McLuhan’s often misunderstood formulation, the way medium affects message. There are many subtle gradations of online media, and I find the near-war between quasi social sites like Reddit and blogs to be fascinating.

The dislike on Reddit for blogs makes the discourse shallower and, to me, more boring. It’s too bad and also ensures that many people who do know a lot—who are experts—won’t bother going. If mods can kill a post that someone spent ten hours writing and editing, so that morons who could answer their own queries with a simple Google search can ask yet another inane question, why bother?

I’m being deliberately inflammatory in the preceding paragraph, but that’s what the situation deserves. People who know a lot will tend to avoid areas with a lot of novices or fools, and as novices grow into being experts, the fora that gave them their start will tend to be abandoned.

(Universities, incidentally, are usually too focused on depth at the expense of breadth and impact. They should focus more on rewarding impact, since much of the nominal “depth” in humanities departments if faux, but that’s another issue.)

I’m going to use Reddit as an example: most of the semi-specialized sub-Reddits, like the ones devoted to photography and writing, are only useful to absolute novices. Anyone who gets past that phase will get tired of the same basic questions and issues arising again and again. At the same time, those sections prevent or discourage users from posting their own material. Consequently, as users become more sophisticated, they drift away and gather their own audience, often in blogs or Flickr accounts or elsewhere. What’s left are a steady stream of novices, which is very useful when one is a novice but not at all useful when one outgrows the novice phase and wants to explore the deeper implications of a subject, art, or craft.

A slice of the mind of the Democratic National Committee, as revealed in a survey

The Democratic National sent me a political survey, and their cover letter said that I’m a registered Democrat (which I don’t think is true—if I recall correctly, I haven’t identified with any party, although I might be wrong; I’ve registered to vote in many places). My responses to the questions are less interesting than what the questions themselves reveal about the minds behind the Democratic party. One section of this survey, for example, says this:

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This section is also representative of the survey as a whole. Notice how most of the questions are about power and fighting against Republicans, rather than what sorts of things Democrats actually want to do with that power. The party seems more obsessed with its opponents than its agenda. The rest of the survey is similarly focused on Republicans.

A survey is just a survey, and it might only reflect the thinking of the people or consultants who it, rather than being an indication about what the Democratic Party as a whole. But if it does reflect the mainstream of the thinking in Democratic party, I don’t think the party is focused on what it should be focused on. Pursuing power for its own sake is a constant temptation in politics, and it often seems like politicians are more enraptured with power itself than with the specific forms that power takes.

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