Tag Archives: Thought

Money, Desire, Pleasure, Pain

Spinoza approached human emotions the way Euclid approached triangles and squares, aiming to understand their inter-relations by means of principles, logic and deduction.

Spinoza’s primitives were pain, pleasure and desire. Everyone who inhabits a human body recognizes these feelings. Just as financial stock options are derivatives that depend on the underlying stock price, so more complex emotions depend on these three primitives pain, pleasure and desire.

Love or hate, then, is pleasure or pain associated with an external object. Hope is the expectation of future pleasure tinged with doubt. Joy is simply the pleasure we experience when that doubtful expectation materializes. Envy is pain at another’s pleasure. Cruelty is a hybrid of all three primitives: it is the desire to inflict pain on someone we love. And so on to all the other emotions …

Figure 1 is a simple diagram I constructed to illustrate Spinoza’s scheme. For Spinoza, good is everything that brings pleasure, and Evil is everything that brings pain. And happiness is good.

Figure 1: Spinoza’s model of emotions


But how does money fit into Spinoza’s scheme?


* My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance
by Emanuel Derman

An Easy Way to Increase Creativity

Creativity is commonly thought of as a personality trait that resides within the individual. We count on creative people to produce the songs, movies, and books we love; to invent the new gadgets that can change our lives; and to discover the new scientific theories and philosophies that can change the way we view the world. Over the past several years, however, social psychologists have discovered that creativity is not only a characteristic of the individual, but may also change depending on the situation and context. The question, of course, is what those situations are: what makes us more creative at times and less creative at others?

One answer is psychological distance. According to the construal level theory (CLT) of psychological distance, anything that we do not experience as occurring now, here, and to ourselves falls into the “psychologically distant” category. It’s also possible to induce a state of “psychological distance” simply by changing the way we think about a particular problem, such as attempting to take another person’s perspective, or by thinking of the question as if it were unreal and unlikely. In this new paper, by Lile Jia and colleagues at Indiana University at Bloomington, scientists have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity.


The Way We Have Become: A Surfeit of Seeming

We are the bees of the invisible.
–Rainer Maria Rlike, Letters

To be visible all the time –to live in a swarm of eyes– surely that leaves its mark on the face.
–Tomas Tranströmer, “Solitude”

The way we live: when I think of that in the cusp of some small frustration—say, holding the phone waiting for a warm-bodied techie—random themes begin to buzz in my brain, like restless bees in a hive. Themes like politics, marketing, celebrity, trust, art, the void. How can I quiet these themes, these concerns, long enough to make sense of the noise?

I do not mean to make an essay out of the tribulations of writing an essay—that’s tacky; I mean only to explain my title as a bewildered approach to the multitudinous present, the way we have become. It’s a large topic, relevant to what V. S. Naipaul called “our universal civilization,” relevant also to all those errant souls—immigrants, refugees, displaced persons, expatriates like myself—wandering the earth. It’s a large topic, but I have tried to hew to a particular line: the tyranny of appearances, a surfeit of seeming in America. Yes, now things must seem, not be.

Bees buzz and also sting. The line I have taken may not always please. But I suspect that even Candide knew in his heart of hearts that whatever is, is not always, well, cool. The difficulty is tact: how to give dissatisfaction its due without slighting the fecundity of the present. In the end, Emerson said, temperament is the “iron wire on which the beads are strung.” In this text, temperament and autobiography do serve as wire, but also something else. Something impersonal. (No, not postmodern theory.) Call it an aspiration to reality beyond the delirium of appearances. That is also to say, an invocation of truth, not absolute but fiduciary—a truth we can trust—as mind, in its give and take, reckons with the world.

But truth, trust, and mind can be weasel words. Some clarification of them, as they apply to this essay, is due before we start fingering the beads.

Philosophers have long puzzled trust as they have puzzled truth. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and Glaucon debate whether trust depends on fear of detection, as in the case of the shepherd Gyges, who found a gold, magic ring in the Lydian wilderness and considered keeping it. This perspective, rooted in rank self-interest, informs subsequent discussions, through Machiavelli and Hobbes and on down to John Nash’s solution—yes, think Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind—of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory. Another perspective, developed by Locke, Hume, Kant, and Rousseau, takes a more benevolent view of human nature, locating trust in love, sympathy, moral responsibility. Then there’s the leap of faith, Kierkegaardian or otherwise, that finds truth and trust—now fused—in a spiritual impulse that overwhelms doubt, defies the weight of the world.

And now? We perceive a crisis of trust, a dearth of veracity, everywhere. (This is not an American dilemma only, as Onora O’Neill’s Reith Lectures of 2002, in Britain, suggest.) Still, I am not wholly persuaded that America has become a culture of mistrust.


The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life

In the days when Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud dominated thinking about child development, small children were thought to be irrational, incoherent, and solipsistic in their thinking and both easily distractible and unfocused in their awareness of the world. Recent work in developmental psychology offers a sharply contrasted picture. “Children are unconsciously the most rational beings on earth,” says Alison Gopnik, “brilliantly drawing accurate conclusions from data, performing complex statistical analyses, and doing clever experiments.” And not only does empirical work reveal this about babies and small children, but what is thus revealed throws light on some of philosophy’s more intriguing questions about knowledge, the self, other minds, and the basis of morality.

Such are the claims made by philosopher and developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik in this fascinating account of the growth of child minds. Gopnik’s affectionate and sympathetic enjoyment of the way children think in their first five years is manifest throughout her book, but so too is her sensitivity to the deeper philosophical implications of what their way of thinking can teach us. The result is absorbing and educative. This is despite the fact that, at times, it seems as if developmental psychology provides arduous scientific confirmation for what parents and preschool teachers have always long known; but Gopnik is skilled at producing the rabbit of insight from an apparently old hat. And there is also much that is new and surprising in the field, all of it promising to change our understanding of mind in general.

Gopnik describes how imagination contributes to the vast amount of knowledge that children acquire in their first few years. Accumulated knowledge allows children to think of alternative ways that the world could be, which in turn helps them to construct mental maps of the causal relationships that govern and explain how things work. I also aids them in forming ideas about how other people think and why they act as they do. Many children have “imaginary friends”; their ability to understand others and to change themselves is aided by the possibilities for exploring alternatives that such play affords.


Boys on a Lorry, Cowcaddens, Glasgow 1958 by Roger Mayne
Photo source:


Berlusconi in Tehran

Slavoj Žižek in the LRB:

Two crucial observations follow. First, Ahmadinejad is not the hero of the Islamist poor, but a corrupt Islamofascist populist, a kind of Iranian Berlusconi whose mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics is causing unease even among the ayatollahs. His demagogic distribution of crumbs to the poor shouldn’t deceive us: he has the backing not only of the organs of police repression and a very Westernised PR apparatus. He is also supported by a powerful new class of Iranians who have become rich thanks to the regime’s corruption – the Revolutionary Guard is not a working-class militia, but a mega-corporation, the most powerful centre of wealth in the country.

Second, we have to draw a clear distinction between the two main candidates opposed to Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi. Karroubi is, effectively, a reformist, a proponent of an Iranian version of identity politics, promising favours to particular groups of every kind. Mousavi is something entirely different: he stands for the resuscitation of the popular dream that sustained the Khomeini revolution. It was a utopian dream, but one can’t deny the genuinely utopian aspect of what was so much more than a hardline Islamist takeover. Now is the time to remember the effervescence that followed the revolution, the explosion of political and social creativity, organisational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. That this explosion had to be stifled demonstrates that the revolution was an authentic political event, an opening that unleashed altogether new forces of social transformation: a moment in which ‘everything seemed possible.’ What followed was a gradual closing-down of possibilities as the Islamic establishment took political control. To put it in Freudian terms, today’s protest movement is the ‘return of the repressed’ of the Khomeini revolution.


Philosophy as complementary science

[P]hilosophy of science can seek to generate scientific knowledge in places where science itself fails to do so; I call this the complementary function of philosophy of science, as opposed to its descriptive and prescriptive functions. I propose taking the philosophy of science as a field which investigates scientific questions that are not addressed in current specialist science — questions that could be addressed by scientists, but are excluded due to the necessities of specialization.

A need for philosophy of science in the complementary mode, or complementary science as I will call it, arises from the fact that specialist science cannot afford to be completely open. (I speak of “specialist science” rather than “normal science”, so as not to distract those who reject Kuhn’s particular ideas about normal science or paradigms.) There are two aspects to this necessary lack of openness. First, in specialist science many elements of knowledge must be taken for granted, since they are used as foundations or tools for studying other things. This also means that certain ideas and questions must be suppressed if they are heterodox enough to contradict or destabilize the taken-for-granted items of knowledge. Such are the necessities of specialist science, quite different from a gratuitous suppression of dissent. Second, not all worthwhile questions can be addressed in specialist science, simply because there are limits to the number of questions that a given community can afford to deal with at a given time. Each specialist scientific community will have some degree of consensus about which problems are most urgent, and also which problems can most plausibly be solved. Those problems that are considered either unimportant or unsolvable will be neglected. All this is not malicious or misguided neglect, but a reasonable act of prioritization necessitated by limitations of material and intellectual resources.

All the same, we must face up to the fact that suppressed and neglected questions represent a loss of knowledge, actual and potential. The complementary function of philosophy of science is to recover and even create such questions and, hopefully, some answers to them as well. Therefore the desired result of research in philosophy of science in this mode is an enhancement of our knowledge and understanding of nature.


(For A.A. =)

Importance of elsewhere

Some time after James Baldwin arrived in Istanbul he settled in Gumussuyu, a neighbourhood that hangs on the side of one of the city’s many hills, above the Golden Horn, the shores of Asia, and even the Sea of Marmara. Baldwin was a drinker, and one of his favourite neighbourhood spots was the Park Hotel. These days that glamorous meeting place is a terrible hulking carcass of a stunted building project, all grey, barren floors and trash heaps, stray dogs barking at nothing all hours of the day. Both vistas – the fabled view, the hovering skeleton – loom outside the living room windows of the great Turkish actor Engin Cezzar, who was largely responsible for Baldwin’s little-known sojourn in Turkey, where he lived on and off throughout the 1960s.

When I went to visit Cezzar last winter, a collection of letters between Baldwin and Cezzar had just been showcased in an Istanbul bookstore along with Baldwin’s translated works, and I told Cezzar I’d bought them. He scowled: “Don’t read Jimmy Baldwin in Turkish, for Christ’s sake.” Cezzar seemed proud of his book, and his special friendship with “Jimmy,” but he had priorities. He prized Baldwin as one thing above all else: a writer.

Cezzar speaks in an old-school dramatic accent, as if prepared to launch into Shakespeare at any moment. (In fact, in Turkey, he is famous for playing Hamlet for 200 nights straight). His relationship with Baldwin lasted three decades, and he is one of the few people who might understand why one of America’s most iconoclastic thinkers, its most profound preacher-essayist, chose to spend most of the 1960s in a country few Americans ever even think of.

When Baldwin left for Istanbul he was, in some ways, just getting started on his lifelong endeavour to dissect America’s race problem: he was not yet the commercial success – or the prophet of the civil rights movement – that he would become during the tumultuous decade that followed.