Sunday Poetry: Junger’s War Observations

Without noticing it, I heavily built my reading schedule this year around of what one might call a “post-liberal reading list”. The idea, that the demise of social institutions might be the inevitable consequence of an ongoing individualization of society struck me as initially convincing. I am currently in search of good examinations on the ultimate effect Liberalism has on the development of social institutions. Hopefully, Steven Horwitz’ “Hayek’s Modern Family” will provide me with some compelling arguments to refute the post-liberal agenda.

Not directly being post-liberal, but pointing towards the importance of “homecoming and belonging”, Sebastian Junger’s book “Tribe” has had a lasting influence on me. I found the following observations of a war refugee voluntary reentering Sarajevo during its siege both fascinating and devastating.

“What catastrophes seem to do – sometimes in the span of a few minutes – is to turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. […]

“‘I missed being that close to people. I missed being loved in that way’, she told me. ‘In Bosnia – as it is now – we don’t trust each other anymore; we became really bad people. We didn’t learn the lesson of the war, which is how important it is to share everything you have with humans being close to you. The best way to explain it is that the war makes you an animal. We were animals. It’s insane – but that’s the basic human instinct, to help another human being who is sitting or standing or lying close to you.’

I asked Ahmetašević if people had ultimately been happier during the war. 
‘We were the happiest,’ Ahmetašević said. Then she added: “And we laughed more.'”

I wish you all a pleasant Sunday.

Psychedelics versus modern philosophy

Anyone who studies philosophy has run into the assumption that psychoactive drugs and philosophy go hand-in-hand. Really, after analytic and continental, and whatever other traditions people come up with, there could be another sect, that of “stoner philosophy,” which is something like Mister Rogers, Alan Watts and Bob Ross thrown into a peaceful blender. This is when you’re sitting around getting high, wondering if aliens exist, instead of sitting in a classroom, wondering if other people’s minds exist.

A historical study of this connection, from East to West, would probably scandalize a lot of “serious” philosophers, and show some regular inebriation, but in general, I think the two are opposed (tragically or not). Particularly, the institutionalization of philosophy, when “natural philosophy” and “moral philosophy” etc all became separated some time after Hobbes, is opposed to what it sees as a lay way of thinking about the world. As my philosophy of science professor told me – you become a philosopher when you have your doctorate.

Professional philosophers and “psychonauts” are in opposition to each other. The analytics and continentals have spent centuries building elaborate systems – developing monstrous levels of specificity, so as to make their work completely incomprehensible to the rest of the world – and earning credentials to close the gates of access. Meanwhile, the casual or professional tripper is able to buy a tab for less than $10 and experience, or imagine they experience, market-price existentialism without reading a page of Camus.

The professional philosopher sneers in bad faith at psychedelic profundity because it makes them seem irrelevant.

On the other hand, the inarticulate tripper is not in such a great place. The psychonaut rests on intuition, and is probably not equipt with the critical thinking and logical itinerary to make sense of the journey on the comedown. A trip promises insight but also promises that neither your epistemic priors nor a rational reconstruction will be enough to establish its validity – by its very nature. (Psychedelic knowledge is “revealed,” not “discovered,” right?) You might get an insight that looks good, but is bad, without you knowing it. (I wrote about this in college. Holy shit my writing was bad.)

What happens when you irrationally, psychonautically attach to an idea that’s immune to logical tinkering? If you believe something for irrational reasons you’ll hang on to it for even longer than something that you believed for rational reasons, because new rational reasons can talk you out of a logogenetic idea, but not an irrationally-formed one. Depending on the centrality of the belief, of course.

The psychonaut claims easy knowledge, but could have trouble organizing it in the other, orderly web of belief of his coldly-discovered priors. However, this kind of knowledge has taken a high prestige today, with help from accredited social figures like Steve Jobs dosing LSD. In a way, the win of casual inebriated profundity is a “people’s victory” over the esoteric, pretentious toils of the professional philosophers. If you can figure out Truth by serotonin-fucking yourself on any day of the week then there’s no need to study Heidegger… and there’s even less reason to get a PhD in phenomenology, making institutional philosophy obsolete.

So, philosophers will be opposed to the psychonauts because it trivializes their hard-earned degrees (bad faith), and trivializes all their carefully crafted logic (slightly less bad faith). Psychonauts will be opposed to the philosophers for their specialized field which must explicitly reject such spontaneous routes to knowledge. The people taking psychedelics find themselves fighting some sort of anti-scientific elitism war, doing Feyerabend’s work. The tension is worse with the professional, modern philosophical class, but still exists in general.

A survey of history would show a lot of intertwining, but ultimately, I think the newer age of philosophy has a lot more overlap with others drugs than psychedelics – which is its own interesting question.

Sunday Poetry: Camus about Europe

Albert Camus is the most influential writers to me (See here why). This passage is from his third “Letter to a German Friend” (1944), depicting his unbroken love for European culture in the dark times of the second world war.

“Sometimes on a street corner, in the brief intervals of the long struggle that involves us all, I happen to think of all those places in Europe I know well. It is a magnificent land moulded by suffering and history. I relive those pilgrimages I once made with all the men of the West: the roses in the cloisters of Florence, the gilded bulbous domes of Krakow, the Hradschin and its dead palaces, the contorted statues of the Charles Bridge over the Vltava, the delicate gardens of Salzburg. All those flowers and stones, those hills and those landscapes where men’s time and the world’s time have mingled old trees and monuments! My memories have fused together such superimposed images to make a single face, which is the face of my true native land. … It never occurred to me that someday we should have to liberate them from you. And even now, at certain moments of rage and despair, I am occasionally sorry that the roses continue to grow in the cloister of San Marco and the pigeons drop clusters from the Cathedral of Salzburg, and the red geraniums grow tirelessly in the little cemeteries of Silesia.”

I wish you all a pleasant Sunday.

Intellectuals You Should Know About

I read a lot. Wide, deep and across quite a number of different fields. As a self-proscribed ‘writer’ and ‘editor’, reading much is both satisfying an intellectual desire and a professionally useful practice in familiarize myself with various styles, voices and topics. A common tip for aspiring writers is to read someone they admire and try to imitate their style; at this, at least, I am somewhat successful, as a friend recently told me that my style reminded him of Deirdre McCloskey. Full of idolized admiration for Deirdre’s work, I couldn’t imagine a higher praise.

As readers, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with the couple of millions of books that are published every year. Not to mention written materials on blog or respectable outlets or in magazines and journals. As consumers of the written word, we are completely outstripped, utterly defenseless and overwhelmingly inundated.

When in September I published my discussion of geographer and anthropologist Jared Diamond’s impressive work, I got a lot of feedback of astonishment from friends and family – including the friend that praised me for occasionally (accidentally…?) write like McCloskey: “Wow,” he said, “I’ve never heard of him before!”

Huh, I thought. I wonder what other household names of public intellectuals are not read as much as they deserve.

My exact reaction of astonishment was more like a gaping “What?!”, betraying my wanna-know-everything attitude, slight elitism and writer lifestyle. Contrary to the belief that our times is one of all talking and no listening (well, writing and no reading), it takes a vast amount of reading before you can produce anything that others want to read. Sure, anybody with a laptop and an internet connection can start a blog and flush out their thoughts (I did so for years) but it takes knowledge to say something intelligent and interesting – knowledge acquired by extensive reading.

It also takes a lot of practice to develop a voice of one’s own. Authors with astonishing and recognizable writing styles are made, not born.

What, then, should you read?

In light of this surprise, I decided to make a list of intellectuals I would advise anybody to read. Note that this is not a list of the most important thinkers ever, nor is it a collection of the most profound academic contribution to various disciplines. Instead it’s a gathering of writers whose popular writing (often in addition to their rigorous academic work) is exactly that – popular. That means that a lot of others liked them (and if you’re anything like others, you might too) and more importantly: a lot of smart people you meet are rather likely refer to these authors or to the ideas contained in their work. Here are 11 authors I would consider to be household names and whose writing will make you a much smarter and interesting person.

Jared Diamond

Let’s begin our list with aforementioned Jared Diamond, whose trilogy on humanity is compulsory reading for pretty-much everyone. This year he released Upheaval, which received very mixed responses and that I decided to skip after hearing his pitch on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast. Diamond’s publisher maintains that this is the third installment of his “monumental trilogy” of how civilizations rise and fall, but to me that was The World Until Yesterday: 

  • Guns, Germs and Steel is the book that definitely made Diamond a well-known name, the kind of Big Picture civilizational economic history we have recently seen in Yuval Harari’s work – the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that strangely boring book that everyone seems to be reading these days – or the less well-known but more captivating Columbia professor Ruth DeFries’ The Big Ratchet. If you like, you could describe this Pulitzer prize-winning book as well-written geographical reasons for why the West is rich and the Rest isn’t. If that’s your thing, read away.
  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the book that my September piece was mostly concerned with, is a dense story of many different human civilizations falling apart: Easter Islanders, Native Americans in the dry southwest or central America and my favourite chapter: The Greenland Norse. Complemented with the Fall of Civilizations podcast and Dan Carlin’s recent book The End is Always Near would make you ridiculously interesting to talk to in these hyper-catastrophist times. Upheaval is a natural extension of Collapse so if you crave more, that one is for you.
  • I would rather point to The World Until Yesterday for Diamond’s third gem as it is a deep dive into the lives of traditional societies in general, but in practice mostly New Guinean societies. Somehow, Diamond made anthropology exciting!

Paul Collier

Rapidly moving up in controversy, Paul Collier is an Oxford development economist whose work most intellectuals have a distinctly firm opinion about. His popular claim to fame rests on:

  • Exodus, a very cool (and prescient!) take on global migration. Highly recommended.
  • The Bottom Billion, for a plunge into global poverty and development economics. It might be slightly outdated (published in 2007) as many of the 60 failing countries he identifies have seem quite some growth in the last decade.

I should also recommend his latest book, Future of Capitalism, but I wasn’t very impressed with it. In these times of political polarization, populist uprisings, urban-rural divides and worries about AI, it is still a relevant read.

Whenever Collier speaks, you want to listen.

The Four Horsemen of Atheism (or “New Atheism”):
Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett

to which we should add the “one Horse-woman“, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom I’m ashamed to only know as “the wife of Niall Ferguson” (yes, my background is money and history, OK, not politics or religion…).

Together, these 5 brilliant minds may have helped many out of their religiosity, but their contributions loom much larger than that. As most of the Western world has gradually abandoned faith, their religious inclinations have turned to other areas: environmentalism (Mike Munger’s take on recycling never gets old!), invented hierarchies or social justice. The writings of these five horsemen can be hugely beneficial here too. Some recommended reading includes:

Speaking of Ferguson, as I’m a big financial history guy, I am shamelessly squeezing in this prolific writer, professor (well, Senior Fellow at Hoover institution nowadays) and public intellectual:

I should also mention his two-volume biography of Henry Kissinger (first volume 2015, next probably finished next year), which I ignored (politics is boring) and his recent book The Square and the Tower, which I heard very bad things about – and so downgraded for now.

Steven Pinker

Ah, this Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist-turned-public-intellectual is a must-read. His top trilogy, which I voraciously consumed last fall, includes:

  • The Blank Slate, the best description of this book that I ever heard came from Charlotta Stern, sociologist at Stockholm University: every sound argument against the “Nurture Only”-idea that biology doesn’t matter compiled into a single book. Yes, you want to read it.
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature, a Big Picture humanity-scale look at violence, resurrecting Norbert Elias’ Civilizing Process theory to explain why we hurt and kill each other less than at probably any point in human history. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (see below) is decidedly not convinced
  • Enlightenment Now! The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as if Better Angels wasn’t Big Picture enough, here’s the ultimate case for why humanity is doing pretty well, why doomsday sayers are wrong on every count and why we shouldn’t despair. Many of the topics of Better Angels re-occur in Enlightenment Now!, but I don’t regret reading both as Pinker’s prose is easy to follow and his content well-sourced should you require more convincing. Originally a cognitive scientist, he has a ton of more books you might wanna check out – The Language Instinct, for instance, ranks pretty high on my Next Up list:
  • The Language Instinct
  • How the Mind Works
  • The Stuff of Thought

Matt Ridley

Speaking of optimistic people taking a Big Picture view of humanity, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley is a must. Tall (like me!), Oxford-educated (like me!) and techno-optimist (like me!), no wonder I like him.

At last, How Innovation Works is schedule for May 2020. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Oh, boy – here’s a controversial one. Frequently does he get into loud and hostile arguments with other high-profile intellectuals, and rarely does he pull any punches. His popular writing is found in the “Incerto” serie – the Latin term for ‘doubt’ or ‘uncertainty’ that capture Taleb’s core work. The set of books are together described as “an investigation of luck, uncertainty, probability, opacity, human error, risk, disorder, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand:”

They are intended to push One Big Idea: that we frequently overlook how random the world is, ascribing causality where none belongs and overestimate what we can know from (relatively recent) past events. Black Swans, the proverbial unpredictable event, dominates the social sciences in Taleb’s view. While the 2000-odd pages worth of the Incerto series may seem daunting, the books (and even the individual chapters) are designed not to fall very far from each other. The interested reader can, in other words, pick any one of them and work backwards in accordance with whatever is of interest. You wanna read all – or any – of them.

Having read Fooled by Randomness first, I’ve always held that highest. Be ready for a lot of sarcastic and frequently hostile (but thoughtful) objections of things you took for granted.

In sum: just bloody read more

Any selection of important contemporary intellectuals is arbitrary, highly skewed and super-unfair. There are more, many more, whose fantastic writings deserve attention. As I said, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with avalanche of cool stuff written every year.

As readers, we are overrun – and the only thing you can do to keep is is to read more. Read widely.

Above are some amazing thinkers. Drop me a line or tweet me with readings you would add to a list like this.

Discovery Processes

A good friend of mine encouraged me to read this note published by James Jay Carafano, Vice President of The Heritage Foundation.

Despite being as compelling as it is well intentioned, the article misses to mention one of the main arguments for free markets: what once Friedrich Hayek described as “the competition as a discovery process.”

Indeed, the concept is insinuated in Carafano’s piece of writing: “He decided to make a splash in the sports car market by jumping into the race car racket. Initially, he planned to do it by buying the world’s premier race car manufacturer, Ferrari. But that plan fell flat. So Ford moved to Plan B: to field his own, all-American team.”

Businessmen, like any other kind of people, are rational: initially, they try to maximize their profits by avoiding competition. They are not heroes and nobody can ask them to be so. People, businessmen included, respond to incentives.

When there is not any other choice than competition, then innovation, ingenuity, and creativity arise. Not because of a change in the mind of certain businessmen, but for new innovative entrepreneurs outperform the non competitive ones.

The free market capitalist system James Jay Carafano praises is mostly an institutional arrangement named -once  again- by Hayek as “competitive order.” Nevertheless, the most interesting question for our times is not about the virtues of the said free market capitalist system -which seem to be out of discussion- but whether competition under the rule of law deserves to have a Kantian “Cosmopolitan Purpose.”

Sunday Poetry: Adorno about traffic lights

I hate the Frankfurt School. Even more, I hate Theodor W. Adorno. Apart from his atrocious Sociology (I think his philosophy is ridiculous too, but I have not dealt with it in depth yet), he had a very bizarre opinion on Jazz.
However, he seemed to be a heavy fan of traffic lights. In 1962 he wrote the following words to the local newspaper:

“When crossing the Senckenberg plant, near the corner of Dantestraße, one of our secretaries was run over and seriously injured after a passerby had been killed in an accident at the same place a few days earlier. On the way to university, one has to run across the street in an unworthy way, as if one was running for his life. If a student, or a professor, is in the state that is actually appropriate for him, namely in his mind, then the threat of death is immediately prevalent.” 

In consequence of his rant, albeit 25 years later, the city built the now-famous Adorno-Ampel in Frankfurt near his faculty. Kind of lovely anecdote.

I wish you all pleasant Sunday.

Sunday Poetry: Rilke’s “Autumn Day”

It has been a more than stressful week. To indulge in Rilke’s dreamy thoughts is not only a perfect stress-relief but also a chance to reminisce about the most beautiful moments of this autumn.

Rainer Maria Rilke – Autumn Day

“Lord: it is time. Great was the summer’s feast.
Now lay upon the sun-dials your shadow
And on the meadows have the winds released

Command the last fruits to round their shapes;
Grant two more days of south for vines to carry,
to their perfection thrust them on, and harry
the final sweetness into heavy grapes.

Who has not built his house, will not start now.
Who is now by himself will long be so,
Be wakeful, read, write lengthy letters, go
In vague disquiet pacing up and down
Denuded lanes, with leaves adrift below.”

 

I wish you all a pleasant Sunday.