A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Reading the Best of 2015, Part Two

(Previous instalment, and all future instalments, can be found under the Golden Giraffes tag)

A Magical Answer to an 80-Year-Old Problem, by Erica Klarreich, was interesting enough to be worth reading, but I don't feel like I really learned anything from it. It's very easy to understand, which is a massive plus when writing about maths, but that's because there's very little actual mathematical content.

Les Green's Bullshit Titles was the first essay on the list that I had already read, but was worth reading again. This essay says nothing which is profound or of great importance, but it is a worthy contribution to the philosophy of bullshit as well as an easy introduction to the subject for people who have no prior acquaintance with it. As with Klarreich's essay I would recommend it more as entertainment than as making a substantial addition to one's mental toolkit, but it should perhaps be read by all prospective humanities PhD students:
In particular, never allow doctoral students to use subtitles. Either there is good reason to study three years of decisions of the Milk-Marketing Board or there isn’t. (By ‘good reason’ I mean dissertation-wise. It’s a low standard.) If there is, they should have the courage of their convictions and make the subject their title. If there isn’t, do not allow them to waste their intellectual careers on trivia and then package it up in a bullshit title.

Past Perfect, by Richard. H. McAdams, is an extended review of Go Set a Watchman. I have not read GSAW and have not read beyond the first few pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, but this essay reinforced my impression that I really should. McAdams made the point well that, as much as an individual mights be more morally enlightened than the society in which they live, they will still be constrained by it. In TKAM Atticus Finch is genuinely a hero, but it is his respect for due process and equality before the law that motivates him: not, as we might like to imagine, a genuine belief in racial equality. This is the longest read so far, but it's worth the time.

Perhaps I would have found Peter McCleery's Thank you for calling Mamet's Appliance Centre more amusing if I were more familiar with Mamet's work. I assume that there's background I'm missing, because without that context this is nothing more than a needlessly foul-mouthed, slightly absurdist conversation between two rather dim people.

Alain de Botton starts in Why We Hate Cheap Things with the observation that experiences which a hundred or more years ago would have been enrapturing - eating a pineapple from exotic climes, flying in an aeroplane to touch the face of God, etc - are nowadays seen as commonplace, even boring. His thesis is that this is because we tend to conflate value and cost, assuming that things which cost more must necessarily provide us with greater utility. This is plainly false when one thinks about it, yet de Dotton believes that we tend to behave as though we believe it - and thereby deny ourselves a lot of the wonder of the world. The solution, then, is to be more childlike and to appreciate more the amazing world in which we live.

de Botton is correct at the start of his essay, and at the end of it. The modern world is indeed an incredible place, which we would do well to appreciate more, and goods which used to inspire great envy and desire are indeed quite ordinary. Some rainbows have, alas, been unwoven. But de Botton's explanation for this phenomenon is sorely lacking the concept of social status, which would explain most (all? I'm not certain about the aeroplanes) of what he wants to without raising a whole bunch of side questions.

Like: why do people have this tendency? de Botton claims it emerged in a time when price and quality genuinely did go hand in hand, but (a) is it really plausible to think that there was ever a time when all goods provided equal marginal utility, so that there were no cheap but really worthwhile goods? (b) Even this were the case, why would people follow this heuristic rather than one of (imperfect) utility maximisation? (c) Why do we still have this tendency? Is it biological, like many of our ethical impulses, or is it social and learned?

I did enjoy de Botton's elegy to advertising towards the end of the piece, but in general you could get the good of this essay without the bad by reading "I, Pencil." That's not to say this is a bad essay - it's just, unfortunately, wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment