Justin's Dialogues

Topic Summary: The topic will consist of philosophical dialogues I’ve been writing to improve my ideas. The primary focus is morality & working on emotions. I wrote these for my own understanding and reflection but thought it would be a good idea to try sharing at least some of them. I talk a lot about Stoicism since I’ve been reading a lot about Stoicism lately, but Objectivism and CF/FI/curi ideas also come up.

Goal: Get criticism and feedback on my dialogues and improve my thinking on the topics discussed. Direct criticism regarding the substantive ideas discussed, writing criticism, criticism regarding the sufficiency of citations or sourcing, typographical or grammatical corrections, meta criticism (about the worthiness of writing these dialogues as a use of time, or whatever), and any other types of criticism I have not mentioned are all expressly welcome.

Why are you posting this in Unbounded? The topic is about pure philosophy and I want unbounded criticism.

Do you want unbounded criticism? Yes.

Notes: I plan on publishing cleaned up/improved versions on my blog. Note that I haven’t been paying attention to sourcing/giving credit for ideas because I have been focusing on writing, so criticisms on that point are particularly welcome.

The Truth Hurts

Bob (B): Here’s a quote from How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (footnotes omitted):

By contrast, Epictetus, in typical Stoic fashion, continually warned his students not to confuse academic learning with wisdom and to avoid petty arguments, hairsplitting, or wasting time on abstract, academic topics. He emphasized the fundamental difference between a Sophist and a Stoic: the former speaks to win praise from his audience, the latter to improve them by helping them to achieve wisdom and virtue. Rhetoricians thrive on praise, which is vanity; philosophers love truth and embrace humility. Rhetoric is a form of entertainment, pleasant to hear; philosophy is a moral and psychological therapy, often painful to hear because it forces us to admit our own faults in order to remedy them—sometimes the truth hurts. Epictetus’s own teacher, the Stoic Musonius Rufus, used to tell his students, “If you have leisure to praise me, I am speaking to no purpose.” Hence, the philosopher’s school, said Epictetus, is a doctor’s clinic: you should not go there expecting pleasure but rather pain.

Adam (A): I’m not sure I buy the bit about how a connection between philosophy and pain.

B: I think that’s assuming a typical context of a person who doesn’t yet know tons of philosophy. They’re going to be ignorant of a lot of problems in their life, and engaging with philosophy in an effective way that relates to their problems and life is going to mean realizing the existence of problems that they have been evading and trying to deal with them instead of just constantly putting it off. As you get better at philosophy, I would guess that things would not be so painful. That’s not to say that you still wouldn’t realize and deal with new problems in ways that might be challenging and difficult, but once you’ve got some philosophical perspective it’s a different sort of thing.

We can consider an analogy between starting to work on philosophy and starting to work out. At the very beginning of working out, everything is hard, and you might not even be able to do “basic” exercises, or only manage them with great difficulty. As you make progress in your fitness, you’ll still hopefully be challenging yourself, but you won’t be desperately struggling to do a single pushup. You’ll eventually be stronger overall, and have a better sense of your strengths and weaknesses. However, if you approach working out with a big fear of pushing yourself too hard, such that you never find out what your limitations are, then your progress will be much slower. You need to approach the project smartly, and not take dumb risks, but you also need to be resilient, and not be afraid of a little pain or a minor setback.

A: Are you saying that you shouldn’t try to avoid psychological pain when engaging in philosophy? And instead you should be resilient and try to shrug it off if it does happen?

B: Basically, yeah. I don’t think it’s really practical for most people to not experience any psychological pain, and I don’t think it’s practical not to engage at all with philosophy. You have to make improvements in your life with the mental equipment (in terms of ideas and emotional reactions) that you have, and try to improve from there. And philosophy can reduce the amount of psychological pain you experience, so overall, in the long run, I think it would lead to less pain if you engaged with philosophy, even if it increased your pain in the short run.

Remember that the Stoics were all about emotional tranquility as a great virtue. So I don’t think their idea was that you should have to experience constant agony in order to be philosophical. But if you need to learn a lot of philosophy and have lots of problems to wake up to, there is going to be a rough transition period.

People have ongoing psychological pain in their lives. They have various problems that are not getting solved. They might have stress from work. They might fight with their spouse. They might have arguments with their children. Sometimes they can push away thinking about their problems, but sometimes not. Lots of people put on a front and pretend to be okay when they’re frequently upset. Engaging with philosophy might bring these problems more to the forefront in a way that people find difficult to deal with, but it’s not the engagement with philosophy that’s causing the pain. If anything it’s the prior lack of engagement with philosophy that’s causing the pain. Extending the workout analogy, people deal with problems related to weakness all the time in their daily lives. But the instances of dealing with those issues, like not being able to lift a heavy bag easily or at all, might be spread out, so people don’t notice it too much. But then if you start working out in a more deliberate way, you might notice it more and be pretty sore at first. But the problem of your weakness was pre-existing. And by working out you are making progress on the problem. So that is progress.

A: So if psychological pain occurs in relation to the helpful activity of learning philosophy, then that may just be a sign that you are starting to deal with problems that you already had, and is thus fine?

B: Yes. Another way to think about the issue is that being able to experience some psychological pain and shrug it off increases our freedom. If we just shy away from psychological pain and avoid anything that causes us psychological pain, then we are being controlled by the psychological pain. If, on the other hand, we have tolerance for some psychological pain, and can shrug it off and continue with our plan, we are more able to do things despite the psychological pain.

People say you shouldn’t ignore pain and that’s true. If you’re working on philosophy, that includes things like working on your emotions and psychology. So that’s not ignoring the pain, but directly addressing it!

A: Interesting. One of the things the quote above talked about is a distinction between rhetoric and philosophy. What did you think of that?

B: I am reminded of something people do in order to make philosophy less threatening. They try to engage with ideas that sound sophisticated or impressive. They want to deal with big sweeping abstractions like the meaning of Justice. They want to think and talk about complicated ideas in metaphysics or epistemology. But they don’t want to carefully consider things that might apply to their own life, like lying, dishonesty, evasion, and other vices. Consideration of moral errors that people make is a part of philosophy, but it is a part that people find threatening. Expressed in terms similar to the quote above, people prefer pleasant rhetoric to painful philosophy. But that’s a mistaken prefer if their goal is to improve their lives.

Morality Dialogue

(long dialogue with multiple subparts)

Prerequisite Knowledge

Adam (A): Hi.

Bob (B): Hi.

A: Is it possible that I could act in a way that I think is reasonable and in good faith, and nonetheless that I could be morally wrong?

B: Sure.

A: But if I’m acting in a way that seems to me to be reasonable and in good faith, doesn’t that indicate that I’m acting decently?

B: No. First of all, you could be fooling yourself about how you’re actually acting, even by your own lights. But let’s table the fooling yourself issue for now. Let’s say that, based on your best understanding of how to act correctly, you are acting in a totally reasonable way. You might be mistaken about the right way to act.

A: Explain.

B: Well let’s consider another field. Suppose you have some sort of math or programming problem or something like that. You might diligently pursue the problem, attempt to organize the information about the problem in a way that you regard as reasonable, and earnestly attempt to solve the problem with diligent effort over time. And yet you might fail because you have some misconception about how to approach the problem, or because you lack relevant background knowledge that’s critical to figuring the problem out.

A: But if I proceeded in the manner described above - diligently and in an organized way - isn’t that a pretty reasonable way of going about it, given my goal of solving the problem?

B: No, because the reasonable thing to do would be to double-back and fill in the gaps regarding the relevant background knowledge, instead of trying to make progress on a problem that’s too hard for you. It’s inefficient to work on problems that are too hard for you at your current level of knowledge. Even your most earnest efforts can’t surmount a sufficiently large gap of necessary background knowledge.

It’s like, if you were new to studying some foreign language, it would not be reasonable to try to write a novel in it. You’re just not there yet. Acknowledging that reality isn’t necessarily saying anything bad about you, and isn’t commenting on the viability of your long term goals. But if you lack the necessary background knowledge to do some task, that’s just a fact. It doesn’t matter how organized or persistent you are or how much good faith or earnestness you have. It’s objectively a mistake to take on the novel writing project at that time. You have to fill in the gaps first.

The reason I mentioned math and programming and foreign languages as examples is that I think that it’s easier to see the issue of prerequisite knowledge in the case of those fields - where people respect the amount of knowledge involved - than in a field like morality, where people rely on their intuitions more.

Inadequacy of Moral Intuitions

A: What’s wrong with relying on your moral intuitions? Aren’t those pretty good?

B: Well, intuitions can be pretty good, because of the traditional knowledge that’s embodied in them, and you shouldn’t be a rationalist and just throw them out or something like that. But they’re not at all infallible or sufficient. Your intuitions aren’t some kind of direct link to reality. For most people, they’re based on things that you picked up from your family and the culture at large. You also may have picked up some stuff doing philosophy reading, and may have even figured out a few things yourself. But whatever the source of your moral intuitions, there can be mistakes in them, and you shouldn’t rely on them or be surprised at the idea that they might be wrong.

People can be mistaken about even “obvious” things. People have had majorly mistaken ideas about what the stars in the night sky were, or what the sun was, despite literally being able to see those things in the sky. The evidence of the senses was directly available, and yet people, being fallible, made various mistakes. Why would morality be any different? Another way of thinking about this is - why would morality be a field, unlike other fields, where major progress would be impossible, and where it would be possible to just rely on intuitions and traditional knowledge and have that be sufficient?

People respect the knowledge that goes into things like physics, mathematics, and computer science, but do not respect the knowledge that goes into morality. They recognize that technical fields require study, and specialized study, even though some knowledge overlaps - mathematicians respect the specialized knowledge in the physics field, and vice versa. People aren’t arrogant in thinking that because they know one field that’s kind of related to another, that they’re experts in the other field. People often sort of treat morality as their expertise, and their moral intuitions as the obvious truth. And they don’t do this on the basis of having made a serious study of morality themselves, but on the basis of the moral ideas that they’ve picked up here and there from the culture at large, including bits that contradict one another.

Moral intuitions are unreliable. Consider the things that are or have been in agreement with at least people’s moral intuitions for some significant period of time: slavery, racism, homophobia, honor killings, marital rape, witchhunts, and so on. People believe in and do all sorts of awful things because they think they’re good in some way, based on the moral intuitions they’ve developed based on ideas that they have picked up from the culture at large. So moral intuitions aren’t any sort of perfect guide to whether something is good. You shouldn’t ignore them, but you shouldn’t rely on them either. You have to use your reason to figure out what’s right.

Rational Processes for Learning Morality

A: It’s upsetting to me to think that I might have moral ideas that are as bad as some of the things you just mentioned.

B: Well, our moral ideas are just as fallible as any of our other ideas, so you should expect them to be mistaken. But I think that your issue is a common issue that people have. People want to think that they are good, decent people, and don’t want to feel bad about the possibility that they might be making a bunch of moral mistakes. So they avoid considering the possibility that they’re making major moral mistakes by dismissing people with alternate moral views as ridiculous, as assholes, as obviously wrong. So they throw out criticism of their moral ideas categorically in order to protect themselves from the possibility of feeling bad about mistakes in their moral ideas.

A: So what is the right approach?

B: Well, first, I don’t think that you should be majorly concerned about the possibility of moral mistakes that nobody knows about. Those no doubt exist, and it’s worth spending some time trying to think about what those might be like, but I wouldn’t make those a major focus. I think a better focus, in the spirit of Paths Forward, would be: suppose someone figures out some major mistake in existing moral knowledge that you don’t currently know about. Do you have a process set up whereby you’ll benefit from that moral knowledge? In other words, do you have a process set up to benefit from other people’s moral discoveries such that you’ll avoid making avoidable mistakes, given the best existing knowledge in the moral field?

So the emphasis is basically on having a rational process of error correction set up. Don’t worry about moral perfection according to some standard of perfect knowledge. Don’t expect yourself to be some pioneer in the field. Don’t beat yourself up for having some ideas that might be mistaken. Instead, seek to correct the moral mistakes that people have already figured out as best as you can.

Separating Judgments & Emotions

A: The not-beating-yourself-up thing seems pretty hard for me. How do you work on that?

B: I think one thing to think about is that coming to a judgment about a thing is different than having a particular emotional experience about a thing. I think that confusion on this point is part of why people retreat from moral judgment.

A: Explain.

B: Suppose you realize that you have a tendency to get very angry and have, as they say, a “short fuse”, and this causes you various problems in your professional and personal life. Lots of people would feel bad about this realization, as they think that it reflects negatively upon their character, and they think that things that negatively reflect on their character are things they should feel bad about. Something like the belief I’ve just emphasized in bold is a critical link in the chain of going from a judgment about something to feeling bad about it.

People only feel bad about certain things. Suppose you have trouble reaching something on a high shelf in a supermarket because you are short. While some people might be a bit embarrassed about that, people wouldn’t typically feel bad about it in a self-reproachful, morally negative way because they don’t think that their height reflects badly on them regarding what sort of person they are, and so there is no negative judgment to start the chain of reasoning that results in the negative emotion. Here is a diagram comparing two cases in the abstract:

You’ll note that under “Further Result” on the left side, I mention that a result of feeling bad is that you avoid thinking about or changing X. If they feel bad about something, most people’s reaction is to not want to think about it. So then they don’t think about it, don’t consider it, and don’t change it. People’s intuitive emotional reaction is to feel bad about a negative moral self-judgment, but that very reaction often makes it harder for them to make the changes necessary to fix the behavior that they judge to be morally bad.

So, imagine that you could break down this automatic chain of reactions. Imagine that you could separate a judgment about something as negatively reflecting upon your character and your emotional reaction to that information. So you can engage in the negative moral judgment, but not experience the negative emotions attached to that judgment. What would be the result then? Well, I think you’d could think more effectively about the thing you judged negatively, and thus be in a better position to implement changes. So we might imagine this alternate diagram for such an outcome:

The Stoics talked a lot about separating emotions and judgments. As an example, Epictetus wrote in The Enchiridion that “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” I think that part of the principles and notions that people form about things is the sort of emotional reactions to have about certain things. That’s a separate idea, a separate notion, a separate chunk of information apart from the idea that something is bad in itself.

A: So you’re saying that it’s possible to have a negative moral judgment regarding oneself without necessarily experiencing a negative emotion about oneself, and that this would be better from the perspective of being able to make moral progress?

B: Yes and some points on that.

I think it’s a counterintuitive point overall. I think many people would think that it’s quite negative to not experience negative emotions in response to a negative moral judgment - that to be detached from your negative moral judgments in that way might indicate some sort of bad emotional detachment or even psychopathy. Consider, for example, the significance that people attach to whether an apology is “heartfelt”, by which they may mean that the apologizer feels some significant emotional regret. But based on the argument I’ve laid out above, it actually appears as if emotions can actually get in the way, and it’d be better, from a problem-solving perspective, to treat whatever the issue is as you might treat debugging some code instead of as some major object of shame or guilt. But the culture values heartfeltness over rational analysis that might actually solve the problem.

Secondly, don’t worry about not experiencing negative emotions at all in regards to negative self-judgments. I think that’s going to be a hard place for people to reach. So I would start with trying to avoid lingering on them and languishing in them. If you have some immediate negative emotional reaction, fine, okay, but the push it out of the way. Don’t let it guide your judgment or control your actions.

I think that this way of thinking about things solves an important problem. People, as I’ve said, experience negative moral self-judgments in a negative emotional way that causes them problems. People also experience negative moral judgments of others as very pressuring because they 1) think maybe the other person has a point and so 2) they create negative emotions internally in response, to the extent they think the other person has a point, just as they would if they’d come up with the negative moral self-judgment themselves. So taking the approach of trying to detach the negative moral self-judgments from the negative emotional reaction can let you deal with negative moral judgments - both from yourself and others - in a forthright way. You can deal with such negative moral judgments without wanting to evade, get mad at the other person, or throw out morality altogether. And to the extent you can do that, I think it helps with your moral progress.

Finding & Fixing Defects in Character

(Quotation from Chapter 3 of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor):

What was the process of being mentored by a Stoic philosopher actually like, though? Why did it have such a profound and lasting impact on Marcus? The Stoics wrote several books describing their psychotherapy of the passions, including one by Chrysippus, the third head of the school, titled The Therapeutics. Unfortunately, these are all lost to us today. However, a treatise titled On the Diagnosis and Cure of the Soul’s Passions survives, written by Marcus’s celebrated physician, Galen. A polymath with an eclectic taste in philosophy, Galen had initially studied under a Stoic called Philopater, and he drew upon early Stoic philosophy, quoting Zeno, in his own account of diagnosing and curing unhealthy passions. This may give us some clues about the nature of the Stoic “therapy” Marcus went through with Rusticus.

As a young man, Galen wondered why the Delphic Oracle’s maxim to “know thyself” should be held in such high regard. Doesn’t everyone already know himself? He gradually came to realize, though, that only the very wisest among us ever truly know ourselves. The rest of us, as Galen observed, tend to fall into the trap of supposing either that we are completely without fault or that our flaws are few, mild, and infrequent. Indeed, those who assume that they have the fewest flaws are often the ones most deeply flawed in the eyes of others. This is illustrated by one of Aesop’s fables, which says that each of us is born with two sacks suspended from our neck: one filled with the faults of others that hangs within our view and one hidden behind our back filled with our own faults. We see the flaws of others quite clearly, in other words, but we have a blind spot for our own. The New Testament likewise asks why we look at the tiny splinter of wood in our brother’s eye yet pay no attention to the great plank of wood obscuring our own view (Matthew 7:3–5). Galen says that Plato explained this well when he said that lovers are typically blind regarding the one they love. As we, in a sense, loves ourselves most of all, we are also most blind with regard to our own faults. The majority of us therefore struggle to attain the self-awareness required to improve our lives.

Galen’s solution to this problem is for us to find a suitable mentor in whose wisdom and experience we can genuinely trust. Anyone can tell when a singer is truly dreadful, but it takes an expert to notice very subtle flaws in a performance. Likewise, it takes a person of moral wisdom to discern slight defects in another person’s character. We all know that someone is angry when their face turns red and they start yelling, but a true expert on human nature would be able to tell when someone is just on the verge of getting angry, perhaps before they even realize it themselves. We should therefore make the effort to acquire an older and wiser friend: one renowned for honesty and plain speaking, who has mastered the same passions with which we need help, who can properly identify our vices and tell us frankly where we’re going astray in life. What Galen is describing sounds somewhat like the relationship between a modern-day counselor or psychotherapist and their client. However, a better comparison would probably be with the mentoring or “sponsorship” provided by recovering drug or alcohol addicts to those who are in recovery and struggling with similar habits—the help of a more experienced fellow patient, as Seneca puts it. Of course, finding an appropriate mentor is still easier said than done.

Bob (B): What do you think of the above?

Adam (A): I thought this part was particularly interesting:

Doesn’t everyone already know himself? He gradually came to realize, though, that only the very wisest among us ever truly know ourselves. The rest of us, as Galen observed, tend to fall into the trap of supposing either that we are completely without fault or that our flaws are few, mild, and infrequent.

People often treat themselves as an expert on themselves, their psychology, their own motivations, and so on. But they’re typically the most biased about themselves, and have the most motivation to interpret things in a way flattering to themselves, and to misremember things that might clash with a flattering view.

B: Yes.

A: If you suggest that someone else might have more insight into their behaviors/actions/psychology than they themselves do, many people will react with great hostility.

B: And yet lots of those same people would happily go to a therapy session where they would expect someone other than themselves to provide them with useful advice. And what will be the basis of that advice? The information that the person tells the therapist plus whatever expertise or insight the therapist may have from their psychological study and training. And if someone isn’t open to that sort of relationship with a therapist, they might be open to it with a priest, and be relying on the priest’s spiritual training and wisdom. You can imagine various such relationships. The point is that people aren’t opposed to that sort of thing generally. They are open to it. But they very selectively become opposed to it when someone brings up some criticism or point about themselves that they don’t like, don’t want to admit, don’t want to see.

A: Right that makes sense.

B: So there is a lack of intellectual integrity and consistency in many such objections. But suppose you managed to find the person who honestly doesn’t acknowledge that anyone could offer any insight that would help him know himself - he fully trusts his own appraisal of his emotions and psychology and is deaf to claims that anyone could have expertise on such matters, and is consistent in his belief.

A: This hypothetical person sounds like an arrogant fool.

B: Yes I agree.

A: So people often think they don’t have faults or only have a few mild ones. Can they also be too harsh on themselves?

B: Yes, though I don’t think those possibilities are mutually exclusive.

A: What do you mean?

B: You could have a person with a very fragile ego, who mostly thinks that they’re pretty good. But then someone points out that they did something wrong. This person then catastrophizes the situation and then decides that criticism they received means they are literally the worst human being on earth.

A: That does not seem like a particularly reasonable reaction.

B: I agree. I think the reason someone might have that sort of reaction is because it protects their existing ideas.

A: How do you mean?

B: Suppose Charlie thinks he’s pretty good. Then he has some flaw, X, pointed out. Then Charlie decides having this flaw means he his horrible. What result?

A: Well if he’s horrible, maybe that means that he has to make changes?

B: So that’s one way to take it. You could treat it like people treat a heart attack (that they survive) in the context of their health - as a warning, as an alarm bell sounding, as something to address immediately. But suppose Charlie takes it more in the spirit of a bad stoic passion, where he decides that he’s just no good and feels overwhelmed by the situation.

A: Well, if you decide that you’re just no good, why bother improving?

B: Exactly.

A: I see. But then, can Charlie actually survive in such a state of misery?

B: No. Nobody can psychologically endure a state of profound self-loathing for long. But you see, Charlie is very forgetful, which comes in handy for him. Because after the passion has run its course, and he has avoided making any changes, then he’ll go back to his previous view of himself as being pretty okay.

A: I see! Well, that’s “convenient” in a sense, but it does not seem like Charlie will be able to make much progress in life this way.

B: So you see the problem.

A: Indeed.

B: Another thing in the above passage I think is worth paying attention to is the point about detecting subtle defects in character, and how that requires expertise:

We all know that someone is angry when their face turns red and they start yelling, but a true expert on human nature would be able to tell when someone is just on the verge of getting angry, perhaps before they even realize it themselves.

A: That makes sense. Though I think I might feel attacked if someone was pointing out subtle defects in my character all the time!
B: Well, does that make sense? Like, suppose you had a skilled doctor that used knowledge of your medical history plus their own general medical expertise to detect a subtle medical problem before it became serious. Would you feel attacked by that?

A: No.

B: So you have no problem, in general, with people using specific knowledge of your situation plus their expertise in order to detect and point out some subtle problem?

A: No. Pointing out a moral problem seems different though.

B: How so?

A: If someone points out a medical issue, then you can act on it. But if someone points out a moral problem, that just means you are bad.

B: So moral problems aren’t amenable to action?

A: You can act to fix them, but it can be very hard, and meanwhile you just have the knowledge that you are a bad person, which causes you suffering.

B: Why does the knowledge that you are a bad person necessarily entail suffering?

A: If you had knowledge that you were a bad person and were indifferent to it, then I think that would mean you were evil.

B: If you had knowledge of a serious medical condition, and took steps to remedy it, but otherwise managed to not let it bother you, and just carried on with your life as best as you could otherwise, would you describe your reaction as indifference?

A: Hmm. No I guess not.

B: How would you describe it?

A: Well, if you are taking actions to address the medical problem, that means that you regard the medical condition as a bad thing and a state of good health as a good thing.

B: Right. You have a judgment that the medical condition is undesirable and a state of good health is desirable. This judgment is reflected by your course of action. And that’s separate and apart from any emotional reaction you may have about the medical condition.

A: So you’re saying that it’s possible to realize you are bad in some way, and work to fix it while at the same time not feeling bad about it?

B: Not only do I think it is possible, I think it is the best way to proceed.

A: Because the negative feelings get in the way of fixing it?

B: Yes. If you impose an emotional penalty upon yourself by lingering on negative thoughts every time you become aware of some bad trait you have, then you are not going to be realizing many of your bad traits. And the same logic applies to imposing an emotional penalty upon yourself for thinking about your bad traits in enough detail to try to fix them.

A: So the ideal approach regarding thinking about your own bad traits is to be kind of detached from them? Judge them as negative, but don’t get emotional about them, and work to fix them?

B: Yes.


From How To Think Like a Roman Emperor:

The Sophists, as we’ve seen, sought to persuade others by appealing to their emotions, typically in order to win praise. The Stoics, by contrast, placed supreme value on grasping and communicating the truth by appealing to reason. This meant avoiding the use of emotive rhetoric or strong value judgments. We usually think of rhetoric as something used to manipulate other people. We tend to forget we’re doing it to ourselves as well, not only when we speak but also when we use language to think. The Stoics were certainly interested in how our words affect others. However, their priority was to change the way we affect ourselves, our own thoughts and feelings, through our choice of language. We exaggerate, overgeneralize, omit information, and use strong language and colorful metaphors: “She’s always being a bitch!” “That bastard shot me down in flames!” “This job is complete bullshit!” People tend to think that exclamations like these are a natural consequence of strong emotions like anger. But what if they’re also causing or perpetuating our emotions? If you think about it, rhetoric like this is designed to evoke strong feelings. By contrast, undoing the effects of emotional rhetoric by describing the same events more objectively forms the basis of the ancient Stoic therapy of the passions.

Bob (B): Thoughts on this quote?

Adam (A): So the idea here is that strong emotional or metaphorical framings of situations help create emotional reactions?

B: Yes. Like we’ve talked about before, you might have some automatic emotional reaction in the moment, and that’s not particularly easy to control, but you’re much more able to control your reactions in the subsequent moments. One of the decisions that you can make regarding that control is how to frame things. How you choose to frame things - whether you use objective, neutral descriptions or emotional/metaphorical/strong descriptions - will effect how you see things.

A: Doesn’t what description you use reflect how you see things, instead of effecting how you see things?

B: Your description serves both purposes. Your description reflects how you saw something in the moment, but will also effect how you remember the thing when the moment passes, which will effect how you think about it in the future.

There’s no way to guarantee being free from error in how you evaluate some situation, but it’s important to use good methods and do your best. One way go about doing that is to try being as objective as possible - ruthlessly objective, like a judge. Avoid any metaphors, emotional rhetoric, any “gloss” on what’s happening - as a first step, take the approach of “Just the facts, ma’am”.[1] This gives you the best chance of getting an accurate assessment of the facts in the moment, and having an accurate recollection of what happened later.

So my point here is that you can effect how you see things by the mental attitude you bring to evaluating some situation. Are you trying to be objective and fair and impartial, or are you giving into bias and rhetoric? Are you engaging with all the facts in front of you or evading some?

How you see things, how you judge some situation, isn’t something that’s totally autonomous from the mental habits and processes that you bring to that situation. There is of course always a large background context of ideas that you use to interpret some situation. But you can also effect how you see things by making your best effort to be honest, mentally focused, and clear-headed (or not). People know this, and will often take a minute, go for a walk, count to 10, or whatever, when they fear that they are on the verge of saying or doing something rash, because they don’t want to be the sort of person that makes rash decisions in anger, and would prefer to be calmer and more clear-headed instead.

Suppose you have a dispute with someone about how they acted. You can’t directly see things the same way they did because their perspective is in their mind, and has a bunch of their background knowledge involved in terms of what they’re paying attention to, what they think is significant, and so on. So what can you do? One concrete thing is to avoid the sort of language described above. Every emotional, rhetorical framing could be put in a calmer, more neutral, more objective way. “She’s always being a bitch!” could, for example, become “She frequently makes statements I take to be unkind.” “That bastard shot me down in flames!” could be “That person rejected my proposal.“ “This job is complete bullshit!” could be “This job has various downsides, some of which I regard as serious.” In choosing to frame things in a calmer, more objective tone, you are making your descriptions of events correspond more directly to reality, and thus avoid enflaming passions that might cause you to react in a problematic manner.

A: Are metaphors or strong value-laden framings of things inherently bad?

B: No, but they are overused. Most people could benefit a lot from practicing thinking and talking about things in a more neutral and objective manner.

Here is more from How To Think Like a Roman Emperor to consider:

Indeed, one way of understanding the contrast between Stoic philosophy and Sophistic rhetoric is to view Stoicism as the practice of a kind of antirhetoric or counterrhetoric. Whereas orators traditionally sought to exploit the emotions of their audience, the Stoics made a point of consciously describing events in plain and simple terms. Cutting through misleading language and value judgments and stripping away any embellishments or emotive language, they tried to articulate the facts more calmly and soberly. Marcus likewise told himself to speak plainly rather than dressing up his thoughts in fancy language. Indeed, nothing is so conducive to greatness of mind, he said, as the ability to examine events rationally and view them realistically by stripping them down to their essential characteristics in this way.24 In the Discourses we’re told that a philosopher, presumably not a Stoic, once grew so frustrated with his friends questioning his character that he screamed, “I can’t bear it, you’re killing me—you’ll turn me into him!,”25 pointing at Epictetus. That was a sudden display of histrionics: a blast of emotional rhetoric. Ironically, though, if he’d been more like Epictetus, he would have just stuck to the facts without getting worked up and said something like, “You criticized me; so be it.” In truth, nobody was killing this man and he could bear it.

A: That’s interesting - the bit about the non-Stoic becoming really frustrated. It seems like he was feeling really threatened in some way.

B: Yes. I think that kind of thing is common. People feel pressured by reason and philosophy - pressured to change, to be more consistent, to be more rational, to have integrity, to change their habits, to reconsider their assumptions - and they feel like if they keep going then they’ll lose some essential part of themselves. They are attached to parts of themselves. They are attached to particular habits and activities and beliefs. They don’t want to reconsider those things. If they follow the rational path consistently, they might have to. So they resist doing so, and one of the techniques they use, per the quote above, is emotional rhetoric.

A: Yeah. The stuff about killing him and being unable to bear it.

B: Yes. Imagine if he framed the situation as “I am troubled by your criticism. I don’t like the idea of being more like Epictetus.” Then you might be able to have a discussion about exactly what’s troubling him, or what exactly he doesn’t like about Epictetus. In other words, you could try solving the problem and coming to agreement. But his emotional rhetoric makes it difficult to figure out how to proceed. It’s clear that he doesn’t like the criticism he’s getting, and he doesn’t want to be more like Epictetus. But does he want to discuss it? Is he so upset he doesn’t want to consider or talk about the issues? I think a person saying that kind of thing probably wouldn’t want to discuss it. But they don’t want to say that they don’t want to discuss it. They want other people to back down without them having to say “I am opting out of reason now; leave me alone.”

A: Because they feel pressured to be rational?

B: Yes. They don’t actually want to say “I prefer to follow my whims; reason be damned!” They want to have the self-image of someone who is open to reason without having to earn it. So the emotional rhetoric helps with this because it is a way of asking people to back off with all the expectations of rationality without having to say the words that make that request clear. The emotional outburst muddies the waters about what happened - possibly for the other participants in the conversation, but most importantly for the person who is engaging in the outburst.

If you stay calm, clear, objective, and neutral in your statements, it’s much easier to figure out what’s going on in a conversation. All your statements are anchored closely to reality, rather than being connected only loosely to reality through layers of metaphors that you have to untangle in order to figure out what’s actually being referred to. But the obfuscatory attributes of emotional language and metaphor are the actual thing that people want when they are feeling defensive, attacked, pressured - they want to confuse things. The more unclear they can make things, the more they can obfuscate, and so the less pressured they’ll feel.

A: Interesting.

  1. Tangentially, this is supposedly one of those “Beam me up, Scotty” things that was never actually said in the show it’s attributed to. “Just the facts, ma’am.” | Strategic America ↩︎

Stoicism on Emotions

(A dialogue about quotes from How to Think Like a Roman Emperor):

However, before we turn to the Stoic use of language, we first have to understand a little more about the Stoic theory of emotions. The curious tale of an unnamed Stoic teacher provides our best introduction to this topic. We find it in The Attic Nights, a book of anecdotes written by Aulus Gellius, a grammarian who was a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius. Gellius was sailing across the Ionian Sea from Cassiopa, a town on Corfu, to Brundisium, in southern Italy, possibly en route to Rome. He describes one of his fellow passengers as an important and highly regarded Stoic teacher who had been lecturing in Athens. We can’t identify the teacher with certainty; it’s not impossible, though, that Gellius could have been referring to Apollonius of Chalcedon.

Out on open water their boat was caught in a ferocious storm, which lasted almost the whole night. The passengers feared for their lives as they struggled to man the pumps and keep themselves from drowning in a shipwreck. Gellius noticed that the great Stoic teacher had turned as white as a sheet and shared the same anxious expression as the rest of the passengers. However, the philosopher alone remained silent instead of crying out in terror and lamenting his predicament. Once the sea and sky calmed, as they were approaching their destination, Gellius gently inquired of the Stoic why he looked almost as fearful as the others did during the storm.

Adam (A): So Gellius expected the stoic to be totally calm during the storm, or at least significantly calmer than the other passengers (in a manner beyond just remaining silent instead of crying and lamenting).

Bob (B): Yes.

He could see that Gellius was sincere and courteously answered that the founders of Stoicism taught how people facing such dangers naturally and inevitably experience a short-lived stage of fear. He then reached into his satchel and produced the fifth book of Epictetus’s Discourses for Gellius to peruse. Today, only the first four books of the Discourses survive, although Marcus appears to have read the lost discourses of Epictetus and quotes from them in The Meditations. In any case, Gellius describes Epictetus’s remarks, which he confidently asserts were true to the original teachings of Zeno and Chrysippus.

Epictetus reputedly told his students that the founders of Stoicism distinguished between two stages of our response to any event, including threatening situations. First come the initial impressions (phantasiai) that are imposed involuntarily on our minds from outside, when we’re initially exposed to an event such as the storm at sea. These impressions can be triggered, says Epictetus, by a terrifying sound such as a peal of thunder, a building collapsing, or a sudden cry of danger. Even the mind of a perfect Stoic Sage will initially be shaken by abrupt shocks of this kind, and he will shrink back from them instinctively in alarm. This reaction doesn’t come from faulty value judgments about the dangers faced but from an emotional reflex arising in his body, which temporarily bypasses reason. Epictetus might have added that these emotional reactions are comparable to those experienced by non-human animals. Seneca, for instance, notes that when animals are alarmed by the appearance of danger, they take flight, but after they have escaped, their anxiety soon abates and they return to grazing in peace once again.16 By contrast, the human capacity for thought allows us to perpetuate our worries beyond these natural bounds. Reason, our greatest blessing, is also our greatest curse.

A: This makes some sense but I don’t think I agree with all of it. I think the way that animals deal with situations is through some kind of programming (e.g. maybe their programming tells them to flee if there is a sufficiently loud noise or big physical vibration or something) and that that is fundamentally different than how humans form impressions of situations. A human’s immediate reaction is always connected to some kind of value judgment, though it’s a very automated judgment that one hasn’t necessarily thought through very well. But like, with the example of hearing thunder, one could imagine a positive reaction from a scientist who has been waiting many days to conduct an experiment which requires lightning, or from a farmer who takes the thunder to indicate a coming rain and the end of a drought. On the other hand, one could imagine people having joyous reactions to horrific events, like the 9/11 attack or their child becoming a suicide bomber and murdering people, and I’ve seen examples of that sort of thing in real life.

B: Those are good examples, and I agree that the way people form and have even their immediate emotional reactions is different than what happens with an animal. Nonetheless, I think there is wisdom here. I think that we can draw a distinction between the level of control one has over an immediate emotional reaction and over a more sustained emotional reaction over time. The control you have over your immediate emotional reactions is very indirect. They are the result of the ideas you’ve picked up in the culture, and you can change them, but such change may require introspecting and changing a bunch of your ideas in a thorough way over a long period of time. So it is possible to do, but it is something that I think most people would find a challenge. However, I think the point of the Stoic analysis here is to distinguish the first stage of emotional reactions from the second stage. I’ll let the book lay out a bit more of that analysis before commenting further.

A: OK.

In the second stage of our response, the Stoics say, we typically add voluntary judgments of “assent” (sunkatatheseis) to these automatic impressions. Here the Stoic wise man’s response differs from that of the majority of people. He does not go along with the initial emotional reactions to a situation that have invaded his mind. Epictetus says the Stoic should neither assent to nor confirm these emerging impressions, such as anxiety in the face of danger. Rather, he rejects them as misleading, views them with studied indifference, and lets go of them. By contrast, the unwise are carried away by their initial impression of external events—including those that are terrible and to be feared—and continue to worry, ruminate, and even complain aloud about a perceived threat.

A: So it sounds like the stoic wise person questions and rejects the initial impressions. Does he necessarily reject them? Maybe they make sense. Like if you see 9/11 happening, and your reaction is, wow that’s horrible - well, isn’t it actually horrible?

B: I think the thing to focus on here is the behavior and attitude one takes to the situation. I think it will help to keep in mind that there is a distinction between one’s evaluation or judgment about a situation and one’s emotional reaction. So maybe focusing on that point will help with understanding. So, consider an extreme case like 9/11. You initially see it happening. You, understandably, have a horrified emotional reaction. Okay. So then the question is: now what? Are you going to stay focused on that emotional reaction? Or is there something you can do? What you can do might vary tremendously based on your situation, but there might be some actual action that you can take to try to help the people dealing with this tragedy. You won’t take whatever action that might be, however, if you are in agony because of getting carried away with your initial emotional reaction.

Because people experience a judgment of something (e.g. thinking “X is bad”) and an emotional reaction to it (e.g. feeling bad about X) roughly simultaneously, I think that they get the two confused. But they are not the same. Putting a negative emotional reaction aside so that you can take some action does not mean that you judge what happened to be fine or okay. Your judgment and your emotional reaction are two separate things. They are related, but they are separate. Viewing your emotional reaction with “studied indifference” does not mean viewing the morality of things happening in the world with studied indifference.

A: But why then does the book say

Epictetus says the Stoic should neither assent to nor confirm these emerging impressions, such as anxiety in the face of danger. Rather, he rejects them as misleading, views them with studied indifference, and lets go of them.”

Saying that the emotional reaction is misleading seems to be saying that the emotional reaction is wrong.

B: I think the example there matters a lot. Suppose you see a bear in the woods. You become anxious. Does that anxiety help you? If you are feeling afraid and don’t move because of the fear, you might be killed like a deer in the headlights. If you use your emotional reaction as a guide to action, you might freeze and get mauled to death. So that is a sense in which the emotional reaction is misleading - as a guide for what you should do. It is not misleading in the sense of being some sort of indicator that bears are a potential problem for you - that part is obviously correct.

Imagine if the two stages of reaction to something were represented by two different people within you. The first person will represent the initial emotional reaction. So that first person is very emotional, and says something like:


For a non-stoic, they will often let their second-stage person go along with the reaction of the first person. So then you have TWO people shouting “OMG A BEAR A BEAR!” And that’s not very productive.

But in the case of a Stoic, you get a different reaction from the second “person”. The Stoic hears out the initial emotional reaction, gets what information it can from it, and then says “noted” and tries to proceed in a rational manner. So the Stoic’s second “person” basically acts as a circuit breaker for what could have been a cascade of negative emotional reactions.

A: interesting.

B: I wanted to say something regarding this bit: “In the second stage of our response, the Stoics say, we typically add voluntary judgments of “assent” (sunkatatheseis) to these automatic impressions.” I don’t think that the initial judgments are totally automatic in the same way that an animals “judgments” are totally automatic. However, I do think that your more considered/thoughtful reaction is more voluntary. You have more control over that. You might imagine a spectrum. Your automatic, immediate reactions are theoretically possible to control, but they are the hardest to change; however, the more time passes from the initial incident that caused your initial reaction, the more control you have over your emotional state, and the more responsibility you have for what you feel. It’s understandable that you might have some immediate emotional reaction in the moment. If you’re still bothered by something 3 days later, though, then that’s much more of a choice that’s on you. Emotions don’t sustain themselves - you need to keep them going, like a fire. This is empowering, because it means that if you’ve been agitated by something, you can just choose to stop feeding that particular fire.

Dealing With Criticism, Mean People & Negative Emotions

(Quotation from Chapter 3 of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor):

Galen admits that you’re not likely to meet many people like Diogenes the Cynic, who was brave enough even to speak plainly to Alexander the Great. What’s required first is a more general openness to criticism: we should give everyone we meet permission to tell us what our faults are, according to Galen, and resolve not to be angry with any of them. Indeed, Marcus [Aurelius] tells himself both to enter into every man’s mind, to study their judgments and values, *and to let every man enter into his.*12 If anyone gives him a valid reason to believe that he’s going astray in terms of either thought or action, he says he will gladly change his ways. Marcus sought to make it his priority in life to get to the truth of matters, reminding himself that nobody has ever really been harmed in this way but that those who cling to error and ignorance harm themselves.13 We’re told this advice goes back to Zeno. Most men are eager to point out their neighbors’ flaws, he said, whether we ask them to or not. So instead of resenting it, we should welcome criticism from others as one of life’s inevitabilities and turn it to our advantage by making all men into our teachers. Galen therefore says that if we desire to learn wisdom, we must be ready to listen to anyone we encounter and show gratitude “not to those who flatter us but to those who rebuke us.”14

Bob (B): What do you think of the above?

Adam (A): I think I like it, but I have a question. Does making “all men” into our teachers mean that we should listen even to those trying to hurt us?

B: As a first point, I’d say that you should keep in mind that it’s possible to misread other people’s motives, and think that they are trying to hurt you when they’re trying to help. But suppose that you’re correct, and someone makes some remark or offers some criticism as part of an effort to cause you emotional pain. What result?

A: Well, it seems like you would have to determine whether you thought the criticism was true or false.

B: Suppose you thought it was false.

A: Well, if you listened to what they said enough to determine that it was false, and had also determined that they were trying to be hurtful, then you’d have a situation where someone was foolishly trying to hurt you by saying a false thing.

B: Right. There might not be a lot to learn there directly (though maybe you could figure something out about that particular person’s character or psychology).
Now consider the case if the criticism was true.

A: So you have a person trying to hurt you while saying a true thing. Often, some truth can make a remark “sting” more. So, it might be reasonable to be hurt in that situation.

B: Can the person trying to be hurtful access your emotions directly? Can they actually control your emotional state without your help?

A: No.

B: So someone says “Maybe you’d have a girlfriend if you weren’t so fat.” You don’t have a girlfriend and are overweight. Since they can’t access your emotions directly, what link is needed between the statement they made and you experiencing a negative emotion?

A: I guess that you would need to have some idea that connects their statement to a negative emotion.

B: Can you think of any examples?

A: Well, for one, you could have an idea that it’s appropriate to feel bad if someone is attacking you or trying to hurt you. You might feel more hurt if it was coming from a friend than if it was coming from someone you barely knew.

B: Do you generally make friends with mean people who aggressively try to hurt you?

A: No.

B: Right. So the likely context would be someone you don’t know well, and presumably someone whose values you have major disagreements with.

A: Right.

B: Why let such a person hurt you?

A: I don’t know. I guess that there is some background caring about what other people think?

B: Yes, that is common. Objectivism talks a lot about that in its discussion of second-handedness. One thing to think about there is that the extent to which you care about what other people think of you in general is the extent to which you devalue the opinion of the wiser people in your life. If you are egalitarian in being emotionally reactive to what a foolish and what a wise person say, and give them both approximately the same “vote” in terms of being able to influence your emotions with criticism, then you are implicitly putting the fool and the wise person on an equal level with each other.

A: I hadn’t thought of that.

B: Another thing is that if you care about just anyone’s negative opinions of you, and will be emotionally reactive to their attempts to hurt you, then in some sense, they control you - you’re a slave to their attempts at manipulation.

A: Hmm. That seems bad!

B: I agree!

A: Another example I thought of regarding an idea that connects their statement to an emotional reaction is that you may be touchy about the specific topics (weight, no girlfriend) that they brought up. So, you might have some generally bad feelings about thinking about those topics in general. So it might feel even worse if somebody else brings them up in a mean way, because someone else is noticing something you’re already touchy about.

B: One thing about that is that evading or avoiding thinking about a problem doesn’t resolve it or make it go away. What you seem to be describing there is roughly: you have some baseline level of agitation whenever you think about some topic you are “touchy” about. You manage to avoid thinking about the topic most of the time. But then someone brings it to your attention, and you feel bad.

A: Yeah :confused:

B: That’s both an ineffective way of dealing with problems and an approach that gives other people a bunch of control over your emotional state - they just have to bring something to your attention to make you upset.

Here’s a different way of approaching people trying to say hurtful things (from William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Part 3, Chapter 11):

Suppose, for example, you find out that someone has been saying bad things about you. Epictetus advises you to respond not by behaving defensively but by questioning his competence as an insulter; for example, you can comment that if the insulter knew you well enough to criticize you competently, he wouldn’t have pointed to the particular failings that he did but would instead have mentioned other, much worse failings.12

A: lol!

B: I think it’s clear that in that case, Epictetus would not actually be touchy about whatever the insulter poked him about.

A: So that’s the solution then? Figure out how to not be touchy?

B: Yes.

A: Well why is one touchy?

B: Often because they’ve identified a problem but haven’t taken any steps to remedy it.

Imagine if you were overweight but you were on a strict, effective diet and exercise plan and were steadily losing weight and improving your physical conditioning. Imagine someone makes fun of your weight in that circumstance. What result? Do you get super upset?

A: No, I don’t think so! I might even make some confident comeback quip if they point out my weight like “Give it a few days.”

B: Right. See? If you’re confident you’re taking strong action to resolve some issue, you’ll naturally be less touchy about it. It’s the stuff that you’re leaving unaddressed or to fester that will be the emotional weak spots that other people can poke you about.

A: So taking a step back, in the case where someone is trying to be hurtful and is saying something truthful in doing so, is there any reason for feeling bad about that that makes sense?

B: I don’t think so. Now, even if you wind up agreeing with that, you might still feel bad initially, as a momentary, automatic reaction, but what I would advise is that you look past that and see if you can learn anything from the criticism. One way to think about things is that if someone is trying to hurt you, there’s actually no more effective counter to their efforts than to 1) be as unperturbed as possible and 2) actually make use of the truth/information that they are providing you. If you take this approach, you also effectively deal with the case where you misunderstood their intent, and they were actually trying to help, because you’re proceeding exactly as you should in that situation anyways.

A: So if someone makes fun of how you are dressed in a mean way, for example, and you thought you were dressed okay, you might just take that in as information, not be bothered by it, and move on with your day.

B: That would be a reasonable reaction.

A: I like that idea!

Limiting Reason; Making Progress on Philosophy

(Quotation from Chapter 3 of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor):

If we wish to improve ourselves, Galen says that we must never relax our vigilance, not even for a single hour. How on earth do we do that? He explains that Zeno of Citium taught that “we should act carefully in all things—just as if we were going to answer for it to our teachers shortly thereafter.”16 That’s a rather clever mind trick that turns Stoic mentoring into a kind of mindfulness practice. Imagining that we’re being observed helps us to pay more attention to our own character and behavior. A Stoic-in-training, like the young Marcus, would have been advised always to exercise self-awareness by monitoring his own thoughts, actions, and feelings, perhaps as if his mentor, Rusticus, were continually observing him. Epictetus told his students that, just as someone who walks barefoot is cautious not to step on a nail or twist his ankle, they should be careful throughout the day not to harm their own character by lapsing into errors of moral judgment.17 In modern therapy, it’s common for clients who are making progress to wonder between sessions what their therapist might say about the thoughts they have. For example, they might be worrying about something and suddenly imagine the voice of their therapist challenging them with questions like “Where’s the evidence for those fears being true?” or “How’s worrying like this actually working out for you?” The very notion of someone else observing your thoughts and feelings can be enough to make you pause and consider them. Of course, if you occasionally talk to a mentor or therapist about your experiences, it’s much easier to imagine their presence when they’re not around. Even if you don’t have someone like this in your life, you can still envision that you’re being observed by a wise and supportive friend. If you read about Marcus Aurelius enough, for instance, you may experiment by imagining that he’s your companion as you perform some challenging task or face a difficult situation. How would you behave differently just knowing he was by your side? What do you think he might say about your behavior? If he could read your mind, how would he comment on your thoughts and feelings? You can pick your own mentor, of course, but you get the idea.

Bob (B): What do you think of the above?

Adam (A): My immediate reaction, especially to “Galen says that we must never relax our vigilance, not even for a single hour”, was that I thought of a scene in Atlas Shrugged, where one of the villains is going on a rant to one of the heroes. The villain says, in part:

Don’t look at me! You’re asking the impossible! Men can’t exist your way! You permit no moments of weakness, you don’t allow for human frailties or human feelings! What do you want of us? Rationality twenty-four hours a day, with no loophole, no rest, no escape?

B: Right. I think a lot of people would think in those terms - they imagine having to be vigilant against “temptation” all their waking hours, and imagine it’d be like living in a straitjacket.

A: Right. Leonard Peikoff, in Understanding Objectivism, says something relevant in discussing emotions;

If you feel in general “Emotions prove something about me, and they’re out of my control; they’re a potential threat to my status as a moral person,” you’re still a thousand times worse off, because your emotions will naturally reflect something about you as an individual. They will be a constant source of fear, self-doubt, self-condemnation. And then you will begin to automatize the idea, “To be moral, I must repress myself,” and that becomes an issue of self-preservation. At a certain point, what happens is that you can’t take it anymore, and finally you “assert yourself,” and jump all the way to the emotionalist axis and say, “The only way to be myself is to say to hell with philosophy and principles,” and run wild. And I’ve seen that pattern many, many times.

B: Before we consider that, let’s go back to your Atlas Shrugged quote. What would be the meaning of a loophole, a rest, or an escape from reason, or rationality? What would you use in its place, and why would people want such a thing?

A: Maybe they’d want to go by their own personal preferences or whims or something like that.

B: And reason would threaten that how?

A: Well, take a concrete example. Suppose someone doesn’t have a job but would prefer to just watch TV instead of look for a job. If they could avoid reason somehow, they could do what they want to do instead of what they feel like they should do or have to do.

B: So a loophole or rest or escape clause from reason in that case would mean that the person doesn’t have to think about or deal with the argument that they have more urgent priorities than just watching TV right now?

A: Yeah.

B: That sounds irrational.

A: Right, but reason is basically what that person is trying to get away from.

B: But why?

A: Because they just want to watch TV.

B: According to their current ideas, that’s what they want to do. But if they thought about the issue some - if they thought about the long term consequences of their actions, what a wiser person might say about their situation, etc. - they might be able to persuade themselves that looking for a job was the best thing for them to be doing.

A: But most people are not very good at persuading themselves about things. So even if they managed to convince themselves to look for a job, they might feel bad about all sorts of things - about the state of their resume, about how an interview goes, about the sort of jobs they have to consider in their current position given their skills and background - and wish that they could just be watching TV instead.

I think being overly negative about their prospects in such a situation can help people rationalize their passivity. If you think “there’s no point in looking for a job, I’m not going to find anything, the economy is bad, nobody will give me a break”, then why bother searching for a job? So then you can just skip straight to watching TV.

B: Right. But “overly negative” implies a conflict between their view of their prospects and reality, which could come up and be pointed out to them if they engaged with reason.

A: Right.

B: So basically, according to your example, the purpose of trying to avoid reason is trying to avoid criticism so that people can do what they already wanted to do instead of feeling pressured to do stuff that reason might argue they should do.

A: Right.

B: That seems bad.

A: Yes.

B: So then, connecting this to the quote above from How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, we might expect people to be very resistant to having the vigilance described (whether they are assisted by a mentor or whether they are just relying on their own self-awareness and honesty) because they would experience it as enormously pressuring.

A: Right. Constantly monitoring and morally judging yourself would be excruciating for lots of people. They’d feel like they’re being asked to give up any pleasure or indulgences and be their own secret police.

I think that’s where the Peikoff quote comes in. People who are trying to engage with philosophy in some way, and who expose themselves to the criticism of others or to their own self-criticism, feel the need to “clean up” their moral situation and improve themselvs. But they still have lots of their old ideas. They need to engage with those ideas and gradually persuade themselves of replacements. But they don’t know how, or don’t want to, or something. So they hide and repress their old ideas as a shortcut. But the repression has a big cost, because there are parts of themselves that are being suppressed. And then eventually they explode and just give up on philosophy, like Peikoff talks about.

I think that lots of people like and see some value in parts of philosophy, but they see it as some kind of add-on to their existing life and existing values. They don’t want to have to make fundamental changes — to what sort of person they are, to how they engage with the world — in order to engage with philosophy. They want it to be something that fits within their existing life - like a hobby - instead of something that fundamentally reshapes their life and who they are. They want philosophy to fit inside neat little boundaries instead of spilling out everywhere. That’s what I think wanting an escape clause or whatever is about - they want to be able to limit philosophy and turn it off sometimes.

B: One of the things rational philosophy talks about, though, is the importance of intellectual consistency, of having integrity, especially with regards to the use of reason itself. So you can’t actually treat philosophy - rational philosophy, anyways - as a mere hobby without directly contradicting philosophy. That makes philosophy different than lots of things, which can fit into a “hobby” slot in people’s lives well. And it might be possible to evade this fact about the nature of philosophy for a while, but I think that the pressure will generally build up for people, especially to the extent they make any serious effort to apply philosophy rigorously to their life. Note that when I talk about philosophy here, I’m talking about various traditions of rational philosophy that do seek to offer people an integrated view of existence and way of life. There are types of philosophy that you could use to sound clever at cocktail parties or whatever, but that’s not the sort of thing I have in mind. Note also that I’m not saying that people can’t take bits and pieces of rational philosophy and improve their lives with it - I’m saying that to the extent they are trying to engage with rational philosophy in a somewhat serious way, they’re going to encounter problems if they try to limit it.

People want to be able to make interesting points and say clever things, but that requires being willing to look at things in a different way than convention, question assumptions, and so on, in a comprehensive way, and not just inside a tiny little box of stuff they’re comfortable thinking about. Limiting yourself to thinking about things within a tiny little box is an unphilosophical attitude. So basically people want some of the results of philosophy but they don’t want to be philosophers.

A: Maybe you could make an analogy with fitness. Lots of people make some effort to incorporate a bit of physical activity into their day. And it helps some - going for a walk while listening to an audiobook is better than nothing - but if they actually want to make a big physical transformation in what their body is like, they actually have to make a serious effort. And some people at least want the results of such a physical transformation, but they don’t actually want to be what is required to bring about that transformation. If they could take a pill to be big and strong, they’d do it, but they don’t want to spend a bunch of time exercising - they’d rather relax and watch TV.

So some common patterns of what happens are:

  1. People maybe get a bit more active, and it helps a bit, but it’s not enough activity, or not targeted or planned well enough, to make a big difference in their lives. There wasn’t any intent to get super serious, even from the beginning, and so they’re permanently stuck at a sort of hobbyist level.
  2. People have an initial intent to get very fit, but then they’re like “omg wow this is super hard and i’m sore and I just want to rest.” So they give up early.

There are of course people who make a big transformation in what their body is like, and I think that’s much more common for people doing fitness than people doing philosophy (cuz I see lots of fit people but not many good philosophers!). And lots of people are impressed by such successful super-fit people, but nonetheless stay stuck at wherever they are.

B: I think that’s a reasonable analogy. Let’s focus on the people who are initially ambitious. So people have some initial intent (to get super fit, to learn rational philosophy) because they like the idea they have of the end/result, but then they have trouble actually following through with the steps required. They encounter difficulty and give up. So, putting it abstractly, if you’re motivated by a particular end, but the ends seem really distant, and the means difficult, what are some possible strategies you could take to address that problem?

A: Hmm. Well, speaking abstractly, a couple of possibilities jump out at me. The first is to make smaller, more intermediate ends that are still motivating. The second is to learn how to enjoy/appreciate the means.

B: OK. I agree that those seem like reasonable approaches. So let’s take the example of fitness first. What would more intermediate ends look like?

A: Well, rather than the goal of “get super fit”, you might have a goal of “get through 10 push ups quickly”, or something like that. Or you might just aim to consistently have a certain amount of physical activity in the day - like that’s what the Move & Exercise rings are about on the Apple Watch. Or you might just notice and enjoy the fact that moving your arms or legs around seems a bit easier after doing some strength training - sometimes you can often “feel” that in a direct way after not a lot of time training.

B: And what would more intermediate ends look like in the context of philosophy?

A: Well, rather than “learn rational philosophy”, you might see if you can criticize anything using philosophical ideas within a single paragraph of a news article, or within a Tweet, or something like that. Or you might try to just spend a certain amount of time in a day reading and thinking about philosophy - like an hour. Or you might just reflect on how engaging with philosophy has recently helped in some way, like being calmer.

B: Okay. That sounds reasonable to me. Now let’s talk about appreciating the means in the context of fitness.

A: The means are exercising and learning about exercise. So you might learn to enjoy seeing what your body is capable of - like how many repetitions of some exercise you can do. Or you might learn to enjoy shrugging off minor pains and persisting in working out (shouldn’t ignore serious stuff, obviously, but I think that many people may give up early and unnecessarily). Or you might just reflect on the enjoyableness of your body in motion during running or cycling or lifting a heavy weight or whatever.

B: And how might you appreciate the means in the context of philosophy?

A: Hmm. Well I think the means there would be stuff like reading philosophy, having discussions about philosophy with wise people and “losing” debates, organizing ideas, and that kind of thing.

So you could try to learn to take pleasure in the act of reading philosophy or in the labor of organizing ideas (in the form of mindmaps or whatever) in order to understand philosophy. If it feels like tedious schoolwork, and not like something enjoyable that you would do for its own sake, then I think that is a sign that there is something wrong there and that there is room for improvement in this area. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of concrete steps here. I often greatly enjoy reading philosophy and that sort of thing when I actually spend time to do. I don’t think I have spent nearly as much time as I should have, but I don’t think this is where my big issue is.

Much trickier for me (and I think most people) is the right attitude to have to discussions. I think if you find someone wiser than you to talk to - which is something that will greatly aid your philosophical progress - then you have to expect to “lose” lots of discussion points and learn a lot. I think that this is something that I and many other people find very difficult in most contexts - particularly in a public context - because there is some perceived loss of face or loss of status or something in repeatedly “losing” discussions to someone. There may also be some feeling of guilt or foolishness in having strongly believed something and then coming to the view that one’s beliefs were not warranted. So I think this is an important thing to address. I think that if one does not find “losing” discussions to be a very enjoyable and important activity - as opposed to something painful - then one will be operating under a big handicap.

So one needs to learn to approach discussions differently. One approach might be to reframe “losing” a discussion as gaining knowledge, gaining humility, having an error corrected, etc… What are you actually “losing” of importance, but ignorance and misconceptions? Another is to explicitly think about and appreciate the enormous value that having someone to point out your misconceptions represents. Imagine if such people didn’t exist - imagine if you were actually the smartest and wisest person in the world (ack!) - and you were left alone in the world, with nothing but your own mind and misconceptions and intellectual integrity to guide you to truth. That sort of “negative visualization” should help you be more appreciative of the existence of such people, or at least rob some of the sting from the social problem of having “lost” a discussion. Another approach might be to concretely think about the consequences of not having corrected the error. Like, what mistakes would you have been led into, and how many other people might have you persuaded of falsehood?

The Most Important Thing In Life

(many ideas inspired by/draw upon Paths Forward here but errors are my own, not Elliot’s. Trying to give appropriate credit here without also attributing my errors to Elliot :) )

Bob (B): Here’s a question from How to Think Like a Roman Emperor:

What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?

Adam (A): Big question!

B: Yeah. Any response?

A: Well, I think I want a few different things. Like, I want to be a good person, and I want to be productive, and I want to learn interesting things. I’m not sure I can easily reduce it to a single thing.

B: Okay. Let’s talk about that. What do you need to know to be a good person?

A: Morality is the field that deals with being good. So you would need knowledge about morality.

B: OK. Where would you find such knowledge?

A: Ayn Rand knew a lot about the topic! Though there are other sources as well. I’ve been reading about Stoic ideas recently and they had some important ideas about being good too! Elliot Temple has written things on morality too, like here and here.

B: Okay, so you’d read certain philosophy books and articles and try to figure out how to apply them to your own life?

A: That’s the idea!

B: Okay. What about productivity?

A: Well, I think you’d need knowledge about what activities are productive. Some people waste their lives/careers on unproductive activities.

B: Like what?

A: Maybe they spend time trying to elaborate an economic theory that’s already been refuted, without addressing the refutation. Or maybe they spend time sucking up to other people rather than learning things. Or maybe they spend time scamming other people, like TV psychics.

B: That’s an interesting set of examples. Scamming people sounds immoral. So it sounds like part of figuring out what sort of action is productive involves figuring out morality.

A: Yes, I agree!

B: I have a similar observation for sucking up to other people. That sounds like a second-handed activity, which Ayn Rand criticized on moral grounds.

A: Yes.

B: “Trying to elaborate an economic theory that’s already been refuted” is a bit of a trickier example. But one thing I would note is - I think someone trying to do that would typically be an academic or operating in an academic context, yes?

A: Yeah that seems like a reasonable assumption.

B: Okay. Academics typically hold themselves out as specialists or experts in some field. If you’re advocating a theory and you’re in a position where you’re regarded as an expert, shouldn’t you be familiar with and be able to address refutations of your theory?

A: I could see somebody saying that maybe it’d be hard for a physicist to address every alleged perpetual motion machine or something like that.

B: Well the physicist could say, “this seems to be a perpetual motion machine. Can you explain why it isn’t? Or, if it is, what is your criticism of the laws of thermodynamics?” or something like that. That would be good enough to count as addressing the alleged perpetual motion machines, in my book. And certainly, the physicist would be familiar with the idea of perpetual motion machines.

A: Yeah okay.

B: So you agree that if someone is holding themselves out as an expert in some field, they should be familiar with and able to address alleged refutations of their ideas

A: Yes!

B: And if they either lack the familiarity with alleged refutations or don’t address them, what would that imply?

A: Well, regarding not addressing them, maybe they’d think that somebody else addressed the issue.

B: So suppose Charlie is an academic advocating some economic theory. Suppose Donald says he has a refutation of Charlie’s theory. Suppose Charlie thinks Evan has written stuff which addresses Donald’s alleged refutation. If Charlie agrees with Evan’s ideas and takes them on board - including being willing to treat it as a serious issue if someone says they’ve refuted Evan’s ideas - then I think that would count as Charlie having ideas which address Donald’s alleged refutations.

A: Okay. I think that would have been confusing to follow without using the names so good call on using them. Anyways I think that makes sense.

B: Okay. So suppose an academic, Charlie, holds himself out as an expert in some field. And suppose there is some alleged refutation of important ideas within his field, on which Charlie takes a position, like a refutation of some economic theory he advocates. Suppose Charlie hasn’t addressed the alleged refutation himself and don’t know of any material that does.

A: So it sounds like Charlie’s economic theory has an unaddressed criticism that Charlie is aware of.

B: Yes. So suppose Charlie continues to strongly advocate his theory, and doesn’t acknowledge that the unaddressed alleged refutation exists or treats it as insignificant.

A: That seems … bad to me.

B: Why?

A: Because the unaddressed criticism is part of the state of the world. You shouldn’t just ignore that, but it sounds like Charlie is proceeding in a manner consistent with ignoring the criticism.

B: So if Charlie strongly advocates his theory while this alleged refutation is hanging out there, unaddressed, would you say that he is being dishonest?

A: Yes.

B: What if Charlie just wasn’t familiar with some alleged refutations of his theory?

A: Then he’d be being dishonest about his implied level of expertise.

B: Okay. And is dishonesty a moral issue?

A: Yes.

B: Why?

A: Morality is about how to live in the world effectively. Being moral requires being oriented to reality. You can’t act effectively in the world if you don’t understand the world and know what it’s like. That’s why clearing up a misconception can be so powerful - because the process of clearing up a misconception orients you to reality more. E.g. if you thought the world had an edge you might fall off, you might be afraid to travel a certain distance. But if you cleared up that misconception, you’d have a clearer picture of the world and be able to travel further.

Dishonesty severs a tie to reality in some way (for yourself or others) by presenting facts in a way one knows or reasonably ought to know is contrary to reality.

B: So we got on this point discussing examples of being unproductive. It seems that assessing whether an activity is productive takes us into questions of morality. It also seems that assessing whether an activity is productive can take us into epistemological issues. In the case of the discussion of the academic, the issue of what method or approach or process the academic had in place to address criticisms of his economic theory, and correct potential errors in that theory, is an epistemological one. How he chose to act under a given set of conditions (i.e. whether he was honest or dishonest) is a moral one.

A: So it seems like some philosophy fields are entangled with one another and you need to think about multiple big areas (morality, epistemology) when trying to pursue some big value like being good or productive.

B: There was another thing you mentioned, which was wanting to learn interesting things.

A: Yes.

B: Can you see how that might involve a bunch of big areas?

A: Well, you’d have to figure out stuff like what kind of things are worth learning about and what you should consider interesting, along with actually figuring out how to learn stuff effectively.

B: Let’s take one point there. You say that you need to figure out “what you should consider interesting”. A lot of people would say you should just learn about whatever seems fun to you.

A: That seems like whim-worship to me! I’m not against doing stuff you consider fun according to your current values, but you should also question and think about them.

B: Right and I agree, but my point is that even in formulating how to go about learning interesting things, and what’s involved in that, you’re bringing in various moral ideas. Like you have the moral idea “one should seek objective truth about what’s interesting and worthwhile, instead of just doing whatever seems fun at the time” as a background idea.

A: Ah, right.

B: There is a similar issue with “what kind of things are worth learning about”. You imply that there is some standard that you’re referencing outside of whatever seems the most fun or interesting to you in the moment.

A: Right.

B: Having objective standards for action instead of subjective ones is a moral idea.

A: Right.

B: And then you talk about “actually figuring out how to learn stuff effectively.” So suppose you were under the misconception that you could just read books and watch videos and have the knowledge from them dumped into your brain somehow.

A: I think your learning efforts would not be very effective if you were operating under such a misconception.

B: I agree. So in what field might you find the knowledge needed to correct such a misconception?

A: I think the field that deals with that kinda stuff is called epistemology.

B: Right. So again, in trying to take some goal seriously and think about what it involves, we find various links to philosophy fields.

A: Does this mean that the most important thing in life is to pursue philosophy?

B: As a general statement, that might seem to imply that everyone should be philosophers.

A: Hmm. Well maybe they should be?

B: Maybe! I don’t think we should dismiss the possibility out of hand.

A: At the very least, it seems like you need a bunch of knowledge of philosophy in order to be able to think effectively about a bunch of issues

B: Yes, I agree. If you pursue a field besides philosophy as your primary vocation, you will need field-specific knowledge as well - in law or medicine or programming or whatever. But you will still need philosophical knowledge for guiding your actions effectively, being moral, being productive, learning effectively.

A: So perhaps a good answer to the question “What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?” is “Effectively pursuing the knowledge - particularly the philosophical knowledge - that helps me improve and achieve my goals.”

B: That seems like a reasonable answer to me.

Thinking About “Time-Based Metric For Overreaching”

Adam (A): Hi.

Bob (B): Hi.

A: I find that I often spend a lot of time being stuck on things.

B: Have you read this article: https://curi.us/2182-time-based-metric-for-overreaching

A: Yes but I think I should reread it and go through it. I’ll comment as I go and we can talk about it.

B: OK.


90% of the time, thinking should take 2 minutes or less. (1 in 10 things goes past 2 minutes.)

90% of cases that take longer should be under 15 minutes. (1 in 100 things goes past 15 minutes.)

90% of the cases that take longer than that should be under 2 days. (1 in 1000 things goes past 2 days.)

Ok, I think I go over these egregiously.

B: Is there any particular context in which that comes up?

A: It’s come up when working on technical things, like math or programming.

B: So maybe you have skill gaps that you need to fill in? That’s common in those kinds of areas.

A: Yeah, probably. I have trouble convincing myself to do that, though, and want to keep pursuing the problem.

B: Why?

A: Part of the issue is that I convince myself I can do it. And often I can, if I keep trying long enough.

B: Yeah but that’s kind of like someone at a slot machine waiting for 7-7-7 to come up. Sure, if you keep pulling the lever long enough, maybe you’ll get it - like maybe things will finally click - but it’s not the best use of your time or effort.

A: Right.

B: Maybe you feel like you should be able to solve certain things, so you wanna just rush ahead and not acknowledge the relevant skill gaps.

A: Yeah that sounds plausible.

B: Well don’t moralize your lack of knowledge like that. Imagine that some software you were trying to run required some other software, but you didn’t have that other software installed already. You wouldn’t curse your computer for not already having that software installed.

A: lol that’d be a pretty ridiculous thing to do.

B: Right, see? You’d just install the needed software. So try to think about getting pre-requisites down in the same way.

A: Another part of the issue is not knowing where my skill gaps are.

B: Well you should get advice about that. I think that’s the most effective and efficient method. But you could also build an explicit step into your problem-solving process. Like imagine you get past the first cut-off above, of 2 minutes. At that point, you could have a “evaluate possible skill gaps” step that you always run, and you could try making a list of things that you might need to brush up on.

A: I like that idea.

B: Elliot says:

Next steps should be fast. You shouldn’t be stuck for long periods of time. (“Long” means longer than the amounts of time above. A main point of this post is that people have the times wrong and are routinely stuck for a few hours and don’t realize how long and bad that is.)
Most stuff you do should be small and easy. If it’s not, break it into smaller parts (so that you can be making progress frequently by finishing one little part) or find easier stuff to do.

A: Yeah. I have some sense of how bad being stuck a long time is but still have had trouble getting stuck.

B: You should also try setting an actual timer. Or two. Maybe you could try setting one timer for 2 minutes and one for 15 minutes. That way, even if you want to “keep trying” for a while, you have a secondary timer to stop at, which limits your downside of time wasted.

A: watchOS 8 lets you have multiple timers running at the same time now, so I could try using that.

B: I think that it’s worth a try.

A: watch buzzes Oh hey two minutes is a really short amount of time lol.

B: I think if you take steps to indicate to yourself how much time you’re spending on being stuck, you’ll be surprised at how your sense of time is different from an objective measurement of time.

A: Yes that seems plausible. By the way, a meta comment is that I have only rarely found myself stuck when writing these dialogues. When I’m writing them, I’m writing or thinking (in a useful way, not a circular/stuck way) pretty continuously. I have sometimes put one aside for later to finish it because I couldn’t think of the next thing that I wanted to stay or was too tired or something, but I haven’t been actively stuck in the same way that I get stuck on some other things.

B: That may be an indicator that you are not overreaching in writing them. They are something that you can comfortably do at your skill level.

A: Yeah. That seems like a good thing to keep in mind.

B: Let’s continue with Elliot’s article:

If someone says something, you should usually have an idea of your reply within 2 minutes. A clarifying question is fine as a reply. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Or if you are going to give a big reply where you make 5 points, then you could think of each point as a mini project and figure each one out in 2 minutes.

A: So if I think something is wrong in the logic of what someone said, I could break things up into like, a just writing out some initial thoughts step, and a making a mindmap step, and a more finalized polished writing step?

B: Yes. That’s a bit of a different issue than what Elliot was talking about, but I think it’s compatible with what he’s saying. He was talking about breaking up a multipart reply into smaller steps, whereas you may be talking about breaking up figuring out your reply into smaller steps.

A: Yeah.

B: I think that part of the reason people often get stuck on things is because they try to skip to the part of writing some finished, polished, finalized thing, without having gone through the necessary intermediate steps that are required to develop the knowledge in order to do that effectively.

People in certain technical fields often speak of “attacking” a problem. In a military context, what would an attack involve?

A: Well, you could just go rushing in from the front.

B: You could, but that is a tactic that can involve serious unnecessary loss of life and risk of defeat. So what would be a smarter approach?

A: Well, you could do reconnaissance, make maps, gather intelligence, take notes, think about different possible angles, take an inventory of your available resources, think big picture about how important winning this particular battle or territory is or whether it might be wiser to double back…

B: Right. So you can take that sort of systematic, smart approach from the military context and apply it to other areas.

A: I see. So if you are trying to solve some math problem, you might try to carefully organize your information, think about different possible ways of approaching the problem, think about what sorts of conceptual tools you have at your disposal, think about whether you should double back to learning some required concept you’re shaky on…

B: Exactly.

A: I see. But if you just try to press ahead, that’s the equivalent of just a run-in-from-the-front, human wave kind of attack.

B: Yes. And maybe if the problem is not very hard, that will work - just like an enemy force is not well equipped or trained or organized, you might get away with just rushing in from the front and be able to rout them. But if you actually encounter “resistance”, that’s a sign to think twice about whether this approach makes sense!

A: So I could ask myself whether I’m encountering “resistance” and adjust my approach accordingly.

B: Yes. And you could frame this as not an issue of you lacking some prerequisite knowledge you should have, but of you just being a smart general with the resources you have.

A: I like that framing!

B: Let’s end it here for today. Maybe we’ll talk about the rest of the article later.

A: OK.

Everybody Being Philosophers

Bob (B): Hi.

Adam (A): Hi.

B: In a previous discussion, we had this exchange:

A: Does this mean that the most important thing in life is to pursue philosophy?

B: As a general statement, that might seem to imply that everyone should be philosophers.

A: Hmm. Well maybe they should be?

B: Maybe! I don’t think we should dismiss the possibility out of hand.

A: At the very least, it seems like you need a bunch of knowledge of philosophy in order to be able to think effectively about a bunch of issues

B: Yes, I agree. If you pursue a field besides philosophy as your primary vocation, you will need field-specific knowledge as well - in law or medicine or programming or whatever. But you will still need philosophical knowledge for guiding your actions effectively, being moral, being productive, learning effectively.

A: Yep.

B: In this podcast, Elliot answers a question about what the world would be like if everyone suddenly became good at philosophy.

A: Oh I vaguely remember that one. What did he say again?

B: Well, he indicates that there would be less fighting and misery, and that people would learn way faster, and we’d have way more programmers, and the economy and political situation would improve because people would learn and understand ideas related to politics and economics, and we’ve have a better/clearer/more principled foreign policy, and so on. He says there would be still be differences in people’s interests, and some people would focus on philosophy as a primary career and be advanced philosophers, and others would not. But the situation right now is that most people are really bad at philosophy, and it’s a really core and fundamental skill, that basically everyone can stand to improve their skill at philosophy. In a world with lots of good philosophers, there wouldn’t be a critical shortage of them, and people could specialize in other fields like law, medicine, physics, or farming, without there being an issue there.

A: Interesting. So that sounds like Elliot thinks that in a world of good philosophers, you would have programmers or physicists or whatever, but there would be more high-quality philosophers and lots of people bringing philosophy to bear, in a useful, productive way, in their work and life.

B: Right. And even people specializing in philosophy might do other things sometimes btw - like Socrates was a soldier, he didn’t just do philosophy.

A: Right.

B: Peikoff talks about the issue of having some knowledge of philosophy versus being an expert/master of philosophy in this podcast (in the frame of discussing philosophy for an industrialist like Rearden vs. philosophy for a philosophy professional like Akston). Peikoff says it took him about 40 years of full time professional work to reach what he himself considers mastery of Objectivism.

A: Wow!

B: Yeah. He says it should be faster for people now because there’s a bunch of Oist writing (from him and Rand) that didn’t exist when he was learning.

A: Still!

B: So anyways, Objectivism also seems to recognize a distinction between the philosophical knowledge needed by an expert versus the philosophical knowledge needed by a “regular” person.

A: But I’m thinking that Objectivism would agree with Elliot that the philosophical knowledge that most people actually have is woefully inadequate and that there is much need for improvement.

B: Yeah. Recognizing a distinction between a basic tier of philosophical knowledge and an advanced tier does not imply anything about whether the current widespread knowledge of philosophy is sufficient.

A: Right.

B: It’s like, there are various superfine points of grammar that you can get into, if you are into that sort of thing and find it fun, and one can distinguish that kind of thing from more basic grammatical knowledge. But lots of people lack even the basic level of knowledge, and struggle with things like subject-verb agreement.

A: Right.

B: If you took someone from our society and put them into a society where people had a bunch of grammatical knowledge, it might seem like you had a society of grammarians.

A: Right. But the grammatical knowledge would really just be a widespread level of background knowledge that pretty much everyone would have, and that they would use in their everyday life while pursuing their various professions and communicating with people personally

B: Right. Or like, to get a different perspective on things - to use a point where our society is actually pretty advanced - imagine you were an illiterate peasant in a society where very few people knew how to read - maybe a town lawyer, a priest, that kind of thing. So illiteracy is the default, people don’t read books, etc. Being able to read at all is seen as advanced and scholarly, or maybe associated with the rich people who can spend time teaching their kids that kind of advanced, impractical stuff. And then you’re transported to our society somehow, and even poor people have widespread access to books, and middle class people might have huge bookshelves with tons of books, and even little kids are reading books.

A: We have a society of scholars!

B: Right, that’s what you might think. But really, being a scholar is still a specialized thing, and most people are just using background reading knowledge that most of them gained when they were very young, and often not using it for very good purposes (e.g. they might be uncritically reading trashy romance novels or low quality political books).

A: Right. So the standard of what marks one out as scholarly changed due to widespread literacy.

B: Exactly. And getting to the stage that people used to consider notable - being literate - requires focus and concentrated effort, but often goes relatively quickly for people. It doesn’t take 40 years or anything like that.