There’s No Shortcut to Wisdom

I’ve read quite a lot of philosophy over the past five years.

One small problem: philosophy doesn’t give you much, on its own.

The thinkers that have staked out the largest territory in my mind are people like Hans-Georg Gadamer or Charles Taylor who, while having sophisticated systems of thought, are ultimately quite deflationary about the power of philosophical reflection on its own.

Philosophy of law is no shortcut to understanding law. Hermeneutics is no shortcut to understanding literature. Moral philosophy is no shortcut to understanding right and wrong. Political philosophy is no shortcut to understanding either politics or political institutions as they exist and function in life. Epistemology and philosophy of science are no shortcut for becoming a competent scholar or scientist. Metaphysics is no shortcut for understanding reality.

So Truth and Method or “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man” gave me some strong opinions about social science, but then I found I had very few concrete, specific observations to make on the matter. I was stuck at a very broad, abstract level, the very thing such texts are meant to dissuade from engaging in.

Then I began to read Nancy Rosenblum’s work, and it all clicked.

The first book of hers I read was her most recent, Good Neighbors. In analyzing the experience, the norms, and the mythology of neighborliness in America, Rosenblum read philosophy (and in fact cites the Taylor paper on the sciences of man mentioned above), social psychology, and history, but also memoirs, testimonials, and even novels and poetry. The trick is, she read an enormous amount. There are eight years between the publication of her previous book and Good Neighbors, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it took her seven of those eight to navigate the absolutely gigantic corpus of works she not only cites, but draws from and synthesizes masterfully.

For Rosenblum, there was no shortcut for gaining an understanding of the neighbor experience in America. She had to draw not only on a plurality of types of sources, but an enormous quantity of each type, and to patiently wrestle with them all to draw out a coherent whole. Her other works run along the same lines; Membership and Morals in particular draws heavily on case law among other sources. Reading Rosenblum, you get an appreciation for the rich texture of the subject matter she wrestles with.

But you benefit from her expertise; you do not gain it. Reading Rosenblum is not a shortcut for gaining her understanding of the subject matter she discusses. I’m afraid it takes the same level of work she put into it in order to do that.

The number of newspapers, letters, pamphlets, and other documents that a Gordon Wood or a Joanne Freeman must read in order to produce their works on the founding and early republic boggle my mind. The amount of case law a practicing trial lawyer must know – and often learn under difficult time constraints – is astonishing. The quickest way to make a fool of yourself is to issue pronouncements on criminal justice reform to a public defender, on the basis of a few popular nonfiction books you have read.

What I am saying, I suppose, is that I have known for a while that it is high time for me to dial back philosophy – however much I love it – and invest more of my time in history, law, political science, and other works focused on concrete particulars.

There is a line from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country, one of my favorite books that I read in 2018, that has stuck with me:

The difference between this residual Left and the academic Left is the difference between the people who read books like Thomas Geoghegan’s Which Side Are You On?—a brilliant explanation of how unions get busted—and people who read Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. The latter is an equally brilliant book, but it operates on a level of abstraction too high to encourage any particular political initiative. After reading Geoghegan, you have views on some of the things which need to be done. After reading Jameson, you have views on practically everything except what needs to be done.

I do not share Rorty’s politics, but I’ve set myself up to argue with the Jamesons rather than the Geoghegans (assuming I would disagree with the latter, which I do not know for a fact as I have not read him)! What is the point of disagreeing with cultural philosophers who will inspire no practical action in anyone? If we’re to move beyond a culture of negation, we need to aim to participate in communities of conversation where the push and pull is over what to do, not what position to occupy in abstraction.

So I need to read more Geoghegans and fewer Jamesons. But, taking Gadamer and Taylor (and Rosenblum and McCloskey and many others) seriously, as I do, I also need to be reading more prose fiction and more poetry. This may sound like a contradiction – poetry in particular is reputed to be as far from concrete living as you can get, beyond metaphysics perhaps. But both disclose aspects of the human experience, as it is and as it can be, that other sources do not. And I have read more philosophy alone—never mind nonfiction in general—than either fiction or poetry, 10 to 1 at least, these last five years.

I’m not putting down what I have achieved so far. Five years ago I decided there was no shortcut to understanding philosophy, and began to do the hard work, still deeply incomplete, of filling that understanding out. But I’m not a philosopher, and I have interests that extend beyond its boundaries. Even a well fleshed out philosophy cannot be a shortcut to addressing those interests. It’s time to branch out.

Fragile Publics

In cultural historian Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor, she draws on a massive corpus of texts in order to flesh out the formal features of the information environment of political actors in the early republic. Of central interest to me is what she termed “the paper war”, but word-of-mouth gossip was a crucial component as well. The temptation to draw parallels to today is very strong, but I keep going back and forth on how persuaded I am by that exercise.

Let’s go through it nevertheless. The paper war had four chief tools: the letter, the pamphlet, the broadside, and the newspaper. In theory, these are ranked from the most private and therefore the medium with the most freedom to speak one’s mind (the letter) to the most public and therefore the medium that must be hedged for a broader audience (the newspaper). In practice, letters were far more public in nature than a modern reader is likely to realize, and often intentionally so. Letters often contained specific instructions to circulate them among an intimate circle of friends. Instructions aside, once sent, letters could end up in the hands of a postmaster loyal to the enemy party, or the receiver could use the letter to advance their own interests rather than the sender’s. But more on this aspect in a moment.

Pamphlets were often lengthy defenses of one’s character full of “documentation” (notes about specific events that had occurred usually, but possibly also signed statements from people willing to lend their credibility to it) intended to be circulated among a larger group than a letter but still among insiders, so to speak. This is the one that often gets paralleled to the modern blog, due to its middle point between the one-to-one and one-to-many positions on the private communication – broadcast spectrum.

Broadsides were posted in public places and so had broader reach in whatever locality they were put up in. Definitely a one-to-many model, very frequently anonymous and full of spitfire rhetoric one wouldn’t use in polite company.

Newspapers were the most public medium of all of course, with the potential to reach some of the widest audiences available at the time. One had to be very careful with ones words indeed, if one did not want to end up being challenged to a duel by whoever’s name was impugned. These could be anonymously written too, of course, but the strongest impact came from people willing to put their name to it (though of course this also required drawing back their rhetoric since it put them in the crosshairs).

Freeman says of newspapers:

Most wide-reaching of all was the newspaper. Printed in a single newspaper, an essay or news item easily migrated into others, forming a national bridge of communication beyond any one man’s control. By linking regions together with bonds of political consciousness, interconnected partisan newspapers were a nationalizing influence, a literal arm of government connecting the extended republic through chains of information.

As Adam Rust, who recommended this book to me, put it: perhaps the overtly partisan tone of today’s mainstream press (and the overall information sphere) is more of a return to type than a sign of cultural decline. So that is another parallel: the partisan press of the past and the partisan press of the present.

Now. Returning to the issue of letters whose lives were no more under the control of the sender once sent than an essay in a newspaper would have been. These days it is a commonplace that your emails may be leaked. But before that became a regular public phenomena, it was still trivially easy to forward an email to someone else – or to a mass list of people. Or to download it, or copy and paste the text. Once you’ve sent a message to someone, it’s in their hands, and they have all of the tools of the information sphere at their disposal to spread it (should they desire to).

We see this with the pamphlet/blog parallel as well. Pamphlets were meant to stay within the confines of a particular insider clique, but could be posted against the wishes of the author. Any of the hands that touched them could post them more widely, and like the modern blog they could go viral. Now, many blogs aspire to such an outcome – but many are quite comfortable writing for their little niche communities, their tiny online republics of equals. Even those who think they desire fame may not realize the price they – and their little community – might be forced to pay in loss of intimacy and candor that accompanies the arrival of large audiences.

The more I have thought about it, the more I think this is the connecting thread: the position of any of these tools (only “weapons” if one is fighting some war) is created by a combination of convention (that is, agreement) and circumstances (for example, the obscurity that is the default position of any one person or blog or social media account in the vast attention economy of the modern information sphere). More to the point, these positions are never assured in any one instance, precisely because people can buck convention and circumstances can change.

This does not make exercises like Freeman’s less worthwhile, and of course she’s careful to lay out exactly how conventions were bucked and circumstances did change. And even now, even as we have analyzed new media to death, I think a real Freeman-scale project to flesh out the various positions has not really been done (though my dad of course did a pretty bang up job with pieces of the information sphere in his book).

My point isn’t to criticize Freeman, whose book is a masterpiece and whose recent one I intend to read at some point. I’m just trying to scratch the itch I’ve had since reading it.

Writing this post has helped my crystallize what the practical insight is: when trying to understand dynamics in the information sphere, try to identify the current conventions (and the predictable ways they are violated) and the salient circumstances (and the various ways they can change). Even in the seeming flux of constant technological change, one can get the knack of it more or less, especially if you focus on relatively short timeframes.

Learning by Applying

Well, here we are, at the end of 2018, and yet again I find the last post was published here at the end of the year before.

I started this site on a simple impulse: to have a little corner of the web under my own name, dedicated to the public face I presented to the world. It then became a deposit for my thoughts, something in which it was superseded when Eli and Jerry invited me to write at The Ümlaut, and then when friends and I started Sweet Talk, and lately after fewer friends and I started Liberal Currents and Dave started Embodiment and Exclusion.

I have considered the question of what exactly this site is for on several occasions along this journey. For a time it seemed appropriate to keep it as the main non-social media venue for personal reflection. Then, when I intended to write a book, it was the primary location of Austin Kleon-style show-your-work updates. But, as I finally admitted publicly in my last updated, the book project stalled long ago.

During 2018, there were several times I was reminded of this site’s existence and wondered if it was finally time to roll it up.

But there’s a kind of writing that I’ve missed, something that isn’t appropriate either to Liberal Currents, where we require a more polished product aimed at a higher purpose than self-fulfillment, or at Embodiment and Exclusion, where I would quickly drown Dave’s posts on his own site with material at best tangentially related to his enterprise there.

This is the kind of writing I began at The Ümlaut but really ran with at Sweet Talk, for I was not reading nearly enough for it to work during my time at the former. The kind of post I have its mind owes its origin to some book or books or specific thinker that I have been reading or reading about, and struggling to grasp. A pivotal part of that struggle was to write a lot of posts about various aspects of what I was struggling with. It did not result in much good writing, in any sense of the term. There are very few posts I wrote at Sweet Talk that I am proud of–though the number is not zero (I wrote quite a lot after all). Nevertheless, they served a purpose, one I find underserved since I ceased writing there.

Sweet Talk was originally conceived of as a conversation blog, inspired by group blogs such as the EconLog in the early days, when the bloggers would post responses to each others’ posts on a regular basis. It ended up largely being conversational in a different way; my posts were, as it were, part of an ongoing conversation with myself, but it served as a basis for many interesting conversations with others, cobloggers or not.

One thing I learned the hard way, and also through observation, and through the guidance of wiser friends (as in all things), is that the quantity of books consumed means very little in the end. You can read quite a lot of smart books by great minds and scholars and still end up with a shallow mind. How you read is at least as important as what. This is what those with a degree education in a field, or at least some sort of institutional support for pursing knowledge in it, have over the autodidact. Yet the reverse is also true: the many online scenes for communal reading and especially discussing of texts provides novel contexts for autodidacts that are often unavailable to the professional. Both approaches have their traps and dead ends, but both have their promise.

I am lucky in the context of my reading. I have made many better read and wiser friends who put up with my relentless questioning on the topics that fascinate me. It also does not offend their professional dignity when I attempt, feebly, to take on some hard line on a matter in which they know more than I, to draw out where I might be mistaken, or why they read the same texts but drew different conclusions.

But still, I miss the posting. Dave once pointed out to me that the writing I did at Sweet Talk paralleled the graduate student who must write an essay performing a straight application of the texts he has recently read. That is just about right, and that sort of writing’s greatest value is in service to the growth of the writer.

So I think I may, once again, begin to straightforwardly apply texts, in writing, as part of my process of learning. And it seems appropriate to do so here, a place that need not be so polished and public-oriented as Liberal Currents, nor so ephemeral as social media. A site under my own name, on servers and under a domain name I pay for myself, in easily-ported WordPress should my relationship with the hosting company deteriorate for some unforeseen reason.

This site has therefore received a stay of execution but also, hopefully, a new life. Expect more to come. I have on my mind Joanne Freeman’s excellent Affairs of Honor for my next post, one of many this year that my friend Adam Rust brought to my attention which has remained on my mind since.

Update From the Edge of 2018

It has been nearly two years since my last update here, and exactly two years since the post before that one, a 2015 year end review. It’s mind boggling to me that only two posts ago I was explaining how I had jumped ship from the Umlaut and had launched Sweet Talk; the latter has since wound down due to a project that launched this year. But more on that below.

My life has changed a great deal since last I posted here. The biggest change by far, which I would only just have become aware of around the time of that post, is that I became a father. Elliot Taylor Gurri just celebrated his first birthday at the beginning of this month. I cannot even begin to describe how he has transformed our lives, much less do justice to the ups and down, the struggles and the joys, of the first year of his life. If you’re a parent, I needn’t explain it to you. If you aren’t, you’re probably tired of hearing the same story from the new parents you have known!

Not only does parenting demand time and attention, but somehow I seem to have less energy or mental clarity left during those hours I am not paying attention to the baby or at work. This is my current excuse for having made basically no progress on my book since my last update, but it’s a rather weak one given that that update occurred in March and the baby wasn’t born until December! Fact is, this book has whipped me. I went in knowing that everyone says writing a book is damn hard, but feeling cocky because of the quantity of my writing output. I was humbled, repeatedly, as I wrote about several times here.

If you want to read the only bits I have written for it that are worth salvaging, read this piece followed by this piece, the two of which (slightly modified) were originally joined together to serve as the introduction or first chapter. My current thinking is that the framework only has any value or concrete meaning in as much as it is applied to real examples. This, however, only means that I need to do more legwork, in gathering cases that are both instructive and compelling to an audience. The plan of the book has changed so many times, however, that I’m not sure it’s even worth the pixels on your screen to say anything more on the matter. And I won’t insult you with an ETA; the book is on the backburner right now, there’s no getting around it. I can’t bring myself to abandon it entirely but for all practical purposes it has remained untouched for more than a year.

What I have been working on is Liberal Currents, where co-founders Paul Crider and Jason Briggeman and I have been attempting to bring together those who share a bond of mere liberalism, while pushing a vision of our own. Jason Kuznicki joined us at launch and has contributed a tremendous amount as both an author and editor, and Samuel Hammond and Cathy Reisenwitz contributed to the launch and since as well, along with our growing coterie of contributors. You may be aware that some things happened in this country and the world, politically, in 2016. These events drew me out of the greater and greater levels of abstraction that I had delved into at Sweet Talk and towards matters of more concrete urgency. Or so I would like to say; my own writing remains…more philosophical than practical. But the goal is to foster a discussion of liberalism from a philosophical as well as practical, tactical, and strategic point of view. It launched early this year and it has been very rewarding. I’m proud of what we accomplished this year and hope we can kick things up a notch in 2018.

In my review of 2015, I talked about trying to get into a data-focused career trajectory. If I had written a 2016 review, it would’ve been far more pessimistic on that score than I am now. I had hoped to transfer to the data analysis team at Tapad, my employer at the time. For various reasons, that fell through in the middle of 2016, and by the end of the year it looked as though I’d be stuck in operations for the foreseeable future. But starting in October of this year, I have been working as a Business Analyst at Outbrain; doing basically the same sort of work I had hoped to do exclusively at Tapad. It has only been two months but it has been exactly what I hoped it would be. I am honing my SQL and my Python skills every day, and learning to use other tools like Tableau that have become standards and I had little previous exposure to. I am very happy with my team, the people I work with, and just the general culture and attitude of the people at Outbrain. It’s been very exciting!

It’s also the first time in almost five years that I have started at a new company. Tapad was very good to me. It was an extremely welcoming environment to go to after a very bad experience at the company that brought us to New York in the first place. In my first year I learned SQL and grew from a pure operations role to a yield role, which (for those outside the industry) involves a great deal more analysis, but still sits within the operations arm of an organization. Last year, they were purchased by Telenor, and the options I had at that point were cashed out. I didn’t strike it rich by any means, but it was a boost to our savings right at the moment we were about to have a baby. Moreover, they changed their parental leave to be something extremely generous, allowing me to spend more time with my wife and Elliot in his first months of life. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities Tapad afforded me and especially for the people I met there.

That’s all I’ve got; that’s a broad outline of what has happened these last two years. I’m an optimist by disposition, so it would perhaps be cheap to close by saying that I’m feeling optimistic about 2018. But I am! I’m looking forward to further growing into my role at Outbrain, and excited and nervous to see how Elliot will grow and change himself every month (and every week, or every day, it sometimes feels like!).

Happy New Year to you; good luck!

Flourishing

That is the current working title for my book.

Been a while since I did a book update, eh? If my 2015 review post counts, it’s been about three months. The last post I wrote just about the book was in October.

I combined everything I had thusfar into one very vaguely structured Word file a couple of months back. It added up to 44,000 or so words and not anything approaching a cohesive work.

But that’s OK. That was part of the plan, at that point.

I read through what I had, wrote up some notes, and then sat on it for another month or so.

Today, I sat down and put together a pretty good (all things considered) first draft of the first section.

I had had a basic idea of how I wanted the book to look by the time I finished filling in my notebook. The simple bulleted list was:

  • Virtue
  • Business
  • Culture
  • Law

All looking at different aspects of life and society in terms of their relationship to commerce, with the goal of providing a defense of the latter.

The original idea had been The Bourgeois Virtues but a business book. In the new structure, I was having trouble figuring out why virtue would be included at all. Talk about business, as the heart of commerce itself? Check. Talk about food and art and how they’re deeply tied to commerce? Check. Talk about the relationship between commerce and the law, and how it need not be a hostile one? Check. Talk about…the virtues…in a kind of self-help angle…in commerce?

Which one of these is not like the other?

But I think I’ve figured out an approach that will work.

Here’s the new bulleted list:

  • Making a Life
  • Making a Living
  • Making a Culture
  • Making a Society

The unifying theme is an exploration of how we all go about trying to lead good lives. The first part talks specifically about our individual lives—through the lens of the virtues. The second part talks about how we materially support those lives, in business and the workplace in general. The third is about art and entertainment, a crucial part of our lives beyond the merely material, and showing how it is not only sustained by commerce, but it is deeply embedded in commercial activity.

The last section is about the relationship between commerce and the law. I’m not a fan of referring to this as “society,” but I can’t think of another word that would fit with the wording of the previous sections. “Making a Law” doesn’t work, and “Making the Law” or “Making Law” breaks the phrasing. I can rationalize by saying that it is commerce, law, and life in general that come together to make society, not merely law. But really it’s that I don’t have another word that could work with that phrasing. Anyway, I’m open to suggestions.

Once this structure clicked for me, it felt like things fell into place much more easily. I assembled a workable draft of the first part quite quickly—just today, in fact. The second part needs a lot more written from scratch, so there’s no way it will go so fast. The third part has plenty of material, while the fourth part will also need much more.

In any case, I do feel that I’m making concrete progress. I’ve wondered at various points whether I could really have a completed first draft of the whole thing by the end of the year. But as things stands, that seems more plausible a timeline than ever.

I’m sure I’ve doomed myself by saying so.