After rereading Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues last year, and getting recommendations from some people on where to start reading up on virtue ethics, I made it a goal to read every book on that list of recommendations. Part of this was just an attempt to kick me out of the doldrums—I’d been spinning my wheels, reading a bit here and there, writing at either my blog or The Umlaut, in a routine that hadn’t changed much or resulted in much personal growth since college. The project of reading all those books alone would be more ambitious than anything I’d done in a long time—Goodreads tells me that I read 42 books that year, compared with the 16 the year before.
But I also felt that McCloskey’s call to revive a morally serious conversation about our way of life had a weight to it that nothing else I’d read or thought about had held for me. And so the more I read, the more I wanted to do something beyond just reading—hence, the book project.
I couldn’t tell you the exact moment when the reading project became the book project. But it felt good to have something like that, something that was just mine, and required me to grow before I could accomplish it.
So I read a ton of philosophy last year; mostly virtue ethics, but also epistemology and some Michael Oakeshott and other side-trips.
This year was going to be straightforward, going in—I would read as many business and self-help books as I had philosophy books last year, maybe more. Then I would write the first draft of the book. Given the word count of my writing output on blogs, I thought getting at least a rough draft would be a piece of cake.
How wrong I was. A book is just so different from an essay. It’s not even comparable.
After beating my head against my initial outline for a few months, writing stalled. It kicked into gear when I started carrying a notebook with me and writing in it during my commute. I gave myself permission to write anything that could be very broadly construed as being relevant to the book, in any order. I filled the notebook in no time.
I typed the notebook up in October, and haven’t done much on the book since then. My plan is to print out what I typed up, and organize it into sections. Organizing it should help me figure out what needs to be discarded and what needs to be supplemented. I will then rewrite everything, using what I’ve written already as the starting point. This process of borrowing bigger or smaller pieces of drafts I’ve already written in order to make a new thing is something I’ve done for ages and ages; it’s a familiar, tested approach for me.
My vision of the book has changed drastically over the course of the year, but I’m happy with where I’ve ended up. Originally my idea for it was little more than The Bourgeois Virtues, but for a business book audience. The audience has stayed the same, but the focus has shifted.
Aristotle’s ethics can be thought of as having two pieces, broadly: a kind of life, and a kind of person. The Nicomachean Ethics begins with a meditation on a person’s life as a whole, and what it is we strive for. Aristotle concludes that we strive for eudaimonia; happiness, flourishing, the good life. He argues that in order to achieve eudaimonia you have to be a certain type of person; the virtuous person. A lot of the book is simply explaining what it is to be that sort of person.
My original focus was on the second piece; the virtuous person. Provisional titles for the book included Virtue in the Office or The Entrepreneur’s Virtue; you get the picture. It was about being a virtuous person in the context of commerce.
The more I wrote in my notebook, though, the more I found that what I really wanted to talk about was the first piece; life itself. I wrote more and more stories about entrepreneurs, artists, managers, contractors, and sole-proprietors, and how their trades fit beautifully into our way of life. And why all of this added up to a way of life worth defending.
The two pieces are not separable, but the focus matters. I’ve always been worried about how I was going to sell abstract philosophy to a business book audience, and now I know. The story is about our way of life; there will be one chapter about how the virtues fit into that. The rest will focus on people, companies, and industries that flesh out the relationship between commerce and flourishing, as it exists in our particular way of life. Again, the two pieces are connected—while showing how Julia Child or the founders of a local theater exemplify the best of our way of life, I will also show them to be hard-working, generous, prudent, and so forth. But the difference in emphasis will be there.
Sometime in the second half of the year, I decided I wanted to pursue data science as a career goal. This didn’t come from nowhere and is something I’ve been flirting with for a long time, but I’ve made a commitment to it now. My employer has been very supportive of this decision, and I’ll be transferring to a new team at the beginning of the year as a result. I won’t be doing data science—I’m not capable of it yet—but it will be a more analytical job. As I pick up more skills through self-directed learning or other means, I will be able to apply them to the job and so start making them part of a regular practice, rather than learning them as an academic exercise.
The head of data science at my employer gave me some solid advice: first, learn Python. Then, refresh your memory of linear algebra and statistics (in practice, this will mean relearning those things). He said it might make sense to learn something like Java through a traditional CS 101 type course, just because that makes learning other programming languages a lot easier afterwards.
So far, I’ve gone through Learn Python the Hard Way. It was tremendously helpful; I feel as though I have learned a lot in only a couple of months. I’ve since consulted Data Science from Scratch and Python for Data Analysis, but more as reference material than a straightforward course the way LPTHW was. I’ve been doing Project Euler and other Python challenges online just to get my mind working on solving problems with Python.
But I haven’t really started the next major thing, which will be the math and stats. I’m a bit intimidated to get started, to be honest. LPTHW was such a great guide for getting going with Python, and I’m not sure I’m going to get the equivalent for linear algebra or stats. But I’ve got a couple of choices for each, so I’m going to dive in, see what works, and revise my study plans accordingly. If I have to do online courses rather than books, though the latter worked better for Python, I will do that. If I have to hire a tutor, or something like that, I’ll do it too. I feel uncertainty about what the best way to proceed will be, but confident that I can do it, one way or another.
And I think I have reasonable goals. I want to get back to the level of competency I had in linear algebra and statistics back when I was in school and taking courses on those things. I want to achieve that by the end of this year. I want to achieve an entry-level data science skillset within two years, and get to more of a middle-level skillset within three to five years.
The previous two sections are about aspirations. This one is about an accomplishment, though I can hardly take all the credit.
The Umlaut was a fun ride. When Eli and Jerry invited me to be part of the initial group of writers there, I was extremely flattered. They both had public presences; I didn’t, not really. I could only gain by association, and I did.
Our original plan was for all of us to write a weekly piece, 600-1000 words, to come out on the same day each week. I was the only one who stuck to that schedule for more than a couple of months, and I stuck to it the entire time I wrote there. I’m proud of that; my writing before then was very sporadic. Sticking to a regular schedule like that was a good experience and very focusing.
And a lot of what I’ve been able to do since, I owe to the visibility I gained from The Umlaut.
But at a certain point last year, it felt like I was really the only one writing there. Sometimes it would be months before a byline other than mine would appear. I started yearning for something more like EconLog, back when Arnold Kling was there and he would regularly have back-and-forths with Bryan Caplan, his co-blogger.
I’d already become part of a small group of friends with similar interests, so I asked them if they’d like to start something with me. The result was Sweet Talk.
Sweet Talk has been one of the most fulfilling enterprises I’ve had the privilege to be a part of. I’ve contributed posts, of course, but it has been much more rewarding to see the other Sweet Talkers write their pieces and discuss them among one another. The life of these posts is very fluid; often beginning in discussions in Facebook groups or on Twitter, then continuing in those places afterwards, to be picked up again on the blog itself.
I have learned so much from this group, as well as the extended group of people we all talk to fairly regularly. I cannot begin to summarize how far I’ve come just by being around them and having my curiosity sparked by the topics they command a greater knowledge of.
We’re not what I’d call a media titan, nor a Slate Star Codex or Marginal Revolution, but we’re no slouch in traffic for what we are, either. And sheer traffic isn’t really the point, either. Getting more smart, interesting contributors is a higher priority than simply growing traffic. As I see it, we’re building a community, rather than a media outlet. As the about page hints, I’d love for the boundaries between contributor, commenter, and audience to be pretty fluid if possible.
If I’m counting right, I’ve written about 72 posts there this year. Here are the ones I’m proudest of:
- Science is Persuasion. Last year, I binged most of Deirdre McCloskey’s books, including The Rhetoric of Economics and Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics. It was such a different approach to epistemology and philosophy of science than I was familiar with (which was really just Popper) that I was both blown away but unsure that I really understood. I wrote this post after finishing the collection Economics and Hermeneutics, when something finally clicked for me. Still very happy with this post, wouldn’t change anything about it. The irony is that McCloskey and people who specialize in hermeneutics are often accused of being relativists, but they all have actually made me more epistemologically optimistic.
- The Politics of Truth. This was written after reading Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines. One of the concepts explored there is the Noble Lie, the idea that sometimes the truth is dangerous. I don’t agree with that exactly, but I thought it was getting at something important; this post was my attempt to show how you could use facts to knock something down without actually being helpful. It was also a small stab at an ontology of groups, something that’s been of increasing interest to me.
- Learning as Adventure. The big intellectual event for me this year was discovering Hans-Georg Gadamer, who I found because several of the chapters of Economics and Hermeneutics referenced him. Truth and Method was the first thing I’ve read since I began binging on philosophy books last year that felt really, truly other. I had to read a lot of secondary material afterwards to help wrestle with it. The piece that came the quickest was Gadamer’s concept of prejudices, and how they play a role in the continually-revisionary nature of our understanding. This post takes that and tries to pump people up to be optimistic about how much they can learn. Because the past two years have made me optimistic, especially considering I should (barring terrible luck) have decades of life left in which to learn even more. Recommended if you’re intellectually curious but feel intimidated by how much there is to learn.
- Of Subjects and Objects. More wrestling with the concepts from Gadamer. This one was especially influenced by Adam Adatto Sandel’s framing in The Place of Prejudice, which draws on Gadamer as well as Heidegger and Aristotle. Sandel argues that the subject-object distinction is very historically young, and has limitations we shouldn’t let straightjacket us in. The post is an attempt to think through the subject-object distinction and the alternatives that I’m aware of. Recommended if you think everything is either subjective or objective.
- Tradition, Authority, and Reason. The piece I am the proudest of by far, perhaps of anything I have ever written. Before I started reading about virtue ethics, I was pretty sure I was some kind of Burkean traditionalist. Alasdair MacIntyre was the first to get me to question that, last year. But Gadamer’s take on tradition was radically different from any of them. This piece was written in September, months after I finished Truth and Method, but I had been struggling with the ideas encountered there the entire time. I wouldn’t say that I mastered them, but being able to write this piece constituted a huge step forward. It’s also a piece set in conversation with a fellow Sweet Talker, Sam Hammond, so it’s in the spirit of the blog itself that way.
Who Even Am I?
Those who have known me most of my life, know that I have always been a slacker. I am not what you would call motivated, I am not “a type-A personality”. When teachers talked about me, they used the word “potential,” which was polite for “lazy”.
I saw the book project as a way to be ambitious without being too ambitious. It was just outside of my current capabilities, it’d require me to stretch what I could do, but not to an unrealistic degree.
But then, for various reasons, I’ve decided I want to go into data science. Which means squeezing in time to learn Python or whatever the next skill I need to develop might be.
And Sweet Talk might not be a professional publication, but it does take some care and feeding. Not to mention the posts I write there myself.
Who is this person that reads philosophy books by the dozens and wants to invest in his career and write a book? I hardly recognize myself these days.
I’m still not anyone’s idea of ambitious, but I’m slowly realizing that the image I have of myself as the slacker college kid is probably not an accurate way to think about the 30 year old who has had the year I’ve had.
But we’ll see. Hopefully I continue to move forward with this stuff in 2016 rather than slipping back into bad habits.
And I hope you’ll all have good, fulfilling 2016’s yourselves.