Maladaptive Perfectionism

Most of my readers should also read this excellent, long article on–basically–IQ, conscientiousness, anxiety, standardized testing, and medical school. Maybe the title should be enough to persuade you: “The Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment.” But if not, read this:

There’s a type of joke that I think of as the “white people” joke, although it’s rarely funny and it doesn’t have to be about someone who’s white. The joke is about a mid-40’s housewife who is way too well-educated and bored to be a housewife, and so she tries to find the Grail of healthy food (organic, GMO-free, low acidity, one diet after another) and she plants a garden, and she adopts pets, and she joins nonprofits, and she joins the school board, and she reads every novel on NPR’s end of the year list, and she gets weekly therapy and monthly massages (to about the same effect), and she meditates on the present, and she achieves peace with the past, and she contemplates the future, and everything is feng shui, and yet, despite all this, she feels restless, anxious, unhappy, and she dreams of some sort of vacation.

Or sometimes the joke is about an elderly businessman on his second hair transplant and third cardiac stent and twenty-billionth dollar, and his kids all have grandkids and his wife is deceased, and when he goes out he he orders scotch more expensive than houses, but that isn’t too often—he’s seen enough parties, he’s seen enough people, he has no strong affections, and he works round the clock fighting tooth-and-nail for his billions, because he’s not sure what else, exactly, he’s supposed to be doing.

And the joke, which you hear on forums or sitcoms or in crowded sports bars, goes: “Haha, even though these people are successful, they’re still dissatisfied.”

And I’m here to tell you that this joke is totally backwards. It’s because these people have always been dissatisfied that they achieved success.

If you like that, you’ll probably also enjoy The Last Psychiatrist. Whenever I read Zizek (or indeed many of the French inheritors of Althusser) I think that he’s taken us off the path of melding psychoanalytic insights with marxian political economy. These posts strike me as routing around the damage he’s done. This is the direction I wish philosophy was headed, making sense of the problems at the intersection of our lives, our political economy, and our self-deception.

On Minority Genius in Philosophy

Is this what genius looks like?

There’s a lot of reasons to worry about “genius” and other evaluations of general intelligence. My own character skepticism militates against the notion of measurable general intelligence, or even field-specific genius. But the report last month that women and racial minorities in the humanities are less likely to be described as geniuses is another such reason: it looks like genius is often merely a way of saying “white male.” Thus perhaps we should give up on genius and cultivate other virtues, especially if we want to create diverse faculty communities.

And yet.

My experience in philosophy has usually been the opposite: women and African-American philosophers have usually struck me as brighter, more insightful, and making a greater contribution to the discipline than their male and white colleagues (including of course myself.) I wrote my dissertation on a woman, Hannah Arendt. I’m frequently struck by the amazing work done by women and Black philosophers like Elizabeth Anderson, Angela Davis, Christine Korsgaard, Elizabeth Anscombe, Kristie Dotson, Karen Stohr, Chris Lebron, Shannon Sullivan, Sharon Meagher, Charles Mills, Noëlle McAfee, Anthony Appiah, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Tommie Shelby, Rebecca Kukla, Elinor Ostrom, and Jacqueline Scott.

And so I wonder if the error is the language and preference for genius or our poor ability to recognize it. That is: is the problem that philosophers and folks in the humanities think that genius exists, and it doesn’t? Or is the problem that philosophers and folks in the humanities think that they can detect genius, and they can’t?

There’s a plausible explanation of the feeling I have of being awed by women and Black philosophers, of course: in a field that values genius but has a bias against believing in the genius of women and Black philosophers, the only women and Black philosophers who survive the gauntlet of graduate school and job market will be those who can project that genius. They’ll be exceptions that prove the rule, tokens that demonstrate that the whole business of evaluating genius can’t be flawed because, after all, we recognized the greatness of these few scholars.

Moreover, the failure of all the mediocre and merely above-average women and Black philosophers will go unmentioned. We’ll rarely ask: why is it that almost every minority scholar is a genius? Why are all the merely-really-good and maybe-slightly-below-average scholars white and male? One possibility is that genius (of the particular sort preferred by humanities scholars) is unevenly distributed to non-white and non-male scholars: they bring a perspective that comes naturally to them (by virtue of their exclusion from the majority) that makes it especially easy to make outsized contributons. Another possibility is that average scholars are ignored when they are women or Black. What’s more, both of these explanations could hold for part of the injustice we observe: we might need to start talking about the comparative effect size of each of these explanations and not an exclusive disjunction between them.

There’s been a lot of work, lately, chipping away at the sense that the university is meritocratic. Far fewer are working on whether merit is even a meaningful characteristic to evaluate. That still seems like an important question to ask, an insightful and bright question. But I’d also like to see more people take genius as a possibility, to be “genius realists” and question whether the current crop of white, male elites just don’t have it or the ability to recognize it. I am suspicious of the effort to withdraw the merit that accrues to great philosophical scholarship just as women and Black philosophers are eligible to claim it in larger numbers. (The solution to unjust distributions of the pie is not always to throw out the pie.)

Perhaps we shouldn’t give up on genius just yet: perhaps we just need to accept that we’re not smart enough to recognize it when we see it. And perhaps, too, we can give up on the innateness of genius in favor of an account of intelligence as plasticity, as the result of environment and treatment: perhaps philosophical geniuses are not born, but trained and prepared.

Let’s Put Some Money on Introduction to Philosophy

Here’s a bet I’d like to make: a good introduction to philosophy course will do more to increase students’ critical thinking abilities than a good course in logic or critical thinking.

Here’s what I think I’d need to get this bet off the ground:

First, we’d need a stable student body and a randomly selected assortment of students. I offer my own university and our required course in Logic as a possible set of human subjects for our researches.

Second, we’d need a stable measure of critical thinking. The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking test used by employers is probably a stealth IQ test, while the Collegiate Learning Assessment is valid when applied to individual performance, only at the institutional level. Something like the British A-levels in critical thinking might be appropriate. For now, I think the CLA is good enough: we’re testing an institutional approach, after all! So: the second step is to institute pre- and post-testing on the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

Third, we’d need to split students randomly into a control group, getting the best critical thinking and logic instruction available, and a test group, getting good philosophy instruction with a few papers. I usually run my intro classes with three papers: an analysis paper where they’re tasked with reconstructing an argument, an opposition paper where students take up a position they oppose and defend it against objections, and a synthesis paper where they try to offer a novel argument based on the semester’s readings. (It’s about fifteen pages total.)

So, here’s my bet: the students in the test group of sections of Introduction to Philosophy would beat the students in the control group in the Logic sections on the CLA score-improvements at the end of the term.

Who’s in?

Deciding Whether or Not to Tell a Story

When I was an undergraduate, I took a class called “Truth and Beauty” with the poet Ann Lauterbach. It was basically a class on reading and writing essays, but I took it because I was a philosophy major and I thought it would be about aesthetics, i.e. about whether judgments about beauty can be true or false. Every week we’d read a collection of essays and we would turn in a response essay of our own. We also met with Ann regularly to discuss our work, which was great because she had the kind of presence that made one-on-one encounters particularly powerful and instructive, like academic therapy.

During one of our sessions, I remember bemoaning the fact that my essays were all so analytical. I had read some of her poetry and I yearned for the kind of imaginative approach to language that I thought she had. (I really had no idea about poetry.) I can’t remember her exact response, but it was something like this:

Everybody has their own way of thinking, their own voice. You shouldn’t try to change the way you think, but rather work on improving it.

At the time, I found that inspiring. Here was a brilliant poet giving me permission (nay, charging me with the duty!) to dig deeper into the habits of thought and writing that were most comfortable for me. It was liberating. I’ve since come to realize that my style of thinking is much less strictly analytical and much more about exploring questions and the various possible ways of answering them. (Those links point to a couple of posts addressing different approaches to power and freedom.) But I’m glad I took Ann’s advice, because look where it got me: I got a PhD in philosophy, and I get to teach my favorite texts and questions for a living!

Now, here’s the question: why did I tell you that story?

Notice how my story works: it puts some pretty banal clichés into the mouth of a famous poet, but all she said was “be yourself.” I start by establishing her authority and gravitas, I introduce a problem via a distinction with an implicit hierarchy (analytic versus imaginative), and then the authority figure in my story teaches me a lesson that reverses the hierarchy: it’s okay to be analytic and nerdy! Then I pretend like this simple lesson is what got me to where I am today. Yay poets! Yay philosophy nerds!

But wait! Maybe my story is deceptive. Maybe, as Tyler Cowen said in his recent TEDx talk, stories have a tendency to paper over the messiness of real life:

Narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip [detail] way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it’s a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it’s, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don’t have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you’re lowering your IQ by ten points or more.

Oh shit! Did I just make myself and my readers dumber? Did my little “A Man Learns a Lesson”-style story just get us all stoned on narrative inanities?

Cowen goes on to qualify this:

we use stories to make sense of what we’ve done, to give meaning to our lives, to establish connections with other people. None of this will go away, should go away, or can go away.

But, he explains, we should worry about stories more, and embrace the messiness of life more. But I wonder if he’s right? After all, Lauterbach told me I shouldn’t try to change the way I think, but rather get really good at the modes of thinking that I already prefer. Surely the same thing is true for people who love stories and think primarily in terms of stories?

So, here’s how I think about this question: Should we listen to Cowen or to Lauterbach? Why?

It seems to me that we should be suspicious of stories if we think that letting reality be messy is good for thinking clearly. The problem there is that we’re only likely to think that if we’ve had good experiences with other forms of analysis: plotting data or formalizing syllogisms. In that case, we’ll hear Cowen’s comments like I heard Lauterbach’s: “Be yourself! Those story-tellers are phonies, anyway.”

On the other hand, we might also want to dig deeper into stories and develop our critical thinking skills from within the narrative form: when is a story too neat? When is a narrator’s omniscience really pandering to the reader? What are the other stories we can tell about authors, about cultures, and about narrative manipulation that might help us to avoid the traps that narratives set for us? If we’ve already got a pretty good sense of the structure of stories, the kinds of things that narratives do and can do, we might prefer to dig deeper and hone this method. But still, the message is Lauterbach’s: “Don’t kick the poets out of the city! Poets can be wise, too!”

In this post, Lauterbach is going to stay the hero. But Cowen is a smart guy, and he tries to inoculate himself against this kind of criticism in the section on cognitive biases. Basically, he reminds us that people tend to misuse their knowledge of psychology through a kind of motivated reasoning that reproduces their earlier, ignorant biases but now with supposed expert certification. In this, as in most things “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” (But isn’t that what TED is for?) Then he reminds us of the epistemic portfolio theory, which holds that we’ll tend to balance our subjects of agnosticism, unpopular beliefs, and dogmatism in a rough equilibrium, so we ought to beware of the ways we abjure narratives in only some parts of our lives. (This is pretty much like ending his whole talk with the prankster’s “NOT!” Silly rationalists: truth-tracking and reason-responsiveness are myths we tell to children to hide the messy emotional facts of the matter.)

The passage in his talk where he typologizes the various narratives we’ll tell about the talk is also pretty funny: “I used to think too much in terms of stories, but then I heard Tyler Cowen, and now I think less in terms of stories!” Yay economists! They’re smart and have all the bases covered. Hey wait: do you think that’s why he told us that story?