Justin Smith on Irrationality

It’s a story we can’t stop telling ourselves. Once, humans were benighted by superstition and irrationality, but then the Greeks invented reason. Later, the Enlightenment enshrined rationality as the supreme value. Discovering that reason is the defining feature of our species, we named ourselves the “rational animal.” But is this flattering story itself rational? In this sweeping account of irrationality from antiquity to today—from the fifth-century BC murder of Hippasus for revealing the existence of irrational numbers to the rise of Twitter mobs and the election of Donald Trump—Justin Smith says the evidence suggests the opposite. From sex and music to religion and war, irrationality makes up the greater part of human life and history.

What led you to write a book about irrationality?

I had long supposed that human thought and behavior have been a relatively static thing for the past 200,000 years, that there is a fairly narrow range of species-specific responses to the world around us, and that these are not going to fundamentally change until or unless we become a different sort of animal. The past few years have tested this long-held assumption. I came to feel that the world was going mad, that many people, including many I know and love, were now speaking and reasoning as if they had passed through to the other side of a looking-glass, or had come back from the other side, and were now communicating in a frenetic glossolalia or in pretend robot-voices. And it terrified me. I began to wonder whether this is not a normal process of disillusionment one can expect to go through at a certain stage of life, when the scales fall from our eyes and we realize that human beings have been bonkers all along and that society is just a flimsy tarp that camouflages this madness, or whether, instead, there really is something important about the present moment that is bringing the irrationality out, like methane from below the ice of the melting tundra. It seemed to me the best way to answer this question would be to investigate it historically, with a maximally sweeping view, attempting so to speak a genealogy of irrationality, one which reaches back into the past, but always with an eye to understanding the present. 

You say that irrationality is ineliminable from human life. Why do you think humans are so inherently irrational? Why doesn’t it seem to matter to us if there are facts that directly contradict our irrationally-held beliefs?

The point of emphasizing its ineliminability is that, again at least until we become a different sort of animal by evolution or by genetic engineering, harm to human beings will be reduced if we understand irrationality as something to be managed, in the way we manage our proneness to tooth decay and do not simply knock our teeth out and replace them with dentures, rather than as something to be obliterated, like polio or cancer. Historically, every attempt at structuring society in a perfectly rational way has been a folly, and has resulted in tremendous individual suffering, in part because the human beings made to endure such political projects remain exactly the same inwardly as humans in those societies that have found effective ways to manage all our dark impulses and unjustifiable but beautiful attachments rather than simply to suppress them. In this respect my argument is kind of boring in its centrism and its attachment to the golden mean, but it also discerns, I think, an important dialectical connection between the two poles in question: do not become too devoted to reason, or you will be pulled over into the opposite extreme. 

Can groups like LessWrong ever really eliminate irrational decision-making as it relates to artificial intelligence and business operations?

Of course not. As I say in the book, they’d be a lot better off just reading some Virgil or Shakespeare and not worrying so much about whether it’s helping them to better apply Bayesianism to their daily lives, rather than acting as if human flourishing is equivalent to making rationally justifiable choices. I mean, obviously, if you spend your days writing Harry Potter fan-fiction, which seems to be a thing in that subculture, something has gone very wrong, and no amount of formal epistemology or probability theory can rescue you from what appears to an outsider to that subculture as an obviously bad choice, not just of how to spend one’s time, but of a whole form of life. 

Is there any benefit to thinking or behaving irrationally?

Sometimes, but it can also kill you, so you need to make your decisions wisely. Sometimes it’s a good idea to smoke; sometimes it’s a good idea to be foolhardy in combat; sometimes it’s a good idea to free solo climb El Capitan. Other times it’s not. The big mistake is to suppose that one can turn to philosophy to find ‘rules for living’ that would dictate generic principles applicable in all circumstances, rather than acknowledging that the only answer is, often, what may be called a radical choice, ungrounded in any principle or rule. 

So, what can we take away from all of this?

The book is an essay and not a theoretical or argumentative work, which means that it is a contribution to a genre in ill repute among academics, and runs the risk of being dismissed by my philosopher-peers as conveying little more than what is called on Twitter a ‘mood’. I can live with that. Moods can be diagnostically very useful, and we certainly know more about what people were really thinking, say, in the 16th century, when we read Montaigne than when we read Francisco Suárez. In any case if the book were making a theoretical argument, it would almost certainly be wrong. In being honest about its true character as an essay, I may hope that at least some readers will be able to share the mood of it, and perhaps thereby to accompany me in the project of becoming a bit wiser. 

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris 7–Denis Diderot. His books include The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton). An editor at large of Cabinet Magazine, he also writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and other publications.

PUP Publicist Colleen Boyle highlights our Fall list on C-Span

Our publicist extraordinaire Colleen Boyle recently spoke to C-Span’s Book TV about some of our lead titles, including Ken Rogoff’s The Curse of Cash, Roger Penrose’s Fashion, Faith and Fantasy, and Welcome to the Universe by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott, all forthcoming this September.

Check out the full interview about these and other forthcoming PUP titles on C-SPAN!

Rogoff

Penrose

Welcome to the Universe

An interview with Josiah Ober, author of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece

The period considered classical Greece (roughly the 4th through 5th century BC) had a profound effect on Western civilization, forming the foundations of politics and philosophy, as well as artistic and scientific thought. Why did Greece experience such economic and cultural growth—and why was it limited to this 200-year period? Josiah Ober, Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University and author of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, took the time to explain the reasons behind Greece’s flourishing, and what its economic rise and political fall can tell us about our own world.

The Rise and Fall of Classical GreeceWhat was the rise of classical Greece and when and why did it happen?

JO: Basically, sustained economic growth lead to the rise of Ancient Greek civilization.

At the Early Iron Age nadir, in ca. 1000 BCE, the Greek world was sparsely populated and consumption rates hovered near subsistence. Some 650 years later, in the age of Aristotle, the population of the Greek world had increased at least twenty-fold. During that same period, per capita consumption probably doubled.

That rate of growth is far short of modern rates, but it equals the growth rate of the two standout societies of early modern Europe: Holland and England in the 16th to 18th centuries. Historians had long thought that the Greek world was impoverished and its economy overall static – which of course made Greek culture (art, philosophy, drama, and so on) seem that much more “miraculous.” But, thanks to the recent availability and quantification of a huge mass of data, drawn from both documentary and archaeological sources, we can now trace the amazing growth of the Greek economy, both in its extent (how many people, how much urbanization, and so on), and in terms of per capita consumption (how well people lived).

So the rise of the Greek world was predicated on sustained economic growth, but why did the Greek economy grow so robustly for so long?

JO: In the 12th century BCE, the palace-centered civilization of Bronze Age Greece collapsed, utterly destroying political and social hierarchies. Surviving Greeks lived in tiny communities, where no one was rich or very powerful. As Greece slowly recovered, some communities rejected attempts by local elites to install themselves as rulers. Instead, ordinary men established fair rules (fair, that is, for themselves) and governed themselves collectively, as political equals. Women and slaves were, of course, a very different story. But because these emerging citizen-centered states often out-competed elite-dominated rivals, militarily and economically, citizenship proved to be adaptive. Because participatory citizenship was not scalable, Greek states stayed small as they became increasingly democratic. Under conditions of increasingly fair rules, individuals and states rationally invested in human capital, leading to increased specialization and exchange. The spread of fair rules and a shared culture across an expanding Greek world of independent city-states drove down transaction costs. Meanwhile competition encouraged continuous institutional and technological innovation. The result was 700+ years of of world-class efflorescence, marked by exceptional demographic and per capita growth, and by immensely influential ideas, literature, art, and science. But, unlike the more familiar story of ancient empires, no one was in running the show: Greece remained a decentralized ecology of small states.

So what about the fall?

JO: There are two “falls” – one political and one economic. The economic fall is the decline of the Greek economy from its very high level in the age of Aristotle to a “premodern Greek normal” of low population and near-subsistence consumption levels with the disintegration of the Roman empire. That low normal had pertained before the rise of the city-state ecology. After the fall, it persisted until the 20th century. But we also need to explain an earlier political fall. Why, just when the ancient Greek economy was nearing its peak, were Philip II and Alexander (“the Great”) of Macedon able to conquer the Greek world? And then there is another puzzle: Why were so many Greek city-states able to maintain independence and flourishing economies in the face of Macedonian hegemony? The city-states were overtaken by the Macedonians in part because human-capital investments created a class of skilled and mobile experts in state finance and military organization. Hired Greek experts provided Philip and Alexander with the technical skills they needed to build a world-class army. But meanwhile, deep investments by city-states in infrastructure and training made fortified cities expensive to besiege. As a result, after the Macedonian conquest, royal taxes on Greek cities were negotiated rather than simply imposed. That ensured enough independence for the Greek cities to sustain economic growth until the Roman conquest.

What does the economic rise and political fall of classical Greece have to tell us about our own world?

JO: The new data allows us to test the robustness of contemporary theories of political and economic development. In the classical Greek world, political development was a primary driver of economic growth; democracy appears to be a cause rather than simply an effect of prosperity. The steep rise and long duration of the city-state ecology offers a challenge to neo-Hobbesian centralization theories of state formation, which hold that advanced economic and political development requires the consolidation of centralized state power. The comparatively low rate of ancient Greek income inequality, along with the high rate of economic growth, suggests that the negative correlation of sustained growth with extreme inequality, observed in some recent societies, is not a unique product of modernity. Finally, the history of the ancient Greek world can be read as a cautionary tale about the unanticipated consequences of growth and human capital investment: It reveals how innovative institutions and technologies, originally developed in the open-access, fair-rules context of democratic states, can be borrowed by ambitious autocrats and redeployed to further their own, non-democratic purposes.

How did you get interested in the topic of rise and fall – was it just a matter of “Edward Gibbon envy”?

JO: Gibbon is amazing, as a prose stylist and historian. But the origin of my project actually goes back to a quip by a senior colleague at the very beginning of my career: “The puzzle is not why the Greek world fell, it is why it lasted more than 20 minutes.” Twenty-five years ago (and fifteen years after my colleague’s quip), the historical sociologist W.G. Runciman claimed that classical Greece was “doomed to extinction” because the Greek city-states were, “without exception, far too democratic.” True enough: the classical Greek world eventually went extinct. But then, so did all other ancient societies, democratic or otherwise. The Greek city-state culture lasted for the better part of a millennium; much longer than most ancient empires. I’ve long felt that I owed my colleague a solution to his puzzle. This book is an attempt to pay that debt.

Josiah Ober is the Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. His books include Democracy and Knowledge, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, The Athenian Revolution, and Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (all Princeton). He lives in Palo Alto, California.

 

PUP News of the World

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This is Week Two of our brand new series, PUP News of the World. Every week we will be posting a round-up of all of our most exciting national AND international reviews/interviews/events/etc. that took place in the last week.


http://press.princeton.edu/images/k9943.gifTo start, we have one of our top articles of the week! (Drum roll please…) The Guardian posted an article this past week titled “Writers and critics on the best books of 2013”, which includes an impressive resume of experts of literature who recommended some of the books that impressed them the MOST over this entire year. The list just happened to include FOUR of our Princeton University Press titles, including: Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman, Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, and Kafka: The Years of Insight and Kafka: The Decisive Years, both written by Reiner Stach and translated by Shelley Frisch.


On top of that, Kafka: The Years of Insight was also included in the Wall Street Journal’s Holiday Gift Guide to Books, saying “[Stach’s] resplendent Kafka: The Years of Insight, tracking Kafka’s final eight years, meditates on the limits of the knowable even as it exhibits unparalleled dedication to the Kafka’s life and work.”


Next, Redeeming The Prince: The Meaning of Machiavelli’s Masterpiece by Maurizio Viroli received a glowing review from Michael Ignatieff at The Atlantic. He says that “Maurizio Viroli wants us to grasp that The Prince was not the cynically devious tract it seems, but rather a patriotic appeal for a redeemer politician to arise and save Italy from foreign invaders and its own shortsighted rulers.” Also, Strategy+Business‘ Theodore Kinni reviewed the title this past week, saying “[Viroli] makes a strong argument for rethinking widely held assumptions about The Prince.”


Undiluted Hocus PocusA blog post went up on our site a few days ago about the article written by our own Vickie Kearn (PUP Mathematics Editors) on Wild About Math, in which she defends Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner, which some critics have been saying was not actually written by Gardner before he passed away soon after the book’s completion. Wrong! Thanks for the help Vickie. Gardner’s book was also reviewed by this Saturday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, in which writer Jordan Ellenberg states: “For those of us who believe that the sciences and the humanities don’t have to be enemies, Martin Gardner is an inspiring model. Undiluted Hocus-Pocus reveals a man immersed in philosophy, religion and literature, even as he makes a career writing about science.”


Brian Bethune of Maclean’s Magazine said of The Book of Job: A Biography by Mark Larrimore: “Princeton University’s excellent series on the lives—meaning the changing interpretations—of great religious books continues with this study of the knottiest of all Biblical texts, a key work in Western culture’s eternal debate over why bad things happen to good people….[Larrimore] is subtle and superbly thorough as he navigates his way not just through Jewish, Christian and secular readings but also the uncertainties about the text and the misconceptions that have grown up around it.”


What W. H. Auden Can Do for You by Alexander McCall Smith received some attention this week from the Sydney Morning Herald, and from Jones Atwater of January Magazine, who said “For some people The Art of War is a touchstone. A guide to living and to life. For others it is Tao Te Ching or even The Tao of Pooh. In his latest book, number one detective Alexander McCall Smith has an admission to make: his own personal touchstone is Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden…..If you are a fan of Auden’s work, this is a must-read.”  Plus, Barbara Berman at The Rumpus selected this book as one of her holiday books column picks, saying “McCall Smith makes an excellent case for a young generation to get acquainted with the life trajectory of Auden as poet and as struggling human.”


http://press.princeton.edu/images/k10074.gifThe Wall Street Journal recently reviewed Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong by David Edmonds in their holiday gift books section, saying: “David Edmonds’s vastly more ambitious ‘Would You Kill the Fat Man?’ has the cartoons—and just about everything else you could want in a thoughtful popular treatment of [the trolley problem]. A marvel of economy and learning worn lightly, Mr. Edmonds’s book ranges pleasurably back to Aquinas and forward into the future of robots, who will of course need an ethics just as much as people do.” The title was also an Editors’ Choice in The New York Times Book Review and Katherine Mangu-Ward reviewed it in Reason, saying: “Edmonds enjoyably traces the ever-expanding sub-genre of trolleyology through debates about language, abortion, cannibals, war, and a complicated love quadrangle involving the novelist Iris Murdoch and the philosopher Philippa Foot, offering insights on ethics, politics, and sex along the way.”


Beautiful Geometry by Eli Maor & Eugen Jost received an early review in Scientific American, in which stated: “Mathematicians sometimes compare well-constructed equations to works of art. To them, patterns in numbers hold a beauty at least equal to that found in any sonnet or sculpture. In this book, Maor, a math historian, teams with Jost, an artist, to reveal some of that mathematical majesty using jewel-like visualizations of classic geometric theorems….The result is a book that stimulates the mind as well as the eye.” The book also received mention from a blog called Lifelong Dewey in which the writer is trying to read a book from every Dewey Decimal Section.


Our theme this week seems to be group reviews as three of our titles were featured in The Observer’s “Books of the Year” column for The Guardian. The first, The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future by Geoff Mulgan, was called “[A] rare combination of breadth and detail” by Julian Baggini. The second, Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner, was chosen by Simon Singh, and the third, Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica by T. J. Clark, prompted John Banville to say “Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica, by TJ Clark (Princeton), is the best thing in a long time on this still contentious painter. Whether or not you agree with Clark’s take on Picasso, you will not look at his paintings in quite the same way ever again.”


Merry White was interviewed about her book, Cooking for Crowds: 40th Anniversary Edition on Talk Radio Europe this week. (She comes in about 40 minutes in)


The Leaderless Economy: Why the World Economic System Fell Apart and How to Fix It by Peter Temin & David Vines was reviewed by Diane Coyle in The Enlightened Economist blog. Of the book, she says: “I would make all political leaders read this book over the holidays – whether in December or a bit later for Chinese New Year – and hope that it prompts them to make a New Year resolution to show true leadership.”


The Enlightened Economist also reviewed The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman, calling it “superb”.


There was a discussion of The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei: Volume Five: The Dissolution translated by David Tod Roy on the BBC World Service’s Weekend program.  Patricia Sieber of Ohio State University was interviewed about the collection, and the discussion starts about 46 minutes in.


In yet another group review, The Financial Times posted their Books of the Year, which included a long list of PUP titles:


Last, but not least, Holland Cotter of The New York Times chose Michael Ann Holly’s The Melancholy Art as one of his holiday art book picks, calling it “enchanting”.


COMING SOON: An interactive map of the world where you can check out all of our reviews from multiple countries and continents, sorted by publication.

PUP News of the World

NewsOfTheWorld_Banner

Attention all book lovers! From now on, every week we will be posting a round-up of all of our most exciting national AND international reviews/interviews/events/etc. that took place in the last week. Why? Because we love to see our books reaching so many people all around the world, and we think you’ll like it too.


The Confidence TrapOur top title this week with six articles, a podcast and an event is… The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman!
Runciman had an interview with Prospect, a review in The Guardian where they call The Confidence Trap ‘…a lucid, wholly original book..’, and  op-eds from both The Guardian and The Chronicle, in which he discusses the current state of our democratic system (which isn’t looking too great). He does the same in a podcast with The Guardian. Plus, The Australian calls the book “[r]efreshingly free of received and rehearsed wisdoms,” while New Statesman says that “[Runciman’s]work is in the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, perhaps the greatest book ever written about democracy, and of James Bryce, whose American Commonwealth, an attempt at a sequel to de Tocqueville’s work, Runciman rightly rescues from oblivion.” Want more? Check out this audio clip of  Runciman’s full interview with the RSA.


Next on our list is The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland by Richard Crossley & Dominic Couzens. They received some love in a review from RSPB Nature’s Home blog, who said “I was delighted to see that the Crossley guide to UK birds lived up to my expectations”, while the Aussie Birding blog gives it a thumbs up for simplifying the bird identification process.


Our other bird title, The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, received praise from The Urban Birder, who said, “This book is certainly worthy of a place on anyone’s heaving book shelf. It is refreshing, stunningly illustrated and importantly, educational. If you want to get to grips with North America’s Warblers, you will need to tightly grip The Warbler Guide!”


Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong by David Edmonds was called “[J]aunty, lucid and concise” by the New York Times Book Review this week, while Edmonds himself took the time to participate in a podcast with Rabbi Jeffrey Saks on WebYeshiva.


The Bleeding Heart Libertarians called Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change by Edmund Phelps, “wide-ranging and highly eclectic” and “both illuminating and thought-provoking” on their blog.


The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality by Angus Deaton received some praise from Prospect when they said “The Great Escape is a thoughtful work, extensively illustrated with data, from a distinguished economist who tackles a central controversy of our time in a style refreshingly free of ideological baggage”, while Deaton also did a podcast with Russ Roberts to talk about our standard of living and The Great Escape. The interview was then discussed on another popular economics blog, Café Hayek.


Prospect reviewed The Book of Job: A Biography by Mark Larrimore and said that “Larrimore is particularly good at helping us understand ancient and medieval readings of Job.”


On a similarly short note, The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order by Benn Steil was reviewed by the London Review of Books.


McCallSmith_AudenWhat W. H. Auden Can Do for You by Alexander McCall Smith had a good week. A review from Spectator called it a “kindly, avuncular, contemplative opusculum” and an “earnest, unpretentious, endearing rumination”, which is a lot of fancy words for ‘this book rocks!’ A review from Scotsman claims “The book is written in the voice we have come to know from McCall Smith’s fiction: calm, reassuring, able to disentangle complicated ideas and emotions and to express them in ways we recognise and understand as our own. To those with a passing interest in Auden it will provide affirming delight.” Lastly, the Irish Times reviewed this title as well expressing particular interest in the passages about Auden’s poetry.


Art and the Second World War by Monica Bohm-Duchen was reviewed in Publishers Weekly in which they said “In this well-researched, clear-eyed assessment of art’s relationship to the war that ‘has left the darkest and most indelible mark on modern society,’ Bohm-Duchen (After Auschwitz) presents a sobering overview of the official and nonofficial fine art produced in warring nations…[T]he book is particularly impressive for the obscure work it covers…Bohm-Duchen punctuates the narrative with astute insights… Brimming with chilling full-color images, this handsome volume reaffirms the importance of WWII in relation to the fine arts.” Quite the compliment!


 On a racier note, our last installment of The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei (Volume Five: The Dissolution), translated by David Tod Roy, was recently reviewed by The New York Times, in which they say that, aside from its erotic nature, this book is also “the first long Chinese narrative to focus not on mythical heroes or military adventures, but on ordinary people and everyday life, chronicled down to the minutest details of food, clothing, household customs, medicine, games and funeral rites, with exact prices given for just about everything, including the favor of bribe-hungry officials up and down the hierarchy.”


Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America by Christopher S. Parker & Matt A. Barreto drew some attention this week in an article by Newsmax about racism in Washington D.C. against Obama, even after he’s spent almost eight years in office.


Another of our more political titles, The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It by Anat Admati & Martin Hellwig had some international intrigue this week when Admati traveled to Amsterdam and was interviewed by three major papers there: De Telegraaf, NRC Handelsblad and Het Financieele Dagblad.


 William Helmreich had some attention this week for his book, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City, in an interview with CUNY TV. He also has an event coming up next week that you can learn about here.


James Kingsland from The Guardian took notice of Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life by Enrico Coen, saying “Coen’s intellectual honesty is commendable.”


Kenneth T. MacLeish’s book, Making War at Fort Hood: Life and Uncertainty in a Military Community was interviewed by New Books in Anthropology. The link for the full interview can be found on the bottom left corner of the page.


John Sides, co-author of  The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election with Lynn Vavreck, recently participated in a roundtable discussion on MSNBC about ‘potential turning points in the race for the White House.’


COMING SOON: An interactive map of the world where you can check out all of our reviews from multiple countries and continents, sorted by publication.