Brain Pickings

Hannah Arendt on Memory, the Elasticity of Time, and What Free Will Really Means

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“Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on, we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration.”

Since 1888, the annual Gifford Lectures series has aimed “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term” by bringing together influential thinkers across science, philosophy, and spirituality — luminaries like William James, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Carl Sagan (whose 1985 lecture was later published as the fantastic posthumous volume Varieties of Scientific Experience). But for nearly a century, the Gifford Lectures remained a bona fide boys’ club. It wasn’t until 1973 that German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) became the first woman to speak at the prestigious event. Her exquisite lecture was later expanded and published as The Life of the Mind (public library) — an intensely intelligent and stimulating exploration of such seemingly simple, immeasurably complex questions as how we think, why our inner lives eclipse the world of appearances, and what it really means to live with freedom.

The volume is divided into two parts: the first, titled Thinking, explores the crucial difference between truth and meaning; the second, Willing, is an investigation of “the nature of the willing capability and its function in the life of the mind” — in other words, that eternal question of what it means to have free will in a universe of fixed laws.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Through the lens of free will, Arendt defines willed acts as “acts about which I know that I could as well have left them undone.” But before we can begin to untangle why we do what we do, we must first understand how we know what we know. Arendt writes:

Not sense perception, in which we experience things directly and close at hand, but imagination, coming after it, prepares the objects of our thought. Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on, we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration. Furthermore, we must repeat the direct experience in our minds after leaving the scene where it took place. To say it again, every thought is an after-thought. By repeating in imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.

For the Ancient Greeks, Arendt points out, this notion was built into their very vocabulary — eidenai, “to know,” is derived from idein, “to see,” thus implying that knowing is having seen. But this is where the Greeks lead us astray in the question of free will. Arendt argues that Socrates, Plato, and even Aristotle (whom she anoints, not without reason, “the most sober of the great thinkers”), didn’t seem to be even aware of the notion of the Will, particularly “as an organ for the future, as memory is an organ for the past” — and yet that’s precisely what it is. Arendt considers the crucial role of time — that astoundingly elastic concept — and memory — that centerpiece of human creativity — in understanding free will from the perspective of the thinking ego:

Memory, the mind’s power of having present what is irrevocably past and thus absent from the senses, has always been the most plausible paradigmatic example of the mind’s power to make invisibles present. By virtue of this power, the mind seems to be even stronger than reality; it pits its strength against the inherent futility of everything that is subject to change; it collects and re-collects what otherwise would be doomed to ruin and oblivion. The time region in which this salvage takes place is the Present of the thinking ego, a kind of lasting “todayness” … the “standing now” (nunc stans) of medieval meditation, an “enduring present” ([Henri] Bergson’s présent qui dure), or “the gap between past and future,” as we called it in explicating Kafka’s time parable. But only if we accept the medieval interpretation of that time experience as an intimation of divine eternity are we forced to conclude that not just spatiality but also temporality is provisionally suspended in mental activities. Such an interpretation shrouds our whole mental life in an aura of mysticism and strangely overlooks the very ordinariness of the experience itself.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Instead, Arendt argues by quoting from Nobel laureate Henri Bergson’s indispensable The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, the dynamic interaction that constitutes our experience of the present is anything but mystical:

The constitution of an “enduring present” is “the habitual, normal, banal act of our intellect,” performed in every kind of reflection, whether its subject matter is ordinary day-to-day occurrences or whether the attention is focused on things forever invisible and outside the sphere of human power. The activity of the mind always creates for itself un présent qui dure, a “gap between past and future.”

[...]

The chain of “nows” rolls on relentlessly, so that the present is understood as precariously binding past and future together: the moment we try to pin it down, it is either a “no more” or a “not yet.” From that perspective, the enduring present looks like an extended “now” — a contradiction in terms — as though the thinking ego were capable of stretching the moment out and thus producing a kind of spatial habitat for itself. But this seeming spatiality of a temporal phenomenon is an error, caused by the metaphors we traditionally use in terminology dealing with the phenomenon of Time.

The Histomap by John Sparks (1931) from 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for details.

The reason we tend to make sense of time using spatial metaphors and visual maps, Arendt argues, is fairly obvious — in our everyday life, we need measurements of time and can only measure it using spatial distances. Even the notion of temporal succession suggests a linearity, and a line is essentially extended space. And yet this impulse to make the invisible visible is precisely where the problem of free will arises:

The Will, if it exists at all — and an uncomfortably large number of great philosophers who never doubted the existence of reason or mind held that the Will was nothing but an illusion — is as obviously our mental organ for the future as memory is our mental organ for the past. (The strange ambivalence of the English language, in which “will” as an auxiliary designates the future whereas the verb “to will” indicates volitions, properly speaking, testifies to our uncertainties in these matters.) In our context, the basic trouble with the Will is that it deals not merely with things that are absent from the senses and need to be made present through the mind’s power of re-presentation, but with things, visibles and invisibles, that have never existed at all.

The conundrum is deepened by our essential discomfort with uncertainty even though uncertainty is how we come to know ourselves and the world, and perhaps most of all by our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change. Arendt probes the paradox:

The moment we turn our mind to the future, we are no longer concerned with “objects” but with projects, and it is not decisive whether they are formed spontaneously or as anticipated reactions to future circumstances. And just as the past always presents itself to the mind in the guise of certainty, the future’s main characteristic is its basic uncertainty, no matter how high a degree of probability prediction may attain. In other words, we are dealing with matters that never were, that are not yet, and that may well never be. Our Last Will and Testament, providing for the only future of which we can be reasonably certain, namely our own death, shows that the Will’s need to will is no less strong than Reason’s need to think; in both instances the mind transcends its own natural limitations, either by asking unanswerable questions or by projecting itself into a future which, for the willing subject, will never be.

In a framing that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful meditation on reading and writing“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.” — Arendt revisits the Ancient Greeks’ paltry understanding of free will through their relationship with time:

The human product, this “compound of matter and form” — for instance, a house made of wood according to a form pre-existing in the craftsman’s mind (rums) — clearly was not made out of nothing, and so was understood by Aristotle to pre-exist “potentially” before it was actualized by human hands. This notion was derived from the mode of being peculiar to the nature of living things, where everything that appears grows out of something that contains the finished product potentially, as the oak exists potentially in the acorn and the animal in the semen.

The view that everything real must be preceded by a potentiality as one of its causes implicitly denies the future as an authentic tense: the future is nothing but a consequence of the past, and the difference between natural and man-made things is merely between those whose potentialities necessarily grow into actualities and those that may or may not be actualized.

Under these circumstances, any notion of the Will as an organ for the future, as memory is an organ for the past, was entirely superfluous; Aristotle did not have to be aware of the Will’s existence.

Discus chronologicus (1720s) from Cartographies of Time. Click image for details.

What made the contemplation of free will inevitable, Arendt argues, was a reframing of time not as a linear but as a cyclical concept, something that occurred in parallel in various ancient cultures:

No matter what historical origins and influences — Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian — we may be able to trace for the cyclical time concept, its emergence was logically almost inevitable once the philosophers had discovered an everlasting Being, birthless and deathless, within whose framework they then had to explain movement, change, the constant coming and going of living beings.

In the remainder of the essay, Arendt goes on to trace how our evolving relationship with time changed our understanding of free will across human history, from medieval mysticism to the Hebrew-Christian credo to Nietzsche — just one of the innumerable threads of genius that make The Life of the Mind a necessary read for every thinking human. Sample it further with Arendt on the difference between thinking and knowing, then revisit her increasingly timely reflection on how bureaucracy fuels violence.

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The Best Infographics of the Year: Nate Silver on the 3 Keys to Great Information Design and the Line Between Editing and Censorship

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“More isn’t always better: no more in information design than in poetry…”

Once again this year, I was delighted to serve on the “Brain Trust” for an annual project by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, New Yorker writer, and Scientific American neuroscience blog editor Gareth Cook, who culls the best, most thoughtful and illuminating infographics published each year, online and off, and invites the bearer of a sharp mind to contextualize both the individual selections and the premise of the project. Alongside the inaugural crop of infographic exemplars was David Byrne’s excellent essay on cultivating the ability to experience the “geeky rapture” of metaphorical thinking and pattern recognition. Now comes the second installment, The Best American Infographics 2014 (public library), with an introduction by master-statistician Nate Silver and fifty-eight examples of stellar information design shedding light on such diverse topics as the history of space exploration, the sleep habits of famous writers, the geography of where gay people stay in the closet, the comparative shapes and sizes of major baseball parks, and the social network of jazz musicians in the 1920s. (“American” is somewhat a misnomer, as many of the contributions come from artists, designers, and writers — myself included — who are not U.S. citizens and/or reside outside the country.)

Silver, the author of The Signal and the Noise, considers the two factors that make an infographic compelling — providing a window into its creator’s mind and telling a story that “couldn’t be told in any other way.” He writes:

Design has traditionally been seen as a field for “right-brained” types: those who think visually and spatially rather than with symbols like words and numbers. But modern information design is equal parts art and science, form and function, architecture and engineering. It combines the best of at least three fields of achievement: aesthetics, technology, and journalism.

By aesthetics, I mean all the usual things, but especially proportionality. For information designers, this quality is not so abstract as it might be in other mediums. Their goal is tangible: to convey as much information as possible given some set of constraints.

Silver points out that at the dawn of information design — as, for instance, in the heyday of the discipline’s little-known godfather, Fritz Kahn — these constraints were largely practical, imposed by factors like the cost of materials and the availability of physical space for printing the infographic. But with the rise of the internet, the chief constraint became the audience’s attention. Pointing to the legacy of anti-“chartjunk” crusader Edward Tufte, Silver writes:

Tufte and others have long spoken to the importance of minimalism in information design. But it proved to be more important as design was translated onto the web, where attention spans are measured in seconds and the next graphic is but a mouse-click or hand-swipe away. More isn’t always better: no more in information design than in poetry, or painting, or product design. A superfluous axis on a chart, an extra dimension of information, can distract from the focal point just as much as an extraneous word in a sonnet or an unnecessary button on a tablet. It can reduce the signal-to-noise ratio and leave the viewer less well informed.

Successful examples of information design can sometimes be highly intricate, but these cases usually involve a layered approach. The most essential elements of the graphic — the most essential parts of the story — jump out immediately.

The opening visualization, reminiscent of designer Toby Ng’s World of 100 project from several years ago, makes Silver’s point perfectly:

Who We Are

'When I was a boy in the '90s, my mother had a printout of a chain email pinned to the wall in our kitchen. It was called 'The World as 100 People,' and it was just a simple list. I never forgot it because it was a simple but clever idea—a child could understand it without knowing the concept of percentages. One day, I didn't have any other work to do and I was sitting in my studio. The idea and the method came to me very quickly. I knew that I wanted to make it round, like the world. I wanted to use colors that might remind people of flags. I made the first draft in the morning and it was on the Internet by the afternoon.' (Jack Hagley, graphic designer, London)

The storytelling aspect of the genre, meanwhile, shines brilliantly in this example from Wendy MacNaughton and Caroline Paul’s immeasurably soul-stretching Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology, one of the best books of 2013:

Lost Cat

'Our cat Tibby disappeared suddenly, and we were devastated. Then, five weeks later he returned, fat and happy. We were overjoyed he was back, but where had he gone? We decided to strap a GPS unit to his collar and find out where he spent his days.' (Caroline Paul, writer, and Wendy MacNaughton, illustrator)

Silver also speaks to the importance of editorial point of view in infographics and outlines the three essential advantages of visual storytelling over the strictly verbal:

Great works of information design are also great works of journalism.

[...]

At the core of journalism is the mission of making sense of our complex world to a broad audience. Newsrooms … place emphasis on gathering information. But they’re also in the business of organizing that information into forms like stories. Visual approaches to organizing information also tell stories, but have a number of potential advantages against purely verbal ones:

  • Approachability. Human beings have strong visual acuity. Furthermore, our visual language is often more universal than our words. Data presented in the form of an infographic can transcend barriers of class and culture. This is just as important for experts as for laypersons: a 2012 study of academic economists found that they made much more accurate statistical inferences from a graphic presentation of data than when the same information was in tabular form.
  • Transparency. The community of information designers has an ethos toward sharing their data and their code — both with one another and with readers. Well-executed examples of information design show the viewer something rather than telling her something. They can peel away the onion, build trust, and let the reader see how the conclusions are drawn.
  • Efficiency. I will not attempt to tell you how many words a picture is worth. But surely visualization is the superior medium in some cases. In trying to figure out how to get from King’s Cross to Heathrow Airport on the London Tube, would you rather listen to a fifteen-minute soliloquy from the bloke at the pub — or take a fifteen-second glance at Beck’s map?

But alongside the tremendous power of information design in making sense of the world is also a dark side of potentially equal magnitude, which Silver captures elegantly:

That information design is part and parcel of journalism also means that it inherits journalism’s burdens. If it’s sometimes easier to reveal information by means of data visualization, that can make it easier to deceive… What one journalist thinks of as organizing information, the next one might call censorship.

But it’s long past time to give information designers their place at the journalistic table. The ones you’ll see in this book are pointing the way forward and helping the rest of us see the world a little more clearly.

To my great delight, included in the volume as a large fold-out spread is also my homegrown collaboration with Italian information design team Accurat and San Francisco-based artist extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton, visualizing the relationship between famous writers’ sleep habits and their literary productivity — a labor of love project years in the brewing and months in the making:

Writers, Sleep, and Productivity

An exploration of whether authors' sleep habits might affect their creative output, based on my highlights from a decade's worth of reading the diaries, letters, and autobiographies of celebrated writers. (Concept and direction by Maria Popova. Design by Accurat: Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, and Gabriele Rossi with Davide Ciufi, Federica Fragapane, and Francesco Majno. Illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton.)

In fact, Accurat is the only team with multiple entries in the volume — deservingly so. Also included is their visualization of the 100 “geniuses” of language and literature, based on Harold Bloom’s book Genius and originally published in English right here on Brain Pickings:

The Varieties of Genius

Great minds from Harold Bloom's 'Genius,' visualized according to Jewish esoteric thought. (Davide Ciufi, Federica Fragapane, and Francesco Majno, Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, Gabriele Rossi)

As both a lover of unusual twists on Harry Beck’s classic London Tube map and someone infinitely fascinated by synesthesia, I was particularly taken with this synesthetic taste map of London:

Underground Taste Map

A synesthesia tour of London: 'This map is a graphic representation of each of the tastes and textures I experience as I travel around deep beneath the streets of London. I have synesthesia, a neurological trait that blends or mixes my sense of sound and sight with my sense of taste. Every time I stop at or pass through a Tube station on the London Underground subway system, I experience an involuntary taste and texture, a real mouthfeel, specific to that particular station name. Over five decades I visited every station on the network and made a note of the tastes and textures specific to each station name. The journey began in January 1964 at Dollis Hill, and reached the end of the line at Woolwich Arsenal in August 2013.' (James Wannerton, president of the UK Synesthesia Association)

One piece calls to mind, rather viscerally, C.S. Lewis’s prescient assertion that “it is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail.”

Email: Not Dead, Evolving

Accompanying a Harvard Business Review article, this infographic visualizes survey data indicating that three-quarters of all email is junk, and that we're wasting a great deal of time answering minutia. (Bonnie Scranton, artist, James de Vries, creative director, Scott Berinato, senior editor, and Christina Bortz, articles editor, at the Harvard Business Review)

Another favorite comes from Taschen’s altogether excellent book Jazz: New York in the Roaring Twenties:

Social Network of Jazz in 1920s New York City

For each of these 24 leading jazz musicians working in New York during the Roaring Twenties, the size of the silhouette depicts the number of recording sessions by that musician during his or her lifetime. The connecting lines show joint recording sessions — a sort of sociogram of Gotham's jazz scene. (Idea, research, illustration and design by Robert Nippoldt; additional design by Christine Goppel and Tobias Glasmacher; research by the Bavarian Jazz Institute's Sylke Mehrbold.)

One of the most quietly piercing visualizations in the volume juxtaposes its soft, elegant imagery with its hard, ghastly subject. London-based multidisciplinary artist and author Valentina D’Efilippo explores the casualties of twentieth-century via poppies — a flower used to commemorate soldiers who perished at war — in a breath-stopping piece titled Fields of Commemoration, part of her book The Infographic History of the World:

Fields of Commemoration

Each poppy depicts a war in the 20th century, growing from the year the war started and blooming above the year it ended. The size of the blossom reflects the number of deaths—95 million in total over the course of the century. (Valentina D'Efilippo)

Among the most fiercely original contributions is designer Kelli Anderson’s ingenious Existential Calculator:

Existential Calculator

'A hand-held interactive infographic decision-making tool that helps the reader decide whether or not to take a job. It organizes the spectrum of possible work outcomes—from pleasurable to spiritually degrading, from well-paying to debt-enhancing, from exciting to 'meh'—and shows where the reader is likely to land, based on what they tell it about the potential job.' (Kelli Anderson)

Many more masterworks of information design, as well as a broader lens of what makes them so, can be found in The Best American Infographics 2014. Complement it with David Byrne on how to be an educated consumer of infographics, then take a trip back to 1930s Germany, where it all began.

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Why Haters Hate: Kierkegaard Explains the Psychology of Bullying and Online Trolling in 1847

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“All it amounts to is play-acting. But how invaluably interesting to have one’s knowledge of human psychology enriched in this way.”

Celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher, Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) may have only lived a short life, but it was a deep one and its impact radiated widely outward, far across the centuries and disciplines and schools of thought. He was also among the multitude of famous writers who benefited from keeping a diary and nowhere does his paradoxical blend of melancholy and idealism, of despair about the human condition and optimism about the purpose of life, shine more brilliantly than in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library) — a compendium of Kierkegaard’s frequently intense, always astoundingly thoughtful reflections on everything from happiness and melancholy to writing and literature to self-doubt and public opinion.

In an immeasurably insightful entry from 1847, 34-year-old Kierkegaard observes a pervasive pathology of our fallible humanity, explaining the same basic psychology that lurks behind contemporary phenomena like bullying, trolling, and the general assaults of the web’s self-appointed critics, colloquially and rather appropriately known as haters.

Kierkegaard writes:

There is a form of envy of which I frequently have seen examples, in which an individual tries to obtain something by bullying. If, for instance, I enter a place where many are gathered, it often happens that one or another right away takes up arms against me by beginning to laugh; presumably he feels that he is being a tool of public opinion. But lo and behold, if I then make a casual remark to him, that same person becomes infinitely pliable and obliging. Essentially it shows that he regards me as something great, maybe even greater than I am: but if he can’t be admitted as a participant in my greatness, at least he will laugh at me. But as soon as he becomes a participant, as it were, he brags about my greatness.

That is what comes of living in a petty community.

It is unlikely that Kierkegaard was aware of what would become known as the Benjamin Franklin Effect — the Founding Father formulated his famous reverse-psychology trick for handling haters — and yet he goes on to relay an anecdote that embodies it perfectly. He recounts coming upon three young men outside his gate who, upon seeing him, “began to grin and altogether initiated the whole gamut of insolence.” As he approached them, Kierkegaard noticed that they were smoking cigars and turned to one of them, asking for a light. Suddenly, the men’s attitude took a dramatic U-turn — the seemingly simple exchange had provided precisely that invitation for participation in greatness:

Instantly, all three doffed their hats and it would seem I had done them a service by asking for a light. Ergo: the same people would be happy to cry bravo for me if I merely addressed a friendly, let alone, flattering word to them; as it is, they cry pereat [he shall perish!] and are defiant… All it amounts to is play-acting. But how invaluably interesting to have one’s knowledge of human psychology enriched in this way.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard may be short in both pages and lifetime covered, but it is a treasure trove of equally penetrating insights into the human experience. Complement it with Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness, then revisit Anne Lamott’s brilliant modern manifesto for handling haters.

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