Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

21 FEBRUARY, 2013

Bertrand Russell on Human Nature, Construction vs. Destruction, and Science as a Key to Democracy

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On the art of acquiring “a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy.”

In 1926, British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and social critic Bertrand Russell — whose 10 commandments of teaching endure as a timeless manifesto for education, whose poignant admonition is among history’s greatest insights on love, whose message to descendants should be etched into every living heart — penned Education and the Good Life (public library), exploring the essential pillars of building character through proper education and how that might relate to broader questions of politics, psychology, and moral philosophy.

One of Russell’s key assertions is that science education — something that leaves much to be desired nearly a century later — is key to attaining a future of happiness and democracy:

For the first time in history, it is now possible, owing to the industrial revolution and its byproducts, to create a world where everybody shall have a reasonable chance of happiness. Physical evil can, if we choose, be reduced to very small proportions. It would be possible, by organization and science, to feed and house the whole population of the world, not luxuriously, but sufficiently to prevent great suffering. It would be possible to combat disease, and to make chronic ill-health very rare. … All this is of such immeasurable value to human life that we dare not oppress the sort of education which will tend to bring it about. in such an education, applied science will have to be the chief ingredient. Without physics and physiology and psychology, we cannot build the new world.

Still, Russell is sure to offer a disclaimer, advocating for the equal importance of the humanities, and asks:

What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?

The humanities, he argues, help develop the imagination which, like many great scientists have attested, is key to progress:

It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; without it, ‘progress’ would become mechanical and trivial.

[…]

Cast-iron rules are above all things to be avoided.

In a mechanistic civilization, there is grave danger of a crude utilitarianism, which sacrifices the whole aesthetic side of life to what is called ‘efficiency.’

Echoing Galileo’s concerns about science and dogma, Russell writes:

Passionate beliefs produce either progress or disaster, not stability. Science, even when it attacks traditional beliefs, has beliefs of its own, and can scarcely flourish in an atmosphere of literary skepticism. … And without science, democracy is impossible.

[…]

Neither acquiescence in skepticism nor acquiescence in dogma is what education should produce. What it should produce is a belief that knowledge is attainable in a measure, though with difficulty; that much of what passes for knowledge at any given time is likely to be more or less mistaken, but that the mistakes can be rectified by care and industry. In acting upon our beliefs, we should be very cautious where a small error would mean disaster; nevertheless it is upon our beliefs that we must act. This state of mind is rather difficult: it requires a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy. But though difficult it is not impossible; it is in fact the scientific temper. Knowledge, like other good things, is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the skeptic denies the possibility. Both are mistaken, and their errors, when wide-spread, produce social disaster.

In a later chapter, he considers another double-edged sword of dogmatic thinking:

It is a dangerous error to confound truth with matter-of-fact. Our life is governed not only by facts, but by hopes; the kind of truthfulness which sees nothing but facts is a prison for the human spirit.

But one of Russell’s most important assertions, reminiscent of the old Cherokee parable of the two wolves, explores the fundamental predispositions of human nature:

In the immense majority of children, there is the raw material of a good citizen and also the raw material of a criminal.

[…]

The raw material of instinct is ethically neutral, and can be shaped either to good or evil by the influence of the environment.

In a related meditation, Russell articulates beautifully something ineffable yet essential, something we too frequently forget, of which a dear friend recently reminded me, and writes:

Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it. … We construct when we increase the potential energy of the system in which we are interested, and we destroy when we diminish the potential energy. … Whatever may be thought of these definitions, we all know in practice whether an activity is to be regarded as constructive or destructive, except in a few cases where a man professes to be destroying with a view to rebuilding and are not sure whether he is sincere.

[…]

The first beginnings of many virtues arise out of experiencing the joys of construction.

[…]

Those whose intelligence is adequate should be encouraged in using their imaginations to think out more productive ways of utilizing existing social forces or creating new ones.

Education and the Good Life is a remarkable read in its entirety — highly recommended.

Artwork: “Choosing Sides” by Owen Mortensen, courtesy my living room wall

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21 FEBRUARY, 2013

Anaïs Nin on Real Love, Illustrated by Debbie Millman

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“Where the myth fails, human love begins. Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.”

To celebrate beloved author and dedicated diarist Anaïs Nin, here is the second installment in my ongoing collaboration with author, artist, philosopher, design interviewer extraordinaire Debbie Millman, based on a 1941 entry from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library). Like our first collaboration, this beautiful typographic collage drawing is based on one of Nin’s most timeless insights on love, culled from her many volumes of diaries and her love letters with Henry Miller. Like last time, the artwork is available on Society6, with 100% of proceeds benefiting A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists. Enjoy:

Complement this beauty with Nin’s timeless meditations on the meaning of life, Paris vs. New York, embracing the unfamiliar, and why emotional excess is essential to creativity.

See more of Debbie’s beautiful visual essays and poems online and in print, and follow her on Twitter.

Previous Brain Pickings artist series have included Susan Sontag on art and on love by Wendy MacNaughton, Anaïs Nin on life by Lisa Congdon, and Salvador Dalí’s “My Struggle” by Molly Crabapple.

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20 FEBRUARY, 2013

Kurt Cobain’s Letters & Journals

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“No amount of effort can save you from oblivion.”

On February 20, 1967, legendary Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain took his first breath. Twenty-seven years later, after a debilitating struggle with addiction and depression, he took his own life with a shotgun to the head and became the tragic patron-saint of the grunge generation. The posthumously released Kurt Cobain: Journals (public library) offers an unprecedented glimpse of the modern icon’s inner life, from an anatomy of his eclectic influences — John Lennon, the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, PJ Harvey, Public Enemy, David Bowie — to a chronicle of his tumultuous psychoemotional landscape to sketches and drawings that would later grace Nirvana album covers and that, like those of Sylvia Plath, Queen Victoria, and Richard Feynman, have been acclaimed for their artistic acumen.

The book begins with a meandering letter Cobain wrote to Melvins drummer Dale Crover in 1988, discussing the first glimmers of fame, the mediocrity of late-night television, the superficiality of publicity, and the decision to name the band Nirvana:

Hello, this is me saying ‘everything is basically raining, dull, and OK.’

In another piece, Cobain offers a mediation on culture underpinned by deep self-awareness with undertones of self-loathing:

I like to complain and do nothing to make things better. I like to blame my parents generation for coming so close to social change then giving up after a few successful efforts by the media & government to deface the movement by using the Mansons and other Hippie representatives as propaganda examples on how they were nothing but unpatriotic, communist, satanic, inhuman diseases, and in turn the baby boomers became the ultimate, conforming, yuppie hypocrites a generation has ever produced.

What might at first appear as an inability to embody the ideals of Bertrand Russell, Galileo, and Eleanor Roosevelt regarding conformity, opinion, and conviction is in fact Cobain’s subversive strategy for changing the status quo from the inside:

I like to calmly and rationally discuss my views in a conformist manor even though I consider myself to the extreme left.

I like to inflate the mechanics of a system by posing as one of them, then slowly start the rot from the inside of the empire.

In what reads like the more hopeless counterpart to David Foster Wallace’s meditation on popular taste, Cobain bemoans the American propensity for fads:

The conspiracy toward success in America is immediacy. … Here today, gone tomorrow because yesterday’s following was nothing more than a tool in every individuals need for self-importance, entertainment, and social rituals. Art that has long lasting value cannot be appreciated by the majorities. Only the same, small percent will value arts patience as they always have. This is good. The ones who are unaware do not deserve false suggestions in their purchasing duties.

Cobain notes the warped mythologies of fame, which disguise for the mainstream the enormous role of “minorities” — who were really creative majorities in many regards — in shaping the history of modern culture:

I like the comfort in knowing that women are generally superior and naturally less violent than men.

I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock and roll.

I like the comfort in knowing that the Afro American invented rock and roll yet has only been rewarded or awarded for their accomplishments when conforming to the white mans standards.

I like the comfort in knowing that the Afro American has once again been the only race that has brought a new form of original music to this decade.

(For an inspired and timeless testament to all of the above, look no further than reconstructionist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “grandmother of rock and roll.”)

A grim, angry, fragmented note laments the cult of commercialism:

The late 1980’s

This is a subliminal example of a society that has sucked & fucked itself into a rehashing value of greed.

[…]

You get the overall feeling that you paid way too much for literally nothing stimulating.

[…]

The jokes on you so kill yourself

No amount of effort can save you from oblivion. …

No Address
No Editor
No Ad rates

On page 204 of Journals, which writers were reportedly forbidden from reproducing due to the controversial nature of a self-portrait it contains, Cobain cites six cut-and-pasted lines from Alicia Ostriker’s stirring poem “A Young Woman, A Tree”:

Passing that fiery tree — if only she could

Be making love,
Be making a painting,
Be exploding, be speeding through the universe

Like a photon, like a shower
Of yellow blazes –

But perhaps most moving of all is Cobain’s strikingly earnest and aspirational, if also strikingly misspelled, list of life advice — reminiscent of Woody Guthrie’s 1942 New Year’s Resolution list — followed by a disclaimer that applies to just about every aspect of living with personal integrity:

  1. Dont rape
  2. Dont be prejudice
  3. Dont be sexist
  4. Love your children
  5. Love your neighbor
  6. Love yourself

Dont let your opinions obstruct the aforementioned list.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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