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Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s Brilliant Strategy for Preempting Criticism and the True Mark of Genius

“In the back-and-forth of a self-made contest, both sides have a shot.”

Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s Brilliant Strategy for Preempting Criticism and the True Mark of Genius

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others,” the great seventeenth-century French physicist, philosopher, and inventor Blaise Pascal wrote as he contemplated the art of changing minds. Two centuries later, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) provided supreme practical proof of Pascal’s insight as he forever changed the way we think about the origin of life on Earth. And he did so with immense rhetorical ingenuity, instructive in the intricate art of crippling potential criticism of one’s ideas by taking charge of all conceivable counterarguments.

Darwin’s singular genius of presenting and defending his ideas, and what it teaches us about the art of preempting criticism, is what New Yorker contributor and essayist extraordinaire Adam Gopnik explores in a portion of the altogether magnificent Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (public library) — a slim but in many ways enormous book, for it tackles some of the most abiding and unanswerable enormities of existence.

Gopnik considers the unusual intellectual architecture of Darwin’s 1859 masterwork On the Origin of Species — a book “unique in having a double charge, a double dose of poetic halo” — built into which was an ingenious and timelessly effective model for disarming critics:

The book is one long provocation in the guise of being none.

Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great book, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity — and, at times, his guile. The habit of “sympathetic summary,” what philosophers now call the “principle of charity,” is essential to all the sciences.

With an eye to philosopher Daniel Dennett’s four rules for arguing intelligently and criticizing with kindness, Gopnik considers the essential principle at the heart of Darwin’s rhetorical brilliance, which illuminates the secret to all successful critical argument:

A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.

This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.

Darwin’s singular genius was the marriage of visionary ideas and supreme mastery of argument. But it was the latter, Gopnik argues, that lent Darwin’s ideas their victorious competitive advantage in the natural selection propelling cultural evolution:

All of what remain today as the chief objections to his theory are introduced by Darwin himself, fairly and accurately, and in a spirit of almost panicked anxiety — and then rejected not by bullying insistence but by specific example, drawn from the reservoir of his minute experience of life. This is where we get it all wrong if we think that Wallace might have made evolution as well as Darwin; he could have written the words, but he could not have answered the objections. He might have offered a theory of natural selection, but he could never (as he knew) have written On the Origin of Species. For The Origin is not only a statement of a thesis; it is a book of answers to questions that no one had yet asked, and of examples answering those still faceless opponents.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar
Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

But this clever rhetorical framework was both a stylistic strategy and a reflection of Darwin’s lifelong battle with anxiety:

Darwin invented, cannily, a special, pleading, plaintive tone — believe me, I know that the counterview not only is strong but sounds a lot saner, to you and me both. And yet… The tone reflects his real state. He was worried about the objections, he did spend long days worrying about eyes and wings and missing fossils, and he found a way to articulate both the anxiety and the answers to it. Darwin tells us himself that he forced on himself the habit, whenever he came across a fact that might be inconvenient for his thesis, of copying it down and paying attention to it, and that this, more than anything else, gave him his ability to anticipate critics and answer them.

[…]

In the back-and-forth of a self-made contest, both sides have a shot.

Darwin not only posits the counterclaims; he inhabits them. He moved beyond sympathetic summary to empathetic argument. He makes the negative case as urgent as the positive claims… What’s striking is that Darwin anticipates arguments against his theory that no one had yet made… It’s a really amazing piece of intellectual empathy, and of beating one’s opponents to the punch.

Gopnik’s account of what set Darwin apart calls to mind a lecture Michael Faraday delivered five years before the publication of The Origin, in which the trailblazing scientist called for the mental discipline of contradicting one’s own ideas — a hallmark of reason, of which Darwin’s prose made a high art. Gopnik writes:

Although scientific theories imply their falsifications, they rarely list them. Darwin’s does.

[This] supplies an inner voice, a sound of rational anxiety, a recognition of fallibility and of seriousness that gives his great book an oddly unbullying tone despite being a thrusting, far from tentative or timid argument.

The habit of sympathetic summary, of reporting an objection or contrary argument fully and accurately and even, if possible, with greater force than its own believers might be able to summon, remains since Darwin the touchstone, the guarantee, of what we call seriousness. Darwin’s special virtue in this enterprise is that he had to summarize, sympathetically, views contrary to his own that did not yet exist except in his own imagination. His special shrewdness lay in making as large an emotional meal of the objections in advance as could be made; he preempted his critics by introjecting their criticisms. He saw what people might say, turned it into what they ought to say, and then answered.

Angels and Ages is an immeasurably stimulating read in its totality, exploring questions of time, loss, belief, reason, and other enduring perplexities of the human experience through the bifocal lens of two very different geniuses born within a few hours of each other on a chilly February day in 1809. Complement this particular portion with Amin Maalouf on how to disagree and Pascal on the art of persuasion, then revisit this graphic biography of Darwin and his disarming list of the pros and cons of marriage.

For more of Gopnik’s own genius, treat yourself to his On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, which brought this miraculously rewarding book to my attention and which is by far one of the most insightful interviews ever conducted, on both sides:

The price of human consciousness is the knowledge of mortality.

BP

9 Learnings from 9 Years of Brain Pickings

Reflections on the rewards of seeking out what magnifies your spirit.

On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as an email to my seven colleagues at one of the four jobs I held while paying my way through college. Over the years that followed, the short weekly email became a tiny website updated every Friday, which became a tiny daily publication, which slowly grew, until this homegrown labor of love somehow ended up in the Library of Congress digital archive of “materials of historical importance” and the seven original recipients somehow became several million readers. How and why this happened continues to mystify and humble me as I go on doing what I have always done: reading, thinking, and writing about enduring ideas that glean some semblance of insight — however small, however esoteric — into what it means to live a meaningful life.

In October of 2013, as Brain Pickings turned seven, I marked the occasion by looking back on the seven most important things I learned from the thousands of hours spent reading, writing, and living during those first seven years. (Seven is an excellent numeral — a prime, a calendric unit, the perfect number of dwarfs.) I shared those reflections not as any sort of universal advice on how a life is to be lived, but as centering truths that have emerged and recurred in the course of how this life has been lived; insights that might, just maybe, prove useful or assuring for others. (Kindred spirits have since adapted these learnings into a poster and a short film.)

Art by Maurice Sendak from his little-known and lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading

As Brain Pickings turns nine, I continue to stand by these seven reflections, but the time has come to add two more. (Nine is also an excellent numeral — an exponential factorial, the number of Muses in Greek mythology, my favorite chapter in Alice in Wonderland.) Here are the original seven, as they appeared in 2013:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.

    Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

And here are the two new additions:

  1. Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William Blake and her creative influences, talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
  2. Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture.

In the spirit of reflection, here are my current nine favorite pieces from the first nine years of Brain Pickings:

  1. Musicked Down the Mountain: How Oliver Sacks Saved His Own Life by Literature and Song


  2. Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man


  3. Love After Love: Derek Walcott’s Poetic Ode to Being at Home in Ourselves


  4. The Life of the Mind: Hannah Arendt on Thinking vs. Knowing and the Crucial Difference Between Truth and Meaning


  5. The Magic of Moss and What It Teaches Us About the Art of Attentiveness to Life at All Scales


  6. Why We Fall in Love: The Paradoxical Psychology of Romance and Why Frustration Is Necessary for Satisfaction


  7. Virginia Woolf on Why the Best Mind Is the Androgynous Mind


  8. A Rap on Race: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s Rare Conversation on Forgiveness and the Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility


  9. The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long

For more on the origin story, the ethos, and the spirit that keeps it all going, here is my On Being conversation with the wonderful and generous Krista Tippett, for which I remain enormously grateful:

BP

Mary Oliver on Love and Its Necessary Wildness

In praise of the “invisible and powerful and uncontrollable and beautiful and possibly even unsuitable.”

For more than half a century, beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) has been beckoning us to remember ourselves and forget ourselves at the same time, to contact both our creatureliness and our transcendence as we move through the shimmering world her poetry has mirrored back at us — an unremitting invitation to live with what she calls “a seizure of happiness.” Nowhere is this seizure more electrifying than in love — a subject Oliver’s poetry has tended to celebrate only obliquely, and one she addressed most directly in her piercing elegy for her soul mate.

But in her most recent collection, Felicity (public library), Oliver dedicates nearly half the poems to the scintillating seizure that is love. There is bittersweetness in her words — these are loves that have bloomed in the hindsight of eighty long, wide years. But there is also radiant redemption, reminding us — much as Patti Smith did in her sublime new memoir — that certain loves outlast loss.

Mary Oliver in 1964. Photograph by her partner, Molly Malone Cook, from Our World by Mary Oliver.)

Here are four of my favorite love poems from the collection — please enjoy.

I KNOW SOMEONE

I know someone who kisses the way
a flower opens, but more rapidly.
Flowers are sweet. They have
short, beatific lives. They offer
much pleasure. There is
nothing in the world that can be said
against them.
Sad, isn’t it, that all they can kiss
is the air.

Yes, yes! We are the lucky ones.

I DID THINK, LET’S GO ABOUT THIS SLOWLY

I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
some really deep thought. We should take
small thoughtful steps.

But, bless us, we didn’t.

HOW DO I LOVE YOU?

How do I love you?
Oh, this way and that way.
Oh, happily. Perhaps
I may elaborate by

demonstration? Like
this, and
like this and

    no more words now

NOT ANYONE WHO SAYS

Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be
  careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
unsuitable —
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love.

Felicity is a luminous read in its slim and potent entirety. Complement it with Mary Oliver on how habit gives shape to our inner lives, what dogs teach us about the meaning of human life, and the measure of a life well lived, then revisit Adam Phillips on the paradoxical psychology of why we fall in love.

If you haven’t already, feast your soul on the reclusive poet’s magnificent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett and be sure to subscribe to this endlessly excellent show here.

BP

Anam Cara and the Essence of True Friendship: Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue on the Beautiful Ancient Celtic Notion of Soul-Friend

“A friend … awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”

Aristotle laid out the philosophical foundation of friendship as the art of holding up a mirror to each other’s souls. Two millennia later, Emerson contemplated its two pillars of truth and tenderness. Another century later, C.S. Lewis wrote: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

But nowhere do the beauty, mystery, and soul-sustenance of friendship come more vibrantly alive than in the 1997 masterwork Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (public library) by the late, great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008), titled after the Gaelic for “soul-friend” — a beautiful concept that elegantly encapsulates what Aristotle and Emerson and Lewis articulated in many more words.

johnodonohue

O’Donohue examines the essence and origin of the term:

In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam cara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. So anam cara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.” The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. There is no cage for the soul. The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other. This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Let’s Be Enemies by Janice May Udry

The kind of friendship one finds in an anam cara, O’Donohue argues, is a very special form of love — not the kind that leads us to pit the platonic against the romantic but something much larger and more transcendent:

In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul… This art of love discloses the special and sacred identity of the other person. Love is the only light that can truly read the secret signature of the other person’s individuality and soul. Love alone is literate in the world of origin; it can decipher identity and destiny.

But being an anam cara requires of a purposeful presence — it asks that we show up with absolute integrity of intention. That interior intentionality, O’Donohue suggests, is what sets the true anam cara apart from the acquaintance or the casual friend — a distinction all the more important today, in a culture where we throw the word “friend” around all too hastily, designating little more than perfunctory affiliation. But this faculty of showing up must be an active presence rather than a mere abstraction — the person who declares herself a friend but shirks when the other’s soul most needs seeing is not an anam cara.

O’Donohue writes:

The heart learns a new art of feeling. Such friendship is neither cerebral nor abstract. In Celtic tradition, the anam cara was not merely a metaphor or ideal. It was a soul-bond that existed as a recognized and admired social construct. It altered the meaning of identity and perception. When your affection is kindled, the world of your intellect takes on a new tenderness and compassion… You look and see and understand differently. Initially, this can be disruptive and awkward, but it gradually refines your sensibility and transforms your way of being in the world. Most fundamentalism, greed, violence, and oppression can be traced back to the separation of idea and affection.

The anam cara perspective is sublime because it permits us to enter this unity of ancient belonging.

O’Donohue borrows Aristotle’s notion of friendship and stretches it to a more expansive understanding:

A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.

[…]

The one you love, your anam cara, your soul friend, is the truest mirror to reflect your soul. The honesty and clarity of true friendship also brings out the real contour of your spirit.

Anam Cara is a soul-stretching read in its entirety, exploring such immutable human concerns as love, work, aging, and death through the timeless lens of ancient Celtic wisdom. Complement it with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the true meaning of friendship, love, and heartbreak, then treat yourself to O’Donohue’s magnificent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — one of the last interviews he gave before his sudden and tragic death.

If you realize how vital to your whole spirit — and being and character and mind and health — friendship actually is, you will take time for it… [But] for so many of us … we have to be in trouble before we remember what’s essential… It’s one of the lonelinesses of humans that you hold on desperately to things that make you miserable and … you only realize what you have when you’re almost about to lose it.

BP

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