Hey Graham Beattie! If you missed last week's edition – the year's best books on creativity, writing, photography, and pets and animals – you can catch up here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation.
"In both writing and sleeping," Stephen King observed in his excellent meditation on the art of "creative sleep" and wakeful dreaming, "we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives."
Over the years, in my endless fascination with daily routines, I found myself especially intrigued by successful writers' sleep habits – after all, it's been argued that "sleep is the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac" and science tells us that it impacts everything from our moods to our brain development to our every waking moment. I found myself wondering whether there might be a correlation between sleep habits and literary productivity. The challenge, of course, is that data on each of these variables is hard to find, hard to quantify, or both. So I turned to Italian information designer Giorgia Lupi and her team at Accurat – who make masterful visualizations of cultural phenomena seemingly impossible to quantify – and, together, we set out to explore whether it might be possible to visualize such a correlation.
First, I handed them my notes on writers' wake-up times, amassed over years of reading biographies, interviews, journals, and other materials. Many came from two books – Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey and Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors by Celia Blue Johnson – as well as from the Paris Review interviews and various collections of diaries and letters.
We ended up with a roster of thirty-seven writers for whom wake-up times were available – this became the base data set, around which we set out to quantify, then visualize, the literary productivity of each author.
One important caveat is that there is an enormous degree of subjectivity in assessing a literary – or any creative – career, but since all information visualization is an exercise in subjective editorial judgment rather than a record of Objective Truth, we settled on a set of quantifiable criteria to measure "productivity": number of published works and major awards received. Given that both the duration and the era of an author's life affect literary output – longer lives offer more time to write, and some authors lived before the major awards were established – those variables were also indicated for context.
Lastly, I reached out to Wendy MacNaughton – illustrator extraordinaire and very frequent collaborator – and asked her to contribute an illustrated portrait for each of the authors.
The end result – a labor of love months in the making – is this magnificent visualization of the correlation between writers' wake-up times, displayed in clock-like fashion around each portrait, and their literary productivity, depicted as different-colored "auras" for each of the major awards and stack-bars for number of works published, color-coded for genre. The writers are ordered according to a "timeline" of earliest to latest wake-up times, beginning with Balzac's insomniac 1 A.M. and ending with Bukowski's bohemian noon.
The most important caveat of all, of course, is that there are countless factors that shape a writer's creative output, of which sleep is only one – so this isn't meant to indicate any direction of causation, only to highlight some interesting correlations: for instance, the fact that (with the exception of outliers who are both highly prolific and award-winning, such as like Bradbury and King) late risers seem to produce more works but win fewer awards than early birds.
Pore over (click the image to zoom) and delight in drawing your own conclusions or merely in taking some voyeuristic enjoyment:
The visualization is available as a gorgeous giclée print, with a third of the proceeds donated to literacy nonprofit Room to Read and the rest split between Accurat and Wendy.
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Soul-stirring, brain-expanding reads on intuition, love, grief, attention, education, and the meaning of life.
All gratifying things must come to an end: The season's subjective selection of best-of reading lists – which covered writing and creativity, photography, psychology and philosophy, art and design, history and biography, science and technology, children's literature, and pets and animals – comes full-circle with this final omnibus of the year's most indiscriminately wonderful reads, a set of overall favorites that spill across multiple disciplines, cross-pollinate subjects, and defy categorization in the most stimulating of ways. (Revisit last year's selection here.)
1. ON LOOKING
"How we spend our days," Annie Dillard wrote in her timelessly beautiful meditation on presence over productivity, "is, of course, how we spend our lives." And nowhere do we fail at the art of presence most miserably and most tragically than in urban life – in the city, high on the cult of productivity, where we float past each other, past the buildings and trees and the little boy in the purple pants, past life itself, cut off from the breathing of the world by iPhone earbuds and solipsism. And yet: “The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras reverberates – and it can be learned, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz invites us to believe in her breathlessly wonderful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library), also among the year's best psychology books – a record of her quest to walk around a city block with eleven different "experts," from an artist to a geologist to a dog, and emerge with fresh eyes mesmerized by the previously unseen fascinations of a familiar world. It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I've read in ages. In a way, it's the opposite but equally delightful mirror image of Christoph Niemann's Abstract City – a concrete, immersive examination of urbanity – blending the mindfulness of Sherlock Holmes with the expansive sensitivity of Thoreau.
Horowitz begins by pointing our attention to the incompleteness of our experience of what we conveniently call "reality":
Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.
By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.
This adaptive ignorance, she argues, is there for a reason – we celebrate it as "concentration" and welcome its way of easing our cognitive overload by allowing us to conserve our precious mental resources only for the stimuli of immediate and vital importance, and to dismiss or entirely miss all else. ("Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator," Horowitz tells us. "It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.") But while this might make us more efficient in our goal-oriented day-to-day, it also makes us inhabit a largely unlived – and unremembered – life, day in and day out.
For Horowitz, the awakening to this incredible, invisible backdrop of life came thanks to Pumpernickel, her "curly haired, sage mixed breed" (who also inspired Horowitz's first book, the excellent Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know), as she found herself taking countless walks around the block, becoming more and more aware of the dramatically different experiences she and her canine companion were having along the exact same route:
Minor clashes between my dog’s preferences as to where and how a walk should proceed and my own indicated that I was experiencing almost an entirely different block than my dog. I was paying so little attention to most of what was right before us that I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk. What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see; what my dog showed me was that my attention invited along attention’s companion: inattention to everything else.
The book was her answer to the disconnect, an effort to "attend to that inattention." It is not, she warns us, "about how to bring more focus to your reading of Tolstoy or how to listen more carefully to your spouse." Rather, it is an invitation to the art of observation:
Together, we became investigators of the ordinary, considering the block – the street and everything on it—as a living being that could be observed.
In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old the new.
Horowitz's approach is based on two osmotic human tendencies: our shared capacity to truly see what is in front of us, despite our conditioned concentration that obscures it, and the power of individual bias in perception – or what we call "expertise," acquired by passion or training or both – in bringing attention to elements that elude the rest of us. What follows is a whirlwind of endlessly captivating exercises in attentive bias as Horowitz, with her archetypal New Yorker's "special fascination with the humming life-form that is an urban street," and her diverse companions take to the city.
Art by Maira Kalman from 'On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes'
First, she takes a walk all by herself, trying to note everything observable, and we quickly realize that besides her deliciously ravenous intellectual curiosity, Horowitz is a rare magician with language. ("The walkers trod silently; the dogs said nothing. The only sound was the hum of air conditioners," she beholds her own block; passing a pile of trash bags graced by a stray Q-tip, she ponders parenthetically, "how does a Q-tip escape?"; turning her final corner, she gazes at the entrance of a mansion and "its pair of stone lions waiting patiently for royalty that never arrives." Stunning.)
But as soon as she joins her experts, Horowitz is faced with the grimacing awareness that despite her best, most Sherlockian efforts, she was "missing pretty much everything." She arrives at a newfound, profound understanding of what William James meant when he wrote, "My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.":
I would find myself at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of my ordinary looking. My consolation is that this deficiency of mine is quite human. We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.
Originally featured in August, with a closer look at the expert insights. For another peek at this gem, which is easily among my top three favorite books of the past decade, learn how to do the step-and-slide.
2. ADVICE TO LITTLE GIRLS
In 1865, when he was only thirty, Mark Twain penned a playful short story mischievously encouraging girls to think independently rather than blindly obey rules and social mores. In the summer of 2011, I chanced upon and fell in love with a lovely Italian edition of this little-known gem with Victorian-scrapbook-inspired artwork by celebrated Russian-born children's book illustrator Vladimir Radunsky. I knew the book had to come to life in English, so I partnered with the wonderful Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Brooklyn-based indie publishing house Enchanted Lion, maker of extraordinarily beautiful picture-books, and we spent the next two years bringing Advice to Little Girls (public library) to life in America – a true labor-of-love project full of so much delight for readers of all ages. (And how joyous to learn that it was also selected among NPR's best books of 2013!)
While frolicsome in tone and full of wink, the story is colored with subtle hues of grown-up philosophy on the human condition, exploring all the deft ways in which we creatively rationalize our wrongdoing and reconcile the good and evil we each embody.
Good little girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offense. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.
If you have nothing but a rag-doll stuffed with sawdust, while one of your more fortunate little playmates has a costly China one, you should treat her with a show of kindness nevertheless. And you ought not to attempt to make a forcible swap with her unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.
One can't help but wonder whether this particular bit may have in part inspired the irreverent 1964 anthology Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls and its mischievous advice on brother-sister relations:
If at any time you find it necessary to correct your brother, do not correct him with mud – never, on any account, throw mud at him, because it will spoil his clothes. It is better to scald him a little, for then you obtain desirable results. You secure his immediate attention to the lessons you are inculcating, and at the same time your hot water will have a tendency to move impurities from his person, and possibly the skin, in spots.
If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.
Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to 'sass' old people unless they 'sass' you first.
Originally featured in April – see more spreads, as well as the story behind the project, here.
3. THIS EXPLAINS EVERYTHING
Every year since 1998, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman has been posing a single grand question to some of our time's greatest thinkers across a wide spectrum of disciplines, then collecting the answers in an annual anthology. Last year's answers to the question "What scientific concept will improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" were released in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, one of the year's best psychology and philosophy books.
In 2012, the question Brockman posed, proposed by none other than Steven Pinker, was "What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?" The answers, representing an eclectic mix of 192 (alas, overwhelmingly male) minds spanning psychology, quantum physics, social science, political theory, philosophy, and more, are collected in the edited compendium This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works (UK; public library) and are also available online.
In the introduction preceding the micro-essays, Brockman frames the question and its ultimate objective, adding to history's most timeless definitions of science:
The ideas presented on Edge are speculative; they represent the frontiers in such areas as evolutionary biology, genetics, computer science, neurophysiology, psychology, cosmology, and physics. Emerging out of these contributions is a new natural philosophy, new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure in science comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way. These explanations are called 'beautiful' or 'elegant.'
The contributions presented here embrace scientific thinking in the broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything – including such fields of inquiry as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, language, and human behavior. The common thread is that a simple and nonobvious idea is proposed as the explanation of a diverse and complicated set of phenomena.
Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, who famously coined the seminal theory of multiple intelligences, echoes Anaïs Nin in advocating for the role of the individual and Susan Sontag in stressing the impact of individual acts on collective fate. His answer, arguing for the importance of human beings, comes as a welcome antidote to a question that suffers the danger of being inherently reductionist:
In a planet occupied now by seven billion inhabitants, I am amazed by the difference that one human being can make. Think of classical music without Mozart or Stravinsky; of painting without Caravaggio, Picasso or Pollock; of drama without Shakespeare or Beckett. Think of the incredible contributions of Michelangelo or Leonardo, or, in recent times, the outpouring of deep feeling at the death of Steve Jobs (or, for that matter, Michael Jackson or Princess Diana). Think of human values in the absence of Moses or Christ.
Despite the laudatory efforts of scientists to ferret out patterns in human behavior, I continue to be struck by the impact of single individuals, or of small groups, working against the odds. As scholars, we cannot and should not sweep these instances under the investigative rug. We should bear in mind anthropologist Margaret Mead's famous injunction: 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has.'
Writer, artist, and designer Douglas Coupland, whose biography of Marshall McLuhan remains indispensable, offers a lyrical meditation on the peculiar odds behind coincidences and déja vus:
I take comfort in the fact that there are two human moments that seem to be doled out equally and democratically within the human condition—and that there is no satisfying ultimate explanation for either. One is coincidence, the other is déja vu. It doesn't matter if you're Queen Elizabeth, one of the thirty-three miners rescued in Chile, a South Korean housewife or a migrant herder in Zimbabwe—in the span of 365 days you will pretty much have two déja vus as well as one coincidence that makes you stop and say, "Wow, that was a coincidence."
The thing about coincidence is that when you imagine the umpteen trillions of coincidences that can happen at any given moment, the fact is, that in practice, coincidences almost never do occur. Coincidences are actually so rare that when they do occur they are, in fact memorable. This suggests to me that the universe is designed to ward off coincidence whenever possible—the universe hates coincidence—I don't know why—it just seems to be true. So when a coincidence happens, that coincidence had to work awfully hard to escape the system. There's a message there. What is it? Look. Look harder. Mathematicians perhaps have a theorem for this, and if they do, it might, by default be a theorem for something larger than what they think it is.
What's both eerie and interesting to me about déja vus is that they occur almost like metronomes throughout our lives, about one every six months, a poetic timekeeping device that, at the very least, reminds us we are alive. I can safely assume that my thirteen year old niece, Stephen Hawking and someone working in a Beijing luggage-making factory each experience two déja vus a year. Not one. Not three. Two.
The underlying biodynamics of déja vus is probably ascribable to some sort of tingling neurons in a certain part of the brain, yet this doesn't tell us why they exist. They seem to me to be a signal from larger point of view that wants to remind us that our lives are distinct, that they have meaning, and that they occur throughout a span of time. We are important, and what makes us valuable to the universe is our sentience and our curse and blessing of perpetual self-awareness.
Originally featured in January – read more here.
4. SELF-PORTRAIT AS YOUR TRAITOR
"Still this childish fascination with my handwriting," young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1949. "To think that I always have this sensuous potentiality glowing within my fingers." This is the sort of sensuous potentiality that comes aglow in Self-Portrait as Your Traitor (public library) – the magnificent collection of hand-lettered poems and illustrated essays by friend-of-Brain-Pickings and frequent contributor Debbie Millman. In the introduction, design legend Paula Scher aptly describes this singular visual form as a "21st-century illuminated manuscript." Personal bias aside, these moving, lovingly crafted poems and essays – some handwritten, some drawn with colored pencils, some typeset in felt on felt – vibrate at that fertile intersection of the deeply personal and the universally profound.
In "Fail Safe," her widely read essay-turned-commencement-address on creative courage and embracing the unknown from the 2009 anthology Look Both Ways, Millman wrote:
John Maeda once explained, "The computer will do anything within its abilities, but it will do nothing unless commanded to do so." I think people are the same – we like to operate within our abilities. But whereas the computer has a fixed code, our abilities are limited only by our perceptions. Two decades since determining my code, and after 15 years of working in the world of branding, I am now in the process of rewriting the possibilities of what comes next. I don’t know exactly what I will become; it is not something I can describe scientifically or artistically. Perhaps it is a “code in progress.”
Self-Portrait as Your Traitor, a glorious large-format tome full of textured colors to which the screen does absolutely no justice, is the result of this progress – a brave and heartening embodiment of what it truly means, as Rilke put it, to live the questions; the stunning record of one woman's personal and artistic code-rewriting, brimming with wisdom on life and art for all.
Originally featured in November. See an exclusive excerpt here, then take a peek at Debbie's creative process here.
5. LETTERS OF NOTE
As a hopeless lover of letters, I was thrilled for the release of Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) – the aptly titled, superb collection based on Shaun Usher’s indispensable website of the same name, which stands as a heartening echelon of independent online scholarship and journalism at the intersection of the editorial and the curatorial and features timeless treasures from such diverse icons and Brain Pickings favorites as E. B. White, Virginia Woolf, Ursula Nordstrom, Nick Cave, Ray Bradbury, Amelia Earhart, Galileo Galilei, and more.
One of the most beautiful letters in the collection comes from Hunter S. Thompson – gonzo journalism godfather, pundit of media politics, dark philosopher. The letter, which Thompson sent to his friend Hume Logan in 1958, makes for an exquisite addition to luminaries' reflections on the meaning of life, speaking to what it really means to find your purpose.
Cautious that "all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it" – a caveat other literary legends have stressed with varying degrees of irreverence – Thompson begins with a necessary disclaimer about the very notion of advice-giving:
To give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal – to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.
And yet he honors his friend's request, turning to Shakespeare for an anchor of his own advice:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”
And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect – between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.
He acknowledges the obvious question of why not take the path of least resistance and float aimlessly, then counters it:
The answer – and, in a sense, the tragedy of life – is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you.
Touching on the same notion that William Gibson termed "personal micro-culture," Austin Kleon captured in asserting that "you are the mashup of what you let into your life," and Paula Scher articulated so succinctly in speaking of the combinatorial nature of our creativity, Thompson writes:
Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.
So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?
The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.)* There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.
Resolving to steer clear of the word "existentialism," Thompson nonetheless strongly urges his friend to read Sartre's Nothingness and the anthology Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre, then admonishes against succumbing to faulty definitions of success at the expense of finding one's own purpose:
To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.
But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors — but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires—including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.
As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).
In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life – the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.
Noting that his friend had thus far lived "a vertical rather than horizontal existence," Thompson acknowledges the challenge of this choice but admonishes that however difficult, the choice must be made or else it melts away into those default modes of society:
A man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance. So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”
And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know – is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.
He ends by returning to his original disclaimer by reiterating that rather than a prescription for living, his "advice" is merely a reminder that how and what we choose – choices we're in danger of forgetting even exist – shapes the course and experience of our lives:
I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that – no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life.
Originally featured in November.
6. INTUITION PUMPS
"If you are not making mistakes, you're not taking enough risks," Debbie Millman counseled. "Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before," Neil Gaiman advised young creators. In Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (public library), also among the year's best psychology books, the inimitable Daniel Dennett, one of our greatest living philosophers, offers a set of thinking tools – "handy prosthetic imagination-extenders and focus holders" – that allow us to "think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions" – to enhance your cognitive toolkit. He calls these tools "intuition pumps" – thought experiments designed to stir "a heartfelt, table-thumping intuition" (which we know is a pillar of even the most "rational" of science) about the question at hand, a kind of persuasion tool the reverse-engineering of which enables us to think better about thinking itself. Intuition, of course, is a domain-specific ability that relies on honed critical thinking rather than a mystical quality bestowed by the gods – but that's precisely Dennett's point, and his task is to help us hone it.
Though most of his 77 "intuition pumps" address concrete questions, a dozen are "general-purpose" tools that apply deeply and widely, across just about any domain of thinking. The first of them is also arguably the most useful yet most uncomfortable: making mistakes.
Echoing Dorion Sagan's case for why science and philosophy need each other, Dennett begins with an astute contribution to the best definitions of philosophy, wrapped in a necessary admonition about the value of history:
The history of philosophy is in large measure the history of very smart people making very tempting mistakes, and if you don’t know the history, you are doomed to making the same darn mistakes all over again. … There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions.
He speaks for the generative potential of mistakes and their usefulness as an empirical tool:
Sometimes you don’t just want to risk making mistakes; you actually want to make them – if only to give you something clear and detailed to fix.
Therein lies the power of mistakes as a vehicle for, as Rilke famously put it, "living the questions" and thus advancing knowledge in a way that certainty cannot – for, as Richard Feynman memorably noted, the scientist's job is to remain unsure, and so seems the philosopher's. Dennett writes:
We philosophers are mistake specialists. … While other disciplines specialize in getting the right answers to their defining questions, we philosophers specialize in all the ways there are of getting things so mixed up, so deeply wrong, that nobody is even sure what the right questions are, let alone the answers. Asking the wrong questions risks setting any inquiry off on the wrong foot. Whenever that happens, this is a job for philosophers! Philosophy – in every field of inquiry – is what you have to do until you figure out what questions you should have been asking in the first place.
Mistakes are not just opportunities for learning; they are, in an important sense, the only opportunity for learning or making something truly new. Before there can be learning, there must be learners. There are only two non-miraculous ways for learners to come into existence: they must either evolve or be designed and built by learners that evolved. Biological evolution proceeds by a grand, inexorable process of trial and error – and without the errors the trials wouldn’t accomplish anything.
And since evolution is the highest epitome of how the process of trial and error drives progress, Dennett makes a case for understanding evolution as a key to understanding everything else we humans value:
Evolution … is the central, enabling process not only of life but also of knowledge and learning and understanding. If you attempt to make sense of the world of ideas and meanings, free will and morality, art and science and even philosophy itself without a sound and quite detailed knowledge of evolution, you have one hand tied behind your back. … For evolution, which knows nothing, the steps into novelty are blindly taken by mutations, which are random copying “errors” in DNA.
Dennett echoes Dostoyevsky ("Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.") and offers the key to making productive mistakes:
The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them – especially not from yourself. Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are. … The trick is to take advantage of the particular details of the mess you’ve made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it and not just another blind stab in the dark.
We have all heard the forlorn refrain “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” This phrase has come to stand for the rueful reflection of an idiot, a sign of stupidity, but in fact we should appreciate it as a pillar of wisdom. Any being, any agent, who can truly say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” is standing on the threshold of brilliance.
Originally featured in May – read the full article here.
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As a lover of activity books for grownups and artists' takes on common concepts, I was instantly taken with Outside the Lines: An Artists' Coloring Book for Giant Imaginations (public library) – a quirky and unusual collection envisioned and edited by Souris Hong-Porretta, which makes an equally fine complement to both the year's best art books and best children's books. With illustrations from 100 of today's most celebrated contemporary artists, including Shepard Fairey, Ryan McGuinness, Keith Haring, Brian Rea, and Todd St. John, this charming compendium, reminiscent of RxArt's Between the Lines, is as much an invitation to imagine as it is to admire, to savor, to revel in the beauty and inventiveness of the humble line in its infinitely fanciful permutations.
'Dots Connected' by Amy S. Kauffmann
'Sound of Confusion' by Todd St. John
'Mr. Spray' by Shepard Fairey
'Untitled' by Keith Haring © Keith Haring Foundation
'New Alphabets' by Keita Takahashi
'All of Your Favorite Animals' by Chris Rubino
'Bunny Beast' by Brian Rea
Outside the Lines is absolutely wonderful, doubly so given that it benefits MOCA's education program. Complement it with Do It: The Compendium, which collects 20 years' worth of famous contemporary artists' instructions for art anyone can make.
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