Tag Archives: Book

Robert Wolff’s “Original Wisdom”

Goodreads rating 4.37. Wolff describes his experiences in rural Malaysia and in the jungle among the Sng’oi, where he learns (rather than being taught) new forms of awareness and knowledge.

I saw clearly—perhaps for the first time—that most people, even scientists, can see the world only from one point of view: their own. [p. 146]

Malay culture values halus—soft, gentle, polite—and despises kasar.

Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

Translated by Gregory Rabassa. Goodreads rating 4.10.

…the secret of a good old age is simply an honorable pact with solitude. [p. 205]

… and once again she shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle. [p. 341]

Both looked back then on the wild revelry, the gaudy wealth, and the unbridled fornication as an annoyance and they lamented that it had cost them so much of their lives to find the paradise of shared solitude. Madly in love after so many years of sterile complicity … [p. 345]

… and then they understood that José Arcadio Buendía was not as crazy as the family said, but that he was the only one who had enough lucidity to sense the truth of the fact that time also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in a room. [p. 355]

Some of the book’s best phrases according to NewsLiterature:

  • “The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and to mention them you had to point your finger at them.”
  • “You don’t die when you should, but when you can.”
  • “Loneliness had selected his memories, and had incinerated the numbing heaps of nostalgic garbage that life had accumulated in his heart, and had purified, magnified and eternalized the others, the most bitter.”
  • “Actually, he did not care about death, but life, and that is why the feeling he experienced when they pronounced the sentence was not a feeling of fear but of nostalgia.”
  • “Like all the good things that happened to them in their long lives, that unbridled fortune had its origin in chance.”
  • “He had the rare virtue of not existing completely but at the right time.”
  • “He had had to promote thirty-two wars, and violate all his pacts with death and wallow like a pig in the dunghill of glory, to discover almost forty years late the privileges of simplicity.”
  • “The oldest cry in the history of mankind is the cry of love.”

Olga Tokarczuk’s “The Books of Jacob”

Goodreads rating 4.19.

A sweeping novel of 950 pages (!) which starts on page 960. The Nobel laureate describes hundreds of characters, with even more names; immerses in countless locations, languages, and creeds. Her protagonists always remain strangers.

There is something wonderful in being a stranger, in being foreign, something to be relished, something as alluring as candy. It is good not to be able to understand a language, not to know the customs, to glide like a spirit among others who are distant and unrecognizable. Then a particular kind of wisdom awakens—an ability to surmise, to grasp the things that aren’t obvious. Cleverness and acumen come about. A person who is a stranger gains a new point of view, becomes, whether he likes it or not, a particular type of sage. Who was it who convinced us that being comfortable and familiar was so great? Only foreigners can truly understand the way things work. (pp. 390)

From Smyrna and Athos to Ivanie, across fluid Poland, Brünn (exact location), Vienna (exact location) and Offenbach to Paris in times of the French Revolution and the Supreme Court. From pariah creditors to noble debtors. Jacob and his daughter Eva; Yente and Nahman; and the heroes in the background, Hayah, Asher, and Thomas. Life in the eighteenth century, torn between hunger, disease, murder and rape; lies that kill, curses that float; and debates about Aufklärung, when religious zeal morphs into political activism and the practice of law.

The Word rules.

… the world is made of words that, once uttered, lay claim to every order, so that all things seem to occur at their behest. All things belong to them. Every curse, even the slightest, has an effect. Every single word that’s said. (pp. 645)

Nahman’s creed:

… I patiently stumble forward, not inquiring into the price I will have to pay, and even less so about any reward. My friend and ally is that moment, that urgent hour, the dearest time to me, when suddenly out of nowhere the writing gets easy, and then everything appears to be wonderfully able to be expressed. What a blissful state it is! Then I feel sage, and the whole world becomes a cradle that the Shekhinah has laid me down in, and now the Shekhinah leans in over me like a mother over an infant.

The path to the left is only for those who have shown they deserve it, those who understand what Reb Mordke always said—that the world itself demands to be narrated, and only then does it truly exist, only then can it flourish fully. But also that by telling the story of the world, we are changing the world.

That is why God created the letters of the alphabet, that we might have the opportunity to narrate to him what he created. Reb Mordke always chuckled at this. “God is blind. Did you not know that?” he would say. “He created us that we would be his guides, his five senses.” And he would chuckle long and hard until he began to cough from the smoke.

The novel comes with a bibliography, so is the story real?

Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is … the perfection of imprecise forms. (p. 14)

In any case,

… any person who toils over matters of Messiahs, even failed ones, even just to tell their stories, will be treated just the same as he who studies the eternal mysteries of light. (p. 10)

Goodreads summary:

The Nobel Prize-winner’s richest, most sweeping and ambitious novel yet follows the comet-like rise and fall of a mysterious, messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across eighteenth-century Europe.

In the mid-eighteenth century, as new ideas–and a new unrest–begin to sweep the Continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following. In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires with throngs of disciples in his thrall as he reinvents himself again and again, converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order, Jewish and Christian alike, with scandalous rumors of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs. The story of Frank–a real historical figure around whom mystery and controversy swirl to this day–is the perfect canvas for the genius and unparalleled reach of Olga Tokarczuk. Narrated through the perspectives of his contemporaries–those who revere him, those who revile him, the friend who betrays him, the lone woman who sees him for what he is–The Books of Jacob captures a world on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.

Goodreads reader Marc’s summary:

For those who like wide-ranging historical novels, this is the real thing. Tokarczuk immersed herself in 18th-century Greater Poland, which then covered large parts of Eastern Europe. Seen from the West, it was a perifere area, but it stood in intense contact with the Eastern Ottoman Empire, which at that time still controlled almost the entire Balkans. Tokarczuk sketches dozens of characters who constantly go back and forth between those two regions. These are especially Jews, and the author examines that Jewish world in great detail.

Her central story focuses on a Jewish heretic movement which actually existed in the middle of the 18th century. The movement was led by Jacob Frank, an Ottoman Jew. He was a very unlikely guru, but had an enormous charisma and managed to get tens of thousands of Jews behind his ‘Trinity Faith’. He seduced them with an eclectic mix of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which was particularly attractive because it offered the Jews, with their always precarious position in Catholic Poland, the prospect of civil rights through baptism.

Olga Tokarczuk is the most acclaimed Polish writer of the moment (twice the Niké prize, once the Man Booker International prize, and, of course, the Nobel Prize 2018), but with this book she has had a really difficult time in her own country. Her focus on the Catholic discrimination against Jews in Greater Poland was not appreciated by the right-wing, conservative government currently in power in Warsaw. Also the picture she paints of an extremely diversified Polish nation, with a jumble of ethnicities and religious movements that lived together, contradicts the homogenic Polish identity that has been cultivated since the 2nd world war.

But that is precisely what makes this book extremely interesting. The way Tokarczuk brings all these different movements, cultures and ethnicities to life is a feast for the reader’s eye. Her narrative style even has a certain Marquezian flair, with a dash of magical realism through the character of the old Yenta who remains in a state of coma for hundreds of pages, and – stepped out of herself – glides through space and time, guiding the story a step further.

But there is a downside to this verbal firework: the immersion in all those worlds, the dozens of characters, the constant changes in perspective and time, all this makes reading this very bulky book a real test. For instance, it takes a quarter of the book, almost 250 pages, before the real story about the heresy of Jacob Frank takes off; until then Tokarczuk builds up, with constantly new characters, and travels back and forth between Poland, the Balkans and Smyrna (present-day Izmir in Turkey). Also the sometimes very intense theological discussions among the Jewish rabbis, diving into kabbala, demand a lot from the reader.

Again: this historical novel is quite a tour de force , not only in terms of size and depth. For me, the charm of the reading was mainly in the Chagal-like character of the visual language of Tokarczuk: she regularly sketches dreamy scenes with the comatose Yenta that floats over time and space and oversees everything. But in the long run it’s all a bit too much: the story just lingers on, endlessly, and I missed a real existential story, with people of flesh and blood. Hence the slightly lesser rating. But I’m definitely going to dive into Tokarczuk’s other work!

Steven Koonin’s “Unsettled”

Goodreads rating: 4.39.

The book offers

  • a brief tour of the physics behind climate change and the role played by human activity;
  • a skeptical discussion of climate models;
  • some stronger, some weaker examples of distorted reports, by scientists and the media, regarding causal links between human activity, climate change, and extreme weather events, sea level change, or production (opponents claim that these examples are cherry-picked; Koonin retorts that scientific reports should be correct);
  • a plausible prediction of national adaption policies rather than international cooperation to strongly reduce emissions.

For some critical reviews (some not compelling) of the book, see Wikipedia.

David Graeber’s “Debt”

Goodreads rating 4.19.

Graeber’s book contains many interesting historical observations but lacks a concise argument to convince a brainwashed neoclassical economist looking for coherent arguments on money and debt. After 60 pages, 340 more seemed too much.

Chapter one:

… the central question of this book: What, precisely, does it man to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? … debt, unlike any other form of obligation, can be precisely quantified. … to become simple, cold, and impersonal … transferable.

… money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic—and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene. … the violence and the quantification—are intimately linked. … the threat of violence, turns human relations into mathematics.

…The United States was one of the last countries in the world to adopt a law of bankruptcy: despite the fact that in 1787, the Constitution specifically charged the new government with creating one, all attempts were rejected, or quickly reversed, on “moral grounds” until 1898.

… historically, credit money comes first [before bullion, coins]

… ages of virtual credit money almost invariably involve the creation of institutions designed to prevent everything going haywire—to stop the lenders from teaming up with bureaucrats and politicians to squeeze everybody dry … by the creation of institutions designed to protect debtors. The new age of credit money we are in seems to have started precisely backwards. It began with the creation of global institutions like the IMF designed to protect not debtors, but creditors.

… the book begins by attempting to puncture a series of myths—not only the Myth of Barter … but also rival myths about primordial debts to the gods, or to the state … Historical reality reveals [that the state and the market] have always been intertwined. … all these misconceptions … tend to reduce all human relations to exchange … [but] the very principle of exchange emerged largely as an effect of violence … the real origins of money are to be found in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honor, debt, and redemption. … an actual history of the last five thousand years of debt and credit, with its great alternations between ages of virtual and physical money …

… many of Adam Smith’s most famous arguments appear to have been cribbed from the works of free market theorists from medieval Persia …

Chapter two (“The Myth of Barter”) contains questionable claims about economics as well as interesting historical facts (or claims?):

When economists speak of the origins of money … debt is always something of an afterthought. First comes barter, then money; credit only develops later. …

Barter … was carried out between people who might otherwise be enemies …

… “truck and barter”’ [in many languages] literally meant ”to trick, bamboozle, or rip off.”

What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, … never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, … has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to currency.

Chapter three (“Primordial Debts”) argues the the myth of barter is central to the discourse of economics, which according to Graeber downplays the state as opposed to markets, exchange, and individual choice. He tries to confront this view with Alfred Mitchell-Innes’ credit theory of money, Georg Friedrich Knapp’s state theory of money, the Wizard of Oz (i.e. “ounce”), and John Maynard Keynes (original?) claim that banks create money.

In all Indo-European languages, words for “debt” are synonymous with those for “sin” or “guilt,” illustrating the links between religion, payment and the mediation of the sacred and profane realms by “money.” [money-Geld, sacrifice-Geild, tax-Gild, guilt]

Wikipedia article on the book:

A major argument of the book is that the imprecise, informal, community-building indebtedness of “human economies” is only replaced by mathematically precise, firmly enforced debts through the introduction of violence, usually state-sponsored violence in some form of military or police.

A second major argument of the book is that, contrary to standard accounts of the history of money, debt is probably the oldest means of trade, with cash and barter transactions being later developments.

Debt, the book argues, has typically retained its primacy, with cash and barter usually limited to situations of low trust involving strangers or those not considered credit-worthy. Graeber proposes that the second argument follows from the first; that, in his words, “markets are founded and usually maintained by systematic state violence”, though he goes on to show how “in the absence of such violence, they… can even come to be seen as the very basis of freedom and autonomy”.

Reception of the book was mixed, with praise for Graeber’s sweeping scope from earliest recorded history to the present; but others raised doubts about the accuracy of some statements in Debt, as outlined below in the section on “critical reception”.


Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s “Dialektik der Aufklärung”

Goodreads rating 4.09.


Schon der Mythos ist Aufklärung, und: Aufklärung schlägt in Mythologie zurück. …

Seit je hat Aufklärung im umfassendsten Sinn fortschreitenden Denkens das Ziel verfolgt, von den Menschen die Furcht zu nehmen und sie als Herren einzusetzen. Aber die vollends aufgeklärte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils. …

Als Sein und Geschehen wird von der Aufklärung nur anerkannt, was durch Einheit sich erfassen lässt; ihr Ideal ist das System, aus dem alles und jedes folgt. … Als Gebieter über Natur gleichen sich der schaffende Gott und der ordnende Geist. … Mythen wie magische Riten meinen die sich wiederholende Natur.

Odysseus, myth, enlightenment:

Der listige Einzelgänger ist schon der homo oeconomicus, dem einmal alle Vernünftigen gleichen: daher ist die Odyssee schon eine Robinsonade. Die beiden prototypischen Schiffbrüchigen machen aus ihrer Schwäche — der des Individuums selber, das von der Kollektivität sich scheidet — ihre gesellschaftliche Stärke. Dem Zufall des Wellengangs ausgeliefert, hilflos isoliert, diktiert ihnen ihre Isoliertheit die rücksichtslose Verfolgung des atomistischen Interesses.

Juliette, enlightenment, morals:

Der Bürger, der dem kantischen kategorischen Imperativ aus der Kritik der praktischen Vernunft beistimmt … folgt keiner wissenschaftlichen Vernunft, sondern einer Narretei, wenn er sich deswegen einen materiellen Gewinn entgehen lässt. …

Bei de Sade wie bei Nietzsche wird das „szientifische Prinzip ins Vernichtende“ gesteigert. … Alles bleibt sinnfrei der Willkür des verbrecherischen Lustprinzips verhaftet. … So demontiert Sades Juliette alle Konventionen und Werte – Familie, Religion, Gesetz, Moral –, nichts vermag übrig zu bleiben, was die Gesellschaft ehemals zusammenhielt, alles fällt dem Wirtschaftsbetrieb und der enthemmten Ökonomie der aufgeklärten Verbrechergangs zum Opfer.

Wikipedia on the book:

… die These, dass sich bereits zu Beginn der Menschheitsgeschichte mit der Selbstbehauptung des Subjekts gegenüber einer bedrohlichen Natur eine instrumentelle Vernunft durchgesetzt habe, die sich als Herrschaft über die äußere und innere Natur und schließlich in der institutionalisierten Herrschaft von Menschen über Menschen verfestigte. Ausgehend von diesem „Herrschaftscharakter“ der Vernunft beobachteten Horkheimer und Adorno einen Aufschwung der Mythologie, die „Rückkehr der aufgeklärten Zivilisation zur Barbarei in der Wirklichkeit“ …

… habe nicht einen Befreiungs-, sondern einen universellen Selbstzerstörungsprozess der Aufklärung in Gang gesetzt. …

Nach Horkheimer und Adorno ist die Abstraktion das Werkzeug, mit dem die Logik von der Masse der Dinge geschieden wird. Das Mannigfaltige wird quantitativ unter eine abstrakte Größe gestellt und vereinheitlicht, um es handhabbar zu machen. … Alles, was sich dem instrumentellen Denken entzieht, wird des Aberglaubens verdächtigt. Der moderne Positivismus verbannt es in die Sphäre des Unobjektiven, des Scheins.

Aber diese Logik ist eine Logik des Subjekts, die unter dem Zeichen der Herrschaft, der Naturbeherrschung, auf die Dinge wirkt. Diese Herrschaft tritt dem Einzelnen nunmehr als Vernunft gegenüber, die die objektive Weltsicht organisiert.

… Die wissenschaftliche Weltherrschaft wendet sich gegen die denkenden Subjekte und verdinglicht in der Industrie, der Planung, der Arbeitsteilung, der Ökonomie die Menschen zu Objekten. … an die Stelle der befreienden Aufklärung aus der Unmündigkeit tritt das wirtschaftliche und politische Interesse, das Bewusstsein der Menschen zu manipulieren. Aufklärung wird zum Massenbetrug. …

Nach Auffassung Horkheimers und Adornos raubt industriell hergestellte Kultur dem Menschen die Phantasie … Die „Kulturindustrie“ liefert die „Ware“ so, dass dem Menschen nur noch die Aufgabe des Konsumenten zukommt. … erwünscht ist es, die reale Welt so gut wie möglich nachzuahmen. Triebe werden so weit geschürt, dass eine Sublimierung nicht mehr möglich ist. …

Das Ziel der Kulturindustrie ist – wie in jedem Industriezweig – ökonomischer Art. Alles Bemühen ist auf wirtschaftliche Erfolge ausgerichtet.

Die authentische Kultur hingegen ist nicht zielgerichtet, sie ist Selbstzweck. … fördert die Phantasie des Menschen, indem sie Anregungen gibt, aber anders als die Kulturindustrie, den Freiraum für eigenständiges menschliches Denken lässt. Authentische Kultur will nicht die Wirklichkeit nachstellen, sondern weit über sie hinausgehen.

English Wikipedia article.

Jed McKenna’s “Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing”

Goodreads rating 4.36.

Spiritual enlightenment is not about mysticism or happiness, although the latter might follow from the former. It is not about the “true self” but about the non-self; about radical questioning and truth seeking that ditches all putative certainties; about watching the unfolding of life with joy and interest; about accepting contradictions.

Richard Bandler and John Grinder’s “The Structure of Magic”

Goodreads rating 4.06.

Human beings have their personal models of the world. These models are wrong and sometimes very wrong, leaving people with the impression that they have no choice, are being excluded, etc. The authors argue that successful psychotherapies and -therapists all use similar methods to help clients change and correct their models, opening new perspectives for them. In the book the authors systematize this argument.

They emphasize errors that humans make when mistaking models for reality—errors due to inadequate generalization, deletion, or distortion—and they use the language and tools from linguistics (transformational grammar)—distinguishing between the deep structure and the surface structure of sentences—to provide a toolkit for psychotherapists to help identify and correct these errors. Essentially, the therapist and the client are meant to identify the errors in the client’s model by insisting on well-formed sentences.

This quote is from the end of ch. 3:

This set, the set of sentences which are well formed in therapy and acceptable to us as therapists, are sentences which:
(1) Are well formed in English, and
(2) Contain no transformational deletions or unexplored deletions in the portion of the model in which the client experiences no choice.
(3) Contain no nominalization (process -> event).
(4) Contain no words or phrases lacking referential indices.
(5) Contain no verbs incompletely specified.
(6) Contain no unexplored presuppositions in the portion of the model in which the client experiences no choice.
(7) Contain no sentences which violate the semantic conditions of well-formedness.

Edwin Abbott’s “Flatland”

Goodreads rating 3.81.

For someone living in two dimensions and becoming aware of three, it might be easier to think of four than for someone living in three dimensions.

The cherished feeling of oneness might be misleading …

That Point is a Being like ourselves, but confined to the non-dimensional Gulf. He is himself his own World, his own Universe; of any other than himself he can form no conception; he knows not Length, nor Breadth, nor Height, for he has had no experience of them; he has no cognizance even of the number Two; nor has he a thought of Plurality; for he is himself his One and All, being really Nothing. Yet mark his perfect self-contentment, and hence learn this lesson, that to be self-contended is to be vile and ignorant, and that to aspire is better than to be blindly and impotently happy. (ch. 20)

Hermann Hesse’s “Siddharta”

Goodreads rating 4.04.

Seine Wunde blühte, sein Leid strahlte, sein Ich war in die Einheit geflossen. …

Weisheit ist nicht mitteilbar. Weisheit, welche ein Weiser mitzuteilen versucht, klingt immer wie Narrheit. …

Mir aber liegt einzig daran, die Welt lieben zu können, sie nicht zu verachten, sie und mich nicht zu hassen …


Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet”

Goodreads rating 4.22.

Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.

Surely there is no greater gift to a man than that which turns all his aims into parching lips and all life into a fountain. And in this lies my honour and my reward,—That whenever I come to the fountain to drink I find the living water itself thirsty; And it drinks me while I drink it.

If these be vague words, then seek not to clear them. Vague and nebulous is the beginning of all things, but not their end, And I fain would have you remember me as a beginning.

Peter Bieri’s “Das Handwerk der Freiheit”

Goodreads rating 3.76. An inquiry into language and personal experience.

Bieri analyzes notions of free will, their basis or vacuousness, and their consequences. A powerful dissection of language and experience.

  • Wille ist bedingt durch Historie.
  • Ein unbedingt freier Wille wäre nicht der Wille der Person; er wäre unberechenbar und zufällig — nicht das, nach dem sich Verfechter eines unbedingt freien Willens sehnen. Freier und unfreier Wille sind bedingt.
  • Bedingt freier Wille hat nichts mit Zwang oder Ohnmacht zu tun, denn die Beweggründe liegen nicht aussen; die Person entscheidet.
  • Bedingt freier Wille rechtfertigt daher auch nicht Fatalismus. Nicht Vorherbestimmtheit ist ein Übel, sondern allenfalls das, was vorherbestimmt ist.
  • Verantwortung, Strafe und Moral? “In moralischen Dingen kommt es einzig und allein auf den Inhalt des Denkens an und nicht auf seine Herkunft.” (357) Der moralische Standpunkt ist zumindest eine Konvention, denen Abweichler unterworfen werden. Wir fühlen Reue, daher macht auch Verantwortung intuitiv Sinn.

Some reviews etc.:

  • Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl: Phänomenologische Genauigkeit ist das Ziel, auf das die philosophische Disziplin des Erzählens hinarbeitet (377). Immer wieder findet Bieri prägnante Formulierungen, um die Ergebnisse seiner Überlegungen zu resümieren. Etwa diese: “Ein Wille ist ein Wunsch, der handlungswirksam wird, wenn die Umstände es erlauben und nichts dazwischenkommt.” (41) “Die Freiheit des Willens liegt darin, daß er auf ganz bestimmte Weise bedingt ist: durch unser Denken und Urteilen.” (80) “Wir brauchen kein reines Subjekt, um die Erfahrung von Freiheit und Unfreiheit zu beschreiben.” (272) Bieri betont das Moment der Selbstdistanzierung, welches er zu recht als einen nichtmysteriösen und essentiellen Bestandteil unserer Erfahrung von Freiheit ausweist. Es ist dieses Moment, das die Ausbildung von Wünschen zweiter Ordnung ermöglicht (71, 103f), und uns damit in die Lage versetzt, zu unseren eigenen Wünschen Stellung zu nehmen: nicht Getriebene unseres Wollens zu sein, vielmehr als Urheber und Verantwortliche unserer Handlungen aufzutreten. … Der Wille ist Wille einer bestimmten Person, welche über bestimmte Charakterzüge verfügt und unter bestimmten Umständen denkt und handelt (49ff). Dieser Leitgedanke der Untersuchung ist nicht durch Phänomenbeschreibung gewonnen. Er liegt in der begrifflichen Einsicht, daß ein Wille stets nur bestimmter Wille sein kann (239). Andernfalls wäre er ein leerer Wille, also gar kein Wille. Wer mit diesem Gedanken anfängt, kann nicht dahin gelangen, den Willen als in den Lauf der Welt eingreifend zu denken, ohne diesem selbst unterworfen zu sein, mithin als einen Willen, “der von nichts abhinge: ein vollständig losgelöster, von allen ursächlichen Zusammenhängen freier Wille. Ein solcher Wille wäre ein aberwitziger, abstruser Wille.” (230) … Die Idee eines unbedingten Willens ist, entgegen der Intention ihrer Verfechter, gar keine stimmige Idee. Ein unbedingter Wille, wenn es ihn denn gäbe, wäre ein unfreier Wille — ein sich selbst aufhebender willenloser Wille. … Die Einsicht, daß ein freier Wille nur inmitten von Bedingtheiten wirksam werden kann, eröffnet nach Bieri einen Ausweg aus dem klassischen Dilemma der Willensfreiheitsdebatten: der scheinbaren Unvereinbarkeit von Freiheit und durchgängiger kausaler Bedingtheit alles natürlichen Geschehens (23).
  • Sabine Klomfaß: Bieri zieht mit seinem Konzept des Willens und des Urteilens gegen den Determinismus und einer daraus folgenden Resignation zu Felde. Gebetsmühlenartig legt er dar, dass der Wille “von innen” nur in pathologischen Fällen (wie beim zwanghaften Handeln des Spielers) oder “von außen” erpresst (wie beim Zwang zwischen zwei Übeln zu wählen) wirklich unfrei sei. Im Normalfall aber kommt der zukünftige Wille, so Bieri, “nicht auf dich zu wie eine Lawine. Du führst ihn herbei, du erarbeitest ihn dir, indem du von freier Entscheidung zu freier Entscheidung fortschreitest, bis du bei ihm angekommen bist.” Dabei betont der Philosoph insbesondere die Funktion des Denkvermögens: “In dem Maße, in dem die Aneignung des Willens auf Artikulation und Verstehen beruht, handelt es sich um einen Erkenntnisprozess. Wachsende Erkenntnis bedeutet wachsende Freiheit. So gesehen ist Selbsterkenntnis ein Maß für Willensfreiheit.” Denn erst das Wissen um die Möglichkeiten, die man haben könnte, und dann das Durchdenken und Bewerten dieser Möglichkeiten, formen einen Willen, der wirklich als eigener und verantwortbarer erkannt werden kann.
  • Michael Springer: Freiheit existiert nur als bedingte Freiheit. Unser Wille agiert in einem strukturierten Feld; er hat eine Vorgeschichte. Das enthebt uns nicht der Verantwortung für das, was wir tun – selbst wenn es im Nachhinein aussieht, als ob “alles so kommen musste”.
  • Iris Morad.

See also this on a related book by Julian Baggini.

Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values”

Quality, not subject or object, as the elementary fabric. ἀρετή. A rehabilitation of the sophists.

Some quotes:

If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge. …

God, I don’t want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out. These can be left alone for a while. There’s a place for them but they’ve got to be built on a foundation of Quality within the individuals involved. We’ve had that individual quality in the past, exploited as a natural resource without knowing it, and now it’s just about depleted. Everyone’s just about out if gumption. And I think it’s about time to return the rebuilding of this American resource – individual worth. There are political reactionaries who’ve been saying something close to this for years. I’m not one of them, but to the extent they’re talking about real individual worth and not just an excuse for giving more money to the rich, they’re right. We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption. We really do. …

What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

Anthony McWatt’s discussion of Pirsig’s philosophy in Philosophy Now:

In Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig first explored the history of the term ‘Quality’, or what the Ancient Greeks called arête, tracing it all the way back to Plato (428-348 BCE). He concluded that the strange position of Quality in today’s West originated with Plato’s division of the human soul into its reason and emotion aspects, in his dialogue the Phaedrus. In this dialogue, Plato gave primary place to reason over emotion. Soon afterwards Aristotle was similarily emphasizing analysis over rhetoric. And as Hugh Lawson-Tancred confirms in the Introduction to his 1991 translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric: “There are few things that are more to be deplored in Greek culture, and notably in the legacy of Plato, than the wholly forced and unnatural division between… [the] two sister studies” of rhetoric and philosophy (p.57). Eventually this division grew into the ‘subjective versus objective’ way of thinking now largely dominant in the West. So now in the West we have objectivity, reason, logic, and dialectic on the one hand; and subjectivity, emotion, imagination, intuition, and rhetoric on the other. The former terms suggest scientific respectability, while the latter are often assumed to be artistic terms, having little place in science or rationality. It is this Platonic conception of rationality that Pirsig sought to challenge by reconciling the spiritual (for example, Zen), artistic (for example, art) and scientific (for example, motorcycle maintenance) realms within the unifying paradigm of the Metaphysics of Quality. …

Plato was perhaps a little too over-confident in how usable his theory of Forms is in practice. I wonder if it ever crossed his mind that his mentor, Socrates, might have been hinting to him and the other young philosophy students in Athens that the Good and Beauty are actually indefinable? The idea of Forms was, of course, invented by Plato, not Socrates. Unfortunately, as a consequence of Plato’s thinking that reality can be basically defined, Western philosophy is in the state that it is in today: more a handmaiden of science rather than its master. Assuming that words can capture all aspects of reality is an understandable error to make at the very beginning of the Western philosophical tradition… but having said that, it was a metaphysical error avoided by East Asian philosophy. Think about Plato’s allegory of the Cave of Ignorance and escaping from it to see the Sun of the Good, then compare it with the following quote:

“Not by its rising is there light,
Not by its sinking is there darkness
Unceasing, continuous
It cannot be defined…
The image of no-thingness…
Meet it and you do not see its face
Follow it and you do not see its back.”

Dao De Jing, Laozi, Quoted in ZMM, p.253-54

If you think about it long enough, then you’ll see that there was no ‘Cave of Ignorance’ until Plato put Western culture inside its metaphysical darkness for 2,400 years!

Obituary by Paul Vitello in the New York Times:

One of Mr. Pirsig’s central ideas is that so-called ordinary experience and so-called transcendent experience are actually one and the same — and that Westerners only imagine them as separate realms because Plato, Aristotle and other early philosophers came to believe that they were.

But Plato and Aristotle were wrong, Mr. Pirsig said. Worse, the mind-body dualism, soldered into Western consciousness by the Greeks, fomented a kind of civil war of the mind — stripping rationality of its spiritual underpinnings and spirituality of its reason, and casting each into false conflict with the other.

Obituary by Michael Carlson in The Guardian.

Edward Snowden’s “Permanent Record”

An intriguing description of America’s intelligence community and the industry surrounding it; the slippery slopes; and Snowden’s motivation for following his conscience rather than the money. From the book, how we got here:

[After 9/11] [n]early a hundred thousand spies returned to work at the agencies with the knowledge that they’d failed at their primary job, which was protecting America. …

In retrospect, my country … could have used this rare moment of solidarity to reinforce democratic values and cultivate resilience in the now-connected global public. Instead, it went to war. The greatest regret of my life is my reflexive, unquestioning support for that decision. I was outraged, yes, but that was only the beginning of a process in which my heart completely defeated my rational judgment. I accepted all the claims retailed by the media as facts, and I repeated them as if I were being paid for it. … I embraced the truth constructed for the good of the state, which in my passion I confused with the good of the country.

And what to make of it:

Ultimately, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. Or that you don’t care about freedom of the press because you don’t like to read. … Just because this or that freedom might not have meaning to you today doesn’t mean that it doesn’t or won’t have meaning tomorrow, to you, or to your neighbor – or to the crowds of principled dissidents I was following on my phone who were protesting halfway across the planet, hoping to gain just a fraction of the freedom that my country was busily dismantling. …

Any elected government that relies on surveillance to maintain control of a citizenry that regards surveillance as anathema to democracy has effectively ceased to be a democracy.

Buy the book from a key contractor of the intelligence community. Reviews on goodreads. Youtube video of the 2013 presentation by CIA CTO Gus Hunt which Snowden discusses in the book.

Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”

In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson argues for the kind of values instilled by a socially conservative parental home: Aim for paradise, but concentrate on today. Meaning is key, not happiness. Assume responsibility. Listen carefully, speak clearly, and tell the truth. And stand straight, even in the face of adversity.

Here they are, Peterson’s 12 rules:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Peterson motivates the rules by telling stories and anecdotes from his experience as a clinical psychologist, which he mixes with interpretations of religious (mostly biblical) texts as well as Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Frankl, or Dostoevsky. Peterson gets politically incorrect when discussing his 11th rule: He strongly rejects postmodernism and nihilism; and he shows little respect for management science: “[T]he science of management is a pseudo-discipline.”

As so often, what the author has to say could be said much more concisely. The book is far too long to precisely communicate the core ideas. What are they? Dean Bokhari suggests the following three key quotes from the book:

“We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world. We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated. It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world. It’s asking a lot. It’s asking for everything.”

“Clear rules and proper discipline help the child, and the family, and society establish, maintain, and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld. Where everything is uncertain, anxiety provoking, hopeless and depressing. There are no greater gifts that a parent can bestow.”

“The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future.”

He also offers a “tweetable summary:”

Always tell the truth. Admit and learn from the past, make order of its chaos, and work towards not repeating the same mistakes. Pay close attention.

Other reviewers stress that Peterson wants his rules to help us strike the right balance between order and chaos (see also Philippa Perry’s “How To Stay Sane”). For example, Wyatt Graham condenses Peterson’s thinking as follows:

… life (or Being) involves suffering. … So, “We must have something to set against the suffering that is intrinsic to Being. We must have the meaning inherent in a profound system of value or the horror of existence rapidly becomes paramount” (xxxi).

We need to embrace Being, to not give in to suffering, and to find meaning. We need to live in the border between chaos and order and find our meaning there. …

For Peterson, to find meaning is to take on the responsibility of Being. We find it when we realize “that the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life” (xxxv). He continues, “If we live properly, we will collectively flourish” (xxxv).

Yet others offer longer summaries, for example u/AresProductions on reddit, James Razko, or Neil Soni. Nat Eliason collects quotes from the book. Here is my summary of the summaries:

  1. Dare. Show strength in the face of adversity.
  2. Avoid self contempt. Be self-conscious and have a vision.
  3. Assume that you chose the easy path, and then take a different one. Improving is much harder than the opposite. “If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself?”
  4. Focus on taking one step at a time. And take it.
  5. Teach your kids to behave properly (not least, to make them socially desirable). Discipline is not revenge.
  6. Conduct yourself as if Being is more valuable than Non-Being (or risk becoming a serial killer). Set your own house in order before trying to improve the world. Blame yourself—not for life’s tragedies, but for surrendering to them.
  7. Search for meaning, not for happiness. Sacrifice, i.e., invest.
  8. Be authentic. Avoid life-lies. Tell the truth to yourself and others. Big Wrongs are based on countless small lies. Only truth is compatible with meaning.
  9. Listen.
  10. Lack of precision breeds chaos. Precise speech brings things out of the realm of the unspeakable. Precision separates the unique terrible thing that happened from the others that might have happened—but did not.
  11. Respect culture, and human nature. Pity today’s boys.
  12. Our vulnerability is what makes us human. So celebrate the small joys of life.

In The Guardian, Tim Lott summarized Peterson’s worldview as follows:

“Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

In another discussion in The Guardian, John Crace made it even clearer that he didn’t like the book at all.

Goodreads contains many reader reviews. Wikipedia page.

Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind”

Homo appeared roughly 2 million years ago in Africa and Homo sapiens roughly 200’000 years ago in East Africa. Harari divides his account of the last 70’000 years into four parts: The cognitive revolution (language), the agricultural revolution (about 10’000 years ago in today’s Turkey, Iran, Levant), the unification of humankind (through money, empire, and religion), and the scientific revolution. According to Harari, Sapiens developed more efficient strategies for cooperation than other species and in particular, Neanderthals (which sapiens eradicated around 30’000 years ago). The rest is history, i.e., evolutionary biology and cultural history.

On his website, Harari summarizes:

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.

Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.

According to Harari, the agricultural revolution fostered population growth but made life harsher for most humans (due to less varied diet, harder work, infectious diseases)—and for the animals that Sapiens domesticated; religion, empires, money and trade fostered globalization and unification; the scientific revolution arose from Europeans’ admission of ignorance, and it was intertwined with imperialism and capitalism; whether humankind has become happier over time is unknown but doubtful; and we may soon confront a singularity:

Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed `before’ the Big Bang. We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concepts that give meaning to our world—me, you, men, women, love and hate—will become irrelevant. Anything happening beyond that point is meaningless to us (p. 461 in the Vintage 2015 edition).

Other tidbits:

  • Settlement of Australia (“The Flood”), America, New Zealand: 45’000, 16’000, 800 years ago. Each settlement was associated with mass extinction of species.
  • “[F]iction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively” (p. 27). “Ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.” (p. 36).
  • “The Agricultural Revolution was history’s greatest fraud. … These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa” (p. 90). The revolution bred worries about the future. Food surpluses brought rulers and elites, palaces and temples, politics, wars, art and philosophy (p. 114). One `imagined order’ with three classes and two genders—the Code of Hammurabi—dates from 1’776 B.C. (p. 117). Writing, archiving, cataloguing (invented by Sumerians around 3’500 B.C.) preserves information about imagined social order; this is critical because the information is not preserved in DNA. Script undermined holistic thought. Hindus invented `Arab’ numerals around 800 AD (pp. 137–146).
  • Cognitive dissonance, contradictory beliefs are necessary to maintain any human culture (p. 184). Over the last 10’000 years, thousands of `human worlds’ have collapsed to a single one (p. 186). Three universal (imagined) orders: Money, empire, religion (p. 191). “Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised” (p. 201). Empires are stable, inclusive, not that bad (p. 219). Religious norms are founded on a belief in a superhuman order (p. 234). “Much of ancient mythology is in fact a legal contract in which humans promise everlasting devotion to the gods in exchange for mastery over plants and animals” (p. 236). Polytheist and animist religions recognize a supreme power in the background, devoid of biases and interests (p. 238). Humanist religions worship Homo sapiens. Liberal humanism believes in the humanity of the individual. Socialist humanism believes in the humanity of the collective. (Both build on Christian tradition). Evolutionary humanism (e.g., Nazism) believes that humankind can evolve or degenerate  (pp. 256–263).
  • Science started from the admission of ignorance; observation and math; and the acquisition of new powers (p. 279). Social stability requires that certain `scientific results’ are a dogma or that basic truths are non-scientific (p. 282). With the capitalist system and the industrial revolution, science, industry and military technology intertwined (p. 294). “[S]cientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research” (p. 305). Science and empire supported each other (ch. 15, 16). The scientific revolution and the idea of progress fostered credit; this reinforced each other (p. 346). The industrial revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion (p. 379) and it was a second agricultural revolution (p. 382). Animal suffering, consumerism (ch. 17). The national time (p. 396). State and market replace family and local community (p. 398). “The state and the market are the mother and the father of the individual” (p. 402). “The nation is the imagined community of the state” (p. 406). The world is safer than ever, and war does not pay any more. Have humans become happier? Answer 1: “Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin” (p. 436). Answer 2: Meaning. But “[p]erhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions” (p. 438). Answer 3: Feelings are not to be trusted; of key import is whether people know the truth about themselves (p. 443). Intelligent design and extreme inequality (ch. 20).

Wikipedia points to critical scholarly reception.

Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”

280 pages of frantic search for an end. New York, Denver, San Francisco, New Orleans, Mexico City, and the miles in between. Music, drugs, talk, sex.


Inspired by a 10000-word rambling letter from his friend Neal Cassady, Kerouac in 1950 outlined the “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” and decided to tell the story of his years on the road with Cassady as if writing a letter to a friend in a form that reflected the improvisational fluidity of jazz. In a letter to a student in 1961, Kerouac wrote: “Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to find that America and to find the inherent goodness in American man. It was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him.”

Arnold Kling’s “Specialization and Trade, A Re-Introduction to Economics”

Arnold Kling (2016), Specialization and Trade, A Re-Introduction to Economics, Washington, DC, Cato Institute.

Kling’s central theme in this short book of nine main chapters is that specialization, trade, and the coordination of individual plans by means of the price system and the profit motive play fundamental roles in modern economies. Most mainstream economists would agree with this assessment. Their models of trade, growth, and innovation certainly include the four elements, with varying emphasis.

But Kling criticizes the methodological approach adopted by post-world-war-II economics, which he associates with “MIT economics.” An MIT PhD himself, he argues that economics, and specifically macroeconomics, should adopt less of a mechanistic and more of an evolutionary perspective to gain relevance. In the second chapter, entitled “Machine as Metaphor,” Kling asserts that under the leadership of Paul Samuelson post-war (macro)economics framed economic issues as programming problems that resemble resource allocation problems in a wartime economy. Even as the discipline evolved, Kling contends, the methodology remained the same, pretending controllability by economist-engineers; in the process, the role of specialization was sidelined in the analysis.

I think that Kling is too harsh in his assessment. Economics and macroeconomics, in particular, has changed dramatically since the times of Paul Samuelson. The notion that, given enough instruments, any economic problem can be solved as easily as a system of equations, has lost attraction. Modern macroeconomic models are based on microeconomic primitives; they take gains from trade seriously; they involve expectations and frictions; and they do not suggest easy answers. The task of modern macroeconomics is not to spit out a roadmap for the economist-engineer but to understand mechanisms and identify problems that arise from misaligned incentives.

Kling is right, of course, when he argues that many theoretical models are too simplistic to be taken at face value. But this is not a critique against economic research which must focus and abstract in order to clarify. It rather is a critique against professional policy advisors and forecasters, “economic experts” say. These “experts” face the difficult task of surveying the vast variety of mechanisms identified by academic research and to apply judgement when weighing their relevance for a particular real-world setting. To be useful, “experts” must not rely on a single framework and extrapolation. Instead, they must base their analysis on a wide set of frameworks to gain independent perspectives on a question of interest.

In chapters three to five, Kling discusses in more detail the interplay of myriads of specialized trading partners in a market economy and how prices and the profit motive orchestrate it. In the chapter entitled “Instructions and Incentives,” Kling emphasizes that prices signal scarcity and opportunity costs are subjective. In the chapter entitled “Choices and Commands,” he discusses that command-and-control approaches to organizing a society face information, incentive, and innovation problems, unlike approaches that rely on a functioning price mechanism. And in the chapter “Specialization and Sustainability,” Kling makes the point that well-defined property rights and a functioning price mechanism offer the best possible protection for scarce resources and a guarantee for their efficient use. Sustainability additionally requires mechanisms to secure intergenerational equity.

I agree with Kling’s point that we should be humble when assessing whether market prices, which reflect the interplay of countless actors, are “right” or “wrong.” However, I would probably be prepared more often than Kling to acknowledge market failures of the type that call for corrective taxes. The general point is that Kling’s views expressed in the three chapters seem entirely mainstream. While we may debate how often and strongly market prices fail to account for social costs and benefits, the economics profession widely agrees that for a price system to function well this precondition must be satisfied.

In the sixth chapter, entitled “Trade and Trust,” Kling argues that specialization rests on cultural evolution and learning and more broadly, that modern economic systems require institutions that promote trust. Independently of the norms a particular society adopts, it must implement the basic social rule,

[r]eward cooperators and punish defectors.

How this is achieved (even if it is against the short-run interest of an individual) varies. Incentive mechanisms may be built on the rule of law, religion, or reputation. And as Kling points out societies almost always rely on some form of government to implement the basic social rule. In turn, this creates problems of abuse of power as well as “deception” and “demonization.” Mainstream economists would agree. In fact, incentive and participation constraints, lack of commitment, enforcement, and self-enforcement are at center stage in many of their models of partial or general equilibrium. Similarly, the role of government, whether benevolent or representing the interests of lobby groups and elites, is a key theme in modern economics.

Chapter seven, entitled “Finance and Fluctuations,” deals with the role of the financial sector. Kling argues that finance is a key prerequisite for specialization and since trust is a prerequisite for finance, swings in trust—waves of optimism and pessimism—affect the economy. No mainstream macroeconomist will object to the notion that the financial sector can amplify shocks. Seminal articles (which all were published well before the most recent financial crisis) exactly make that point. But Kling is probably right that the profession’s workhorse models have not yet been able to incorporate moods, fads, and manias, the reputation of intermediaries, and the confidence of their clients in satisfactory and tractable ways, in spite of recent path-breaking work on the role of heterogenous beliefs.

In chapter eight, Kling focuses on “Policy in Practice.” He explains why identifying market failure in a model is not the same as convincingly arguing for government intervention, simply because first, the model may be wrong and second, there is no reason to expect government intervention to be frictionless. I don’t know any well-trained academic economist who would disagree with this assessment (but many “experts” who are very frighteningly confident about their level of understanding). The profession is well aware of the insights from Public Choice and Political Economics, although these insights might not be as widely taught as they deserve. And Kling is right that economists could explain better why real-world policy selection and implementation can give rise to new problems rather than solely focusing on the issue of how an ideal policy might improve outcomes.

To me, the most interesting chapters of the book are the first and the last, entitled “Filling in Frameworks” and “Macroeconomics and Misgivings,” respectively. In the first chapter, Kling discusses the difference between the natural sciences and economics. He distinguishes between scientific propositions, which a logical flaw or a contradictory experiment falsifies, and “interpretive frameworks” a.k.a. Kuhn’s paradigms, which cannot easily be falsified. Kling argues that

[i]n natural science, there are relatively many falsifiable propositions and relatively few attractive interpretive frameworks. In the social sciences, there are relatively many attractive interpretive frameworks and relatively few falsifiable propositions.

According to Kling, economic models are interpretative frameworks, not scientific propositions, because they incorporate a plethora of auxiliary assumptions and since experiments of the type run in the natural sciences are beyond reach in the social sciences. Anomalies or puzzles do not lead economists to reject their models right away as long as the latter remain useful paradigms to work with. And rightly so, according to Kling: For an interpretative framework with all its anomalies is less flawed than intuition which is uninformed by a framework. At the same time, economists should remain humble, acknowledge the risk of confirmation bias, and remain open to competing interpretative frameworks.

In the chapter entitled “Macroeconomics and Misgivings,” Kling criticizes macroeconomists’ reliance on models with a representative agent. I agree that representative agent models are irrelevant for applied questions when the model implications strongly depend on the assumption that households are literally alike, or that markets are complete such that heterogeneous agents can perfectly insure each other. When “experts” forecast macroeconomic outcomes based on models with a homogeneous household sector then these forecasts rest on very heroic assumptions, as any well-trained economist will readily acknowledge. Is this a problem for macroeconomics which, by the way, has made a lot of progress in modeling economies with heterogeneous agents and incomplete markets? I don’t think so. But it is a problem when “experts” use such inadequate models for policy advice.

Kling argues that the dynamic process of creative destruction that characterizes modern economies requires ongoing change in the patterns of specialization and trade and that this generates unemployment. Mainstream models of innovation and growth capture this process, at least partially; they explain how investment in new types of capital and “ideas” can generate growth and structural change. And the standard framework for modeling labor markets features churn and unemployment (as well as search and matching) although, admittedly, it does not contain a detailed description of the sources of churn. The difference between the mainstream’s and Kling’s view of how the macroeconomy operates thus appears to be a difference of degree rather than substance. And the difference between these views and existing models clearly also reflects the fact that modeling creative destruction and its consequences is difficult.

Kling is a sharp observer when he talks about the difference between “popular Keynesianism” and “rigor-seeking Keynesianism.” The former is what underlies the thinking of many policy makers, central bankers, or journalists: a blend of the aggregate-demand logic taught to undergraduates and some supply side elements. The latter is a tractable simplification of a micro-founded dynamic general equilibrium model with frictions whose properties resemble some key intuitions from popular Keynesianism.

The two forms of Keynesianism help support each other. Popular Keynesianism is useful for trying to convince the public that macroeconomists understand macroeconomic fluctuations and how to control them. Rigor-seeking Keynesianism is used to beat back objections raised by economists who are concerned with the ways in which Keynesianism deviates from standard economics, even though the internal obsessions of rigor-seeking Keynesianism have no traction with those making economic policy.

There is truth to this. But in my view, this critique does not undermine the academic, rigor-seeking type of Keynesianism while it should undermine our trust in “experts” who work with the popular sort which, as Kling explains, mostly is confusing for a trained economist.

In the end, Kling concludes that it is the basics that matter most:

[B]etter economic outcomes arise when patterns of sustainable specialization and trade are formed. … It requires the creative, decentralized, trial-and-error efforts of thousands of entrepreneurs and millions of households … Probably the best thing that the government can do to encourage new forms of specialization is to rethink existing policies that restrict competition, discourage innovation, and retard mobility.

This is a reasonable conclusion. But it is neither a falsifiable proposition nor an interpretive framework. It is the synthesis of many interpretive frameworks, weighed by Kling. In my own view, the weighting is based on too harsh an assessment according to which many modern macroeconomic models are irrelevant.

Kling’s criticism of contemporaneous macroeconomics reads like a criticism of the kind of macroeconomics still taught at the undergraduate level. But modern macroeconomics has moved on—it is general equilibrium microeconomics. Its primary objective is not to produce the one and only model for economist-engineers or “experts” to use, but rather to help us understand mechanisms. A good expert knows many models, is informed about institutions, and has the courage to judge which of the models (or mechanisms they identify) are the most relevant in a specific context. We don’t need a new macroeconomics. But maybe we need better “experts.”

Julian Baggini’s “Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will”

In his book, Julian Baggini points out that materialism, not determinism, undermines the notion of free will. He accepts that man is subject to the laws of nature but simultaneously seems to argue for a holistic model of man and human choice. He concludes that the concept of free will is consistent with predetermined causes; with unconscious choice; and that it does not require that a choice could have been different.

Discussion in The Guardian.