Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Intellectuals, according to Corey Robin, are effective when they create their public, as opposed to pandering to an existing one. A long, thoughtful essay from the guy who inspired me to start the now archived Scientia Salon project.

Meditation, placebos, virtual reality (?!) and the mind-over-body issue.

Sometimes probability estimates may be trumped by personal testimony. Or should they? Interesting thoughts about the topic at the OUP blog.

The study of dreams of dying people: what they tell us about their lives, and how managing them can lead to a more peaceful death.

What compels people to share certain videos? No, this isn’t about Dawkins…

45 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. SocraticGadfly

    I read Robin the day he first came out, and Massimo, this ties with me saying mu to free will vs. determinism, and the disagreements we have on volition to the degree we disagree.

    I don’t think public intellectuals create their publics. Rather, along the idea of subselves, I think they bring into public consciousness sub-publics that already existed subconsciously. The difference may be subtle, but I think it’s not so subtle as to be minuscule. Basically, it’s that the public intellectual is facilitator more than creator, in some way.


  2. SocraticGadfly

    Dreams? First, the law is sadly wrong. They should be as “impeachable” as anything else, therefore the dreams of the dying don’t belong in court.

    Second, knowing that it might get some reaction, the opening of that piece sounded … erm, quasi-Jungian. Pass.

    Second, per your previous piece and a comment there, I am sure there’s some selective reporting bias, as well as some filtering and reframing, just like with last words of the dying.

    If the dreams of the dying give us improved palliative care, whether hospice or hospital, great. Other than that, this piece didn’t really “do anything” for me. That’s a big enough something, right there — better palliative care. But, trying to read special meaning into something just because life’s existential roulette wheel made its final stop there? No.

    Take the trauma dreams. They were surely going on for years before that. Often, they may have been “bracketed” even from the dreamer’s consciousness that whole time. (Sit DOWN, Loftus:

    But they didn’t gain special additional insight because they happened again at time of death.


  3. SocraticGadfly

    MU indeed to mind-over-body. Massimo, I’m surprised that you didn’t use the phrase “embodied cognition” when posting that link. Or mention Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright Sided,” or something. This piece reads exactly about like something I’d expect from Nice Polite Republicans.

    The worst part is “rewiring the brain” at the end. Reading a puff piece from Nice Polite Republicans rewires your brain for doorknob’s sake.

    There. Steve your Neo-Cynic contrarian’s batting 3-for-3 so far on these. On to No. 4.


  4. SocraticGadfly

    Video sharing — another piece from Nice Polite Republicans. This one sounds like Kai Rissdahl should be talking about it in social media technologism breathlessness on NPR’s Marketplace.

    This is nothing new than people thrusting baby pictures from their wallet or purse in your face 50 years ago, only with the power of the online world.


    Your Neo-Cynic is now 4-for-4.


  5. SocraticGadfly

    And, the last one wasn’t bad. An informal take on Bayesianism, it kind of seems, combined with the familiar note about lack of reliability of eyewitness testimony. Nice, but not huge. So, I’ll end this day at the plate 4-for-4 plus a walk.


  6. labnut

    The article on video sharing identified why we react to videos that cause emotional arousal but that still does not explain why we wish to share them. Why does emotional arousal trigger sharing? I think he has left the most important question unanswered.

    Perhaps the infamous Dawkins tweet gives us a clue. He was trying to say something. It was the implied message and not the video that was important. The cartoon video validated strongly held feelings on his part and he sent it out as a proxy statement of things he did not dare say directly. Because he did not dare say it directly he further distanced himself with his disingenuous disclaimer(I am a feminist, this is not true of most feminists).

    So, I think that when we share things, like videos, we need to look past the content and search for an implicit message. That message might be:
    1. Look how clever I am(I read great things);
    2. I have a terrific sense of humour
    3. I am so insightful;
    4. I am so compassionate or caring;
    5. What terrible people they are (Dawkins);

    We feel a need to signal emotional state, status and group membership. We experience emotional arousal when we see things that affirm our emotional state, or our personal understanding of our status and group membership. We then share that to confirm our feelings(affirmation) and assert our emotional state, status and group membership in the eyes of others.

    We do this because we cannot claim these things explicitly so we use a proxy to make these statements. Why is this important? We are afraid of risking disconfirming feedback and thus shield ourselves behind the proxy, just as Dawkins did.

    This is just my first try at answering the question the article left unanswered. I hope others can improve on it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Massimo Post author


    “”Libertarian Paternalism”? There is a phrase that struggles with itself.”

    No kidding.


    “Basically, it’s that the public intellectual is facilitator more than creator, in some way”

    Well, I think it may be a bit of both. And I think Robin’s general message is a good one.

    By the way, thanks for the bit-by-bit commentary, but you shouldn’t be binge reading on a Friday morning, these are suppose to last for the whole weekend…


    “Maybe we should drop Dawkins for a bit? Seems to just lead to bickering.”

    Yes, please, no Dawkins on this thread. I’ve had enough of him for a few months.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. labnut

    “Maybe we should drop Dawkins for a bit? Seems to just lead to bickering.”

    Quite why and how we signal is an important and engrossing subject since it underlies all of our social interactions. There are many forms of signalling and Dawkins provided us with an instructive example of one such form that was directly relevant and so it was appropriate mentioning him.

    My post addressed the signalling process and was not discussing the merits/demerits of Dawkins’ faux pas. I invite you to address the post’s main subject, just as I have.


  9. labnut

    DM, Massimo, on re-reading my comment to see if it was any way inappropriate, I can emphasize(again) that it was worth mentioning Dawkins since he provided such an instructive example of the point I was trying to make. I would prefer it if the substance of my comment was addressed and so have a useful dialogue.


  10. Daniel Kaufman

    The hagiographic treatment of Coates in Corey Robin’s piece made it rather difficult to read. I find Coates to be catastrohpically overrated — the gushers among the “letterati” have even compared him to the infinitely better and more important James Baldwin — both as a thinker and a writer. Contrary to Robin, I found “Between the World and Me” rather insufferable — a book that lurches from cringeworthy exercises in self-absorption to racist rants — and his essay in the Atlantic on reparations, far from being what Robin described as a “tightly argued” piece, is rather, a sprawling exercise in some of the least realistic, most wishful thinking I have ever seen, outside of fairy tales. Glenn Loury and John McWhorter have punctured the Coate’s balloon a number of times over on BHTV.

    It’s amazing how one person’s great genius is another person’s utter mediocrity. Should make us all — including me — realize just how subjective and contingent such judgments are.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Massimo Post author


    “It’s amazing how one person’s great genius is another person’s utter mediocrity”

    No kidding!


    Hopefully I (or someone else) will have time to address the substance of your comment during the weekend. But, please, let’s agree on not using the D-word for a while…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo, I’m curious, do you agree with Robin’s assessment of Coates?

    See you on Skype later this afternoon, for our discussion on explanation in the social and natural sciences!


  13. labnut

    realize just how subjective and contingent such judgments are.

    Indeed, but what is the antidote? The Enlightenment opened our mind to the consideration of all possibilities.

    That spirit has been lost. It seems to me we have entered a new age of rigid truths maintained by gatekeepers of those truths. Thinking has become instrumental while imagination and creativity have been diminished.


  14. Massimo Post author


    I can’t comment, since I haven’t read Coates. I do have a lot of respect for Robin, though, whom I’ve read more than occasionally. Yup, see ya in a couple of hours!


  15. michaelfugate

    Why so pessimistic? I wouldn’t want to live at any other time. I have read plenty of Enlightenment histories and it was no different than now. In Scotland alone, Thomas Aikenhead was murdered for blasphemy by the state in the midst of one of the most incredible centers of enlightenment thought. Let’s criticize, but let’s have hope in the ability to change.


  16. brodix

    I managed to read most of the public intellectual article before the mind just clogged up. He starts by dismissing economics and then tries to explain the dynamics of the modern world, independent of the monetary medium which holds it together and propels it forward. The result was mush.

    We evolved in tightly knit, organic communities, which functioned as wholistic units. Now we live as atomized units in a global economy and while we have this spectacle of mass media(read “public intellectuals”) to entertain us, it is the financial flow that carries our bodies around. Jobs, houses, cars….

    Money is treated as quantized hope, but functions as a lien on the public. So long as the public momentum can sustain this lien on the energy being generated by functioning as an economic mass, all is well, but when it slows, fear is the next best motivation.

    The polarities of social control are hope and fear. We are led with hope and herded with fear. When one doesn’t work, or is exhausted, the other is brandished.
    As the binary of good and bad, they are the incremental digital switches by which our lives are directed, both politically and cosmically. Those who presume to control our lives simply surf larger waves and even they eventually crash on larger realities.

    My advice, don’t drown your mind in other’s mush. At the very least, make your own.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. SocraticGadfly

    Dan, I don’t agree with Robin on Coates. I think Corey has one foot in the social justice warrior world at time.

    Here’s my take, combined with links to the takes of Adolph Reed, as appearing on Doug Henwood’s radio show, and Cedric Johnson, also in the pages of the Jacobin. They’re pretty scathing, including claiming Coates is a Baldwin poseur. I don’t totally go that far, but I generally agree.

    It should be noted that Henwood in particular rejects a word like “liberal.” He might use “left-liberal,” but just “left” or ‘leftist” is more likely.

    It should be also noted that Reed and Johnson are themselves African-American:


  18. Robin Herbert

    I think I would be a little uncomfortable are being part of a public someone had created. I might suspect any belief that had come about this way. On the other hand, I can see that public intellectuals would fins it pointless simply to be preaching to the converted.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. brodix


    While I do think the argument was poorly made, there is a deeper fact of public life there, in that finding those deeper flows and polarities in the public and being able to bring them to the surface is integral to leadership.

    I suppose it is a point which should be clarified for new generations, just like many points that eduction needs to repeat.

    That said, this was a poor example of clarity. Out here among the proles, the ability to take a minor point and puff enough hot air into it, to make it seem like the second coming of sliced white bread is what is known as a bullshit artist. Though in the media, I suppose it is what Bill Murray, in Groundhog Day, referred to as “The Talent.”


  20. brodix

    On the mind over body issue, it is a fairly basic feedback loop and applies to lots of things, from addictions to social fads, politics and how societies, as larger organic entities, function.

    What might also be a point of interest is when we overuse these natural rhythms and they break down, creating a backlash of mistrust and skepticism. Such as is currently going on in the world economy, where public confidence is viewed as such a motivating force, there are pervasive efforts to encourage it, even though the actual situation is increasingly unstable. Which is creating distrust of those voices of authority promoting this feeling of economic security.

    Which in the body, might translate to ignoring pain and causing further damage.


  21. ejwinner

    Of the offered readings, the Corey Robin piece is by far the most interesting. It is elegantly written, with a valid point to make. It is necessarily a function of any public rhetoric to (re)define its intended audience in a manner that members of that audience are made to feel that they belong to it. And presuming that ‘public intellectuals’ are intellectuals before they go public, this is especially important for them, because they formulate what they have to say before going public with it, rather than (as with good politicians) reading the public consensus and simply condensing and articulating this for audiences already pre-disposed to that articulation. And Robin is also correct, I think, that the current configuration of our culture actually makes the kind of (re)definition of audience that public intellectuals have previously engaged in actually very difficult – in our era of the ‘Late Modern’ or ‘Post-Modern’ (however one wishes to call it), audiences come largely quite comfortable with definitions of themselves that have long been adequately articulated previously; at best, they may be trying to (re)define themselves, which makes them even less amenable to (re)definition by a public intellectual. So Robin’s piece is certainly worth reading and thinking about.

    However, I think most here agree that it is seriously flawed. I see two problems with it. First, it seems to wander and lose focus in the middle of it; by the time Robin begins to close on a conclusion to his theme, I’d nearly forgotten what the theme was; or rather, I’d grown suspicious that I was reading separate notes only distantly related.

    Also, as comments upthread indicate, acceptance of Robin’s argument to some extent requires acceptance of his primary examples. I’m not familiar with Coates, but there’s apparently some question of his own status as ‘public intellectual,’ to the extent that the example loses the acceptance of the theme among readers otherwise favorable to it. And Robin makes a great deal about Coates, so that the example becomes part of the wandering and loss of focus noted above.

    Nonetheless, again, I think Robin makes a valid point worth thinking about, certainly related to issues we’ve been discussing here recently.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. brodix


    I would respectfully disagree. Can you offer one example, through all of history, in which the audience wasn’t a step or two behind the initiator of an idea, at least without overlooking significant cultural frames and biases? You would find yourself simply talking a foreign language.

    Otherwise it’s the difference between Leif Eriksson discovering America, versus Columbus.

    I read the posting videos link on the assumption it is just the modern form of gossip, but the last comment stated it for me;

    “Yes young-ins, back in the day these were called stories or jokes shared among people who actually spoke to one another. Albeit, all jokes and stories get old.”


  23. Robin Herbert

    Hi Brodix,

    The audience is, by definition, a step behind the initiator of an idea. On the other hand, the audience is not necessarily a step behind the populariser of an idean


  24. brodix


    I would think of the audience as like a bunch of iron filings and the populariser as a magnet. The result might be to create a larger direction/polarity, but the audience has to be receptive. The point being the qualities of both are important. It just doesn’t happen sui generis.


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