A room without books is like a body without a soul.
Philosophy & Psychology
Although it might seem like a vast oversimplification, the fact that the human mind has evolved to seek pleasure and avoid pain undeniably plays an important role in how each of us conduct our daily life. Actions which cause the brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine simply make us feel good, hence we—consciously as well as unconsciously—want to have more of them. On a fundamental level, that’s what drives us to eat, drink, and have sex.
In Dopamine Nation, Anna Lembke argues that the disparity between the evolutionary necessities of neither starving or dying of dehydration, and the immediate availability of countless dopamine-inducing activities in the modern world is the root cause for many of our societal problems: The ravaging opioid crisis, the staggering number of people hooked on alcohol or nicotine, as well as the increase in other compulsive behaviors, such as addiction to social media, gambling, internet porn, or sugary foods; All that and much more, according to Lembke, can be traced back to how the brain processes dopamine.
Technically, her argument is sound: Much like the human pancreas has not evolved to handle anywhere near the amounts of sugar that the average person in the 21st century consumes on a daily basis, our brain chemistry is unable to cope with the multitude of pleasant stimuli offered by the modern world. Hence, what was once a mechanism of utmost necessity to the survival of the species has been perverted into a tool that causes addiction and is responsible for a lot of harm. Lembke goes on to explain, sometimes in a slightly comical manner, how pleasure and pain interrelate, and how that dynamic drives behavior. The author furthermore introduces us to the stories of some of the patients she’s treating as a clinical psychiatrist in Standford, and who suffer from a variety of addictions—ranging from masturbation to Marijuana, from alcohol to ice baths, and from binge eating to heroin.
Those anecdotes, as well as the author’s own first-hand account of episodes during which she compulsively consumed vampire romance novels, make the complex subject of neurobiology much more tangible and relatable. Unfortunately they sometimes overshadow the larger, societal questions: How can lawmakers counteract the detrimental effects of compulsive consumption? Are there forms of regulation or prohibition that have proven successful? Is there a sensible balance between punishment, treatment, and re-socialization of addicts? What needs to change in our education system to inoculate the next generation against the allure of binging? Lembke doesn’t entirely shy away from those thorny issues, but the ratio between individual, personal, relatable accounts and the abstract level of societal impact feels a bit at odds for a book titled “Dopamine Nation”.
Not quite a self-help book, Lembke’s work nevertheless details the tools and techniques she employs in her practice to treat patients with compulsive consumption issues, which may be useful and actionable for some readers. Of course, even the best book can never replace formal treatment by an experienced counselor. But the insights into how our brain works, how we can become more cognizant of the desires that push and pull us, and how to avoid getting trapped by some of its evolutionary shortcomings, are highly valuable.
Being alone, being lonely, and being in a state of solitude are three very different things. A person can be lonely despite the company of others, or alone without experiencing loneliness, or, as Stephen Batchelor argues, can dwell comfortably in solitude regardless of whether or not anyone is around.
This distinction is crucial to understanding Bachelor’s The Art of Solitude, a collection of 32 loosely connected essays. Colored by the author’s background as a trained Zen monk, his experience with psychedelics, and his expansive knowledge of eastern as well as western contemplative practices, the book connects a variety of interrelated topics. What underpins all of them is the theme of solitude as a healthy state of mind which fosters reflection, introspection, and creative thinking—and one which we are working had to depriving ourselves of entirely in this day and age.
But the book however is neither a mere self-help guide to coping with being alone, nor a history of contemplation, a tale of the merits and woes of consuming ayahuasca, a translation of the Buddhist poem The Four Eights, or a comprehensive study of Michel de Montaigne’s writings. To some degree, it’s all of these things, and also none of them. It’s a patchwork of big ideas, personal recollections, and timeless insight.
Bachelor skillfully avoids spoon feeding the audience conventional wisdom though. Instead of simply presenting the insights he or other experienced meditators collected throughout their practice, his careful writing manages to spark an interest in one’s own inner life in the reader. The book thus induces a deep curiosity to explore the inner workings of one’s mind, be that with or without the help of formal meditation practice, alone on a retreat in the Korean mountains or on a crowded subway train, or by seeking out psychotropic substances.
In Die Qualen des Narzissmus, philosopher and publicist Isolde Charim approaches a fundamental question of human psychology from a somewhat unexpected angle: Why do we—that is, most of us, most of the time—voluntarily comply with rules, regulations, and norms? The popular “carrots and sticks” theory with its roots in the behaviorism of the 1970s and its culmination in the homo oeconomicus model clearly falls short of sufficiently explaining the vastness of human complexity. Mechanisms such as a fear of violent punishment, incarceration, or social stigmatization do play a role, undoubtedly. But Charim sets out to provide a deeper, multi-faceted answer. Namely one that’s based on the idea of a “sophisticated” narcissism and its interplay with society.
Understanding narcissism only as a short-sighted indulgence in a “love of oneself” is of course not sufficient for Charim’s argument. Instead, a more advanced view of narcissism, not as an attraction to the current self, but to an idealized version of that self, is what’s required. But this striving to become one’s “ideal” and to remain in unison with it is—by definition—in vain. However, it sets in motion an internal force, a motivation, a drive that makes us do all kinds of things: Lose weight, climb mountains, have children, carve out a career. The image of the “hedonic treadmill” comes to mind at this point, but it’s not explicitly mentioned in the book.
Charim however goes on to lay out how this internal, psychological view of narcissism as a driving force of behavior interplays with our modern economic and societal environment. She explores the archetypical relationships within in an increasingly narcissistic society—a society in which individuals, each striving for an ideal that they consider their very own, but which itself is shaped by the views of others, are both dependent on and ignorant to each other at the same time. They are dependent because they actively seek validation from others—likes, clicks, thumbs-ups—but also ignorant because they don’t mean to engage with each other in reciprocal relationships. They only need each other to reinforce their image of the self or of their self-ideal. They need each other as an audience, but one that’s only allowed to gape in awe.
Apart from sketching some of the obvious negative implications that this dynamic has on societies, which Charim doesn’t linger on for so long as to create the impression of culture pessimism, the book rarely judges the effects that it describes in a moralistic, “good or bad” manner. In fact, there is surprisingly little of a subjective viewpoint. Charim does, however, go full circle in an attempt to answer the original question of voluntary subjugation: She convincingly shows how the psychological mechanism of narcissism can interplay with societal forces in such a way that individuals comply with both formal and informal rules and norms of that society, but also with rules and norms that they craft for themselves in order to satisfy their narcissistic drive inside such a society.
Writing that sits on the edge between popular and academic philosophy often ends up frustrating its audiences on both ends of that spectrum. With Die Qualen des Narzissmus, Isolde Charim makes an admirable attempt to lower the bar for non-philosophers to grapple with the complexities of the science of the field. And while the book in general achieves that ambition, it also, at times, falls a bit short: At various points for instance, she tries to contrast what are in fact very subtle differences between the sophisticated ideas of thinkers such as Lacan, Foucault, and Žižek, which are not always easy to grasp for the non-initiated. Hence, the book is definitely more geared towards the “ambitious amateur” in philosophy who has a basic understanding of the field, rather than for the general public. For this type of audience though, among which I count myself, Charim’s book definitely provides an interesting and worthwhile reading experience.
In his latest book, German philosopher Richard David Precht undertakes nothing less than a comprehensive review of the history, presence, and future of work. His primary concern is the pressing question whether the Second Machine Age, as once proclaimed by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, will have as profound an impact on the nature of work as often predicted. In the thoughtful style typical for his writing, Precht dedicates entire chapters arguing for and against many of the prevalent opinions: That countless high-skill professions will become obsolete due to the rise of AI and automation. That these jobs will be replaced by equal, if not better, occupations, as had happened during the first and second industrial revolution. That “this time is different,” and thus mass unemployment an inevitable consequence, and so on.
This interesting journey of pros and cons, of objections raised and refuted, of arguments built and destroyed, takes the reader through many centuries of human history. From laborare and facere in ancient Rome via the feudal system of medieval times up to the backbreaking conditions of England’s factories in the 1800s we learn about the varying role that work and labour had played in people’s lives, and what contemporary thinkers had to say about that at each stage.
As the book progresses, Precht’s reasoning crystallizes into a distinctive conclusion: That, all things considered, the band between employment and income which come to define our understanding of work for the last 150 years, would have to be severed once and for all. In an economy capable of generating material abundance for everyone, it’s neither necessary nor desirable to keep up the futile policy aim of “full employment”. Quite the contrary, forcing people to take on meaningless jobs that are often increasingly pointless, as once emphasized by David Graeber, would be both cruel and unjust.
Precht’s argument therefore culminates in a call for the installment of a universal basic income (UBI) scheme. Again, he goes to great lengths to sketch the different proposal that are out there, ranging from merely beefing up existing social security systems to a full-fledged guaranteed existence for everyone. He also gives ample room to possible counterarguments and, typical for the philosopher, immediately has intelligent replies to them at the ready: No, the majority of people will most likely not stop working altogether. Yes, concepts for the sustainable financing of a UBI do exist. No, the small-scale experiments that have been conducted so far cannot be viewed as representative. Yes, a strategy can be mapped out for how such a fundamental societal transformation can be achieved, and so forth.
Finally, Precht tries to connect the dots between his envisioned “society of meaning” (“Sinngesellschaft”) and the changes to the educational system that would have to go along with its establishment. Here he builds on a slightly adapted and amended version of the principles he laid out in his 2013 book “Anna, die Schule und der liebe Gott”.
Regardless of whether or not one is willing to follow his conclusions all the way, reading Precht is always an enlightening experience. Undoubtedly, great societal transformations await us. And, who knows, maybe all of us will have significantly more time for philosophizing in the future!
Buckle up, reader! Mark Manson once again will take us on a wild rollercoaster ride through history, psychology, and philosophy. Of course, the trolley is going at least 400mph. And of course it’s on fire. And it’s headed towards a cliff. And deep down in the abyss awaits… the Singularity.
Much like in “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”, Manson eloquently weaves a tapestry of philosophical threads ranging from Plato and Buddha to Nietzsche and Kant, from Schopenhauer and Durkheim to Bostrom and Musk. And while coherence is sometimes sacrificed in favour of pace, the resulting DIY-approach to life, happiness, meaning, and the future, feels surprisingly harmonious for the most part.
“Why are we unhappy?” Mason asks. Because we hope. For something better that somehow never arrives. And even if it does, we’re quickly bored with it and begin longing for the next shiny thing. The bigger house, the faster car, the sexier girlfriend. Thus, the cycle starts anew. Repeat ad nauseam.
This unsatisfiable hunger is so deeply ingrained in our nature that it’s essentially what defines the human condition. And that we need to break this cycle of hope, achievement, and disappointment in order to reach anything resembling happiness—or at least, equanimity—has been codified and taught for at least a couple of thousand of years. But Mason, equipped with his familiar toolbox of four-letter swearwords and cultural references, for sure has a better shot at making this insight accessible to a generation of frustrated Millennials and Gen-Zs that a bunch of bald guys in orange robes.
What about the Singularity though? Well, Mason, like so many these days, holds strong views on AI, on where that technology is headed, and to what heights it’ll lift humanity in its wake. The book thus closes with a somewhat hopeful—albeit that’s debatable—outlook on our collective future which, maybe, just maybe, would have been better left out. Not that I want to downplay the importance of this topic, quite the contrary. But for a book like “Everything is F*cked”, which is practically a guide to personal ethics based on Buddhist philosophy and Kantian values, visions of a collective hive-mind in which the individual dissolves in a puddle of sweet-smelling happiness just feels a touch misguided.
Mindfulness is a miraculously broad field, and the aspects of our lives that can be improved by it are virtually endless. I was therefore curious to learn what Lynn Rossy, psychologist, researcher, and yoga- and meditation teacher, had to say on the topic of mindful eating.
Undoubtedly, the book is intended for people who struggle with their food intake and regularly (and unwillingly) overeat. For this audience, Rossy offers techniques and practices to help cultivate a healthier relationship with the body and its physiological needs. Simply put, by savoring instead of wolfing down one’s meals, we almost automatically eat less and enjoy more. This principle is true for everything though, and what Rossy prescribes is useful far beyond the dinner table.
In her short book, she doesn’t stop to surprise the reader by broadening the discussion to encompass a variety of topics: How do feelings and emotions arise in the mind? What are they, in the first place, and how can we deal with them in helpful, intentional ways rather than falling back on intuitive and often harmful behaviors? What about happiness and self-acceptance when the media and everyone around us tells us how we should look, talk, and behave? How can we find a healthy balance between changing for the better without striving for unrealistic and unachievable ideals?
This breadth of issues makes Rossy’s book useful and actionable also for those of us who don’t necessarily struggle with their eating. I was a bit disappointed though, that the author spends relatively little time on each individual topic she tries to cover. Whilst that makes most chapters concise and easy to digest (no pun intended!), I believe that some of them would have benefitted from a bit more depth. The “practice” sections attached to each of them however do make up for some of these shortcomings. They guide the curious reader in how to explore their own minds and its quirks and idiosyncrasies first-handedly—provided one is willing to give them a try.
How can one stay focused when our mind is under constant attack from the supremely well engineered attention-grabbing machines that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many others have become? The insight that the primary purpose of these services is not to improve the lives of us, their users, but rather to maximize the time we spend interacting with them is not new. The premise of Newport’s book therefore is almost self-evident: We need a novel approach to dealing with these highly addictive tools if we want to extract the (marginal) value that can be gained from them whilst avoiding most of their detrimental consequences.
Digital Minimalism offers such a “philosophy of technology use” beyond the simple, but oftentimes unhelpful, advice that we should just stop engaging with social media altogether. Newport rather suggests that we deal with them more intentionally, starting with a rigorous “digital declutter” process to help us better understand in which circumstances we get which benefits out of them and consciously evaluate if that’s really the best way to attain those benefits. Using Facebook to stay in touch with relatives living overseas for example may seem like quite a reasonable idea, but under close scrutiny one could easily find out that a regular phone call instead would provide space for much deeper interactions while avoiding all the negative consequences of extensive use of the platform.
Newport provides countless examples along those lines, combined with “practices” that the reader is asked to try out on their own. He’s cautious against prescribing a simplistic ten-step-program though, and instead tries to showcase many different techniques that have proven helpful to some.
Interestingly, the book oscillates between the concrete problems provided by 21st century social media use, and age-old philosophical questions. The former may or may not be a huge obstacle to a fulfilled life for the individual reader, but the latter is doubtlessly insightful for anyone. Increasing one’s time for reflection in solitude (i.e., without “input from other minds”, as Newport defines the term) for example, or actively engaging in value-creating leisure activities such as learning a craft or seeking out social interactions through “joining things”, are worthwhile pursuits that will almost automatically reduce the time one spends on-screen but at the same time are surefire ways to increase life satisfaction in general.
It is this general-purpose usefulness that I enjoyed most about Digital Minimalism. The surprising shortness of the book and its sudden ending at a point where I felt much more was to be said on the topic was a bit of a downer though. Let’s hope, that Newport will follow-up with another publication along the same lines soon.
Volker Kitz’ exploration of the minds’ capacity for concentration covers many interesting aspects of our current best understanding of the enigma which is human consciousness. He manages to balance psychological research with relatable personal experiences, historical facts and notable anecdotes (did you know that Franz Kafka was among the first bodybuilders, for example?).
The events during a ten day silent mediation retreat in India, which the author attended primarily in order to strengthen his own capacity for concentration, provide the general backbone of his story. Whilst mindfulness meditation is seldomly mentioned explicitly, it becomes clear that his is the primary technique he and his fellow attendants trained in. Kitz touches briefly on the Buddhist concepts they were introduced to (emptiness, and no-self most prominent among them), but neither the organizers of the retreat, nor he himself in writing the book, sound proselytizing at any point. Much more, he uses them in the spirit of many other authors of secular mindfulness literate, merely as tools and concepts that should help the reader to better understand the human condition.
I highly recommend the book for everyone looking for a compact and entertaining introduction into the current state of the science of concentration in particular and consciousness in general. While experienced readers who are already familiar with other books on the topic (see below) may not find much novelty in Kitz’ work, they will nevertheless be able to take some things away from it—a handful of funny cocktail party anecdotes at the very least.
How can we make the most of the little time we have? Not by using time management tools to squeeze more productivity out of every second, argues Oliver Burkeman. Instead, he confronts us with the fundamental flaw of human existence: There’s always more to do than we have time for. Helping the reader accept that fact and circumventing the traditional productivity traps that come with it makes up the bulk of Four Thousand Weeks.
Definitely a recommendation for anyone who feels drowning in ToDo-lists, e-mails, and tasks!
I’ve never followed professional basketball closely, so I wasn’t really familiar with Chris Bosh’s backstory when I picked up his book. The hype-and-bust-cycles that characterized his high-profile career though can serve as inspiring parables for life in general: To achieve outstanding results, you’ll need a vision that goes beyond money or fame, for example. And the strength required to follow through with it often has to come from places within that you didn’t even know existed. Oversized egos on the one side, or a reluctance to take care of oneself on the other, can quickly destroy what’s taken years and years to construct. And, despite hard work and no fault of one’s own, things don’t always play out the way we might want them to. Sometimes, like in the case of the medical issues that prematurely ended his career, all we can do is accept the facts and move on.
Bosh’s clear and concise writing, as well as the refreshingly unconventional structure of the book (slightly reminiscent of Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”) makes it easy to digest and comprehend. But what surprised me most was the depth of philosophical reasoning that went into at, ranging from Stoic thinking to ancient eastern wisdom.
This book is a collection of the best interviews Sam Harris did for his Making Sense podcast. They cover a wide range of topics, from neuroscience and psychology to philosophy of mind, morality, artificial intelligence, and existential threats to life on earth.
I’ve been following Sam Harris for a long time now, and this book perfectly summarizes what makes him so unique: The deep thinking and personal experience he brings into conversations with some the greatest thinkers of our time—including David Chalmers, Thomas Metzinger, Timothy Snyder, Daniel Kahneman, Nick Bostrom, and Max Tegmark—is truly outstanding. If you’re even slightly interested in any of the areas mentioned above and prefer reading to listening, I highly recommend this book.