The Iago Problem

From NYRB December 14th 2016

The concept of evil has fallen out of favor in our disenchanted world. Its religious and superstitious connotations are permissible in horror movies, but otherwise often deemed embarrassing. Without some religious metaphysics it is hard to make sense of the idea that there are people who are intrinsically evil; it no longer seems plausible to many of us that people can be motivated by something that can be described as pure evil. Sustained cruelty is therefore often explained as sociopathy (the slick, psychopathic killers beloved of Hollywood), or a personality disorder stemming from some deep personal or social injury, or as some horribly warped conception of what is good. Even in the case of a mass murderer on the order of Joseph Stalin it has become part of his legend that he was emotionally scarred by having been a weak and sickly child with a brutally abusive father.

Read more here


‘Learned Helplessness’ & Torture: An Exchange

Martin Seligman, reply by Tamsin Shaw

NYRB, April 21st, 2016 issue

Martin Seligman has repeatedly insisted that he is an opponent of torture. He tells us in his letter that he “strongly disapproves” of it. If he found himself at the very center of the terrible episode in our recent history in which the United States inflicted brutal torture on detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison, the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, and at CIA black sites, this was, he maintains, entirely unwittingly. And yet, since he was at the center of this episode, being in direct contact with the architects of the CIA’s torture program at the moment of its devising, there are some clear questions that a declared opponent of torture might have asked in his position.

Read more here


Moral Psychology: An Exchange

Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker, reply by Tamsin Shaw

New York Review of Books, April 7, 2016 issue

Tamsin Shaw replies:

Moral psychology is an invaluable aspect of human understanding insofar as it sheds light on the moral capacities and limitations of human beings. And this fact has indeed long been appreciated by philosophers (perhaps by none so much as Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings have been the primary focus of my own scholarly work). The findings of moral psychology have also begun to find a place in the public imagination, via prominent editorials and more popular psychology books. But current research by psychologists in this area has risen to prominence at the same time as an extraordinary moral crisis in their profession, a fact that inevitably lends their reflections a special significance that requires scrutiny.

Read more here


The Psychologists Take Power

From the New York Review of Books, February 25th, 2016 issue

In 1971, the psychologist B.F. Skinner expressed the hope that the vast, humanly created problems defacing our beautiful planet (famines, wars, the threat of a nuclear holocaust) could all be solved by new “technologies of behavior.” The psychological school of behaviorism sought to replace the idea of human beings as autonomous agents with the “scientific” view of them as biological organisms, responding to external stimuli, whose behavior could be modified by altering their environment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in 1964 Skinner’s claims about potential behavior modification had attracted funding from the CIA via a grant-making body called the Human Ecology Society.

Skinner was extremely dismayed that his promise of using his science to “maximize the achievements of which the human organism is capable” was derided by defenders of the entirely unscientific ideal of freedom. When Peter Gay, for instance, spoke of the “innate naïveté, intellectual bankruptcy, and half-deliberate cruelty of behaviorism,” Skinner, clearly wounded, protested that the “literature of freedom” had provoked in Gay “a sufficiently fanatical opposition to controlling practices to generate a neurotic if not psychotic response.” Skinner was unable to present any more robust moral defense of his project of social engineering.

Read more here


Review of Fidelio

From the New York Review of Books

For the obsessive seeker of meaning, contemporary opera productions can make for some difficult evenings. At its best a new production of a well-known opera will provide some marvelous insight into what the work should mean to us. The trouble is, we can’t know in advance how much sense the production is going to make and therefore don’t know how much effort we should put into deciphering what is going on onstage. It is a tricky matter since this intellectual activity often takes place at the expense of blissful immersion in some splendid passage of music. The controversial new Salzburg production of Beethoven’s Fidelio poses a particularly acute example of the problem.

Read more here


Parsifal

A short personal piece I wrote on Parsifal:

The first time I listened to Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal, it made me feel physically sick. The only other opera that reliably had this effect on me at the time was Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande (a work deeply influenced by Parsifal), but my first viewing of that had been on video when I was in bed with the flu, so I put it down to the power of association combined with prolonged exposure to the peculiarities of singing in French. But I was in perfectly good health when, as a twenty-two-year-old, I borrowed the CDs of Parsifal from the local library…

Read more here


Wonder Boys?

From the New York Review of Books

Anyone who frequents research libraries in Europe or North America will know that it is not unusual to encounter in them individuals who appear to be rather introverted and yet sport oddly ostentatious hairstyles, with unkempt shocks of hair sprouting with peculiar abandon from their pallid male scalps. You can still encounter the odd Yeatsian dandy, but the slightly disheveled Einsteinian archetype seems largely to have prevailed in the academy, just as the Beethovenian archetype has long prevailed in the world of music. This phenomenon alone, the slightly embarrassing aping of the superficial attributes of genius, reveals an ersatz quality to the idea of genius we have inherited; even in the most solemn temples to intellectual achievement the notion is awkwardly associated with a good deal that is theatrical, preposterous, ridiculous…

Read full article here.