the realities of readership: on books that are too long
“I wonder if you could spare me a little of your time,” he inquired politely, “and help with a few small jobs?”
“Why of course,” said the Humbug cheerfully.
“Gladly,” added Tock.
“Yes indeed,” added Milo, who wondered for just a moment how it was possible for someone so agreeable to have a face with no features at all.
“Splendid,” he said happily, “for there are just three tasks. First, I would like to move this pile from here to there,” he explained, pointing to an enormous mound of fine sand; “but I’m afraid that all I have are these tiny tweezers.” And he gave them to Milo, who immediately began transporting one grain at a time.
-Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
One of my commenters recently demanded to know by what right I made so bold as to criticize Derek Parfit on this blog, since all I’ve read is a New Yorker article about him, and not any of his books. The commenter, whose Internet ID is as featureless as the face of Juster’s villain, added this:
We’re all free to disagree with Parfit of course, but before doing so we should at least have read his books.
I would engage in this discussion, but I don’t know what you mean when you say that the life of those whose life is barely worth living has “immense” value. Who values what?
I’m not sure Parfit would say that at all, and in fact he doesn’t say it. But of course to know that you would need to read his book.
I’m going to respond to his specific statement about Parfit down below; to make heads or tails of that, you probably should read the original post on him, which is here. However, I can’t pass up the opportunity to discuss the issue Mr. No-Name clearly wants to beat into the ground, of whether or not I’ve read the book. (WELL HAVE YOU READ THE BOOK WELL HAVE YOU WELL HAVE YOU? HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME).
Here are the facts on the book:
1. It’s in two volumes and costs $60 from Amazon; at a regular bookstore, which wouldn’t carry it in the first place, it would cost $70 plus tax.
2. It’s too new for most libraries to have a copy.
3. It’s 1,440 pages long.
4. It is “syncretic,” meaning that when you have read it, if you have understood it, you have learned about what Parfit considers his synthesis of three already well-established schools of ethical thought.
This pretty much encapsulates everything that is wrong with modern academic publishing and modern discussions about speculative fields of thought, including advances in those fields. First of all, the book is not affordable. Speaking as somebody who literally weighs the relative merits of buying Kindle editions versus used copies by mail, which amounts to a difference of about $3, spending $60 on a book that I may find disagreeable and useless is simply impossible. It was a big deal for me, as a graduate student, to spend $80 on the Oxford Shakespeare.
Second, it’s massively long — half the length of Proust, longer than the collected works of Plato — and apparently irreducible, since a Parfit supporter believes you can’t criticize it without having read the entire book, and probably Reasons and Persons as well. To put this in perspective, I still haven’t read The Critique of Pure Reason, and every day, when I wake up, I wake up aware that I quite possibly will die without having read The Critique of Pure Reason. But hey, while we’re at it, let’s toss in The World as Will and Representation by Schopenhauer, Hegel’s Aesthetics, and anything by Thomas Aquinas or Leibniz. In other words, despite my great love for philosophy and my substantial reading in it across many periods, I am still woefully under-educated in it, including in many of the works that are so important for Parfit’s synthesis. My situation is not unique; actually, it is the situation of every modern academic. Part of the reason that there is no communication between the various ideological camps in today’s stagnant humanities is that every camp believes you have to read everything our heroes have written, and meanwhile those heroes act as though they can overcome the anxiety of influence by simply filling one bookshelf after another with verbiage. Parfit’s book, On What Matters, is exclusively an ethical investigation, despite its length — apparently aesthetics does not matter or will be the subject of another interminable volume. And, of course, when I’m finished, I will be haunted by the feeling that I could have simply read the classic works that Parfit is synthesizing, and said to myself “well, they’re not as darned incompatible as all that,” just as he did.
Yes, as an ardent reader of Nietzsche, I think it’s good to have read all of The Genealogy of Morals, but I also think it’s perfectly possible to get something interesting and useful out of a very short quotation from the book. I think it’s good for Parfit to appear in the New Yorker, and it’s good for him to be discussed on the blogosphere. As feeble as these portings of his thought may be, they at least do something in (what I consider to be) the spirit of true philosophy, which is the betterment of all people, as opposed to that tiny population of subsidized philosophers with the time and money to take Parfit very, very seriously.
Regarding the commenter’s question, about the value of human life, it is clear that Parfit places some kind of special value on human life because throughout the article he emphasizes his hatred of suffering, and argues with his wife about the inherent value of someone (rather than no-one) existing. His take on the problem of overpopulation, however, seems blatantly materialistic: some people’s lives will “barely be worth living,” because they don’t have much by way of basic necessities, while other people will be denied a full measure of happiness because of increased competition for those necessities. It seems to me that it is quite possible to be concerned about the Earth’s resources without implying, as Parfit is clearly doing here, that happiness is a matter of bread alone.
“How much money is he getting to let you use my place?”
“There is no money.”
“Free to all.”
“Well isn’t that something.”
“It is, actually.”
You are so quick to draw your guns that you’re shooting the wrong target. Parfit’s “repugnant conclusion” comes from his “Reasons and Persons” book, which is only 560 pages and some $30 on amazon, but I bought it second hand for much less years ago. You could actually read only the fourth part of the book where he deals with this. So it is probably 150 pages. Is that too much?
Of course you would know this if you actually knew anything about Parfit at all.
Asking to read his books is obviously too much for you, but at least his wikipedia page would have helped you. It would have taken less time than writing this blog, but I understand that your main goal it to show that you hate “academia” and “elites”.
so here you
Wow, talk about missing one’s targets. First of all, you are completely wrong, and frankly crossing a line, by trying to portray my arguments as intended to prove my hatred of “academia” and “elites.” I never mention academia as a whole — rather, I’m talking about academic publishing and speculative discussions within the humanities. I certainly never use the term “elites,” although I do accuse Parfit of elitism, and with good reason.
Second, having read through the enjoyable Stanford Encyclopedia article on the Repugnant Conclusion, I am unclear about how it changes one iota of my argument.
Consider, for example, Parfit’s absurd linkage between rising population and the loss of Mozart, a loss which keeps getting compounded until finally all we are left with are “muzak and pototoes.” I cannot imagine a clearer statement of class panic and cultural elitism: the Philistines are breeding! And they are going to smash all the Mozart and force me to listen to elevator music!
Obviously, Parfit is not the first Englishman to associate his fear of the rabblement with his fear of potatoes, but I think he should really just go with it and express his deep philosophical support for the Irish Potato Famine.
Actually, as media becomes digitized, it becomes increasingly possible for every person on Earth to listen to Mozart, simultaneously if we like, to a degree that would have been unthinkable when Kant or Hume was writing. (The irony of Parfit’s situation is that his book can be transmitted to me at basically zero cost, but his publisher insists on charging as much for the digital copy as for the hardcover.)
In other words, modern technology disrupts what might otherwise be an inverse relationship between the size of the population and the relative access to culture. However, there are lots of other senses in which this correlation depends on other assumptions. For example, if I assume that people need a certain amount of land to be happy (say 5 acres), then I have to assume that the maximum happy population of the Earth is M. But if I change my mind and say that people only need 600 sq ft of personal space plus access to 10 acres of parkland to be happy, then I’ve also changed the value of M. However, before I can actually maintain parkland, I have to reach a population of Z — until then, the only feasible situation is private property and possibly a certain amount of untamed wilderness. This is why these sorts of questions end up being basically neither solvable nor even interesting.
But in one way, Parfit has identified one important issue, which is that from a certain ideological perspective, Population A is not comparable to Population B if an intellectual event has taken place in the meantime that gives Pop. B access to something that Pop. A missed out on. Certainly any religious group believes this to be the case: if you were born before the Buddha, then you can’t possibly be happy because you don’t know the eightfold path. But you could also substitute Mozart, Hegel, or America’s Next Top Model for the Buddha, or technologies like the Internet or the automobile, or even speculative future achievements like the colonization of space.
These are all detailed ways of asking a simple question, which is how one is supposed to compute “happiness” or multiply it by something like “number of persons.” Parfit can’t answer this question, but then again he doesn’t have to: his philosophical pseudo-answer is merely intended to articulate his anxieties about his relationship to the immense population of our planet.
Joe, I was going to read the name of the guy who keeps writing to you, but it was too long, and besides I have a leftover cannoli here. It seems like his arguments are cowardly and I’m worried about his blood pressure and his appetite for abstraction, minutiae and world domination. Do you think I can eat my parfait and have an opinion about it too? So glad my life is barely worth living–now on to watch Glee!!!
“his philosophical pseudo-answer is merely intended to articulate his anxieties about his relationship to the immense population of our planet.”.
Beautiful. You win. Parfit loses. Goodbye.
I know, I wish it was that easy also. In any case, thanks for the quarrel; I’m infinitely more curious about Parfit than I would’ve been otherwise.
good! Parfit is one of the sharpest thinkers out there, but he can and should be criticized, like anybody else.
Blackburn went really heavy with him: