Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Terminologie

People I thought I saw yesterday: Bill Maher, Sam Waterston (neither of whose last name I was sure how to spell, but have no fear, I checked Wikipedia). I ended up talking to "Bill Maher" and he was wearing a name tag, so I confirmed that he was not in fact Bill Maher. "Sam Waterston" made eye contact and gave me a very Sam Waterstonesque look that said "My god you recognize me!" But why would Sam Waterston be carrying a suit in downtown Boston?

All this gives me an idea for a website. Investors, please backchannel.

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So I'm trying to come up with a better term for a personality type that I called on my Twitter profile "rationalist/aesthete." It seemed important to emphasize both traits in equal measure; identifying as either alone would evoke the wrong image. In other words, most rationalists are not aesthetes, and vice versa, but I feel a strong inclination toward both worldviews and recognize a few like-minded individuals, though I can happily be friends with people who are only one or the other. "Rationalist/aesthete" is pretty self-explanatory I guess but not all that catchy, if my ultimate goal is to create a brand, rally a movement and get bought by Google. (According to a book I was reading yesterday, that's the logical outcome of a viral marketing effort?)

Tyler Cowen (of Marginal Revolution) is a high-profile R/A. Whereas Eliezer Yudkowsky is a pure rationalist. In the poetry blogosphere, I'd identify Seth Abramson as R/A. There are plenty of representative aesthetes here: take Mathias Svalina and Johannes Goransson. Their main subject is, well, the subjective. They frequently examine a piece of art (a book of poems, a film, an album, etc.) to establish whether or not it is "good." I'm very interested in all that, in asserting my tastes and eating "good" food and so on. But I'm equally interested in the purview of the objective (AKA science facts!).

I should point out that it's not enough to be merely "rational" as in intelligent, cogent, not insane. To qualify as a rationalist, by my standards at least, you need to be particularly interested in attaining a level of rationality beyond what's necessary to function in society. Because most people aren't rationalists, it probably puts you at a social disadvantage most of the time. There's much questioning of assumptions, demanding evidence, ruthless argumentation and other elements that generally piss people off. So don't everybody go waving your arms crying "Me, me, I'm a rationalist/aesthete too!"

Can anybody throw out some other examples or counterexamples? I realize everyone I named above is a man. Maybe women tend to be more well-rounded (i.e., better) and therefore more difficult to type. (Can "type" be used as a verb in that way?)

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Remind me to post an excellent David Shapiro poem I read on the train last week. John, don't pack David Shapiro.

18 comments:

  1. Can you put a finer point on what you mean by "a level of rationality beyond what's necessary to function in society?" I'm curious about how much rationality you think is needed to function in society, because it seems pretty low. Or even that many people function best by being deliberately *irrational* as expressed by either passively not questioning assumptions and/or getting defensive when urged to do so (maybe by the arm-waving rationalists).

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  2. "Rationality is its own reward."

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  3. Excellent question, though I'm not sure how to respond. I may be pussy-footing around the rational/irrational distinction (notice I didn't use the word "irrational" in my post) because I don't want to imply that there's anything wrong with not being a "rationalist."

    My feeling is probably that the "average" person would describe him- or herself (I just tried to type "themself"; that should be a word) as rational; it's kind of like "sense of humor" in that sense. But the average person is not strictly rational. However, "for the purposes of this post" I'm less interested in distinguishing between rational and irrational than between rationalist and not rationalist. Does that make sense?

    I do wish more people were more rational, less passive and less defensive but that's sort of another post, I think...

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  4. The irrationalists may be onto something. Irrationality can be much more nourishing to the soul. Yes, no, maybe so?!

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  5. Good point about "irrational" having potential negative connotations. I didn't intend to automatically imply that judgment--lots of qualitatively "irrational" things are fun/rewarding to borrow from A's comment above.

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  6. another way to slice this dichomoty is to call it empathy vs. ethics ... if we consider ethical thinking to be the kind that encompasses rule systems and right and wrong. then empathy is simply understanding and caring how one's actions will affect the people involved. a well-rounded person can do both - but there are certain people who seem more focused on one side or another.

    it's often said that the classical 'geek' persona - in my world software engineers are the most glaring example - is generally a very trustworthy and ethical. very generally speaking, programmers aren't tricky, passive aggressive, liars, etc. they are honest to a fault and upfront with their issues. i tend to think this is because they plan out interactions with others in terms of rules - standards of right and wrong. it sometimes leads to monstrosities: the above-mentioned argumentativeness, lack of affect, "i already said hello to you today so i will totally ignore you in the elevator" type of attitude.

    whereas your 'empathetic/aesthete' type may be overwhelmingly affected by other's feelings and viewpoints - which has its good side and bad. if you care a lot about what people think, you may lie to them, misrepresent yourself, etc. the positive side is you are a lot more fun to have a drink with and it is probably a lot easier to have a deep relationship with you and work through hard emotions when needed.

    i think bush is an aesthete, obama a rationalist (who does a marvelous job on stage of passing as an aesthete - but from at least my reading of "Dreams From My Father" it doesn't seem to penetrate into his private life).

    i know i'm sort of warping your definition of aesthete into a creature governed by emotions, and that's not what you meant. but somehow the two meld together in my mind. maybe that's completely wrong though. there are your word nerds and film geeks, and some of the flattest people i knew in college were the music majors. but by and large an artist must grapple with emotions on some level to be successful, because an artist is a communicator. a rationalist's goal is to understand first, and communicate only with others in their field, using jargon.

    somehow gender fits into this, and the kind of fights men and women have ("you're being completely irrational!" vs. "you don't communicate!") but i've typed enough!

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  7. Great comments Chris! I certainly think your scale overlaps w/ mine; the typical rationalist makes decisions based on a codified ethics rather than gut feelings. For example, I eschew meat-eating because my brain tells me it's an inefficient use of resources, unsustainable, causes unnecessary suffering, etc., not because seeing videos of slaughterhouses turns my stomach or makes me cry.

    Bringing in the question of what being an aesthete says about your "EQ" and what role gender plays certainly complicates the issue ... we need diagrams!

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  8. This is very interesting!

    I like what Chris has to say about empathy vs. ethics, and I think I would go so far as to call myself an emotionalist. I'm not "irrational," but I think I make decisions and generally operate as a person based on my emotions and intuitions. Many men have found this to be a character flaw, and tried to "reason" me out of it because this is the "wrong" way to go through life.

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  9. Leigh, that's kind of funny, because I've had the opposite experience, or rather, a similar experience for the opposite reason: men have found the fact that I'm not an emotionalist to be a character flaw, I guess because that is more what they're used to dealing with as men in relationships with women.

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  10. Can "rational" be an aesthetic? Or can "aesthetic" be a rationale? I mean, aren't you (Elisa) compassionate BECAUSE you're rational And doesn't rationality shape what you are aesthetically drawn to? My guess is that, as an example, by good food you mean fresh, local, organic, etc. cooked in a healthy and delicious way and served in reasonable portions. ALl of these things could be classified as both rational (healthy, environmentally sound) and aesthetic (yummy).

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  11. I didn't mean to imply that they're mutually exclusive in any way -- just that in my experience, most people only identify strongly with one or the other. You (CT) are pretty much an aesthetic rationalist as well, but you don't blog very much.

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