Nostalgia for a black and white world

I recently quoted Karl Knausgaard saying that knowledge drains the world of meaning. I haven’t been able to get that idea out of my head. Just yesterday I read the following in a NYR of Books review of Leopardi’s diary:

Giacomo saw before him a life without physical love or financial independence. Studying was the one thing he knew how to do, but the knowledge so gained only revealed to him that knowledge does not help us to live; on the contrary it corrodes those happy errors, or illusions as he came to call them, that give life meaning, shifting energy to the mental and rational and away from the physical and instinctive, where, in complicity with illusion, happiness lies.

.  .  .

In a rare, brief, personal entry, Giacomo writes:

I was frightened to find myself in the midst of nothingness, a nothing myself. I felt as if I were suffocating, thinking and feeling that all is nothing, solid nothing.

In such circumstances

it could be said that there will never be heroic, generous, and sublime action, or high thoughts and feelings, that are anything other than real and genuine illusions, and whose price must fall as the empire of reason increases.

When I was a young adult I lived a world of black and white, good guys and bad guys. When I read bad things about the people I disagreed with, I believed them. When I read excuses for bad behavior of those I agreed with, I believed those excuses. I used to care a lot who won Presidential elections.  Only later did I realize that there were no heroes (and not many villains). That both parties were pro-war on drugs, pro-war on terror, and just pro-war in general. That presidents from both parties expanded government (Johnson, Nixon, Bush I, Bush II and Obama) and Presidents from both parties reduced government (Reagan, Clinton.)

The party mouthpieces on both sides want their people to live in a black and white world, and thus they have an incentive to dramatize non-existent differences, or differences in areas that policy was never likely to address (guns, abortion, etc.) The only other differences are tribal—which groups does government policy favor. If you are a utilitarian economist those tribal differences aren’t particularly interesting.

I used to think  I was superior to all those other bloggers who still lived in a black and white world, who credulously believed everything bad they heard about the other side, and excused the lapses in ethics on their own side.  (I won’t name names, but you must know who I’m thinking of.)

But after reading Knausgaard and Leopardi, I now wonder whether I’m the fool. Too rational for my own good, living in a drab grey world that lacks energy and enthusiasm. Watching political events play out as dispassionately as a scientist looking at an ant colony.

I finished the book review with the depressing thought that I will now have to read Leopardi’s diary.  And it’s 2502 pages long.  These days I only get meaning by reading other intellectuals who valiantly struggle against the apparent meaninglessness of life.

PS.  Tyler Cowen linked to a John Gray review of the same book.  Here’s an example of why I’ve never liked Gray:

Faced with emptiness, modern humanity has taken refuge in schemes of world improvement, which all too often – as in the savage revolutions of the 20th century and the no less savage humanitarian warfare of the 21st – involve mass slaughter.

Yes, the “humanitarian” interventions in Bosnia, Somalia, Libya and Haiti were “no less” barbaric than the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao.  Maybe if I read people like Gray more often I’d get so angry I could return to the black and white world.



27 Responses to “Nostalgia for a black and white world”

  1. Gravatar of F. Lynx Pardinus F. Lynx Pardinus
    29. September 2013 at 07:19

    I saw Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” a few years ago–I was struck by Larry Slade’s speech: “You asked me why I quit the [Syndicalist-Anarchist] Movement. I had a lot of good reasons. One was myself, and another was my comrades, and the last was the breed of swine called men in general. For myself, I was forced to admit, at the end of thirty years’ devotion to the Cause, that I was never made for it. I was born condemned to be one of those who has to see all sides of a question. When you’re damned like that, the questions multiply for you until in the end it’s all question and no answer. As history proves, to be a worldly success at anything, especially revolution, you have to wear blinders like a horse and see only straight in front of you. You have to see, too, that this is all black, and that is all white. As for my comrades in the Great Cause, I felt as Horace Walpole did about England, that he could love it if it weren’t for the people in it. The material the ideal free society must be constructed from is men themselves and you can’t build a marble temple out of a mixture of mud and manure. When man’s soul isn’t a sow’s ear, it will be time enough to dream of silk purses.”

  2. Gravatar of David R. Henderson David R. Henderson
    29. September 2013 at 07:26

    I think you would have a difficult time making the case that Reagan, whose Council of Economic Advisers I was a senior economist on, reduced the size of government.

  3. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    29. September 2013 at 07:48

    No, David, but you did slow down the growth of the non-defense sectors. Eventually, after the Cold War was won, the federal government did begin to decline as a share of GDP.

  4. Gravatar of Roger Sparks Roger Sparks
    29. September 2013 at 07:48

    There is more than one path between Seattle and Washington, D.C..

    There is a marvelous diversity between people. Thank God that someone likes to do things I do not like to do.

    Most of social problems arise when ONE path is DEMANDED, and many choose to walk another path. My preference is to allow many paths, many acceptable variations, and avoid irreversible actions.

    A better understanding of economic fundamentals could help world economies, just as a better understanding of physics helped us live more easily on planet Earth.

  5. Gravatar of jknarr jknarr
    29. September 2013 at 07:49

    1) studying rhetoric defuses frustration:

    2) it may not be a bunch of stupidity, but rather a goal you’re being sold.

    3) action makes thought much more fun.

    4) there is no black, white, or grey at all. There are competing self interests.

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. September 2013 at 08:11

    Lynx, Thanks for that excellent quotation.

    David, I anticipated that objection, but stand by my claim. Reagan cut the top MTR from 70% to 28%. He cut regulations. Federal spending as a share of GDP fell slightly.

    Jknarr, I’m intrigued, but perhaps if you elaborated a bit.

  7. Gravatar of Vivian Darkbloom Vivian Darkbloom
    29. September 2013 at 08:27

    I hope that Giacomo didn’t expend all that effort on 2,502 pages to come to the (erroneous) conclusion that ignorance is the path to bliss. I have not read the diary, nor do I intend to; but, from the excerpts quoted it strikes me that Leopardi’s main beef should not have been with knowledge but with the fact that he failed to do anything with it but study further and write in his diary, which is a sort of intellectual navel gazing.

    As far as illusions are concerned, it may be no coincidence that this blog is entitled “The Money Illusion”. Rather than merely experience illusions, or worse yet, suffer them as Leopardi seems to propose, how much more supremely satisfying it is to create them.

  8. Gravatar of josh josh
    29. September 2013 at 08:40

    We don’t need black, white, or grey, but color. We need ironists, in the best sense of the word, described by Jedediah Purdy in “For Common Things”. It’s important to have enough distance to reject false certainties, making room for viable aspirations.

  9. Gravatar of Geoff Geoff
    29. September 2013 at 09:27

    “Too rational for my own good”

    Did anyone else giggle?

  10. Gravatar of jknarr jknarr
    29. September 2013 at 09:29

    1) identifying rhetorical techniques strips arguments of their infuriating power. Krugman becomes much less frustrating – and more rewarding, – once you filter his rhetoric for gems of economics. But you have to identify and discard the innumerable false comparisons, bad examples, fallacies of ignorance, tautologies, false choices, red herrings, and wrong endings.

    2) try : tight money is long-established policy, with a goal – not stupidity

    3) taking action cuts thought the ennui! You are part of the utilitarian economist tribe – not an especially numerous or warm herd – which nonetheless has its own internal logic and evolutionary end. Follow it and drive it. More Nietzche and less Knausgaard:

    “For believe me! “” the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge! Soon the age will be past when you could be content to live hidden in forests like shy deer! At long last the search for knowledge will reach out for its due: “” it will want to rule and possess, and you with it!”

    4) In the same vein, “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. September 2013 at 10:09

    Vivian, “Naval gazing?” I’d expect a bit more sympathetic reading from a character out of a Nabokov novel.

    Josh, Good point.

    Geoff, You said;

    “Did anyone else giggle?”

    I hope so!

    jknarr, Thanks. I hope I already do the first point.

  12. Gravatar of Vivian Darkbloom Vivian Darkbloom
    29. September 2013 at 10:13


    First of all, you must be confusing me with Vivian Bloodmark. Don’t worry, it happens all the time.

    Second, “sympathetic reading”? I would seriously suggest that “sympathy” with the author is the last thing a reader needs.

  13. Gravatar of phil_20686 phil_20686
    29. September 2013 at 13:21

    I have found that the more I learn, the more I stand in awe and wonder. I learnt that there is enough beauty in a single blade of grass to occupy a lifetime of thought. I learned why the stars burn so brightly, and why the trees grow green and tall, and they were not diminished.

    Knausgaard talks of the capacity of a certain kind of knowledge to drain away ones feelings towards other people. This is true. You cannot hate what you understand, you can seldom be angry at someone once you understand their reasoning. Everyone has a chain of reasonable seeming feelings which explain their actions.

    The principal objection to this kind of world view is simply that Knausgaard started in the wrong place. If, as a young man, you based your actions principally on these feelings, then naturally as these feelings drain away with the wisdom (of age :)), you will do less and feel empty. I think that it is a particular disease of modern thought to give altogether too much attention to feelings. For the classical thinker, feelings (well, passions*) were to be mastered, the enemy of right action. For the modern thinker, feelings are to be both savoured and acted upon, and even pined for when they pass away.

    I know nothing of your religious affiliation, but if you are from a christian background, you might ruminate on the way that the bible links feelings with actions. “If you love me, feed my sheep” “man hath no greater love than that he lay down his life for another”, and it isn’t just love “faith without works is dead” – James ch 2. Even that most famous of bible verses Corinthians 1 13:13, “Three things remain, faith, hope, and love: and the greatest of theses is love”, uses the greek work agape, which means love mixed with self sacrifice. A greek word that is rarely used in biblical manuscripts to mean love. The king James version translated it as “charity”, but it could be argued that “sacrifice” carries the meaning best of all in modern English.

    Anyway, in my view contentment comes with the conscious application of will to improving yourself, whether in skill, or knowledge or temperament. So that at the end of the day you can look back and say, I am a better man than I was.

    * = classical thinkers usually made a distinction between spiritual feelings and passions. There is a bit of a language problem in this distinction, since pretty much every word for them has come to mean “feelings”.

  14. Gravatar of Geoff Geoff
    29. September 2013 at 15:06

    I’m with Phil. The more I learn, the more I learn what I don’t know in more detail.

    What I don’t know could be represented by a void “X”. No matter how much I learn, this void can always be considered “X”. It’s darkness. Absense. But there are some shades of gray that are only dimly a result of me shining a light in that direction. Beyond that it is pitch black.

    But…at the same time, the more I learn, the more this “X” reveals more and more shades of gray, and then hues of pastel color, and then finally crisp edges of bright neon lights.

    The more that comes into light, the larger my understanding of all things become…including the pitch black. I realize that if the bright colors are this plentiful, the pitch black must be incredibly, mind bogglingly plentiful. The more I learn, the more I appreciate the size of the ignorance.

    Contrary to knowledge erasing “meaning”, it clarifies it, magnifies it, and presents me with more opportunity to act on “meaning” qua meaning.

    Neither Knausgaard nor Leopardi, nor anyone, arrives at their view of the world through historical focus. They chose a view and they are using historical knowledge as an explanation of it.

    One will never find meaning in history. One can only find a sterile record, permanently fixed, and lifeless. Of COURSE if one tries ot find meaning in history, one will be led to conclude that life itself is meaningless.

    I feel sorry for these folks, because they have the capability to find meaning, if only they looked where it is: in themselves. The meaning of themselves is what gives meaning to the world around them, and to history. But these thinkers were hostile towards human reason. You can deny this, but it’s true. This hostility towards reason is why they are hostile towards the human individual, and thus their own meaning.

    The mind is the last frontier of human existence. When we explore the natural world, we are changing ourselves. That change is what I experience as “meaning”. The more I try to find meaning outside of me, the more I will remain frustrated for not finding it. If we all just realized that looking for knowledge of the world is at the same time an experience of our lives, that experience is where the meaning is created.

    What I dislike with the greatest cosmic force, are human beings who choose to trample over the natural experience of other human beings. Coercion, violence, these are what prevent the individual from finding his unique path in nature that allows him to create his own meaning. The traitors among us would have you believe that everyone are powerless to discover and practise an ethic consistent with natural experience. To them the best we can do is side with evil in order to tame it. These humans are by choice a racial defect. Life is imperfect. Choice allows perfect and imperfect activity. Some activities are not conducive to a being’s long run health consistent with their nature. The traitors among us choose to be unnatural imperfections that would, if given power, destroy all human life.

    There have been a few close calls in human history. Throughout human history, respect for reason, and thus of natural ethics, has ebbed and flowed. Humans reached a “crisis” in the 18th century, as the replacement for convention and custom, i.e. authority, failed upon close inspection to provide satisfactory answers. You and I are still living in this so called period of “crisis.”

    The outcome of this crisis will determine the survival of the human race.

  15. Gravatar of Tom Tom
    29. September 2013 at 16:52

    Giacomo saw before him a life without physical love or financial independence.
    Well, to get physical love from a lovely, smart, good-hearted woman, a princess, is the best “meaning” most men can aspire to.

    So find the princess of your dreams, and become the man of her dreams, her knight in shining armor. And find meaning in that journey to win her — then marry her — then raise kids with her. And teach your kids to be lovable women worthy of knights, or to be such knights.

    Well, it’s working for me. And if atheism is “True”, then the truth is meaningless and less worthy of respect than Goodness. (All religions, including atheism, assume that “truth is good”. But it’s not without something transcendent.)

  16. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    29. September 2013 at 16:59

    I read the NYROB review of Leopardi, and I think I disagree.
    I am happy when dancing, painting, reading an excellent novel, kissing a gorgeous woman, looking at a masterpiece in a museum, terrific movies—sheesh Laurel and Hardy make me laugh and I love Ralph Kramden.
    My children make me hsppy when they are happy. It woild mske me happy if my wife would run away with a millionaire who compensated me with a few hundred k.
    The national parks make happy.
    I agree both political parties are deeply corrupt…Leopardi was sadly barred from much happiness by his happy if you are not…

  17. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    29. September 2013 at 16:59

    I read the NYROB review of Leopardi, and I think I disagree.
    I am happy when dancing, painting, reading an excellent novel, kissing a gorgeous woman, looking at a masterpiece in a museum, terrific movies—sheesh Laurel and Hardy make me laugh and I love Ralph Kramden.
    My children make me hsppy when they are happy. It woild mske me happy if my wife would run away with a millionaire who compensated me with a few hundred k.
    The national parks make happy.
    I agree both political parties are deeply corrupt…Leopardi was sadly barred from much happiness by his happy if you are not…

  18. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    29. September 2013 at 18:02

    Scott Sumner “lacks energy and enthusiasm”? No, his blogging proves that his energy and enthusiasm are remarkably abundant.

    In my own life “watching political events play out as dispassionately as a scientist looking at an ant colony” seems appropriate, since I have virtually no political influence; and I would have thought the same would apply to an obscure Bentley professor. But his “energy and enthusiasm” have proven me wrong, since they have led him to improbable influence””not *great* influence, but far from negligible. He’s not just watching.

    Has this given his life “meaning”? I don’t understand the question. “Meaning” sounds like something valuable, but I don’t know exactly what it is supposed to be. So I don’t know whose life has and whose lacks meaning, nor do I know how important that is.

  19. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    29. September 2013 at 18:22

    Maybe Knausgaard watched Lisa Simpson too much:

  20. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    29. September 2013 at 19:38

    You don’t like Paul Gray? Yet again, I am impressed by your good sense and perspicacity 🙂

  21. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    30. September 2013 at 01:35

    I humbly suggest that what irks is not knowledge per se but the compulsion to think about things in terms of what we “know” about them all the time, instead of just experiencing them. This robs one of the feeling of just experiencing the world. It makes one live in a world of explanation (models of the world) instead of the actual world. It robs one of the normal contented and wondrous feeling of just looking at things without the need to “explain” them.
    In addition there is unfortunately the effect that as you see more of the world it seems less interesting, because you’ve already seen it. Nothing to do with reason or knowledge, just with lacking diversity.
    Next, the error of Leopardi and others looking for goals in reason. Reason, rationality, thinking, are algorithmic tools to achieve goals given some premises. They do not give you goals – you can’t get an “ought” from an “is”, or semantics from syntax lest you end up with an absurdity like Pascal’s wager, that you pretend to love God because you’d be better off that way. This does not actually make yoiu feel something, it only makes you feel like you ought to feel something.
    Or again, taking Tarski’s undefinability with a sleight of hand, the meaning of logic lies outside logic.
    So if you add up on “knowledge”, or reason, with the hidden assumption that this will get you goals, or reasons, then you indeed have a problem. The added knowledge will remove some illusory reasons and won’t add any new ones. Ultimately, the reasons, or the life force, must come from within and so I am quite sympathetic to JKnarr and Nietzsche. I also agree with the F. Lynx quote, in that “grand” goals are hard to maintain as absolutes.
    For a hint on where core emotional feelings come from (hint: not from reason) I found this enlightening:

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. September 2013 at 05:35

    Vivian, I disagree on both points.

    Phil, Very thoughtful comment. Thanks.

    Tom, You said;

    All religions, including atheism, assume that “truth is good”. But it’s not without something transcendent.”

    The problem with knowledge is that it leads one to think there is nothing transcendent, and hence to a Rortian view that truth is merely regarded as good.

    Philo, You asked:

    “”Meaning” sounds like something valuable, but I don’t know exactly what it is supposed to be.”

    A couple examples. You walk by someone on the street who is a stranger. Then you walk by someone who is an object of romantic affection, or a sworn enemy. Now the feeling is much different from when you walk by a stranger. It is charged with meaning.

    They apply the same idea to the entire world. A world could be a scientific object, a planet of dimension X floating in space. Or it could be a place seemingly charged with magic, say Dante’s epic poem, or to take a more modern example, the world in Lord of the Rings. Or the world as seen by a child.

    Then object is the same either way, how we feel about it is very different.

    Everyone, Lots of good points, I don’t really have much to add.

  23. Gravatar of Eliezer Yudkowsky Eliezer Yudkowsky
    30. September 2013 at 10:30

    I can only speak for myself, but being born into one of the tiny fraction of all intelligent beings who are here on Ancient Earth before the galaxies are colonized, when everything and the existence of our entire future depends on our actions now, is meaning enough, even if it means that our standards of living are below what will someday be average.

    There is a much more difficult-to-explain thesis about how there is only *stuff* (technically, events related by causality) and magic, if it existed, would be just another kind of *stuff*, and if someone had grown up in a world where nobody had ever thought of God, it would never occur to them that there was some kind of extra-stuff stuff which could be missing from a sunset or a warm lover in their arms; but this is naturalism, and a long story.

  24. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. September 2013 at 10:38

    Eliezer, I agree that there cannot really be a supernatural, as if the supernatural existed it would be natural. My claim is that the problem lies in our mind, not the world. The problem is our inability to visualize something that seems supernatural. Maybe just some of us have that problem. Others can visualize it, another group feels no need to.

  25. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    30. September 2013 at 16:10

    It seems, then, that *meaning* is just emotion. Then there won’t be many *lives without meaning*: even people who whine that *their lives lack meaning* are experiencing emotion (at a minimum, the emotion of disappointment).

  26. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    1. October 2013 at 02:27

    Scott: I am wondering if you did not catch yourself into a trap. I am glad that Eliezer commented here because he talks about it a lot in his posts. The trap lies in an a kind of arrogance that many times come with knowledge and especially with you believing in being rational. The trap lies in robbing yourself of the feeling of bewilderment when confronted with something new. You approach the subject with strong priors feeling that there may be nothing new to it.
    It is like with Eliezers examples of students that were confronted with cold plate on a radiator. They spurted all kinds of explanations, like “heat conduction” not even stopping for a second to consider that this should not be possible. They did not enjoy the bewilderment the may have felt, they just waved the problem away.
    And I disagree that ignorant people are at advantage here. They feel equally unsurprised by things because they have false knowledge. When presented with something new, they will say that it is because god wants it, or that it is left/right wing or they may use one of thousands curiosity stoppers.

  27. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. October 2013 at 04:36

    Philo, No “meaning” is not just emotion. There are all sorts of emotions that are unrelated to meaning. One example might be frustration.

    JV. I think I still feel a sense of wonder when confronted with something new. It’s just that it doesn’t happen as often, and the feeling is not as strong. I certainly don’t feel like I know everything. In the comment section you will often see me say “I don’t know enough to comment”.

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