Short Book Reviews April 2019

I. Method of Levels

Timothy Carey’s Method Of Levels teaches a form of psychotherapy based on perceptual control theory.

The Crackpot List is specific to physics. But if someone were to create one for psychiatry, Method of Levels would score a perfect 100%. It somehow manages to do okay on the physics one despite not discussing any physics.

The Method of Levels is the correct solution to every psychological problem, from mild depression to psychosis. Therapists may be tempted to use something other than the Method of Levels, but they must overcome this temptation and just use the Method of Levels on everybody. Every other therapy is about dismissing patients as “just crazy”, but the Method of Levels tries to truly understand the patient. Every other therapy is about the therapist trying to change the patient, but the Method of Levels is about the patient trying to change themselves. The author occasionally just lapses into straight-up daydreams about elderly psychologists sitting on the porch, beating themselves up that they were once so stupid as to believe in psychology other than the Method of Levels.

This book isn’t just bad, it’s dangerous. One vignette discusses a patient whose symptoms clearly indicate the start of a manic episode. The author recommends that instead of stigmatizing this person with a diagnosis of bipolar or pumping them full of toxic drugs, you should use the Method of Levels on them. This is a good way to end up ruining your patient’s life.

I like perceptual control theory. I share the author’s hope that it could one day be a theory of everything for the brain. But even if it is, you can’t use theories of everything to do clinical medicine. Darwin discovered a theory of everything for biology, but you can’t reason from evolutionary first principles to how to treat a bacterial infection. You should treat the bacterial infection with antibiotics. This will be in accordance with evolutionary principles, and there will even be some cool evolutionary tie-ins (fungi evolved penicillin as a defense against bacteria). But you didn’t discover penicillin by reasoning from evolutionary first principles. If you tried reasoning from evolutionary first principles, you might end up trying to make the bacteria mutate into a less dangerous strain during the middle of an osteomyelitis case or something. Just use actually existing clinical medicine and figure out the evolutionary justification for it later.

Or maybe a better metaphor is germ theory, a theory of everything specifically targeted to treatable diseases. But fifty years elapsed between Pasteur and penicillin, penicillin alone didn’t treat every germ, we still have some germs we can’t treat, and lots of things like cancer turned out not to be germs at all. You can’t jump straight from a theory of everything – even a good, correct theory of everything – to “now we have solved all problems and here’s the one technique for everything.”

On the other hand, most existing psychotherapy is placebo-ish, and first principles can sometimes be a useful guide. So as long as we are careful to dismiss the part where we throw out all existing medicine, and dismiss the part where we use this for patients having a manic episode, we can very tentatively look at the Method of Levels and what it suggests for patients having garden-variety psychological conflict.

Perceptual control theory says that minds primarily control perceptions. This is true on very low levels, like the hypothalamus controlling (its sensors’ perception of) temperature to 98.6 F. Theoretically it may be true on very high levels, like trying to control (perceived) social status or risk. If two control systems are accidentally trying to control the same variable at different levels, then both of them expend all their energy fighting each other and can’t control anything else. For example, if your house has one thermostat (with associated AC and heater) trying to keep the temperature at 65, and another thermostat (with its own associated AC and heater) trying to keep the temperature at 75, then one thermostat will keep the heat on all the time, the other will keep the AC on all the time, and the temperature will end up at 70 with a gigantic electrical bill.

In the same way, MoL understands intrapsychic conflict as competing control systems. Suppose a gay man is living in a conservative household that stigmatizes homosexuality. He’s trying to control the amount of sex/romance he has at some level that keeps his libido happy. He’s also trying to control his community standing at some level that keeps his sociometer happy. These are conflicting goals; the more he pursues a relationship, the less the community will like him, and vice versa. He will probably feel conflicted inside and not know what to do.

PCT believes the brain has a natural reorganizing process that keeps control systems running smoothly. Powers’ description of this sounds a lot like how we think of learning in neural nets; the brain randomly changes neural weights in a specific control system, with changes that lower the control system’s error getting reinforced, until the system is running smoothly again. If there’s intrapsychic conflict, this reorganization process must not be working.

MoL says the goal of therapy is to activate this reorganization process. The most likely reason it’s failing is that the patient is trying to reorganize the specific control systems that are in conflict, whereas what really needs to be reorganized is the higher-level control system that controls both of them. For example, our hypothetical gay patient shouldn’t be trying to reorganize his sex drive or his need for community belonging. He should be trying to reorganize some higher-level system that determines both of them, maybe his desire for a high quality of life. The “quality of life” control system determines the set point values for both the “sex drive” and the “need for community belonging” control systems, so if it could give them some value where they don’t conflict, the patient’s problem would be solved.

Reorganization is guided by awareness, so the therapist needs to move the patient’s awareness from the control systems that are experiencing the conflict, up to the higher-level control system that’s secretly producing the conflict. Its suggestion is to talk about the conflict with the patient, and especially about the patient’s experience talking about the conflict. So if the patient starts telling you about how he doesn’t know how to balance his homosexuality and his desire to fit in, you can prompt him to continue with questions like:

“What comes to mind when you think about not fitting in with your community?”
“What is your experience of wishing you could be more open about your sexuality like?”
“How does talking about this make you feel?”

Eventually the patient may have what the book calls an “up-a-level-event”, where instead of talking they look like they’re kind of lost in thought, or they close their eyes for a moment, or laugh nervously for no reason. At this point they’re becoming dimly aware of the higher level that’s guiding their lower-level conversations. The therapist should pounce on this and ask questions like:

“I see you closed your eyes for a moment just then. Is there something in particular you were thinking about?”
“You looked lost in thought for a second – why was that?”
“Can you tell me more about what made you laugh just then?”

The patient might then say something like “I was just thinking about how weird it was that I care so much about what my parents think about me when I don’t even respect them”, and then the therapist should keep going on this new topic. Now the patient’s awareness is on this higher level, and so the high-level control system can reorganize itself. Maybe eventually the reorganization that works is to give the pursue-your-sexuality system a higher set point, and the care-about-community system a lower set point, which looks like the patient deciding that he should not worry so much about what community members think about him.

You might have noticed from the first set of questions that this sounds a lot like what therapists do already. Carey does suggest that insofar as current therapies work, it’s because they’re already doing MoL-ish things. He suggests that his book offers more of an account of why they work, and a way to focus on the useful things instead of the chaff.

In particular, a lot of MoL – asking patients how they feel, trying to bring their awareness from the past content to the present process, worrying a lot about small gestures – sounds like psychodynamic therapy, at least the watered-down version of it most people today use. But it’s a lot more comprehensible than most attempts to teach psychodynamics, which never seem to hang together or have concrete suggestions for what you should do at any given time. If all this book ends up giving me is a way to do psychodynamics a little bit more cohesively, I’ll consider it worth my time.

I’m not sure how well its theoretical backing holds up. I always considered the very high-level PCT stuff to be the weakest part of the theory, and this not only relies upon them but goes several steps beyond them. The idea of the reorganizing process is an interesting one. But right now it’s got about as much empirical testing as, well, Freud. Still, some of the ideas discussed here seem lucid in a way Freud didn’t, so I’ll have to think about them more.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone else right now based on the first few chapters being so embarrassing, and also so bad that I wouldn’t trust people to discount them enough even if I warned them how important it was.

II. How To Read Lacan

Why did I read How To Read Lacan by Slavoj Zizek?

I could answer this question on many levels. For example, the theological level: maybe I committed some sin in a past life. Maybe I was predestined to unhappiness. Maybe, having given me free will, God is no longer able to save me from my own bad choices.

On a more practical level: I’m trying to learn more about leftism, I’m trying to learn more about continental philosophy, and I’m trying to learn more about psychoanalysis. I figured I might as well get it all out of the way at once.

I was expecting this to be incomprehensible, but I was pleasantly surprised how good a writer Zizek was. He explains everything clearly, in down-to-earth prose interspersed with mildly funny Slovenian jokes that illustrate his points.

(Lacan himself is completely incomprehensible, to the point where he might as well be speaking Martian, but this book wisely avoided quoting Lacan except where absolutely necessary).

Despite being very readable, this book never really came together. Each chapter consisted of a Lacan quote, followed by Zizek’s interpretations and thoughts. The thoughts were always things like “Sometimes the act of communication itself can communicate something” or “We are never truly engaged with another person, even during sex”. These are always kind of reasonable, Zizek always does a good job proving them and relating them to mildly funny Slovenian jokes, and I came away agreeing with all of them. But I don’t feel like I understand how any of them cohere together into an object called “Lacanianism”, and none of them really seemed like a very surprising revelation, which is one reason this doesn’t get a full book review.

My main takeaway from this is that I should forget Lacan and try to read Zizek directly. Does anyone have recommendations for good starting points?

III. The Steerswoman

The Steerswoman is popular in the rationalist community, and now I see why. The titular organization of steerswomen are a rationalist sect devoted to understanding the world around them. They especially like geography – going to the borders of the known world and filling in the edges of the map – but also just seek knowledge in general. Anyone can ask a steerswoman any question, and the steerswoman must answer. But everyone has to answer any question asked of them by a steerswoman, or else the organization blacklists them and no steerswoman will answer their questions ever again.

The steerswomen live in a not-very-fleshed-out medieval fantasy world surrounding an inland sea. Although there are standard fantasy governments like dukes and chieftains, real power is held by wizards. No one knows anything about them, not even how many of them there are, where they come from, or how they do their magic. The book centers around the inevitably conflict between the nosy steerswomen and the mysterious wizards, and particularly around one steerswoman and her Barbarian™ traveling companion who stumble across a wizardly secret.

This book is from the 80s and had a very 80s feel to it. Compared to more modern fantasy, it’s shorter and feels more bare-boned. There are no two hundred different characters to keep track of, no romantic subplots, no lavish description of random political things that happen in minor towns. Just a woman and her Barbarian™ friend going on a basic standard-issue quest, with the whole thing starting and finishing in less time than it would take George RR Martin to describe the minor clan that controls an out-of-the-way fortress.

Some people called this book feminist, but I found it refreshingly apolitical. Most (though not all) of the steerswomen are women, but the book got a relatively boring explanation out of the way quickly and didn’t come back to it. Most of the characters’ genders were not too important to their personality, and the book did not obsess over gender issues. There is a part in a utopian society where one of the men teases one of the women about how much he wants to have sex with her, and the woman laughs it off, and the man keeps teasing, and this is clearly meant to signal how the society is utopian and everyone is very open and friendly with each other. The 80s were simpler times.

I’ve only read the first book of this long series. Overall I found it fun, but didn’t feel like it spoke deeply to anything within me. The book’s rationalists were discussed shallowly enough that it feels like decent cheerleading for rationality, but nothing you can’t find somewhere else. Although the steerswomen’s question-answering gimmick was cute, I spent more time worrying about the holes in it (can’t you just get someone else to ask steerswomen your questions? how can a worldwide organization in a medieval society keep an effective blacklist? really the world-building here was not that good) than feeling like the real world needed something similar (after all, we have Google). I’ll probably try to read the next few books in the series and update this if it gets better.

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102 Responses to Short Book Reviews April 2019

  1. Izaak says:

    As far as The Steerswoman goes, I’d rank books 2 and 3 in the series as better than the first book. Book 4 was still good, but it didn’t rise to the heights that the 2nd and 3rd did. That being said, by the end of the 2nd book, you’re acutely aware that this world isn’t really your standard “medieval fantasy world”. I highly recommend books 1 and 2 to anyone who likes fantasy. (If you’re not enjoying the series after the second book, I doubt it will become more interesting, but I do think there are people who would not particularly enjoy the first book who would love the second).

    • Alex Shpilkin says:

      I second the statement that the world of The Steerswoman is not, repeat not, your run-of-the-mill fantasy world. The first suggestion of this I could spot was gur jneavat fcryy ba jvmneqf’ yhttntr, juvpu qbrfa’g nssrpg fnvybef naq fgrrefjbzra orpnhfr obgu hfr vafhyngvat sbbgjrne (that this wasn’t explored in-universe still annoys the hell out of me), a blacksmith’s son qvfpbirevat rkcybfvirf in the middle of the first book made it certain, and now after binging my way through the first two books in the last several hours I’m pretty sure we’re looking at n cbfgncbpnylcgvp rnegu orvat tenqhnyyl ergreensbezrq hfvat n pbaprvinoyr rkgrafvba bs zbqrea grpuabybtl, pbzcyrgr jvgu ryvzvangvba bs unezshy jvyqyvsr hfvat zvpebjnir enqvngvba.

      Not particularly eager to reflect on the rationalist setting this series may be, but lazy at worldbuilding it is not.

  2. Enkidum says:

    I feel like you haven’t fully explored the higher levels that might explain why you read How to Read Lacan, and you need to synthesize some more.

    • Walter says:

      “What is your experience of wishing you could understand continental philosophy like?”

  3. benjaminbuckley says:

    Zizek has written a lot of books, but I think that, like Jordan Peterson, a lot people get into his stuff more through his videos and documentaries, like The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to the Ideology (which is also about cinema), both of which are basically a series of Zizek rants about the political meaning behind various movies.

    If you don’t (yet) feel like watching five hours of Zizek ranting about movies, you might still like this 12-minute video about his thoughts on political correctness.

    I also think that his video Don’t Act. Just Think. summarizes a big problem I have with some leftist communities I’ve interacted with.

    If you liked the jokes, you might at least get a kick out of Zizek’s Jokes, which is basically a whole anthology of his philosophical jokes. However, I feel like they really missed an opportunity by not calling it Zizek’s Zizokes.

    • benjaminbuckley says:

      Re: Lacan. Lacan is a remarkably obscurantist writer, even by the standards of humanities writing. Having said that, most of his writing is divided into the Seminars and the Ecrits. The Seminars are taken from his lectures, and are a bit easier to read, whereas the Ecrits are more poetic and difficult to read.

      This video gives a five minute summary of his most famous idea, that of the “mirror stage”.

    • Joe says:

      Thanks for posting this. It’s hilarious that Zizek is famous for basic common sense musings about culture. Egghead academics are easily charmed by drunk sounding slobs as long as they have an eastern European accent.

      • benjaminbuckley says:

        As far as I know, within academia (as opposed to, on YouTube), Zizek’s “common sense musings about culture” are not his most well-known work. There are some other comments further down in the thread giving more substantive book recommendations than I was able to give.

    • Mouth says:

      Peterson and Zizek are debating “Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism” on the 19th.

    • Kuntal Halder says:

      Zizek’s Jokes is really the book he should be remembered for. Quite easy to read for such obscure topics

  4. Douglas Knight says:

    Do you have an amazon affiliate account?
    If you do, you should fix your page about it, linked at the bottom of every page.
    And if you don’t, you shouldn’t use affiliate links, if only because they make people think you do.

  5. onyomi says:

    continental philosophy… incomprehensible… none of them really seemed like a very surprising revelation

    Not a novel observation, but sometimes I suspect the dirty secret of continental philosophy is that the “incomprehensible” part covers for the “not all that surprising or interesting when you finally figure out what they hell they’re talking about” part. Which is not to say that there are no good insights, only that the insight to obscurantism ratio is very poor.

    • markus says:

      I read some and got whats feel like a few insights. But as you say, insight to obscurantism ratio feels like you are trying to traverse a jungle to find a stunning new fruit. But it turn out to be a banana. And your backpack already contained two bananas from the supermarket. Which were ripe, unlike the jungle banana.

      • antilles says:

        This is partly an “in the water supply” problem. Kant has been basically assimilated into a number of more easily understandable (to us) analytic critiques: for example, Rawls in ethics and political philosophy, Nozick and Chalmers in philosophy of mind, Kuhn in the philosophy of science, and others. It’s only “not interesting” if you ignore the ways in which it was revolutionary with respect to what came before, and informed what came after.

    • nameless1 says:

      These things are best studied in their genealogy. Most of CP goes right back to Husserl’s phenomenalism. Which is in itself a weird thing, as Husserl rejected both physicalism and psychologism. Which is to say, what is exactly left then? Go here:

      “Part of transcendental philosophy’s own meaning was that it arose out of reflections on conscious subjectivity through which the world, the scientific as well as the everyday intuitive world, comes to be known or achieves its ontic validity for us; thus transcendental philosophy recognised the necessity of developing a purely mental approach to the world. But if it had to deal with the mental, why did it not turn to the psychology that had been practiced so diligently for centuries? Or, if this no longer sufficed, why did it not work out a better psychology? One will naturally answer that the empirical man, the psychophysical being, himself belongs, in soul as well as body, to the constituted world. Thus human subjectivity is not transcendental subjectivity, and the psychological theories of knowledge of Locke and his successors serve as continued admonitions against “psychologism,” against any use of psychology for transcendental purposes. But in exchange, transcendental philosophy always had to bear its cross of incomprehensibility.”

      This is important for two reasons. First, transcendental philosophy was incomprehensible even before Foucault and others came around. Second, “the empirical man, the psychophysical being, himself belongs, in soul as well as body, to the constituted world” implies to me an attitude of radical doubt, the attitude that we cannot trust anything we think we know about ourselves and the world. But you cannot have a rational discussion that way.

      Further down:

      “The task set for modern psychology, and taken over by it, was to be a science of psychophysical realities, of men and animals as unitary beings, though divided into two real strata. Here all theoretical thinking moves on the ground of the taken-for-granted, pre-given world of experience, the world of natural life; and theoretical interest is simply directed as a special case to one of the real aspects of it, the souls, while the other aspect is supposed to be already known, or is yet to be known, by the exact natural sciences according to its objective, true being-in-itself. For the transcendental philosopher, however, the totality of real objectivity – not only the scientific objectivity of all actual and possible sciences but also the prescientific objectivity of the life-world, with its “situational truths” and the relativity of its existing objects – has become a problem, the enigma of all enigmas. The enigma is precisely the taken-for-grantedness in virtue of which the “world” constantly and pre-scientifically exists for us, “world” being a title for an infinity of what is taken for granted, what is indispensable for all objective sciences. ”

      At this point I have this feeling that not only Husserl but even his predecessors, like Hegel, are trying to explore something that is entirely weird and alien to me and most people. If I cannot trust my senses about the world, maybe I use measuring devices, like, if something looks heavy, measure its weight to see if it is really so. But of course reading those numbers also belongs to sensory experience. Why would I have any doubt in the totality of that experience? And if I have, like the Buddha had, why would do it in the style of western philosophy, heaping words upon words, and not like the Buddha, just watching is own mind? Something is really weird here.

      As Husserl mentions, the problem of sensory experience was a problem for Hume and Locke as well. I think most of Anglo philosophy decided not to dwell upon that much and accepted that the world we experience is, at least for us, real. It’s Samuel Johnson kicking a stone to refute Berkeley. That it is the world we have to deal with. The Anglo world chose to be pragmatic.

      I think it was around that point that a break came, that Kant, Hegel and others ended up focusing precisely on that point, on the question if we can trust our experience of the world as such. But the problem is, rather obviously, there is not really a lot you can do if not, other than heaping words upon words. We still have to live in this world. The stone we perceive may not be real, but we can break our nose stumbling over it.

      I sense there is maybe an old religious difference in this. Maybe German Lutheranism (for the French picked up this idealism much later) was influenced by Gnosticism. The Gnostic refuses the world, because he sees it evil. The transcendentalist simply does not think what we think about the world is true, and does not really want to be pragmatic and focus on manipulating the world for solving problems.

      While Anglos may have had some kind of an anti-Gnostic, Catholic influence with its pragmatism.

      • Aapje says:

        From my perspective, what is real to us (in the sense that we can measure/experience it) is reality.

        A gap between what truly exists and what we measure/experience is only relevant if it causes inconsistent measurements/experiences. The replicability of rigorous science suggests that any such gap only exists in the margins, where it can be incorporated into our view of the world (by calling it noise or such). We can then treat causal models that are derived from our measurements as reality, as they work sufficiently.

      • Eponymous says:

        These things are best studied in their genealogy. Most of CP goes right back to Husserl’s phenomenalism.

        I am very far from an expert on this, but my vague understanding is that the real central fountainhead of CP is Hegel. Very happy to be corrected, of course.

        • Enkidum says:

          I’d say you’re right about Hegel, and that the real AP/CP split happens with Kant. Hegel and later CPers take the idealism part seriously and run with it, while the APers take the systematization part seriously and run with that.

          • Viliam says:

            I started reading Hegel’s Logic once, but couldn’t get further than a few pages. In my opinion, the guy was a complete crackpot, and his writing is a word salad that tries to seem like math, except written by a schizophrenic who doesn’t really understand math.

            (At least at the beginning of the book. Perhaps later, after he laid down his nonsensical foundations of ‘logic’ and starts talking about something less abstract, it becomes different.)

            I would like to do an experiment, where people claiming that Hegel makes sense to them, would have to distinguish between the original Hegel and GPT-2 trained on Hegel’s texts.

            From my perspective, these two would be indistinguishable. Just a word salad of “Nothing is like nothing, except for something, or maybe something becoming nothing, as being is to nothing, while nothing is something, but being is different from both something and nothing, and the opposite of being is nothing… yadda yadda.” (Decades later, I can still reproduce his core argument almost flawlessly, bleah.)

          • Enkidum says:

            I’ve read a fair bit of Hegel, but not for 18 years. Nevertheless, I’d take that challenge in a heartbeat. Have at it.

          • Protagoras says:

            Certainly you can sort some earlier philosophers into more AP-like and more CP-like groups, but this is far too early to put the real split. Up until the Nazi era, everyone still talked to one another. The division into hostile camps that don’t communicate is a post WWII thing. A lot of analytic leaning philosophers fled the continent during the Nazi era, moving to already heavily analytic leaning America and Britain and making them even more analytic leaning, while leaving the continent even less analytic. And of course during the war years there was basically no communication, and with the way the shift had heightened the differences, the groups didn’t try very hard to get back in communication after the war.

          • Enkidum says:

            Fair. I guess a more accurate thing to say would be that the roots of the split are differing takes on a problem that Kant outlined most clearly, but the actual split happened much later. But I’m probably out of my depth saying even that much.

          • DeepSpawn says:

            building on what Protagoras said, if you want to put a date on the rupture then Carnap’s 1932 ‘Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language’ is a good a place as any

          • Protagoras says:

            Carnap and Heidegger had conversed for hours at a conference a couple of years before Carnap published that paper, and indeed harsh as it is the paper is still an example of the two sides talking to one another (and Heidegger eventually wrote a postscript to “What is Metaphysics?” which includes some attempt to respond to Carnap). After the war, the sides no longer went to the same conferences, and rarely bothered to write about why the others were wrong, just ignoring or dismissing one another instead.

          • nameless1 says:

            BTW how much of Western philosophy can be summed up with the AP/CP split? Because I keep finding interesting ones that are neither. Searle and the Chinese Room. Ruth Millikan, who does a good job of sticking close to science.

            Another thing I wonder about is that Marx eliminated the idealism/metaphysics from Hegel, turned it into a materialist philosophy. A pretty much every Continental in the modern sense, Foucault, Derrida etc. are strongly based on Marx. So if now CP isn’t even metaphysical, idealist or transcendent, then what is it actually?

          • Frog-like Sensations says:

            What gives you the impression that Searle and Millikan aren’t analytic philosophers? I take them both to be paradigm examples of the group. Both were educated in analytic departments by giants in the tradition, both mostly respond to the works of analytic philosophers, and both are mostly read by other analytic philosophers (except insofar as each has managed to find a larger than normal audience outside of philosophy in general).

            Is the fact that Millikan stick close to science supposed to count against her being an analytic philosopher?

          • Protagoras says:

            Seconding Frog-like Sensations. Millikan and Searle are certainly analytic philosophers, and while not everyone lives up to it, sticking close to science has always been highly encouraged in the analytic tradition.

      • Eponymous says:

        Also, I’ll just mention a crackpot theory of mine: part of the reason that Continental Philosophy seems inscrutable is just that it wasn’t originally written in English. Some combination of bad translations, good translations that nevertheless fail to clearly convey the essence of the material due to differences in the language, and actual differences in patterns of thought and writing that develop in different literary/philosophical traditions (as typically occur in different languages), explains at least part of the inscrutability of CP to English speakers.

        And English-speaking continental philosophers are intentionally obscurantist because they are imitating the literary style of translated texts.

        • Enkidum says:

          Nah. I have it on good authority that Hegel, Heidegger, etc are just as inscrutable in German as in English, and indeed I know of a few native German speakers who found it most useful to read the translations, because those generally come with extensive footnotes on the choices they made.

          • Lambert says:

            Maybe that’s just the way German was at the time.
            There’s a lot of ways to add clauses to a sentence, and before the 20th c, people would write as if they were taxed for every new sentence they started.

            I’ve tried to read 19thc. German books, and always had to give up about four subordinate clauses into the first sentence.

            >At the foot of the Alps near Locarno, in upper Italy, there was an old castle belonging to a Marchese, which, when you come from St. Gotthard, is now in rubble: a castle with high and spacious rooms, in one of which on straw that had been dumped on her, an old sick woman, who had begged herself begging outside the door, had been petted by the housewife.

            First sentence of ‘Betelweib von Locarno’, by Kleist, via google translate.

          • Urstoff says:

            I have heard the same said about Kant (who is obscure, but certainly much less obscure than Hegel et al.), so maybe that’s more evidence for the “It’s because it’s German” thesis mentioned below.

          • Eponymous says:

            Maybe that’s just the way German was at the time.
            There’s a lot of ways to add clauses to a sentence, and before the 20th c, people would write as if they were taxed for every new sentence they started.

            There’s something to this. Many English writers from the 19th century are quite difficult for moderns to read, in part because their sentences are so long. I can easily imagine this is worse in German, due to the way it naturally deals with recursively nested subordinate clauses. (I recall a joke from German class in college about a professor who would conclude his lectures by listing off 15-20 verbs).

            I’d be curious about the history of this. It seems that style manuals and well-known writers (e.g. Strunk & White, Bertrand Russel, George Orwell, etc) pushed English writing towards simple and clear prose. Maybe this didn’t happen in other literary traditions, or not to the same degree.

            When I read analytical philosophers, one thing I notice is that a lot of them are quite good writers (accounting for the difficulty of the material, of course). I wonder how much of that is just from people imitating Bertrand Russell and similar prose stylists.

            Anyway, like I said, a crackpot theory. But I think there’s *something* there.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            When people complain about Hegel, they’re not complaining about the number of subordinate clauses.

            Germans complain about Hegel, too. In particular, his contemporary Schopenhauer, known as a clear writer in both German and translation, complained that Hegel copied Kant’s admitted bad writing and intentionally took it to the next level and that it helped his career.

          • Aapje says:

            I think that less intelligible or more vague writing is often beneficial to the writer because it makes it easier for the reader to project their own beliefs on it.

            This is also why smart politicians make statements that are both grand and non-specific. “I want to solve climate change with wind mills” makes the anti-windmill climate activist angry at you and the pro-windmill activist love you. “Let’s do all we can to solve climate change” makes both love you if they see you as a good person, because both believe that good people will of course know that windmills are/aren’t the right solution.

        • Dictatortot says:

          I have a similar, possibly-crackpot theory: many continental philosophers sound less turgid in their native languages … but translation exposes many logical omissions and empty arguments that sound more plausible in the original.

          • onyomi says:

            translation exposes many logical omissions and empty arguments that sound more plausible in the original.

            Having experienced translating more than one Chinese academic article into English I can testify this is true. Academic styles are different, presumed audience knowledge and interest are different, and rhetorical flourishes that sound reasonable in one language can sound ridiculous in another.

        • fremenchips says:

          Not necessarily, according to John Searle Focault told him that in France you had to make 10% of your work incomprehensible on purpose or it wasn’t seen as deep in fashionable circles. He talks about it in this clip

          • Eponymous says:

            Right. Because the French couldn’t understand translated German (Kant and Hegel). It all fits!

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Why didn’t tenure or credentials like the Collège de France allow them to push back? If Bourdieu wanted to move to America to write clearly for an American audience, but for his bad English, why didn’t he write stay in France and write for that audience, either in English or French?

        • nameless1 says:

          I agree with Enkidum, but there are exceptions. I mean, for Hegel’s most well know work, already the title is a problem. In the German language, there is a sort of a body/mind split, geistlich/körperlich. So in German, mathemathics, religion, or art are all “geistlich”. English does not quite work the same way. English would say that mathemathics you do with your mind, or reason, or intelligence, that it is rational or mental. Religious you do with your soul. And art is perhaps spiritual. So English does not really have a word that would sum up the totality of all non-bodily activity, all of the activity that happens in the head (yes, I know, heads are part of bodies, but anyway), from emotions to rational thinking, from poetry to religion.

          So my point is Hegel’s title means more than just the phenomenology of spirit as spirit is understood in English. It is also the phenomenology of reason, rationality, intelligence, soul and whatnot. Weird, isn’t it?

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        The transcendentalist simply does not think what we think about the world is true, and does not really want to be pragmatic and focus on manipulating the world for solving problems.

        This strikes me as an egregious misreading of transcendental idealism; Kant acknowledges both the existence and affect of things-in-themselves; he just denies that their representations in cognition (appearances) are sufficient to describe them. Kant himself thought that transcendental idealism justified scientific endeavors in a Humean universe of perception. The Hegelian refusal to accept irreconcilable differences in perception may be stillborn, but it’s not necessary for transcendentalism.

      • onyomi says:

        Maybe instead of acting to obscure the places where they actually make a point, all the other stuff serves instead as a kind of apology for making a point.

    • Eponymous says:

      Not a novel observation, but sometimes I suspect the dirty secret of continental philosophy is that the “incomprehensible” part covers for the “not all that surprising or interesting when you finally figure out what they hell they’re talking about” part.

      Possibly true, but I think the same can be said for most things. Some (but not all) of this is hindsight bias.

      Though I will say that I’m glad Scott is taking a deep dive into obscurantist continential/leftist sources so I don’t have to.

  6. anonandon says:

    Maybe a free copy of Dr.Timothy Carey’s book, The Method of Levels, would help some.

    Click Here

  7. Thomas Jorgensen says:

    The steerswomen have the blacklist, but that is not really the primary enforcement method – Their social standing is. Steerswomen occupy a niche somewhat like a reporter / bard / teacher. Refusing to answer their questions is simply extremely rude.

  8. OwlOfMinerva says:

    I have some suggestions with respect to Zizek:

    First, Zizek’s most interesting book is (by quite some margin) Absolute Recoil.

    There also exists a little bit of secondary literature which might be more useful than just reading Zizek directly. Adrian Johnston is a philosopher who has spent a disproportionate amount of his career working on Zizek, and two of his books are work mentioning. Zizek’s Ontology is supposed to cover the first 2/3rds of Zizek’s career, and A New German Idealism covers everything from Absolute Recoil through to the present.

    Finally, Sopie Fiennes directed two films with Zizek, and she did a truly marvellous job editing Zizek’s verbose speaking style into something cogent and useful. Neither film ranks as a major theoretical work, but they are very entertaining and serve as nice introductions to Zizek.

    • lucasmorron says:

      Personally, I’m a fan of Less than Nothing and The Parallax View, which I believe are even better than the excellent Absolute Recoil. As for intros to Zizek, this guy has a very good series of short introductory posts of which the best and most comprehensive is probably this one:

      • Joe says:

        I enjoyed these alot. Perhaps Zizek isn’t the clown I thought he was?

      • Strawman says:

        I also rather, well, enjoyed Enjoy Your Symptom, although it’s less of a cohesive work than a collection of entertaining, tangential riffs on Lacan
        (not that I’d pretend to ever have understood Lacan, or to have tried very hard to do so, but as I remember, reading this left me with a halfway decent feel for a few Lacanian concepts like the Big Other and object petit a). For what it’s worth I also found it a quicker, easier read than the theoretically meatier The Parallax View (which, as I remember, contains a lot more Hegel, and while my brain is fairly happy to skip over Lacan as an isolated conundrum when he doesn’t make any sense, when Hegel isn’t making any sense, he’s often not making any sense about things that, to me, have been discussed more clearly by other philosophers before and after – sometimes in a direct response to Hegel – which makes me willing to spend a lot more effort trying to parse it)

  9. Jack V says:

    Ooh, someone else read Steerswoman! It was very memorable to me mostly for a couple of incidents (the “can only be touched by sailors and steerswomen” and “the west star”) where I thought “Can that make sense? No, that’s just random fantasy crap that doesn’t support consistent worldbuilding” and then later on it DID make sense and I got a very emphatic reminder that even if I think “there’s no possible explanation for that” I can be completely wrong and should be more qualified.

    Obviously that varies a lot depending on your particular response, if you happened to guess the correct explanation easily, or not think about the oddness at all, you won’t have that reaction, but it was what shaped my impression of the book.

    • RavenclawPrefect says:

      Hm, interesting puzzle; my two guesses are n fngryyvgr juvpu beovgf ng gur fnzr engr gur cynarg gheaf and n ebgngrq zntargvp svryq fb gung (eryngvir gb n svkrq ybpngvba) gur cbyr fgne vf va n svkrq jrfgjneq cbfvgvba va gur fxl.

  10. fion says:

    Typo: “inevitably conflict” -> “inevitable conflict”

    Also, just to say that I really like the idea of shorter, less in-depth book reviews. It’s always fun reading your thoughts on things, even if you’ve not got a fully fleshed-out essay-worthy opinion.

  11. Lodore says:

    I’m not sure that there’s any reward in Lacan except as an illustration of Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s relevance theory, which essentially provides a bayesian model of the priors that inform our interpretations of speech acts. The idea is that a speaker’s intentions are usually assumed to be (1) relevant to the context of communication; and (2) efficient in communicating what’s being communicated. The failure mode of this can be seen in Lacan, Derrida and all the other maitre penseurs, whose status freights their violations of the efficiency principle with pseudo-profundity. In Sperber’s words:

    Left on their own, admiring readers interpret one recondite passage after another in a way that may slowly reinforces their admiration (or else render them wary). Now sharing their interpretations and impressions with other admirers, readers find in the admiration, in the trust that other have for the master, reasons to consider their own interpretations as failing to do justice to the genius of the interpreted text. In turn these readers become disciples and proselytes. Where we had the slow back-and-forth of solitary reading between favourable interpretation and increased confidence in authority, now we have a competition among disciples for an interpretation that best displays the genius of the master, an interpretation that, for this purpose, may be just as obscure as the thought it is meant to interpret. Thus a thinker is made into a guru and her best disciples in gurus-apprentices.

  12. michaelg says:

    I only read the first two books, but found them excruciatingly slow and pointless. Felt like she was describing every single day of a months long journey across the plains…

  13. littleby says:

    What is a manic episode, and why do you get a dead patient if you refuse to treat one?

    Does this mean there are people walking around outside of the hospital who might be developing manic episodes, and of course they don’t get treated because they’re not talking to someone who’s qualified to judge what a manic episode is, and these people all die?

    • greenwoodjw says:


      Mania is a heightened emotional state, kinda like being high. Some folks will end up feeling they’re invincible or can fly or whatever and do something stupid that kills them, but it’s also the point where someone with suicidal tendencies has the confidence and the drive to actually do it.

    • VivaLaPanda says:


      A kid in my highschool was undiagnosed bipolar. In his second year of highschool, it started getting worse and he got diagnosed, but refused to take medication. He had a manic episode where he believed he was an invincible superhero. He started jumping between the roofs of school buildings until he fell badly, cracked his skull open, and we never saw him again.

  14. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    In the topic of proto-rationalist fiction, had anyone here read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done (Chto Delat)?

    Not well known in the States these days but it was a huge deal in late-19th century Russia (the Lenin tract of the same name was named after it). It was considered fundamental to the socialist movement of the time, so I came to it expected something I would recognize as an argument for socialism, but it consisted almost entirely of Rationalist cheerleading and IIRC didn’t have a ton to say about the means of production. Seems like maybe Russia at the time had a 1D political spectrum with traditionalism in one side and socialism in the other?

    Dostoevsky’s Demons is considered a critique or satire of Chernyshevsky. As I interpreted it, the thrust was “Actually your community is a bunch of sad broken people being manipulated by a sociopath”.

    (Disclaimer: it’s been a while since I read these)

    • SteveReilly says:

      I never read it, but one chapter of Nabokov’s novel The Gift is a biography of Chernyshevsky. As you might guess, a man chased out of Russia by the Bolsheviks wasn’t too fond of Lenin’s favorite author. I think at the time I read The Gift (it’s been a while) I thought Nabokov had just made up Chernyshevsky, but when I found out he was a real writer I meant to get my hands on What is to be Done. Thanks for reminding me. Might have to try it.

      • FormerRanger says:

        I read “Chto Delat” years ago and found it tedious and poorly written (maybe a bad translation, but I doubt it). I don’t recall the “rationalist” part, at least if his idea of rationalism is anything like today’s.

        It is indeed the case that Imperial Russia pretty much had a 1D political spectrum back in those days, if you weren’t a peasant. In fact, Russia still has a 1D political spectrum to a certain extent: Westernizers and Russophiles. Putin is a Russophile, if it isn’t obvious.

        • AlesZiegler says:

          In fact, Russia still has a 1D political spectrum to a certain extent: Westernizers and Russophiles. Putin is a Russophile, if it isn’t obvious.

          Um, who are Westernizers, then? Communists? I think than when it comes to Russia´s relationship with the West, Putin is actually a moderate.

          • rlms says:

            Russian politics is weird. You get people like these guys (successors to the National Bolsheviks) who not only manage to do the classic far-left/far-right horseshoe crossover, but also somehow be kind of liberal-centrist-adjacent (by virtue of being opposed to Putin).

          • Alex Shpilkin says:

            @rlms Oh, those. I don’t think they’ve ever had much of an ideology outside Limonov’s leadership, and the guy is… how should I put it… flappable. As in has been flapped in every possible direction. It’s weird out there, yeah, but I don’t think it makes much sense to extrapolate from this particular example.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          To be clear, I’m not endorsing the novel as a good work, but as an interesting artifact. I’d say it contains rationalist cheerleading more than actual rationalism. “Your life will be awesome if you don’t do things that don’t make sense and surround yourself with others who do likewise”.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          Also, re: Russian political spectrum, what happened under the Soviet Union? Socialism seems to have been the quintessential Westernizer position in the late 19th century, seen as the latest intellectual fashion out of Paris. Things must have gotten turned pretty upside-down when Russia went socialist and the West didn’t.

        • Alex Shpilkin says:

          I don’t think it’s entirely fair to call the political spectrum of 19th and early 20th century Russia one-dimensional. It became so during and after October 1917, yes, as it must during a civil war (though try reading Bulgakov’s White Guard for a fictional depiction of real and extant sentiment that was, while not explititly political, at least decidedly orthogonal to the allegedly unique possible direction). Going back a little, try sorting out the factions of the Provisional Government and understanding why, exactly, the Bolsheviks were called that, at the beginning. In fact, it wasn’t until Stalin’s purges two decades later that the last attempts at dissent among the old revolutionary guard were eliminated, and even then, some vestiges survived until the very end, like the last part of the oft-quoted triad of не был, не участвовал, не состоял (find an older Russian speaker to explain that one). Going back even further, Lotman’s biography of Pushkin gives a pretty good idea of the divisions of people that were the entrenched elite in the 1860s… And they were nowhere near the divisions of the last revolution. Or just read Muravyov’s and Plescheev’s constitution drafts from the 1810s. There’s a reason why the majority of Lenin’s writings is him dissing (without much literary skill) contemporary and past thinkers: there were a lot of those. Not much survived from that culture, in a social sense, but it definitely wasn’t one-dimensional at the time.

          A lot of what I mentioned above are works of literature, not philosophy, and I feel bad about not knowing more… But I’m not advocating any particular perception of the picture, merely trying to establish that there was one worth perceiving. That’s a much weaker proof obligation, so maybe this will be enough.

          (I don’t have any strength remaining to describe in today’s political scene in similar detail. Maybe later, if someone’s interested.)

  15. False says:

    Strange to me that you would read lacan in an attempt to understand leftists, when that lineage is more closely related to right-wing accelerationism via the “Dark Enlightenment” vis a vie Lacan → Deluze/Guattari → Nick Land → Moldbug → do I even need to say (someone who frequently comments on this blog, who you have had to ban on more than one occasion, initials S.S.).

    If you like Zizek, great! Otherwise, you might be better of learning about leftism via wikipedia rather than whoever you have guiding you currently.

  16. SteveReilly says:

    I work in publishing and once had to make the index to one of Lacan’s lectures. Fortunately it was a short book and the publisher wanted a short index, but even so my main strategy was to just figure out which word seemed to be the subject of each paragraph, even if I had no idea what the word meant, and come up with an entry for it. I never received any complaints, so either I did a good job or nobody else understood the lecture either and just assumed I knew what I was doing.

  17. Incurian says:

    The Method of Levels sounds exactly like Gestalt Therapy, both in concept and practice.

  18. Garrett says:

    Do you have any idea why it is that there are so many people who come up with crackpot medicine ideas?

    • zinjanthropus says:

      Because the stakes are (often) life or death and it’s very hard to figure out what (if anything) works.

    • Jaskologist says:

      There are lot of problems that real medicine isn’t able to fix yet. And the people with those problems are usually desperate for something that will help.

  19. Hoopyfreud says:

    Scott, why are you approaching “leftist” thought from the edges, behind a prism, through a scanner darkly? Your response to Zizek on Lacan being, “Lacan is incomprehensible” probably shouldn’t be to read more Zizek and/or Lacan. They’re both obscuritanists, but that feels like rhetorical obscuritanism, not ideological, at least to me. (I’m sure they’d disagree, but fuck them. You won’t understand the rhetorical effect unless you have the requisite intuitions.)

    Those intuitions require that you grasp phenomenology, or at least the shape of it. I don’t really get Heidigger’s phenomenology; I understand it only in relation to Kant and Neitzsche. Read samzdat, or the SEP, or something besides the “transcendence through masturbation” of Derrida and Lacan and Zizek. Regardless, given that you don’t have intuitions for this stuff (I originally didn’t either), I don’t think you’ll get anywhere without at least some understanding of transcendental idealism.

    For what it’s worth, my interpretation is that Lacan’s obscuritanism is memetic warfare designed to warp the reader/listener/patient into reframing their perceptions along his preferred orientations (to be charitable, this is with the aim of helping people transcend Freudian[?] neuroses that would make a straightforward argument incomprehensible).

    • EntropyMaximizer says:

      “my interpretation is that Lacan’s obscuritanism is memetic warfare designed to warp the reader/listener/patient into reframing their perceptions along his preferred orientations”


    • antilles says:

      Kant is worth the effort, even if you ultimately find his argument ridiculous, simply because he informs basically the entirety of 19th century intellectual history (either by inspiration or reaction) and a fair bit of the 20th.

      • Urstoff says:

        Definitely; Kant is the endpoint of enlightenment epistemology. Almost everything after him is either tweaks of already existing traditions (e.g., Mill’s empiricism is modified Hume, German idealism is modified Kant) or just the abandonment of the traditional epistemological project (e.g., analytic epistemology post-1950).

  20. marc200 says:

    I am commenting only to ask — no, plead! — Scott to read and review the excellent book “Medical Nihilism” by the philosopher Jacob Stegenga. Stegenga believes our prior ought to be that new medical therapies are very unlikely to be effective, even if we see published evidence supporting the effectiveness of such a therapy. He calls this position “medical nihilism”. I think that label is a bit over-dramatic as he is careful to reject the view that medicine in general is ineffective even as he lays out a detailed argument for why doctors ought to be extremely conservative in accepting new treatments — basically that helpful therapies are rare and our current systems of producing and assessing medical knowledge are very fragile, prone to corruption, and do not produce reliable evidence. But the book is much richer than can be easily summarized, including in discussions of e.g. what our conceptual model of a “disease” ought to be, etc.

    Here is a review of the book by Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal:

    Smith says that in his experience the best doctors tend to be instinctive “medical nihilists” in Stegenda’s sense.

    The arguments in the book apply particularly strongly to psychiatry I would think, although they also apply to medicine more generally. I would really love to see Scott’s assessment of this book, I think he is perfectly placed to give a thoughtful critical review and it might helpfully inform his own thinking.

    Amazon link to the book:

  21. benwave says:

    I admit to having never read any Žižek, but as far as leftist books to read I’m just gonna put in another plug for David Harvey. Seventeen Contradictions is fairly easy to read and understand, and it’s a good foundation on What Leftist (Academcs) Believe TM.

    • Azure says:

      David Harvey is quite good. I’ve been reading Capital as part of my own project to understand the ‘critical left’ (to borrow Rorty’s term.), and his lectures and companion text are making it easier to keep in sympathy with the text. (It hasn’t convinced me of Marxism, but all I really wanted was to understand why intelligent people with whom I disagree are Marxists and it’s managed that.)

      Capital isn’t a bad read, compared to a lot of stuff. There’s a lot of it, but it influenced a huge pile of stuff afterward and it’s not overly obscure.

      • koreindian says:

        +1 to this. I’m also reading Das Kapital with David Harvey’s lectures as accompaniment.

        This has, for my money, yielded a clear and systematic understanding of Left critique. The process is straightforward enough that I would hope that Scott will just pull the trigger and do the same (as opposed to picking up the latest book from Verso Press, which is probably just going to just exasperate him).

  22. Deiseach says:

    Although the steerswomen’s question-answering gimmick was cute, I spent more time worrying about the holes in it (can’t you just get someone else to ask steerswomen your questions? how can a worldwide organization in a medieval society keep an effective blacklist? really the world-building here was not that good)

    Those were exactly my quibbles when reading the description! How can the steerswoman know if your answer to her question is true or a lie? What about if you move to somewhere else and change your name? If you’re blacklisted, can’t you just get family/friends/pay a random guy you pick up in a tavern to ask the question for you? How are they going to keep track of every single person on the list, or know when someone is alive or dead? How long do the lists run for, and are you really going to make sure that for the next fifty years nobody ever answers Joe’s questions because he refused to answer that one question that one time?

    I think I’ve read a few tries in SF/Fantasy like this before to invent a guild or society or structure of people who are utterly honest and unbiased and reasonable and rational and so forth; like the Fair Witness notion from “Stranger in a Strange Land”.

    It’s been a nice concept to play around with but I’ve never seen it worked out convincingly and I don’t think this sounds like they managed it either. Like Heinlein’s Fair Witnesses who would not assume that the side of a house remained painted white while they went to look what colour the other side was, because someone might repaint the house while their backs were turned, so they couldn’t say “the other side was white when I saw it ten minutes ago and therefore I extrapolate from that that it is still white now”.

    Well, sure, that could happen. It’s not impossible, it’s just highly improbable and most people will not operate under the assumption that roving gangs of rogue housepainters will strike the minute they turn their back, so you can’t assume your own house is still the colour it was this morning unless you’re looking at it right now this minute with your own two eyes. I’m with Chesterton on this one, Robert:

    ‘Well,’ said Tarrant, ‘it’s refreshing to find a priest so sceptical of the supernatural as all that.’

    ‘Not at all,’ replied the priest calmly; ‘it’s not the supernatural part I doubt. It’s the natural part. I’m exactly in the position of the man who said, ‘I can believe the impossible, but not the improbable.’’

    ‘That’s what you call a paradox, isn’t it?’ asked the other.

    ‘It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,’ replied Father Brown. ‘It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand. So it is with that tale of the curse. It isn’t the legend that I disbelieve — it’s the history.’

    • noyann says:


      “roving gangs of rogue housepainters”

      I would soooooo love a novel/play/script written by Deiseach. No matter what genre, topic, or setting. Or even a rewriting of something in this style…

  23. antilles says:

    Re: Zizek, this parody music video is required viewing (also actually very funny and apt, unlike a lot of comedy music)

  24. Desertopa says:

    If you’re accepting recommendations of books to review, and you haven’t read it already, I suggest checking out Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. The 2013 essay it expands on was posted to the SSC reddit years back and as I recall generated some interesting discussion there. But the book, which I’ve recently started reading, explores the idea a lot more deeply, and draws on evidence which wasn’t available at the time of the original article.

    • Viliam says:

      If I remember correctly, in one of the SSC surveys there was a question whether your job is a “bullshit job”. Perhaps this is a good place to write my objection to how the question was asked:

      I think the problem is not just “100% bullshit jobs”, but also jobs where a part of what you do is meaningful, but that part requires less than half of your working time. Such as long meetings that actually don’t contribute to getting anything done. Or a useful thing, that later needs to be changed a few times for nonsensical reasons. Or jobs where a few people contribute to the stated goal, and then there are other people who just take money for doing nothing or creating obstacles for others.

      So a better question would probably be: “How much of your current job is bullshit? 0%, 25%, 50%, 75%, 100%”.

      • Desertopa says:

        Although the data doesn’t explore this as finely as I’d like, the parts of the book I’ve read so far do contain some discussion of the increasing level, not just of fully bullshit jobs, but bullshit content within jobs which serve some useful purpose.

  25. mtraven says:

    Some recommendations for continental philosophy:

    Given your interest in science and “conflict theory”: Bruno Latour (Science in Action, We Have Never Been Modern, The Pasteurization of France, The Politics of Nature, many others)

    Given your interest in self-improvement: Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life

    For a French philosopher, Latour is actually an extremely straightforward writer. Sloterdijk is sort of like Nietzsche, very in-your-face, but also not that obscure at the core. Neither is particularly leftist.

  26. monistowl says:

    >how can a worldwide organization in a medieval society keep an effective blacklist?
    Blockchains. Steerswomen each keep a ledger, merge changes when they meet. They’re checked against one another by big monastery scriptoria somewhere, ritualistically churning out one block of interdicts every solstice.

    Come to think of it, that’s probably why the wizards are so cagey. They’ve got some kind of rogue mining rig that isn’t a monastery, and are attempting a 51% attack so they can control the world.

  27. warrenmansell says:

    Hi Scott, I actually agree with much of your review, including your conclusion that MoL is dangerous, but not in the way you think. Not for clients, but for therapists, psychiatrists, mental health service managers, and pharmaceutical companies – because the easy and obvious solutions it provides for clients challenges their training, expertise, knowledge and experience. Not to mention its tight links with theory, that you acknowledge.
    Tim’s book is very elegantly written but it skims the tip of the iceberg in terms of the evidence base that has accumulated in the 13 years since it was written. Your readers are best to do their own searches for this work, but in essence, we have found that clients with all kinds of backgrounds and diagnoses value the fact they can book appointments when they need to and work on whatever problem they choose to. MoL is also more efficient in its effects compared to benchmarked studies. Key recent papers are:

    • Galle says:

      Hi Scott, I actually agree with much of your review, including your conclusion that MoL is dangerous, but not in the way you think. Not for clients, but for therapists, psychiatrists, mental health service managers, and pharmaceutical companies – because the easy and obvious solutions it provides for clients challenges their training, expertise, knowledge and experience.

      You know, I’m pretty sure that if someone actually wrote out that psychiatric crank list, “This theory is dangerous to the psychiatric establishment because it renders their entire field obsolete” would be the +50.

  28. warrenmansell says:

    In addition, I recommend you edit your section on MoL and mania, given the negative claims you make. First, there is no mention of applying MoL to mania in the book nor any statement that medication should never be offered to patients, just plenty of judicial advice regarding the alternatives. Second, MoL is being used in patients with psychosis in ways that they report are beneficial – see work by Sara Tai and by Rob Griffiths. Third, mania can be modelled using PCT – see work by myself and colleagues, including this keynote especially towards the end:

  29. Nav says:

    There is a rather significant irony in this post. First you review a book on psychical control systems, and then a book on Lacan. Lacan’s title of philosopher was thrust upon him; he is a psychoanalyst, and his methodology is eerily similar to the Method of Levels book you describe. The goal is similar too: cast light upon the higher level processes that underlie your psychical functioning, make them conscious, thus giving you new degrees of freedom to operate upon yourself symbolically.

    I agree that Lacan himself is mildly incomprehensible. I’ve been slowly reading a seminar of his and I feel I’m getting approximately half of it. This is partly because of his epistemological structuring: he works topologically rather than logically. So you have a network of quasi-visual ideas connected in various ways, rather than a hierarchy of abstractions. I now wonder the extent to which this (rhizomatic?) mode of structuring information influenced his star student, Guttari of Deleuze & Guttari.

    Beyond that, he refuses to conclude directly, as a math professor might by providing his class a theorem, preferring the European tradition of leading his audience to come to conclusions themselves. This is another reason why rationalists hate him. Regardless, this parallels the process the patient must use when coming to terms with their mind. This is one fascination he had: the parallel between a lecture and analysis, the different modes of discourse, and so on…

  30. dogmanthedestroyer says:

    yet another book rec: the evolution of modern metaphysics by a.w. moore has probably been the most accessible book on the continental tradition (on the topic of metaphysics) that i’ve read so far. it traces the evolution of ideas like immanence and identity and subjectivity as they’re passed from one philosopher to the next. it’s got a surprisingly lucid chapter on hegel, as well as one on derrida.

  31. vhuddy says:

    Hi Scott,

    I’m really glad you’ve shown an interest in MOL as it has a huge amount of potential for improving patient experience of psychological therapy and increasing access to it. However, the disparaging language you use (“embarrassing” or “dangerous”), massively obscures the points you make about MOL, a number of which are well made.

    As a clinical psychologist who has been using the MOL technique for several years now I think you should think carefully about correcting your review in a few places. A few statements stood out. For example,

    “This book isn’t just bad, it’s dangerous. One vignette discusses a patient whose symptoms clearly indicate the start of a manic episode.”

    This cannot be substantiated because it relies on the assumption that it is possible to determine a manic episode solely from reading a vignette reported in a book. At the very least the specific example in question should have been identified together with a justification for your opinion that mania was present. This would at least allow a right of reply and critique. As noted by Warren Mansell in another comment, no such example seems to exist in the book, so really you should retract this.

    This is followed by a further statement:

    “This is a good way to end up with a dead patient.”

    This is pretty inflammatory. Professor Carey’s book describes how MOL therapist should adopt the two steps. At no point does the text indicate that therapists should stop following their professional and ethical guidelines specified by their professional body. Thus, when mental health service user describes a risk to themselves or others the MOL therapist would always follow the local safeguarding protocol and document this in clinical notes.

    As noted in the comment by Warren Mansell the review should be improved by links to studies investigating MOL in clinical practice that have been published in peer reviewed journals. Here are some examples in addition to those posted by Warren:

    MOL has been evaluated in several practice based studies:

    Carey (2005) Primary care evaluation of attendance patterns (N = 98)

    Carey and Mullan (2008) Primary Care evaluation (N = 29) (

    Carey, Carey, Mullan, Spratt and Spratt (2009) (n=120)

    MOL compares very well when benchmarked against other therapies as reported here:

    Carey, Tai and Stiles (2013) (N= 51) Secondary care
    Furthermore, this study entailed work in secondary care setting and “presented with a wide range of diagnoses or problem formulation provided by referring clinicians. These ranged from relationship problems and anger management to chronic paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”

    Patient experience studies are:

    Griffiths (2019) Interviews with people recounting their experience of MOL who had been referrred by an early psychosis caseworker

    Carey et al. (2007) Experiences of psychological change in those who had received MOL

    This body of work in my opinion provides a significant amount of support for the value of MOL principles in a range of settings and the therapy is being actively researched in a range of other studies. The review should be amended to include this research on developments since publication of the book. I’d strongly recommend you read “Hold that Thought” which I think is one of the best books written about PCT and has a brilliant foreword by Bill Powers.

    I hope you will seriously consider these suggestions.

  32. vmacintyre says:

    Hi Scott, I’ve just read the entire Method of Levels book. I couldn’t find any vignette discussing a patient “whose symptoms clearly indicate the start of a manic episode”, in which MOL is recommended instead of giving them a diagnosis or “pumping them full of toxic drugs”. So I would be interested to know why you have stated in your review that this vignette is included in the book, when it actually isn’t?

    In the book, there are mentions of evidence against the use of psychiatric diagnoses, and evidence against the chemical imbalance hypothesis, but neither medication nor diagnoses are mentioned in the context that you claim. I’m involved in research on MOL, and I know people who have used it, and as vhuddy stated, an MOL therapist would always follow professional and ethical guidelines and safeguarding procedures if risk is involved. So it appears as though you have taken these sections completely out of context and fabricated an example based purely on your own interpretations and assumptions. I hope this was unintentional. Either way, I think you could make your review more informative by removing the claim about this particular vignette, since it is completely inaccurate, and gives readers a false impression of the book.

    My second comment may seem pedantic but it is actually an important one. You mention the book recommending that therapists “use MOL on” people, which implies that it is something which should be done to people regardless of how they feel about it. However, this phrase is never used in the book. It is actually made very clear in multiple sections of the book that MOL is intended for people who are seeking therapy and have agreed to having MOL, which seems like the opposite approach to me.

    In addition, your comment of how MOL has “got about as much empirical testing as, well, Freud” is also inaccurate, since as others have said, empirical studies have been conducted since this book was written. In future, I would recommend checking the current literature before making claims that a therapy has not been empirically tested.

    Lastly, I would be interested to know what you find “embarrassing” about the first few chapters or why it is “important” that people do not read them? It is also unclear what you think is “dangerous” about this book, given that the vignette you described wasn’t in there. I would also be very curious to know what made you read the book in the first place? Was it purely for the purpose of reviewing it or was it because you were initially interested in learning about MOL therapy?

  33. Douglas Knight says:

    It is striking how similar some of the last few comments are.

    • vhuddy says:

      Hi Douglas, as Warren says in another post, he and I practice MOL and are also qualified clinical psychologists who work on accredited clinical psychology training programs in the UK. We are bound to respond when our practice is misrepresented, hopefully in a transparent and fully substantiated manner (I feel unlike Scott’s review has done). Yes, and we’ve talked elsewhere about this blog…

  34. warrenmansell says:

    Hi Douglas, I think that comes from the fact that all three of us have read Tim Careys’ book and so can see the discrepancy with what Scott wrote, we have practised and researched MOL for many years and we are all part of a listserve where we provide MOL supervision and update each other with the latest research findings and client feedback on MOL…