Friday, January 11, 2008

Excellent Imbalance

As someone who is very good at some things, and extraordinarily incompetent at others, I sometimes wonder whether it's preferable to be more balanced and 'normal' all round. Here are three blog posts from others that touch on the issue...

(1) Alex Tabarrok writes:
All personality differences increase in developed economies. If Chris Rock were a Bangladeshi rice farmer he might still be funny but he'd also have to be a hard-working, diligent rice farmer and that would push his personality closer to the mean of all rice farmers. The division of labor both opens up the possibility of becoming who you truly are and it magnifies and extends who you can be.

Aside: can anyone clarify exactly what is meant by such talk of "who you truly are"? What does the authenticity of a life, or being "true to yourself", consist in? It's intuitively very important, but seems difficult to pin down. Perhaps the idea is that we have certain deep-rooted characteristics that will influence what sorts of situations we best flourish in. Being "true to yourself" is then a matter of recognizing these unalterable facts, rather than forcing yourself to live as a round peg in a square hole, or however the saying goes. Is that it? (Or is inauthentic flourishing possible? Perhaps the thought is that we ought to nourish our individual differences and eccentricities whenever possible, so that someone who failed to do so - and lived a happily normal life in consequence - thereby failed to fully develop their individuality, the quirky unique version of them hidden within? That seems much more controversial.)

(2) Ben Casnocha discusses Marcus Buckingham, "someone who believes that cultivating your strengths is a better approach than trying to fix your weaknesses." I take it this depends upon being able to find the right niche, i.e. where your particular strengths are very important, and your particular weaknesses are not. Easier to change your environment than yourself, and all that.

(3) For a contrasting view, Steve Gimbel proposes that human excellence is a sign of mental illness:
To be more than good, but truly great requires sacrifice that would make most normal (and I would argue, rational) people say, "No, thank you." I posit that "love of the game," whether the game is football, academic scholarship, attaining political power, seeking social change, or whatever else one might engage in, will only get you to really good. To become great requires more and that more requires the willingness to step away from that which would make your life, writ large, well lived.

I've always been more sympathetic to the 'perfectionist' claim that excellence has increasing marginal value. It's nice to go from mediocre to good, but a descriptively "equal" improvement (however one measures these things) from great to outstanding is of greater value. What matters most is the peak of attainment. So it can be worth 'specializing' as a person, sacrificing some areas of our lives in order to truly excel in others. We all recognize the remarkable value of the lives of Beethoven, Gandhi, etc., despite their manifest flaws. A world without such greatness, but a much higher average happiness, would be the poorer for it.

Is that such a crazy view?


  1. I'm not sure the "however one measures such thing" part can be easily glossed over. Can you suggest an intuitively attractive measure that can be individauted apart from its value?

    [Not to say that's impossible]

  2. Yeah, that's tricky. Technical proficiency, at least, may fall along a simple measure: how far you can jump, how fast you can play an octave scale, etc. In other cases we might get some grip on the underlying measure via such indications as how much effort must normally be invested to yield a certain improvement, or what percentage of people are capable of a certain feat, etc.

    I'd welcome better suggestions :-)

    (Though I think the general point stands regardless.)

  3. "A world without such greatness, but a much higher average happiness, would be the poorer for it...Is that such a crazy view?"

    No, I agree with you wholeheartedly. That, in essence, was Nietzsche's view as well. But he would probably go a few steps further: Greatness just matters more than goodness. And enshrining goodness as our highest social ideal stymies the flourishing of greatness.

  4. Andrew-
    Careful, Nietzsche sees goodness as an ideal external to a person's activities; what he thinks matters more are the things someone actually does, and whether or not its successful in achieving one's aim. The all-to-common mistake is to believe that this means everyone should strive to be a Beethoven, which misses the point that one should do one's best within one's capacity. (And kudos if one turns out to be the next Beethoven.)

  5. Jared,

    I don't think your reading of Nietzsche is quite so obvious as you make it out to be.

    Is your idea that goodness is an ideal external to a person's activities, while greatness is an ideal wholly internal to them? At least that's what I understand your interpretation to be.

    First of all, I'm not sure Nietzsche thinks goodness is a worthwhile ideal at all, but we can leave that aside for the moment. Let's focus on whether greatness is an internal matter.

    You say: "what he thinks matters more are the things someone actually does, and whether or not it's successful in achieving one's aim."

    So are you ascribing to Nietzsche the view that I could be utterly devoted to the aim of, say, eating 50 hot dogs in five minutes, and so long as I am able to achieve my aim, that counts as greatness? That seems doubtful, both as a reading of Nietzsche and as philosophical claim about greatness. Greatness, for Nietzsche, depends in large part on the external significance of the aims you set for yourself and their contribution to cultural flourishing. Goethe was great, in large part because his writings were. Beethoven was great in large part because his music was. But Frankfurter man is not great, nor are the vast majority of humankind, as they undertake their petty herd pursuits.

    You're right to say that he doesn't think everyone should strive to be a Beethoven. But that is for an utterly practical reason: not everyone *can* be a Beethoven. Most people are utterly untalented and have no hope of reaching that sort of greatness. They can fancy themselves as great and play with their shitty homespun band in their garage. But it would be better for people like them, and for the cultural whole, if they were the emptiers of Beethoven's chamber pot, or the sweepers of Goethe's floor. That, at least, would be some contribution to genuine greatness.

    Yet it doesn't follow that fulfilling that menial role well is *itself* a kind of greatness; it is just an enabling condition for the flourishing of greatness, the existence of which is in a large part an external matter dependent on the significance of the achievment.

    That's undemocratic, but then again, so was Nietzsche.

  6. No, it's not obvious, but it's simple once you see it through all the land-mines Nietzsche and his interpreters tend to scatter about. Take BGE 256, where Nietzsche lists off a whole bunch of artists he thinks achieved greatness. In that passage, the works of these persons have a seductive power and are taken up "entr'acte" as something to admire, and hence a symbol for what's valuable. It all depends on the ability of "high cultured man" to draw others into a specific viewpoint by expressing their own.

    So, in a perhaps unsatisfactory answer to Richard's request for suggestions other than "technical proficiency", I'd say that eating 50 hotdogs in one sitting is quite a feat; but as long as a number of people don't admire the feat, then it won't be considered "great". Note: Here were circumventing the property of good/greatness in favor of the consideration. "Technical proficiency" would then have no value of its own; an "eye of the beholder" sort of problem

    And I didn't make it clear that I consider "goodness" and "greatness" to be roughly equivalent in kind, though different in degree.

    Also, Gimbel's main point ("To become great requires more and that more requires the willingness to step away from that which would make your life, writ large, well lived") echoes Nietzsche's thoughts on a "pathos of distance"--in support of which BGE 256 is a key passage.

    Echoes, but doesn't necessarily agree with it...

  7. Jared,

    I don't want to take over Richard's blog for a dispute over Nietzsche interpretation. But that said, I think you're completely misinterpreting BGE 256. Indeed, it doesn't address any of the issues were are discussing.

    Nietzsche's primary goal in BGE 256 is to argue for a form of artistic cosmopolitanism (and to argue against the jingoistic nationalism of Wagner). The list of artists he cites are examples of those he sees as such cosmopolitans, or at least he claims they were cosmopolitans at heart, if they strayed a bit: "In all the more profound and comprehensive men of this century the general tendency of the mysterious workings of their souls has been to prepare the way to this new synthesis and to anticipate experminentally the European of the future: only in their foregrounds, or in hours of weakness, in old age perhaps were they 'men of the fatherland'--they were only taking a rest from themselves when they became 'patriots.'" He then goes on to give the list, Napoleon, Goethe, Stendhal, etc. I don't see how this discussion of N's supports the point you're making. That they were cosmopolitans is surely one thing that made them great on N's view. But it is far from the only thing.

    The rest of passage then involves an extended discussion of Wagner, most of which is thoroughly tongue-in-cheek on Nietzsche's part. Wagner, of all things, did not want to be thought of as cosmopolitan; he wanted to be thoroughly German. So N is mockingly trying to point out the undercurrent of frenchness in Wagner's music, knowing full well that Wagner detested the French and thought that everything German was artistically superior. (Issues of cosmpolitanism/nationalism aside, it would be like pointing out to, say, Milan Kundera the touches of Danielle Steele in his work--the observation of N's is simply a meant as a cruel jibe against Wagner).

    When N talks about the "seductive" power of Wagner's art, what you cite as supposedly an "entr'acte" on his part, he is simply trying to be insulting to Wagner (and Delacroix, to whom he has compared W). N is *not* trying to point out something of genuine value in such art at all. He says in this passage that Wagner is, among other things the artist "of the shop window" and then, in a particularly subtle and barbed line of Nietzsche's, that Wagner has "talents far beyond his genius." W is for N (at this point in his career) a kind of cheap conjurer and circus magician, trotting out the exotic to entertain us. This passage is simply not about what makes art great in general. It is about why, in Nietzsche's rather tendentious view, two particular artists fail to be great. (And if anything, it is not because they didn't *try* to be great; it was because their achievements themselves were not up to snuff).

    Moreover, BGE 256, from what I can tell, makes no explicit or implicit reference to the "pathos of distance" either, so I don't see why cite it in support of that concept.

    This passage, in short, has nothing to do with general question we were discussing, and it certainly doesnt lend any support to the interpretation of N you are defending.

    Indeed, I think you are miscontruing the "pathos of distance" when you suggest that it is being echoed in the quotation you cite. The pathos of distance just doesn't have anything to do with "step[ping] away from that which would make your life, writ large, well lived." (See, for example, GM I:2 for a seminal formulation of the doctrine of the pathos of distance.) The pathos of distance is not either in agreement or in contradiction with that idea of Gimbel's, so far as I can tell.

    N's does discuss the pathos of distance in BGE 257, so maybe that was what you were looking at.

    In BGE 257, Nietzsche makes reference to both the pathos of distance (PD) within society (gradations between the aristocratic types and the herd) and another "mysterious" pathos (MP) within the soul of aristocratic man--that which goads him on to self-overcoming and to great creative achievements. PD, Nietzsche argues, is a social precondition for MP to be possible. Social arrangements need to be such that higher types can flourish. And that in N's view requires both a) the recognition on the part of the higher types that they are better than ordinary people and b) that ordinary people to keep the machinery of society running so that the higher types can pursue their great achievements most effectively. There needs to be, as N says here, "slavery in some sense or other" in order for great achievements to be possible.

    Now it may also be true that MP, something solely within the soul of the aristocrat or higher man, is an *enabling* condition to a great achievement. Maybe that is what you have in mind in seeing echoes in Gimbel. But first of all, MP is not PD; the two are conceptually distinct. One is a state of society, and the other is a state of the soul. And second of all, even if MP is enabling condition, that doesn't mean that MP is *all that matters* for making an achievement great. Something else might be vital--namely, the value of the achievement itself. Indeed, MP may even be a constitutive part of making the achievement great and still not be a sufficient condition for the achievement's being great. The achievement may still need to meet certain external standards of greatness--to be a great symphony or novel, and not just a middling one, even if someone put a lot of effort into creating it.

    In BGE 258, Nietzsche then goes on to make one of the points I was ascribing to him i the post. "The essential thing in a good and healthy aristocracy [a society, that is, such that PD is true of it] is, however, that it does *not* feel itself to be the function (of the monarchy or the commonwealth) but as their *meaning* and supreme justification-- that is accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of innumerable men who for its sake have to be suppressed and reduced to imperfect men, to slaves and instruments. Its fundamental faith must be that society should not exist for the sake of society but only as foundation and scaffolding upon which a select species of being is able to raise itself to a higher task [höheren Aufgabe] and in general to a higher existence [höhren Sein]."

    These passages we have seen suggest:

    1. Contrary to what you propose as an interpretation, greatness (though N doesn't use exactly that word here), on N's view is not possible for simply anyone who sets aims for himself or herself and then achieves those aims. Such significant achievements are limited to a "select species of being." Everyone else is merely instrumental in making those achievements possible.

    2. In Nietzsche's denigration of Wagner and Delacroix in BGE 256, he implies that there *are* artistic standards by which achievements can be measured.
    Those two artists of course set themselves artistic aims. And by their own lights they achieved those aims much of the time. But Nietzsche's point is that their accomplishments are, in many ways, simply middling and unfortunate as aesthetic achievements. This is evidence for the point that I suggested, namely what matters about a creative achievement, fundamentally, is in large part *its* greatness.

  8. (I don't mind; feel free to continue the interesting exchange...)

  9. I've moved the discussion of Nietzsche here. As for talk about greatness, it seems Andrew's point ("what matters about a creative achievement, fundamentally, is in large part *its* greatness") just shifts the question from the "greatness" of an individual to the "greatness" of an individual's works. I'm more inclined to say that "greatness" has more to do with a person/work's reception than its characteristics. But I can see that as being problematic: what if people don't recognize a work that is technically better?

  10. How's this (cross-commented): effectiveness and appreciation and cultural significance make something great--the sum of the three. When the artist has been able to carry out her aim effectively, have her work appreciated, and has an impact on culture, then she can be said to be great objectively. Now, if the first is met, but the second or third only strikes an individual or subgroup, then I think it safe to say that she is still great subjectively.

  11. Richard -- what if we take "all-round high competence (but not necessarily excellence)" as itself an excellence? If that's right, and you're right about the accelerating value of excellence, then the all-rounder should not aim to 'peak' in any particular pursuit, but to raise their competence in another pursuit above the average -- since that is what serves the all-rounder's chosen excellence.

    I think "what percentage of people are capable of a certain feet" would give the wrong result, if the bell curve applies to distributions of human excellence. ie. the bell curve predicts that the greatest rate of increase in "rarity value" occurs somewhere in between mediocrity and excellence -- somewhere between "good" and "really good", perhaps.

  12. I don't mean deny that excellence have increasing marginal value. But I think there is a bias that can exaggerate this value in the mind of the perfectionist. The greater a person's excellence in one thing, the less time they have for other things, so they have an inflated view of the importance of the activity in which they achieve excellence. I have no sound evidence for this claim, though. It just seems to make intuitive sense -- the world seems to shrink when one concentrates on one part of it. Counterexamples might be excellences that by their very nature give one a more balanced view of the relative value of things (philosophy would be a candidate for one of these self-corrective excellences, I guess)

  13. Mike - 'what if we take "all-round high competence" as itself an excellence?'

    Interesting suggestion! The "expert generalist" does seem possible, at least in the case of someone who sports a remarkable array of competencies. (It is probably more difficult to become remarkable in general than remarkable in some specific respect, however. So most people's excellence would be better served by specializing.)

    Jared - "I'm more inclined to say that "greatness" has more to do with a person/work's reception than its characteristics. But I can see that as being problematic: what if people don't recognize a work that is technically better?"

    There are a couple of ways I can think of to introduce just slightly more objectivity here: (1) Go subjectivist about ultimate standards, but allow that people may be objectively mistaken about whether a work meets the standards they're committed to. (2) Idealize: never mind our actual, flawed judgments; ask what we would conclude if we were fully informed and thinking clearly, etc.


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