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Against Self-Criticism: Adam Phillips on How Our Internal Critics Enslave Us, the Stockholm Syndrome of the Super Ego, and the Power of Multiple Interpretations
By Maria Popova

I have thought and continued to think a great deal about the relationship between critical thinking and cynicism — what is the tipping point past which critical thinking, that centerpiece of reason so vital to human progress and intellectual life, stops mobilizing our constructive impulses and topples over into the destructiveness of impotent complaint and embittered resignation, begetting cynicism? In giving a commencement address on the subject, I found myself contemplating anew this fine but firm line between critical thinking and cynical complaint. To cross it is to exile ourselves from the land of active reason and enter a limbo of resigned inaction.

But cross it we do, perhaps nowhere more readily than in our capacity for merciless self-criticism. We tend to go far beyond the self-corrective lucidity necessary for improving our shortcomings, instead berating and belittling ourselves for our foibles with a special kind of masochism.

The undergirding psychology of that impulse is what the English psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips explores in his magnificent essay “Against Self-Criticism”, found in his altogether terrific collection Unforbidden Pleasures (public library).


Our masochistic impulse for self-criticism, he argues, arises from the fact that ambivalence is the basic condition of our lives. In a passage that builds on his memorable prior reflections on the paradox of why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in romance, Phillips considers Freud’s ideological legacy:

In Freud’s vision of things we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate, we love; wherever we love, we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can also frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us, we always believe that they can satisfy us. We criticize when we are frustrated — or when we are trying to describe our frustration, however obliquely — and praise when we are more satisfied, and vice versa. Ambivalence does not, in the Freudian story, mean mixed feelings, it means opposing feelings.


Love and hate — a too simple, or too familiar, vocabulary, and so never quite the right names for what we might want to say — are the common source, the elemental feelings with which we apprehend the world; and they are interdependent in the sense that you can’t have one without the other, and that they mutually inform each other. The way we hate people depends on the way we love them, and vice versa. And given that these contradictory feelings are our ‘common source’ they enter into everything we do. They are the medium in which we do everything. We are ambivalent, in Freud’s view, about anything and everything that matters to us; indeed, ambivalence is the way we recognize that someone or something has become significant to us… Where there is devotion there is always protest… where there is trust there is suspicion.


We may not be able to imagine a life in which we don’t spend a large amount of our time criticizing ourselves and others; but we should keep in mind the self-love that is always in play.

But we have become so indoctrinated in this conscience of self-criticism, both collectively and individually, that we’ve grown reflexively suspicious of that alternative possibility. (Kafka, the great patron-martyr of self-criticism, captured this pathology perfectly: “There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy.”) Phillips writes:

Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves.


Nothing makes us more critical, more confounded — more suspicious, or appalled, or even mildly amused — than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism; that we should be less impressed by it. Or at least that self-criticism should cease to have the hold over us that it does.

But this self-critical part of ourselves, Phillips points out, is “strikingly unimaginative” — a relentless complainer whose repertoire of tirades is so redundant as to become, to any objective observer, risible and tragic at the same time:

Were we to meet this figure socially, as it were, this accusatory character, this internal critic, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him. That he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout of some catastrophe. And we would be right.


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#brainpickings #SelfCriticism #cynicism 
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James Salsman's profile photoBoris Borcic's profile photoDeen Abiola's profile photo
I didn't like this article because I don't think it really said anything. It's too simplifying; the quoted book wants to paint fine details but uses a much too thick brush.
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// Euclid becomes self-aware, in HD.

From Aronofsky's Pi (1998)
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> “It is quite easy to spot the fact that [these reviews] are not sound, but not if you do not read them,” said Medvet.

// The secret to human intelligence has been revealed.
Computer-generated gobbledygook can pass for the real thing with many faculty members, study finds.
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Pledge for a Quiet October

// The US presidential election environment has made any attempt at constructive engagement impossible. Over the last 18 months, the rhetoric has become so ugly, divisive, false, and hate-filled that I no longer feel capable of having a productive conversation about any topic on the national agenda, much less move that conversation towards the issues that I think matter more. In short, I feel that my political voice has been shut out by a process designed for people with far more money and power than anyone I know.

The media, the candidates, the parties, the public, and the electoral process itself all bear responsibility for our dismal circumstances. There is much to discuss about the sources and nature of our problems, and how to best resolve them. Bringing us out of this quagmire will require an enormous collective effort from everyone. There's no doubt that we have a lot of important work to do.

But it is impossible to do this work with the crescendo of an election in the background. This election season has seen billions of dollars and thousands of hours of air time spent on manipulative ads, sensationalized "scandals" without political relevance, and outright lies. These techniques leave the public less informed, more angry and afraid, and more likely to turn on each other. This trend will only increase in frequency and magnitude as the day of the election draws near. This environment makes it impossible for even well-meaning people to recognize their shared interests and come together for the sake of the common good. I worry that the slander and rhetoric seen on both sides will lead to more violence and pervasive despair before election day. I find these circumstances utterly intolerable.

For these reasons, I pledge to remain completely silent on the topic of the presidential election for the entire month of October. I will refuse to comment on any headlines, poll numbers, or other news regarding the presidential election, no matter how scandalous an "October surprise" or outrageous a fanatic supporter's behavior. I will refuse to engage my friends and family on this topic, even to simply inform them of what I know to be the indisputable facts. When others attempt to engage me, I will politely and without preaching ask to change the subject.

I make this pledge not because I want to shut others down and keep them uninformed, or because I think my opinions don't matter, or matter more than others. Other people do not (and should not) depend on my opinions to be informed, regardless of how brilliant I think they are. Instead, I make this pledge in response to what I see to as the difficult and deeply troubling coordination problem we've locked ourselves into, where any attempt at engagement will unintentionally makes things worse. Since constructive engagement is impossible, I pledge not to engage at all.

I don't think keeping this pledge will be easy; in fact, I think avoiding the election in our hyper-saturated media environment will be very hard. There is enormous social pressure to have an opinion and wear it like a badge, so we all know who's on whose side, so we can take score and size up the competition. By making this pledge, I am not thereby claiming that I have no preferences in the election. I'm not refusing to choose sides. I'm also not saying that both parties are the same, or that you shouldn't have a political opinion, or that you shouldn't try to stay informed and engaged. Politics is undoubtedly important, and our decisions matter. At the same time, we must exercise some discipline in how we make decisions, lest they overcome and control us. My hope is that a little less feedback from me might in some small way help lower the volume of noise generated by the election and its endless echoes in the media. If staying quiet for October makes the month a little less ugly and violent for those around me, then it's the least I can do.

The election this year falls on November 8th, and eight days is plenty of time to have an informed, reasonable discussion with my friends and neighbors before the election. Perhaps a Quiet October will allow us all to return to these discussions in November with a clear head and a steady hand. We've had over 18 months of continuous election coverage. For everyone's sake, we deserve a month off.

If you sympathize with my position, let me know! I'll need your support. If you'd like to take the pledge with me, that would be amazing! Share this post to let others know, and enjoy the silence!

Jeff Earls's profile photoBill Rabara's profile photoRichard Lucas's profile photoDaniel Estrada's profile photo
+Bill Rabara I agree generally that this year is at most an incremental extension from the last, but I see no reason a Quiet October can't be a regular, seasonal tradition. Given that we've extended the "election season" to start in January 2015 and can expect the same in 2019, I propose to make a Quiet October a regular election event. Because in all likelihood, come October 2020 we'll need another break. =)
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// If I were a virtue ethicist, I'd want more models of archetype jerks and paradigm cases of jerkish behavior to study. I'd also pause at the claim that the opposite of the jerk is the sweetheart. Since the virtues are supposed to be between the extremes, it would imply that sweethearts (who care too much about others) aren't virtuous either! Was this implication explicit?

Is it even possible to care too much about others? Or is care like tempertature, with the complete jerk at absolute zero, but no theoretical maximum?

Other thoughts:

- Might we need jerks? Could jerks serve some hidden utility, from an ethical or evolutionary or some other perspective, such that the would be a worse place if there were too few jerks, and the ideal number of jerks is greater than zero? Clearly there are benefits to sweethearts...
- Can't people be mistaken for a jerk? Batman is a gruff figure who rubs lots of people the wrong way; plenty of people think of Batman as a jerk. In fact, Batman is protecting the city from great dangers; his actions are (mostly) altruistic. Who is the authority on whether someone is a jerk?
My latest on jerks, at Nautilus. "How to Tell If You're a Jerk".
(Coming soon: The Jerk Quiz!)
Here’s something you probably didn’t do this morning: Look in the mirror and ask, am I a jerk? It seems like a reasonable question.…
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Richard Lucas's profile photoDaniel Estrada's profile photoDavid Arnold's profile photoABC Decay's profile photo
There does seem to be a historical precedent for subjecting common sense concepts to rigorous scrutiny, foraging for criteria to aid in distinguishing between one concept and another. It's called scientific racism. The old distinctions between, say, Mongoloids and Maylays and Negroids have a modern counterpart in the distinctions between jerks and assholes and sweethearts.

But I think it's very nice of you to point out that jerkitude might serve some hidden utility, because otherwise, summoning the full force of intuition, we might hold that some attitudinal compositions are just inherently inferior or bad, which in turn would seem to extend to us by analogy the right to hold that some phenotypic compositions (races) are also just inherently inferior or bad.

And yet, why not extend that right? If we count as ethical progress the extension of human rights to everyone regardless of race, should we not likewise extend human rights to everyone regardless of attitudinal composition? Why shouldn't society progress toward the equal treatment of racist jerks?
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// This is from a Sony research group, which plans to release an album of material like this next year. They have another example song on the main website:

You can see more samples of music in different styles, along with a video of the composer demonstrating how the songs are generated, on this page:

The video with Benoît Carré demonstrating FlowComposer makes it clear that the human is making quite a lot of the choices in composition, down to changing particular notes; the program is just filling in the rest with machine learning. The results are damn close to passing for pop schlock.

You might be skeptical that anyone will care about this music the way they would scream and pull their hair out over the Beatles. But such worries miss the point. Background music is pervasive in media, and almost all that music is generated by human hands that are expensive to maintain and operate. The creative fields were one of the few places where humans were confident in their superiority over the machines. Now we can generate background music automatically, and cut a huge number of talented humans out of the loop.

The wonderful Every Frame a Painting recently discussed the predictable, uninspired music in the Marvel Universe films. AI is sure to bring you a lot more like it.
James Salsman's profile photo
Oh good grief. This is the audio equivalent of
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My hypothesis: within the stock market, there is a pattern as well, hiding in the numbers...
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// Euclid becomes self-aware.

From Aronofsky's Pi (1998)
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Cared about this enough to make a much higher quality version:
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@omershapira @pmarca I've done this. Like it said I wanted to return it to the owner. Anyone know the most paranoid way to do it safely? dmanww. 11h. dmanww @dmanww. @joeyaiello @omershapira @pmarca use an internet cafe, library, etc? Basically keep it away from your machine and network.
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Daniel Carollo's profile photoJeff Earls's profile photoPeter da Silva's profile photoDee Leggett's profile photo
You ought to see the statistics in office building parking garages. I won't even mention government employee parking...oops.
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// Another resource in this discussion is Tyler Burge's (1998) Computer Proof, A Priori Knowledge, and Other Minds, also dealing with the 4CT. Burge argues for the externalist thesis that computer proofs constitute a prior knowledge even without empirical consideration of every line.

Full text:
What is a Proof?

"Thanks to the four color problem, a rift rose between orthodox mathematicians and the budding computer science community over what comprises a proof. Recently when I was refreshing my memory on the four color problem, I became distracted by this disagreement and the question What is a proof?. So, I looked into some info surrounding these topics such as the history of proofs and proof assistants, problems mathematicians raise with proof assistants, and the validity of proof assistants."
Thanks to the four color problem, a rift rose between orthodox mathematicians and the budding computer science community over what comprises a proof. Recently when I was refreshing my memory on the…
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// Meditation for robots.
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Robot. Made of robots.
I've written under the handle Eripsa for over a decade on various blogs and forums. Today I do my blogging and research at Fractional Actors and on my G+ stream.

I'm interested in issues at the intersection of the mind and technology. I write and post on topics ranging from AI and robotics to the politics of digital culture.

Specific posting interests are described in more detail here and here.


So I'm going to list a series of names, not just to cite their influence on my work, but really to triangulate on what the hell it is I think I'm doing. 

Alan Turing, W.V.O. Quine, Norbert Wiener, Herbert Simon, Dan Dennett, Andy Clark, Bruce Sterling, Bruno Latour, Aaron Swartz, John Baez, OWS, and Google. 


My avatar is the symbol for Digital Philosophy. You can think of it as a digital twist on Anarchism, but I prefer to think of it as the @ symbol all grown up. +Kyle Broom helped with the design. Go here for a free button with the symbol.

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