The Intellectual vs. The Social
Hello, Agnes. What should we talk about?
So I would like to talk to you about a topic, a problem, of which I think you
have less firsthand experience than anyone I know so you should have an
interesting perspective on it.
OK. That means I know almost nothing about how to solve it.
Correct. So, you know nothing from firsthand experience.
OK. The problem is the tension between the goals of intellectual activity and
the goals of social activity. So let me like sketch this for you. The place
where this becomes really obvious to me is when I go give a talk somewhere. I
give a talk. There’s a Q&A and there was a kind of lively engaged discussion
of what I’ve just said and then after that there is like a dinner or a lunch
or something where really only the most sophisticated and experienced and the
people who are really dedicated to philosophy, those people are the ones who
come to the meal afterwards, right? But at the meal, what you might think what
would happen is like an intense just philosophical discussion. That’s not what
happens. What happens is socializing of one form or another. And I actually
made this prediction the last talk that I gave in the Q&A. I said, “After this
talk, there’s going to be a dinner and then we’re not going to talk philosophy
at the dinner.” And I thought maybe if I say that then people to be contrarian
will try to do the opposite and then we would do it but it didn’t happen. So
this is my – this is the general problem. It’s weird to me that people who
devote their lives to intellectual inquiry and who in some cases are rarely
around other people who are interested in it and have an unusual opportunity
to talk about it, are only taking that opportunity in the structured
environment of the Q&A and not in the more free form environment of the
dinner. OK. What are your first thoughts?
Well, so first of all, there’s just a job and non-job stuff, right? So I mean
we very much frame our time allocation as job versus non-job just in general,
not just in philosophy or academia, and people like to draw a relatively sharp
distinction there. And even if they like their job, they also like to have
non-job time and they’re often somewhat jealous or hesitant to allow too much
job stuff to slip over into non-job stuff. They want to draw a line and hold
it there as some sort of protester defense against the rapacious capitalists
or whoever are trying to exploit them into working too much. So I think we
just have a general norm in our society about drawing a line between job and
non-job time and also a norm that we should have a substantial amount of
non-job time even with people who share the same job. So that seems sufficient
to explain what you just described if it were an ordinary job, that is for a
typical or pretty standard job, there is job time and then people are working
together on the job and then once you call it non-job time then people are
usually relatively reluctant to get too much in job things although they will
sometimes do gossiping about job people, but that’s a little different than
jobbing, right? So it seems to me the main issue here is if you think of this
as not a usual job, as a holy crusade, as a way of life, as a passion, a sort
of thing you might want to fill lots of your life up with even if weren’t paid
for it then what you’re describing becomes a little more puzzling. So the
first question is how many of these people see this as more than just a job?
Well, so let me raise two things, so one of them is like I just want to like
pull up a norm to counter your norm. It’s a totally different topic but this
is when you could have invoked to explain the opposite phenomenon which is,
intellectuals in general have a bit of a self-conception as having a calling
as intellectuals and putting themselves forward as intellectuals like they
want to seem intellectual, they want to seem to others like they are
passionate about ideas and interested in ideas, and you might want to think
they would want to play that, and off-times too, to come across as being
intellectual. So that’s a contrary norm that you might have thought would have
led to the opposite behavior. One thing about these dinners is I mean you
don’t have to go, right? So you could go to dinner with your family instead.
You could go to dinner with your friends. You are choosing to go to dinner
with this group of people and it seems like it’s just an odd choice for who to
go to dinner with if you want time off from philosophy.
Well, let’s see. I think for a lot of people whose job isn’t intellectuals,
they actually do spend a substantial part of their free social time trying to
brand themselves as intellectuals. It’s quite common for people who would be a
dentist or some other sorts of professional to, at a dinner party, play
intellectual and discuss intellectual topics, quote intellectuals. That’s
actually a pretty common thing for people whose job is not being intellectual.
So you might then think, “Well, once your job is intellectual, you got the
stamp of approval. You no longer need to prove that you’re an intellectual.”
And so you don’t necessarily need to fill your extra social time with such
things in the same way that somebody else who would just try to assert
themselves as intellectual whose job isn’t that way and might be trying to do.
OK. So if the thing were really about branding yourself that way, and fair
enough, that was – I was the one who made that point. But like I guess I just
think in the most naïve way, it seems like a missed opportunity. It’s like if
a bunch of artists who are really into doing collaborate art got together but
they didn’t do collaborative art or something.
So I have actually a relevant piece of data. I once read this book and I wrote
a review on it. And I believe the book – it was about prestige but the name of
the book wasn’t prestige. It was something about – it was basically about
people who get hired for very prestigious jobs, law and management consulting
and some sort of other management thing. I’m trying to remember. But the key
idea was, it was a book about how exactly this prestige market worked.
Pedigree was the name of the book. I found my post on it, How Elite Students
Get Elite Jobs, and it went into quite some detail about how these elite job
places chose and hired their elite students. And these places very much wanted
to have students who matched the job on the kind of degree they got, but it
was also very important to ask them about their hobbies and other behaviors. I
think law schools maybe was one of these. But anyway, behaviors and it was
very much a bad sign if somebody’s hobbies overlapped too much with their
professional aspirations. That was considered. So for example, a business
student who did business as their major, if they on their free time were
involved in starting a business perhaps or even just like a business club and
they just really wanted to talk about business, that was considered a bad
sign. That was just not OK. There was this …
There was a sense that that – you weren’t a well-rounded person. You were more
of a pretender. There’s a sense of which like you were trying to …
It seems like the opposite of a pretender. You are very committed.
But what they wanted is elite, not people good at their jobs. Fundamentally,
they were selecting for elites. They wanted to get people from an elite
culture who acted the elite way. And in our culture, elites don’t do that.
That’s not – actually, the phrase I have here is “excess interest in some
particular set of ideas marks you as a boring tool”, “boring” because you
aren’t able to talk about lots of other things that everybody else wants to
talk about. And a “tool” because you don’t have your own agenda, you’re just a
slave to this profession or topic area of yours. There is a widespread norm
OK. So maybe the thought is that being well-rounded, having interests outside
of your job and having specifically elite interests that those are going to
mark you as some kind of like a leader and also mark you as a social success,
someone who is good at social context and is a potential leadership material.
Is that the idea?
I think they’re just going for a kind of person who is like us basically.
There’s just a kind of person who is in these roles and they are trying to
pick other people like them.
So like if these people happen to not be elites but like nerds or whatever
then they would be like selecting for that just because they want people who
are similar to them. So it has nothing to do with elites per se. It’s just
people like others to be similar to themselves?
And in these communities, they’re part of a whole network of people who are
all trying to pick out that same group of elites together. So that would be –
if you and I play racket ball and we wanted to hire someone who play racket
ball to be in our thing, we wouldn’t expect to be a part of a large world of
people who all like racket ball, right? So this is a much larger world where
not only are people like themselves but they expect that that will go well for
the organization, that is, it will help them place people in their
organization to others and they will gain respect and those sorts of things.
Good. And I mean I guess that does go back to me to like socializing. That is
– and obviously, the demand on success in socializing is going to be relative
to a community, right? And so relative to this community, if you have these
narrow interests in just the business stuff, you will be poor at socializing
and you will fail at your job because part of your job involves this
socializing that’s just built into it, right? That’s the idea.
Well, I think – I mean you would be well-associated with these sorts of
people, which is different than socializing with anybody.
And that’s the way it is. I mean the job includes these sorts of people,
right? So that’s just …
It could include other people. So …
It could – we could live in a different world but this is the world they are
hiring you in.
So here’s – two related points. One is just an anecdote. I would not name a
name but I have a colleague who is an economist and told me that “he”, that
would not reveal very much, went on interviews at places about – visiting
places to talk to people and they were considering him for jobs. And he heard
back from the grapevine that they just didn’t like the fact that as soon as he
met somebody off the plane, he started talking ideas. That was just his thing.
And that bugged other people. They just didn’t like that. That was just too
much. He was not following the proper script to talk about other things.
Another point is this idea of whether nerds are bad at socializing. So I’ve
been part of relatively nerdy work groups like software engineers and other
kinds of engineers. And often, they put somebody who is not such an engineer
in charge of them under the story that this person is better at doing social
stuff even if they don’t know the tech stuff. And the claim is, it goes
something like, they read people better or they connect to people better or
something like that. But they often don’t connect very well to the nerds under
them, and the nerds under them are perfectly fine at connecting to each other.
They just don’t connect to the management class which is the sort of people
this manager is supposed to connect to. And this basic question of, some
people say the nerds are bad at socializing so they are poorly able to
coordinate. But it seems to me they are actually able to coordinate with each
other. The nerds are perfectly capable of forming work groups and then
compromising and working out their relative roles and making sure they do –
they can do all that social stuff with each other. The problem they have is
with other sorts of people who don’t share their similar sorts of interest.
I’ll just say that’s not my experience with nerds. That is, perhaps they are
good at coordinating when there is a task and they specifically only have to
coordinate on that task and they know they don’t need their lives to be in
contact in any other way. But if I’m just thinking about the nerds I know and
their social environments, they often involve a lot of non-nerds buffering,
and that it doesn’t seem true to me. Like two people who kind of have very
specific modes of socializing that they’re kind of set in. If you try to make
those people to get along, they are not like especially likely to get along.
So if we go back to the academic nerds like my friend who I was describing is
an academic nerd because he wants to talk ideas as soon as he gets off the
plane. And in some sense, you are an academic nerd to the extent you are
trying to get these dinner groups to talk about ideas, right?
They are trying to do the general social thing and you are trying to talk
about more specific ideas. So you and my friend are these nerds. So now the
question becomes, for the purpose of advancing the general intellectual
project, are we most effective talking about ideas whenever we can or is there
some other effectiveness and use, for the intellectual project not just our
personal lives, of doing all these other sort of socializing?
Right. And I’m not – my question is just about the tension between these two
things, not like which one should win or something, at least that’s – it’s
just striking to me to notice that the tension exists even among the most
intellectual people. And by the way, you’re classifying me as a nerd. I’m not
sure I identify as a nerd. I think I experience this phenomenon as a problem,
that is, I dislike it and it makes me dislike a lot of dinners. But I don’t
quite have the ability to just do the other thing. That is, I am pulled by
these forces, these social forces, where I feel like OK, now we need to change
the topic because the topic needs to wander quite a lot if we are having a
social conversation. I experience those forces and I yield to them, and I
think that that’s why people like me and they find me easy to get along with
and probably those same hiring committees that didn’t want to hire that guy
would want to hire me because I would understand what they wanted and I would
do it. So I guess maybe I’m more of an in-between kind of case. That’s why I
said I think you have no personal experience of this because I think you just
do not experience the social forces at all. You are just like – but even you,
like if you – like right now we are doing a podcast and so we – here’s a good
way to think about it. Right now, we are under a little bit of pressure. For
instance, we are under pressure to stay on topic, right? We have a topic, the
social versus the intellectual, and we are supposed to discuss that topic and
we are not supposed to veer off into personal anecdotes, which as you know me,
I do quite a lot of when I’m not constrained by the norms of the podcast,
right? We need to sort of try to make progress on this question and we are
under the stress of having to do that by the artificial environment that we’ve
created, the podcast. And I feel like that’s a lot like the Q&A after a talk.
And that what happens in the dinner is like all of those pressures are sort of
released and that maybe like the intellectual goals that we have, maybe they
just need for many of us just quite a lot of structure in order for us to be
able to pursue them, because they are like stressful and they create a
psychological tension. I was raising this issue with somebody over lunch
today, this exact problem and he was saying, “Well, look, imagine if at this
lunch, which was a lunch after a talk where exactly this thing happened,” he
was like, “imagine when I ask the speaker a question after his talk, he gave
me an answer and then I push back a little but then it had to end. It was a
Q&A. It was the next person’s turn to talk. But imagine at a lunch if I just
would not let it go and we just get more and more heated and we just angrier
and angrier at each other and now we’re going to have to sit here for the next
hour and have lunch or dinner.” So it’s also the case not only do these
frameworks provide stresses but they also provide in some sense certain kinds
of security. We each know we would not have to talk about this for more than
an hour, right? At an hour, we will be cut off and that’s like a kind of
reassurance that we have, right? And so maybe somehow the unconstrained
environment of the dinner, it’s just like too scary.
Well, I think the dinner is a differently constrained environment. It’s not
unconstrained. But maybe it’s different constraints are more conducive to some
other kind of behavior. So at the largest level I think we should just say,
there is a set of different kinds of behavior you can engage in and there is a
set of different kinds of context in which you might engage in these different
behavior. And we were just raising the question of the relative matching
between the behavior and the context but that seems more secondary importance
to me than the overall mix of the different kinds of behavior and what sort of
pressures might push for that different mix. So, that is – we can think of
some of the tasks that we might do together in talking as more job-oriented,
more technical, more specific to a job on the one hand, right? And then we
think other tasks could just be having fun in a leisure sense that has no
other purpose than merely enjoying a social connection with people or
something. And we could think in the middle are some kinds of social tasks
that are less tied to particular things we are doing on the job together and
more about our various social connections in this network of people doing jobs
and the various kinds of alliances we have and the kinds of ways that we might
need to build or repair or maintain various sorts of social connections in
order to continue to do the specific tasks, as well as just to have a – be a
person with a life, right? So in addition for a job, just as a person, you
want to have a network of social connections such that you can use them for
all your other purposes in your life, not just your job purposes. But that is
to me, like, the main spectrum of interest here. And then we might ask, these
intermediate tasks where we are doing social things, we are maintaining social
connections, we are getting to know people socially in a general sense, we are
deciding who likes who and who is with who, reassuring people that we respect
them, the hard part is to then ask how much of that is necessary for the
technical achievement of the fundamental profession we are in, say, versus
that if even if it weren’t necessary, we would still be doing it because
there’s just going to be these social games by which people win or lose, that
is, even if you’re good at your job, if you’re not good at the social game,
you might lose out because there’s the social game of deciding who is in or
out and who gets to do what. And so that sort of could describe – I mean so
the social stuff could be productive in helping us do our jobs better or it
could be somewhat parasitic, in the sense that any world that allow social
things that social parasites will arise and they will take some of the energy
and time in order to manage their social games, or as a way which the outside
world is parasitic. That is because you want friends and lovers and
recommendations for your kid’s schools, you want to have a lot of social
connections and so whenever you have the opportunity, you build up social
connections in order to help the other things you are trying to do. So that
seems to be the hardest thing to think about, how – for what purposes are
these social games useful?
Yeah. So I mean there are sort of two ways to understand why we are playing
the social games instead of engaging the intellectual activity. One is these
social games have value and the other is that the intellectual activity has
disvalue. And I was putting forward the second thesis, that is that
intellectual activity is scary and dangerous except under certain very
regulated circumstances. It’s like experimenting with viruses or whatever. We
don’t want to just do it willy-nilly. Bad things could happen. But, you’re
right, that the other side of it is like there’s a positive good that we are
achieving potentially. And then you’re asking how good is it? I will say the
following of my experience of philosophy socializing. To me this is – the
following is a shocking fact. If two philosophers are meeting for the first
time, they are meeting at a conference talking in the hallway at a dinner,
whatever. And then they walk away from that meeting. I feel like pretty much
always, 99% of the time, each person is like, “That was a nice guy. Oh, I like
her. I want to be friends with her.” It’s like this incredible success rate,
like a hundred percent conversion rate or something where everybody likes
everybody else. And you might have thought, well, people are different and
some people are mean and some people are annoying and people would walk away
with sort of very different impressions of each other. But I think we are just
super good at this game. So as soon as we play it, everyone wins every time
almost. I mean not everyone. Not every last person but like the vast majority
of people. And so, it’s almost like, what is even the used of it? We can deter
– it’s a foregone conclusion. I feel like I go give a talk somewhere, it’s a
foregone conclusion people are going to like me. They always like me. Everyone
always likes everyone else. And yet, we still do it. And that’s what makes me
think it’s not so much to create these allegiances that probably don’t have
much of a function since there’s so cheaply created anyway. It maybe is
because we are avoiding the other thing.
I mean I think the people you actually got friends with at these conferences,
that’s different than people who didn’t meet and never talked to, that you are
creating a social connection there. That’s different from the connections you
have with people you never talk to. I think that’s just literally true.
But see, they’re so easy to create that I am skeptical that they have much
Well, easy but time-consuming. That is, each one of these things took a
substantial amount of time.
They’re not – it’s not even that substantial. I mean this maybe one meal. It
might be one conversation in a hallway.
So let me tell – I mean we are doing personal anecdotes here even if we are
not supposed to.
You’re always allowed to do personal anecdotes Robin, because you almost never
So when I moved to Silicon Valley long ago in 1984 and started socializing
with people there, I started socializing with the very nerdy group of people.
This was a revelation to me, because I previously had never been around those
people sort of as compatible with me as these people were because they really
just love to talk ideas the whole time. And my wife would come along to these
parties and she would find them unpleasant because these people were not
putting the effort into being pleasantly social. They were just talking ideas.
And in fact, some of them didn’t wash very well or didn’t wear – didn’t wear
nice clothes or things like that. And I find it very charming because we were
all just focused on ideas and we were not focusing on these other things. But
she noticed the contrast between a sort of ordinary social world that she
would expect and be comfortable in it, and this social world which was doing
none of the social things and just talking ideas. So the two things to notice
here is, in this world, one of them is – lots of people talk to each other.
They didn’t all like each other. There were lots of pairs of people who would
have these intellectual discussions and not like each other. Right? So that’s
one of the risks of just talking about ideas intensely, and as you might come
to disagree not make the smooth social connection. But the other is that it
was quite possible for these people to just talk about ideas for a long time.
That’s perfectly feasible and they enjoyed it. So it seems to me it’s less
about – for many sorts of people, it’s quite feasible and comfortable and
enjoyable to talk ideas just for the entire time for a certain sort of nerds.
But they will in fact less succeed in making everybody their friend.
Right. So in my heart of hearts, I think it’s absolutely possible for
everyone, everyone, to talk ideas for a long time and enjoy it. I just think
that for different people, there are different social circumstances that are
going to facilitate that activity and it may be for instance that like with
your group of nerds, the thing that facilitated it was being around other
people who were very similar to them in terms of being nerds and not caring
about whether or not they had showered and things like that. But it’s just
surprising to me like you would think that of all the people, the ones for
whom it would be easiest, who would most naturally fall into an intellectual
conversation when socializing would be like professional intellectuals who are
maybe even working on the same material like have tons of stuff intellectually
in common. And …
Let’s talk about the difference between the most passionate hobbyist of X and
the professionals of X. These are often not that strongly overlapping groups
So, can take anything, like rocket ships or something or aliens even, just
take any topic and then look among the ordinary people who are just the most
passionate about it, who love the subject the most, who talk about it the
most, who are just most eager to go to events about it, et cetera. Look at
that group of people. And now, compare it to the group of people who are just
paid to do that sort of thing. These groups of people overlap to some degree,
that here’s the risk of correlation of people who are paid to do something are
somewhat more passionate about it. But it’s not that strong a correlation.
Often, you will see the people who are paid to do something, they are not
actually that passionate about it and they don’t actually want to spend their
free time doing it. They’re good and they found a spot in it. And then there
are these people who are just really passionate and love to talk about it who
are just ineffective in various ways. They couldn’t make it a career, or maybe
they’re just not as capable a person in many ways. These are just different
kinds of people.
Right. And so maybe if you go went back in time but you now, you’re the person
you are now, but you go back and you have a chance to go to one of those
dinner parties or whatever that you used to go to in Silicon Valley, maybe you
would just find the discussion like hopelessly naïve like you’ve gone way past
this and you – I mean I guess perhaps that’s like perhaps what you’re
describing as literally amateurs. The word “amateur”, it means “lover”. It
means someone who loves something, right? And so maybe part of it is that the
professionals want to be careful and they don’t want to make stupid mistakes
and they want to approach their activity in a professional way, holding
themselves to certain standards. And the enthusiasts, those are the ones
having late night philosophy discussions about the meaning of life that maybe
most professional philosophers would look down their noses at as like having
no precision and respectability to it. So maybe that’s part of it is that
having a fun conversation about something is in tension with the activity of
holding the pursuit of that topic to intellectual standards. That would be
depressing but …
I don’t think it’s quite the holding it to standards but it is related. So,
I’ve often said as my summary of the world, there are two kinds of people I’m
interested in. There are the people who just are really interested in
something and interested enough to pursue it and be passionate about it. And
then there are some people willing to be careful about something. And that I
find the intersection between these two to be sadly very small. And those are
the kind of people I’m interested.
Wait. Wait. Wait. You’re only interested in people who like the intersections
so you’re interested in one kind of person.
The intersection of these two classes.
So, there are these two classes and there’s an intersection. And I’m primarily
interested in this intersection.
But even though both classes are large, the intersection is quite small.
Surprisingly small. And that’s a way I’ve summarized, like, who I’m looking
for when I’m trying to interact with people. So in some sense, I think it is
because the kind of show you put on or the kind of persona you become are
somewhat in conflict for these two distinctive types of people. So academia
around us is full of careful people, people who are methodical and careful and
make sure they know things, are reluctant to say more than they know. And I
think in substantial part because of that, they’re reluctant to show much
Or energy. They are reluctant to be just really excited about something and
overflow with energy about it and really want to be into it. And on the other
hand, there are these people who are really enthusiasts. They are excited and
energetic and they want to talk about it a lot and they want to go to people.
But I think they are also reluctant to be careful. That is, care seems in that
world like a hesitancy, a lack of full devotion to the topic. Whereas in the
other world, the enthusiasm looks like sloppiness and bias and the two kinds
of personas are somewhat in conflict. It is somewhat hard to project, I mean
what I tried to do but many don’t believe me, I’m trying to project a persona
of I love this stuff as this is really important and I’m going to be really
careful and methodical and if it looks wrong, I’m going to reject it. I’m
going to be quite willing to reject the stuff I’m feeling enthusiastic about
if it doesn’t meet the standards. And I’m really enthused about the prospect
of looking in a space of things for stuff that might meet the standards.
I think that’s super helpful, the thing you just said because it sort of
suggests that there’s just a deep – actually really a deep chasm that is
causing this phenomenon that I’m experiencing of the tension between the
intellectual and the social. Like it’s partly that the tension between being
interested and being careful. And maybe people feel like say, when they are
socializing, the main thing they want to be is interested and they want to be
able to be – so they want to – they have to find topics where they don’t have
to be careful. And those are often going to be things like gossiping, like
that’s a big part of what people do, gossiping, who is being hired where, who
is misbehaving about what, right?
Yeah, movies, politics. Right. Well, those are things where you can show a lot
of enthusiasm and you don’t need to give a really – especially like movies,
you don’t need to be really careful. Everyone is entitled to their opinions so
you can have enthusiastic opinion while having done no research on this
question and not being able to define any of your terms. And so people are
just finding it difficult to hit that inner intersection and maybe it’s
particularly difficult to coordinate over that intersection with a group of
people, right? Because like I guess, I’ve been to enough – I’ve been to and
also been the recipient of enough Q&As to say a lot of Q&As are super
interesting. Like they are genuinely engaged, there’s genuine investment and
there’s also care. There’s both of those things.
That’s highly structured, right? You’re going to think it’s highly structured.
It’s highly structured, right. But what the high structure gets you then is
like an ability for the group to coordinate around finding this intersection
between the interesting and the careful.
And so I’ve noticed – I’ve seen times when a speaker will just do Q&A with no
prior talk. And that is a bit sloppier.
So the combination of enthusiasm and precision is substantially lacking if you
just start doing an ask me anything, say. Right?
Yes. That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. Because we have like – I run
the undergrad program here in the Philosophy Department and we have these
events where you can ask me and the Director of Undergrad Studies and the
Assistant Director Undergrad. So you can ask us things like what does it take
to be a philosophy major, how do you get into grad school, those sorts of
questions. But we changed it to ask us anything. We changed it from what is
the major about, to ask us anything. And we get way more people showing up.
They love the ask me anything format it turns out. So that does generate a lot
of enthusiasm but it means the conversation bounces all over the place and we
don’t focus on, OK, let’s go through all the requirements for the different
flavors of the philosophy major, et cetera. So yeah, that’s true. I mean
sometimes you have a text that was assigned in advanced and people are
supposed – I think that’s the best of all combinations is the text is assigned
in advanced. People read it in advanced. And then you have the Q&A. The
problem is just like what percentage of the audience have actually read it. As
a speaker, you never really know. I try to ask and like behind the scenes so
people would not get offended but – because sometimes actually quite few of
them have read it and then you have to explain it a little bit.
So you’ve classified me as an autodidact in some ways.
I think you classified yourself that way, but yes.
Right? And so we could ask, what fraction of people without such a structure
could just start talking to someone and be both enthusiastic and careful? I
mean I feel like I know how to do those things without a prep but I don’t need
an intro. If I have just a person I’m talking to, I know how like if they are
saying something vague to stop them and ask for a precision or to try to find
a more precise question. But it could be that takes a degree of confidence and
experience that most people don’t have or feel would go wrong too often. You
might – so the story here as you’re presenting it is that we need these
prepared contexts in which we can have a prepared style of interaction and
then some of those will be more focused on being careful and some will be more
focused on being enthusiastic. And we don’t have very good prepared contexts
to getting an intersection of those, although maybe a Q&A is the closest we
have. But some people might be just able to, without a prepared context with
an appropriate other partner, just pick a topic they’re both interested in and
then start getting into it in a careful way.
I would predict autodidacts would be terrible at that because the whole thing
of the autodidact is that they’re not relying on, and therefore not learning
how to rely on and make use of other people to learn stuff. And that’s
probably why they can get enthusiastic about ideas irrespective of the social
context but they’re probably also like not actually going to be good at
holding that kind of conversation. And if it’s autodidacts, that’s not going
to make it any better.
Maybe we need a third category and then I’m not sure which category I’m in.
One category is someone who just sits by themselves and thinks and comes up
with things and just doesn’t interact with other people very much at all. The
opposite category might be people who grow up in very particular structured
social contexts where they learn how to interact in that context they grow up
in, prepared for them. Say, a university classroom lecture, discussion, or
something. And then there could be a third group of people who, pair-wise,
meet each other and are just – do that a lot and then learn through practice
to talk to each other usefully without having been trained in that in some
shared structured context. They would just reinvent their interaction norms.
Yeah. I mean I guess I just feel like the gravitational pull of socializing
between those people would be so strong. It’s sort of like …
Not if they’re nerdy.
If they’re nerdy enough, they would then …
If they are nerdy enough, I think they’ll just go separate ways honestly.
That’s the thing about the autodidact nerds is that nothing binds them
together and if that stuff does bind them together, it pulls in the direction
But I’m telling you, there’s a world I’ve seen different. I’m telling you,
this is the world I’ve come from.
You mean like there are worlds of intense conversations that go on where
people seek up those people like whenever they can.
There are worlds where people are able to productively talk about ideas both
carefully and passionately. That they didn’t inherit that world from some
prepared world they all shared and were trained in and they aren’t just
separate people thinking by themselves. There is such a world of these
interacting nerds. That’s a world I come from so I know it.
OK. I will just tell you that I know a lot of nerds who spend a lot of time by
themselves so …
It could be.
… that’s – I’ll just give you that as my data point. And so it may be that
every once in a while some of them find each other. I mean as I said, I’m not
skeptical that they can work together on a specific work topic.
So here’s a basic fact about the world, which is, once upon a time, rare
people were mostly loners. And as the world finds more and more ways for rare
people to find each other, they become more social. So this is a story about
the internet and a story about many modern things which is, in a small town if
you were the lone person who is intellectual, you are mostly a loner. You were
reading stuff by yourself and talking to yourself. There’s hardly anybody else
in the town at that sort of inclination. But if you, in a modern world, go to
an intellectual town like I don’t know, Boston or someplace where there’s a
lot of concentration of intellectuals then they suddenly become much more
social as being around each other. And this is just a thing that has happened
for many kinds of communities over the last century, is that unusual kinds of
people who used to be relative loners found each other and then created
communities where they were no longer loners. They were very social because
they were around other people like themselves. And one of those things was:
tech in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley was a prototypical place where tech
people came together and were much more social there once they found a lot of
other tech people like themselves. That story has played out in many other
topic areas too, where again, people who were loners in the world they were
in, because they were very rare and couldn’t meet other people like themselves
became much more social when they found a way in a big city or a big online
world to find other people like themselves. And so people who were initially
seen as intrinsically loners or asocial, in some sense they were that because
of their unusual features making it hard to match with other people around
I’ll just tell you that, like, this kind of myth of like the pure of heart
intellectual nerd who had just this passion and interest and all they have to
do is find the other people who are as pure of heart as them and then they can
like pursue their intellectual inquiry together, just strikes me as extremely
false from my experience. And I know a lot of nerds and I know a lot of nerds
in academia. And like I guess part of it is that, I think the parameter do you
have social skills and then the parameter do you have intellectual interests
are pretty separate. So you could have high social skills and have really deep
passionate intellectual interests and you could have low social skills and not
have much of intellectual interests. These are just two separate things.
But these parameters aren’t constant. They can change with time and context.
That would be the key point. So like imagine someone who is say, homosexual in
a small town where they don’t – maybe they only ever meet one other
homosexual. Then, they’re going to keep that a secret say, and they’re going
to be these very secretive loner types who are bound together by this unusual
thing. But if in a big city, there is gay bars or something, then they can
become very social and become a different sort of person because …
Sure. But they might also – that person might have just socialized with people
on another issue if they were in the small town as well. They might not have
been a loner. They might have been very friendly and socialize with other
people who like certain kinds of books that they like instead of socializing …
Right. Exactly. But about the thing they were weird, they would be less
social. They would be more social about the things that they were – they had
in common with people. So I think that is a very common feature.
OK. Fair enough. I guess I’m just saying that I know enough people who are
intellectuals. They genuinely have intellectual interests and they also have
social skills and yet, they still don’t when they are together, like, engage
in intellectual activity unless they have some kind of framework for it. That
for me is the norm of what I see in the world and it’s true of the nerds and
the non-nerds. It’s just true of everyone.
I’m telling you that I came from a different world.
Right. But we already discussed the difference. So one thing is maybe those
people were amateurs and they were having like in some context, they were
having technical discussions where they had a specific topic that they had to
do. And in another context, they were kind of like having free-flowing late
night meaning of life whatever types of what could the future be like
conversations where if you went back in time to these conversations, you might
not find them very engaging.
But it might have been amateur, but it might not have been too. That is, that
could just be a parameter that varies. So in this world of people that I was
involved with, again, from 1984 to ’93 while I was in Silicon Valley, there
were people there who, looking back, in fact, were the world’s experts on some
And those conversations they were having passionately in those parties with
each other were in fact the world’s best conversations on those subjects. They
weren’t just amateurs. They were the best.
OK? But it was happening in that same sort of world of people who were
socializing together passionately talking to each other and being careful. All
those things were happening together.
So all of those people today have computers so you could be Zooming with them
every day. How many of them do you talk to per day of these ideal
Well, so for myself, it was a world of a certain set of topics they were all
interested in talking about together. And that, when I was in that same world,
interested in those same topics, I was talking with them a lot but then I made
this big switch to become an economist. I left Silicon Valley. I left the
world of tech. And in 1993, started grad school in Caltech in social science
and so I moved to a different world. So that’s some context there.
I’ve yet to find the topic you’re not interested in so I’m skeptical of this
analysis. What are the topics that you would be unwilling to discuss with
I mean, I was just at a social event a couple of weeks ago. I’m going to go to
another one in a couple of weeks back in Silicon Valley with tech people so I
have a sense of the kinds of things they are interested and the kind of things
they are not and like where the border goes so …
And you still go to these things. So all of these people …
Right. But they have a limited set of topics. There’s a limited degree of
overlap of topics they like and the topics I’m interested, but enough that we
have productive conversations.
Right. But like I guess – I mean if this Mecca exists, I would expect you to
be reaping its rewards on a regular basis. Like on a daily basis in fact
especially given how easy it is to do so. And yet, you speak of this as though
were sometime in your distant past in which you encountered the perfect
intellectual environment that gives you this rare thing of the interested and
My story here is the idea that people with unusual interests, if they are
randomly sorted among each other, they don’t find other people to talk to
pretty easily. But sometimes we can make a special conglomeration of them
where people come together around a set of topics that is similar enough and
then they can have a burst of this sort of social interaction which is both
passionate and careful, when they are close enough in topics and enthusiasm
and basically communication distance.
But like the thing I’m telling you is like this is what is – OK, being really
passionately interested in Aristotle’s theory of perception and sense
perception and his theory of how illusions and dreams work, that’s pretty
niche. It’s a pretty unusual interest. And I was just with a group of people
who are all really interested in that. And then there was a failure to discuss
that. But what I’m – I mean you could say, “Oh, they weren’t the real, the
pure of heart like the nerds who are really interested.” But I can see people
are interested in this question. It’s just that they are not able to talk
I wouldn’t say that they are not interested. I wouldn’t say the nerds are pure
of heart. I would just say – I mean it’s a simple sort of standard story, the
nerds just are not less willing to play the social game because they are just
not as good at it and so they look better playing the nerdy discussion game
than they do playing the social game because they just are bad at the social
game. And so, they do the other thing. I don’t think they’re more altruistic
per se. I just think nerds when we try to play the social game, everybody sees
that we are not very good and we sort of move to the background in quiet and
watch everybody else play because when we try to stick our hands in it and
move, people go, “You don’t know what you’re doing. Back off.”
So I’m surprised that nerds don’t just develop social games that they’re good
at. In fact, this is true. They do this. So nerds play games, right?
Yes, board games.
Like board games, card games, dungeons and dragons.
Right. I think that’s part of the great attraction of those things for nerds
is that it’s a kind of a social game that they can play better.
Right. So maybe an interesting question would be like if you had a bunch of
these nerds and then there were like a game nearby that they could easily play
where they shift into the playing of it would be almost no work.
So for example …
Will they continue the intellectual conversation or would they start playing
I mean my friend, Bryan Caplan, as you know, has this every year gaming
convention at his home. He calls Caplan-Con. And at this gaming convention,
intellectual conversations are common as is game playing and so people are in
fact switching between the two. They are sitting around the kitchen table
doing or in the hallways doing intellectual conversations or they’re going to
play a game. And the people with these two preferences are mixing up there
together and you might think this works out well because if it was only the
intellectual conversations then maybe they would have conflicts or maybe they
would find it too threatening or maybe they would not be able to make it last
or sound stupid or whatever. But they’ve got these two options for activities
and now, they can do the safe game thing or when they feel in the mood or
conversation looks appealing, they can try to join into the conversation. And
in some sense, that’s a way – I mean many other kind of parties are a mix of
intellectual and social conversations.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I’ve seen parties where in the same room, there are 10 different conversations
and 3 of them are intellectual and 7 of them are social. And then people also
have that option to play the social game or join one of the intellectual
conversations and it’s sort of low – less threatening because walking into the
room doesn’t commits you to join the intellectual ones. And if you don’t like
one or it’s not to your style or you feel threatened by it, you can just slip
over to one of the other ones.
I was once in a high table at All Souls College in Oxford and I was talking to
the person next to me and at certain point, I don’t know what happened, there
was like the ringing of the glass or whatever and then the thought was you
were supposed to turn and talk. If you talk – whoever you’re talking – you’re
supposed to start talking to the person on your left and then you turn to the
person on your right. And I was in the middle of a conversation with the
person on the left and I was like, “Yeah, I’m not doing this.” And they are
like, “No, no, no. You have to do it. You have to turn and now start talking
to the other person. That’s how it works.”
And I guess like to me that – you can have intellectual conversations even at
these dinners or whatever but they just don’t last very long. Some topic gets
brought up, a little bit is talked about, and then you move on. And I mean I’d
be surprised if it were different at the gaming one like yeah, there will be
some intellectual conversations, people are kind of moving in and out but
there isn’t something like a sustained inquiry. So that’s the thing …
So maybe that’s the question we should be talking about here. Maybe what we
should say is, ordinarily, people are able to do intellectual conversations
and they often do them but they do them small little versions, go a little
into the depth, and then they stop. So I more want to ask, what’s different
about the people who take a topic and go into much more depth for much longer?
How are they distinguished from the other people?
Yeah, and …
Or how do these environments like a Q&A allow that more sustained pursuit?
Yeah. So like as you were gathering from me, I’m skeptical of the solution
that says, “Well, there’s the two kinds of people, the special ones who can do
the sustained pursuit and then ordinary people.” But yeah, I think the
environment – having an environment – I mean the thing is – the thing about a
Q&A is that in a way, it isn’t that sustained, because it’s different
questions. And some of those people will follow up but you can actually move
on to a different question.
So here’s a version that actually works pretty well that I hadn’t thought very
much about. But OK, I have seen parties and social gatherings where someone
holds court. You know what this means. There’s some celebrity of some sorts in
the group and they are at the center of a group of attention and they are
pontificating on their favorite things. They may respond to questions of other
people but they are the center of attention and they are getting the lion’s
share of the discussion.
And if they pontificate on something intellectual, why then the group around
them sustains that attention on an intellectual subject for a while and even
the larger rest of the room maybe pulled in that direction as well. And that
can be a lot like a speaker giving a talk.
Right? In some sense, you might think it’s the anchor on the person and their
sustained orientation to an intellection topic, and their prestige in the
group, that can then sustain that for a larger group around then.
Yeah. I mean that seems right. The often …
And sometimes you’ve even been known the whole court, right?
Yes. I certainly am. I’m like when I can turn any dinner into a class, I will
do so within the bounds of social acceptability. But I think – so I think
there’s a reason why that works. I mean there’s a number of reasons but one of
the ones that strikes me is that part of what you need for an intellectual
inquiry is you need someone to have their eye on what matters.
That there’s something that’s driving it and so you’re not just saying fun
things that come into your head but you’re trying to go somewhere. Like I’m
trying to understand something about is there really a deep tension between
social and intellectual?
So the kind of people I’m imagining who hold court are also people known for
having some theses that they push a lot. When they are holding court, they are
often arguing for their theses.
That’s what you do when you hold court. I actually am not sure that that’s
what I do.
But you and I know some people who are famous and who are center of attention
but they are not inclined to hold court. And I think they don’t then create
the same sort of sustained arena around them.
Yes. Right. Right. I think that that’s right. So maybe you have to – I mean
maybe you are right. Maybe it is a matter of having a thesis that you are
arguing for. Maybe that is what I’m doing actually now that I think about it.
Certainly what a speaker does for a talk and that sustains it.
Right. Right. Right. Sometimes what – so I found …
It could be a question too like you might concur with a question rather than a
thesis but it’s still a focus – a concise focus.
I think pretty often, a thing that I find myself doing is insisting that
something is a paradox where the people – the rest of the people at the table
are like, “No, that’s not a paradox.” And I’m trying to make them be confused
about it. So it’s not quite holding …
That’s a thesis.
… on thesis but I mean it is sort of a thesis.
A paradox is a thesis, yeah.
It’s that I’m trying to induce confusion or to induce a certain kind of
puzzlement, right? But the point is …
And it creates a sustained attention because you’re sustaining attention to it
and you aren’t letting them turn away from it.
Yeah. Right. Right.
And that means you can go into depth.
And so I feel like a big part of what I’m now thinking of is like a big part
of the sort of difficulty here is that in a social situation, there is this
problem of the coordination of attention. It’s like, “What are we all supposed
to be paying attention to?” Now, if I’m in charge of that and I can be like,
“Everyone, here’s what we are going to pay attention to, this is the question
we are going to be looking into,” that’s basically just me teaching a class
and I’m very comfortable in that environment. But usually at a dinner like
after a talk, even if I was the speaker, I’m not allowed to do that. And so
there is this question, how will the attention of the group coordinate itself
around a topic and will stick? Will it stick to one topic? And typically, it
wouldn’t. It will just waver between topics.
So it seems to me that when you are trying to get a group to stick to a topic,
what people often do is they have to have a thesis, but the thesis can neither
be too obviously right or too obviously wrong. A thesis that will grab the
attention of a community will often be a thesis that has to be asserted by
someone with status in the group, somebody who it’s worth say, disagreeing
with and who seems to be overstating their case.
And I think people often do this on purpose. They exaggerate a claim to just
the right degree so that they are tempting people to respond and rebut them.
They are putting out some tempting meat for other people to go after like
you’re trying to temp an animal to come after some meat to come out of that
woods or something basically. I think I see people with that sort of like a
standard MO or a style of enticing a group of people to talk to something as
somebody prestigious throws out an apparently too strong a claim and then
tries to defend it a bit. And then other people go, “That can’t be right. I’m
going to take this guy down. I’m going to show him he is wrong.” Because they
think they see a way to rebut this and often, the person who did this
knowingly said something a little exaggerated that they can sort of pull back
from a bit. But this is the way to get people to talk about it.
Yeah. I mean that is a kind of an art form of being able to produce those
slight exaggerations. Because the person who can do that can then direct the
whole attention of a group. It’s really a gift to be able to do that because
even if you are like annoyed that the person is exaggerating, the alternative
situation is one where then the group breaks up into like 7 boring
conversations about nothing. Right? So that person has like done this great
service to everyone by like getting everyone to coordinate around showing that
they are wrong in this exaggerated claim and then they might be – and I’m
often that person of like making the exaggerated claim and then sometimes to
my surprise, I’m like, “Actually, I believe this. This is …”
[Laughs] But you didn’t know when you started it.
Or I was trying it out. I was like testing it. I’m like, “Let me see if I can
defend this.” And then I can defend it better than I thought I could and I’m
like, “Yeah, this is my view now.”
It just has to seem weak or it doesn’t have to actually be weak, right? You
have to have a claim that seems vulnerable like somebody could have an
Right. But you also have to have it like where they don’t just feel bat and
switched, where you make a crazy claim and then it’s like, all I meant by it
was this trivial claim and then there is like ugh!
Yeah, even though that’s not going to work. So we have to be able to sort of –
if you do a retreat, you have to sort of cover the retreat well enough or make
it less obvious that you did a retreat. I think it’s not just the claim.
Often, it’s just the emotional tone with which you make a claim. So that this
works in politics often or if you will make some sort of an indignant
implication, the thing you said isn’t actually very strong but you implied
somebody else is just wrong and that can also temp people who feels like
you’re maybe implying something wrong about them or their group or something
that they come up to defend themselves.
So one way we carved up the social versus intellectual earlier was interested
versus careful where the idea is like in the social realm we want to be
interested then the intellectual we might be careful. Another way that I now
am thinking about carving it up is sort of adversarial because cooperative.
That is, in an intellectual realm, we have kind of adversarial attitudes. We
say that we are wrong. We say, here’s why you’re wrong. The basic interaction
is someone saying something and another person is saying they’re wrong. That’s
the basic – the building block of intellectual interactions. But in social
interactions, people are supposed to be cooperative and nice and, “Oh, here’s
another reason why you’re right,” or whatever. That seems the difference when
you carve it up.
That brings up this standard gender distinction of different academic
professions. So like philosophy and physics and some other more tech areas are
known for having more direct confrontation. Whereas some other areas like
sociology are known that like if somebody gives a talk and everybody says nice
things and they go out in the hallway and they trash it to each other
privately but they wouldn’t challenge it in the talk. Whereas in say physics
or philosophy or some other – or econ, you’re much – it’s actually expected to
challenge. If you’re too nice in your Q&A, that just seems like you’re
shilling for them or something, right? So you’re almost supposed to come up
with something a bit hostile or a bit challenging to say. And I think we’ve
discussed that there’s a stereotype that women, when they are trying to
socialize or trying to connect can find a common connection, whereas men, are
trying to have a little fight. They are trying to do a little combat and see
who comes out looking better. And that correlates with these different styles
of these different intellectual areas. So I mean presumably, everybody has
both, but when professional combat or social cooperative, that doesn’t
actually map on to many other disciplines where the professional thing is also
very cooperative, at least in front of each other.
Right. At least in front of each other. I mean I think women can be very
adversarial about one another …
Yeah, but not just directly to each other.
... a lot of academic confrontations are not face to face, right? They are
going to be in writing. They are going to be responding. And so, there’s going
to be plenty of opportunity for third person critique and …
I think you’re right though. I think everybody is keeping track of a parameter
with respect to everybody they interact with. It’s like how often were they
having a confrontational versus cooperative relationship with me? You can
tolerate a 20% of confrontational time as long as the other 80% is
cooperative. And so I think maybe academics for whom their professional
interactions are confrontational then they just need this other socializing
time where they fill up the other percentage. Where they can decide that we
are overall were colleagues and like each other because overall we just had
enough cooperative time.
Yeah, that’s interesting. So I wonder if – it will be interesting to study
different academic disciplines and to see whether in the dinners after the
talk there’s more of that intellectual activity when it’s like whatever
sociology or something but contrast with say, philosophy or economics which
are more adversarial. Is it that we need to have some bonding time or
something? I guess I also just think though that like even it’s true – so I
was putting out this other way of carving it up, which is the adversarial
versus cooperative. But I think that it’s also just true that inquiring with
someone requires a fair amount of sort of getting on the same page with them
like even if you’re pushing them and you’re trying to show that they’re wrong
So I remember this anecdote about sort of when US Military people would go to
the Middle East and try to train military people in the Middle East,
apparently one thing they found is that if people they were training had more
than one level in terms of their rank, it wouldn’t work because the
lower-ranked people would never do anything to make it appear that
upper-ranked people were less than always perfect. They just couldn’t tolerate
that. And so, you always have to just train people all at the same rank
because otherwise they would just never – an upper-ranked person would never
tolerate any situation where a lower-ranked person and somehow knew an answer
that they didn’t or was better at something. They just couldn’t tolerate that.
And so that’s a more extreme example of how social things just won’t tolerate
being honest in certain way. So you might think that look, arguing and
inquiring will require that even if our ranks are different, at some point I
will – my rank is higher but I’m going to admit you are right and I was wrong
or things like that. And that’s going to require a fair bit of trust and
comfort with each other to be able to do that.
Right. And that’s where it sort of seems like these things start to become
interconnected in ways as opposed to pulling in opposite directions. So that’s
confusing that we are ending in aporia. That’s the term in the Socratic
dialogues for when people are at a loss or don’t know their way out or
whatever because I feel like we’ve just come around in a circle. But I’m going
to give – we’re overtime already. I’m going to give you the last word.
I will just say this was fun.
All right. Take care.