Neel Burton: The Art of Failure

Ampman thought experiment by philosopher Donald Davidson in which I think he comes to a mistaken conclusion and the self identity thought experiment in my book The World Is Not as We Think It Is in which I think I come to the right conclusionLet me close this rather long review of an excellent very readable and challenging book with a uote from neurologist psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl that Burton presents on page 101 Only to the extent that someone is living out this self transcendence of human existence is he truly human or does he become his true self He becomes so not by concerning himself with his self s actualization but by forgetting himself and giving himself overlooking himself and focusing outward Dennis Littrell author of The World Is Not as We Think It Is The self help book has acuired a bad press of late earning a reputation for dealing in platitudes patronising and generally failing to engage the sophisticated and demanding reader In styling itself as an anti self help guide Neel Burton s The Art of Failure therefore sets out to prove that self help literature need not succumb to lowest common denominator triteness and tedious mantras of self motivationThe book s basic premise is that the modern Western definition of success is deeply flawed presenting us with the false goals of material comfort fame power and hedonism In contrast Burton argues Western philosophical and spiritual traditions have largely been in agreement that true happiness lies in accepting failure that we are limited and mortal beings subject to freuent and unforeseen setbacks in the face of which we do better to develop virtues of honesty friendship patience and moderationTo be fair this is not perhaps a lesson that the much maligned self help guides have ignored but the virtue of Burton s book is that he is not afraid to enter into these topics in appropriate depth and detail Throughout his points are illustrated by recourse to theories ideas and anecdotes cherry picked from the lives and writings of the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle who feature heavily throughout Epicurus and Heraclitus but also representatives of the existentialist tradition such as Nietzsche Kierkegaard and Sartre Burton also draws on his background in psychology in ranging through contemporary issues in psychiatry as well as the continued relevance of the classic approaches of Freud and Jung Such discussion is augmented throughout with references to literature art religion and history with the result that Burton s material is always engaging and interesting presented in an accessible and clear mannerHowever these many merits aside this breadth of topic and material also at times serves to detract from the book s overall purpose Given the detail in which certain subjects are presented the central theme exploration of the art of failure can sometimes get lost in or less technical expositions of theories and accounts For instance the chapter on free will whilst providing an admirably concise overview of the main philosophical controversies arguably strays too far from the main narrative path and fails to maintain a clear sense of the context and purpose of the discussion I had a similar feeling at other points in the book and while Burton makes freuent attempts to signpost the reader as to how the material under discussion relates to the main topic he struggles to do this consistently and seamlessly As a result the book sometimes feels like a collection of well written and interesting essays than a unified treatment of a central themeThis said the book is well worth reading Burton s attitude to his material is always thoughtful never content merely to outline this or that idea but always seeking to draw lessons and insights There is much then that average readers will benefit from that will help them and there are numerous points at which I found myself absorbed nodding in agreement or making mental notes to find out about this or that Burton s scholarship is excellent his tone always intelligent but clear a rare combination of skills so whilst certain aspects of the book might be improved upon it is far from being a failureGareth Southwell is a philosopher writer and illustrator. Psychiatrist and philosopher who lives and teaches in Oxford England His other books include The Meaning of Madness and Plato’s Shadow both also with Acheron Pres.

Neel Burton ✓ 6 characters

(The Art of Failure Ô ONLINE) author Neel Burton –

This book does not live up to the promise of its title Had I had the opportunity to examine it in a bookstore I would not have purchased it There is no unifying theme There are only general discussions related to the chapter titles such as mania fear courage ghosts madness and meaning If I could get a refund on this I would Although the title seems promising and the subtitle even I am afraid that the book is disappointingAlthough the author is still young 31 years he is a practicing psychiatrist graduate neurologist and philosopher This book touches on a lot of subjects of philosophy psychology and psychiatry it does not do any than touch upon these subjects Burton uotes a whole range of sources from Socrates to Wittgenstein but after finishing this book you remain unsatisfied The book and it s chapters are too short to get a grasp of the complexity of the issues raised determinism free will madness death Fortunutaly Burton refers to several classic works Thomas Nagel Plato Aristotle Kierkegaard that are much thorough in discussing these subjects Real successThis book is a precursor of sorts to Dr Burton s recently published Hide and Seek The Psychology of Self Deception In both books much of the same ground is covered and indeed there is some repetition however The Art of Failure is clearly about what to do about the human predicament while Hide and Seek is about laying out what the problem isAnd what is the problem The problem as the Buddha expressed it some twenty five hundred years ago is that life as it is usually lived is unsatisfactory Conseuently Burton s title is doubly ironic First what is called failure is in fact success and what is anti self help really is self helpWhat I especially like about the way Burton writes is his ability to make his case using evidence and rationale from academic or clinical psychology and from philosophic and religious traditionsLet s begin with one of the most important ideas in the book As human beings we have a tendency to think of our personhood as something concrete and tangible something that exists in the real world and that extends through time However it is possible that our personhood is in fact nothing than a product of our minds merely a convenient concept of schema that enables us to relate our present self with our past future and conditionals selves and so to lend to our life a sense of coherence and meaning This concept or schema amounts to our sense of self which is the very basis of our ego and which is therefore tantamount to one gigantic ego defence or the sum total of all our ego defences pp 92 93Similarly from a Buddhist perspective Burton writes An analogy that is often used to describe this process of rebirth or samsara is that of a flame passing from one candle to the next This cycle of rebirth can only be broken if the empirical changing self is able to transcend its subjective and distorted image of the world which is both conscious and unconscious and which has the I am conceit as a crucial reference point This then is heaven or nibbana Nibbana as I see it rests on the understanding that consciousness is a seuence of conscious moments rather than the continuous consciousness of the I am conceit Each moment is an experience of an individual mind state such as a perception feeling or thought the consciousness of an empirical self is made up of the birth and death of these individual mind states and rebirth is nothing than the persistence of this process p 100Interesting is how Burton develops his argument using stories about famous Greek philosophers and some famous psychiatrists from the psychoanalytical school Burton is well read in these areas and enjoys recalling bits of their lives I especially enjoyed what he wrote about Diogenes the Cynic Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men not even with Alexander the Great who came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him he replied Yes stand out of my sunlight In another account of the conversation Alexander found Diogenes looking attentively at a pile of human bones Diogenes explained I am searching for the bones of your father King Philip of Macedo. We spend most of our time and energy chasing 'success' such that we have little left over for thinking and feeling being and relating As a result we fail in the deep.

N but cannot distinguish them from the bones of a slave p 107 Following this we get Burton s thesis or less and the rationale for his ironic title Diogenes taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society He was I think a shining example of the art of failure p 108 Other shining examples of the art of failure among the philosophers includes Pythagoras and Heraclitus p 145It s apparent that what Burton means as the art of failure is the preference for successes other than those usually valued such as fame wealth and power We can see this as Burton recalls the famous story of Miletus who was able to predict a bumper olive crop one year inspiring him to take out a lease on all the olive presses in Miletus He made a fortune simply to prove to the Milesians that a thinker could easily be rich if only he did not have better things to do with his time p 145In Chapter 8 entitled Madness Burton turns his attention to some of the greats in psychoanalytical theory His recall of the life of Carl Jung is particularly interesting Burton notes that Jung at one point went through a highly creative state of mind that verged on psychosis while being married to Emma Rauschenbach the daughter of a rich industrialist Burton then coyly writes Despite being happily married he felt that he needed a muse as well as a home maker observing that the pre reuisite of a good marriageis the license to be unfaithful The marital strife that resulted from his affairs and particularly from his affair with a former patient called Toni Wolff contributed to his troubled state of mind p 123Part of what this book is about and what it celebrates is courage Hemingway famously said that courage is grace under pressure I like that definition I also like Burton s take which is revealed throughout the book but can be thought of as a ind of wisdom He writes If a person is to become fully conscious of his individuality he needs to come to terms with the basis of fear and anxiety which is death and then to renounce his acuired sense of self which amounts to metaphorical suicide p 109 Although I think for some people the basis of fear and anxiety is pain itself not deathWhat we fear varies from person to person but as Burton points out generally our phobias are of natural dangers our ancestors faced while what is really dangerous today are manmade hazards like motor vehicles and electric cables p 52 Two thoughts jump to mind 1 I find it easier to think about suicide from a gunshot to the head than about jumping from a high place 2 I twice watched a coyote look both ways before crossing a streetThere was a part of the book that I found a bit unclear and another part a bit overdrawn The overdrawn was his search mainly among the ancient Greeks for an understanding of friendship However I did like this observation the number of people with whom one can sustain a perfect friendship is very small first because reason and virtue are not to be found in everyone never for example in young people who are not yet wise enough to be virtuous For see page 157And I was a bit mystified by Burton s brain transfer thought experiment in the chapter he entitles Ghosts He has created a person dubbed Brownson who exists because the brains of two men were switched during a botched operation Burton writes Let us imagine that Brownson s brain is now divided into two eual halves or hemispheres and that each hemisphere is transplanted into a brainless body After the operation two people awake who are psychologically continuous with Brownsonare they then both Brownson Obviously I would say half a brain does not make a whole person or eep one alive for very long If the thought experiment were changed a bit so as to absolutely duplicate the Brownson brain and put one into one body and the other into another body then Burton s uestion would make sense His conclusion that Most people would arguethey are not in fact the same person seems reasonable since they have differ bodies and indeed we are not merely our brains Even reasonable is the conclusion that in time they will develop into two very different people Interested readers might compare Burton s Brownson thought experiment to the sw. Est possible way We fail as human beings The Art of Failure explores what it means to be successful and how if at all true success can be achievedDr Neel Burton is