Reflections on Radical Minimalism

We’re two weeks into our minimalist screen time experiment. The rules are: no social media after 4 pm and no screen time whatsoever, including TV, after 20 pm. The most noticeable effect is that we read more. I’ve always read prose or poetry in bed, before falling asleep, but now I spend a larger part of the evening reading popular science, philosophy, politics and a wider range of literature.

Two of the books I’ve read recently are of particular interest in relation to our minimalist strivings. The first one is called Kaosologi and is written by Swedish professor of economy, Micael Dahlen. The second one is written by Danish professor of psychology, Svend Brinkmann. It’s called Standpoints: Ten Old Ideas in a New World. It’s the most enjoyable piece of literature I’ve consumed in a long time.

I’ve no intention to summarise these gems, but I thought I say something about their main takeaways for aspiring minimalists. The first takeaway is how to create new habits – and the second, why creating new habits and changing one’s preferences in accordance to intrinsic principles may be more meaningful than trying to find or unearth subjective happiness in the neoliberal sense.

How to Create Habits

Micael Dahlen’s foremost field of excellence is a subcategory of Economy known as Positive Psychology – in Swedish, the less cryptical term lyckoforskning which translates as “Science of Happiness” or “Happiness Studies”. He explains something that I’ve always subconsciously known to do, namely, quitting bad habits or establishing new habits cold turkey. No easing into it or fading out of it. No softening the blow. Dahlen’s argument is neurobiological: the brain creates habits to save energy. If our brains are subjected to something that requires discipline, strength or endurance, the brain makes a habit out of the activity in order to make it less strenuous. It’s a defence mechanism. The harder it is to perform a certain activity, the quicker the brain will adjust and habituate itself to it.

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Dahlen shows that the popular calculations in schwung – “It takes twenty days to create a new habit!” or “It takes a hundred repetitions to create a new habit!” – are false. There is no scientific evidence for any of these claims. There is, however, evidence that the brain can potentially change it’s neurological pathways in a week. Therefore, Dahlen set out to create no less than forty new habits in as many weeks. The key of success it repeating the habit as often as possible, so as to make it as hard as possible for the brain. Dahlen, for example, wanted to establish a daily yoga routine, but found it difficult. Therefore, he practised yoga whenever he had the slightest chance: in the subway, when standing in line at the grocer’s and at his office desk, several times a day. He also habituated himself to eating marshmallows with butter, just for the sport of it. In a week’s time, he had created a daily yoga routine and did find marshmallows with butter delicious.

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The takeaway for aspiring minimalists is: it’s perfectly feasible to create a new habit in just a week’s time, if you do it cold turkey and repeat the new habit as often as possible. Go hard on your brain and it will respond favourably.

My best example is habituating myself to love ice cold showers. Cold exposure has many health benefits and saves precious energy, so I simply decided that hot water from the tap is out of the question. I wanted to reap the physical benefits of cold exposure and I  wanted to be able to get on without hot water; this is particularly handy in Spain, where electricity is expensive. A year or so later, I can’t imagine taking a hot shower. If I accidentally step into a hot – or even lukewarm – shower at the gym, I flinch and flee. It feels wrong. I created this new habit by swimming in Swedish lakes all year round, and, obviously, by taking as cold showers as possible, with regards to the lowest possible water temperature of any given shower – with absolutely no exception or easing into it.

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Why Minimalists Should Create New Habits

Svend Brinkmann doesn’t deal explicitly with minimalism. His main objective in Standpoints – a truly gorgeous piece of popularised philosophy – is that an increasing part of human existence is instrumentalised and thus rendered meaningless. In a neoliberal world, human activity and social phenomena are deemed valuable only if they’re profitable or quantitatively measurable. For example, improving school results is considered important because it’s profitable for the nation state in terms of spurring economic growth – not because education is good, in and of itself. Workplace equality may be promoted because it increases profit – not because it is, well, good; not because people should be treated equally for moral reasons. Doing good deeds, such as helping others, is portrayed as good because it makes us happy; not because it’s inherently good.

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When I studied philosophy some decade ago, I learned the term “intrinsic value”. Intrinsic values are values that are good in and of themselves; values that need no explanation or justification. Dust cleaning, for example, is a means to an end. I do it because I find pleasure in having a clean home; I certainly don’t do it for the sole sake of dust cleaning. That means dust cleaning has instrumental value. Pleasure, on the other hand, has intrinsic value. There is no use asking “But why is pleasure good?” It just is.

Now, there is no fixed set of intrinsic values agreed upon. Many people would claim that dignity, love or justice are intrinsic values; others lean towards the utilitarian pole where there are no or few intrinsic values. Killing or discriminating people may, according to hardcore utilitarianism, be morally right if it maximises the well-being of the majority of a population. The human worth of individuals is thus instrumentalised. People may be reduced to means to an end; they may be endlessly exploited if it serves the greater good. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant would object to this line of reasoning and say that people must be treated as ends in themselves. Human worth is intrinsic. It’s no coincidence that Kant’s moral theory was revived in the aftermath of the Second World War.

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Brinkmann’s argument is that when intrinsic values such as freedom, truth or forgiveness are instrumentalised, they lose their very meaning and seize to exist. If I decide to forgive someone because I hope to get something out of it – be it positive results such as peace of mind – it isn’t really forgiveness: it’s an instrumental act. Forgiveness, Brinkmann argues together with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, springs from apori, which is greek for wonder. Forgiveness has no logic, it makes no sense, but has a dimension of wonder. It is only the unforgivable that can be forgiven, according to Derrida. If an offense is forgivable, there is no point in forgiving it at all. It’s possible to understand or accept it, but it needn’t be forgiven. Forgiveness carries dimensions of faith, astonishment, wonder, surprise and humanity that is intrinsic: it just is.

There may, of course, be accidental side effects to forgiveness: one could very well reach peace of mind as a result. But if one forgives someone with the intention of achieving peace of mind – that is, to get something out of it – it’s instrumental and the essential wonder of forgiveness is lost.

The same goes for love. If we love someone because we want them to love us back, it’s instrumental. It’s no longer love. Irish philosopher Iris Murdoch, who is very influenced by Plato’s idea of inherent or essential qualities, would claim that we love an indivisible whole which is more than the sum of its parts. If you forgive me for being soppy, I might say that I love my husband not because he is kind, intelligent, creative or in possession of any particular set of qualities. I love him in his entirety. I can’t really put my finger on why I love him. I just do.

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Brinkmann brilliantly relates this idea to contemporary dating culture, in which we try to pick and mix certain qualities in potential partners as if love was a calculation. He points out that it’s always possible to find someone who possesses a greater number or a grander quality of our stated preferences. Despite this, few people who truly love their partners, friends, family members or even possessions would happily exchange them for brand new ones, should they be qualitatively or quantitatively better. There seems to be a unique, indivisible or inherent essence that is lost if love is instrumentalised.

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So, why is this relevant for an aspiring minimalist? What does it have to do with creating new habits? Please bear with me now – I will get to the point.

An Objective & Collective Good

Brinkmann’s main argument is that there is such a thing as an objective, collective good. There are intrinsic values that include us all, as members of humanity, whether we agree with them or not; whether or not they are to our personal taste, and, importantly – whether or not they happen to benefit us at any given moment. And why is that? It is because the essence of humanity is the metaphysical ability to reflect upon our own reflections. As far as we know, this ability is unique to humanity. Plato’s student Aristotle would say that this ability is normative. Being human comes with the imperative of being human: of collectively reflecting upon our reflections and thus relating to humanity as a collective. After all, metaphysical reflection is an inherently lingual, intellectual and social activity that stems from, and requires, a (human) collective.

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If we agree with Aristotle, education, reflection, contemplation or even love may be described as the very point of being human; as intrinsic to humanity. If we take it away, humanity is something very different – or not at all. Brinkmann explains this indeed controversial – or at least unfashionable – idea by comparing it to the normative imperative of being a teacher or a physician:

Being a teacher means doing what a teacher should do; otherwise, one is no longer a teacher. Being a physician means doing what a physician should do. It’s the inherent imperative that renders meaning to the concepts “teacher” and “physician”. In the same way, Brinkmann argues, being human means doing what a human being should do; doing that which is essential to humanity and thus makes the concept meaningful.

A telling example of Brinkmann’s is the critique directed towards the instrumentalisation of higher education in accordance with New Public Management: if the main point of a university is perverted into swallowing up and spitting out as many students as possible, as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible – in order to make the university profitable – then it is no longer higher education. It is no longer a university, in the true sense of the word. Knowledge, education and science are instrumentalised and lose their meaning.

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Now, the aristotelian, and subsequently kantian, ethics described above is challenged by the neoliberal, nihilistic notion that there is no objective, collective, deeper meaning to life – there are only individual pursuits of happiness. Each to their own, according to their (curiously synchronised) personal preferences. Contemporary discourse encourages us to develop or reveal an inner, subjective truth and live authentically according to it, in order to fulfil our own, individual satisfaction. This supposedly leads to happiness and freedom – and is therefore evidently good in and of itself. Or is it?

Brinkmann, along with Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Kierkegaard and Camus – to name a few of philosophy’s founding (grand)fathers – would object. They would all argue that human beings are essentially and normatively social; we are interdependent, intersubjective, material-semiotic actors, if I may briefly hint at some contemporary terms coined by phenomenologist Gail Weiss and feminist epistemologist Donna Haraway. The essence and obligation of humanity is the collective creation of a common culture, language and set of norms – governed by intrinsic values. And, in fine, the realisation of this imperative is the quintessence of freedom. Brinkmann quotes Albert Camus, who says: “It is true that freedom, when it is made up principally of privileges, insults labour and separates it from culture. But freedom is not made up principally of privileges; it is made up especially of duties”.

Here, in a relatively unknown article called Bread and Freedom, Camus contrasts the capitalist notion of freedom as a set of privileges and subjective “free” choices that separate the (privileged) individual from the material and the collective, to a radical and collective form of freedom as the ability to transcend or change one’s preferences in pursuit of the intrinsic good.

In minimalist terms, this may have the following implications:

1. Minimalist freedom could mean peeling away layers of neoliberal, capitalist consumerism in order to strive towards the intrinsic good, defined in terms of that which is essential to humanity.

2. Minimalist freedom could mean learning to set aside subjective preferences (“I want to buy that car!”) in favour of objective, intrinsic values (“But I won’t, because cars are bad for the environment!”).

3. The camusian notion that freedom is made up of duties could mean that we’re not free until we’re able to set our cravings aside and instead make choices based on a set of principles: “I want to buy that car, but I’m able to reflect on my own acutely felt desires and change them – because there are intrinsic values of far greater importance than my subjective satisfaction!”

4. Another, admittedly frivolous, interpretation of the Camus-quote could be that if basic, material needs are met (in a collective welfare state), people may be free to live in accordance with intrinsic principles, as in the German proverb ascribed to Bertolt Brecht: “Food comes first and then morality!”

Aspiring minimalists could, in other words, lean on ideology in order to free themselves from consumerist cravings. Instead of asking the question “What is the most minimalist way of satisfying my needs?” we may ask “How can I change my needs in accordance to intrinsic principles?” This is what I’ve previously described as radical minimalism.

If the intrinsic good is to consume as little electricity and water as possible, I may habituate myself to taking cold showers. I may create new, minimalist habits – instead of letting my perceived needs take precedence over collective principles.

/Emmie

 

 

 

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