I. The Duality Of Man


If you write more stuff like this, I think I will just gradually stop reading this blog.

Logan Strohl:

For the record this is my favorite Scott essay in years.

Leo Yankovic:

Reading this for the first time in a long time of reading [ACX] felt like a giant waste of time.

John Slow:

For what it’s worth, this was my favorite ACX post.


You read through an ENTIRE BOOK of that kind of pompous, long-winded drivel?


Just this review injected a strong acid into my mind and it’s burning through everything. I’m questioning my behaviors and thought patterns and then questioning the questioning. I realized how a lot of my thoughts are geared towards looking good in front of an imaginary audience . . . I’m definitely going to read this book.


It feels like this whole review, and to a large extent the comments, are carefully tiptoeing around an obvious conclusion, occasionally glancing sideways to look at it edge-on, but carefully avoiding confronting it directly. That conclusion is: Teach/TLP is a bad writer, and has therefore written a shit book.


Okay, maybe you’re just reading the bones, but holy moley there are some crackling-good insights here!

Alex Power:

The review has successfully convinced me to not read this book.


I got about halfway through and wrote in my notebook to call my local bookstore and see if they planned to stock it/could order one for me.

I am genuinely fascinated by how divergent all of your responses are. I wonder if anyone will Aumann update towards “there might really be something here” or “it might all be obscurantist drivel” after knowing that other people think so. If not, why not?

II. Reviews From Other People Who Have Read The Book

Thegnskald (writes Sundry Such and Other) says:

The book vacillates wildly between what I am pretty sure are actual points, and what I am pretty sure are stories whose purpose is to get some percentage of the expected audience to feel and/or notice something (and whose factual accuracy I am pretty sure the author does not care about at all, because the factual accuracy isn’t the point). For that passage, which I haven’t reached yet, I think it literally doesn’t matter whether or not it is true in any sense.

But maybe none of it is “actual points”, and those are just the bits that fit in with my worldview; maybe that’s what The Giving Tree feels like to somebody who takes it as some kind of truth.

It’s really weird reading; it’s so close to what I do and how I write, and yet so different, focusing on different things. (Also, I find the book to frequently say outright what should be hinted at, and to hint at what should be said outright. Yes, masturbation is about satisfying yourself, and sex is about satisfying somebody else. Just freaking say this already, why the constant niggling hints over multiple chapters, using an encryption that nobody who doesn’t already know this wouldn’t be able to decode? Are you building up a mystery you are going to cash out to point out the obvious social ramifications of this?)

Orion Anderson (writes Of Horn & Ivory) says:

I bailed on this book less than halfway through, feeling stung but also spurred, and I think I did take some unusually direct actions relative to my baselines in the weeks after.

OK-nefariousness1340 says

I’m like halfway through this book and I’m enjoying it in a House of Leaves kind of way. I don’t get it but it’s spookily confusing, has aggressively nonstandard formatting, and feels like there’s something there.

readprimarysources (author of the blog Intentions) writes:

It seems rather in your benefit to understate the main theses of the book, which, are in no particular order: inability to fantasize, knowledge as a defense against impotence, lack of secondary source reading, envy and ledgers.

The audience you write for is the exact audience this is intended for. They will be happy to accept your secondary report, feel knowledgeable and give their power to you instead of wielding it themselves.

Your example on envy is a clear case. How many of us, consciously, believe we are envious and would think “I wish my friend didn’t have a hot wife” — we say to ourselves exactly as the pirate describes, “My wife isn’t hot because I’m ugly” — which means, “in [not] my fantasy of the world, I am ugly and that’s why I have an ugly wife [therefore in reality, my bitch wife is with an ugly guy and never will be satisfied, the “ledger” is even].

Writing any review of this book does it injustice. I would urge others to read this book themselves, entirely and immediately, but I hate my contemporaries and care little for the next generation, quite contrary to this Teacher.

TTAR says:

I read about ten pages before I realized the point of the book is not to read it.

III. People Who Say The Book Is Not Obscurantist At All And Makes Perfect Sense

KimmoKM says:

For a text that self-confesses to be obscurantist, I was nodding my head in agreement an awful lot, both in terms of Scott’s interpretation of what it’s trying to say, but also the direct quotes. Whether that’s because I’ve willfully misunderstood everything and am now patting myself on the back for these “insights”, because I’ve converged on to something truth-adjacent, or because I’ve converged on to some Schelling point of crackpottery, is anyone’s guess.

For a while now I’ve been drawn into thinking that humans aren’t agents. And by that I don’t mean the weak notion that humans don’t exactly match the mathematical formalism for agents as that statement is pretty much trivially true (due to bounded computational resources imposed by laws of physics) - this is what the idea of boundedly rational agents is for. For me it’s the stronger notion that claims it’s almost never accurate to model human decision-making as optimizing (or satisficing, really) for their preferences. There are some trivial examples like observing that humans tend to claim to want money, and indeed they’re likely to cash in winning lottery tickets or pick up hundred dollar bills from the ground (citation needed), but once you get into more complex behaviors, such as Scott’s example of not asking people on a date despite yearning for a partner every single day, where exactly is the preference-satisficing behavior? One could argue that having a partner isn’t people’s true preference, that they actually prefer to be forever alone, or that being rejected hurts so much that even a perfectly rational agent would not risk it, but when people (I’m thinking about philosophers arguing for compatibilism in particular) talk about humans showing agenthood, they’re explicitly giving some reality to people’s preferences. On the other hand, to deny the reality of these preferences would seem like equating humans to rocks, that rocks have a preference to stay immobile because that’s what we observe them doing, which I think is an even more radical view than my own.

My view is that the preferences people see themselves as having are real, but that accurate model of human behavior rarely invokes them and uses other concepts instead. These concepts are still endogenous (nobody’s being puppeteered by an evil demon) but are often of the nature being talked about here. For example, I draw a juxtaposition from the story of the tree to ideas presented in HPMOR’s chapter involving the troll attack: people often act out roles. The tree acts out the role of a mother, McGonagall a strict disciplinarian, and that way of modelling behavior might actually get you somewhere. Ditto for behaviors like virtue-signalling, or any of the other social games people unconsciously play that end up dictating their behavior.

Similarly, the idea that people want their freedoms curtailed speaks to me because I’ve also thought about that a lot. It seems to me that humans would indeed be the happiest in a state of “choicelessness” (I believe there’s some Eastern philosophical concept for it, but if I’ve known one, I’ve since forgotten about it), always living in the moment because there’s no other option. The extreme example of this would be monasticism, but this has to large extent been the general experience for most of human existence: you could in principle do something else than forage or work the fields, but then you’d starve so you don’t actually have much choice now do you. Even in today’s environment a lot of people seem to find the idea of not /having/ to go to work every morning abhorrent: what would they do with themselves? I’ve never drawn a connection between historical forms of choicelessness and modern forms like “domination by corporate HR departments”, but now that the idea has been presented to me, it does seem to make sense.

(For the record, this does in no way excuse slavery: you can experience choicelessness without also being subjected to misery)

(Also for the record, I’m claiming no superiority here. In fact, I’m uncharacteristically incapable of acting on my claimed preferences)

Craig says:

Seems like an interesting book. Teach’s interpretation of “The Giving Tree” feels right to me, actually. It doesn’t matter what Shel Silverstein intended it to mean; the point is that there’s another reading that actually makes more sense, that gets behind the book’s saccharine sentimentality to reveal a deeper and more credible psychology. Art is like that, if it’s worth anything at all; it says things the artist didn’t know he was saying. That the tree is less a mother than an idealized fantasy of motherhood with no correspondence to reality seems obviously correct, at least, and Teach makes some very good points about the relationship between love and obligation.

Scott, you seem to miss the context when he addresses the reader. He doesn’t just say, “This book isn’t for you, your brain is set in concrete.” He says, “You’re stumped by the layout? This book isn’t for you, your brain is set in concrete.” The context indicates that “This book isn’t for you” is a response to those who are “stumped by the layout.” “You” isn’t you, personally (at least not necessarily); it’s the kind of reader who would only misunderstand the book, and Teach does all these things (and tells you he’s doing them!) to try to get them not to read it in the first place. When you say you had to replace “you” with “a hypothetical maximally unvirtuous person”, I think you’re close, but kind of overdoing it. The readers in question are hardly “maximally unvirtuous” (whatever that means; it sounds a bit like Caligula), they’re just ordinary people who think the ordinary thoughts they were taught to think, who don’t really want to be challenged, and wouldn’t know what to do with this kind of challenge anyway because it’s completely beyond their capabilities to seriously consider that the world might not be what they’ve been taught to believe it is. So when Teach says he’s trying to drive readers away, I think you can take him literally. The thing is, it’s not ALL readers, just the ones who are wasting their time reading a book that’s beyond them (and they self-select by being put off by these tricks). The question is which type of reader you are.

You seem to be trying to look for some hidden meaning in Teach’s writing when he seems, as far as I can tell from the quotes you’ve provided, to be laying it all out in plain view. Your response to the book reminds me of a quote I came across once, I forget who from (Mencken, maybe?) to the effect that if you want people to laugh and think you’re joking, just tell them the plain truth.

Having read your review and the two you linked to, in the end I find that I don’t really trust any of the three of you to tell me what this book is about. The self-styled Contrarian starts off by sneering that Teach’s old blog was popular with “pseudo-intellectuals” (which we may take as an implicit claim that the Contrarian is a real intellectual, or at least able to tell the difference, which I am not sure I believe) and reviews the book after reading only about 20% of it; he also tells us that Teach’s style is “slightly wordy in the same way the Washington monument can be described as slightly phallic,” which is a fairly lame attempt at wit and, based on your quotes, seems to me rather exaggerated. Teach does seem to enjoy the sound of his own voice, but try Henry James or A.E. Waite if you want something that’s “slightly wordy in the same way the Washington monument can be described as slightly phallic.”

Lacan’s justification for obscurantism reminds me of a quote attributed to Josiah Warren: “It is dangerous to understand new things too quickly.” I would guess that Teach agrees, though his method is different; rather than being obscure, he makes his book hard (for some people) to read by simply being blunt and somewhat abrasive, not to mention the 30-page porn story, the long footnotes, and various other mechanisms.

I wonder Teach is really quite as condescending as he seems. At the very least, he apparently likes playing that part (and it surely helps to drive away the wrong kind of reader, so it counts as another tactic of that sort, along with the long footnotes, etc.), but he seems too perceptive. The best psychologists, in my experience, are good because they actually have a deep understanding of human nature and know that that understanding applies to themselves as much as to everyone else. I suppose he really could have a huge blind spot in that regard, but I’d be surprised if that were the case.

Anyway, I’ve ordered the book, so at some point in the future I’ll have my own more fully-formed opinion of it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

IV. People Who Say The Book Is So Obscurantist That We Should Stop Trying To Make Sense Of It


I think the interpretation of “Sadly, Porn” is a lot simpler: true to the name, it’s mental masturbation that’s trying to accuse everyone else of engaging in mental masturbation. Sometimes, when something is dense and inaccessible, it’s because it’s dealing with high-level concepts; here, I think it’s dense and inaccessible because the author’s ego has grown so massive it ended up collapsing into a black hole. Admittedly, this is because I don’t find claims that some massive number of human beings are essentially p-zombies compelling. As my counterpoint, I’d point out that most people who believe this idea (usually dressed up as “everyone’s a sheep; everyone but me”) are some flavor of annoying narcissist (either by nature or by circumstance) and ironically the exact same kind of person he’s lambasting in this book. I’d put that last part down to a lack of self-awareness.


This is a dense review, but my first and strongest thought was “if it’s constantly telling you to lower your mental defense mechanisms to accept its truth, and you can’t understand it but you get the feeling that if you did it would be some sort of massive revelation, and your definitely-not-a-cult-leader friend is a big fan of it… maybe it’s a cult.” Or at least, using the same tools as a cult.

Tell someone that you have rare and secret knowledge. Tell them that most people won’t believe it, and they’re special for figuring out the truth. Make your explanations deliberately a bit obscure, so that they feel invested in the work they put in to understanding it. If someone feels like they understand you a bit too well, tell them they’re still wrong, they’re falling for an antimeme, they need to study even harder. Keep them feeling like they’re on the brink of a revelation without ever gaining the clarity that might allow them to notice that it makes no sense. Explain with wild free-association chains that give people the sense that everything is connected and so your ideas can explain everything. If they ever feel tempted to go with the normal, boring explanation that would connect them to broader reality, turn that temptation into a character flaw - the only reason they think that way is because they’re giving in to their brain’s defense mechanism and they can’t handle the truth.

Defense mechanisms do exist, and sometimes it really is hard to explain a complicated concept without wrestling with various imprecise metaphors. But other times, it’s hard to understand because it’s not actually a good explanation and you’re accurately noticing your confusion. And still other times, it’s hard to understand because the simple explanation would sound something like “I want to sneak past your rational thought processes because I’m trying to manipulate you.”

V. Antimemetics

I should introduce this section by admitting that most of what I wrote about antimemetics was half-joking. I do think there are ideas that are tough to wrap your mind around, and easy to get wrong. Linking this to the idea of an antimeme (most famously from qntm’s excellent There Is No Antimemetics Division stories) was a poetic flourish but not a literal truth. Bringing in the Biblical angels was total trolling. I’m glad people found this idea interesting but I hope they don’t take it too seriously. Still, there were some good comments, including by people who took it more seriously than I did.

Robert McIntyre:

There’s actual, literal facts that you can try to explain to people, they will realize they are deeply confused about the issue, and then their mind just “bounces off” the idea, they sort of stare into space, and later they misremember what you said and are right back to where they started. I’ve personally seen this many times for many different facts. It’s not SUPERNATURAL, it doesn’t need to be. But antimemes are very real.

[After being asked for examples] I find the idea of two people sincerely trying to share the antimemes they’ve discovered to each other, each with an open mind, to be both fascinating and terrifying. I don’t feel comfortable doing it in public, but I have to admit I’m intrigued. How many such facts do you know? I just made a list for 20 minutes and I came up with around 30 discrete things.


You use a metaphor of puzzle pieces to understand an antimeme. I think that the “MVP Pyramid” makes more sense. This is a classic image used in business world, and while it’s aesthetically LinkedIn-y it’s useful.

Here’s an image:


The relevant axes here are “Finished” and “Complete”. Something is finished if it has some shading on every level of the pyramid. Something is complete if the whole pyramid is filled in.

An MVP is finished but it is not complete. So, a meme is like an MVP. A classic meme in my world is “the administration doesn’t care about the students.” This is a meme that is so common that it seems to predict the world as much as describe it. However, it is not finished. It is a vast oversimplification, it’s only one sentence!

An antimeme is an idea that cannot be finished unless it is complete. It deliberately obscures itself so as to minimize simplification into an MVP. Therefore the pyramid must be filled from bottom to top, and it is not useful until it is finished.

VI. Does Advertising Really Work Like That?

23oncemore says:

I really appreciate the review, in a “Scott read it and gave it more and better thought than I could, so now I don’t have to” way.

But I don’t see evidence that Teach understands the basic reality that advertisers, for instance, do not engage in sophisticated judo with elaborate psychological implications. Or at least not intentionally. Advertising, like news, like any large creative movement, is driven by emergent behaviors and consumer selection.

For every Coke ad that plays to woke tropes and aims for associating $2 of sugar water with social goodness, there are hundreds of ads that say things like “Drink Coke, it’s good” or “Coke is like balloons” and which never make it to market because they are filtered out as poorly performing by managers and focus groups and regional testing. The ads we see are not brilliant psychoanalytic strategy, they are a mechanical reflection of what the populace most wants them to be.

If Coke ads are woke today, it’s not a strategy to appeal to wokeness, it is a reflection that “woke ad #27” outperformed “funny ad #16” in early tests.

One topic of burning curiosity: does Teach ever reflect on his own relationship to his model of the world? Does he also have no desires, only desires to have desires, or actions to produce the illusion of status? What does he see as the purpose of writing this book? Was it strictly masturbatory for him, to salve his own needs according to his model? Or is he somehow above all of that?

sohois responds:

This is a very common conception of marketing/advertising which doesn’t really reflect reality. Advertisers and adverts in general are far less empirical/objective and far more subjective than this, even in major enterprises. Even digital advertising, which has a much greater data pipeline than mass campaigns like Coke do, is going to have a major human element.

And given the topic of this book review, I obviously have to add that people want advertising to work like you describe, because it absolves them of responsibility. The ads are simply too good, too optimized to resist in this model.

Though unlike TLP I have no idea if my analysis is true, so feel free to ignore that bit. What I do know is that advertising is far less scientific than most people assume.

cruithne responds:

I used to work for an advertising consultancy company that would assess customers’ (advertisers) ads and give feedback on them. From what I gather advertising actually is often very carefully chosen. There is a human element (of course) but it’s outsourced and quantified rather than just being the whims of a big boss. And one of the projects I worked on was for Coke.

23oncemore again:

Fair enough… maybe there’s more variety than I expect, just like there’s a wide range of formality in how movies are produced.

I can say that the one time I had a role at large company that involved working with advertising, it was very formal and quantitative.

We’d give them a brief ~6 months before a campaign with key points for the new product (“twice the battery life” / “50% better performance at same cost”), and they’d iterate over the next few months, with round after round of proposals and quantitative test results, and data on how each draft scored in a few metrics against different demographics.

My role was “make sure the ads don’t say anything technically wrong or show a really dumb use case” so I wasn’t a creative approver, but whenever someone questioned whether a draft was going the right direction, our agency was quick to bring out the 10 or 15 alternatives they tested, and the reasons (sometimes subjective, sometimes quantitative) they were worse.

Feedback on the best drafts would be incorporated in the next round, and round over round scores would (generally) trend towards company goals.

It left me with this idea that ads generally aren’t formulated from a superhuman ability to manipulate psychology, but rather extracted from possibility space the same way you solve Minesweeper.

It may well be that the company, or agency, or combination was exceptionally formal, maybe because they lacked a brilliant manipulator of psychology and had to brute force it. Maybe those people are out there. But I can say with certainty not all advertising is based in psychological insight.

“I obviously have to add that people want advertising to work like you describe, because it absolves them of responsibility”

That’s really funny! I would say the same about a belief that advertising is created by superhuman psychological manipulation that the masses are powerless to resist.

Since we seem to agree that advertising is optimized for effectiveness, and merely disagree about how it is optimized, I’m not sure why personal responsibility would change between the two implementation models.

VII. Do People Actually Think Like That About Compliments?

In the post, I wrote:

Also, compliments. We all know the “fishing for compliments” phenomenon. And we all know the “I fished for compliments and someone complimented me but it doesn’t count because I know I was just fishing for it” phenomenon. And its close cousin, “someone complimented me, but it was for the thing I already know I’m good at, so it doesn’t count”. And their weird uncle, “someone complimented me out of the blue, and it was a really good compliment, and it was terrible, because maybe I secretly fished for it in some way I can’t entirely figure out, and also now I feel like I owe them one, and I never asked for this, and I’m so angry!” This seems a lot like “using other people as pawns in a mind game to feel high status”, and at least a little like the ledger where you resent someone forever if they do something nice for you.

(half of you are saying “Nobody really thinks like that, right?” and the other half are freaking out: “How did he know what I think?”)

Electrace asked:

Nobody….. Nobody really thinks like that, right?


People with OCD do! (I can tell from an irl sample size of one)


“someone complimented me, but it was for the thing I already know I’m good at, so it doesn’t count”

This was/is basically my thought process for some compliments, so I can confirm some people, sometimes, do really think something like that.


Yeah the first three are all clearly normal. It’s the weird uncle that’s really weird. But it sounds like something some people would think, although I’m not certain.


Oh my, yes.

“I fished for compliments and someone complimented me but it doesn’t count because I know I was just fishing for it”

Me, a trans person, asking if I pass

“someone complimented me, but it was for the thing I already know I’m good at, so it doesn’t count”

Me, a trans person, when someone says I’m the right height to pass

“someone complimented me out of the blue, and it was a really good compliment, and it was terrible, because maybe I secretly fished for it in some way I can’t entirely figure out, and also now I feel like I owe them one, and I never asked for this, and I’m so angry!”

When anyone says anything nice to me.

I mean, I quit fishing because it’s pointless, but the thought patterns are the same. There is no point trying to get complimented because I won’t believe them. No compliment can unseat the fact that I hate how I look.


As somebody with social anxiety, this doesn’t sound too far off the mark. In particular the whole part where your brain is very good at making sure compliments don’t count. I personally experience it in a more self-defeating way. I wouldn’t get angry at somebody for giving me a compliment, just disappointed at myself for only being good at that one (useless) thing. (Addendum: Even if the thing isn’t useless at all, like programming - if your mind is convinced you’re a worthless person, any even remotely positive attribute gets twisted into something negative or worthless instead)

I_Eat_Pork started a poll on the subreddit, which so far looks like this:

Seems…false and wrong? But it’s got a graph on it, and that makes it data, and that means it has to be true even if we don’t believe it. Weird.

There was also some discussion of how common the attitude towards music I confessed to (sometimes enjoying songs by fantasizing that I wrote them / performed them and now I’m getting famous for them) is. Gordon Tremeshko, John Slow, and Walruss were all willing to admit to doing the same.

VIII. Miscellaneous Interesting Comments

Snav (writes Snav’s Digest) tries to explain the psychoanalytic perspective:

“What’s the equivalent for Sadly, Porn? If Teach ever felt motivated to explain his technique as clearly as this roshi, what would he say?”

He hints at this early on, when he says:

“In this book you will find one sentence that will engage you and one sentence that will enrage you, and if you tell both those sentences to anyone else they will have all the information necessary to determine whether to sleep with you or abandon you at a rest stop.

‘Will this book help me learn more about myself?’ Ugh. The whole earth is sick of your search for knowledge. In here you will not find explanations, I am not offering you information, this is an attempt to destroy the wisdom of the wise and frustrate the intelligence of the intelligent.”

The book is meant to frustrate the reader. One difference between psychoanalysis and psychology is that the former is a series of meta-frames which allow you to scientifically generate knowledge about a single individual. So, to say the book has an overarching “point” is to miss the “meta-point”, which is that the book takes as many angles as possible in hopes that one will hit, make you pissed off, and then hopefully get you thinking about why you got pissed off, and maybe discover something about yourself/your knowledge.

Nav_Panel explains the history of Lacan and why he’s so difficult:

It’s sort of complicated. First of all – Lacan wasn’t really “writing” (he did write, though, and it’s famously inscrutable, I think he said that it wasn’t meant to be read at all), he was delivering seminars verbally. The first 10 or so are all Freud reading groups, mostly analysts. They’d choose an essay or a book for close, careful study and then speak on it. He makes reference to this in earlier seminars, like “thanks so-and-so for the great [excerpted from the text] discussion of this week’s material”, before moving into his own discussion. I’ve done some of my own close readings of Freud, more casually, and there really is a lot there: read once to follow Freud’s train of logic, and then read for the gaps in the text.

Around Seminar XI / 1964, Lacan got booted from the Freudian institute, for being too heterodox. So he pivoted and gave a lecture for more general-purpose French intellectuals at the time, which is why Seminar XI is mysterious and obscure: he’s talking to guys like Merleau-Ponty, top brass of the French intellectuals, and invoking Aristotle and Hegel and Heidegger, not doing close readings with a gaggle of analysts. But the results of his earlier close readings form the groundwork for his later work. He gets increasingly esoteric from that point on, IMO culminating in Seminar XX, which is kind of where the groundwork for modern notions of gender comes from (Butler was a Lacanian, although she may not admit it).

Point is that I generally agree. You can’t just jump into Lacan with a high IQ and expect to “get it”. I know because I and others I’ve spoken to have tried and failed. Like any intellectual project, you need the lineage (as Scott himself wrote about a while ago in a short fiction I really liked but can’t remember the name of), and the lineage here is not common knowledge except perhaps among orthodox Freudian analysts.


I’ve tried reading TLP. I feel about the guy the same way I feel about woke stuff – I don’t understand why I should listen to someone sneeringly accuse me of motives and pathologies that do not match my internal experience at all. Seems masochistic.

This reminds me of some of my own thoughts on competing selectors. You hold onto ideas either because they’re true/useful or because they’re seductive. The study of which ideas are true/useful is science and rationality. I don’t know if there’s a study of which ideas are seductive, but ideas that “sneeringly accuse me of motives and pathologies” seem to do really well, I think playing off a sort of anxiety that wait, maybe I actually am this bad a person, I should get really into this ideology in order to absolve myself of this guilt.

Vlad (author of the blog Vlad’s Notebook) writes:

“Psychologically unhealthy people, eg you and everyone you know, don’t have desires, at least not in the normal sense.”

Strong echo from existentialism here. As I understand it, existentialism says that most of us live “unauthentic” lives where we constantly distract ourselves to avoid facing Reality. The distractions are not just stuff like TV or porn, they might be quite elevated and demanding. Proust wrote something on the lines of: some talented writers will rather go to war and die there than sit at the writing table and dig through their feelings.

But as far as I know, existentialists would not point to status games as a primary cause; they would probably see them as yet another distraction. The primary cause would be the fact that Reality is intrinsically alien and terrifying and we feel that we don’t have any place or purpose in it, which is why, after Pascal, most of us cannot “sit quietly in a room alone”. And that facing Reality means facing Death and what it says about us (we have an angel’s mind, but we shit and die like worms). It’s less a risk of failure than its absolute certainty.

In other words, carving our “authentic” purpose in this alien reality is a titanic task, beyond the means of most people; but as humans with a neocortex that demands meaning, we still have to justify our existence and give it some purpose. Hence the distractions.

This perspective resonates more with me because I find it really hard to do “actual stuff” in Reality, i.e. stuff that should be done because it’s intrinsically valuable but does not have any immediate points attached to it and can only be done by going down lonely, dark paths that lead to Death and Reality.

As I see it, there’s two ways out of this: the humorous, easy-going, dropping-all-pretense, relatively carefree attitude of some “enlightened ones” (mystics, daoist sages, zen masters), who seem to have found a sort of joyful nihilism in their appraisal of reality, or the titanism of individuals who manage to manifest their desires and their will-to-power in the world (I think of people like Napoleon, Musk and yes, even Kanye). Maybe their power and charisma, like your friend’s aptitude to be a cult leader, comes from their ability to own and manifest actual desires, achieve individuation, and become a true personality, while their followers get to at least experience it vicariously and partially appropriate their personality through identification, like children who play at being adults.

But then again, can you tell if enlightenment is “the real deal” and not just another pretense? Is Musk manifesting his individuality, or is he running away like everyone else? It doesn’t matter: it doesn’t concern you, so asking these questions is just another distraction.

I’ve never really “gotten” existentialism. Maybe related: I have no trouble at all sitting quietly not doing anything or distracting myself (sometimes I have trouble doing anything else!), and relatively weak fear of death (see this post).


There are undoubtedly many smart, kind psychoanalysts who undertook the long, insanely expensive analytic training in hopes of learning to recognize something like subconscious patterns of thought. I know several. They way things play out in real life for many who got analytic training is that the training gives them some skills and schemas and forms of attunement that get tossed into the mix with all the other stuff they have learned or figured out or know instinctively about how to get people unstuck from various hells. Pure psychoanalysis is rarely practiced these days. Its glamor has faded and it is extremely expensive – $450/ session in NYC, and patients come for 3-4 sessions/week - so there aren’t a lot of customers.

I do think that of the various schools and styles of psychotherapy, unadulterated psychoanalysis is about the worst in terms of the power imbalance between patient and therapist. I would rather have some psychopharmacologist telling me I should take drug X in order to tame my attentional deficit, psychotic flares or whatnot than to have a psychoanalyst telling me he knows better than I do who I want to have sex with. The former would be giving me expert info about how to tame my brain with drugs – the latter would be telling me he knows more than I do about who I am.

Jason Pargin wrote

Holy crap, The Last Psychiatrist book finally came out??? Why isn’t this bigger news? This is my white whale. I’m buying it just because I feel like I owe him for TLP, which had more influence on my life than any other single piece of writing.

Maybe not a very interesting comment, but I’m including here because lots of other commenters were surprised and excited to learn that Pargin (aka David Wong) still exists and has a Substack, Jason Pargin’s Newsletter.

— Every ACX post has to have one person relating it to predictive coding. Usually that person is me, but this time it was FeepingCreature:

I think this relates to free energy/error reduction? Ie. we don’t become who we want to be, we believe that we already are that person and then act to reduce error. With the failure mode of externalizing the difference between inferred and phenomenal self.

To which Snav responded:

There’s a new strain of neuropsychoanalysis from the last decade that you might find interesting, haven’t read it but this 3 part series of papers relating Fristonian and Lacanian ideas comes highly recommended: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34727734/

I guess I have to read this now, don’t I? Other things people say this book reminded them of include: The Gervais Principle, Adlerian psychology, Rene Girard, and David Foster Wallace.

Connor Flexman says:

(x-posted from rationalist house slack)

The problem with worshippers of Lacan and “irrational psyches” is that everything looks like a nail. (True of most groups, but anyways…) Some parts of the psyche are pretty straightforward. Other parts are riddled with one or more PARADOXes. If you look for PARADOX everywhere, you can hardly proceed. It is one place where you cannot let the obstacle become the way.

I loved Scott’s post on Lacan yesterday for a few reasons, but something felt a bit wrong with its frame on applicability. Seemed like it erred toward a standard rationalist mistake of “is this everywhere, or a bad model?” The gradations of hypothesis seemed more like they were over intensities or amounts, rather than situations. Instead, what seems clear to me is that it’s a great model for many [deep, fundamental] twists of the psyche, but a flatly wrong and very destructive model in many other cases. I think rationalists fear Lacanian things partlyyyy because everyone who gets into them goes insane (fair) but partly because rationalists, like much of Western culture, implicitly assume universal applicability of knowledge. Universalize the Lacanian paradigm and that way lies madness; understand the Lacanian underpinnings of some key patterns (hatred of billionaires) and the world will just be more hospitable. Very general and important principle: If you know the bounds of applicability, you’re at much less danger from an ideology.

throwaway289 says:

Alright Scott, you’re making me make a throwaway account for this. CW: frank and gross discussion of bizarre porn.

Teach writes: “Porn doesn’t depict fetishes - porn is your fetish.” This seems totally insane and also I can’t rule it out.

It is not insane. I’ve spent way too fucking long looking at online hentai communities for this to sound insane.

It’s probably true of me: at some point I realized that the thing that makes my dick most hard isn’t when I’m diving into a cool-looking hentai comic. It’s when I’m scrolling through the grid of covers looking through to FIND some that I might like. The search, the potential for a nice surprise, is what kicks a part of my brain into gear. The diving into it is just the follow-through. You could literally describe that as having a fetish for nhentai’s search page and you wouldn’t be too far off.

And among the general populace of these communities, there’s an oft-running “haha only serious” meme of 2D women being better than 3D women. I don’t think everybody falls into that trap, but there are people that do, and it gets really sad really quickly: https://www.reddit.com/r/waifuism/

I’d say these people would sooner admit to the thought behind Teach’s quote than most porn consumers, but that’s probably just me falling into the same status-raising trap that’s talked about in this entire review by trying to say “at least they’re honest about it”.

The “porn is your fetish” thing is even more true the more “extreme” or “weird” the fetishes get, particularly in hentai communities. You get people that fetishize shit that’s illegal or immoral, sure, but then there are people that fetishize shit that isn’t physically possible. You can’t have that in the real world. Porn is literally the only outlet.

Not sure I agree here. I’ve also encountered some of the “2D better than 3D” people, and I always interpreted them as saying that anime girls have more of the characteristics they’re attracted to than real women (and why shouldn’t they - they were designed as fantasies). People getting aroused just by starting to browse porn sites just seems to me like typical classical conditioning - although I guess maybe that’s what a fetish is , so never mind.


This reads like abuse, because it is. I guess I get to thank an abusive ex-friend for inoculating me against this particular kind of anti-thought. If the author expresses contempt and hate for the reader, I’m inclined to believe them and steer clear.

There’s a blatant attempt to undermine your ability to take your own thoughts seriously here, and it’s apparent in the passage where the author accuses literally everybody of not having desires (at least not of the sort he thinks are good) and only being interested in “status” (which is subtly being shifted around with “identity” or “self-image”, but not the same thing). Boy, when you redefine words like that, you can make anything mean anything!

This book is weaponized gaslighting. The fact that Scott wrote an interesting review and drew useful insights is pretty much separate from that.

Jack Wilson:

What I don’t understand about this “desire for desire” idea is I spent all of middle-school and high-school with a hard-on looking around at the girls in my classroom, imagining the terrible, beautiful things I wanted to do with them. As a Gen-X-er, talking to others in my generation, that’s how we all experienced it. You’d spend all day in class imagining fucking the girl who sat in front of you in English class, then go home and jack off thinking about her the moment you got home. You couldn’t wait to get home to jack off. It was torture.

But was everyone in my generation experiencing some memetic desire, something different from today because we consumed different porn? I grew up when porn meant Penthouse and Hustler magazines. You spent a lot of time looking at a picture of a hairy pussy. Did that create the desire I felt for my female classmates? It seems implausible, yet I don’t know how to rule it out.

If that’s the case, then it seems like magazine porn was the good porn, because it was just pictures of tits and cunts and made you want to experience them in the flesh. It wasn’t a substitution, maybe it was a catalyst.

It strikes me as crazy that most young men haven’t always spent most of their time fantasizing about exploring women’s pussies. After all, aren’t we here because that’s what every generation before us did? It seems nutty to think porn is a driver of desire as opposed to a pacifier of it.

But maybe internet porn is different? Perhaps, but any “This time it’s different” claim needs to make a strong, clear case.

I agree that high school boys are the toughest case for the “you have no desires” argument, and that thinking of a specific high school boy (including yourself if you’re male and post-high school) is perhaps more clarifying than a generic “you” made up of vague figures you don’t think about too hard.

WeDoTheodicyInThisHouse calls me out, fairly:

“Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower—become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.”

[A bit later, the cure is described.]

“…it will be cured when you come to the fountain.”

“What fountain’s that?”

“It is up there in the mountains,” said the Spirit. “Very cold and clear, between two green hills. A little like Lethe. When you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else’s: without pride and without modesty.”

-“The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis

To want to be the person who wrote the music, or who would skillfully play it before a huge audience, to great acclaim… yeah, that is common to this time. The self-forgetfulness is much to be hoped for.

— Finally, by Walruss:

TLP got me through some really tough times, and there’s something true and real at the bottom of all the…whatever it is he’s writing, but for me it really just boils down to: “Saying happiness is your goal is like saying getting paid is your job.