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So this one probably requires a little explanation. General Semantics was a movement that existed in the 30’s and 50’s which is roughly analogous to what LessWrong tried to be. (In fact, I at one point considered writing some ‘rationalist fiction’ about a boy growing up in the 40’s or 50’s whose defining characteristic was that he’s into it.)

In this talk Irving Lee outlines what he and the founder of the movement think it will look like when they’ve succeeded, in terms of what kind of self improvement they hope to see in people. This document originally came to me through a member of our community who described it to me as “I do not think I have ever seen so many things I so strongly desire to become listed out so succinctly”.


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    Interesting link. I didn’t realise that General Semantics was so much inclined towards virtue ethics.

    My issue with lists of this type is that they are more spirtiual than communicative. Take (12) for example:

    This man of ours, I think, will neither be the rugged individualist nor the completely altruistic cooperating man. He will be both. He will know the virtues of time-binding. He will know how much we owe to the past and he will know how necessary it is to move uniquely. He will be a man who is willing to express inventiveness, and initiative, and the arts and devices of cooperation, etc.

    What are we meant to make of this? The ideal man is neither one desirable thing nor its desirable opposite, but both! He knows things which I’ve described obscurely! He has all the good traits, too many to list here. We are also lead to believe he has none of the bad traits.

    Philosophers have approached the question of an ‘ideal man’ since Aristotle, and a lot of it sounds like this list. The ideal man is all the possible admirable qualities of a man, turned up to maximum, with the conflicts between these qualities resolved by something between magic and the author’s pet philosophy. Lee’s answer seems to be, basically, “strive.” – which is admirable enough as a message, but it falls somewhat limply at the end of the address.

    It’s 66 years too late for advice. But I’d rather read that talk, the one where he says not “the ideal man is great at this and never does that”, which everyone basically knows already, but one where he says. “Okay, you’re imperfect. But here’s what you should be trying to do.”, with actionable insight drawn from the broad experience of the people he knows that exemplify some aspect of that ideal.

    This is where virtue ethics can become useful. Find the people who exemplify portions of your ideal man, and ask them how they do it.

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      So one of the things this makes me think of is the history of LW-style ‘rationality’. I know there’s mailing lists and the like, but I’m not sure there’s really a good one-stop-shop writeup of this particular intellectual lineage. It would probably make an interesting longform essay or book.

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        I would absolutely read such a thing.

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          Well the problem is that for the amount of research and rigor I’d want to put into it, merely having people read it wouldn’t be enough to justify the opportunity cost. I’m swamped right now, so it would have to wait until some time where I’m inexplicably not busy.

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