Monday, November 21, 2011

Kahneman's Friend


A day's cooling my heels in the juror waiting room was a fine place to catch up on what must be the hottest new academic book--Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.  As so many have said, it's a delight.  That's not so much  because it is revolutionary--almost anyone who follows public policy blogs will recognize the important ideas and many of the examples--but because of the unforced ease with which Kahneman lays out the narrative of his own intellectual progress and, inevitably, his account of his collaboration with the late Amos Tversky, whom Kahneman has always been at pains to identify as a full collaborator in this his most important project.

Indeed one of the many charms of the book is his detailed chronicle of his extraordiary collaboration.  It's not a eulogy exactly: Tversky died in 1996 and Kahneman is clear-headed to understand that life goes on, even after with whom you have shared so much.  And although Kahneman clearly admires Tversky, it's not excessively worshipful.  Kahneman leaves the reader in no doubt that he sees himself and Tversky as having been a team, by lucky accident able to enjoy the kind of cooperative endeavor for which most academics would cheerfully push their grandmother in front of a trolley car.
... Amos and I discovered that we enjoyed working together. Amos was always very funny, and in his presence I became funny as well, so we spent hours of solid work in continuous amusement. The pleasure we found in working together made us exceptionally patient; it is much easier to strive for perfection when you are never bored. Perhaps most important, we checked our critical weapons at the door. Both Amos and I were critical and argumentative, he even more than I, but during the years of our collaboration neither of us ever rejected out of hand anything the other said. Indeed, one of the great joys I found in the collaboration was that Amos frequently saw the point of my vague ideas much more clearly than I did. Amos was the more logical thinker, with an orientation to theory and an unfailing sense of direction. I was more intuitive and rooted in the psychology of perception, from which we borrowed many ideas. We were sufficiently similar to understand each other easily, and sufficiently different to surprise each other. We developed a routine in which we spent much of our working days together, often on long walks. For the next fourteen years our collaboration was the focus of our lives, and the work we did together during those years was the best either of us ever did. We quickly adopted a practice that we maintained for many
Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 5-6). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

I know I will raise the emotional temperature by doing what I'm about to do but I can't help but remember that most famous of all testimonials to friendship:
For the rest, what we commonly call friends and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls. But in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined. If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I. There is, beyond all that I am able to say, I know not what inexplicable and fated power that brought on this union. We sought one another long before we met, and by the characters we heard of one another, which wrought upon our affections more than, in reason, mere reports should do; I think 'twas by some secret appointment of heaven. We embraced in our names; and at our first meeting, which was accidentally at a great city entertainment, we found ourselves so mutually taken with one another, so acquainted, and so endeared betwixt ourselves, that from thenceforward nothing was so near to us as one another. He wrote an excellent Latin satire, since printed, wherein he excuses the precipitation of our intelligence, so suddenly come to perfection, saying, that destined to have so short a continuance, as begun so late (for we were both full-grown men, and he some years the older), there was no time to lose, nor were we tied to conform to the example of those slow and regular friendships, that require so many precautions of long preliminary conversation: This has no other idea than that of itself, and can only refer to itself: this is no one special consideration, nor two, nor three, nor four, nor a thousand; 'tis I know not what quintessence of all this mixture, which, seizing my whole will, carried it to plunge and lose itself in his, and that having seized his whole will, brought it back with equal concurrence and appetite to plunge and lose itself in mine. I may truly say lose, reserving nothing to ourselves that was either his or mine.
 So Montaigne in his essay on friendship, remembering his own beloved √Čtienne de La Bo√©tie.  Charles Cotton translation.

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