Inside Story

Muddy reality

Books | What does it mean to reason, to hold beliefs and to experience emotions?

Zora Simic 14 June 2019 1170 words

Adept communicator: philosopher Eleanor Gordon-Smith.

Stop Being Reasonable
By Eleanor Gordon-Smith | NewSouth | $27.99 | 274 pages

The Australian edition of Eleanor Gordon-Smith’s first book is rather inviting. Against an eye-catching bright yellow backdrop, there’s a turtle, flipped onto its back, legs outstretched, caught off-kilter. When I first saw it on the new releases table, I couldn’t resist picking it up. Having not yet heard any of the publicity, I assumed from the title and image that I was picking up a collection of witty essays drawn from the life of an adventurous millennial woman.

Now, while I wasn’t entirely wrong — for Gordon-Smith is indeed witty and the chapters do stand alone as essays — I was mostly wrong. Stop Being Reasonable defies easy classification, but it’s certainly not a solipsistic first-person endeavour. Instead, Gordon-Smith has written an engaging, outward-looking book that invites readers to contemplate what it means to exercise reason, to hold beliefs, to experience emotions and to have your worldview challenged or even shattered. These are huge questions, and even when broken down into more manageable chunks they have preoccupied philosophers for entire careers and across generations. Gordon-Smith sensibly and entertainingly brings them down to earth by hooking them to true human stories, or what she calls the “muddy reality of being a person.”

Of special interest to Gordon-Smith is the question of what it takes to change a person’s mind, an inquiry prompted by a failed experiment she conducted, the outcome of which changed her own mind about the persuasive power of evidence and “reason.” Over a number of weeks, armed with recording equipment, she hit Sydney’s Kings Cross to pose a question to the passing parade of catcallers: “What were you hoping for just then?” She expected to follow up this opening gambit — and “reason them out of doing it again” — by appealing to research and her own authority as a woman.

Instead, she was flummoxed to find that while most of the men she approached were open and friendly — and willing to be recorded — they believed that women responded positively to their banter, their pats on the bottom and their suggestive winks. Edited down, the experiment made for a memorable, if squirm-inducing, episode of the popular US radio program This American Life. In prose, however, without the intimate proximity audio can provide, the catcalling experiment is comparatively flat on the page — or perhaps I never accepted the terms of the experiment in the first place, including the presumed benefits of a “rational conversation.” The radio episode generated major interest and seeded the idea for the book as a whole, but here it stands somewhat apart, a mildly diverting curiosity, from the more compelling five chapters that follow.

At least three of the true stories presented by Gordon-Smith could be ripped from the tabloids or the plots of made-for-television movies. Man leaves religious cult for the love of a truly good woman. Wife accidentally discovers her husband is an adulterer and a paedophile. Happy, middle-aged man learns he is adopted soon after two strangers knock on his front door. One case is literally taken from reality television, albeit from its early, more unpredictable and less-scripted days: Alex, an Oxbridge toff, passes as a bouncer on the British series Faking It, an experiment so invigorating he breaks out of the straitjacket of a fixed self.

In each chapter, Gordon-Smith pans in and out from the quotidian and sometimes sensational details of the case studies to the larger questions that animate her project. Her approach is probing and inquisitive but also deeply empathetic. Rather than judge her subjects for any perceived lapses in judgement or reason, she humanises them and their plight. Instead of reiterating tired mantras like “she must have known” about Susie, who accidentally discovered her husband John’s dark past on the family computer, she questions the assumption that emotion or trust are antithetical to reason or logic, for “trust has its own claim to being rational… [for] it is rational to trust because intimate relationships require it.”

The most perplexing story centres on Nicole Kluemper, already famous in the United States as a contested example of someone with repressed memory of child sexual abuse. The various twists and turns of this case have left the adult Kluemper unsure of the validity or content of her own memories, as well as her identity as a survivor of abuse. Given this rich and gritty material, and Gordon-Smith’s access to the players involved — including the controversial and indefatigable psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, author of The Myth of Repressed Memory (1994) — it is not surprising that this is both the most engrossing and the most (necessarily) irresolute chapter. Gordon-Smith’s skill here is to not take sides — other than Kluemper’s — which makes for riveting reading.

Gordon-Smith peppers Stop Being Reasonable with insights and propositions from well-known and lesser-known philosophers and critical thinkers. She casts her net wide and her choices for a particular conundrum or theme can be refreshingly eclectic, as they are in the chapter about Alex, who rejects the predictable life he was born into as a member of the upper class. Here, Gordon-Smith sweeps Oliver Sacks, Virginia Woolf, Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan and British banker-cum-philosopher Peter Goldie, among others, into formidable teams of defenders and opponents of the idea of a stable self. She also writes vividly of her own first encounters with philosophical thought, including that of René Descartes (of course) and nineteenth-century mathematician William Clifford. Reflecting on Clifford’s equation of doubt with moral courage, she writes, “I loved the pure anarchy of the way philosophy like this tried to leave you with less knowledge instead of more.”

Gordon-Smith clearly knows and loves philosophy — she’s a graduate student in Princeton University’s prestigious philosophy department — and is obviously adept at communicating it to a broader audience. In addition to her work on This American Life, she’s been a researcher and interviewer on Radio National’s long-running program The Philosopher’s Zone. Yet while Stop Being Reasonable falls broadly into the genre of “pop philosophy,” I found the strengths of the book to be storytelling and character rather than its passages of philosophical writing in the mode of popularisers like Alain de Botton. For all of de Botton’s irritating qualities — and he’s clearly as divisive a figure as he is an influential and successful one — his blending of plot and philosophy in early books like On Love was audaciously clever.

More recently, Australian writer Julienne van Loon’s The Thinking Woman impressed with its thoughtful merging of memoir and feminist philosophy. Like Gordon-Smith, van Loon encourages a generous definition of philosophy, but she also dedicates more time to introducing and explaining her chosen philosophers and their work. At times, in its philosophical content, Stop Being Reasonable feels rushed and underdeveloped. I was left wanting more, which is a compliment as well as a criticism. Gordon-Smith is clearly a gifted writer and thinker, and Stop Being Reasonable bodes very well for her future work on the page and on the airwaves. •