If Ideas Had Shapes

A quoteblog ranging from philosophers in bathrobes to galaxy-rises


Hello! I created this quote blog on wordpress.com several years ago, and I recently decided it’s time to unify my personal site and my blogs under one roof. The new home of this quote blog is over at arestelle.net/quotes.

I will keep If Ideas Had Shapes available here, and there are new quotes scheduled through the beginning of October 2018, which will appear on both sites, but from then on the only place new quote posts will appear is over at arestelle.net. Email subscriptions aren’t available there, yet, but there is an RSS feed you can follow.


Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre (1847)

“Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.

“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there forever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

I deliberated a moment. My answer, when it did come, was objectionable. “I must keep in good health, and not die.”

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

But over time, with few exceptions, attention is withdrawn from a new situation as it becomes more familiar. The main exceptions are chronic pain, constant exposure to loud noise, and severe depression. Pain and noise are biologically set to be signals that attract attention, and depression involves a self-reinforcing cycle of miserable thoughts. There is therefore no adaptation to these conditions. … Adaptation to a new situation, whether good or bad, consists in large part of thinking less and less about it. In that sense, most long-term circumstances of life, including paraplegia and marriage, are part-time states that one inhabits only when one attends to them.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

Any aspect of life to which attention is directed will loom large in a global evaluation. This is the essence of the focusing illusion, which can be described in a single sentence:

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

It is not only at the opera that we think of life as a story and wish it to end well. When we hear about the death of a woman who had been estranged from her daughter for many years, we want to know whether they were reconciled as death approached. We do not care only about the daughter’s feelings–it is the narrative of the mother’s life that we wish to improve. Caring for people often takes the form of concern for the quality of their stories, not for their feelings. … Most important, of course, we all care intensely for the narrative of our own life and very much want it to be a good story, with a decent hero.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

A comment I heard from a member of the audience after a lecture illustrates the difficulty of distinguishing memories from experiences. He told of listening raptly to a long symphony on a disc that was scratched near the end, producing a shocking sound, and he reported that the bad ending “ruined the whole experience.” But the experience was not actually ruined, only the memory of it. The experiencing self had had an experience that was almost entirely good, and the bad end could not undo it, because it had already happened. …

Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion–and it is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined. The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

Richer and more realistic assumptions do not suffice to make a theory successful. Scientists use theories as a bag of working tools, and they will not take on the burden of a heavier bag unless the new tools are very useful.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

You know you have made a theoretical advance when you can no longer reconstruct why you failed for so long to see the obvious.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

The same sound will be experienced as very loud or quite faint, depending on whether it was preceded by a whisper or by a roar. To predict the subjective experience of loudness, it is not enough to know its absolute energy; you also need to know the reference sound to which it is automatically compared.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

In essence, the optimistic style involves taking credit for successes but little blame for failures.