24 November 2010

Review of How Pleasure Works

Review of How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom

This book has some interesting bits, but doesn't live up to its title. Bloom never articulates a coherent theory of how pleasure works. Nor does he really pull the individual chapters together into a unified theory of pleasure.

As he immediately tells you in the preface, he's not talking about simple animal pleasures, food and comfort, that sort of thing. He's talking about uniquely human pleasure, or pleasures with a uniquely human aspect.

The chapters each explore some aspect of how pleasure works. In each case, the chapter's mini-theory or theories explain some pleasure phenomena but can't explain others.

For instance, in chapter 6 (Imagination), the theory is that the pleasure we take in stories is a sort of extra-powerful daydreaming, more vivid than our real daydreams and amplified by the storyteller's skillful choices. But (as he admits) this is far from a complete theory of why we like stories.

When I was done reading this book, I asked myself what in it would explain the pleasure we take in music. And my answer was, none of them. Chapter by chapter:

  1. The Essence Of Pleasure. This whole chapter seemed pretty insubstantial to me. "Essence" is far too elastic a term to carry any real explanatory weight.
  2. Foodies - about food. Not applicable.
  3. Bedtricks - about sex. Not applicable.
  4. Irreplaceable - No, essentially all music is copies of something. Not just copies of recordings of a performance, but performances themselves are often copies, too. The few times I've heard improvisation, while in some cases I appreciated the skill, it didn't strike me as particularly great music.

    You could say that a given opus is irreplaceable: What could replace Beethoven's 6th symphony or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik? But that seems to be stretching the point beyond reason. Were all (say) roses to perish from existence forever, we'd miss them too, but that doesn't mean a rose is irreplaceable.

  5. Performance - the mini-theory here is that our pleasure is an appreciation of skilled performance.

    For me, sure, though appreciating virtuosity is hardly the only pleasure I take from music. But many people who have zero musical sophistication enjoy music. Often they don't even know what instrument they are hearing played. How are they appreciating the performer's virtuosity?

    Furthermore, music is often used to accompany other performances - background music, overture, dance. Here most audiences are unlikely to appreciate the performer's skill or to even notice the music as performance.

  6. Imagination - stories explained as extra-powerful daydreaming. Doesn't seem applicable. One might try to force it to fit by arguing that music sometimes helps you daydream, but I think that's a stretch.
  7. Safety And Pain - Again largely about stories. Here the mini-theory is that we get to experience things we couldn't safely experience in real life. It's hard to see how that could apply to music.
  8. Why Pleasure Matters - this chapter mostly tries to tie pleasure to religion. Not applicable.

So How Pleasure Works did not explain music. It's often an interesting book, but far from a coherent theory of how pleasure works.

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