Recently interviewed by Phil Treagus, for The Reading Lists. The Reading Lists has mission to inspire more people to pick up great books and use them as the stepping stones they are to achieving huge success and having massive world impact.
Here’s the full interview.
Daniel Bell is Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University and professor at Tsinghua University (Schwarzman College and Department of Philosophy). Daniel Bell was born in Montreal, educated at McGill and Oxford, has taught in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, and has held research fellowships at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and Hebrew University’s Department of Political Science. He is the author of numerous books including The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy and The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age. Daniel Bell writes widely on Chinese politics and philosophy for the media including the New York Times, Financial Times, Global Times, Nanfengchuang, Worldpost, Project Syndicate, and the Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog, and he has been interviewed in English, Chinese, and French. His articles and books have been translated into Chinese and twenty-two other languages. Daniel Bell received the Huilin Prize in 2018. Please enjoy my interview with Daniel Bell.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I say that I work with ideas. In some sense, I’m working all the time, even in my sleep (because some ideas come in my dreams), but in some other sense, I feel guilty because I feel I’m never really working compared to those who work with their hands.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading for my new book on just hierarchy, a chapter on the hierarchy between humans and machines: I argue we should strive to maintain a master-slave hierarchy with machines, but that AI threatens to upend that hierarchy. I find Marx’s writings on machines particularly insightful. He envisioned a future where machines do all the necessary labour and humans will be free to realize their creative essences, but he didn’t anticipate the possibility that superintelligent machines could upend the master-slave relation we (humans) should have with machines. Beyond that, I’m reading works of science fiction, such as The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch, that point to possible futures with AI. Generally speaking, there are good reasons to be pessimistic about the fate of humanity in the long term, unless we develop global mechanisms to stop the development of superintelligent machines.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
I was brought up in a French speaking household in Montreal, and I loved reading comic books from France and Belgium, such as Asterix and Tintin. I think those books gave me the taste to travel to foreign lands, and sometimes I can’t help but invoke Obelix’s reaction when he encountered unfamiliar practices (“ils sont fous ces Romains /Anglais/ Bretons, etc”)
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be and why?
Depends on the age bracket and the context. If it’s five-year-olds in China, I’d recommend the Di Zi Gui (“Standards for Being a Good Pupil and Child”), a Qing dynasty text that is still highly relevant today for the purpose of teaching other-regarding behaviour to children. My favourite passage: if your parent does something wrong, what do you do? You first criticize them, and if that doesn’t work, find an appropriate occasion to criticize (when your parent is in a good mood), and if that doesn’t work, cry and work on their emotions, and if that doesn’t work, then accept their punishment. The last part is controversial today because it implies that physical punishment is acceptable, but we can teach such texts without that implication.
When did you fall in love with philosophy?
I’m not in love with philosophy. Philosophy is hard work.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
Working as a sweeper in a factory. But I established a lasting friendship with a fellow sweeper (an illegal immigrant from Cuba).
What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?
Don’t just read Western philosophy!
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
No. I feel guilty that I don’t spend as much time reading as I should, especially Chinese language reading.
What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path and why?
What I can say for sure is that any book that is explicitly designed to help careers is probably boring and useless. Something useful may emerge from reading good novels and non-fiction, but not sure what. Probably best to spend more time working on people skills – interacting with diverse kinds of real people – rather than reading if the aim is to improve career possibilities.
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
The Analects by Confucius. Gets more profound after each reading.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Different books for different people…
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
Confucius, Mencius, Marx.
What’s your favourite genre of book?
I like genre-bending books.
What do you think a world without books would be like?
Not so terrible if there’s a different way of accessing information contained in books.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
Used to be Philip Roth, but he stopped writing, unfortunately.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
Not in the short term. Eventually, there may be a way of plugging such information directly into the brain that will also make digital books obsolete.
What book do you feel humanity needs most right now?
I guess I’d still settle on the The Analects by Confucius.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
No “big bang” moment. But I’ve been thinking most about how some of the ideas in early Confucian texts shape my life.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Xunzi. The best book for thinking about ethical leadership.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Mainly reading for my book on just hierarchy. Reading for the chapter on the hierarchy between humans and animals (“domination without exploitation”) and for the chapter on hierarchy between countries (“win-win”), and for the chapter on hierarchy within a country (“for the people affected by the policies, especially the worst off”).
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Memoirs of a Minor Bureaucrat in Shandong Province.