Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a novelist and philosopher. Her novels include "The Mind-Body Problem," "The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind," "Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics," and her latest, "36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction" (Pantheon Books).
In 1996 Goldstein became a MacArthur Fellow. In 2005 she was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2006 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Fellowship. In 2008, she was designated a Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Emerson College, where she gave the commencement address.
Goldstein has taught at Barnard College, in the Columbia MFA writing program, and in the department of philosophy at Rutgers; has been a visiting scholar at Brandeis University; and has taught for five years as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. In 2006-2007 she was a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and a Guggenheim Fellow. Currently she is a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology, Harvard University.
Question: What is love?
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: What is love? When you love somebody then I mean we all want good things to happen to ourselves and keep the bad things at bay. You know when you love somebody you want that as much for them if not more than you do for yourself. I mean that is just the world has to go right for them or you won’t be able to bear it. I think that is you know we are all just naturally for good evolutionary reasons we feel that way about ourselves. We all want things… our lives to go well and to flourish and when you love somebody you feel that as keenly for them as for yourself and often more keenly and that’s what the feeling… I think the feeling of love is. My life, I won’t be able to survive, really. It will be very hard to recover if something does… if bad things happen to that person.
Question: What is it like when two prominent intellectuals attempt a marriage together?
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: It’s very nice, actually, and we had known of each other through our works. When I read "How the Mind Works" I, like so many other people, just my way of thinking forever changed. The kinds of questions I could now ask forever changed. New sorts of questions opened up, new sorts of speculations and I just thought it was great and then Steve was arguing on the pages of The New York Review of Books with Steven J. Gould. It was a quite contentious argument, letters back and forth because Steven J. Gould hated evolutionary psychology. He really had… He had strong… You know somewhat political strong Marxist reasons to dislike the more deterministic aspects of evolutionary psychology, so there was this heated debate going on. In the midst of it Steven Pinker published a new book, "Words and Rules," and I ran out to my local bookstore and bought it and went immediately to the index to look up Gould. I wanted to see if this really interesting argument was going… he was going to get a few more swipes in and I didn’t find Gould. I found Goldstein. I found Rebecca Goldstein and I thought, okay, it’s a very common name. It’s another Rebecca Goldstein, clearly. I have nothing to do with this argument or indeed with the subject matter of the book, which was about irregular verbs. Steve Pinker has this great passion for irregular verbs. They’re his little friends. He is obsessed with them. And he quoted my use in one of my more obscure writings of an obscure past participle. I had said, “had stridden” rather than “had strided,” and he said you know some of our… He wrote this, “Some of our finest writes will always choose the more obscure form of a verb.” “You know, it’s more poetic, and they’re keeping it in play.” And you know, and I thought, oh my Lord, Steven Pinker knows who I am. He has read this obscure work and he thinks I’m one of our finest writers and I was just like, oh, you know, I was shocked. So it gave me the courage to ask him for a blurb for one of my books. It was "Properties of Light" and **** in quantum physics. He gave me a very nice blurb, and you know we just kept reading each other and it was Seed Magazine that arranged for a salon between a writer and a scientist. I think they went to him first and they said, “What novelist would you like to talk to?” And he said me and that’s how we actually met, so what I guess I’m saying is we fell in love with each other’s ideas and writings and way of looking at the world long before we met each other, and it has continued I would say, so it is you know it’s not just and intellectual love, but it’s… That’s a very strong part of it I would say and it is an extraordinary gift to me to now have this person to bounce ideas off of. It’s a… And we both I think strengthen each other in our own intuitions so that… and it’s made us I think yes. I think knowing that the other person agrees has in some sense given us more confidence in our intuitions.
Question: Does thinking about love too much ever get in the way of it?
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yes. I don’t know. I think for me it’s always good to think that the experience of everything, romantic love and love for one’s children and just a love of science, love of whatever you know is somehow strengthened by thinking about it and understanding it, understanding what’s going on there. So I don’t find that it gets in the way. I mean you don’t always want to be thinking and you know I wouldn’t say that we’re guilty of that, but one of the things I have loved about Steve Pinker as a person is… and as a thinker is that the two are very wedded together. It’s not that thinking is his day job. Big ideas are his day job and it doesn’t feed into the rest of his life. His passion for clear thinking is… and his intellectual integrity and honesty and letting everything be up for argumentation you know this feeds into all of his life and it’s just I love that about people you know that we can do that and you know I love it about him. I mean he is one of the finest representatives in our day of this kind of intellectual… and also I ought to mention playfulness. He is such a playful thinker. It’s never somber and that is you know true of him and his books and it’s true with him in life, so it’s all knitted together.
Recorded on January 20, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
It’s explanation all the way down even though we won’t get to it because the explanations are infinite and we’re finite. That’s Spinoza’s guide.