What Wall Street Can Learn from Spinoza
Other people are really just another version of you. It’s nothing fancier than saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
EMANUEL DERMAN is Head of Risk at Prisma Capital Partners and a professor at Columbia University, where he directs their program in financial engineering. He is the author of My Life As A Quant, one of Business Week's top ten books of the year, in which he introduced the quant world to a wide audience.
He was born in South Africa but has lived most of his professional life in Manhattan in New York City, where he has made contributions to several fields. He started out as a theoretical physicist, doing research on unified theories of elementary particle interactions. At AT&T Bell Laboratories in the 1980s he developed programming languages for business modeling. From 1985 to 2002 he worked on Wall Street, running quantitative strategies research groups in fixed income, equities and risk management, and was appointed a managing director at Goldman Sachs & Co. in 1997. The financial models he developed there, the Black-Derman-Toy interest rate model and the Derman-Kani local volatility model, have become widely used industry standards.
In his 1996 article Model Risk Derman pointed out the dangers that inevitably accompany the use of models, a theme he developed in My Life as a Quant. Among his many awards and honors, he was named the SunGard/IAFE Financial Engineer of the Year in 2000. He has a PhD in theoretical physics from Columbia University and is the author of numerous articles in elementary particle physics, computer science, and finance.
In the Bible, Moses goes into the desert, God tells him he should go to Pharaoh and tell Pharaoh to let his people go and Moses doesn’t want to do it. And he runs away into the desert, and he comes across a burning bush and presumably God’s in the bush, the bush keeps burning, but it’s never consumed. And this voice speaks to him and tells him what he ought to go and do. And Moses says to him, “Who shall I say sent me?” And the voice says to him, “Tell him, I am that which I am," which is Jehovah, the word for God. It’s the same root: I am that which I am.
So God is saying, "You can’t compare me to anything else, this is just the way things behave. I’m not a metaphor, I’m not an analogy, there is nothing like me. This is just the way I am."
The reason I stumbled into Spinoza was that he has a theory which is really about morals and how to live, but he starts out with emotions. He’s very entranced by Euclid and by the mathematical approach to setting down principles and deducing the consequences like Pythagoras’ theorem. Spinoza tries to study human emotions because he thinks they’re the source of all of our trouble and he’s going to find a solution to all of this.
So Spinoza starts by analyzing all of the emotions and he says at the bottom of the heap, so to speak, is pain and pleasure and desire. He defines them and everybody kind of knows what a point is and everybody knows what pleasure, pain and desire is.
Then he builds up all the other emotions on top of them. So he says, love is pleasure associated with an external object and hatred is pain associated with an external object. And envy is pain at somebody else’s pleasure and now it’s a hybrid thing that is connected to pain and pleasure. And cruelty is somebody else’s desire to inflict pain on someone that you love.
Spinoza gets very sophisticated, it’s really cleaver. He’s looking at emotions and saying, "This is the way they work and you can take it or leave it, but there’s nothing metaphorical about it." He’s looking at what there is and trying to categorize it and say "That’s the way it works." I think Freud is like that too in a sense in that he’s not trying to compare the mind to anything; he’s just describing the structure.
So one of the things Spinoza leads up to which I sort of like is not distinguishing between mind and matter and saying that it’s not that matter is the cause of mind or mind is the cause of matter, but that they both are two sides of the same thing, which is kind of not pragmamorphic. I kind of like it.
And the other thing he goes on a lot about is related to ethics and to Wall Street which is the understanding that other people are really just another version of you. It’s nothing fancier than saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But he sort of keeps stressing that there’s one universal substance that we’re all made of and you sort of think of other people as being just another version of you in some sense.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
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