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Boston Review Magazine Nov/Dec 2015 Back Issue

View Reviews   |   Write Review Only £4.49 Founded in 1975, Boston Review is a non-profit, reader-supported political and literary magazine—a public space for discussion of ideas and culture. We put a range of voices and views in dialogue on the web (without paywalls or commercial ads) and in print (four times a year)—covering lots of ground from politics and philosophy to poetry, fiction, book reviews, and criticism. One premise ties it all together: that a flourishing democracy depends on public discussion and the open exchange of ideas.

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Boston Review  |  Nov/Dec 2015  


“A free people,” John Adams wrote, “are the most addicted to luxury of any.” The history of American excess suggests that Adams was onto something. But what exactly compels so many to buy so much more than they need?

In our forum, Paul Bloom, Brooks and Suzanne Regan Professor of Psychology at Yale, explores the conventional explanations—signaling social status or taking sensory delight in the look and feel of things—and finds them wanting. Instead, Bloom puts history at the center of our desire for luxuries and other non-utilitarian goods. Drawing on findings from cognitive science, Bloom argues, “We are not empiricists, obsessed with appearance.” Rather, the pleasure we derive from luxuries and other special objects is genuine and owes to our sense of their special history.

In the debate that follows, few dispute Bloom’s proposal that “pleasures reside in things,” as Judith Levine puts it. But respondents question his focus on an object’s history and raise serious concerns about the social and human consequences of excess and visible wealth. Many resist Bloom’s celebration (as they see it) of our attachment to things. While all acknowledge the power of possessions to signal social membership, some observe that signaling membership is the flip side of signaling social exclusion.
Founded in 1975, Boston Review is a non-profit, reader-supported political and literary magazine—a public space for discussion of ideas and culture. We put a range of voices and views in dialogue on the web (without paywalls or commercial ads) and in print (four times a year)—covering lots of ground from politics and philosophy to poetry, fiction, book reviews, and criticism. One premise ties it all together: that a flourishing democracy depends on public discussion and the open exchange of ideas.
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