Defining minimalism

I stirred up some controversy yesterday with an article critical of extreme minimalism. Some people took my article as an attack on minimalism in general. I wanted to clarify a few thoughts on minimalism.

I’m attracted to the general idea of minimalism, though I don’t like the name. “Minimal” literally means an extreme. I appreciate moderate minimalists, though strictly speaking “moderate minimalist” is a contradiction in terms. A more accurate but unwieldy name for minimalists might be “people who are keenly aware of the indirect costs of owning stuff.” Possessions have to be dusted, oiled, upgraded, insured, etc. Eliminating unnecessary things frees up physical and mental space.

Minimalists want to pare down their possessions to a minimum. But an absolute minimum would be to own nothing. Instead, minimalists want to eliminate non-essentials. So you could define a minimalist as someone who wants to eliminate non-essential possessions (or more generally non-essential intangibles as well). But by that definition, Donald Trump would be a minimalist if he believes everything he owns is essential. The essence of minimalism is an aesthetic for what constitutes “essential.”

One final complaint about the term “minimalism” is that it implies that a minimalist’s goal in life is to minimize possessions. I imagine most people who call themselves minimalists do not want to be obsessed with eliminating stuff any more than they want to be obsessed with acquiring stuff. They just want to think about their stuff less.

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10 thoughts on “Defining minimalism

  1. So instead of converging to a global minimum, you should stick with a local minimum? It sounds like a job for steepest descent. :D

    Okay, that was a horrible math joke. Anyways, I think one should think about optimizing the amount of possessions one owns instead of minimizing it. Optimizing implies that there is some constraints that needs to be satisfied. If one truly wants to minimize one’s possessions, you shouldn’t own anything (which is obviously the global minimum). However, I think even a true minimalist wouldn’t agree to do that.

    I guess the next question would be what function are you trying to optimize?

  2. In mathematical terms, an optimization problem has an objective function and a set of constraints. In life, the constraints are often implicit. A lot of things that don’t seem to be optimal actually are. They’re just optimal given implicit constraints. For example, a technologist might think a company’s decision is silly because they’re only evaluating the decision according to technical criteria. But the decision might be optimal giving the economic and political constraints the company had to consider. The point of my article yesterday was that consideration for others ought to be part of one’s definition of what is essential, part of the constraints.

    Again using mathematical terms, a distinguishing characteristic of minimalists is their objective function for weighing purchasing decisions. Everyone includes the face value of a purchase in their mental calculation. But minimalists include a larger “penalty term” than others for the costs of owning something once you bring it home.

  3. How about the name “non-consumerists”? I initially thought, “anti-consumerist”, but I think the “non” prefix is more appropriate, as to me it indicates a neutral decision to not participate, rather than an active decision to oppose.

  4. Interesting term. I agree that “non” is more appropriate than “anti” since the idea is to opt out of the worst of consumer culture.

    Hardly anyone in the modern world is completely non-consumerist, but some people are on the low end of the scale. On the high end, I remember some old Bloom County cartoons in which Opus felt an urgent need to immediately do whatever someone on TV told him to do. :)

  5. “Some people took my article as an attack on minimalism in general”

    If the attack isn’t aimed at minimalism in general, are these

    “He has nothing for the benefit of anyone else. He cannot offer anyone a place to sleep, or even a place to sit down…he is probably a burden on others.”

    the specifics? Hardly convincing. Does one has to own something to benefit someone else? That is a disturbingly materialistic view of human relationships. First, the absence of material possessions need not preclude or be remotely de-correlated with giving a helping hand or empathy etc. Second, if benefit is understood as reciprocity, again, there is nothing to indicate that the subject is not trading his work to sustain him/her-self.

    Granted, if every one were to become a minimalist, not even an absolute one (see below), that would become a problem. It’s the paradox of thrift and we’re seeing some of it right now.

    Does this

    “Minimalists want to pare down their possessions to a minimum. But an absolute minimum would be to own nothing. Instead, minimalists want to eliminate non-essentials.”

    shed any more light on the problem? Not really. In addition to my previous argument, even if the subject lives off charity, that can be perfectly acceptable. It just so happens that in many religious orders, whether western or oriental, abnegation is a perquisite to accede to enlightenment, and it provides an inspiration for the mere mortals. Only an exclusively materially founded view of relationships can deny that. This sort of inspiration, whether religious or not, is in dire shortage, given the affliction (our health, environmental damage etc.) caused by our excesses in consumption.

    So while I don’t aspire to be an extreme minimalists I’d like to see more of them as the unease that they –apparently– cause for transgressing the accepted norm may eventually induce a challenge to one’s (mis) conceptions.

  6. bx12: I said at the top of that post that I was considering a hypothetical extreme minimalist, not minimalists in general.

    One point of this post is that it’s important how you define “essential.” And someone who thinks only his own needs count as essential is selfish. The discussion started with someone who eliminated most of his material goods, so I continued the discussion of material goods. But the same principles apply more abstractly. But if someone wants to minimize his relationships, for example, and only considers his own happiness, that’s selfish as well.

    Let’s turn this around to look at kindness rather than selfishness. I know older couples who have pared down their possessions, but they keep a couple toys in their closet for children who come to visit. I think that’s beautiful.

  7. I clearly remember posting a follow up a few days ago which was rigorously on topic. It appears to have been censored, without even an explanation, although probably because contradicting the author’s thesis, yet non-offensive. Very elegant.

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