Category: 2010

Moral Clarity: a Guide for Grown-Up Idealists by Susan Neiman

Abraham did the right thing when he argued with God about God’s intention to kill everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah (not when he agreed to sacrifice his son Isaac). By standing up for his ethical ideals in opposition to the demands of his religion, Abraham foreshadowed the values of the Enlightenment.

Neiman believes that we should adopt certain key Enlightenment values, in opposition to cultural trends on both the right and the left (but mostly the right). She focuses on happiness, reason, reverence and hope. She contends that Enlightenment thinkers understood the limitations of reason. They also realized that progress is not inevitable. But thinkers like Kant showed the way to a universalist morality that favors reason over tradition, knowledge over superstition, and hope over fear.  (12/26/10)

Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges

Hedges argues that there is a power elite that controls the corporations, which completely control the economy, government and media. The power elite has instituted a permanent war economy that will shortly lead to financial and ecological catastrophe. This process began with the government’s use of propaganda to suppress opposition to World War I. Political liberals might have stopped the ascension of the power elite if they had stayed true to principles of peace and justice.

But the “liberal class” no longer speaks truth to power. Liberals in government, academia and the media may call for reform, but they are powerless to change anything, having been bought off by their corporate masters. There is nothing for reasonable people to do but retreat into small self-sustaining communities (similar to the monasteries of the Dark Ages) and/or perform acts of rebellion that are likely to have little effect on the status quo.

Given the thesis of this book, it hardly seems worth pointing out that it is repetitious and strangely organized, with sections that aren’t always related to the chapter headings. It also focuses almost completely on the United States, except for one brief section on working conditions in China. Hedges may be right that we are heading for catastrophe as a nation and a planet, but those are different propositions. His principal argument concerns the failure of political liberals to stop the corporate takeover of the United States. He seems to think that global climate change might have been avoided if corporations had less power in the United States, but that doesn’t follow.

Death of the Liberal Class is written with such force, that it is surprising to read on the dust jacket that the author is a columnist for a political website, writes for numerous publications (including Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, Granta and Mother Jones), and lives in Princeton. This makes him sound, accurately or not, like a member of the liberal class that he excoriates with such passion in this book.  (12/20/10)

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I read this in college and was disappointed because the horrible events deep in the jungle weren’t revealed in much detail. Then there was Apocalypse Now, a version of Heart of Darkness that had its own strangeness and now colors any reading of the older work. Reading this again after 40 years, I’m again disappointed. Much is said about Kurtz, but not enough is revealed. It’s the problem with any work that purports to be about an extraordinary figure. The author can keep saying how extraordinary some character is, over and over again, but it is much more difficult to show that character being extraordinary.

You can argue that leaving the details to the imagination creates a more powerful experience for the reader (people say that radio dramas were scarier than the ones on TV), but in this case more details would have helped.  (12/18/10)

The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

Cain wrote these two novellas in the 30s. Each is about a man and a woman who knock off the woman’s husband. Both are written in the first-person, from the man’s perspective. There are few descriptive passages, just fast-moving narrative and lots of dialog. The men and women meet and quickly start plotting their crimes. Neither story ends happily. And neither story is very plausible. (Maybe greedy, passionate people trying to commit the perfect murder always come up with plans that are too complicated.)

One bit of commentary from Double Indemnity: “I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman”. That sums up the situation for both these guys.  (12/10/10)

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Too long, too uneventful, too false. David Copperfield’s life as a boy is dramatic and involving. As he grows older, his life becomes much less interesting. His role in the story is to observe other people’s behavior. Some of the characters he observes are enjoyable. Many are tedious.

The most repellent part of the book is the account of David’s marriage to a ridiculous young woman. As soon as David begins to think that his marriage was a mistake, his young wife develops a cough. Soon she is an invalid. Within a few chapters, she is dead. This allows David to marry a paragon of womanly virtue he has loved since boyhood.

In the end, all the good characters prosper, the evil ones do not. Happy endings usually make readers feel good, but, in this case, it didn’t.  (12/5/10)

A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy by Jonathan Israel

Israel argues that the Enlightenment was composed of two separate tendencies, a Radical Enlightenment based on the philosophies of Spinoza and Bayle, and a Moderate Enlightenment, partly based on the philosophy of John Locke. The Radical Enlightenment was dedicated to ideals of equality, democracy and universal education. The thinkers of the Radical Enlightenment strongly favored reason and science over religion. They believed that current institutions, both political and religious, including all traces of monarchy and aristocracy, would and should be swept away in a worldwide cultural and political revolution, once the common people had become sufficiently educated.

Israel believes that it was the thinkers of the Radical Enlightenment, such as Diderot, d’Holbach and Thomas Paine, whose ideas gave rise to the revolutions of the late 18th century, in particular the French Revolution. He characterizes the thinkers of the Moderate Enlightenment, such as Rousseau and Kant, as being much more conservative and anti-democratic.

Although Israel’s thesis is convincing, and the book is informative, his prose is repetitious and convoluted. He insists on inserting French phrases that could just as well be translated and includes the same lists of names (Diderot, Helvetius and D’Holbach, for example) over and over again. A Revolution of the Mind is important but not a pleasure to read.  (11/11/10)

Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey by Roger Scruton

In 31 chapters, Scruton provides a wide-ranging but relatively detailed account of Western philosophy since Descartes.  He seems to have read everything important in the philosophical literature. His account is enlivened by fairly frequent humor and sarcasm. Scruton’s treatment of positions he disagrees with seems even-handed until the last few chapters, when his language becomes obscure and his political conservatism becomes more apparent. The book concludes with an informative 98-page study guide.  (10/27/10)

Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind by Wilfrid Sellars

This is actually a long essay, which I read in a collection of essays by Sellars called Science, Perception and Reality. But the essay has been published separately as a book, with an introduction by Richard Rorty and study notes by Robert Brandom, and since I’ve read that introduction and those notes, I’m listing Sellars’s essay as a book.

More to the point, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” is an attack on what Sellars calls the “Myth of the Given”, his term for the view that our knowledge of the world is based on basic or foundational beliefs, and that we derive such basic beliefs from what is “given” to us by sense perception. In particular, Sellars focuses on the philosophical theory that our fundamental knowledge of the world is knowledge of sense data.  Sense data are thought to be the particular impressions that we are aware of when we perceive the world. According to this theory, when I perceive a red apple, for example, I actually experience a red expanse of color, which may or may not represent an actual physical object. Philosophers who accept the sense data theory believe that our knowledge of the world rests on the foundation provided by such sense data.

Sellars criticizes this view in various ways, for example, by arguing that language about how something appears to us (like the language of sense data) is logically dependent on language about how things actually are (like the language of physical objects). Sellars also argues that the sense data theory fudges the clear distinction between non-cognitive impressions (sentience) and cognitive beliefs (sapience) — beliefs belong to the “space of reasons” and sense impressions don’t. In sum, “one could not have observational knowledge of any fact unless one knew many other things (i.e. had the relevant concepts) as well”.  In Brandom’s words, “one can’t think until one has learned to speak”, and one can’t speak until there is a community of speakers engaged in the social practice of speech (which includes giving and asking for reasons).

The last part of the essay is devoted to his own myth, which is supposed to explain how human beings came to talk about sense impressions in an intersubjective way, as theoretical entities. I didn’t find Sellars’s arguments or explanations convincing enough to rid me of the urge to take sense data or foundationalism seriously. But this is a difficult work that seems to deserve detailed study.  (10/13/10)

The Structure of Empirical Knowledge by Laurence BonJour

BonJour presents a coherence theory of justification for empirical knowledge. What justifies our empirical beliefs is their coherence with our other beliefs, which is more than mere consistency between beliefs. Coherence involves various relations, including inferential and explanatory relations. Explaining justification in terms of coherence is also different from offering a coherence theory of truth, which he rejects in favor of the correspondence theory. BonJour also strongly argues in favor of an internalist view of justification as opposed to an externalist view.

He argues that foundationalist theories cannot explain empirical justification, which leaves coherence theories as the best alternative. However, by insisting that a coherence theory has to allow for observational input (the “Observation Requirement”), he ends up with a theory that seems almost as foundationalist as coherentist. He recognizes this fact and concedes that a “pure” coherence theory will not work. In fact, in later years, BonJour abandoned the coherence theory of justification he defended in this book. (10/10/10)

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky

With an occasional break, it took me five months to finish the 800 pages of “Anna Karenina”, which more accurately might have been called “Anna Karenina and a Guy Named Levin”. Anna leaves her husband and son for the love of the dashing Count Vronsky. She comes to a very bad end. Levin is a philosophical, unsophisticated landowner who marries Kitty. She turned down Levin’s first proposal because she was in love with Vronsky. 

At the end of the novel, without any relation to Anna’s suicide, Levin decides that he has found some meaning in life after one of his workers tells him that some people remember God and live for the soul, while others are self-centered and greedy. He concludes that the good cannot be discovered through reason, because it is unreasonable. We learn what is good as little children and, in order to be happy, we need to accept what we were taught, without thinking too much, since “the good is outside the chain of cause and effect”. The church teaches “the main thing – faith in God, and the good, as the sole purpose of man”.

In the final two pages, Levin asks himself how to resolve the fact that millions of non-Christians have different religious beliefs than he does. He quickly decides that he doesn’t have the right or even the ability to resolve such a question. He concludes by observing that his life “has the unquestionable meaning of the good which is in my power to put into it”.

Tolstoy writes some very interesting passages of internal monologue, presenting what the different characters are thinking about their current situations or the conversations they’re having.  Overall, however, the novel is plodding. In addition, Anna’s and Levin’s stories might as well be in two different novels (they only meet in one chapter).

One reason the novel moves so slowly is that Tolstoy often goes off on uninteresting tangents, during which he presents some aspect of Russian society or culture, which must have been of more interest to his contemporaries. Anna, for example, disappears for long stretches, while Levin muses about such topics as Russian farming practices.

I probably should have expected not to enjoy “Anna Karenina” very much, because when I read “War and Peace”, I enjoyed the war and was often bored by the peace. There is no war in “Anna Karenina”, except in Anna’s and Levin’s souls. That may be one justification for telling their stories in the same novel, and makes some of the novel worth reading, but not enough of it.  (9/6/10)