Category: 2011

The Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark

Tough guy Parker needs a new face because he’s in trouble with the Outfit. He gets his new face but keeps his old attitude toward other people: “They were in and he worked with them or they were out and he ignored them or they were trouble and he took care of them”.  

This is the second in the long series of novels about Parker, who steals for a living. The time is 1963. The target is an armored car. Parker doesn’t like the setup but he needs the money. The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, but Parker is always fun to be around, so long as he’s “taking care” of someone else.  (12/27/11)

Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, translated by H. B. Nisbet

According to Hegel, history is the process by which Spirit, or the Absolute, or God, or the Idea, or something like that, becomes conscious of itself, understands itself, and thereby becomes more free or generates more freedom in the world, or something to that effect. World-historical figures like Napoleon and Goethe play a crucial role in this process of increasing freedom and self-knowledge, as do certain world-historical nations (e.g. Greece, Rome, Prussia). The state is the principal mechanism by which history progresses, and such progress occurs in a dialectical manner (although Hegel didn’t use the “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” terminology; those were Fichte’s words).

This is an interesting theory, even if it’s simultaneously obscure and implausible. Although this relatively short book is supposed to be the best introduction that Hegel wrote to his own philosophy, that isn’t saying much. It is filled with statements like “the spirit is essentially the product of its own activity, and its activity consists in transcending and negating its immediacy and turning in upon itself”, and “world history is the expression of the divine and absolute process of the spirit in its highest forms, of the progression whereby it discovers its true nature and becomes conscious of itself”. Repeating such statements does little to clarify their meaning.

Hegel was able to express himself clearly in some cases, however. For example: “A mighty figure” — someone like Napoleon, for example — “must trample many an innocent flower underfoot, and destroy much that lies in its path”. And “duty requires that men should defend not whatever country they choose but their own particular fatherland”, for “the worth of individuals is measured by the extent to which they reflect and represent the national spirit”, not by their pursuit of goodness for its own sake, since that is an “empty notion”.

Hegel’s obscurity has helped make his writings a popular object of scholarly interpretation. He might have been referring to himself in this passage: “The intellectual attitude which adopts such formal points of view certainly affords unlimited scope for ingenious questions, scholarly opinions, striking comparisons, and seemingly profound reflections and declamations; their brilliance may in fact seem to increase in proportion to their capacity for indefiniteness”.  (12/4/11)

Hegel in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern

I’m struggling through Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of World History and thought this little book might help me understand what Hegel is getting at. It didn’t help at all. The author concentrates on Hegel’s life while disparaging his terrible writing style and overblown, incomprehensible, inconsistent and inaccurate ideas. The book is funny at times, however, and easy to read. It’s a book that someone might look at in order to get an idea who Hegel was and how he expressed himself.  

One of the best parts of Hegel in 90 Minutes is this quotation from Schopenhauer: “The height of audacity in serving up pure nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had previously only been known in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most barefaced general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result that will appear fabulous to posterity, and will remain as a monument to German stupidity”.  (11/25/11)

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Orwell spent six months during the Spanish Civil War fighting for the loyalist or republican side against the fascists led by Francisco Franco. The fascists, representing the church and most of the military, were attempting to replace the left-wing government that had previously replaced the monarchy. Orwell, along with various socialists, communists and anarchists, fought in support of the existing government, known as the Second Spanish Republic.

The action in the book takes place in the Catalonia region of Spain, in and around Barcelona. Orwell describes trench warfare at the front and street fighting in Barcelona. The trench warfare against the fascists was a miserable experience, distinguished by cold, hunger and filth. Orwell saw relatively little action, although he did participate in one major attack and was later wounded by a sniper. 

The street fighting, unfortunately, was between the communists and the anarchists, who were supposed to be allies against the fascists. The communists took control of the government and then violently suppressed the anarchists and trade unionists, throwing people like Orwell into jail or executing them. Orwell and his wife avoided being captured and returned safely to England, where Orwell wrote this book while the war in Spain continued.

Orwell tries to explain the relationships between the various left-wing factions in Spain, but it is very difficult to keep track of who is who and which group is represented by which acronym (CNT, POUM, UGT, etc.).  He does make clear, however, how journalists misrepresented the situation in Spain, and how the communists in particular used propaganda, as well as violence, to temporarily achieve power. His descriptions of incompetent or disreputable journalism do not seem peculiar to Communism, however, or to the Spanish Civil War: “It is impossible to read through reports in the Communist press without realizing that they are consciously aimed at a public ignorant of the facts and have no other purpose than to work up prejudice”.

The book ends with Orwell safely back home, but glad that he went to Spain, and worrying that his countrymen “are sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs”. German invaded Poland a year later.  (11/13/11)

Noncognitivism in Ethics by Mark Schroeder

Non-cognitivism (with or without the hyphen) in ethics is the view that ethical statements do not describe features of actions or agents, but rather express attitudes of the speaker regarding those actions or agents. Quoting the philosopher Simon Blackburn: “Hence, it is supposed, there is nothing ethical to know, for knowledge aims to track or represent independent truths about things” (The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy). Mark Schroeder describes non-cognitivism, less clearly, as a non-descriptivist view that seeks “to explain the meaning of words by other means than by saying what they are about”.

Schroeder analyzes a number of 20th century non-cognitivist theories, including emotivism, prescriptivism and expressivism. He finds all of them lacking in various ways, especially in their failure to adequately explain how we actually use ethical language and reason about ethical subjects. But he also believes that non-cognitivist theories correctly draw attention to the fact that there is more to meaning than truth-conditions.

It seems to me that non-cognitivist theories are basically correct, but in a limited sense. We cannot analyze ethical statements in terms of attitudes, as some non-cognitivists (used to) do. For example, “Stealing is wrong” does not literally mean anything like “I disapprove of stealing and everyone else should too”. “Stealing is wrong” means that stealing conflicts with the moral rules. But what such a statement means in another sense, i.e. what we can conclude when someone says that stealing is wrong, is that the speaker has a certain negative attitude toward stealing and thinks that other people should have the same attitude. This is what it “means” or shows when someone says that stealing is wrong, although “stealing is wrong” has a different literal meaning. 

It’s obvious that ethical statements aren’t descriptions; they’re evaluations. They say how the world should be, not how it is, even though many of them are grammatically similar to descriptions and have literal meanings that imply that they are descriptive of some state of affairs, i.e. that some action is in harmony or conflict with certain moral rules or that some agent tends to obey or disobey those rules. Stating that an action is in conflict with a rule sounds like a description and has the force of a description — that is such a statement’s literal meaning. But making such a statement is evidence for a different state of affairs; it means that the speaker is opposed to the action in question and thinks other people should oppose it too.  (10/23/11)

Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Two English physicists try to explain Einstein’s famous equation and much more, including relativity and quantum mechanics. I didn’t understand quite a bit and didn’t try to do the math (which is relatively limited), but found their explanations reasonably helpful. For example, they explain that the speed of light is an upper limit because photons have no mass. It isn’t anything to do with light per se. Any particle with no mass travels at the speed of light and no faster. Gluons don’t have mass and, if they exist, neither do gravitons. So we might just as well call it “the speed of particles with no mass”. 

They also explain that mass and energy are constantly being exchanged in accordance with Einstein’s equation. Atomic weapons are just the most spectacular example of a process that is universal to nature, and occurs, for example, every time heat is generated or there is some other chemical reaction.

I’m still confused by the Twin Paradox. Why would someone in a spaceship moving close to the speed of light age more slowly than someone staying on Earth, if all motion is relative? Why not say that the person moving near the speed of light is standing still and the person who stayed at home is moving near the speed of light? The answer is that the person in the spaceship is accelerating and decelerating, and that’s why we can properly say that he or she is moving faster than the person on Earth and why he or she ages more slowly. There are formulas that explain this, but it still sounds fishy. 

I’m also bothered by the idea that the Big Bang had no location. If the universe is expanding in all directions, why can’t we say where the Big Bang occurred? And maybe put a monument there with a gift shop?  (9/8/11)

Therapy by David Lodge

Laurence “Tubby” Passmore is the successful, middle-aged writer of a British situation comedy. He seems to have a pretty terrific life, but isn’t happy. He tries all kinds of therapy, but nothing helps until he finds himself surprisingly engrossed in the life and works of Kierkegaard. Just when Tubby feels he’s making progress, his wife announces that she’s leaving him.

Therapy is supposedly Tubby’s journal, but nobody’s journal has this much dialogue (of course, he’s supposed to be a scriptwriter). The story is engaging and Tubby is very good company, even when his life is falling apart. Maybe a novel like this has to have a happy ending, but I was disappointed when it ended that way. It all seemed more real when our hero was suffering.  (8/22/11)

Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media by Elaine Showalter

Published in 1997, this interesting account of hysterical epidemics feels a little out of date, since it describes the most popular versions of hysteria as of 15 years ago: chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple personality disorder, recovered memories, Gulf War syndrome, satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction. Maybe 9/11, war and economic distress have given people other things to focus on since the relative calm of the mid-nineties.

The book begins with a scholarly discussion of the origins of hysteria as a medical diagnosis in the 19th century. Patients, mostly women, exhibited strange behavior or physical symptoms for no apparent reason. Showalter convincingly argues that early forms of hysteria have been replaced by “hystories” or epidemics of hysteria. In remarkably similar patterns, people who have been subjected to stress or have unmet psychological needs develop symptoms. They seek treatment from particular doctors and therapists who, for their own reasons, collaborate in assigning mysterious or bizarre causes to these symptoms. Journalists and scriptwriters help spread the news. Evidence is lacking, but paranoia feeds mass hysteria. 

Showalter doesn’t discount the real suffering involved. She just thinks that we should pay more attention to scientific evidence and accept the fact that psychological causes can have very real, sometimes incredible, physical effects.  (8/9/11)

The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson

Professor Anderson is the author of Crucible of War, a 900-page history of the Seven Years War and its effect on North America. This is a shorter version of the same history. It’s not a great book, but it tells an interesting story.

Like most Americans, I know very little about the Seven Years War. For example, I didn’t realize that: the French and Indian War that occurred in North America between 1755 and 1763 was one part of the Seven Years War, which is considered to be the first “world war”; an inexperienced George Washington, leading a troop of soldiers as a representative of England, tried to remove the French from the area now known as Pittsburgh, and this failed attempt was the spark that set off the global Seven Years War; various Indian nations engaged in complex diplomatic relations with both the English and the French, and Indian warriors were crucial  participants on both sides of the war; The Last of the Mohicans was based on a battle and subsequent massacre that occurred near Lake George in upstate New York; the battles fought in America and Canada often involved thousands of troops and sometimes fleets of warships; in 1763 the victorious English formally declared all of the territory between the Appalachians and the Mississippi to be, in the words of one cartographer, “Lands Reserved For The Indians” (we know how that worked out).

According to Anderson, the French and Indian War had two major effects: revolution and westward expansion. The victorious English concluded that they could “exercise power over the colonists without restraint”, while the colonists, having participated in the victory as loyal Englishmen, concluded that they were “equal partners in the empire”. These conflicting views helped set the stage for the American revolution a decade later. And, with the disappearance of the French, the Indians lost an important counterbalance to the English, in particular, access to French-supplied guns and ammunition. The colonists wanted more land and the Indians lacked the power to resist.

Hence, Anderson’s subtitle: “the war that made America”.  (8/2/11)

The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory by David J. Chalmers

The Conscious Mind is one of those philosophical works that becomes famous because it features interesting arguments in support of implausible conclusions. Chalmers argues for property dualism, the thesis that mental properties are fundamentally different from physical properties. In other words, mental states are not equivalent to, cannot be reduced to, and do not logically supervene on brain states. This is a more plausible view than the traditional dualist claim that there are mental substances (minds or souls) in addition to physical substances, and that the mental and physical substances somehow interact.  

Chalmers agrees that there are psycho-physical laws that relate brain states and mental states, but argues that physical properties and mental properties are ontologically distinct. Maybe this is the correct view, but Chalmers goes further when he begins to discuss a possible fundamental theory of consciousness. He thinks that we should ascribe consciousness to any system that exhibits the same causal relationships as a brain, e.g. automated systems, John Searle’s Chinese Room translation scheme, and Ned Block’s billion minds linked together by radio. Since he views consciousness as a fundamental property of the universe, he thinks that rocks and even sub-atomic particles might possess some simple form of proto-consciousness. He suggests that panpsychism is a real possibility. He also argues that the simplest interpretation of quantum mechanics involves minds branching into other minds, so that each of us is one of a vast set of similar minds, all having split off from our infant selves.

The naturalistic or property dualism that Chalmers advocates, featuring “physical properties, separate phenomenal properties, and a lawful connection between the two”, is certainly worth considering as a philosophical theory of mind. If a property is merely a way of being, maybe mental properties (what it is like to have experiences or to be an X) are fundamentally different from physical properties. However, his views on what systems or objects might be conscious are much less plausible, despite the many ingenious arguments that he offers.  (7/25/11)