The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams

Henry Adams was the great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams. His father was ambassador to the United Kingdom and later a congressman. Henry was brought up as a member of the political, social and intellectual elite. He served as private secretary to his father during the Civil War and later became a journalist, historian and novelist. He lived most of his life in Washington but traveled extensively throughout the world. At the age of 70, he privately circulated a book of memoirs, The Education of Henry Adams. When it was finally published after his death, it won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. In 1998, the Modern Library named it the best non-fiction book of the 20th century.

The book is offered as an account of Henry Adams’s education, but it’s really the story of his life, with some major gaps. For example, he skips forward 20 years at one point, never mentioning his marriage during those years or the fact that his wife committed suicide: “This is a story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young men — or such as have intelligence enough to seek help — not to amuse them. What one did — or did not do — with one’s education, after getting it, need trouble the inquirer in no way; it is a personal matter only which would confuse him”.

Adams writes of himself in the third person throughout. He is often sarcastic and cynical about himself and others. I often had trouble understanding him. He discusses various 19th century political controversies and politicians in great detail. He also expounds a view of historical progress as the accumulation of “force”, for example, the forces unleashed by the production of coal and the construction of the railroads. Many of his observations are worth reading, however, and worth reading more than once. He reminds us that human nature and politics haven’t changed much (or at all?) since the 19th century. Here is an example, from chapter 7,”Treason (1860-61)”:

“Adams found himself seeking education in a world that seemed to him both unwise and ignorant. The Southern secessionists were certainly unbalanced in mind — fit for medical treatment, like other victims of hallucination — haunted by suspicion, by idées fixes, by violent morbid excitement, but this was not all. They were stupendously ignorant of the world. As a class, the cotton-planters were mentally one-sided, ill-balanced, and provincial to a degree rarely known. They were a close [sic] society on whom the new fountains of power had poured a stream of wealth and slaves that acted like oil on flame. They showed a young student his first object-lesson of the way in which excess of power worked when held by inadequate hands”.  (12/26/12)

The Long March by William Styron

The Long March is a short novel that tells the story of a forced march through the South Carolina countryside by a group of Marines. World War II has been over for several years and many of the Marines are in the Reserves. They’ve grown accustomed to civilian life but have been called back because of the situation in Korea. The officers in charge of the march are career officers. The two central characters in the novel are Reserve officers who hate being in the Marines again and especially hate the idea of marching 36 miles back to their base. The story is suspenseful, since it’s not clear who will be able to finish the march. Most of the Marines don’t. Some decide that they have to.  (12/26/12)

Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry by Bernard Williams

In Descartes, the greatly respected English philosopher Bernard Williams explains and evaluates Rene Descartes’s epistemological project: his attempt to identify what he can know for certain.

As is well-known, Descartes begins by doubting as much as possible. He cannot doubt his own existence, however, since he is certain that he is thinking about the problem at hand (cogito, ergo sum). What is less well-known is that Descartes makes crucial use of much more questionable propositions in his pursuit of certainty. In particular, he relies on the propositions that God exists and that God would not allow him to be mistaken or deceived about “clear and distinct” ideas.

It is hard to read this book without concluding that modern philosophy would have been better served if someone other than Descartes had been its “father”. Certainty was not a reasonable goal. Invoking God’s benevolence was illogical. And starting with “I think” seems to have made modern philosophy too solipsistic. Perhaps “we live” would have been a more helpful starting point.  (11/20/12)

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

In 1949, two teenage boys leave their homes in Texas and ride their horses to Mexico. They meet another boy along the way, who eventually loses his horse and winds up in jail. The other boys get jobs working on a big ranch. One of them, the main character, falls in love with the rancher’s daughter. Unfortunately, the police are on their trail, wrongly believing that all three boys are horse thieves. Things do not go well after that.

All the Pretty Horses is the first novel in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I don’t know if I’ll read the next one. This one was worth reading, but not very convincing. The main character, who is 16 or 17, is almost a superhero. In addition, the novel contains way too many run-on sentences and too much dialog in Spanish.

Two passages near the end of the book:

“He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.”

“… for a moment he held out his hands as if to steady himself or as if to bless the ground there or perhaps as if to slow the world that was rushing away and seemed to care nothing for the old or the young or rich or poor or dark or pale or he or she. Nothing for their struggles, nothing for their names. Nothing for the living or the dead.”  (11/19/12)

Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs: Science, Philosophy and Their Histories by Wallace Matson

Professor Matson (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley) doesn’t just describe the histories of science and philosophy in this book. He also describes the history of life on earth, all in terms of the evolution of belief. Simple organisms react to their environment in genetically-determined ways. Complex organisms form beliefs, new ways of coping with their environments. The most complex organisms, living in groups, create languages, allowing them to form beliefs about the past, present and future, and about what does not exist. 

Matson argues that all beliefs are ways of coping with the world. He divides beliefs into the low and the high. Low beliefs are those that have “rubbed up against the world”. They can be put to an empirical test and found to be accurate or not. Arithmetic and logic are made up of low beliefs, as are cooking and carpentry. Once we possess language, we can use our imagination to form high beliefs. They concern matters that cannot be tested or that we do not have the tools to test. Religion and morality tend to be high beliefs. They cannot be tested, although they have their purpose (edification). People living in groups need morality in order to live together. They don’t need religion, however, which came later in our evolution.

According to Matson, Thales shouldn’t be known for claiming that everything is made of water. Thales of Miletus (on the coast of Ionia, now Turkey) invented science by propounding three central ideas:

 “1. Monism, Unity, Reductionism: ‘The All is One’, that is, at bottom there is only one kind of reality, in terms of which everything can be (ideally) explained.

2. Naturalism, Immanence: No basic distinction between what a thing is and what it does. Processes manifest the essential internal energies of things.

3. Rationalism, Logos, Necessitarianism, Sufficient Reason: There are no “brute” facts; everything is either self-explanatory or explainable in terms of other things; and explanation has as its ultimate aim the showing of how and why things ‘couldn’t be otherwise’.”

Some science is theoretical: high beliefs that are “tethered” to low beliefs as part of a comprehensive theory. The theory of the Big Bang, for example, is tethered to low beliefs, not logically implied by observations, but suggested by the work of radio astronomers. On the other hand, Matson argues that “theories … invoking creative gods, final causes, ‘logical possibility’, and the like, are untethered, free-floating in the heaven of pure imagination”.

Matson credits Parmenides (another Ionian) with inventing philosophy, which Matson describes very generally as talk about what it is to be reasonable. His two favorite early modern philosophers are Hobbes and Spinoza, both of whom Matson believes subscribed to the scientific approach outlined above. Matson holds that Descartes took a wrong turn by focusing on his perceptions or ideas. Not only rationalists like Leibniz but empiricists like Locke, Berkeley and Hume are part of the same misguided tradition, a tradition that gave rise to pseudo-problems dealing with the existence of the external world, other minds and causation.

Matson also argues that the idea of logical possibility is a holdover from medieval philosophy. He believes that it was the idea of an Omnipotent Creator/Legislator who could make anything non-contradictory happen that gave rise to the idea that the world is contingent, that it might have been any other way than it is. In his words: “The contention here is not that the phrase ‘logical possibility’ denotes nothing; it is that what it designates is, non-internally-contradictoriness, is not a species of possibility, any more than a teddy bear is a species of bear”.

I’m having trouble understanding Matson’s point regarding logical possibility not being real possibility. Couldn’t gravity be a more or less powerful force in another world? Adjustments might be needed in other aspects of the world to allow for gravity to be different, but that seems logically possible, even if it isn’t physically possible in our world. It seems as though Matson’s objections to the idea of an Omnipotent Creator/Legislator have colored his opinion of logical possibility. Aside from that, I found very little to argue with in this extremely interesting book.

PS — A review of the book by two philosophers at the University of Colorado:  (11/8/12)

Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington by Daniel Mark Epstein

Abraham Lincoln read Leaves of Grass in 1857, when he was still a lawyer in Illinois. The author of Lincoln and Whitman argues that reading Walt Whitman’s poetry made Lincoln’s speeches more poetic.

Whitman was living in New York City in 1860 when Lincoln gave his famous Cooper Union speech, but he didn’t see Lincoln in person until January 1861, when the President-elect visited New York on his way to his inauguration.

During the Civil War, Whitman spent much of his time ministering to wounded soldiers in Washington, not far from the White House. He often saw the President traveling around the city. It appears that the President noticed Whitman occasionally, since the poet had a distinctive appearance and often watched the President’s carriage drive by. On one occasion, Whitman observed Lincoln in the White House from a few feet away, but they did not meet. There is also a story, not necessarily true, that Lincoln saw Whitman walking by the White House one day and was told that this was the famous poet.

Whitman was visiting New York when Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln’s death greatly affected Whitman. He had studied the President closely and felt a deep affection for him. His poem O Captain! My Captain! was written in response to the assassination.

Lincoln and Whitman ends in 1887 with Whitman giving a dramatic reading before a celebrity-packed audience in New York City, in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of Lincoln’s death.

Lincoln and Whitman did lead parallel lives for a time, although Lincoln clearly affected Whitman much more than the other way around. Lincoln and Whitman mixes large-scale history and politics with these men’s daily lives and personal relationships. There is some poetry too, mostly by the poet.  (9/30/12)

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt

Journalist and former philosophy grad student Jim Holt sets out to answer that long-standing philosophical/scientific question: Why is there something rather than nothing? 

His principal method is to interview a number of well-known philosophers (Adolph Grunbaum, Richard Swinburne, John Leslie and Derek Parfit) and scientists (David Deutsch, Andre Linde, Alex Vilenkin, Steven Weinberg and Roger Penrose). He also talks to John Updike, who is surprisingly knowledgeable about both science and philosophy.

Nowadays, when people ask why the world exists they are generally asking why the Big Bang occurred. Unfortunately, nobody knows. The most common answers are that there was some kind of random quantum event that made it happen or that God made it happen. Some people think that our universe is just a small part of reality and that somehow the existence of a vast, possibly infinite, collection of other universes explains why ours is here and/or why ours is the way it is. The philosopher John Leslie thinks that our universe might exist because it’s good.

As soon as a particular cause or reason for our universe to exist is suggested, it is natural to ask why that cause or reason is the explanation, rather than some other cause or reason. Why are the laws of quantum mechanics in effect? Where did God come from? This is why the answer provided by a Buddhist monk at the very end of the book is my personal favorite: “As a Buddhist, he says, he believes that the universe had no beginning….The Buddhist doctrine of a beginning-less universe makes the most metaphysical sense”.

Perhaps the reality that exists (the super-universe, whatever ultimately caused the Big Bang) has always existed and always will. It simply is. It never came into existence, so no cause, reason or explanation is necessary or possible. Perhaps it’s cyclical. Perhaps it’s not. But it’s eternal, with no beginning or end.

This book is worth reading, but not as good as it might have been. Mr. Holt writes well and seems to accurately present the ideas of the thinkers he interviews. But his own thoughts on the subject, and other subjects, such as consciousness and death, aren’t especially interesting or profound. In particular, his attempt to prove the existence of an infinite yet mediocre universe is completely unconvincing. His travel writing — where he stayed, what he ate, his strolls through Oxford and Paris — is also a bit much. He doesn’t just bump into a philosophy professor at a local grocery store; it’s a “gourmet” grocery store. He has excellent taste in food and drink as well.  (9/8/12)