Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer Nagel

This entry in the Oxford University Press series of “very short introductions” was recommended on a popular philosophy blog, so I gave it a try. It deals with questions like these:

What is knowledge? What is the difference between just thinking that something is true and actually knowing that it is? How are we able to know anything at all?

This isn’t a general introduction to epistemology, but since that branch of philosophy is also known as “the theory of knowledge”, it comes pretty close. The author doesn’t provide her own answers to the questions above. Instead, she explains the answers given by various philosophers from ancient times to the present. There are chapters on skepticism and the debate between rationalists and empiricists, but the more interesting discussion begins with what’s known as the “Gettier problem”.

Most philosophers have accepted the idea that a belief counts as knowledge if it is both true and justified. Truth isn’t enough. I might believe there are precisely 11 coins in your pocket, and you might actually have 11 coins in your pocket, but unless I have a good reason for believing there are 11, and not some other amount, I don’t really know you have 11. I’m just making a lucky guess. For me to know you have 11 coins, I need a reason for thinking that’s how many there are, e.g. I saw you empty your pocket and then put exactly 11 coins back in.

A philosopher named Edmund Gettier wrote a short paper in 1963 that challenged the standard idea that knowledge is the same as true, justified belief. He argued that a belief can be very well-justified and also quite true, but not count as knowledge. For example, I might believe you own a Chevrolet, since you bought my Chevrolet a while back. Then, this morning, I noticed that you drove that same Chevrolet to work. So it’s reasonable for me to believe you own a Chevrolet. Most people would say I know you own one.

But what if you secretly sold your Chevrolet to someone else yesterday, and the buyer said you could borrow it for the day. Furthermore, what if you used the money you got from selling your old Chevrolet yesterday to buy a new one last night? You do, in fact, own a Chevrolet, and I have very good reasons to believe you do, but the Chevrolet you own isn’t the one I saw you drive into the parking lot. Do I actually know you still own a Chevrolet or am I merely making a well-founded but lucky guess? My belief that you own a Chevrolet is true, and justified, but, according to Gettier (and many other philosophers), I don’t actually know you own one. For all I know, you could have sold your Chevrolet and bought a Ford last night, and I’d still be convinced you owned a Chevrolet. It just so happens you bought another Chevrolet, which makes my belief that you own one true, but I’m ignorant of the true situation. I don’t know you still own a Chevrolet. I merely assume you do. And my very reasonable assumption just happens to be true.

Philosophers have been analyzing Gettier’s article and offering ways around it for years, but there is still no general agreement as to what knowledge is. Nor is there general agreement about the other questions Prof. Nagel asks. Personally, I think it’s almost impossible to find simple answers to traditional philosophical questions. That’s why the questions have lingered so long. One reason is that philosophers too often try to find “the answer”, arguing that something like knowledge amounts to X or Y, when the best answer is that X, Y and Z, as well as A, B and C, all capture aspects of the problem they’re working on.

So, I recommend Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction, especially if you find topics like the Gettier problem interesting. It’s a good summary of some key issues in the theory of knowledge, although you’ll probably be left with more questions than answers.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

I’d never seen or read this play and think I’ve only seen parts of the movie. But it’s referred to so often and quoted so often (as in Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper) that much of it was familiar.

Streetcar was first performed in 1947 and its age shows. The four principal characters are the fragile Blanche DuBois, her new beau Mitch, and the married couple, Stanley and Stella Kowalski. I sympathized with Blanche, despite her “putting on airs” and preferring fantasy to reality. To some extent, I sympathized with her sister Stella. But she doesn’t mind Stanley punching her occasionally because the sex is great. She also prefers to take her husband’s word over her sister’s because otherwise she’d have to leave him. I hardly sympathized with the male characters at all. Both men are jerks. Actually, Stanley is worse than a jerk. Maybe Stanley and Mitch came across better in 1947.

Something I especially enjoyed were Tennessee Williams’s stage directions. For example:

It is first dark of an evening early in May. The sky that shows around the dim white building is a peculiarly tender blue, almost a turquoise, which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism and gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay. You can almost feel the warm breath of the brown river beyond the river warehouses with their faint redolences of bananas and coffee.

Perhaps Williams sympathized with the male characters more than they deserved. A gay man, he appears to have found Stanley attractive:

Stanley throws the screen door of the kitchen open and comes in. He is of medium height, about five feet eight or nine, and strongly, compactly built. Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependency, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens. Branching out from this complete and satisfying center are all the auxiliary channels of his life, such as his heartiness with men, his appreciation of rough humor, his love of good drink and food and games, his car, his radio, everything that is his, that bears his emblem of the gaudy seed-bearer. He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them.

Finally, here’s the scene from Sleeper in which Woody Allen’s character temporarily believes he’s Blanche Dubois. The dialogue is taken from the play.

Democracy: A Very Short Introduction by Bernard Crick

The Wikipedia entry on the author begins this way: “Sir Bernard Rowland Crick [1929 – 2008] was a British political theorist and democratic socialist whose views can be summarized as ‘politics is ethics done in public’. He sought to arrive at a ‘politics of action’, as opposed to a ‘politics of thought’ or of ideology”.

This explains why his introduction to democracy often deals with the responsibilities of citizenship. He traces the history of democracy from ancient Athens, when propertied men were expected to vote but also periodically hold public office, all the way to his leadership of a committee charged with improving “education for citizenship” in British schools, when many more of us qualify as citizens but we just want the government to leave us alone.

I’m having trouble summarizing this short book, so I’ll quote the publisher’s synopsis:

This book is a short account of the history of the doctrine, practices and institutions of democracy, from ancient Greece and Rome, through the American, French and Russian revolutions, and its varieties and conditions in the modern world.

Crick discusses the use of the term “democratic” by authoritarian governments, Alexis de Toqueville’s study of democracy in 19th century America, the meaning of “populism” and how majority rule doesn’t guarantee good government. Overall, it’s a nice little book that is best summarized by the author when he concludes that “all discussions of democracy are inconclusive and never-ending” [116].

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray

John Gray is an English political philosopher. He took the title for Straw Dogs, published in 2002, from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs”.

In the first line of the book’s acknowledgments, Gray says is trying “to provide a
view of things in which humans are not central” [page ix]. He is generally thought to be an opponent of “humanism”, but he has a distinctive definition of the term:

Humanism can mean many things, but for us [?] it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive [4].

It might clarify his position by contrasting it with a description of humanism from the Humanists UK website:

Roughly speaking, the word “humanist” has come to mean someone who:

(1) trusts the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)

(2) makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals

(3) believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

Regarding (1), Gray is an atheist, so no difference there, but he thinks science and the scientific method are overrated. He admits science has contributed to impressive technological progress, but doesn’t think scientists are especially rational and certainly doesn’t think science can solve all of, or even most of, our problems, a view he seems to attribute to all humanists and most citizens of the modern world.

Concerning (2), Gray doesn’t think highly of ethics either. He blames Christianity for pushing the idea that there is one set of rules that everyone should follow. He says “humans thrive in conditions that morality defends” [107], “moral philosophy is very largely a branch of fiction” [109] “justice is an artifact of custom… ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions of hats” [103] and “values are only human needs, or the needs of other animals, turned into abstractions” [197]. According to Gray, being ethical is nothing more than getting along with other people, and getting along depends on their expectations, which may or may not correspond to what people in other cultures and circumstances, including religious figures or philosophers, expect.

Finally, Gray agrees with (3) that the universe has no discernible purpose. He would probably agree that seeking happiness and helping other people can give (some) people a sense of meaning, but he denies that there is any particular or any preferred way to be happy. He argues that we don’t have free will and are no more able than any other animal to control our behavior or make ourselves happy.

Gray seems very sure of his positions. He writing is like a series of pronouncements. If I had to characterize his point of view in one word, it would be “pessimism”. We are no better than other animals. In various ways, we are worse. He twice refers to our species as homo rapiens. We excel at eliminating other species. Progress, aside from scientific or technological progress, is an illusion. Overall, the hunter-gatherers who lived thousands of years ago had better lives than we do.

I really don’t know what to make of this book. Reading it is like getting a punch in the stomach. In the end, I’d say that Gray makes a convincing case that homo sapiens is an especially troublesome species. But the fact that we write and read books like Straw Dogs indicates that we have special talents that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Perhaps those special talents have allowed us and will continue to allow us to make more progress than Gray thinks.

Can Democracy Work?: A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World by James Miller

The question in the title implies that democracy hardly ever works as it’s supposed to. That is one of the author’s conclusions. Another is that, even though the trend toward more democracy in the world has reversed in recent years, “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”.

The book begins with chapters on the ups and downs of Athenian democracy, the French Revolution, and America between the revolution and the Civil War. Next there are two chapters that summarize developments in Europe, America and Russia, including the Chartist working class movement in Britain; the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution. Woodrow Wilson’s academic writings on government and his efforts to make the world “safe for democracy” receive special attention, as do public opinion polls and the practitioners of “public relations”. The final chapter deals with recent events, beginning with the election of our current president and the mass demonstrations that immediately followed his inauguration. It concludes with an examination of “the advance and retreat of democracy worldwide”.

Throughout the book, Miller analyzes the tension between democratic ideals and the reality of governing a population that couldn’t fit into a traditional New England meeting house. How should the “will of the people” be discovered? How much leeway should the people’s representatives and other government officials have, since the voters cannot and should not make every decision? Miller also points out that there is much more to democracy than simply counting votes. A free press is necessary, for example. So is the right to a decent education. Given the complexity of the modern world, the absurdly unequal distribution of wealth, the amount of secrecy governments practice, and the manipulation and disinformation we are all subjected to, nobody should be surprised that democracy often seems inadequate to the role it’s supposed to perform.

I’ll finish with two quotations from the book that are especially relevant to our current situation.

In 2004, the political scientist Samuel Huntington “analyzed what he took to be the long-term implications of demographic and cultural trends on America’s sense of national identity”. He argued that “one very plausible reaction” to the declining “hold of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men on the levers of political power” would be:

the emergence of exclusivist sociopolitical movements composed largely but not only of white males, protesting and attempting to stop or reverse these changes and what they believe, accurately or not, to be the diminution of their social and economic status, their loss of jobs to immigrants and foreign countries, the perversion of their culture, the displacement of their language, and the erosion or even evaporation of the historical identity of their country. Such movements would be both racially and culturally inspired and could be anti-Hispanic, anti-black and anti-immigration. They would be the heir to the many comparable exclusivist racial and anti-foreign movements that helped define American identity in the past [and] have enough in common to be brought together under the label “white nativism” [224-225].

The second quotation is from Václav Havel, the Czech dissident and eventual president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, writing in 1991:

“I am convinced,” Havel remarked, “that we will never build a democratic state based on rule of law if we do not at the same time build a state that is … humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural. The best laws and best-conceived democratic mechanisms will not in themselves guarantee legality or freedom or human rights — anything, in short, for which they were intended — if they are not underpinned by certain human and social values”. And here Havel is insistent: “I feel that the dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence” [243].

Or a substantial minority of white nativists could use supposedly democratic procedures to elect a person who never places common interests above his own and is blatantly contemptuous of democracy and the rule of law.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

The authors are professors of government at Harvard. Their thesis is that democracies don’t usually die because of coups or violent revolutions. They usually die when leaders take advantage of their nation’s established procedures to give themselves more and more power. For example, a political party will pass laws that make it so easy for them to win elections that they no longer face meaningful competition, or a ruler will assume temporary emergency powers because of a crisis but never give up those powers.

How Democracies Die shows how easy it can be to make the transition from democracy to authoritarianism. All budding authoritarians need to do is break the unwritten rules, the norms of behavior, that make a democracy work. If enough unwritten rules are broken, a democratic government will no longer function. Anti-democratic laws will be passed, ideologues and cronies will be put in positions of power, opponents will be jailed or exiled. Democracies can disappear either gradually or quickly. The authors provide examples from around the world.

They also call special attention to the behavior of the Republican Party in the last twenty-five years. Leaders like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Mitch McConnell and our current president have all broken rules without necessarily doing anything illegal. The result has been an accumulation of power inconsistent with majority rule.

When American democracy has worked, it has relied upon two norms that we often take for granted — mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. Treating rivals as legitimate contenders for power and underutilizing one’s institutional prerogatives in the spirit of fair play are not written in the American Constitution. Yet without them, our constitutional checks and balances will not operate as we expect them to [212].

The authors foresee three possible outcomes of our current political crisis. The most optimistic is that there will be a rebirth of democracy in reaction to the Trump presidency. The Democratic Party will be energized, the Republican Party will become less extreme, and “the Trump interlude [will] be taught in schools, recounted in films, and recited in historical works as an era of tragic mistakes where catastrophe was avoided and American democracy saved” [206].

The least optimistic is that America’s government will become increasingly authoritarian, possibly in response to a national security crisis. They believe this “nightmare scenario” isn’t likely, but it isn’t inconceivable either: “It is difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities [in our case, white Americans who call themselves Christians] gave up their dominant status without a fight” [208]. Resistance to creeping right-wing authoritarianism could lead to “escalating confrontation and even violent conflict”, which would bring more repression in the name of “law and order” [207-208].

They consider the third alternative the most likely:

… polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare — in other words, democracy without solid guardrails… When partisan rivals become enemies, political competition descends into warfare, and our institutions turn into weapons. The result is a system hovering constantly on the brink of crisis [208-212].

In order to avoid this outcome, the authors believe the Republican Party needs to be “reformed, if not refounded outright”. It must “marginalize extremist elements”; “build a more diverse electoral constituency”; “find ways to win elections without appealing to white nationalism”; and “free itself from the clutches of outside donors [like the Koch brothers] and right-wing media” [223]. They also believe that it would be counterproductive for Democrats to fight fire with fire, to behave as badly as Republicans have.

I think the only way the Republican Party will be reformed or replaced is if the rest of us become so fed up that the Republicans suffer devastating electoral losses, and that the Democrats use their improved position to address urgent issues, in particular, rising inequality. That might encourage “conservatives” to start behaving like conservatives again, instead of like radicals. America might then have a normal center-right political party again. Stranger things have happened.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

I suppose this is science fiction, although any science involved is way beyond human understanding. There is a mysterious region somewhere in the U.S. called “Area X”. The people who go inside either never come back or come back as someone else. The latest group of volunteers to try their luck include a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, a linguist and a biologist. The biologist tells their story. As you might expect, the expedition doesn’t go very well. They encounter a lot of weirdness, along with mounting paranoia.

Annihilation is the first novel in the author’s Southern Reach Trilogy. I enjoyed it enough that I’m going to start reading the second novel, Authority. That one is followed by Acceptance (which could refer to either a positive or negative outcome). I can’t say reading Annihilation was a totally enjoyable experience, because the characters aren’t sympathetic. Area X is clearly affecting their minds. But there was enough suspense to keep me reading. What is going on in Area X? You won’t really find out in Annihilation. Nor will you find out by watching the 2018 “science fiction horror” movie. It’s based on the book, but a lot of it is different.