Mini-review: The Changeling

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Kenzaburo Oe is a Nobel winning writer whose novels often touch on political and philosophical issues, and whose writing style is influenced by French and American literature, as well as by literary criticism. Generally, I’d consider those influences (especially the latter) unwelcome in a Japanese writer, but Oe pulls off a fascinating existential novel in The Changeling.

It’s the story of a life-long friendship between an aging writer, Kogito (loosely based on Oe himself) and his brother in law, Goro, a successful movie director. (Kogito is obviously not a Japanese name, it’s a reference to Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum). Goro has made a habit of sending tapes containing his reflections on their relationship to Kogito. In one of these tapes Goro says: “I’m going to head over to the Other Side now. But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop communicating with you.” Kogito hears a loud thud and later finds out that Goro has jumped to his death from his apartment.

This is the beginning of The Changeling, which then develops as a quest by Kogito to figure out why his friend committed suicide. A quest that brings Kogito to Berlin and in the woods of southern Japan, reflecting on early dramatic episodes of his life with Goro, as well as on developments stemming from those episodes and that unfolded over decades of their existence. Absolutely recommended.

Suggested readings, #82

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Cognition all the way down. Biologists like to think of themselves as properly scientific behaviourists, explaining and predicting the ways that proteins, organelles, cells, plants, animals and whole biota behave under various conditions, thanks to the smaller parts of which they are composed. They identify causal mechanisms that reliably execute various functions such as copying DNA, attacking antigens, photosynthesising, discerning temperature gradients, capturing prey, finding their way back to their nests and so forth, but they don’t think that this acknowledgment of functions implicates them in any discredited teleology or imputation of reasons and purposes or understanding to the cells and other parts of the mechanisms they investigate. … (Aeon) [With all due respect to Dan Dennett and his co-author, no. While I appreciate their logic, this sort of “intentional” language is way too anthropomorphic, and prone to wild misunderstandings especially when exported to the general public.]

A more political science. For years we have heard warnings about the “politicization of science” and the need to “restore science to its rightful place.” Likewise, we hear that more and more politicians and members of the public are “anti-science.” This is a way of talking about science as a monolithic body that issues in unitary conclusions about what actions we should take — as if we could gaze deep into the fabric of the cosmos and find the answer to whether our society should solve climate change by adopting a carbon tax, converting our electricity grid to nuclear power, or relinquishing fossil fuels. … (New Atlantis) [Actually, very good points, as much as many scientists will instinctively recoil from the implications.]

How we make moral decisions. Imagine that one day you’re riding the train and decide to hop the turnstile to avoid paying the fare. It probably won’t have a big impact on the financial well-being of your local transportation system. But now ask yourself, “What if everyone did that?” The outcome is much different — the system would likely go bankrupt and no one would be able to ride the train anymore. Moral philosophers have long believed this type of reasoning, known as universalization, is the best way to make moral decisions. But do ordinary people spontaneously use this kind of moral judgment in their everyday lives? … (MIT News) [Fascinating research, though the really big question, as the article points out at the end, is why people sometimes fail to make moral decisions.]

The problem with philanthropy. Charitable giving is one of the few things in the world that seems to be wholly good. Philanthropy, often characterised as private action for the public good, appears to earn the original meaning of the term: love of humanity. What could be a better example of virtue? There’s no question that individuals giving to worthy causes provides important relief from states’ failures to promote justice and wellbeing. Philanthropy can also provide key support to resistance movements. Yet since wealthy foundations such as the Gates Foundation and Gates Trust hold assets that surpass many countries, there is reason to be concerned about the political significance of large-scale philanthropy. … (New Statesman) [If you think billionaire philanthropy is a good idea, think again.]

Fake news, Stoicism, and the stiff upper lip. Fake news is not a recent phenomenon. Nor is its propagation limited to Russian bots or extreme right-wing media outlets. In this article my aim is to dispel a long-standing and pernicious myth about Stoicism, the ancient philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE which is currently enjoying something of a resurgence. The “fake news” claims that Stoicism is a dour, grim philosophy advocating the repression of emotions — the “stiff upper lip.” The truth about Stoicism is very different. Stoicism is in fact a positive, constructive life philosophy advocating active, virtuous engagement with the world. In this article I will first provide theoretical reasons to challenge the stiff upper lip view of Stoicism and then share recent empirical evidence about Stoicism that I hope will reduce the plausibility of the notion that Stoicism should be equated with a “stiff upper lip”. … (Medium) [If you think of Stoics has sporting a stiff upper lip the data flatly contradict you.]

Mini-review: Philosophy in the Islamic World

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Philosophy in the Islamic World, by Peter Adamson, is another entry in the author’s ongoing series, “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps,” in turn based on his successful, and also ongoing, podcast. I’ve read, and highly recommend, two earlier volumes in this series, Classical Philosophy and Philosophy In The Hellenistic And Roman Worlds. And I fully intend to read the next two installments that are already available: Medieval Philosophy and Classical Indian Philosophy.

The volume on Islamic (and medieval Jewish) philosophy is particularly hefty, in part because that happens to be Adamson’s own specialty. But it is fascinating because it will dispel a number of myth and misconceptions about philosophy in the Islamic world, as well as elucidate several intricate connections between it and the resurgence of Western philosophy in the late Middle Ages.

The book is divided into three parts: the so-called “formative period,” which includes discussions of the gigantic influence of Aristotle on Islamic philosophy; “Andalusia,” which features, among others, the philosophies of Averroes and Maimonides; and “the later traditions,” with chapters on Illuminationism, debates on Avicenna’s metaphysics, and — surprisingly and very interestingly — philosophy and science in the Mongol age.

While I don’t usually react very well to that part of philosophy that is essentially theological in nature — and a lot of Islamic philosophy of the period covered by Adamson falls into that category — Philosophy in the Islamic World is highly readable, peppered by Adamson’s usual humorous references to giraffes and Buster Keaton, and more importantly represents a must have entry in your library, on penalty of developing some serious gaps in your understanding of philosophy.

Mini-review: Nemesis – Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Nemesis, by David Stuttard, is the story of Alcibiades, the dashing, powerful, and rich Athenian statesman who was partially responsible for the disastrous expedition against Syracuse that helped change the tide of the Peloponnesian War, ultimately leading to the defeat of Athens. Alcibiades was brilliant, and had all the makings of a great politician and general, like his predecessor, Pericles (by whom he was adopted), and yet squandered the whole thing away, defecting from Athens to Sparta and then to the Persians, before being hunted down and killed by Spartan agents.

My interest in Alcibiades lies in the fact that he was also Socrates’ friend and pupil (and wannabe lover, though the philosopher had different ideas). In one of the Platonic dialogues (the Alcibiades Major), Socrates warns his student of the disaster to come, telling him that he (and politicians in general) just don’t have the right character for what they want to do:

“Then alas, Alcibiades, what a condition you suffer from! I hesitate to name it, but, since we two are alone, it must be said. You are wedded to stupidity, best of men, of the most extreme sort, as the argument accuses you and you accuse yourself. So this is why you are leaping into the affairs of the city before you have been educated. You are not the only one to suffer from this; most of those who manage the affairs of the city are the same way, except a few—perhaps including your guardian, Pericles.”

I’m currently writing a book, tentatively entitled The General and the Philosopher, to explore this historically and philosophically fascinating relationship, and more generally the theme of the interface between philosophy and politics. Stay tuned.

Suggested readings, #81

man making a decision honesty vs dishonesty

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Adam Smith warned us about sympathising with the elites. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith developed a theory of psychology based on ‘sympathy’ and outlined a way of living based on ‘reason and philosophy’. These ideas not only banish the (already disappearing) stereotype of Smith as a pioneer of free-market policies, but challenge some of our most cherished ideas about the sources of happiness. Published 17 years before The Wealth of Nations (1776), Moral Sentiments begins by rejecting the idea that people are basically self-interested. ‘How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others,’ Smith declares. We are often motivated, and indeed dominated, by our emotional involvement with our ideas about other people, which Smith calls ‘sympathy’. … (Aeon-Psyche) [This is a must read for anyone with only a superficial acquaintance with Smith. Which is most people. You’ll be surprised.]

What’s good about lying? Do you teach children to lie? I do. All the time. And you do, too! If you’re like most American parents, you point to presents under the Christmas tree and claim that a man named Santa Claus put them there. But your deliberate deceptions probably go beyond Santa, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny. How many of us tell our kids (or students) that everything is fine when, in fact, everything is totally wrong, in order to preserve their sense of security? Have you been honest about everything having to do with, say, your love life, or what happens at work? Do you praise drawings they bring home from school that you actually think are terrible? … (Greater Good) [On the difference between prosocial and antisocial lying, only one of which is really bad.]

The COVID-19 free market experiment. My last column for Skeptical Inquirer landed me on a conservative Chicago-area talk radio program. I think something about the title, “COVID-19 and the Tyranny of Now,” caught the eye of one of the show’s hosts, so they invited me on to discuss the article in the morning drive slot. The conversation was polite, and although I tried to find as many points of agreement as possible, it soon became clear we actually had less in common than the host must have imagined. In preparation for my appearance, I listened to the show for a few hours, and the hosts and callers spent much of their time complaining about the coronavirus health policies, such as the closing of restaurants, bars, and schools, imposed by the Illinois governor and Chicago mayor (both Democrats). On the morning of my interview, they were pointing to the increased number of “deaths of despair” during the stay-at-home period, in particular the rise in drug overdoses in the Chicago area. … (Skeptical Inquirer) [Another must read, this time if you think that government imposed restrictions on businesses are what is driving the economy down. Think again.]

Why you should love a Japanese breakfast. I was born in the U.S. and spent my formative years there, so, naturally, I developed the sense that a normal breakfast should look something like pancakes, cereal, buttered toast, bacon, or sausages. It’s what was served to me when I went to friends’ houses for sleepovers and it’s what was advertised to me when I watched television. These are breakfast foods: The things that we should be eating in the morning to start our day. But when my family would return to Japan for the summer, my idea of breakfast was challenged. Instead of the usual toast or cereal that I was used to, my grandmother would prepare rice, fish, pickles, miso soup, and some vegetables for us every morning. As a child, I would stare down at these foods in the morning and silently protest: These are not breakfast foods. … (Medium) [The Japanese got a lot of things right, we should consider imitating them.]

The great philosopher-emperor you’ve never heard of. In June 363 a demoralised and tired Roman army was marching deep in the territory of the enemy Sassanid Empire in what is now modern Iraq. The retreating army was dangerously low on supplies in the sweltering heat of a Mesopotamian summer. Soldiers burdened by a slow-moving baggage train were under constant harassment from mounted Sassanian raiders, picking them off with missiles. The column was heading north along the bank of the Tigris to the safety of Roman territory, having given up besieging the Sassanian capital Ctesiphon and losing their campaign objective. The Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus, better known to us as Julian, leading the column, was told of another attack on the rear guard. … (Medium) [Julian so-called the Apostate, the last great pagan Roman emperor.]

Mini-review: Apropos Of Nothing

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Yes, yes, I know, why read Woody Allen’s memoir? Isn’t he a perverted child molester and rapist? There are, I think, at least two reasons. First of all, regardless of his personal life, he remains one of the most important movie makers and cultural icons of the latter part of the 20th century. Second, if you actually paid attention — as I did — to the controversy from the beginning you will have to come to the conclusion that Allen is innocent, or at the very least not proven guilty.

He does, inevitably, address the issue in Apropos of Nothing, where he points out that he has been cleared of charges by two different inquiries, and that the investigators have actually concluded that Mia Farrow coached her daughter to lie since she was a small child. But what about the fact that he married his much younger adopted daughter, Soon-Yi? She is indeed much younger, but was never his adopted daughter, he and Farrow were never married, and Farrow abused Soon-Yi, physically and psychologically. Besides, the couple has now been married for a long time, which is more than a lot of other celebrities can boast.

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way (and of course you are entitled to your opinion about it), the rest of the book is a delight for anyone who appreciated Woody’s movies over so many decades. You won’t get tips about movie making, as Allen claims not to be that good of a director (he thinks of himself as a writer), and acknowledges a lot of luck in his life. But you’ll get endless funny or insightful anecdotes about most of his productions, as well as so many other aspects of his astounding career.

Allen has always been skeptical of awards and reputation, and does not believe in an afterlife. It is fitting, then, that these are his parting words in the memoir: “And really, no interest in a legacy? I’ve been quoted before on this, and I’ll leave it this way: Rather than live on in the hearts and mind of the public, I prefer to live on in my apartment.”

Book Club summary: Practical Philosophy

Over at my Patreon and Medium sites I run occasional “book clubs,” meaning multiple posts on the same book, which interested readers can use either as a companion to the book itself, or simply as extended summaries that give them an idea of what the book is about (and hence facilitate their decision of whether to invest the time to read the full volume or not). Here are all the entries connected to the most recently completed series.

Practical Philosophy — Ethics, Society and Culture, by John Haldane. In this wide ranging volume of philosophical essays John Haldane explores some central areas of social life and issues of intense academic and public debate. These include the question of ethical relativism, fundamental issues in bioethics, the nature of individuals in relation to society, the common good, public judgement of prominent individuals, the nature and aims of education, cultural theory and the relation of philosophy to art and architecture. John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs in the University of St. Andrews. He is also a former Royden Davis Professor of Humanities at Georgetown University and is currently a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, Princeton. As well as being a prominent academic philosopher he is well known in Britain, in North America and elsewhere in the English-speaking world as a public intellectual and social commentator.

Here are my commentaries:

1. What is practical philosophy? (Patreon / Medium)

2. Practical ethics (Patreon / Medium)

3. Families and why they matter (Patreon / Medium)

4. Private life and public culture (Patreon / Medium)

Suggested readings, #80

[Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels]

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Firm led by Google veterans uses A.I. to ‘nudge’ workers toward happiness. Technology companies like to promote artificial intelligence’s potential for solving some of the world’s toughest problems, like reducing automobile deaths and helping doctors diagnose diseases. A company started by three former Google employees is pitching A.I. as the answer to a more common problem: being happier at work. … (New York Times) [Because if there is something I trust corporations to do is to care about my happiness.]

Ancient democracy for an online world. Has the internet spelled the end of democracy? When most people ask this question, they are thinking about what the internet does to the politics of governments: the Cambridge Analytica scandal and QAnon, the app-driven election campaigns of populist strongmen like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, #fakenews, #deepstate and so forth. There are lots of good reasons to worry that the answer might be yes. … (Noema)

A theory about conspiracy theories. More than 1 in 3 Americans believe that the Chinese government engineered the coronavirus as a weapon, and another third are convinced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has exaggerated the threat of Covid-19 to undermine President Trump. The numbers, from a survey released on Sept. 21 by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, may or may not taper off as communities begin to contain the virus. … (New York Times)

Trump is a person devoid of good character. Why doesn’t it seem to matter? If ever the importance of having a good character was put to the vote, it was in November 2016. Then, a reality TV star who flaunted his bad character (from mocking a disabled reporter, to bragging about grabbing women by the pussy and disrespecting members of the military) was voted president of the United States, and on some level the issue was settled. Does character matter anymore? Increasingly, it seems no. … (The Guardian) [Only one caveat: the Stoics wouldn’t be “baffled and depressed” nowadays. On the contrary, they would not have been surprised and would have redoubled their efforts to improve themselves.]

Beyond Kuhn and Feyerabend. When discussing a philosophical question, it is sometimes useful to investigate the history of that question and its answers. The question I am dealing with here is: what makes science special? I assume that scientific knowledge is indeed special primarily by being more reliable than other kinds of knowledge, but also better in some other senses. This question of the special status of science has first been dealt with very soon after science was invented in ancient Greece, having integrated influences from other cultures. In the course of history, the Greek answer had to be seriously modified due to two main factors. First, the sciences developed enormously ever since and a theory of what makes science special had to adapt to this profound change of its subject matter. Second, not only doing science but also thinking about science became more sophisticated, especially regarding what different kinds of logic could and could not achieve in science. In the following, I shall sketch this historical development in order to characterize our current stance with respect to the question of what makes science special. … ( [One of the best articles on philosophy of science you’ll read this year.]

Suggested readings, #79

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Why are we in the West so WEIRD? A Theory. According to copies of copies of fragments of ancient texts, Pythagoras in about 500 B.C. exhorted his followers: Don’t eat beans! Why he issued this prohibition is anybody’s guess (Aristotle thought he knew), but it doesn’t much matter because the idea never caught on. According to Joseph Henrich, some unknown early church fathers about a thousand years later promulgated the edict: Don’t marry your cousin! Why they did this is also unclear, but if Henrich is right — and he develops a fascinating case brimming with evidence — this prohibition changed the face of the world, by eventually creating societies and people that were WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic. … (New York Times) [I’m not at all convinced that we are that WEIRD, but it makes for a challenging read.]

The new, nicer Nero. Reassessing history’s most maligned ruler, notorious for fiddling while Rome burned. The Colosseum in Rome draws close to eight million tourists a year, making it one of the world’s most-visited archaeological attractions. I could see the crowds converging on the magnificent first-century amphitheater as I headed across the street to a small park on a hillock. There was almost no one here, aside from a few young mothers pushing strollers along the pathways. A cluster of nuns passed by, and one of them pointed me toward a poorly marked gate at the base of the hill—the entrance to the Domus Aurea, or what’s left of it, anyway. … (Smithsonian) [Not too convinced by this one either, smells a bit too much of historical revisionism. But, again, interesting read nonetheless.]

Why the Supreme Court ended up with nine justices—and how that could change. Why the Supreme Court ended up with nine justices—and how that could change. The U.S. Supreme Court changed size seven times in its first 80 years, from as few as five justices to as many as 10. Now, some argue it’s time to revisit the issue. … (National Geographic) [Lots of good ideas here, from unpractical ones to those that make a lot of sense but will never be implemented.]

A four-year timeline of Trump’s impact on science. Since he took office in January 2017, US President Donald Trump has not made science a priority; he has proposed massive cuts to many science agencies and took 19 months to nominate a science adviser. But his policies and actions have had strong impacts — many of them harmful — on researchers and issues related to science. Here’s a timeline of those events ahead of the US presidential election on 3 November. … (Nature)

Columbus is the wrong hero for Italian-Americans: In fact, associating him with us is a form of cultural erasure. Cultural erasure occurs when a people’s history becomes mythologized to support the values of their oppressors. The association of Italian-Americans with Christopher Columbus is a good example. During a summer of protests decrying racial injustices and the United States’ history of white supremacy, Gov. Cuomo was asked whether it was time to remove the statue adorning Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. The governor replied: “I understand the feelings about Christopher Columbus and some of his acts, which nobody would support…But the statue has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York. For that reason, I support it.” Meanwhile, in Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza, some gathered with weapons to “protect” a statue of Columbus from being removed. The statue has subsequently been slated for removal. … (Daily News) [Very good points about little appreciated aspects of Italian and Italian-American history.]

Suggested readings, #78

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Hate the sin, not the book. Reading works from the past can offer perspective—even when they say things we don’t want to hear. This might seem a very strange time to publish a book recommending that we read the voices from the past. After all, isn’t the present hammering at our door rather violently? There’s a worldwide pandemic; a presidential election is about to consume the attention of America; and if all that weren’t sufficient, we are entering hurricane season. The present is keeping us plenty busy. Who has time for the past? … (The Atlantic) [A bit preachy, could have been written better. Good point nevertheless.]

The Good, the Bad and the ‘Radically Dishonest.’ Lying and cheating behavior comes in several distinct flavors, a recent study found. In this age of trolls and bots and digital impostors, words like “crank” and “bully” seem impossibly antiquated, like labels from the black-and-white TV era. “Scoundrel” almost qualifies as a term of endearment — culturally insensitive, for the purveyors of disinformation who parade with grim delight in the virtual public square. … (New York Times)

Thoughts into words. Here’s the paradox of articulation: are you excavating existing ideas, or do your thoughts come into being as you speak? ‘What is it about the proposal that strikes me as so disturbing?’ Reading through an article describing a local government measure, I feel opposition rising within me. Normally, forming an opinion about such things would take me some time. But not here. The proposal instantly strikes me as unjust. My reaction is not just intellectual; it is visceral. My emotions are engaged. My imagination is exercised. As I imagine the proposal playing out in practice, the distinctive brand of injustice seems to be jumping out of every word on the page. … (Aeon)

Burning out. Professors say faculty burnout is always a real threat, but especially now, and that institutions should act before it’s too late. As a frequent commentator on all things higher ed, Kevin McClure likes his predictions to be right. But in the case of a recent article he wrote about the growing threat of faculty burnout, he wanted to be wrong. “Basically what I heard over and over again was people saying, ‘That’s me. This is how I feel. This gives words to the way that I’m feeling walking into fall semester,’” McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said about feedback he received. “So it’s a situation where many people confirmed my argument that there will be a wave of burnout — but it does increase my level of concern.” … (Inside Higher Ed)

Young children use reason, not gut feelings, to decide moral issues. In the past two decades, social science has painted a pretty dour picture of the power of moral reasoning. To explain why people disagree so profoundly about ethical and political questions, pundits and scientists have claimed that humans systematically disregard evidence from experts, and that we rely on gut feelings instead of reason. If true, these conclusions have pretty serious and depressing consequences. Why should politicians rely on logic or scientific evidence, if humans rarely reason about moral and political issues? Against this backdrop, it was hardly surprising when a leading psychologist told a Washington Post columnist in 2011 that it ‘is important for the president not to be rational and fully honest’. … (Psyche) [As I predicted years ago, a series of new studies casts some deep doubts on the now popular, Jonathan Haidt-inspired notion that moral (as well as non-moral) reasoning is all about confabulation and rationalization.]