Sunday, October 22, 2006

More banditry

The local library (next town over actually) had its semiannual book sale again (see my last haul here), and yesterday I went over and checked it out. Good news: the following cost around five bucks total. Bad news: this means I will continue to put off my promised account of that one last book (*** **** *****) from the other time. Starting off, we have:

1. Steven Pinker – The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (1994)

As I think I mentioned last time, when I picked up his Words and Rules, I'm not a big fan of the rosy one, but he's a least worth keeping an eye on. This book is more substantive, though, so it may be more likely than the other to be thrown across the room. (Non-philosophers talking about language, esp. scientists getting all chomsky, as Dennett would say, can provoke this response in me.) I better be careful, as it is a hefty hardcover and could really do some damage if propelled in the wrong direction. For example, I see a chapter called "Mentalese" – better go down into the basement to read that one.

2. C. E. M. Joad – Philosophical Aspects of Modern Science (1964; orig. ed. 1932)
3. H. Feigl and G. Maxwell – Current Issues in the Philosophy of Science (1959)

I bet these two came from the same source, but there's no name in either, so who knows. Professor Joad is worried that "modern physics" (he means quantum mechanics), as interpreted by such as A. S. Eddington and James Jeans, will seduce the young into Idealism or worse. These views, the back cover tells us, "are ... subjected to criticism on the ground that they rest on a faulty theory of knowledge, which ignores the Realist movement which is the distinctive feature of twentieth century philosophy." Russell's "Neutral-Monism" will not do either. This book seems not to have been cracked. Perhaps I shall be the first. Or not.

The Feigl & Maxwell is the Proceedings of Section L of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Chicago on December 27-30, 1959. Lots of big names (of the time): "Is there a Logic of Discovery?" by Hanson, comments by Feyerabend, reply by Hanson; "The Language of Theories" by Sellars, comments by Hanson, Feyerabend and Richard Rudner; "Law and Convention in Physical Theory" by Grünbaum, comments by Feyerabend, reply by Grünbaum. Also appearing: Rescher, Salmon, Michael Polanyi. Hanson and Feyerabend are in every other session, it seems. Time capsule city!

4. Mortimer Adler – Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985)

Finally, truth in advertising? But no, he means mistakes made by people other than himself. (Anyway, it would be tough limiting the mistakes in here to ten, unless you consolidated them into general groups.) Here's a taste:
This [an unholy conglomeration of Hobbes, Russell, and Frege – don't ask] has led to the fatuous injunction "Don't look for the meaning; look for the use," as if it were possible to discover the use of a word without first ascertaining its meaning as used, a meaning that it must have had before it was used in order to be used in one certain way rather than another. Language does not control thought, as contemporary linguistic philosophers appear to believe. It is the other way around.
This is worse than useless. If it were simply false, then it would at least be something to argue against. But it's just a muddle of Colbertan truthiness (avant la lettre, I suppose). Adler doesn't mention Wittgenstein, the apparent target here, but it's just as well, considering the hash he makes of it. If you've never heard of him, Adler was the 50's equivalent of William Bennett, pushing upper-middlebrow quasi-Aristotelian pop moralizing as a tonic for midcentury modernistic ennui. (10 P. M. is subtitled "Basic Errors in Modern Thought - How They Came About [neglect of Aquinas], Their Consequences [Communism and hedonism], and How to Avoid Them [Take a Guess].") In the bio-blurb, the publisher (MacMillan) blithely refers to the author as "America's foremost philosopher." I think that's because he's the one who's been on TV (he had a PBS series on the Great Books or something).

5. Allan Bloom – The Closing of the American Mind (1987)

Hmmm, a mini-trend; more right-wing snark from a Chicago fossil. Actually, Bloom was a real philosopher, if an odd bird, and this has some interesting material about Plato and Rousseau. (Doesn't get Nietzsche though.) This book was a huge best seller but it is universally suspected that no-one read it. Lefties mocked it at the time (he does make a fool of himself in spots), but compared to contemporary Kulturkampf stuff (*cough* Dinesh D'Souza *cough*) this is Isaiah Berlin. Incidentally, the index contains precisely one reference to Leo Strauss.

6. Culture Wars (1999)

This book, the back cover informs us, is part of the "highly acclaimed Opposing Viewpoints series" of what seem to be high-school civics readers (tagline: "Those who do not know their opponent's arguments do not completely understand their own." Too true.) It consists of brief snippets of pro vs. con about this and that ("Belief in God is Necessary for a Moral Society" followed by, you guessed it, "Belief in God is Not Necessary for a Moral Society"). They're all like that. Now, I understand the appeal of the agonistic approach, but as a moderate I would prefer a little, well, moderation. The way it is, all you get is fair-to-good negative arguments (often against straw opponents) and bad positive arguments. Just for fun, here's a snippet from "Belief in God is Necessary ...":
Moral values are rather strange. We cannot see them, hear them, or feel them, but we cannot doubt they exist. A witness to a crime sees the criminal and the victim, but what is perhaps most important remains invisible—the moral evil of the act.
Yet evil is unquestionably there [....] Good and bad are unseen but real, much as God is said to be. Does that suggest a close tie between two mysteries, moral values and God?
Much predictable whining about naturalism and relativism later (okay, only a few paragraphs – these things are short), we get:
More important, we should consider the very nature of moral obligation. [Okay, fair enough: what is it?] We cannot be obligated to atoms, or gravity, or evolution, or time, or chance; we can be obligated only to persons. [So far, so good, I suppose; but it can't last ...] Indeed, we typically learn morality from our parents, and we stick to our standards at least partly out of loyalty to those we love. An absolute standard, one without exceptions, one that binds everybody, must be based on loyalty to a person great enough to deserve such respect. Only God meets that description.
Ow, my head. But the other guy – a philosopher, even – isn't much better. It's right, as far as it goes (he gives Leibniz's arguments against "Divine Command Theory"), but then he goes right to the conclusion:
Fundamentalists correctly perceive that universal moral standards are required for the proper functioning of society. But they erroneously believe that God is the only possible source of such standards. Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, George Edward Moore [!], and John Rawls have demonstrated [!] that it is possible to have a universal morality without God.
Phew. Maybe this will be good blogfodder though.

7. Jonathan Rée – i see a voice: deafness, language, and the senses – a philosophical history (1999)

This seems to be a book for the general reader, but the author is a philosopher (I think I've heard of him, even, though I may be mixing him up with Paul Ree, the "English psychologist" whom Nietzsche mentions in the Genealogy). Think Oliver Sacks's Seeing Voices, only less neurology and more history (and less rah-rah Deaf Culture). The last part looks more philosophical; chapter 28 is entitled "Space, Time, and the aesthetic theory of art," and discusses Kant, Baumgarten, etc. Maybe I'll just jump to the end.

8. W. G. Muelder, C. K. Sears, and A. V. Schlabach – The Development of American Philosophy (1960; orig. ed. 1940)

I think I got a similar volume last time, but this one looks a bit more diverse: eight sections, including a long one called "The Idealist Tradition," with a whole slew of names. Interestingly, the sections the previous owner (a Miss M. W. of Mt. Holyoke College) has most marked up, in addition to Peirce and James, are the selections by Josiah Royce and the succeeding selection, "The Limits of Evolution" (1895), by one George H. Howison. And what a piece of purple prose is this latter essay! We'll have to get back to that one sometime. But now, forward!

9. Stephen Jones, ed. – The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (2002)

Actually, the title page says it's the MBoBNH 13 (so they've been doing this for a while, then). 600 pp. of thrills and chills. One story ("Most of My Friends are Two-Thirds Water") is by one of my fave new discoveries, Kelly Link; but it seems also to be in her first collection (so get that instead, if you're torn between that and this). I haven't read this one, but she's great. Lots of unfamiliar names, but I'm not really into horror, so I can't tell what that means – they could all be stars for all I know.

In a similar vein, more or less, we have:

10. Goethe's Faust: The Prologue and Part One (1963; orig. 1831, or at least the whole thing)

Last time I got a German-only version of part two [actually, checking later, I see that it also was part one; no matter, I have that little yellow edition of part two somewhere]. This is a bilingual edition, and thank goodness for that, because the English part is dreadful – metered, rhymed, archaic, and absurdly literal. Check this out. First the German:
Faust: O selig der! dem er in Siegesglanze
die blut'gen Lorbeern um die Schläfe windet,
den er, nach rasch durchrastem Tanze,
in eines Mädchens Armen findet.
O wär' ich vor des hohen Geistes Kraft
entzückt, entseelt dahin gesunken!
Meph: Und doch hat jemand einen braunen Saft,
in jener Nacht, nicht ausgetrunken.
Faust: Das Spionieren, scheint's, is deine Lust.
Meph: Allwissend bin ich nicht; doch viel ist mir bewusst.
Romantic poetry, sure, but not ridiculous by any means. Here's the English:
Faust: O fortunate, for whom, when victory glances,
the bloody laurels on the brow he bindeth!
whom, after rapid, maddening dances,
in clasping maiden-arms he findeth!——
O would that I, before that Spirit's might,
ecstatic, reft of life, had sunken.
Meph: And yet, by someone, in that Easter night,
a certain liquid was not drunken.
Faust: Eavesdropping, ha! thy pleasure seems to be.
Meph: Omniscient am I not; yet much is known to me.
Glug. Well, at least it's got the German, and I've got a dictionary ready to hand (or is it present at hand?). By the way, there was a foreign-language section at the book sale, and most of it indeed seemed to be original language material. But there were some translations too, and it was pretty weird to see things like Racine: Werke and Isaac Asimov's Preludio alla Fondazione.

11. Jeff Danziger – Wreckage Begins with "W" (2004)

Finally, on the lighter side, we have a book of editorial cartoons. I always liked Danziger (especially his short-lived (I think) strip, McGonigle or something) – the drawings are good, and there are often several gags in one frame – but he seems to have gotten bitter over the years, and much of this collection is crudely partisan (and worse, unfunny). Here's one: little George, in cowboy hat with "W" on it, idly shaking the tail of a big mean dog (labeled WAR), who has turned around with slavering jaws to eye the lad threateningly. Oh, I get it: wag the dog, with blowback imminent. Heh. Or this one. The book explains that Bush had asked Henry Kissinger "to head a panel looking into the causes of terrorism." In the picture, a grotesquely cadaverous Kissinger looks on as Bush, at an absurdly small desk (with an absurdly small chair) says to Rove or whoever, "Henry says he'll do it as long as he can bomb a few villages afterwards...." See, Kissinger is bad: he likes bombing things for fun. Other cartoons are better, but overall this is already a disappointment.

The sale continues tomorrow, and I'm tempted to go back and pick up a few of those math textbooks, which I need as I do a lacuna in my skull. But they're cheeeap!

1 comment:

Clark Goble said...

Actually The Language Instinct is by far Pinker's best book. He does stretch things a bit in a few conclusions. But most of the book is rather interesting experiments or patients and what they tell us about language. Of course because it is a tad more conservative than his other books it also is pretty boring. I have to admit a few chapters I skimmed through.