Monday, April 28, 2008

Open sesame

The 68th Philosophers' Carnival has an Open Source theme. If you don't know what that means, then click you must.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The relevance of Wittgenstein to ... well, never mind what

Earlier today, Brian Leiter linked to this blistering salvo, which would be of little interest to those of us who do not care whether what Andrew Sullivan says about William Kristol reveal the former to be an anti-semite, except that all of a sudden, an impassioned debate broke out in the comments about ... Wittgenstein's influence on contemporary analytic philosophy. Much of this is familiar (Jason Stanley drops by to disparage Hegel), but some of us (I include myself) can't get enough. Check it out!

UPDATE [4/28]: Phew. N interlocutors, N + 1 opinions about Wittgenstein. See also here (not sure if it's a propos or just timely).

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Library book sale, pt. 2: the anticlimax

After the excitement narrated in my previous post, in which much fun was had in the Religion section of the book sale, we turn to the remainder of the current haul. The next port of call was the Literature section, where I found this:

Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation and other essays (1966)

Most of these essays are on stuff that was hip at the time. e.g., Godard, Bresson, Camus, Lukács, Weil, Ionesco, Resnais, Artaud, and Norman O. Brown. The title essay was supposed to be controversial, but what she seems actually to be arguing against looks pretty lame, making her thesis relatively commonsensical:
Of course, I don't mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, "There are no facts, only interpretations." By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain "rules" of interpretation.

Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don't you see that X is really—or, really means—A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C? [...] The modern style of interpretation [as in Marx and Freud] excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs "behind" the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.
Sounds nasty, all right. Note the offhand "(rightly)" in the first paragraph. Somehow I don't trust Ms. Sontag to be able to tell us what sense that is, in which N. is right, especially as she gets the quote wrong: it's not "there are no facts," (as of course there are facts), but "there are no 'facts'", where I take the scare quotes, in the spare and artificial context of The Will to Power, to indict, not the objectivity of the real world, but instead the hyperobjectivity of Platonism. FWIW; I wouldn't put too much emphasis on that overanalyzed little snippet either way.

Next we have:

Italo Calvino – The Uses of Literature: Essays (1986)

I like Calvino's fiction (Invisible Cities, If on a winter's night a traveler); maybe if I read this one I'll stop mixing him up with Umberto Eco. One of the essays is called "Philosophy and Literature." After starting off with just those two, he continues:
What I have described in terms of a twin-bed marriage must be seen as a ménage à trois: philosophy, literature, and science. Science is faced with problems not too dissimilar from those of literature. It makes patterns of the world that are immediately called in question, it swings between the inductive and the deductive methods, and it must always be on its guard lest it mistake its own linguistic conventions for objective laws. We will not have a culture equal to the challenge until we compare against one another the basic problematics of science, philosophy, and literature, in order to call them all into question.
A three-way, eh? (Those Europeans!)

Kathleen Coburn, ed. – Coleridge: A Collection of Critical Essays (1967)

I think I've already snagged the Sartre and Emerson volumes in this series (Twentieth Century Views), which must have come out later, as they're not listed on the back cover with the earlier ones, which are more traditionally literary, albeit wideranging (Jonson to Beckett). In the final essay in this one, Dorothy M. Emmet discusses Coleridge's interest in Kant et al:
My own view is that this philosophy [German Idealism] gave [Coleridge] a general intellectual apparatus with the help of which he tried to say what he had to say and to give a more systematic appearance to his empirical discoveries, but that he was not concerned to make himself into a post-Kantian idealist on the German model. True, in the collection of extracts from the notebooks called Anima Poetae, he says "In the preface of my metaphysical works, I should say: 'Once for all, read Kant, Fichte, etc., and then you will trace, or, if you are on the hunt, track me.'" But here he is answering charges of plagiarism, and seeking to make a kind of omnibus acknowledgment while saying at the same time that the thoughts had been his own before he had heard of these writers. in any cas the track of Coleridge is more complex than Kant and Fichte: among other paths it leads along the road to Xanadu.
Wild woodcut-ish drawing of the Ancient Mariner on the cover. Here's another take, by Hunt Emerson:

Moving right along, next I moved myself right along to the Sociology section, where I found:

Raymond Aron – Main Currents in Sociological Thought II: Durkheim, Pareto, Weber (1970)

Volume I, just for the record, features Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville, and "the Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848". From the preface of vol. II:
I must force myself to recognize the merits, however splendid, of Durkheim, whereas Max Weber never irritates me even when I feel most remote from him. As for Pareto, he no longer provokes me to any strong reaction one way or the other.
I think we can all relate to that. Right next to the Sociology section was the Science section (usually slim pickings there, mostly way out of date), where I picked up:

David Bodanis – The Secret Family: Twenty-four Hours Inside the Mysterious World of Our Minds and Bodies (1997)

Our author knowing a good thing when he sees it, this book is a sequel to The Secret House and The Secret Garden. These books all feature a wealth of bizarre tidbits of information, usually about what's going on at the microlevel of whatever he's talking about. This provides an excuse for lots of colorful thermograms and photomicrographs and whatnot. For example, the back cover shows sweat droplets, the hottest and coolest areas of a woman's body, the liquid glue on the back of a yellow post-it note, and "monolithic slabs of vitamin C." If any of our family had basal cell carcinoma, on the other hand, we'd probably see this one (courtesy of the Loyola University Medical Education Network:

I was ready to go at this point, but the next one happened to catch my eye on the way out.

Jonathan Franzen – The Corrections (2001)

This guy was in my class at college (I think; I never met him). I borrowed this book once, but never got to it. Could be a while, but at least now I have it.

And just for good measure, while checking out I grabbed one more:

Samantha Ettus, ed. – The Experts' Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do (2004)

I'm not convinced that all of these things are such that everyone needs to know how to do them (swing a golf club?), but some of them look useful, and there are some amusing celebrity cameos. Here's Tucker Carlson on how to tie a bow tie. After the complicated technical stuff, there's this:
5. Tighten by pulling on the opposite folded ends. Adjust by fiddling. This is the subjective, artistic phase of the process. You may opt for the loose, floppy glass-of-cognac-in-the-morning Churchill look; the precision-perfect Fruit of Islam, Farrakhan-bodyguard look; or somewhere in between. As in life, somewhere in between is probably best.

6. Admire handicraft in mirror.

7. Consider whether you really want to do this. Keep in mind that when you wear a bow tie, people will make assumptions about you, and probably should. The good news is, you'll never commit adultery when you wear a bow tie; you won't have the opportunity. The bad news is, strangers will snicker at you in airports. Is it worth it? Only you can be the judge.
Or your wife, I imagine.

That's all, folks! See you in October!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Library book sale!

It's that time of year again! (Actually they do it twice a year, April and October.) Let's see if I can remember the order in which I picked them up.

Right off the bat I headed to the Religion section – because that's where the philosophy books would be if there are any this time. The first book I snagged was not one of these.

Martin Marty – Martin Luther (2004)

This is from the Penguin Lives series of biographies. I read the Proust one, which was pretty good. I look forward to learning from Professor Marty where exactly "here" is, where Luther was standing (metaphorically speaking). And of course I'm always up for a good Diet of Worms joke (yuk!)

Ralph Walker – Kant (1999)
Roger Scruton – Spinoza (1999)

These are from the Routledge series "The Great Philosophers". Even at six bucks (list price; I paid 15 cents), they're kind of a rip (50+ short pages), but some of them are interesting. I've got the Schopenhauer, Derrida, and Collingwood ones already (never gotten to them in fact, but the Collingwood one looks good, by Aaron Ridley I think). Walker's essay is on the moral philosophy, while Scruton's is a general intro to his guy.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila By Herself (1562, trans. 1957)

Another Penguin book, this time a Penguin Classic, with the Bernini sculpture on the cover. Check out the typically off-the-wall episode on that work in Simon Schama's series Power of Art. (I haven't seen the Van Gogh episode, with Andy Serkis; that ought to be good – "the crowses, they wants us, gollum!").

Right, St. Teresa. The famous sculpture depicts her recumbent; but as you may know, that wasn't always the case, as editor J. M. Cohen recounts in his introduction:
There are several descriptions by her fellow nuns of moments when they saw her with glowing features, writing as if at a heavenly dictation. But not all the supernatural states that possessed Teresa were equally welcome to her. She herself tells how, in prayer, she would be lifted into the air, to her own consternation and to the alarm of those sisters who were praying beside her in the choir.

These mysterious levitations were matched after her death by the equally mysterious incorruptibility of her body. Both are well-known phenomena which occur in the histories of many saints and that can only be accounted for by some actual change in the physical structure that takes place at the same time as spiritual transformation. In Teresa's case the fragrance that surrounded her uncorrupted body led to most disgraceful results. In the wild rush to acquire sacred relics, various of her limbs were torn from her corpse. Her old friend Father Gracián, who had only lately so disappointed her by failing to accompany her on a journey, inaugurated her dismemberment by cutting off one of her hands.
Eww. The next book I espied was a nondescript-looking volume with a plain brown cover:

Swami Vivekananda – Jnana-Yoga (1961)

This is from the Advaita Ashrama imprint out of Calcutta (price: Rs. 3/4). According to Wikipedia, Vivekananda lived from 1863 to 1902 (an anti-Yankee Doodle Dandy, died on the Fourth of July), and introduced Yoga to America at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. Here are the last two stanzas of the opening selection, "The Song of the Sannyasin":
Few only know the truth. The rest will hate
And laugh at thee, great one; but pay no heed.
Go thou, the free, from place to place and help
Them out of darkness, Maya's veil. Without
The fear of pain or search for pleasure, go
Beyond them both, Sannyasin bold! Say––
"Om Tat Sat, Om!"

Thus, day by day, till Karma's powers spent
Release the soul for ever. No more is birth,
Nor I, nor thou, nor God, nor man. The "I"
Has All become, the All is "I" and Bliss.
Know thou art That, Sannyasin bold! Say––
"Om Tat Sat, Om!"
I assume "Om Tat Sat" means something like "Tat Tvam Asi" (thou art that; though apparently on one interpretation it means "thou art not that". Go figure.).

Michelle Goldberg – Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (2007)

The cover blurbs on this one use phrases like "civil liberties under siege by holy rollers," "take over America," "potent wake-up call," and "terrifying," as well as a lot of other heavy breathing. I dunno. I guess I'll read it though. It's pretty short.

Mark Epstein, M. D. – Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness; Lessons from Meditation and Psychotherapy (1998)

I think one subtitle is plenty here. Anyway, it seems that "the Western notion of self is deeply flawed [...] Happiness comes from letting go." This looks to be breezy personal reflections rather than a learned tome.

Robert Linssen – Living Zen (trans. 1958 (from French))

This one, on the other hand, seems to be more in the learned tome mode. From the Introductory Note:
If Zen is approached with the usual mental attitude, it will seem quite incomprehensible. Our average Western intellectuality would consider its paradoxical language simply as a play upon words. Its full significance is revealed only when we approach it in a different manner, making our minds available to the new processes of inner perception which it suggests. [following sentence underscored by previous owner] A certain flexibility of thought is necessary so that the study of a new subject may be fruitful and revealing.
Later on [p. 81]:
Reality Transcends the Duality of 'Mobile and Immobile'

A clarification of our views on the problem of movement is desirable. Without this there might seem to be a number of contradictions.

It may be said with good reason, that movement is a function of time. As Kant expressed it: 'We create time ourselves as a function of our receptive apparatus.'

This is obvious.

Therefore we must make it clear that in the preceeding lines we have considered movement as the essence of phenomenal reality.

The complete Reality of the universe includes the phenomenon and the noumenon. It is neither movement, as we know it in the manifested universe, nor immobility, as suggested by the mind (that is to say the notion of immobility in opposition to our idea of movement).

It is obvious that Reality Itself, in its entirety, is beyond the traditional oppositions of mobility and immobility.

Moreover these divisions are arbitrary. The experience of Satori is a result of emancipation from the arbitrary practice of partitioning our mind.

It is absolutely useless and vain to try and imagine or think of a reality that includes and dominates at the same time the two aspects of mobile and immobile. All discussion in this field leads us astray.

Got that? Write that down. (As John A. Davison would say.)

Nice Zen garden on the cover. (Not this one though.)

Mortimer Adler – Six Great Ideas (Special TV Issue, 1981)

That part about this being a TV Issue refers to the genesis of this book in interviews with Bill Moyers (fun fact: Moyers was LBJ's press secretary for two and a half years). Check out the back-cover picture of Adler with Moyers in Aspen, both perched on what I can only assume is the latter's motorcycle. Holy frijoles, what a time capsule. The hair, the leisure suit, the goofy grin – Bill, Bill. The eighty-ish Adler looks comparatively distinguished in his frumpy suit pants (no jacket or tie; it's probably hot out), gesturing forward past Moyers's unheeding rightward-facing pose, as if to say, get us out of here, you freak.

As for the text, I think last time I picked up Adler's Ten Philosophical Mistakes, believing that one to have more entertainment value. But I'm sure that since one of the G. I.s here is "Truth", this one will have its, uh, moments as well. At least this one doesn't bill Adler, as I believe the other one does, as "America's Foremost Philosopher." Dear God, could that ever have been true?? The mind reels.

Basil Willey – The English Moralists (1964, paperback ed. 1967)

The title phrase appears on the cover of this book no fewer than five times, as if someone is practicing calligraphy or something. Whatever. It actually begins with Plato and Aristotle (who were not English at all), but by chapter 9 the author feels that we are sufficiently prepared to encounter Bacon, followed by Hobbes, the Cambridge Platonists, Sir Thomas Browne (a mere "note" for this guy), Locke, Shaftesbury, Addison, Hume, Chesterfield, Burke, and Coleridge.

Whew, that's enough for now. That was just the Religion section. Tune in next week (or whenever I get to it) for the rest.