A Philosophical Summer Reading ListMay 16, 2006
Are there some philosophers, philosophies, or philosophical issues you want to bone up on over the Summer?
I don't really have anything to recommend, per se, but the weird assortment of matter through which I am wading may be of interest to those of you who have an interest in that sort of thing.
I don't have the disposable income I once did, so most of my reading comes from second hand stores, garage sales, the Internet, and the library - once I replace the paperback the library claims I lost (GREAT PLAINS, by Ian Frazier).
My wife and I went to the Fair Oaks annual yard sale last Saturday (five blocks of bargains and cheap tamales). I found a copy of EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, the novel by Jonathan Saffran Foer. I'd wanted to read it, sort of, but certainly didn't want to pay good money for it. Two bucks seemed right. The reviews made it sound like something I'd like, but I was a little put off by the knowledge that the author of the book gave the main character of the book his own name. I don't know why that irritates me. I guess I think that privilege is reserved for Borges alone. Unless you're writing your memoirs. I don't really like memoirs (unless they're by Borges).
We also picked up ten trashy Hollywood biographies, which my wife and I both love - the trashier the better. We even found my favorite, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RAINBOW, by Mel Torme. I first read this more than thirty years ago. It purports to be about his experience working with Judy Garland, but is mainly about how awful his ex-wife is. I have never read a book with more of a "disconnect" (as they wonks say) between what the author thinks he is telling us and what we are actually being told. If you ever wanted to teach that sort of thing, it could be used as a textbook.
(BTW: Trashy Hollywood biographies are NOT memoirs.)
Among the other bios were SCHNOZZOLA, a biography of Jimmy Durante, and a biography of William Holden, which I bought mainlyto see if there were any good Sam Peckinpah horror stories. All I've read of that so far are the appropriate pages pointed out in the index. (Sam Peckinpah was a difficult man, so the bio says (how shocking!). I found out that Peckinpah originally wanted Lee Marvin to play Pike Bishop in THE WILD BUNCH. What a movie that would have been! Not to diminish the power of the movie that exists, which I've seen, oh god, umpty-leven times.)
Acorn Books on Polk Street is closing (as is Cody's in Berkely, and maybe A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books here in San Francisco), and I found a novel that I'd never heard of, THE CHESS GARDEN, by Brooks Hansen. It is both unlikely and wonderful, incorporating a flood in Dayton, Ohio, the Boer War, and a trip to the Antipodes, an imaginary land populated by game pieces.
I got about a third through it, and then got very busy, and have been away from it for two weeks. I will probably have to start over, an activity I don't mind. In fact, I often treasure it.
My wife went to the Mother's Day Sale at A Clean Well Lighted Place For Books, and got me the most recent biography of George Orwell (ORWELL: THE LIFE, by D.J. Taylor). I'm also reading a memoir of Frank O'Hara, a poet I love, by his former lover/roommate, Joe LeSueur. (Wait, I thought I HATED memoirs.)
Having come across many references to it, in the course of researching other things, I realized I'd never read F. Scott Fitsgerald's last book (unfinished), THE LAST TYCOON. So I bought that, and read it. It's a roman a clef, based on the life of Irving Thalberg, the head of production at MGM in the 20's and 30's. It is very good. I bought the authorized text (full price, at BORDERS, because I couldn't find it anywhere else) by Matthew J. Broccoli, with its new title, THE LOVE OF THE LAST TYCOON.
I am also doing research (for various writing projects) on Cabeza da Vaca, toxins that cause short term memory loss, and sedition. Don't ask. Or do.
For the record, I re-read every few years:
The ghost stories of M.R. James. They are so Victorian and dry. They make me swoon and shiver.
The Continental Op stories.
MYTHOLOGIES (Roland Barthes)
As for books that contain actual, you know, philosophy, I recently read, after many years of procrastination, Guy DuBord's SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE. He was one of the hoo-has behind the French "revolution" in the 60's. (The book can be found online, by the way.) I found that it was full of French obfuscation, high horse blow hardness, and insight in pretty much equal measure.
I have taken one of his sentences as a personal motto: "The true is a moment of the false." Whether that's insight, obfuscation, or high horse blow hardness, I will leave you, gentle reader, to judge.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006 -- 5:00 PMI doubt this compares to Jimmy Durante or The Velv
I doubt this compares to Jimmy Durante or The Velvet Crooner, but occasionally I get asked what I would recommend to those with some philosophical background who wish to read more philosophy. Here are a few suggestions.
John Stuart Mill, "On Liberty." http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/jsmill-lib.html
George Orwell, 1984. http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/1984/
These are among the most relevant works in philosophy and literature for our political crisis. What are the bounds to government authority? Is truth subject to government dictate? Is there a sphere of activity that is off limits to government control? Is there a solution to the problem of tyranny? What are the rules a liberal democracy should follow? Is the future really a boot stomping on a human face forever? Do we have choices? I guarantee this will leave you feeling even more concerned about current events than you already are....
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, tr. W. D. Ross. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html
Epictetus, Discourses and Enchiridion, tr. W.A. Oldfather. http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/discourses.html; http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html -- other translators.
Aristotle and Epictetus are fascinating exemplars of philosophy. By defining what's up to us and what's not up to us in radically different ways, these two powerhouses spin conceptions of philosophy and the good life that are in some respects identical, in others diametrically opposed. Can a philosopher also be a politician? Aristotle says yes, with some compromises, Epictetus says no. Does luck affect happiness? Again, Aristotle yes, Epictetus no. What role does philosophy play for happiness? You'll have to read them to find out -- and I guarantee that your personal relationship with philosophy will emerge transformed.....
Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy. http://www.ditext.com/russell/russell.html
This modern classic, composed while Russell was spending hours every day writing out the derivations for Principia Mathematica, distills into a few chapters some of the major epistemological, ontological, and linguistic problems that have occupied philosophers for centuries. You may not agree with Russell's suggestions, but if you want an eminent introduction to some of the problems (and proposed solutions) that have inspired philosophers recently, look no further. Some trivia: Bertrand Russell was John Stuart Mill's Godson ... and the reading list for San Francisco State University Philosophy Dept.'s graduate exam was lifted directly from this book's bibliography, FYI....
Bertrand Russell, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy.
Friedrich Waismann, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking: The Formation of Concepts in Modern Mathematics.
Okay, if you want a state-of-the-art, philosophically-friendly introduction to metamathematics, read the latest edition of Boolos and Jeffrey's Computability and Logic. But if you want a thoughtful yet opinionated examination of the implications mathematics has for philosophy, by one of history's greatest mathematicians, logicians and philosophers, at the height of his powers -- this is the schtuff, as they say.
Russell explains his perspective on the revolution in philosophy, logic and mathematics ushered in by German mathematician/philosopher Gottlob Frege in the last half of the 19th century. And he does this very well, given that he wrote this book while imprisoned during World War I for being a pacifist! Who says philosophers aren't activists? Russell himself was the great synthesizer who not only pointed out problems with Frege (such as the so-called "Russell's paradox") but united Frege's approach with the work of other pioneering mathematicians such as Guiseppe Peano. This was a tremendous creative achievement, indicative not only of premiere philosophical acumen, but also the creativity of a first-rate artist. Like Frege, Russell advocates logicism, the view that all mathematics can be derived from axioms that are not themselves mathematical but rather logical, meaning all of mathematics can be reduced, as it were, to logic. Regardless of your reaction to logicism, which many consider doomed by the work of Kurt Godel, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy is a worthy read, even though it was written before Godel's results. (Come to think of it, what was Russell's reaction to Godel? Somebody recommend a book on that!) When I recently surveyed some friends who do academic work in the sciences, this was a philosophy book everyone seemed to have read.
Less well known is Waismann's book, but I choose it for three reasons. First, Waismann nicely complements Russell and was writing after Godel's results, so that he provides an epilogue to Russell. Second, Waismann was at one time or other a colleague of Wittgenstein, Schlick, Godel, Carnap, and other members of the Vienna Circle, and claims to have been influenced by Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics. This in itself makes for good reading, IMHO. Third, he asks the very interesting (though potentially misleading) question, are mathematical.truths discovered or invented? And he opts for the latter, after considering a variety of topics from 'natural number' to 'ultrareal' and 'hypercomplex number'. This should interest any Wittgensteinian number theorists lurking about, though personally I'm suspicious of any alleged dichotomy between invention and discovery in mathematics....
Both books are published by Dover, so they're cheap! But they are not for the fainthearted: if functions, numbers, relations and sets make you poop your pants, steer clear!
(Okay, so my list is nowhere near as sexy as Borges or Debord, but at least we agree on Orwell....)
Of course there are so many more books to read ... this is just a sample I thought people here might find interesting....
Tuesday, May 16, 2006 -- 5:00 PMI just finished "Everything is Illuminated", and t
I just finished "Everything is Illuminated", and the philosophic quality and depth of the book gave me more than enough reason to forgive the author for naming the main character after himself. Hope you enjoy, as I did, and continue to think about it even now...
Thursday, May 18, 2006 -- 5:00 PMCan anyone offer any solace as to the closings of
Can anyone offer any solace as to the closings of these outstanding and favorite bookstores? I hadn't heard yet about Acorn books. Distressing to see these gems disappear. I can't help but wonder how one will come across the accidental, possibly life changing great read while perusing those bookshelves? I still miss card catalogues in libraries, perhap I'm anachronistic.
Thursday, May 18, 2006 -- 5:00 PMI have been reading (but have not yet finished) Jo
I have been reading (but have not yet finished) Jonathan Haidt's book, The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic Books). It is really, really interesting--well-written, thougthful, and philosophically insightful. Jonathan is an Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Virginia. Many years ago (too many to admit), he took an introductory ethics course from me at Yale University. He was a wonderful student!
Friday, May 19, 2006 -- 5:00 PMI'd also recommend a work by Soren Kierkegaard; Ei
I'd also recommend a work by Soren Kierkegaard; Either/Or is a hefty read, but is extremely rewarding. Fear and Trembling, The Present Age, and Works of Love are also fine reads. Cheers!
Wednesday, May 24, 2006 -- 5:00 PMI always love hearing and talking about books, but
I always love hearing and talking about books, but being a former independent bookseller, I was disapointed that the links to all the books listed go to Amazon.com. Your guest was from Powell's. Couldn't you have linked to their site or at least BookSense.com? It just seems a bit crass to have a guest from one of the truly fine independent bookstores that still survive and then link to one of the big mass marketers. Is this perhaps an ethical question or just one of good manners?
Thursday, May 25, 2006 -- 5:00 PM"I have taken one of his sentences as a personal m
"I have taken one of his sentences as a personal motto: "The true is a moment of the false." Whether that's insight, obfuscation, or high horse blow hardness, I will leave you, gentle reader, to judge."
Isn't that just Hegel? Sounds like Hegel. Of course that doesn't answer our question....
Friday, May 26, 2006 -- 5:00 PMDebord, Society of the Spectacle: "In a wo
Debord, Society of the Spectacle: "In a world that is upside down, the true is a moment of the false."
Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (?): "In a world that is upside down, the false is a moment of the true."
If I recall correctly, Hegel was talking about philosophy as the upside-down world, while Debord was talking about the spectacle, which permeates all activity, including philosophy itself.
Wednesday, May 31, 2006 -- 5:00 PMOne of my favorite philosophical books that also t
One of my favorite philosophical books that also tells a pretty intriguing human drama (thus making it decent summer reading) is Wittgenstein's Poker, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. It follows the lives of two of the 20th century's greatest thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, from their origins in Vienna to their legendary confrontation at Cambridge University.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006 -- 5:00 PMMy spring read, which could be a summer read too,
My spring read, which could be a summer read too, was A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman. Great rolicking ride through (mostly) France during the great plague outbreaks, the schism in the Catholic Church, the downfall of chivalry... not strictly philosophical but plenty of historical info on religion and other spiritual matters. Right now I'm not quite halfway through The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Another fun read full of first person recountings of, you guessed it, various religious experiences! Ah, summer!