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Knowing What To Do

Knowing What to Do: Imagination, Virtue, and Platonism in EthicsKnowing What to Do: Imagination, Virtue, and Platonism in Ethics by Timothy Chappell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, I must correct a Goodreads error, for they have this book's author listed under her former and incorrect name. The author is Sophie Grace Chappell.

I heard Chappell lecture at Creighton University here in Omaha a few years ago and put this book on my "list" to read because I was impressed by her creative thinking.

I had wondered if this is a book I might use as a text in teaching Ethics. I think not, as it is more technical in places than my sophomores would enjoy, but the book will definitely shape how I approach teaching ethics.

Chappell criticizes all the dominate ethical theories for getting ethics wrong, primarily by trying to be THE way of living the good life. She rather thinks that the major theories give good, but not final and conclusive advice, some working better in certain situations than others.

What she instead advocates is a cultivation of the moral imagination which is accomplished through contemplation. In this view she draws upon Plato and Iris Murdoch.

Chappell has a rich undertanding of philosophical history and contemporary debates, including drawing on important aspects of other philosophical fields such as philosophy of mind.

A number of the chapters are necessary but technical contributions to recent arguments in analytical philosophy. I hope she will in the future write a book that more fully develops her positive ideas from the latter half of the book.

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A Thousand Small Sanities

A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of LiberalismA Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism by Adam Gopnik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gopnik offers a robust defense of the liberal worldview as the great human moral adventure. He writes, "Whenever we look at how the big problems got solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities. A thousand small sanities are usually wiser than one big idea."

Liberalism he defines as "an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate." He admits this is an unwiedly description, but that's how liberalism works. It cannot be easily contained within slogans and catchphrases.

Liberalism emerges out of humanism, and Gopnik argues that humanism continues to come before liberalism. The movement begins with Montaigne's critical self-examination and willing to try out new ideas. It develops through modern efforts to eliminate cruelty.

What Gopnik does is not present simply the ideas of major thinkers, but he describes the lives of various figures, with John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill as his paradigm examples. For he believes that liberalism is a way of life more than a set of ideas and that we learn about it by learning about the lives shaped by it.

I found the ideas he advances to be Mill as filtered through Karl Popper and updated by Richard Rorty. This despite Popper rarely appearing explicitly in the book (though his defenses of the open society and scientific thinking do) and Rorty is only mentioned once in the bibliography (though his spirit and themes are throughout the book).

Gopnik refines his presentation of liberalism by contrasting it with both the Right and the Left. In each case, he looks for the best examples of each (Charles DeGaulle and Emma Goldman) instead of arguing against straw persons. And he shows how liberalism has learned from both movements and also contributed to them.

I very much appreciated the chapter contrasting liberalism with the Left, as it helps to clarify tensions I have felt professionally and personally in recent years as different approaches to Trumpism and other issues have emerged. In this chapter he tackles many current topics including free speech, religious tolerance, pronouns, etc.

Note: Gopnik argues that Liberalism is NOT centrism, which is its own movement. A chapter contrasting the two would have been helpful. It is interesting to note that David Brooks's column from last week mentioned this book and is why I ordered and read it.

Overall, I recommend it. Now, what I'd like is for Amy Kittelstrom to moderate a discussion over liberalism with Gopnik and Marilynne Robinson (her recent article in the NY Review of Books sets up an alternative view of liberalism's origins) and then for the responder to be Wendell Berry.

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Masters of Empire

Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of AmericaMasters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America by Michael A. McDonnell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend from Minnesota loaned me this book a couple of years ago, and I've been working my way through it slowly, finally finishing last night, after another vacation in the Great Lakes region.

This is history as told from the perspective of the Odawa. The author demonstrates the central role that the nation played in colonial and earlier American history, as they played the French, British, Americans, and other nations off of one another. And did so with greater lasting success than some of the other indigenous nations.

Among his claims is that the Seven Year's War, the first world war that embroiled all the empires of Europe, was begun by the Odawa.

I've long wished that North American history, particularly the maps, show our early history as a contest among nations, instead of looking like white Americans occupying empty space to their West. This book helps to flesh out the details of one part of that history.

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The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity

The Lies That Bind: Rethinking IdentityThe Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good and helpful summary of the way identities work, and thereby a useful contribution to many current social debates. In particular his discussion on class is very good.

And here is an important excerpt from the conclusion:

"There is a liberal fantasy in which identities are merely chosen, so we are all free to be what we choose to be. But identities without demands would be useless to us. Identities work only because, once they get their grip on us, they command us, speaking to us as an inner voice; and because others, seeing who they think we are, call on us, too. If you do not care for the shapes your identities have taken, you cannot simply refuse them; they are not yours alone. You have to work with others inside and outside the labeled group in order to reframe them so they fit you better; and you can do that collective work only if you recognize that the results must serve others as well."

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Jesus and the Disinherited

Jesus and the DisinheritedJesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was one of those books I knew I needed to get around to at some point, but I'm now upset that I didn't read it twenty years ago. I feel let down; that no one explained to me that this was one of the essential books. And not just essential theologically. Essential for anyone to read.

Essential for its sophisticated understanding of how marginalized people respond to their situations. Essential for the way it clearly influenced King and others. Essential for helping to understand America.

There are so many other books I've read which are clearly derivative of this one. I had been missing the essential, core text.

But no more. Now it will become an essential part of my personal canon, to be used often.

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Berry Criticism

This review of Berry's essays in the New York Times seems woefully unfair to me.  The author is correct that Berry has often written on the same topics, which is a reason one doesn't really need every essay he's ever published.  But the author fails to highlight some of the key themes that are so important, such as affection or what it takes to really build community.

Yes, Berry can sound like a crank at times, but I have found his an essential voice.  I read both his essays and poetry, admiring the latter deeply while often feeling challenged by the former.

And, yes, he is "conservative" on many issues while being "progressive" on many others, meaning he doesn't fit well into our current political divides.  I think he likes it that way.  I believe this is part of his essential function, however.  He is the rare voice trusted by folks across the spectrum who can speak words of challenge to them on some of their sacred cows.


This Blessed Earth

This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family FarmThis Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I moved to Nebraska in 2010 all new UCC and DOC ministers gathered at Camp Kaleo in the center of the state in the Sandhills near Burwell for an orientation to ministry in Nebraska. One of our speakers was a western Nebraska rancher. He talked about rural-urban divides and how urban folk don't understand ag issues. I pointed out that many urban people were deeply concerned about agriculture as evidenced by the growing interest in eating locally and organically; I almost mentioned my long fondness for Wendell Berry. The rancher was very dismissive of what I said. Later, I was talking to my Conference Minister and asked him about it. His answer, "For a family to have survived farming in Nebraska, they have bought up the land of their neighbors and they now run such big industrial farms that the ideas of organic farming challenge how they've been living for a couple of generations." It was a good learning moment for me.

Genoways book is a story of one year in the life of one Nebraska farm family, a liberal family at that, but ones who still farm with contemporary industrial practices. The book helps you to understand why and the history of getting there. I deeply appreciated it for conveying how difficult and complex farming is today and the breadth of skills and knowledge required to be successful--from mechanical and IT know-how to grasping global trade, chemistry, bio-engineering, energy policies, climate science, and more. SO different from the life my grandparents led and their farm I have such nostalgia for. The book left me dizzy and wondering why anyone does it anymore.

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Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures

Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian ScripturesTime and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures by Ephraim Radner
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I am interested in approaches to scriptural interpretation that resist the hegemony of historical-critical method, so I was interested in this defense of figural reading. Except even I, who did a PhD in metaphysics, did not anticipate the overly dense metaphysical sections. Plus, there was much in these sections I did not concur with. I ultimately skimmed through huge portions of the book, and appreciated much more the final chapters with more practical application for the preacher.

Radner argues that the task of preaching is to lead the listeners into the text rather than establishing THE meaning. He writes, "Our figural goal is to lead and go with our people into a realm of meanings and trace out its parameters and interiors. It should be a realm in which, of course, we do not leave our listeners as disoriented wanderers, but as creatures taken by the scriptural forms themselves, so as to lead them further, or into a clearing, or back out again, in some posture of transformed wonder." I particularly like that "transformed wonder" idea.

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Descartes: A Biography

Descartes: A BiographyDescartes: A Biography by Desmond M. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very thorough biography that did help me better understand Descartes, which will hopefully bear fruit in my teaching. The downside of this book is that it spends a great deal of time in minute details of Descartes' movements and correspondence where a less detailed but more thematic (and shorter) overview would have been sufficient for my needs. But some thorough bio like this does need to exist.

The most surprising discovery for me was the speculation on Descartes' sexual orientation. The gay community can grasp onto the slightest rumors to consider whether some prominent historical person was gay or bi, but I had never heard Descartes mentioned. But Clarke's speculation, always very sober, was persuasively of at least the possibility.

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