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Philosophy and Social Hope

Philosophy and Social HopePhilosophy and Social Hope by Richard M. Rorty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some essays deserve five stars, for their engaging and witty explorations of pragmatism.

A few essays deserve one star. In particular I disliked "On Heidegger's Nazism." I have a negative view of Heidegger to begin with, but was open to being persuaded by Rorty. Not only did his argument not persuade me to change my mind about H, it confirmed my pre-existing opinion and made me think less of Rorty.

Reading Rorty I feel disabused of errors, but also left with very little. His social hope is that we will engage in incremental problem-solving and institution-building. On the one hand, this is what I spend much of my time doing as a minister, teacher, activist, and author. Rorty believes it is the only tool we have approaching a more egalitarian society. And it is fragile. But in these days of trouble (which he presciently predicted in the essay "Looking Backwards from the Year 2096") I wonder if this is enough. If Rorty is correct that social hope as he describes it is our only tool, then we are probably in for a lot of trouble.

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Pensees

Blaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters and Minor Works: Part 48 Harvard ClassicsBlaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters and Minor Works: Part 48 Harvard Classics by Blaise Pascal
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I had looked forward to the Pensees, though as I began to read it I was struck by how awful it is and my recurring thought was, "Why is this in the canon?"

Of course the answer is Pascal's wager, so I eventually quickly skimmed/skipped ahead to that portion and read it. But even it is only okay. I then skimmed/skipped through the rest of the book.

Pascal is a bad thinker, overwhelmed with a religious fundamentalism and what seems either an inability or a refusal to see the wide variety of possibilities.

He is also overwhelming pessimistic, such as this line, "Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness." I was surprised that he isn't more popular with the nihilists. There's this:

"When I see the blindness and the wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe, and man without light, left to himself, and as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island, and should awake without knowing where he is, and without means of escape. And thereupon I wonder how people in a condition so wretched do not fall into despair."

Egads.

I was surprised that this paragraph isn't famous:

"What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe! Who will unravel this tangle?"

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Truth in Science

A thorough survey of the dispute in philosophy of science on whether or not truth is the goal of science. This author ultimately argues that it is and characterizes truth as follows:

Scientific truths are the resilient and robust outcome of a plurality of scientific perspectives that, over time, have meshed with one another in their (tacit, implicit and often survival-adaptive) normative commitment to reliably produce scientific knowledge for us as humankind.

Then she makes one further point of note:

That is why, far from being an insufferable hindrance to scientific pluralism, truth is in fact its best safeguard in tolerant, open and democratic societies that are genuinely committed to the advancement of scientific knowledge in the very many faces it comes with.


The Search for Truth

An incomplete manuscript of Rene Descartes' entitled The Search for Truth is a dialogue that makes standard Cartesian arguments for the method of doubt in pursuit of certainty, the cogito as the foundation for knowledge, and the argument that we are thinking things and not our bodies. The book is motivated by the idea that all "the items of knowledge that lie within reach of the human mind are all linked together by a bond so marvellous, and can be derived from each other by means of inferences so necessary, that their discovery does not require much skill or intelligence."

I enjoyed reading this unfinished work.  It includes some humor not as evident in Descartes' other writings on the same topics.  And there are responses to some of the arguments against his views that appeared after earlier works.  It could have made for a great text to use in intro classes if it were finished.


How the World Thinks

How the World Thinks: A Global History of PhilosophyHow the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy by Julian Baggini
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever since I began teaching philosophy in the 1990's I've tried to expand the canon and to include non-Western elements in my teaching. These movements have gained momentum more broadly in the academy in recent years, and so I've been trying to expand my understanding so I can be a better philosopher and a better teacher. I hadn't yet seen a good introductory text one might use for global philosophy.

And this book still isn't that, but it quite good. This is not a book one could assign in an intro class, because it requires some familiarity with philosophical traditions, but it is a fascinating exploration in comparative philosophy.

Baggini writes that the different philosophical traditions are different, with different emphases, ideas, and values. And that you can't just pick and choose from those traditions, you need to understand how the ideas hang together and have developed through history.

But he does believe that the various traditions can learn from each other and can see how one might think differently if different ideas are emphasized. Plus, he thinks this is the way the world is going anyway, with globalization bringing the various cultures into closer communication, such that in the future global philosophy will be a cross-cultural conversation with roots in the various traditions.

One feature of the book that was enjoyable was the way he discussed contemporary events--such as the election of Donald Trump or the policies of Xi Jinping--through the lens of their culture's philosophical traditions.

My only negative feedback is that some of the chapters and sections could have been edited and structured differently. And a few others could have been expanded.

But overall I found this a very helpful guide in understanding how our current world thinks and what it's primary values are.

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Leviathan

LeviathanLeviathan by Thomas Hobbes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The first two parts, wherein the essence of the political argument is made, were entertaining enough. Interesting to read for better historical perspective. Interesting to read to see the flaws in the argument--such as the false dichotomy between an all-powerful sovereign or a state of civil war and his oversimplified and incorrect understanding of human psychology and evolutionary development.

Parts three and four are a chore, even if you skim through them. I didn't expect the lengthy theological arguments. At points the issues are relevant to the political issues confronting him--he is writing after a religiously-motivated civil war--but often there are vast numbers of pages on various doctrinal issues that seem unrelated to the main thrust of the book (and also wrong with the hindsight of the history of theology and biblical interpretation).

But worthy to read these historical text if nothing else to help remove the blinders that keep us trapped into our current moment, thinking we live at this exceptional time and that our troubles are so, so bad.

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"We are all wounded"

Light in the Dark
"We are all wounded, but we can connect through the wound that's alienated us from others," so writes Gloria Anzaldua in her book Light in the Dark.  

I don't remember where I saw this book discussed in order for it to make it onto my to-read list, but so far I'm intrigued by some of the ideas.

The above resonated with the reading I did earlier this year on trauma and resilience, those particularly in relation to theology and biblical studies.  Shelly Rambo's Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma discusses the significance of wounds and the ways we can relate to one another through them.

Anzaldua discusses this wounding and healing under the concept of the "Coyolxauhqui imperative" which draws upon an Aztec myth of the dismembering and restoration of the moon goddess.  "The Coyolxauhqui imperative is the act of calling back those pieces of the self/soul that have been dispersed or lost, the act of mourning the losses that haunt us."

She continues,

The Coyolxauhqui imperative is to heal and achieve integration.  When fragmentations occur, you fall apart and feel as though you've been expelled from paradise.  Coyolxauhqui is my symbol for the necessary process of dismemberment and fragmentation, of seeing that self or the situations you're embroiled in differently.  Coyolxauhqui is also my symbol for reconstruction and reframing, one that allows for putting the pieces together in a new way.  The Coyolxauhqui imperative is an ongoing process of making and unmaking.  There is never any resolution, just the process of healing.

That last sentence rings true and quite important for us to grasp.

For Anzaldua, this in-between space after wounding is the site of imagination and the possibility of transformation.  She writes, "We can transform our world by imagining it differently."  

For one reason, in this in-between space, which she calls nepantla from a Nahuatl word, we get in touch with our shadow sides.  "Our collective shadow--made up of the destructive aspects, psychic wounds, and splits in our own culture--is aroused, and we are forced to confront it.  In trying to make sense of what's happening, some of us come into deep awareness (conocimiento) of political and spiritual situations and the unconscious mechanisms that abet hate, intolerance, and discord."

Conocimiento is a "searching, inquiring, and healing" that lead to spiritual activism.  And the people who guide us through neplanta--those who assist transformation and the creation of the new world--are artists and activists whom she calls "neplanteras."

I find this concepts quite intriguing.  At the same time I was reading this, I finished Maryse Conde's Tree of Life and began Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Talents.  Both novels has aspects that fit Anzaldua's worldview, of guiding across liminal spaces by those in touch with their wounds.


Wickedness

Wickedness (Routledge Classics)Wickedness by Mary Midgley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have not read Midgley before, but will definitely read more of her work. I appreciate the way she writes, including her wit, but mostly for the clear way it reveals a good, analytical mind at work.

This particular book has many keen and useful insights on human motivations and the way we get ourselves into trouble.

I did think the final chapters failed to drawn to any sort of grand conclusion, but her basic thesis--that we can explain (and therefore address) human wickedness by studying natural human motives--is one I agree with.

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Eluding Responsibility

I was drawn to some of philosopher Mary Midgley's comments on how we neglect our responsibilities in her book Wickedness.

The general recipe for inexcusable acts is neither madness nor a bizarre morality, but a steady refusal to attend both to the consequences of one's actions and to the principles involved.

And this

It seems clear that a great many of the worst acts actually done in the world are committed in the same sort of way in which the battlefields of the First World War were produced--by people who have simply failed to criticize the paths of action lying immediately before them.  Exploiters and oppressors, war-makers, executioners and destroyers of forests do not usually wear distinctive black hats, nor horns and hooves.  The positive motives which move them may not be bad at all; they are often quite decent ones like prudence, loyalty, self-fulfillment and professional conscientiousness.  The appalling element lies in the lack of the other motives which ought to balance these--in particular, of a proper regard for other people and of a proper priority system which would enforce it.  That kind of lack cannot be treated as a mere matter of chance.

Reading that chapter of the book left me musing on Trump as an example of what she was writing about.  Then that was clearer in a later chapter on "Selves and Shadows."

Influential psychopaths and related types, in fact, get their power not from originality, but from a perception of just what unacknowledged motives lie waiting to be exploited, and just what aspects of the world currently provide a suitable patch of darkness on to which they can be projected.

And this

To gain great political power, you must either be a genuinely creative genius, able to communicate new ideas very widely, or you must manage to give a great multitude permission for things which it already wants, but for which nobody else is currently prepared to give that permission.