Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan Rée

This is a big book on a big subject. It’s 600 pages about the history of philosophy, mainly dealing with philosophy as it was practiced in English. But as the author says:

Philosophy in English is as multi-lingual as philosophy in any other language. It has always been fascinated — repelled as well as attracted — by foreign philosophy, and philosophical terms such as idea, logic, nature, politics, virtue, science and spirit, which now pass as linguistic natives, used to be seen as exotic outsiders [8].

The book’s eight chapters roughly concern the philosophical landscape in 50-year increments.There are chapters devoted to 1601, 1651, 1701, 1751 and finally 1951. But Rée never limits himself to those years. They’re merely labels for different eras. So the principal figure in the last chapter is Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose major works were published in 1913 and 1953 (and composed in German).

Witcraft was written for the general reader, although I don’t think it’s superficial. And it’s not the kind of treatment that the poet Stephen Spender complained about:

In the first lesson we were taught that J. S. Mill’s Utilitarianism meant the greatest happiness of the greatest number . . . in the next tutorial we were taught that Mill was wrong . . . The next philosopher was Locke. We were told what he thought and then why he was wrong. Next please. Hume. Hume was wrong also. Then Kant. Kant was wrong, but he was so difficult that no one could be sure of  catching him out [4].

The author hopes that his stories will bring out “the ordinariness of philosophy, as well as its magnificence and its power to change people’s lives”. He sees it as “a carnival rather than a museum: an unruly parade of free spirits, inviting you to join in and make something new” [9].

In that regard, I especially recommend the chapters that revolve around Adam Smith and David Hume (1751), John Stuart Mill and Mary Ann Evans, better known as the novelist George Eliot (1851), the pragmatic philosopher and psychologist William James (1901) and the intense and enigmatic Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein (1951). They are all thinkers worth knowing about.

By the way, Wikipedia says that Jonathan Rée is “a British freelance historian and philosopher”. Educated at Oxford, he was “previously a Professor of Philosophy at Middlesex University, but gave up a teaching career in order to have more time to think“.

City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis

I lived in and around Los Angeles for more than 30 years. After moving “back East”, I’ve seen occasional references to this book. People say you should read it if you really want to understand Los Angeles and Southern California. Here’s what Library Journal said:

Eschewing the character study that comprises most Los Angeles history, Davis concentrates on the ongoing and ignored ethnic and class struggles, formerly manifested by booster (pro-growth) exploitation, now replaced by exclusionary (no-growth) neighborhood incorporation, and by police control of Afro-American and Latino neighborhoods. His analysis of recent Los Angeles history is often chilling and–sad to say–more true than false.

I’d say the book’s general topic is power. We learn about real estate developers, the owners of The Los Angeles Times, the repressive Los Angeles Police Department, suburban homeowner associations, overseas investors and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. We also learn about the ways neighborhoods were kept all-white and the economics of the drug trade. Hollywood doesn’t get a chapter; the blue-collar town of Fontana, with the worst smog in the region, does.

The two most remarkable aspects of the book are the tremendous level of detail on certain topics (probably more than you want to know) and the pessimistic tone. City of Quartz was first published in 1990. When you read passages like the following, it’s hard to believe the city and the rest of the metropolitan area (now home to more than 13 million people) function at all thirty years later:

In Los Angeles, there are too many signs of approaching helter-skelter: everywhere in the inner city, even in the forgotten poor-white boondocks with their zombie populations of speed freaks, gangs are multiplying at a terrifying rate, cops are becoming more arrogant and trigger-happy, and a whole generation is being shunted toward some impossible Armageddon [288].

But I guess things weren’t all bad in 1990:

Setting aside an apocalyptic awakening of the neighboring San Andreas Fault, it is all too easy to envision Los Angeles reproducing itself endlessly across the desert with the assistance of pilfered water, cheap immigrant labor, Asian capital and desperate homeowners willing to trade lifetimes on the freeway in exchange for $500,000 “dream homes” in the middle of Death Valley [10].

That’s what passes for optimism in City of Quartz.

Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology — edited by Michael Krausz

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says relativism “has been, in its various guises, both one of the most popular and most reviled philosophical doctrines of our time”. I’d say of all time, at least since the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras said “man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not”. Plato strongly disagreed.

The encyclopedia offers this by way of introduction:

Relativism, roughly put, is the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning, and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that their authority is confined to the context giving rise to them. More precisely, “relativism” covers views which maintain that—at a high level of abstraction—at least some class of things have the properties they have (e.g., beautiful, morally good, … justified) not simpliciter [or simply, in themselves], but only relative to a given framework of assessment (e.g., local cultural norms, individual standards), and correspondingly, that the truth of claims attributing these properties holds only once the relevant framework of assessment is specified or supplied. Relativists characteristically insist, furthermore, that if something is only relatively so, then there can be no framework-independent vantage point from which the matter of whether the thing in question is so can be established.

So we might ask whether helium atoms have two protons. Physicists and chemists would say yes, absolutely. A simple-minded relativist might say it depends on our way of thinking or our conception of the world.

Or we might ask if human sacrifice is and has always been morally wrong. Many of us would say yes, absolutely. A relativist, not being simple-minded at all, might say it depends on what culture we’re talking about. It wasn’t morally wrong for the Aztecs 500 years ago. They thought it was necessary to stop the world from ending. It should go without saying that we’re totally against it now.

Trying to understand relativism better, I read this 500-page collection of articles on the subject. More than thirty philosophy professors and a few scholars from other disciplines weigh in. The articles were mostly interesting and not too technical. However, the only conclusions I reached are that there are many kinds of relativism, some more plausible than others, and that I need to take some time and think about which kinds, if any, are plausible to me.

Truth, Politics, Morality: Pragmatism and Deliberation by Cheryl Misak

Cheryl Misak is an expert on America’s pragmatist philosophers (Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, et al.) and a practicing pragmatist herself. This book grew out of her doctoral thesis. It argues that the philosophical position known as pragmatism best explains how the idea of truth applies to ethical judgments. This is a “cognitivist” position in ethics, as opposed to the “non-cognitivist” view that ethical statements merely express feelings or preferences and should never be considered true or false (non-cognitivists think that saying something like “Generosity is more ethical than greed” is like saying “I prefer generosity to greed and I want you to feel the same way”).

On the face of it, it isn’t obvious that ethical statements can be true or false. Most of us think of truth as correspondence to reality (this is the “correspondence theory”). “The cat is on the mat” is true if and only the cat really is on the mat. But there doesn’t seem to be anything real for ethical statements to correspond to. How can they be true (or false)?

However, there is more to truth than correspondence. After all, what do true statements of arithmetic correspond to? And how about logical statements like “it is not the case that P and not P”? Pragmatists like Professor Misak don’t accept correspondence as the basis for truth. Instead, they view truth in terms of successful inquiry:

It is not that a true belief is one which will fit the evidence and which will measure up to the standards of inquiry as we now now know them. Rather, a true belief is one which would fit with the evidence and which would measure up to the standards of inquiry were inquiry to be pursued so far that no recalcitrant experience and no revisions in the standards of inquiry would be called for. Only then will pragmatism preserve the kind of objectivity that might suffice to attract those philosophers and inquirers who insist that truth is more than what we happen to think correct [68].

The basic idea here is that people (which people depends on the case) can try to figure out if a statement is true, whatever kind of statement it is, using appropriate methods (direct experience, scientific research, philosophical discussion, etc.) and if it looks like they wouldn’t be able to proceed any further in their inquiry, without it being a complete waste of time, the statement is true.

It’s easy to see how this approach can be applied to simple factual statements like “the cat is on the mat”, but also to statements of mathematics and logic, as well as judgments of value, such as deciding which is the most practical course of action in a given case, the ethical thing to do or the best economic policy to adopt. What isn’t easy is to know when all reasonable avenues of inquiry have been exhausted, so that no further inquiry would make a difference.

Misak discusses many issues that her position raises, and many possible objections. I found her explanations and arguments to be quite convincing. I think her hopes for the book are fulfilled:

What I hope to have shown is that there are some good reasons for thinking that we can make assertions or have genuine beliefs about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, cruel and kind; that we can inquire about the correctness of those beliefs; that our moral deliberations aim at the truth. And I hope to have shown that if we are to make sense of this, we must conduct ourselves via democratic principles — ones which encourage tolerance, openness and understanding the experiences of others [155].

If we want to answer questions in the most effective way, and have good  reasons for our answers, we need to look at issues from different perspectives. That is how the pragmatists believe we should search for truth.

I want to mention one other thing. It’s common to think that the best way to find out what is true is to confront reality head on. Is the cat truly on the mat? Look at it. Make sure other people see it. Verify that it’s a cat — not a mouse — and that underneath it is a mat. Does the cat purr? Will it run away if you bother it?

Reading this book, I wondered what kind of reality can be confronted when deciding if a statement of ethics is true. It’s harder to say what the reality would be to make true a statement like “generosity is generally more ethical than greed”. Isn’t that a statement about how the world should be, how people should behave, and not how the world is (or how some mystical, supernatural realm of ethics is)? Misak’s answer is that if we try to figure out whether an ethical statement is true, we eventually get to a point where we can’t think otherwise. We end up being confronted with the brute reality of what our ethical beliefs are in the given situation. We will eventually say to ourselves “that’s simply right, it’s as simple as that” or “that’s just wrong, and there are no two ways about it”. I don’t recall hearing anyone give that answer before. It’s worth thinking about.

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director and 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie. That was reason enough to read this detailed account of its creation. The book was interesting enough to keep reading, but it wasn’t really worthwhile. I already knew Kubrick was creative and intense. There were some interesting facts about ways the movie might have been different and why certain choices were made. The main thing I learned was how important Kubrick’s many collaborators were (it’s apparently true that it’s a “collaborative medium”). But there was also too much about Arthur C. Clarke, his personal life and the process of writing the novel that went with the movie. I also found the technical descriptions of various parts of the production hard to follow. What the book mainly did was make me want to watch 2001 again. Maybe I’ll see it somewhat differently now that I know more about the effort that went into making it. It might be dangerous if I see it too differently.