Some overall reflections: My 2018 new year's resolution was to try and let philosophy shape my personal behaviour more. As such, my reading was somewhat skewed towards the ethical and aesthetic, as I tried to develop a decent sensibility. I do not think it is appropriate for me to be the judge of whether this was successful. But I feel I can say something about the sensibility that ought to have developed from this. The review of Eichmann in Jerusalem ends with my attempt to summarise what I think I learned from all this.
Judging by my reading habits it seems I am interested in 5 broad fields - philosophy of science and logic, East Asian philosophy and literature, classical Greek and Roman philosophy, African(a) history and philosophy, and early modern European philosophy. I do not think that I realised of myself that I had an interest in the classics, but on reflection I do not think this year is unusual in this regard. Keeping track of my reading habits taught me something about myself.
I vowed to read at least one book a week this year. I managed that, but will not repeat the exercise. I found that it influenced my choice of book, and this was a very arbitrary basis upon which to choose. Next year I am going to try and achieve gender balance in the books I read, which I am quite far off from this year - even by the generous measure of counting something as authored by a woman if there is at least one essay by a woman contained therein, there is still only about 1/3 of these with women authors. There's plenty of books by women I have long intended to read and which I have in my possession, I suspect that arbitrary bias is getting in the way of my choice of what to actually read, so I will introduce a conscious counter-acting bias. May this public resolution keep me honest!
*1.Essays in Idleness - Kenkō (兼好): I almost forgot to include this, since I had read almost all of it before New Years Day, and only finished off the very end in the new year. In any case, interesting set of short reflections from a medieval Japanese Buddhist monk and poet. Very personal, at times moving, at other times silly, often just banal. I do not know why, but I am always amazed that people in the past had such rich inner lives so comparable to my own, a kind of temporal sonder.
2.One - Graham Priest: defence of the idea that in order to explain unity (the fact that some objects form coherent aggregate wholes, unified yet partite objects, or something of that sort) one must posit `gluons'. These are contradictory objects identical with each element of the whole, yet (due to a paraconsistent theory of identity) do not induce triviality. My gluon is identical to my left half and my right half, but does not thereby make my left half identical with my right half. As well as helping us answer some metaphysical problems, it is also argued that something like a theory of gluons is what Plato was gesturing towards - or had perhaps achieved - in the Parmenides. This is best seen as part of a Buddhist inspired metaphysics of general unity, which itself forms part of a justification for a kind of socialist ethic and politics. A... a lot happens here? Interesting book, and may be entirely worth it if only for introducing me to this beautiful image.
*3.The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction - Kurtis Hagan: defends a conventionalist interpretation of Xunzi's philosophical project, relating his constructivist philosophy of language and epistemology to his Confucian social and political project. I blogged about it here. I found it very convincing as a piece of exegesis, but I also am attracted to the worldview thus outlined.
4.The Sophistic Movement - G.B. Kerferd: attempts a sympathetic characterisation of the sophistic movement. For a slim book manages to make a lot of spicy claims: Socrates should be understood as part of the Sophistic movement, the `man is the measure of all things' doctrine should not be understood as concerning moral or evaluative matters, that the primary objection of the now more fondly remembered philosophers to the sophists was that they were willing to teach anyone who would pay - i.e. it was their more democratising elements which made them objectionable. Perhaps most interesting to me was the claim that there was broad agreement the phenomenal world presents itself as contradictory to us, and that the debate was what to do about that: Parmenides thinking we ought therefore conclude our senses were deceiving us and the world is nothing like how it seems, Plato thinking that while our senses were accurately conveying to us the nature of the phenomenal world there is another more really-real world which suffices to protect us from contradiction, Protagoras insisting that the phenomenal world was the only one there was, but thinking that with appropriate relativisation the contradiction would disappear. Not sure if this is an accurate portrayal of the debate, but it's at least interesting. Generally the sympathetic portrayal of the sophists amounted to claiming that they raised or advanced many of the questions which we now view to be central to philosophical inquiry, and even if one doesn't like their answers one should at least credit that hugely important step. Seems fair to me!
*5.Ontology Made Easy - Amie L. Thomasson: in which it is argued that most existence questions that have puzzled philosophers (are there tables? numbers? properties? colours? etc) are trivially easy to answer, and usually to be answered with `yes'. This because, Thomasson argues, there is a certain trivial argument schema which is valid and sound for delivering answers to such questions. One takes some commonplace observation; say, that the number 3 is greater than the number 2, and one notes that this implies that there is at least one number, or as appropriate depending on the commonplace you started with. (e.g. Arsenal's home kit is red, so Arsenal's home kit is coloured, so there are colours.) This delivers true answers to the ontological question, and avoids us engaging in anything `epistemically metaphysical' - by which Thomasson means some method of inquiry which is neither based in empirical investigation nor conceptual reasoning. I am torn between finding the arguments of the book basically convincing, and my strong aesthetic preference for believing in less rather than more stuff.
6.Meditations - Marcus Aurelius (translated and with notes by Martin Hammond, and introduction by Diskin Clay): philosophy as self help, by and for an ancient autocrat. Very moving window into one man's struggle to live a good life. Much of it consists in him admonishing himself for failing to be good, and trying to formulate maxims which, if he keeps them in mind, will help him do better next time. His central concerns seems to be that he can too often be impatient and angry with people, and fears death, and popular disapproval. To the first set of problems he often opposes the stoic doctrine that all rational beings are really by nature made to care for each other (due to my own ignorance I was surprised with how much of his thought seemed to prefigure Augustine's City of God), and the Socratic doctrine that people do not do evil except by ignorance, which ought be pitied and gently corrected rather than condemned. To the second set of problems he tries to remind himself of the various ways in which death is just another of the changes the universe undergoes. Strikingly, he often formulates dichotomies - either there are purposeful gods governing the Whole, in which case my death is a part of their plan, or it's all atoms and void, in which case no sense clinging to my fundamentally meaningless life. The same sort of Big Picture thinking is meant to help him overcome undue concern for reputation. The life Marcus Aurelius lived does not seem to me to have much to recommend it - I would not want to be the sort of person who could look on the death of my loved ones as Marcus Aurelius tries to get himself to do, here I am much closer to the Confucians in my sense of what the proper way for people is. But I can certainly admire this earnest struggle to live a life of principle, and I love how philosophy brings me together with people so different in time and culture and sensibility from myself.
7.How To Be A Stoic - Massimo Pigliucci: fairly natural follow up to the previous, gives a nice run through of key stoic ideas and how they might be applied in the modern era. It focuses especially on the work of Epictetus, and Pigliucci engages in a kind of friendly banter with him throughout as a way of guiding one through the ideas. Good introductory work that would definitely be suitable for non-philosophers, it made me want to read Epictetus, Seneca, Cicero (who, I get, wasn't really a stoic), and this book. Also apparent that there's quite a gender skew in my knowledge of stoics, so hopefully I will find some women stoic philosophers to read too. One of my vows this year was to allow myself to be more moved by that which I read, so I will make some attempt to put this into practice, and hopefully be able to report the results on this blog!
8.Art of War - Sun Tzu: (translation and introduction by Ralph D. Sawyer) I don't have much to say on the actual Art of War itself - it's an interesting text, certainly from the point of view of somebody interested in game theory and its antecedents. It's fascinating that this earliest (perhaps! this was debated in the introduction) of all strategic texts is so overwhelmingly focussed on trying to control the information and belief states of one's opponents, and controlling the moves available to them, more than the actual direct business of confrontation. (Though it should be noted that this does also feature.) I actually found Sawyer's introduction more noteworthy - for one thing it was just a clearly expounded introduction to the violence of the Spring and Autumn period, which I didn't know much about. But through this Sawyer was able to convincingly make the case that Sun's military doctrine is plausibly understood as a kind of blending of the lessons learned (perhaps by experience of command) from the actual warfare of this period, and the general theoretical principles of Daoist philosophy. The Daoist influence was pretty clear to me, so learning the military history was fascinating. Such a blend of empirical learning and theoretical philosophy is kinda my thing, after all, only applied to more peaceable matters! On this latter one thing that was quite shocking to my own delicate sensibilities was Sawyer's attitude to the Confucians - as is well known, the Confucians largely took the resort to violence to be disreputable, didn't think highly of skill at murder, and generally had the stance that if you have to coerce people into following your government that probably shows you don't deserve to govern. Sawyer is the first commentator I have seen on this to take this as a bad thing about the Confucians! He felt they under-appreciated the importance of, and skill displayed in, warfare. The world truly contains all sorts!
9.Exact Thinking in Demented Times - Karl Sigmund: (with preface by Douglas Hofstadter) a sad story of the rise and fall of the Vienna Circle, and their role in Austrian social and political life. Although I was familiar with the broad outlines of the story, I none the less found it very engrossing (I read it cover to cover in one day) I think I gained much of value from it. I would be very interested, as a social epistemologist, to understand what made Vienna such a hotbed of intellectual and cultural activity during the early 20th century; presumably the answer cannot be that there was something special in the water, and yet under both Hapsburg Imperial government and Red Vienna democratic socialism it managed to foster an incredible atmosphere, only fascism proving fatal to intellectual and cultural advance. That said, I wish there had been more on the question -- why did the Vienna Circle take their activities to be unified? They seemed to earnestly believe that their meta-philosophy, work on the foundations of physics, social work with the adult education movement, political resistance to fascism, and logico-mathematical work, were all of a piece. This they state explicitly, and Sigmund notices as much in the book. But I did not come away any the wiser as to why these connections seemed apparent to them, and that is one thing I was very much hoping for.
Hofstadter's claimed that the original German title of the manuscript was better translated as something like "Exact Thinking on the Brink" - I think I would have preferred that. “On the Brink” captures the sense of desperate struggle, where “Demented Times” has a kind of fatalistic air to it. Rather than teetering on a precipice with the potential to go either way, it suggests that there is a zeitgeist that speaks against the possibility of reason. With hindsight it may seem as such, but overall the book gives me the impression of a collective of people valiantly striving to keep the better hopes of modernity and Enlightenment alive amidst a growing darkness. They may have failed, but the effort is still inspiring in its own way.
10.The Fall of the Asante Empire - Robert B. Edgerton: interesting account of the century long hot and cold war between the British Empire and the Asante Empire in Ghana. It largely confirmed what I had already known, mind you, so while I am happy to have had the detail added it did not really change my view of the situation - perhaps only surprising with me is how near the Asante came to victory in the war of 1874, which I had thought had been a much more one sided affair.
Two things do stand out - first, the Asante largely pursued a policy of seeking peace with the British, and had a serious diplomatic corps with its own doctrine and traditions, leading them to take negotiations quite seriously. The British, on the other hand, were utterly duplicitous; in part because they projected this same attitude on to the Asante, never seriously countenancing that they genuinely wanted peace. Part of this was itself (as the author notes, without using the terminology) due to the standard fare of the epistemology of ignorance - being prior convinced that the Asante were ignorant and warlike savages, the British were unable to recognise the evidence against this for what it was.
Second, the author of this text is clearly sympathetic to both the Asante and the British and views it to be a great shame that they did not find a way to live together in peace. One consequence of this is that I think that the author sometimes slips into expressing their own contempt for the Fante, on the grounds that members of this tribe generally tried (largely successfully) to create disunion between the two groups, and were often treacherous or unreliable in their promises of assistance to either. But I found myself much more sympathetic to the Fante -- utterly overawed by the British on one hand, and on the other defeated in battle nearly every time they tried to stand alone against the Asante, it seems to me they played a bad hand as best they could. What the author sees as treachery thus seems to me clever resistance. (Relatedly, this book contained my favourite diplomatic Fuck You. A Fante chief was called to battle by the British; he sent the message back that alas today he had smallpox, but he'd be sure to catch up with them if they went on without him.) That such resistance was justified was confirmed most strikingly when the author notes (without comment) that during the final Anglo-Asante war at the turn of the 20th Century the Asante representatives demanded that the British see to `the restoration of slavery and the cessation of forced labour'! Being caught between two such groups, who can blame the Fante from doing what they could to resist? After reading the introduction to the Sun Tzu and then this, I am growing to suspect that military historians are liable to be far too impressed by military prowess.
11.Cosmopolitanism - Kwame Anthony Appiah: stirring call to greater international solidarity and fellow feeling. I happen to at this point be watching through Star Trek: The Next Generation with my fiancée, and so the vision of `unity and pluralism' offered in this book seems especially attractive to me right now. I must admit I bristled a bit at the characterisation of `positivism' in this book, but that aside this is just a highly readable - and suitable for a general audience - run through of some of the core ideas of what a cosmopolitanism worth having might look like.
*12.Moral Exemplars in the Analects - Amy Olberding: fascinating text that defends an exemplarist reading of the Analects. According to this reading, the basic moral impulse behind the book is that we have a pretheoretic (or at least more-robustly-trustworthy-than-any-more-theoretically-elaborate) sense of who is morally admirable and who is not, and the proper mode of moral reasoning is to try and work out what those people are doing and why, and then emulate them. Confucius is depicted as in the process of trying to work through and live up to the best of the moral tradition he had available to him, and the text is also offering Confucius himself as an all round exemplary person. The second half of the book then deploys this by trying to show that a certain kind of ideal of transparency, a kind of willingness to be seen moral warts and all, is exemplified and promoted by the text's full exemplar (Confucius) and also by the partial exemplars Zilu and Zigong. I gained a lot, and found it a very plausible and fruitful reading of the Analects, substantially changing how I had seen the relationship of this text to the moral tradition it is a part of. I may try and reread it to see if this makes things jump out to me more. On a more personal note, I especially appreciated the chapter on Zilu - when reading the Analects the first time I had found myself really drawn to this character, but kinda curious as to why, given what a blundering person he seems to be. I often even found myself feeling fairly defensive towards him, as absurd as that is. Happy to have been give a reading of the text which vindicates me in this, and also explains where the line should be drawn on one's admiration for Zilu.
13.The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of Ashanti - K.A. Busia: my write up for this book ended up appearing as a series of blog posts, starting here.
14.The Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences - J.B.S. Haldane: interesting attempt to write up both an introduction to some key principles of Marxist epistemology and also some pop science (circa 1938) all at once. The Marxist principles he highlights were, primarily, the importance of dialectical thinking (`unity in opposites') whereby one finds that apparently quite opposed tendencies tend to have some way of resolving themselves into a unity; the negation of a negation, which is more or less the process by which things reacting to each other results in the unity of opposites; and materialism, which is Haldane's hands ended up being a species of empiricism. The sections on biology and psychology were especially interesting, and the section on sociology contained very little actual sociology but was a good run down of Haldane's thoughts on desirable social arrangement and how one ought press for social change. Haldane was keen to emphasise the manner in which Marxism can be, and ought be, accompanied by a kind of open minded non-dogmatical attitude, and generally was a very charming guide through the subject matter. I also appreciated that one passage near enough explicitly confirmed the theory of grief that I attributed to the Marxist here. Not so much a complaint as an observation - whatever emotional need it fulfils for people to have their lifephilosophy reflected in a kind of loose analogical way in their theory of nature, this is not something I personally feel, so a lot of the emotional appeal of this book was lost on me I fear.
15.The Tarskian Turn - Leon Horsten: very nice walk through of deflationism as a philosophical doctrine and its relationship to prominent axiomatic theories of truth. A lot to love about this book - really great demonstration of how and why one can and should link together formal and informal theorising about a core philosophical concept, while also being really accessible and definitely a suitable textbook for advanced undergrads. The final form of deflationism that Horsten ends up adopting is a kind of inferentialism tied to a natural deduction system for reasoning about truth is interesting to me and I hope to explore the matter further. An intended effect this book had on me was making me vow to try and do some work towards exploring Wiredu's theory of truth in a formal setting (or at least to seeing if any well known prior developed formal theories of truth line up with it in any interesting fashion). An unintended effect the book had, mind you, was putting me off deflationism, which I had previously been sympathetic to. It largely seemed to me that deflationionism in this book played the role of a road block to inquiry, constantly throwing up needless hurdles, and encouraging somewhat bizarre worries that a theory that can do interesting things may for that very reason be inadequate!
16.The Science of Liberty - Timothy Ferris: utter rot. Liberal propaganda with a strangely anti-philosophy twist. It was odd to contrast philosophy (always bad) with science (always good) in a defence of the Enlightenment, wherein you are contorted into such positions as defending Smith against the charge of philosophy and only begrudgingly admitting Locke to be a philosopher! The basic idea was interesting, that science and liberal democracy are mutually reinforcing because the former models the latter, and the latter fosters the former. But the actual book turned out to be just propagandising for liberalism, in way I find utterly dull. Liberal agitprop is just as boring as everyone else's agitprop.
17.Adam Smith - Eric Schliesser: as part of my growing interest in the rhetorical appeal to the Enlightenment on the right, I turned from Ferris' agitprop to this more serious work of scholarship. It was great. An in depth look at Smith, reminded me of all the reasons I like Smith's thoughts, and also made me more generally aware of aspects of his philosophy I had not been aware of. One of the most striking things for me was the degree of similarity between Mengzi and Smith, something that I think surely deserves more scholarly attention. Schliesser is one of the most interesting defenders of liberalism around nowadays (a lot of people use the label `classical liberal', Schliesser seems to me to be one of very few who might actually merit the title) and he was quite explicit that he saw this turn back to Smith as displaying an exemplary liberal public intellectual from whom we might learn. The vision of a society where, by deploying our talents as best we see fit, we grow together in greater friendship and humane sympathy - this is certainly an attractive vision! Also interesting was what Schliesser called a Smithian social explanation - these are historical explanations which point to the continual operation of various tendencies as together liable to bring about unforeseen (and so unintended) stable patterns of social behaviour in the very long run, which once noticed tend to be self-reinforcing by a society or individuals therein who seek to take conscious control this process. These are distinct from invisible hand processes, which tend to be shorter term (having their effects within a lifetime) and capable of being foreseen by a discerning agent. I shall be on the look out for such social explanations in future!
18.How Fascism Works - Jason Stanley: read a draft form of the book to comment at the APA, not sure if this will be the finished item. Goes through 10 ideas that have recurred in various fascist regimes throughout history and different eras, which is notable in itself in so far as fascism often presents itself as a local phenomena responsive to especial and unique traditions. Stanley is a pretty pessimistic fellow, apparently believing that in so far as we are subject to typical insecurities and there are inequalities to exploit, one always has the basis for using these fascist strategies to subvert the commonweal. Especially striking since, after all, one can always just invent an inequality of a kind of magical and unobservable nature (think of `strivers' vs `scroungers' in the UK) and I doubt we are going to run out of insecurities any time soon! From conversation I get the impression that Stanley is aware of these implications, but thinks that it is in any case our duty to continue the struggle as best we can and record the disaster as it unfolds. There's something stoic in the sense of this poem about the whole outlook, I hope he writes it up explicitly one day.
19.The Reactionary Mind - Corey Robin: I read on Yuzi's advice, was very interesting. I quite liked the summary contained in this post. (Just before I posted this, another good review went up here.)
20.Confucianism and Tokugawa Culture - Peter Nosco (ed.): I had two main take aways from this interesting essay collection. First, the Tokugawa bakufu was a bad system of government but better than what came before and its contextually likely alternatives. While they were influtential, the Confucians never gained control of the government. They mainly worked within it to reform, but then promoted the Meiji restoration later. This whole episode thus seems basically to its credit as a philosophical system, as I am not sure a better pattern of responses was available. Perhaps especially credit worthy was the fact (noted in one of my favourite essays of the volume, by Kate Wildman Nakai) that when in the early days of the regime a number of Confucians turned their attention to writing vindicatory histories of the foundation of the bakufu, they found that principles of Confucian historiography constrained them and made them unable to fully endorse the Shogunate. This because said principles forbid one from endorsing a system in which the military had equal or superior status to the civilian government. Not many philosophies actively stand in the way of propagandists attempt to glorify their paymasters! And that doesn't seem to me to just have got the right answer (that the Shogunate was a highly imperfect form of government) but also seems to me to be for basically the right reason. Military rule ought well be shunned, as Japan was to find out after the reactionary subversion of the Meiji restoration's potential. Second, though they only featured in a brief essay at the end by Sannosuke Matsumoto, I was very much reminded of the fact that Nakae Chōmin and Kōtoku Shusui are underrated political thinkers. I've already read the latter's book on imperialism (in this excellent translation, which has a great accompanying history) but now I'm resolved to read more by Nakae Chōmin too!
*21.The Philosophy of Social Evolution - Jonathan Birch: first time I've read a book by a colleague, eek! Nice piece of analytic philosophy, carefully distinguishing various ways of understanding terms used in cultural evolutionary theory, noticing logical/conceptual/mathematical relations among the things thus distinguished, and drawing out the consequences of seeing things aright in this way. Although I lacked some of the background in biology necessary to fully appreciate it, it did seem to evince the virtues of analytic philosophy done well, good stuff!
22.The Narrow Road to the Deep Interior - Bashō: a beautiful travelogue describing the author's (and friends') journey to Oku. Along the way he reflects on life and the sights he sees, and pens haiku to commemorate the moment. The edition I had was beautifully illustrated, I tweeted my favourite poem/image combo here. I wish more than anything that I could express myself in this way, and in fact I would trade much not just for the expressive power but for the sensibility that gives rise to it. I was very struck by how often the poetry relied on reference to a particular place, and I am not sure whether it was to be expected even that his contemporary audience would be familiar with the places alluded to. In any case my first instinct is to say that this takes away from the timelessness of the imagery, but the more I have reflected on it the more I have come to appreciate this aspect of the poetry. When I think about what I want from art it is very often to express a very specific emotion or mood in such a way that it can be entered into anew by anyone who engages with the art work. There is an inherent particularism to this aesthetic ideal, and I have perhaps not appreciated or given full expression to this enough. Maybe reflecting on this will help me do better in my own writing!
My favourite passage from the book:
Many are the names that have been preserved for us in poetry from ancient times; but mountains crumble and rivers disappear, new roads replace the old, stones are buried and vanish in the earth, trees grow old and give way to saplings. Time passes and the world changes. The remains of the past are shrouded in uncertainty. And yet, here before my eyes was a monument which none would deny had lasted a thousand years. I felt as though I were looking into the minds of the men of old. "This", I thought, "is one of the pleasures of travelling and of living to be old." I forgot the weariness of my journey and was moved to tears by my joy.
I too was moved to tears.
23.Homegoing - Yaa Gyasi: a play on the Roots plotline, in which we follow the fates of two sisters and their descendants who were separated by the slave trade. One remained in the Gold Coast, the other is sent to America as a slave. To my mind the American plotline was not as well developed (though I did very much enjoy the chapter on the post-Reconstruction family member who is sent to work down the mines as a convict labourer) but the Ghanaian family tree was very interesting if only because more unusual. Somewhat worryingly for my perspective, an acquaintance of mine who I think knows far more Ghanaian literature had the opposite reaction! One running theme is that the Ghanaian branch of the family ended up acting as collaborators in the slave trade and have a sort of curse that follows them down the generations - at times this element of mysticism became a bit too overt for my own tastes, because on the whole I really enjoyed its various snapshots of life in parts of Ghana from the 18th to 20th centuries just as historical fiction. It was a nice example of combining historical research with literature. It really brought the material alive for me as I learned from it.
24.Truth - Simon Blackburn: a book I mostly didn't like except where I loved it. From the early 2000s, it's part of the "Analytic Philosophers Sternly Lecture The Other Side Of The Science Wars" genre. In it we are exhorted to love truth and hate the evil ways of the cultural relativists. (It was vaguely suggested that cultural relativism leads to Islamist terrorism, which was one of the silliest takes I have ever seen. Can a galaxy brain simultaneously be a nuclear take? A question for twitter raised by this take.) I largely find this sort of thing tiresome. But it had two virtues, which I really did enjoy. First, a good attempt to bring to bear deflationism about truth upon the pertinent issues. I think this is the most distinctively analytical philosophy doctrine out there so it is good to see it popularised. Second, the chapter outlining Protagorean relativism from a sympathetic point of view was so well done that I came away more in favour of Protagoras than before - quite something, considering where I guess Blackburn and I actually start on such matters. So; much I didn't like, but when it was good it was great.
25.The Infidel and the Professor - Dennis C. Ramussen: a very charming account of the life and times of David Hume and Adam Smith, with an emphasis on their friendship. The hope was to learn about philosophic friendship, and I must admit I do not think I learned so much on this front. Perhaps, mind you, I am to come to the zen like realisation that there was nothing to be learned - their friendship seems as any other; they chat, they joke, they seek the best for each other, they hold each other in high esteem. But if this is not a zen lesson (it very well might be) then I fear Ramussen was somewhat too subtle for me, and despite introducing the topic of philosophic friendship in the first chapters he did not really give me a sense of what that amounts to. That said, this seems negative when in fact my view of the book was highly positive - I liked a lot about it, maybe most especially the chapter arguing that their friendship was probably not so much harmed by Smith's unwillingness to see Dialogues on Natural Religion published; if only because it warmed my heart. Also, I had not realised just how committed to the troll life and dad jokes Hume was before reading this.
26.Theory of Games as a Tool for the Moral Philosopher - R.B. Braithwaite: a lot to like about this as a first attempt, but philistine and unappreciative child of the revolution that I am, I was mainly struck by some of the defects in how this attempted to wed ethical and strategic reasoning. Clearly, though, my career would not exist but for this, and I am happy to have read it. I will say that the writing style typical of second-quarter-of-the-20th-century British analytic philosophers (I have in mind: Moore, Stebbing, Ramsey, Braithwaite, Keynes, Russell) still seems to me one of the most admirably clear and even charming that philosophy has produced, though a bit irritatingly posh.
27.Private Government - Elizabeth Anderson: in which Anderson argues that where once people had hoped that free markets would be an egalitarian force freeing us from domination, in fact nowadays market relations have becomes sources of domination and oppression for the majority. She locates the egalitarian market tradition as starting in the levellers and continuing through strands of 19th century American abolitionism, with a really fascinating historical discussion. The error in their theorising, she believes, amounted to thinking that since economies of scale were negligible (and free land would always be available owing to colonial conquest) a free market would mainly consist in small independently self employed people determining their own destines. The industrial revolution falsified the point about economies of scale, the free land was really founded upon continued and unacknowledged genocide, and in any case they were relying on the independent people really being men with women to care for social reproduction. Fast forward to the 21st century and we live in a world with vast private (corporate or business) governments, she describes them as communist dictatorships in our midst - people (employees) living subject to the arbitrary whim of bosses in an organisation wherein they don't own any of the resources necessary to make their way and for which the only escape is exile to some other such dictatorship. There are some response essays, but I only enjoyed the one by the historian giving more information on the Levellers as a movement - it made me think that as a British leftist I should look more into them. The response from Tyler Cowen, though, I especially disliked. It was satisfying to see how effectively Anderson dispatched his argumentation.
28.Discourses - Epictetus: as hoped for above, I finally got round to reading some Epictetus. I finished this book in the run up to my dissertation defence, and found it calmed my nerves as I put its thoughts into action. Epictetus was himself a slave, which gave his extended reflections on freedom and its values a kind of power, at least to this reader.
Here is the idea: I am free just in case I am not subject to being arbitrarily overpowered or commanded by persons or circumstances. In any case, therefore, that I allow myself to be driven by concern for things beyond my control I am rendered unfree - since by controlling or interfering with my access to those thing somebody is able to arbitrarily change my actions or render me miserable against my will. What I can control, all I can control, is my will, and my assent or dissent to the impressions the world gives me. So I am free just in case all I want for myself is that I use my will well, and assent to that which is good and true. Note that it seems to me that it is not in my power to control whether or not I will try to assent to what is good and true, only within my power that I attempt to do this to the best of my ability. But the stoics perhaps believed in the possibility of sagehood, of never going wrong in these regards. In any case freedom is achievable to me under any circumstances just in case I take conscious control of my inner life. Slaves such as Epictetus can thus possess a degree of magnanimity which the soul of any one who would pretend to be their master may be scarce capable of conceiving (see).
From this doctrine of freedom, taken to be the supreme good, Epictetus derives some consequences - for instance a duty to resist tyranny, since a tyrant cannot command you to intend evil and only has power over your body and access to external goods, a proper stoic should (caring only about their inner character) be utterly free from their sway, and consequently refuse to do anything that is not fitting. Interesting and admirable as a philosophy, though I found it amusing what a cranky jerk Epictetus seemed like. Mengzi and Epictetus deserve each other!
29.Enchiridion - Epictetus: pithy summary of the core doctrines on various points. Certainly has its uses, but since my copy comes in the same volume as my copy of the Discourses I feel that its primary virtue of being easy to carry around and refer back to is rather lost on me.
30.The Dream of Reason - Anthony Gotlieb: I was on the whole happy with and impressed by this book, just because of the extremely readable fashion in which it presented its material. Its section on Aristotle, in particular, was so good that I actually revised up my estimation of The Philosopher in light of the explanation given. I was a bit unhappy though with, first, the apparent prejudice against thought in the Middle Ages, which I thought was severely underappreciated. This first vice actually arose from a charming aspect of the book, which was that the author was unabashedly partisan, always evaluating the philosophies as he described them. Live by the judgement, die by it, I suppose. Second, the somewhat dull insistence on treating only the Acknowledged Classics: perhaps this book is intended for a more introductory level than me, but I'd wager that there is plenty more out there on Zeno's paradoxes, whereas including more on (say) Hypatia or Oresmes might have allowed the public to learn of things they didn't already know. I appreciated the sympathetic take on the sophists, however, so on at least one point it challenged orthodoxy in a fashion I thought worthwhile.
31.The Orange Trees of Marrakesh - Stephen Frederic Dale: interesting book that didn't quite deliver on its promise. The idea was to present a picture of Ibn Khaldun's thought and method in such a way as would make clear how his philosophical premises did or did not relate to his circumstances and background knowledge of narrative history and immediate events of his life. I think the book did a good job of relating Khaldun's biography and giving a sense of his personality, and also the final chapter on how it is Khaldun's work seems so modern without apparently much influencing later work was very illuminating. However, while it gave a sense for the overall Khaldunian picture, it never really went into detail on the premises or argumentation - this was still, in the end, a work by a historian, not a philosopher. So while I think there's a lot to like about this book, what I wanted was an exploration of the underlying philosophy (akin to Schliesser's book on Smith). This was not that.
32.Ethics - Spinoza: it feels absurd to offer a review on such a text. The arguments are, by and large, rather unpersuasive; though I found the chapter recovering common psychological observations from a small number of principles and nested chains of definition rather more convincing than the rest. However the broad contours of the worldview are beautiful and inspiring, and it had the overall effect of making me want to reconsider pantheism even if I found no one proof that persuasive. I am somewhat persuaded, on the grounds here presented, that there may only be one substance of which there are a variety of accidents - but I was not sure why there should be infinitely many modes, or why we must agree to the Sliders esque conclusion that all that is possible is actual.
33.The Courtier and the Heretic - Matthew Stewart: a quasi-fictionalised retelling of Spinoza and Leibniz' encounter with each other, what led up to it and what effects it had on their lives. Recommended to me by Haixin Dang. Very sympathetic to a secular saint reading of Spinoza, wherein the somewhat otherworldly Bento near enough single handedly invented secular modernity and egalitarian liberalism while maintaining a strict philosophical integrity. Leibniz, on the other hand, comes across as a duplicitous scheming reactionary - albeit a genius with some humane ambitions. The villain is, as ever, more interesting than the protagonist, and ultimately I came away wanting to know more about Leibniz. As the book presented him there is a kind of dual aspect to his apparent lack of integrity; he was apparently all things to all people (e.g. a humane cosmopolitan who advocated imperial adventure in Egypt to unite Europe), but with no there-there underneath it. There is no substance of which his contradictory appearances were accidents, it is all surface, and the surface is Escher like in its self-contradiction. This in itself is psychologically interesting, but it is paired with a point about Leibniz' metaphilosophy that actually restores him to integrity after all. For it seems that he ultimately viewed all has instrumental to some notion of the common weal, and such always doing what seems best towards that end (albeit with a tendency to equate his own wellbeing with the commonweal) is actually consistent to that basically ruthlessly consequentialist picture. Further, per the book's depiction, Leibniz appreciated something that his contemporaries wrapped up in religious disputes between Catholic and Protestant factions did not. The real threat from modernity came from Spinozism, for Spinoza had correctly foreseen that a purposeless and basically atheistic universe was a natural and tempting upshot of science and political pluralism. Leibniz' work is thus an attempt to stave off this threat without denying the real benefits of the scientific revolution and political tolerance - and in his day he was never appreciated for this, since the shape of the threat was not discerned by his less farsighted co-religionists. If, indeed, Leibniz was sincerely religious - the evidence seems to be that he thought it would be good for people to be religious, without necessarily thinking it true. Integrity in lack of integrity!
34.Death's End - Liu Cixin: wonderful end to a wonderful series. I actually preferred the first novel in the series, The Three Body Problem, as I enjoyed the historical sections, philosophy, and noir detective story embedded within. However, this finale was more of a veer into hard sci fi and as a genre piece I can appreciate just how good at that it was. Two things stand out to me: first, I am not sure I agree with the central conceit of the "dark forest" theory of the universe. In essence it's a response to the Fermi paradox - why don't we see evidence of alien civilisations? The idea is that: everyone is doing their utmost to hide their own existence, since if you reveal your location more advanced alien civilisations will eradicate you. The question for me was - why? I think the line of reasoning was that all that is needed is for one such hostile advanced civilisation to exist (in a universe that is posited to be very crowded, relatively speaking) for every other civilisation to have incentive to behave as such. But then the mere suspicion that such a civilisation might exist justifies a "hide well, destroy early" strategy. But then carrying this reasoning through in a familiar game theoretic fashion means everyone has incentive to adopt this strategy even if they wouldn't otherwise be inclined to. What I couldn't work out was - if this is valid reasoning here, why isn't it valid reasoning on earth? Liu mentions the parallels to colonialist genocide so maybe the answer is - it actually does. Still, on the whole the potential benefits of positive sum trade seemed to me under-appreciated in this universe.
Second point of interest to me was the Mengzite main character, Cheng Xin. I suspect she was consciously constructed as a Mengzite even though this was not officially confirmed, there was a lot of explicit discussion about human nature, and at one point she upbraids a character by saying "Humanity is not just an abstraction! One must learn to love humanity by first loving particular people, fulfilling your responsibilities to those close to you." Plus in the first book there had been explicit philosophical discussion, and in this book it was explicitly mentioned that Chinese society had been governed on Confucian lines. Internet research tells me she is apparently a base breaking character - some loving her as principled and humane, and others hating her as weak and irresponsible. Put me down on the side of those who loved her, one of my favourite dramatic leads in quite some time. Human nature can be kind and wonderful, even in the darkest of possible forests.
35.Incompleteness - Rebecca Goldstein: an intellectual history of Gödel's incompleteness theorems. One gets the background in Gödel's life and psychology, as well as the mathematical philosophical background of the theorems, and finally the effect they had on the intellectual world. Unfortunately, there seem to be technical errors in some discussions of the mathematical details, see reviews here and here for details. I had not really read it for that, so largely passed over the details - now, however, it seems I could not recommend this to undergrads, since it may be their first exposure to such and thus be misleading. I was interested to learn of the intellectual rivalry with Wittgenstein, which I had not learned much about, and I thought Goldstein did a good job of explaining why Wittgenstein so vehemently refused to understand the theorem. I was surprised to hear of how many people interpret the incompleteness theorem as somehow revealing a fundamental subjectivity or arbitrariness at the heart of mathematics. Though I am sympathetic to the actual view, I agree with Goldstein (and, apparently, Gödel) that the result itself is more suggestive of a sense in which the mathematical world somehow pushes back against us, it represents a limit on our ability to engage in free and arbitrary play here.
36.Aristotle and Logical Theory - Jonathan Lear: worth noting that this is the last library book I had out as a CMU student, and indeed since I finished it on the day I was certified the last book I read as a CMU student. For my part I read it just as a means of getting the introduction to syllogistic logic, which I found very fascinating. But seeing what Aristotle was trying to do as a logician greatly increased my respect for him, and gave me a sense of why he found the syllogistic system so powerful. This relates to one of the methodologically interesting features of the book: it is willfully and thoroughly anachronistic. Aristotle's logical theories and choices are explained by making it clear how they look in contemporary terms. For instance, one of the most fascinating discussions in the book is that of the extent to which Aristotle attempted (and the extent to which the attempt was successful) something that may reasonably be called a completeness and compactness proof for syllogistic logic. Likewise the discussion of the difference between Aristotle's idea of how proofs might be invalid and how that relates to modern theories of proof was fascinating. Most contentious, to my mind, was relating Aristotle's work on hypothetical syllogism to Frege's ideas about assertion and propositional attitude - since it seemed to me to attribute intent to Aristotle that he could not possibly have had. None the less I am generally a fan of this historiographic method and wish it was not so disdained among intellectual historians.
37.Confessions - Saint Augustine: this was a reread, last having read the book when I was 16 or so. I don't think I can improve on this summary.
38.The Confucian Transformation of Korea - Martina Deuchler: this made for a very interesting contrast with the earlier text on Confucianism in Tokugawa Japan. In that previous I had come away with a basically high opinion of the Confucian intelligentsia. They had inherited a very bad situation, stabilised and then improved it, and then largely fell behind the democratising revolution when it came in the 19th century. Of course lots that was highly imperfect, but the overall trajectory seemed to give a good account of the philosophy in action. Here, on the other hand, I came away with the opposite impression - this was the philosophy of an aristocratic class on the make, who restricted the meritocratic principles to a male nobility-of-birth, and who did much to introduce rigid hierarchies and even further disposes women beyond the status quo ante. Confucianism can always be critiqued for its half hearted meritocracy (since it typically excludes around half the population, the female half, from fair or full participation in public life) but this was an even more extreme version. Deuchler comments in the final chapter how Confucianism contains both egalitarian and hierarchical elements, and how the Korean implementation placed much greater emphasis on the hierarchical side of things. Quite so!
39.In Praise of Shadows - Junchirō Tanizaki: short tract on aesthetics, published in the 1930s in Japan. The author contrasts what he thinks of as Western aesthetic sensibility, which praises illumination and elaborate decoration, with what he says is Eastern aesthetic sensibility, which praises more barebones minimalism and subtle use of shadow and unrevealing to heighten one's appreciation of a space. Lots of interesting things about it, one remarkable feature being the attempt to ground the aesthetic claim in various naturalistic sociological hypothesis. So, for instance, he thinks the Eastern preference for shadowy backgrounds and a contrast between light and dark relates to having (i) poorer building materials and less to work with, and (ii) brown-but-not-very-brown complexions, which combined with a natural tendency towards self-aggrandisement make people appreciate an interplay of dark and light. White people, by contrast, develop aesthetic tastes which match their own sense of self - and he then links this to the oppression of negroes in America. (Afropessimism avant la lettre) They thus come to praise light and brightness. Fascinating stuff; not always plausible, but an interesting aesthetic sensibility outlined in any case.
40.Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction - Stephen C. Angle and Justin Tiwald: fascinating text that did exactly what it says on the tin. I thus feel quite well introduced to the philosophical discourse around Neo-Confucianism! I thought especially interesting were: 1. the rather extreme optimism about human nature often on display, surpassing even Mengzi, and 2. the debate about localism versus central government that spring up. I especially which to follow up Zhuang's essays on rules.
41.Experiment - P. Medwar: Medwar was not really the author, but was the editor and author of the introductory essay. It is a series of essays describing experiences scientists had in trying to run experiments. Medwar's opening philosophical essay is fascinating, making the case (on broadly Popperian grounds) that the standard format of a scientific paper misrepresents the process of inquiry and does so on the basis of allegiance to a false inductivist philosophy of science.
*42.On The Shortness of Life - Seneca: little volume I had started years ago but never finished, that collects together three letters by Seneca. In one he advises a friend to really take advantage of the time available to them on earth, and says that in particular this would involve more study of philosophy. I did wonder whether Du Bois was deliberately alluding to this passage. In another letter, my favourite of the bunch despite some obvious flaws, he tries to console his mother on his recent exile. What I really liked was his reflections on the restlessness of the human spirit and the naturalness of immigration. Given my recent life history that really spoke to me!
43.Too Like the Lightning - Ada Palmer: really fascinating creation of a sci-fi world that is neither Utopian nor Dystopian, but rather a pretty-good-but-imperfect future. Recommended to me by Kenny Easwaran, for which I am very grateful. This vision of the future is largely based upon a kind of neo-classical corporatism, which has interesting parallels to Schlick's utopian ideals. and the plot concerns a sort of De Sadeist plot by people who have recreated secret societies from the Age of Reason. Lots going on! (The author is a PhD historian, and it shows.) The plot was a fairly good mystery story, but what I really enjoyed was the world building - I want to spend more time in this world, and fortunately I shall be able to as it is a 5 part series.
44.The Journal of Wu Yubi - Wu Yubi (trans. and ed. by M. Theresa Kelleher): details the lifelong struggle of Wu Yubi to be decent, to live up to his Confucian aspirations. I felt a real connection to Wu at various points, especially when he spoke about how at peace certain kind of situations made him feel: "Leisurely resting by the window today, in the shade of trees in the clear daylight, I wonder how Heaven and earth can be so expansive and far-reaching." This sense that a kind of relaxed natural setting gives him time to think, and overcome his otherwise pronounced tendency to morose yearnings, really helped me feel a connection to this otherwise culturally quite distant person. I especially liked his poetic couplet: "As placid as the autumn waters is the taste of poverty // As peaceful as the spring winds is the result of tranquility" which captures many of the central themes of his journal in a very succinct way. Special praise for M. Theresa Kelleher's commentary and translation - she made a lot of conscious choices in how she presented things that I think really paid off, and her introduction and commentary (the latter presented after the text of the journal) did a great job of bringing out and drawing together the central themes. One of the Confucian sayings is that if one seeks to be a junzi the road is long and the burden is heavy. Wu Yubi's life illustrates that, but also vividly demonstrates that while it may be a difficult task it can also be well worth the effort.
45.Practical Inferences - R. M. Hare: I generally like Hare, and this was an interesting set of reflections on ways in which imperatives, commands, ought statements, and in general reasoning about practical matters, can be a logically tricky thing. I don't have much to say though, I largely just found myself wanting more!
46.W.E.B. Du Bois's Data Portraits Visualising Black America - Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert (eds.): while I had my disagreements with some of the opening essays more philosophical pronouncements, I thought they did a really nice job of setting up the historical context for Du Bois' participation in the Paris exhibition. The images themselves were very striking, and of course informative about black life at the time. But I think the work on Du Bois' philosophy of data visualisation awaits to be written. This, though, would certainly be a vital source for anybody hoping to write that up! Of niche interest, but anyone in its niche should consider it required reading.
47.The Unexamined Life - Kwame Gyeke: short pamphlet really on metaphilosophy - what is philosophy and what makes it worth doing? Gyeke sees it as basically a second order discipline, wherein a culture reflects on the principles underlying its first order commitments in various spheres, especially with an eye to resolving difficulties or controversies that have arisen with regard to them. A basically humanistic perspective, I would be happy to describe my own work in these terms.
48.Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls - Ban Zhao (translation: Esther E. Jerman): fascinating instruction manual for Chinese women in the classical period. There is considerable modern controversy as to what Ban Zhao was going for here, some of which I believe dates back to the earliest reception of the book. I think the surface reading is: Ban Zhao thinks that social roles are prescribed by Heaven and wrote this as a work of pious devotion, outlining how it is that women can faithfully carry out their duties. Even considered as such it would be interesting in giving a sense of what women were considered responsible for in upper class classical China. (It also gives one a sense of the mundane reality underlying the high talk of ritual in Confucian philosophy.) It's noteworthy here that Ban Zhao (who was on other grounds a noted scholar, for her authorship of the History of the Han) thinks that women should receive a full education in order to be able to carry out those duties.
But there's a history of giving this a more subversive reading, which (as far as I can tell) modern historians seem to be fairly sympathetic to. The subversive reading seems to come from two sources. The first and most direct seems to be that while Ban Zhao directly advocates a fairly conventional set of feminine virtues and a duty to respect the husband as ultimate authority, there is straightforwardly some degree of independence allowed by this. The wife is called upon to remonstrate with a husband who does wrong, suggesting independence of judgement and her own moral agency. She seems to be in charge of the household finances as she is advised to "hide his money in a secure place" when not making use of it. And as mentioned she is also to be educated, clearly viewed as fully capable of being learned and virtuous. The relationship envisioned in an ideal household seems to be that wife is to husband as minister is to ruler; and it is noticeable that in Confucian governance theory it is ministers who do most of the actual day to day ruling, even while they fully acknowledge their obligation to their lord. I think this is pretty plausible as a basis of a subversive reading (a lot of this is plainly there in the text) but I note that there is a considerable element missing from other Confucian musings on ideal government.
In most Confucian theory of government there comes a point where if a ruler persists in evil and will not learn from remonstration one may quit, migrate, or even allow for virtuous rebellion or revolution. That threat of voting with one's feet, or engaging in passive or insurrectionist resistance, seems vital to actually keeping rulers honest. Whereas as far as I can tell Ban Zhao makes no such allowances - the woman is to remonstrate, and try and arrange the household environment so as to placate a man, but if that fails I don't think Ban Zhao allows for other options She explicitly counsels against trying to draw solidarity from other women, doesn't mention any procedure for leaving a failing marriage or a brute, and largely envisions women's duties as all going via having some husband she is serving. (It seems that more freedom is gained if one is a widow; but there is no mention of virtuous assassination of brutish or abusive husbands, Dixie Chicks style!) So a significant practical check on the power of bad rulers is not present in Ban Zhao's advice for women, even within the sphere of action allowed to subordinates in masculinist Confucian philosophy.
Second, there is the more speculative subversive reading. I think the basis for this is: usually when defending this or that norm she will give either a moral or pragmatic argument in favour of doing things this way. It is noticeable that when supporting submissive gender roles Ban Zhao often appeals more bluntly to Heaven's will, and even there in a potentially ironical way. She says that Heaven has proscribed gender relationships and that "[t]his truth is heavier than a mountain" - this may of course have been idiomatic, but in any case not exactly a ringing endorsement. Likewise she says that Heaven has appointed husband ruler, so how can I dare think of failing to appreciate him!? - certainly open to ironical reading. So the second subversive reading sees the apparent endorsement of gender submission as largely an attempt to win agency for individual women in an extremely constraining society, a manual on how to win a man over so as to act as a kind of force behind the throne, subtly getting one's way through effective use of soft power. I think this subversive reading, despite being the apparently more radical departure from the surface meaning of the text, is actually a very old strand of thought in reaction to Ban Zhao. The idea here seems to be that depicted sympathetically by the chamberlain’s wife in Sanjuro - despite spending the whole film surrounded by brutal people who could easily physically overpower her, she basically always gets her way through ostentatious display of femme-coded virtue and wisdom. (There's a TvTropes page about something related: but I think to get at the subversive reading you'd have to see this person as not so much aiming at the common good but at their own, so maybe Lady Kaede from Ran is the better Kurosawa example.) Tell truth I don't think I would have come to this reading naturally from the text, but once it was pointed out to me I could see the potential reading.
All in all this broke my belief in Confucian moral optimism. Ever since reading Mengzi I had been inspired by that element of the tradition. It seemed to me a feasible kind of moral optimism, but I now think this is because it was always backed up by the implicit threat of force in the form of the revolutionary masses. I can't bring myself to recommend the degree of moral heroism Ban Zhao seems to require of women, wherein wives must stand up to brutish and immoral husbands with no recourse beyond moral suasion and the dignity of their action.
Before closing just a note on Jerman - she was a 19th century missionary to China, and her translation does not always read idiomatically to (my!) modern ears. Her introduction also contains this bizarre combination of condescension and high praise - Orientalism was one hell of a drug.
49.For All My Walking - Taneda Santōka (translation: Burton Watson): beautiful work of poetry, really captures a sense of loneliness. Tweeted a couple of my faves here, though I substituted Yuzi's translation for Watson's in both cases since I tended to somewhat prefer hers. I will always wish I could do this as well as he can. I tried, while reading this I wrote the following haiku on the way home from work
Tears flow from my eyes
while crossing Waterloo bridge --
the sunset long ago.
But I think even here when I was explicitly trying to capture his style it didn't work. It does get at the kind of plain description of facts used to convey inner state, which I enjoyed. But he used free form which I didn't have the courage to do, and I allude to a song in a way that would stand out as artificial in his work. So far still to go!
50.What the Buddha Taught - Walpola Rahula: I read this on Bryce Huebner's recommendation. Really nice plain introduction to the Buddha's teaching, along with selections from key writings from the Buddhist canon. I especially liked the dedication to peace which ends Rahula's writing. Would that we all had the courage to stand up for peace!
*51.The Bhagavad Gita - (translation and introduction by: Laurie L. Patton): a classic which it would feel presumptuous to really comment upon. I shall only note that I thought Patton did a great job, her rendering of the theosophic vision was as striking as it was beautiful, and I am sure the imagery will stick with me for a long time hence. The contrast with the Buddha's teachings, though, was stark, given the order of reading. Don't do it, Arjuna!
52.Not for Profit - Martha C. Nussbaum: it would be good for the world to have more philosophy of education, and I think this book was a good contribution to a genre I hope shall reemerge. It contrasts a vision of education centered around preparing people for democracy as against a vision of education as preparing people for making money. She goes into why she thinks the powerful are attracted to the latter vision and why it is a deep mistake. She then analyses what sort of thing an education should be doing to help achieve the former vision - and she thinks primarily education should be aimed at helping us overcome certain characteristic psycho-social biases that prevent us being able to work fruitfully together and consider our options. With this in mind, she argues that a certain kind of liberal arts model, with lots of focus on play, art, and the humanities, is the best means we have for achieving the vision. I found the argument persuasive, though perhaps that was inevitable. I also really learned a lot about Tagore's theory of education, which was fascinating and totally new to me.
53.Not All Dead White Men - Donna Zuckerberg: a look at the role of the classics in the manosphere or Red Pill ideology. Three things stood out about Zuckerberg's take to me. First, I just learned a lot about classics that I didn't know before - the chapter on the parallels between Ovid and modern seduction technique was fascinating! Second, in general Zuckerberg takes the view that the Red Pill folk are picking up on real features of the classic literature they are drawing from. She grants that often their reading is simplistic and selective, but rarely does she think that it is just entirely false or that they are missing the forest for some trees or the like. This is a more nuanced take than one typically gets in the culture war discourse around these works, which seem to me to either be (i) yes these classics are bigoted and that's bad, (ii) yes these classics are bigoted and that's good, or (iii) no these classics are not bigoted and bigots are ignorant. Seeing Zuckerberg's read on it made me think her stance was very plausible indeed, which then only shocked me the more I thought how rarely I see this in prestige publications or online discourse. Maybe I am looking in the wrong place! Notably, of course, she does not think this is reason to abandon the old classics; something I think is actually quite obvious, but is probably worth saying given the aforementioned state of the discourse.
Third, relatedly, her take on the Stoics and their feminism was fascinating to me. The background is that the Red Pill lot often appeal to Stoicism. Yet also they seem to (a) think it their goal in life is, and must be, to gain more and more socially prestigious sexual relationships, (b) often blame women for forcing choices upon them, and (c) often endorse nationalistic viewpoints. Since (a)-(c) are very obviously and immediately counter to basics of Stoic philosophy, what's up with that? Zuckerberg's claim is more or less that while they are being selective in what they take from the Stoics, it's not that there's nothing there to ground this uptake. Of course sometimes it's just silliness - an argument of the form "Stoicism says that its best to be rational, men are always more rational than women, so Stoicism says men are better than women" seems to be popular in the relevant circles and is largely just equivocation and falsehood. But there is a deeper connection.
I had previously been persuaded that the Stoics were largely egalitarian-for-their-day with regard to their gender (and race and class) politics, but (i) still largely in practice confined their teaching to aristocrat men, and (ii) often used sexist idioms to condemn people like describing them as womanly and cetera. After reading Zuckerberg's discussion I still largely think this is true. But she added depth to this understanding, and also made a couple of points that I had not previously appreciated. First, that while the Stoics do affirm that there is nothing intrinsically important about social conventions, they did not in general tend to think them worth challenging, and sometimes tacitly or casually assumed their validity. So often their talk of women being as capable of virtue and justice as men would be casually assumed (sometimes even by the Stoic philosophers themselves) to entail that this meant a woman could and should ideally fulfil her traditional womanly social roles as a mother and wife. This sat a bit uneasily, I thought, with the analysis of Epictetus' famous passage enjoining men to stop sexualising and objectifying young women. This argument seems to recommend fairly directly challenging a significant bit of sexist socialisation, and while it's true that he seems to presuppose that men are acting as moral guardians of women, as mentioned his audience was largely aristocratic young men and it seems in keeping that he tells those he is talking to that they must change what is in their control, in this case how they behave towards women. That said, I think this case actually makes it a bit worse for the Stoics and thus supports Zuckerberg's ultimate point. They could sometimes find it within themselves to stand up to pernicious socialisation in the name of their principles - why not more generally?
Second, Marcus Aurelius in particular has become the object of a kind of power fantasy for many people, and identification with his persona seems especially important. Rereading my own responses to MA, it seems that while I found him admirable I was not really that drawn to his persona. That still seems correct to me, and of a piece with my general response to Stoicism - an admirable philosophy in many ways, but I do not think it captures all that matters.
The general role of the ancients was as rhetorical or psychological support for the idea that the great builders of civilisation have been white men. I wonder what it is like to find such a thought comforting!
54.How The World Thinks - Julian Baggini: a look at various traditions of world philosophy, organised by theme. One gets the impression that Baggini largely found his stereotypes about philosophical traditions confirmed, but found that contrary to any negative implication those stereotypes carry instead found that each tradition was doing something valuable and making reasonable choices that explain its differences with other global traditions. So, for instance, one does indeed find that Indian philosophy is (as opposed to European philosophy) more hierarchical and mystically orientated - but much is said in defence of this mode of doing things. I was not always persuaded. For instance, at one point (I should have made better record of page numbers!) I got the impression that Baggini was saying that folk in the West (outside of America) make a rule of requiring evidence for claims and can scarcely be brought to believe religious claims. This illustrated for me the dangers of such a high level approach, as that generalisation surely would not hold up. However, on reflection these are probably scholars' nitpicks, and even where I did not agree with the approach or conclusions I thought this book was doing something valuable in bringing these varied traditions into such close comparative contact. Baggini seemed convinced that there are diffuse but discernible connections between cultural forms and philosophical backdrop, with the latter largely being causally upstream of the former. I am never sure what I believe about this but am always interested in the question, so I enjoyed Baggini's frequent meditations on the topic.
55.Silence - Shusaku Endo: fascinating book. A sustained reflection on the problem of evil by a 20th century Japanese Catholic. Portuguese Jesuit priests sneak into Japan to tend to the flock of converts therein. Christianity was at this point illegal in Japan, and convert communities are being suppressed and tortured by the government. Events transpire which force the main character to reflect on what his faith means to him and why it is that God remains utterly passive before the wickedness of the world. The Japanese government, what is more, carries out this evil without especial malice - it fears imperialist designs from the European governments, and not entirely unreasonably suspects that the Christian missionaries may be part of the programme. One thus gets a stark depiction of a world full of compromised people doing and suffering terrible things, with no proof that any of it has any meaning or purpose at all. I was prompted to read it after reading Liz Bruenig's reflection on faith and one's personally failures here; I feel she very well captures the feel of the book, and whatever moral may be drawn from it.
56.The Power of Journalists - Claire Foster-Gilbert (ed.): short book recommended to me by my student Selina Swift, who noticed that some of the arguments therein had some resemblance to my essay on Du Bois' defence of the value free ideal. She was right! Was fascinating to me to see how the same issues arose in journalism. I suppose it is not a coincidence that the way Du Bois thought about things was apt for both science and journalism - he was both a scientist and a journalist! But at a deeper level, I take it that those professionally concerned with discovering and propagating the truth shall face similar issues. A unified social epistemology of science, journalism, and detective work!
57.Women and Power - Mary Beard: a short tract on historical depictions of women in power and the obvious sense of discomfort this has generated in male commentators, along with morals drawn out for contemporary politics. Since most of her examples are classical, it pairs well with Donna Zuckerberg's book.
58.The Lonely City - Olivia Laing: probably the best modern book I read this year. Laing explores her own loneliness by exploring the works of a number of artists (most of whom had some sort of New York connection) whose works seem to speak to the phenomenon. I can't do it justice, but I most highly recommend. I remember the loneliest I have ever felt and it was a quite horrifying feeling. There is something very life affirming about seeing artists give expression to this moment of my life, and Laing's book does a good job of bringing out why that might be.
59.The Pillow Book - Sei Shōnagon (translation by Meredith McKinney): an almost indescribable book. Sei was a court gentlewoman for a medieval Japanese empress. In this book she records anecdotes, reflections on life, poems she likes, short stories she made up, lists of persons and people she does and does not appreciate. To get a sense of it, here're the beautiful and justly famous opening lines. From this book one gets a fascinating look at the mores of Heian period Japanese aristocracy (one gets the impression it was some combination of paper-thin Buddhist piety, sexual libertinism, and refined appreciation of spontaneous poetry competitions), a lot of beautiful poetry and imagery, and a sense of Sei’s personality. My favourite of the poems actually came from Sei herself:
The tumbling snow
so like spring's tumbling petals
falls from a chilly sky.
There is about this day
some tiny touch of spring.
More generally, Sei herself as an authorial persona was the chief draw of the book for me. She's wonderful. An avant-la-lettre high-camp alpha mean-girl who is sorta inventing the concept of a burn book before your very eyes, and generally going around being conspicuously more fabulous and audacious than anyone around her. (There's a TvTropes page for the book, which makes an excellent choice of representative quote to convey the spirit of both Sei and the book: "When I come into the room to serve Her Majesty and see the other women have already crowded around her, I sit next to a column apart from them. Her Majesty sees me and calls. I love it when the others make way for me when I go to sit next to her.") It was apparently to try and rival the prestige brought by association with such a wit and talent as Sei that Murasaki Shikibu was invited to a rival empress' circle and supported in writing the Tale of Genji. So this book was an indirect spur to the creation of the novel. McKinney did a great job with the translation, conveying a kind of aristocratic persona, and the combination of self-aware silliness, foppish aestheteness, and thoughtfulness that Sei brought to bear on her writing. The introductory essay also set the thing up well, drawing attention to the way that Sei's choice of language presents this sort of timeless world of high society partying that was actually quite removed from the hard times her clique went through during this period. The book is thus more creative than one might realise. The Pillow Book is generally quite wonderful in its own right, and I am entirely delighted that such a character as Sei was set in writing and able to live on through this work.
60.On Love and Barley - Bashō (translation Lucien Stryk): lovely collection of haiku on the theme of nature. Honestly, though, much as I enjoyed this and Narrow Road, it must be said that Bashō is not my favourite poet. He relies too often on the reader being able to place experiences which I lack the requisite background to resonate with.
*61.Eichmann in Jerusalem - Hannah Arendt: this inspired a blog post here. An odd effect of this book in the context of my broader readings this year was that it acted to somewhat restore my faith in Confucian moral optimism, after the damage dealt to it by Ban Zhao's book. For one of the most remarkable things Arendt reports is the extent to which the Nazi's praised an attitude of "moral toughness", willingness to Do What Must Be Done even as it was horrific - while in fact this was utterly feeble and their pronouncements smoke and mirrors. Men like Eichmann needed the social environment to be very carefully constructed to avoid the intrusion of conscience. Since the social environment had to really support their thoughtlessness, this engendered a very organised epistemology of ignorance. Where this was not present, as in Denmark or Holland, or even with some of the Catholic anti-semites in France and Slovakia or Spain, willingness to participate in the slaughter would start to break down even among the Nazis. While it was not enough, lives were saved as a result of this. (Arendt has a lovely passage summarising this moral, screenshot here.) If evil is banal, it is also fragile, and a firm stand for the good was not so often in vain as the wicked will try and make it seem. Thinking back on my readings this year, I feel this reinforces not just Confucian moral optimism, but also Epictetus' Stoic dignity even in the face of utter subjugation. Proof oneself with an inner dignity and sense of mission, and do what justice requires of you even where it seems that the sky shall fall for all your efforts to the contrary. Such high standards of personal integrity matter more than you may be in a position to appreciate.