Saturday, February 28, 2015

Books Read in February

There have been some big changes in the past month.  I've moved from being a stay at home dad/part time worker to a full time in the office guy.  (The kids are old enough that this now makes sense.)  I'm not sure what that will mean schedule wise for reading but I'm pushing ahead anyway.
  • Empire Falls by Richard Russo - I found this 2002 Pulitzer winner at a used bookstore.  It's a story of a small New England town that is dealing with great changes since the textile industry changed.  It provides a very interesting (and amusing!) look at small town life.  The first 400 pages were very good, but it kind of fizzled at the end.  
  • The Player of Games by Iain M Banks - A reread for me.  This book is set in the far future when the dominant civilization (known as the Culture) finds another civilization that is organized around an unbelievably complicated board game.  They recruit their finest game player to play against them.  A great book full of surprising cultural details.
  • There were a handful of other books that I'm only part of the way through.  The most interesting is 'The Cave and the Light' by Arthur Herman.  This is a comparison of Plato and Aristotle and what each of them has meant to western civilization.  Well written and interesting throughout.
I'm a bit behind on the short stories, about one week to be precise.  This month I read:
Father and the Boys by Weissenberg, a very dark story
With Acknowledgments to Sun Tzu by Hodge, nearly as dark
No Place for you, my Love by Welty, which was frustrating

Not much joy there.  Respect for crafting and art, but probably too much darkness.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Classic Links

Best Marriage in Literature?  link

Book recommendations from Neil Degrasse Tyson link

Traveling to Antarctica and reading Moby Dick link

Twelve Angry Philosophers link

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Theaetetus - Plato

I don't have a lot to say about 'Theaetetus'.  The dialogue is (mostly) between Socrates and a young man named Theaetetus.  Theaetetus is very smart and humble and Socrates treats him with respect and gentleness.  The dialogue is concerned with how we know things.

The biggest thing that I learned was a bit of personal discovery.  Discussions of epistemology make my eyes glaze over.  This may be my problem with Kant, too.  Not sure what it is but I think the problem is is that the theories of knowledge seem incomplete or unconvincing.
This doesn't bode well for the rest of the year, either.  Both Locke and Hume have pieces concerning human understanding.  They're followed up by part of Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason'.  August and September could be long . . .

Friday, February 20, 2015

Readings for March

Two pieces:

March Aristotle: Physics (book 4, chapters 1-5, 10-14) link Aristotle: Metaphysics (book 1, chapter 1-2, book 4, book 6 chapter 1, book 11 chapter 1-4) link

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Questions about Plato's Cave

If you are unfamiliar with Plato's Cave or only vaguely familiar, please read yesterday's post, which has most of the text regarding it.  The entire concept is fascinating and well worth extensive study.

  • How reliable a comparison is the suddenly freed person to a philosopher?  A philosopher, in this context, is taking a deep dive into the deep questions of life.  This separates the individual philosopher from the 'go along to get along' everyday person type.  Once they grapple with the deep ideas of ethics and the formation of the state, their life will be altered in such a way that they will be different than those who haven't.  That's obviously true on some level but is it overstated as well?  If you were at a party with various people, could you spot the philosopher?
  • Then there is the idea that what we perceive in regular life is the same as flickering shadows from an unknown (to us) source.  Does that imply some other type of existence that is dimly communicating to us?  Are we getting garbled messages from some place else or is the world really what we see it as?  (This was almost certainly Ayn Rand's big beef with Plato.  She fervently believed that reality gave us all the tools we needed to understand the world around us.  The idea that this information was simply leaking to us must have appalled her.)
  • Is there some kind of agent at work here?  The prisoners are bound and they see only shadows of puppets(?).  Does this mean that some other party must be . . . moving those puppets?  Or have created them?  Or am I taking the story too far?
  • The idea that I find most personally powerful is the idea that we need to give thinkers some time and room while they figure things out.  Criticism should be gentle and understanding.  (This rule is probably suspended if the thinker is too brash and arrogant, of course.)  
  • How much should we, the 'prisoner' really trust those outside opinions though?  Just because someone has told us that they have glimpsed an outside world that is closer to the truth, can we really be asked to simply go with that?  That probably depends on what exactly it is that they're telling us and how far from our normal experience they expect us to deviate.  But if the cave analogy is accurate, would we have any real gauge on just how far from normal is problematic?  The freed philosopher has better information than we do, certainly.  But how do you differ between madmen and those that have seen the truth?  (More worrisome, is there a difference?)
The ideas here are incredible but I'm not quite sure what else to do with them.  Think of them, certainly.  Watch for future references and arguments, I suppose.  But I'm not sure what else.  If I'm one of the prisoners, can I ever be in a position to judge?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Plato's Cave

Book 7 of the Republic opens with Socrates description of the 'cave'.  This is perhaps the most famous metaphor in all of philosophy.
Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show puppets.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, other appear silent.
Like ourselves...they see only their own shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave? ... And of the objects which are be carried in like manner they would only see the shadows? ...  And if they were able to converse with one another, would not suppose they there were naming what was actually before them? ... And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.  They couldn't know the true world.  Or rather, they could only get 
So everything that the chained humans would see and know would be the distorted images of shadows.  They couldn't know the subtle truths of the real world.  Socrates continues:
And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when his approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, - will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?
This is the philosopher.  He is released from the bonds of normal humanity and led into the true light.  It is painful and he is uncertain but he can actually see the Truth.  Socrates goes on to talk about how it would take time for the eyes to adjust and how badly the eyes would work if this person is led back underground.  After spending time in the true sun of philosophy, he would have trouble working in the normal conditions of everyday life, i.e. the cave.
This philosopher would also have a hard time convincing the prisoners of the truth.  They would distrust him and doubt his stories.  They would take his dim vision as proof that he had followed a dangerous path.  And the more radical his stories seemed, the more they would doubt.

The total idea here is enormous.  Instead of risking turning this post into something monstrous, I'm going to split it in two.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Classic Links

How to historicize the historicizers link

An example of how the Odyssey continues to influence modern stories link

Iris Murdoch and the Death of Philosophy link 

Reading Hamlet 100 times link

Monday, February 9, 2015

Plato's Republic

The assignment for February is only for two books of the Republic, books 6 and 7.  Back in year one, when after reading books 1 and 2, I didn't like how the conversation cuts off in the middle.  This year I decided that I'd go back and start from the beginning.  Kind of get a running start so I'd be ready for the part that is actually assigned.  Observations:
  • Socrates is slippery.  There are so many analogies and syllogisms that desperately need to be untied.  After some struggle, I decided to simply let them be and let the whole of the conversation wash over me.  I don't know if that's best or not.
  • The Republic is an incredible book.  Socrates decides to work towards a definition of justice by creating a state that is just.  He talks about how people would work, how they would be raised, how they would fight and so on and so on.  He makes a fairly honest attempt to give the state some heft.  Over the centuries, people must have looked at its arguments as they tried to figure out the best way to rule and be ruled.
  • He puts women on an equal footing with men, which must have been incredibly controversial at the time.  
  • There is just an incredible amount of meat there.  I bet you could read any two pages at random and come up with enough material to argue for and against that you could satisfy any thesis committee.
  • As a general rule, Socrates is brilliant when asking questions and profoundly foolish when making statements.  I say this with full acknowledgment that he was much smarter than me.  However he is without the knowledge of the last 2000+ years of human history.
  • If I had my druthers, I'd spend about a year going over this with a small group (fewer than ten).  We'd do about four pages a week and we'd argue gloriously.  Then we'd record and publish those arguments so other people could argue over them.
Would I recommend read The Republic?  Yes.  But bring some friends.  And a drink.  You'll need both.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Biography of Plato

I covered the great man about three years ago and you can read it here.  The short story is that we don't really know much about him.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Author Timeline

Euripides 480-406
Plato 428-348  
Aristotle 384-322

Augustine 354-430
Aquinas 1225-1274
Montaigne 1533-1592
Galileo 1564-1642
Bacon 1561-1626
Descartes 1596-1650
Newton 1642-1726
Locke 1632-1704
Hume 1711-1776
Kant 1724-1804
Melville 1819-1891
Dostoyevsky 1821-1881
James 1842-1910

Sunday, February 1, 2015