Monday, August 31, 2015

Year Four Reading Blues

If you've been following along this year, it won't come as a surprise that I haven't enjoyed the selections for year four.  Far too much epistemology.  I've complained that the subject in general makes my eyes glaze over and that's true.  The unrelenting focus on the one subject here has been unbearable. 
The first three years were a blast.  The first year was especially valuable.  If you don't want to commit to a ten year plan, just do the first year readings.  I also enjoyed the second and third year.  Looking ahead to year five, I'm excited for that too.  But not this year.
I'm trying to figure out which types of readings are most valuable to me, or which ones do I get the most out of.  In no particular order:
  •  The writings of Plato and Aristotle.  I'm glad each year opens up with some back and forth between them.
  • Drama and literature.  I've learned a lot about Greek drama especially.  
  • The histories.  
  • Life advice. I'm not sure how else to describe the writings of Montaigne and Aurelius.  Maybe just 'ethics'?  
  • Political theory.  Especially Locke and the other enlightenment writers.  And I'm including Mill in there too.
This covers quite a bit of what we've read.  Of the 67 pieces covered so far, more than 50 of them easily fit here.  The two categories that I haven't gotten much out of are:
  • Science.  I simply don't think you can learn as much from primary scientific sources as you can from modern writing.  If I was advising someone on how to best understand scientific history, I'd point them towards a modern day overview instead.  (Though I am intrigued by what I've heard of the Feynman lectures.)
  • Very technical philosophy.  This is especially the German philosophers but Thomas Aquinas fits here too.  Maybe an overview is a good replacement here too.  The sheer denseness of these writers will repel all but the most committed readers.  I suspect that the only way I could get something out of them would be to read in a group.
Anyway, I'm already looking forward to October and reading Moby Dick.


  1. Hey - Good job so far. The ten year plan might be out of date with all of the theology. I'm not sure about that judgement you make on the classical sciences. The point of reading and rereading the classical sciences is to get training in scientific methods of thought. It is good to update your knowledge with mor recent papers, but I find books by Achimedes, Euclid, Pascal and the Geometry of Descartes to be extremley challenging reading and very rewarding in that you learn how to think and you get a very thorough overview of the history of the sciences. I found this area of the GBWW to be the most interesting and difficult.

    Keep in mind what Adler says in How to read a Book, that reading the sciences is a different kind of reading. You can't just start at the beginning and go to the end as you do in literature. You must read and reread multiple times. I, myself have read some of these classic science five or ten times each. Don't miss out on this spectacular part of the journey.

  2. I read somewhere that historically scientists used to write for laymen, so in effect, if most people read their writing, they would be able to understand it. However, nowadays, scientists tend to write for their peers and so the knowledge/theories are not always accessible. I'm not sure how true this is (it sounds reasonable), but it might be interesting to at least compare the approaches of ancient and modern science.

  3. Cleopatra - I have read Darwin's Origin of Species at least five time, and after grasping all of the main concepts in that book, I went through another reading and notes every term that I did not understand. The list is 480 words unknown to me. So the classic writes are not only good for rewiring the brain for scientific thought, but some of these writers laid the foundation vocabulary for the science. This is true of Dobzhansky also, after at least five reading, I then went back to see how many words were still unknown to me - total 450. Dobzhansky lays down the foundational vocabulary for discussion genetics and reading genetics papers.

    But if you are in the fourth year of reading, you may postpone a complete study of the sciences until you are inclined. I delayed those books until I had read almost all of what was more easily accessible and did not fully engage that part of GBWW until my final ten years of reading.

    I don't recommend reading an historical overview in place of those volumes. They should be tackled and mastered. They are included in the set for good reason.

    Are you currently reading the GBWW also?

    1. I'm impressed that you took so much time with Origin of Species. I read about half and got so bogged down that I had to come up for air. I hope to revisit it in the future.

      I agree that while the sciences are not perhaps the most stimulating writing, it's unwise to pass them over. The old books are like building blocks for the new and it's important to understand how we arrived at where we are.

      I've eyed the GBWW but feel that my classics education has been so delayed, that I need to cover the basics before I go in-depth. But perhaps my reading isn't so basic as I've hit on Cicero, Voltaire, Descartes, Augustine, Milton, Montaigne, Homer, Chaucer, etc. In any case, I'd love to read through the GBWW one day; I'm not sure if I'd read through it all and re-read what I've already read, or just focus on what I haven't read yet. It's something to think about. Did you enjoy the ten year reading schedule? It seems more manageable and gives one time to read other books.

  4. Ideas - I take your points generally but I'm not in full agreement. There is indeed value in understanding the history and method scientific understanding. Where I disagree is that I don't think reading the source materials gives the best understanding. For instance, the calculations that the ancients made to understand planetary movement and other celestial phenomenon were very impressive. You don't need to read very many of the actual charts to understand the process. What you need to know is the overall accuracy and the range of ideas that came out of the data. This is where an overview from modern times becomes a better resource.
    Which isn't to say that I don't understand where you're coming from. We seem to be coming at this project from different viewpoints, with a different purpose. I think your approach is wonderful but I won't be following it. I won't do a deep dive in the science tracts, though I will in other areas that are of more interest to me.
    And I do think that the science writings *are* different than, say, the writings of Plato. The works of Newton, for instance, were crucial for understanding gravity, orbital mechanics, calculus, etc. But there are now better ways of understanding each. Ways that have built on his work but are more accessible.
    Plato on the other hand, can be read and understood by most adults. The questions he posed (and the method that he used!) are still relevant today. They can be restated by moderns, and often are, but they still have as much value in their original form. This exact point was raised in dissent against Adler when he selected the Great Books. I've come to agree with the dissenters.

  5. Well, In my introduction to GBWW, I too was attracted more to that which was more accessible - prose writing. I avoided the science until I had gotten most of the prose finished. What, I think, you are overlooking is the problem solving process that is demonstrated in these writings. When these people wrote, they were facing problems that were thought to be unsolvable. Then they developed methods for solving these tremendously difficult problems. You can read genetics papers today and get more up to date, but these papers are all responses to the breaking down of complex problems by these authors included in the GBWW. And you won't learn how to solve a very complex problem by reading these individual papers or books. Someone like Stephan Jay Gould is better understood after you are fully acquainted with Darwin.

    The ten year plan is good, But I abandoned it for reading the whole set. You have to do what you have to do. Everybody approaches this project a little bit differently. Have you attended a great conversation group?


    1. I haven't, but I'd like to sometime. I understand there are meetings in Chicago. That would probably be closest to me.

      As to your process point, there is certainly something there. I felt like I got some very good value in working through Euclid.

  6. Peder - There you go. I think you will appreciate this point much more when you get through the ten year plan.These books in the Sciences section are just great mind expanders and offer very difficult reading challenges. Take a look at the Geometry of Descartes. I think I must have read that twenty times and I have been on it for about five years. I just now understand the first three pages and it is really worth the effort.

    Another thing is though neither of us appreciated Locke, maybe it was because we did not understand id. (Id is my gender neutral pronoun - in this case it means "him") I doubt that we can say much about Locke's work except that we don't understand it. That is very different from understanding someone like Aquinas and knowing that it is incorrect and why we may not appreciate it. Locke might be all locked up until we know what id is talking about!

    BTW - I see you are developing a blog circle. Maybe I could find others who could blog along with you?

    Cleopatra - What brings you to this blog?