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Books Read during 2010

The list is rather shorter than that for previous years. I fear I'm getting lazy

Noel Annan Our Age

is an account of the period from the 1930's to the 1980's from the point of view of Annan and those who were roughly his contemporaries.

Annan was personally acquainted with many of the leading figures of those times, some through his schooldays at Stowe, some from Cambridge where for a while he had rooms directly beneath those of Alan Turing, and some through his involvement in public affairs in the 1960's, 70's and 80's so his narrative is enlivened by much intriguing reminiscence.

Annan's account of the Cambridge spies, Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt, showed them as cruel and unscrupulous. Of Philby he wrote:

"he not only sent Soviet defectors to they death but anyone in Europe who had worked for the British during the war against Hitler. The railwaymen in Hungary and Rumania who had reported the train-loads of German troopps on the move to Greece were marked down by Philby as capitalist agents and were liquidated after the war"

I was particularly fascinated by his account of the activities of Dr. Leavis in the English faculty at Cambridge. Although he does not mention it in the book, I happen to know that Annan was himself for a while member of the faculty board for English. His own subject was politics not English, but it was the custom for faculty boards to contain one or two people from outside the discipline in question to act as what it is customary to call 'honest brokers' (I must check the origin of that phrase). I knew Annan played that part for English, because the other honest broker was Jonathan Bennett, a philosopher who was my supervisor.

I already knew that Leavs held there were only five English novelists worth reading - Jane Austin, George Eliot, Henry James, Conrad and D. H. Lawrence, a number later increased to six by the addition of Dickens, but was intrigued by Annan's suggestion that the omission of any more recent novelist might be a consequence of Leavis never having read any of their work. Until I read this book I had not realised how irresponsibly he behaved to his colleagues, setting examination questions based on passages he himself had previously subjected to a detailed examination in work with his own students.

John Hospers An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis

is a later edition of a text book which I often saw fellow undergraduates carry about with them in my Cambridge days.

I never used it, preferring articles in the philsophical journals and books addressing particular philosophical questions. Now that my essay on Philosopphy is largely complete, I've decided to read someone else's survey of the subject to see what I may have missed out. My copy, purchased second hand for 30p, is of the second edition, and so not quite the same as the one I used to see my contemporaries carrying about with them. I gather that a chapter on aesthetics was removed to make room for more detailed discussion of meaning and knowledge.

Hospers devoted much more space to meaning and definition than I should expect to see in a modern introduction to Philosophy, and bravely put that at the beginning. That is sensible, but requires more patience from readers than one would find in many readers today.

Contemporary students might also be surprised that there is no discussion of political philosophy. At first that struck me as odd, then I realised it does make sense in an introductory book. What is called 'Political Philsophy' amounts to little more than discussing fallacious arguments that people have used to help them bully other people into doing as the bullies wish. So political philosophy is the discussion of errors. It could plausibly be urged that an introductory text should concentrate on ways of getting things right and thus providing people with the tools they can later use to identify error.

Hospers usually presents all the common points of view on each question, without committing himself to any one. Much of the text consists of imagined debates between the exponents of opposing points of view. The exception is his brief presentation of some of the views of Ayn Rand. In her case he summarises her views without comment or criticism. The book ends with the unsupported Randian assertion that morality must be based on individual rights. I understand that Hospers and Rand were for a while lovers, and that Rand was most intolerant of criticism; that may explain it.

Richard Blake The Terror of Constantinople

Richard Blake is the pen name of Sean Gabb, of the Libertarian Alliance. The book is successor to his Conspiracies of Rome, orginally pubished by himself with the far more intriguing title The Column of Phocas. The self published edition came to the attention of Hodder and Stoughton who offered to adopt Sean as one of their authors. I gather that the author plans for there to be six books in the series. The third in the series, The Blood of Alexandria was published in June, but sold out before I had time to buy a copy. I understand it is to be reprinted sometime in August.

The Terror of Constantinople is set in Constantinople during the last few months of Phocas's rule as emperor. Like it's predecessor it is an exciting thriller, wth the added advantage of having been written by an historian.

John Wisdom Problems of Mind and Matter

This book used to be mentioned in the Cambridge Students' Handbook, in which it was included in a short list of preliminary reading for undergraduates thinking of reading Moral Science, as Philosophy was called in those days. By the time I arrived at Cambridge Wisdom had become Professor of Philosophy. I heard that he had tried to have the book removed from that reading list, but that his colleagues had resisted.

Over the years I've made several unsuccessful attempts to read the book. At every previous attempt I've failed to get through the introduction, but this time I managed to do that, and found it then became easier, so this time I finished it.

Problems of Mind and Matter was published in 1934 and the style is an example of the technique of Philosophical Analysis pioneered by G. E. Moore. Difficult ideas were to be clarified, and different senses of words distinguished by providing definitions. The text of Problems of Mind and Matter consists of definitions and proofs, interspersed with explanatory commentary. When I attended Wisdom's lectures just over 20 years later, his style was quite different. When I knew him Wisdom looked askance at any attempt to settle anything by a precise definition, and thought that few, if any, issues were cut and dried. The questions assigned to Philosophy have many possible senses,and there are many motives for asking them. Only by careful consideration of the way people argue can we discover which sense applies in any particular context.

Wisdom's discussion of the relation between mental events and events in the brain and nervous system provides an interesting illustration of the difficulty of making a watertight distinction between Philosophy and Science. I quote:

"my decision to move my arm is followed by the movement, but not at once" (p 40)

However, recent research suggests that our conscious decisions do not preceed, but actually follow, the early stages of the physical act decided on.

Wisdom also developed a strange argument to support belief in pre-existence of the human psyche. He thought we obviously have freewill, and that would be impossible if our mental states were completely determined by physical causes. He argued that at least our early mental states would be so determined unless some mental component of ouselves existed before birth, and held that it would have to exist right back to the beginning of time, or, if there was no beginning of time, it would have to have existed forever.

Reading the volume inspired me at add some material to Chapter 7 of my Philosophy notes

Philip Pullman The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

This is a novel, but written rather like a biographical narrative, though the narrative reads like a sparse chroncile of events; there is little exploration of personality.

The story is based on the tales of the Christian Gospels, and the well known Gospel stories are retold on the basis of a strange assumption. Mary did not bear just one child in the stable in Bethlehem; she bore twin boys. One was Jesus an honest healthy well intentioned lad, and the other was Christ, physically weak, but cunning and devious. The novel chronicles their imagined interaction.

Apart from the twinning of Jesus and Christ, most of the book is little more than a retelling of Gospel stories, though there was a little twist at the end that took me by surprise, though on reflection I realised that many peole woulkd have guessed.

I guess that Pullman was trying to illustrate the thesis, often maintained by others, that Jesus was a kindly reformer whose teachings were distorted into the doctrines of an oppressive church.

I agree that it seems unlikely that much of Christian theology was soundly based on anything Jesus may have taught, but I do not share the conventional admiration of Jesus, an admiration shared by many non-Christians and ex-Christians. To me the Jesus of the Gospels appears to be an intolerant and self righteous agitator. For one thing he is portrayed as quite humourless. Did he ever make a joke, laugh at anyone else's joke, or use gentle humour to take the heat out of any confrontation? The only example of humour I recollect was the dark humour of naming one of his disciples 'Peter' because he was to turn out to be quite the opposite, and most Christians, as humourless as their idol, have treated that joke as an earnest prophesy meaning quite the opposite. Jesus is also presented as quite incapable of appreciating one else's point of view. He did not try to find common ground between himself and any those he criticised, but just tried to humilate them by using blockbuster arguments to make them appear ridiculous. The metaphysical doctrines of Christian theology may have no basis in the Gospel stories, but the narrow minded bigotry of many Christians finds much encouragement there.

I never felt the admiration for Jesus that many people profess. When we studied the Gospels in the school classes that were timetabled as "R.I." (Religious Instruction - there was no effete equivocation about 'Religious Education' in those days) I usually sympathised with the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. I felt no inclination for give my goods to the poor, or to forgive my enemies, still less to 'turn the other cheek'.

There is something craven and servile about much of the Gospel teaching. I can understand why Nietsche called Christianity a 'Slave Religion'. I think it may appeal to a certain servility innate in the human pysche, or at least innate in the psyche of many humans, because the same attitudes persists even in many former Christians. Like Pullman thay defend a Humanist Slave Irreligion. Because that repels me, I do not call myself a 'Humanist'.

William James The varieties of Religious Experience

I bought this book more than 50 years ago, without, so far as I remember, ever attempting to read it until this Summer.

The style is rather ponderous, and some of the very lengthy quotations are even harder going, so I didn't usually read much more than a dozen pages per day, but it contains some acute observations and many interesting anecdotes.

James distinguished several different types of religious belief. Acute cases are those who have first hand exerience of visions, voices or mental turmoil. Chronic religion is the religion of people who have no such experiences but incorporate the second hand experences of acute believers into institutuonal religion.

The religious may also be divided into the first born, and the twice born.

James thought that religious experience usually resolved conflict by producing a change in mind set.

Sometimes the conflict is external, between our hopes and expectations of the world and of other people, and the way the world happens to be and the disappointing ways other people often behave. Such a conflict can be resolved by a change in attitude, so that we come to see the disappointing aspects of things as either less disagreeable than we originally thought, or as necessary for the achievement of the things we do value. Such a point of view James called "The Religion of Healthy Mindedness", and he called those who achieved it the "once born".

On the other hand some people are troubled by inner conflict, so that they are unable to force themselves to do what they think they ought, or to resist temptations to do what they think they ought not. They may feel themselves unworthy, or they may find their lives trivial and lacking purpose. Resolution of such conflicts involves a radical change of outlook and a purging of some elements of the psyche, such as happens in religious conversion. Those whose religion is adopted in such circumstances, James called the "twice born".

Incidentally, conversion need not be from dissolute irrelgion to strait laced religious belief. Sometimes it is in the opposite direction, and people solve their inner conflicts by abandoning religion, or by giving up exacting moral standards. James gave an example of a man converted from fecklesness to avarice, who devoted most of his life to recovering money lost in his dissolute youth, and died very rich.

James may well have introduced the idea of the unconcious into psychological theory. He thought religious experience might be experience of the person's own unconcious. He had a strange theory that the individual unconcious might somehow extend into a sort of universal cosmic unconcious, providing some support for belief in a spiritual realm.

James comments on saints reinforced my own suspicion that they are often overrated. James thought sainthood usually combined an unbalanced personality with low intelligence.

Reading James inspired me at add some material to Chapter 7 of my Philosophy notes

Stephen Inwood The Man Who Knew Too Much

The man was Robert Hooke, of whom those of us who were taught Physics historically remember a good deal, especially for his law of elasticity and his work with the microscope with which he discovered plant cells by examining a speciment of cork. However I hadn't realised the breadth of Hooke's interests.

His work with springs was part of extensive research into watch making. He was one of the pioneers of the spring driven clock which, unlike the pendulum clock, can be developed into a watch.

For many years Hooke was employed by the Royal Society as curator, with the responsinbility of preparing and conducting demonstrations for Society meetings. He was therefore involved to some extent in almost all the scientific developmengts of the time. He worked on properties of gases pumps, barometers, thermometers,telescopes and microsopes. He performed experiments to show that animals need to breathe because they extract some component from the air, and that that component seems to be the same one used up when substances are burnt in air.

Until I read the book I hadn't realised how mean the Royal Society was. One year the Society had sponsored the publication of an illustrated book on fishes and had printed far more copies than it could sell. It therefore proposed that, instead of his 50 annual stipend for working as curator, Hooke should accept 50 copies of the book. He wisely refused and evenbtually got his money but only after quite a long wait

Fortunately for Hooke the Royal Society was not his principal source of income. He made most of his money as a surveyor and architect. He was one of the surveyor's appointed after the great fire of London. The surveyors had to work out which plot of land belonged to whome, mark out the devastated area, and supervise rebuilding to check that it complied with the new regulations, designed to prevent further fires. He was also involved in designing many buildings. He often worked with Sir Christopher Wren, and much work attributed to Wren may be at least in part due to Hooke - he seems for instance, to have had a hand in designing the Monument to the fire.

When he died Hooke left about 8000, mostly in gold coins in a large chest. That was a vast sum of money in those days, and must mostly have been accumulated architect's fees

A. J. Ayer The Origins of Pragmatism

This is yet another book I've owned for many years, having bought it not omng after its publication in 1968. The hardback edition cost me 70/- then, 3-50 in today's currency. I had dipped into the book, but had not read very much.

As usual, Ayer wrote very well, but even he struggled to clarify some of the more obscure aspects of Peirce's thought. I found the book useful revision, and it sent me back to The Collected Papers of C. S. Peirce

Links to accounts of my reading in other years are in the box-room. Follow the link at the top of the page.

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