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Books Read during 2011

The first two volumes were on the list of current readingh for so long that I beginning to doubt whether I should ever finish them, but I persisted. After two years toil and a good deal of skimming I managed to finish them in the minimal sense that I'd run my eyes over every line of print.

Peter Worsley and others Introducing Sciology.

This was written for use in Open University courses and was published in 1970, so it is by no means up to date. Its attractions were being cheap in a second hand book shop, and appearing to be written in tolerably lucid prose. I shall treat it as part of my study of the history of ideas, though I expect it will turn out to have some bearing on contemporary thought.

Much of what I have to say about this book applies also to a companion collection of readings, so I shall deal with the two together.

Peter Worsley Modern Sociology Introductory Readings

is a companion book to the same writer's Introducing Sociology. It contains a collection of short readings from writers of interest to sociologists. Several of the readings come from books I've already read, so I may already know slightly more Sciology than I had realised.

I'm found the material heavy going, and that applies to both books. Both begin with attempts to define 'Sociology', the introduction of terminology, and abstract discussions of the methods of enquiry. I suspect that many sociologists have been anxious to represent themselves as scientists and, knowing little of theoretical science, have thought its most important feature to have been its extensive vocabulary of technical terms. They have accordingly made up a set of technical terms of their own.

They clearly take it for granted that they should start by saying what Sociology is, and how it should be pursued. That is an example of a very common misconception that could be summed up as 'foundations first' or as 'begin at the beginning'.

'Foundations first' confuses logical prority with order of exposition. The validity of a study does indeed depend on the principles it follows, but those principles can usually be explained only with reference to the investigations to which they apply. Principles are not even historically prior to investigations. The principles governing a barnch of knowledge tend to develop in step with the subject. There was very little in the way of scientific method until science itself had begun to grow, and there was a great deal of Mathematics before people started to develop Analysis or Mathematical Logic.

'Start at the beginning' is usually a good principle when narrating a sequence of events, but does not apply to a body of knowledge where, logically speaking, there is usually no definite beginning.(see Chapter 6 of my philosophy notes on the Philosophy page of this site))

I considered starting by reading the accounts of sociological investigations, and leaving till the end the introductory discussions of aims and methodology, but as the latter were intended to come at the beginning they are not based on problems arising from the substantive material, so I decide to force myself at least to form a visual impression of each page of the early material before proceeding further.

A passage on 'content analysis' illustrates the tendency to use jargon and abstractions to make the simple appear complicated. For two and a half pages there was no indication what sort of analysis of what content of what material was to be analysed, two and a half pages abounding in platitudinous pontifications such as "Measurement is used to define operationally, to single out instances and to describe variations of those aspects of the environment in which the investigator is interested " (Modrn Sociology In troductory Readins p 111). Only then was it finally revealed that the material to be analysed was either text, or transcriptions of conversations. The analysis consisted of counting the occurrences of various words considered to indicate interests or attitudes.

I'm inclined to think that Sociology is mainly a combination of elements of Geography, philosophical analysis and woolgathering presented as theory.

In the general introductory Essay Sociology as a Discipline Peter Worseley devoted a lot of space to emphasising that, although humans are animals, they are rather special animals because they can plan and have developed cultures and societies. Therefore no exclusively biological account can explain human activity. That is a truism. The important question, which Worsley does not address, is how much account Socialogy needs take of Biology. I suspect he'd want to answer 'very little' but he does not justify that.

I was interested to find an explanation of the Sociologists's use of the word 'parameter':

"we need to distinguish two types of terms. Firstly, there are those like 'hydrogen' or the 'matricentral family' which describe some particular arrangement of matter...They describe the bits of reality that are 'out there' in Nature and Society. Let us call these, following mathematical practice, 'parameters'." (Introducing Sociology p49)

That is not at all the way 'parameter' is used in Mathematics, where it refers to a single quantity in terms of which one may express each of a set of related quantities. For instance points on the ellipse with equation:

x2/9 + y2/4 = 1 may be represented parametrically by x = 3sin(t), y = 2cos(t). In those formulae 't' represents a parameter

I was interested to find an explicit example of a confusion about theory that weakens much argument in the social sciences.

"The sociologist is primarily interested in seeking out generally valid explanations of regularly-occurring social phenomena. The framework of ideas and concepts which he uses in this process constitutes sociological theory. These concepts and notions are abstract mental constructions in the same way that 'gravity' is in physics, or 'valency' is in chemistry. The sociologist arrives at these concepts by making a very basic assumption: that there is a regularity in the things he observes. Equally he infers the existence of an underlying characteristic from the presence of certain indicators." (Introducing Sociology p 73)

That involves a double misundertanding of scientific explanation. While 'gravity' and 'valency' do summarise regularities in observed phenomena, they do not constitute explanations in terms of any 'underlying reality'. Valency is itself something to be explained, in terms of quantum theory and the electronic structure of atoms, and gravity is something that Physicists would like to explain, and which they regret not having explained so far.

Second there is no room in Sociology for any 'underlying reality' corresponding the physicists' substratum of particles and waves. Those hypothesised sub-microscopic entities are regarded as the components of the macroscopic bodies which we observe, and the behaviour of the component entities explains the behaviour of the macroscopic bodies. In Sociology what is observed directly is the behaviour of people, who are the components of society, and what is inferred seems to be a set of theories about society. How then do the theories explain ? It can't be explanation of an entitity in terms of its constituents, because what is to be explained is the behaviour of people, yet the explanatory material does not describe the constituents of people, but just people.

George Herbert Read, discussing 'The Self' appeared to believe that our individuality is not intrinsic to us, but is created by society. He provided no argument for that conclusion, neither logical anaysis, not any collection of relevant observations, but simply made oracular pronouncements.

Peter L Berger and Thomas Luckmann, writing about 'The Social Construction of Reality' thought they could disregard abstract theories on the ground that most people to do not discuss such theories. They overlooked the fact that people who do not debate theories, often still take some theory or other for granted.

Some remarks about community and society looked rather like conceptual analysis. For instance Ferdinand Tonnies, writing in German, distinguished Gemeinschaft, translated as community from Gesellschaft translated a society, the difference being that a Gemeinschaft is something like a family, a natural association that has grown, while a Gesellschaft is something set up for a particilar purpose, like a business arrangement. However marriage, which is clearly an arrangment, adds someone to a family, which is a Gemeinschaft. Perhaps something like that distinction was behind the celebrated declaration 'There is no such thing as Society'.

MacIver and Page say that 'The mark of a community is that one's life may be lived wholly in it'. Does that mean it is possible for some people to live their lives wholly within it, provided they never leave their village for hospital treatment in the nearest city, or does it mean that the community contains sufficient amenities and facilities to cater for all the needs of everyone?

I was interested to read some of the descriptions of relationships and attitudes within various societies, but the material consisted largely of anecdotes describing the attitudes and summarising the testimony of certain people the investigators had spoken to. There was nothing to justify assuming that those attitudes were shared by most of the other people, or that the testimony reflected anything more profound than individual impressions. Investigators appeared to take it for granted that those they talked to were a representative sample of the population at large. The fact that they were willing to talk at length to investigators and were sufficiently articulate to express a clear point of view suggest that they were unrepresentative, at least in those respects.

It was common for investigators to divide people into various categories, yet there were not always clear criteria for such division. An intriguing description of communities in inner city Chicago ( G. D. Suttles The Social Order of the Slum ) purported to describe the attitudes of members of various racial groups, but did not say how racial group was determined. There is a good deal of intermarriage between people perceived to belong to different racial groups, so that it may often be unclear to which group an individual should be assigned, and different criteria may give different results.

Margaret Stacey investigated attitudes of people who had lived all their lives in Banbury, to people who had moved to the town from elsewhere. She quoted a few 'incomers' who had lived there for as long as 30 years but still thought they were treated as outsiders. She did not consider the possibility that those people may have been exceptional, and that there might have been others 'immigrants' who fitted in easily. In such a case it is most important how the 'outsiders' interviewed were selected. Did she somehow compile a list of 'immigrants' who had lived in Banbury for 30 years, and ask a sample of them how well they fitted in, or did she just just talk to the people who came forward to express their discontent.

Sociologists might reason more cogently if they had some experience of a genuine science, and also learnt some Logic and Statistics.

Graham Farmelo The Strangest Man

The man in question is Paul Dirac, a theoretical physicist who helped to develop quantum theory in its early stages and won a Nobel prize for his contribution to the theory of atomic structure.

He thought Mathematics was the best guide to theory construction, and constructed mathematically satisfying theories in the hope that they might fit the facts.

Dirac detested small talk and spoke only when he had something to say that he considered important.

Some of Dirac's eccetricity may have been a reaction to his upbringing by a very domineering father. Dirac's father was a francophone Swiss, who taught modern languages at a school in Bristol. Dirac Senior insisted that he and Paul have their meals alone, Dirac's mother and sister eating in another room. Dirac was allowed to speak only French to his father who was most intolerant of mistakes. Dirac therefore grew up with a hatred of the French Language. Although he could speak it fluently, he never willingly used the language.

I recommend the book strongly, as well as telling Dirac's story, it gives a reasonable review of the development of theoretical physics in the first half of the last century. I was intrigued that Einstein came across as a testy old man, resisting new ideas.

Thomas Crump A Brief History of Science as Seen Through the Development of Scientific Instruments

The title is an accurate description of the contents, but does not do full justice to the book's eccentricity.

Of the ten chapters, the first, called The Mastery of Fire, is a breathless gallop through the years before Copernicus, and the last, called Big Science marvels at the vast power of modern cyclotons and super colliders. In the other chapters Crump jumps from topic to topic to show how various scientific investigations benefitted from one instrument or another. He says hardly anything about instruments used to make the fundamental measurements of mass length and time, and does not allude to the considerable difficulties encountered in developing themometry. There is no mention of evolution or the genetic code - presumably because the relevant investigations used only instruments (microscopes, x-ray diffraction apparatus) that had already been developed for other purposes

Richard Blake The Blood of Alexandria

The third in a series of historical thrillers set in the seventh century.

Blake originally graduated in History, and some of the main characters are historical, though I suspect some of their adventures are not. One of the central characters is Priscus, son in law and for a while designated heir of the emperor Phocas. In the story that preceded this one ( see my account of my reading last year) Priscus abandoned Phocas just in time to join Heraclius, who deposed and executed him. Blake has Priscus still in the Heraclius' service two years later, though Gibbon says that Priscus was deemed to unreliable for high office and retired to a monastery.

The background to this story is unrest in Egypt as the government collected a large proportion of the crop of grain and sent it to Constantinople, so that Egypt was threated with famine. An uprising in Alexandria was brutally repressed by Priscus who remarked "Do ask yourself how an empire survives without people like me. It needs heroes to found it, and poets artists and philosophers to make it noble. And it needs someone to direct the rack if it's to be kept in order". I think that for Blake that is the moral of the story. A powerful state committed to supporting 'culture' and a large parasite urban population depends on a high level of taxation which can only be maintained by repression, to the society will eventually collapse, as the Roman Empire did.

W. B. Gallie Peirce and Pragmatism

This is another of the books I've had for more than 50 years and never before read in its entirety, though I have read some of it

I have owned this book for upwards of 50 years and have read much of it before.

I returned to it when I was preparing a talk about Peirce for the U3A Science and Technology Group and wanted to check I hadn't missed anything important in the course of my meandering perusal of the eight volumes of The Collected Papers of C.S. Peirce.

Reading Gallie did help in that respect, but I soon realised why I didn't finish it when I first bought it. It is extremely badly written, full of generalities with no illustrating examples. Some of Peirce is very hard to follow, but some of Gallie's stuff is at least as bad.

If you want to learn about Peirce, don't read this book. A. J. Ayer's The Origins of Pragmatism is much clearer.

Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde Sleights of Hand

Two neorocientists illustrate the mechanism of human perception by describing their adventures as amateur conjurers.

This book was particularly interesting to me because I was reading it at the same time as I was preparing a talk about C. S. Peirce. Peirce challenged the view, widely held among philosophers, that the testimany of our senses is an unshakeable bedrock on which all other knowedlge is founded. He countered that the judgements of perception all involve an element of inference, though the inference is usually unconcious. That seems to agree with the recent findings of neuroscience.

The book abounds in examples of people thinking they see what is not there (sometimes as a result of the persistence of after images, so that for a fraction of a second we see what was there but is there no longer) or fail to see what is there because we are distracted by something else.

Memory is particularly falible. At best we remember a few details of an event, and when we think we are recalling a memory we are actually using those fragments to construct a fuller but innaccurate picture. Furthermore, each time a memory is recalled, the original memory seems to be obliterated and replaced by the reconstruction that we mistake for memory.

One example that surprised me was of a trick in which a conjurer appears to make a ball disappear in mid-air. Several time he throws it up in the air and catches it. Then he throws it up and it disappers. Apparently the final throw is a feint. The ball stays in the conjurer's hand, but by following with his eyes the trajectory the ball would have taken had it been thrown, he reinforces the spectaors' expectations that the ball is in the air, so they think they see it. The illusory seeing is not in the centre of the visual field, and the ballk seems to dissapear when the observer brings its supposed position to the centre of his visual field, bringing into play the fovea, the most sensitive part of the retina.

The authors' comments (pp 110-113) on the so caled 'Indian Rope Trick' were particularly interesting. They claim that there is no such trick That is, no one have ever performed such a trick. The suggestion that there might be such a trick originated in an article in the Chicago Tribune on 8th August 1890 written by John Elbert Wilke, who later became the first director of the American Secret Service. The article purported to descibe the trick being performed in front of two American tourists, one of whom photographed it. Allegedly, when the photographs were developed they revealed just the fakir, but no rope and no boy. In fact the whole story was made up by Wilke, as he later confessed.

People cannot multi-task. Attempting to do more than one thing at a time confuses people so they perform badly.

There was also an interesting comment about Hypnosis. The authors say that the phenomenon is genuine, but of only limited application. Most children can be hypnotised, but in most cases they aquire a degree of resistance around the age of 12. Only 15% of aduklts can be completely hypnotised. Of the remaining 85% some are immune to hypnotism, and some can be influenced by hypnotism but not compltely hypnotised.

John Wilson Logic and Sexual Morality

I've had this since it was published in 1965. It cost me 4 shillings then.

I have read it all before but decided to re-read it to stimulate my thoughts as I revise the Ethics Chapter of my Philosophy notes.

Wilson was for a while a schoolmaster and then a University lecturer. He wrote well with a lively style in lucid English. I read the book immediately after finishing the two dreadful books on Sociology described below, so I appreciated good English.

Wilson wrote when all homosexual activity between males was still illegal, and abortion was tolerated only in a few special cases, and even then only on the basis of a legal precedent that had never been tested in the appeal courts. Any sexual activity outside marriage was widely deprecated, unmarried couples living together were referred to as 'living in sin', and illegitimacy was treated as a stigma. In those days people were careful what they said in public about sex, and I think that made Wilson much more cautious than would be normal in anyone writing on the subject today, though at the time he semed very daring.

He argued that contempory thought about sex was hampered by a reluctance to challenge established rules and customs. He hinted that we should understand the matter better if we were willing to experiment, and to have a number of sexual partners preferably including both members of the opposite sex and members of the same sex, before settling down with just one partner. He seemed also to think that sex education in schools should include an element of sexual play, but he was not bold enough to make detailed suggestions of what should take place.

The book provided an interesting reminder of attitudes in the 1960's. Today people sometimes deplore what is said to be the sexual license of those days, so I think it useful to remind ourselves of the extreme sexual repression against which many young people rebelled.

Richard Robinson An Atheists's Values

First published by Blackwell in 1964, this is an extrmely well written book which I enjoyed reading after buying the paperback in 1975. I decided to re-read it while I was rewriting my notes on Ethics.

The book was based on a series of lectures Robinson gave in response to the common complaint that philosophical discussion of Ethics tends to be too abstract, concentrating on abstruse points of logic rather than providing a moral code someone might live by.

However Robinson did not neglect the logical questions, and the book providesd a clear and concise discussion of the nature of morality, as well as summarising Robinson's own moral code.

Robinson's discussion of what he called 'political goods' was a fascinating reminder of the climate of opintion 50 years ago. Considering threats to liberty, Robinson chose, in descending order of magnitude, Communism, Catholicism and (in England) the trade Unions.

Syvia NasarGrand Pursuit

Subtitled The Story of Economic Genius the book summarises the thought of influential economists from Malthus to the present day. I bought it on the strength of a review in The Economist and found it very readable.

There is disappointingly little about economic theory; Jevons and the theory of the margin are mentioned only in an aside, the Keynesian multiplier, although mentioned is never defined, and there is no mention of consumers' surplus.What the book does offer is a delightful collection of anecdotes about economists. Some of those mentioned are people I met, or at least saw, when I was at Cambridge. I remember sitting in King's fellows Garden when two middle aged people walked through on their way to the tennis Courts. 'That is the most immoral woman in Cambridge' said my companion. He meant Joan Robinson!

Nasar is a professor of journalism, and the book contains some of the errors one expects of journalists. C. S. Lewis is referred to as a 'philosopher', and the General Election of 1931 is said to have been a victory for Conservatives and Liberals, whereas the Liberal party had split into 'National Liberals' and 'Liberals', both allied with the Conservatines, and another group of Liberals led by Lloyd George who were in opposition. There was also a 'National Labour Party' allied to the Conservatives - the Labour party also having split.

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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