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Books Read in 2012

(Created on Sunday 10 March 2013)

I'm very late in sorting out the books pages. I should have done it two months ago!!

Anthony QuintonThe Nature of Things

I've had this book for over 30 years. I think I read most of it shortly after buying it, but, on noticing it on my bookshelves, realised I could rememeber hardly anything Quinton said, so I decided to re-read it.

I found it quite hard work. Quinton writes very clearly, so the difficulty is not his English, but rather the obstruseness of the subject matter and the intricacy of the argument. Most Philosophy books seem to be written in the hope that they might be intelligible to someone who has no previous acquaitance with Philosophy. Hence they either treat their subject matter rather superficially, or are very long. Some Philosophy books are both. The Nature of Things is unusual in being what one might call an advanced book on Philosophy. It would be unintelligible to someone unfamiliar with Philosophical debate. That makes it possible for Quinton to advance his argument much further than would otherwise be possible, and the time neeeded to follow his argument carefully is time well spent.

Quinton expounds materialism, in Descarte's sense of matter as that which occupies space. He argues that when we claim something exists, the claim always depends ultimately on identifying something present at some spatial location, or some event occurring at a spatial location.

I found the discusions about perception particularly difficult. Quinton argued against the common claim that knowledge about material objects must depend on logically prior knowledge about sense experience. He notices that we often come to reliable beliefs about material objects without performing any inferences from beliefs about sense experience, and infers that when that happens we have direct knowledge about material objects. I think he overlooks the possibility that we jump to conclusions as a matter of habit, and that habits survive because they are fairly reliable, so, although there is often no inference from sense experience to beliefs about the material world, those beliefs are only formed because an inference would be available if anyone looked for one. I wonder if that would count as an example of an unconcious inference?

Quinton's explanation of number was particularly ingenious. He suggested that numerals are neither nouns nor adjectives, referring to neither things not to properties, but are what he called 'formal words', analogous to 'all' 'some' 'most' 'none', so that to say 'The Leicester U3A has 225 members' is on a par with saying 'The Leicester U3A has some members' . 'There are 225 so and so's' is a sort of precise quantifyier, fulfilling a dimilar role to 'There are some so and so's'. Hence there is no problem about the existence of numbers, and as number are not adjectives describing sets, the use of numbers makes no presuppositions about the existence of sets.

Quinton argued that moral judgements rest on what he calls appetitive statements. ‘a value judgement is a generalised or impersonal appetitive statement; it says what men in general would wish to be the case, if they were rational, which is not, of course always the same as what they actually wish were the case.’ (op cit pp 266-7). Quinton argued that ‘value judgements are conceptually connected, as well as functionally analogous, to appetitive statements’ (op cit p. 362), summarising his position thus:

‘if, as I have argued, judgements of value are, as they grammatically appear to be and quite compatible with their being practical, statements of fact, it follows that they must be statements about the capacity of actions, possible to me, to produce satisfying states of affairs. The only beliefs that can move me to action are those beliefs about the conditions of satisfaction which are, at least partly, constitutive of desires. In short, judgements of value move to action, action is motivated by desire, desire is for satisfaction; therefore value-judgments state the conditions of satisfaction, not, as appetitive statements do, with reference to particular people or a particular situation, but with reference to people in general and over the long run. And their validity is determined by whether the claims they make about long-run general satisfaction are true or false’ (op cit p 373)

I think Quinton would be justified in claiming that part of what moral judgments usually assert is he says they do, but is wrong to claim that every moral judgement makes such a claim, and wrong to claim that that is all a moral judgement claims.

Moral judgements go beyond what Quinton allowed; they commit the speaker to the standard’s proposed, and recommend those standards to others. They function like the conjunction of a generalised appetitive statement and an imperative.

Sometimes moral judgements make no implicit reference to consequences. For instance Kant claimed that whether actions are right or wrong is quite independent of their expected consequences.

Marvin MinskyComputation: Finite and Infinite Machines

I recently re-read much of this book to prepare to talk to the U3A Science and Technology Group about Turing

It is an an excellent introduction to the subject

Mark Colyvan An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mathematics

This provides an interesting summary of recent thought on the subject. Much of the material was familiar, though I was surprised how seriously he took the strange question whether or not numbers 'exist'.

Seab Gabb The Churchill Memorandum

Set in 1959 and related from the point of view of a young academic of Indian ancestry working in London, this is fiction exploring the way things might have gone had Hitler died before invading Poland. The British Empire survived with Enoch Powell in charge of the India Office. The USA was isolationist and racist. Various politicians I am old enough to remember are shown in a most unflattering light.

I quite enjoyed reading the book, but did not find it as gripping as the same author's historical fiction set in the dying Roman Empire and published under the pseudonym Richard Blake

Jasper Fforde The Eyre Affair

This is the first book of Fford's I've read. I came across it though an online book club in CIX Conferencing. We have a long list of books people have suggested, and from time to time the lady who co-ordinates our efforts draws a title out of a suitable kitchen utensil, and we read it, comparing notes afterwards.

The book is humourous science fiction, involving rather haphazard time travel and literary sabotage. It is set in an altered universe in which the Crimean war has continued for 131 years.

I liked it very much. Humourous Sci Fi is very hard to write. The humour tends to prevent one suspending disbelief sufficiently to become engaged with the story. That wasn't so in the case of the Eyre Affair. I recommend it strongly.

Richard Blake The Sword of Damascus

The fourth in a series of six, this is a historical novel set in the seventh century. The hero, Aelric, English by birth and Roman by adoption has gripping and realistically bloody adventures in Northumbria, the mediteranean and Syria

A Failure: A book I couldn't finish

Sigmund Freud Introductory Lectures on Pychonalaysis

This is volume 1 in the Penguin Freud Library and one of the many books I inherited from my Father, who had most of the volumes in that series.

I hadn't read anything by Freud since my late teens. As a schoolboy and then an undergraduate I found his writing quite plausible; now it seems much less persuasive

Freud's argument consists of a string of anecdotes interpreted as signs of unconcious desires, punctuated by attempts to anticipate sceptical objections. The answers to objections come close to a general defence of gullibility. In the early lectures the anecdotes involved what Freud called 'parapraxes' inadvertent actions like slips of the tongue, losing things, dropping things, going to an appointment on the wrong day, missing a train, or getting off it at the wrong station.

The idea of unconcious mental states is a tricky one. If we classify all brain activity as mental, there are certainly many mental states and events of which we are not concious, but we usually define 'mental' more narrowly than that, to include beliefs, likes, dislikes, desires and intentions. The unconcious mental states that interested Freud were supposed unconcious desires linked to the basic instincts for nutrition, and especially for reproduction.

There is a serious gap in all Freud's analyses of examples. While he shows that the various slips of the tongue he cites could express the wishes of the speaker, he never explains why he believes those wishes were unconcious; they might well have been conscious wishes. I think Freud may have confused 'unconcious' with 'unacknowledged'. people often have wishes they consider it prudent to conceal, but that does not make those wishes unconcious. Freud only very rarely mentions questioning speakers about their parapraxes. Furthermore Freud made no attempt at statistical analysis of parapraxes in general. It might be that such an analysis would reveal that only a small proportion admitted analysis as expressions of concealed desires; if that were so the cases Freud cites might just be coincidences.

Freud several times refers to a story about an occasion when the President of the lower house of the Austrian Parliament opened a new sitting of the house by saying, not 'I declare this session open' but 'I declare this session closed'. Freud attributed the slip of the tongue to the President subconciously fearing that the new session might do more harm than good. While the President may well have been thinking on those lines, he need not have been doing so unconciously. Indeed, if he were an astute politician he might have been quite conciously apprehensive.

Freud's remarks on why people lose things were intriguing. He started by saying people lose things because they want to be rid of them, either because they dislike them, or because those things have disagreeable associations. He then remarked that sometimes people lose things they value through 'an intention to sacrifice something to fate in order to ward off some other dreaded loss'. (p 106) A wish to punish oneself, or to show defiance are also suggested as explanations of people losing things they value. Such elaborations threaten to make the theory untestable. It is one thing to say people lose things because they don't value them, but quite another to say people lose things either because they don't value them, or because they do.

Leading up to a discussion of dreams, Freud said 'Sleep is a state in which I ant to know nothing of the external world...I put myselkf to sleep by withdrawing from the external world.....from time to time we withdraw into the premundane state, into existence in the womb' (p 117).

I was intrigued by a comment that appeared to be an anticipation of the linguistic philosophy pf the 1950's. Considering possible sources of information about dreams, Freud said 'a hint reaches us from a direction in which we have not so far looked. Linguistic usage, which is no chance tjing, but the precipitate of old discoveries, though, to be sure, it must not be employed incautiously - our language, then, isacquainted with things that bear the strange name of 'day-dreams'.' (p 127)

Links to accounts of my reading in previous years may be found in the Box Room

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