Category Archives: Philosophy

Epistemic Friction

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Epistemic Friction –
An Essay on Knowledge, Truth, and Logic
By Gila Sher
Oxford University Press – £35.00

The light dove, cleaving the air in her free light, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that her flight would be still easier in empty space.

To describe this book as a little dense is akin to asserting that Donald Trump has made some rather bad decisions of late. Perhaps as much can be surmised in coming to terms with the above quote by Immanuel Kant; which, in and of itself, really isn’t one of his most profound. By an elongated stretch of the imagination might I add.

Having received her BA from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and her PhD from Colombia University in 1989, Gila Sher is current Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, of which this essay (!) really is a more than robust example of her accumulative study and research (her debut being The Bounds of Logic).

Divided into four distinct parts (‘Epistemic Friction,’ ‘A Dynamic Model of Knowledge,’ ‘The Structure Of Truth’ and ‘An Outline of a Foundation for Logic’), Epistemic Friction – An Essay on Knowledge, Truth, and Logic approaches knowledge from the perspective of the basic human epistemic situation – the situation of limited yet resourceful beings, living in a complex world and aspiring to understand it in all its entire complexity.

The two fundamental principles of knowledge are epistemic friction and freedom. Although let it be said, that the assorted (corrupt) powers that be in today’s Venezuela for instance, would no doubt, wholeheartedly contest the idea of freedom being actually considered as knowledge. That said, said ‘knowledge’ must be substantially constrained by the world (friction), but without active participation of the knower in accessing the world (freedom), theoretical knowledge is impossible.

Moreover, might not the actual knowledge of theory itself, be nigh impossible? Reason being, it’s not particularly quantifiable. And as is well known, nothing is more acute, if not absolutely exact, than that of mathematics – it even transcends language: ”While mathematism lacks logicism’s distinguished ancestry and rich body of literature, it shares the methodological advantage of reducing two foundational tasks to one. And since there exist several foundational accounts of mathematics that do not put the main burden of explanation on logic – e.g., naturalism and structuralism – mathematism could, potentially, provide an adequate foundation for logic, provided it employs a holistic foundational methodology” (‘An Outline of a Foundation for Logic – Logic and Mathematics: An Alternative to Logicism’).

Food for logical thought?
Too much to logically take in?
Logic for logic sake?

If anything, this book will most definitely take you on a logical journey – from which you might be a little reticent to return.

David Marx

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Ethics for a Full World

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Ethics for a Full World
Or, Can Animal-Lovers Change the World?
By Tormod V. Burkey
Clairview Books – £12.99

The ”control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.

                                                                                        (Rachel Carson) 1962

Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.

                                                                                        St Augustine

As with the above quotes, this most thought provoking of publications is liberally peppered throughout with enough ”stop you in your tracks” type quotes, to hopefully hush even the the most buffoon induced likes of Boris ‘I Really Do Need To Start All Over Again’ Johnson (‘Especially In The Ethics Department’).

But hey, long-lost principals aside, Ethics for a Full World – Or, Can Animal-Lovers Change the World?, really is the sort of book that is not only paved with tumultuous good intentions, but needs to be read (and then re-read) by everyone in Texas and the deplorable likes of perhaps Theresa May’s entire government – over and over and over again.

Sadly though, Tormod V. Burkey has herein written the sort of book that will no doubt be wholly embraced by the likes of Brighton’s Caroline Lucas and perhaps Jeremy Corbyn, yet probably – or should I say absolutely – no-one within the Conservative Party (not to mention Texas).

The mere fact that the word ‘Ethics” appears on the cover, will undoubtedly substantiate as much.

Indeed, these 150 pages (excluding Notes) are, as the author of Environmental Politics for the 21st Century, Lloyd Timberlake has said: ”one of the shortest, sharpest, clearest and most compelling descriptions of the causes and cures of our environmental bankruptcy that I have ever read.” To which one can only comply and wholeheartedly agree, for if, as Thomas Pynchon is quoted as saying (in chapter three’s ‘Why Are We Not Acting To Save The World?’) ”they can get you asking the wrong question, they don’t have worry about the answers.”

Brexit?

One of the most vital, vivid and translucent of books in a very long time.

David Marx

Trash Talks

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Trash Talks – Revelations In The Rubbish
By Elizabeth V. Spelman
Oxford University Press – £19.99

In products of intelligent design there is no waste.
The natural world is the product of intelligent design.
Therefore there is no waste in nature.

                                                             (‘Evolutionary Trash’)

Hmm, trash for thought?
Or utter cobblers?
Or in this instance, rubbish?

Throughout Elizabeth V. Spelman’s Trash Talks – Revelations In The Rubbish, there is a whole lot of worldly behaviour to ponder upon so far as the lasting trajectory of waste is concerned. A wide-open cornucopia that has turned some into criminals as a result of fly-tipping, some into thieves as a result of the direct salvaging of financial records, while others into a rife tittle-tattle of class-consciousness due to non-conforming re-cyclists.

Lest it be said that Swindon Borough Council recently took it upon themselves to do away with such hoi polloi ideology, by removing many re-cycling outlets altogether. Were this France, there would undoubtedly be an instantaneous storming of Swindon’s penny-pinching Bastille equivalent overnight. A Euro mode of behaviour which just goes to show that trash does indeed talk – in a variant of ways.

Many of which are more than interestingly addressed throughout these 222 pages.

As Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buffalo, Carolyn Korsmeyer, has noted: ”Far from being merely disposable, what we throw away illuminates both society and our existential selves, for human beings are not only wasteful but themselves become waste in the end. Drawing from sources as varied as Freud and Plato, Veblen, Darwin, and the Buddha, Spelman offers an elegant and original analysis of what trash means when it talks.”

The above opening quote from Chapter Four’s ‘Evolutionary Trash,’ is Charles Darwin, upon whom/which the authoress writes: ”Darwin not only found himself unable to ignore ways in which nature is ‘wasteful,’ ‘clumsy,’ ‘blundering,’ even ‘cruel;’ he quipped that such features would be of great interest and importance to an imagined ‘Devil’s chaplain’ because he recognised that they appeared to present a serious challenge to beliefs about the natural world and its creation shared by many influential scientists and divines active in Darwin’s time […]. Just as Darwin and some of his colleagues regarded the wastefulness found in nature to pose a problem for the hypothesis of intelligent design in the 19th century, many contemporary evolutionary theorists take such waste to be among the difficulties facing current versions of intelligent design: since an intelligent designer surely would not create waste, if there is waste there can’t be intelligent design; but there is waste, so intelligent design cannot be an adequate explanation of the natural world.”

Again, trash for thought or a thought process to be wholeheartedly grappled with?

Either way, Elizabeth Spelman – herself a Professor of Philosophy – has herein written a book a book that really does set the mind to thinking. Not only in relation to what we do actually do with our junk, but how we go about it with regards the big picture (and indeed, that of the wider world).

David Marx

Ethics In The Real World

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Ethics In The Real World
82 Brief Essay on Things That Matter
By Peter Singer
Princeton University Press – £19.95

No man is liberated from fear who dare not see his place in the world as it is; no man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until has has allowed himself to see his own littleness.

Such humble thinking wouldn’t go a miss in the White House right now, not to mention the Turkish Parliament and an array of other so called high places of high-octane power.

It does after all seem that when certain movers and shakers, hipsters and shirkers – be they politicians, financial investors or perhaps worse, City mortgage advisers – reach the penultimate threshold of no longer having to worry about the next pay cheque, they automatically feel compelled to relinquish all and every shred of decency they may have once had.

A quality which may well perhaps, (partially) explain why they are the people they invariably are: usually highly motivated and focused, yet simultaneously dull and exceedingly unpleasant.

In a round-a-bout kind of way, this (partially) accounts for Ethics In The Real World – 82 Brief Essay on Things That Matter being the book it is: real and inspired, provocative, yet relentlessly well thought through and honestly considered. Qualities which ought hardly be surprising, as Peter Singer has often been described as the world’s most influential philosopher, which these 330 pages (excluding Introduction, Acknowledgements and Index) do much to clarify.

One can literally open any page of this most wonderful book, and be wholeheartedly reached by way of unarguable truth – with even the very idea of philosophy itself, already being scrutinized in the book’s Introduction: ”There is a view in some philosophical circles that anything that can be understood by people who have not studied philosophy is not profound enough to be worth saying. To the contrary, I suspect that whatever cannot be said clearly is probably not being thought clearly either.”

And the shedding of light on philosophy doesn’t end there.

The chapter ‘Philosophy On Top,’ actually concludes with the optimistic note: ”More surprising, and possibly even more significant than the benefits of doing philosophy for general reasoning abilities, is the way in which taking a philosophy course can change a person’s life. I know from my own experience that taking a course in philosophy can lead students to turn vegan, pursue careers that enable them to give half their income to effective charities, and even donate a kidney to a stranger. How many other disciplines can say that?”

Indeed, how many other disciplines can say that?

There again, As Singer openly admits: ”Given the practical importance […] as a good utilitarian I ought to aim to write for the broadest possible audience, and not merely for a narrow band of committed utilitarians.”

Broken into eleven prime parts (Big Questions, Animals, Beyond the Ethic of the Sanctity of Life, Bioethics and Public Health, Sex and Gender, Doing Good, Happiness, Politics, Global Governance, Science and Technology, and finally, Living, Playing, Working), these 82 essays traverse all that is fundamentally important in one’s life.

As such, this book ought to be considered as something of a prime humanistic template for (the intrinsic motivation of) one’s everyday behaviour.

David Marx

Disparities

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Disparities
By Slavoj Zizek
Bloomsbury – £19.99

One need only negotiate this book’s Introduction to partially comprehend the enormity of the philosophical subject matter contained herein: ”[…] when a philosopher deals with another philosopher, his or her stance is not that of a dialogue but of division, of drawing the line that separates truth from falsity, from Plato whose focus is the line that divides truth from mere opinion up to Lenin obsessed with the line that separates materialism from idealism. As Alain Badiou said, a true Idea is one that divides.

Enough philosophical food for initial thought (a mere few pages in)?

From such sub-headings as ‘The subject’s epigenesis’ to ‘In defence of Hegel’s madness’ to ‘The lesson of psychoanalysis;’ from ‘The divine death drive’ to ‘The parallax of drive and desire’ to ‘Materialism or agnosticism,’ Slavoj Zizek’s Disparities is indeed a book of profound philosophical investigation.

Ought this be in the least surprising?

Zizek is after all, a Hegelian philosopher, a Lacanian psychoanalyst as well as a Communist. He is also international Director at the Birkbeck Institute of Humanities at the University of London and visiting Professor at the New York University (not to mention Senior Researcher at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia).

So when he continues on from the above opening quote with: ”The present book is an exercise in this art of delimitation: its aim is to specify the contours of the dialectical-materialist notion of disparity by way of drawing a line that separates it from other deceptively similar forms of thought, from Julia Kristeva’s abjection to Robert Pippin’s and Robert Brandom’s version of self-consciousness, from object-oriented ontology to the topic of post-humanity, from the god of negative theology to millenarian politics.,” the art of one’s own previous held delimitation(s), be they political or philosophical, need to be ever so partially reconciled with that of Zisek’s.

Especially if one is to fully comprehend and continue.

Reason being: ”The method of such a procedure is not learned in advance, it emerges retroactively – one should remember here Pascal Quignard’s definition of method: ‘Method is the road after we traversed it.’ Method is not learned in advance: it emerges retroactively.”

Categorised by three distinct different sections (‘The Disparity of Truth: Subject, Object and the Rest,’ ‘The Disparity of Beauty: The Ugly, The Abject and the Minimal Difference’ and ‘The Disparity of the Good: Towards a Materialist Negative Theology’) these 385 pages – excluding Notes and Index – are an in-depth, complex and surprisingly enlightening read if ever there was one.

Although it does have to be said that the book would have benefited from a little light relief from time to time. An abundance of (too much of) anything, especially from a literary angle, is never a particularly good idea.

Under the heading ‘A Comical conclusion,’ this might partially explain the following: ”Today sexuality is more and more reduced to pleasures in partial objects: we are more and more bombarded with objects-gadgets which promise to deliver excessive but effortless pleasure […]. the Stamina Training Unit, a counterpart to the good old vibrator – a masturbatory device that resembles a battery-powered light (so we’re not embarrassed when carrying it around). You put the erect penis into the opening at the top, push the button, and the object vibrates till satisfaction. The product is available in different colours, levels of tightness, and forms (hairy or without hair etc.) that imitate all three openings for sexual penetration (mouth, vagina, anus). What one buys here is the partial object (erogenous zone) alone, deprived of the embarrassing additional burden of having to deal with another entire person. How are we to cope with this brave new world which undermines the basic premises of our intimate life?”

Ahem, it’s the one section of the book nigh guaranteed to make a wider readership sit up listen. And dare I say it, partake in Zisek’s acutely focused, philosophical vision.

As such, the one thing I’d suggest to make Disparities something of a far more forthcoming and ultimately beneficial read, would perhaps be more writing of a personable persuasion.

David Marx

Logic, Truth and Meaning

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Logic, Truth and Meaning
By G.E.M. Anscombe
Imprint Academic – £19.95

Logic, Truth and Meaning, now there’s a thought, now there’s a title.

I can think of a great many people I’d like to alert and address those words to: The Islamic State for one; along with Donald Trump, Cameron’s (entire) Cabinet, Sir Philip Greene, scum-bag people traffickers, varying oiks amid Portsmouth’s council estates, Jeremy Kyle and of course, Donald Trump.

Or have I already mentioned him?

Edited into three distinct sections (Part 1: Wittgenstein and the Tractatus, Part 2: Thought and Belief and Part 3: Meaning Truth and Existence), there’s no denying that editors Mary Geach and Luke Gormally have in these 312 pages, covered a wide terrain of idiosyncratic intellectual thought – the sort of which will compel many an inquisitive soul to ponder way beyond the parameters of ones’ comfort zone.

Amid such chapter titles as ‘Elementary Propositions,’ ”Mysticism’ and Solipsism,’ ‘Thought and Existent Objects,’ ‘Grammar, Structure and Essence’ and Existence and the Existential Quantifier,’ it has to be said that much of the writing throughout Logic, Truth and Meaning will no doubt trigger a process of (perhaps inadvertent) questioning. The sort of questioning which will in turn, induce a philosophical snow-ball effect whereby all stands to be gleaned by way of pronounced investigation.

After all, wasn’t it the American writer Glenway Westcott who wrote: Language is a god, sex is a god, time is a god./Fate is a convocation or combination of gods, an entire Olympus?

This fourth (and final) volume of writings by Elizabeth Anscombe essentially reprints her Introduction to Wittgentein’s Tractatus, along with a number of other essays in which she confronts thought and language. The fundamental essence of the essays traversing such in depth issues as truth and existence, reason and representation. So in all, pretty big stuff – of which the following from the fifth chapter of part two of the book is as good an example as any: ”Wittgenstein once answered a question of mine by saying that a lot of the works of philosophy of the recent centuries had titles which either referred to the mind in some fashion, or contained the word ‘principles.’ This very much characterised the philosophies, and that gathered – for in this sentence I have not been quoting his actual words, but only the gist of them […]. However it is not important for me to elucidate Wittgenstein’s earlier or later opinions on experimental psychology. I have said what I have in order to avoid inaccuracy. My main aim is to point to the very great importance of the Tractatus thought that theory of knowledge is philosophy of psychology” (‘Knowledge and Essence’).

As mentioned earlier, the final sentence ”theory of knowledge is philosophy of psychology,” triggers a further process of questioning: Is the theory of knowledge the philosophy of psychology?

As Roger Scruton has written (whose own book, Conversations With Roger Scruton I shall soon be reviewing): ”Elizabeth Anscombe was the most important of Wittgenstein’s pupils, with an intellect as great and wide-ranging as her teacher’s. She thought deeply, wrote beautifully, and was never taken in by pretence.”

That Anscombe was ”never taken in by pretence,” is a truth induced testament to that of not only her work, but her legacy. And for that alone, her philosophy and her writing(s) warrant investigation.

David Marx

The Quotable Kierkegaard

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The Quotable Kierkegaard
Edited by Gordon Marino
Princeton University Press – $24.95

As much as the sui generis work(s) of the so-called father of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, is herein brought to acute, enthusiastic and colourful bear, it is the director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Gordon Marino, who may knowingly beguile many a (new) reader unto a path of earnest re-consideration.

Not only does Gordon academically kneel at the alter of all things Kierkegaard, his unrelenting zest throughout this delightful book’s Introduction, is endemic of someone wholly prepared to go out on a philosophical limb. So as to reach, teach, if not actually touch, the reader: ”Most of us feel more urgency about the size of our waistline than about the girth of our capacity for compassion. Doing the right thing still has valence, but it is just one option among many, as in, I want to be a successful lawyer, have a good marriage and family, and be a good guy. Often by daubing a picture that the reader can see himself or herself in, Kierkegaard tries to kindle a concern about the self, but with a different set of categories up his sleeves than we are likely to find in the likes of Eat, Pray, Love and the boundless literature of the self-help happiness market.”

That Gordon recognises as much; whether by way of the Dane’s trajectory of compelling thought or by way of his own, is in itself, commendable.

Surely this is a quality which, like much of The Quotable Kierkegaard as a whole, is frank, illuminating, and within the literary world of philosophical prowess especially, surprisingly refreshing.

As much is underlined by the issue of how the author came to stumble upon ”the Mozart of the spirit” in the first place: ”I came to Kierkegaard crawling on cut glass and on the tail of a brutal marital breakup. I had dropped out of graduate school for the second time. My untethered life was like a page from a newspaper blowing around in the wind.”

It was probably due to having been simultaneously ”untethered” and in pain, that Gordon got to embrace the true value of Kierkegaard’s philosophical currency: ”And if there was one thing that […] the preternaturally talented Kierkegaard was convinced of, it was this: in the realm of the spirit, all worldly differences, talents, and bank accounts will have no purchase. Pascal famously said that if we could just learn to sit still for ten minutes and do without distractions, there would be no more wars […]. Rather than pass on knowledge, Kierkegaard hoped to direct us to the study of ourselves. He once confessed, ”I want to make people aware so that they do not squander and waste their lives.””

Drawn from the authoritative Princeton editions of Kierkegaard’s many, many writings, The Quotable Kierkegaard includes an Introduction (as in the above quotations), a brief account/timeline of his life and a guide to further reading.

So in all, this most quotable of literary companions makes for illuminati induced reading. Then again, the book does contain some eight-hundred quotes, of which the following is perhaps one of my favourites:

”But the person who can scarcely open himself cannot love, and the person who cannot love is the unhappiest of all.”

David Marx