Category Archives: Philosophy

Hamlet – And The Vision Of Darkness

hamlet

Hamlet –
And The Vision Of Darkness
By Rhodri Lewis
Princeton University Press – £30.00

Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colour in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

     Vladimir Nabokov (Good Readers and Good Writers)
     ‘Hamlet as Poet’

Surely the writer of fiction – or the writer of whatever for that matter – follows his or her instinct? Closely followed by the persuasive urge of the heart? Either way, it ought to be somewhat accepted that Vladimir Nabokov does have a point; even if only to suggest that the quintessential instinct of ones’ heart, could well be steeped within the gravitational sphere of nature.
Or should that be Nature with a capital N?
After all, Niccolo Machiavelli, to whom William Shakespeare is oft associated within these pages, was always one to rely and readily assert himself within the rather fraught parameters of human nature: ”Shakespesre is again closer to writers like Tacitus and Machiavelli, for whom it is vital to acknowledge that cunning, delusion, and self-interest are simply the currency of human affairs” (‘Hunting and the Nature of Things’).

One might also deduce that cunning, (definitely) delusion and (relative) self-interest are also the erstwhile currency of one of Shakespeare’s most complex characters, Hamlet.

Throughout these 324 pages (excluding Preface and Acknowledgements, Note on Text, Bibliography and Index), Hamlet – And The Vision Of Darkness, is a dense, explanetry dissertation of as much. So if one has come to this book expecting a mere skim of the surface with regards the relationship betwixt Hamlet and all that of which they deem darkness to scholastically represent, then perhaps think again.

Rhodri Lewis – a professor of English literature and a fellow of St. Hugh’s College at the University of Oxford – has herein written a revisionary account of not only Hamlet himself, but also the deeply troubled character, the ever widening trajectory of play’s philosophy, not to mention the actual setting of the play within both its time and its place: ”Hamlet thus offers a representation of the cultural dynamics shaping human existence that is rich, sustained, compelling, and completely at odds with early modern convention. Its moral universe is an unyielding night. One that self-exploration, inwardness, honour, loyalty, love, poetry, philosophy, politics, moral scruple, military force, and religious belief are powerless to illuminate.”

To be sure, all of the above and then some, are meticulously addressed amid this book’s five most comprehensive chapters. As Lynn Enterline of Vanderbilt University has since been noted as saying, the book makes for ”a significant contribution to recent reassessments of humanism’s unintended consequences.”

That’s not to say Hamlet – And The Vision Of Darkness reeks of nothing other than academia – far from it.

In the final chapter, ‘Hamlet As Philosopher,’ Lewis cuts to the philosophical chase, by inserting perhaps his own irreducible quest for discovery, when he writes: ”Shakespeare uses Hamlet and Hamlet to explore the notion that humanist philosophy is a confidence trick; that, like humanist historiography and poetics, it is bullshit. Something expounded by actors who, despite their commitment to maintaining the illusions of their craft, are constrained to perform scripts that misrepresent both themselves and the worlds – moral and natural – around them.”

The notion of ‘humanist philosophy’ being something of ‘a confidence trick,’ really does bequeath those whom subscribe to the (in)famous six words of ‘to be or not to be,’ something (else) to think about. Talk about. Turn about.

There’s no deliberating upon the fact that Hamlet – And The Vision Of Darkness goes way beyond any actual vision of actual darkness. It soars to such an intrinsic height of thorough investigation, it’ll be really hard to read another book on Hamlet without referring back to this one. The bar has indeed been raised.

David Marx

Advertisements

The Origins Of Happiness

happy

The Origins Of Happiness –
The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course
By Andrew E. Clark, Sarah Fleche, Richard Layard,
Nattavudh Powdthavee &George Ward
Princeton University Press – £27.95

What matters to people must be the guidelines for our policies.

          Angela Merkel.

Wealth is like seawater. The more we drink, the thirstier we become.

          Schopenhauer

Most people would contest to not really caring about the origins of happiness; but rather, just being happy in the right here, right now. And to a certain degree (or should that read, dilemma?), who can really blame them?

After all, happiness, whatever it may be or however it is perceived and considered – is surely a mere off-shoot of contentment? That altogether ethereal, rather effervescent something, which we all fundamentally strive for throughout our entire lives.

But doesn’t happiness per se, come at a price (and a fairly hefty one at that)?

So far as a multitude of cancerous advertising moguls are concerned, happiness can be both bought and devoured by way of delusional diversion. The so-called American Dream being the perfect example, which is where the above opening quote by Shopenhauer truly comes into play. For ’tis indeed true, that the more seawater we drink, the thirstier we become. This partially explains why so many Americans are burnt out at such a young age.

Not to mention why America just so happens to be one of the most stress induced nations on the planet.

The Origins Of Happiness – The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course, does as such, make for an almighty interesting and persuasive read: ”Our aim is ambitious – it is to revolutionize how we think about human priorities. Inevitably the findings at this stage are approximate. But it is better to be roughly right about what really matters than to be exactly right about what matters less. Our findings should therefore be judged not by comparison with a state of perfect knowledge but with the prevailing ignorance.”

‘The prevailing ignorance’ being the key three words here, as it is something which ought to be considered one of the great scourges of humanity. And ultimately happiness.

Reason being, ignorance – in all its vainglorious glory – has to be (one of) the most profound origins of unhappiness.
Responsible for a multitude of sins.
Whether the crucifixion of he we continue to refer to as having suffered for our sins, the rise of the Nazi Party, Donald Trump, or the heinous, continuing success of The X Factor.
Ignorance is indeed, responsible for so much unhappiness, a prime example being the belief that money will surely obliterate unhappiness.

This book’s second chapter ‘Income’ (its first being ‘Happiness over the Life-Course: What Matters Most?) addresses the dictum which many subscribe to as being the ultimate be all of all things.

To be sure, it opens with the following: ”Does more money buy more happiness? It does, but less than many people might think. There two extreme views, both equally fallacious. On the one hand there are careless studies claiming that money makes no difference. This is certainly wrong, if we are talking about life-satisfaction as the outcome. On the other hand, there are millions of individuals who think that more money would totally change their well being. For most people, this too is a delusion.”

Upon reading the above, many might consider that the five authors herein traipse the easy road by essentially sitting on the literary fence, but this really isn’t so. The rest of the chapter, in fact the book as a whole, delves into far more involved analyses, by way of numerous (statistical) comparisons between Britain, the United States, Germany and Australia; making for a book, which, as it’s secondary title suggests, is as equally scientific in approach as it is sociological.

To quote Princeton University’s Alan Krueger: ”Rooted in the best-available evidence for each stage in life, The Origins Of Happiness provides an ambitious and comprehensive analyses of what leads to a satisfying life, from childhood to old age.”

David Marx

Epistemic Friction

epis

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

Ethics for a Full World

ethics

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

trash

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

k10803

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

disparities

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