Tag Archives: oxford university press

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

The Politics of English Nationhood

english

The Politics of English Nationhood
By Michael Kenny
Oxford University Press – £18.99

What counts as culture in England now […] is the detritus left behind by the disappearance of the stolid independence and self-reliance of it’s working class. In its place has emerged a loud, rude, and self-interested individualism which occasionally erupts in the form of chauvinistic nationalism.

At the vanguard of Britain’s deplorable chauvinistic nationalism, stands the overtly vile, dangerous and detrimental excuse of a human being, Nigel Farage; for whom the words intelligence and understanding clearly count for very little.

If anything at all.

As one of the prime, fundamental architects of Brexit, he and his most myopic ilk have a hell of a lot to answer for. First and perhaps foremost, for having promoted Engerland unto the nigh high-octane stakes of it, along with the US, being the laughing stock of much of the western world. Not to mention the ever increasing upsurge in all round general nastiness and hate-crime – wholeheartedly substantiated by the above opening quote.

To be sure, The Politics of English Nationhood absolutely isn’t coy in what it says; and luckily, for those with a conscience at least, nor does it cower beneath the power of the right-wing media and (surely unsustainable) abundance of fake news. A social cancer of sorts, currently doing the elongated and inexorable rounds of ill-advised persuasion.

But herein, Michael Kenny, who is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University in London, offers more than a mere ”powerful challenge” to current day thinking.

These 243 pages (excluding a Preface to the paperback edition, Acknowledgements, Notes and Index) do much to traverse the staid, negative, political behaviour, that is by far, far too prevalent amid Britain’s current political ideology: ”Throughout the EU Referendum campaign, the dual focus of the ‘Leave’ campaign upon the elitist and metropolitan interests served by arguments for ‘Remain,’ and a continual focus upon immigration, were combined with the language of popular sovereignty and national recognition. This rhetoric spoke particularly to English voters for whom worries over migration have served as a proxy for fears about the perceived indifference of the political establishment to their economic position and cultural traditions. The ‘Leave’ slogan ‘Take back control’ proved highly effective in this context, and allowed figures like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to speak simultaneously to concerns about sovereignty, belonging, and nationhood.

Refreshingly and rightly so, Kenny brings in all the relative parties here, and tells it with all the fine nuance of how it really ought to be told.

He also addresses all the terrible, smokescreen bullshit head-on, as he continues: ” Its vernacular companion was the phrase ”I want my country back,” and was repeatedly used by UKIP leader Nigel Farage. This spoke to nativist fantasies of an England unmarked by ethno-cultural diversity and of a socio-economic order that had long disappeared. The Referendum afforded the opening for an outpouring of some of the nationally focused frustration, and the inchoate desire for greater self-determination, which had been building in many different parts of England for the last quarter of a century.”

Equally well researched and illuminating, The Politics of English Nationhood, will in future years, be undoubtedly held in high-regard; not to mention referred to as the book that divulged how, where and why, England got it so horribly and undeniably wrong.

David Marx

The Common Law in Colonial America

law

The Common Law in Colonial America –
Volume III, The Chesapeake and New England, 1660-1750
By William E. Nelson
Oxford University Press – £35.99

As the Professor of History and Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis, David Thomas Konig has written: ”This volume continues a multi-volume history of the common law in America by our greatest authority on the foundations of the American legal system. Like his other work, it is the product of unmatched meticulous research into the archival record of legal institutions as they affected the lives of ordinary Americans – male and female, white and black, powerful and weak. It is as much a human study as it is an institutional one, and it takes its well-earned place as a classic in legal history.”

Food for thought? Debate? Incendiary discussion?

The line ”it is as much a human study as it is an institutional one,” does, to my mind, trigger a myriad of legalise speak and divine, humanistic thought analysis; the combination of which, really isn’t that easy to decipher.

There again, The Common Law in Colonial America – Volume III, The Chesapeake and New England, 1660-1750 was never going to be easy to decipher – which may partially explain why William E. Nelson has now reached his third volume of a clearly dense, and highly convoluted subject matter.

‘Convoluted,’ being among many of the pertinent key words throughout these ten, intrinsically (very) involved chapters.

In fact, amid one of the many sub-sections of The Common Law in Colonial America, chapter five’s ‘The Substance of Virginia Law’ leaps forth like no other: ”Slavery was not a major phenomenon in Virginia before the late seventeenth century. Existing scholarship agrees that Africans and descendants of Africans constituted only some 3 percent of the population in 1660 – fewer than one thousand blacks out of a total population of some twenty-five thousand.”

”Only 3 percent?”
Well that obviously makes it alright then…

Nelson continues: ”Most drudge work was performed by indentured servants,who were mainly young men and teenage boys from the British Isles. Although the few blacks present in the mid-seventeenth century on average served longer terms of servitude than whites, including terms for life, many blacks ultimately did become free, and no clear distinctions separated black servants from white ones during the periods of time during which they served. African servants lived with European servants, performed the same work as Europeans, and were subject to the same disciplinary rules and punishments as Europeans. Finally, if they became free, Africans and their descendants could buy and own land, indentured servants, and slaves, just as Europeans could.”

Does the question: why was there an indelible need for servants to begin with – not need to be asked here?

Was it not enough that many a white, young American, slaughtered many a red, native Indian? Did inexorable servitude really need to be imported into the so-called, New World as well?

Clearly it did, for which, in round-a-bout kind of way, The Common Law in Colonial America substantiates some kind of considered reasoning.

To be sure, this third volume begins where volume one ended and traces legal developments within the sphere of the New England colonies – from the years 1660 to the mid-eighteenth century. The fundamental claim of these 134 pages (not including Acknowledgements, Notes and Index) is that the ‘Glorious Revolution’ altered England’s policy toward its colonies.

Prior to said revolution, Charles II and James II sought to centralize power in the English empire, and the means by which they executed thus, was within the realm of centralization – whereby they continued to govern such young American states as Maryland and Virginia through the common law (a law they were to further impose on Massachusetts and the rest of New England).

As such, the trajectory of England’s (legal) imposition, still reverberates throughout much of the United States to this very day; of which this book qualifies as something of a Byzantine blueprint.

To once again quote Konig: ”It is as much a human study as it is a classic in legal history.”

David Marx

Cuba

cuba

Cuba – What Everyone Needs To Know
By Julia E. Sweig
Oxford University Press – £10.99

Fidel Castro may have recently departed his beloved island to join his compadre, Che Guevara amid socialist nirvana, but the Cuban idea, the whole shebang, replete with legacy of he who toted many a Cohiba, will no doubt go on Ad infinitum.

Indeed, it will continue, both beneath and within the slipstream of many an economic fable according to Fidel – the trajectory of which will now continue to be promoted by his brother, Raul Castro.

Or will it?

My guess is, it’s way too early to tell.
Although, failing a visit to the island itself, Cuba – What Everyone Needs To Know might well be considered a most fine literary springboard from which to embark the investigation.

Written by Julia E. Sweig, Senior Research Fellow at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas in Austin, it’s a book that really does pack a rather mighty, academic punch.

Divided into twelve very distinct parts (‘Cuba Before 1959,’ ‘The Cuban Revolution and the Cold War, 1959-91,’ ‘U.S.-Cuba,’ ‘Cuba In The World,’ ‘The Cuban Revolution after the Cold War, 1991-2006,’ ‘U.S.-Cuba,’ ‘Cuba In The World,’ ‘After Fidel, under Raul,’ ‘U.S.-Cuba,’ ‘Cuba In The World,’ A Changing Cuba Under Raul Castro’s Presidency’ and ‘December 17, 2014, and Beyond’), Cuba is a most readable thesis on the complex fluidity of an ever changing political process.

It’s 315 pages – excluding the Foreword, Introduction, Suggestions for Further Reading and Index – almost read as a form of Q&A, in which Sweig answers the questions most of us would really like the answers to – well, some of the ones I would anyway.

Such pertinent questions such as:

Why does the United States have a naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?
What role did women play in the Cuban insurrection?
Was Castro really a Communist?
Why did Cubans start leaving for exile?
What really happened when Castro visited Washington in 1959?
Why did the Bay of Pigs invasion fail?

And perhaps, the one question which still lingers, still continues to resonate the most:

What was the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Sweig initially responds: ”On October 22, 1962, John F. Kennedy appeared on national television to announce that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy’s dramatic revelations, based on CIA reconnaissance photos of the missile sites, which Ambassador Adlai Stevenson later presented to the United Nations, came in the midst of the most dangerous ”13 days” in the history of the world. Kennedy announced a naval blockade of the island and warned against the consequences of a ”worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouths.”

Written in a style of writing that by far exceeds that of many other books written on and about Cuba; Cuba – What Everyone Needs To Know essentially reiterates what it says on the tin – or in this case, the front cover.

It’s simple prose, is, if anything, an invitation to read, to assimilate, to discover.

As The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has since written: ”For several years, Julia Sweig, America’s premier expert on Cuba, has been my guide for all matters related to this beautiful, cursed, and consequential island nation. This book – economical, information-packed, and exceedingly well-written – is Sweig’s indispensable contribution to our knowledge of Cuba at a particularly tumultuous time in its history.”

Perhaps never more so, than right now.

David Marx

Everyday Stories

everyday

Everyday Stories
By Rachel Bowlby
Oxford University Press – £14.99

As the promotional material puts it: ‘Have you thought about how much of life goes missing from your memory? Many fantastic and special moments become blurred together after a while and it feels like life just rushes by, too fast for us to grasp,’ ‘Every moment is worth keeping,’ the publicity says at another point.

The above train of thought becomes ever increasingly evident as the years do indeed seem to hurtle by.

As John Lennon once sang: ‘So this is Christmas/And what what you done?/Another year over/And a new one just begun.”

Such a lyric, just like many sections of this book, might well jolt many a reader, or in Lennon’s case, listener, into the grim realisation that the older one gets, the shorter the years invariably become. Although such sociological pronouncement has been addressed by many a writer over the years, who, by way of their own submission, has had to wrestle with many a trajctorial overload of pristine truth(s).

Virginia Woolf comes to mind, whose own work is unsurprisingly brought to bear in Everyday Stories, where Rachel Bowlby quotes extensively near the beginning of the eighth chapter, ‘An Ordinary Mind on an Ordinary Day’: ”Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this.’ Examine, for a moment, an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there […].

Like the 176 pages of this book as a whole (excluding Series Introduction, Bibliography and Index), much can, and ought to be gleaned from the above words; primarily that we need to endeavour to enjoy each and every moment. That is, before the ”evanescent or engraved […] everyday sharpness of steel” ceases to truly mean anything – just like it has for so many people.

So next time you decide to linger on your mobile phone for forty minutes or so – merely surfing amid the disposable wank sensation of atomic nothingness – think again.

Better still, read this thought provoking book.

David Marx

International Relations Theories

International Relations Theories – Discipline and Diversity
By Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki and Steve Smith
Oxford University Press – £30.99

[…] as I prepare the fourth edition of this book, the reasons for Russian actions in Crimea and Russia’s role in activities of Donetsk rebels continue to be discussed. How should Western states and their defence organizations interpret the ongoing conflict and how should they respond to it?

Tough question. Good question; which isn’t at all surprising, as in this best selling-text, International Relations Theories – Discipline and Diversity, Tim Dunnem, Milja Kurki and Steve Smith explore the full spectrum of theoretical perspectives and its many debates. A plethora of acute analysis that ranges from the historically dominant traditions of realism, liberalism and Marxism, right through to those of post-colonialism and green theory.

Indeed, these 320 pages (excluding a Guided Tour of Learning Features, a Guided Tour of the Online Resource Centre, Bibliography, Glossary and Index) and sixteen chapters that traverse such differing titles as ‘International Relations and Social Science,’ ‘Classical Realism,’ Structural Realism,’ ‘Critical Theory,’ ‘International Relations Theory and Globalization’ and the rather alluding title, ‘Still a Discipline After All; These Debates?,’ are, if nothing else, a socio-politico tour-de-force.

Apart from the above opening quote, just one aspect that backs this up is the unfortunate fact that we continue to live in a world where history cantankerously continues to repeat itself – which the three authors acknowledge throughout.

In relation to the Russian question, they continue: ”Various narratives exploring the motivations for and the conditioning factors leading to the conflict are put forward […]. One narrative postulates hostile expansionist intentions on the part of Putin-led Russia; others point to the fact that Russia’s role in the region should be read in light of a defensive strategy.”

Surely not?
Surely yes?
Surely the fact that ”Russia’s role in the region should be read in light of a defensive strategy,” would be reason enough to wholeheartedly substantiate this more than in-depth book’s mighty existence and publication alone?

But wait, there’s more – oodles of substantiation: ”This book is explicitly aimed at helping you think through […] questions concerning the causes of war and wider emerging questions in world politics […]. The fundamental problem in taking the views of actors at face value is that the world is rarely so simple that people can be completely aware of why they are acting in certain ways. Perhaps George W. Bush or Tony Blair, when deciding to go to war in Iraq, were looking for evidence of a clear and present danger to justify a feeling about what was ‘right.’ Perhaps those advocating decisive military action against Colonel Gaddafi genuinely thought their motivations were strictly humanitarian.”

Suffice to say, there are many aspects of this overtly compelling yet provocative book, that has a (slight) tendency to lean towards a rather large, political cat, being hurled amid an assortment of Orwellian induced pigeons.

Thus providing for dense deliberation.

For example, in the third chapter, ‘Structural Realism’ under the sub-heading ‘How much power is enough?,’ John J. Mearsheimer sheds interesting, perhaps detonatory light upon the balance of power: ”Offensive realists also take issue with the claim that the defender has a significant advantage over the attacker, and thus offence hardly ever pays. Indeed, the historical record shows that the side that initiates war wins more often than not.”

Really?
How about Germany in World War II?
Iraq in Kuwait?
America in Vietnam?

He continues: ”And while it may be difficult to gain hegemony, the USA did accomplish this feat in the western hemisphere during the nineteenth century. Also, imperial Germany came close to achieving hegemony in Europe during the First World War […]. While nationalism surely has the potential to make occupation a nasty undertaking, occupied states are sometimes relatively easy to govern, as was the case in France under the Nazis (1940-4). Moreover, a victorious state need not occupy a defeated state to gain an advantage over it. The victor might annex a slice of the defeated state’s territory, break it into two or more smaller states, or simply disarm it and prevent it from rearming.”

Hmm., the Nazi occupation of France was everything but ”relatively easy.” Admittedly, compared to the occupation of Russia, it undoubtedly was, but countless books are still being written about Vichy and the German occupation of France. Just one of the (many) reasons being: it wasn’t easy at all…

It might be easy to take mighty umbrage with such argument(s), but isn’t that what propels such books as these unto a plateau of considered (dis)satisfaction and political, if not Machiavellian debate?

There again, according to Professor Nicola Phillips of Sheffield University: ”There can be no better place to start for any student of International Relations than here. This remains the gold-standard textbook on IR theory, packed to bursting with knowledge, insight and fresh perspectives from a group of the most renowned scholars in IR. As an introduction to the endlessly fascinating world of IR theory it can’t be beaten.”

One further interesting aspect of the book is the (blue) colour coded section at the end of each chapter which not only asks questions – a new addition to this edition – but provides a Further Reading list and Notes; thus enabling the reader to fully home-in on certain sections of what is clearly an involved and intrinsically academic study.

Finally, also, new to this fourth edition is a chapter on post-colonialism by Shampa Biswas, along with updated chapters and case studies that reflect new developments in world politics.

In all, International Relations Theories is an in-depth, colossal read that usurps all kinds of argument, thesis and deliberation. In fact, the more one reads, the more one wants to investigate further – which might explain the Further Reading section towards the back of the book.

David Marx

Berlin Tales

berlin tales

Berlin Tales – Stories translated by Lyn Marven
Edited by Helen Constantine
Oxford University Press – £9.99

These seventeen stories traverse the effervescent city of Berlin, both past and present, in such a beguiling way – that one’s compelled to not only read more, but investigate the city for real.

By way of miniaturist story telling, most sides of the German capital – from the decadence and the modernity of the Weimar Republic right through to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – are marvellously captured and juxtaposed throughout Berlin Tales.

While many of the stories have been translated for the first time, almost all come across as having lost none of their initial panache, individuality nor wit. The nigh photographic, rapid and random snapshot travelogue that is ‘My Berlin’ (by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar) being a perfect example.

It’s so concise, it’s almost poetic: ”At Zoo station I waved to all the buses going past. I was in freedom and was pleased about the rain. I thought, Berlin has waited for me for nine years. It was as if back then when I returned to Istanbul, Berlin had frozen like a photo, to wait for me – with the long, tall trees, with the Gedachniskirche, with the double-decker buses, with the corner pubs. Berlin Kindl beer, the crosses on the beer mats. Walls. Checkpoint Charlie. U-Bahn. S-Bahn. Cinema on Steinplatz. Abshied von gestern (Yesterday Girl). Alexander Kluge. Bockworst sausages. The Brecht theatre Berlin Ensemble. Arturo Ui. Canals. The Peacock Island. Tramps in the stations. Pea soup. Lonely women in Cafe Kranzler. Black Forest gateau. Workers from different countries. Spaghetti. Greeks. Cumin-Turks. Cafe Kase. Telephone dances. Bullet holes in house walls. Cobblestones. Curried sausage. White bodies waiting for the sun at Lake Wannsee. Police dogs. East German police searchlights. Dead train tracks, grass growing between them. House notices: ‘In the interests of all residents children are forbidden to play games.’ Stations left behind in East Berlin which the West underground trains pass through without stopping. A solitary East-policeman on the platform. Solinka soup. Stuyvesand cigarettes. Rothandle cigarettes. Signs:’Achtung Sie verlassen den Amerikanischem Sektor / Warning you are leaving the American sector.’ Jewish cemetery in East Berlin. Ducks on Lake Wannsee. A bar with music from the 1940s, old women dancing with women. Broilers.”

This one story alone is a more than jubilant, topsy-turvy traipse through everything that Berlin once was (and to a certain degree, still is). It’s colourful, majestic and well-paced, not to mention almost serene in its observation; which, along with such other short stories as ‘Seen from the Window’ by Siegried Kracauer (”They are not compositions like Pariser Platz or La Concorde which owe their existence to a single architectural conception, rather they are creations of chance […]”) and ‘Gina Regina’ by Ulrike Draesner (”an intermezzo of sugar bun and sex”), are a delight to both read and truly behold.

And like the city itself, investigate further.

David Marx