This Month's Reading - March 2015

As I Lay Dying by Faulkner. Great book. What really stuck out to me was the more ruminating, philosophical segments. Faulkner tackles some big questions. The nature of identity, the existence of a reality outside our perception, the tenuous connection between the present and the past. But, what makes it remarkable is that he does so entirely through the mindset and limited vocabulary of his characters. It's incredible to see such heady concepts wrapped in such simple language. Segments like this one, where Darl contemplates the imminent death of his mother Addie:

"In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is. How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home."

The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant's little tour through the nine most important thinkers in the philosophic tradition, at least according to Durant. I really like this book. Highly recommended. The only caveat is that one does have to keep in mind that it was written in the 1920's and there is occasional bit of sexism or Eurocentrism. But, if one simply ignores those, the vast majority is fantastic. For each of the nine philosophers Durant gives a brief biography, about two chapters explaining their key theories, then gives a concluding summary and criticism. To summarize his summaries, the nine are:
Plato: Durant spends most of his time on The Republic, Plato's effort to imagine a perfect society. There are many objections and holes that can be found with the society Plato proposes, Durant zeroes in with accuracy on the fact that it has no room for change, but in essence it is the dream that society would run by its wisest members. Philosophers would spend millennia repeating that wish in different words.
Aristotle: The eternal moderate, Aristotle's pragmatic solution to Plato's eternal questioning of ethics is the simple golden mean. Considering ethics now solved, Aristotle mostly focused on the natural world, and for that we owe him thanks. He brought philosophical attention away from lofty ideals and toward actually trying to make sense of the universe. Unfortunately, he never overcame his aristocratic aversion to actual work and so while he was a great observer and categorizer he never bothered to test any of his theories. Coupled with centuries of dogmatic devotion to his erroneous conclusions this leaves him with a legacy that is, at best, a mixed blessing.
Francis Bacon: The true founder of modern science as the first to truly call for rigorous testing and questioning of beliefs before reaching any conclusions. Perhaps best summed up with his own words, "if a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin in doubts he shall end in certainties."
Spinoza: A slippery one to summarize. Durant has trouble with it and so I, going off only his summary, have very little to offer. But, what I understand to be the basic gist of his philosophy, or perhaps just the starting point to it, is that universe and God are one and the same, and that good and evil are just human prejudices arising from a lack of total understanding.
Voltaire: The great satirist and tireless destroyer of superstition. More of a destroyer of other, tyrannical philosophies than a creator of new ones. The only philosophy he truly advanced was one of basic freedom and dignity. Though, as always, anyone advancing such a radical agenda as that has an uphill battle.
Kant: The master of obfuscation, Kant's philosophy is famously buried under his convoluted grammar and invented jargon. Durant thankfully unearths it to reveal a clever response to David Hume's idea that consciousness is little more than a bundle of sensations pressed upon it by the outside world. Kant's main point is that the mind is not a tabula rasa written on by the world, but is an active agent fitting these sensations into categories. As for where these categories come from, Kant argued that they are innate, permanent and eternal features of the mind. Modern thought would tell us that these categories are built by experience from infancy onward, both ours personally and the species as a whole.
Schopenhauer: The world is will. This is Schopenhauer's central point. By will Schopenhauer means the mass of drives and desires that lies underneath conscious thought. That is his big idea and lasting legacy. That humanity is not after all ruled by thought, thought is only a tool we use to justify and satisfy our unconscious desires. It was a big idea, and an important one, though Schopenhauer runs it into pessimistic extremes. Also, this section is perhaps Durant's largest failing in the book. He spends pages calling Schopenhauer out on his undue pessimism, but moves past his radical misogyny completely without comment.
Spencer: Hugely influential in his time but almost instantly forgotten, Spencer's great work was to frame all of existence into a generalized evolutionary model. The idea that all things work upward from nebulous beginnings to complexity and eventual dissolution. The planet forms, life begins, intelligence develops, society emerges, then, eventually, all these things dissolve only to someday to be reconstituted into new and perhaps greater complexity. Remarkably, Spencer came up with the basis of this theory before Darwin, built on a Lamarkian basis, and is the true creator of the phrase "survival of the fittest." Tragically his very compelling theory was used by others as the basis for the crushing ideology of Social Darwinism.
Nietzsche: Advocated the necessity of struggle and pain as the key to improvement and ennoblement and called for an increase of these things in society. While enthralling, thanks largely to Nietzsche's considerable literary talent, ultimately the world has more than enough struggling and pain without anyone's advocacy for their necessity. Only self hating members of the privileged few, like Nietzsche, could think otherwise.

The Tao of Architecture by Amos Ih Tiao Chang. Turns out this book was originally titled The Existence of Intangible Content in Archetronic Based Upon the Practicality of Laotzu's Philosophy, and boy does it read like it. Steven Pinker talks about what is dubbed the 'Classical Style' of writing nonfiction. As he puts it the goal is to write as if you are addressing a friend of yours and merely wish to draw their attention to something they may have overlooked. Carl Sagan was a master of this style. This book is about as far from the Classical Style as you can get. This is some dense, obfuscating, pointlessly complex prose I have ever seen. Sentences like "Expression of composite association in architectural space requires denial of dissociable characteristics."
Why did I keep at it even though its scant 70 pages feel like 700? Because buried underneath his writing Chang has some good ideas in here. Like the simple observation that we instinctively turn away from featureless solids, like blank walls, but are drawn to empty fields of view, such as open fields or long corridors. The attraction of void. As he puts it, in one of his most lucid passages, "In emptiness and beyond emptiness, there is unfulfillment of expectation or curiosity to suggest definite direction ... Unreal as emptiness is thought to be, it serves as the reminder of direction."