Friday, April 28, 2023

Review: What's the Use of Philosophy?

What's the Use of Philosophy?What's the Use of Philosophy? by Philip Kitcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this brief book, Kitcher offers his take on what is wrong with the discipline of philosophy and what he thinks it needs to do to fix itself.

I think Kitcher nails many of the ongoing problems in academic philosophy: the over-formalization, the reliance on intuition and thought experiments, the superficial understanding of other disciplines (in particular science), to name a few. Another focus of his criticism is that the discipline sees itself as having a core, namely metaphysics and epistemology, that gets all the prestige, leaving the peripheral to be neglected. While I think he’s correct in broad strokes, I’m not as persuaded that these pathologies, as he calls them, are quite as ubiquitous as he suggests. He captures some general trends, but it is not clear how deep or far these go. Kitcher himself acknowledges that since he first starting working on this project, the discipline moved in more positive directions.

Two things he doesn’t mention, or barely mentions, are (1) the teacher-researcher split and (2) the prestige of stardom.

In the last chapter, he does raise the teacher-research split; but I think he’s missing the important shift in higher ed towards large parts (and majority parts) of the faculty being teaching faculty instead of research focused faculty. I think his thesis might be interesting to explore in terms of how teaching philosophy is different than being focused on cutting-edge research. The former tends to fit more his view of the direction philosophy should take: syncretic, tied into practical concerns, and with an eye towards the audience. It will typically avoid most of the formalist and technical pathologies he’s concerned with, since the classes are not pitched at that level.
In terms of (2) above, there is far too much prestige given to the big names, the big programs, and the big journals. This feeds a lot of the problems he discusses. This is general academic problem, not peculiar to philosophy. (Indeed, it might even be somewhat better in philosophy as things go.) Still, if the concern is on how to cure the pathologies, there has to be some focus on one of the major causes of these pathologies.

My biggest disagreements with Kitcher lie in his positive project. It’s far too based on (philosophical) pragmatism and a bit too focused on the extrinsic value of what philosophy does. There is a value of philosophy that is more internal: that is, it has value that is not based on how it contributes to the university and other disciplines. And I think Kitcher dismisses that too quickly. That said, the syncretic, less formalistic, more practical approach is appealing to me. I just don’t want that to be it. There is a great value in diving deeply into the details. There is a great value of streaming to the 10000-foot view. We need both. The latter is not as well value in the discipline, but it’s not a zero-sum game where valuing the syncretic, big picture view means devaluing the analytical, minute focus.

The book is quick and easy to read. It likely wouldn’t interest any not in the field, though other academics might find it interesting to look inside another discipline.

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Review: Star Wars Jedi: Battle Scars

Star Wars Jedi: Battle ScarsStar Wars Jedi: Battle Scars by Sam Maggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the novel and it's gotten me all prepped for the new game. It was action packed and developed the characters and relationships from the game. There are two things that I might complain about. First, there was a lot of inner dialogue talk by the characters that could have been better developed through the characters actions (the old 'show me, don't tell' me saw). Second, while there is character development, it is relatively minor. Cal is who is he is. Merrin gets the most development and in many ways the book is far more about Merrin than any one else. Which is fine, I like Merrin and her story, but that's not really how the book is presented.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Review: Freedom’s Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of Darkness

Freedom’s Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of DarknessFreedom’s Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of Darkness by Timothy Sandefur
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a fantastic book. Sandefur does a masterful job of explaining the importance of these three remarkable women: Isabel Patterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand. He takes their ideas seriously, pulls no punches but is also exceedingly fair and charitable in his accounting of their ideas, works, and personalities.

I knew vaguely that Patterson, Lane, and Rand knew each other, but I had no inkling of the depth of the connections between them: personal connections as well intellectual and ideological. All three wrote important and influential works in the mid-20th century. Though Rand is likely best-known today, Patterson and Lane were important voices for (economic, intellectual, and personal) liberty and freedom in a time when then were few such voices. Patterson is best known today for God of the Machine and her decade’s long column at the New York Herald Tribune; and Lane for her work The Discovery of Freedom: Man's Struggle Against Authority and the Little House series she wrote with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Though the three had important differences, together they provided a robust vision and defense of moral individualism and human freedom.

One of the most surprising things I learned is the role Sinclair Lewis played in the development of the work of all three writers. Sandefur explores how Lewis’ novels, as well as other works that formed what is called the “Revolt from the Village” literary movement provided by the inspiration and the foil for the novels of Patterson, Lane, and Rand. This movement challenged the conformity and oppressiveness of small town life, and arguably culminated in Lewis’ Main Street. Sandefur persuasively argues that Patterson, Lane, and Rand shared the concerns that works of the revolt focused on, but that they offered more optimistic and positive ways beyond what Lewis called the “village virus."

Sandefur’s book is a bit hard to categorize: it’s part biography, part literary criticism/analysis, part political history, and part intellectual history. How ever you categorize it, it’s a remarkable achievement and anyone with any interest in American history of the 20th century or the history of intellectual ideas should read this book. It should be a touchstone for any scholar thinking about the ideas of Patterson, Lane, or Rand.

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Monday, April 17, 2023

Review: Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault

Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to FoucaultPhilosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault by Pierre Hadot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection of essays by Pierre Hadot was mixed. Hadot is clearly deeply knowledgeable about ancient and modern philosophy, history, and literature. He brings this knowledge to bear on his discussions of the purpose of philosophy. I certainly learned a lot reading it. However, I didn’t find his overall argument persuasive.

Hadot has two main goals. First is to argue that philosophy, in the ancient period in particular, was primarily meant as a way of life, a distinctive, all-encompassing approach to living. He claims that most of the written works we have capture more of what he calls philosophical discourse, and not philosophy itself. These discourses are meant to train one in the transformative methods of living that constitute what philosophy actually is.

This leads to the second goal: the idea that the philosophical schools consisted mainly of what he calls spiritual exercises. This is where I found myself most critical. Hadot never really clearly defines or describes what is meant by spiritual exercises. He gives several examples, but it’s not clear what makes something an exercise and what sort exercises spiritual exercises are. This makes several the essays too wide-ranging; the ill-defined concept is able to be stretched to nearly anything that suited Hadot’s purposes.

Another problem with Hadot’s discussion about the role of spiritual exercises in ancient philosophy is that nearly all his examples come from the Stoics. He also references Plato and Lucretius’s Epicureanism as well. But Hadot frequently claims that these exercises are part of all six of the major ancient schools. This would have been more convincing if had drawn more evidence from all the schools. If Hadot had just focused on the Stoics and kept his claims tied to them, it would have been far more persuasive.

The essays did tend to be repetitive as well; the overall thesis and purpose was pretty much established in the first essay. The rest of the essays do not add all that much to it.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Review: The Quick Red Fox

The Quick Red Fox (Travis McGee #4)The Quick Red Fox by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In so many ways MacDonald and McGee are breaths of fresh air. The language and style capture a particular time and place, though not naturalistic. There is a romantic, stylized element to the stories and the characters. The plot of this story takes some interesting turns and McGee finds himself in a few pickles; but in the end, it's not really about the plot. It's the characters, the language, the setting, all wrapped up together into just the right mix.

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