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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Russell Redux

I’ve been planning to read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy left to me by my Father (philosophy being one of the interests we shared) and recommended by my nephew, the Philosophy major. On Brain Pickings today, I watched a fascinating video of a BBC interview with Russell which has me even more motivated to tackle this tome. I had some sense of Russell as a great thinker and philosopher, but was not clear about how radical he was for his time. I also got the impression of a great humanist and overall charming fellow. The interview is delightful and his message to all of us is profound and stirring.

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Let’s face it – I’m not a great critic, nor a great writer, nor even a great reader these days.  And, maybe that’s ok. I like to read, and I like to write about what I read. Today, I made one of those joyous reading connections that I love, and just wanted to share it with …whomever. I have been reading, and enjoying, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” a smart, sweet novel featuring the “atheist with a soul” Cass Seltzer who has become famous for his book “The Varieties of Religious Illusion.” The book features a truly suspenseful debate at the end – when Cass faces off against a right-wing neo-con apologist for faith in a packed Harvard auditorium.  That’s where I am right now, and I fear Cass is going to be destroyed as being the famous intellectual was for him a rather accidental happening, one in which he can’t quite believe and a role he is having trouble really inhabiting. When we don’t really mean what we are or what we do is when life gets dangerous, I think.  Anyway, at the library, I just happened to pick up “The Angels of Our Better Natures” by Steven Pinker. It’s about the fact that violence has declined, even though it doesn’t seem that way if you watch or listen to any news stations. I’m very early into the book, but enjoying his engaging style. Surprisingly, in the preface to Pinker’s book, I came across a pair of words, new to me, that had occurred earlier in Goldstein’s book:  “endogen0us and exogenous”, meaning influenced, respectively, from the inside and the outside.  Or, in Pinker’s words:  explaining forces for change, “Social scientists distinguish between ‘endogenous’ variables — those that are inside the system, where they may be affected by the very phenomenon they are trying to explain–from ‘exogenous’ ones – those that are set inmotion by forces from the outside.” (preface, xxiii).  Then, in Goldstein’s book, she mentions her “partner, Steve Pinker.” I am just delighted to be reading both their books right now. What fun!

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The authors, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, also wrote Plato and a Platypus walk into a Bar – both books are about understanding and exploring philosophy through jokes. Heidigger is more specifically about exploring what philosophy has to say about death and the hereafter. The style is just a little too corny for me, and I got really sick of their imaginary straight man, the so-called “Daryl,” who asks dumb questions and is terrified of death. Still, some of the jokes and New Yorker cartoons are really funny, and I was able to glean a little philosophy from the pages. For instance, I don’t think I ever heard of Ernest Becker whose Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Denial of Death, explores how  the objective knowledge of our own mortality doesn’t stop us from inventing ways to avoid dealing with it through what Becker called “immortality systems.”  Per Becker, the problem with these culturally-sponsored immortality systems is that we invest ourselves in them to the extent that we have to defend them against other culture’s immortality systems; in addition, he says they don’t actually save us from what Cathcart and Klein describe as two sides of the same coin: the “life is meaningless-and-then-you -die problem…or its flip side, the anxiety of facing a life that is finite and can never satisfy our yearning for infinity.” Becker’s advice is to face up to the angst as a way out of this conundrum, drawing on Soren Kierkegaard’s contention that “angst is our ultimate teacher.” Avoiding angst by being detached, being hyper-busy, or trying to “be someone” are dead ends.  To quote C and K again, “It’s only when we’re willing to let go of all of our illusions and admit that we are lost and helpless and terrified that we will be free of ourselves and our false securities and ready for what Kierkegaard calls ‘the leap of faith.’  (Not quite sure what is meant by this.)  The chapter on Schopenhauer seemed vague or at least I am vague on what Schopenhauer was saying about death, but Heidigger seems to be saying that we need to confront death without illusion in order to live authentically – similar to Kierkegaard and ultimately, Becker, I think.  Was Heidigger an existentialist, too? I think so, since the chapter on Heidigger (or, Heidi, as they call him) leads directly to Sartre.  As my muddled description indicates, this book is fun and accessible, but doesn’t give you a solid foundation in philosophy – obviously! Maybe it will help as a way to start thinking about some of these writers and their works…we shall see.  I’ll try to summarize the existentialists in another post.

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A cat may look at a queen, and a lowly Parisienne concierge may revere Tolstoy, read St. Augustine and Schopenhauer, and look down on the wealthy, but mostly vapid denizens of the apartment building where she lives and works. The concept is heavily belabored, to the point where you are tired of the ‘diamond in the rough’ theme. Manuela, the cleaning woman, is another “natural aristocrat,” whose boots her employers are not fit to wipe. Ho hum. Then along comes the fabulously wealthy Japanese filmmaker, whose films our heroine, Renee, has seen and appreciated, who shares her love of Tolstoy, and who sees through her immediately, as an almost instant bond is formed. Renee seems oddly terrified of being discovered to be intelligent, maybe it’s a French class thing? The link between the cats, hers named Leo, his Kitty and Levin, is rather clever, but otherwise I didn’t believe a word of it. LIkewise the rapidly formed friendship between these two and the suicidal pre-teen, Paloma, who has decided that, based on the adults around her, life is not worth living and is plotting to kill herself on her 13th birthday. This was a good plot twist and kept me reading many rather pointless diary entries of Paloma. Everything is on the surface and hammered home without, it must be said, elegance. This is unfortunate as there were many good things about the book, including the ending.  Maybe there were some translation issues?

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