August 31, 2019

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, August 2019

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to say anything about cognitive science, philosophy, Marxism, intellectual history, or even, really, machinery.

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason
It is impossible for me to do justice to this extraordinarily rich book. To put it very, very crudely: Mercier and Sperber's position is that human reason did not evolve to assist us in accurately understanding the world and our place in it. Rather, reason evolved to persuade others, to justify our positions and actions to others, and to evaluate others' attempts at persuasion and justification. This, they say, makes sense out of otherwise very confusing phenomena. On the one hand, there are extremely well-documented cognitive biases, where people seem to be very bad at reasoning. On the other hand, people are much better at picking apart other people's ideas than they are at evaluating their own. (This also helps make sense of how psychologists can detect cognitive biases. [The alternative would be that psychologists are more rational than other human beings, but I daresay anyone who has met an academic psychologist can rule that out.]) Effect rationality in the honorific sense thus emerges as a social and collective property, rather than an individual one.
As I said, this is only a crude sketch of a deeply thought-out position. I have said nothing about their account of reason-the-faculty as a cognitive module acting intuitively on certain kinds of representations, for example. (Nor how it ties in to Sperber's career-long interests in meta-representation and relevance theory.) Earlier versions of Mercier and Sperber's arguments deeply influenced my work with Henry Farrell on cognitive democracy, and it's one of the sources we're drawing on (slowly) for Actually, "Dr. Internet" Is the Name of the Monsters' Creator. This is the first full-length presentation of their views, in a form which has been modified to account for (what else?) criticism. If you find anything I write which doesn't involve sigmas interesting, you should read it. §
ObLinkage 1: Precis by Mercier and Sperber.
ObLinkage 2 (2020): Henry beautifully (!) combining Mercier and Sperber with George Eliot (!).
Disclaimer: I've never met Sperber, but a chance encounter with Explaining Culture shaped me deeply; I know Mercier well enough to invite him to workshops, and he's a collaborator of collaborators.
Nancy Kress, Oaths and Miracles and Stinger
Mind-candy biomedical thrillers (1996, 1998), re-read on encountering their electronic versions. They hold up as novels, though as plausible thrillers they suffer from being pre-9/11. §
Basic Machines and How They Work [1965]
I enjoyed this tremendously, and I really wonder what the modern version must be like. §
Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Process of His Reasoning [1934]
An attempt to show that the first philosopher of modernity actually proceeded by taking the medieval, more-or-less-Aristotlean tradition of scholastic philosophy very seriously, applying its premises and modes of argument with more rigor and consistency than it had managed. Primarily it's a reading of the Ethics, arguing that its order of exposition follows that of medieval philosophical compendia and curricula, and trying to trace premises and arguments back to predecessors. It's beyond my competence to evaluate its historical merits, but it's definitely a remarkable work of erudition in its own right. (I want to believe.) §
Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill
Mind-candy historical mystery, set in early 20th century Bombay among the Indian elites. Enjoyable, but it made me miss my grandmother (who was a generation younger than Massey's heroine, but from a comparable background, though Christian rather than Parsi). §
Stuart Jeffries, The Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School
A barely-tolerable journalistic, biographical introduction to the Frankfurt School, more focused on the personalities of its thinkers (especially: Adorno, Benjamin, Fromm, Horkheimer, and Marcuse, plus Habermas) than on expounding or evaluating their ideas. (As I said: journalistic.) But, even taking that as the goal, many things about it irritated me. Jeffries is, to put it kindly, less than sure-footed when it comes to the classical Marxism which the School was shaped by and reacted against*, and not much better on the larger cultural context**. The concluding chapter about the School's contemporary relevance is, precisely, far too contemporary, and I'm sure will seem painfully dated very soon. But beyond this I suspect there was a sheer clash of temperaments between author and reader. I can't make myself recommend it, but I also can't think of anything better, at this level of popular accessibility. §
*: He badly mangles the labor theory of value and Marx's account of how wage labor under capitalism is exploitative the very first time he brings it up, for example. I quote from chapter 3: "When a chair or an iphone [sic] is sold, it is exchanged for another commodity (money for instance). The exchange takes no account of the labor that went into the chair's making, still less that, for example, of Apple's overstressed and underpaid workers". I stress that this is presented as part of an account of Marxist theories of commodity fetishism and alienation! Subsequent mentions of value are no better. If Jeffries ever read Capital I, or even Marx for Beginners, it didn't stick. (Also, no editor --- no editor at Verso --- thought this worth correcting.) In the same chapter, his account of Grossman's argument for a falling rate of profit is just a mathematical mistake (increasing the denominator of a ratio won't decrease the ratio unless the numerator also remains unchanged [or shrinks]). Not having read Grossman, I can't say whether Jeffries is faithfully (and uncritically) reproducing Grossman's mistake, or whether he's introduced a new error. --- All of which being said, the Frankfurt School thinkers Jeffries is most concerned with were notoriously detached from mere political economy. ^
**: In chapter 2, Jeffries goes on at some length about how Walter Benjamin's nostalgia was different from Proust's, because the former involved a recognition that the nostalgized past was a transient historical episode, a social formation that came into being and passed away, like all others, no matter how eternal they may seem from the inside.insidmoment. Stipulate that this is true. (I make no claims to interpreting Proust.) How is this recognition of historical transience a revolutionary Marxist act, rather than common or garden historicism, widely found in European high culture since say 1800, often on the part of reactionaries? (Of course, we call many other things "historicism" as well, but this is one of them.) To be fair, Benjamin sometimes wrote as though it were a revolutionary Marxist act, but why take him at his word?
I might also complain about the depictions of Bachofen (who thought the transition to patriarchy was an advance), of Max Weber, or indeed of multiple others, but I will just mention the account of Otto Neurath, whose life and work I know well. Neurath was one of the chief figures in the Vienna Circle and a leading thinker of Logical Positivism. Thus, per the Frankfurt School, he must have been an ideologist of capitalism. He was also a committed socialist and Marxist, who, unlike the Frankfurt Schoolers, didn't just denounce capitalism in ways no worker could understand, but thought hard about how to actually run a planned, socialist economy, actively participated in trying to do just that during the transient "Soviet Republics" in post-WWI Germany, and devoted much of his life and work to concrete projects to improve the life, including the cultural life and the social knowledge, of the working class, both in Vienna and in exile in England. If one set out to systematically create a counter-example to Frankfurt's ideas about positivism, one could hardly do better; and by Jeffries's values, as displayed in this book, Neurath is a much more admirable figure than many of the Frankfurters. This gives Jeffries absolutely no pause for thought. ^
Norman Geras, Literature of Revolution: Essays on Marxism
Well-written but now dated essays, from when Geras was a believer. Probably now only for Geras completists (like me). §

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Philosophy; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Progressive Forces; Tales of Our Ancestors; Writing for Antiquity; Physics

Posted at August 31, 2019 23:59 | permanent link

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