Reasonable Length : Anthony Gottlieb – “The Dream of Reason”

And we’re back, after a year or so of a hiatus spent on other blog projects, and what better way to jump back into things than with everyone’s favorite genre: Philosophical Surveys!!!

Anthony Gottlieb’s “The Dream of Reason” may well supersede Bertrand Russell’s and Will Durant’s popular histories of Western philosophy, (the back blurb boldly suggests at least the former.) I won’t disagree. It’s the sort of concise summary that renders a semester of Philosophy 101 pointless.

Even Conciser:

1 The Milesians first separated (mythology/theology) from observable nature.

2 The Pythagoreans began to MEASURE nature, therefore inventing an imaginary, perfect counterpart to the less perfect, observable reality: the seed gave way to the circle, the finger to the line, the snake to the curve.


4 Parmenides: NOTHING CHANGES.

5 Zeno: You can’t get there, because first you would have to get halfway there. But first you would have to get half-half-way there. Silly as Zeno seems, his paradoxical thoughts (the whole infinity-within-infinity) would lead to Democritus’ thoughts about atoms, which are very much real, because we’ve split them, and BOOM.

6 Empedocles: the four elements (earth/ fire/ air/ water) and an understanding that there is no birth or death, just a “remixing” of the ingredients. Love and Strife ( I would prefer harmony and disharmony).(God and the Devil) (Big Bang and Big Crunch). Also the first proponent of evolution.

7 Anaxagoras: Everything is Everything Else, Just Less So than it is Itself.

8 Democritus: ATOM MAN.

9 The Sophists: Bringing philosophy to matters of human social behavior and clever argumentative rhetoric.Unjustly dismissed because of Plato’s personal bias (his beloved Socrates was killed as an anti-Sophist move, and Plato tried to distinguish Socrates from the Sophists.)

10 Socrates: Trying to reason with people and pointing out their logical fallacies is a deadly mistake.

11 Plato: Socrates’ apostle, something something about cavemen.

12 Aristotle: “the Master of All Who Know”

13 Three Roads to Tranquility: Epicureans (“Enjoy Things!”); Stoics (“Don’t Enjoy Things!”); Skeptics (“Don’t Believe in Things!”)

14 The Haven of Piety:The Dark Ages, or “There is one God DIVIDED into Father, Son and Holy Ghost!” “No! there is a Father, Son and Holy Ghost UNITED into one God! Let’s murder each other over this very important distinction!”

16: The Renaissance, and Descartes, and Gottlieb prepping for a sequel, called “The Dream of Enlightenment.”

RATING: COOL! as an intro to the field.


Don’t Judge a Video Game by its Cover : Tim Lapetino – “The Art of Atari”

atari2Ready, Player One? “The Art of Atari” is a massively nostalgic stroll down the 8-bit arcade. Tim Lapetino is the curator of this gallery of huckstery, where the most adventurous artists and graphic designers of the 70s and 80’s were tasked with the un-enviable job of convincing a generation of gamers that the green rectangle that moved through the black screen was actually a slimy alien – or  a treacherous shark – or  a fast-advancing tank – or a menacing dinosaur.

They succeeded!

Sure, the cartridge art made promises the software would never be able to fulfill, but it didn’t matter; we were young, and we wanted to believe! More than nostalgia, “The Art of Atari” honors influential commercial artists- and I’m not sure why I forced the word “commercial” in there. These artists objectively fueled more dreams than many a beret-sporting garret-dweller.



We, the Subjects : Yuval Noah Harari – “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”

The most thought-provoking book I’ve read since Peter Watson’s “Ideas”, Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” delivers on its title. As with that previous tome, I first intended to make notes on amusing tidbits, but then I would simply end up transcribing the book, so what’s the point? Read it for yourself.

I was particularly knocked about by the chapter on the Agricultural Revolution: it had never occurred to me that maybe plants aren’t controlled by humans to OUR benefit, but that humans may be controlled by plants to THEIR benefit. Harari misses some points for a few far-fetched extrapolations and overly tongue-in-cheek photo-captions, (leave those to blogs like this one!). “Sapiens” also contains some provocative opinions, so if you LIKE to get upset at other people’s diverging opinions, this might be the book for you! The more informed reader will find it an amusing, ambitious recap of where we are as a species, while making minor objections to points here and there. As for the younger reader, I couldn’t recommend this more: an engaging, mind-blowing run though millennia of human history that should be read by all. 

 One concept that I do want to expound on is Harari’s description of the inter-subjective, because I imagine most adults understand “objective” and “subjective,” but I don’t think enough of us are aware that most of the time when we say “subjective,” we actually mean “inter-subjective.”

OBJECTIVE: Average temperatures across the globe are rising. This is a REAL THING. It is MEASURABLE. Temperatures that had remained more-or-less stable through their recording by humans are rising exponentially, at least partly if not largely due to human behavior, and this has negative repercussions for humanity. Whether people are aware of it or not, it doesn’t matter, because the phenomenon is real and still takes place.

Answer to the age-old riddle: “If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” YES. It made a sound because the fall established in the premise caused a vibration in the air, which is how sounds are made. No human heard the sound, fine. It’s doubtful that no animal or bird heard that sound, considering how forests work, but ok. The fact is, the sound was created, even if no one was close enough to perceive it. “If global warming happens, and a single human can’t perceive it happening, does it still have consequences?” YES YES YES.

SUBJECTIVE: “I don’t feel hot. It’s Christmas and I’m in Fargo, Minnesota, and it snowed just fine.” That’s one person’s limited reaction, based on that person’s experience. I don’t find much wrong with this. We’re all ignorant of an endless variety of phenomena. Typically when exposed to an object, idea or experience, we learn about it and are changed by it, unless we have some powerful personal investment on denial or delusion, or there’s some developmental issue that make us resist new information.

The problems (and solutions) of society lie with the Inter-Subjective:


“Global warming is a hoax by liberal eco-terrorists that have somehow involved climate scientists all over the world in their fight against profitable industries, specifically the oil industry; it will ultimately come to nothing.”

Or its converse:

“Global warming is a real imminent threat, caused by a conservative coalition of evil corporations that don’t care if they destroy the planet in their psychotic quest for profit; we must fight against it with all our might or the human race will face a horrific end.”

Both inter-subjective myths have ‘some’ connection to the initial objective fact, but they’re also limited distortions of reality; they’re dogmas, -isms, myths, memes in their shortest form. Their “reality” is of no relevance. What matters is that they can connect large networks of people and unite them in one behavioral path.

Intersubjective ideas emerge from one authoritative source and spread widely to a network of consciousness. Changing them is nearly impossible from outside that network, because there’s usually too much of our identities at stake in our position within a group. But they can adapt with time- slowly and with some resistance- if enough members of the network that share it agree to adapt. Both of the inter-subjective mind-sets above have faced changes:

“Ok, fine, maybe global warming it’s real, but that doesn’t mean it is man-made. We can’t control that!” And then: “Ok, fine, maybe mankind does affect the environment, but so what? ‘Civilization is but a small break between Ice Ages’ and all that. Why disrupt our society and economy when humanity is doomed no matter what?”

As for its converse:

“Ok, fine, maybe we have limited control over weather patterns and there’s not that much we can do stop it, but we at least have to reduce our carbon footprint, or we will all die!” And then: “Ok, fine, we’re all gonna die anyway, but what about our children’s children?” And then: “Oh, ok fine, they’ll all die too, because eventually the global warming will be over and we will have an equally deadly global cooling, and anyway the sun will exhaust itself at some point so the only true hope for your children’s children’s children’s is to escape out of the Solar System and inhabit another galaxy and…”

Etc etc etc.

Here are other inter-subjective concepts:

“We have to do something! We are the stewards of the planet!”

“We don’t have to do anything! We’re a dumb arrogant species that deserves to be knocked down a peg! The dinosaurs didn’t have to do anything about climate change; why should we? What makes us think we’re better than dinosaurs?”

These ideas may have originated “subjectively” in hypothetical personalities within my head, but they’re very adaptable as “inter-subjective” ideas  because there’s nothing about them that makes them “me”-centered. Either one of them may easily match YOUR personal philosophy- or both, if you’re as weird as me.

Inter-subjective concepts may be “falsehoods” but they are at the roots of community, society, civilization. None of these is possible without inter-subjectiveness. “Law, money, gods, countries,” are Harari’s examples. I would add “art” and “love,” two illusions to which I happily subscribe. They have no real “truth” outside of their usage by a group. If the group co-operates without dissent, they become entirely truthful and meaningful to THAT group, because they create a sense of drive and purpose. It is up to our collective human judgment to be FLEXIBLE with our shared lies, so that these concepts can be helpful social inspirations, and not crushing, tyrannical delusions.


Brevity is the Essence of Memorability : John W. Gardner, Francesca Gardner Reese : “Quotations of Wit and Wisdom”

The Gardners’ “Quotations of Wit and Wisdom” is one of those little books you pick up to be reminded that idiocy, unlike gravity, is not a universal constant. But then you chuckle your way into reading the whole thing in one sitting. Montaige, Mark Twain, Kierkegaard and Will Rogers make frequent appearances; so do, surprisingly, a lot of the Spanish proverbs I grew up with that were supposed to keep me from grievous errors in life. (They only half-succeeded.)

Here’s a couple of classic ones:

“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not.”

“Life must be understood backwards; unfortunately, it must be lived forwards.”

“Funny how up-and-coming people never go anywhere.”

“Everyone has the right to say what they think, and everyone else has the right to punch them for it.”

“Few of us can handle success. Someone else’s, I mean.”

“The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.”

“The wise man dies, just like the fool.” (The Bible is bleak, y’all.)


Patricia Highsmith – “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction”

Image result for plotting and writing suspense fiction



Patricia Highsmith’s “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction” is not likely to help anyone to plot and/or write suspense fiction. One picks it up for shop-talk from a writer who, by most accounts, was not particularly fun to talk to in person. Book pages are a good buffer. Here the reader can find several detailed examples of things that worked for the author at given times in her career, but beyond the common-sense advice (“don’t go on for 100 pages after your novel’s climax”) what’s interesting is Highsmith’s personal untangling of  knotty plotline problems, which is not something many other writers could replicate profitably. Good tips on napping during writing blocks, though.