Santayana as pragmatist

I’m largely skeptical of placing George Santayana in the same category as other American pragmatists, but he does have his moments.  I stumbled across this great little nugget, which mirrors the late 20th century American pragmatic thinkers (and, in some ways, post-moderns):

[W]e are human beings thinking in moral terms, and we give the name disorder to any order in which we cannot recognize the visible essences to which we are accustomed.  Chaos is a name for any order that produces confusion in our minds.  — Dominations and Powers

I’m looking forward to trudging through the rest of the work.

John Dewey’s birthday…

John Dewey was born on this day (20 October, 1859).  Celebrate by trying to develop a creative new solution to an old problem.

We thus reach a technical definition of education: It is that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience.  The increment of meaning corresponds to the increased perception of connections and continuities of the activities in which we are engaged. — Education as Reconstruction

“American Philosopher”, part 2

Short film #2 in Phillip McReynolds‘s American Philosopher series offers a few pieces of information that divide up into histories of the early lives of contemporary American philosophers and the early life of philosophy in historic America. The former, tales about the temptations of philosophy in the early lives of modern thinkers, makes up the majority of the segment’s 10 minutes. It offers a good potopourri of experiences which led those interviewed into the “life of the mind”–ranging from those whose privileged and intellectually-amiable environments invited the depth of thought to those hardships or lack of privilege seemed to demand it. Many of their stories sound as if they would be quite interesting, if they were more thoroughly fleshed out. There were a few noticeable themes (each with exceptions) among the stories, such as an initial interest in pursuing religious questions or the experience of the befuddled parent when each philosopher broached his or her intended career choice.

All in all, I don’t think much of what was revealed was unexpected. I have seriously considered academic philosophy, and my gateway into such considerations stem from my personal experiences with both ends of the experiential gamut described by these philosophers. For instance, on the one hand, I grew up in an environment wherein thought was considered something to be nurtured. This is one of the best privileges youth can be given, in my humble opinion1. I think this kind of philosophical thought reflects the traditional Aristotelian sentiment that philosophy begins in wonder. When allowed and encouraged to think philosophically, these thoughts and the concomitant practical manifestations of their realization are rewards which encourage yet more reflection. I only wish more youth had these experiences growing up.

The second general category of experiences which led those interviewed to lean philosophical relate to observed and felt problems or injustices. This type of motivation better reflects Simon Critchley’s assertion that “Philosophy begins in disappointment.”. People see or experience something which seems at odds with the notion of a just or moral universe, and they need to explain it in order to feel that it can be ameliorated (or perhaps simply to cope).

While I suspect that it was the latter of these two options which more closely describes my experience (at a young age, I was deeply affected by certain historical moral failures of humanity, not to mention a few salient tangible examples of contemporary moral and economic inequity), once again I am tempted to take the both/neither approach to conceiving of these two different motivations for engaging philosophical thought. If anything, philosophical thought—and I would like to emphasize American philosophy in particular here—has to do with coming to conceive of the wonder of experiences while simultaneously recognizing the deficiencies of the world. In other words, we can conceptualize moral ideals, be amazed by the capabilities of the human mind, and feel awe of nature yet we also witness moral failure, mental error, and destruction and disorder. It better characterizes philosophy, I think, to say it begins in realizing the discrepancy between the ideal (and experienced) wonder and the actualized experienced disappointment.

From the sound of these interviews, it sounds like most of these thinkers began struggling with these sorts of issues at a very young age.  Part of me finds this a bit discouraging, actually.  Although I did get a bit of philosophy early on in life (Somehow, I took it upon myself to read2 Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, the State, and Utopia when I was in middle school.  There were a few other odd text tidbits I picked up in high school, but I distinctly remember remember not knowing who Plato was my freshman year of college).  This is partially disheartening because it makes me feel a bit behind in the race for deep-enough philosophical thought, but I find it worrisome much moreso because I fear that many who were not encouraged to think deeply at an early age will have great difficulty conceptualizing things critically later on in life…and, yes, I do know that this is dangerously close to the fallacy of denying the antecedent.

The last little chunk of this mini-film discusses the first American philosophers.  They begin with a good candidate, Jonathan Edwards (b. 1703) and skip all the way to Ralph Waldo Emerson (b. 1803–a century later).  While this I think agreement on this is pretty widespread, I’m tempted to say there must be some other major philosophical figures, especially political-philosophical figures, who qualify as American philosophers.  I’d love to hear some good suggestions on who they might be and what how they made sense of their worlds.  Surely, as implied by the close relationship anecdotally drawn between religious thought and philosophy in the examples of these interviewees, there were a few creative ministers or theologians who qualify as searching for philosophical answers to the “big questions”.  I have found this Dictionary of Early American Philosophers to page through, but it all seems a slough of names at this point.  Suggestions are welcome.

  1. Disclaimer: I am NOT a parent.
  2. note that I did not say ‘comprehend’

“American Philosopher”, part 1


There are a couple of nice little nuggets I’d like to pull out of this second video of American Philosopher.  First, I was excited to see the late John E. Smith join the video as an interviewee, though he seemed not to be mentioned in the teaser.  Smith was a great distiller of good information, and his work Spirit of American Philosophy has much merit.  That said, I am a bit skeptical about the claims he makes about the origin and character of archetypal American philosophy.  While it’s easy to see that pragmatism as an trend more readily absorbed into American academia.  Here are some of the claims from the film blurbs that I’ll address in kind.

  • “I think our practicality had so much to do with our need to subdue a continent.” –Smith
  • “I do?n’t think that pragmatism would ever have existed without the USA.  I just don’t think it could have developed on the soil of European philosophy at that time.” –Sartwell
  • “There’s a tendency among Americans to want to solve problems.” –Lachs

While I’m all for American philosophy and the laudable insights of pragmatism, phrases like this go a bit too far.  Sure, the American context may have been conducive to the flourishing of practical thought, but to say that America is the only possible progenitor of this thought is narrow-minded.  I think already in the time of Ancient Greek philosophy there are some decent examples of a pragmatic turn (Aristotle expresses a number of these characteristics).  Roman philosophy expresses a bit of this tendency, as do a number of aspects of Eastern philosophies (of which there is an implicit, almost chauvanistic, dismissal in Sartwell’s comment).  Furthermore, there is a sense in which Europe was already leaning towards a practical form of Existentialism (evident in Nietzsche and Heidegger, I think), and now the continent has their own pragmatists (Habermas, Vattimo, etc.).  I sincerely doubt Americans want to solve problems more than people in other countries, nor are they necessarily in general more practical.  My sense is that what got America a reputation for solving problems and being pragmatic is simply that a few of the proponents of such ideas found their way into higher academia and were accepted anyway1.  America is great and we’ve had some great philosophical insights, but let’s not give ourselves too much credit or resort to denying the possibility of historical counterfactuals wherein we didn’t provide such thought.

More interesting to me were Bernstein’s reflections on the relevance of philosophy to the American practicality (as opposed to the relevance of practicality to it’s philosophy).  It is actually surprising, if the textbooks are to be believed, that philosophical thought (particularly Enlightenment European philosophy) would have had such a powerful influence on the statebuilding process.  The founding fathers myths and stories are dripping with tales of inspiring figures with particular philosophical ideas conjoined with the concomitant practicality required to compromise where necessary to make them effective.  Likewise, American history is at least characterized as following a trajectory of philosophical self-awareness at the time of various social revolutions.  As Bernstein put it, “you couldn’t make any sense of America without understanding philosophy.  Very frequently the most significant progressive moments in American life is a coming together of a certain kind of practical-idealism.”  I nearly laughed when I heard the start of this sentence, but Bernstein, Anderson, Campbell, and Anne Rose (also not mentioned in the teaser) actually make a pretty decent, if succinct, case for this idea that philosophy is actually relevant to progress in American culture 2.  I have elsewhere read exchanges between Bernstein and Rorty arguing more broadly on this topic–whether philosophy really has the ability to impact culture.  I have always thought that whether or not it was true (I suspect it is) that Bernstein’s position is the more “pragmatic”; in other words, it is good for us to at least act like philosophy can influence culture and human progress.  Nobody is arguing that it can provide insight, so there is no need to dismiss the possibility that that insight can have a fruitful consequential bearing on our practical experiences unless we have a more effective replacement.

Also interesting was the brief defense of philosophy as a bastion of practicality.  John Sturh and David Vessey (both uncredited in the teaser video) made this point by essentially stating that philosophy is the only discipline that really systematically gravitates towards questions of what we ought to do–or how our choices and actions can be used to alter ourselves and our world.  It’s certainly an argument I would love to flesh out more in discussion.

In the end, I think SIU Carbondale’s Randy Auxier really does the best job of giving a good “American character” to the conception of the American Philosopher:

It’s not the Anglo- or European- American experience; it just includes that.  It includes the Native American experience.  It includes the African American experience.  And all of these things come together to form the context of insight, intuition, and experience that gives rise to the philosophy.  You couldn’t have Ralph Waldo Emerson without the combined influence of all of those different traditions.  There is something in Pragmatism and American Personalism, American Idealism, and even in process philosophy that expresses the American experience.  The thing that I would say characterizes that most adequately has to do with a certain–not only practicality–but a certain assumption about the inseparability of the way a person lives and the way a person thinks. –Auxier

While Auxier is guilty of a few simplifications about what could have caused what, he does a good job of capturing the complexity and variety of “American” philosophy in a way that neither dilutes its definition to the point of meaninglessness nor narrowly overemphasizes specific content…other than the fact that this implicitly cuts the cord between so-called American philosophy and the defacto standard of philosophy in America, contemporary analytic thought.  Sartwell also has a quoteable nugget right at the end of this short which hints at many of the same assumptions:

I think the way I have tried to answer some philosophical questions has changed the way live…or, the way I live has changed my answers to philosophical questions.

The artificially spliced in editorial comment from Lachs, “That’s very American”, couldn’t have been a more apropos way to end the short film.

  1. I partially credit James’ simultaneous work in psychology and philosophy with helping get that foot in the door.
  2. Social psychologists, anthropologists, economists, and historians may have better explanations, though, for why moral and social progress boomed at times–and I am guessing few of their answers have much to do with the development of American philosophy

“American Philosopher”, part 0

There’s a new film (or series of eight rather short films, I guess) by Phillip McReynolds called American Philosopher.  You can watch the whole thing online, and it’s a pleasure that I recommend taking.  Quite frankly, it seems mostly to be a bunch of spliced-together interviews with a few major living (or recently living) academic philosophers.  There’s not too much unity of thought, other than the vague thematic American-philosophical self-reflection and a few shared terms, and the discussion does not get too deep or technical.  It is, however, an easy watch and it’s great to hear how these thinkers reflect on their work and environment after years of being immersed in it.  I’m going to do a quick series of posts walking through my reactions to the 8 ‘films’.

Part 0 of 8 is just a little teaser.  It begins with a brief little reflection by the late Richard Rorty:

I think that the Socratic ideal of self-knowledge is replaced among contemporary intellectuals by the Nietzschean idea of self-creation.  The life of the intellectual is not a matter of finding out what finding out what has been inside himself or herself all the time, it’s a matter of becoming someone new


I’m more than a bit confused about the relevance of this little thought nugget 1, but there seems to be a smattering of dangling opinions here and there in the film, so I’ll write it off as a teaser for that aspect.

The teaser is nice enough to give us a good sneak preview of the interviewees.  As someone who considers American philosophy to be one of my primary influences, especially among relatively contemporary thinkers, I was excited to see the roll call.  First up, Richard Rorty, an incisive thinker from whom I have read a lot.  While I disagree with Rorty on some key things, I believe him to be one of the best recent examples of a public intellectual that actually has an influence in America.  2

Another featured philosopher with whose work I am well acquainted is The New School’s Richard J. Bernstein.  It would be misleading for me to mention Bernstein as anything less than among my favorite thinkers, especially among those currently living3.  Douglas Anderson is also featured.  I’ve read his book on Peirce, Strands of System: The Philosophy of Charles Peirce, and found it to be quite good in most respects.  Thomas Alexander,who like Anderson resides at the very American SIU Carbondale, also makes an appearance.  He has contributed some great thoughts on Dewey.  Joseph Margolis–who has himself produced some works summarising, distilling, and contextualising American philosophical thought in general–is interviewed as well.  Crispin Sartwell, who I have found provocative yet insightful, gets a lot of airtime in the film.  The salient Hilary Putnam makes a few brief cameos.  John Lachs provides his insight (which comes off as delightfully just-outside the American philosophy cadre, I think because he’s a Santayana scholar4.  John Lysaker, Erin McKenna, James Campbell, Michael P. Hodges, Richard Schusterman, Scott Pratt, Russell Goodman, Bruce Wilshire, Judith Green, and Lucious Outlaw also contribute positively to the discussion, though I am not familiar enough with their other work to say more about them.

This short preview ends with the philosophers naming a good list of questions, a few of which I think are distinctly of interest to contemporary American philosophy, but most of which are just interesting for academic philosophers in general.  A few of those questions, seem even to be of the type that some American philosophers would not bother worrying about; for instance, Rorty would certainly poo-poo Judith Green’s question “What is Justice?” or Bruce Wilshire’s quick list of pesudo-metaphysical questions as being unhelpful.  The fact that these thinkers might have been pushing these questions as relevant for the American Philosopher probably speaks to the divisiveness of its character makeup, which makes it interesting.

  1. My own anecdotal experiences lead me to conclude that Rorty’s sentiments are generally accurate in describing the fact of the matter for a good number of intellectuals (and non-intellectuals), if one only assumes the blatantly oversimplified dichotomy that he presents.  What’s strange to me, though, is that this sentiment does not, to the best of my knowledge, track in a more significant way with American thought than the thought of other thinkers.  If anything, it may be less likely to reflect the American characterization of the goals of intellectual academic philosophy, at least insofar as the relevant existential assumptions are not in vogue in primarily analytic (as opposed to continental) American philosophy.
  2. I recommend picking up one of his books and giving it a thoughtful read if you have the time, probably best to try one of his later and shorter essays if you are not steeped in the tradition of philosophy already.  Philosophy and Social Hope starts out with three good essays of just this sort.
  3. At the very least, his work Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis belongs in the philosophical cannon, at least as long as people still find Kuhn relevant.  He’s also got a pretty new book out called The Pragmatic Turn, which illustrates as much as anything his love for combining American pragmatism with European Continental thought.  That may be of interest to you if you have read this far.
  4. I’ve made the case elsewhere that Santayana’s rather exciting modes of thought tend to resemble German–or at least Continental European–thought more than they really have anything to do with American traditions.

When is x + x = x more true than x + x = 2x?

Disclaimer: these thoughts are a bit raw and not well explained here, but I need to start posting to develop my thoughts more.  Disclaimer 2: yes, x can be 0.

Okay, admittedly, the title of this post sounds like a dumb question.  And while I know that in most cases, the former answer is the “true” answer, it was the lame possibility that there are instances wherein the latter is more true which kept me up thinking for a little while the other night.

On the one hand, in the physical  world, things seem pretty clear cut–at least at first.  Let’s say I have a souvenir from president Taft:

A Souvenir from President Taft
A Souvenir

If I happened to get two souvenirs, I’ll have… wait for it…

1+1 = 2
1 + 1 = 2 souvenirs... go ahead and check!

…two souvenirs.  1 souvenir + 1 souvenir = 2 souvenirs.  Genius!

Hello World!

Now, let’s get more abstract.  We’ll start with a teeny-tiny programming lesson.  In common programming languages, the = symbol has an additional function beyond expression equation and evaluation; it is also used to assign variables.  There are two common ways of assigning variables, by reference and by copy.  Assigning by reference simply assigns that variable as a “pointer” which points (or references) a particular space containing the value of the variable.  An assignment by copy takes the value of the initial value of the variable and copies it into the new variable.

The standard in the PHP language is variable assignment by copy.  Thus, if I type

A = 5

B = A1

…then B is also equal to 5, but if I later change the value of A:

A = 9

…then B still retains its value as 5.  In essence, this means that every variable name used in PHP code is by default a placeholder for its value, rather than a link to a particular “place” in a computer’s memory.  Thus, just like in the real world, it generally makes sense that A + A = 2A because in PHP this is like saying: (the value of) A combined with (the value of) A is equal to two times (the value of) A.

However, in a language like Python–which assigns by reference by default–after setting B = A, if I alter the value of A = 9, then the value of B becomes 9 as well.  This is because the A and B variables both refer to the same “place” in the computer’s memory, so when you change the value in that place, it appears as changed to all of the variables that reference that space.  This is where there appears to be a different relationship with reality.  Because A and B (and, of course, A and A) are not simply copies of a value but are actually references to the same object, the objects of their pointers have the same identity.  In PHP, the objects of the separate variables cannot be said to be completely identical because  even if they have all other qualities in common, they represent different places in the computer memory; however, in Python, the objects of the variable pointers hold all qualities in common.  As anyone who remembers Leibniz’s Law knows, any two things sharing all attributes are the same thing.  What does it mean to add a thing to itself, when each object in the addition equation is merely a pointer to that object?  In other words, I’d like to make the case that in Python, A + A is not like doubling the value of A.  It is not like having one souvenir and having another souvenir.  Rather, I think that, given the way the language defaults its variable assignments to references, A + A is like pointing to the same souvenir twice, but not working with the value.  In other words, I think in this case the more appropriate equation is A + A = A.  In the same manner that pointing to the same souvenir twice still only leaves you with one souvenir, pointing to the same A twice ought only leave you with one A.

That said, yes, I understand that programming languages are more pragmatic than systematic.  If that were the actual function of the + operator on referenced variables, it would hardly be worthwhile.  Furthermore, all of the operators in programming language imply more function than is implied in their natural language definitions.  In other words, using the + symbol (as with other symbols * / % – etc.) implies that the factors involved will be treated as values.  The value role which I have claimed was missing from the default Python variable model is just played by the operator, rather than the variable itself…but that doesn’t mean this little thought experiment was completely pointless.

Back to the real world…

This actually makes a lot of sense coming back to the physical world.  Let’s  say I ask you how many Stings there are:

Sting!  You know, like from the Police!
Sting! You know, like from the Police!

There  are really two ways of looking at this; we have either one Sting or two.  To map this back onto the programming discussion, these images can be taken on the one hand to refer to the Sting.  In this case, each image itself would not “count” , because both images refer only to a single thing (person).  They are, by this understanding, mere pointers to the physically extant sting (I’ll call him ontological Sting, because he has being).  Having two pointers is just as if you pointed to Sting twice…you wouldn’t say that there are two Stings in that case.

On the other hand, we could say that both Stings count.  Using our programming language metaphor, we could say that each Sting image copies the value of the Sting–at least for our purposes, and because they have value aside from their referent we can count them.  Thus, we would have two (non-ontological) Stings.

This hints at my first point.  Basically, it seems to me that math, even simple sums and counting numbers, is 1) too abstracted and too rigid to account for ontology (being) and because of this 2) it does a poor job of accounting for identity, and as a result 3) it can lead to ambiguity that when not addressed leads  to error or confusion.   In other words, because there is no link between being and the abstract concept of number (this has been true at least since the West abandoned the simple Greek conception of counting numbers), there is a live translation issue when going from the real to the abstract and when going from the abstract to the real.  While it is certainly true that we get around just fine most of the time with our assumptions about the identities and numbers, I bring this up to propose that taking it into account from time to time might provide us with a little insight where we could use a little creativity.

To be sure, there are a few workarounds for the identity-less nature of numbers (even at a basic enough level for me to understand).  We’ve all played around with those factorial problems (think: “how many possible order configurations are there for Jan, Jim, and Jill to stand in a single-file line?”), for instance, but while these techniques offer us some of the effects of taking identity into account, they still lack a truely correlative relationship with what can be said to be or what can be said to have such-and-such an identity.  2

What strikes me as rather unusual about this is not simply that nobody seems to pay attention to the lack of a relationship between mathematics and ontology, but that people seem to have never thought about this lack of relationship despite the fact that ontology seems to me to be psychologically prior. At least in my limited, subjective experience, I have found that ontological assumptions predated and founded mathematical assumptions, but I am known to be an edge-case in many things.  If you are tenacious enough to still be with me at this point, I hope you can help describe your history learning mathematics in a manner that will either affirm or counter my own experiences.

Let me be a little more clear.

I can very vividly recall learning multiplication and somewhat clearly recall my thoughts learning addition.  For multiplication, I remember being rather incredulous.  We were started with addition problems like “4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 = ?” followed by examples like “4 x 5 = ?”.  The fact that you could replace the one operation with the other, that you could–by say counting the number of fours and using that result as a factor–obtain the same result as adding that many fours or counting by as many fours…it all seemed to me to be a parlour trick which might hold true in some cases–but it certainly could not be known to hold true in all cases.  It took a lot of examples to convince me that this could be thought of as a mathematical rule.  The same was roughly true, I more  vaguely remember, of addition.  The fact that every time you counted four apples and another three apples, you could combine them and count them up to seven apples… it seemed like a neat trick, but I was initially skeptical, and it took a number of examples to convince me.

I don’t know if I am an unusual case or not, but as described to me, it seems I learned most of my fundamental mathematics inductively.  I took examples from what existed in the world  and tested them for consistency against rules and language I was given until I accepted them as true conventions.  In other words, for me, ontology was more fundamental than mathematical abstractions.  Many so-called mathematical necessities came to me a posteriori, and I do not know whether it is safe to assume this is common.

To get back to my point, I think there is an oft-ignored relationship between being and number which ought to be unearthed from time to time, and I think that relationship is one upon which our more abstracted conception of mathematics is dependent.  In many or most cases, it can be convenient or beneficial to forget this relationship while we experiment with the great, complex language of mathematics and find a way to relate it back to the world…functional relationships, irrational numbers, even negative numbers and zeros seem to have a much more distant relationship to ontology.  In many cases, they may have more effect on our conception of being than vice versa (where do the notions of anti-matter or charge come from, if not from mathematics?), but I don’t think that means we can ignore that initial relationship.

  1. Technically, this is improper PHP, but for consistency with the Python examples, I have removed variable delimiters ‘$’ and end-of-line markers ‘;’
  2. Mathematics also suffers another identity-translation issue insofar as naming can correspond to an ontological object or a pointer worthy of holding a certain value.  In other words, it cannot determine whether the wrestler Sting and the musician Sting both qualify as Sting for the purposes of the count.  I’m not too worried about this, though, as I think it can be addressed by my take on Jamesian pragmatism

Augustana College’s 150 Books to Read

A close friend recently pointed me to this list of books on Augustana College’s website.  As part of the celebration of the college’s Sesquicentennial, they have published a list of 150 faculty recommendations for books to read in your lifetime.  I thought it would be fun to do a quick rundown of the books I have read from this list.  Much of the list is fiction, and I typically avoid most fiction, so I would not recommend taking my opinion as the deciding factor in whether to read one of these books unless you are of a similar disposition.  I am going to divide these books into a few categories 1) Books I Re-Endorse, 2) Books I Do Not (yet) Re-Endorse, 3) Books I Hope To Read,  4) Books I Have No Intent To Read, and finally 5) Books I Know Nothing About.  I hope that some kind soul reading this will make the case for any worthwhile books in these last three categories.

1: Books I Re-Endorse

Let’s begin with the list of books I would gladly add my endorsement to:

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  4. (and Tree and Leaf, by J.R.R. Tolkien)

I am actually a little surprised to see this listed as three separate works (especially when C.S. Lewis and the Twilight series works are listed as one work), but either way you view it I would recommend digging through all the Tolkien books you can get your hands on. Most of Tolkien’s work is just great, but in my opinion the excellence of Tolkien is that the more of his work one reads, the more one can appreciate it.  His body of work is among the least blatantly-intellectual (well, some of it) fiction of which I approve, and my suspicion is that his lack of superficial intellectual depth is more than compensated for by his mythic-historic depth and a complex set of relationships between the works.  This is why I would recommend tackling at least The Silmarillion with Lord of the Rings, in addition to at least glancing through lists and tables of relationships, name and word origins, language conventions, and the like.  What is fascinating is that Tolkien’s vast, mythological world is realistically consistent (it largely hangs together, but it is not without internal conflict or even contradiction) and well enough endowed with history and variety that if it were an actual set of traditional cultural lore (of, say, Britain), that tradition would be among the richest folklore traditions recorded.  Somehow, this body of work was composed by a single man over a few decades of his life, with jobs, wars, and other real-life factors constantly intruding upon his progress.

  1. The Bible

This one is all too easy to make the case for, especially after having made the case for Tolkien.  Conveniently divided  into an array of books so variegated, I find it difficult to lump their value into a few qualities as a whole.  Leaving aside cultural, historic, and religious significance–a case which I do not think  I need to make–I find it most valuable for its great mixture of its wisdom, its narratives and art, and its broaching of salient examples of ethical and theological problems.

  1. The Giver, by Lois Lowry

While not  one of my favorite books, it was certainly formative and I agree that it ought to be widely read.  For me, it was the fact that certain ideas were presented in the narrative–not the plot itself–that drew me in.  The book altered the way I think about religion, human experience, and social enclaves at an early age–and for the better, I believe.

  1. The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein

This was a great combination of entertainment, lore, whim, and ethical thought for the young mind.

  1. My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

This was likely the most moving fiction book that I read during college.  I think Asher’s difficult and strange position mirrors a milder, but much more widespread set of conflicts that endure for many, if not most, humans–when they are susceptible to reflecting on them.  Potok’s glory in this book, though, is not that he presents the superficial conflict, but rather he forces the conflict into a zone beyond simple Manichean bifurcation.  Like a great early European New Wave film, he refuses to provide us with an adequate resolution to a seemingly simple problem that becomes so mired in emotional complexity as to be beyond defining.

  1. Summa Theologica, by St. Thomas Aquinas
  2. Confessions, by St. Augustine

It’s probably unfair to lump these together.  The former is fascinating and utterly analytic  in nature, and the latter is really (in my mind) to be prized for its exploration’s value in examining the subjective in the world (and, of course, being a thorough confession of a fascinating man), but I need to sacrifice something for the sake of some semblance of brevity…

  1. A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold

This work of Leopold’s is perhaps my favorite conservationist account.  Leopold combines the best of the romantic naturalism of folks like Emerson, Thoreau, and Wendell Berry with a wonderful (if anecdotal) case study of the recuperation of a natural environment.  It is also a powerful endorsement of the value that can come from the slow application of thought and care to any environment–a case, I think, for the notion that work and time can bring change with determination without the need for drastic, disruptive alterations.

  1. Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James

James’s account of religion qua experience is an unusual combination of mystical literature and systematic academic writing.  He is serious enough about the subject and about syncretism that his book can be eye opening to the most conservative and the most mystical among the religious (and nonreligious) alike.

  1. “The Fixation of Belief” (essay), by Charles Peirce

This book is short enough, and–as far  as Peirce is concerned–accessible enough, that there is no good excuse for not reading it once you have heard of it.

  1. Poetics and Metaphysics, by Aristotle

Not the best Aristotle (Nichomachean EthicsRhetoric?) nor the worst (don’t get me started on Categories), but well worth the read.  Now if only we had Aristotle’s Second book of Poetics1

  1. Night Flight (Vol de nuit), by Antoine de St.-Exupéry

There are certainly a few deeper philosophical lessons to take from this book, but through St.-Exupéry’s wonderful style I think the value will be transmitted thoroughly simply through identification with characters and experience in the book (not unlike his other great work 2.

  1. Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis

This is one of the best Christian apologies I have read, and though I do not think it is Lewis’s greatest work (I’m probably quite outnumbered in thinking that work is A Grief  Observed), it deserves to be read by as wide an audience as possible.

  1. Walden; “Walking”, by Henry David Thoreau
  2. Nature, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Somewhat similar, thematically, I think these two works  actually express a rather different view of the experiential nature of the relationship between man and nature (or even mind and world), but they are both remarkable for their mellifluousness, character, and the romantic gravity they give to the humans and their interaction with the world.

  1. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

This book perhaps has my vote for the greatest work of fiction (among those read by me, which is admittedly few).  While I am neither a fan of detective stories nor a fan of medieval settings, I found this book to be a real page-turner (even the beginning, despite what Eco purportedly intended).  I took away from this book not just entertainment, but a wealth of insight.  The crux of it, I take to be a Wittgenstein point on knowledge and experience (akin to a lesson in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus).  It is a lesson better put in Eco’s literature than non-fiction, but it is certainly not the book’s only insightful gem.

  1. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

One of the longest (nonfiction) works which I have read and still felt it had a ridiculously high payoff:page ratio.  Dostoevsky’s depth is remarkable.

  1. Hop on Pop, by Dr. Seuss

Again, perhaps not the author’s greatest work, but certainly worth the 2.5 minutes to read.  Better still are Dr. Seuss’s creative, whimsical tales like Oh The Things You Can Think!, The Lorax, The Sneeches, and McElligot’s Pool.

  1. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

The earliest work I read explicitly depicting a southern African American experience in a manner that was not exceedingly trite, I credit this book with altering some of my assumptions about constants of human experience.

  1. Night, by Elie Wiesel

Along with Viktor Frankl’s work, there is no better account of the horrors of the Holocaust.  I think it ought to be read in tandem with The Trial of God, while you’re at it.

  1. Don Quixote, by Cervantes
  2. King Lear, by Shakespeare
  3. Hamlet, by Shakespeare

These are classics which reward a read and a reread.  Call me arrogant, but I cannot suffer all classics.

  1. Ulysses, by James Joyce

This work was eye-opening and esoteric enough to be extremely appealing throughout, despite it’s length, incoherence, and complexity.

2: Eh…

I read all of these books.  None of them were horrible; none were even “bad”.  I might even recommend reading a few of them–most would be worth the time if it weren’t the case that being “worth the time to read” also means “being worth the time to read rather than other, better books you might read”.

  1. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
  2. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes
  4. The Chronicles of Narnia (series), by C. S. Lewis
  5. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  7. Good-Night Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown
  8. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

3: Plans…

I really, really want to read the following books from the list, based largely on recommendations from others.  If there are some that you don’t believe are worth my time, though, feel free to critique!

  1. Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust
  2. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safron Foer
  3. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
  4. Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson
  5. Stones Into Schools, by Greg Mortenson
  6. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
  7. Smith of Wootton Major, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  8. 1776, by David McCullough
  9. The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer
  10. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  11. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoesvsky
  12. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
  13. A Very Easy Death, by Simone de Beauvoir
  14. The Sparrow, by Mary Russell Doria
  15. Children of God, by Mary Russell Doria

4: No Hurry…

This is a list of books which I have no intention of reading, currently.  Feel free to pitch for a book that is worth the time, though, as my judgments are based mostly on weakly-founded assumptions and the recognition of my finitude.

  1. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Honestly, from what I know, it just sounds like boring fiction.  Don’t forget that I’m not really a fiction kind of guy.

  1. The Shack, by William P. Young

Religious fiction has occupied some of the lowest rungs of the drivel I have consumed.  Popularity of a work such as this really is not enough to dissuade me from making the presumption about this book as well, but feel free to defend it, as I would be eager to come across another work of religious fiction that is not banal or excessively dogmatic.

  1. The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama

My experience with celebrity books (yes, the president is a celebrity–first and foremost in many cases in modern American politics, if you ask me) is that they tend to be shamelessly self-aggrandizing, uninteresting, and as insubstantial as would be implied by anything “ghost-written”.  Feel free to explain how this one’s the exception.

  1. Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Adventure stories are not too appealing to me.  I presume that’s mostly what this is.  Defend it if you can.

  1. A Time to Kill, by John Grisham

I read another John Grisham book once…or tried to.  Does anything make this one stand out?

  1. The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough

Yes, sad, but I am judging this book by it’s film.  I recall catching part of this movie as a child and being turned off.

  1. Wizard of Oz series, by L. Frank Baum

I’ve read a bit of the first book, but I couldn’t get into it.

  1. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

It’s possible that I have already read this.  It certainly wasn’t memorable, nor was the film, if you ask me.

  1. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Another book wherein I suspect the film has spoiled the paper copy.  It was good enough, but I suspect I would not be much more drawn in by the book itself.

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle

I read The Hound of the Baskervilles and enjoyed it–but not enough to give a similar work another go.

  1. Twilight Series, by Stephanie Meyer

Sometimes popularity makes a seemingly uninteresting work that much more unappealing.  This is a case in point, but defend it if you can.

  1. The Wedding, by Nicholas Sparks

Call me hypermasculine, but I cannot imagine sitting down to read this and feeling like I was not wasting my time.  Tell me if you can make the case for it.

  1. Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris

In a world where my time is limited, if I need entertainment, I’ll reach for something less time consuming than a book.  Comedy seems to me to be mostly about entertainment, and I presume (perhaps unjustly) that Sedaris’s work is primarily about comedy.  If there’s some more substantive, lasting value here please let me know.

5: Call me a philistine, but… who?

Most of these books, I really know nothing about.  In a few cases, I have read other works by the author, but was notintrigued enough to seek further works or I just simply have no reason to believe that the following would be the work to seek.  In a few cases, I did not even know the author existed until I found him or her on this list.  I’d love to hear more about any of these books.  Tell if you can.

  1. Illusions: Tales of a Reluctant Messiah, by Richard Bach
  2. The Snow Tree, by Caroline Repchuck
  3. Black Child, by Camara Laye
  4. If it Die, by André Gide
  5. The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch
  6. Straight Man, by Richard Russo
  7. Last Moon Dancing, by Monique Schmidt, ’98
  8. Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler
  9. Practical Gods, by Carl Dennis
  10. Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger
  11. The Next Place, by Warren Hanson
  12. Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
  13. Up the Down Staircase, by Bel Kaufman
  14. QB VII, by Leon Uris
  15. Nicholas & Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie
  16. My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult
  17. The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant
  18. Dear & Glorious Physician, by Taylor Caldwell
  19. London, by Edward Rutherford
  20. Possessing the Secret of Joy, by Alice Walker
  21. Love you Forever, by Robert Munsch
  22. The Worldly Philosophers, by Robert Heilbroner
  23. Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese
  24. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
  25. The Magus, by John Fowle
  26. Christ and Culture, by H. Richard Niebuhr
  27. The Second Coming, by Walker Percy
  28. Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis
  29. Miracles, by C.S. Lewis
  30. The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis
  31. Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney
  32. Jeeves and Wooster, by P.G. Wodehouse
  33. The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers
  34. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis Hyde
  35. Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris
  36. Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay
  37. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
  38. Mary Russell series, by Laurie R. King
  39. The Question of Hu, by Jonathan Spence
  40. Aging: The Fulfillment of Life, by Henri J.M. Nouwen
  41. Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
  42. D-Day, by Anthony Beavor
  43. The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig
  44. The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams
  45. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See
  46. Blind Your Ponies, by Stanley Gordon West
  47. The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
  48. Master Butchers’ Singing Club, by Louise Erdrich
  49. The Greatest Miracle in the World, by Og Mandino
  50. The Gift From the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  51. The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
  52. The Cave, by Jose Saramago
  53. Free To Choose, by Milton & Rose Friedman
  54. Alphabet series mysteries, by Sue Grafton
  55. My Antonia, by Willa Cather
  56. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
  57. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
  58. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  59. The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shield
  60. Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott
  61. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engel
  62. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
  63. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
  64. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami
  65. Snow, by Orhan Pamuk
  66. Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan
  67. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow
  68. Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett
  69. A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
  70. The Witness of Combines, by Kent Meyers
  71. Two-Part Invention: the story of a marriage, by Madeleine L’Engel
  72. Waterland, by Graham Swift
  73. People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
  74. March, by Geraldine Brooks
  75. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
  76. The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl
  77. Good Harbor, by Anita Diamant
  78. Buffalo For The Broken Heart, by Dan O’Brien
  79. Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
  80. Asylum, by Patrick McGrath
  81. Staggerford, by John Hassler
  82. The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
  83. It’s Your Ship, by Mike Abrashoff
  84. Once a Runner, by John L. Parker
  85. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
  86. Five Smooth Stones, by Ann Fairbairn
  87. The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck

A good way to wrap up would be to give my own list of books, and I am probably arrogant enough to actually put one up and think others would care about it.  Luckily, I’m also impatient to publish this list, so you’re spared.  Anyone who happens to read this, though, talk back about your book choices, please, as I love recommendations (especially nonfiction!).  If you are interested in the books I like, though, you can always peek in my library, or look at some of the books I found very influential.

  1. see Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose
  2. The Little Prince

Gettin’ my Akedah on…

It’s been far too long since I have posted anything.  I have not had time to put any real articles together 1, but I figured that my private journal could be sustained with a post or two with my random, private thoughts and life events from time to time 2.  Now it’s nearly spring, and I’m studying once again.  This time, it’s an exploration of the Akedah (????? ???? the binding of Isaac).

This past winter had me studying a lot more Lévinas, and a bit more on the work of Richard Rorty as well.  I have also been reading a surprising amount on religion, theology, and the philosophy related to those topics.  I finished the first presumably successful reading of a full-length work in French, and I found a few more difficult works to page through.  I’m hoping to get some time to start posting my translated bits up here on the ol’ journal as I wade through them, but time will indeed tell whether that is a possibility.  I have found myself wanting to get back into studying PHP.  My relevant knowledge is rather antiquated as it dates to the version 4.x series (non-object-oriented), but I keep thinking of great uses for the skill, so perhaps I’ll find the time to  get into it again soon.  I haven’t bothered to check, but I assume that either v. 6.x is around the bend or patches have been introduced for better unicode support by now, which I will greatly appreciate (these sorts of problems precluded my dabbling with PHP again while I studied Ancient Greek a year or two ago).

For now, I have to get back to the Akedah study.  Hebrew (and the semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family) is a remarkably interesting language–though frustrating.  I hope, if I get the time, to start working on a new little PHP script that will allow me to see how far unicode support has come3 while improving my ability to understand the Hebrew passages I am reading, but that is still in the concept stage.  Now, back to yet another reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling!  This time, I have finally got my hands on a Hong translation, which I hear is most excellent.  Class and outside discussion have been so exciting, I am actually thrilled to be going through Fear and Trembling for what has to be at least the fourth time.

  1. There are dozens of half-baked ones sitting in my unpublished coffers
  2. after all, this is the purpose for which I envisioned this so-called “blog”
  3. it might not have come too far, the facebook crossposting plugin for wordpress balked with errors when I tried to publish this post with Hebrew characters in the title

Ubuntu Karmic and enlightenment (e17) via

In order to get the ball rolling, open up a terminal…we’ll do all our work from there:


That command will provide us with, the handy script which will make updating e17 easier.  Now we’ll make it able to run:

sudo chmod +x

Now let’s install the basic tools to get running:

sudo apt-get install build-essential libtool autotools-dev automake1.9 subversion

We’re in business!  Now let’s install what dependencies we can using apt:

libglib2.0-dev libltdl-dev libcurl4-openssl-dev liblua5.1-0-dev libfontconfig1-dev libx11-dev libdbus-1-dev libbz2-dev libid3tag0-dev libpng12-dev libtiff4-dev libungif4-dev libjpeg62-dev libfreetype6-dev libpam0g-dev libxcursor-dev libxml2-dev libssl-dev autoconf pkg-config libpng3-dev libxkbfile-dev libsqlite3-dev libimlib2-dev libtagc0-dev libtag1-dev libxmu-dev libxdamage-dev libxcomposite-dev libasound2-dev

Okay, now on to the real goodness.  Run this from commandline:

sudo ./ -i -e –packagelist=full

Let the script do it’s magic, grab a sandwich, and you should have everything fully installed in an hour or so, depending on your computer’s speed.

Then, you’ll need to set up the display manager to let you use enlightenment.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult and not recommended to use enlightenment’s display manager “entrance”, and gdm negates the beautifully quick start up time for enlightenment, as it takes a long time to boot the window manager after you log in.  Other display managers exist, but for now we’ll concentrate on just getting GDM to work.  Try this command:

sudo gedit /usr/share/xsessions/e17.desktop

Copy this content into the new file and save it:

[Desktop Entry]

Then do:

sudo gedit /etc/environment

and append this to the end of the line in the file and save it:


Now log out, log back in with GDM, this time selecting your e17 session from the session menu at the bottom of the gdm login screen, and you’re in business!  Bonne chance!

A fun set of hypotheticals…

  • Everyone you know that has watched a commercial for Bob’s NewWidget purchases Bob’s NewWidget and thinks that it is the greatest invention.
    • You are given the opportunity to watch the commercial.  Do you take it?
  • Everyone you know that has taken a certain drug BNW purchases Bob’s NewWidget and thinks that it is the greatest invention.
    • You are given the opportunity to take the drug.  Do you take it?

Now we’ll change things slightly:

  • Everyone you know who has read a certain book comes to believe that free market capitalism is the only viable economic system for the future of humanity.
    • Do you read the book?
  • Everyone you know who has taken a certain drug FMC comes to believe that free market capitalism is the only viable economic system for humanity.
    • Do you take the drug?

and, finally…

  • Everyone you know who has read a certain book comes to believe that God exists and has a personal relationship with them.
    • Do you read the book?
  • Everyone who has taken drug BPG comes to believe that God exists and has a personal relationship with them.
    • Do you take the drug?

In all these cases, of course, we assume that there are no other side-effects of the drug/book/commercial.  Tease out what matters between these different scenarios, if anything in fact, distinguishes them.