Don Hosek - Past reading - Philosophy

My occasional forays into figuring what life's all about.

What I've been read in the past - Philosophy
DateAuthorTitle
Hannah Arendt by Julia Kristeva
[Finished 13 January 2016] See my review at dahosek.com

The Parables of Kierkegaard by Søren Kierkegaard
[Finished 2 June 2015] See my review at dahosek.com

An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy by Karyn L. Lai
[Finished 26 May 2015] See my review at dahosek.com

Logic Made Easy: How to Know when Language Deceives You by Deborah J. Bennett
[Finished 13 May 2015] See my review at dahosek.com

In Defense of Lost Causes by Slavoj Žižek
[Finished 16 April 2015] See my review at dahosek.com

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief by Lewis Wolpert
[Finished 19 March 2015] See my review at dahosek.com

What Number is God? by Sarah Voss
[Finished 10 March 2015] See my review at dahosek.com

Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips
[Finished 24 February 2015] See my review at dahosek.com

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter
[Finished 7 August 2012] This is one of those books that it seemed that everyone but me had read (or at least had on their desk) when I entered nerd school. Coming to it now a quarter century later, I can see the appeal of it, and I think it would be fun to teach a course using this book as the central text. I was most interested in the Gödel part of the book, which was a central concern of the first two-thirds and was really well-done, providing a good in-depth look at the meaning and consequences of the incompleteness theorem. As Hofstadter moved into the domain of artificial intelligence, the book began to really show its age. Aside from the obvious case of Hofstadter believing that a computer would never beat the best human chess player (which, in fact, happened in 1997, 18 years after the book was published), the field of artificial intelligence has moved in directions rather different from what Hofstadter imagined at the time of this writing. Still, despite its age and its flaws, it’s a book well worth reading.

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick
[Finished 27 May 2012] A really nice cross-disciplinary look at information theory. Being a few chapters into a more academic computer science oriented text on the subject (working through lots of proofs and calculations relating to entropy, encodings, etcetera), I found some of the concepts familiar and had a bit of deeper background in understanding where things were going in the discussion, but I don’t think that this was strictly necessary. There’s a great deal of wonderful background and example-building that enables a great deal of breadth as well as making connections between computability and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.

Man and the State by Jacques Maritain
[Finished 23 January 2011] An interesting bit of political philosophy. There are some things that I find myself feeling dubious about, and apparently Maritain is classified as a political conservative which would go a long way to understanding my discomfort.

Social and Political Philosophy: Readings From Plato to Gandhi edited by John Somerville and Ronald Santoni
[Finished 13 November 2009] A nicely curated selection of readings from Plato to Gandhi. It was my first time reading any of Hitler’s writings and I have to admit feeling violated as a I read his racist and anti-semitic ranting. Truly disturbing. Jefferson’s comments about the political theorists of past ages not necessarily being applicable to his present time seems surprisingly applicable now. And reading Marx and Engels I was reminded that yes, I am truly a Marxist at heart.

Unfashionable Observations by Friedrich Nietzsche
[Finished 6 June 2008] I acquired this book as an entry in the first Serif design competition (it won the first prize).

This is my first direct reading of Nietzsche, and what’s perhaps most striking to me in this is the strong German nationalism in the writing. A bit offputting, really.

But the strength of the writing is quite striking, not enough to overcome my middle-aged aversion to philosophy, but enough to make me think more about it.

Can We Be Good Without God? A Conversation About Truth, Morality, Culture, and a Few Other Things That Matter by Paul Chamberlain
[Finished 20 February 2008] When I was an undergrad, there was always that person in class who would write their essays in story form. I never did it because it seemed that it was always the worst of both worlds, as fiction, it suffered because it was being forced to conform to the requirements of an essay and as an essay it suffered for being forced to conform to the requirements of fiction.

This book is a prime example of this at work, with the added bonus of it not being a very good argument to begin with. The characters are two-dimensional with their only purpose being to represent viewpoints, and those not very well.

Chamberlain presents his Ted the Christian (as a note in how bad the fiction is, this is, in fact, how the character is described, and the others are similarly named) character as a smug know-it-all who manages to easily demolish the straw man arguments which represent the opposing viewpoints. Each person ends up being quickly convinced of the correctness of Ted’s perspective.

Alas, what this book ultimately does is unintentionally provide a good argument for the deconstructionist view of morality, that there is no way of pinning down an objective system of morals from within the system. There ends up being a choice as arbitrary as “arbol” meaning “tree” and while it may not be aesthetically pleasing, it does carry its own logic.

The Republic by Plato
[Finished 11 May 2007] As I started reading this, I found myself wondering why I’m reading Plato at this stage of my life. I’m thinking that reading philosophy is, in a lot of ways, a game for younger people.

But to revisit Plato at a remove of more than a decade since I’d last read him and two decades since I first read him is an interesting experience. My initial impression of Plato was that he was an asshole. I strongly objected to his views on democracy and on fiction. Coming back to him older and wiser, I still object to his artistic views, but having lived through six+ years of Bush II, his ideas about democracy have a bit stronger of a resonance. I can see in his writing also some of the origins of the Catholic concept of vocation, something which has become an almost unconscious assumption in my own worldview.

That said, the Republic is a somewhat overmined source of ideas, and it didn’t necessarily seem worth spending a week on it.

This translation, though, is rather nice. The short summaries and commentaries which lead into each chapter are handy for providing a quick roadmap, and the occasional footnotes discussing some of the background in ideas or reasoning behind translation choices is also quite good. If you’re going to read the Republic, this is probably the translation to use.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert Pirsig
[Finished 15 January 2000] Required reading by the more pretentious students at nerd school, I managed to miss this during my stint there. Good thing, since I think that I appreciate it more as an older reader than I would have as nerdboy.

Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words
[Finished 23 November 1999] I picked this book up at an anti-war rally back in ‘91, but never got around to reading it. Frankly it struck me as being unlikely to be interesting (why I got in the first place escapes me). But it finally percolated to the top of my reading list and it’s been quite a surprise. Much of what Peace Pilgrim says could be my own words and her life is one that I have aspired to. I find some of her spiritual perspectives to be a bit odd, but her life, truly in the spirit of St Francis, is quite astonishing.

Autobiography by John Stuart Mill
[Finished 13 October 1999] As one of my college professors observed, really only the account of Mill’s childhood education is interesting, although that comes in as very interesting.

Integral Humanism by Jacques Maritain
[Finished 30 April 1999] A bit of philosophy that occasionally reached beyond me, but an engaging read on the meaning of being human.

Religion and Contemporary Western Culture edited by Edward Cell
[Finished 3 February 1999] I’ve been puzzling through the meaning of modernity for the past decade or so and this fills in a few more pieces while opening up other questions at the same time. Some context would have been helpful with some of the essays whose time frame spans about forty years, from the twenties to the sixties. The optimism about being able to address religion and culture is kind of stunning really coming at it from the perspective of someone educated at the end of the twentieth century when the whole concept of meaning is under question.

Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm
[Finished 19 December 1998] Provocative and interesting. I think that in some ways Fromm’s ideas are less historically determined than he thinks, with the form of the escape from freedom changing on the basis of the sociocultural moment, but the underlying concept remaining constant.

Meanings of Life by Roy F. Baumeister
[Finished 17 September 1998] A systematic exploration of where people derive the meanings in their life from a primarily social psychological standpoint. Baumeister tends to be rather dismissive of religion in general and Christianity in particular and occasionally dramatically demonstrates his lack of knowledge in the subject area (“Damn it Jim, I’m a psychologist, not a theologian!”), but still manages to provide a well-written, thoughtful exploration. His defining meaningfulness in terms of its objects rather than its loci is especially interesting to me.

Autobiography by Eric Gill
[Finished 25 August 1998] An odd mix of philosophy and details of Gill’s life. I’d’ve liked more philosophy, less recollection.

Great Dialogues of Plato (translated by W. H. D. Rouse) by Plato
[Finished 13 July 1996] A collection of as many of Plato’s dialogues as Rouse managed to translate before he died. It’s a bloody awful translation and the additions that were added to the book after his death only accentuate how bad a translation it is.

On the other hand, it’s Plato, and much of this material was unfamiliar to me before I read this book. The Republic seemed to be almost perpetually required reading throughout my formal education (along with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) but the rest of it was fresh and new. I find interesting the remarkable parallels between many of Plato’s ideas and Paul’s teaching in the New Testament epistles. I’m curious to examine the possible connection here, especially since the received idea of the connection between Platonism and Christianity is that it entered Christianity via St Augustine and his cronies from Plotinus. But if Paul knew Platonic philosophy (which would not seem unlikely) it would be more a case of Augustine and friends rediscovering an early influence on the church.