BOOKS: The Mind of Adi Shankaracharya by Y. Keshava Menon

The Mind of Adi ShankaracharyaThe Mind of Adi Shankaracharya by Y. Keshava Menon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This book does a good job of that at which the title hints, offering the reader insight into the philosophy of Adi Shankaracharya. Along the way, Menon presents clear descriptions of Indian philosophical concepts such as Maya, Avidya, Antahkarana, etc., and also compares and contrasts Shankaracharya’s philosophy with those of other philosophers (from both the East and West) as a means to clarify ideas that can be subtle and complex.

That said, what the book isn’t is an unbiased and objective look at Shankaracharya’s ideas. While Menon doesn’t go as far as to support the supernatural myths of Shankaracharya’s life (which are only discussed in the Appendix,) and he skirts that 800-pound gorilla of Hindu philosophic controversy, caste, he does present the philosophy as an advocate for Shankaracharya rather than as an indifferent scholar who merely wishes to deliver arguments and ideas while inviting thought among his readers.

While the book deals with epistemology, ethics, and various aspects of metaphysics, the biggest single subject is Self. I found the explanation of this topic to be fascinating. I had previously understood that among the major differences between Shankaracharya and Buddha was on this question. While I still find the Buddhist approach to Self (or, more properly, lack of Self — i.e. Anatta) to be the more compelling and parsimonious explanation, I feel that I was provided with about as clear an explanation of the Hindu (generally) and Shankaracharyan (specifically) views on Self as one could wish for.

I’d recommend this book. If you’ve come away from reading about subjects like “Maya” (Is it illusion? Is it NOT illusion?) this book can definitely help offer clarification, and (as books on philosophy go) it’s readable and not too jargon-laden. That said, if one is looking for a book that is not advocating a philosophy but, rather, objectively providing ideas and contrasting explanations, this book may bias your views.

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BOOK REVIEW: Zeno and the Tortoise by Nicholas Fearn

Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a PhilosopherZeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher by Nicholas Fearn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This book presents twenty-five philosophical tools or concepts fundamental to thinking philosophically. Fearn does an excellent job of making these ideas comprehensible while exploring how they can be of practical value in philosophizing (as opposed to diving into conceptual minutiae and the conflicts and debates around them.) The author uses stories, metaphors, and examples extensively, while avoiding jargon or complicated expressions and explanations.

The book is entirely Western-oriented, and one won’t see any discussion of ideas originating outside Europe (or North America by way of immigration from Europe.) That’s not uncommon for English language popular philosophy books, and I don’t think there’s anything nefarious to be read into it, though some will find it a shame. The philosophers whose ideas are addressed span from pre-Socratic Greece to Richard Dawkins (who I’m pretty sure is the only one still living.) The reader learns about reductionism, relativism, the Socratic method, analogy / allegory, teleology, thought experiments, parsimony, pragmatism (of sorts,) induction, skepticism, social contract, utilitarianism, dialectics, falsifiability, memes, deconstruction, and more.

I found this book to be readable and absorbing and would highly recommend it for anyone who would like an overview of the major ideas of Western philosophy and how they can be applied to thinking more philosophically.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Information by James Gleick

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodThe Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Information is one of those topics that remains obscure not because it’s rare or hidden, but because it’s everywhere and the term is used for so many purposes it’s not thought of cohesively. It might seem like a book on this topic would be hopelessly boring by virtue of the fundamental meta-ness of the material. Instead, Gleick had a vast sea of topics and stories involving intense stakes for humanity from which to choose, e.g.: how did we learn to communicate and advance said capability until it was arguably the most important feature of our species, by what instructions are people “assembled,” might the most fundamental layer of reality be informational, and – in recent decades — will our species drown in flood of cheap information?

Given the vast sprawl of the subject matter, organization becomes a crucial question. In a sense the book is chronological, presenting humanity’s experience with information in more or less the order we came to think about the subject. I think this was a wise move as it starts from what most people think of when they think of information – i.e. language and its communication. That makes it easier to wrap one’s head around what comes later, and to see the conceptual commonalities. This approach might seem self-evident, but an argument could be made for starting with information as the word is used in Physics (as addressed in Ch. 7 – 9,) an argument that that approach is more fundamental and generically applicable, and while it might be both of those things, it wouldn’t be as easily intuitively grasped.

I found this book to be fascinating and easily followed — even though it covers some conceptually challenging topics, it does so in an approachable manner. It is over a decade old, but holds up well – though I think there is much more to say these days about the detrimental effects of information overload, a topic discussed at the end of the book. I recommend it for nonfiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer Nagel

Knowledge: A Very Short IntroductionKnowledge: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer Nagel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This is a concise guide to epistemology, the study of knowledge and how knowing relates to believing (if at all) as well as to truth. After discussing the meaning and ubiquity of the word “knowledge,” the book explores a couple varieties of skepticism – the idea that there is nothing (or, at least, very little) that one can know with certainty. Skepticism is correct in a sense, but is also dissatisfying and arguably irrelevant, and this led to many attempts to produce a more nuanced understanding of knowledge. The book proceeds to evaluate the major contenders, rationalism (knowledge comes from reason) and empiricism (knowledge comes from experience,) pointing out the strengths and limitations of each.

The book next challenges the definition of knowledge as “justified true belief.” It considers how justification can be a problem through Gettier Problems – scenarios in which an individual is correct in their conclusion but incorrect in their justification. The author then questions what is justification and what are the problems with various approaches, explaining internalism, externalism, and testimony in the process. The book moves on to various sliding scale approaches – e.g. saying that it’s perfectly acceptable to say one knows something if it’s likely true and the stakes are small, whereas, if the stakes are large, one is forced to be more skeptical. The final chapter dives into the interface of psychology and epistemology, reflecting upon our intuitions and the biases reflected in them.

While the subject matter might seem dry, I felt the author did a great job of presenting scenarios by which one could more easily wrap one’s head around the ideas than one would be able to via abstract thinking. The writing style is clear and easy to follow.

If you’re looking to understand the challenges confronted in epistemology, this is a great book to start your study.

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