BOOK REVIEW: Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton

Indian Philosophy: A Very Short IntroductionIndian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A concise guide to Indian Philosophy is a tall order. Over millennia, the discipline has had time to swell. This necessitated some careful pruning and selection on the part of the author. While the book does present key distinctions between all six of the orthodox schools of Indian Philosophy (i.e. Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta,) the only one of the heterodox schools that it substantially addresses is that of Buddhism. (There are three major heterodox schools of Indian Philosophy by most accounts – Caravaka, Buddhist, and Jain, though some also include Ajivika and Ajnana to make five.)

This book focuses on the most novel ideas of each of philosophical schools under study, and it particularly focuses on points of debate where there is disagreement within or between schools. The book, therefore, moves metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, but doesn’t explore all major philosophical questions for all the schools.

If you’re looking for a book that sums up the key points of debate between and within major schools of Indian philosophy, this is a great book. It does the job quite well and with a minimal page count. If you need a book that offers insight into more than the major points of contention, but extends into a given school’s stance on some of the less provocative questions, I’d recommend Chatterjee and Datta’s “An Introduction to Indian Philosophy” (it’s much longer and denser, but dives deeper and farms wider.)

I like how this book was organized and thought it did a good job of being both concise and clear (a duo that doesn’t play well together with regards complex philosophical subjects.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Madness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull

Madness: A Very Short IntroductionMadness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is yet another of the many “Very Short Introduction” books from Oxford University Press that I’ve been pleased to read and review. The series offers concise overviews of a wide range of topics that are presented by scholarly experts. This particular book is a historical examination of the changing approaches to mental illness from the ancient world where such a condition might be attributed to demonic possession to more recent times in which drugs and decarceration / defunding of asylums have become the dominant approaches to mental illness. Along the way the book shines a light on the immense difficulty experts have had in understanding what mental illnesses are and how they can best be dealt with. The book not only looks at the real-world response to mental illness, but also explores how it’s been treated in fiction from “Hamlet” to “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The book consists of six chapters. As one would expect of a book from a historian’s-eye view, its organization is chronological, but the arrangement of time periods by chapter reflects changing approaches to mental illness. Chapter one focuses on the ancient world, during which we begin to get glimpses of madness in the written record. Chapter two, entitled “Madness in Chains,” focuses on the 16th through 18th century, during which Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital was the cutting edge. That the institution’s nickname becoming a synonym for chaos and confusion says a lot. It was a time of brutal measures that did little to reduce the trauma of mental illness. The chapter also discusses madness in Elizabethan literature, famously that of Shakespeare.

Chapter three shifts to the 19th century, an era in which incarceration became more widespread as well as coming to be thought of as the best that could be done for the insane. In Chapter four, we learn about the rise of psychoanalysis as well as the increasing employment of treatments that involved the physical body – infamously, the lobotomy.

Chapter five is one of the most intriguing parts of the book. Entitled “Madness Denied” it opens with an exploration of the difficulties that arose from all the war-related cases of mental illness that came about as a result of the two World Wars (and others.) It also discusses a movement to overturn the prevailing approach to insanity, most famously and vociferously argued by the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, a clinician who had a mix of promising and disastrous results from his experimental approach which used LSD, but few other medicines. What I found most interesting, however, was the discussion of the growing recognition that there was a false front in the idea that psychiatry was beginning to really understand mental illness and its treatment. This was exemplified by the Rosenhan experiments in which sane volunteers checked themselves into asylums and, for the most part, the doctors and staff couldn’t tell that they were sane (though, interestingly, in at least some cases the other patients did call it out.) The troubles in classifying and diagnosing mental illnesses have also seen in the vexed history of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness” [DSM,] a guide meant to get mental health experts on the same page about what’s what. [As opposed to ten psychiatrists offering ten different diagnoses of a given patient.] While a worthy attempt, the DSM has not – thus far – succeeded, though it could probably be argued that progress has been made.

The last chapter brings the reader up to the current period, a period dominated by two trends – first, mental illnesses being treated overwhelmingly pharmaceutically; and second, the closing of asylums and the concurrent ill-effects that have come about, societally speaking.

The book has a few graphics, mostly black and white art and photos used to enhance the reading experience. There are also appendices of references and recommended readings.

If you are interested in the history of psychiatric medicine, I’d highly recommend you check out this brief guide. It may not give you all the information you’re looking for, but it’s a good first stop to organize your thoughts on the subject.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen

Pandemics: A Very Short IntroductionPandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book explores disease pandemics through the lens of History. I open with that because this is a topic that can (and has) been addressed through many different disciplines, and a reader expecting biological or epidemiological insights is likely to be disappointed. However, if one is interested in questions of how, where, and with what impacts various diseases spread, this book provides a concise overview for seven select pandemics: The Plague, Smallpox, Malaria, Cholera, Tuberculosis, Influenza, HIV/AIDS.

This book belongs to Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series, a massive collection of brief guides outlining a wide range of scholarly topics. This title complies with general guidelines of the series, presenting the basics of a subject in a manner accessible to a neophyte, citing sources and providing recommendations for further reading, and offering graphics to support the text where beneficial.

As mentioned, the book delves into the seven pandemics listed in the opening paragraph, and does so in the order in which they are listed. Each disease is presented in its own chapter – so the book consists of a prologue, seven chapters, an epilogue, and back matter (i.e. citations, recommendations for additional reading, and the index.)

Obviously, these seven pandemics don’t represent a complete history of disease pandemics. The book was published in 2016, well before the COVID-19 pandemic (though readers will certainly read some prescient-sounding statements — particularly in the epilogue,) but not even all past epidemics classed as pandemics are addressed. [It should be noted that there is no perfectly agreed upon dividing line between epidemic and pandemic.] Still, this book includes the biggest and most globally-widespread pandemics, but it also covers a diverse collection of diseases, including: contagious, vector-borne, and water-borne illnesses, as well as bacteria- and virus-induced diseases. It’s worth noting that The Plague is a worthy first case not only because it’s one of the diseases that has most shaped human history, but also because there’s not a great deal known about disease before then. (During the relatively recent 1918 “Spanish” Flu pandemic, the medical community still didn’t know anything about viruses, and so one can imagine how little ancient people would have understood about these causes of death.)

As the book shares information about the pandemics and their impact on the world, it also teaches one something about how medicine and science progressed as a result of these events. This is famously evident in the case of Cholera, a disease whose unusual characteristics with respect to spread baffled doctors until a clever investigator learned that cases were tied to a common water well. The case of Cholera is a prime example of how changing one’s approach can resolve a stubborn question, looking at the cases spatially offered an immediate insight that other modes of investigation had failed to present.

I found this book to offer interesting insight into pandemics. If you are looking to understand the history of disease pandemics, this is a great book with which to start one’s study.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Very Short Introduction by Stanley Wells

Shakespeare's Tragedies: A Very Short IntroductionShakespeare’s Tragedies: A Very Short Introduction by Stanley Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Once again, we revisit a title in my favorite source for mainlining quality information on niche topics, Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series of books. These guides are generally between one-hundred and two-hundred pages in length, and provide essential information on a specific topic or discipline without getting bogged down in minutiae or in attempts to be entertaining.

I’ve been reading (/rereading) the tragedies of Shakespeare, and thought the guide might give some insight into the background of the plays and the more obscure shifts in language and meaning. Which it did. I would say more the former than the latter. But it also brought up subjects that I wouldn’t have necessarily given much thought, such as how the nature of the theater of the day shaped the plays – e.g. what could and couldn’t be done and how it influenced the pacing.

The book consists of an introduction, eleven chapters, an epilogue, and the usual backmatter (i.e. references, recommended reading, index.) The introduction and first chapter together set the stage by explaining the nature of tragedy in literature and drama. The introduction deals more generally with the question of what is tragedy, while chapter one deals more specifically with theatric tragedies in Shakespeare’s time. The question of which of Shakespeare’s plays are tragedies, versus the other two genres of the day – comedies and histories, might seem straightforward, but it’s not. Some of Shakespeare’s tragedies are quite historical (e.g. “Julius Caesar”) and some of his comedies are fairly bleak (e.g. “The Winter’s Tale” and “Troilus and Cressida”) and his tragedies generally have comedic elements and language (e.g. see: “Hamlet.”)

Having established differed approaches to defining tragedies, the remaining ten chapters each take on one of Shakespeare’s tragedies in what is believed to be chronological order: “Titus Andronicus,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Timon of Athens,” “Anthony & Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus.” For each play, the author discusses things such as how what was going on at the time and where Shakespeare was in his career play into the character of the plays. However, much of the page space is occupied by laying out each story. In that sense, this guide is probably most useful for someone who has minimal experience with these plays. However, one will learn about how the plays were received at the time and subsequently, a little about the modern retellings (i.e. film, mostly,) and a little bit about how these works fit in the context of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and those he borrowed from.

Having recently read Bart van Es’s “Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction,” I was thinking about which organizational scheme I preferred, between the two. Instead of organizing chapters by the play, as Wells does, van Es has chapters that are topically arranged — covering subjects like setting, language, characters, the role of time, etc. It should be noted that there is a good reason for this difference in approach. There are more comedies (18, by some — but not all — counts) and some of them are “more comedic” than others, and so the topical arrangement is more sensible for a short book (i.e. it wouldn’t make sense to have 18 or more chapters in a book designed to be concise, and it wouldn’t be the best use of space to have full chapters to cover “problem comedies” or “tragi-comedies.”) Ultimately, I don’t know that I have a preference. Both clearly have advantages, and I thought each approach was sensible for its subject.

A brief epilogue delves into why we are even interested in reading tragedies – Shakespearean or otherwise. As might be expected of an epilogue in such a concise guide, the author doesn’t bother arguing for a decisive answer, but rather presents a few alternatives in basic outline. The book has a few plates of artwork that take their subjects from the works of Shakespeare, notably paintings by the poet / artist William Blake.

I’d recommend this book as an accompanying guide for those reading through Shakespeare’s tragedies. It may prove slightly more beneficial for readers with limited experience of the works. However, even those who’ve read, watched, and reread the plays are likely to learn something new.

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BOOK REVIEW: Reality: A Very Short Introduction by Jan Westerhoff

Reality: A Very Short IntroductionReality: A Very Short Introduction by Jan Westerhoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If one has an inquisitive nature and finds oneself with a bit of time on one’s hands, one is likely to question reality eventually. What is reality? What does it mean to be real? (Yeah, just like Morpheus’s “How do you define ‘real?’”) How could we know if we weren’t in the reality we think we are? Does it matter? i.e. If we aren’t in the reality we think we are, do we have any other choice than to behave as if we are—in other words is there any hope of escaping whatever unreality our consciousness exists in?

Does the quantum world not make a lick of sense relative to the world as we know it because the ancestors who are simulating us never expected us to get far enough to investigate that scale before we crashed? And now, like the writers and directors of an unexpectedly popular and long-lived TV show, they have to find a way to cobble some convincing story together because their overlords aren’t willing to scrap a perfectly functional simulation as it’s churning out huge amounts of data. Of course most people quickly dismiss such possibilities as sci-fi, but—then again—that dismissal is what one would do if one was programmed to be psychologically pained by the idea that the lunatic shouting and running naked through the streets may have found freedom, while you–who appears to be fully successful in living life—are an automaton, a slave pure and simple?

Philosopher Jan Westerhoff provides a brief survey of the many ways reality has been questioned over time and what evidence proponents cite—or, if not evidence per se, what inexplicable phenomena at least make the possibility seem feasible. The book consists of just four chapters. The first chapter offers a context by discussing dreams and simulations. Dreams are one of humanity’s first sources of doubt about reality. This was most famously summed up by the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s quote “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” The simulation hypothesis suggests that societies eventually develop a capacity to run extremely advanced simulations that would feel very real, and, furthermore, the proliferation of such simulations would make it much more likely that we are in one than in a real world.

The next three chapters examine three subjects where reality is taken for granted, but which each face challenges. The author starts with the most basic component of reality, matter. If you ask someone how they know the world is real, they might just knock on wood or kick a stone. Of course, that response only goes so far because there are a lot of entities we consider real that aren’t made of matter (e.g. is an economic recession real?) and so it’s definitely not a complete way of looking at the topic. There’s also the fact that all this hard and solid stuff we experience is mostly empty space. In this chapter, Westerhoff spends much of his time examining the basics of quantum mechanics, and the quantum strangeness that has put it in the minds of many that the world is probably not what we think it to be.

Chapter three explores the reality of a person. This is where people have the hardest time questioning reality, because most of us are quite certain that we exist. Descartes statement of: “I think, therefore, I am” nicely sums it up. But is there a place associated with personhood, or is it an emergent property? If it has a point of origin, where is it? Westerhoff describes the famous rubber hand experiment that shows that the connection between mind and body is more illusory than we think. He discusses many of the syndromes that challenge our intuitive beliefs about what it means to be a person, e.g. Cotard syndrome, in which individuals firmly believe that they don’t exist. (Note: this topic—at least the scientific dimension—is covered in detail in Anil Ananthaswamy’s book “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”)

Chapter four explores whether time is really what we think it is, and what it feels like to us. A lot of this chapter takes up findings about free will. A famous study in the neurosciences showed that before people make a decision at a conscious level, there is activation of subconscious parts of the brain such that what feels like a decision freely and consciously made is actually already made before the consciousness ever becomes aware of it. This study, now overwhelmingly validated by replication, presents a major challenge to our notion of free will—which isn’t to suggest we’re necessarily being fed a decision from some mysterious elsewhere but if some combination of our limbic and enteric nervous systems are making decisions without conscious input, then what is the nature of freedom in free will?

The book has an interesting Conclusion that gives the reader a map to consider the various ways reality might exist (or not.) This isn’t a dichotomous question—i.e. it’s not necessarily a matter of the world is real or it’s not. Instead, it can be thought of more as a continuum between everything is real and nothing is real with various way-points in between such as “I am all that is real” or “Everything is real, but me” and various ways of considering how some of the world might be real while some of it is not. Among the latter models, the relevant factor maybe consciousness (i.e. conscious may be unreal or maybe it’s the only thing that’s real.)

There are a number of graphics used to support the text, most of these are photographs and artworks, but some are diagrams. There is a “References and Further Readings” section in this book that is more substantial than most of the ones I’ve seen in AVSI (A Very Short Introduction) series books. It’s organized by chapter.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in the topic. I think the author does a great job in a small space of introducing various conceptions of reality. He draws on well-known works of film and literature to help clarify issues, and provides many thought-provoking ideas. It’s readable and doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction by Eleanor Nesbitt

Sikhism: A Very Short IntroductionSikhism: A Very Short Introduction by Eleanor Nesbitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I picked up this book before a trip to Amritsar. While Sikhs are arguably the most visually distinct religious adherents, it’s one of the least understood world religions with respect to internal aspects like beliefs and practices. And a major religion, it is. With 23 million followers, it’s between the fifth and eighth most widely practiced religion in the world (depending upon whether one aggregates traditional religions in China or Africa.)

This book offers a 150 page overview of what it means to be Sikh, and it explains it not only in religious, but also in cultural, political, and historical, terms. If one needs deep insight and great detail about Sikhism, this may not be the book for you. But it gives one the big picture quite nicely, and with a scholar’s balanced view (as opposed to that of a theologian.)

There are eight chapters in the book. The first chapter introduces one to Sikhism. Besides the basics, this chapter discusses what makes Sikhism a distinct religion, and how it has been influenced by other religions—most significantly Hindu and Islam, in that order. It also discusses what it means to be Punjabi, in contrast to what it means to be Sikh. To understand the subject of the second and third chapters, one has to know how the leadership of this religion unfolded. There were ten human teachers (Guru), and then a book of scriptures assumed the mantle of Guru. The second chapter is about the human Gurus (and mostly about the first one—Guru Nanak, with a little about the next four, and almost nothing about the last five.) The third chapter is about the Guru Granth Sahib, which is the book of scriptures that has served as the religion’s guide since the early 18th century.

Chapter four discusses Sikh religious practices–including the five K’s that serve to give Sikhs such a distinct physical appearance. The 5 K’s are: kesh (uncut hair), kanga (comb), kirpan (sword), kachh (cotton breeches), and kara (steel braclet.) While only the Khalsa (i.e. the community of initiated) necessarily practice all of these, it’s common to see at least some of these features among the community at-large. The wearing of turbans, beards (though often not completely uncut), and steel bangles are ubiquitous in Punjab. The chapter also delves into turbans, ethics, symbols, and the controversial question of vegetarianism (some Sikhs are and some aren’t.)

The fifth chapter offers a history of Sikhism over the past few centuries from the era of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 19th century to the dire events of early 1980’s (there was a massacre of Sikhs by government forces in 1982 and in 1984 Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh bodyguards, leading to yet more violence.) Chapter 6 discusses the topic of Sikhs abroad. While Punjab is consider the Sikh homeland, there are Sikhs around the world—but particularly in a few areas where there numbers are sufficient to constitute a community—e.g. in the United Kingdom. Chapter 7 investigates the theory and practice of Sikhism with regards to a few key issues of life on the Indian subcontinent including: the caste system, gender, and attitudes toward other religions. (In many regards, Sikhism is comparatively progressive, but practice hasn’t always followed the scripture—e.g. high girl child infanticide rates.) The last chapter considers the future of Sikhism moving forward.

There are graphics of several types throughout the book—most notably black-&-white photographs. There are a few helpful ancillary features including a “Further Reading” section, a timeline, and a glossary of terms.

I found this book useful, and would recommend it for anyone seeking background on Sikhism.

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