BOOK REVIEW: Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown

Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short IntroductionBuddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Most people, if they know anything about Buddhist ethics, have heard of the Eightfold Path (right + view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.) However, just knowing that can lead to the impression that Buddhist ethics are blurry and that it’s all a matter of doing as one pleases within one’s personal interpretation of rightness. This concise guide offers an overview of the Buddhist ethics and morality, focusing on issues of global and modern interest (as opposed to those issues only of interest in places where Buddhism is practiced or at the time in which Buddha was teaching – i.e. issues like abortion, vegetarianism, war, suicide, and cloning and not subjects like caste, traditional family roles, etc.)

The first two chapters present a broad overview, and the rest focus on particular ethical issues. I found the second chapter beneficial; it asks how Buddhist ethics fit in the categorization scheme employed by Western Philosophy. I considered it useful even though the answer was that Buddhist ethics aren’t neatly contained by this way of thinking, but rather can be seen as a mix of multiple approaches. (e.g. Buddhism has sets of precepts – ala deontology, has a karmic doctrine that is arguably consequentialist, and, also, has elements similar to the virtue ethics of ancient Greece.)

Chapters three through eight investigate specific issues: animal rights and environmental ethics (ch. 3,) sexuality and gender (ch. 4,) war and violence (ch. 5,) abortion (ch. 6,) suicide / euthanasia (ch. 7,) and upcoming technologies that will change what it means to be alive and conscious (i.e. cloning, artificial intelligence, cryogenics, and CRISPR.) As with chapter two, there’s often no tidy answer. For one thing, the author tries to contend with what is common across various sects, and this is often reflected in the laws of countries, laws which are only partially informed by Buddhist philosophy. Also, it’s not like the Buddha had anything to say on many of these issues, which either weren’t issues (e.g. cloning) or were considered radically differently (e.g. gender.) Still, one does get an idea of how these questions relate to ideas such as karma and dharma, and how contemporary Buddhist thinkers might begin to consider them.

One will note that there are ethical territories that aren’t addressed (e.g. justice / punishment, ethics of governance, business ethics, etc.,) but a brief guide needs filters, and this one chose to focus heavily on modern, individual ethical questions of broad international interest.

If you’re looking to better understand Buddhist ethics, this book is worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Wittgenstein: A Graphic Guide by John Heaton

Introducing Wittgenstein: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Wittgenstein: A Graphic Guide by John Heaton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This concise guide offers a sketch of the life of the early twentieth century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, focusing on the evolution of his philosophical thought. As with other volumes in the series, it begins with biographical background of ancestry and youth before turning its focus to the ideas for which the subject gained fame, occasionally shifting back to more biographical focus to discuss impactful moments from his life. Wittgenstein served in World War I and had a somewhat strange academic career.

Wittgenstein had his hands in a lot of pots, studying the philosophy of logic, ethics, science, mathematics, language, and the mind. The book provides brief summaries of key ideas such as language games, family resemblances (as applied to groupings other than families,) philosophy as a form of therapy, the ubiquity of tautology in logic, the illusion of self, etc. In many cases, the ideas cut across neat boundaries as where questions of language, perception, and the nature of the self may overlap. I found I got the most out of Wittgenstein’s thinking on language and its limits. While some of the ideas were strange, others were illuminating.

This book provides a fine guide for the neophyte looking to be introduced to Wittgenstein’s work. Philosophers will likely find it lacking in depth, but few will find it too complicated or arcane. If you wish to learn more about the life and philosophy of Wittgenstein, it’s worth checking out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Humour: A Very Short Introduction by Noël Carroll

Humour: A Very Short IntroductionHumour: A Very Short Introduction by Noël Carroll
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As both Mark Twain and E.B. White made abundantly clear, humor is like a frog; dissection kills it and few are interested in watching that happen. Which isn’t to say that dissection isn’t useful. But it does mean that readers who are looking for a book that’s a laugh-riot are looking in the wrong place. Most of the example jokes were ancient when the book was first published eight years ago. (They’re good jokes. Bad jokes don’t become old jokes, they die ignominiously.) All that aside, this book provides an intriguing look into such questions as: 1.) why do we find things humorous in the first place? (We take humor for granted, but – think about it – there’s no rationale for things being funny that automatically springs to mind;) 2.) how, if at all, does humor relate to our broader emotional experience; and 3.) when, if ever, is humor unethical?

This concise guide has three parts. In the first part, we learn the various theories of humor, and learn that the author favors Incongruity Theory (i.e. humor is – first and foremost – a recognition of and response to incongruities.) In the second, the author discusses the debate over whether humor is an emotional experience, or something else. Finally, we learn about the value of humor and, in particular, the ethics of humor. There’s a continuum from those who believe that humor – in and of itself – is always ethical to those who think that it’s virtually always unethical (unless one can find a joke without a butt,) with many nuanced variations, in between.

I found this to be an intriguing guide to the philosophy and psychology of humor, and – if that’s what you’re in search of – you should check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas

Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short IntroductionAncient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Annas’s task of creating a concise guide for such a broad topic is a daunting one. For perspective, I’ve read books in this series [AVSI] on Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Socrates – each of which is a slim subset of the material called “Ancient Philosophy.” Furthermore, it’s not as though there was great homogeneity of ideas among the ancients. And, adding to the challenge, the author attempts to address the full scope of ancient philosophy: i.e. ethics, epistemology, logic, and metaphysics.

The book is forced to both restrict itself to an inch deep (because the subject is a mile wide,) but also to make choices about what schools, philosophers, and sub-topics it will address. History did part of the work – e.g. for many ancients, only fragmentary or secondhand evidence of their positions survived. So, we see a lot about Plato and Aristotle because their words remain. The book also devotes a disproportionate emphasis to what some call “philosophy of life,” i.e. ethics and how / whether to pursue a happy and meaningful life – i.e. how to live. This emphasis is both because that’s what many ancients focused upon, but also because it’s what people find relevant when looking back to them. [As opposed to ancient metaphysics, which science has largely made obsolete, ancient ethics and thoughts on happiness aren’t necessarily outmoded.] The first chapter sets up this focus on philosophy of life in an interesting way by discussing humanity’s mixed motivational system — reason v. emotion.

One question that the book robustly considers is the degree to which ancient philosophy is still relevant. This is taken up most directly in chapter two, but the final chapter (on what constitutes ancient philosophy) also has germane things to say on the subject.

I found in this book a quick guide to comparing schools of the ancient world across the breadth of philosophy, and would recommend the volume – particularly as a starting point prior to delving deeper into sub-topics.


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BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy for Gardeners by Kate Collyns

Philosophy for Gardeners: Ideas and paradoxes to ponder in the gardenPhilosophy for Gardeners: Ideas and paradoxes to ponder in the garden by Kate Collyns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: March 1, 2022

This book can benefit not only gardeners interested in philosophy, but also philosophers interested in gardening. [If you’re in the intersect of people expert in both philosophy and gardening, the book probably won’t hold a great deal of intrigue as it’s written for a more general audience.] The gist is examples and analogies from gardening applied to elucidating philosophical concepts. In a few cases, these examples feel a bit forced. In most cases, they work just fine. But in a few other cases, the gardening analogies offer a powerful and unique insight that one would be unlikely to take away from a single-axis philosophy guide. For example, I found the relating of utilitarianism to the gardener’s dilemma of whether to start with a wildly overgrown bed or a relatively clean one offered a fresh perspective on the topic.

The book’s twenty chapters are divided into four parts. The parts are labeled “Soil,” “Growth,” “Harvest,” and “Cycles;” which I took to apply to fundamentals, change, outcomes, and the cycle of life and death. Part I, “Soil,” investigates topics in metaphysics, governance, and taxonomy. The second part, “Growth,” explores evolutionary adaptation, altruism / cooperation, the blank slate (and its critique,) and Zeno’s paradoxes. The penultimate section, “Harvest,” delves into topics such as forms, aesthetics, the reliability of senses, epistemology, and economic philosophy. Finally, “Cycles” discusses identity, logic and linguistic limitations, ethics, and pragmatism.

The book uses retro illustrations that look like the plates one might see in a book from the 19th century. There’s a brief bibliography, primarily of philosophical classics.

I’m always on the lookout for books that consider the perspective that humans exist within nature and our ways can’t be understood divorced from our place in the natural world. In that sense, I believe the book has much to offer.

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BOOK REVIEW: Three Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō, Chōmei, and Kenkō

Three Japanese Buddhist MonksThree Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book collects three essays composed between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. They are in chronological order, but also in order of increasing length, i.e. Saigyō’s piece is a short excerpt, while Kenkō’s essay makes up the bulk of the book.


An excerpt from Saigyō’s Senjūshō tells the story of the monk’s meeting with a wise reclusive meditator on Mt. Utsu. Saigyō tries to talk his way into living / meditating with the hermit, but the sage convinces him that that wouldn’t be good for either of them. The monk goes away, planning on visiting the hermit on his return, but he wistfully tells us that he took another route.


“The Ten-Foot Hut” is about the benefits of a simple, minimalist existence. It discusses Impermanence, and takes the view that having more just means one has more to lose. A quote that offers insight into the monk’s thoughts is, “If you live in a cramped city area, you cannot escape disaster when a fire springs up nearby. If you live in some remote place, commuting to and fro is filled with problems, and you are in constant danger from thieves.” The author’s solution? Build a tiny cabin in the woods and – in the unlikely event it burns or gets robbed while one is away – what has one really lost?


The Kenkō essay makes up about eighty percent of the book. Its rambling discussion of life’s impermanence delves into morality, aesthetics, and Buddhist psychology. There are many profound bits of wisdom in this piece. Though it’s also a bit of a mixed bag in that some of the advice feels relevant and insightful, while some of it hasn’t aged / traveled well.


I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. Some may be disappointed by finding how little of Saigyō’s writing is included (he being the author of greatest renown,) but I found each author had something valuable to offer.


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BOOK REVIEW: Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood

Stoicism: A Very Short IntroductionStoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Inwood provides an overview Stoic philosophy as it’s discussed in a scholarly context. To distinguish Stoicism as scholars see it from how it’s viewed by those who practice it as a lifestyle, the author differentiates “large Stoicism” from “minimal stoicism.” The vast majority of books today deal only with minimal stoicism – in other words; they exclusively explore how to lead a good and virtuous life, i.e. ethics-centric Stoicism. Scholars, however, are also interested in the physics (/ metaphysics) and the logic of Stoicism.


There are several reasons for this difference in scope. First, Stoic ethics has aged much better than its other philosophical branches. Much of Stoic logic has been improved upon or superseded, and Stoic physics is [arguably] obsolete. This means that scholars studying Stoic physics and logic are more interested in those subjects as a stage of development or a piece of philosophical history than they are as contenders for understanding those subjects. Second, prominent Stoic philosophers with surviving writings (i.e. Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca) have inspired many people by discussing Stoicism as a way of life – not so much as a navel-gazing endeavor.


After discussing the origins of Stoicism, the major Stoic authors, and how Stoicism relates to other philosophical schools of the ancient world, the book presents a chapter each on physics, ethics, and logic. The last chapter investigates how Stoicism is viewed today and how it might maintain relevance despite challenges to some of its metaphysical and logical underpinnings.


Having read a number of books on Stoicism, I didn’t know whether this concise book would be of much benefit. However, by describing Stoicism’s broader context and how the deterioration of much of that context influences the philosophy’s relevance, the book offered plenty of food-for-thought. If you’re interested in this broader context, you may want to give this book a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: Meno by Plato

MenoMeno by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Online: MIT Classics

The central question of this dialogue is the teachability of virtue. The dialogue called Protagoras also delved into this question. Lest one think there’s no benefit to be had from reading a second take on the subject, the ultimate answer in this dialogue is the opposite of that seen in “Protagoras.” Socrates agreed with Protagoras that virtue was teachable. However, here Socrates concludes that it isn’t, citing the fact that there are no viable teachers of virtue (ever the anti-Sophist,) and yet there are people who consistently behave virtuously.

[If one wonders how two of Plato’s Socratic dialogues could feature completely different answers on the same question, the mid- and late dialogues are often thought to reflect Plato’s personal views more than his teacher’s. “Protagoras” is an early dialogue, while “Meno” is a middle dialogue. (It’s also possible they weren’t written by the same author as a number of dialogues attributed to Plato are in doubt.)]

I don’t find Socrates’s arguments on the subject at hand compelling. Socrates proposes that there are certain concepts that come pre-loaded into humans. He questions one of Meno’s slaves on geometry to show that the slave seems to have a grasp of geometry without having ever been taught. Ultimately, Socrates concludes that a grasp of virtue is divinely installed in many people.

Still, there’s lots of beneficial food-for-thought, particularly when Socrates differentiates knowledge and true beliefs / right opinions.

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BOOK REVIEW: Gorgias by Plato

GorgiasGorgias by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg

This Socratic dialogue explores what rhetoric is, and whether rhetorician is a real job, like plumber or secretary, or whether it’s more like “bottled water sommelier” or “social media influencer” – i.e. an undertaking by which one can make loads of money without contributing society one iota. It starts out (as usual) with Socrates questioning someone, in this case the rhetorician Gorgias. This exchange can be summed up by the ideas that: 1.) rhetoric is persuasion; 2.) the ignorant are more persuasive to the ignorant than are those with knowledge. [Gorgias boasts that he has been able to convince patients to take actions that their physicians couldn’t. Because Gorgias had to admit he didn’t know as much about facilitating health as a physician, he was forced to agree to the sad absurdity that people will often comply with slick talkers who know nothing (a plight which may prove to be the downfall of our species.)] There’s a fine epistemological discussion of the difference between belief and knowledge that is used by Socrates to show that rhetoricians aren’t concerned with knowledge so much as beliefs.

Then Polus and Callicles (young rhetoricians) take up the questioning role, turning the tables and asking Socrates what is the art of rhetoric. [And we know they’re not going to like the answer.] Socrates denies rhetoric is an art, and calls it the counterfeit part of politics. Socrates compares rhetoric to cookery, where cooks pretend to be experts in what food should be eaten but, while people often love the cook’s meals, it’s the physician who actually knows what food is best. Socrates doesn’t consider rhetoric an art because it isn’t rooted in knowledge or virtue, but rather in momentary preferences. Much of the argument hinges on the fact that the young men believe it is worse to suffer injustice than to do injustice and that being able to exert control (be it for good or ill) equates to power and happiness. Socrates accepts neither premise, and systematically refutes both. Callicles’ tack is along lines of natural justice — the strongest do as they please and pursuit of pleasure is noble. [The truth is that while Socrates may have the more sound and supportable position, the rhetoricians describe the way the world operates more accurately.]

This is a sharp and insightful dialogue, and given its surprising relevance to the present day, I’d highly recommend reading it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hipparchus by Plato

HipparchusHipparchus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On-line

In this Socratic dialogue about “lovers of gain,” Socrates and an unnamed friend debate whether pursuing gains can be wicked. Usually, the title of a dialogue is the name of Socrates’ philosophical sparring partner, but, herein, Hipparchus is a historical figure who Socrates cites as the reason he wouldn’t hornswoggle his friend, quoting “Walk with just intent” and “Deceive not a friend” as credos that he, Socrates, lives by.

The friend tries a number of approaches to argue the loathsomeness of lovers of gain. Recognizing the starting premise will be that a gain is a good, the friend argues that such people (presumably greedy / materialistic types) purse valueless gains. Socrates attacks that as an oxymoron. Next, the friend argues that lovers of gain seek gains that no honorable man would pursue. Again, Socrates argues that a gain is a good and all humans seek good. Since the friend doesn’t want to call the lovers of gain fools (i.e. unable to recognize a gain when they see it,) the friend is stuck. The third approach is to argue that a wicked gain could be considered a loss. This is also swiftly rebutted. The last tack is to argue that some gains are good, while some are evil, which runs afoul of the same argument.

This isn’t one of the best dialogues – in fact, many question whether it was written by Plato. That said, it brings up a few ideas that are worthy of consideration. It felt very much like a conversation I once heard in which a young woman argued, “No one should have that much more than they need.” Which drew the response, “You realize that 90% of the world would say you have tons more than you need?” Which resulted in the instigator walking off in a huff. If you want to engage in debates about the virtue (or vice) of wealth acquisition, this might be a good place to begin your reflection.

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