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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BOOK REVIEW: Genius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson

Genius: A Very Short IntroductionGenius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This book examines the myths and realities of that state of capability we call genius. It’s not about “geniuses” as individuals who test well on IQ exams, or who are eligible for Mensa membership, but rather about those luminaries who’ve made breakthroughs that changed the course of their discipline. It considers artistic and literary type geniuses (Shakespeare and Picasso) as well as scientific geniuses (e.g. Einstein and Darwin,) as well as discussing the differences (perceived and real) between these groups and the intriguing rarity of crosscutting figures (e.g. Da Vinci.)

The bulk of the book evaluates characteristics that are (rightly or wrongly) commonly associated with genius, including: heredity, education, intelligence, creativity, madness, personality traits, and discipline. Don’t expect clear and straightforward connections. That’s not the author’s fault. There just aren’t any traits unambiguously linked to genius in an uncomplicated way. One might expect education would be an unequivocal boon to genius, but it can be a hindrance to genius in its training of conformity. There may be a disproportionate number of geniuses with mental health issues, but there are even more without them. Hard work maybe a necessary condition, but it’s clearly not a sufficient one.

The book addresses a few other related subjects, beyond the traits associated with geniuses. For example, the degree to which genius can be defined and what it means if we can (or can’t) do so. Few individuals would be unanimously judged geniuses, and to the degree some are, mightn’t that say more about the public’s role in bestowing genius rather than the individual’s earning the designation. There is also discussion about eureka moments versus slow-builds.

This book is thought-provoking and raises intriguing and counter-intuitive debates. If you’re interested in the perception, the reality, and the interplay between the two with regard to genius, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction by Antulio J. Echevarria II

Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions, #523)Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction by Antulio J. Echevarria II
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This concise guide to military strategy is well-organized and can be readily understood by an amateur reader. The book provides an overview of the domain of military strategy by comparing and contrasting related pairs of strategic paradigms.

After an overview chapter (ch. 1) that broadly defines the subject and lays out the organization for the rest of the book, chapter two explores strategies of annihilation and how they are similar to and different from strategies of dislocation. Chapter three investigates attrition and exhaustion, strategies that deal in destroying warfighting resources and will to fight, respectively. Chapter four elucidates how the threat of force can be used to keep the enemy from making a move (deterrence,) or force them to make a desired move (coercion.) Chapter five looks at strategies that rely on instilling fear to change an opponent’s behavior, including aerial bombardment and terrorist tactics. Chapter six considers different approaches to using selective targeting to achieve strategic goals: i.e. decapitation and targeted killing. The penultimate chapter (ch. 7) contrasts the various approaches to cyber warfare with cyber-power, more generally.

The final chapter (ch. 8) briefly examines the determinants of success and failure of military strategy.

The book is straightforward and uses historical cases to provide clear examples of each type of strategy. It doesn’t go much beyond definition and some classic examples, but it is an excellent starting point for organizing one’s thoughts on the topic in preparation to learn more.

If you’re in need of a concise overview of (or refresher on) military strategy, this is a fine guide to consider.

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