BOOK REVIEW: Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton

Free Speech: A Very Short IntroductionFree Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

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This concise guide outlines the debate on the perennially precarious issue of freedom of speech and expression. What factors (if any) should determine whether speech is restricted or not? Only when harm will be done to other individuals or to society at-large? Under a set of predefined conditions designed to advance societal harmony, or, perhaps, jingoism?

Some of the most interesting discussions in the book involve questions of whether any individuals or entities should have special privileges vis-a-vis freedom of speech? Historically, religions have claimed to be beyond criticism, but even as blasphemy restrictions have been softened (or applied equally to minority as well as majority religions,) there are still other groups seeking special status. For example, should a renowned artist who produces something that would otherwise violate public decency standards be able to publicly display said work because it has some redeeming artistic merit? (One can imagine the challenge presented by this question, given the inherently subjective nature of “artistic merit.”)

The book generally describes two or more opposing stances on any given issue, almost ensuring there will be points with which one agrees and others with which one doesn’t. I found the book thought-provoking, which led to a couple interesting realizations. For one thing, while I’ve been dismayed about how some groups are trying to carve out sacred spaces in which they are beyond criticism, challenge, or even [the nebulous] “being offended,” I was reminded that this is nothing new, and that whether it’s royal families or “the Church” there’s always been some group who wanted “freedom from” offense, challenge, or critique. It’s just a question of which groups make said demands that’s changing. For another thing, while I’m generally about as close to a free speech absolutist as one sees, I did learn that there is one question on which I don’t take the most pro individual liberty stance (in part because I didn’t recognize it as part of the debate.) The issue in question is copyright protection. There are those who argue that access to knowledge should be free and unimpinged, and that – furthermore — this would advance creativity. [I don’t really understand this stance as it seems to assume that creators of intellectual property will work even harder if they don’t get paid, but that’s a discussion for another time.]

If you’re interested in questions of free speech, particularly as they pertain to religious beliefs, pornography, and the changing state of intellectual property, you may want to read this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Transcendental Journey by Stephen Evans

A Transcendental JourneyA Transcendental Journey by Stephen Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Release date [for 25th Anniversary ed.]: September 10, 2022

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A Transcendental Journey intersperses a quirky travelogue of a rambling road-trip through America with a book report on selected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. On a positive note, the book offers genuinely funny lines within a generally amusing wandering discussion of events, and there’s something authentic about the voice – you may find yourself hearing the words in the voice of someone you know (or a character) who is idiosyncratic and nerdy in a way that is not uncommon in America. I did. In addition to the funny lines, there are statements that feel profound and are definitely thought-provoking.

Some of the offbeat elements go a bit too far, reaching the point of distraction. For some reason, the author decided to note not only each time he drank a Coca-Cola, but the size of the beverage. At first, it’s just a bit of weirdness that seems to contribute to the aforementioned authentic voice, but eventually one is made sad by the idea that this guy is giving himself diabetes and involving you, as reader, in the process. I can’t say that the philosophy bit is particularly well integrated into the travelogue, and the author often seems like an Enlightenment guy more than a Transcendentalist. (Transcendentalism being an offshoot of Romanticism, a philosophy meant to counteract the perceived cold, hard rationality of Enlightenment thinking and take a more mystical / spiritual [though not necessarily religious] view of the world.) That said, I can’t fault an inability to keep these schools of thought in boxes, as my own philosophy and worldview are fairly ala carte. My point is just that someone who picked up the book expecting to have a clearer view of what distinguishes Transcendentalism from other philosophies might come away confused.

If you enjoy travelogues, particularly of the United States, you’ll find this book a fun read. If you’re familiar with the works of Emerson, I wouldn’t expect any deep philosophical insight, but there are some fine quotes and discussions to remind you of Emerson’s great ideas and beautiful language. (And there are certainly many varied insights to ponder.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Candide by Voltaire

CandideCandide by Voltaire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

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Do we live in the best of all possible worlds? “Candide” attempts to wrestle with this question. The protagonist, Candide, is taught by his tutor – the renowned philosopher, Pangloss – that their’s is the best possible world. However, as the story unfolds as one bad turn of events after the next, it becomes harder to argue that there couldn’t be a better world.

Candide is forced to flee from his love (Cunegonda,) is conscripted into wartime military service, is arrested for heresy, becomes a serial killer, acquires and subsequently loses a fortune, is robbed, finds himself in the middle of war and other conflicts, and stumbles into and then flees what might be the closest his world has to a utopia, el Dorado. And, it could be argued, Candide gets off relatively easy. Cunegonda is raped, sliced open, and enslaved. Her brother, the Baron, is run through and is also enslaved. Pangloss gets syphilis, is hung, is partially dissected, and is enslaved, as well.

And yet, to the end, Pangloss retains his (and Liebniz’s) belief that they live in the best of all possible worlds. Candide (kind of) does as well, though at the book’s end he’s fatigued by the question and just wants to distract himself from it with some gardening. The degree to which Candide sticks to his guns is impressive, not only because of everything that goes wrong, but also because he gets a new mentor / friend, Martin, a mentor diametrically opposed to the views of Pangloss. Like Pangloss, Martin is also a philosopher, but Martin’s worldview is much less optimistic, but it also reflects the crucial idea that how bad or good the world is has more to do with one’s perception of it than the events that one experiences. (When Candide asks Martin who has it worse: one of the deposed kings they met or Candide, himself, Martin said he couldn’t know without experiencing what’s in the mind of each.)

Despite the steady flow of negative happenings, the book doesn’t definitively answer the thematic question. How could it? The most it can say is that we don’t live in the best of all imaginable worlds, but we can’t know whether those worlds we imagine are possible. For one thing, we are forced to recognize that humans are flawed and that nature is indifferent, and these factors might play a role in the variation between best imagined world and the world we know. For another thing, maybe we couldn’t handle a more perfect world. The old lady character asks the group whether all the trials they’ve collectively suffered are worse, or better, than sitting around doing nothing – as they happened to be [not] doing at that moment.

This book provides a thought-provoking journey, and it’s well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Myth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal

Myth: A Very Short IntroductionMyth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

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This book situates myth amid the broader body of scholarship by examining what role myth plays within – or in opposition to – various academic disciplines, including: science, philosophy, religion, the study of ritual, literature, psychology, structuralism, and social studies. The book is organized so as to compare competing ideas of various major scholars in each of the aforementioned domains. So, as the blurb is upfront about, the book doesn’t spend much time talking about what myths are, and the discussion of how myths are structured is only made as relevant to distinguishing various hypotheses.

One does obtain some food-for-thought about what myths are as one learns how different scholars have approached myth. Questions of how narrowly myth should be defined (e.g. only creation stories v. all god and supernatural tales,) and how myths compare to folktales, national literatures, and the like are touched upon. One also learns that some scholars took myths literally (and, therefore, saw them as obsolete in the face of science and modern scholarship,) but other scholars viewed myths more symbolically.

If you’re looking for an introductory book to position myth in the larger scholarly domain and to examine competing hypotheses about myths, this is a great book for you. However, those who want a book that elucidates what myths are (and aren’t) and how they are structured and to what ends, may find this book inadequate for those objectives. Just be aware of the book you’re getting.

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BOOK REVIEW: Rilke: The Last Inward Man by Lesley Chamberlain

Rilke: The Last Inward ManRilke: The Last Inward Man by Lesley Chamberlain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This book surveys the influences on Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry, and makes the argument that Rilke was the last vestige of a mystically spiritual [Romantic or Romantic-esque] poetic line. Poetry was becoming more political and more influenced by nihilistic philosophies that eschewed inward investigations of meaning and self-realization, constructs that were seen as artificial and empty. Rilke bucked the trend, and while he did become an important poet, Chamberlain believes he paid a price.

The book discusses the influence of sexuality, spirituality, and artistic obsessions on Rilke’s poetry in great detail. It also talks about his life as an influence, both his family life (or lack, thereof) and the key years he spent in Paris. The last couple chapters tie the story together by clarifying what Rilke achieved and how it contrasted with prevailing trends.

If you’re interested in understanding more about the philosophical and spiritual forces impacting Rilke’s work, this is an interesting read. It’s not a biography, strictly speaking, but does unavoidably discuss Rilke’s life in some detail (though always through a literary / philosophical lens.)

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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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Possibilities [Free Verse]


That which is not,
but could be:

in the future, or
in a world as feasible as our own.
(perhaps more so?)

When is a possibility a reality?

It may not be a reality
unless - and until - it comes to be,

and, yet, might be a basis of reality,
decisions are made on assumptions
that a possibility
has high probability 
of becoming reality. 

I see kids playing 
and feel the expanding field
of possibility, 

and wonder when it starts to shrink,
to collapse?

When & why
does possibility die?

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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The Skepticism-less Skeptic [Limerick]

The philosopher, René Descartes,
said, "I'll doubt everything, just to start."
but once he "proved" God,
what are the odds,
the wheels rolled off his skeptical cart.