BOOK REVIEW: Ion by Plato

IonIon by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this early Socratic dialogue, Socrates converses with a Homeric rhapsodist (i.e. performer of Homer’s stories) who shares the dialogue’s name, i.e. Ion. Socrates leads Ion to the conclusion that the rhapsodist is really a conduit of divine inspiration – as opposed to being an artist. To a large extent Socrates achieves this by showing (somewhat brutally) that there are experts infinitely more competent to comment on Homer’s epic poems that is Ion. For the most part, Ion accepts that expert artists would be more qualified to comment on the correctness of Homer’s words than is he – e.g. an expert on horsemanship would be more qualified to comment on the parts which reference horses. [The only point at which Ion offers a challenge is with respect to military general, where he believes himself equally competent to discuss military campaigns as would be a commander. (Though Socrates tries to disabuse him of this notion.)]

And despite this, no one would argue that Ion offers a special value that those various artists and experts cannot, a unique connection to Homer’s works. For Socrates that value lies in inspiration. The poet, too, Socrates argues isn’t so much a crafter of verse as one capable of receiving inspiration. The rhapsodist allows the intense emotional experience to transfer from the muse / poet intersect onward to the audience member. In less mystic terms, Socrates is trying to make sense of the artistic process and its largely unconscious process and its focus on the experience of emotional resonance, rather than on rational thought. One can see a bit of overlap with a later dialogue, Phaedrus, which discusses divine madness and its virtues.

This short and to-the-point Socratic dialogue is worth reading, even if does come down in needlessly otherworldly territory.

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BOOK REVIEW: Euthyphro by Plato

EuthyphroEuthyphro by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is one of the early Socratic dialogues of Plato. I mention that because the early dialogues are believed to more truly reflect the ideas of Socrates (whereas the mid to late dialogues include many more of Plato’s ideas – just using Socrates as a mouthpiece / pedagogic medium.) It’s notable as one of the dialogues that happens around the trial of Socrates, and, while not as famous as “The Republic” or “Symposium,” it’s among the more well-known and accepted of Plato’s 35 Socratic dialogues.

Socrates meets Euthyphro on the courthouse grounds. Socrates is waiting to be tried; Euthyphro is bringing suit against his own father. Thus begins a conversation on piety and impiety. Euthyphro counts himself an expert in the subject and is utterly confident in his charge of murder — despite confounding issues: (i.e. it’s more death by negligence than outright murder and there is the question of dishonoring one’s own father.) Being on trial (in part) for impiety, Socrates is eager to learn what he can from Euthyphro.

Using his eponymous method, Socrates boxes Euthyphro into a corner from which the self-declared master can no longer defend his iron-clad confidence in his own piety. [The Socratic method employs questions to uncover ignorance and logical inconsistencies.] After answering that something is holy because it’s loved by the gods, Euthyphro is queried about whether the gods are a unitary actor (i.e. do they all love the same things?) The dialogue ends with Euthyphro high-tailing it, unable to work his way out of the philosophical trap into which he has fallen.

All of the Socratic dialogues around the trial of Socrates are worth reading. The translations are readable, and offer great insight into – at least what Plato interpreted as – Socrates’ process.

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BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha

Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short IntroductionPhilosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Excepting the final chapter, this wasn’t the book I expected, but it did raise some compelling questions. The book did devote more space to semantic and categorical questions than I found useful or interesting. These are the kinds of questions which philosophers may find joy in catching peers in paradoxes, but which are pure navel-gazing, offering no insights on how to achieve the well-lived life or to better understand the grand questions of the universe.

The book looks at the metaphysical and epistemological ramifications of evolution, species classification, genetic and memetic transmission, and the degree to which humans are or aren’t constrained by our evolutionary history. Among the questions I found most interesting were: Is it useful to speak in terms of “function” (i.e. “what a thing is for”) when discussing biological entities, given that those words seem to imply an intended purpose inconsistent with evolution? Does selection occur at the level of the individual, the group, or both? How does one reconcile the Mendelian notion of a “gene” with that of molecular biology? Lest one think Mendel’s ideas were partially formed and are now supplanted, they do internally explain dominance and recessivity, a thing molecular biology can’t yet do. Is it reasonable to apply the logic of evolution and heritability to the cultural domain?

I got a lot out of this tiny guide. It may have spent more time on semantics and categorization than I would have liked (as well as more time reviewing basic biological science,) but it did raise some intriguing questions that I didn’t anticipate as well as illuminating new dimensions of those I did. Your patience with the insubstantial questions will be a major factor in how much you get out of this book.

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Aphorisms for Our Age of Anxiety

1.) No one has ever been mocked, insulted, or beaten into the best version of themselves.

2.) The brain sticks little value labels on everything, labels that have no real existence - but very real consequences.

3.)Whatever else one may be, life insists one be a philosopher.

4.)One can't fathom another's malfunction while discounting that person's fears. 

5.)Hold nothing that drags you down. 

6.)Before going crazy, contemplate your crazy. 

7.) Any dope can see the beauty in beautiful things, a strong mind sees the beauty in all things.

8.) To know a thing's name and classification is to know nothing.  

9.) Don't discount the profound power of imaginary worlds. Read.

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: Avadhūta Gītā by Dattātreya

The Avadhuta Gita - Song of the AsceticThe Avadhuta Gita – Song of the Ascetic by Dattātreya
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Free Online: Sankaracharya.com

An Avadhūta is a mystic who’s transcended a dualistic view of the world, avoiding distinctions between self and everything else. Often, these sages are compared to those of various spiritual traditions who display divine madness, theia mania, crazy wisdom, or whatever one wishes to call it (e.g. the Nyönpa of Vajrayana [Tibetan] Buddhism, or sages such as Ikkyu [Zen] or Saint Simeon [Christian.]) That’s because said individuals may behave in ways that seem strange because the conventions of society often doesn’t make sense in the context of the Avadhūta’s worldview.

“Avadhūta Gītā” translates to “Song of the Free Soul,” and it consists of eight chapters of poetry that read like sutras or epigrams (concisely stated bits of wisdom.) The poem can feel a bit redundant as it repeatedly hammers home the experience of a world free of duality and distinction, singing the virtues of oneness in oh so many ways. That said, other valuable lessons are eloquently conveyed throughout. For example, chapter two explains why one shouldn’t worry on the bona fides of one’s teacher, but rather take from him or her what is of use and not worry if a teacher doesn’t know everything. It makes the apt comparison that one doesn’t need a freshly-painted and ornately-trimmed boat to cross the river, anything with essential boat-like qualities will do.

There are many English translations of this poem. I compared two, and they read quite differently but conveyed the same gist. I’m not qualified to speak to how either compared to the original Sanskrit, but I didn’t feel either translation greatly outpaced the other in terms of conveying ideas (though one was more eloquently composed [though arguably with less clarity.])

If you’re interested in Yogic and Indian philosophy, I’d recommend giving this poem a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poetics by Aristotle

Poetics. EnglishPoetics. English by Aristotle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page “Poetics” is the surviving volume of Aristotle’s guide to literary criticism. This volume explores Tragedy. [The lost volume covered Comedy.] Considering the age of this book and that it came from the student of one who was not a fan of poetics at all (i.e. Plato,) it is surprisingly readable and much of the information presented has aged well. [That said, there are some ideas that will be controversial – including, for instance, a blatantly sexist comment or two. Also, it should be pointed out that there is disagreement about what Aristotle was trying to say on a number of points.]

This short book is organized to dissect tragedy along many lines, laying out the four kinds of tragedy (complex, pathetic, ethical, and simple,) the segments of a tragedy (prologue, episode, exode, choric song, parode, and stasimon,) etc. But the work is probably most famous for two ideas. First, there is the idea that stories provide catharsis. For his teacher, Plato, the stories conveyed via poetry were all risk and no reward. That is, there was a risk that young and impressionable minds would take away the wrong lessons, and there wasn’t much to counterbalance that risk. Aristotle believed there was in fact something, and it was catharsis, the purging of emotions through vicarious living.

Second, there is the idea that there are six crucial elements of a tragedy (i.e. plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song,) and that they are of importance in more or less that order. A good bit of the work is devoted to breaking down these elements. For example, with respect to plot, Aristotle writes at length about reversals and recognition (the moment a character discovers some key piece of information,) telling us a little about how these actions best work. With respect to character, Aristotle tells about the kind of character that generates the best story, and it’s the same advice one sees in writing books today that talk about flawed but good characters. Perfect characters are boring and bad characters get what they have coming in a tragedy.

I was surprised how relevant this book remains, considering that it’s perhaps the first extant book of literary theory. It’s definitely worth a read. At less than fifty pages (not including the ancillary material you’ll find with many editions) it’s a quick read, and while it’s a bit dry at times, it’s not brutal by any means. So, given its historic importance, give it a read.


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POEM: Figment

I'm in a special 
mode of mind.
One in which nothing 
is ahead or behind.

Everything is shades
of a me that doesn't exist.

So, maybe I'm
a reflection 
of all that is --
in as much as 
there is an "I."

I don't know how
I slipped into this
anti-solipsist stance --
believing everything exists,
but I.

I'm a figment,
but since I can't be
a figment of my own imagination,
I'm not sure what 
flavor of figment
I might be. 

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson [Ill. by Chris Garratt]

Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is one title in the “A Graphic Guide” series of books, many of which (including this one) are available on Amazon Prime. The books in the series explain fundamentals for a wide range of academic subjects, using simple descriptions supported by graphics. This particular book examines the philosophy of ethics and morality.

The book consists of a large number (almost 130) short topical sections, each with supporting graphics. Each section is just a page or two in length. The book has a chronological flow, moving from Socrates through the Postmodern philosophers. The nature of the topics varies, sometimes it is the view of a particular philosopher or school of philosophy, sometimes it’s a fundamental question or point of contention, and sometimes it’s a specific ethical issue. The last twenty-ish statements elaborate on two specific cases that the book addresses in detail: animal rights and euthanasia.

I felt the author did a good job of laying out a number of fault lines, controversies at the heart of differing views of ethics. The controversy that gets the most attention is that between absolutists and relativists. (Absolutists claim there are a set of core moral rules that are universally applicable, while relativists say one can’t make such rules because the morality of every action is relative, be it: situationally, culturally, or individually. An extreme view from either perspective is inconsistent with what one tends to sees in the real world.) A second point of contention regards whether ethical constraints are determined at the individual level or the societal / tribal / group level? A third controversy consists of a subjectivity versus objectivity divide – i.e. is morality just about what feels right or is there an objective way of defining moral knowledge? A significant portion of the book deals with the rivalries about these points, and – to a lesser degree – others (e.g. is biology the root of ethics or is it a domain devoid of ethics?)

There are cartoon drawings with most of the sections that illustrate key points, and / or depict interactions between rival philosophers. There is a “further reading” section in the back that suggests books to expand one’s grasp of the subject beyond the bare fundamentals that are addressed in this book.

I thought this book did a good job of laying out the issues. The cases (animal rights and euthanasia) helped show how different schools of thought apply their ideas to specific questions. I particularly enjoyed how the book clarified the subject through discussion of key questions of contention. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s definitely worth checking this one out. If not, you may want to see how it compares to the “A Very Short Introduction” guide for Oxford University Press, which is a similar series that explains the basics of a subject in a concise fashion.

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BOOK REVIEW: Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

Civil DisobedienceCivil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This 30+ page political philosophy essay argues that it is one’s responsibility to avoid letting the government make one complicit in its unjust activities. The major points of contention for Thoreau were two-fold: state facilitation of the institution of slavery and the Mexican-American War (which Thoreau – like many – saw as a shameless land grab.) Thoreau put his money where his mouth was, and was briefly jailed for failure to pay taxes. [This brief stay might have been much longer had not someone paid the tax bill without Thoreau’s knowledge. While Thoreau doesn’t name said individual (if he ever knew who it was,) he treats that person as someone who did a bad deed in his name rather than someone to be thanked.] The discussion focuses heavily on tax-paying (or, rather, non-payment) as opposed to other acts of civil disobedience / passive resistance / non-violence such as breaking unjust laws.

This essay has been cited as an influence by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy, and many who are less well-known as proponents of non-violent resistance against oppressive or unjust governance. While the meeting of unjust governance with passive resistance has shown itself to be a powerful strategy in the intervening years, Thoreau was at the vanguard of thinking on this issue. Later activists would expand the domain of civil disobedience greatly, and it would become more explicitly associated with non-violent opposition. [Thoreau doesn’t talk up the virtue of avoiding violence like Gandhi does, but he also doesn’t mention violence as an alternative to his approach — and it seems he would find violent acts as morally reprehensible as supporting the government in its acts of aggressive violence.] I would be interested to know the following of this essay by different elements of the political spectrum today, and how that following was influenced by those who took up its banner. [It has a libertarian “the government is fundamentally untrustworthy” vibe going, but I suspect it is probably popular with elements the left who generally view the government as a savior against corporations, given the essay’s past proponents. Though I could be wrong.]

Thoreau doesn’t focus on his own case, which he only gets to well into the essay and which he addresses in quick manner. Rather, he spends most of the essay discussing the justification for breaking the law (i.e. not paying taxes) and what is moral and proper and what is not. [e.g. He says that he pays the highway tax because his desire to be a good neighbor matches his desire to be a poor subject. [paraphrased.]] Obviously, it’s a nuanced issue. If no one paid their taxes who had a gripe with the government, it might just result in everyone finding a gripe with the government – in perpetuity. Thoreau, himself, has quite a negative view of government’s ability to be just. While his focus is on abolition of slavery and the war with Mexico, it’s not as though he proposes that these are exceptional and uncharacteristic cases.

Though it is short, this essay can be obtained as a standalone work (as it’s reviewed here,) but it’s also included in many Thoreau collections and political philosophy anthologies. Like it or lump it, it’s definitely worth reading because it addresses some pretty fundamental questions about what an individual’s responsibilities are to the government as well as what are one’s responsibilities to resist the government’s activities.

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