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

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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: Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward

Anarchism: A Very Short IntroductionAnarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Despite having graduate level education in Political Science, I never learned about anarchism. Even as an individual holding libertarian [classically liberal] beliefs, I dismissed anarchism as a philosophy without practical merit, one that failed to grasp the realities of human nature. And I apparently wasn’t alone as all those professors who built the curriculum that I studied didn’t find anarchism worthy of more than a passing mention as the theoretical endpoint on a continuum, a point that could never be reached in reality.

I read this little guide to the history and political philosophy of anarchism to help rectify this gap in my education, and to determine whether I was correct to dismiss anarchism as a pie-in-the-sky ideology of no practical value.

This introductory guide makes the point that anarchists have had influence in areas like labor and education policy. In essence, the book suggests that anarchism isn’t as bleakly devoid of success as it would appear. While we don’t see any functional and long-lived political entities devoid of governance by an organization with a monopoly on use of force, that doesn’t mean anarchist ideas haven’t made an impact.

The book starts with definitions and an overview of those thinkers who made anarchism seem potentially viable. It examines anarchist history and how anarchism related to competing ideologies. There’s a chapter that looks at the individualist / libertarian approaches to anarchism (in contrast to the leftist / socialist strains that dominated the early history of anarchism.) There’s a chapter that investigates the connection between anarchism and federalism. The book ends with a discussion of the green anarchists and how anarchism might move forward (to the degree it does so.)

This was a fine overview, offering insight into anarchist history, philosophy, and the divergences of thinking between anarchist scholars. It’s dry reading, and while that’s almost unavoidable in a book that’s brief, scholarly, and on a specialized subject, I’d say this volume is probably in the lower half of VSI titles for readability. Still, if you’re interested in the subject, it’ll give you the gist in a small package.


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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: Introducing Political Philosophy: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson

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

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This book offers a concise overview of the philosophy of governance and political affairs. After a few pages that describe the domain of political philosophy and the questions that guide it, the book takes a chronological approach to exploring the shifting landscape of political philosophy from Ancient Greece through the Postmodernist schools of thought. Along the way, it presents the ideas that have undergirded a range of forms of governance from anarchy to authoritarianism.

Political philosophy hinges on a number of key questions, such as: Is man fundamentally good or evil? [the Hobbes – Locke debate] What rights do individuals have? What makes a government legitimate? There is widespread agreement that societies need some form of governance to avoid devolving into Mad Maxian wastelands. However, any power that a leader or government has to govern inherently restricts the freedom of other entities (i.e. individuals, businesses, organizations, etc.) Attempts to think through how this dilemma can best be managed have resulted in a huge and longstanding body of philosophical thinking.

Furthermore, there is no indication that these questions will resolve themselves in a consensus agreement about what kind of governance (or lack thereof,) is best. While democracy, rule of law, protection of minority rights, and a strict limitation of the State’s monopoly on use of force have gained widespread following across an increasing number of nations, those ideas haven’t ended the debate altogether.

I found this to be a fine overview of the subject. As with other books in the series, it uses short sections and cartoon graphics to make the material readily digestible. It’s highly readable and well-organized.


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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: Introducing Plato: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson

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

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This is a concise guide to the philosophy of Plato. Its numerous short (page-length) sections are logically arranged: beginning with background context – e.g. life in ancient Athens and the ways of Plato’s teacher, Socrates — and ending with discussion of the post-Platonic world of Aristotle and later philosophers influenced by Plato’s work. Through the heart of this book, it explores the various dimensions of Plato’s philosophy: his epistemology, his take on virtue ethics, his political philosophy, his form-based conception of metaphysics, his thoughts on rhetoric, and his surprising rejection of art and poetry. Along the way, the book discusses about ten of the Socratic dialogues, specifically (others are mentioned in passing as they relate to topics under consideration,) as well as many of the well-known ideas that came from these works (e.g. Plato’s Cave from “Republic.”)

The book uses graphics to help convey ideas, mostly drawings that emphasize key points. There is also a “Further Reading” that lists some works that elaborate on Plato’s philosophy and life from various perspectives, as well as listing a number of the Socratic dialogues and whether they fall into the early, middle, or late phases of Plato’s career. (Note: There isn’t complete agreement on how many Socratic Dialogues were written by Plato – 35 is a disputed number, but one often cited. The importance of the period is that Plato appears to increasingly present his own ideas, rather than those of Socrates, who continues to serve as the central character in Plato’s writings.)

This book is highly readable, but skims the surface. Whether it will serve one’s purpose depends upon what one knows about Plato and his canon to begin with. I would recommend it for a neophyte who doesn’t want to get bogged down in a lot of obscure ideas or complex explanations.

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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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