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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Propaganda [Common Meter]

The words were whispered down the line,
but changed at every turn.
Some words were written down in time,
but gathered up to burn.

And no one knew unvarnished truth --
only some stray excerpts.
They tried to cobble together 
the judgments of experts.

But truth was not to be retrieved 
by way of slick guesses
and in the end all they had left
were their burning messes.

Slant [Free Verse]

They told it slant,
but not all the truth,
and it rolled into the ears
of the willing
and into the minds
of the faithful.

And in those minds
it was built into 
a swift machine,
one of great power -- 
if little reality.

But deaths never required
reality of motive,
reality of matter.

So, the wild stories
became wild ideas
that were the bane
of us all. 

BOOK REVIEW: Lesser Hippias [a.k.a. Hippias Minor] by Plato

Lesser HippiasLesser Hippias by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Also known at “Hippias Minor,” this isn’t one of the better Socratic dialogues, but it’s amusing and somewhat thought-provoking. It’s one of two dialogues which feature the exceedingly narcissistic Sophist, Hippias, as Socrates’ philosophical sparring partner. The crux of the matter is Hippias’ claim that Achilles is fundamentally truthful while Odysseus is a liar. Socrates takes issue, showing that both heroes tell both truths and lies over the course of Homer’s works.

When Hippias is challenged on his oversimplified classification scheme, the Sophist claims that Achilles’s falsehoods are involuntary, whereas Odysseus’s lies are committed on purpose. This brings the dialogue to the issue that will play out to its end. While Hippias claims that involuntary falsities make Achilles the more virtuous man, the Sophist is led through a series of examples showing that the person who does bad voluntarily is invariably the better man. To give one of the countless examples (not countless, but I’m too lazy to count them,) Socrates suggests that the musician who plays badly on purpose is considered the better musician than one who plays badly because it’s all he or she is capable of.

While most of the dialogue is about whether it’s better to be bad voluntarily or involuntarily, it doesn’t seem that’s really Socrates’ point. In the end, when Hippias last says he doesn’t agree with Socrates, Socrates says that he’s not sure he agrees with himself. Socrates’ point might be that Hippias is full of untested claims because Hippias thinks himself smarter than everyone else.

It’s true this isn’t among the best, but it’s worth reading for this one lesson: don’t be like Hippias.

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POEM: The Gift of Mysteries

The Truthlands are chartless and vast.
I crave understanding.
I’ve tripped through time on jagged lines
in search of mind-expanding.

I’m like a dog in hot pursuit,
both seeking to sink teeth,
and terrified that I’ll be tossed
and die ground underneath.

I’m chasing down a map to Truth,
but it’s the search I seek.
I’m not discouraged that my chance
is little more than bleak.
[In truth, I’m proud to have had such
a winning losing streak.]

POEM: Truth & Beauty

Philosophers speak of truth and beauty in the same sentence.

The only connection I see is that neither can be seized tightly.

Beauty blanches or crumples under the force of a tight fist,

and any truth that flies from a tender grip isn’t so true as you’d like it to be.

Sometimes, the truth is ugly.

Sometimes, beauty is a lie.

Hell, sometimes the truth is a lie and a lie is true,

and often times a beauty is ugly & ugliness is beautiful.

POEM: Truth Buried

Truth is under a rubble pile
covered in junk and debris
marked with (-)’s and (+)’s
chunks of value judgment
that crumbled under the weight of its immensity
or, maybe, because it was made of bankrupt material

many start the dig,
but the love of those (+)’s and (-)’s proves too strong
so they stack and mortar them into solidity
then the truth is no longer buried, but imprisoned

POEM: Subdued

Sail words through the dead of night
When no one can see wrong from right
Cause all the world is shadow gray
Free from the harsh light of day


The light, a white-hot burning truth
Sears like a rotten, broken tooth
Stripping secrets to full nude
Until dusk writes them subdued

POEM: Fuel & Fools

Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain)

Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain)

It was a fire-breathing preacher,

a hard-core and ceaseless teacher,

of lessons they said they wanted none.

Yet, it belched them out by the ton.

Spitting fire and dreadful lies

from the freedom of the skies.

And all about, its fires burned.

And people wailed like lovers spurned.

And then one day there came sage.

He found some sad, some in a rage.

“What troubles you folk,” he inquires.

“From far above, it slings these fires!

Can you save us, you wise old man,

from life in this blasted frying pan?”

“Every fire requires a fuel,

And every lie, a willing fool.

Do you feed the beast, or in its fires bask?”

“Neither, of course, and how dare you ask!”

“I can douse the flames, but they’ll flare right back,

if you fuel them with your petty, piddling yak.”

“Just do it, old man, before we all burn!”

“OK, I’ll give you this one chance to learn.”

So, pulling a hose, off the sage marched.

“Mighty dragon, you must be terribly parched?”

“You know, breathing fire IS a thirsty job.”

At a nod, minions spun the spigot knob.

The water caught the grateful dragon in the throat.

Steam rose, ash spewed, and that’s all she wrote.

With no fire to breath, the dragon flew off,

sputtering out its last ashen cough.

The town was saved, or so it appeared.

But it was as the sage had feared.

Soon, some dabbled in volatile mixtures–

at weakest moments, becoming fixtures.

And the fools? Oh, they missed the glow

of the dragon’s garish and tawdry show.

And soon enough, conditions were right

for the dragon’s fire to again alight.