Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Description of the World - Part 62

Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, 2 vols. (This famous book is probably more influential because we know it exists than because anybody actually reads it. Mandeville’s message of the economic advantages of vice is not overplayed in the actual work; in fact the author is arguing in favor of a modern complex economy, not writing an encomium to sin. Indeed, the bite of the satire depends on recognizing that bad or dubious behavior really is deplorable even if it serves the good of the hive. Some passages of the verse part of the work sound like Juvenal, easy on the bile: Mandeville writes of lawyers who “to defend a wicked Cause,/Examine’d and survey’d the Laws,/As Burglars Shops and Houses do,/To find out where they’d best break through.”)

Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (I’ve barely established a base camp at the foot of the Everest of a biography.)

William Kneale and Martha Kneale, The Development of Logic (Several of the books in this pile are heavy-duty reads I keep promising myself I’ll undertake. In fact the reason I haven’t posted another installment of Description of the World for a couple of days is that I’ve finally been reading my way into Kneale and Kneale, which I’m enjoying very much, though nobody speed reads a history of logic. I’m certainly no logician, but taught the basic course to hundreds of people back in the day. The standard curriculum for the subject is a mighty smooth pebble by now, having rolled down the stream for a couple of thousand years. It’s fascinating to go back the sources and handle the much more angular original. Anyhow, I always wanted to learn the mnemonic system for naming valid categorical syllogisms—Barbara, Darii, Baroco, Felapton, etc.—and have a better handle on second intentions.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Annotated Emerson, ed. David Mikics (Nietzsche grew up reading Emerson. You have to wonder why Emerson ended up being quoted by the late George Apley (at least in the movie) while Nietzsche retains his virulence despite the best efforts of Walter Kaufmann to attenuate it by repeated passage through anodyne translations. For that matter, how come I find it so hard to get through Emerson’s essays? I admire the man for the same reasons Nietzsche did, but while I like his paragraphs but I don’t turn his pages. I have to admit I have trouble getting into many American authors. I guess I suffer from a sort of cultural auto-immune disease, though the prejudice seems to mostly cling to 19th Century Americans. Still, looking over Self Reliance, it occurred to me that it would a real pleasure to read it line by line with a couple of thoughtful friends. Does anybody do that anymore?)

Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return of Philosophy (The French still punch above their weight in many cultural areas, but the influential sequence of thinkers that runs from Sartre to the Postmodernists seems to have petered out. Badiou came late to this game; and if he has something distinctive to add, if, to use his own lingo, he is an event, the world of thought will have to catch its breath before it has the energy to recognize it. Or maybe it’s just me who hasn’t managed to marshal the will requisite to assimilate one more French philosopher. Still, there are bits and pieces that attract me. I expect that his claim to make literal use of set theory is mostly theatrical, but I also find the notion of the power set extremely useful, even if I decline to make a stump speech out of it. And then opening this little book to where I stopped reading I find, “I call thinking the non-dialectal or inseparable unity of a theory and a practice. To understand such a unity the simplest case is that of a science; in physics there are theories, concepts and mathematical formulas and there are also technical apparatuses and experiments. But physics as thinking does not separate the two.” That line reminds me a bit of my own definition of science: thinking with things.)

Roland Wilbur Brown, Composition of Scientific Words (This grand reference book, put together by an extremely diligent geologist, allows you look up Latin and Greek words for use in neologism like the scientific names for taxa and, used the other way around, allow you to finally figure out why somebody called a genus of beetles Scotodes—it’s from the Greek skotodinia, which means dizzy.) 

A Cultural History of India, ed. Al.L.Basham (This is really just a collection of essays on particular topics, but I’ve found it extremely useful when I need to sound like I know something about Indian culture on short notice. The book goes back to 1975, and the parts of it I’ve consulted seem to hark back to an era when Indians were less critical of their own traditions.)

Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: an environmental history of china (This environmental history of China concludes, “There seems to no case for thinking that, some details apart, the Chinese anthropogenic environment was developed and maintained in the way it was over the long run of more than three millennia because of particular characteristically Chinese beliefs or perceptions.” Brief episodes of reforestation and soil conservation aside, population growth was stronger than imperial ideology or naturalistic philosophy. The epigraph of the book telegraphs the punch: “The straight tree is first to be felled;/First drained dry, the well of sweet water.” (Zhangzi)