kurt's nightmare

Generally, I post once a week. Topics are randomly selected and depend mostly upon whether it's baseball season or not. Other topics will include sex, politics, old girlfriends, music, and whatever else pops into my little brain. If you'd like to read, or ignore, my blog about China: http://meidabizi.blogspot.com/

Name:
Location: Dayton, OH, Heard & McDonald Islands

I'm an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. I represent no one but myself, and barely do that. I'm here mostly by accident.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Reading

Now that I'm going to publish my own book, I still try and humor those who have done the same, by occasionally picking up some volume to see if they have what it takes. Here's the recent stuff.

Thomas Perry; Nightlife

Perry's best books--Island, Butcher's Boy, Metzger's Dog, and the Jane Whitfield series--are quite good. His characters tend to be smarter than you (and me), and have remarkably keen senses of what is going on around them, which is, generally, what keeps them alive. Jane Whitfield, for instance, is a woman who helps folks disappear (from the Mob, a homicidal spouse) and does a bang-up job of getting all the myriad details just right to be successful. It is something worth noting that such a strong and independent female character--much more admirable, in my view, than V.I. Warshawski, for instance--was created by a man. Perry writes very well, has an excellent eye for detail, and his best books really are, as they say, hard to put down. I read this one in about two settings; unfortunately (because I'm always looking for a new one) this wasn't very good. It is about a female serial killer being chased by a female cop--there seems to be some kind of Doppelgänger thing going on, that isn't very well developed--and, then, suddenly it's all over. There are a couple of very interesting characters introduced who then just sort of disappear, or don't play much of a role; this seemed like one Perry sort of "phoned in." But I will look for his next one (out in July 2007), because even bad Perry is better than the best stuff by most I've read in this genre.

Raul Hilberg; The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian

Some reading this may be familiar with Hilberg's 3 volume (definitive?) history of the Holocaust/Shoah, The Destruction of European Jewry, or perhaps seen Hilberg in Claude Lanzmann's (9 hour) Shoah. This was a strange book, and one of the saddest I've read in a long time; not because of the obvious reason of the content with which Hilberg has spent his life understanding, but because of his tragic self-conception. Clearly he has some bones to pick, in how his work has been received and/or treated by those who participate in what has been called "the Holocust Industry," and he has some incisive criticisms of Lucy Dawidowicz. He has some more subtle reflections on Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, as well as various tales to tell about getting from Vienna to Vermont, where he spent most of his career teaching. But at the end, he clearly is concerned that his work has been for nought, and he begins and ends the book with some troubling and very personal considerations about what he has accomplished, what its value is, and whether he has really acheived what he sought. An oddly disturbing text.


Steven Pinker; The Blank Slate

I'm teaching "Philosophy and Human Nature" starting in January; this seemed to be an interesting text to use, so I've even read it. I was particularly compelled to do so when a colleague told me it was a terrible book and then conceded that he or she hadn't read it. Clearly Pinker is asking for trouble, here; by suggesting that just as it makes sense that height and eye color are determined genetically, what if other aspects of the human being have similar causal stories--such as violence, altruism, various strategies for getting and/or avoiding sex, language learning, and playing the violin? What if some of this genetic determination cannot be overcome by the environment? Pinker issues a challenge to those who wish to maintain the old empirical tradition of the "blank slate," as well as the "Ghost in the Machine" and the Noble Savage, and is willing to defend that challenge from various directions, including cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and linguistics (as well as more specific data, such as that gained through various studies of identical and fraternal (sororital?) twins and adoptees). It is interesting--and this will be the focus of my course--to see how those who wish to reject his conclusions do so: namely, simply assert that he either is directly supporting sexism and racism, or to take up the more difficult task of showing how genetics informs but doesn't determine the results in quite the way Pinker suggests. To complement this text, we will be reading Plato's Protagoras--a whole different approach--and I'm going to read Anne Fausto-Sterling's Myths of Gender as soon as it arrives in the mail. This should be a fun course: Pinker provides enough ammunition to piss off everyone.

in process

Richard Dawkins; The God Delusion

Speaking of pissing people off, Dawkins is gifted in this particular area. He is smart, he is courageous, and he writes very very well. This is a bad combination for those who don't like his thesis, which is, more or less, that given evolutionary biology's fundamental mechanism of descent with modification, the hypothesis of a supernatural creator (and its frequent corollary, a supernatural being that hears prayers, intercedes in human affairs, and cooks up the occasional miracle) is superfluous. Therefore, one should recognize that God plays no plausible explanatory role in any investigation that qualifies as "rational," that those who suggest their religious claims are off limits to criticism are intellectual cheats, and that in terms of probability, the hypothesis that God does not exist is much stronger than the opposing view. Thus agnostics are criticized for suggesting that since one cannot know (in a strong sense of "know") whether God exists, that each claim has equal possibility of being true. Fundamentally, Dawkins has written this book for those who are too chicken to admit that they are atheists, and thinks that they should come out of the closet and quit being respectful to the point of idiocy in taking seriously claims that have no evidence, no merit, and which, at best, are psychological crutches with a long pedigree designed originally to comfort those who are overwhelmed by the actual world, and continue to force their children to adopt those same crutches. (See how he can piss people off?)

Erich Auerbach; Mimesis

Nothing like a 600 page book on literature from Homer to Proust to get you through the day. Auerbach was one of those old school scholars who seemed to have read everything, and read it in the original. He has a lot to say, obviously, about the mimetic function of literature and its relation to the world we seek to describe and understand. If I finish this book, it will be precisely the kind of miracle that some would suggest calls into question Dawkins' cosmological worldview.

Merry Christmas to my reader, and remember the Festivus "airing of grievances" on December 23!

13 Comments:

Blogger Bazarov said...

I've read the Dawkins and Pinker books you mentioned. I thought they were good reads.
Pinker I don't think was making as strong a case for the Nature end of the nature-nurture debate as many of his critics have claimed. Many I think have read his book like many read Dawkins', The Selfish Gene; that is, they read the title only.
The Dawkins book was a nice read. I liked the first half much better than the second. Hardly anything new was brought to my attention but he's such an elegant writer that I simply had to read it.
My infatuation with 19th Century Russian literature hasn't ebbed yet. I recently read Gogol's, "The Cloak" (I've also seen it titled as, "The Overcoat") and I'm starting to see some things I hadn't seen before. I'm by no means an expert in this field, but it seems to me that Gogol was quite influential on the following writers like Dostoyevsky and Turgenev. I plan on reading much more of Gogol in the near future. I just love their style of writing and have been searching through the Project Gutenberg website. There was a nice short story collection of Russian authors that I'm currently working on.
Just finished Atlas Shrugged and am glad to be. Currently reading the Douglas Adams collection of novels that make up the Hitchhiker's Guide series. Good, good stuff. My favorite sentence so far? "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't."

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