Reading Notes 5/31/14

I’m two-thirds of the way done with ‘Second Foundation’, and it just keeps getting better. I don’t remember the last book I read that I thoroughly enjoyed so much – during a long day at work, I read about seventy pages without a break and didn’t even notice it until it was time to go home. I’m not looking forwar to finishing the series – but thankfully I bought ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and borrowed ‘The Gods Themselves’, from the library. Crisis averted.

Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’ has proven to be a fairly challenging book. Aspects of it are brilliant – for example, his analysis and critique of the formative powers of social media. I’m a bit less impressed by one of his major themes, which is a critique of ‘intellectualism’, or the idea that we as humans are primarily knowing agents, or rational agents. I understand that it’s not a scholarly monograph and that it’s more geared towards the on-the-ground beliefs of people, but at the same time, who really thinks that we are purely and only passive receivers of (say) sensory data, academic or otherwise? Smith lays a lot of blame at Descartes feet – all fine and good, but there isn’t any quotation of Descartes, no real argument – just a kind of critique of some kind of Cartesian-ism. He doesn’t offer much by way of argument, which is fine by itself – not everything has to be supported by deductive arguments – but at some point, it’s be nice to see something more substantive than ‘We’re not primarily intellectual creatures’, supported by a Merleau-Ponty quote and an anecdote from a movie.

His overall point, however, runs something like this (this is a necessarily rough breakdown): We need to move past ‘worldview-ism’, past cultivating a way of merely looking at the world. Imagination is a kind of perception of the world and a means by which we constitute the world – therefore, we need to sanctify our imagination (imagination for Smith, ‘…that preconscious, emotional register on which we percieve the world and that, in turn, drives or “pulls” our action.’ p. 158). We do this by immersion in the Story in the liturgy, by which our imagination is sanctified, realigned, rightly ordered, etc. Nothing to really argue with here – though I’ve been struck by the similarity between Smith’s project and Aristotelean ethical thought. It would have been interesting to see him engage a bit with that side of the ethical tradition, because there’s really a lot to draw on there. 

Overall, the book is solid – some of the existentialist language I don’t buy into fully (lots of ‘being-in-the-world’) and it feels like at points he really should have just said ‘Go read Merleau-Ponty and you’ll get what I’m saying’, (lots and lots and lots and lots of quotes from Merleau-Ponty) but it’s a solid piece of philosophy/theology.

I found Nussbaum’s discussion of emotions in Aristotle quite interesting – Aristotle argued that emotions require certain beliefs and to that extent can be rational or irrational, true or false (Smith would disagree with this, as a side note). The centrally important thing, however, is the belief(s) that the emotions are based on. A correct view of the good life is essential to Aristotle’s ethical project:

‘Emotions, in Aristotle’s view, are not always correct, any more than beliefs or actions are always correct. They need to be educated, and brought into harmony with a correct view of the good human life. But, so educated, they are not just essential as forces motivating to virtuous action, they are also, I have suggested, recognitions of truth and value. And as such they are not just instruments of virtue, they are constituent parts of virtuous agency: virtue, as Aristotle says again and again, is a “mean disposition” (disposition to pursue the appropriate) with “with regard to both passions and actions”. What this means is that even were the apparently correct action to be chosen without the appropriate motivating and reactive emotions, it would not count for Aristotle as a virtuous action: and action is virtuous only if it is done in the way that a virtuous person would do it. All of this is a part of the equipment of the rational person of practical wisdom, part of what practical rationality is. Rationality recognizes truth; the recognition of some ethical truths is impossible without emotion indeed, certain emotions are centrally involved in such recognitions.’ (‘The Therapy of Desire’, p. 96)

Reading Notes 5/26/14

Finally finished ‘Foundation and Empire’. Oh em gee. That ending was great. The Mule is a brilliant character, and I really didn’t see his big ‘reveal’ at the end of the story coming. I’m going to start ‘Second Foundation’ tonight, and very much cannot wait.

I got Nussbaum’s ‘Therapy of Desire’ the other day – it’s a massive study of Hellenistic ethics, which is something I got interested while reading Wolterstorff’s criticism of eudaimonistic ethics in ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’. I love reading books like this – books in which a real scholar does real scholarly work without being pretentious. I’m about 45 pages or so in, and her handling of the subject is masterful – she’s a scholar who has truly immersed herself in Hellenistic ethics, and it shows. 10/10.

I also got James K.A. Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’. The first part of the book is basically constructing a liturgical anthropology and phenomenology of perception as well as a ‘theory of practice’ based on the whole person over against what Smith calls ‘intellectualism’ or the idea that all man is is a thinking thing. Lots and lots and lots of interaction with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which is cool, because he’s not someone with whom I’m familiar with except for the name and that he’s French. Big focus on the roles of habit and narrative in how we perceive and constitute the world.

Reading Notes 5/23/14

On a whim, I started reading an excerpt of Kripke’s ‘Rules and Private Language’. Actually, it wasn’t a whim, I was reading Wittgenstein and remembered that I had a volume on philosophy of language which included Kripke. Anyway, it’s the excerpt where he breaks down his ‘plus and quus’ argument, and it’s pretty interesting, and surprisingly well-written and readable. It reminded me of Hume, actually, only with language instead of causality, and then lo and behold, he compares his skeptical argument to those of Hume. This was the first time I’d read Kripke, and I was quite impressed by how enjoyable it was. I realized, however, that I need to purchase ‘Philosophical Investigations’.

Over this last week I reread Timothy Ferris’ ‘Coming of Age in the Milky Way’ which is a history of astronomy and cosmology, from ziggarauts to string theory. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read and certainly ranks as one of the most accessible history/exposition of science volume I’ve read – Ferris can break down complex ideas in a way that is purely delightful reading. His expositions of quantum physics in the latter parts of the book are probably as good as you’re going to find anywhere, and I found the chapter on Darwin to be an outstanding breakdown of Darwin, the man, and his ideas. In my opinion, the greatest strength of the book is the detailed and anecdote-filled accounts of the lives of the great scientists – Ptolemy, Archimedes, Kepler, Brahe, Darwin, Newton, Einstein, Gell-Mann, etc – which, to repeat myself, are purely delightful. Please, buy this book.

I also re-read Jaki’s ‘Road of Science and the Ways to God’ – which is my personal favourite book on science/metaphysics/philosophy of science. Jaki is a penetrating thinker, leading you from China, to Greece, to Copenhagen and back again as he examines all the major developments in the history of science. The medievals, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Fichte, Hume, Kant, Newton, Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Comte are all decisively critiqued, some ruthlessly, some less so, as Jaki argues for moderate realism – of all the books I own, this is my number one.

Gilson’s account of Ockham and nominalism in ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’ is brilliant – I highly recommend purchasing that book, if only for that section and the breakdown/critique of Kant, which remains the best exposition of Kant I’ve been able to find.  As an account of metaphysics, this volume ranks as one of the greats.

Reading Notes 5/11/2014

I started reading David Bentley Hart’s article on Anselm’s ‘Cur Deo Homos’, and he makes an interesting case for reading Anselm in a much more patristic light, instead of the typical way he’s understood (in terms of merit theology/trangression/honour). Hart notes similarities in Athanasius, though, and that’s fairly interesting. Hart argues that Anselm, once some of the language barriers are overcome, is drawing from the themes of recapitulation to make his own argument – with lots of neoplatonism as well. I’ll read it a bit more in depth, but so far it’s an intriguing take on a well-worn topic.

I’m reading, one chapter per night, through Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ‘dogmatics’ – ‘Man is Not Alone’ and ‘God in Search of Man’, and I’d like to do a bit of systematizing along the way. Those two books are fantastic works of philosophy – the latter being one of the best books on religion/philosophy I’ve ever read. It’s safe to say that Heschel’s philosophy of Judaism has had a profound influence on my own spiritual development.

Wright’s book on justification remains one of my favourites. His exegesis of Galatians, while brief, is superb – though the brevity has no doubt been the reason for much of its criticism. His framing of the doctrine around the Abrahamic promises is absolutely on point, as is his insistence that the problem surrounding the occasion of Galatians is the ethnic identity of Israel. I pretty much regard this aspect of the NPP as firmly established.

How to Choose a Good Philosophy Guidebook

‘Guidebook’, here  refers to any history of philosophy or topical/dictionary/encyclopedia of philosophy – basically any volume where all the big ideas and thinkers are treated. Here’s how to know if it’s a good one: flip to a section which treats a particular philosophy you completely disagree with – for example, logical positivism, or behaviorism. The author should expound and explain the idea so well that you come away agreeing with it. After reading it, you should have to remind yourself why exactly you disagree with it.

Reading Notes 4/30/14

‘Foundation and Empire’ is still really good – the Mule is a great character, and he has yet to be fully revealed. I cannot wait to get to the next book in the series. I wonder if anyone has ever tried to make use of psychohistory – seems like something that could work. If it did, that’d be pretty cool. After the Foundation novels, I’ll either start the Robot novels or ‘The Edge of Tomorrow’.

Hasker’s ‘The Emergent Self’, is a great book – I’m right now reading about the unity of consciousness as an argument against the mind being a material thing – known in modern terms as the transcendental unity of apperception, or in normal words, it’s an argument from the fact that consciousness is a single, unified experience.. Thanks for that really catchy phrase though, Kant. It’s a solid argument, though.

I have a great edition of Lovecraft stories, entitled ‘The Necronomicon’, and it looks beautiful – and I saw at the bookstore that there’s another volume, same format, of his non-Cthullu weird tales. I’d like to get that. I also saw a volume of his where the edge of the paper is black – so when the book is closed, instead of white, it’s solid black. Really cool.

I’m writing notes for a blog post on ‘meaning’ which is trickier than you might suppose. Hopefully it will appear soon – ‘meaning’ is a difficult thing to work through.

On that note, I’ve started using a composition notebook for writing, notes, etc. I used to have a little legal pad, which has a lot of scribblings on it, which I may transcribe to this larger book. Or I may keep the legal pad next to my bed, because sometimes I have an idea, but really don’t want to get out of bed, and end up forgetting by morning.

There is a great Twitter bible study going on:

http://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/2014/04/20/twitter-bible-reading-group/ – for the schedule, see the post below.

http://bigbible.org.uk/2014/04/luke2acts-a-shared-bible-study-on-twitter/

I should have put this out earlier, but I forgot. It’s definitely worth participating in, though – lots of good food for thought so far. Use the #luke2acts hastag if you want to contribute.

New Books

To my surprise, there was a fill-a-bag-for-5-bucks sale at the local library – needless to say, even though I don’t need any more books, I filled my plastic shopping bag (provided by the library) with:

‘Abraham Geiger and the Historical Jesus’, by Susannah Heschel. Never heard of either of these folks, but it sounded interesting, and it’s got an endorsement by Sanders on the back, so how bad could it be? Jewish perspectives on historical Jesus study are always cool.

‘Introduction to Metaphysics’, edited by Andrew Schrodinger. I almost didn’t get this one, but it’s a sourcebook of texts on issues like free will, causality, universals, mind/body, etc etc, from Aristotle, Carnap, Berkeley, Russell, Locke, Descartes, Mill, Hume, and a ton of others, lots of which I don’t have firsthand access to. So it’s nice to have that.

‘Introduction to Logic,’ by Irving M. Copi. This is a textbook on, you guessed it, logic -a tad dated (1972), but still good. Tons of tables, practice stuff, explanations, etc.

‘Dynamics of Faith’, by Paul Tillich. Figured, why not? Might as well have it on hand.

‘A Sheltered Life: The Unexpected History of the Giant Tortoise’, by Paul Chambers. I always try and pick a book or two about something I know nothing about, and I know nothing about giant tortoises, so there you go.

‘The Idea of the Holy’, by Rudolf Otto. I’ve wanted this one for a while but not enough to go out and spend money on it. Like Tillich, good to have on hand.

‘The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability to Order the Universe’, by Paul Davies. I flipped through this one and it seemed really good – lots of stuff about chaos, Prigione, thermodynamics, order, self-organization, etc. I have another book of his about philosophy/theology/physics and it’s terrible, but his straight science stuff is outstanding.

‘The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection of the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’, by Charles Darwin. Need I explain?

More Reading Notes 4/21/14

‘A Biblical Theology of Exile’ has so far been great reading. The first chapter on methodology had some great stuff on colonialism/postcolonialism, and the second chapter (which is as far as I’ve gotten) has been surveys of attitudes/trends in historical exile study. As a side-note, it was one of the only books cited in the bibliography of the chapter on ‘Exile’ in ‘The World of the New Testament’ I could afford. Brill isn’t in the habit of making inexpensive books, it would seem.

I spent some time this morning going through I.1 of Barth’s dogmatics, specifically the sections on the Trinity. He makes extensive uses of ‘modes of being’ and the relations between the persons of the Trinity – he also noted that the Trinity isn’t a case of three persons so much as a threefold repetition of the one God, which is an interesting way to look at it.

Based on the limited reading I’ve done, Robert Jenson is a theologian with whom I need to become more acquainted with – David Bentley Hart speaks quite highly of him, at any rate.

Torrance’s ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’ has a ton of good Trinitarian stuff in it – his analysis of ‘persons’ from the Boethian and Ricardine perspective is pretty illuminating, especially when he applies it to the Trinity. Barth has pretty much the same analysis in I.1 – I’m not sure which is more difficult to read.

Reading Notes 4/18/14

I continue to make headway through Wright’s ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, and just finished the section ‘Symbol and Controversy’. Wright focused on Jesus’ challenge to the great symbols of Israel – the temple, Torah, food, land, and family – and his redefinition of them around himself. This has been a very intriguing section, with my favourite part being Wright’s detailed exposition and explanation of the reasons why Jesus went toe-to-toe with the Pharisees.

Asimov’s ‘Foundation and Empire’ is getting better – there was, as I said before, a rather awkward start but it’s finally picked up steam. I look very much forward to continuing the series. I looked everywhere for my copy of ‘I, Robot’, but couldn’t find it, so I’ll have to buy it eventually.

My wife and I watched ‘Valkyrie’ this week, and I forgot how enjoyable of a film that is. Great WW2 moral-dilemna film. I’m going to watch ‘Good’ with Viggo Mortensen next (not with him, the film simply features him).

Other than that, not much reading lately, as I’ve been pretty tired during the week. I’ll hopefully catch up, since this is a long weekend and I’m taking a few days off afterwards.

Reading Notes 4/12/14

I’m almost done with Polyani’s ‘Personal Knowledge’, which has been a very interesting book. His discussions of the personal nature of logical propositions is probably the best part of the book – I can’t really recommend this volume enough for those interested in science, philosophy, philosophy of science, etc.

I’m making my way through ‘Foundation and Empire’, which hasn’t been quite as good as ‘Foundation’ so far – it’s been just a little bit slower in getting started. It’s good, obviously, but seems almost awkward in some places. Still a great book, though. I have ‘I, Robot’, somewhere, and would like to re-read that one as well. The film with Will Smith was good, but shared almost nothing but the name in common with the book.

There was an interesting section in ‘Mapping the Mind’ about the unity and disunity of the conscious experience in relation to depression and emotion – Rita Carter argues that meaning is bound up with emotion, and shows that the area called the ventromedial cortex is the brain’s emotional ‘control center’, and is the most important organ in the brain for tying all our conscious experiences and perceptions into one, meaningful unified experience. Fascinating stuff.

I skimmed through Torrance’s ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, specifically, the chapter entitled ‘The Social Coefficient of Knowledge’. He expounds Polyani’s ideas of ‘pre’ knowledge – arguing that it’s this social coefficient and inter-personal existence that allows us to have ‘proleptic’ glimpses of the inherent patterns and rational order/structure of the universe, which is what allows us to inquire into reality in a meaningful way. A good quote:

‘It is worth repeating at this point that the social coefficient of our knowledge, or the cognitional structure of our social consciousness, does not generate in us concepts of reality, nor does it provide our knowledge with informational content, but it does predispose us toward explicit apprehension of the rational order intrinsic to the nature of things through the informal, inarticulate way in which it reflects it.’ (p. 114)