The Art of War
I don’t know. Far be it from me to disparage a classic of Chinese literature, but I was underwhelmed.
A series of aphorism ostensibly proving advice on the conduct of a successful military leader, this must read of the management consultant can also be viewed as a general guide to strategy and life. It seems absurd to say this about such a famous book, but while the advice is often strong, and phrased in a somewhat cryptic, always interesting, style, it isn’t mind blowing.
Perhaps I feel this way because its teachings have been so deeply embedded in our society that I am not surprised by them. Or perhaps it’s because I’m just not smart enough, or educated enough, to appreciate the nuances. Who knows. The book is deeply embedded with Taoist philosophy and surely there are layers of meaning here that I am missing, but I bet Steve Bannon missed them as well.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
Not observing what is in the mind of another a man has seldom been seen to be unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.
Others are unknowable, you know this. It should not sadden you. But not knowing yourself? That’s a problem.
Like many of the meditations, its easy to read this as a call to meditation. Meditation, as we conceive it, would likely have been foreign to Aurelius, but a certain type of mindfulness? Of self-knowledge? I think that is what he is getting at here.
This and so many more reviews I’ve been posting lately originally appeared in a now long defunct livejournal.
On Art, Religion, and the History of Philosophy: Introductory Lectures (Hackett Classics)
I read a pretty big chunk of Hegel in my first undergrad philosophy class. He scared the living shit out of me. I thought I was a reasonably smart dude (and didn’t go to college until I was in my mid-twenties), but when my professor would say “and here Hegel is saying blah blah blah” I would reread the text and think “I have no fucking idea how she is getting that out of this”.
Then, in a latter philosophy class, we read this. I think it’s a good place to dip into the impenetrable German. The writing is clearer than Phenomenology and the subjects areconcrete (by Hegelian standards). Though it doesn’t deal directly with any of Hegel’s major contributions to philosophy, I think in the hands of a good philosophy teacher, it allows you to get a sense of Big H’s major themes.
If you were going to read one book by Hegel, I guess it would have to be Phenomenology of the Spirit. But I don’t know how anyone could read that outside of a school or study group session and get all the lessons from it. If you were going to study Hegel (which I still really need to do in much more detail) I’d say this would be a good place to start. It gets you inside his writings in a introductory way and paves the way for being able to read his denser work.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (Issues of Our Time)
Kwame Anthony Appiah
I read a fair number of think-piece-next-big-idea type books. Most of these have little to no staying power, either in the culture at large, or in my own head. Appiah’s conception of cosmopolitanism as described in this little book is different. It sticks with me. Call me a globalized liberal who thinks we can work most things out, but the conception of toleration of all but intolerance is incredibly appealing.
It is also appealing that Appiah isn’t laying out an all-encompassing theory of the world here (I am completely sick of all-encompassing theories), yet nor is he content with all-out relativism. Appiah seems to be trying to walk a line somewhere in the middle. He argues that through engagement, “contamination” and tolerance we can create a new ethics of acceptance of difference, both culturally and politically. What exactly this means in practical application isn’t always clear, and this small book doesn’t answer all the questions I have, but it’s a start. And a conception of the world to come that I’m excited about pursuing.
Ed Note: This was orginally posted to a now defunct livejournal in 2007. I’m moving it and over 100 other reviews over to this site.
Kant: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy)
If you’re interested in Kantian ethics, and you’re going to read one like this. The man himself is, in my opinion extremely difficult to muscle through. Kant’s ethical ideas when distilled down are actually straight forward and clear. But getting there from his writings is real work.
Still, if you’re going to wrestle with Mr. Obtuse, then this, or the preface to the Critique of Pure Reason, are where you should turn.
Anyway, this one is like Mill. What’s there to say about one of the most important philosopher’s in history? His ethical theory is pretty hard to argue with (you know the drill, don’t use people as tools; universalize ethical maxims and see if they create a contradiction, etc) and seem almost self-evident on first impression. Of course, in practice, they’re impossible for anyone to live fully and are subject to manipulation (i.e I can frame the ethical maxim to allow for exceptions to my own behavior; I can frame my use of another person as assistance, not exploitation).
But isn’t that true of all ethics?
I’ve never seen a fool proof guide to an ethical life. Kant comes pretty close.
Recommended for the Enthusiast.
John Stuart Mill
How do you review a basic text of every undergraduate ethics course*? It seems silly.
“Utilitarianism – pretty decent if you’re into canonical texts of the western philosophyical tradition”
Look, if you want to be well read, you have to read this one, kids. You don’t have to like it, but you have to read it. I like Mill. I like the rigor and clarity of his writing and though not a perfect man he was way ahead of the curve on individual rights, and I’m pretty into individual rights.
A personal note: utilitarianism, as a personal philosophy, was very popular amongst my hyper practical fellow Brooklyn College* philosophy students. Anything that could be seen as a calculation designed to get maximum benefits for the maximum number of people resonated with them. Of course Utilitarianism can lead on to some awful conclusions (you know the drill, toss 100 babies in the ocean to save 101 babies for example), but those kind of arguments and the fact that, at base, utilitarianism isn’t really a ethical theory, but rather a prescription for running an orderly society and (perhaps) a precursor to fascism, didn’t bother most of my classmates. That it didn’t bother them drove my Kantian ethics professor up the fucking wall. That was amusing. It can be enlightening to read philosophy at 8 o’cocl at night on a Tuesday with a room full of grown-ups desperate for a degree and pay raise. Puts a unique spin on things.
*A personal note: I went to college, at night, at the City University of New York, in my late twenties.
The Problems of Philosophy
It can feel ridiculous sometimes to review a foundational text such a Russell’s the Problem of Philosophy. Who am I to critique the work of one of the world’s greatest philosophers? I’m just a kid from a small town with a public education. Still, here’s my two cents.
This is Russell’s very short introduction into the workings of philosophy, looking briefly (and a bit superficially) at the nature of knowledge, with name drops of many of the big dogs in the field. I believe the book is supposed to function as a kind of appetizer, get the reader interested in the subject of philosophy, and then deal with the subject in more depth in other works.
A good first book if you’re thinking about taking philosophy serious, probably best avoided if you already take it seriously.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
Liberalism and Social Action (Great Books in Philosophy)
Ah John Dewey, oh voice of reasonable engagement with Hegel and logic. Why does no one talk about you much anymore? Perhaps because his view of government as a agent for the promotion of individual freedom and social good is too milk toast for today’s polarized political landscape?
Well, at the risk of sounding old fashioned, I will say that I think there is lot to be said for Dewey and his brand of pragmatism. Maybe we can blame Richard Posner on him, but I still think there is something there. This is the only book of his I have read, and frankly, it was a little while ago now. Maybe I should go back and revisit the guy, maybe we all should.
The Vocation of Man (Hackett Classics)
Johann Gottlieb Fichte
A standard text in the world of undergraduate classes in European philosophy*, Fichte is a bridge of sorts between Kant and Hegel. If memory serves, we read this book not for its thoughts on the nature of faith, but for its use of the dialectic. My memory of this is vague, but the class I read it for was one of the most difficult of my undergraduate curriculum. This and the other troublesome Germans we read had a lot to do with that.
Not a major work, for pleasure reading or self-improvement, I think you’d be better off with some of the other Germans.
*by professors unconcerned with Fichte’s reputation for anti-Semitism, something I didn’t know about when I read this.