Friday, March 28, 2008

The Elements of Style

Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" is revered in the seedy underworld of grammar. Originally self-published in the early 1900's, this little book of 85 pages has become an icon. The authors' main creed: Simplify!

I found the book useful. And, although I would recommend reading this classic, it is too narrow to be considered a complete grammar reference source. Instead of addressing the fundamentals, Strunk addresses common grammatical errors. The tone is that of an exasperated teacher wanting to correct, once-and-for-all, the annoying mistakes he encounters every year. This approach is excellent for a student already well versed in the jargon of grammar: prepositions, modifiers, auxiliaries, and such. However, a thorough introduction to these building blocks would be more useful to me at this point.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Grammatically Correct

If twelve-year-old Nels saw twenty-eight-year-old Nels reading "Grammatically Correct", he would be very disappointed. What can I say? I have come to find this admittedly lame topic interesting. It started with Lauren correcting me at every turn during the job application process this summer. Apparently I couldn't make a complete sentence without some glaring mistake that demanded, and got, ridicule. After several attempts to diminish Lauren's smug superiority by reminding her that nobody likes people who correct his grammar, I eventually decided to fight fire with fire and figure out English Grammar.

"Grammatically Correct" is a worthwhile read for the grammar student. It is a relatively interesting read and provides some good insights. To be thorough, I would recommend buying a grammar textbook as well. Stilman's book only addresses grammar for sixty pages, after accounting for the chapters on puncutation and style, and competence in this area requires a more lengthy focus. At this point I feel as if I am just scratching the surface.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Philosophy and Social Hope

Remember those scenes where young girls at Elvis Presley concerts scream deliriously and faint? Well, that is what Richard Rorty would do if John Dewey were to somehow make an appearance. In his book "Philosophy and Social Hope" Rorty mentions Dewey, oh, I don't know,5 million times. Rorty, a leading American Pragmatist, feels Dewey is the grand-daddy of the current era of philosophy. In one sense, because this approach disregards the search for ultimate truth in favor of creative discussion for possible futures, Rorty sees Dewey as ushering in the ultimate phase of philosophy. I did not agree with everything in this book, but it definitely made me think. I will outline my pros and cons below.


1. "She" as a pronoun. I hate it. I get that liberal-minded people are trying to support gender equality, but please figure out a way to do it that isn't so damn annoying. Am I alone in this? Rorty uses this literary device throughout and the book loses significant points for this offense alone.

2. Rorty is too combative. He draws lines in the sands of academia in nearly every chapter. At times this aggression comes out in petty insults or sarcastic jokes that distract from the topic at hand. The undoubtedly numerous disputes between professors should be handled in a less public forum. It lacks class to do so otherwise.

3. Using "we" instead of "I". Rorty constantly uses "we" to establish his positions. It is either "we pragmatists" this or "we liberals" that. Don't assume to speak for everybody. I guess it is an attempt at humility but it doesn't work.

4. Now for the bigger problems. Rorty claims that pragmatism is the philosophy that takes Darwinism to it's logical conclusion. He thinks this because pragmatism doesn't recognize Godly influence in our intelligence, simply luck. However, Rorty then claims that pragmatists see human culture as pure social-construct. Our beliefs, emotions, and values to him are the result of habit. What? Doesn't Darwinian thought necessarily lead to an understanding that these attributes are heavily influenced by our genes? We do not love our children more than strangers because we were socially programmed to do so.

5. Lastly, I don't agree with Rorty's central argument that reality doesn't exist independently of human interpretation. I need to explore this more, but my understanding is that Rorty believes that there is no essential essence to anything beyond what we say about it. This means that when we look at my shoe we can say "it was made in china" or "it is size 11" or whatever, but that we can not know what it truly "is" because everything is contingent on everything else. I agree with contingency and am awestruck at its implications, but I still believe concrete reality exists. We may not be able to communicate the independence of any object or event, but our languages' limitations should not be imposed upon reality as well. Rorty believes that instead of fact or truth we should talk about usefulness. But there are true and false statements. I can't say my shoe is made of wood and be correct. This indicates that there is a reality that resists mere interpretation.


1. The destruction of dualism. The mind/body distinction is dead. Rorty correctly cheers the possibilities that await us as we let go of that relic of metaphysics. He claims it is a remnant of Plato's "higher world" and led us to incorrectly separate our bodies from something beyond ourselves. I am not sure where the distinction originated, but it is useless today.

2. Pragmatism's regards to Truth strike me as true with regards to ideas and opinions. Avoiding the paradox of the last sentence, let me explain. Reason replaced the Church as the means to understanding ultimate reality. Rorty argues that reason doesn't have any special access, either, because there is not ultimate reality. Everything is open to being understood through an infinite number of perspectives. The same event seen through the eyes of a feminist, a communist, a priest, or whomever will be unique to each. Reason will not get us to the correct answer, it is just a tool to be used by a perspective. For example, it is equally rational to be either pro-choice or pro-life. What we must accept is that there is no correct answer. That it is up to us to create solutions that will provide us as much happiness as possible and that we deem just.

Pragmatism is America's major contribution to philosophy. It is deceivingly complex and I have more questions than answers. I would recommend "Philosophy and Social Hope" to anyone looking for an introduction.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cleansing the Doors of Perception

I have read several of Huston Smith's books, and have reviewed one of them, "A Seat at the Table", on this blog. He is perhaps the leading scholar on comparative religion in the world today. His writing is so clear and the content so important that I find myself consistently returning to his works. "Cleansing the Doors of Perception" is Smith's attempt to seriously examine the role of entheogenic plants in contemporary religions. The book is a collection of essays that tackle various aspects of the subject.

The most interesting essay to me was the story of how India's sacred Soma plant was recently identified after thousands of years of uncertainty. The discoverer was an amateur ex-banker who undertakes an Indiana Jones-esque adventure to eventually take his place in History. His conclusion was that the plant was a psilocybin mushroom. He further claims that Soma was removed from religious practice in India, despite its historical importance, because the drug became out of hand and was hindering instead of assisting religious development.

Another engaging essay concerns the role of peyote in Native American religious ceremonies. In 1990 the Supreme Court ruled against peyote as a protected religious sacrament outside legal prosecution. Through public pressure Congress quickly created legislation that protected the plant. After the legal questions were settled, the greater question remained: what is the role -if any- for peyote and similar plants in religions today?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Courtier and the Heretic

Here and there I have come across both Spinoza and Leibniz in my reading. Spinoza intrigued me as a secular philosopher interested in ethics and salvation. Is it possible to have Faith compatible with a modern perspective? Leibniz's metaphysics forged an impression on me during my attempt to better understand String Theory (Effort failed). So, while browsing the bookstore the other day I was excited to come across Mathew Stewart's "The Courtier and the Heretic". The introduction promised a blend of historical biography and outline of philosophies that fits me like a glove.

The first impression I have as I finish the book is: Man, Matt Stewart tore Leibniz apart! He portrays the distinguished German philosopher as materialist, reactionary, vain, and worse. While these personal characteristics might be true (I've never met the guy), I was more interested in exploring his undoubtedly rich positive contributions. This attempt to embarrass Leibniz plays a part in the author's worship of Spinoza, whom he obviously identifies with. In fact, Mr. Stewart's self-description is as someone who has retired to "pursue a life of contemplation". This smug imitation of his idol was nauseating enough for me to not buy the book at first, but I finally relented and ordered it online. I'm glad I did.

>As an introduction to Spinoza, I learned a lot. He lived in Holland during the mid 1600's. He was a Portuguese Jew by descent, but was excommunicated from the church due to his views on God. Reading the verdict of his banishment is amusing. The furious Rabbis ask for the Lord to make him "cursed by day and cursed by night, cursed when he lies down and cursed when he rises up". We get it, already. This zealous persecution is better understood with a look at the era. There are several anecdotes in the book about mob lynchings and executions of people with unorthodox views. The leaders of the Dutch Republic were actually murdered and then barbecued in the streets for supposed wrongs. It appears the authority of the Church was insecure due to the proliferation of alternative ideas and responded with violent repression.

Spinoza's first major published work is a treatise on tolerant governance. Although he later became famous for his metaphysics, the surrounding theocracies of the time were what first impelled him to write. He argued for democratic institutions and the permissal of dissenting views. Stewart states that he was in fact the earliest direct contributor to the political philosophy expressed in our Constitution. It is one thing to live in a dogmatic society and another to live in a dogmatic society whose values you reject. A reason for Spinoza's political frustration was he adamantly disagreed with the prevailing philosophy of orthodox religion.

Spinoza believed that God was universal. By this I mean that God is not a separate entity from his creation, but that creation is an extension of God. This view is radical within Western Philosophy, but can be seen in many indigenous religions. A result of this idea is that Man does not hold a special place on earth. In fact, Spinoza holds that our image of God as a bearded man making decisions is a result of our limited and human-centered imagination. Virtue in this worldview is not pleasing this substitute father figure, but in pursuing our self-interest.

This concept was misunderstood by his contemporaries. The typical understanding of self-interest is hedonism. It is assumed that we would be happiest indulging in our every desire and that virtue is a sacrifice of this enjoyment for a later, greater reward. Spinoza believes that happiness is actually found in forging a relationship with God through the development of yourself and an understanding of the world around you.

There is a neighboring perspective to this idea echoed in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama often states that his original premise is that man seeks to be happy, and from there he advocates a life of compassion to best achieve it. Both the Dalai Lama and Spinoza believe that negative emotions are the result of "inadequate conceptions of things". For Spinoza Man, should find solace in reason. Buddhism allows positive emotions to play a part.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone not specifically interested in Leibniz. I am looking forward to learning more about Spinoza in future reading. His perspective resonates still, and I am interested in the hints of Stoicism, Buddhism, Rationalism, and Indigenous thought. If anyone has a suggestion, leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

Robert Richardson is the author of three books on American Thinkers. His most recent "William James" won a Bancroft Prize and follows his previous works on Emerson and Thoreau. The writing is detailed and thorough, not for the faint of literary heart. When I showed the book to an inquiring student he replied it "looked boring. Adult stuff boring." And, at times, it was. The occasional boredom is the result of an overemphasis on the mundane aspects of the subjects' life: there must be 20 pages describing his various illnesses.Fortunately, these off moments are submerged in an otherwise excellent text.

William James was an American philosopher in the mid 1800's. He is probably most famous for "The Principals of Psychology" and "The Varieties of Religious Experience". He came from a famous family and his brother Henry is a well-known author. A well-rounded man, he was known for excellent literary sensibilities, mountain hikes, and active political involvement. As I read the book it was remarkable to see how large of an impact he has had in shaping our collective perspective.

Heavily influenced by the Darwinian revolution, he championed the idea of consciousness as an active, selective process that we have as a result of natural selection. This understanding led to the undermining of the mind-body duality that was prevalent. Instead of consciousness as an entity, it is seen as an action that our mind/body engages in. According to James, our knowledge and beliefs are the result of our individual relationship to the world. What we "see" is determined by personality and enforced by habit. This is why a Liberal and a Conservative can see the same debate and both be honestly convinced their candidate won.

This idea about how we interact with the world led to a challenge of the Absolute. The standard idea of Absolutist reality is that an independent reality exists that individuals are incapable of describing or experience fully due to their limited perspective. James argued that there is no sense in talking about what "happened" without including the subjects involved. From this vantage point each event is comprised of multiple experiences, each one valid AND complete. It is perhaps from this discussion that the "If a tree fell in the woods..." question originated.

The last aspect of his thought I will address is Pragmatism. He, along with Charles Pierce, is largely credited with creating this philosophy. It is distinctly American, and can be pictured budding in our practical culture. Essentially this perspective argues that it is the "fruits and not the roots" that matter. By this I mean that what is true is what are the results and not any metaphysical matters. This philosophy was criticized for seemingly allowing anything to be true. And, while I was quick to dismiss it myself, it is worth looking at one example just to prick your curiosity. Take a placebo. Typical thinking would have it that a placebo does not "cure" anyone. It just so happens that the person thinks they are being cured and get better through other means. Well, what about saying the placebo did cure them? How can we absolutely say it doesn't if taking one can heal? The requisite of belief does not necessarily make it less true. In fact, James at times suggests that belief-or faith- might be what is required to make religion true in the same sense.

Overall, I really dug this book. For me to approach philosophy I must be in the right state of mind. Similar to poetry, if I am not in the right place I am too distanced from the text and unable to allow it to move me. The concepts of William James are interesting and I am glad I chose this book. If you want to learn specifically his philosophy, however, I would recommend reading his own writings. The biography touched on them but of course focused more on his life.