Archives For Books

This summer (in the northern hemisphere), the New Yorker has taken down its paywall! The archive is now free to read. This magazine has some of the best long-form writing I have ever had the pleasure to read.
Don’t squander this opportunity to read some amazing articles!
New Yorker New Website

Credit Illustration by Barry Blitt.

Some articles I recommend:

“Nature has very conveniently cast the action of our sight outwards.  […] Everyone says: ‘Look at the motions of the heavens, look at society, at this man’s quarrel, that man’s pulse, this other man’s will and testament’—in other words always look upwards or downwards or sideways, or before or behind you. Thus, the commandment given us in ancient times by the god at Delphi was contrary to all expectations: ‘Look back into your self; get to know your self; hold on to your self.’ . . . Can you not see that this world of ours keeps its gaze bent ever inwards and its eyes ever open to contemplate itself? It is always vanity in your case, within and without, but a vanity which is less, the less it extends. Except you alone, O Man, said that god, each creature first studies its own self, and, according to its needs, has limits to his labors and desires. Not one is as empty and needy as you, who embrace the universe: you are the seeker with no knowledge, the judge with no jurisdiction and, when all is done, the jester of the farce.”

Continue Reading…

Advertisements

Yunus (a nobel laureate, founder of Grameen Bank and Grameen Foundation, grandfather of modern micro-finance an social-business)’s new book (sequel to “A world without poverty” – where the concept of social-business is first presented) is surprisingly readable.

The first few chapters expound on the basic ideas behind social businesses (donations are to be repaid, without interest; the business should strive to be self-sufficient; the business should look to take care of all of its stake-holders, not merely the shareholders (although they may be the same person); the businesspersons should always do his/her work with a view to fun; etc.), and provide inspiring reading. Whenever I came up with a question, it was promptly answered, just as a good non-fiction book should.

After, every alternate chapter was an anecdote, describing a stage in the development of Danone-Grameen or some other social business (usually large in scale). These anecdotes illustrate the ideas discussed at the start of the book well, making them less abstract and more understandable. However, on the flip-side, they make the theoretical chapters seem boring, and you almost want to skip them to get to the next anecdotal chapter.

This book is a useful, albeit, in my opinion, unfinished and slightly didactic (it allows no room for a part profit driven — part social business) guide to starting a social business – and is easy to read.

I would recommend it, and give it 3.5/5.

Pros:

  • Intelligent and well rounded theoretical framework
  • Brilliant anecdotes which illustrate the “rules” of social-business, and why they formed
  • Interesting discussion of the future of social-business (although a little incomplete) including the discussion of a social stock-market

Cons:

  • A little bit didactic (has a very specific framework for social-businesses, and is quite scathing of other models)
  • Not very well written
  • Quite repetitive
  • A little bit melodramatic and generalising in its aphorisms about the nature of poverty

Avner Ottensooser presents a summary of “On Bullshit,” a book published by Princeton Press and written by Harry G. Frankfurt.  This is the first post in a series of articles by Avner Ottensooser summarising certain business, oratorical, and philosophical concepts.

Holy Cow!

Bullshit coming from a holy cow ... Holy Shit?

My feeling is that he just never learned the difference between the truth and a lie[1].

Frankfurt, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton University, wrote this essay 19 years ago. This, probably pioneering work, has since been republished three times.

Frankfurt defines Bullshit, in the moral context, as a deliberately deceptive statement that rather than being right or wrong, is unconcerned with the truth. A person lying is as concerned with truth as much as a person telling the truth (given that it is {legally} impossible to lie unless one is convinced one knows the truth). The bullshit artist, on the other hand, does not care if what he says is true or false.

Examples

A 4th of July orator who goes on about

“our great founding fathers who, under divine guidance, created a new beginning for mankind.”

Here the orator does not care what his audience thinks about the founding fathers. What he does care about is what people think of him (a patriot with deep thoughts and feelings about the origin and mission of our country).

The philosopher Wittgenstein once asked Fania Pascal, his biographer who was sick at the time, how she felt.

She croaked: “like a dog that has been run over”.

To which Wittgenstein responded disgusted: “You do not know what a dog that has been run over feels like”.

Was Pascal’s answer bullshit or a figurative use of language? Well, Pascal plainly did not lie. She would have been lying if she was aware that she actually felt quite good. The trouble with Pascal’s statement is that it conveyed not just any bad feelings but the distinctive bad feelings of a dog that has been run over. This is what Wittgenstein considered bullshit. Pascal does not even think she knows how a run-over dog feels. Her fault was not that she failed to get things right, but that she did not try.

Bullshit is not excrement

Bullshit is not produced in a careless manner; on the contrary, some bullshit is finely crafted with meticulous attention to details by exquisitely sophisticated craftsman in the realm of advertising and public relations, for commercial or political reasons. These craftsmen, with the help of market research, dedicate themselves to getting every word and image they produce correct, exactly so.

Why is bullshit produced?

Following are some reasons why people use bullshit:

  • When circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. This requirement may arise from the conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have an opinion about everything.
  • Various forms of scepticism deny that we can have reliable access to an objective reality, and therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. This undermines the confidence in the value of objectively determining what is true and what is false.
  • When an informed speaker is avoiding an answer, yet not willing to accept the consequences of not answering a question or lying.

On dealing with bullshit

While the risk of being caught lying or bullshitting may seem the same, the consequences of being caught bullshitting generally seem less severe. Even people who do not forgive false statements tend to forgive bullshit. Why? Frankfurt leaves this unanswered. The bullshit artist wishes to be credited as being informed yet takes no interest in whether what he says is true or false. For this reason lying does not make a person incapable of ever telling the truth but bull…t does. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides in the same game. The bullshit artist ignores the rules of the game altogether. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lying is.

However studiously the bullshit artist proceeds, he is trying to get away with something. It seems that bullshit involves a kind of bluff. But the bluff is not what the bullshit artist says. The bluff is the bullshit artist’s concern with the value of the truth of the statement. The bluff is in the attitude of the bullshit artist. For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. Phony need not be (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is wrong with counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it is made. This leads us to a similar and fundamental characteristic of bullshit: while it is produced without concern with truth, it need not be false.

The content of a bullshit story may not be a lie. The lie would be the bullshit artist’s enterprise. Hence, to deal with bullshit, rather than questions the content of the story, questions the process the bullshit artist followed in arriving at the story.


[1] Harry S. Truman on General Macarthur in “Plan Speaking, an oral biography of Harry S. Truman” by  Merke Miller page 297.

Steal these books!

oatsandsugar —  August 1, 2010 — 7 Comments

Some good books to use/read/refer to for all of your philosophy/fartsy/jurisprudence assignments; and to look like a smarty pants in class:

  • Sophie’s World: A novel about the history of philosophy by Joestein Gaarder.  This is an awesome book to use as reference when you just need a snippet of a philosophical idea.  It’s also a great novel to read, with a mindf*ck that makes the Matrix and Inception look simple.  Its readability and brevity also shove the basics of each school of thought into your head, and you’ll find that you recall theories presented in this novel easily in class discussions, making you look totally philosophically knowledgeable.  Also, this is one of my favorite books ever [UTS Library; Amazon].

Who are you? Where does the world come from?

  • Ideas: A history of thought and invention from fire to Freud by Peter Watson.  This is the premier reference book (in my opinion)/universal almanac to ideas and their development, including philosophy, religion, politics, sciences, etc. [State Library of NSWAmazon].
  • 50 Key Thinkers on History by Marnie Hughes-Warrington.  This was our textbook for History Extension in High School.  I haven’t read all of it, but the bits I have used (the chapters on deconstructivism, postmodernism and narrative history) are well written, easy to understand, full of good references and at a university level [UTS LibraryAmazon].
  • The Trial by Franz Kafka.  This novel is legal/jurisprudential genius.  It describes the reasoning behind the safeguards in our legal system by exploring a narrative trope whereby they don’t exist.  Only in their absence do you realise the importance of the legal rights (I don’t want to spoil the novel, so I won’t go in to too much detail) described in this novel.  Brilliant, a must read for law students.   [UTS LibraryAmazon].

I have to fight against countless subtleties in which the Court indulges. And in the end, out of nothing at all, an enormous fabric of guilt will be conjured up.

  • The Death of the Author by Roland Barthes.  This is a literary essay that discusses readings alternative to the reading intended by the owner, and how they are equally valid.  This is interesting to slip into conversations in class on interpretation of legislation/the role or flexibility of stare decisis. Also useful in constitutional law when comparing the American idea of the “living constitution” as embodying Barthe’s philosophy and the Australian tradition black-letter constitutional readings.  This essay is useful in creating a philosophical framework for interpretation essays/discussions [Online Journal: “Aspen”]

… the text is henceforth written and read so that in it, on every level, the Author absents himself …

  • The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton.  This is a cute little book (actually, a picture-book of sorts) that talks through some ideas on philosophy.  This very brief and cheap book was a pleasure to read and introduced me to some awesome philosophers and ideas [UTS Library; Amazon]
  • Essays by Montaigne.  These are lovely!  He was  true renaissance man who retired young, built himself a tower and locked himself in with his books, decorating the walls spiraling upwards with his favorite quotes.  He wrote about everything because he assumed he would have no audience.  His writings on the mundane are fascinating and at some times hilarious, but his writings on the deep and philosophical are moving [A small collection onlineAmazon].

Nature has very conveniently cast the action of our sight outwards.  We are swept on downstream, but to struggle back towards our self against the current is a painful movement; thus does the sea, when driven against itself, swirl back in confusion.  Everyone says: ‘look at the motions of the heavens, look at society, at this man’s quarrel, that man’s pulse, this other man’s will and testament’ — in other words always look upwards or downwards or sideways, or before or behind you.  Thus, the commandment given us in ancient times by the god at Delphi was contrary to all expectations: ‘look back into yourself; get to know your self; hold on to your self.’ … Except you alone, O Man, said that god, each creature first studies its own self, and, according to its needs, has limits to its labors and desires.  Not one is as empty and as needy as you, who embrace the universe: you are the seeker with no knowledge, the judge with no jurisdiction, and, when all is done, the jester of the farce.

If you want to borrow any of these books, just ask! if you recommend any books, hit me up in the comments and I’ll write something up about them.