Book review: Sartre – Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

Sartre: Philosophy in an HourSartre: Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So little time to give meaning to life.

The Philosophy in an Hour series is written to give a brief overview of a philosopher’s life, some key points about their work, and a recommended reading list for more insights. This Jean-Paul Sartre instalment covers the famous existentialist, some anecdotes about his life, particularly as it relates to his open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, and the barest of insights into his contributions to philosophy.

Having started down the road of philosophical learning with Soren Kirkegaard several years ago, I was well overdue to read some Sartre. I’m not sure this is the place I should have started. While it was conveniently available from my local library, it was somewhat lacking.

While I do appreciate the biographical aspects that appear to be part and parcel of every philosophy course and textbook, this is where Strathern starts to inject his views on Sartre. He continues to do this in his thoughts on Sartre’s work.* When Bertrand Russell does this it comes across as witty, snarky, and probably deserved. When Strathern does it he comes across as childish and distracting.

I think my biggest criticism was that this book felt lacking in substance and critical insights. I was probably after something a little more substantial as an overview, along the lines of a university lecture. For those wanting a short biographical overview with a few ideas sprinkled in, this would probably hit the mark.

* E.g. He mockingly describes Sartre’s existentialism and his insights. Strathern describes Sartre as a brilliant thinker, but also a pretentious windbag. One way he did this was by saying Sartre spent 1933 in Germany studying the ”phenomena” of existence. That was the year Adolf Hitler came to power, but Sartre was too busy pondering existence to take much notice of reality, a condition that stayed with him for the rest of his life. An easy criticism to make but also an ignorant one if you understand that Berlin was a mecca for thinkers, cultures, and artists until after Hitler came to power.

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Book review: Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Capitalist Realism is a long essay or short book that argues we – as in Americans, but pretty much everyone on the planet – are so emersed in capitalism that we have no frame of reference for anything else. Mark Fisher argues that this both impedes our ability to reform or fight back against the worst aspects of capitalism, and/or to develop other socio-political societies. This is, of course, he argues, bad.

This was an interesting book. There were some truly eye-opening and enlightening moments where Fisher managed to capture an idea or concept in a concise and accessible way. He makes high-level critical analysis easy to read and understand, and not like an obtuse – or is that acute? – philosophy textbook.

It was somewhat less interesting when it drew upon pop-culture references. These references were often very good and served as a great way to make points or analogies. But some undermined any points being made by the very subjective interpretations and associations used. E.g. Kurt Cobain being the last self-aware musician was a little too reductionist. Trying to argue that Cobain could see himself being commodified and thus sought escape ignores so much of what made Cobain the person he was.

Then there were the Zizek references… and so on and sniff so on. I’ve only a passing knowledge of Zizek, but many of the philosophers I follow on social media have the same thoughts on him as I have. That is, Zizek is a sloppy thinker who gets distracted from any point he is trying to make and ends up chasing his tail around. To quote Chomsky: “There’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t.” Which, again, tends to undermine the points a bit, as it can be seen as selective and potentially misrepresentative.

Overall, this was fascinating. I think Fisher’s main points are worth serious thought and action. And at 80 pages, this probably needs to be read a few times.

https://www.reddit.com/r/ChapoTrapHou…

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Book Review: The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord

The Society of the SpectacleThe Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs.”

The Society of the Spectacle is an aphoristic set of polemic essays that examines the “Spectacle,” Debord’s term for the everyday manifestation of capitalist-driven phenomena; advertising, television, film, and celebrity. He argues that we have become alienated from ourselves and reality in order to have us serve the economy/capitalism with the production of commodities and accumulation of wealth.

I first encountered the idea of the Spectacle from Peter Coffin (see below) and his video essays related to what he terms Cultivated Identity. This is a fascinating idea and particularly relevant today in the age of mass media, late-stage capitalism, and the commodified zeitgeist. Look at how much of our society is obsessed with or based upon edifying upward mobility, celebrity, fame, reputation, and positions of power or prestige.

This ultimately means that our media has become the thing that tells us how to think and it is essentially inescapable within our modern society. Thus, the limits of our conversations and thinking have already been defined, which then becomes a feedback loop for the media we consume. Click “Like” if you already agree.

The only drawback of this work was that it is obscurus and jingoistic. Aphorisms might be cool for ancient philosophers, but they don’t make for great enlightenment nor clear communication of ideas. I’ve actually gained more from reading and watching related overviews of The Society of the Spectacle than from Debord’s actual work.

Wikipedia
Illustrated Guide to Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle
Super Summaries

Peter Coffin’s video essays on the Spectacle:

Discussion of the Spectacle by a philosopher:

And her blog post on it: https://dweeb.blog/2018/12/21/the-society-of-the-spectacle/

Another explainer on the Spectacle:

An audiobook in Spectacle form:

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Book review: In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

In Praise of IdlenessIn Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”*

In Praise of Idleness is an essay written in between the two world wars and expands upon one of the points made in his Political Ideals essay. Once again, Russell manages to argue a challenging concept in an erudite and concise manner. Even if you disagree with him on the idea of work being overrated, there is value in engaging with what he is saying.

On inequality:
“Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others.”
Variations of this statement are still being made today around inequality. They tend to use far more words.

On wasted efforts:
“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labour required to secure the necessities of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war.** At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations.”
I mean, could you be any more scathing of warmongering?

While I think he does make his argument well, there are some points that are taken as a given. The example of the wasted effort of war in the quote above is one of those. There is a valid point made about how society managed to function despite being asked to drop everything and fight a war, but the point about war being a waste of time and that standards of living were still okay just has to be taken as a given.

Worth a read, even if you disagree with Russell on some or all points.

* Parkinson’s Law, coined in 1955.
** WW1
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Book review: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean Jacques Rousseau

Discourse on the Origin of InequalityDiscourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Natural man vs Social man: there can be only one winner!

In 1754, the Academy of Dijon held a competition to answer the question, “What is the origin of inequality among people, and is it authorized by natural law?” In response, Rousseau wrote his famous Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. No one remembers the first prize winner.*

As one of the early Enlightenment thinkers, and as someone who inspired the French Revolution, Rousseau was/is an important philosopher. This work on equality is certainly one filled with important thoughts on how inequality isn’t just about natural differences between people** but is about society itself creating inequality. I would interpret this as the powerful/wealthy structuring society to benefit themselves, but an argument could be made for those with the will to power.

The main issue I had with this book was that much of the argument is based upon a flawed evolution of “man”. While I don’t think this undermines his points, it does highlight how far our understanding of humanity, our evolution, and our social bonds has improved.

The version I read of this book had a biography and philosophic overview of the work by Israel Bouseman. This was an excellent addition. It did highlight the flawed knowledge of human evolution, however, it failed to note the now known social aspects of humanity that negate some of the points made.

I’d recommend reading the Bouseman edition of this book whilst trying to contextualise the ideas within our more advanced understanding of human evolution.

Further reading: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ro…

*I tell a lie, it was François Xavier Talbert.
**Rousseau refers to men only, specifically European men. Women are lesser beings, and non-Europeans are savages. I found it unclear whether that makes the savages natural men or something beneath that. This is made more unclear by the common false attribution of the Noble Savage trope to Rousseau.

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Book review: Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist HandbookAntifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is it okay to punch Nazis? What if I told you that is only one of the tactics for dealing with Nazis?

The Anti-Fascist Handbook aims to summarise the history of fascism and its opponents, the rise of more recent fascist groups, the lessons from history for dealing with fascism, the issue of “free speech” and fascism, and how to combat fascism today. Historian Mark Bray has detailed the tactics of the Antifa movement and the philosophy behind it through interviews and the compilation of history and research into fascism.

I’ve noticed that there are several topics that seem to be widely discussed but never with any actual knowledge. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and other social movements are prime examples. So when I saw Ollie from Philosophy Tube’s video discussing this book (and other related work) I knew that Bray’s book on Antifa would be another of my must reads.

I think one of the most important takeaways from this book is that the rise of fascism to power hasn’t historically required huge support, just a lot of apathy from the masses. Too often debates will rage around “free speech” or “is it okay to punch a Nazis” while completely missing the point that fascists are loving being legitimised with any of these debates.

The five important lessons (my summary of the headings):

  1. Fascist revolutions have never succeeded, they gained power legally.
  2. Many interwar leaders and theorists did not take fascism seriously enough until it was too late. (Sound familiar?)
  3. Political leaders/groups are often slower to react to fascism than those on the ground.
  4. Fascism steals from left ideology, strategy, imagery, and culture (e.g. the liberal idea of “free speech”).
  5. It doesn’t take many fascists to make fascism (Overton windows shift easily).

Whilst this was a very interesting and important book, it wasn’t perfect. The coverage of fascism outside of Europe was limited; something Bray acknowledged he wasn’t going to cover in detail and would have been a nice addition – something for the next instalment perhaps. Also, the defining traits of fascism were clearly made, but the differences between groups that fall under that banner, or are adjacent (and thus facilitate normalisation), weren’t discussed. I would have found it interesting to have the discussion of how alt-right and alt-lite differ and how you combat the latter. Minor points that might be in future editions.

So before you next hear a professional opinion-haver brand Antifa as terrorists, it would be worth reading this book.

Philosophy Tube video:

Alt-lite influence: https://datasociety.net/wp-content/up…

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