Book review: Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Humankind: A New History of Human Nature: A Hopeful HistoryHumankind: A New History of Human Nature: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People: Look at this nice thing we did.
Media: Boring!
Sociopath: Look at this terrible thing I did.
Media: Can you do that more? Maybe with a chainsaw this time? See how nasty people are!

With Human Kind, Rutger Bregman attempts to debunk an idea that underpins our social and economic systems. At the core of our society is this assumption that everyone is selfish, nasty, and would quite happily murder you, drink your flesh in a protein smoothie, and play with your entrails if it wasn’t for threats of state violence or eternal torment. Bregman addresses what he calls the Rousseau vs Hobbs debate over human nature with the intention of showing Russo was correct and we’re not so bad after all. And since we’re not so bad, maybe we need to rethink all the things we do based on this assumption.

Since I started reading philosophy I’ve slowly been coming to the realisation that society has been built upon what was good for the powerful. These ideas are often in opposition to evidence, morals, and the principle of not being a dick to others.* How can the Hobbsian view of human nature have won? People generally get along just fine. Most of the bad things we experience are from the outliers (sociopaths) or Hanlon’s Razor. Well, the simple answer is that the powerful can use the Hobbsian view to justify their position in society and to perpetuate it.**

Bregman does a pretty good job of tackling some of the common examples and studies used to “prove” how bad people are. One by one, they fall apart as scrutiny is applied to them. While the real-life Lord of the Flies story was the sort of thing that should be the stuff of legend, I found the debunking of the Kitty Genovese murder the most satisfying. They both illustrate how good news and bad news will be highlighted completely differently. This influences our view of the world. We should be careful in that regard.

As an argument, I think Bregman proves his point.

But… There is a bit too much glossing over important points. There are also some contentious assertions, like the idea that Homo-puppy (humans) domesticated itself by selecting for kindness. That isn’t to say these points are wrong, but they are taking quite a few short cuts and artistic flourishes (and Homo-puppy is a pretty cool flourish). One example, the selection for hairless apes as part of domestication is probably not true, or at least more complicated than implied.

Overall, this was an excellent book. I think if we all took these arguments seriously (and did the lateral reading to see how much support it has) then we could make a better world for everyone.

Or we could let the handful of nasty people continue to ruin it for everyone.

* That’s a direct quote from Jesus.
** Or as I put it in my review of Rousseau’s Origins of Inequality: inequality is a way for the rich and powerful to build a moat and castle.

Comments while reading:
Love the bit about the Easter Island insult roughly translating to: the flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.

There are some interesting points made in pursuit of the argument but they do gloss over a large amount of research. It would be very easy to dismiss the argument if you were so inclined. One example is in his criticisms of Steven Pinker. If I hadn’t already read several papers and articles that dive into how wrong Pinker’s claims have been, then it would be easy to see Bregman as cherry-picking. But then again, you could spend a long time just discussing prehistoric violence studies, which isn’t that exciting for the average reader.

How do you get people to bad things? Well, you need to bully and coerce. But you can’t just give people an order or force them, as they tend to resist. You have to appeal to their good side. They have to believe they are helping, that they are doing it for “the greater good” or because they trust the person asking for their help.
“In fact, people go to great lengths, will suffer great distress, to be good. People got caught up in trying to be good.” (Don Mixon, psychologist who replicated the Milgram experiment.)
“In other words, if you push people hard enough, if you poke and prod, bait and manipulate, many of us are indeed, capable of doing evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t’ live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort do draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.”

The Bystander Effect isn’t what we think. “…you can see that in 90 per cent of cases, people help each other out.”
But of course, that doesn’t sell papers or drive outrage media. Good news stories blip, bad news you can fill entire days of coverage with. So they’ll spin a story, or they’ll focus on the exceptions, or they’ll do both.

The comments about education and bullying are interesting. Institutions that utilise hierarchical structures and introduce competitiveness essentially manufacture nastiness and bullying as a result. The book also skipped over something very briefly that is going to start being more important in education circles, and that is how bad testing is (particularly standardised testing). Teaching people to be able to pass a test is not the same thing as education.

The rich and powerful don’t blush. Rising to power essentially turns off your shame (thus you don’t blush) or you rise to power because you’re more likely to be shameless (sociopaths, narcissist, etc). This is why one of the tactics of keeping the powerful inline doesn’t really work. Shaming people with satire, mockery, humour, etc, would work on the average person, but that isn’t the case with the sort of people who feel they are better than us plebs.

Quibble: there is a lot of talk in this book about humans being 99% the same as whatever chimp. I’m a little sick of seeing this misunderstanding. We aren’t really X% similar in the way that implies. A lot of genetic code isn’t for making humans or chimps, it is for making cells, or biological functions, or transcribing proteins. So it fails to understand what DNA does.

Enlightenment I have issues with. There’s this assertion that the enlightenment was awesome because it gave us science, capitalism, modern democracy, etc. While Bregman does a good job of highlighting that it also gave us modern racism, it underplays just about every other criticism of enlightenment. You have to remember that it didn’t give us democracy, that had to be fought for by everyone other than the landed gentry. You have to remember that the invisible hand and selfishness weren’t good ideas, they were ideas that allowed the rich merchants to be in charge. You have to remember that Reason™ has been used to justify the status quo, hold down social progress, further marginalise the disadvantaged, create massive inequality. You have to remember that the enlightenment happened just after and during the scientific revolution.

In other words, there is a lot of cheerleading around Enlightenment without adequate acknowledgement of the problems and consequences, and discussion of how many things were converging at the same time (there is an argument to be made that a certain level of population density and people with spare time occurred, thus driving forward a large number of things, rather than it being down to a couple of big-name thinky people with invisible hands and justifications for landed gentry merchants being in charge). I mean, most of these ideas were come up with by Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob 50-100 years earlier, so there’s that too.

There are a couple of points made about punching Nazis and extremism that showed a want to either distance Bregman’s comments from those “radical lefties” or an attempt to appeal to the “enlightened centrists”. I’m not sure what the thinking was here, but it did show through a few blind spots. For example, Mark Bray’s book on Antifa outlines how punching Nazis is hardly the only thing Antifa do and there is solid reasoning used when it is done (and the march Bregman talked about being used to fundraise efforts at getting people out of the Nazis groups would classify as anti-fascist action, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were under the banner of Antifa). It also showed a lack of understanding of political and social change. Yes, that much cited study on violence concluded that non-violent movements were more successful… Except that would have to ignore all the violent efforts that made the non-violent efforts possible (because everyone knows that ending Apartheid was all non-violent protest – e.g. rebuttal here).

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Sketch summarising Russo’s argument for the start of the world’s problems.

Other reviews:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7470881/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/12/humankind-a-hopeful-history-by-rutger-bregman-review
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/10/humankind-by-rutger-bregman-review-a-hopeful-history-of-our-nature (This one is a somewhat critical review that I feel makes a couple of good points – like the parking over the bike lane – but also either skimmed the book or really loves to be black and white about things in a way Bregman wasn’t)

Book review: Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason

Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human BeingClear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being by Paul Mason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Humans: Okay, no killing people.
AI: Slavery is cool though, right?
Humans: No, no killing, no slavery!
AI: But you do it all the time. No fair!

Clear Bright Future is Paul Mason’s attempt to address the “value alignment problem” with regard to our society and the potential of AI. He sets out how we largely don’t have a set of values, thanks to things like neo-liberalism, post-modernism, and scientism, and how we desperately need to define our values. Those values, he argues, should be clearly defined, humanist, and done before the capitalists, authoritarians, or other ne’er-do-wells ruin the future.

I first became interested in reading Mason’s books when I saw his Google Talk about Post-Capitalism. He was one of the first people I’d heard make a clear argument for something that is lurking in every digital age IP lawsuit. Clear Bright Future jumped up my reading list thanks to my local library and an interview where Mason discussed the need for society/humans to decide what we value and to start making it a priority.

The overall point made in this book is valid and Mason does a reasonable job of making a convincing argument. Even if he is completely wrong about humanism, he is completely right about needing to define our values. Our values. Not someone looking to make a buck. Not someone looking to become dictator for life. Everyone.

And here comes the but. But, I think Clear Bright Future falls down as some points made are attacks on strawpeople or gross simplifications. He’ll swing between exacting explanations and diverse insights and then make quick leaps via these lazy tactics.

Take for example his comments about science moving from claims of hard objectivism to (a more realistic) subjectivism. Mason essentially engages in a confusing blend of scientism and anti-scientism. He talks as if science is simple hard facts (when it is within X% error, contingent on assumptions, within certain frames of reference, etc.) and then rejects the science that shows things are more complicated than that.

Another example is his criticism of postmodernism as anti-humanist and the foundation of a lot of today’s problems. Somewhere there is a philosophy professor shaking their head and chuckling at the idea that postmodernism texts have resulted in anything other than incomprehensible books and an industry of metanarrative loving critics blaming it for everything. At best, Mason is mistaking a part of the field for the whole. Sure, the rejection of the simplistic and metanarrative claims of earlier humanism is certainly a po-mo thing, but hardly the whole thing (e.g. see this)

These flaws do detract a bit from what is a very interesting book with a compelling message. Definitely worth reading and thinking about what our values are.

Other reviews worth reading:
Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason review – a manifesto against the machine
Review of Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being

Comments while reading:
You can sustain an economy on life support, but not an ideology. People were starting to ask when things would get better for them rather than for yacht owners. (Paraphrased)

Having seen some of Mason’s work before I’ve been interested in his take on things. He offers insights and ideas you haven’t considered. I also find I don’t entirely agree with his conclusions. In one part he was outlining the idea of material realism (materialism) which was a pretty decent lay explanation. But then he sort of created a strawman to suggest that modern tech economies claim to create value out of nothing (computers create their own data, thus value, without work). I’m not sure that the people who say that actually believe it, rather they are using a heuristic.

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Book review: Future War by Robert H Latiff

Future War: Preparing for the New Global BattlefieldFuture War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield by Robert H. Latiff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

USA: Hello Mr Scientist, can you make me an even more horrifying way to kill people?
Scientist: Sure. But it might not be a good idea.
USA: We’ll worry about that later. Here’s some money.
Scientist: I’ll get started.

Retired Major General Dr Robert Latiff spent much of his career looking at the cutting edge of military technology. As both a scientist and an officer, he knows what is already being developed to wage war, and is well placed to speculate about the future of war. He doesn’t just want to let us in on what war will look like, he wants us all to help ethically shape the future of war.

This book was both fascinating and deeply annoying to read. I think my biggest problem with Future War was that, for someone wanting to talk about war ethics, Latiff selectively presents the military, political leaders, and history so as to feel deliberately obfuscatory. Now, this is probably about Latiff being a retired Airforce Major General and thus his bias is showing. But maybe that is the problem. Maybe the people who get to talk about war ethics and new tools of war, are ultimately going to be too biased. At least Latiff is aware of this bias since he raises the issue of the conservative and “yay war” bubble many of his colleagues work in and calls for the general public to be involved.

I wrote down a lot of comments as I was reading (see below) because of my frustration. One of my first comments was the “America: Fuck Yeah!” sentiment that was present. I don’t think that is entirely fair to Latiff. He does express a reasonable level of awareness, but when someone talks about “keeping America safe” you really feel like forcing them to include a list of war crimes, atrocities, and coups that the USA has been involved in.

The insights into technology are extremely interesting. If you follow tech at all you’ll love what is discussed. It is the ethical considerations where I think the book falls flat. The examples of what ethical considerations are interesting but also feel ultimately hollow.

If someone is planning how to kill others, particularly lots of others, then that is unethical.

The arguments around Just War Theory and the ethics of war strike me as hand-waving bullshit dreamt up by status quo warriors. Unfortunately, I don’t have the background in moral and ethical philosophy to really dig into how it is wrong. No doubt there is a lot of material justifying war because that’s what very serious status quo academics do as part of their contribution to the war effort so that no one ever asks them to actually fight and die in one.

Ironically, by the definitions of Just War Theory, I think you’d battle to find an example of a Just War. Which makes the entire idea of ethical warfare a comfort blanket to pull over your face as you invade a country to secure their resources freedom.

Some people are scared of the technology and potential of future war portrayed here. I’m more scared of how Latiff’s calls for a discussion of the ethics involved aren’t going to happen in any meaningful way.

Comments as I read:
Only two chapters in, but already there is this overwhelming “America: Fuck Yeah!” attitude present. Threats could get hold of the weapons we’re developing… is said unironically. USA aren’t working on this (anymore after a feasibility analysis) but China doesn’t have any such ethical compunctions…

Considering this book proposed to cover the technology and ethics of future wars in the opening, I’m already sensing that Latiff is probably going to pretend that the USA has never committed acts of genocide, war crimes, invasion, etc. whilst insisting they need new cool gadgets to do more of that stuff with.

Halfway in the new technologies are being discussed as inevitable. But it is then asserted that new tech will be used for war. That doesn’t have to be so. Kinda feels like no-one ever stops and makes the argument that massive military research budgets could instead be civilian research budgets. Can’t really weaponise something when you’re not starting out building it as a weapon and pouring billions into doing so.

Three quarters in and the ethical discussion is taking shape. Just War and the like are being utilised. Some really good points are made but then are undermined by selective presentation of realities. E.g. Latiff makes a really good point about requiring strong ethical and moral frameworks (Warrior Code, etc) in the development of weapons, use of weapons, and the accepted practices of troops (when politicians justify or promote the use of torture, the command structure will follow, and thus the troops will utilise it). But he then skirts around how the military have been indoctrinating soldiers with increased efficiency to be killers, how they have researched making their soldiers more able to kill people, how they train them to think of “the enemy” as “inhuman” to make them able to justify killing to themselves.

I’m really having trouble with the supposed ethics of all this. Ultimately, all this tech is being developed to kill people. That’s premeditated murder. Ergo, that is unethical. There isn’t really a justification for that. A lot of handwaving is done based upon the idea that “the other side” will behave unethically, so we have to be prepared to “defend ourselves” (i.e. to also act unethically). The worst part is that this self-perpetuating cycle is often leveraged to gain power, resources, and profit (the latter is mentioned briefly in the third section by Latiff).

Philosophically, a lot has been written about Just War Theory, particularly against criticisms of it. I’m somewhat surprised that there isn’t a solid argument against it. Take for example Jus ad bellum. Let’s find a war that fits that definition. Particularly from the losing or instigating side. Ever. Just War Theorists certainly seem to try and pretend this occurs. People trying to kick wars off certainly try to make the argument of just cause (etc.). But most of those arguments are hollow, revisionist, and often straight-up lies (WMDs in Iraq anyone?).

Almost feels like a lot of money gets thrown at people to justify war.

Last chapter has some interesting points about echo chambers, ideological divides, society involvement, and American exceptionalism. All very good points. But again I find myself spotting what Latiff doesn’t discuss and what he skips over.

E.g. He says that the average American is removed from war and largely uninformed/ignorant of it. But that is by design and moreover, the military is actively involved in keeping people ignorant. He made a point about no war critical films having been made whilst skipping over the fact that if a production studio wants to make a military film they need to have everything ticked off on by the military (it’s why US military is awesome, bad elements are rogues who meet justice, they never commit war crimes, etc, etc.). Military intelligence was actively involved in the lies that took the US to war in (insert massive list here). The military routinely covers up atrocities, war crimes, abuse, rape, etc.

https://www.law.upenn.edu/institutes/cerl/conferences/targetedkilling/papers/KammFailuresofJustWarTheory.pdf

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/war/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_war_theory

https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-just-war/

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Book review: Buddhism is Not What You Think by Steve Hagen

Buddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond BeliefsBuddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs by Steve Hagen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Enlightenment or your money back!

How can we see the world in each moment, rather than merely as what we think, hope, or fear it is?
How can we base our actions on reality, rather than on the longing and loathing of our hearts and minds?
How can we live lives that are wise, compassionate, and in tune with reality?
And how can we separate the wisdom of Buddhism from the cultural trappings and misconceptions that have come to be associated with it?

Steve Hagen’s Buddhism is Not What You Think is pretty straight forward. He sets out to answer the above four questions whilst addressing the title of the book. And he does this in the introduction. The rest of the book is pretty much just examples to drive the main point home.

There aren’t too many books that wrap their entire argument/premise up quite this quickly. But that probably comes back to the message Hagen is trying to get across about Buddhism and truth. Essentially, we already know truth, but we are too caught up in everything else in life to see it. Thus, Zen practice and Buddhism are about helping get past the distractions.

This was a fairly solid book for advice around Zen practice. But the philosophy aspects I was after were a bit light on.

We often think we know things when in fact it’s only our imagination taking us further and further away from what is actually happening. What we imagine then seems very real to us. Soon we’re caught up in our imaginary longings and loathings. But if you’re here – truly present – you realize there’s nothing to run from or to go after. You can stay calm…Just be with this moment and see what’s going on.

 

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Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition by Grant Hardy

Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual TraditionGreat Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition by Grant Hardy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Study extensively, inquire carefully, ponder thoroughly, sift clearly, and practice earnestly.” Zhu Xi

The Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition is a 36 lecture course covering the influential philosophers and thinkers of India, China, Korea, and Japan. Much like the Western version of this series, the aim is to give a brief overview and insight into a range of people and intellectual schools stretching from the ancient times to the modern-day.

When I finished the Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition, I tried to find an equivalent version covering the Eastern Intellectual Tradition. It appears Grant Hardy had been thinking the same thing and put this course together. There is so much material to cover here that you can’t help but be impressed by the endeavour.

Unlike the western version, Hardy is the sole lecturer for this course. That is both a strength and a weakness. Where the other course had some ups and downs in the quality of lectures, Hardy was consistent and maintained a throughline for the series. But it also meant you weren’t presented with a singular expert on any of the topics to offer a range of perspectives and insights. In this way, the material felt a little more shallow.

The strength of this series is the general overview of the Eastern philosophical, religious, and intellectual history. Hardy also recommended some texts (aside from the included course notes) to help with further study. This course is well worth undertaking as a general overview.

From the course overview:
When compared with the West, Eastern philosophical thought is much more inextricably linked with spiritual concepts and beliefs. To help you make sense of the unfamiliar nature of Eastern philosophy and its strong ties with spirituality, Professor Hardy has organized this course into four basic parts.

  • Part One traces the origins of Eastern philosophy in the cosmological and theological views that arose in India and China beginning around 1200 B.C., including Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, and Daoism.
  • Part Two explores the famous developers of legalism, Mahayana and Chinese Buddhism, yoga, and other intellectual schools that emerged during the age of early Eastern empires and built on the foundations of the past.
  • Part Three focuses on the great thinkers who flourished starting in the early 12th century, many of whose schools of thought—including Sikhism, Vedanta Hinduism, and Neo-Confucianism—revolutionized cultural notions of society, aesthetics, and faith.
  • Part Four delves into the modern era, when the convergence of East and West spurred the development of philosophical beliefs that became even more politicized and blended with independence movements and that reacted to ideologies such as Communism and capitalism.

Throughout your chronological journey, you’ll spend a majority of time among the three major countries that form the core of the Eastern intellectual tradition, exploring their unique philosophical themes and spiritual paths.

    • India: The concepts of reincarnation, cosmic justice, and liberation; a focus on logical analysis and direct insight (often achieved through yoga or meditation); the union of religion and politics; and more.
    • China: A constant appeal to the past in guiding the present; practical views that highlight harmony, balance, and social order; a keen appreciation of the cycles of nature; a form of politics that balances legal constraints with personal ethics; and more.
    • Japan: The adaptation and transformation of Confucianism; a distinct philosophy of aesthetics; a focus on group identity and consensus; an openness to adaptation from the Western world; and more.

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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:

A detailed review:

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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.

Or put another way: inequality is a way for the rich and powerful to build a moat and castle.

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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Book Review: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

The Way of ZenThe Way of Zen by Alan W. Watts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When you sit, sit. When you browse Twitter, browse Twitter… Maybe there’s a reason social media causes stress.

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts is an introduction to Zen Buddism and its roots in Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. It was one of the first books of its kind and tries to explain “Eastern” concepts to a “Western” audience.

After my forays into various “Western” philosophers and philosophies, I thought it was time to investigate some others that weren’t just footnotes to Plato. Having already read the Dao De Jing and a more modern guide to Zen, I thought reading a bit more on Zen would be interesting. Watts certainly covers some quite different ground to Zen in the Age of Anxiety and puts the Dao in more context.

This was certainly less of a philosophy text and more of an overview or introduction to Zen. One of Watts’ central aims was to make sure the reader understood how the “Western” philosophical tradition has a strict adherence to certain logical structures which the “Eastern” philosophies like Zen do not. This was certainly an important distinction and something that must have helped popularise Zen Buddhism outside of the “East”.

 

I will have to explore this topic further.

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Book review: Zen in the Age of Anxiety by Tim Burkett

Zen in the Age of AnxietyZen in the Age of Anxiety by Tim Burkett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clear your mind, relax, and read this review.

Zen in the Age of Anxiety is a guidebook and teaching manual that focuses on how to deal with stress, anxiety, and address the underlying mental behaviours that cause them. Burkett lays out the teachings and key points with easy to follow explanations and a series of anecdotes from his +50 years as a Zen practitioner and draws on his background in psychology.

This was a very interesting book. I originally borrowed a copy from the library because I’d previously read Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing. Okay, a bit of a leap between the two, but Zen teachings have their roots in Buddhism, which in turn has roots in the Dao (Tao), something Burkett mentions in passing. There are a lot of helpful insights and practices in this book that could help most people in their lives. At the very least, it was interesting to read something with such a different perspective on life.

My only gripe was a minor one. A lot of practices and philosophies, especially those with “Eastern” origins, tend to be tied up with spiritualism and mysticism. As a result, there tends to be a blending of nonsense (both ancient and modern) with the good stuff. As an example, in a later chapter, there is an example given that involves an analogy with how vaccines and homoeopathy work. Except that it incorrectly describes how vaccines work, and incorrectly describes homoeopathy as working at all. So best to use a critical eye when reading.

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Book Review: Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition

Great Minds of the Western Intellectual TraditionGreat Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition by Darren M. Staloff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That moment when you realise there is an age-old profession for people who want to tell others that their way of thinking is the best.

Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition is an 84 lecture course on Western Philosophy. It covers the usual suspects while drawing in contemporary or subsequent criticisms, and it also adds in a few more modern thinkers (see links below for the full list). There is the added benefit that no one lecturer covers more than a few topics, so you get many perspectives and expert insights.

I’ve been on the road a lot lately and so +40 hours of audiobook seemed like a suitable way to keep myself entertained. There is also a good chance I learnt something, even if that thing was that even university lecturers pronounce Satre and Nietzsche incorrectly, just like everyone else.

It’s hard to offer up a substantial review of such a diverse mix of topics, lectures, lecturers, and background reading. I think some of the material was presented without enough critical examination (e.g. Nozik’s propositions are only dealt with on a superficial level and aren’t critiqued for how easily they would break down thanks to power accumulation), whilst other parts offered insights I wouldn’t have made otherwise (e.g. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch is clarified as being about “your best self”, which makes his work much more palatable).

The summary I’d offer is that I feel more educated. Do the course and you’ll understand how hilarious that sentence is.

The course: https://www.thegreatcourses.com.au/co…
The list of lectures included: https://www.scribd.com/doc/159220021/…

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Book review: Political Ideals by Bertrand Russell

Political IdealsPolitical Ideals by Bertrand Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading old books reminds you that nothing has changed.

Political Ideals is an essay Bertrand Russell wrote during World War 1 – stay tuned for WW3 – that offers critiques of capitalism, socialism, nationalism, politics, education, and offers insights into how we should go about building a better society. He does this in less than 100 pages.

Russell’s essay is filled with interesting and insightful ideas. Even if you disagree with any of them, there is value in engaging with what he is saying. E.g.:

“Few men seem to realize how many of the evils from which we suffer are wholly unnecessary, and that they could be abolished by a united effort within a few years. If a majority in every civilized country so desired, we could, within twenty years, abolish all abject poverty, quite half the illness in the world, the whole economic slavery which binds down nine-tenths of our population; we could fill the world with beauty and joy, and secure the reign of universal peace. It is only because men are apathetic that this is not achieved, only because imagination is sluggish, and what always has been is regarded as what always must be. With good-will, generosity, intelligence, these things could be brought about.” Source.

This quote has been paraphrased, rephrased, and appropriated by many in the last century (although, I’m sure these thoughts weren’t original when he wrote them). It shows Russell’s reputation as a founder of modern analytic philosophy and as having made significant contributions to many subjects is well deserved. Few could so concisely state such a complex social idea.

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

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Book Review: Capital, Vol 1 by Karl Marx

Capital, Vol 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist ProductionCapital, Vol 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production by Karl Marx

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you get to the point does that make you bourgeoisie?

Karl Marx’s classic text is a historical, economic, sociological, and philosophical work. Marx tries to show the ways in which workers are exploited by the capitalist mode of production and argues that the capitalist system is ultimately unstable because it cannot endlessly sustain profits. And this takes 1,100 pages to say.

Since it has become popular to call anyone left of a third-generation venture capitalist with their cash in the Caymans and their Nazi gold in a Swiss vault a communist, I thought it was time to read some Marx. That way when people call someone a Post-Modern Marxist Communist I’ll have some idea of how little they know what any of those words mean.

I was actually surprised by this book since it was completely different from what I had expected. The sort of book I had been expecting was a philosophical or ethics text, instead, this is much more a history and economics book. The historical notes documented in Das Kapital are worth reading alone. They act as a reminder of what working/slavery conditions were deemed acceptable, and how similar the arguments from then are to the defences of sweatshops in poorer nations today.

But this book takes the long way round to make its points. If it had instead made its arguments and then offered up one example, then some appendixes, I’d have “enjoyed” this more. Too often it gets bogged down in labouring* the point rather than documenting history or encouraging you to join a union. Worth reading, but be prepared for a lot of waffle.

*Ahhhh, puns.

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Book Review: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

MeditationsMeditations by Marcus Aurelius

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“To read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book.”

[Insert superficial overview of Meditations here]

Meditations were something Marcus (we’re on a first name basis here) wrote for his own moral improvement, to remind himself of and cement the Stoic doctrines he wanted to live by. Things like the world is governed by Providence (which certainly lets him off the hook for all those people fed to the lions during his reign); that happiness lies in virtue and your will to follow it; and that you should not be angry at others. Journalling of this sort was something Epictetus advised, which has resulted in a collection of notes, reminders, aphorisms, and slogans for every occasion.

There is a lot to like about Meditations. It felt like a self-help book but written with a more philosophical bent and less of the “you too can achieve greatness (and give me lots of money) if you follow my twelve rules for life”. It isn’t without problems, such as those outlined in Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I also found Marcus’ musings on the Deliberative Content Problem to swing between ideas and thus come off as confused.

This is my second major reading of Stoic philosophy. I’m coming to the conclusion that Stoicism does seem to have a lot to offer.

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Book review: An Introduction to Greek Philosophy by David Roochnik

An Introduction to Greek PhilosophyAn Introduction to Greek Philosophy by David Roochnik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If Western Philosophy is just footnotes to Plato, does that mean western society is just all Greek to us?

Professor Roochnik presents 24 lectures as an introductory course to Greek Philosophy… as it says in the title. This was quite a good overview of the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Like any lecture, insights are given into the further scholarship that can inform a topic – such as how Plato structures his writing so as to make you think rather than tell you what he thinks – and some points are hammered repeatedly for the sleepy students in the back row.

Having recently read The Republic, the insights this book offered would have been handy beforehand. The advantage of having a philosophy professor step you through philosophy rather than just winging it yourself is well worth it. So as a background pre-reading, this is a good place to start.

I was also reminded during one of the earlier chapters of how much knowledge has been lost to history. We have this common misconception about great works rising to the top and being revered through the ages. But the example of the prolific writer Democritus whose works have largely been lost shows us how even recognised intellectual giants can’t be guaranteed their works will be preserved.

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