Tag Archives: philosophy

Some good philosophy links for amateur thinkers

The word Philosophy
These are all links I’ve come across recently and thought worthwhile:

If you are not used to reading philosophy, the first one is a must read. Otherwise, you may find yourself trying to read philosophy in a way that leaves you frustrated.

I’ve seen references to virtue ethics (as well as stoicism) frequently these days: if you aren’t familiar with it, that link is a good starting point to get to know it.

Finally, the last link is useful if you are new to philosophy and want to know it better but find it hard to get started.

(Image from http://uucch.org/morning-philosophy-group)
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Is everything political? What is wrong about thinking that way?

Albert Camus, gagnant de prix Nobel, portrait en buste, posé au bureau, faisant face à gauche, cigarette de tabagisme.jpg

I was thinking this when reading this quote from Orwell: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” The idea, implied by this quote, is that everything is political. This idea springs like a trap on people who want to escape from politics and focus on other areas of human concern, like arts or sports or science.

Is this trap avoidable? There is an argument, found here, Only a Game: The Activist’s Argument (Everything is Political), that says that saying “everything is political” renders it meaningless. It’s worthwhile reading the piece, but I don’t think the argument that the statement is meaningless holds true.

Instead, I would first accept it and I would expand the notion of “everything is political” to say that

  • everything is political
  • everything is scientific
  • everything is religious
  • everything is philosophical
  • everything is art

For if you can make the case that everything is political, you can also make the case that everything is scientific, religious, and so on. (In fact, you can extend this list to other areas of human thought and human interest.) But how can everything be all of those things at the same time? To see how that can be the case, that I would on refine the statements and replace “everything is” with “everything can be viewed from the lens of”, as in:

  • everything can be viewed from the lens of politics
  • everything can be viewed from the lens of science
  • everything can be viewed from the lens of religion
  • etc.

More than that, everything can be viewed from each of those lens at the same time. For example, if I go see a film about Alan Turing, I can view it from the lens of science and I can view it from the lens of politics or the lens of art. The film has political and artistic and scientific themes and ideas, and anyone watching it can view it from those differing viewpoints. You may not care to do so, but it is possible to do so.

Now take the above list and change it to read this way:

  • everything is only or mainly political
  • everything is only or mainly scientific
  • everything is only or mainly religious
  • everything is only or mainly philosophical
  • everything is only or mainly art

For some political activists, the phrases “everything is political” and “everything is only or mainly political” are practically the same. Likewise for scientists, artists, philosophers, etc. For me, and for many people, I think “everything is only or mainly” is a relatively weak notion. For example, if a crowd is watching a film, they may watch it through any or all of these lens, or none of them. If asked later if the film she made is mainly political, the director may agree that there is a political aspect to it, but the main themes and elements of the film could be religious and aesthetic or scientific. The film may have something to do with politics, but to see it only as or mainly as political is to miss out on the other aspects of the film.

What is true of a film is also true of our lives. Our lives, and the things that matter to us in our lives, can be seen through a political lens, and a religious lens, and many other lens we may pick up. However such lens provided a limited view. It is better to look at our lives and the lives of others as broadly as possible. We will see more that way. We will hopefully understand ourselves better. And we will acquire a view and a wisdom that those stuck to peering only through lens will never achieve.

(Image is not of Orwell but Albert Camus, which I felt to be more appropriate. Photograph by UPI –  image  from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c08028.
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/93507512/ and Wikipedia)

On the superior virtue of the oppressed

Unlike other essays in this collection, Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell (Google Books), “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed” continues to be relevant today. It made a big impression on me when I read it, and I recommend it to anyone who has not read it.

You can read pieces by progressive writers still and find examples of this form of thinking. In some cases, oppressed groups do demonstrate exceptionally virtuous behavior in the face of adversity. My belief is they would rather be treated equally, fairly, and justly, and be free to go about their own business without having to take on the difficulty of pushing back on oppression. And rather than assign them a morally superior role, people in a position to break down that oppression should do so without elevating or denigrating them. (In other words, treating them equally).

Read the essay. Then read more of Russell. Regardless of your thoughts on his arguments, he is a good read for many different reasons, not the least being that he is a fine example of what philosophical writing can be: clear, concise, thoughtful, and accessible.

Derek Parfit: Why anything? Why this? 

The great philosopher Derek Parfit died recently. At the time, many things were posted about him, including where you can find his works online. One such work is this:: Derek Parfit · Why anything? Why this? Part 1 · LRB 22 January 1998.

In it, he asks:

Why does the Universe exist? There are two questions here. First, why is there a Universe at all? It might have been true that nothing ever existed: no living beings, no stars, no atoms, not even space or time. When we think about this possibility, it can seem astonishing that anything exists. Second, why does this Universe exist? Things might have been, in countless ways, different. So why is the Universe as it is?

Worth reading, and accessible, even if you aren’t a philosopher (although we are all philosophers, from time to time).

Is life a toy or a game?

Intrigued by the question? Then you will like this article: Life is a Toy, Not a Game | Ian Welsh. Well worth a read.

My modest guide to Piketty’s Capitalism and how to read it (all the way to the end)

 

You are looking at buying Piketty’s Capitalism, or maybe you already bought it, but you are daunted by it. Having read it, I can say it is daunting in parts, but it is also great. I highly recommend you get it and read it from front to back. Some of you will have no problem with that. For the rest, I put together this modest guide on how best to read it and finish it and not get bogged down and put it aside.

Here goes.

The introduction is an easy read. If anything, it is highly approachable. Piketty is a good writer, and he does a number of things to make it easy to read. (For example, he brings in a lot of literary references. He also does not assume you are an economist.) For the first 100 pages I thought: why is everyone having difficulty with this book….it’s fun! (Mind you, I am interested in economics, but still….) What I’d say is that this introduction is a good introduction not only to the book but the field of economics in general. Don’t be fooled though: the rest of the book is not as easy to read.

Of the book’s four sections, the first and last are the most approachable for non-economists. Emergency tip: if you are getting bogged down in the middle of the book, feel free to skip to the last section. Reading the first and last section is still rewarding, and you can read the last section without reading the middle. (Not ideal, of course, but better than skipping the last section all together).

That said, there are great passages in the middle, and there are some slow sections in the front and back. (Don’t entirely skip the middle, and likewise, don’t be thrown off by some harder parts in the front or back.) Here’s some examples of what I mean:

While non-economists might want to skip over it, I found his history of data collection — around page 55 — interesting. He is following in the footsteps of some of these other figures in the field of economics while also showing the limits of what analysis can be done, given the lack of data. I think this is an important thing to read if you read his critics. Piketty is aware of the limits of his analysis: something you would not think by reading his critics like I have. It’s good to know this. Also, this supports the case that Piketty makes later in section 4 on why a global capital tax would not just be good for states and a check on capitalism, but also as a way of improving the field of economics. Try to read this part.

Generally, the sections of the book on growth, income and capital are interesting infor the long term perspective they give. I found those worthwhile.

The second section is a good take on how capital has changed over the centuries. If you are going to think about capital and capitalism, it’s worth reading the second section on this history. There were radical changes in capital from the 18th century to the 20th, as capital went from being largely agricultural land or largely housing. In the United States another big capital shift occurred as human capital in the form of slaves rightly disappeared after the American civil war. So, I liked this section: it got me thinking about capital in ways I hadn’t before.

I highly recommend you don’t skim the part on the relationship between slavery and capitalism in around page 158. The value of slaves as part of the overall wealth of the US south is incredible, and the effect the Civil War would have on rightly destroying such capital was significant. You can rightly argue that slaves are human beings and not capital, but from the point of view of the slave owner, they were as much capital as machinery or barns or land. A thought provoking section, I found.

Of the middle section, make sure you read page 166 where Piketty introduces his law of capitalism. Piketty’s laws are a key part of the book. Also at the beginning of page 237 the book moves away from the data to talk about inequality and there is more approachable analysis. For example, around this point of the book, Piketty provides a good analysis of labor vs capital, class, and an insightful review of inequality. In particular his analysis around super managers and super salaries is really good and highly relevant in our times. (I think it also got up the nose of some Silicon Valley types, which I found fascinating.)

Make sure you read the section of the book on inequality: I found it to be one of the better parts of the book.

Overall, beware of section two. In this section, Piketty looks at capital in various parts of the world. If you are an economist, then  you really want to focus on this section, because he is making a case for his central idea. However, for a general reader, you might become fatigued in the middle of this part as it tends to feel repetitive. By the way, I think this repetitiveness is really supportive of Piketty’s point. He can argue: hey! look there is a consistency here we can make some conclusions about. If you already support his point, skim away.

If you are skimming madly in the middle, slow down as you get to page 400.
I took a lot more notes towards the end of the book (in the 400s) and I thought this section readable and interesting. For example, in the 400s, Piketty deals with merit. I believe a lot of critics don’t like the book because of how Piketty places limits on virtues of merit and hard work. Piketty argues you can work hard to get rich but someone with a lot of capital can get as rich or much richer with little if any effort. He goes on to show that capitalism is structured such that the rich will…well, get richer. Which means that proportionally the poor get poor. You may believe the rich get richer: here’s the argument as why in a capitalism society that happens.

The other thing I like about the 400s is that Piketty bring in literary examples again. He does that in the first section, and he does it again here, and I found whenever he does this, the book becomes livelier and more interesting.

Still reading? At the last section? Good! In the last section, Piketty focuses on the importance of regulating capital. Now, I am skeptical of what he recommends, even though it is hardly revolutionary (literally or figuratively). Maybe it will happen in the 22nd century. I am willing to believe it will happen, thought. After all, progressive income tax is a fairly new thing, and taxes themselves will continue to evolve, just like they have for centuries. Likewise, freer trade has increased dramatically in the 20th century, and other taxes like VAT taxes have made a big impact. Perhaps a global tax would not be impossible. That said, you should read the last section, because to not do so would be to miss out on a key point of the book.

Ok, that’s my modest guide to reading Piketty’s Capital. Did I convince you to give it a try? Great! Give it a go! If you can avoid the pitfalls in the middle, you’ll find yourself cruising towards the end and find you are done sooner than you think. Book completion aside, when you finish Piketty’s Capital you’ll have a much better understanding of capital in the 21st and capitalism in general. I think this important, because even if you don’t want to think about capitalism, capitalism affects us all. Knowing more about it, knowing how to think about it, and having ideas on how to change it are valuable.

Good luck!

Is your day boring? You need to think bigger thoughts. Here’s a short post on Infinity

This is a great introduction to the topic of Infinity. I think even people who struggle with math will get this and enjoy it.

Unless you studied mathematics, you likely didn’t know that about infinity. It is fascinating stuff, I find.

Found here: Infinity is bigger than you think – Numberphile – YouTube via @anitaleirfall on twitter.