This is a great book. For anyone with an interest in philosophy, art, literature, psychology and religion, it's sort of become essential reading. Wils...moreThis is a great book. For anyone with an interest in philosophy, art, literature, psychology and religion, it's sort of become essential reading. Wilson's main theme is the sort of creative misfit that finds himself at odds with the world (for various reasons). Each chapter is an analysis of different types (philosophical, artistic, religious, etc.), and involves lots of interesting discussion of such as Sartre, Nietzsche, Gurdjieff, Van Gogh, Lawrence of Arabia, Blake, Dostoevsky, among others. But Wilson is most interested in why Outsiders exist, and what this means for us, and the book gradually draws together these various strands into conclusions that are presented in the final chapters.
This said, some people will find aspects of the book annoying. For instance, there is a slight ostentation to Wilson's references to a wide range of literature. He is extremely well-read, and at times this can give the impression that we are just following Wilson in his own private cultural crossword puzzle. This is underlined by some repetition and over-eager cross-referencing: quotes are repeated, parallels and similarities are repeatedly drawn. However, these are minor quibbles, and the book remains a ground-breaking and fascinating work. Recommended!(less)
The self-help book has acquired a bad press, earning a reputation for dealing in platitudes, patronising, and generally failing to engage the more sop...moreThe self-help book has acquired a bad press, earning a reputation for dealing in platitudes, patronising, and generally failing to engage the more sophisticated and demanding reader. In styling itself as an 'anti self-help guide', Neel Burton's 'The Art of Failure' therefore sets out to prove that self-help literature need not succumb to lowest-common-denominator triteness and tedious mantras of self-motivation.
The book's basic premise is that the modern Western definition of success is deeply flawed, presenting us with the false goals of material comfort, fame, power and hedonism. In contrast, Burton argues, Western philosophical and spiritual traditions have largely been in agreement that true happiness lies in accepting 'failure'; that we are limited, mortal, subject to frequent and unforeseen setbacks, in the face of which we do better to develop virtues of honesty, friendship, patience, and moderation.
To be fair, this is not perhaps a lesson that the much maligned self-help guides have ignored, but the virtue of Burton's book is that he is not afraid to enter into these topics in more appropriate depth and detail. Throughout, his points are illustrated by recourse to theories, ideas and anecdotes cherry-picked from the lives and writings of the great philosophers - Plato and Aristotle (who feature heavily throughout), Epicurus and Heraclitus, but also representatives of the existentialist tradition, such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre. Burton also draws on his background in psychology in ranging through contemporary issues in psychiatry as well as the continued relevance of the classic approaches of Freud and Jung. Such discussion is augmented throughout with references to literature, art, religion and history, with the result that Burton's material is always engaging and interesting, presented in an accessible and clear manner.
However, these many merits aside, this breadth of topic and material also at times serves to detract from the book's overall purpose. Given the detail in which certain subjects are presented, the central theme - exploration of the 'art of failure' - can sometimes get lost in more or less technical expositions of theories and accounts. For instance, the chapter on free will, whilst providing an admirably concise overview of the main philosophical controversies, arguably strays too far from the main narrative path and fails to maintain a clear sense of the context and purpose of the discussion. I had a similar feeling at other points in the book, and, while Burton makes frequent attempts to signpost the reader as to how the material under discussion relates to the main topic, he struggles to do this consistently and seamlessly. As a result, the book sometimes feels more like a collection of well-written and interesting essays than a unified treatment of a central theme.
This said, the book is well worth reading. Burton's attitude to his material is always thoughtful, never content merely to outline this or that idea, but always seeking to draw lessons and insights. There is much, then, that average readers will benefit from - that will 'help' them! - and there are numerous points at which I found myself absorbed, nodding in agreement, or making mental notes to find out more about this or that. Burton's scholarship is excellent, his tone always intelligent but clear - a rare combination of skills - so whilst certain aspects of the book might be improved upon, it is far from being a failure. (less)
This is brilliant. It's a radical re-reading of Plato which argues that, in his authoritarian vision of the perfect state, he is the forerunner of tot...moreThis is brilliant. It's a radical re-reading of Plato which argues that, in his authoritarian vision of the perfect state, he is the forerunner of totalitarianism oppression (Nazism, Stalinism) and the enemy of true political freedom. Perhaps the most unsettling claim, for philosophers anyway, is that Plato's use of the character of Socrates in his dialogues is a complete distortion of what the real Socrates stood for - the opposite, in fact. The book is well-argued, clear, and - apart from some sections which will be challenging to non-philosophers - a pleasure to read. I'm still not sure about all of what Popper says, mind you, but it's definitely a must read for anyone interested in Plato or political theory.(less)
Very good introduction to Mill. Works hard to put Mill's philosophy in context, and provides a persuasive reinterpretation of Mill that rescues him fr...moreVery good introduction to Mill. Works hard to put Mill's philosophy in context, and provides a persuasive reinterpretation of Mill that rescues him from traditional criticisms. Readable and accessible but with enough detail to be benefit the more than casual reader. One minor grumble: the text itself is slightly marred by a number of typographic errors, which will hopefully be corrected in future editions.(less)
Blackburn is a very readable philosopher - not a common thing. This book is very enjoyable and Blackburn does a great job of picking out the main poin...moreBlackburn is a very readable philosopher - not a common thing. This book is very enjoyable and Blackburn does a great job of picking out the main points of interest in Plato's masterpiece and discussing them in an intelligent and easy style. However, it seems fair to say, he isn't particularly sympathetic to Plato, and this occasionally leads him into uncharitable readings, I think (e.g. the accusation that Plato denied the possibility of social mobility in his ideal society). Also, the book is less historically informative than other books in this series (e.g. Janet Browne's excellent book on Darwin's Origin of Species). However, highly recommended.(less)
Alan Watts (1915-73) was a British-born writer and philosopher who is now most remembered as a popularizer of Eastern philosophy and religion. However...moreAlan Watts (1915-73) was a British-born writer and philosopher who is now most remembered as a popularizer of Eastern philosophy and religion. However, as a survey of his career and prodigious writings reveal, he was much more than that. His early interest in Buddhism led him to become a secretary of the London Buddhist Lodge at the precocious age of 16, and, at 21, to publish his first book, The Spirit of Zen. However, he shortly after moved to America, where his interests developed in numerous directions - Christianity, philosophy, physics, cybernetics, psychology, anthropology, ecology, and any other field that piqued his restless curiosity. But such wide-ranging studies were not the flighty fads of a shallow intellectual dabbler or spiritual tourist - he obtained post-graduate degrees in theology and divinity, and for 5 years held the position of a Christian priest; rather, it suggests the questing spirit of a man unhappy with existing dogmas and traditions, and keen to draw new parallels and connections between different cultures and outlooks, between science and religion, between the old world and the new.
It is this desire for synthesis which has upset some purists. Especially in his later writings, Watts is often not content merely to elucidate a certain position or outlook (Vedanta, Buddhism), but instead wants to reveal what different perspectives have in common, or how they may be combined to suit different needs or highlight solutions to different problems. If, in the course of doing so, he glosses over fine distinctions or ignores controversies, then it is generally in the interest of practical application. It is of secondary interest to him to be technically correct or doctrinally accurate, for his main concern is with how we might apply these ideas and attitudes within our own lives, and in this he is passionate, persuasive, insightful and entertaining.
It is in this spirit, then, that we should approach The book - On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (to give it its full, rather unwieldy title - hereafter, simply The Book). It is a polemic against a single idea: the modern, Western notion that human beings are ultimately separate individual egos divorced from the physical word in which they live - that each of us is, in Watts’ words, an ‘ego in a bag of skin’. In attacking this view, which can be found in both religious and secular guises, Watts draws on numerous fields: the Vedantic philosophy of Hinduism, which pictures the underlying nature of reality as a single, universal self, or Brahman; the modern discipline of cybernetics, which sees things in terms not of individuals, but overall processes and systems; and quantum physics, which undermines the ‘mechanism’ of Newton and Descartes (the ‘billiard ball’ view of the universe), and the idea that reality ultimately consists of separate individual objects. The common theme of these and the other approaches that Watts calls upon is to dispute the idea that reality/the world is ‘out there’ and the self is ‘in here’. As such, it attacks the standard position of philosophical realism and the dualist picture of mind and body associated with Descartes. So, we are not ‘ghosts’ in the ‘machines’ of our bodies, as Descartes’s view implies, but nor must we be tied to one or other of the alternatives that dualism represents: spiritual idealism (only the mind or soul is real) is as false as mechanistic materialism (the universe is merely one soulless machine working like a giant clock). Rather, as Vedanta proposes, we should seek to overcome this false duality, and to realize that, ultimately, there is no distinction to be drawn between ‘individuals’ and the universe of which we are a part: we are everything, and everything is us.
This may sound like some vague hippie mantra, but Watts’ arguments do not involve any appeal to otherworldly substances or supernatural entities. In fact, he identifies traditional religious notions (as they are often misunderstood) as responsible for our failure to realize this fundamental truth. For instance, if we were not so caught up with seeing God as a father figure whom we must obey, or else be judged and punished by, then we might be open to a deeper understanding of this concept. In a sense, he argues, we are ‘God’, could we but realize it, yet the theological baggage attached to such terms does little more than obscure this realization, which should be within the grasp of any one of us at any time. If we could let go of the false idea that our body is physically separate from the matter of the universe (such as physics denies), and that we possess a unique and distinct personality or self (which both psychology and philosophy call into question), then we would gain a truer sense of who we are, and of what ancient sages meant by such concepts as ‘Buddha nature’ and ‘God’.
Central to Watts’ position is what he calls ‘the game of black and white’, whereby God - the universe, IT, whatever you want to call it - plays a cosmic game of hide and seek with itself. In that game, whilst each individual thing might seem like a separate piece, in reality each of us is just a means of manifesting the same thing, finger puppets of the same universal hand. ‘Self’ and ‘world’, ‘me’ and ‘you’, ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, are therefore simply different aspects of the game, but each of which ultimately has no independent reality.
Some people may find such a view either preposterous or disquieting. How can we all be part of the same thing? And even if we are, doesn’t this make everything meaningless? A mere game? Watts argues that we may play this game sincerely whilst not taking it too seriously: we can fight for goodness and justice, engage in love and work, and so on, whilst realizing that, as the old saying has it, ‘at the end of the game, king and pawn go back in the same box’ - we all return to the state we had before we were born. ‘Life’ and ‘death’ are mere labels that we place upon aspects of reality. Such terms - like ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘self’ and ‘other’ - mutually define and depend upon each other, but ultimately - once we realize that these opposites are merely the terms of the ‘game’ - they have no independent meaning. However, to take them literally is to court misery and delusion. For instance, in philosophy the basis for personal identity has long been a controversial problem. But if we could succeed in solving it - in establishing necessary and sufficient criteria for the continued existence of a unified self or ‘I’ (our ego) - then it would be a disaster. As Watts’ puts it, ‘nothing fails like success’. The victory of fixed literalness over shifting uncertainty and ambiguity may actually be a bad thing. Death, failure, disruption, dissolution - these are necessary things too, and from the universal perspective may fulfill important and positive roles.
There are many other interesting and important features of Watts’ arguments, but I’ve provided enough of a taste here to give you a flavor of his approach - I’ll leave the rest to Watts, who puts it much better than I could. However, to finish, I would like to highlight a few points that I think are interesting and important.
Firstly, the emphasis of The Book is not simply philosophical, but experiential. Watts believes that, as interesting as the ideas he presents are, they are empty and meaningless if they do not result in a change in our actual experience and patterns of thought and behaviour. We must learn a new way of seeing, which in turn must lead us to a richer, more positive outlook on life, where we are more fully alive in the present. So, for Watts, dogma and belief are always second to experience and practical realization, and it is in this specific sense that his approach is ‘mystical’, thus linking him directly to the goals and methods of Zen Buddhism and other approaches that emphasize practical insight over theoretical knowledge.
Secondly, whilst The Book is aimed at a general readership, it is no lightweight popularization, but - within the limits of its purpose - engages meaningfully with fundamental debates in philosophy, science and religion. It is obvious that Watts has read widely and thought deeply about the issues he raises, and, whilst we may not always agree with him - and there is plenty in The Book to challenge common assumptions - his ideas are always substantial and interesting.
Finally, there is the question of the book’s continued relevance. Aside from the fact that the philosophical and religious issues with which The Book deals never really go away, many of Watts’ views on technology and society now seem remarkably prescient. The following passage is a notable example (p.44):
increasing efficiency of communication and of controlling human behavior can, instead of liberating us into the air like birds, fix us to the ground like toadstools. All information will come in by super-realistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined. In one way this will enable the individual to extend himself anywhere without moving his body - even to distant regions of space. But this will be a new kind of individual - an individual with a colossal external nervous system reaching out and out into infinity. And this electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experiences. There may be specialized types, just as there are specialized cells and organs in our bodies. For the tendency will be for all individuals to coalesce into a single bio-electronic body.
Written in 1966, it is clear that - like his contemporary Marshall McLuhan - Watts recognized that technology did not just enable us to interact differently with our environment, but actually represented an extension of our nervous systems: technology actually changes who we are. We may talk of being glued to the TV, or joke of someone who treats their phone as if it were a vital organ, but there is a seed of literal truth in these metaphorical ways of speaking. Just as, in evolutionary terms, our sense organs represented extensions of our primitive nervous systems, so technological means of perception and communication extend sense-perception. So, whilst it’s tempting to draw the limits of ‘self’ at the body’s borders with the external world, the potential for amputation or artificial augmentation actually reveals that our notion of self is fluid and culturally defined. ‘Me’ is not a fixed concept, but a practical consideration: I could lose all my limbs and still retain it, so why not gain new ‘limbs’ and extend it?
Watts’ key contribution here is to show that such considerations are not merely the stuff of science fiction, but have their roots in ancient religious and philosophical notions of selfhood. But in pointing this out, he also highlights an important difference. The religious and mystical extension of self was organic and life affirming; in identifying with everything, we become more than an ‘ego in a bag of skin’, but part of the active processes of life itself. In contrast, the technological extensions of self make us more and more passive. We become consumers, dependent on a mechanical system that treats individuals as mere cogs in the overall machine. In the former view, we become more than we thought we were; in the latter, we become, in a sense, less. For most people, such technological ‘transhumanism' seems as implausible and remote as the religious variety, but this is because they hold to the naive notion of the individual ego that is Watt’s main target. Thus, they sleepwalk into technological extensions of self, blithely accepting the unread terms and conditions of a system that introduces greater and greater uniformity of thought and experience through the illusion of greater freedom of choice and expression. Social networks connect us to people we may never meet in person, but they also restrict our expression of what is distinctive about us: we become a set of ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’, a tick-list of preferences and hobbies, where who we are is reduced to a profile picture and our views on life must fit within a 140 character limit.
Watts’ views are therefore more relevant than ever. Faced with the problems and challenges of globalization and digitization, with increasing multiculturalism and secularization on the one hand and the backlash of nationalism and fundamentalism on the other, this last great taboo - the question of who or what we are - could never be more pressing. (less)
This is a great book. It takes the form of case histories of some of science's defining moments (Eddington's 'proof' of Einstein's relativity) and som...moreThis is a great book. It takes the form of case histories of some of science's defining moments (Eddington's 'proof' of Einstein's relativity) and some less well-known ones (the sex-life of lizards). The main point is to show how such discoveries and advancements aren't the result of pure logical and experimental method, but occur in conjunction with other factors. Often, controversies are not categorically settled, but things simply move on - due to lack of funding, new discoveries in other fields, etc. Pinch and Collins are not sceptical about scientific advance, however, but merely wish to show (like Thomas Kuhn) how it may not be a completely rational process (as some would have us believe). Very readable and fascinating - a great book.(less)
Quantum physics is deeply unsettling. The two competing theories that attempt to explain the Schrodinger's cat paradox of the title are equally implau...moreQuantum physics is deeply unsettling. The two competing theories that attempt to explain the Schrodinger's cat paradox of the title are equally implausible (to the average person): the Copenhagen interpretation proposes that, until an observer 'fixes' the results of the experiment by opening the box, the cat is neither alive nor dead, but both; the Many Worlds interpretation proposes that quantum indeterminacy results in alternative worlds where both possible outcomes are respectively fulfilled (one universe contains a live cat, another contains the dead one). It's crazy stuff. And it doesn't stop there - but I'll let you read the book for yourself.
However, whilst physicists may not understand why the sub-atomic world behaves the way it does, quantum theory is a hugely powerful tool and is the basis of many of the advances of modern science and technology - nuclear energy, lasers, microwaves, computers, even playing a role in the discovery of DNA. In fact, it wouldn't be too strong to say that our modern world would be unthinkable without it. So, in Gribbin's words, we have a 'Quantum cookbook' with which we can exert an extraordinary power over nature, even if we don't fully understand why the recipes work or what the ingredients are.
This is a difficult subject, and Gribbin does an admirable job of attempting to give a full account of the development of quantum theory in clear historical terms whilst also endeavouring to explain its advances in accessible language. However, given the complexity of the material, there are some sections which will leave the layperson baffled. This is perhaps unavoidable, and it would have been worse if the author had succumbed to the temptation to oversimplify. So, I'll probably read it again at some point, and hope that more of it sinks in. Well worth a read, though, and probably - even though it's now almost 30 years old - still the classic introduction to the subject.(less)
Don't let the title put you off - like Chomsky, Pilger's outlook is not wide eyed conspiracy mongering, but a stunning and unsettling read backed up b...moreDon't let the title put you off - like Chomsky, Pilger's outlook is not wide eyed conspiracy mongering, but a stunning and unsettling read backed up by sound and seasoned journalism. Pilger highlights the hypocritical gap between what politicians say and do, and traces the secret agenda of the world's most powerful - and supposedly democratic - regimes. The book contains four chapters, covering the West's support of atrocities in Indonesia, the war in Iraq, the 'Great Game' of international politics, and the continued mistreatment of Australian aborigines. Wonderful, if distressing stuff. Highly recommended. (less)
The other side of the coin to Huxley's 'Brave New World'. Instead of amusing ourselves to death, Orwell sees political power as a jackboot ground into...moreThe other side of the coin to Huxley's 'Brave New World'. Instead of amusing ourselves to death, Orwell sees political power as a jackboot ground into a face for all eternity (to borrow an image from the book). Some argue that Huxley was more prescient than Orwell in foreseeing the role of distraction and comsumerism in political control, but Orwell's insights are still relevant, and represent a profound meditation on freedom and the price of idealism.(less)
A great book - hardly a wasted word. Enigmatic and visionary - not wholly sure what that vision means, or even that I would share it, but brilliantly...moreA great book - hardly a wasted word. Enigmatic and visionary - not wholly sure what that vision means, or even that I would share it, but brilliantly plotted, and much more comprehensible than the film. (Actually, I'll have to re-watch the film to see if it makes more sense now! I do love it, but remember feeling a bit lost at the end of it.).
This is science-fiction taken to a point of almost religious intensity. In fact - without meaning to spoil it for anyone - there is a great overlap of scientific and religious themes here. As Clarke himself says elsewhere, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Well, amongst the scientifically-savvy and detailed descriptions of space and the technological means of exploring it, there's also lots of 'magic'.
Much food for thought - I feel motivated to read the sequels now - and more ACC.(less)