This was a very interesting book. It had some idiosyncrasies that prevented me from giving it a higher rating, but other than that, the subject matter...moreThis was a very interesting book. It had some idiosyncrasies that prevented me from giving it a higher rating, but other than that, the subject matter and breath were fascinating enough for me to certainly recommend it to anyone with any interest in cybernetics as a broad concept.
Let me first say that there were a few chapters in the beginning and end that were needlessly technical and mathematical. It isn’t so much that I object to the existence of mathematical proofs in their proper context, but it seemed unnecessarily detailed for the overall purpose and thrust of the book. After working my way through a few of the demonstrations, I eventually gave up an took the author’s word on the soundness of his conclusions. I think this is fair enough to do, so much so, in fact, that I started to wonder why he was making me flip past pages upon pages of dense calculus only to arrive at a summary paragraph that would elucidate the meaning of his findings. At one point he attempts to justify this technique by saying something to the effect of: it would take me much longer to put these formulae into common English, so read them for their condensed shorthand value. I, as the reader, would have been perfectly willing to let him dispose of the rigor for the sake of cleaner text. But whatever; maybe people really wanted to delve into that level of demonstration.
In addition, for as direct and focused Wiener seems to be as a mathematician, his thoughts, and even his prose, seem disjointed and meandering. He quickly moves from one large concept to the next, sometimes leaving the reader reeling trying to catch up. He goes on digressions that seemed opinionated and lengthy, and, when returning to the original thread, makes no real indication that he has returned. Other times these digressions will be nearly freeform transitions between concepts, similarly lacking indication that he has departed one concept and started addressing another. That he does both of these leaves the reader wondering if the text is moving forward or looping back. I would like to think that the author was making some larger point about the nature of cybernetics though this ambiguity, but this seems doubtful to me.
These criticisms are small, however, taken in relation to the positive aspects of this book. The conclusions being reached by Wiener might seem banal to a contemporary reader, but this only lends credibility to their influence. Weiner not only anticipates a great deal of the future of computing, he also strongly develops a theory of the animal (and human) as, essentially, an organic computing machine; not just the brain, but the whole organism. Early in the work, he distinguishes this position from simplistic Cartesian materialism (i.e. with respect to Descartes’ conception of animals as sophisticated machines), and, instead, argues for a vitalism that explains the soul as a material concept. It is non-symmetrical feedback, as unfolding through time, that makes the system seem vital as opposed to mechanical, and it is this level of complexity that makes the behavior of animals and humans seem so radically different than the motions of planets or pendulums.
The remainder of the work goes on to apply the cybernetic concept of feedback to a whole range of biological phenomena and computational questions in a way that demonstrates the power of the theory and the broadness of its application. So much of what Wiener says is taken as understood in modern times that it is easy to lose sight of how striking his claims really are.(less)
Good book. Some flaws but, in the end, an interesting read.
I didn't care for his encapsulation of Kant and the transcendentalist endeavor. He didn't s...moreGood book. Some flaws but, in the end, an interesting read.
I didn't care for his encapsulation of Kant and the transcendentalist endeavor. He didn't seem to grasp the power of Hume's criticism/empiricism. Hicks would rather put the blame on Kant's shoulders (in part, it seems, simply because Kant is German and it fits better into his Anglo vs Continental dichotomy) than dignify that Hume was the real problem child of empiricism and that Locke's dogmatism was, to many, incapable of withstanding the strength of Hume's skepticism. In this way, it might be fair enough to say that Kant destroyed philosophy in order to save it, but to argue that everything was hunky-dory before Kant wrote the Critique is simply false.
Also, there is an ever-present subtext of appeal to motive throughout the whole book. Kant sacrificed objectivity to save religion from empiricism. Kierkegaard sacrificed reason to also save religion from scrutiny. Heidegger folds in being with nothingness because of self-loathing. And, finally, postmodernists destroy language and, by extension reason, to prevent substantive demonstration of the validity of capitalism as triumphant over socialism (or, in other words, to prevent the effective rejection of utopian idealism). Hicks refuses to believe than anyone involved in the transition from Kant and Rousseau to Derrida and Rorty believed that they were genuinely involved in a passionate search for truth. Each was an opportunist, a sophist, trying to wring political, theological, and economic consequences from the bowels of epistemology, ontology, and linguistics. A stretch, to say the least.
At the same time, he does a great job showing the would-be enormous coincidence that nearly all postmodernist thinkers are leftist collectivists. Instead of merely marveling at this phenomenon, Hicks delves into the thought and shows, quite powerfully, the connection between the historical development of differing strains of anti-liberal, collectivist political movements and the corresponding ideologies utilized to support them. Linking the zeitgeist between politics and philosophy isn’t the real selling point here; it’s showing how, when various anti-liberal movements fail to achieve their utopian ideal, committed utopians will construct elaborate philosophical frameworks to side-step the conclusion that collectivist utopianism is inferior to liberal capitalism. By his account, major strands of contemporary philosophy are simply no-true-Scotsman-esque reworking to preserve a conception of man’s perfectibility through the state. The most recent manifestation, deconstruction and absurdism, is just an overwrought tantrum of the utter failures of socialist implementation over the last 150 years. The author suggests that their strategy is based, in the words of Nietzsche, on the following motivation: “When some men fail to accomplish what they desire to do, they exclaim angrily, 'May the whole world perish!' This repulsive emotion is the pinnacle of envy, whose implication is, 'If I cannot have something, no one is to have anything, no one is to be anything!'”
Ultimately, the author paints with broad brushes but makes a compelling enough point throughout that he can be excused for glossing over some detail at times. He is writing a polemic about an enormous subject that is designed to be accessible most readers, so I, at least, am willing to tolerate his seeming glibness. The purpose of the book is to make a compelling case that philosophy has been defined by political ideology, itself rooted in the dreams of willful men more interested in high-minded visions of human perfectibility than the murky lessons of actual history, and it achieves this purpose. (less)
Marx is a terrible economist, but his significance in the 20th century can certainly not be ignored. In light of this fact, I would recommend this to...moreMarx is a terrible economist, but his significance in the 20th century can certainly not be ignored. In light of this fact, I would recommend this to anyone trying to get a handle on his economic theories directly from the source. The work itself is extremely overwritten for the purpose of, I can only imagine, trying to make some of the less convincing elements seem drawn out and, hence, more complex.(less)