I know the book is called "Voltaire", but the book is not an ordinary introduction to Voltaire: Rather, it's a critique of Voltaire as an Enlightenmen...moreI know the book is called "Voltaire", but the book is not an ordinary introduction to Voltaire: Rather, it's a critique of Voltaire as an Enlightenment thinker, written by someone who is not the Enlightenment's greatest fan. For this reason, this book is much more honest than an ordinary introduction to Voltaire.
There's an angry mob on Amazon complaining the book isn't quite what they had imagined. I can see why: This is a book about Voltaire as much as this is a book by John N. Gray - and, if you know a thing or two about John N. Gray, you should know he wouldn't praise Voltaire unless there was a very good reason (and there are a couple of them).
The only reason I didn't give this book five stars is because I wish the author developed some of the ideas more thoroughly. And, if you know John N. Gray, you already know a good deal of what's going to be said in this book, so I can't say I was surprised or blown away by it.
There should be more introductions like this one.(less)
O Kurwa, Poland can into awesome philosophy of science!
Everything about this book is fascinating. Published in German by a Polish physician/biologist,...moreO Kurwa, Poland can into awesome philosophy of science!
Everything about this book is fascinating. Published in German by a Polish physician/biologist, in what's now Ukraine, this book could've shaken the very foundations of science in 1935... except it didn't. As a matter of fact, Ludwik had to fight for his life (and those of other Jews) during WWII after being pushed into Lviv's ghetto. And then, no one really cared about the book for quite a while. Then Thomas Kuhn, an American philosopher, independently developed some of the themes found in this book, and nothing happened again. Until, that is, the early 80's when the book gradually became more popular. Why?
Fleck himself could've seen it coming. He realised that discussions happen in thought collectives (he went way beyond science when he developed this concept), and these thought collectives may well "filter" facts - depending on what they consider relevant. When he penned this tome, no thought collective really cared about what he had to say. Then, 50 years later, a thought collective (that of philosophers of science) took interest in what he had to say. Thought collectives are fickle like that.
In order to illustrate his point, Fleck analysed the history of syphilis, making it the world's best book about syphilis ever published. Mainly because it's just a case study, and it could've been about anything else, really (Feyerabend talked about the Galileo Affair, coming to not altogether different conclusions). Truth is, its history developed haphazardly, and there was hardly a crucial experiment that sorted everything out. That's, Fleck would've said, a myth from popular science and vademecum science (that is, the science consumed by educated amateurs and presented by textbooks). Journal science, produced by scientists on the go, is hardly so neat.
All in all, this book will never be a best-seller. He's no science-worshipper (like Popper), no revolutionary (like Kuhn), and no Feyerabend (like firebrand). It doesn't mean this book is bad though. He was so enthralled in his own activities that he was probably too honest and careful for his own good. And, thanks to this, the book is amazing.(less)
This is not exactly a bad book: The author did some interesting research and the breadth of his knowledge is quite vast. However, it soon becomes too...moreThis is not exactly a bad book: The author did some interesting research and the breadth of his knowledge is quite vast. However, it soon becomes too preachy for its own good, and the author's preference of utilitarianism as a form of meta-morality comes across as a source of bias rather than the product of careful analysis.
Although the first half was somewhat interesting, I couldn't make it to the end and eventually ditched it in the penultimate chapter for the reasons mentioned above. If anything, the book made me more suspicious of utilitarian claims, and I'm sure that wasn't what the author had in mind when he wrote it.(less)
There are good books. There are great books. And there are books I’d devour with cheese and chips if it meant having their content stored in my body f...moreThere are good books. There are great books. And there are books I’d devour with cheese and chips if it meant having their content stored in my body fat, just so I could keep having flashbacks whenever I burned this intellectual cholesterol inside me. How happy would I be if I could run behind the bus in a hopeless effort to catch it and suddenly my memory suddenly retrieved something – anything, really – about Hamann’s philosophy of language? I’d probably just stop there and seize my very own moment of enlightenment, jotting down a few personal notes and blocking traffic. Unfortunately, I reckon this is not what they mean by “cellular memory”. Or “devouring books”. Or by “enlightenment”. I wish it worked like this though.
The first critic of the enlightenment in this book is Gianbattista Vico. His claim to fame is an interesting attack on Descartes, by pointing out maths is so precise because we bloody invented the thing, and building up a whole system of thought from there. He also seems to have outsmarted Marx long before Marx though about class struggle, and for this he remains as popular as ever. And by that I mean no one knows him. Seriously, I looked up his name on Google and my computer offered me some mentholated ointment for my throat. That’s how famous he is.
Hamann and Herder, master and pupil respectively, are a bit more well-known, and that’s not saying much. Although they kick-started German romanticism by cranking up their pietistic roots up to eleven, Goethe stole their thunder with the Sturm Und Drang movement, and romantic thinkers – from Jacobi to Hegel – hijacked and developed some of their ideas so that they entered mainstream philosophy and no one knew for sure how exactly that happened.
Isaiah Berlin did know. And that’s about as much as I can tell you without spoiling the book. Just go read it. There are enough Enlightenment fanboys these days to give you the impression it’s all fun and games, whereas these lads will make you think a bit about the whole project. (less)
I reckoned Descartes was very lonely to need a companion, so I gave it a go. Top bloke, it seems he did loads of things, like saying "I think therefor...moreI reckoned Descartes was very lonely to need a companion, so I gave it a go. Top bloke, it seems he did loads of things, like saying "I think therefore I exist", and that's probably why he wanted to be safe rather than sorry and just didn't stop thinking.
How awesome would it be if he didn't really exist, and someone just attributed that Cogito line to a fictional character? I mean, people say his name like "Day Cart", it's got to be a made up name. Anyway, he'd both exist and not exist at the same time. Just like that, boom!
Max Weber, way before WWII, had already predicted some of the problems that would assail modern industrial societies throughout last century: Instead...moreMax Weber, way before WWII, had already predicted some of the problems that would assail modern industrial societies throughout last century: Instead of praising rationality as some kind of panacea, he realised it would create bureaucratic "iron cages" that would eventually stymie the pursuit of personal freedom to some extent; and charismatic leaders, far from being saviours, are just one different kind of leadership that people irrationally cling to, thus granting control over this bureaucratic machine. All this knowledge didn't stop Weber's own homeland from fostering Nazism. Rationality and science, rather than being the solution to all our woes, were unable to prevent humans from being human.
The message from John Gray's book is not altogether different from this one: The myth of progress (even through science or any foreseeable rational means) is nothing but a myth. Scientific knowledge may help us fight diseases, but it's useless when it comes to fighting our own human impulses. Contemporary societies can be affected by intolerance and slavery, among other threats to individual freedom, as ancient societies were. Progress in this sense is extremely fragile, and the belief in a better future can quite often be the one obstacle towards this goal.
The underlying message of this book is that we should come to terms with the fact reason can only go so far, and attempts to improve the human lot often lead to disastrous consequences. Although this may turn out to be a myth itself, John Gray's apparently sound empirical approach to history makes it a reliable one.
Ps.: The naked woman in the cover definitely made me get some funny looks on the street. It made the book all the more amusing.(less)