A year in books: philosophy, psychology, and political economy

If you follow the Julian calendar — which I do when I need a two week extension on overdue work — then today is the first day of 2015.

Happy Old New Year!

This also means that this is my last day to be timely with a yet another year-in-review post; although I guess I could also celebrate the Lunar New Year on February 19th. Last year, I made a resolution to read one not-directly-work-related book a month, and only satisfied it in an amortized analysis; I am repeating the resolution this year. Since I only needed two posts to catalog the practical and philosophical articles on TheEGG, I will try something new with this one: a list and mini-review of the books I read last year to meet my resolution. I hope that based on this, you can suggest some books for me to read in 2015; or maybe my comments will help you choose your next book to read. I know that articles and blogs I’ve stumbled across have helped guide my selection. If you want to support TheEGG directly and help me select the books that I will read this year then consider donating something from TheEGG wishlist.

The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell

edited (1961) by Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, introduction (1992) by John G. Slater; reprint (2009)

It is no secret that I am a big fan of Russell, so reading this collection was a great pleasure. Some of the articles were a second reading for me, but the majority were new. Russell’s bibliography is very extensive. But the best part of this book was the arrangement; it really allowed to me to see the stages of development in his thought, which I briefly sketched in an article after finishing the anthology. In the future, I would be be interested to compare the progress I inferred from my reading to Russell’s own narrative in his Autobiography (1951).

Against Method

(1975) by Paul Feyerabend

I see the ideas of a ‘scientific method’ thrown around pretty frequently, usually inherited from grade-school science classes that suggested that science is a single monolithic beast. This idea has bothered me for a while, and for a few years I have known that Feyerabend was the philosopher to read for a critique of this, but it was only this past year that I actually got his book and read it. I was not disappointed; it was a pleasure to read, and — although polemical at times — very enlightening. I will never look at Galileo quite the same way again. Although this is my second most favorite book of 2014 (missing out on first by a very narrow margin), I have not produced a review but only an analytic index of other bloggers’ thoughts on Feyerabend and closely related topics.

Feyerabend was a close friend of Imre Lakatos and this book was born from their extended debates. The letters of this debate, along with a lecture of Lakatos and a forward dialogue by the editor Matteo Motterlini, have been assembled in For and Against Method (1999). I would be interested to read this to see the genesis of an idea and Lakatos’ critique, especially given how much I enjoy Lakatos’ view of the method of mathematics.

Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking

(2013) by Daniel Dennett

Dennett is a scholar that lives at the intersection of philosophy and cognitive science; or in their intersection, if you count philosophy of mind as a branch of cognitive science. I know of him through coursework; his often discussed Consciousness Explained (1991; which I haven’t read); and his frequent association with Douglas Hofstadter, whom I encountered — as many computer science undergraduates did — through reading Godel, Escher, Bach (1979). In this book, Dennett discusses how philosophers use thought experiments — intuition pumps in his terminology — and lists many of his favorites, including how to tweak them and their potential dangers or misapplications. My only complaints about the book is that it felt a bit disjointed at times — I understand that it was assembled from several previous publications — and Dennett’s views on evolution are not as subtle and nuanced as I would expect from a philosopher of his caliber.

For me, the notable part of the book was not an intuition pump, but one of the tools Dennett used to prepare the work: student-scholar seminars. It inspired some of my thinking on how to guide the TheEGG to be a space for public intellectuals.

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity

(2013) by Bruce Hood

This is a popular science book, and seems to be intended for the interested laymen. As such, I found some of the discussions of neuroscience unreasonably light — maybe even unnecessary — and wished that the author engaged more directly with the philosophical background of his thought. However, the view that Hood advocates and the psychological evidence he provides is very compelling. His primary thesis is that the feeling of self is a socially constructed illusion, and the identity we associate with it is misguided since it varies between our social roles and ties. We switch between these different facets effortlessly, but there is no Cartesian ego doing the switching; it is the environment that switches us for us. In an elegant summary, Hood writes (pg. 290): “[o]ur self is a product of our mind, which in turn is a product of our brain working in conjunction with other brains.”

I don’t know where to trace the philosophical foundations of Hood’s thought, although he suggests his inspiration as Hume’s view of the self as “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions”. However, Hume does not not seem to capture the important socially embodied aspect of the self illusion, and I think a better — and more recent — source my be Derek Parfit; but I would have to read Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984) to explore this further.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

(2011) by Daniel Kahneman

If we take Woody Allen’s quip that “[w]hat if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet” then Kahneman is definitely concerned for the carpet; this is probably the least philosophical book on my list, but not due to its subject matter. It is also my 3rd favorite book of the year.

Kahneman discusses his life’s work in psychology and what might now be called behavioral economics, and reviews prospect theory; the fast system 1 and slow and rational system 2; heuristics and biases; decision making under uncertainty; and, rationality and happiness. All of these are highly philosophical topics, but he makes a deliberate decision to discuss them practically and accessibly. His aim is to produce a book that you could discuss at work by the water-cooler. However, Kahneman does this without embellishment and with a scientific authenticity that I have never seen in the best-seller, water-cooler market dominated by pop-sci. I have great appreciation for his writing style in this book because I would never be able to tackle such topics without hiding behind ‘-isms’ and the names of dead philosophers. Finally, I found beautiful — and surprising, in the ego-driver world of academia — Kahneman’s love and respect for his long-term colleague and friend, Amos Tversky.

Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order

(1677) by Baruch Spinoza

As you might guess from the other books, I am not a huge fan of reading classical and historically important books. I usually resort to secondary sources for most books before the 20th century. However, I was at a loss for reading while visiting my parents, and this was one of the tempting books on their shelf. I found it very difficult to stay motivated while reading the Spinoza, and didn’t make it through the whole book.

I’ve read a lot about the Dutch philosopher before, and knew the book was modeled after Euclid’s Elements but reading it myself really brought that home for me. It made the influence of Greek mathematics on the rationalist philosophers very apparent. However, unlike with the Elements, we don’t need an amazing mind like Hilbert to uncover the logical gaps in Ethics. In particular, I wonder how a modern revision that takes into account a proper post-Cantor treatment of the infinite would read.

The other historic text that I jumped around during my stay in New York was Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Although most scholars assume that Kant did not seriously engage with Spinoza, some like Omni Boehm in Kant’s Critique of Spinoza (2014) suggest that this is a faulty assumption. I would be interested to read this angle in the future, mostly to shine a historic light on the debates between Einstein and Bohr given the former’s allegiance to Spinoza and the latter’s Kantian views.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

(2014) by Jordan Ellenberg

I picked up this book after reading Cathy O’Neil’s recommendation. Given how much I enjoy Cathy’s writing and the subtitle of the book, I was sure that I would have fun. The book was indeed fun to read, and filled with a light tone and humor. However, it seemed to focus mostly on topics around statistics and probability that are frequently discussed in the pop-sci cannon and it did not move me in any deep way. I would recommend it as bedtime reading for those that already enjoy math and want to learn some of its roles in society. However, for a more critical engagement with the social aspects of mathematics, I will have to wait for Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction and read Theodore M. Porter’s Trust in Numbers (1996; online pdf).

The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date

(2012) by Samuel Arbesman; edited (2013) paperback edition

Arbesman shows with countless captivating examples how ‘facts’ change over time in most domains of knowledge, including in the areas we elevate as most certain, like physics and mathematics. My favorite anecdote was the story of Planet X (pg. 154-5) from astronomy as a demonstration of the decline effect in the physical sciences. In cases like the aberration in Uranus’s orbit leading to the discovery of Neptune, we praise math; but when the discrepancy in Neptune’s orbit failed to find Planet X, we progressively refined measurement instead until the apparent failure of math simply disappeared. Stories like this make Arbesman’s book on the sociology of science dovetail nicely with Against Method (1975). In particular, Arbesman can be read as providing a very important refinement to Feyerabend: even though the fate of an individual theory or fact is indeterminate, methodless, and chaotic; in aggregate, we can start to see statistical laws of regular change or maybe even “progress” emerge.

The discussion (pg. 98-100) of Don Swanson’s “Undiscoverable Public Knowledge” (1986; The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 56(2): 103-118) and the website InnoCentive should be of particular interest to connectors like Jacob Scott. I would also like to explore the philosophical basis of Arbesman’s work further, and I think the best source for that is Lakatos’ Proofs and Refutations (1976) — of which I’ve only read summaries and excerpts for my philosophy of math course — which details the mathematical equivalent of the decline effect we saw with Planet X.

Modes of Thought

(1938) by Alfred North Whitehead

In college, I thought of Whitehead as the mathematical counterpart of Russell, given his role as supervisor and co-author on the Principia Mathematica. However, this is a very unreasonable characterization of Whitehead and this book is proof of that. In these lectures, he advocates his process philosophy, which seems to be extreme holistic and anti-analytic. He examines (on pg. 205) the classic idealist-physicalist tension: “For some, nature is mere appearance and mind is sole reality. For others, physical nature is the sole reality and mind is an epiphenomenon”; highlighting their disdain for each other: “Here the phrase ‘mere appearance’ and ‘epiphenomenon’ obviously carry the implication of slight importance for the understanding of the final nature of things.” For Whitehead, this division and prioritization are unsatisfying and “neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of ‘really real’ things whose inter-connections and individual characters constitute the universe.”

I think this was the most challenging book of 2014 for me. I still don’t think that I have made much sense of it. But Whitehead seems to be straddling the analytic-continental divide that had torn through philosophy in the 20th century, and I would like to understand him better. I wonder in which dialogue of Plato his book belongs as footnote. I would appreciate recommendations for secondary sources to better understand process philosophy.

Metaphors We Live By

(1980) by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson; afterward (2003)

Unlike my second most favorite book of the year, Against Method, this book — my favorite — was not premeditated. It first pinged on my radar from a popular neuroscience article. Shortly after, as the 86th and Lexington Barnes & Noble was closing for the night, I spotted this book on the shelf and decided that it would be my reading for the trip from New York to Tampa. I thought that the authors were new to me, but quickly realized that I am familiar from my previous research with the embodied cognition perspective that this book launched. I had also encountered Lakoff from his book with Rafael E. Núñez Where Mathematics Comes From (2000) which I had read much of, but did not enjoy. Metaphors we live by, however, was thoroughly pleasurable to read and very insightful. I’ve provided a partial review and connection to mathematical models, already. In an upcoming post, I plan to consider a case study of grounding metaphors in experimental versus theoretical physics. In this section, I’ll provide a brief sketch of the authors main points, largely in their own words.

Throughout their book, Lakoff and Johnson argue that language and “[o]ur ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. … Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around the world, and how we relate to others. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities” (pg 3). More importantly, this “conceptual structure [of natural language] is grounded in physical and cultural experience, as are the conventional metaphors. Meaning, therefore, is never disembodied or objective and is always grounded in the acquisition and use of a conceptual system. Moreover, truth is always given relative to a conceptual system and the metaphors that structure it. Truth is therefore not absolute or objective but is based on understanding” (pg 197). Further, “even our deepest and most abiding concepts — time, events, causation, morality, and mind itself — are understood and reasoned about via multiple metaphors” (pg. 245).

In defining their philosophy, the authors — much like Whitehead — were consciously stepping away from the analytic tradition. Also like Whitehead, they saw a historic tension and false dichotomy in the idealist-physicalist (or in their terms, subjective-objective) distinction: “[t]he myth of objectivism reflects the human need to understand the external world in order to be able to function successfully in it. The myth of subjectivism is focused on on internal aspects of understanding — what the individual finds meaningful and what makes his life worth living” (pg. 229). Lakoff and Johnson offer their philosophy of experientialism as an alternative and middle ground, I hope to outline this perspective thoroughly in a future article. Reading their follow up Philosophy in the Flesh (1999) might help with this endeavor.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

(2013) by Thomas Piketty, translated (2014) by Arthur Goldhammer

I think that this surprising bestseller is the intellectual book of 2014 on many lists. Although I am not sure how many people have actually read through the book; it is very long, often repetitive, and largely dry; it took me six months (shared with other books) to read it. Regardless of how carefully read it was, the book’s sudden elevation of discussions of inequality to the fore of the public psyche is important and commendable. But here I am also skeptical; is the causation from Piketty to society, or is his timing just channeling the established zeitgeist?

I found Piketty’s data convincing — although I have read some of the critiques — and enjoyed his agitation of the standard methods of neoclassical economics. However, given my rather left leanings, I did not find the book nearly radical enough. In particular, I don’t think that we can moralize the inequality of wealth or income, since those are merely proxies for the actually damaging inequality of well-being. Of course, there is a reason for the popularity of these proxies, since they — although still difficult to — are quantifiable and measurable, and in many cases track the inequalities of well-being well. Focusing only on these proxies forces on us a perspective of monetary interventions, which blinds us to actions that separate certain requirements for well-being from the market. Piketty blinds us to very successful ideas like property-less suffrage (separating the right to representation and political action from capital), public education, and universal healthcare; and potential future interventions like the universal right to food and housing.

I want to explore some of these ideas in an article length review of Capital, but I am worried of bringing too much politics to TheEGG. How do you feel, dear reader? Are you averse to a potentially political post, or do you have some interest in it?

Philosophy in the Modern World: A New History of Western Philosophy, Vol. 4

(2007) by Anthony Kenny

As I mentioned earlier in the article, I prefer to read secondary sources for classic works. I especially like overviews that synthesize many different philosophical perspectives and their history in a single work. Among these, my favorite remains Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (1945) which was very formative to my views when I read it a few years ago (this year, I got to reread a couple of chapters in Russell’s anthology). Kenny’s book does not compare to the wit and insight that Russell brought, but it has the advantage of covering a period that Russell couldn’t; the book’s ending cut-off for inclusion is 1975. Kenny offers an analytic clarity similar to Russell with a distinct focus. I enjoyed the discussion of Schopenhauer — who Russell dismissed as an insincere and second rate philosopher — and Frege. Given that Kenny is one of the executors of Wittgenstein’s literary estate, he offered great overviews of the philosopher’s though; although I think he gave his ideas more pages than they deserved — at least 11 sections in a book of 12 chapters. The other place where Kenny’s personal bias made me uncomfortable was in the heavy focus on religion; in a book on the Modern World there was a chapter on religion but absolutely no mention of the philosophy of science — Popper was mentioned in one section on political philosophy related to his Open Society and Its Enemies (1945; online pdf) and not philosophy of science.

The author also tried to bridge the analytic-continental divide, although I am led to believe that he did not succeed. Unfortunately, I am too ignorant of continental philosophy to judge for myself. To remedy this and explore the concept of self and other minds that Bruce Hood’s book introduced, I would be interested — based on a philosopy.SE recommendation — in reading On Being With Others: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida (1998).


About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

8 Responses to A year in books: philosophy, psychology, and political economy

  1. Philip Gerlee says:

    “The half-life of facts” sounds interesting, but why no review of “Capital in the 21st Century”?

    • You’ve actually caught me with my pants down; I am in the middle of finishing the post. I wanted it to come out on the 14th, so I published it a little over 2.5 hours ago without all the writing finished. I am furiously typing right now to finish the final sections. I’ve done this once or twice before, to ‘meet’ my arbitrary self-imposed deadlines.

      If you check back in a few hours, there will be some words on Capital. I also plan (or am debating) a long form ‘review’ or commentary on that book in a future post. Have you had a chance to read it?

      • Philip Gerlee says:

        Certainly an efficient way of (almost) keeping deadlines.

        I’ve only read 120-page summary of Capital by Swedish economist Jesper Roine, which despite its brevity was quite illuminating.

  2. Robert Vander Velde says:

    Speaking of secondary sources and Spinoza/ethics have you taken a look at “The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics” by Kenan Malik. It came out last year and touches on the religious, philosophical and a little bit of the scientific approaches to ethics.

    • Until relatively recently, I have been very dismissive of ethics and morality. I was a relativist and that seemed some obviously ‘the best’ position to me (irony unintentional) that I never really bothered to think much about it. Now I am mostly confused, especially when it comes to meta-ethics, and on ethics itself most of my thinking is centered on social justice issues around technology and moral modeling especially when entering the social sciences.

      In other words, I haven’t read the book, but I really need to read something like it. So based on your recommendation, I have added it to TheEGG wishlist. Have you read it?

      a little bit of the scientific approaches to ethics.

      On this topic, I enjoyed this recent Reddit thread. Also, David recently shared a review of Shermer’s The Moral Arc which I think seems to focus on this, and of which I am a little skeptical.

      P.S.: you made the same comment twice with one word difference (I am guessing some browser reloading bug), so I am going to delete the previous version of your comment just to keep the conversation more streamlined,

      • Robert Vander Velde says:

        I just recently picked it up over Christmas break at the UBC bookstore, it’s a short and well written book so I finished it pretty quickly. I took a bioethics course for arts credits awhile back and this book goes over a lot of the same moral theories (virtue theory, utilitarianism, Kantianism, etc.) and common objections, so it seems like a good introduction. Also, while critical, it seems less dismissive than Russell’s book (which I only got half way through, but might get back to). I can show you my copy if you like.

        On the “scientific” side he talks about Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape (which he creatively re-purposes the Euthyphro’s dilemma to criticize) but also things like kin selection and reciprocal altruism (less than I would, but in my opinion these fields are answering different questions, such as why we feel good when we do the “right” thing and not what right and wrong are).

        P.S. Yes, I accidentally re-posted since I logged in and didn’t see the original at first.

  3. Pingback: Cataloging a year of blogging | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

  4. Pingback: A year in books: Neanderthals to the National Cancer Act to now | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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