Taking on Today’s Sophists

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Plato At The Googleplex – Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

There are times when I want a challenging read, and when Goldstein’s book came out, with hot to tepid reviews, I knew I had to read it. Philosophy, you see, has been an interest of mine for quite a while, particularly the proto-philosophy of Plato. The book did prove a challenge, as any by an academic might, but it proved well worth the effort.

So how did she put forth her position that philosophy is here to stay? She took an indirect path, pitting a 2400 year-old Plato against various intellectual disciplines from a Google coder to a Bill O’Reilly sound-alike to a scientist involved in brain studies. These rather charming inventions alternated with Goldstein’s own take on Plato and his mentor, Socrates, depict the modern intellectuals she allows Plato to take on as neo-sophists. In each fictive account, the author has Plato wait politely for his adversaries to stake out their positions and defend them with gaping holes in reasoning, then gently guide these intellectual miscreants back toward the beauty of truth.

Is there a fault in Goldstein’s depictions? Just one, in my view: that today’s sophists are likely to remain in their argument’s bubbles, never open at all to reason. And likely we’re now entering an age in which emotion and power prevail over a desire for truth, one in which Plato and Socrates would be seen by too many as kooks and intellectual provocateurs. But then this is very likely the same situation these two ancients put themselves into over two millennia ago.
My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

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Provoking, Informing, and Magazine Success

The Atlantic, March 2014

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In a world in which magazines are closing their doors daily, a few have found the key to success, and The Atlantic seems to have that key firmly in its grasp. What makes its mojo work, then? Simple – find a way to entertain as it informs, and do so in a fairly concise fashion.  Sometimes this involves provocation for the sake of provoking. We all remember what makes our blood boil, it seems, as in the case of Jonathan Rauch’s brief, “The Case for Corruption.”

Did you know that WalMart claims that nearly half its purchases are made on smart phones? Neither did Alexis Madrigal, in a quickie interview with WalMart’s Gibu Thomas.

James Parker tries to overlay today’s polarized political TV talk shows over the film, Network.  He has a point, I think, but it’s a strained one.

This issue takes on hockey, of all things (a sport I liken to professional wrestling), but as Chris Koentges depicts the sport in “The Puck Stops Here,” a Finnish promoter has transformed it from a brawl on ice to  international prestige.

Paul Bloom, in “The War On Reason,” rings my bell loudly by explaining that philosophy, the bedrock of Enlightenment reason, has drifted away from logic and reason into a physiological abyss. In this semi-philosophical world, reason seems devoid of  worth, but Bloom seems to hold out hope: our human need for moral values will trump this straying and bring reason back in new clothes.

I remember how the KA fraternity partied till they puked in my college days. Those well-oiled frat rats even killed a famous horse in the process. In the lead article, “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” Caitlin Flanagan tells us things are even worse, many frat peccadilloes now ending in court.

I’m a Southerner, despite all attempts to be a one-worlder, and I’m compelled to say that Ron Rash’s story “Where The Map Ends,” the story of two escaping slaves in the Civil War South, is the finest piece of short fiction I’ve seen in a magazine in a long while.

These are but my highlights in another fine issue of The Atlantic.

 

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The Mysteries Lurking in Mind

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Black Dogs, By Ian McEwan

 

I still find it odd that some (if not most) people will never re-read a book. I’ve just re-read this one because it was my first McEwan and I was so unfamiliar with his odd story structure that the essence of the book didn’t stay with me. But that was something like ten years ago. I like to think I’ve grown as both reader and writer in that time, so I knew the book would speak volumes to me now.

It does. But given that you might not have read it, a little something about the storyline.

English couple June and Bernard Tremaine are former Communists who have married immediately following WWII, Jenny their daughter, who subsequently marries the story’s narrator, Jeremy. By the time Jeremy and Jenny marry, the parents are separated, and Jeremy is fascinated with both, who use their son-in-law as a conduit to one another. By now both have forsaken communism, Bernard for something of a secular humanist approach to life, June immersed in spiritual practices. The book’s – and Jeremy’s – project is to discover the nature of their growing apart, presumably as a tool of understanding to prevent something similar from happening to Jenny and him. On the way to such understanding, Jeremy unearths the singular moment of the older couple’s division, an event occurring in France’s Midi, involving a pair of black dogs.

 

McEwan weaves his story back and forth in time and centers it on the heady days of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The narrator’s tone here is one of reasoned detachment, but that does little to erase the mystery of June’s experience with these black dogs, an event the Bernard didn’t witness and wishes to rationalize away.

Here the author personalizes the eternal conflict between human experience and humanity’s fascination with what might lie beyond such experience. It’s a skillful, tastefully told tale, measured as perhaps only McEwan can do today in giving us literary insight.

 

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

 

 

 

 

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Writing’s Other Side

First, let me say that I've been writing almost all my life. I dictated my first story to my mom when I was eight, and I've written (at least) sporadically since. 

During my engineering career, I had several opportunities to write, and these had some long-lasting effects. One day my boss called me in, said, "Bob, I want you to write a nasty letter for me." He wanted to severely chastise someone, but he wanted said chastisement to be reasoned and void of any anger that might deflate his argument's position. I did.

Some years later, I took on the job of collating a hodge-podge of design memos, some of which conflicted with others, many of which seemed capricious, arbitrary. After a year's work, we had design guidance we could all believe in.

Success in that task led to my being assigned to write new specifications for construction work, and to re-write others that had been shot through with holes lawyers could crawl through to extract more money from us. My efforts here (or so I was told later) saved us many millions of dollars. Hence the power of well-reasoned words.

And recently I've been a partner in re-organizing a writer's group. My former technical experiences helped me assist the writer group's board of governors in re-writing its by-laws and other necessary documents.

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Okay, so now you're saying, "So what? Is this relevant to creative writing?" I think so.

To paraphrase an old adage, "Creative writing is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration." 

From my perspective this means that while the creative surge makes one feel good inside – endorphins flowing, and all that – the preponderance of successful creative writing is in the editing. And editing is more of a reasoned process, one that helps the creative process in a number of ways, including:

  • adding flow to the story
  • ensuring that the characters are consistent
  • orchestrating the tension/release emotional aspects of story
  • creating sentence structures that amplify the above
  • removing "flab" from your prose
  • choosing powerful nouns and verbs
  • taking supposed reader responses into effect.

Granted, some gifted writers are more or less able to merge the creative and editing processes. This is, of course, the ultimate skill in creative writing. But as you grow as a writer, don't be afraid to take on what seem the more ho-hum tasks of writing. They're all-too useful in mastering the editing aspects of writing.

My advice, then: take on any writing experience you can. It'll help you articulate the creative ideas you commit to paper and, quite possibly, shorten your apprenticeship as a novelist, short story writer, memoirist, or poet. 

Harper’s Monthly and Life’s Conundrums

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After reading the March 2011 issue of Harper’s, I had to sit back for a moment and be impressed with the writing Harper’s puts forth. There are polemics here, and subjects I don’t care to delve into, but I almost invariably read on – the language is consistently elegant, ideas put forth in a compelling manner.

 

I’ve commented before on its fiction, and I’ll do so again here.

 

Daniel Mason’s “The Miraculous Discovery of Psammetichus I” is a pastiche of what are partly fictional sketches, partial allusions to history. Mason puts them forth in a tone and voice one might attribute to scribes on Egypt’s Old Kingdom. Psammetichus is a rational man in a time of superstition, and his intellectual curiosity begets experiments that could have belonged to the Enlightenment.

Beneath the story seems to be Mason’s view of the human condition, in which he teases the reader along to both reason and faith, which is based in erroneous observations of life on earth. The upshot? I’m not sure. Mason could have been reaching for a new sophistry here, in which there’s no meaning other that that which we impose on a stony world. Or he could be using his parable to imply that we may approach true knowledge but never attain it. At any rate, it’s a wonderful piece of writing.

 

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Irrationality and its Pitfalls

Magic and  Mayhem, by Derek Leebaert

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In the democratic model of citizen/government relationship, those in governmental power are charged with representing the interests of the people in a reasonable, rational way. Leebaert, in this book-long essay, goes to great lengths to examine the irrationalities that the U.S.’s leaders have foisted on us via their most consuming decisions since World War II.

What then are the warts on U.S. decision making? Leebaert examines six different aspects of the magical thinking he claims has led the U.S. to its current dilemmas, both internal and external:

Emergency Men: these are persons who step to the fore in hard times, partly informed on the issues at hand, who are telegenic and glib enough to garner the trust of governmental administrators and citizens.

The Mystique of Management: this is the tendency of administrators to impose management on what is unmanageable, particularly in foreign policy.

Star Power:  this is the obsession Americans have with self-identified experts, who elbow their way into the national spotlight. Such persons are long on personality, invariably short on the expertise they’ve laid claim to.

Expectations of Wondrous Results from Nominal Effort: To paraphrase, Americans seek easy answers to complex problems. When self-styled experts rise to prominence, promising some catch-all solution to complexity, we’re invariably willing to accept it over an incremental, less showy approach.

History: We often misread history or accept the implications of history only in part.

The World Wants To Be Like Us: we’re so enamored of our nation’s history, of its rise to power, its particular path to economic well-being, that we assume (in error) that the rest of the world would evolve into international versions of our history, or success as a society, if only they had the chance.   

Leebaert, while teetering on the precipice of rant, does provide incisive views into our decision-making history and the draining effect this history is now having on our dynamism and creativity. Identifying problems, however is always much easier and showier than providing solutions, particularly when the complexities of modern societies are highlighted.

 However, the author does attempt to provide the first nibbles at solution here. Some involve re-organization and re-management of government to emphasize true professionals, not political snake oil salesmen. This, however, places a greater burden on citizens to ferret out these emergency men, these stars, and to demand that reason be imposed on those who step to the fore. But this has always been the project of the Enlightenment: to provide a society in which citizens may overcome the emotional baggage of history through education and understanding.

 As with any complexity, Leebaert’s suggestions are only a start.

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My Rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

The Coexistence of Reason and Mystery

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Part 1 – The Re-Enchantment of the World – Secular Magic in a Rational Age, Edited by Joshua Landy & Michael Saler

 

 

At first blush one wouldn’t use the words “magic” and “secular” in a complementary fashion. But this collection of essays does succeed – at least to some degree – in melding magic and rationality. Its various essays begin with Max Weber’s plaint (or proclamation – your choice) that “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’”

 

This has generally been taken to mean that the project of the Enlightenment – its reason and overarching scientific method – has taken (or will take) away the mysteries of life, i.e., those aspects that we conventionally see as beyond human involvement and understanding. This has, of course, been anathema to the theses of religion and has been at the root of the centuries-old friction between religion and reason. But this book takes on itself a project that I applaud: a healing of this rift, in all its manifestations.

 

Each essay is an attempt to do just this, each in separate fields of secular endeavor. We see in looking to the re-enchantment latent in gardens and place, in architecture, religion, art, literature, philosophy, and even in politics, elements of human experience that allow us to become re-enchanted with secular life.

 

The point here is that re-enchantment isn’t a return to a primitive human way of viewing things; after centuries of science and reason, we should know better. Instead, it’s a way of allowing ourselves to be re-enchanted with life – within the world given to us via centuries of rational progress.

 

But there’s a tacit suspicion here that reason has its limits, as the difficulties of the last hundred years or so seem to indicate. While this may be in part because of a remaining lack of reason's development within world culture, it's hard to avoid the idea that the working of the left brain will always need the right brain’s enchanting spectacle. And, conversely, that enchantment will forever need reason as its anchor, lest it lead humanity astray.

 

Admittedly, the book's editors and its separate essayists have bitten off a lot with this project. Still, it’s a vital endeavor, a project that can nudge reason into a more proper intellectual role.  I’d encourage anyone who has read this far into this post to take the book on. Toward that  end, I’d point readers primarily toward the section on ideology and on Nietzsche contributions to the subject. It’s that important a subject.

 

I do want to follow this post with another on how re-enchantment is seen to play out in the world of literature. Please stay tuned.

 

 

My Rating: 4 of 5 stars.