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Philosophy

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PHILOSOPHY. Bryan Greetham. Palgrave-MacMillan.

This selection marks a lucid and well-written textbook of the general concepts of Philosophy, further incorporating mini-biographies of selected philosophers into each chapter (“Brief Lives”) which serve to expose students to the fathers of the discipline.

These pages are inhabited with many gems of thought which give shape to the major philosophical movements that have impacted the world. For instance, in Greetham’s chapter on “Responsibility and Punishment”, the author examines external compulsion and conformity via the following passage:

“Barry Humphries is reported to have said that he always knows when he is getting close to Australia on his flight home, because of the sound of millions of his fellow countryman patting themselves on the back. Some of the worst forms of this [social conformity] could be found in the 1950s during the Cold War. In the United States, the perceived threat of communism was so great that anyone or any organization that was even mildly egalitarian in its attitudes was vilified and condemned as unpatriotic, un-American, or even un-Godly.”

(Page 266)

Greetham goes on to note that the “norm” in the American South of the 1950s and 1960s required racial segregation as a condition of social conformity:

“Indeed for some philosophers it raises the serious question of what we regard as ‘normality.’ Not to think in conformity with prevailing social beliefs and values may be thought to be not normal; in some societies, even insane or mad. R. D. Laing has suggested that, as a result, the terms, ‘sanity’ and ‘madness’ have become ambiguous and psychiatry has been used as a means of social control by removing from society those who are ‘different’ from the majority…”

(Pages 266-267)

In another chapter, Greetham notes that Foucault argued that the modern subject emerges out of the “social forces” at work around him:

“This interplay gives rise to forms of control and regulation, bound up with forms of classification and knowledge. In his account developed in Discipline and Punish (1977) and The History of Sexuality volume 1 (1979), forms of social control and regulation have emerged which make use of classifications such as sane and insane, healthy and sick, law-abiding and delinquent, sexually normal and perverted, and most broadly, normal and abnormal. What we call the subject is for Foucault, the product or effect of this regulation and classification. They work precisely by turning human beings into certain kinds of subjects: that is to say, by bringing them to act in accordance with certain standards of normal behavior, a certain identity.”

(Page 235)

In his analysis of the works of Herbert Marcuse, Greetham points out that Marcuse believed that individuals in societies of advanced capitalism surrendered their intellectual freedom in return for the goods produced by that economic system:

“Marcuse argues that despite the development of the productive forces, despite the increasing ability of society to satisfy all human needs, the capitalist system persists, and real human wants and needs continue to be denied satisfaction. This is because in the contemporary context our instinctual energies are no longer simply repressed, but manipulated and distorted in the service of the prevailing system. Capitalism continues to produce goods for profitable exchange rather than human needs. Workers remain subordinated to the system, rather than controlling it and turning it to their real needs. And increasingly, their needs themselves are harassed to the system . . . For Marcuse, the very notions of what counts as desire, pleasure, satisfaction, fulfillment and happiness have thus been manipulated so that individuals are entirely content with the existing system. . . People thus reproduce, through their own aspirations and satisfactions, the very system that exploits them and denies their real needs.”

(Page 233)

Yet, as Foucault observed, although modern identity reflects the forms of social control and regulation in which it is formed, those social forms are often changed over time due to the resistance of the individual to those roles which have been created for him:

“So Foucault rejects the idea, found for example in Marxism that resistance is a matter of discovering our true selves and asserting who we are, in the face of a society that prevents us from being ourselves….”

(Page 236)

In sum, this text serves as an excellent introduction/overview of Philosophy which includes a superb – although too brief – glossary. In addition, the note-structure augmenting each chapter can be downloaded directly from the publisher’s website affording the student another useful study tool that promotes long-term retention of this material.

Recommended to instructors of first-tier Philosophy courses as a primary class text. Further recommended to all college-level libraries as a general reference text.

Order at amazon.com or direct from Palgrave.

by Frank Aiello

© Frank Aiello. All rights reserved.


Frank Aiello is an attorney who has practiced law in California since the 1970s, including criminal defense, civil and probate work. He holds a History degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Law degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco; he has also studied Anthropology, Sociology and Political Science extensively. Reach him via The Electric Review.

TWENTIETH-CENTURY FRENCH PHILOSOPHY. Alan Schrift. Blackwell Publishing.

Here, Schrift (Grinnell College) has designed a detailed and vital textbook that cuts to the core of French Philosophy by setting the major movements against the eyes of the philosophers who inspired them.

The study of Philosophy is basically the study of thought — as scholars come to grapple with deep questions of existence, weaving their journey into discernible and digestible summaries which, in turn, come to guide our own patterns of thinking.

In the end, the study of the world culminates in a great life and death war against the mind, as we fight through random concepts and holy ideas (religion, sexuality, conformity, revolution, war, madness, society, history) — looking for some semblance of logic where none actually exists.

Accordingly, in each culture, there is a group of thinkers — philosophers — who are the ones who ask the tough questions, investing the blood of their lives in a grand struggle to discover answers for themselves and for future generations. And the answers: they are not at all based in scientific or mechanical exploration, but instead steeped in the need to know, to search, to reason beyond reason — spitting forth a desire to find God in the invisible naked blue nuances of the human condition:

“The notion of structure, whose present good fortune in all domains responds to an intellectual need, establishes a whole system of thought. For the philosopher, the presence of structure outside us in natural and social systems and within us as symbolic function points to a way beyond the subject-object correlation…”

(Maurice Merleau-Ponty, at page 46)

French Philosophers marks a splendid examination of the philosophical movements that grew from this specific period, including discussion of Positivism, Idealism, Spiritualism, Existentialism, Structuralism, Ethics and Religion. And even though Schrift is careful to expand on the thinkers behind these topics (Focault, Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre), what’s best about the text is that it never fails to lead the reader back to the self — challenging the student to find his own answers within his own personal context.

In Philosophy, as with so many other disciplines that flow forth through the mind (poetry, painting, music, theology), it is left up to the individual to corral the light within himself and pursue the silhouette of the muse that dances at the depth of the secret distance (this interplay between thought and person as distinct and original as the skin you wear).

In a flawless style, Alan Schrift’s French Philosophers documents the lines of French thought during the crucial 20th-century, the lucid and eloquent prose calling the student to take this material into himself and make it his own. As we learn here, the true study of Philosophy demands the thinker to dissect bloody questions of life and death for himself and on his own terms.

Recommended as a teaching text in Philosophy courses dedicated to exploration of the French masters. It would also serve well as a supporting text in World History courses looking to spotlight a specific culture.

Order at amazon.com.

Of Related Interest

A COMPANION TO RATIONALISM. From Blackwell’s Companions to Philosophy. Edited by Alan Nelson. Blackwell Publishing.

“[W]e can only imagine what is absent.”

— Marcel Proust

In his fascinating chapter ” Proust and the Rationalist Concept of the Self,” Alan Nelson uses Proust’s masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) to approach the concept of the self (a topic that was also considered by Descartes, Hume and Leibniz).

This struggle to find purpose in the apparent randomness of existence has driven philosophers since the dawn of time. Descartes, whose work inspired so many thinkers in so many realms, dissected the dilemma in this oft-quoted thought: ” The time of life can be divided into innumerable parts, each of which in no way depends upon the other.”

Proust, too, would struggle against the dark pathos of the human experience. And like Descartes, he found solace in the sweetness of the infinite:

“For what we suppose to be our love or our jealousy is never a single, continuous and indivisible passion. It is composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each of which is ephemeral, although by their uninterrupted multiplicity they give us the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity.”

(Page 404)

A Companion To Rationalism comes to us a layered text that stitches together the most profound thoughts on Rationalism (the study of finding truth through factual analysis rather than in religion or dogma). As Proust so eloquently infers, emotion, hunger and need are transitory and ephemeral. Still, the shard of consciousness that rises to capture them can be recovered through a phenomenon known as involuntary memory. As Nelson puts it:

“This familiar though infrequent experience, perhaps most famously typified in Marcel’s tasting of the tea-soaked madeleine, involves a present impression (only rarely a visual impression) evoking strongly a past impression . . .One cannot successfully attempt to produce them. Their appearance is entirely and fortuitous and literally ‘against one’s will.’”

(Page 404)

And Neslon continues:

“Proust extends these points into a bold thesis of theoretical philosophy. He proposes that the involuntary memory is identical with the past experience, or more precisely that there is something in the two experiences that is identical… Part of the power and joy we feel in involuntary memories (the power and joy so well described by Proust) comes from their revelation of the identity of the self through time — or better, the self’s identity outside time.”

(Page 405)

Still, such memories in the human experience are, at best, bittersweet, somehow always tinged with an unknowable sadness. As Proust wrote:

“A moment of the past, did I say ? Was it not perhaps very much more: something that, common to both the past and to the present, is much more essential than either of them ? So often in the course of my life, reality has disappointed me because the instant when my senses perceived it my imagination, which was the only organ that I possessed for the enjoyment of beauty, could not apply itself to it, in virtue of that incalculable law which ordains that we can only imagine what is absent. “

(Page 405)

This text provides a wonderful choice as a supporting text for courses dedicated to analyzing the history of philosophy through specific intellectual movements. Further recommended as a general reference text in all college-level libraries.

Order at amazon.com.

by Frank Aiello

© Frank Aiello. All rights reserved.


Frank Aiello is an attorney who has practiced law in California since the 1970s, including criminal defense, civil and probate work. He holds a History degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Law degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco; he has also studied Anthropology, Sociology and Political Science extensively. Reach him via The Electric Review.

INVENTORS OF IDEAS: An Introduction to Western Political Philosophy (Second Edition). Donald Tannenbaum and David Schultz. Thomson-Wadsworth.

The authors of this note-worthy text present a summary of the wide-ranging ideas and philosophies which shaped Western political thought (beginning with the playwrights of Athens, Sophocles and Aristophanes, and concluding with profiles of Sigmund Freud and Fredrich Nietzsche).

A closer look reveals that many of these ideas are especially timely to today’s world. Given the almost unquestioned approval of Western civilization in monster federal governments and ever expanding bureaucracies, the ideas of John Stuart Mill bear revisiting. By age 15, Mill was a total devotee to the philosophy of utilitarianism developed by Jeremy Bentham and assisted by Mill’s father, James Mill. However, by the age of 20, the younger Mill’s initial questioning and subsequent loss of faith in utilitarianism led him to a nervous breakdown, and then to a reshaping of his own version of this philosophy.

At the heart of Bentham’s ideas was the central tenet which said that was best which created the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals. However, as Mill came to realize, the strict utilitarianism advocated by Bentham and James Mill ultimately views a society as the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, this idea is especially vulnerable to another form of tyranny feared by Mill and especially apparent today — the tyranny of public opinion:

” In On Liberty, Mill stakes out ‘the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.’ This work is his considered defense of the lone dissident against forced conformity to a majority view in any aspect of life, religious scientific or personal. Reflecting his training in early utilitarianism and his revision of it, he defends freedom as an individual right without relying on ‘the fiction’ of any original contract, natural right or natural law.” [Id.]

In addition, Mary Wollstoncraft’s views on human nature are quite revealing. Wollstoncraft’s desire to advance the rights of women did not blind her to the realization that women, too, had been corrupted by the rise of social orders based upon class and privilege:

“In short [said Wollstoncraft], women in general, as well as the rich of both sexes, have acquired all the vices and follies of civilization . . .Civilized women are, therefore, so weakened by false refinement, that, respecting morals, their condition is much below what it would be were they left in their natural state.”

(Page 216)

Even Machiavelli, who feared political anarchy above all else, recognized that power alone was inadequate to maintain political liberty: “The chief foundations of all states, whether new, old, or mixed, are good laws and good arms.” [p. 123.]

Finally, Freud (in the final chapter on post modern political thought), recognized that civilization was both a necessity and a state which does not come without both personal and social cost.

Specifically, Freud recognized, as did Hobbes, that “[m]en are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who, at the most can defend themselves if attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and kill him.” [p. 279.]

However, Freud was also aware that even though men are in constant conflict with the civilized state, the basic drives for life, love and survival require us to accept “ … a renunciation of instinct, a recognition of mutual obligations, the introduction of definitions, pronounced inviolable (holy) — that is to say, the beginnings of morality and justice. Each individual renounced his ideal of acquiring his father’s position for himself and of possessing his mother and sisters” [p. 280.].

Contradictions. Fool-hearty hypocrisies. Incomprehensible needs for control and power and some communal form of acceptance. As Freud had noted, these are roads each mind ultimately must traverse on its mysterious and solitary human journey.

This is an important text which illuminates the basic foundations of the American landscape. Accordingly, it is recommend for all history or political science courses that explore the origins of our most profound political philosophies. Noted for its accessibility to the undergraduate and student reader.

by Frank Aiello

UNDERSTANDING POLITICS: Ideas, Institutions & Issues (Seventh Edition).Thomas M. Magstadt. Thomson Wadsworth.

The Seventh Edition of this text provides, at the very least, a rudimentary understanding of how political systems work and how they affect people’s lives.

To this end, readers will want to immediately give attention to Magstadt’s commentary on how political socialization is both affected by – and in some instances controlled by – the media. In identifying how “opposition research” is often used by political opportunists to dirty the opposition on the eve of voting day, Magstadt states:

“With the emergence of ‘opposition research’ as an important dimension of political campaigns, this type of tactic is becoming more and more common. Candidates and party committees now often hire private investigators to probe an opponent’s past. These ‘political sappers’ use hidden camera, sift through trash, pose as journalists, and even volunteer to work for the candidate they are being paid to work against — a form of spying that ought to be a crime. Unfortunately, the politicians choose to look the other way. No surprise there.”

(Page 304)

In addition, Magstadt also provides an excellent summary of various theories as to how government works, including analysis of the works of C. Wright Mills and Robert Michels:

“Elitist theories of democracy hold that government is governed neither by the voters nor public opinion nor a variety of competing interests, but by a small number of wealthy individuals. It was propounded most influentially in the 1950’s by sociologist C. Wright Mills. Mills studied the ruling class in the United States, which enshrines the principle of political equality. By putting the ‘power elite’ in the spotlight, Mills challenged the idea of ‘government by the people’ and called into serious question whether it exists (or has ever existed) in America.”

(Page 336)

Analyzing Michels’ “Iron Law of Oligarchy”, Magstadt writes:

“According to this view, the people, for whose benefit democratic institutions were originally conceived, are inevitably shut out of the political or organizational process as corporate officers or bureaucratic officials govern in the name of the rank-and-file shareholder or citizen.” [Id.]

Given the power of the mass media, the level of apathy and ignorance in the citizenry is not only shocking, but points to political decay and the failure of basic institutions. Accordingly, this book is meant to spark an interest in the student reader’s role in government — the idea is to teach/show students that an active voice in government begins through a complete understanding of history and the many forces which create political science:

“Many adult Americans cannot identify the names of government leaders, are unfamiliar with election issues, and are ignorant of politics. Dead candidates are elected to state offices; accused felons, running for public office on a lark, get thousands of votes . . .A recent study discovered that four out of ten Americans could not correctly name the vice president while two-thirds could not correctly identify the person who served in the House of Representatives from their legislative district . . .Give such a lack of knowledge, how can Americans make thoughtful or wise decisions?”

(Page 334)

by Frank Aiello

WHO ARE WE? (Theories of Human Nature). Louis J. Pojman. Oxford University Press.

Genesis tells us that we are the ‘top of the heap’ and have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (Gen 1:27-29.) However, as Louis Pojman (Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the United States Military Academy) warns, learned thinkers everywhere have been trying to temper the statements made in Genesis ever since they were written.

For example, one system of thought tells us that we are only material beings, that is, “that the physical system of the brain and the physical events that take place within it are the entirety of our conscious lives. There is no separate mental substance, and mental events are really physical events.” [p.235.]

To illustrate his point, Pojman recounts the story of Phineas T. Gage, a young, affable Vermont railroad worker, who suffered an industrial accident. On the the afternoon of September 13, 1848, Gage was laying line on the Rutland and Burlington Railroad when an iron tamping rod three and a half feet in length was driven beneath his left eye:

“Amazingly, he lived, but he was transformed from a friendly, intelligent leader into an intemperate, unreliable, childish ox with the evil temper to match it…Cutting the corpus callosum, the thick band of nerves linking the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex, can result in two separate centers of consciousness. Different parts of the brain are responsible for different mental operations. . .Why do we need such a complex brain with billions of cells and trillions of connections if the mind is located in its own separate substance ? If dualism is correct, this intricately constructed, complex brain is unnecessary baggage, superfluous machinery. All that the mind should require is some channel for linking the mental with the physical worlds.”

(Page 234)

And Pojman goes on:

“For eons, the nature of life was held to be a mysterious elan vital (a spiritual substance that animated whatever was living.) However, in this century, such vitalism was undermined by discoveries in molecular biology. Life is made up of the same basic elements as other material, nonliving things. The difference between living and nonliving things, biology tells us, is not the kind of substance that underlies the two types of things but in the arrangement of those substances.”

(Page 238)

Yet, in his last, impeccably written chapter (“The Paradox of Human Nature: Are We Free?”), Pojman notes that although “naturalistic evolution tells us that wholly deterministic and physicalistic processes are responsible for whatever we are, we are also “self-conscious beings whose inner experiences are not physicalist.” In other words, whoever or whatever we are continues to remain our ultimate mystery. Or in the words of Omar Khayyam: “But helpless pieces/of the game/He plays/Upon this /hequer-board/of Nights and Days.” [p.251.]

Pojman is an eloquent and thought-provoking writer who seeks to leave his readers wrestling with the ultimate questions of existence and purpose. In a technological culture where kids run to their Ipods instead of to the library, this book attempts to reconnect them with the idea that every person has a moral responsibility to place themself in the context of the world in which they exist.

by Frank Aiello

© Frank Aiello. All rights reserved.


Frank Aiello is an attorney who has practiced law in California since the 1970s, including criminal defense, civil and probate work. He holds a History degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Law degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco; he has also studied Anthropology, Sociology and Political Science extensively. Reach him via The Electric Review.

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This entry was posted on June 28, 2013 by in Reference and tagged .
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