Tag Archives: history

Through the Language Glass

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other LanguagesThrough the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It started with a conversation with a student, who said he had read an article explaining that the color blue never appeared in ancient Greek writings. That led to some internet searching, and I quickly found this book, which claims to be a treatment of this puzzle and turns out to be an explanation of the way language shapes the way we see the world. Do people who speak different languages actually see the world differently? Or in other words, how much does the structure of our language mirror or constrain the structure of our thought?

Deutscher– a linguist who doesn’t mind going against some of the contemporary views in the field– starts the exploration of this question with its most interesting manifestation: color. The realization that there was something strange going on in ancient accounts of color goes back to the philhellene and sometimes Prime Minister William Gladstone who noticed that blue never appears in Homer’s writings. The sea and sky are not referred to as blue, and other colors are also used in questionable ways. Other researchers into ancient texts discovered similar things: many ancient languages didn’t have a word for blue. Indeed, there seemed to be a order of appearance in which “primitive” languages (and the author offers examples of some contemporary languages as well) distinguish between dark and light and lump all colors together as reddish. Eventually words for yellows and browns appear and finally terms that distinguish between greens and blues. The differentiation of blue usually comes last, and there are still signs of this, for instance, in the fact that in old Japanese the word for blue and green is the same.

What does this mean? Early theories speculated that there was an actual physiological evolution taking place, that as humans became less primitive their eyes developed to perceive a wider spectrum of colors. Modern genetics and tests on speakers who languages currently lack certain color words has disproven this. Ancient Greek eyes were the same as ours. But did their lack of names for certain colors shape the way they perceived the world? This is the crux of the author’s question: do we really see things if we don’t have words to express them? I explored this once in a story published in Daily Science Fiction. Does naming something make it more real or at least more readily apparent?

Part of the argument for color goes something like this. In primitive civilizations color doesn’t matter a whole lot, and certain colors are rarely perceived on their own. Red is the color of blood, so a word to distinguish this comes fairly early in most cultures. But there are no large blue animals, few blue flowers, and blue dye was very difficult to make and unknown in many cultures. (Egypt was an exception, and apparently ancient Egyptian had a word for blue.) Because of this, there was no social or linguistic need to distinguish or name this hue. But what about the sea and the sky? The sea rarely looks straightforwardly blue, and the sky– when completely clear– was simply the sky. Since there was no cultural need to distinguish its color, it was simply the sky.

The first half of the book is an investigation of the history of the color question, and if you’re not quite satisfied with the answer I’ve given (and I’m not sure I am), you might not be satisfied with this portion of the book. For Deutscher though, color simply sets up the bigger question: how do we determine– and then empirically test– whether language actually shapes our perception and our thought processes? Are certain concepts (like “The sky is blue”) simply inexpressible in some languages? Does this mean speakers of those languages are unable to conceive of certain statements and concepts? Deutscher’s answer is no to these last two questions but a cautious yes to the first.

An older, stronger claim would answer the final question of the above paragraph in the affirmative: language constrains thought. Because the Hopi Indians, for instance, have no verb tense in their language or expressions of time, they cannot perceive time as linear. Because other Native American languages do not distinguish between verb and subject, speakers of these languages have a more monistic, unified of nature. Deutscher disagrees and takes obvious pleasure in demolishing these claims, maintaining instead that any concept can be expressed in any language. His alternate claim is more subtle: it’s not that some languages make it impossible to perceive or conceive certain things; rather, his claim is that certain languages obligate speakers to always be thinking of certain things.

Again, what does this mean? The author provides three examples. The first is that of a particular well-studied Australian aboriginal language that does not possess an egocentric coordinate system (i.e. behind, in front, left, right) but only an absolute system (north, east, south, west). Every positional expression voiced in this language, from things as simple as “There’s a bug beside your foot” have to be given in terms of cardinal directions. (“There’s a bug north of your foot.”) This means that speakers of the language always have a sense of these directions from a very young age, and their experiences and memories are seen through that directional lens. The author discusses a variety of experiments in which it’s shown that speakers of this language can recall details in this coordinate system, recounting orientations of experiences from years ago. (To put this in perspective, try calling up a particularly vivid memory and expressing it in terms of cardinal directions. Were you standing to the north or south of your spouse when you got married?) The language obligates its speakers to always have cardinal directions in mind and thus shapes their perceptions of the world accordingly.

Languages with no egocentric coordinate system though are comparatively rare, so the author’s second example is closer to home: languages like German or Spanish or many more with a developed gender system. In English– at least since the century or so after the Norman Conquest, as the author points out in a fascinating historical treatment– does not oblige its speakers to assign genders to inanimate objects. Yet many other modern languages do. Not much study has yet been done, according to Deutscher, on how this influences the thoughts of speakers of these languages, but he illustrates some of the implications with an example of the role this plays in translation and the subtle nuances and relations that can be lost moving from a gendered to a largely non-gendered language.

Finally, he returns to color. Does our language’s names for colors– and the fact that these names don’t exist in certain other languages– influence the way we perceive the world? Recent studies, the author argues, indicate that yes, it does. He takes the case of light blue and dark blue, which in Russian have separate names. An English speaker would perceive these as shades of the same color. For a Russian speaker they would be separate colors. If this was indeed the case, one could expect that this linguistic obligation (that of the Russian speaker to give these separate hues different names) would allow Russians to more quickly distinguish between similar shades of blue if they lay on opposite sides of this distinction, in a similar manner to how an English speaker could more readily distinguish between greenish-blue and bluish-green than a speaker of a language that does not differentiate between green and blue. The author relates in detail the set-up of experiments to determine just that, which show the language-processing region of the brain active even when actively naming the hues was not part of the experiment. Russian speakers consistently differentiated between close shades of blue more quickly than English speakers.

This all comes back to the central claim of the book, that languages, by obligating their speakers to pay attention to certain things in their structure, can function as a lens by which their speakers perceive the world.

Consider this analogy (not given in the book): if your language has several different expressions for snow, so that each time you talk about snow you’re obligated to take into consideration things like whether it’s falling or on the ground, how long it’s been on the ground, what its thickness and consistency is, then when you look at snow (or call up a memory containing snow) you’re going to have a richer perception of the object than an English speaker who encapsulates all the varieties of snow under a single word. That doesn’t mean that an English speaker can’t conceptualize or express these nuances of snow. It just means her language doesn’t habituate her to these perceptions.

In these (possibly over-simplified) terms, Deutscher’s argument seems almost self-evident, but the richness of his treatment comes in the historical and linguistic background he provides while exploring this idea and especially in his explanations of the rigor and structure of the experiments devised to verify such apparently straightforward claims about language and how it shapes our perceptions of the world.

Rise and Fall of the Habsburg Monarchy

The Rise and Fall of the Habsburg MonarchyThe Rise and Fall of the Habsburg Monarchy by Victor-Lucien Tapié

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like to read epics. When I was younger, these were multivolume fantasy novels a la Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. More recently, when I find myself wanting a grand, sweeping narrative I tend to turn to history. There are plenty of epics here, rises and flourishing and falls, and at the end of whatever I’ve chosen I’ve learned a bit more about the shape of the larger epic we’re all still moving within.

In a historical epic, you want a good balance between detail and scope, something you don’t tackle for in-depth analysis but rather for a broad outline and a good, accurate story. In this genre I’d classify successful pieces like Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Norwich’s (abridged) History of Byzantium as well as Keegan’s The First World War. Part of the appeal of reading works like these is that there’s no exam at the end; you can read a story that doesn’t have any direct bearing on your research of academic discipline. This gives just a bit more freedom to let the narrative wash over you, to get caught up in it like a good novel and enjoy it for the way the historians tell their tale.

My latest historical epic was an English translation of a French historian’s Rise and Fall of the Habsburg Monarchy, and it didn’t quite hit that perfect balance. We had recently spent some time in Gorizia and Trieste, so we had touched a small corner of this history. The Habsburgs, ruling house of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for centuries, offer a sort of bridge between the regalia and imperial splendor of the late Middle Ages and the rise of nationalism and modernity into the 1900s. They were a shaping force in central Europe for hundreds of years, with an empire that united Austria and Hungary along with lands now including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, parts of Poland, and into the Balkans and Italy. It also united dozens of linguistic groups and cultures and provided a buffer between the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Europe. It was in its height and glory that its capital, Vienna, became the cultural jewel from which things like the Vienna Circle and the work of Wittgenstein sprang. And yet its growing instability with the rise of nationalism helped trigger the First World War, during which the entire edifice crumbled abruptly.

Certainly a lot to cover in a single-volume treatment, and plenty of epic scope.

What we have in this volume though is a bit more crunchy, a lot more political history than one might want. We get loads of data about populations in Hungary, Austria, and Transylvania over the centuries, the development of agricultural production, economic details, and an in-depth examination of the political structure of these three kingdoms. Tapié spends a good deal of time highlighting the mechanics of how the three primary sections of the empire were united and stayed that way. He also focuses on art, architecture, and music of the empire over its development. For Tapié, as likely for the citizens of the empire, the monarchy was equivalent to the political union of these kingdoms, and vice versa.

The characters of the various Habsburg monarchs don’t make much impression on the pages as individuals. They come and go and are remembered for their policies, with only a few like Maria Theresa or Francis Joseph making a mark as human characters in the narrative. They seem there primarily to fill specific roles, sometimes roles that only seem given in retrospect, such as the assassinated heir presumptive the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, whose death at the hands of Serbian radicals set off the dominoes of the World War.

For an attempt at understanding wide swaths of the history of Europe, as well as the patchwork of languages and ethnicities that were bound up for a time together and now have become the various states of central Europe, this is a hefty journey. It doesn’t simply give you the exciting portions, and Tapié’s discussion of wars in particular become confusing morasses of names and places. Rather, it’s a study in the politics of empire– not people but institutions– and how unity was maintained among diversity for hundreds of years.

Wittgenstein’s Vienna

Wittgenstein's ViennaWittgenstein’s Vienna by Allan Janik

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wittgenstein is a name that looms large on the landscape of twentieth-century philosophy, and one day I’ll get around to actually reading his work. For now though, I’m still dancing around the edges. I’ve written about Logicomix before as a creative introduction to the mathematical and philosophical scene in which Wittgenstein appeared, and about a year ago that led me to an excellent biography on Wittgenstein. This latest book on the philosopher, which had come up several times before in references to Wittgenstein, I found at a university library used book sale. I grabbed it immediately, possibly uttering a small shriek of excitement.

Wittgenstein’s Vienna is a cultural and social contextualization of Wittgenstein’s work. The authors are self-consciously unapologetic that their study is interdisciplinary and not well-suited to the lens of professional philosophy that would view Wittgenstein’s work in terms of the development of analytical philosophy alone. Rather, they say it’s important—essential—in understanding Wittgenstein’s major work to first understand the context in which Wittgenstein wrote, the final days of the Habsburg Empire and its capital Vienna just before the Great War.

By examining the culture of the period—the aesthetic revolts against insincerity and ostentation in music, literature, and architecture centered on the writings of the social critic Karl Kraus—they claim Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as a similar cultural artifact, a philosophical response to this environment. Instead of being intended (as it was perceived by the Logical Positivists) as a groundwork for analytical philosophy, Wittgenstein meant the Tractatus to rigorously define the boundary between facts and values. Critically though this was not to exclude values from the realm of importance (as the Logical Positivists took his famous closing phrase, “of what we cannot speak we must pass over in silence”) but rather to protect ethics and all that was truly important (and unspeakable) in the human experience from the encroachment of logic.

For the authors, Wittgenstein’s work is primarily a cultural, philosophical, and even artistic response to his social environment similar to that of Adolf Loos in architecture and will be (and has been) misunderstood without this broader context. As an example of an interdisciplinary study—and in itself a strong critique of philosophy divorced from context—Wittgenstein’s Vienna is wonderful. It takes a real problem—the interpretation of a famously eccentric man and his undeniably influential work—and it offers an answer grounded in full-bodied exploration of that man’s time and context.

My complaint is that though the arguments are compelling and even a pleasure to read, and though the authors make Habsburg Vienna come to life and illuminate things from the origins of modernism to the perils of political stagnation and the linguistic relations between subject peoples at the dawn of Eastern European nationalism, they tend to let a general zeitgeist form the mode of connection between all this and Wittgenstein. That is, a stronger argument would have connected the dots more firmly, including perhaps more of Wittgenstein’s correspondence and biographical links between Wittgenstein and the key cultural players, Kraus in particular. The authors argue that Kraus was central to creating and fostering the cultural critique in which they’re placing the Tractates—going so far as to call the Tractates a Krausian work—but I still was left with questions about the contacts and connections between the two men.

The work is multifaceted and branched off into lots of interesting side-trails along the way of contextualizing Wittgenstein and his work. There were, for instance, arguments related to the birth of modernism, particularly modern architecture. The authors claim, for instance, that the architecture of Loos was a revolt against ostentation and ornament for it’s own sake, that Loos thought use should dictate design. But they say once this mode was established, its minimalism became itself a new orthodoxy: modernism for its own sake, which gave rise to the Cartesian office buildings and apartments of today in which function is completely masked by uniformity, exactly the opposite of what early modernists like Loos had intended.

This work is compelling because it mixes together so many disciplines. Whether or not you’ve heard of Wittgenstein, if you’re interested in the history of philosophy and in particular the philosophy of language, Habsburg Europe, cultural history, art history, or even social criticism, there’s something in here that you can latch onto. Good books have lots of doors that open outward; this one is full of them.

Demolition Means Progress

Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis (Historical Studies of Urban America)Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis by Andrew R. Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The city is not a problem to be solved; it is a story to be told.

I used to dream about getting a fat grant years down the road and taking a leave of absence to start research toward a complete history of the city of Flint, Michigan. There would be so much to it, from the history of technology and the rise of the auto industry, to labor history and the creation of the middle class. I knew race would play a role in this theoretical history as well, though I hadn’t even begun mapping out the implications. It would have been an immense book, one that tapped into several important streams of the larger American drama. It would be in many ways a tragedy as well– a tale of controlled atrophy and downsizing, of a dying city, industrial decay, and the birth of the Rust Belt. That was my nebulous plan, but it was not to be: the book has already been written, and this past week I finished reading it.

Flint and its story fascinates me. I grew up on its nearly all-white suburban margins but with roots running into its history. I have memories of visiting AutoWorld as a child and of my grandparent’s home on Waldman Avenue. My mom and her parents often spoke with regret about what Flint had once been, of the prosperity of the post-War years and the sparkle of downtown before the sprawl of suburban shopping districts. Though I grew up in the suburbs of Flint Township and later Swartz Creek, my mom (and many of the parents of my friends and peers) had grown up in city. Her family came from Missouri looking for work in the factories, and my grandfather built a career on the Grand Trunk Railroad. My dad spent his career working for General Motors, much of it at Buick City before it was closed and he was relocated to Saginaw. I ventured downtown occasionally as a teenager (and it was always clearly a venture), specifically to the Cultural Center and the Longway Planetarium.

Flint’s story shaped me in obvious ways I’m only now realizing. Many of the photographs on this blog, for instance, were inspired by the rich background of texture and decay I grew up on the fringes of. I knew the city’s history in a cursory way and even saw some of it myself. For all these reasons, I wanted a book that dove into this history. In the absence of such a book (though Gordon Young’s memoir– reviewed here previously– was an excellent journalistic step in this direction) I was prepared (one day in the distant future) to attempt to write it myself.

But the book now exists.

I wrote earlier on this blog about Mark Quanstrom’s study on Nazarene theological history and the way it helped me understand the religious context in which I was raised. What Quanstrom’s book did for my theological heritage, Andrew Highsmith’s new study does for my social and urban context. (Note to self: a work exploring the intersection of these two themes, charting the growth and decline of the Nazarene church– which at one time could count at least half a dozen large congregations in the city– would be of interest.) I knew Flint was economically depressed and racially divided. But I never fully understood the depth, origins, and repercussions of “white flight,” a trajectory in which my family participated.

My sister and her husband live and work in downtown Flint. On multiple occasions I’ve biked with my brother-in-law from his restaurant on Saginaw Street, past the former site of Chevy-in-the-Hole, where it looks like giants literally gouged a cement valley along the river into the center of the city, to his house in Mott Park. He’s told me lately he feels most of his work in the city revolves around racial reconciliation and that if we can’t understand race we won’t understand anything about Flint’s story and where it is today.

I think Highsmith would agree. I first learned of his book just days after it was released from my brother-in-law, who passed it along to me with a sort of resignation: “Here’s another academic who thinks he’s figured Flint out.” I don’t know that Highsmith claims to have unravelled any riddles, but he’s begun plunging the depths of the issue, the tangle of politics– many on a national level– that made Flint what it was and is. It’s very much a story of place, rarely focusing long on any particular individual. Highsmith’s Flint is made up of institutions, organizations, politics, and changing demographics. Yet there are enough specific personal focuses, ranging from Michael Moore to the tragedy of the Beecher assistant principle driven to suicide by the intractable problem of de-segregating his high school, to keep it a poignant and human (though a consistently scholarly) read.

Highsmith offers an urban history of Flint from the early 1900s to the present. (Indeed, the epilogue brings the story up to the point of names, organizations, and developments I recognize from my frequent visits home.) In particular, Highsmith wants to understand and outline the institutional and administrative forms of segregation that kept Flint one of the most racially divided cities in America long after the era of Civil Rights. Under the aegis of strong neighborhood schools, for example, the Flint public school system remained effectively segregated until whites were in a clear minority throughout the city.

Highsmith examines the central issue of race and urban policy from several angles over the century. Much of the division began in housing policies at a national level in the inter- and post-War years, in which real estate redlining kept neighborhoods divided and set the foundation for much subsequent de facto segregation. In the era of urban renewal and the coming of the expressways, proponents of development argued for the clearing of predominately black slums like St. Johns, but administrative segregation largely prevented the relocation of these residents (who initially supported neighborhood clearings) from getting much value from their property and finding new homes in an integrated city.

In addition, a ring of largely white suburbs acted quickly to self-incorporate, preventing Flint’s spatial growth and through tough zoning laws blocking the construction of public housing complexes that would result in racial integration (and potentially lower property values). The background to all of this was of course the ebb and flow of the fortunes of General Motors and its complex relationship with the city. If the city of Flint was equated with Buick as the quintessential company town, what happens when Buick dies?

All of this tells a story. It doesn’t give any answers. At the risk of sounding trite though, that’s the point. Highsmith makes the case that America is the story of a thousand Flints, linking the racial and post-industrial challenges of Flint to the nation as a whole. That may be true, but Flint is also importantly unique, enough that its tragedy has a wholly specific resonance, especially to those who grew up in its shadow. This book should be required reading for anyone in or from the Vehicle City, especially anyone who cares about locality and knowing how the place that shaped you was itself shaped.

As T. S. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Invisible Man

Invisible ManInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the first significant accomplishment of my “affirmative action” fiction reading plan for the year. I would have eventually gotten around to reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-fight in Heaven, but I probably would never have read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had I not made a conscious effort this year to read fiction written by minorities. I poled several literary friends on suggestions via Facebook, and this one was at the top of multiple lists.

It was a difficult read, and part of that was probably the point. Ellison’s prose is vivid, almost too vivid, and at times I was overwhelmed with the shear volume of description. He makes you see everything with a cinematographic vision, focusing in on color, sound, texture, and description until the tableau snaps into focus in your mind as though you’re staring a screen. This is especially effective in his description of crowds in the city or of tumultuous scenes of action or disorder. Ellison can describe a march, a mass meeting, and a riot with an almost painful slow-motion exactitude.

It was this slow-motion exactitude that made the book an grueling read in places. Because the plot itself was rather slow and meandering, the places where it slowed down, heavy-laden with description, were sometimes a painfully vivid slog. The story on one level quite simple: a black man whose name is never given (similar somewhat to Swanwick’s bureaucrat in Stations of the Tide) trying to find his place in the world. Yet the point of the book, and Ellison’s genius in describing it, also contributed to making the book a difficult read. I kept trying to put the narrator into my own framework of a clear and upward narrative or personal progression. For an “effective novel,” my mind seemed to keep telling me– or at least my expectations kept waiting for– we’d see the hero conquer personal and exterior difficulties and arrive at a new position of status and success.

But this was frustrated over and over again throughout the novel. From the narrator’s original fall from grace at the southern black college where the book begins to his ultimate disillusionment with the socialist Brotherhood in which he has gained a position in Harlem in the novel’s second half, he– and my narrative sensibilities– are continually stymied. Throughout, I found myself frustrated more with the narrator himself than the situations in which he found himself: he was constantly second-guessing what people thought or expected of him, constantly trying to make himself the person he felt particular social groups or situations expected of him. And then it hit me that this was exactly Ellison’s point and the reason this novel was so significant: this was the story of so many black men in the decades after the Second World War.

It gets a bit at the concept of awkwardness Adam Kotsko discussed in his monograph by the same name. Ellison’s character is constantly awkward: he doesn’t know what is expected of him, he’s constantly stepping into situations– between different social classes in the south, between union and management in the north, between the people and those who represent them in Harlem, between white women and their sexual perceptions of black men– where there simply aren’t social rules for governing interactions. Or where, he keeps believing until his revelation at the novel’s conclusion, he simply doesn’t know them. But that’s the point: this is a world in which a black man has to completely invent himself or forever be at the mercy of other’s expectations. It’s a world in which he doesn’t have a place.

This is a novel about looking through the eyes of others. And it’s uncomfortable, because it makes me realize how my own assumptions about progress, about what works and what doesn’t both dramatically and socially, simply don’t map onto other situations, other experiences, other social and ethnic and cultural groups. The narrator’s experiences portray life for a black man in both the south and the north, portray its frustration, disjoint, and in some respects its sheer randomness.

The narrator first buys into the mode of progress and education represented by his southern black college and the inspired example of its president; when he realizes the futility of this, he attempts to make it in the industrialized north. Eventually he finds a place as an orator and community organizer, but even here he comes to realize that people are less interested in him than how they can use him. Maybe that’s a realization ultimately true for people everywhere, but in the awkwardness and social chaos the narrator has moved through– a constantly shifting landscape in which the default social relationship has been exploitation– it’s a shattering one. No one truly sees him. He is invisible.

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of GlobalizationScience and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization by Efthymios Nicolaidis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The complete history of science in the Christian East remains to be told. But it is certainly a narrative the broad strokes of which need to be outlined, if only because Orthodoxy remains a lacuna in most generalized histories of scientific thought. There are a lot of writings about Greek science, about its transmission, appropriation, and development in Arabic and Islamic contexts, and about its reintroduction to Western Europe. Yet about the Eastern Roman Empire, which endured more or less until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, very little has been said, even less in popular surveys for a non-specialized audience. (One popularization treating the topic, though not focusing specifically on science, is Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium.)

The essential difference between science in the Greek East as opposed to the Latin West is that whereas Europe lost linguist links to the corpus of classical Greek texts, these works were never lost to the eastern, Greek portions of the Roman Empire. The interplay between this knowledge and the rapidly Christianized culture of Byzantium has often been portrayed negatively with the assumption that Greek learning was neglected because it was seen as inconsequential or hostile to Christian theology. Greek culture, so the narrative goes, was decadent, and the scientific knowledge soon flourishing in the Arabic world was stagnant or forgotten in the empire of Constantinople.

As with anything else in history, the closer one looks the more complicated the true picture becomes. Even the high-altitude overview provided by Nicolaidis’s Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization has plenty of room for the wide range of reactions and reassessments of science taking place during this period. Indeed, the relationship between the state, Christianity, and science is the true theme of Nicolaidis’s survey. In this he is consciously following the footsteps of Numbers and Lindberg, and in some respects this volume could even be considered a companion to the two volumes that Lindberg and Numbers have co-edited outlining the relationship between science and Christianity in the West. However, whereas those are collections of essays treating the topic from a broad range of chronological and thematic angles, Nicolaidis’s work is a chronological survey.

The extent of this survey is quite impressive. Nicolaidis begins with the hexaemerons– commentaries on the six days of creation– by the early Christian fathers Basil and Gregory. He hits the familiar points of Byzantine history: the impact of the iconoclastic controversy, hesychasm, and the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204. This final event, Nicolaidis argues, actually had a positive effect on Orthodox science, illustrating the possibility of radical social and cultural change and ushering in the first Byzantine humanist revival as rulers in the new capital of Nicea built a cosmopolitan group of administrators who valued classical learning. The narrative continues all the way into the modern period, chronicling the Orthodox Church’s largely conservative stance toward modern science (Darwinism usually equated with materialism), primarily because it and the modern ideas accompanying were seen as potential threats to the privileged status Christian enjoyed in the Ottoman empire.

In some respects though, this detailed account simply proves the initial assumption that there wasn’t such a thing as Byzantine or Orthodox science. Instead there was a tradition of commentary and preservation of the classical body of Greek learning, at times appreciated and shared and at times viewed with suspicion, depending on the vicissitudes of church and state policy. Nicolaidis’s account is full of Greek scholars from all periods, explaining who they are and what they taught and how in many cases they were essential for transferring texts and knowledge to the West. But true “scientists” or natural philosophers are distinctly lacking. This doesn’t mean that they are not necessarily there, and this account gives lots of potential leads to pursue in a body of work that is remains largely unexplored. Unlike a popular account of Chinese or Arabic science though, which would be rife with examples of breakthroughs or technological developments, the story of science and Eastern Orthodoxy is largely that of continuity, preservation, and tension (albeit not always a negative tension) with the Church.

As an overview, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy is an invaluable introduction to the topic of Greek learning in Byzantium, the Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire, and its successor Balkan states (with the focus on Greece) and the interaction between natural philosophy and Christian thought in these contexts. There are dozens of useful references and sources if one wants to dig deeper into any of the various topics, time periods, or individuals surveyed. For an English-language introduction to the history of science in the Christian East, this is the place to begin.

The First World War

The First World WarThe First World War by John Keegan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are not many books out there about the First World War, and there are even fewer good one-volume popularizations. This might be because the Great War lacks the pathos and the apparent aspects of heroism of its sequel European tragedy. There are no big names that stand out, neither are there many spectacular and critical battles. Nor are there retrospectively clear “good guys” and “bad guys”. The whole thing has the feeling of a mistake, a muddy, avoidable, immense waste of life in which millions of men were sacrificed along fronts that hardly budged, a pointless conflict which saw the dismemberment of three empires: the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian.

I’ve mentioned before that the Great War seemed to be prowling in the background of several books I had read recently: The Remains of the Day, Wittgenstein’s biography, and Logicomix. The truth was that I had plenty of general knowledge about the War but very little specific information. It knew it as an event that set the groundwork for the Second World War, but the actual waging of the war, its antecedents and its outcomes, were pretty vague in my mind. If that’s the case for you as well, Keegan’s book is the antidote.

Keegan’s The First World War is a straightforward narrative of the conflict, beginning with a brief cultural and political survey of Europe at the outbreak of war and ending with an explanation of how the outcome and terms imposed on Germany as well as the way national boundaries were re-drawn in its wake from the ruins of empires set the stage for the Second World War, which Keegan understands as a natural progression of the First. Both these topics– the causes and the results of the war– merit books of their own (which have likely been written), but they show the comprehensive ease that Keegan brings to his topic: treating cultural, political, economic, and technological aspects with enough depth as to be meaningful but never moving beyond the scope of a single-volume treatment.

Between these two chronological bookends, the narrative is that of the progress of the Great War itself, as divided and shifting as the scope of the conflict itself. Most chapters deal with progress (or lack thereof) on the Western Front and the details of the trench warfare involved. Keegan puts in a bit of biography, so that the many commanders involved become at least a bit multidimensional, as well as frequent quotes from letters and accounts of troops on the front. This is one of his great accomplishments of the work: humanizing those who fought, on both sides.

The work is slightly Eurocentric because those are the conflicts for which we have the most detailed sources and accounts, and Keegan draws on them to paint each pointless back and forth with specific details. He is careful to show, however, that the conflict was indeed worldwide. There is plenty of discussion of what was happening on the Eastern front as well, including the ultimate collapse of the Russian armies, and around the world. For example, the conflict in the Middle East, the assault on Germany’s African colonial holdings, and the naval battles of the North Sea are all chronicled. One of the interesting points that Keegan makes and that shapes subsequent narratives of the war is the contrast between the education and background of soldiers on the Eastern versus the Western front: the Eastern front soldiers were often illiterate peasants, so besides a very few surviving accounts such as those by Wittgenstein, our knowledge of the conflicts in the East is much more tenuous, acerbated by the fact that the antagonists in those regions– Russia and the Hapsburg Empire– disintegrated by the war’s end. The conflict there did not “set” in the cultural and literary imagination like the war in the West.

There is history of technology in this treatment as well, though not in detail and not in abundance (which is just about right for a general treatment). Specifically, Keegan discusses the construction of the dreadnought class of warship and their role in the conflict, as well as the coming of tanks used alongside infantry. In his discussion of tactics on the battlefield, he highlights the dawning strategy of armies being considered moveable fortresses and the difficulty in the essential coordination of artillary assault with ground attack. Artillary and massed armies– these were the primary format of the conflict.

The entire treatment is accessible, and the narrative momentum does not bog even when the conflict itself does. Keegan captures both the drama and tragedy of the entire war without simplifying or villainizing either side. Indeed, it is the courtesy and camaraderie often showed across lines even in the face of unmitigated slaughter that seems to strike Keegan most about life in the trenches. Empires died in the Great War, and millions of soldiers, for no clear reason. Yet to treat the whole thing as senseless mistake and therefore ignore it would also be a tragedy. Keegan accomplishes the very difficult by telling the story of the Great War without glorifying or dismissing it.