Tag Archives: philosophy

Alien Phenomenology

Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a ThingAlien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing by Ian Bogost

What else is there, here, anywhere right now? Anything will do, so long as it reminds us of the awesome plentitude of the alien everyday. (134)

I have been interested in things for a long time. I remember on a visit to an art museum as an undergraduate being fascinated by a scuffed section of worn wooden floor in a corner that I thought deserved as much attention as the exhibits. It seemed to carry such a weight of narrative. Likewise at a conference in Wisconsin I found an old, painted heat register in a corner of a museum next to a forgotten chair, and I was struck by its quiet gravity. For me, objects became a way of connecting to the stories that had washed over them like waves. Who else had seen, touched, forgotten this?

I am attracted to environments in a similar same way: who has been here before? Wandering through the empty halls of the Union League Club in Chicago or the streets of Oxford or Venice, the details of pavement or chipping plaster or window or stone seem so heavy, so linked to human stories and remembering but so resolutely independent of me and my own. My photography often seeks to highlight these details.

In the natural world that human touch is more distant, but especially in my Midwestern home it is never absent: who else has walked this way or will again? Who else is weaving prairie, trail, ash tree, railroad embankment, rutted farm road, wind-turbined horizon, and cumulus into the human story?

All of these considerations though are intensely anthropocentric. I find significance and beauty in these things because I’m constantly linking them to the human narrative, even when they strike me primarily due to their distance to my own personal narrative: I’ll never know all the details of this particular grove of poplars or this weathered barn, but they would have no significance at all if I wasn’t here to wonder about them. Would they?

For Ian Bogost, this is just another example of our tendency to view everything through a correlationist lens: to see the ontological significance of things from an anthropocentric view. Bogost sees this reflected in both the scientific endeavor (which seeks to harness and utilize the universe for human use) and the humanities (which evaluate everything according to the human narrative):

[B]oth perspectives embody the correlationist conceit. The scientists believes in reality apart from human life, but it is a reality excavated for human exploitation. The scientific process cares less for reality itself than it does for the discoverability of reality through human ingenuity. Likewise, the humanist doesn’t believe in the world except as a structure erected in the interest of human culture. Like a mirror image of the scientist, the humanist mostly seeks to mine particular forms of culture, often suggesting aspects of it that must be overcome through abstract notions of resistance or revolution. “Look at me!” shout both the scientist and the humanist. “Look what I have uncovered!” (14)

I don’t know that I buy Bogost’s critique of the scientist, as I think it’s often the scientific endeavor that yields insights that do the most to challenge our anthropocentric views. For instance, during a show about exoplanets in the planetarium years ago, thick with scientific descriptions of stone and surface temperature and wind speeds, a friend of mine asked not the how do we know question of science but the what does it mean question of philosophy. What does it mean that there are these physical places where rocks are being weathered and clouds are drifting through skies that we will never experience? We want to maintain that they are physically significant (I might even say holy, in the eyes of an orthodox Christian materialism). But they are outside the mediation of mankind. This is part of my fascination with Bogost’s philosophical view, known as object oriented ontology (OOO): it seems a compelling way to grapple with some of these questions. What do I do with the reality of objects that have no bearing whatsoever on the human narrative?

Bogost’s work is short, compelling, and more engagingly written than any piece of philosophy I have read in a long time. I won’t be able to do justice to his treatment, which also provides a helpful introduction to the handful of other philosophers that are pursuing this line of thought. In short, Bogost argues for a flat ontology, a way of perceiving the world in which objects and their relationships are given as much ontological significance as possible, regardless of their relationship with the human perspective:

In a flat ontology, the bubbling skin of the capsaicin pepper holds just as much interest as the culinary history of the enchilada it is destined to top. (17)

And quoting Harman: object-oriented philosophy holds that the relation of humans to pollen, oxygen, eagles, or windmills is no different in kind from the interaction of these objects with each other . . . For we ourselves, just like Neanderthals, sparrows, mushrooms, and dirt, have never done anything else than act amidst the bustle of other actants. (39)

There are some obvious issues with such a view, for one thing the apparent paradox that Bogost never really qualifies what he means by “thing,” so that at times he’s talking about discrete physical objects but at other times he discusses ideas or even systems or institutions (“criminal justice system”) that are human constructs. It’s difficult to see how one can argue for the independent significance of objects that clearly only arise through the human narrative itself. Likewise, it’s hard to take seriously a philosophy that discusses how objects might perceive each other or that tries to deconstruct objects into their smaller units when those units at times only have conceptual existence in the human mind.

To be fair, Bogost recognizes both the alienness and the difficulty in his task, and he qualifies much of what he is doing as speculative analogy or even poetry, with an intention more of challenging the way we think about the world than arriving at actual insights on the nature of things.

Speculation isn’t just poetic, but it’s partly so, a creative act that beings conduct as they gaze earnestly but bemusedly at one another. Everything whatsoever is like people on a subway, crunched together into uncomfortable intimate contact with strangers. (31)

This is why Bogost’s work is interspersed with poetry, which ironically returns us to the anthropological centricism of humans interpreting their universe. Yet that’s okay for Bogost, as long as we recognize the creative endeavor of attempting to interpret the universe but without stubbornly maintaining ourselves at the center. It’s a sort of philosophical, ontological Copernican revolution, and its results of course will inform our poetry and our expression, as Bogost provides multiple examples of.

Bogost more than anything wants us to be aware, to appreciate the things for themselves, as he appreciates antiquated computer systems not simply for what they represent about human ingenuity or design but because (as offered in some of his most compelling examples) they have intrinsic value and they are worth the effort expended in analyzing their function for its own sake. Bogost is an engineer-mystic, and he writes what a philosophical treatise should be at the core, a discussion of things that are, of ways to see the world.

Object oriented ontology is compelling to me because it emphasizes the reality of the world, of distant galaxies and the axial spin of the quaking neutron stars in those galaxies, the condensation of methane and the whorls of cloud and the fragmented feldspar on the moons of gas giants in those galaxies—the reality of those things outside the reach of my own knowledge. A flat ontology says they are all equally significant, utterly regardless of human cognition. They must remain alien, as alien and unknowable in their essence as the plastic molded Lego lid or the woven textile couch cushion or the jadite cup and saucer beside me. They have their own existence, yes, but also their own unknowable stories, tensions, and relations beyond me. And why not? I am after all one who rides largely unaware of the processes in my own body and mind, a sliver of consciousness in a rambling, unknown house. Everywhere there is wonder and ignorance.

Bogost again, quoting lines by Zhdanov:
Either the letters cannot be understood, or
their grand scale is unbearable to the eye—
what remains is the red wind in the field,
with the name of rose on its lips.

Yet I can’t go as far as Bogost because I can’t give up the human role of mediating the universe, of the primacy of human experience. Aspects of OOO suit my ideas of an orthodox Christian materialism but at the same time undermine the theological role of humans. Every person brings you Christ. Every place, every object, holds God. This might be where the flat ontology of Bogost is at odds with an orthodox Christian materialism. They agree that all is significant, but OCM says because everything is holy, where OOO simply says because everything is.

After Virtue

After Virtue: A Study in Moral TheoryAfter Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

MacIntyre wants to understand virtue. In particular, he wants to know not so much why virtue seems to be lacking in society today (this isn’t book moralizing on the problems of a post-modern society); rather, he wants to know why social discourse about virtue seems so incommensurate, so broken, so pointless. My first thought on reading the initial portions of this book was that he was simply critiquing the advent of post-modernity, but what he’s actually doing is something more sophisticated and systematic. Yes, he’s acknowledging that our dialogue on any sort of moral issues or claims seems to be absolutely stymied today, but he wants to rigorously explain why and analyze how it came to be this way. And the answer, according to his historical and philosophical treatment, is the loss of Aristotelian virtue ethics.

After Virtue is largely a historical analysis of virtue. MacIntyre’s central claim is that moral discourse is broken because there are no central agreed-upon premises to begin with and that historically Aristotelian virtue ethics has proven one of the most fertile starting grounds for questions of morality and ways of living. (I admit the philosophical sophistication of this work was such that my review may simplify to the point of obscuring.) He’s careful not to idealize Aristotle’s system of virtue, and he points out the failings and shortcomings of the Philosopher’s model, but historically he looks at the primary aspects of Aristotelian ethics, how they were abandoned in the Enlightenment, and the failure of the Enlightenment project to construct alternative groundings for morality.

There are two central aspects to MacIntyre’s reading of Aristotle’s concept of the virtues, two primary characteristics the abandonment of which have bankrupted societal dialogue and endeavors on morality today. For MacIntyre (as for Aristotle) an understand of virtue was tied to an understanding of the good of man—the intended end or telos of humanity—not as individuals (the individual rights and internal morality that have dictated how we talk about these things since the Enlightenment is a central problem for MacIntyre) but as the good of communities. A community exists and evaluates virtue in terms of those things that are useful between individuals in relationship with one another for the good of the community.

But this isn’t a utilitarian good; MacIntyre’s resurrection of Aristotelian telos is something more philosophically nuanced. It is related to the internal goods of practices, for instance, and here’s where his argument seemed most profound (and most apt to slip away from me). Internal goods are those goods that are intrinsic to the practice itself (excellence in the practice of chess-playing or baseball, for instance), as opposed to external goods (money, fame) that might be found through those practices but aren’t the intrinsic telos of the practice itself. If we lose a sense of humans in community working toward common, intrinsically-valuable ends, sharing practices that have internal goods—if we give this up for an Enlightenment sense of atomistic individuals pursuing their own self-interest—then MacIntyre says we don’t have a grounds to understand virtue.

The second aspect was that virtue can only exist in the context of narrative, also tied to Aristotelian views of telos. If we don’t have a clear understanding of our own story, of our own participation in narrative, and of our communities and institutions as also having narratives, then we won’t have a grounding for understanding virtue that is defined in terms of ends and intrinsic goods. Aristotle writes that it’s impossible to say someone has been happy until their death, until their story has played out. MacIntyre says profound things in this work (quotes I wish I would have saved, as they speak directly to the power of narrative) about the necessity of narrative and the view of humanity in a narrative structure to our understanding (or lack thereof) regarding virtue.

The problem with this book is illustrated by the fumbling manner in which I’m generalizing and vaguely pointing to the different aspects of the work. In reading it, one can follow MacIntyre’s thick analysis more or less. He’s building an argument for something that seems quite counter to modern analytical philosophy, but because he wants to engage philosophers he has to do it in a very careful and analytical manner. But because his ideas are radically different—a view that ethics and morality as a logical, analytical exercise is vacuous and things like history and narrative and practice have to come into play—he’s constantly reaching beyond analytical philosophy to make a bigger argument. It’s an argument that has a direct bearing on how we live (something that also makes it perhaps unique among analytical philosophies), yet it’s a book that’s out of reach of most, I fear. It would be ideal if there were a quality popularization of this work, something that pulled out MacIntyre’s central themes and set them out for the interested undergraduate or popular reader.

MacIntyre’s work has been influential (there’s a paper, for instance, in the latest issue of ISIS, applying MacIntyre’s concept of goods internal to a practice to the practice of science), but I’m not sure whether such an explanatory derivative work based on After Virtue exists. The posts of Father Stephen, an orthodox priest who maintains a popular blog, often draw on his arguments and in fact were where I realized I should probably read this book. (I don’t have an excuse for waiting so long, as an undergraduate roommate did his thesis on virtue ethics, and I ran into MacIntyre at least once during my time at Notre Dame.) Father Stephen goes so far as to say that he finds it useless to have discussions about modern morality (or lack thereof) unless his interlocutors have first read McIntyre’s work. I find that frustrating, as I imagine most people would find this book difficult going indeed. But the central concepts here are indeed crucial and deserve a far wider hearing. Indeed, the energy that most of us use arguing about morality, I would venture, would be far better applied to attempting to work through MacIntyre’s analysis.

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.


AwkwardnessAwkwardness by Adam Kotsko

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I should write a truly awkward review of this book. It would start, perhaps, with stories about my best friend in high school dating the author’s sister. But it would be largely irrelevant, except perhaps to illustrate the point Kotsko makes at the beginning of this text: we live in an age of awkwardness. It’s become a recognizable and indeed ubiquitous social symptom. Our generation seems to find itself almost daily in social situations in which we don’t know the appropriate roles or cues to follow. We live awkwardly, sometimes painfully so. Paradoxically though, this very fact is celebrated in popular media– or at least, used as the centerpiece for the forms of television comedy the analysis of which make up the backbone of Kotsko’s cultural exploration.

Kotsko begins his short, cogent, and ultimately encouraging examination of awkwardness with a brief philosophical reflection on awkwardness and a historical survey aimed at explaining its origins. Philosophically, Kotsko represents awkwardness in terms of Heidegger’s insight that relationship is fundamental to our existence. Kotsko argues awkwardness should be understood as a breakdown in social norms, analogous in human relationships to the breakdown in norms Heidegger analyzed related to boredom and death. Historically, Kotsko finds the origins of our awkward age in the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. Briefly, the argument is that though these social upheavals did away with many of the constrictive social norms governing relationships (whether between classes, genders, or races), they did nothing to replace them. People learned the importance of cultural sensitivity and the dangers of political incorrectness, but rather than liberation the result was fear of offending by saying the wrong thing. By our generation, people quite simply don’t know how to response appropriately to many social situations. In the 1990s, the cultural recourse was retreat into irony– simply saying thing that weren’t meant– which leads us to Seinfeld.

The thing that makes Kotsko’s cultural examination so compelling is that it is a lens to understand television shows and films we’ve all seen in a broader social context (or, alternatively, using these shows to understand that broader context). This analysis of television comedy is the meat of his work. Kotsko proposes to examined three forms of awkwardness using three popular television or movie examples. The first of these is “everyday awkwardness,” the awkwardness of the workplace, exemplified in The Office. Kotsko here contrasts the American version with the British to argue that everyday awkwardness is not, as often perceived, simply the presence of inherently awkward people. This is the premise of the American version, where Dwight and Michael are “intrinsically” awkward, whereas Pam and Jim are completely normal. The genius of the British version, Kotsko argues, is that it illustrates that awkwardness is something created by the work environment itself. In this analysis, Ricky Gervais’s character in the British version is the creation of this white-collar environment in which roles, responsibility, and motivations are unclear, not an aberration.

The second form of awkwardness Kotsko explores is “cultural awkwardness.” Whereas everyday awkwardness arises from a work environment that cannot provide a stable social order, cultural awkwardness comes from cultural establishments themselves that fail to do so, particularly the idea of marriage and family. The lens he choses here are the films of Judd Apatow. Apatow movies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up focus on the awkward transition from an extended adolescence or stunted adulthood into the (perceived) healthy, actualized maturity of a committed relationship. What these films illustrate though is that even this pillar of American values has become an awkward transition– one so difficult, Apatow seems to suggest, it can only be successfully navigated by the equally awkward male bonding or “bromance” functioning as a release valve to compensate for this difficulty.

Finally, Kotsko examines the work of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm as an example of what he refers to as “radical awkwardness,” the awkwardness that arises when social norms break down entirely, primarily through interactions between different social groups or classes with overlapping or contradictory social norms. Larry is a Jewish man from New York interacting with successful Hollywood stars, and much of the awkward comedy from this show, Kotsko relates, comes from Larry trying and failing to integrate into these social structures. This is also where Kotsko makes his most audacious claim about awkwardness: that it can help us understand St. Paul’s instructions to the Romans regarding the law and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles living in community in the early Christian church.

Rather than flee from awkwardness or try to eliminate it by allowing one group to assimilate the social structures of another, Kotsko says we should understand St. Paul’s instructions as an appeal for a community in which awkwardness is embraced because it forces us to accept others as they are with all the messy awkwardness this entails. Instead of shunning or avoided awkwardness, Kotsko concludes, using a particularly powerful illustration from Curb Your Enthusiasm, awkwardness should be embraced. When this happens, he suggests, there can be freedom, acceptance, and joy.

Two points occurred to me that could have been explored further, though their omission does not take away from Kotsko’s central argument. The first is the question of radical awkwardness within families. If awkwardness is the breakdown of social norms, how should we understand the fact that some of the most awkward situations arise between people of shared social and familial backgrounds? Is this simply an example of how radically insufficient these norms have become? Second, it seems that there’s a technological aspect to all this. Is there room in the analysis of awkwardness for technological awkwardness, arising from the growth of devices and communication that have outstripped the ability of social conventions to evolve alongside? The fact that I don’t know how to socially interact with someone who seldom raises his or her eyes from a mobile device, for instance, as well as the socially awkward aspects of internet anonymity (or lack thereof) and trolling, seem especially poignant today and worthy of inclusion in an analysis of awkwardness.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of GeniusLudwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ludwig Wittgenstein is widely regarded to be the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. I’ve never read his first and most well-known work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but I know something of its influence through a course on the Vienna Circle, the inter-war group of European philosophers who left their indelible mark on modern theorizing regarding science and language. Wittgenstein also shows up as a peripheral character in Logicomix, a wonderful graphic novel on the intersection between mathematics and philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century, which I reviewed here. It was my recent re-reading of Logicomix that spurred me to learn more about Wittgenstein himself. Monk’s authoritative biography seemed the place to begin.

I was not disappointed. Monk paints a vivid portrait of Wittgenstein as an individual and as a philosopher. This is the challenge of any biography, I suppose: to balance the cultural and historical background of a person’s age with the personal and emotional foreground of the individual’s own psyche and link this to an understanding of how a person creates or does whatever it is that makes her or him worthy of having a biography written. Monk does this expertly– no small accomplishment, because for Wittgenstein all three of these aspects are so complex.

Wittgenstein was born in 1889 to a large Viennese family. His father was a wealthy industrialist, and the Wittgenstein fortune (in which Ludwig ultimately disowned his portion of the inheritance) provides his initial and immediate background. Two of his older brothers committed suicide, and Wittgenstein himself struggled with emotional turmoil throughout his life. To be wealthy in Vienna before the Great War (as well as after, due to his father’s expert handling of money) carried with it a certain cultural heritage: Wittgenstein was very much a child of the twilight of the Romantic era.

But “the duty of genius,” as Monk very appropriately subtitles his work, is very clear in Wittgenstein’s life from the beginning. He was constantly pushing beyond the comfortable life that he could easily have had with his background. Throughout the book (and thus throughout Wittgenstein’s life) Monk represents him as possessing a painful intellectual honesty. This drove Wittgenstein to study the foundations of mathematics in Cambridge with Bertrand Russell, but it ultimately drove him to try to experience life fully. Pure philosophizing was never enough. When the Great War broke out, Wittgenstein enlisted as a common soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was here, in the milieu of true existential crisis– both for him personally, posted alone on night duty in combat operations and for Europe writ large as the empire in which his home was the capital crumbled– that he composed his Tractatus.

Though I haven’t yet read it, Monk plays deftly enough with the second important thread of his narrative– what Wittgenstein was actually doing in philosophy– that even the general reader can get some glimpses of why this was significant. Theorizing was not enough for Wittgenstein. Experience and language were central to the philosophizing endeavor. The true meaning of the world, Wittgenstein wrote, would never be expressed in the world itself. The meaning of the system was somehow beyond the system; this was what philosophy alone could never touch, and Monk shows how the background of Wittgenstein’s religious beliefs played out against this as well. Ironically, it was this realization, that there were things on which we must pass over in silence, things that philosophy could never address, that was interpreted exactly backward by the Vienna Circle.

Immediately after the War, Wittgenstein trained to be a primary school teacher and attempted to live out his philosophy by teaching students in the rural Austrian Alps. This was unsuccessful, and after this he traveled between his home in Vienna, a cabin in Norway, and Cambridge, ultimately returning there to lecture in philosophy, though he was never comfortable in the academic setting. Monk here takes what could be rather tedious narrative and keeps the character of Wittgenstein alive: the wandering, tortured, emotionally isolated and yet intensely emotional philosopher who teaches philosophy eccentrically, damning the philosophical establishment the entire time. After Germany absorbs Austria and the Second World War broke out, he was quite literally a man without a homeland (and here Monk offers insightful comments on Wittgenstein’s Jewish ancestry and how this played out for Wittgenstein personally). Wittgenstein passed the remainder of his life boarding with various friends, admirers, and former students, writing, editing, and rewriting (but never publishing) his later philosophical works.

An easy response to a biography like this is to ask, so after all, what did Wittgenstein do exactly? What happened to him? Why is he worth over 500 pages? And in some ways the answer is simply: he did not do much. He thought and wrote. He lived and tried to love. He wrote angst-filled letters, which provide Monk much of his source material, complemented by interviews with many of the surviving characters in this story. And yet Wittgenstein changed the climate of philosophical thought itself. He trained philosophers to ask questions honestly, to try to understand what they were doing, and then he encouraged them to go get useful employment as doctors or laborers. He tried to do this himself but always came back to writing.

He was sure he would be misunderstood. He often was.

I don’t know enough about Wittgenstein to know whether Monk has misunderstood him. I feel like– as with Hankins’ excellent biography of William Rowan Hamilton– Monk has explained– or rather, has held up for examination– what it is that most of us can only hope for: the fertile combination of a life lived with thoughts thought. Wittgenstein is remembered for his thoughts, for what he wrote about the nature of philosophy, truth, language, and perception. But as Monk has very expertly shown, these thoughts arose from a life lived in a great deal of pain, loneliness, discouragement, frustration, and (perhaps contributing to much of the things just listed) a relentless drive to be intellectually honest. To think and to speak clearly, as Wittgenstein attempted, is often the most difficult task of all. To write the account of someone who tried to live doing just that is also intensely difficult, but Monk has succeeded here with care and with a great deal of pathos.


Logicomix: An Epic Search for TruthLogicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine a history book that examines the philosophical foundations of mathematics, specifically the quest that culminated in the years leading up to the First World War to establish all mathematical reasoning on a firm logical basis. That book would have a lot of ground to cover. It would have to disentangle some complex mathematics to present to the non-specialist in a meaningful way, as well as shed light on the manic, driven, fascinating characters behind this story, people like Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, David Hilbert, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Finally, it would need to give at least some light to the background historic scaffolding upon which this drama played out: the turn of the century, the First World War, the rise of Nazism, and interwar Vienna. At tall order for any book, let alone a comic book.

So now imagine that book as a graphic novel—moreover, as a graphic novel that succeeds at all these tasks. That’s what you’ve got with Logicomix, a complex, stirring, well-executed, multi-layer work that brings to life one of the most compelling chapters of mathematical and philosophical history. In a general sense, the graphic novel (which is hefty, weighing in at over 300 pages not counting the reference material at the end) could be considered a stylized biography of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), 3rd Earl Russell, the British logician and grandson of the Prime Minister, who began his career with an attempt to bring logical rigor to all mathematical reasoning.

Beyond Russell’s stylized biography (stylized because the historical interactions in the graphic novel are artfully fudged for better dramatic effect), the narrative of Logicomix plays out on three levels. Level one is the primary chronological narrative, but level two is the fact that this primary narrative is presented as a lecture delivered by the aging Russell in America near the end of his career. Hecklers in the audience want to know whether Russell, who was famous for his conscientious objections during the First World War, will join them in protesting America’s entry into the Second. Russell promises them their answer in the lecture, and these interactions, as Russell summarizes his career and offers insights on the role of logic in human affairs, bookend the first level narrative and interrupt it occasionally as audience members get rowdy or impatient.

This first narrative—the series of chronological flashbacks forming Russell’s lecture—is the main medium of the story telling in Logicomix. We see Russell as a young, troubled child in an authoritarian home finding the basis of truth and certainty in mathematics. As a student in Cambridge, Russell becomes obsessed with the logical foundations of mathematics, catalyzed by the 1900 challenge of David Hilbert and using the new logical formalism of Gottlob Frege to establish mathematics on completely rigorous, firm foundations. This is the work he spends the first decades of his career on, collaborating with Alfred North Whitehead to produce their Principia Mathematica, which—as Russell recounts wryly—took over 200 pages to prove that 1 plus 1 equals 2.

If this sounds like the stuff of esoteric mathematics, it is. But the success of Logicomix is making the story—which depends on the mathematics—both accessible and engaging. It provides enough of the technical details for the reader to get a conceptual notion of set theory, upon which Russell’s work rested, and the damning implications of Russell’s paradox, which undermined these very foundations. The narrative continues, always through Russell’s eyes though his own work leaves the center stage, to explore Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the rise and fall of the Vienna Circle on the eve of the Second World War.

It’s not quite history (as the authors admit they’ve altered the timeline a bit to make Russell have meetings with characters that he likely never met), but it is a sweeping and effective story of people and their ideas. It’s not quite philosophy or mathematics either, but there’s enough of both to make Logicomix intellectually rich and rewarding—from the logical puzzles themselves (boiled down to their conceptual themes) to exploration of philosophical approaches to mathematics, contrasting Gödel’s Platonic to Poincare’s inductive to Wittgenstein’s linguistic approach to the true meaning of mathematics and its relation to the physical world or the human mind. It’s a story with meat on its bones, executed in bright, clean, understated art that brings the characters and the locales to life without overshadowing the concepts it explores.

As with history of thought done well, the book is as much about the people as the ideas with which they wrestled. One of the primary themes in is the question of the sort of mind or personality it takes to devote a life to wrestling with the basics of logic. We see this most with Russell and the background of madness he worked and fought against, as well as in the periphery characters of Cantor, Frege, Gödel, and Hilbert. The close relationship between madness and logic—as well as questions of the place of logic in life—are explored by Russell himself in the course of his lecture and by the authors and artists of the book as they make their appearance (and interact with the reader) throughout in the third “meta” level of the narrative.

It is this third level of narrative—and the balance it takes to run an additional narrative overtop of Russell’s lecture and his chronological flashbacks—that pushes Logicomix in some of its most interesting directions. This meta narrative represents the self-referential nature of the book itself (nicely complimenting the theme of paradox in logic arising through self-reference, as in the case of Russell’s set theory paradox and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem): the authors and artists are characters in their own book, working in modern Athens to write about Russell and the logical foundations of mathematics. We are invited into their studio to witness the discussions between them as they work. In this way, we simultaneously receive additional background to what happens before and after the events of the novel, the rational behind their specific approaches, and what we as readers are supposed to take from the story. As a bonus, we learn a lot about ancient Greek tragedy as well, which, tied elegantly to the discussion of logic and madness at the book’s conclusion, brings the work to its poignant conclusion.

Self-reference does not work well in logic and mathematical proof, but it does quite nicely in literature (The Neverending Story, Gene Wolfe’s Peace, and The Princess Bride immediately spring to mind). There are other parallels to draw between the axiomatic formalism of mathematics and the rules and consistency that govern storytelling, but that is a post for another time. Suffice it to say, Logicomix is incredibly rewarding and opens to door to a host of further readings in history, mathematics, philosophy, and logic, aided and abetted by the helpful reference section at the end. Not many books I read merit the creation of an entire new shelf of “to read” books on Goodreads, but this one did.

The Idea of a Christian College

The Idea of a Christian CollegeThe Idea of a Christian College by Arthur F. Holmes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m still not convinced there is such a thing as “Christian scholarship.” A weak version of the definition of such a thing might be that it is simply the recognition that all scholars carry presuppositions and assumptions into their work. The Christian’s will be Christian and should have the same bearing as a materialist’s, as long as such presuppositions are acknowledged. A stronger version of the definition of Christian scholarship would be that because all truth is God’s truth, all real scholarship is Christian scholarship. Both of these seem to me so wide as to be non-definitions. At the end of the day, Christian scholarship is simply that which is produced by Christian scholars. Much of it cannot be (and should not be) distinguished from the scholarly work of a secular scholar. The only real difference is the life of the person creating it.

In this respect, to me it seems that more important than the question of what is Christian scholarship are questions of what a Christian scholar looks like, what the role of scholarship in the life of the Christian is, and what sort of environment can best cultivate and articulate answers to these questions. It is the last of these questions that Arthur Holmes, a philosopher who spent the majority of his career at Wheaton College, sets out to explore in his book on the nature of Christian education at Christian colleges. (The cover of my edition says that this is a “Philosophy of Chr. Ed for Laymen,” but the cover also looks like it was designed by a seven-year-old, so I’m not sure how seriously to take that designation.)

For Holmes, Christian scholarship depends on the integration of faith and learning. This can happen in many different contexts, but Holmes is writing specifically for one context: that of a Christian liberal arts college. The distinction between a liberal arts college and vocational schools—seminaries or Bible colleges, for instance, in the Christian tradition—is a very important one. A liberal arts education, Holmes explains, is specially suited for the cultivation of Christian scholarship, because it is here that careful philosophical thought is nurtured and Christians develop the tools for a critical examination of both their own assumptions and those of others. A Christian liberal arts college needs to be a place where the virtue-forming aspects of education are emphasized: not “what can this education do for me?” but “what will this education do to me?”

This is a slender, highly accessible volume, similar in size and scope to the more recent “reexamination” of the topic (with the same title) by Reams and Glazer that I reviewed not long ago. Perhaps because I read the Reams/Glazer work first, there was much of the Holmes volume that did not seem new (though Holmes’ prose is sharper, and his philosophical training shows through to good effect in comparison to the latter volume). The primary point of departure between Reams/Glazer and Holmes is that Holmes focuses on a very specific type of institution, while Reams/Glazer attempt to update and expand this to the “Christian research university.”

Holmes’ book, though originally written in the 70s, remains a very relevant challenge and warning to Christian higher education today. This is encapsulated in a quote that Reams and Glanzer re-use as an epigram for one of their own chapters:

A community that argues ideas only in the classroom,
a teacher whose work seems a chore,
a student who never reads a thing beyond what is assigned,
a campus that empties itself of life and thought all weekend,
an attitude that devaluates disciplined study in comparison with rival claimants on time and energy,
a dominant concern for job-preparation
—these can never produce a climate of learning.

At least from my experience, these warnings ring very true.

I found his articulation of the purpose of a liberal arts education most compelling:

The question to ask about education, then, is not, “What can I do with all this stuff anyway?” because both I and my world are changing, but rather “What will all this stuff do to me?” This question is basic to the concept of liberal arts education.

I want my students to understand this. The goal of education is not to present certain bodies of information by the most entertaining, engaging, and effective means possible. There’s nothing wrong with doing this, but that’s vocational training. A liberal arts education is about beginning a conversation—with scholars and texts and ideas—that will continue for life. Not with the goal of getting a certain type of job or certification but with the goal of becoming a certain kind of person.

Holmes also has vital things to say about academic freedom at Christian colleges and the balance between remaining a community of faith and yet not existing to indoctrinate students into a particular school of thought: A college is Christian in that it does its work in a Christian way, not by encouraging an unthinking faith to counterbalance faithless thought. Students and faculty must have the freedom to question and explore with diligence, reason, and humility. In a Christian college this ideal takes place in the context of community. Liberty without loyalty is not Christian, but loyalty without the liberty to think for oneself is not education.

I’d like to think most Christian college administrators and faculty are familiar with this book. I’d really, really like to think that. In the meantime, I’ll be asking my honors students to read portions of it in the fall.