Monday, March 26, 2012

Another Review of "Getting Oriented"

I was delighted to find that the Reader Views website has given Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan a positive review. You can read it by clicking here.

There is also a new review on the website. While the reviewer is generally positive, she has two reservations, my use of "ah" for "I" by the Southern character, and a scene at the very end of the book. I'd be interested other opinions.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee

According to Publishers Weekly, "This candid autobiography...will richly reward the serious reader." Except that it's not very candid. Bryan Magee, who is apparently gay, says almost nothing about his private life. He says the point of the book is to introduce the reader to philosophy and its history "through the story of one person's encounter with them." But it's not really a history of philosophy, nor is it much of an autobiography.

Rather it is 463 pages of Magee writing about his experiences as a philosophy student at Oxford and at Yale, his successes as a television producer and interviewer, his personal relations with Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell, his experience writing his one novel, his taking a year to write music, his frustrations as a teacher at Oxford (the students didn't really challenge him), his intellectual mid-life crisis, his appreciation of Kant and Schopenhauer, and much more. "Serious reader" means that while Magee is trying to make things clear (and has very critical things to say about philosophers who clothe simple ideas in complex and obscure language), it is not an easy book to read.

I found the book both frustrating and fascinating. Frustrating when I had trouble following the arguments (my bad), fascinating when I could. For example, I have long claimed that virtually everything I know is provisional. Just because every time I drop something it falls does not mean it always will. (Astronauts drop things in the space station and they float.) Karl Popper pointed out that this applies to scientific "laws" generally: They can never be proven true (a million experiments with the same results won't do it); they can only be proven untrue. For example, for a long time it was a scientific law that all swans are white. Then we discovered black swans in Australia.

Magee seems to want to know ultimate reality--whatever that is. I'm not sure what the difference would be between "ultimate" reality and reality. Be that as it may, philosophy students learn early on that because all of the information we have about the world of objects—how they look, sound, smell, taste, and feel—comes from our senses, and since, as we know, our senses can be mistaken or misled (think of magicians), we can never know what anything is "really" like. This seems to bother Magee, but it seems to me to be a non-problem. As long as we understand that our senses can be mistaken and act prudently—the way most of us live most of the time—I do not see the value of "knowing" what this desk, this keyboard, this monitor is "really" like.

For all my frustration, however, I found the Confessions of a Philosopher interesting and stimulating. I plan to let it sit for six months or a year and then read it again.

(By the way, The Modern Library, which published the book, should be ashamed. Two chapters (12 and 14) start without an opening page, another (16) ends by stopping in the middle of a sentence, and yet another has a makeup problem. All in all, a shoddy production.)