Pheagan’s #CBR5 Review #4: Logicomix by Apostolis Doxiadis

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Logicomix purports to be a comical history of Bertrand Russell, philosophy’s prolific giant, and through him an account of how the logical positivist school of philosophy came to be.

A brief background. At the beginning of the century, philosophy experienced a split. Some philosophers, many of them mathematicians, grew interested in applying mathematical rigor to the field of logic, which at that point hadn’t progressed much further than Aristotelian syllogistic logic (the old “All men are philosophers, Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is a philosopher” schtick). If we use logic to argue, and we hope to get anywhere instead of disputing the same problems over and over again (and believe me, this is kind of a Thing in philosophy), then the tools we use must be capable of providing the same kind of clear and obvious answers as mathematics. This is also known as the Anglophonic school of philosophy or the Vienna circle, since anti-Semetic sentiment on the continental side pushed a lot of amazing Jewish mathematical logicians to pursue their project among the English philosophers, and they most often met in the neutral territory of Vienna. This brain drain also explains why Continental philosophy is such dreck. Kidding, sort of. That is the basic prejudice among students who come up in English-speaking philosophy departments, and I for one would take Wittgenstein over Hegel any day.

Since I love comics and philosophy, I was destined to read this comic. It’s pretty well done, but doesn’t offer a whole lot for a philosophy student. The basic genesis and movement of the project is sketched pretty well for the layman and serves as a good entry point for anyone who’s interested in this kind of thing. I would certainly offer it in a 101 course. It also does a great job at illustrating just why this stuff is important– I mean, if you’re going to read Russell’s early articles about logical atomism it can be hard to see why anyone could care about the difference between “all” and “every”– John Searle says the mark of a philosopher is an obsession with things that most people consider trivial and take for granted. What makes the logical positivist project such a compelling adventure and such a tragic failure is that it is an absolutely earnest search for the truth– and Doxiadis gets this. I’d almost call this comic dangerous because it makes philosophy seem so much more exciting than it really is (get ready to debate whether a truth-functional or probabilistic analysis of counterfactuals is best, guys!). Also, the analysis is so simplistic that I think more than one student of the anglophonic tradition would straight up disagree with Doxiadis’s characterization. That being said, it was a very nice history. It was pleasing to see Russell’s interactions with Frege and Whitehead, and seeing Wittgenstein’s brand of crazy is always fun– you don’t even need to be interested in philosophy to find a biography of that guy entertaining. I would most recommend it to computer programmers– for those of you who find philosophy useless, not only can you trace computer coding back to philosophers, you can thank Thales of Miletus for the futures market.

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as anything more than candy for the serious philosophy student, I would absolutely recommend it to anyone interested in seeing what philosophy is about now. We’ve gotten past “I think, therefore I am”. And please stop asking me about the meaning of life.

Pheagan’s #CBR5 Review #03: Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

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     Did anyone else always think it was Portrait of Dorian Gray? I kept turning to the cover page in wonder as I read this book. Picture seems like such a pedestrian word for the likes of Oscar Wilde. Also, that stupid movie with that Narnia guy follows the book more closely than I would have guessed, at least in the beginning.

 

     Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales sustained me during a bad period in my life. Everyone knows Wilde is funny and analytic and good at turning phrases, but what made me love those stories was their heart, their moral center.  

 

     The book, like its protagonist, is without one. That’s not exactly a bad thing. Picture of Dorian Gray is an examination of heartlessness, and it doesn’t miss its intentions. It is hard to read, however. I didn’t like anyone in it, and wasn’t supposed to. Its analysis would be useful to these times. After all, in this age it’s enough to achieve something more or less good even if the aim is not goodness but self-aggrandizement (looking at you, Bono, you tax-evading Africa-infantilizing hypocrite). So long as you’re not Charlie Sheen, we’re willing to find a lack of something to condemn as commendable. In Wilde’s world, though, character begins in the center, and not in its effects. When Dorian Gray vows to change his way more out of fear and curiosity, the blood on his portrait’s hands shines more. Also instructional is the poison of influence. Look at the debates about guns and everyone agrees that the responsibility lies ultimately in the wielder of them. We may disagree about the degree of influence entertainment or the media or the NRA has, but we can all agree that they are not the end, and thus find it easier to dismiss them as any kind of means at all. Wilde illustrates exactly how strong influence can be, however, and while I agree with personal accountability, Wilde makes it clear how far astray weak people can be led, how powerful influence is, and how much more appealing bad influences are than good.

 

     I do believe Oscar Wilde was a good man, and goodness was important to him, and is at the center of everything of his I’ve read. Bad is still more appealing these days, and a lot of people are drawn to Wilde’s writing because he captures the humor and glamor of bad people so well. They seem to miss that Wilde isn’t holding them up as examples of what to be, but what should be avoided. They might make you laugh, but it’s the emptiness of the laughter that is important, not the cleverness of the joke.

     

Pheagan’s #CBRV Review #02: The Pearl Diver by Jeff Telarigo

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Fair warning– the author of this book is my coworker, Jeff Telarigo. We teach at the same school. I had been meaning to read his books for a while, but it wasn’t until I had a flight that I picked it up for a bit of plane reading. I was hoping I would at least enjoy it enough not to have to withhold my opinion from him, but it far, far, far exceeded my expectations. I finished before we landed and wouldn’t talk to my boyfriend the whole time. I also cried in an airport restaurant on the layover. Embarrassing.

The Pearl Diver is the story of a young Japanese pearl diver who is diagnosed with leprosy. She is sent to a leper’s colony just before a cure was found. Even though there is a cure and the state of her disease (which is mild) is arrested, and even though leper colonies rapidly began to disappear from the world, Japan’s leper colonies and policy of absolute quarantine have lasted into the millennium. There are still people in Nagashima today, mostly because it is impossible to reintegrate them into society. I know from talking to Jeff that he spent quite a bit of time at Nagashima researching the book with his son. The structure of the book is based on a museum one of the lepers was constructing at the time– each museum artifact tells a story. Jeff lived in Japan for a number of years, married a Japanese woman, and speaks the language, so the setting and culture is accurate– at least according to the Japanese students at our school who have read it. Almost everything in the book is true with the exception of the protagonist, through whose eyes we see the story unfold.

Upon entry to the Nagashima island leprosy camp, the Pearl Diver loses her name and chooses a new one- Miss Fuji, a name she chooses based on a fond memory of a trip to the mountain with her uncle. She endures the eradication of her life and adjusts to life on the colony, becoming a caretaker of those whose condition had deteriorated well before the treatment was introduced. The secondary characters are drawn with minimal but meaningful strokes. The colony can’t erase who the lepers were before they came to the island, and their attempts to create a meaningful life on the island is the joy and tragedy of this book. No one is made a saint, however. Personalities are bruised and distorted. No one is who they would have been if they’d had a chance at a normal life. There is hope and there is courage, but there is also bitterness and failure and retreat. The prose is minimal but poetic, and I for one found it impossible to put the book down until I finished it. As bittersweet as the story is, it ends on a very sweet note.

I highly recommend this book. Also, he’ll be publishing a book based on his time in Palestine, so keep an eye out for that.