Archive for category books

Attending to appearances

I picked up a copy of Bernard Knox’s 1994 Backing into the Future because somewhere I saw it referenced about the weird fact that the ancient Greeks thought that the future was behind them. Knox presents evidence from The Odyssey and Oedipus the King to back this up, so to speak. But that’s literally on the first page of the book. The rest of it consists of brilliant and brilliantly written essays about ancient life and scholarship. Totally enjoyable.

True, he undoes one of my favorite factoids: that Greeks in Homer’s time did not have a concept of the body as an overall unity, but rather only had words for particular parts of the body. This notion comes most forcefully from Bruno Snell in The Discovery of Mind, although I first read about it — and was convinced — by a Paul Feyerabend essay. In his essay “What Did Achilles Look Like?,” Knox convincingly argues that the Greeks had both and a word and concept for the body as a unity. In fact, they may have had three. Knox then points to Homeric uses that seem to indicate, yeah, Homer was talking about a unitary body. E.g., “from the bath he [Oydsseus] stepped, in body [demas] like the immortals,” and Poseidon “takes on the likeness of Calchas, in bodily form,” etc. [p. 52] I don’t read Greek, so I’ll believe whatever the last expert tells me, and Knox is the last expert I’ve read on this topic.

In a later chapter, Knox comes back to Bernard William’s criticism, in Shame and Necessity, of the “Homeric Greeks had no concept of a unitary body” idea, and also discusses another wrong thing that I had been taught. It turns out that the Greeks did have a concept of intention, decision-making, and will. Williams argues that they may not have had distinct words for these things, but Homer “and his characters make distinctions that can only be understood in terms of” those concepts. Further, Williams writes that Homer has

no word that means, simply, “decide.” But he has the notion…All that Homer seems to have left out is the idea of another mental action that is supposed necessarily to lie between coming to a conclusion and acting on it: and he did well in leaving it out, since there is no such action, and the idea of it is the invention of bad philosophy.” [p. 228]

Wow. Seems pretty right to me. What does the act of “making a decision” add to the description of how we move from conclusion to action?

Knox also has a long appreciation of Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness (1986) which makes me want to go out and get that book immediately, although I suspect that Knox is making it considerably more accessible than the original. But it sounds breath-takingly brilliant.

Knox’s essay on Nussbaum, “How Should We Live,” is itself rich with ideas, but one piece particularly struck me. In Book 6 of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle dismisses one of Socrates’ claims (that no one knowingly does evil) by saying that such a belief is “manifestly in contradiction with the phainomena.” I’ve always heard the word “phainomena” translated in (as Knox says) Baconian terms, as if Aristotle were anticipating modern science’s focus on the facts and careful observation. We generally translate phainomena as “appearances” and contrast it with reality. The task of the scientist and the philosopher is to let us see past our assumptions to reveal the thing as it shows itself (appears) free of our anticipations and interpretations, so we can then use those unprejudiced appearances as a guide to truths about reality.

But Nussbaum takes the word differently, and Knox is convinced. Phainomena, are “the ordinary beliefs and sayings” and the sayings of the wise about things. Aristotle’s method consisted of straightening out whatever confusions and contradictions are in this body of beliefs and sayings, but then to show that at least the majority of those beliefs are true. This is a complete inversion of what I’d always thought. Rather than “attending to appearances” meaning dropping one’s assumptions to reveal the thing in its untouched state, it actually means taking those assumptions — of the many and of the wise — as containing truth. It is a confirming activity, not a penetrating and an overturning. Nussbaum says for Aristotle (and in contrast to Plato), “Theory must remain committed to the ways human beings live, act, see.” (Note that it’s entirely possible I’m getting Aristotle, Nussbaum, and Knox wrong. A trifecta of misunderstanding!)

Nussbaum’s book sounds amazing, and I know I should have read it, oh, 20 years ago, but it came out the year I left the philosophy biz. And Knox’s book is just wonderful. If you ever doubted why we need scholars and experts — why would you think such a thing? — this book is a completely enjoyable reminder.


[2b2k] A New Culture of Learning

If you want to read a brilliant application of some of the ideas in Too Big to Know to our educational system, read A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. And by “application of” I mean “It was written a year before my book came out and I feel like a dolt for not having known about it.”

DT and JSB are thinking about knowledge pretty much exactly the way 2b2k does. What they call a “collective,” I call a “knowledge network.” With more than a hat tip to Michael Polanyi, they talk insightfully about “collective indwelling,” which is the depth of insight and topical competency that comes from a group iterating on ideas over time.

Among other things, they write provocatively about the use of games and play in education, not as a way to trick kids into eating their broccoli, but as coherent social worlds in which students learn how to imagine together, set goals, gather and synthesize information, collectively try solutions, and deepen their tacit knowledge. DT and JSB do not, however, so fetishize games that they lose site of the elements of education a game like World of Warcraft (their lead example) does not provide, especially the curiosity about the world outside of the game. On the contrary, they look to games for what they call the “questing disposition,” which will lead students beyond problem-solving to innovation. Adding to Johan Huizinga‘s idea that play precedes culture, they say that games can help fuse the information network (open and expansive) with the key element of a “bounded environment of experimentation” (116). This, they say, leads to a new “culture of learning” (117). Games are for them an important example of that more important point.

It’s a terrific, insightful, provocative book that begins with a founding assumption that it’s not just education that’s changing, but what it means to know a world that is ever-changing and now deeply connected.


[2b2k] Bookbinding and the Digital Bible

Avi Solomon at BoingBoing has a terrific interview with Michael Greer about the appeal of bookbinding, and about Michael’s “Digital Bible.”

I love the photo:

Digital Bible: Book with ones and zeroes as text


Book notice

As Publishers Weekly puts it, in June ebooks jumped while print plunged:

  • $80.2MM e-books

  • $84.9MM hardcover

  • $48.4MM trade paperback

  • $47.4MM mass-market paperback

Adult paperbacks were down 64% in that month.

empty bookstore
Discussion at Reddit

Well before the last press has punched out its last paper book, we will have switched to thinking that p-books are print-outs of e-books. That’s when the switch will have been made, just as occurred when we switched from typewriters to word processors. That Day of the Modifier — when physical books need a modifier to specify them — is coming fast.


Susan Hildreth on libraries in the digital age

At the Library Innovation Lab blog, there’s a podcast interview I did a couple of weeks ago with Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency that supports libraries and museums. She is quite frank about the future of libraries as works gets digitized, suggesting that physical copies of books might be archived in regional offsite repositories.

For someone with the embossed U.S. business card earned by going through a Senate confirmation process, she’s remarkably candid. (I also had the pleasure of sitting next to her at a conference dinner a few weeks ago and can report that she’s hilarious.)