June 17th, 2009


Linkspam for 17-6-2009


June Books 13) The Problems of Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell

This is an excellent short guide to philosophy. I am not widely enough read in the subject to know to what extent Russell is pushing his own views rather than simply giving an overview of the subject, but he succeeded in persuading me that the questions of Berkeley, Hume, Kant, et al are not stupid, but very interesting and part of the gateway to opening up one's thoughts about the world as a whole. I found myself thinking of particular resonances with my political work, and the very nature of knowledge. He has a great final chapter about why this is all worthwhile, online here, but this was my favourite paragraph (with apologies for the sexist language of 1912):
The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.
I particularly love that line about freeing one's thoughts from the "tyranny of custom". Good stuff.

June Books 14) Cities of Salt, by Abdelrahman Munif

A rather tough read about the arrival of the American oil companies in an unnamed Arab statelet, and the social disruption that this inflicts on the population.

I like the way in which the "Americans" are shown as alien beings, as the Other in a hitherto stable and settled society; I think that being shown oneself (and for these purposes I am certainly an "American") as others see one is always a good thing, and Munif does this blisteringly well.

I think he is not as good as Chinua Achebe at demonstrating the disruptive impact of western colonialism on the local society. Perhaps (though I would be dubious about making this comparison) that impact was less in the Gulf States than in Nigeria. Munif has existing power structures (the emir) being reinforced and distorted in their authority by the arrival of the outsiders. Achebe has the local power structures devastated beyond repair.

Both Munif and Achebe present a somewhat pre-lapsarian view of the original societies. Achebe is worse in this respect, but it is still notable that Munif's story is told almost entirely - apart from two or three chapters out of 77 - from the point of view of the male characters; I don't think there are more than half a dozen women named in the book.

Anyway, an educational read, but I would have liked a bit more nuance in the narrative.