Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)

Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did not enjoy this book. But my opinion might not be entirely fair, since it is colored by having read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—two of Jefferson’s political foes—right before this, by two authors (Chernow and McCullough) whom I vastly prefer. This meant that I brought some strong preconceptions to the experience.

Nevertheless, I came to this book with a great deal of hope. Jefferson had come off rather badly in the two above-mentioned biographies. I wanted to see the other side of the man, the side that so many have admired. In fact, I played the audiobook recording of this book on a family trip down to Virginia, on our way to visit Jefferson’s home, Monticello, thinking that Meacham’s biography would whet our thirst for Jefferson history.

The effect was the opposite. All of us came away with a strong distaste for Jefferson, as well as dissatisfaction for Meacham’s apologetic treatment of the man. But before getting into differing opinions of Jefferson—of which there are endless—I shall talk about the writing, of which there may be more agreement.

To do justice to Jefferson the man would require a great deal of psychological subtly. Jefferson was reserved, withdrawn, even sphinx-like, a man full of contradictions. In the hands of an acute writer, Jefferson would make for a fascinating character-study. Yet Meacham is almost wholly uninterested in psychology. Jefferson is painted more vividly in his cameos in the Hamilton and Adams biographies than he is here.

To my mind, Jefferson was a man whom one could never take at face value, yet Meacham is often content to do just that. To pick just one example, in the exchange between Jefferson and Abigail Adams on the scurrilous writings of James Callender, Meacham is content to repeat Jefferson’s bland and disingenuous excuses of his support for Callender’s vilifications of John Adam’s character (that he bailed Callender out of jail merely because they held similar political views). Such instances are repeated throughout the book, with Meacham accepting as honest what I often read as intentionally misleading or simply duplicitous.

In any case, even if Jefferson is put to one side, no other personage in this book comes alive, as do so many in the above-named biographies. John Adams—a raging personality of epic proportion—is hardly more exciting than the taciturn George Washington. I was particularly disappointed at the lack of attention paid to Jefferson’s close and important relationship with James Madison, who is absent far too often in these pages, and who leaves hardly any impression whatever.

Meacham also lacks interest in drama. Good biographies can pull you into the historical moment, and make you feel how contingent the outcome of important events was on the quirks of personality or even simple chance. Yet in this book everything is a fait accompli. Difficult and arduous accomplishments, moments of danger and discord, are all summarized and narrated with a kind of mellow assurance that these events were destined to come to pass. The result is a book that is emotionally flat.

I would have excused these faults if Meacham had dug deep into the historical background or the political issues. But these, too, are given only a superficial treatment. Not nearly enough context is given, for example, for the reader to understand exactly why the Declaration of Independence was such a revolutionary document at that time. The same can be said for the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty.

Instead, Meacham prefers to resort to strings of vague, Latinate adjectives and to draw grand-sounding conclusions. This is his habitual mode. The following passage, from the Prologue, gives a taste of this tone:

In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma.

This tendency often leads him to substitute clichés for insight:

America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromise. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end.

To me, this is neither good prose nor does it provide any valuable information. You could say all of the same things about virtually any nation or political leader. And in any case I do not think it is even true. Were all of Jefferson’s goals “noble”? Is compromise “inevitable”? Is the “war” between the “ideal and the real” actually similar to the conflict between “the intellectual” and “the visceral”? What does this even mean? This passage is hardly even valid as a platitude.

This leads me to what is my core criticism of the book: Jon Meacham’s understanding of Jefferson. Meacham’s central point is that Jefferson was a man of high ideals, but someone who was willing to compromise on his ideals in order to be an effective politician. This is the “Art of Power.” Thus, all of Jefferson’s pronouncements of principle are taken at face value, and all of his actions that do not align with his stated valued are excused as shrewd maneuvering.

Yet there is a difference between compromising on one’s vision and doing just the opposite. Consider Jefferson’s presidency. After having spent the last twelve years whipping up fears of overbearing central power, Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase and instituted a trade embargo—two huge expansions of federal power. Meacham would have us see these moves as capitulations to circumstances. But I think Jefferson’s tendency to flout the dictates of his own pen are too numerous to excuse. To pick another example, although he often styled himself above politicking and libel, Jefferson frequently employed others to write attacks on his enemies (as in the case of James Callender).

Here is another example. After stoking fear of a national army, and after his strong advocacy of the separation of the legislative and executive powers, once in office Jefferson himself asked a senator to introduce a bill approving military force—a direct contradiction of his stated principles on both counts. Characteristically, Jefferson also requested that the senator burn his note to him, so as not to appear to be meddling in the legislature. This is what Meacham has to say on the subject: “His adversaries might see such maneuvers as hypocritical and underhanded, but in Jefferson’s mind he was doing the right thing the right way. To seize power grandly would threaten the democratic ethos of the country—an ethos he thought essential.”

As an apology for Jefferson’s actions, this makes little sense to me. First, it hardly matters whether Jefferson thought he was doing the right thing in his mind. We all are, always. Second, to consider the mere ethos of democracy important while seizing power is certainly not democratic in any meaningful sense. This is typical of the whole book: where Meacham sees a flexible and enlightened politician, I see a person totally unwilling to live by the principles that he professes.

This is, of course, most flagrantly true in the case of slavery—an area in which Jefferson is inexcusable. To do Meacham credit, he does not attempt to justify Jefferson’s life of slaveholding. Nevertheless, I think he paid far too little attention to Jefferson’s domestic situation, which was totally dominated by slaves: as workers, servants, a sexual partner, and even his own children.

I see the issue of slavery as the most telling fact of Jefferson’s psychology, showcasing his ability to compartmentalize his thoughts. None of his actions were self-consistent. He wrote that slavery was evil and must end one day. But he did nothing to end it. At the same time, he thought that blacks could never co-exist with whites, all while having a life built upon the backs of slaves, living in constant contact with them. If he really believed that slaves were genetically inferior, as he wrote, how could he have had children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves? Could he really believe that his own children with Hemings were naturally inferior? And if he did not, how could he totally relegate these children, his own blood, to a subservient or an invisible role in his life?

These questions leave me with a rather disturbing image. Meacham, however, sees Jefferson as a flawed hero—whose vision of artful politics has much to teach us. Jefferson did likely leave the world better than he found it. And, believe me, I find many aspects of Jefferson extremely admirable. In many ways I aspire to Jefferson’s wide interests and his intellectual greatness. But I think that any honest reckoning of the man will have to deal with these darker shades of his character. The vision of politics that Meacham offers, where high principles exist mostly as rhetoric or ethos, is not for me.

View all my reviews

Review: John Adams (McCullough)

Review: John Adams (McCullough)
John Adams

John Adams by David McCullough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wholly enjoyable book, which is the secret of its success. Merely flipping through and scanning a couple passages was enough to convince me to abandon everything else I was reading and to go on a pleasure cruise through history. McCullough’s writing is charming to a rare degree—elevated yet folksy, readable without being simple, and filled with personality without being opinionated. I can see why he is so popular.

Yet it must be said that McCullough achieves this charm by relegating much of the tedious, dreary, or ugly side of Adams’s life to the background. A serious intellectual appraisal of Adams would require a much deeper analysis of his political writings; but here they are minor episodes. A serious appraisal of Adams’s presidency would require a far more thorough review of his policies and legistlation, most obviously the Alien and Sedition Acts. Yet here they are just touched upon. Obviously, such a book as I am describing would be both longer and, almost certainly, duller.

Instead of attempting any kind of definitive appraisal, McCullough gives us a literary biography, a portrait of a man in his times. And Adams is well chosen for the subject of such a book. He left a huge correspondence and a copious diary, writing with rare candor and verve throughout his life, which gives the happy biographer a great deal to work with. Further, Adams was a personality of rare proportion: prickly, warm, passionate, brilliant, stubborn, loyal, foolhardy, blunt, obtuse, principled… the list is endless. As are all of us, Adams was a strange inter-mixture of virtues and vices, yet none of his were moderate.

Even if Adams had been devoid of character, however, the events of his life would still attract attention. He was at the forefront of the Continental Congress, instrumental in driving the early stages of the Revolutionary War: creating an army, appointing Washington to head it, declaring independence, and then choosing Jefferson to draft the declaration. Then, Adams had a long and adventurous life in Europe, working in England, France, and the Netherlands—a feast for the biographer. What is more, Adams was intimately involved with many of the leading personalities of the times, not to mention being the father of another president. So you can see that McCullough had plenty of grist for his mill.

Apart from all of this, John Adams was married to perhaps an even stronger character, Abigail. She comes across as truly John’s better half, if not more intelligent than wiser than he, with a personality more stable but no less fascinating. Thus the biography is, quite often, more of a dual biography of these two extraordinary people. Jefferson receives almost as much attention as Abigail, alternately friend and foe, serving as Adams’s foil: calm, reserved, duplicitous, underhanded, and often unwilling to live by the principles he professes—which makes him a far more effective politician. McCullough turns Adams and Jefferson into the twin poles of the Revolution, much as Chernow did with Hamilton and Jefferson. I suppose I should read something about Jefferson now.

Even if the reader will not come away with an understanding of Adams’s politics and policies, there is still a great deal of value in this book. As with every McCullough book, it is a window into a bygone age, illuminated by bright personalities. And in my case, that is all I wanted.



View all my reviews

Review: The Oresteia

Review: The Oresteia

The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides by Aeschylus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Greeks had an intoxicating culture, or at least it seems to us. All of the iniquities and superstitions of the ancient people have been buried or lost, leaving only the perfect skeletons of buildings and the greatest of their literary productions. As a result, they strike us as a race of superpeople. This trilogy certainly furthers this impression, for it is a perfect poetic representation of the birth of justice and ethics out of the primordial law of retaliation.

The most basic ethical principal is loyalty. We are born into a family, establish reciprocal relationships with friends, become a contributing member of a mutually supporting group, and so naturally feel bound to treat this network of people with the proper respect and kindness. But loyalty has several problems. First, one’s family, friends, and group are largely determined by chance—and who is to say that our family and friends are the most worthy? Second, loyalty does not extend outside a very limited group, and so does not preclude the horrid treatment of others. And, as the Greek plays show us, the bounds of loyalty can sometimes cross, putting us in a situation where we must be disloyal to at least one person.

This is the essential problem of Antigone, where the titular character must choose between loyalty to her city or to her dead brother, who betrayed the state. This is also the problem faced by Orestes, who must choose between avenging his father and treating his mother properly. In Sophocles’ play, the problem proves intractable, leading to yet another string of deaths. But Aeschylus shows that by submitting the bonds of loyalty to a higher, impartial court that we can resolve the contradictions and put an end to the endless series of mutual retaliations that loyalty can give rise to.

The rise of judicial procedures, and of concepts of ethics that extend beyond loyalty to fairness, was a crucial step in the rise of complex societies. Aeschylus has given us an immortal dramatization of this epochal step. But, of course, this play is more than a philosophical or historical exercise. It is a work of high drama and poetry, worthy to stand at the first ranks of literature for its aesthetic merit alone. The Greeks continue to enchant.



View all my reviews

Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class

Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class

The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

… it is only necessary that the scholar should be able to put in evidence some learning which is conventionally recognized as evidence of wasted time; and the classics lend themselves with great facility to this use.

This is a difficult book to evaluate, since Veblen simultaneously gets so much right and so much wrong.

Everyone is already familiar with the book’s central concept, conspicuous consumption: the spending of money on useless goods and services in order to enhance one’s social standing. Veblen gave this concept a name and perhaps its most classic exposition, yet the idea had already been around for a long time. We can see a perfect expression of this phenomenon, for example, in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, which features a vulgar businessman attempting to attain the cultural trappings of the hereditary leisure class—dancing, fencing, music, philosophy—and failing, of course, since he had spent most of his life working.

Veblen was writing in the Gilded Age, the era of Vanderbilts and Morgans and Goulds, so he had plenty of examples of ostentatious display to choose from. The best parts of this book read as a straightforward satire on the degraded taste of the superrich. Veblen restricts himself to certain facets of the life of leisure, such as the pursuit of sport—hunting, horse-racing, football—noting that these expensive and time-consuming activities are often justified as instilling positive moral qualities, even though they arguably only promote craftiness and cruelty (two features Veblen finds characteristic of the leisure class).

Fashion gets an extended treatment, of course, being the most obvious example of conspicuous consumption: expensive and delicate clothes, of dubious aesthetic merit, designed to make any sort of labor manifestly impossible. Veblen also focuses on vicarious leisure: how wealth is displayed, not only by allowing the wealthy man to avoid work, but also to allow his wife and even his servants to be inactive (thus the elaborate, impractical costumes of the lackeys). Veblen extends his analysis to the church, seeing priests in their vestments as the liveried servants of God, who must remain conspicuously inactive in order to properly convey God’s magnificence.

Yet it does not require a first-rate mind in order to see examples of conspicuous consumption nearly everywhere. Grass lawns are popular precisely because they are expensive and difficult to maintain. High-class restaurants use exotic ingredients and rococo preparations; but does the food taste any better? Romantic love is communicated with costly jewelry, and the ritual of matrimony must likewise be robed in expense. The human body itself conforms to this tendency to display. Whereas in the past it was desirable to be plump, since this showed an ability to afford food, nowadays we like to be thin, since junk food is cheap and time to exercise is a luxury.
e
Indeed, you might say that today conspicuous leisure has become conspicuous anti-leisure. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs pride themselves on working long hours, wearing minimalist clothes, and eating artificial super foods that provide nutrients without pleasure. Now that most of the things Veblen satirized are widely available the only option is to scorn them.

Anyone must admit that Veblen’s account does have a great deal of truth. At the same time, as a general theory of the economy and society, it is extremely limited. For one, the theory is not always borne out in practice. John D. Rockefeller, possibly the richest man in history, had a puritan disdain for fashion, art, and flashy mansions. More generally, Veblen’s account is laden with a moral evaluation which is difficult to accept. Though Veblen professes to be a neutral observer of economic life, it is clear that he finds the lifestyle of the upper classes to be frivolous and wasteful.

At first glance this may seem justifiable, until one realizes that Veblen considers virtually everything beyond industrial work to be wasteful. As the opening quote shows, Veblen even considers the reading of classics to be a mere trapping of the upper class—a flagrantly useless exercise—which is especially ironic, since Veblen’s own work is nowadays considered to be classic and is read for that reason. To my mind, virtually everything enjoyable in life, even Veblen’s work itself, falls within Veblen’s economic definition of “waste” and would thus classify as conspicuous consumption.

Considering this, the challenge would be to somehow separate “legitimate” taste from those degraded by the influence of conspicuous wealth. This is easy enough in extreme cases (such as the Vanderbilt family mansions or anything touched by Trump’s brand) but it becomes far trickier in others. To pick just one example, Shakespeare certainly considered financial gain as much as pure literary art when he composed his plays; and this may well have improved them.

Veblen’s hard line between the economically useful or wasteful is mirrored in his hard line between the industrious class and the pecuniary class. The former are the productive workers, the latter are the gaudy managers, businessmen, traders, and captains of industry who exploit these laborers to support a life of luxury. But this dichotomy is likewise difficult to justify. While a great deal of the “work” performed by this upper class can legitimately be called useless and exploitative, it seems difficult to accept that all management and financial activity is socially useless. Further, as often noted, Veblen’s analysis presupposes that there is a finite amount of resources to be divided. He does not take into account the growth of the economy (which is spurred by consumption, “wasteful” or not).

Putting all this aside, it must be said that many aspects of Veblen’s analysis have aged poorly. Veblen was concerned with making his analysis “scientific,” which for him meant using the evolutionary language of Darwin or Herbert Spencer. While his intellectual versatility is admirable, Veblen’s talk of “archaic” or “barbaric” traits or human “types” sounds both unconvincing and even alarming to modern ears.

I should also mention that I found the book to be surprisingly turgid. Though C. Wright Mills, in his excellent introduction, singles out Veblen’s prose for its quality, I generally found Veblen’s writing to be dense and unmusical. Here is a typical passage:

As between the various habits, or habitual modes and directions of expression, which go to make up an individual’s standard of living, there is an appreciable difference in point of persistence under counteracting circumstances and in point of the degree of imperativeness with which the discharge seeks a given direction.

In the last analysis, then, this book stands as the classic exposition of a useful concept. At the same time, the theory is overly simple, and ensconced in too many outdated ideas, to be fully accepted. Read this book if you find the leisure to do so.

View all my reviews

Review: The Three Theban Plays

Review: The Three Theban Plays

The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alas, alas, what misery to be wise when wisdom profits nothing!

Great books do not reveal themselves all at once. Old classics must be revisited from time to time, at different stages of life, in order to experience the many resonant frequencies of the work. This time around I chose to listen to these Theban plays as an audiobook, with a full cast; and it was far preferable to the mute page.

Reading, listening to, or watching the Greek plays may be the nearest we get to time travel. The works immerse us in a foreign world. What struck me most was the Greek attitude towards freedom and fate. Shakespearean tragedy is reliant on human choice. As A.C. Bradley notes, the tragedy is always specific to the individual, to the extent that the tragedy of one play would be impossible for the protagonist of another. Put Hamlet in Othello’s place, or vice versa, and he would make short work of the play’s problem. The tragedy in a Greek play is, by contrast, inevitable and universal. By the time that the curtain is raised in Oedipus Rex, he has long ago sealed his doom.

There is nothing special about Oedipus that marks him for a tragic fate. His tragedy could have befallen a Hamlet or an Othello just as readily as an Oedipus. This changes the entire emotional atmosphere. Whereas in a Shakespearean tragedy we feel a certain amount of dramatic tension as the protagonists attempt to avert crisis, in Greek tragedy there is instead a feeling of being swept along by an invisible, inexorable force—divine and mysterious. It is animated by a far more pessimistic philosophy: that honest, noble, and wise people who do nothing wrong can be dragged into the pit of misery by an inscrutable destiny.

As a result, the plays can sometimes engender a feeling of mystery or even of vague mysticism, as we consider ourselves to be the mere playthings of forces beyond all control and understanding. Characters rise to power in such a way that we credit their virtues for their success; and yet their precipitate fall shows that there are other forces at play. Life can certainly feel this way at times, as we are buffeted about, lifted up, and cast down in a way that seems little connected to our own actions. For this reason, I think that the fatalistic pessimism of these plays is both moving and, at times, even consoling.

Of the three, the most artistically perfect is Oedipus Rex, which Sophocles wrote at the height of his career. Antigone, the last play, was actually written first; and Oedipus at Colonus was written over thirty years, at the very end of Sophocles’ life.

Though arguably the worst of the three, Antigone is the most thematically interesting. It pits two ethical concepts against one another with intense force, specifically different sorts of loyalty. Is it better to be loyal to one’s family, to the gods, to the state, or to the ruler? Creon’s interdiction, though vengeful and petty, is understandable when one remembers that Polynices is a traitor responsible for an attack on his homeland that doubtless cost many citizens’ lives. Creon could have justified his decree as a discouragement of future disloyalty. Antigone believes that duty to family transcends the duty of a citizen, and the events justify this belief.

It must be admitted, however, that this ethical question is muddled by the religious nature of central issue. Few people nowadays can believe that burial rites are important enough to merit self-sacrifice and civil disobedience. When the superstitious element is removed, Antigone’s ethical superiority seems questionable at best. Certainly there are many cases when loyalty to the family can be distinctly unethical. If a sister sheltered a brother who just escaped imprisonment for murder, I think this would be an unequivocally immoral act. But since burial does not involve help or harm to anyone, the ethical question becomes largely symbolic—if no less interesting.

Even if the emotional import of these plays has been somewhat dulled by the passing years, they remain amazingly alive and direct. The power of these plays is such that, even now, when the Greek gods have passed into harmless myth, here we can still feel the sense of awe and terror in the face of a divine order that passes beyond understanding. It would take a long time for theater to again reach such heights.



View all my reviews

Review: Naming and Necessity

Review: Naming and Necessity

Naming and Necessity by Saul A. Kripke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It really is a nice theory. The only defect I think it has is probably common to all philosophical theories. It’s wrong. You may suspect me of proposing another theory in its place; but I hope not, because I’m sure it’s wrong too if it is a theory.

Like many other works of philosophy (and those of other subjects, for that matter), Naming and Necessity will likely be perplexing if you do not know what the author is arguing against. At the time that Kripke gave these lectures, the dominant theory in the philosophy of language was the Frege-Russell theory of reference. It is a rather elegant and simple theory, and you can look up Russell’s famous paper, “On Denoting,” or Quine’s “On What There Is,” online if you would like to know more about it. But I will explain it briefly.

Essentially, the idea is that names are shorthand descriptions. Thus, if you say “there’s a tiger over there!” you’re really saying something like “there is an x over there, such that x is feline, yellow-brown, black striped, quadrupedal, solitary, bigger than a human,” and so on. This way of analyzing names was, I believe, partly adopted because it carried no ontological commitment. It avoids confusing situations, like when you have to say “wizards don’t exist!”—for how could you name the things (wizards) that do not exist? That is paradoxical. On the Frege-Russell view, this awkwardness is avoided, since, when you assert that wizards do not exist, you are really saying “there is no x such that x is humanoid, magical, bearded, robed,” and so on. Thus, by specifying the criteria, lots of annoying existential questions can be side-stepped.

Nevertheless, I think that most people, when they first learn of this theory, feel a bit uncomfortable with it. The theory just is not intuitive. I do not think that anything analogous to Russell’s analyses are going on in my head when I hear “there’s a tiger over there!” In other words, I do not think of tigers as bundles of qualities or clusters of descriptions, but that the relationship of the name “tiger” to the living, breathing animals is much more straightforward. Kripke is essentially arguing that our intuition is correct. In fact, it is Kripke’s express point to uphold our intuitions regarding names:

Of course, some philosophers think that something’s having intuitive content is very inconclusive evidence in favor of it. I think it is very heavy evidence in favor of anything, myself. I really don’t know, in a way, what more conclusive evidence one can have about anything, ultimately speaking.

Seeing as Kripke is not fond of theories (as the opening quote shows) and is quite fond of intuition, this puts him into a bit of a pickle, for how is he supposed to argue against the theory? Thus, most of Kripke’s arguments rely on bizarre counterfactuals, which he expresses using the language of “possible worlds.” (I understood this as merely a way of speaking about hypothetical or counterfactual statements, rather than any metaphysical doctrine about possibility and parallel worlds; and this way of speaking, when understood as a figure of speech, does convey the essential point rather well.)

To explain Kripke’s argument, let me come up with a bizarre counterfactual of my own. Suppose that someone (presumably with far too much time and money on their hands, and with a questionable sensitivity to animal rights) decided to take some lions from Africa and introduce them into Asia. Then, suppose this person decided to shave the lions’ manes, to paint them yellow-brown, and then to paint black stripes on them, so as to look just like tigers. Suppose he is even such a genius animal trainer that he trains these lions to behave indistinguishably from tigers.

Now we return to the above example. If “there’s a tiger over there!” really meant “there is an x over there, such that x is feline, yellow-brown, black striped, quadrupedal, solitary, bigger than a human,” then the statement would be perfectly true, even if the person were pointing to the painted lions.

But it is not true. Lions and tigers are what could be called ‘natural types’; and natural types are distinguished by some essential quality, not by their total descriptions. Kripke is really reviving the old notion of essentialism: names pick out the object that possesses the essential property associated with that name. In the case of lions and tigers, I suppose the essential quality would be their genotypes. Thus, the essential property of a type of thing need not be the qualities by which we normally identify the thing. We normally identify lions and tigers by the way they look and act, but the above example shows that even those qualities are contingent; it is their respective essences (their genotypes in this case) which are the necessary qualities of tigers and lions.

This leads Kripke to disagree with another engrained philosophical idea (the second N of the title): that ‘necessary’ and ‘a priori‘ are synonyms. It was thought that only necessary truths could be known a priori, and only a priori truths were necessary. (In other words, you could only be certain about things you knew independently of experience.) Thus, “all bachelors are unmarried” is, in this view, a necessary truth, even if there are no bachelors at all, simply because that is the definition of ‘bachelor’; it is an analytic statement, true by definition, a mere tautology, and thus can be known a priori. This restriction of necessary statements to trivial tautologies was, I think, a way of fighting against obscure metaphysical arguments, such as the ontological argument for the existence of God.

Kripke, as I said, disagrees with this line of thinking. For Kripke, things can be known a priori that are not necessary, and things can be necessary and learned empirically (or a posteriori). The case of the genotypes of lions and tigers is a case in point; it took a long time to discover DNA, and to create the tools needed to investigate it in depth. DNA was, in other words, obviously learned of empirically. Nevertheless, it is a necessary truth that lions have the lion essence (genotype), and tigers have the tiger essence (genotype)—because if they did not they would not be lions and tigers. Necessary truths, then, need not be known a priori. (In other words, you can be certain about some things you learn from experience.)

The reverse distinction can also be made. If I pick up a certain stick, and say “I shall use this as the standard for my new measure, the schmeter,” I can know a priori that whatever length the stick is (in, say, inches or meters), it is exactly one schmeter. However, the exact length of a schmeter is contingent on the stick, and we can imagine situations in which the stick was longer or shorter, so the exact meaning of this a priori knowledge is contingent on some state of affairs. To sum up Kripke’s distinction: ‘necessary’ is a metaphysical term having to do with the essence of something, while ‘a priori‘ is an epistemological term having to do with how we come to know something.

As I hope you can see from my summary, Kripke’s arguments are meant to be intuitive; he rejects certain philosophical ideas by just pointing to situations in which they fail to properly apply. This, I think, is why Naming and Necessity is so well known: one need not master some technical apparatus, but merely think through the consequences of some hypothetical scenarios. Certainly, this is not a perfect book. Kripke is wordy and repetitive; this already short book could probably have been much shorter and crisper, or could have at least covered more territory. Still, Kripke was arguing against a whole paradigm; and paradigms do not go gentle into that good night.

When I finished this book, I was fairly convinced; but as subsequent conversations (in Wastrel’s comments, for example)* have shown me, there are some awfully strong counter-arguments. Philosophical questions are never so easily resolved. In particular, I am curious to see how Kripke proposes to deal with some of the situations which motivated the creation of the descriptive theory of names in the first place—for example, statements like “wizards aren’t real.” How can there be a causal connection with something that does not exist? And how can the name refer to a natural type of a fictitious object? After all, facts are easy to talk about; fiction is another thing entirely.

*See my Goodreads review to read Wastrel’s penetrating criticisms of Kripke.

View all my reviews

Review: From a Logical Point of View

Review: From a Logical Point of View
From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays

From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays by Willard Van Orman Quine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is difficult for me to review, mainly because there were so many parts of it that I did not fully understand. Quine is not writing for the general reader; he is writing for professional philosophers—a category that excludes people such as myself, who have not taken a single course in formal logic. Nevertheless, there are some parts of this book—particularly the first two essays, “On What There Is” and “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”—which can be understood by the persistent amateur.

I will try to explain what I think I know about Quine, subject to the very important caveat that these are the general impressions of somebody who is not an expert. I might easily be wrong.

Quine is an American, and so is very literal; he likes things he can touch, or at least can clearly define. This leads him to a kind of ontological puritanism: he wishes to admit as few types of entities into existence as possible. The most obvious token of this is his materialism. Quine thinks the world is fundamentally matter; thus, he rejects the existence of spirits, and, more surprisingly, of minds—at least minds as distinctly different metaphysical objects. (He is fine with keeping mentalistic terminology, so long as it is understood as paraphrases of behavioral phenomena.) This also prompts Quine to reject other, more banal, sorts of things like meanings and properties. In fact, Quine only acknowledges the existence of two sorts of things: physical objects, and sets (or classes). If I am not mistaken, Quine’s belief in something so abstract as a logical set is motivated by his famous indispensability argument—that we ought to believe in the types of things our theories of the world need.

Quine’s materialism is tied to two other -isms: holism and naturalism. By naturalism, I mean that Quine thinks that our knowledge comes from observation, from experience, from science; furthermore, that this is the only type of knowledge we have available. Quine would never attempt something like Descartes did, seeking to ground all of the contingent assertions of science with an unquestionable first principle (in Descartes’ case, this being that he thinks, and therefore is). Quine is even uncomfortable with doctrines such as Wittgenstein’s, which hold philosophy to be a sort of second-level activity, a discipline which tackles questions of a fundamentally different sort than those investigated by scientists. For Quine, there are no fundamentally different sorts of questions: all questions are questions about the natural world, and thus on identical epistemological and ontological footing. The only difference between philosophy and science, for Quine, is that philosophers ask more general questions.

Quine’s holism is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of his views. The logical positivists thought that individual statements could be accepted or rejected based on our experiences. In other words, we make a statement about the physical world, and then go about trying to verify it with some experience. But Quine points out that this is far too simple an account. Our statements do not exist in isolation, but are tied to an entire web of beliefs—some very abstract and remote from any experience.

Keep this in your mind’s eye: a huge, floating hunk of miscellaneous trash, adrift in the ocean. Now, only some of this trash directly touches the ocean; these are the parts of our knowledge that directly ‘touch’ the experiential world. A great part of this trash, however, lies in the center of the mass, far away from the water; and this is analogous to our most abstract beliefs. If this gigantic trash island were to hit something—let us say, a big boat—two things could happen. The boat could be destroyed, and its wreckage simply added onto the floating trash island; or, the boat could tear its way through the trash island, changing its shape dramatically. These are, roughly, the two things that can happen when we face a novel experience: we can somehow assimilate it into our old beliefs, or we can reconfigure our whole web of beliefs to accommodate this new information.

I will drop the metaphor. What Quine is saying is that there are no beliefs of ours that cannot be revised—nothing is sacred. We have even considered revising our principles of logic, previously so unquestionable, in the face of quantum weirdness. There are also no experiences that could not, in principle, be explained away: we could cite hallucinations or mental illness or human error as the reason behind the anomalous experience.

Keeping Quine’s naturalism and holism in mind, it is pretty clear why he rejects the main tenets of logical positivism. First, Quine points out the vagueness of what philosophers mean when they talk about ‘analytic statements’. The classic case of an analytic statement is “all bachelors are unmarried,” which is true by definition: since a bachelor is defined as an unmarried man, it could not be otherwise that bachelors are unmarried. But note that this relies on the idea that ‘bachelor’ has the same ‘meaning’ as the phrase ‘unmarried man’. But what is a ‘meaning’? It sounds like a mental phenomenon; and because Quine does not hold minds to exist, he is very skeptical about ‘meanings’. So in what sense do ‘meanings’ exist? Can they be paraphrased into behavioral terminology? Quine does not exactly rule it out, but is rather dubious.

Quine’s holism is also at odds with the project of logical positivism. For, as already noted, logical positivists regard the meaning of a statement to be its verification; but Quine believes—and I think quite rightly—that statements do not exist in isolation, but rely on a whole background web of beliefs and doctrines. Here is a concrete example. Let us say we wanted to go out and verify the statement ‘flying saucers are real.’ We wander around with our camera, and then suddenly see a shiny disk floating through the air. We snap some photos, and pronounce our statement ‘verified’. But will people believe us? Scientists look at the object, and say that it is a weather balloon; psychologists examine us, and say that we are demented. The statement has thus not been verified at all by our experience; and even if we had better evidence of flying saucers than a few photographs, it is at least conceivable that we could go on finding alternative explanations—secret government aircraft, some mad scientist’s invention, an elaborate prank, etc.

I will stop trying to summarize his arguments here, because I feel like I am already in over my head. I will say, however, that Quine’s argument against logical positivism seems to rely on his own presumptions about knowledge and the world—which may, after all, be quite reasonable, but this still does not make for a conclusive argument. In short, Quine may be arguing against the dogmas of logical empiricism with dogmas of his own. I often had this experience while reading Quine: at first I would disagree; but then, after formulating my disagreement, I would realize I was only begging the question, and that we were starting with very different assumptions.

Quine is preoccupied with this idea of ontological commitment. He is exercised by his felt necessity of postulating the existence of things used in discourse, like meanings, mathematical objects and so forth. These are, no doubt, important questions; yet I do not find them terribly interesting to think about. In my experience, wondering about whether something ‘really exists’ often leads up dark intellectual alleys. When it comes to things like UFOs, the question is doubtless a vital one to ask; but when it comes to things like ‘sets’ and ‘meanings’, it does not excite me: for what would be the difference if sets ‘really existed’ or if they were just tools used in discourse with no existence outside of names and thought? I will leave these desert landscapes of logic for ones more verdant.

To conclude, Quine was obviously a brilliant man; he was, in fact, so brilliant, that I cannot understand how brilliant he was.



View all my reviews

Review: Alexander Hamilton (Chernow)

Review: Alexander Hamilton (Chernow)
Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I opened the pages of this book, I knew little about Alexander Hamilton aside from the fact that he wrote most of the Federalist Papers. But that man had a life indeed. I immediately found myself transfixed at a story that seemed more suited to fiction than to fact. No wonder that Hamilton’s life has been made the subject of a musical. (Unfortunately, from what I have heard of the music, it is not to my taste.)

Ron Chernow must have known that he had struck gold once he began research for this book. Hamilton’s story has all of the elements of a good Victorian novel: a poor and unfortunate upbringing (born an orphan out of wedlock); a good deal of bloodshed; an ever greater dose of scheming and argumentation; a tender love story and a sordid affair; and, to cap it off, an arch-rival who brings about a tragic end. Piloting through this maelstrom of adventure is the redoubtable Alexander Hamilton: clear-eyed, bright, industrious, at times imprudent and hasty, and always true to his own nature.

In short, I found this biography both extremely readable and a revealing portrait of the first years of this nation. Chernow is a flexible writer, capable of handling the pathos of melodrama, the intrigue of political scandal, the excitement of intellectual innovation, the frenzy of war, and the private moments of quiet intimacy. His primary strength is arguably his psychological insight. Unlike Robert Caro, who is a historian as much as a biographer, Chernow focuses in on the inner workings of his subject, letting us see history through the man’s eyes rather than the man ensconced in history.

Nevertheless, I do think that Chernow’s focus on psychology can lead him astray. At his worst, he is prone to a kind of cheap psychoanalyzing that I think adds very little to the subtance of this book. This was most in evidence in Chernow’s handling of Hamilton’s childhood on St. Croix. Chernow was quick to invoke this experience whenever he wished to explain Hamilton’s behavior. This is understandable, since it is arguably a biographer’s duty to make sense of their subject’s personality by tracing their experience; and Hamilton’s childhood was unique. However, the logic of psychoanalysis is so flexible as to be able to produce any conclusion you wish to wring from it.

Here is an example. We learn that Hamilton’s mother was accused of being a prostitute, and had children out of wedlock. She was abandoned by Hamilton’s father, cast out from polite society, and then died while Hamilton was quite young—penniless and alone. Now let us imagine that Hamilton, in adulthood, was scrupulously faithful to his wife and had a family life entirely free of scandal. The biographer could then say it was an intense desire to escape this childhood experience. Now let us imagine that Hamilton was a rake and constantly had affairs. The biographer could then say that he had a special sympathy for women on the outskirts of society. And so on. My point is that any subsequent behavior can be viewed as either a result of, or a reaction against, this childhood experience, which makes its use as an explanation extremely dubious.

This is my first critique of this book. My second is Chernow’s tendency to lionize his subject. It would be unfair to accuse him of writing a hagiography. Chernow is by no means blind to Hamilton’s faults. Still, one senses that Chernow for the most part puts a forgiving and generous interpretation on Hamilton’s actions, while casting the behavior of Hamilton’s foes—Adams and Jefferson, notably—in a far less tolerant light. As Chernow did in his biography of John D. Rockefeller, he is more eager to refute allegations against his subjects than to confirm them. In the hands of another biographer, I think that Hamilton could have come across as a less glorious figure.

In any case, Chernow has produced a well-researched biography that is both exhilarating and enlightening. It is a thoroughly fine book.



View all my reviews