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Reading Philosophy

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This year I have branched out of my comfort zone and read more nonfiction. I select a boor or two from history, religion, linguistics, and current affairs. Philosophy is one subject matter that I’m most hesitant about, partly because it’s very abstract. A little research leads me to Professor Thomas Nagel’s book, an introductory treatise for anyone who has not a clue in the field.

What Does It All Mean? is a really accessible introduction to philosophy and it captures much of what drew me to philosophy in the first place. The book focuses on some of the philosophical problems that, as Nagel notes, “reflective human minds find naturally puzzling.” Nagel discusses nine philosophical issues, including whether we can know anything, the mind-body problem, free will, the nature of justice, ethics, and the nature of death. What I like most about Nagel’s approach is that you don’t have to know anything at all about philosophy to understand and appreciate the puzzling nature of the problems he presents.

[755-1] Atlas Shrugged (Part I) – Ayn Rand

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***Read in conjunction with Tina at Book Chatter***

” Thought—he told himself quietly—is a weapon one uses in order to act . . . Thought is the tool by which one makes a choice . . . Thought sets one’s purpose and the way to reach it. ” (Part I, Chapter VII, The Exploiters and the Exploited)

Tremendous in cope and gripping in suspense, Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical novel set in dystopian People’s States of America. Titled “Non Contradiction”, Part I confronts two prominent business executives, Dagny Taggart of the Taggart Transcontinental Railway and Hank Rearden of Rearden Metal. The main story line concerns Dagny’s quest to understand the cause underlying the seemingly inexplicable collapse of her railroad and simultaneously, her search for a man who invented a motor that could not only save her railway but also benefit the nation’s economy.

What protection does society have against the arrogance, selfishness, and greed of two unbridled individualists, whose records are conspicuously devoid of any public-spirited actions? These two, apparently, are willing to stake the lives of their fellow men on their own conceited notions about their powers of judgment . . . (Part I, Chapter VIII, The John Galt Line)

Part I presents a mystery and it thickens with the increasing failure of the railway, and with the disappearance of able men like scientists, engineers, oil producer, motor manufacturer and banker. While Dagny struggles to salvage the dying branches of the crumbling system, from her brother, the president of the company, she gets a bewildering evasiveness and a vague resentment toward men of achievement. In response to the oil industry boom in Colorado, Dagny decides to replace the crumbling track with new rail made from Rearden Metal, Hank Rearden’s untested but revolutionary new alloy. Every step of the way Rearden he meets obstacle, opposition, and humiliation of his values and achievement. His lobbyist in Washington abandons him. A rival steel tycoon uses his political pull to pass laws that will crush a competing regional railroad to Colorado, and eventually cripple Rearden’s steel operation with equalization opportunity measure. This leaves the oil man Ellis Wyatt , whose oil fields fuel the whole nation, with no choice but to ship with Taggart Transcontinental, whose track is in total disrepair.

When Rearden refuses to see all rights to Rearden Metal to the State Science Institute, they retaliate with a public statement questioning the safety of the new alloy. Still, despite enormous opposition and obstacles, Dagny and Rearden complete the John Galt Line (in defiance against the widespread despair that this catch-phrase entails) and demonstrate its safety by riding in it. Their victory over adversity and irrationality is short-lived, as political pressure groups are clamoring for more dictatorial directives that punish success and productivity, in the name of public welfare.

On the surface the novel lambastes greed and exposes manipulation to one’s gain, but it lays the philosophical foundation for what is to come. All the mysteries and strange events of Atlas Shrugged proceed from a single philosophical cause, obscure at this stage, revolving reason and individual mind. To Dagny there is this mysterious force, seems purposefully bent on luring away from society its most talented people—a destroyer who is “draining the brains of the world.”

Reading Atlas Shrugged: “Selfishness”

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This much is true: the most selfish of all things is the independent mind that recognizes no authority higher than its own and no value higher than its judgment of truth. You are asked to sacrifice your intellectual integrity, your logic, your reason, your standard of truth—in favor of becoming a prostitute whose standard is the greatest good for the greatest number. (Part III, Ch. VII, “This is John Galt Speaking”)

Ayn Rand advocates for a “selfishness” that is not the same as what schools teach children to share toys and supplies. She further elaborates on this seemingly outlandish concept in another book, The Virtue of Selfishness. In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests. This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions. There is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery. The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level.

In the context of Atlas Shrugged, men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil, and selflessness the ideal of virtue. But the creator is the egoist in the absolute sense, and the selfless man is the one who does not think, feel, judge or act. These are functions of the self.

Stephen Hawking

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This could have been one of the most informative and engaging books. It is, however, not to be rushed, but savored, and pondered upon. I take one chapter at a time and I will be reading this throughout the holidays.

Stephen Hawking has tried to explain the nature of our universe, from the smallest particles which cannot be seen to the biggest entities, the black holes, which (ironically) also cannot be seen, in a simpleton’s language. Barring one mathematical equation, the famous mass energy equivalence relation by Einstein, Hawking has done away with all mathematics and made accessible to a layman the treasures of science and the knowledge of the universe that we have acquired so far (more correctly till the time the book was written) while conjecturing what might be the ingredients of that unified theory.

“Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”

“Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity’s deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.”

[552] Against Happiness – Eric G. Wilson

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” You at this moment are two and one at once, melancholy and joyful, sorrowful and ebullient. You realize that the richest moments in life are these junctures where we realize, in our sinews, what is true all the time: the cosmos is a dance of joggled opposites, a jolted waltz . . . they are the most profound ones we can imagine—suggest that we are most deeply vital when we realize that joy and sorrow go together, that one cannot exist without the other. ” (Generative Melancholia, p.78-79)

The message of Against Happiness is nothing new or earth-shattering: Eric Wilson argues that melancholy (good, as to depression is bad) is necessary in any thriving culture. His point is that melancholy can be fertile state of mind that allows us to look inward and be enlightened to the actions we have to take in order to fulfill our short life. In other word, he advocates for a middle ground in which we always have to fight certainty, adopt some limbo of confusion, because the world is dynamic and capacious, and no one perspective on the world is ever finally true.

[The happy types] could realize that there is no joy without sorrow, no vivacious sun without the pockmarked moon. If they could understand this hard fact, deep, deep in their bones, then they could accept the scrambling of the cosmos, its ramming and slamming of opposing yet interdependent potencies. Suddenly sadness would not seem an aberration but instead a vital power, the enabler of joy. (The American Dream, p.30)

Wilson sees these “happy types” as a cause, symptom, and scourge of modern-day American life and he denounces them with vitriol and disgust. He links the American fixation on happiness with the American dream, which, trimmed to the bone, is greed-driven, bland, and insular. He expresses concern for this obsession with happiness out of fear and makes the case that hollow happiness, usually in the form of instant gratification and oversimplification of deeper issues, breeds blandness. This self-deceiving happiness forgets and forfeits an essential part of a full human life. Up to this point, I generally agree with Wilson’s claim. Who doesn’t take the easy way to happiness? Then he goes on, to the offense of some readers, to over-generalize that the “mall mentality” is responsible for people who want to boil the world down to quick contentment. While he completely avoids the fertile relationship between capitalism, consumerism, and “happiness”, he rails against this mall mentality that encourages people to view the world in abstractions, drawing the dangerously oversimplified conclusion that “happy people” reduce the earth to a series of glittering boxes, while the melancholics stick with the decrepitude of old cottages like his house.

Against Happiness, for the most part, is one long rant against a contemporary American culture that requires artificial happiness at all time. The first half of the book is plausible. The second half, which argues that the experience of normal melancholia makes us creative, is seriously flawed. To back up his arguments he cites examples using historic and contemporary creative geniuses. He sets out to focus on the middle of the continuum, with happiness on one side, and melancholy on the other. Claiming that the book is not about the aberrant extremes, yet he supports his claim about normal melancholy giving rise to creativity using examples, John Lenin being the most prominent, who suffered from clinical depression. This leads him into into cross-eyed parallels between Herman Melville and Bruce Springsteen, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Joni Mitchell. None of which make any sense. The first half on America’s overemphasis on happiness is well-founded, and could be done in as essay. Wilson’s holier-than-thou attitude also makes this book difficult to read with a straight face.

To argue for melancholia as a force for creativity prompts the question: why isn’t this a better book, since the author is so miserable?

166 pp. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Walden, Revisited

I read Walden in high school for American literature class—and I didn’t know how to appreciate it. The teacher assigned Walden for Christmas break and I was not surprised that it became an object of my procrastination after perusing for a few days. When days of the break were numbered, I took to reading, no, actually skimming excerpts of Walden or individual quotations and thought them to be insightful and thought-provoking. When taken one sentence at a time, after, of course, carefully screening for only those which inspire deep thought and meditation, Thoreau is just fine. But the overall impression was underwhelming.

I started reading it the first weekend after school broke for Christmas, I realized I was so bored. Thoreau takes over three-hundred pages to talk about spending two years in the woods, and with the amount he rambled, I thought essay-length would be more readable. I was not as put off by the lack of human contact and dullness of life as his being self-righteous and pompous. In between the lines I could sense his condescension. Anyway, that was past tense.

Maybe certain books are meant for mature years of a reader. Walden is definitely such a book. It must have been 20 years since I read it and something compelled me to pick it up at the library store. The copy in question is Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau in a retro cover. This edition includes Civil Disobedience, The Journal, Maine Woods, and Life Without Principle. I know better this time to pace my reading so that I leave enough room for reflection and meditation. After all, this is a work of philosophical nature, something that, unlike fiction, is not meant to devour in huge portion. Maybe I should bring a chair to Muir Wood and read it for a day—to experience the serenity and harmony of nature.

[378] The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand

” Why, no. I’m too conceited. If you want to call it that. I don’t make comparisons. I never think of myself in relation to anyone else. I just refuse to measure myself as part of anything. I’m an utter egotist. ” (Part 4, VIII 608)

The Fountainhead is highly controversial because it challenges some of the most inveterate notions ever perpetuated on mankind: altruism and selflessness. It’s based on the outrageous belief in the significance of selfishness, on the provocative idea that man’s ego (and what it entails alone) is the fountainhead of human progress. It is primarily the story of Howard Roark, an architect who operates on a private, personal, selfish (in the sense of exclusiveness and independence), egotistical motivation. Indeed, since his expulsion from architecture school, no opinion except his own either disturbs or influences him. An insufferable egotist, Roark refuses to subordinate himself to the mandatory canons which generations of craftsmen and architects have proved inviolate.

The style of a soul . . . every human soul has a style of its own, also. Its one basic theme. You’ll see it reflected in every thought, every act, every wish of that person. The one absolute, the one imperative in that living creature. (Part 2, VI 270)

Perhaps Roark’s obdurate, uncompromising individualism is why he is hated and feared, because he stands above the need of using others in any manner, and to people who live “second-handedly” (Ayn Rand’s originally proposed title of the novel) on the borrowed vision of others such a man is a challenge, a threat, and a danger. Roark’s originality and creativity, by which Ayn Rand calls selfishness, are testimony of the very mediocrity of his opponents. Peter Keating, fellow classmate and architect, senses his mediocrity but fails to recognize it.

[Keating] thought of how convincingly he could describe this scene to friends and make them envy the fullness of his contentness. Why couldn’t he convince himself? He had everything he’d ever wanted. He had wanted superiority—and for the last year he had been the undisputed leader of his profession. He had wanted fame—and he had five thick albums of clippings. He had wanted wealth—and he had enough to insure luxury for the rest of his life. (Part 3, II 436)

Keating depends on Roak, who ends up ghostwriting his designs that gained him fame. Deprived of his own principle, sway by the collectivistic society, Keating only follows what has been done and hogs publicity. A mob man at heart, he shows that a selfless man cannot be ethical. Roark’s arch enemy is the critic Ellsworth Toohey, who sets his heart on striking down the egotism, the arrogance of unbridled individualism which Roark has fully personified. Toohey studies voraciously, absorbing information like a sponge. But he has nothing new to create, only acquires a prestige and influence by absorbing the works and borrowing achievements of others. He is aware of neither his inconsistencies nor the fallacy of convictions.

A blind mass running amuck, to crush you without sense or purpose . . . They recognize a man who stands alone at once. By instinct. There’s a special, insidious kind of hatred for him . . . They’ve got to force their miserable little personalities on every single person they meet. The independent man kills them—because they don’t exist within him and that’s the only form of existence they know. Notice the malignant kind of resentment against any idea that propounds independence. Notice the malice toward an independent man. Look back at your own life, Howard, and at the people you’ve met. They know. They’re afraid. You’re a reproach. (Part 4, XI 635)

Toohey represents this hegemony of men, whose wishes, efforts, dreams, ambitions, and most unfortunately, the consciousness, are motivated by other men. Roark’s existence simply nullifies theirs. It’s no wonder that Roark, in whom the individual spirit is enshrined, clashes with journalism and religion, which are singularly responsible for imposing collectivism and altruism on mankind. Caught in this difficult is Dominique Francon, whose love for Howard prompts her to destroy him in order to save him, knowing his works have no use for a world that doesn’t exist. The newspaper tyco Gail Wynand also understands Roark’s ideals but only he values his wealth more.

Rand believes that there is only black and white in moral issues; there is no gray. Therefore, giving in a little is not compromise but rather forfeiting one’s values and surrendering to evil. She argues that society, tainted by collectivism, has a herd mentality that corrupts individual mind. One might not meet the living counterparts of her characters in fullness, but one will recognize many a facet of them in people we know. The novel is an American epic because the values and ideals she proclaims can be applied to our world today. She makes a strong case for her extreme philosophy, although it’s difficult to digest and accept in fullness. I personally settle for a middle path, where the call for individualism and acknowledgement for the needs of society are equally important. Following the life of Roark and the insidious orchestrations of his enemies is both fascinating and gripping.

736 pp. Centennial Edition/Soft cover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Sartre

Along the same line with the post on labels, Sartre’s essay “Portrait of an Inauthentic Jews” provides the necessary framework for us to explore the “inauthenticity” of an identity, whether it is Black, Asian, of gay. In Sartre’s formulation, “authenticity for [the Jew] is to live to the full his condition as Jew; inauthenticity is to deny it or to attempt to escape from it.” In other words, a Jewish person had to accept the reality that others saw him as a Jew, with all the prejudices and mythologies that went along with that identification, before he could truly be himself. The alternative, according to Sartre, was pursuing “avenues of flight” that made the Jew complicit with anti-Semitic stereotypes.

While I was riveted at Sartre’s words at Cafe Flore this morning, within earshot a guy was raving on the phone about a man he hooked up with the night before at the gym. He certainly wasn’t shy about publicizing all the details of his number even though the audience didn’t ask for them. I ruefully reflect that these are the things about gay men–the uninhibited sex, the soliciting, the multiple partners–that I want to tone down. In this post on social covering, I discussed how toning down a disfavored identity (usually a minority one) and downplaying a stigma help one fit in the “mainstream” at the expense of the true self. So if I were to live to the full my condition as a gay man, does that mean I have to live with all the prejudices that go along with this identity in order to be authentic? To be complicit with anti-gay stereotypes is the last thing I want, but instead of going with the flow like cruising, clubbing, hooking up, dressing in leather, being in the scene, can’t I assert some individuality here? Why do we have to make sense of the world with labels and categories?