Archive for June, 2009

Review: Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

I’ve been putting off writing this review, even though I finished reading Ficciones a few days ago. Every time I think of how I want to write about Borges’ stories, a different tactic comes to mind. This is similar to the actual reading of his stories, which caused regular revisions in my understanding of what it was, exactly, that Borges was writing about.

Borges best trick is that he has masterful control of the rate at which he introduces curiosities. It is as though he knew how long a reader would sit and attempt to puzzle over a phrase, paragraph, or theme before continuing to read, at which point another curiosity quickly emerges from the text. Despite the complexity of his stories (and their initially perplexing nature), Borges knows how to totalize a story so that it stays in one’s mind as one continues to the next. The more of his stories I had in mind as I was reading another, the more subtle connections the individual ficciones shared.

It is not as though most short story collections I have read did not have some connection between stories: most authors like to have a similar toolbox of style, voice, and theme that they go through in the time it takes to put such a collection together. If the collection has an editor other than the original author, they might be selected for variety, or to correspond with some development in the author’s work. Borges, though, seems incredibly self-conscious for an author who rarely lets loose an emotional adjective. On my reading, the artifice of Borges comes through most clearly in terms of pacing, but there is much more than that in the Ficciones.

One of Borges’ favorite themes is time and eternity, and another favorite is the nature of fiction and imaginary worlds. These themes come together not just in what Borges writes about, but also in how he writes. Both themes come together especially well in my favorite of the Ficciones, “The Babylon Lottery”. The story details the development of a lottery system that is recognizable at first, then incredible and monstrous, through its metamorphosis into an entity at once understandable and mysterious. The lottery begins as just that, a drawing of lots, with a prize for some. Soon though, penalties are introduced for those with shorter lots. Once the lottery is simultaneously rewarding and punitive, it begins absorbing other societal institutions. Eventually, society is fully dictated by the lottery, with fortunes rising to dizzying heights one month and being wiped away the next, all thanks to the workings of the Company that delivers the results of the lottery. And all at once, the lottery is a constructed incarnation of fate.

Once that moment arrives, that revelation, the lottery and the Company pass from the artificial to the natural and eternal. It’s all somewhat Nietzchean, the way in which the artificial becomes timeless. The separation from Nietzsche, however, is in the pacing, in the statement, in the act of revelation. Borges shows how it could be that the lottery, with its results carried out by humans, becomes fate, with no obviously human agency involved. By the time “The Babylon Lottery” finishes, the Company has passed into legend and nobody draws their own lots, or knows when, where, or by whom they are drawn. Except for its’ human origins, by then lost into mythology and legend, the lottery is indistinguishable from fate. “The Babylon Lottery” is not the only story in the Ficciones to meditate on the limited understanding of time we as humans have, but it is the finest. It is also one of the best I have ever read.


June 24, 2009 at 2:00 pm Leave a comment

Reading List Update- Time for Borges and Ōe

With Gregg’s The Middle East done, it’s time to swerve back into fiction. Thanks to the recommendation of a friend, Jorge Luis Borges Ficciones is next in line. Borges is an Argentinian author famous for all sorts of things, but I’m looking forward to being puzzled by his short stories and style. After that, I have Kenzaburo Ōe’s semi-autobiographical Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! out on loan from the library.

I also found an interesting suggestion for a reading list on the A.V. Club, from an interview where Harold Bloom discusses Cormic McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Apparently Bloom used to teach a class in which he taught, succesively, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (should I be ashamed that I’ve never heard of it?), Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and then Blood Meridian. I might do the list backwards, or just the last two… if you’ve read one, some, or all of these, what do you think?

June 18, 2009 at 8:46 pm Leave a comment

Review: Gary Gregg, The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology

Gregg’s book is divided into two parts, the first containing three chapters on the social ecology of the Middle East/North African (MENA) cultural area, and the second on periods of psychological development people experience within it. I picked up the book hoping to expand my background on middle eastern peoples and cultures; because of the focus of the pilot study I helped design and analyze last year, most of my knowledge is centered on Pakistan. I was hoping to expand my limited knowledge to the areas which Gregg describes, geographically stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.

For this, the book did exactly what a sprawling survey should do: it complicated everything. Gregg opens the book with a chapter titled Misunderstandings, which was a good introduction to the subject. His writing is cautious and lucid, and Misunderstandings sets the tone for the rest of the book. Gregg is in the business of psychology, not the creation of national or regional sterotypes. He is thusly very open that The Middle East can only cover so much. Unfortunately for my purposes, he eventually has little to say about education, and only slightly more to say about Islam. Most of the influences on psychological development that Gregg describes are social, and he only has so much space in which to describe them. He also had to pick and choose which topics to describe in depth. It seems as though Gregg is perfectly comfortable going on at length regarding particular debates over the effects of certain practices on development, but the book has a lot of ground to cover in 378 pages. The stand-out parts of many chapters were the “debate” sections near the end, in which Gregg built on the framework laid in the first section (the social ecology section) and earlier chapters to discuss a topic in depth. For example, the Early Childhood section featured the most extended and complex discussion of the developmental effects and societal role of male circumcision and female genital cutting (FGC) that I have yet read. Of course, FGC is only practiced by some groups (mainly concentrated in Northern Africa more than the Middle East, but tightening the cultural area under discussion is the price of increased depth.

In the later chapters, Gregg begins to focus on some more concrete details of identity formation. There was also more explicit discussion of the impact of modernity (read: Western influence) and feelings towards tradition, as there is growing awareness of both in later development. A frequent theme in the last four chapters of the book is Gregg’s intuition that (slightly) more accesible education creates perceptions and expectations for success that are not, unfortunately, in line with the opportunities in underedeveloped nations. The impact of this mismatch between expectations and opportunity has not been well explored, and is likely of increasing importance to the psychological development of many in the MENA region.

This book was very helpful to me, and I hope to make use of Gregg’s copious endnotes and citations for further exploration. A great deal will have to wait, because I shouldn’t go back to research yet– but to help shore up my grounding on MENA cultures I don’t think I could have found a better book. Now, if only someone could write something centered around youth and adult development, with an in-depth discussion of the impact of Islam… maybe my own future research could make a contribution to the text.

June 18, 2009 at 8:20 pm Leave a comment

Editing and Knowledge

On the subject of Silvestre de Sacy’s three volume Chrestomathie arabe, a selection of writings from Middle Eastern and Northern African cultures, Edward Said has this (and much more) to say:

Sacy’s anthologies were used very widely in Europe for several generations. Although what they contain was claimed as typical, they submerge and cover the censorship of the Orient exercised by the Orientalist. Moreover, the internal order of their contents, the arrangement of their parts, the choice of fragments, never reveal their secret; one has the impression that if fragments were not chosen for their importance, or for their chronological development, or for their aesthetic beauty (as Sacy’s were not), they must nevertheless embody a certain Oriental naturalness, or typical inevitability. (Edward Said, Orentalism, p.129)

Much of what I am finding fascinating about Orientalism is that it is not just about the characterization and domination of the Orient by European intellectuals, but that it is about knowing. It is a different take on the production and dissemination of knowledge, one more informed by continental authors which I did not really acquaint myself with in the last few years. Said’s most frequent philosophical acknowledgements seem to go to Foucault, and then Marx, but as a philologist he also has interesting commentary on Schlegel and Nietzsche.

This excerpt grabbed my attention in particular because it is about editorship and the politics of pedagogical compilation. Most of the professors I have had in the last few years preferred not to use textbooks. A frequent complaint they voiced was that textbooks consist of information predigested by some panel of experts elsewhere. It also takes a long time for information to be so digested, so textbooks are frequently far behind the work being published in books and journals. The result was that most of what I have read for class in the last few years has been collections of excerpts from books and journal articles, selected by professors.

While it is good to know the editor directly, and be able to engage them in their editorial choices in discussion, I have a new feeling of unease brought about by this passage of Said’s. I would not say that I am suspicious of the sources that have been suggested to me by professors, but I am even more worried about my own range of texts. At the moment, I am my own editor with somewhat limited resources. I have a great deal of time, but not much in the way of money (at least not money I could spend on journal subscriptions). I need excerpts, anyway—I wouldn’t want to read every article in every issue of even one journal, unless it was a special issue on a particular topic of my interest. How can I make the most, though, of the sources available to me? I don’t want to read, and because of my limited memory, time, attention, or money, end up feeling as if I know things only with a certain philosophical naturalness or inevitability.

And maybe that is the real source of my unease: not the issue of editorial motives, but of attitudes towards knowledge. I feel this chiefly, selfishly, about my own attitude towards knowledge. I am worried because that feeling of naturalness or inevitability definitely crept over me while I worked on my senior thesis. Of course science was like this or that, of course religion has this or that attitude towards experience. I don’t think I spent enough time asking, “says who?”

June 10, 2009 at 11:48 pm Leave a comment

Reading List- 6-9-09

When I graduated a few weeks ago, I was very excited about the prospect of reading fiction. So I ran through Haruki Murakami’s excellent The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. But about 3/4 of  the way through, I was already back to nonfiction. I blame Raven Used Books in Harvard Sq. Jerks sell unmarked copies of current philosophy of biology texts on the cheap.

So, the current reading list is this:

Edward Said, Orientalism

I’m borrowing this one from our housemate, but I might as well be borrowing it from Nateene. So far I’m two chapters in, but Said writes in long form and with incredible style. I’ve tried starting on Orientalism before, but gave up. This time, it’s personal. Really, though, this is about the West’s perception and construction of the Orient, and how that has actually affected the orient that’s out there. On this reading, it’s sounding a strong note of caution for reaserch that I hope to do on the attitudes towards evolution possessed by people from Muslim cultures.

Philip Kitcher, In Mendel’s Mirror

As this is an essay collection, I’ve read a few of these before. I’m reading those essays, and others of Kitcher’s, again. It seems like a very good collection, and I can see it coming in handy for future courses that I plan to take in philosophy of biology.

Peter McLaughlin, What Functions Explain

Although filled cover to cover with difficult and frequently esoteric material and terminology, this is the best book-length piece of philosophy of science that I’ve read in a few months. It’s about teleology in philosophy, biology, artifacts, and all sorts of other areas. It covers a range of treatments of teleology and teleological thought, from Aristotle to Kant in some of the earlier chapters through Hempel and Nagel in the chapter I’m currently reading. There’s also a lot of original material and argument from the author.

I’ve been especially excited by this book because it offers a different entry point into issues of scientific and philosophical explanation. The investigation of what counts as a good explanation, what it means to explain something, is a classic issue of philosophy of science (if a domain so young can have classic issues). The trouble is that I don’t have the stamina to read through Carnap’s Aufbau or another Logical Positivist/Empiricist text on my own, when I’m supposed to be on a bit of an academic break. McLaughlin’s book is just accessible enough while being so technical as to be interesting and curious.

Gary Gregg, The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology

Orientalism is a good companion to this book. Written in 2005, this is one of the most current attempts to sketch a psychology of the Middle Eastern/North African region (Gregg refers throughout the book to the region as MENA, to distance himself from the tradition of considering the Middle East as a monolith). It’s a very thorough treatment of the area, at least for its size- at 365 pages, Gregg fits in chapters on the Social Ecology of MENA and chapters on psychological development from early childhood through adulthood. Gregg is very sensitive to the task of characterizing the psychology of a region with diverse geography and cultures, but is general modest in his claims and provides more descriptive material (for example, average number of months Middle Eastern mothers spend breast feeding) than conjecture (as to the effect of this breast feeding on the character of the people of MENA). Of course, he has to draw some conclusions… but the care with which he supports them makes me feel more confident that the information is reliable.

June 9, 2009 at 2:04 pm 1 comment

Population Thinking for Epistemology

One of my first posts on this blog was about essentialism. For some reason, Google has since picked up the keywords in the article, and it is a popular result for people looking for “essentialism” “philosophy” and “biology”. This has mystified me, because it simply is not a very informative post. If people were looking for a reference on any of those subjects, they would do better to look elsewhere.

For a long time, I have been vowing to write a better and more original post on essentialism in philosophy. This is that post, but it is still not a reference on philosophy, essentialism, or biology. For more information on essentialism, I would encourage everyone to check out John Wilkins’ brief discussion of the subject over at TalkOrigins, here.

This post concerns essentialism not in biology, but in philosophy. And I do not mean Platonic or Aristotelian essentialism; although the roots of essentialism in biology lie in part with the ancient Greeks, I think few philosophers today would say they consider truth in the same way as Plato or Aristotle. I want to discuss essentialism as the term has come to have meaning in biology in the 1930s and 40s, and in philosophy since philosophers have decided to turn their interests to modern biology. Ernst Mayr contrasted essentialist or typological thinking with population thinking in biology, as I mentioned in my previous post, but in discussing essentialism I think philosophers have failed to do the same.

What do I mean? Well, essentialism is primarily about identity, truth, and our capacity to recognize truth in a world in transition. Essentialism concerns knowledge of the characteristics that identify something, whether that thing is a species, a concept, or a person. In contrast to this, Mayr placed population thinking, whereby there is no one single organism that is a perfect model of a species, because that was not what a species is. A species consists of a population of organisms with varying traits. This makes life difficult, but not as difficult as looking for the perfect Gazelle and accordingly classifying all other Gazelles as flawed, but close enough.

Of course, philosophy doesn’t usually work in terms of Gazelles or other organisms. Philosophy deals in concepts, explanations, and other such abstractions. Because of this, I think that philosophers have traditionally focused more on essentialism than population thinking. Philosophers of biology bring both up at the same time, as I have, but when essentialism is discussed in other philosophical contexts population thinking is not mentioned. As in my original post on essentialism, philosophers in more traditional fields like epistemology and metaphysics discuss essentialism as something to be avoided, perhaps, as a pitfall or a fallacy. Sometimes, it seems as if “essentialism” is just to be equated with “oversimplification”.

Population thinking should be involved when essentialism is discussed, however, because it is an alternative to essentialist/typological thinking. How, then, should population thinking figure into the minds of, say, epistemologists? On the one hand, there is what the concept of population thinking actually consists of, which is interesting for sure. On the other, perhaps population thinking has something to say about how we should go about seeking knowledge. In most accounts of knowledge, truth is the goal, the primary ingredient, always an essential part. But truth itself resists explanation; it is what is accurate to the world, intuitive, plausible, and correct. The other bits of knowledge should be truth-seeking or conducive to finding the truth. And, unlike the populations of organisms that make up a species, there can be only one truth. There are arguments for truth pluralism, to be sure, but I can’t say they convince me. A problem for epistemologists and humans everywhere is that finding the truth, singular and perfect, is extremely difficult.


My proposal, then, is this: we should certainly not stop looking for truth, but perhaps we need some waystations before we arrive at it. Population thinking may be able to help us find these way stations. As has been pointed out and rehashed by many philosophers, relying on natural selection to find the truth may not be the best way to go about the search, because fitness ensures survival, not necessarily knowledge. Natural selection alone has not shaped humans into the ultimate truth-seekers. But, to paraphrase one of Karl Popper’s famous metaphors, perhaps humanity is lost on an endless, darkened plain. About this plane are scattered lanterns, all with different ranges of illumination. We can only pick up one at a time, and it is difficult (although not impossible) to tell if one we come upon provides more light than the one we hold. So we go about picking up lanterns and sometimes, after a short or long distance, we have to go back to one we dropped back along the way.

So we are lost in a population of lanterns. But perhaps some may be judged, on sight, as better in some ways than others. We might not be able to judge for truth (as I am not sure we know truth when we see it), but perhaps we can specify the fitness criteria of the better lanterns before we set ours down and pick a new one up. Perhaps, given the range of theories scientific and philosophical, it would be best to leave aside truth for a while and set our energies towards defining new optimums and examining our populations of theories for those.

June 8, 2009 at 1:29 pm 1 comment

Punctuated Equilibria and 100 Year Floods

Are concepts like 100 year floods related to punctuated equilibrium?

Here’s what I mean: “100 year flood” refers to the probability of a flood of a certain size happening not once in a hundred years, but its probability of occuring within a given timeframe. So, within a given year, there is a certain probability of there being a flood the size of a “100 year flood”. This is opposed to the idea that a flood of such size will occur once within the period of a hundred years.

Punctuated equilibria, on the other hand, refers to rates of evolution and speciation. If speciation occurs more in fits and starts rather than through a more gradualistic model, then the number of species existant exists in an equilibria punctuated by sudden change.

One clear difference between the two ideas is that one is impacted by biological evolution and the other is impacted by climatic and meterological factors. I unfortunately do not have the keenest grasp on probability theory or statistics, but I suspect a similarity there. Rates of speciation refer to change amongst populations of organisms impacted by a variety of factors, climate amongst them. This concept importantly involves population thinking, but also “tree thinking” as described by Robert O’Hara in a paper here. The crux of the difference between 100 year floods and punctuated equilibria (aside from the disperate phenomena they seek to characterize) may be that, as of yet, the mechanisms governing speciation and climate are too different. Rates of speciation and recurrance intervals of floods both importantly concern the history of the phenomenon under consideration and use this to guide probabilistic descriptions of rates and recurrance, but ultimately the phenomena and mechanisms that impact the phenomena may be too different from one another.

June 5, 2009 at 9:45 pm Leave a comment

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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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