Reading a book is a serious undertaking of both time and mental energy. For these reasons, I will often spend hours reading online reviews (both positive and negative) in an effort to determine whether a book (and its author) will be worth my time. I believe knowledge comes not from the number of books you read, but by reading the right books. Below is a book-list containing some of the gems (and a few duds) that I have read in recent years. I hope that this list is helpful to those with similar interests or with similar ways of thinking about the world.
There is something perverse about our university education when it fails to show us the authentically cumulative tradition of thought. We have to discover the vital thinkers on our own and accidentally; our teachers, if anything, pooh-pooh the very people we should be studying, and we spend needless years just randomly and with luck coming into our own heritage (Ernest Becker – The Birth and Death of Meaning)
Daniel J. Siegel (2012), New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Siegel’s now classic book is being revised in his second edition (my review is based on the 1999 edition). Siegel is one of those rare intelligent minds capable of seeing the big picture. Drawing from neurobiology and attachment theory, Siegel presents a unified hypothesis for how the mind and body interact. In essence, it is argued that the mind is an emergent phenomenon that involves patterns in the flow of energy and information within a single brain and between brains. Siegel’s theory recognizes that the maturation of the nervous system is to a degree genetically programmed, but argues that the developing brain is organized and reorganized by experiences and interpersonal relationships. Siegel’s Interpersonal Neurobiology offers a way of bridging the gap between biological and social worlds without falling into the trap of biological reductionism. He draws from his experience as a psychiatrist and therapist to provide real-world examples that offer convincing support to his claims. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the mind-body gap, psychotherapy, or attachment theory.
Allan N. Schore (2003), New York, NY: Norton.
As part of the Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, Schore provides much of the psychobiological groundwork for how social relationships and experience-dependent neural activation shape the human nervous system. Drawing heavily from evidence within the biological sciences, Schore provides a convincing thesis regarding the psychobiology of attachment and affect regulation. The Orbital Frontal Cortex (OFC), at the apex of more reflexive lower-level systems and being highly connected to various limbic structures, is viewed as being key to the development of attachment relationships and to the function of emotion-regulation. Emotion is initially argued as being co-regulated during infancy and childhood by the parent. The parent changes their own neurobiological state – through their eye-contact, comforting touch, soothing tone of voice, and so on, to promote changes in the neurophysiological state of their child. This emotional attunement has effectively creates a ‘holding-environment’ that works to regulate the child’s affect. Over time, this socially mediated experience-dependent activation within the OFC, creates and strengthens functional neural networks that will in time permit the child to regulate its own internal states more readily. This is an extremely difficult read for anyone who is not a medical professional (I kept a small medical dictionary on hand as I waded through it), but it is very much worth the effort as it provides further justification for emphasizing the importance of social relationships in shaping who we are.
Peter-Godfrey-Smith (2003), Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
The ‘Philosophy of Science’ is a field that is interested in the assumptions, methods, and uses of ‘science.’ The ‘commonsense’ assumption holds that science is objective – that it accurately collects physical evidence from ‘out there’ in the world and uses that in a way to construct a scientific theory that is either supported or refuted by further experimentation and accumulation of evidence. While Kuhn agreed that this is what we often claim to be doing, in practice, our scientific communities tend to organize themselves around certain theoretical worldviews that include favored assumptions about the nature of reality, preferred scientific methodologies, and biases regarding what will qualify as ‘evidence.’ Evidence is thus interpreted through a theoretical lens, where the former is made to fit in ways inclined to justify the latter. Instead of offering a tentative (i.e. potentially falsifiable) theoretical blueprint, the paradigm is effectively treated by those working within the intellectual borders of that paradigm as ‘true,’ meaning that the scientific ‘evidence’ is anything but objective. While Karl Popper agreed with this somber view of how science seems to work, he advocated for scientists to be more aware of epistemological temptations that would want to treat our tentative theories as truths. Popper also had important things to say about the notion of theoretical conjecture, refutation and falsification. In addition to discussing such heavyweights in the philosophy of science, Godfrey-Smith also explores various philosophical positions regarding the relationship between logic and empiricism, the cultural and social embededness of science (and how it may challenge objectivity), the positions between realism versus relativism, and more recent discussions regarding the possibilities and limits of science. This is a wonderful introductory book for non-philosophers who are consumers or producers of science. I only regret that this book did not look more specifically at how science works within the ‘social sciences’ – I suspect there are additional challenges there that are important for us to be aware of.
Steve Fuller (2010) Durham: Acumen Publishing.
Steve Fuller’s book: Science is part of Acumen’s ‘Art of Living Series.’ Its editor, Mark Vernon, describes the series as comprising a wide range of topics that provide intellectually stimulating approaches toward ‘living.’ While at times philosophical, they were intended to be accessible to the lay reader and free from unnecessary jargon. This is one of the few books that I picked up before reading critical reviews – something I would later regret. What initially attracted me to the book (found on a shelf in my local bookstore), was the impression that Fuller would be critically reviewing the ways in which modern societies aspire to a ‘scientific’ ethic, ‘scientific progress,’ or ways of living ‘scientifically.’ With my own writings cautioning against the over-extension of science, I thought Fuller (being a philosopher and all) would be on the same page and would give additional insights into the role of scientific ideologies in modern societies. Fuller suggests that we tend to regard science as uniformly good. It is a distorted history – we tend to remember the invention of modern medicine and life-improving technologies, while forgetting nuclear bombs and mustard gas that brought equal payloads in devastation. Fuller, like many others, talks about the limitations of science – nothing new here for me, but something the average reader fails to appreciate. The problem with this book is that Fuller uses it as an excuse to defend his concept of ‘Protscience:’ “Just as the Protestants sought to recover the original biblical spirit behind centuries of encrusted tradition and ritual, today’s Protscientists wish to revive the empowering spirit of scientific enquiry from the institutions that shackle it.” He uses a hodgepodge of cherry-picked historical examples to defend his position and makes many assumptions that are never checked – or at least it is never shown to the reader how he got there. While I have no tolerance for science ‘run-amok,’ Fuller goes way too far and even comes to the defense of climate change skeptics and Creationists. And while he rightly criticizes the ‘New Atheist’ movement, he seemingly tries to make a case against atheism in general (e.g. referring to ‘Fuller’s Wager’ – a take on Pascal). In short, this book is a schizophrenic collection of half-baked ideas and presents views that are not at all defended on rational grounds – this is surprising coming from a philosopher. After reading a few online reviews (after the fact), I was relieved to know I was not alone in my negative review.
Raymond Tallis (2011), Durham: Acumen
See my full review here. Aping Mankind is Tallis’ passionate critique of modern scientific attempts to understand and explain what it is to be human. In an age where we find ourselves inundated with neuro-research and Darwinian speculations, his critique is much welcomed and timely. Tallis takes aim at what he sees as a growing pessimism or anti-humanism that would prefer to see human beings as ‘nothing but’ or ‘little more than’ some kind of animal. In short, he sets out to challenge those who would see us as either mechanistic neuro-cognitive machines or talking chimps.
Tallis’ attack targets two recent megatrends in science. The first mega-trend is what he calls Neuromania: the current proliferation of neurobiological studies that purport to explain the psychobiological causes related to nearly every aspect of what it is to be human. The second mega-trend is what Tallis calls Darwinitis: the popularization of psychological explanations that appeal to evolutionary origins as being the ultimate causes of our human behaviors. For Tallis, Neuromania and Darwinitis are often complementary. Once we believe we have localized some causal function in the brain, and assume it to be innate, we might then speculate about how it got there. But Tallis carefully demonstrates how the scientific ‘evidence’ emerging from these two scientific paradigms are actually built on some very questionable assumptions. Tallis’ book is not an easy read, but the patient learner will get much out of it. Raymond Tallis is a brilliant man and has been regarded as one of the top 20 living polymaths. This is an important book for anyone interested in understanding what makes us human.
Charles Darwin (1859 Facsimile of the first edition.), 2003, Holicong, PA: Wildside Press.
Darwin’s concepts of organismic adaptation and natural selection were crucial to the development of evolutionary theory. For the first time, Darwin was able to show that species were formed through their having descended from other species, sub-species, or variations. He argued that organisms were not replicated in immutable forms through reproduction, but were rather modified, if only by slight variation according to characteristics of the parent organisms, or through chance mutation. Darwin points out what animal breeders and plant cultivators should have already known in his day – that trait variation can be manipulated and bred: “One of the most remarkable features in our domesticated races is that we see in them adaptation, not intended to the animal’s or plant’s own good, but to man’s use or fancy” (p. 30). But if such variation helped an organism thrive in nature, it might enhance the possibility of it surviving to an age of reproduction, where it could pass on characteristic traits to its progeny. Different species competed for survival and resources in the spaces that they inhabited. If there was little or no competition among species or few environmental challenges (e.g. climate changes), then nothing would hold the proliferation of that species ‘in check,’ which would lead to an exponential population increase and the potential extinction of other species. Darwin carefully supported his hypotheses with evidence from fossil records, investigation of selective forces within the environments of living species, studies of within and between species variation, and his own painfully detailed examination of countless animal specimens. One got the sense that he was all but forced to come to his final conclusion as a result of the overwhelming evidence – his tentative and careful style of writing was likely the result of his awareness of how controversial it would be. In addition to the notion of adaptive selection, Darwin was also aware of ‘unexpected’ modifications, which preclude common day discussions of evolutionary by-products or spandrels that can piggy-back on another potentially unknown trait selected for some other function. While it is now popular again to talk about evolution of human psychology, my reading of Darwin leaves me to believe that he would highly disprove of the careless hypothesizing of inherited psychological traits: “When a variation is of the slightest use to a being, we cannot tell how much of it to attribute to the accumulative action of natural selection, and how much to the conditions of life” (p. 133). Darwin’s original masterpiece is an excellent read, not only for the historical feel of that age, but also to know what the man actually said (versus what he did not) – a bulwark to those who would seek to use his name for rhetorical purposes.
John F. Schumaker (2001), Westport, CT: Praeger.
Modernity can be defined by sociological and cultural trends toward capitalism, materialism, consumerism, rationalization, and the power of the nation-state along with its bureaucratic institutions. These sociocultural trends define our reality – how we view the world, how we come to think about ourselves, what it is to live a meaningful life, and they will even influence how we view mental health and how we determine ‘normal’ from ‘abnormal’ behavior. Since most of us are born into this cultural reality, we seldom question it: “…the field of psychology is still rooted deeply in individualism, the flawed assumption that individuals operate largely as isolated units who themselves are the principal translators of reality (p. 4).” Shumaker argues that we are biased in a way to ignore larger cultural trends that may also contribute to or perhaps wholly cause some forms of mental illness or distress. After exploring some theoretical roadblocks to understanding the larger picture, Schumaker begins to uncover many of the psychologically toxic factors related to the byproducts of modernity. Our cultures provide us with a sense of meaning or value – in the Western World, our worth is implicitly defined by our being consumers, by the quantity and quality of our material possessions, our capitalistically prescribed definitions of ‘success’ (which we are implicitly told will make us ‘happy’), and so on. Schumaker argues that these forms of meaning and happiness are non-sustainable and are contributing causes of the various ‘mega-trends’ of psychological distress, including an emphasis of the rational over the emotional, psychological distancing from others, anxiety, loneliness, powerlesness, and compensatory egocentric preoccupations. Schumaker argues that throughout history, our sociocultural worldviews had operated in a way to provide sustainable defense mechanisms that provided meaning, structure, and helped us to deal with the existential realities of human life. However, he suggests that current cultural trends operating under the umbrella of modernity are not psychologically life-sustaining and only serve to alienate us while leaving us susceptible to various forms of mental distress. Schumaker backs up his thesis by providing examples of mental illness as defined in the Western world (e.g. diagnostic labels in the DSM-IV), and how many of these supposedly ‘real’ disorders are mysteriously absent in various parts of the world that are comparatively unaffected or immune to the allure of modernity. He wraps everything up by making some suggestions about what a healthy society or culture could be and where change ought to occur (though he seems cautious in its ability). Schumaker is erudite, succinct, and beyond comparison in his ability to take such difficult concepts and piece them together so that the reader might catch a glimpse of the larger picture.
Ernest Becker (1973), New York, NY: Free Press
This should be regarded as the starting point for getting acquainted with the work of Ernest Becker. The Denial of Death has won him the Pulitzer Prize and has been regarded as one of the greatest books of the 20th Century. Becker draws from many fields, including cultural anthropology, sociology, and psychology, to argue that humankind’s most basic problem is being a knowing animal capable of confronting his or her own mortality. He argues that all animals die, but the human animal is the only kind with the capacity to project itself in time, to know this unfortunate fate to be theirs, and to potentially experience the feelings that such awareness provokes. The mind is of course capable of thinking abstractly, and of anticipating future events, but the body does not know time. It cannot distinguish between an event that is happening now, and one destined to occur at some uncertain point in our future. This potential for lucid awareness, about our fate, means that humans carry a burden of fear and anxiety that other animals are spared from carrying. Our fear of death (and indeed of meaninglessness) is ubiquitous, though it seldom enters our conscious awareness – and for good reason. If we were to be lucidly and continuously aware of death and nothingness, it would be very difficult to function in the world as we do. Becker persuasively demonstrates how culture and human invention has helped us throughout the ages, to deny our mortality or distract ourselves from having to think about it. Becker’s ideas have since found empirical support by social psychologists and Terror Management Theory (TMT). This book is a brilliant read, and is one of Becker’s most accessible works. I would also recommend the documentary: Flight from Death, which further explains some of Becker’s main ideas, along with the imagery to bring them to life.
Ernest Becker (1971), New York: NY: Free Press
This is Becker’s first academic work, but I and others have found it slightly less accessible than his Denial of Death. Consequently, I strongly recommend reading this after reading The Denial of Death (1973). Nonetheless, this book has a lot to offer, including a fuller picture about the possible phylogenetic trajectory of the human being and how it may have led us into this blind alley of being the only animal intimately aware of its own demise, and one that has a need to fulfill their worth through cultural symbols. “Unlike the baboon who gluts himself only on food, man nourishes himself mostly on self-esteem (p. 3)” Becker also sketches out the ontogenetic unfolding of the symbolic animal: “The main anxieties of the child are frankly existential from the beginning, and his sexual preoccupations reflect deep and vital questions about the mystery of life and death: ‘What is my body, what do these appendages mean, why do I have them, who am I, why am I here?’ and so on (p. 50)” Becker does an exquisite job of illustrating how the child painfully struggles with the process of reconciling the dualism of the body and the emerging self, and I found these chapters extremely rewarding. “The crux of this confusion is that the child has only his body, he is only a body, with a very meagre self or internal furnishing. He is not yet a fully symbolic animal (p. 50)” Becker then goes on to show how we learn about ourselves through what society reflects back on us; we consequently build our identity and performance around such values, and if we prove our performance in relation to them, we are rewarded with social affirmation of our identity. Becker thus shows, convincingly, how “the human lives within cultural fiction” (p. 98). Culture then, is nothing more than sets of illusionary hero-systems that define strategies for attaining self-worth, and ways of labelling normal and abnormal behavior. Toward the end, Becker sketches out his thoughts regarding healthy and unhealthy illusions and the kinds of cultures that might be worth holding onto. Like all of Becker’s works, this careful and tersely written book contains valuable insights that are too numerous to count.
Leo Tolstoy (Originally published in 1886; ), 2004, New York, NY: Bantam.
At about 100 pages in length, Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ is a short story with themes of life, death, and the meaning. Tolstoy describes Ivan, a Russian Judge who worked his way up the social and economic ladders of his day with great effort and without much question. He is a husband and a father whose life is “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” It is most ordinary in the sense that he does not question or contemplate his life, its finitude, or its meaning; it is terrible in the sense that there are potential moral, interpersonal, and existential consequences for not having done so. Ivan eventually finds himself ill and is at the mercy of physicians who ponder two possible diagnoses with two very different consequences – one means life, the other, almost certain death. As he becomes increasingly more ill, he begins to understand that his illness is indeed terminal. But what is most unbearable is the fact that others are not willing to face the reality of what is happening to him. His family avoids talking about his death – instead pretending that he is only sick. Tolstoy vividly describes a man who painfully finds himself alone in having to confront his own death. He becomes resentful toward his family’s avoidance of reality, and only finds comfort in a peasant boy Gerasim, who is able to speak with him because he has learned to acknowledge and tolerate his own fear of death. In his last days, Ivan begins to question the life that he had lived and ultimately finds the answers in the tears of his family. His own pain eventually subsides. While they felt sorry for him, he now feels sorry for them – he has discovered “the real thing” – the real point of life, while they will continue to live their lives built on illusion – out of their fear of death. It is here, out of his sympathy for them, that he confronts his ultimate fate and dies. Tolstoy’s short story is a wonderful piece of literature with important implications for how we might face our own lives and our own death.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (Originally published 1880), 1990, New York, NY: FSG.
The Brothers Karamazov is the last book written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It represents a classic within Russian literature and is often regarded as the best of Dostoevsky’s works. I am reviewing a Russian translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This near 800 page tome is divided into 4 parts. Despite its length, it is hard to put down. The storyline revolves around the lives of Fyodor Karamazov and his three sons: Dimitri, Ivan, and Alexei. Fyodor is a sensual and self-interested opportunist; Dimitri is a lust-driven and impulsive man; Ivan is intelligent, moderated, and rational; and the young Alexei is a compassionate novice devoted to his religious convictions. The novel details a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and the tangled web of romantic rivalries. The reader gets a wonderful glimpse into an important historical period of Russian life, and is treated to many important and thought-provoking dialogues – mostly coming from discussions involving Ivan. For example, he talks with Alexei about how an all-powerful God could conceivably allow for the suffering of children. The answer must be, as it is frequently claimed – that God’s plan is mysterious and incomprehensible to we mortals – we must have faith in His knowledge; Good will be rewarded in Heaven, while Evil will be punished in Hell. To which Ivan follows: “And where is the harmony, if there is a hell? I want to forgive, and I want to embrace, I don’t want more suffering. And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price (p. 245).” While this is often interpreted as evidence against the ‘truth’ of God’s existence, Ivan is saying something else: even IF God’s truth was the only truth capable of understanding or explaining the world, he would nonetheless reject it – not on rational grounds, but on grounds of morality and justice. There is so much in this book that I found intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving. The often quoted chapter: ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is worth the price of this book alone. This translation has also gotten rave reviews – the notes section is filled with important explanations that deepen the reader’s understanding of the dialogue and context.
Hermann Hesse (Originally published 1927), 1963, New York, NY: Picador.
Harry Haller is a middle-aged man in existential crisis. He is both an intellectual and an artist in the highest sense – a fact that only contributes to his deeply felt separation from the rest of society. Harry is a lonely drifter that craves human contact while despising much of humankind. He is thus part man and part wolf. Harry’s human side experiences the pain of his existential isolation and he longs to somehow escape it through human connection. At the same time, the wolf in him has an untamed and vicious hatred for the self-indulgent bourgeoisie class that seems to crave comfort and pleasure in the superficial, trivial, and petty aspects of existence. He is a stranger to the world and is lost. Hesse’s novel has wonderful sprinkles of philosophical thought and dialogue that will satisfy the intelligent reader. In describing a quote from Novalis: “…’Most men will not swim before they are able to.’ Is not that witty? Naturally, they won’t swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for the water. And naturally they won’t think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what’s more, he who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown (p. 16).” Harry is drowning – he is suffering. In seeking an end to his suffering, he contemplates suicide, but along the way he meets several characters that take him on an existential and experiential journey that eventually changes Harry in profound ways. Steppenwolf is a deep and moving novel about existential isolation and meaninglessness, the ultimate futility of intellectualization, and life/death. While the book has often been interpreted as having many ‘Buddhist’ undertones (e.g. acceptance of ‘what is’ or living in the ‘now’), I believe that it can also be read in an ‘absurd’ light – it has no obvious happy ending, but manages to evoke a kind of relative hope that arises from seeing the humor in life and learning to laugh in the face of tragedy and despair. Hesse reminds the reader that it is gallows humor, but perhaps that, combined with real human contact, is enough to sustain a life.