Hitchens On Paine

I felt a little bad reading this because I have a nice, inexpensive copy of The Rights of Man which I have never finished and here I am putting the cart before the horse and reading about it before actually reading it. I suppose that makes me like most readers of this book but, to be honest, I have always thought I was better than most people, at least as regards my reading habits, if not morally and hygenically.

We read Hitchens, of course, for Hitchens, regardless of the ostensible focus, but we can see the appeal: a polemicist and pamphleteer in the Enlightenment tradition who made a widely recognized contribution to the course of human events. In dedicating the book to the then president of a post-Saddam Iraq, he must have been hoping, somewhere, that one day he might be recognized in some small way as contributing to a similarly successful product, even if the years appear to have only proven him more wrong on that particular adventure than it seemed even when he wrote this.

I had never heard it before and won’t vouch for its provenance, except to express my belief that Hitchens would have made a good faith effort to examine its sources, but I love the anecdote about William Blake, the mystical poet, warning Paine, the (small ‘r’) republican pamphleteer, that he was in danger of arrest, inspiring the latter to immediately cross the water to revolutionary France.

Learning about Paine’s career was the fascinating. My own knowledge, prior, was rather thin. While no substitute for a biography by a professional biographer or historian, I am not likely to read one, so I’m glad that I got this brief look at his career.

‘Through Nature To God’ By John Fiske

Have you ever had one of those experiences where you agree with someone, but really wish you didn’t, because the person was so annoying?

That is how I felt about Through Nature to God.

How did I even come to this point? I was reading through a selected works of the great American philosopher, Josiah Royce, and came across some references to some other American philosophers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including… John Fiske. I decided, foolishly, to look for him and found Through Nature to God.

Whether it was the unsupported leaps, the leaning on poorly understood science (giving, though, some allowance for the fact that our understanding has grown since Fiske was writing), or the references to Herbert Spencer, which always, to me, at least, carry a pungent whiff of social darwinism.

He argues that the biological sciences, mostly, though not exclusively, evolution, argue for  God. He does not make a particular argument for the Judeo-Christian God, but clearly for a theistic one.

While I do, personally, see God working, at a distance, through evolution, his strident tones and arch language make it all seem… icky.

The best thing I can say about it… it’s a short book.

Varieties Of Religious Experience


I thought that I’d read this before, but now I’m not so sure. Surely, I wasn’t thinking of Henry? More likely, I was imposing some stereotypes and prejudices onto my memories.

What my memories left out was how gentle and credulous the scientist was of religious experience and feelings, most especially towards a sort of combination of positive thinking and what we would call ‘new age faith healing.’ He is slightly less gentle towards of forms of Christian belief and gives the impression of personally being a vaguely agnostic Methodist (except when receiving positive energies from new age healers).

James, when speaking about knowledge, frequently uses the term ‘warranted.’ I bring this up because of Alvin Plantinga’s advocacy of using the word ‘warrant’ instead of ‘justified’ when defining knowledge. I am cruelly and inadequately simplifying here, but one reason is that he didn’t like the moralism implied in ‘justified,’ at least not in an epistemological context. How much did Plantinga take from James’ gentle treatment of religious feeling and his use of ‘warranted?’

Things Overlooked

Not really adding anything, because I’m not in a great position to go back and re-read and re-examine, but how, when I was reading Julian, did I not think to go back and look at it Pater’s Marius!

Both are about Roman aristocrats from late antiquity with pretensions towards philosophy. Marius, of course, goes from living as a pagan (or, as Julian would have called, a Hellenic) to becoming a Christian, whereas Julian was raised in a rapidly Christianizing empire, but chose to adopt the gods of his ancestors.

A missed opportunity. I did see Marius sitting on my shelf, however, and maybe I will try and go back while Julian is more or less fresh in my mind.


Exact Thinking In Demented Times

Apparently, we’re doing back to back Viennese themed books.

The last one was better.

This one is good and interesting, but keeps failing to do more.

You see, Exact Thinking in Demented Times is about the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers, mathematicians, economists, and physicists who roughly made up the core founders of (now mostly… I don’t want to say discredited, because that’s not fair, but let’s just say that it’s not something many people identify themselves as these days) logical positivism.

While it does a good job of showing how physics, in particular, played a fascinating cross-pollination role in this philosophical school, it doesn’t really tell us much about the actual philosophy. It also spends too much time on people who weren’t really logical positivists nor participated in the meetings on the Vienna Circle (I’m looking at you, Wittgenstein!).

And aspects of the depiction of the historical milieu seem a little half-baked. For example, I am assuming that the ‘demented’ references mainly to Nazism and fascism, but somehow, until the last quarter of the book (in a way that feels tacked on), he manages to elude the urge to talk about this key aspect of the time period.

So we neither get an exact picture of their thinking nor a good view of demented Nazis.

Which isn’t to dismiss it entirely. It was a worthwhile read, just not what it could have been.

And it did inspire me to try and dig up some Carnap make another go at reading him after some abortive efforts in college (I used to study at a table very near the shelf where The Logical Syntax of Language could be found, taunting me).

Friends Divided: John Adams And Thomas Jefferson

9780735224711_p0_v1_s600x595I got fairly excited when I read about this book because it was described as being more an intellectual biography of Adams and Jefferson. As a child, visits to Monticello happened probably twice every three years, so I always felt a closer connection to Jefferson, a sense that was only partially relieved by reading McCullough’s biography from 2001. Continue reading