Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James Harris

Hume: An Intellectual Biography

Philosophy can appear impenetrable. The questions discussed are fascinating, but the method of enquiry, analysis and argumentation is often dense and confusing. The history and development of philosophical thought has always filled a gap for me, as the narrative through-line that comes with a historically based analysis is easier to follow and process, whilst also delivering the key facets of the philosophers ideas. Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James Harris fits right in to this category.

Using the term intellectual biography signals that this is not a traditional book on the life and times of David Hume the man. That has been done before by Ernest Campbell Mossner in The Life of David Hume, a biographical foundation stone often referenced in the reviews. Instead what Harris has taken on is a detailed review of the development of Hume as a thinker and writer, and is the surprisingly the first book to do so:

Remarkably, James Harris’s intellectual biography of Hume is the first to have been attempted. As such, it covers the full trajectory of Hume’s intellectual career—from his earliest experiments in epistemology and ethics, through his views on religion, economics, and politics, to his mature efforts to complete his classic History of England. The result is an engrossing reconstruction of his ideas along with his position in 18th-century intellectual life. A significant place is given to Hume’s “anatomy” of human nature, and thus to the criticism of Stoicism which he developed in that context
The Nation

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Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

The advance of artificial intelligence has gifted us some great headlines recently, from self-driving Tesla’s to deep learning machines winning at Go. In Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom, this fertile zone of technological development forms the basis for a philosophical exploration of where this may all lead. What if artificial intelligence advances to a point that we, humanity, are no longer in control?

Superintelligence is a serious, intellectually disorientating treatment of ideas, imagining the inevitable future when we are able to create an AGI (an artificial general intelligence). An AGI would be capable of successfully performing any task that a human can. Such a machine would thus be capable of recursive self-improvement (on a digital time scale) perhaps rapidly leading to an explosion in its own intelligence. An exponentially self-improving superintelligence, according to Bostrom, would pose a significant threat to human survival.
Pop Matters

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The subtitle to the Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind immediately sets up the discord that often bubbles over in the reviews:

Human beings (members of the genus Homo) have existed for about 2.4m years. Homo sapiens, our own wildly egregious species of great apes, has only existed for 6% of that time – about 150,000 years. So a book whose main title is Sapiens shouldn’t be subtitled “A Brief History of Humankind”.
The Guardian

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The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap Seats

In The View from the Cheap Seats, the much celebrated cadence and imagination of Neil Gaiman’s prose comes to bear on a variety of topics, in this selection of his non-fiction writing.

What View accomplishes, though, is considerable. Broken up into sections — “What I Believe,” “Music and the People Who Make It,” “Some People I Have Known,” “Make Good Art,” and so on — his musings shine with wit, understatement, and a warm lack of pretention.
NPR

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The Gene: An Intimate History

The Gene: An Intimate History

Siddhartha Mukherjee burst on the literary scene with his first book Emperor of the Maladies, winning a Pulitzer prize and spawning a PBS TV series by the esteemed Ken Burns. In 2016 Mukerjee returns with The Gene: An Intimate History, another fact-packed but personal approach to a topic that looms large in modern day vernacular:

Six years after his non-fiction debut, Mukherjee is back with what he’s calling a prequel, rather than a sequel to his first book, The Gene: An Intimate History. Like Emperor, it’s a genre-defying tour de force. “It is memoir, it is family history, it is science, it is medicine,” said Mukherjee
Smithsonian Magazine

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Spy

The Secret War

In The Secret War, Max Hastings the prolific military historian and journalist, normally at home describing the physical battles and hardware of war, takes on the task of profiling the intelligence community during World War II:

Max Hastings’s 25th book is a lively, entertaining, but uneven yomp through espionage and code-breaking in the 1940s, which aims to cut through the clouds of mythology and establish just what contribution the cloak-and-dagger boys made to the outcome of the war.
The Guardian

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The Age of Wonder

The Age of Wonder

Some books settle with you, they sit somewhere more deeply and profoundly within you than others. The Age Of Wonder by Richard Holmes is one such book. As a rule on WhatBook I won’t add my own personal opinion to posts and let the reviewers provide you with the guidance, but it felt necessary here to callout the impact this book had on me.

Holmes is a distinguished biographer reknowned for his comprehensive books on Coleridge and Shelley and an expert on the Romantic era. With The Age Of Wonder he is sticking with this time period but switching from a focus on the Arts to the Sciences, looking at the great scientists and discoveries that emerged, and bringing that same love of the period and the deep understanding of the people involved:

Richard Holmes is one of England’s most admired biographers, his particular area of expertise being the romantic era in England and France. His previous books include exceptionally lively biographies of the poets Shelley and Coleridge and two volumes of shorter essays and profiles: “Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer” and “Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer.” In “The Age of Wonder” he shifts his focus from literary genius to scientific genius, as he traces the course of English science from roughly 1768, when Capt. Cook began his voyage round the world, to 1831, when young Charles Darwin joined the Beagle on her expedition to the Galapagos Islands.
Washington Post

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Thunder and Lightning

Thunder and Lightning

I know a book is worthy of consideration when I see the reviewers raising their game in an effort to describe it. Thunder and Lightning by Lauren Redniss falls squarely in to that bucket. A book that is clearly beguiling and difficult to categorize.

Part encyclopedia and part almanac, the book is a tapestry of narrative threads highlighting various weather-related curiosities, from Eskimo dream mythology to the science of lightning to the economics of hurricanes to Benjamin Franklin’s inclination for “air baths.”
Brainpickings

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Most Blessed of the Patriarchs

Most Blessed of the Patriarchs

I’m a fan of biographies, but what I am not always a fan of are the 800-1000+ pages that go with it. It is clearly hard to condense someone’s life in to a book, but what is most impressive is when an individual of prominence is both captured but also analyzed through a lens, a certain approach that allows for novel insight. If brevity comes as part of the deal the all the better. You won’t get all of the key dates and places, or walk the chronological path of their life, but you may get some insight in to how that person thought, what motivated them, and how that played in to their actions. The splendid Benjamin Franklin biography by Edmund Morgan falls squarely in to that category.

Jefferson, like Franklin, is a prime candidate for this more nuanced approach to the biography due to the sheer volume of writing that already exists about the man. In Most Blessed Of The Patriarchs by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf “they add a fresh and layered analysis, one centered more on his interior life than his deeds for posterity”, an attempt to dig in to and understand the contradictions of his character.

Much of this book is set not in New York or Washington or Philadelphia, the places from which Jefferson entered the American pantheon, but in Monticello, the place that most reflected him. It is “Monticello’s ambiguous moral geography” — and Jefferson’s own — that the authors set out to explore in a sort of scholarly Lewis and Clark journey through the mind and philosophy of the most enigmatic of the founders.
New York Times

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If Mayors Ruled the World

If Mayors Ruled the World

I first ran across If Mayors Ruled the World after listening to the author Benjamin Barber talk on the Seminars About Long Term thinking podcast. It was a fascinating listen, one that captured my imagination as a future form of global governance built around cities and their personalities embodied in the mayoral leaders. My enduring memory of the talk was it’s optimism. Barber seemed to genuinely believe that a connected network of cities could help the world come together in a pragmatic and still democratic way, whilst side-stepping the paralysis and nationalistic chest-thumping that seems so prevalent today.

The talk was given prior to the books publication, and the reviews following the books release in 2013 indicate that the optimistic tone continued. Described in the Publishers Weekly as “an impassioned love letter to cities and their political leaders” the book lays out a case for why cities are so important today and how they can be an integral part to an improved global governance structure in the future.

The idea of collaborating to tackle real problems in a context where effectiveness trumps ideology is replacing the dysfunctional idea of national sovereignty. ‘Today, after a long history of regional success, the nation-state is failing us on a global scale,” Barber writes. “It was the perfect political recipe for the liberty and independence of autonomous peoples and nations. It is utterly unsuited to interdependence. The city, always the human habitat of first resort, has in today’s globalizing world once again become democracy’s best hope.’
Stamford Social Innovation Review 

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