On My Reading List: October 2017

This month’s reading list consists of more interesting contemporary works than heavy literature, with a couple of heavyweights for balance.

Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, is a carry-over from last month. Although the story is exciting and the characters engaging the language, while lyrical, is dense, so it’s taking me a while. It’s interesting to see the treat of Jewish characters: I suspect from his tone that Scott was progressive by the standards of his time, but I shall emphasise ‘by the standards of his time’ and leave it there.

Mrs. D is Going Within, by Lotta Dann. Dann’s first book, ‘Mrs. D is Going Within’ opened up the experience of an alcoholic going dry to me, through the eyes of New Zealander Lotta Dann, and her second book is giving me similar insight into an ‘ordinary’ Kiwi’s journey into the world of mindfulness. She’s got me interested, and I’m planning on reading more, and maybe giving it a go.

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The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, is one of the heavyweights I mentioned. The world has changed a lot since 1949, when de Beauvoir first published what became the foundational text of Second-Wave feminism, and it’s fascinating to be recognise the genesis of modern ideas in her words. I’m already noticing, though, that in advocating for women de Beauvoir seems to have a certain disdain for the feminine, and a sometimes rather low view of women in general. Continue reading “On My Reading List: October 2017”

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Five Famous and Influential Works of Philosophy

Simone de BeauvoirAs I’ve read a bit more about the history of philosophy I’ve learned that there are some philosophers and some works of philosophy that have had an enormous impact on the way everyone who came after thought. Some of those works have become famous. Others remain largely unknown. Here are a few of the most famous ones. Continue reading “Five Famous and Influential Works of Philosophy”

Philosophy: The Core Areas

The Culture Project has always been about starting at the very beginning, and nowhere is this more the case for me than in Philosophy, a subject which has been studied for millennia by people of tremendous genius, and about which I know practically nothing. In the grand tradition, then, of posting literally all I know about a particular subject, here is my brief explanation of the four core areas of Western philosophy, as studied for thousands of years by people much smarter than me.

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Raphael’s ‘School at Athens’ a.k.a. ‘that one really famous painting of a whole group of philosophers that you’ll see pretty much any time the subject is mentioned, anywhere’.

Continue reading “Philosophy: The Core Areas”

Philosopher Profile: Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900

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Cover of the 1934 edition.

“God is dead.” The man who penned what is quite possibly the most famous line in the history of philosophy does not appear to have done so lightly, or with glee. This may be because he recognised that without a concept of the divine, humanity is as good as it gets… A brilliant intellectual plagued by ill health he suffered a complete mental collapse at the age of 44, from which he never recovered. Continue reading “Philosopher Profile: Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900”

Philosopher Profile: René Descartes (1596-1650)

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Descartes, 1648

“I think, therefore I am.” It is probably the most famous statement in philosophy, and René Descartes was the man who wrote it. Born in France on the 31st of March 1596, he was educated at the Jesuit College Royal Henry-le-Grand at La Fleche, and then in canon and civil law at the University of Poitiers at a time when the medieval worldview was giving way to the science of the Enlightenment. Continue reading “Philosopher Profile: René Descartes (1596-1650)”

Playtime: ‘Waiting for Godot: a tragicomedy in two acts’ by Samuel Beckett

Waiting for Godot 3My latest area of exploration is the classics of theatre and, as with opera and ballet, I’m using the internet to compensate for the lack of conveniently live performances. My first ‘outing’ is Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), which premiered in 1953.

It’s a play where nothing happens. The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for Godot. He did not come yesterday. He will not come today. But tomorrow, assuredly, he will come. Except that that’s the way it was yesterday, and the day before that, and, odds are, the way it will be tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after… Continue reading “Playtime: ‘Waiting for Godot: a tragicomedy in two acts’ by Samuel Beckett”

Philosopher Profile: Plato (c.428-348 BCE)

 

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Plato

“So,” the Significant Other asked me recently, “now that you’ve finished reading ‘The Republic’ when are you going to do a blog post on Plato?” It’s a fair question: Plato, along with Aristotle, who studied under him, effectively laid the basis for Western philosophy and was also massively influential in the development of Christian theology.

 

And yet in terms of biography we don’t really know a great deal about him. Even his name is only a nickname, meaning ‘broad’, and possibly referring to the shape of his head. His real name might have been Aristocles, but then again it might not. He was born into an aristocratic Athenian family. His family may have expected Plato to enter into politics himself, but instead he became a student of Socrates. Continue reading “Philosopher Profile: Plato (c.428-348 BCE)”

Philosopher Profile: Socrates (470-399 BC)

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Bust of Socrates

While to date I’ve read very little actual philosophy – I’m up to Book 5 (‘chapter’. They’re chapters) of Plato’s Republic, and that’s about it – I’ve already read enough about the history of philosophy to know that while there have been many distinguished philosophers in both the Eastern and Western tradition only a small handful of these have been the true giants, the people who shaped the thinking not only of their time but of subsequent generations up to the present day.

These guys, then, deserve special attention, and first on the list is Socrates who, as one book I read on the history of philosophy said, influenced ‘everyone who came after him’. Continue reading “Philosopher Profile: Socrates (470-399 BC)”

Paintings You Should Know: Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’, 1509-1511

With my nascent interest in the world of philosophy now seemed like the perfect time to write about the Renaissance masterpiece which is The School of Athens. The painting is a fresco, part of a series commissioned for the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. Regarded as Raphael’s masterpiece, it captures the Renaissance fascination with the philosophy of the Classical (ancient Greek and Roman) world.

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Continue reading “Paintings You Should Know: Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’, 1509-1511”

Why I Want to Know More About Philosophy

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If you’ve glanced through my most recent reading list you will have noticed that it includes a book called ‘The Story of Philosophy’. Philosophy is a subject about which I know very little, but just enough to know that I want to know more.

As I understand it, philosophy at its heart represents a particular way of looking at and understanding the world, one which is focussed primarily on the use of human reason. It asks questions such as ‘how can we know what we know?’ ‘What is good? What is right? What is just?’ ‘How can we establish the truth of a statement?’, and seeks to answer them not through appeal to divine revelation, nor through observation and experimentation, but rather through discussion and reflection.

At a time when radicals on both sides are keen to portray a false dichotomy between religion and science, and to stoke the fires of conflict which such dichotomies all too easily produce, I see philosophy as having a valuable contribution to make in bridging the emerging gulf between those who feel compelled to choose one side or the other.

In this I must freely acknowledge my bias. I am a Christian, a sincere believer that Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish teacher who lived two thousand years ago, was no ordinary man but was rather, in some mysterious way, both truly God and truly Human, and begotten by the one true God who made heaven and earth, all that is, and all that ever more shall be.

We offer thanks and praise to God… for science and discoveries, for our life together, for Aotearoa, New Zealand.

– Eucharistic Liturgy of Thanksgiving and Praise, from ‘A New Zealand Prayer Book’

The claims of my religion are rooted in history but they contain much which can never be historically verified. Does God exist? Was Jesus truly divine? Was he a madman, a conman, or a myth? Are the things he taught and did relevant to us today? If so, how? Reasoned arguments can be made both for and against all of these positions, but in the twenty-first century reasoned arguments can be few and far between.

But my interest in philosophy is not primarily focussed on defending (or testing) my faith. I am genuinely curious to know what the great thinkers of history have thought about, and how, and whether and how those ways of thinking might be relevant for my life. And so, philosophy.