What I've Been Reading

11 June 2018

  • Karl Sigmund: Exact Thinking in Demented Times

Not a philospher’s scholarly treatise, but an excellent book on the Vienna Circle. In this introduction for the public, Sigmund tells the personal and intellectual history of the influential Vienna Circle and its associates. We learn about the early debate between Mach and Boltzmann concerning the existence of atoms and soon the accusations of metaphysics are swirling. The famous, although not exactly well-documented, anecdote about Wittgenstein’s poker also had to be included. Philosophical arguments don’t receive as much attention as I would have liked, but the book serves as a reminder that philosophical debates take place in a more general intellectual environment and that the quality of the positions depends on this environment. The new developments in the sciences made the old Neo-Kantian positions look rather silly even though the argument for why that is so isn’t straightforward (I expect the recent Neo-Neo-Kantians to push back against that).

While I find the philosophical versatility and boldness of the Vienna Circle inspiring, as someone who grew up in Austria and went to School in Vienna I coulnd’t help but feel bitterness during the final chapters. As a work of history, it had to end where it ended. First, Austria and its people plunged head-first into World War I, then the remainders of Austria trampled on intellectual liberty under Dollfuß’ Catholic-Authoritarian Krukenkreuz, and finally they joined German Nationalsocialism. Never much more than tolerated, the Circle finally got crushed amidst the historical atrocities the Austrian and German people committed. Few took any notice in those demented times. Who would today?

  • Subrata Dasgupta: It Began with Babbage

This book served my purposes. I wanted an introduction to the history of computer science to make it easier for me to construct a cognitive map of what I’m learning. Dasgupta included just enough technical details for that to be possible while keeping the book light enough for reading it on the train. It didn’t make me an expert on the history of computing, but it will allow me to recognise historical key innovations (stored-program computer, context-free grammar, finite state machines,…) and place them in their context when I encounter them.

Dasgupta draws on Thomas Kuhn’s well-known work on scientific revolutions but I wish he didn’t. The talk of paradigms helps little and I find it distracting, because I want to start arguing why Kuhn’s framework is misguided. The references to Kuhn’s theory are most interesting when Dasgupta admits that Kuhn’s bold claim don’t really match on to what happened during the birth of computer science.

  • Judea Pearl (and Dana Mackenzie): The Book of Why

After the Judea Pearl interview on the limits of current approaches to AI went around, I decided to finally have a go at his book. Pearl’s main interest is to sell the importance of introducing causation back into the sciences. Thinking back to my undergraduate statistics courses years ago, I can see why he gets so excited, but the book can hardly be more than an advertisment for new scientific tools. While Pearl shows some equestions, much of the book relies on intuitive examples (e.g. the historical debate about whether smoking causes cancer). But as Pearl himself writes: “To me, a formula is a baked idea. Words are ideas in the oven.” So don’t fool yourself into thinking you are getting the real thing by reading this book. You get only the smell of the idea, not a proper bite. At least now I know which kinds of papers I should read to understand the science of causation.

I’ve been a bit confused about the authorial I of this book. It’s clearly supposed to refer to Judea Pearl, but the book resulted from a cooperation with the science journalist Dana Mackenzie. How does the indexical “I” work here, especially in the cases in which Mackenzie typed it?

  • Junichiro Tanizaki: In Praise of Shadows

The appreciation of subtle features and arrangements demands patience. Appreciating the beauty of shadows in architecture is an instance of this general rule. The times in which Tanizaki wrote “In Praise of Shadows” seemed no longer to accommodate such patience on a large scale, or at least the author had this impression and felt the need to offer his essay in response. The text deals with the lost aesthetics of Japan due to being overwhelmed by Western progress.

The aesthetic judgement starts at home. Tanizaki criticises some of his own choices in designing his own house. The compromise between glass and paper he tried to achieve failed. The new material doesn’t play well with the traditional Japanese style, as least not if one pays as much attention to detail as Tanizaki.

Western inventions and products are not seen as further means for aesthetic expression but as an encroachement on Japanese sensibilities. The juxtaposing of Western and Japanese style also glosses over important internal differences. Neither the West, nor Japan were ever cultural monoliths. At the same time and despite all the diversity, it seems to me that I can follow and comprehend Tanizaki’s text despite my lack of familiarity with Japanese aesthetics. This then might point to a shared, underlying aesthetic sentiment.

The comparison of various types of bowls and dishes suggests a general design principle: Design the object so that it achieves its aesthetic climax after a long use without special care. This principle might also prove benefical for philosophical works and software design (for computer hardware it seems hardly plausible at this point, but maybe someone proves me wrong).