What I've Been Reading

12 April 2019

  • Joseph Brent: Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life

I knew of Peirce’s horrible reputation, but I had not been aware of the scale of his violent and abusive behaviour. Brent’s book strongly suggests that both of Peirce’s wives as well as his domestic personnel had to suffer psychological as well as physical abuse. This book decreased my estimate of Peirce as a person. In response, I changed the name of my blog, which previously referenced a quote by him.

Peirce himself suffers miserably from a young age. He is afflicted with painful facial neuralgia and becomes addicted to drugs in response. He is utterly incapable of achieving a permanent academic position, mainly because of his behaviour. Towards the end of his life he languishes in abject poverty until William James finally organises a private charity, which at least stops the worst malnourishment. Despite the abusive patterns he showed throughout his life, one has a hard time wanting more punishment for this man.

I remain an admirer of his early logical work, and the epistemological insights one finds in “The Fixation of Belief”. In contrast to Joseph Brent, and the late Peirce himself, I remain sceptical of his three categories. I very much doubt that Peirce’s triads constitute a major philosophical contribution. It would be interesting to attempt to teach a course on Hegel’s and Peirce’s triadic systems. While I doubt that either me or my students could uncover the hidden key to everything, it might help to understand where this strange appeal of triads comes from.

  • Jerry A. Fodor: The Modularity of Mind

When Fodor passed away in November of 2017 me and a friend celcebrated in the appropriate way by reading through a collection of his best jokes and insults. His The Modularity of Mind also contains a number of excellent one-liners, e.g. about ``the gurus of the West Coast that teach that All is One’’. So it was a joy to read this book and fill a gap in my knowledge.

The central thesis of the book, that input analysers form a natural kind of modular systems, that is modules which are informationally encapsulated, is of an empirical nature. Fodor is very clear about it. But how am I to judge it as I do not know exactly how the research literature on this issue? There are many good arguments in the pages of this book, but the bits of pieces of empirical research in cognitive science leave me sceptical of the central thesis. At least, I finally have a confident grasp on what people mean when they refer to Fodorian modules.

I am not swayed by Fodor’s sceptical remarks about global factors in cognition at the end of the book. While our individual epistemic capacities might very well be bounded in the ways he suggests, he does not take into account how we extend our minds. For neglecting these insights he might not be blameworthy since key papers in the debate, such as the Clark and Chalmer’s paper on the extended mind, have only been published later.

  • Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita

The Devil takes orders from God, or rather, from God’s messenger. In line with Christian theology, God never appears in person other than Jesus. But why does the Devil follow God’s commands? Bulgakov confronts the Moscow of early Soviet Russia with Christianity by having the Devil visit it, a figure that raises theological puzzles, and for which I don’t see how it could be integrated in the more well-thought through conceptions of Christianity. There is also another figure, the Master, who could be seen as a prophet in his own right. But since the Master ends up in the madhouse, only the Devil appears to have the mystical power to challenge the atheism of the Soviet authorities.

Becoming a witch is presented as a liberating experience for women, albeit one that involves the authority of the (male?) Devil. The book has a surprisingly happy end, more suited to Hollywood movie than a book about Soviet Russia or the Christian mythology.

  • Saul Kripke: Naming and Necessity

It is fair to say that I received my education in a post-Naming and Necessity philosophy. I read the book for the first time, but much of the material was familiar as its principles have won over much of academic analytic philosophy. The book, three lectures, represents a break in how philosophy is done.

I want to read a discussion of Kripke’s use of ``qualitatively’’. The word pops up in key places: When Kripke criticises certain ways of understanding possible worlds (especially David Lewis’ modal realism) and when he discusses materialism about mental states. It doesn’t seem to be the same use to me, or at least I would need further explication to understand it in a unified way.

  • Hilary Putnam: Represenation and Reality

I vaguely remember reading Putnam’s Reason, Truth, and History together with friends during my years as an undergraduate. I don’t think it was as much a fight as I had with this book, mostly because I have since then settled on positions heavily critiqued by Putnam. As he makes clear at the outset, Representation and Reality is mainly a negative project and as is typical for Putnam he mostly criticises the claims of his prior self. Putnam was perhaps the most effective proponent of functionalism and he aims at successfully taking it down as well. However, the pure negative critique does not appear as powerful to me. Functionalism became popular not only because of the shortcomings of type-identity theories, but also in virtue of being attractive in its own right. What Putnam hints at towards the end of the book does not appear nearly as attractive to me and therefore Putnam’s new position does not have the same power. That, however, does not unbind functionalists, including me, from the intellectual duty to find answers to his arguments.