Saturday, August 18, 2007

Beach Reading Report:
Scott Smith's The Ruins; T. L. Short's Peirce's Theory of Signs

Hey, back from the beach, where a good time was had, some sun was gotten, some books were read, some mistakes were made, and some important lessons were learned.

As for the books:

1. The Ruins (Scott Smith)
Picked this up at Harris Teeter when I saw a glowing Stephen King review on the cover. Looks like good beach reading I thought. How wrong I was...

Now, as I've said before, I have a certain amount of respect for anyone who can write a novel. I realize it's tough, and one shouldn't be overly critical. However, this just isn't a good book. No, not at all. It might have made a so-so short story...but probably not. There are lots of reason to not read this book, but here's just one: it's basically impossible to give a damn about any of the characters. This is not by design--it's just that they aren't interesting or human enough to generate any sympathy in the reader. Really--just don't waste your time on this book. Because I'm stupid, it was the only fiction I took with me, and I still didn't really read it, just skimming over the last 100+ pages to the most predictable ending of all time.

2. Peirce's Theory of Signs (T. L. Short)

I heard very good things about this book from reliable sources. My copy didn't make it in time for the trip, and the copy at UNC's Davis library was out. Fortunately, I had a pretty good idea who had it, tracked it down, and photocopied the first hundred pages. After a couple of days at the beach, I had to drive to UNC-Wilmington to get the copy from their library to copy some more. Damn this is--so far at least--a really fine book. So far I'd say it's one of the best books on Pierce I've ever read. Short is trying to explicate, correct, and defend a Peircean account of semiotics and teleology. This is the kind of book that makes you sit up and take notice. Whereas so much contemporary philosophy is ineffectual flailing about, Short seems to land a solid punch in every paragraph.
I suppose I'm sympathetic to this Peirce/Short position in part because I arrived at one element of it on my own, having concluded that the problems that many people attribute to naturalism are actually attributable to the view that Short calls "mechanism." I used to be sympathetic to those ("traditional epistemologists") who argue that naturalism undermines normativity (see e.g. Putnam's "Why Reason Can't Be Naturalized"...but naturalism is a fuzzy position, and--as many have noted--you can avoid lots of problems just by having a more expansive notion of the natural. At any rate, it's not so much naturalism that threatens justification/normativity/reason as it is the view that everything in the world operates mechanically. And that's the view that Peirce denies.

(Also: if your the kind of person who runs the other way when you hear the word 'semiotics'...don't in this case. Peirce's view is far more serious and more interesting than the Saussurean drivel you're likely to have encountered.)

Peirce is a tough nut to crack, and I barely understand the guy though I've been chipping away at him for years. It's too bad that his work is so difficult to penetrate, because I think it's fairly clear that he's the most important philosopher since Kant. At any rate, Short's book looks like a major contribution to the literature.

Two thumbs up--Philosoraptor says "check it out."

As for the other trip-related stuff...

What lessons were learned?

Well, for example:

Do not try to reason with anyone who is still willing to defend George W. Bush. And, especially, not someone who says, with a completely straight face: "Bush is a visionary president; fifty years from now historians will realize how great he was."

This is the equivalent of something like:

"Satan put all those fossils there."

So when people say things like that, it's time to smile, pat them on the shoulder, and change the subject. "Nice weather we're having" and "How 'bout another beer?" are acceptable replacement topics...

But if you keep trying to reason with them after that point...well, you're just wasting everybody's time.

I think I'm maturing as a conversationalist...


Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

This from a guy who thinks Reagan was a bad president and Carter was a good one.

Missed ya. How was the weather?

1:47 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


And how was the weather in La-La land? Fantastic--like everything else there--I presume?


(Actually, I think Carter was, as I'd put it, *a good president in many ways*. He had genuine virtues, but was unlucky and unacceptable to the Washington establishment. My fond feelings for Carter are largely based on the fact that he's a genuinely good man. There's something we might call "the overall quality" of presidents, and it seems to be a measure not just of their intellect and moral goodness...but also something like their ability to get people to rally 'round them and so forth. Carter seemed to lack that, having an insufficient amount of bullshit in his soul. Reagan had almost nothing BUT that going for him...

But I'm actually too poor a historian to be able to discuss these matters with any real sophistication.

Really all I can say is: I admire Carter a lot, whereas I admire little (though not nothing) about Reagan.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Which is why I thought you in particular might get something out of Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments awhile back. To wit:

"...if in the one case there
appears to have been no propriety in the motives of the agent, if
we cannot enter into the affections which influenced his conduct,
we have little sympathy with the gratitude of the person who
receives the benefit: or if, in the other case, there appears to
have been no impropriety in the motives of the agent, if, on the
contrary, the affections which influenced his conduct are such as
we must necessarily enter into, we can have no sort of sympathy
with the resentment of the person who suffers...

Secondly, I say, That wherever the conduct of the agent
appears to have been entirely directed by motives and affections
which we thoroughly enter into and approve of, we can have no
sort of sympathy with the resentment of the sufferer, how great soever the mischief which may have been done to him. When two
people quarrel, if we take part with, and entirely adopt the
resentment of one of them, it is impossible that we should enter
into that of the other.

Our sympathy with the person whose
motives we go along with, and whom therefore we look upon as in
the right, cannot but harden us against all fellow-feeling with
the other, whom we necessarily regard as in the wrong.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, if I take your point, I agree.

That is:

Why do I think that JC was an admirable president, despite his notorious ineffectiveness?

Because I think he was a good person, with good intentions, who happened to be unlucky. He happened to be in office during tough times, and so forth.

(And Reagan rather the reverse.)

Now, Bush dead-enders probably have similar attitudes about Bush. Bizarre though it may be, they think that the guy has a good character and good intentions, but he's been unlucky. This is an irrational thing to think, but let's set that aside for now. Since that's what they think, they're willing to excuse any failing as mere bad luck rather than bad character.

Part of the problem here is that conservatives seem to be particularly susceptible to heroification of their leaders. And certain kinds of leaders are almost irresistible to them--put them in a downright swoon. Especially (*sigh*) cowboys!

The thing is that anyone who is still defending Bush at this point probably can't be swayed by evidence.

So there's really no reason for someone like me--i.e. someone with better things to do--to waste electrons trying to sway the unswayable.

Such is the nature of my epiphany with my friend on vacation.

A couple of years ago I learned to stop trying to reason with my radical lefty friends. Now I'm learning do the same for my partisan GOP friends.

Life is short. Why waste it?

7:45 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, the same can be said of those afflicted with BDS, so I'm resolved to mention him as little as possible henceforth. I do remain skeptical of anyone who claims to be able to divine what's in his heart, or anyone else's, really. Neither am I very interested in judging other living persons as it holds little probative value. Osama bin Laden does what he thinks is right, I suppose. Contrary to popular belief, Osama is cruel, but fair---his theologico-political analysis allows for killing only 3 or 4 million in the West to balance the books; any more would be unjust.

No, I was thinking of Carter and Reagan, as a more arms-length consideration of the phenomenon, and Smith's treatment of it.

Similarly to how you feel about theocracy as an offense against the human spirit, so Reagan (and I) felt about communism. You, on the other hand, seem to side with Carter's assertion that Americans should (have) just get over it. These are the foundations of our sentiments.

Therefore,, per Smith, you cannot sympathize with the gratitude that literally tens of millions of Eastern Europeans feel toward Reagan for standing up to their oppressor. You feel nothing.

Neither do you share the resentment that many folks have for Carter, say the Israelis.

Now it's true I don't share the gratitude that one could have for Carter, albeit mostly because he freed exactly nobody; his approbation comes mostly from the Western chattering class, and from those outside the West with whose moral sentiments neither you nor I would find empathy.

The above profile applies to those who resent Reagan, as well.

2:02 PM  

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