The meaning of life

[Excerpts from this book. See also this blog post, "Excerpts on happiness."] The meaning of life?— Life is not totally “meaningless.” People’s commitment to their work, to relationships, and to life itself proves that. However, it is hard to deny that life is not as meaningful as we’d like. It is the evolutionary product of “meaningless” random variation and natural selection, not meaningful teleology or some kind of cosmic purpose. The course of a person’s life is molded to a great extent by accidents; his very existence is an utterly improbable accident. No one is as special or valuable as he thinks he is. Whether he is popular or unpopular does not mean what he tends to think it does, tha

On realism and idealism

Over the years I've written a lot of reflections on the metaphysical issue of scientific realism vs. anti-realism or idealism. Idealism has always struck me as silly, whether in its Berkeleian form, its Schopenhauerian form, its logical positivist forms, or its more recent postmodernist forms. Here are some relevant thoughts (discussing Charles Taylor and other thinkers) I just posted to academia.edu, from journal jottings in 2007. Other reflections are posted throughout my website, including on the blog. #consciousness #bertrandrussell #idealism

The evolutionary history of life on Earth

I recently read a great book called A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the History of Life on Earth. Couldn't resist taking notes on it, so as not to forget it all. (I have an abysmal memory.) In case anyone might be interested, here they are. The history of life is such a fascinating topic I sometimes wish I'd studied the life sciences instead of philosophy and history. Here's a free ebook. #biology

100 (more or less) left-wing books

Here's a list of some good leftist books I've come across over the years. Click on the titles for the PDFs. It's a somewhat arbitrary list, but I tried to keep it confined to fairly easy-to-read books, not overly theoretical or abstruse ones that might leave the beginning reader bewildered. I've been unable to find PDFs of certain excellent works, unfortunately. You can also consult the Marxists.org website, a treasure trove. Or check out the extraordinary footnotes to Chomsky's Understanding Power, which have informative excerpts from hundreds of books. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk a

Against "the postmodern novel"

[Here's an excerpt from a book on 'humanism' I wanted to write back in 2006. It's from a passage in which I was arguing against postmodern forms of literature, with their skepticism of old-fashioned narrative and all the other elements of a traditional literary aesthetic. Juvenile in some respects, this passage might at least contain a few thoughts that are defensible.] ...I’d advise optimism to writers of fiction and poetry—serious fiction, not Dan Brownian crap. But Dan Brown’s popularity shows that, despite what I wrote earlier about the demise of narrative, people still enjoy reading books for the plot. And they still like to identify with a protagonist, and have the world interpreted fo

Brief notes on a classic historical work

[Old notes on David Montgomery’s great book Citizen Worker: The Experience of Workers in the United States with Democracy and the Free Market during the Nineteenth Century (1993).] What Alexander Troup wrote in 1891 applies just as well to the present: “We prate religion… We indulge in morbid sentimentalism over ‘happy homes,’ we spread ourselves in eagle flights of oratory over our American institutions and the liberty and equality we enjoy under the law, while at the same time we are manufacturing paupers to an extent which places it among our leading industries.” Quite early in the nineteenth century, in fact, the courts were favoring the manufacture of paupers just as much as they do tod

Notes on Indian resistance to the Spanish empire

With regard to the period between the 1530s and 1640s, the great Marxian historian Steve Stern divides the economic system that prevailed in the area around the city of Huamanga in Peru—and, by extension, the system in much of Spanish Latin America—into three stages. The first stage, lasting until the 1570s, was dominated by encomenderos and priests who pioneered relationships with local Andean societies. (An encomendero was a “Spanish colonizer in whose charge the Crown ‘entrusted’ Indians, from whom the encomendero could collect tribute and labor services in exchange, presumably, for tending to the natives’ spiritual and material welfare.” This system of encomiendas—a term that denotes the

On the meaning of 'knowledge'

[Philosophical notes from 2005.] Reading a collection called Contemporary Debates in Epistemology (eds. Steup and Sosa) for class. I'm halfway through the Dretske reading, which argues against the principle of closure (closure = the idea that if S knows that P is true and knows that P implies Q, then, evidentially speaking, this is enough for S to know that Q is true). I think all the controversies over the definition of knowledge and the definition of the terms one uses to define knowledge and the question of how one knows when one has knowledge and so on are misguided. Knowledge is a semi-meaningless idea. Its definition, vaguely stated, should be unproblematic: one has knowledge, in the s

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