Odds and Sods

I trust you saw this review of Alain de Botton’s latest scholarly work via News. If not, do have a look; it’s very funny. Very enraged, very impolite, and very funny. It starts well –

Alain de Botton is the kind of public intellectual our debased culture deserves. This prince of précis, this queen of quotation, pastes together entire books by citing and then restating in inferior prose the ideas of great writers from centuries gone by. Aping the forms of philosophical thought in tones of complacent condescension, he provides for his readers the comforting sensation of reading something profound at little cost of mental effort.

And it goes on well, too.

the second half of the book offers “Solutions” to our unhappiness, drawn from the five spheres of philosophy, art, politics, Christianity and bohemia. Each of these, apparently, can allow us to re-examine our priorities and re-engineer our status systems. The lessons from this half of the book are edifying. Buying a new car will not make us happy. Jesus was a holy man, and yet a humble carpenter. Some people have valued poetry more than money. Dropping out of the rat race and lounging around in the park with topless women might be fun. It makes you think, doesn’t it?…Sitting uneasily with this striving for gravitas is the fantastically irritating whimsy by which banal ideas are illustrated by pseudo-logical flowcharts, graphs and diagrams. The effect of one of these is, surprisingly, to imply that God manifests Himself in the shape of a giant pepper-pot.

Very funny, but of course irritating too. Silly books sell jillions and good books sell two. Why do people insist on wanting to read silly books instead of good ones? Perhaps I’ll write a cliché-filled rant on the subject and send it to Norm for his contest.

Speaking of that, there was an article by Terry Eagleton in the Guardian the other day that I meant to say something about. It’s all right, I like its basic point, but I did notice one thing that got up my nose –

For later modern thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, we could act effectively only by repressing true knowledge. True knowledge would drive us mad. We could not act, and reflect on our actions, at the same time, any more than some dim American presidents could simultaneously chew gum and walk.

When, I’m always wondering, did Freud become a “thinker”? And why, and how, and under whose auspices? What is a thinker, anyway? A gifted amateur? An inept professional? What?

Because the trouble is Freud didn’t think of himself as a thinker, he thought of himself as a scientist. But word has got out that he wasn’t that, because he had such a very peculiar way with evidence. But people in certain bits of the humanities don’t want to give him up and don’t want to admit that he was just wrong about psychology, and move on. So they’ve changed the terminology. Now he’s not anything one can pin down and say ‘Nope, he got that wrong,’ he’s a Thinker. Not a philosopher, but a Thinker. That might be an acceptable word for some people, but in the case of Freud I think it’s just a weasel word, a way of saving appearances.

But to end on an optimistic note, there is this new group blog The Panda’s Thumb. One of its members, P Z Myers has the blog Pharyngula and I think has commented here at least once, and I think Timothy Sandefur has talked to us too at some point. Anyway, The Panda’s Thumb looks set to be another excellent place (along with for instance Chris Mooney’s blog and Carl Zimmer’s) to get scientific news and discussion and analysis.

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