The Essential Von Mises

The introductory unit of George Reisman’s study program includes about 60 pages of reading from the appendices to the 4th edition of Ludwig von Mises’s Planning for Freedom. Roughly the first 40 pages of this material is Murray Rothbard’s 1973 essay “The Essential Von Mises.”


The essay is an intellectual biography in miniature, focusing on the main ideas of Mises’s major treatises and their impact on the field of economics. Rothbard includes enough context so readers will know which problems and controversies Mises was addressing. He begins with an outline of the achievements of Karl Menger and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, whose work on marginal utility, capital, and interest solved many problems that had bedeviled economists for generations.

Mises’s first great work, The Theory of Money and Credit (1912), extended the insights of the Austrian school to money, which had to that point been left out of the analysis. He demonstrated that the principle of marginal utility applies to money as it does to all other economic goods, with great implications for the study of inflation and other monetary phenomena. He also provided a logical proof, the so-called “regression theorem,” to explain the origin of money and how it must have once been a commodity people valued for reasons other than as its utility as a medium of exchange. These theoretical accomplishments also provided the groundwork for Mises’s later formulation of Austrian Business Cycle Theory, in which expansion of credit by the banking system leads to unsustainable booms that must end in busts.

Following World War I, Mises turned his attention to the theoretical framework of socialism, which seemed about to sweep across Europe in the wake of communist uprisings in Russia and other countries in eastern Europe. In the essay “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth,” later expanded into Socialism (1922), Mises demonstrated the impossibility of rational allocation of resources in the absence of the price system provided by the market economy. This intellectual stake through socialism’s heart set off a decades-long debate among European economists. Socialists fancied that Oskar Lange, a Polish economist, effectively answered Mises in the 1940s, but in fact Lange had merely expressed a confident hope that socialist governments would be able to get around the problem that Mises had uncovered. (The collapse of the Soviet Union 18 years after Rothbard wrote this essay was the most eloquent confirmation of Mises’s theory.)

Mises was forced to flee Austria when the fascist influence there grew in the 1930s. In Switzerland he worked on and published in 1940 his greatest masterpiece, issued in English with the title Human Action in 1949. Rothbard writes, “Human Action is IT: economics whole.” Mises devoted many pages to the epistemological and methodological problems of economics that many in the mainstream had overlooked. He critiqued the way in which mathematics had come to dominate the profession. He developed the idea of “praxeology” as the science of human choices. He also further refined the theory of time preference, building on the work of Böhm-Bawerk and Frank Fetter.

Rothbard laments that Mises’s works were not translated into English until the Keynesian paradigm was already ascendant. His works were generally ignored rather than refuted. After 1940, when Mises was forced to flee Switzerland for the United States, he secured an unpaid professorship at New York University and began to gather a talented circle of students. It was from this group that the major voices of the Austrian school in the second half of the 20th century arose. The essay ends with a prediction that the crisis of Keynesianism in the 1970s would lead to a reevaluation of Mises’s ideas.

I’ll make another post to cover the short pieces taking up the rest of the reading from Planning for Freedom.

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Adam Knew Everything

There were several downers in last week’s readings for the Great Books Project–broken engagements, creation of governments, etc.–but we soldier on, undeterred.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 342-388)
  2. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Part II, Chapters 24-26 (GBWW Vol. 21, pp. 124-138)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 97-102 (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 513-527)
  4. Sonnets LXVI-LXX by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 596-597)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXV, heading “The Subtler Emotions” to end (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 755-766)
  6. Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters VIII-X (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 196-217)

We are just a couple of weeks away from completing the Whitehead book, but it will still be a long slog for the others we’re currently reading. Hang in there.

Here are some observations from the last set of readings:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book VIII: Well, this is all very depressing. Natasha’s loss of innocence, Hélène’s scheming, Andrew’s hardheartedness, Mary’s petulance, etc. Are we still supposed to like these characters? At least Pierre seems to have a breakthrough after being so despondent at the outset of the book.
  2. hobbes-leviathanLeviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Part II, Chapters 17-23: Hobbes leads off Part II with the declaration that the reason men form commonwealths is to have “the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby.” This is a big part of why the Straussians consider Hobbes and other early modern political theorists inferior to those of the pre-modern period; comfortable self-preservation isn’t as inspiring as the acquisition of virtue or the other lofty goals they advocated. Covenants “without the sword . . . are but words,” so he thinks coercion must be employed. We need a “LEVIATHAN, ” a “mortal god.” There’s no covenant between the people and the sovereign, so it’s impossible for the sovereign to break the covenant. Convenient. As far as liberty goes, Hobbes restricts that of the subject to the refusal to kill, injure, or incriminate himself. Hobbes tries to match his idea to the three classical forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 94-96: These questions all deal with the first man’s state or condition, specifically his soul and scope of authority. St. Thomas does not think that Adam could see God or the angels in their essence, but he does think that he had “knowledge of all those things for which man has a natural aptitude” and could not be deceived with respect to them. He was “created in grace” and possessed all the passions and virtues. He exercised mastery over all the animals before he sinned. Q. 96 ends with an argument that even if Adam had not sinned, human society would have displayed many inequalities in its development.
  4. Sonnets LXI-LXV by William Shakespeare: Many more reflections on time’s ravages here and the hope that verse will withstand it (“That in black ink my love may still shine bright”). The oddest sonnet in the group is #62, which is about self-love. To read it in the midst of all the other poems extolling the lover was a bit jarring, to be honest.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXV, beginning to the heading “The Subtler Emotions”: Instinctive and emotional reactions “shade imperceptibly into each other. Every object that excites an instinct excites an emotion as well.” James quotes several authors (including Darwin) in their descriptions of particular emotions, such as fear.  He divides emotions into categories of “coarser” and “subtler.” He theorizes that the coarser emotions follow, not precede, bodily reactions such as weeping (in the case of sadness) or fleeing (in the case of fear). He acknowledges that this theory is difficult to test, but he does attempt to anticipate and answer a couple of objections.
  6. Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters VI-VII: This section begins with a discussion of the 19th century. Whitehead identifies three sources of the century’s “faith”: Romanticism, scientific advances, and technology. He also identifies four “great novel ideas” of theoretical science introduced in the period: continuity, “atomicity,” conservation of energy, and evolution. The interplay of these ideas led to an “orgy of scientific triumph,” but the momentum faltered near century’s end. Science is moving towards a “study of organisms” that is neither purely physical not purely biological. This includes “organisms of organisms” and “enduring organisms.” We must recognize that organisms shape their environments as well as adapt to them. The chapter of relativity notes that “scientific theory is outrunning common sense” in the 20th century. Recent advances in scientific instruments open up new possibilities for experiments remote from everyday experience. These experiments have forced us to abandon a fundamental assumption of classical scientific materialism, “a definite present instant at which all matter is simultaneously real.” We have to speak of space-time now instead of keeping the two separate. Tellingly, Whitehead anticipates and rejects the notion of philosophical relativism in this discussion.

If you are in the continental U.S., I hope you have some good eclipse views today. (Don’t look directly at it!) We are supposed to get 90% coverage here around 1:30 p.m. If you haven’t been reading any Great Books lately, view it is as a metaphor for coming out of the darkness into which you have descended and get back to it!

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Week 8 of the Mises Institute’s Home Study Course in Austrian Economics includes one audio lecture and one book chapter dealing with capital.

  1. Capital” by Bob Murphy: Following Rothbard, Murphy defines capital as “reproducible means of production.” He says that a problem with many mainstream economists is that they equivocate on this term frequently, using it to refer interchangeably to capital goods or a capital fund of money. Money is not capital, though, and attempts to aggregate capital amounts in money terms run into meaninglessness when applied to entities like countries. Capital is closely related to interest; returns on capital approximate the interest rate under normal circumstances. Murphy also refers to Boehm-Bawerk’s idea of “roundabout-ness” in the structure of production: the more roundabout, capital-intensive the structure, the more productive it is.
  2. “Make a New Plan, Stan: On the Place of Capital in the Economy” (Ch. 8 of Gene Callahan, Economics for Real People): “What distinguishes capital goods are not any physical characteristics or special circumstances under which they came into being, but the fact that they are, today, a part of someone’s plan to produce a consumer good.” If the item in question ceases to be part of such a plan, it loses its character as a capital good. Callahan echoes Murphy’s point about the absurdity of attempting to quantify “social capital,” not just because the prices of the capital goods would collapse if their owners attempted to sell them all at the same time, but also because they are part of contradictory plans. So the key Austrian insight is not that there’s some “total amount” of capital goods in the economy, but that they are part of an interlocking structure of individual plans. If this is true, the criticism of capitalism’s failure to employ “idle capital goods” disappears, because the items in question have ceased (at least temporarily) to be capital goods at all.

Don’t forget that Bob Murphy now teaches several courses at Liberty Classroom. Please join the party over there!

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Nasty, Brutish, and Short?

Heavy things to discuss in the Great Books Project this week, things like life in a state of savagery. Let’s get to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 303-341)
  2. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Part II, Chapters 17-23 (GBWW Vol. 21, pp. 99-124)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 94-96 (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 501-513)
  4. Sonnets LXI-LXV by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 595-596)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXV, beginning to the heading “The Subtler Emotions” (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 738-755)
  6. Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters VI-VII (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 180-196)

I just noticed that we’re reading only one pre-modern author right now. I’m not sure whether that has happened before, but I suppose it makes sense to be more weighted toward recent authors as we go through the second half of this project.

Here are some observations from the last set of readings:

  1. p03cc91qWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book VII: We stay entirely with the Rostov family throughout this book. Much of it details a hunt, which no doubt was laden with all sorts of symbolism I didn’t recognize (I was distracted by various things during a great deal of the reading). The Rostov family finances are in very bad shape, and the parents are horrified when Nicholas resolves to marry Sonya. Natasha still waits for Andrew to return from western Europe, growing more and more anxious. The tension is certainly building.
  2. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Introduction and Part I, Chapters 13-16: This section contains what his probably the most famous passage of the whole work: Hobbes’s assertion that in the state of nature the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He gets there by assuming the equality of all men (without much argument) and then assuming that they will all be competing for everything without restraint. In the following chapter he lays out his own interpretation of natural law, which diverges significantly from the classical natural law position because Hobbes has taken the divine out of it. I think he makes some weird moves here, starting from the idea that the natural law requires men to work for peace (fine) and then very quickly going to some more tenuous assertions, e.g., the natural law prohibits men from signaling contempt for anyone. I think it’s a great idea not to signal contempt for other people, but I have a harder time seeing how that is a matter of natural law.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 90-93: Questions 90-92 deal with “the production of man”: man’s soul, man’s body, and women. St. Thomas writes that man’s soul is something created, not one with God’s substance, and that it is created by God directly, not through angelic mediation. It does not preexist the body. Adam’s body was also made immediately by God from “the slime of the earth,” and that his body was fitting in and of itself and described fittingly in scripture. The phrase that woman was to be “a helper” to man is interpreted here as referring to sexual reproduction. God’s forming of woman out of man rather than creating her separately (as presumably happened with the other animals) is significant in several ways, showing what was to be their intimate and lifelong connection as well as providing a picture of Christ and the church. Question 93 deals with the purpose of man’s creation, treating in some detail the notion of man’s being “in the image of God.”
  4. Sonnets LVI-LX by William Shakespeare: In this group there’s a recurring idea of the lover as slave to the beloved. He “watches the clock” in her absence, but does not dare to presume to question anything she does when she is not with him. “So true a fool is love that in your will,/Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.” By #60 we’re back to the theme of mortality and the hope that the poet’s verse will thwart Time’s “cruel hand,” that long after the deaths of the lover and beloved, everyone will still know of his love for her.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXIV, heading “Special Human Instincts” to the end: James argues, contrary to some of his contemporaries, that human beings display a great many instincts into adulthood. He lists and discusses them for pages and pages, everything from oral fixations to pointing to vocalization to fear, and on and on and on. By the end of the chapter he is talking about jealousy and parental love. He concludes that human beings have more instincts than any other animal (!).
  6. Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters IV-V: These two chapters deal with the 18th century and the Romantic reaction to it. Whitehead effusively praises the philosophes for their achievements, particularly in physics, but notes that they were not really philosophers and did not recognize the limits of the abstractions they employed. The wild successes of the physical sciences in this era temporarily allowed the Enlightenment’s mode of thinking to overpower all opposition. Nevertheless, by the early 20th century it has become clear that it has run out of gas; it fails “to provide any elementary trace of the organic unity of a whole, from which the organic unities of electrons, protons, molecules, and living bodies can emerge.” Romantics protested against this scheme, advocating in their nature-poetry an organic view of nature against the mechanistic one of the 18th century. Whitehead views their protest as insufficient because it was subjectivist, and he wants to advance an objectivist view against mechanistic determinism.

Fall classes start today. This evening I will be immersed in a discussion of Happiness with students around the world via a video conference. On the table this evening will be John Locke, St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Stuart Mill. Good times.

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Truth Persists and Works, Even if Nobody Is Left to Utter It

Human thinking and reasoning, human science and technology are the product of a social process insofar as the individual thinker faces both the achievements and the errors of his predecessors and enters into a virtual discussion with them either in assenting or dissenting. . . . But it is circular reasoning if one tries to explain the emergence of an idea, still less to justify it, by referring to its author’s environment. Ideas always spring from the mind of an individual, and history cannot say anything more about them than that they were generated at a definite instant of time by a definite individual. –Ludwig von Mises, The Historical Setting of the Austrian School

Having been inspired by attending Virtual Mises University a few weeks ago, I felt moved to dust off my Reading Economics Project and make a new post for the first time in forever. In this post I’ll cover Mises’s The Historical Setting of the Austrian School (1969), which is part of the introductory unit of George Reisman’s reading program.

historicalsetting_0Historical Setting is a short work–a mere 21 pages of text in the PDF version available for free on the Mises Institute’s website. Written near the end of Mises’s long life, it’s an intriguing look back at key authors and events important in the development of the Austrian school of economics, beginning with Karl Menger in the years prior to Mises’s birth and continuing through the interwar period. Despite his own tremendous contributions to this intellectual tradition, Mises keeps the spotlight off himself, making only one explicit reference to events in which he took part and one reference to his own work. The rest of the essay focuses on discussing the accomplishments of others in the tradition and critiquing the school’s ideological enemies.

The essay consists of three chapters. The first is titled “Carl Menger and the Austrian School of Economics.” Mises emphasizes the importance of Menger, who taught at the University of Vienna in intellectual isolation while working out the theory of marginal utility in the early 1870s. Although Menger began to attract some like-minded thinkers eventually, the phrase “Austrian school” did not come into use until the mid-1880s. Menger and his allies operated in a university environment in which professors had recently acquired academic freedom, so despite the unfavorable implications of their scholarship for state interventionist policies, they were tolerated in their positions. Mises’s nostalgia for the intellectual climate of late-19th-century Vienna is evident in his discussion of the many intellectual advances that took place there.

The second chapter, “The Conflict with the German Historical School,” discusses the so-called Methodenstreit, or conflict over methods. Advocates of the rising German Historical School of thought, centered in Prussia, held that no economic theory of human action could be universally valid for all people in all places at all times. They focused their effort on historical research of economic phenomena in Germany in the expectation that they would eventually be able to make predictions specific to Germany that could guide the German state in its policies. Mises summarizes the Austrian response to this thinking:

The Historical School would have been consistent if it had rejected the very idea that such a thing as a science of economics is possible, and if it had scrupulously abstained from making any statements other than reports about what had happened at a definite moment of the past in a definite part of the earth. An anticipation of the effects to be expected from a definite event can be made only on the basis of a theory that claims general validity and not merely validity for what happened in the past in a definite country.

The German Historicists and the Austrians critiqued each other throughout the 1880s, but Mises concluded it was to little effect because certain questions remained unclarified. In the meantime, economics “disappeared entirely” from the German universities in the sense that theoretical work ceased in favor of historical research. Mises illustrates what for him was the intellectual bankruptcy of the German Historical School by tracing the career of Werner Sombart, who began as a shill for the Hohenzollern Dynasty, gravitated toward Marxism around the time of World War I, and ended up a Nazi.

The final chapter is called “The Place of the Austrian School of Economics in the Evolution of Economics.” Mises begins by clarifying that most Austrians were not “Austrians,” and that the “Austrian” school included many non-Austrians. He goes on to write that the Methodenstreit was not a unique event; rather, it was one example of a continually reoccurring struggle between the advocates of peace and voluntarism on the one hand and those who reject the philosophy of peaceful cooperation in favor of state action on the other. The German Historicists who mocked the Austrians also provided intellectual cover for Prussian statism and socialism. Mises concludes with the assertion that statists will never deliver on their promised panaceas; they may boycott and silence the independent economists, “[b]ut truth persists and works, even if nobody is left to utter it.”

When I went over to Auburn for one day of Mises University on-site, I asked David Gordon if Mises had ever responded in writing to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1961), the themes of which overlap quite a bit with Mises’s writings on method and epistemology. David said that he didn’t think so; Gadamer’s work appeared after all of Mises’s major works. I teach Gadamer these days and would love to know how Mises would have reacted to him.

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The News Media Is Out of Ideas, Example #2,954

Or, alternatively, “Everything in 2017 Is about Donald Trump, Example #8,317”:

Someone at the Boston Globe decided to run a story about how the path of the upcoming solar eclipse runs mostly through counties that voted for Trump in November 2016. From yesterday’s “The 2017 solar eclipse path will overwhelmingly pass over Trump country“:

Is the eclipse throwing shade at Clinton supporters?

The path of ideal viewing spots for this month’s highly-anticipated total solar eclipse cuts overwhelmingly through places that voted for President Trump in November.

There are about 240 counties roughly along the central path of the eclipse, a 70-mile-wide trail extending across the country where people will be able to see a total eclipse, meaning the sun will appear completely obscured by the moon.

And about 92 percent of those counties swung in Trump’s favor, while fewer than two dozen counties voted for his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

The article goes on to state that, actually, this isn’t really surprising because everyone knows that more than 80% of the country’s land mass consists of counties that voted for Trump, in contrast to the few, densely populated counties that voted for Hillary Clinton.


So why is this a story again?

Then we get this bizarre assertion:

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that the solar eclipse is passing over Trump strongholds given that the president himself was born during a lunar eclipse.

Yes, I can see how one of those things naturally follows from the other.

Phil Jackson

I don’t know whether the Globe has lost its mind or whether it’s just trolling everyone, but I’d suggest a different approach.

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Donald Trump, Leftists, and Western Civilization

Regular readers of this blog know that I like Western civilization. I like its great traditions of literature, art, music, political thought, scientific reasoning, and many other things, all of which have their roots in the classical world and Judeo-Christian tradition.

So it irks me when people who should know better say that it’s inherently racist to say anything favorable about the West and its traditions. I have a long list of complaints against President Trump, but when he gave that speech in Poland a few weeks ago and said that the West was worth preserving, I thought it was a good moment for him, even if he did it in a neocon sort of way.

Then the left-wing commentators went nuts. I’m sure this was partly because they attack anything Trump says about anything, but I was really surprised at the vitriol they poured out against the very notion of the West. I thought at the time that I should write about it, but classes, baby, travel . . .

Fortunately, someone else did the writing for me. Go read Joseph Pearce’s piece, “Why Do Progressives Hate the West So Much?” at the Imaginative Conservative. It dissects key points in Peter Beinart’s Atlantic article, written in response to the Trump speech, that has received so much attention.

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Shakespeare Slut-Shames Time

I’m back again after a long hiatus with more of the Great Books Project. Let’s dig right into it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 275-302)
  2. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Part I, Chapters 13-16 (GBWW Vol. 21, pp. 84-98)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 90-93 (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 480-501)
  4. Sonnets LVI-LX by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 594-595)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXIV, heading “Special Human Instincts” to end (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 712-737)
  6. Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters IV-V (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 162-180)

Having just begun Whitehead and Hobbes recently, we don’t appear to be on the verge of starting any other new works, but it has been so long since the last of these posts that even William James seems fresh to me at the moment.

Here are some observations from the last set of readings:

  1. 3037af6900000578-3415334-natasha_rostova_and_prince_andrei_bolkonsky_waltz_in_the_bbc_s_l-a-14_1453715575882War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book VI: We keep seeing wild swings in the moods of the characters: Pierre, Andrew, Natasha, and more. Andrew goes from preoccupation with rural solitude to the thick of committee work in St. Petersburg to infatuation with Natasha. Pierre goes from passionate devotion to the Freemasons to private sort of Stoic endurance leading to a formal reconciliation with his wife, after which he lives in her shadow socially. Andrew and Natasha’s engagement pleases some and mystifies others. Will it endure?
  2. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Introduction and Part I, Chapters 8-12: “Riches, knowledge, and honour are just various kinds of power.” What a Baconian way of looking at the world. A few paragraphs later Hobbes is offering very novel interpretations of scripture, explaining away passages where God or some other spirit is said to have influenced certain people in favor of a materialistic explanation. The “demon-possessed” in the Gospels, for instance, were just madmen cured by Jesus the psychologist, whose words led them to abandon their disordered passions. It looks like Hobbes is a precursor to theological modernism. He does profess to believe the accounts of miracles associated with the Exodus and the divine revelation to Moses, but rule out anything supernatural happening in pretty much any other Christian culture.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 86-89: According to St. Thomas, when it comes to material things, the intellect can know contingent things, but not singular things in and of themselves. The intellectual soul knows itself by its acts, not its essence. The union of soul and body makes the knowledge of immaterial things difficult, but the soul separated from the body has greater scope for this knowledge. (These were tough questions to get through.)
  4. Sonnets LI-LV by William Shakespeare: In these sonnets we read, again, how the poet’s lines will preserve his beloved’s beauty long past her death. The imagery in #55 is most striking: “But you shall shine more bright in these contents/Than unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.” Neither war, death, nor “all-oblivious enmity” will destroy it.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXIV, beginning to heading “Special Human Instincts”: James categorizes all instinctive actions as a kind of reflex, acknowledging that his definition raises the question of whether we can really believe that “mutual dependence be so intricate and go so far,” given the astounding number of situations in which these instinctive actions can be observed. He insists that we must, and that understanding the nervous system makes instinct appear just like all other facts of life. “Every instinct is an impulse.” However, instinct also combines with experience to alter behavior; instinct can be inhibited by habit. Additionally, instincts can be transitory, fading away after a certain age. James concludes the section by writing that instincts serve the purpose of forming habits, after which they fade.
  6. Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters II-III: This section begins with an overview of mathematics: what it is and how it figures in the history of thought. According to Whitehead, the early Greek emphasis on mathematics lessened greatly under the influence of Aristotle, who was more of a classifier. The focus on classification kept medieval thinkers from doing science in the modern sense. Mathematics revived in the early modern period and formed the basis of the “century of greatness,” or the 17th century, during which measurement became preeminent: “The seventeenth century . . . produced a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematicians, for the use of mathematicians.” Unfortunately, the “misplaced concreteness” ascribed to this scheme in its treatment of mind and matter has “ruined” modern philosophy.

I alluded in an earlier post to my many travels and family developments this summer. I’m on the road again this week, but next week I plan to return home to prepare for the fall term and establish a regular routine. I promise that the Great Books Project will be part of that.

Apropos of nothing, I’m listening to a Mozart string quartet right now on a Bluetooth speaker I just got from Amazon, and I’m really surprised at the sound quality despite its being so small and cheap. Seriously, I set it out in the reception area outside my office, and it is coming through with great clarity. If this is the sort of thing you might be able to use in your office, check it out here. It’s still on sale at the time of this writing.

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The Death of Reading

reading-clip-art-11971497511117136851nlyl_reading_man_with_glasses-svg-medLong spells between posts here, I know. I’ve been out of the country twice and gone through the birth of Child #7 since the beginning of May, along with managing several summer courses, so things have been hectic.

But I had to write about the death of reading today. Not the death of my reading, you understand, but Philip Yancey’s, as told in the Washington Post yesterday.

This essay hit home to me because I’ve experienced some of what Yancey describes, particularly the increasing difficulty of maintaining the concentration necessary to read anything longer than a few paragraphs. When I began the Great Books Project in 2011, I didn’t have trouble doing at least an hour of reading for it on most days. Since then, my life has gotten quite a bit more complicated, with increased job responsibilities and three additional children, and that complication has definitely made it more difficult to find the time to read. However, I’ve also noticed that even if I do manage to carve out the time, I find myself more prone to distraction than I used to be, and I think there is something to what Yancey is saying about how the Internet and social media have trained us to live more distractedly. That or I just fall asleep more easily than I used to do.

I’m working on implementing some of Cal Newport’s suggestion about “deep work” in order to counteract this problem. If you haven’t read his book on the topic, I strongly recommend you do so if you’re experiencing any of the same difficulties.

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Scientist: Science Is Anti-Rationalistic, Naive

Political absolutism, scholastic philosophy, determinism, history of science: we are all over the place in this week’s readings. Let’s get to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 235-274)
  2. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Part I, Chapters 8-12 (GBWW Vol. 21, pp. 66-84)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 86-89 (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 461-480)
  4. Sonnets LI-LV by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 594)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXIII, beginning to heading “Special Human Instincts” (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 700-712)
  6. Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters II-III (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 144-162)

I hope no one minds my confessing that I’m pretty tired of William James.

Here are some observations from the last week’s readings:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book V: Here come the Freemasons. Pierre joins and attempts to recruit Prince Andrew. Tolstoy cleverly describes how Pierre’s newfound humanitarianism doesn’t do anyone any good despite his efforts. Meanwhile, Denisov gets into trouble for thrashing the corrupt official who had withheld food from his soldiers, and Nicholas has his faith in the emperor shaken when he witnesses the proceedings at the signing of the peace with Napoleon in 1807.
  2. hobbes-leviathanLeviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Introduction and Part I, Chapters 1-7: I haven’t read these chapters since graduate school. Today I have even less sympathy for Hobbes’s attempts to reason from materialistic first principles. It is interesting that he anticipates certain ideas in Newton and Hume a generation or two later. There’s also that naivete common in the mid- to late 17th century that if we could all just define our terms clearly enough, all disagreements would vanish. We need to do everything like geometry, “which is the only science that it hath pleased God hitherto to bestow on mankind.”
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 84-85: Here begins a new section dealing with “the acts and habits of the soul in regard to the intellectual and appetitive powers.” These two questions are part of a discussion of “how the soul understands when united to the body.” St. Thomas argues that we can gain intellectual knowledge through the senses, and that the soul when united to the body is hindered if the senses are diminished. Article 4 of Q. 85 argues that we cannot understand multiple things at the same time.
  4. Sonnets XLVI-L by William Shakespeare: “My grief lies onward and my joy behind.” The poet writes these words of #50 not while he is heading to the dentist, but as he is journeying away from his friend. I am tempted to reproduce all of #46 here because it’s about as perfect as love poetry can get: “Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war / How to divide the conquest of thy sight.” That, my friends, is passion.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXIII: This is a transitional chapter. After hundreds of pages discussing what James himself characterizes as a “jungle of purely inward processes and products” (memory, sensation, imagination, perception), the author pivots to a treatment of the “final or emergent operations, the bodily activities, and the forms of consciousness connected withal.” The chapter runs for a mere seven pages. James makes brief references to certain involuntary bodily operations: sweating, the catching of one’s breath, contraction of pupils, the patellar reflex, etc. But these are just pauses on the way to lengthier treatments of other movements in subsequent chapters.
  6. Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapter I: We’re off to a promising start, with Whitehead’s description of science as “anti-rationalistic” and “naïve.” Those were the good old days when even the intellectuals who had rejected religion recognized and gave due credit to Christianity for disciplining the Greek philosophical inheritance and laying the foundations of modern science. Whitehead (in 1925) says that it’s time for science to get philosophical and critique its own foundations. Otherwise it’s in danger of degenerating into “a medley of ad hoc hypotheses.” Tell me more.

I was thinking while composing this post that I desperately need to update the list of completed works on the main page for this project on the site. I won’t have time to attend to that in the next two weeks, in all likelihood. Travels and graduation this week, then more travels next week. Thank goodness for ebooks!

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