Friday, December 30, 2011

The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction / P.M. Forni -- N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 2011

A number of books have been published recently that warn of possible damaging effects of the internet and other digital communication technologies. Among them are Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, and John Miedema's Slow Reading. Lanier warns that social media are turning us into willing tools of database developers, coarsening our personalities, and diverting us from exploring the rich, multi-dimensional and nuanced life of the real world of people and tangible things. Nicholas Carr warns that the internet is a massive distraction machine that is shortening our attention spans and possibly changing the structure of our brains making us less able to engage in deep thought. Medeima exhalts the pleasures of combating these tendencies through the practice of reading extended, artfully written texts, slowly and deliberately.

P.M. Forni's new book The Thinking Life fits into this new and developing genera. It is less analytical and more practical than the others. While a good, practical guide would be of value, Forni's book too often lapses into the realm of the trite self-help book, making it of limited use to any reasonably thoughtful adult, i.e., someone thoughtful enough to read a book about thinking. It might, however, offer valuable lessons to an adolescent who over-values the ready information and profusion of content available on the internet.

In the early chapters, Forni describes two elements that are essential to serious thought: time and attention. He rightly observes that both are threatened by our contemporary fixation on the inconsequential trivia that is communicated via the internet and cell phone communication. He then describes two important forms of thought: reflection and introspection, the bane of which is distraction.

Following these chapters, the work begins to read more like an extended monologue in Hamlet by Polonius to his son Laertes. The advice Forni offers is largely commonplace and uncontroversial: how to be a good student, employee, or manager. There are, however, usually valuable kernels embedded within the advice. For example, Forni rightly observes (quoting the Buddha) that "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world." However, his elaboration of this truth becomes little more than a rehash of the power of positive thinking. Elsewhere, he rightly recognizes the importance of cultivating self-control. This is followed by his trademark bulleted list of recommendations. The work becomes of a piece with The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and How to Win Friends and Influence People, both of which he cites favorably.

The superficiality of the work cannot, however, vitiate its core idea: deep, serious thought has significant benefits: it is intrinsically pleasurable, conducive to good decision making, and essential to a truly happy life in the Aristotelian sense. Furthermore, our ability to engage in deep, serious thought is being challenged by the explosion of the seductive, on line trivia that increasingly intrudes on our time.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy / Bryan W. Van Norden -- Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2011

In the preface to Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy Bryan Van Norden warns his more scholarly readers that he has "greatly simplified many aspects of both Chinese and Western history and culture." His reason for doing so is to avoid overwhelming the beginner with too many nuances and controversies. It is noteworthy that while his work is an introduction to Chinese philosophy, he makes frequent mention of Western philosophical ideas. His hope is to both inspire a more in depth study of Chinese philosophy, while also prompting readers to study Western philosophy. As such, his book will make an excellent text for any introductory Western philosophy course that hopes to take a multi-cultural perspective.

The time period that Norden explores runs from the sixth century B.C.E. to through the third century B.C.E., though a final chapter races through the remainder of the history of Chinese philosophy. Figures given the most attention are Kongzi (Confucius), Mengzi (Mencius), Mozi, Yang Zhu, Laozi (Lao Tzu), Zhuangzi, Xunzi, and Han Feizi. The central ideas that are used to distinguish these figures are their theories about ethics, e.g., cultivating virtues, promoting beneficial consequences, or promoting one's own well being, the nature and value of rites, the foundations of a good society, and human nature.

The work also contains three appendices on how to read a text, particularly a philosophical text, an explanation of the Chinese language and writing, and three alternate readings of Kongzi's philosophy. Each are not without value, but with the exception of the third appendix, they add little to the work. The alternate readings of Kongzi comprise only six and a half pages and as such, might well have been easily incorporated into the main text.

More valuable appendices might have included annotated philosophical and political time lines and a glossary of terms. Norden appears to have consciously decided to avoid using Chinese terminology, probably in an effort to keep the text accessible for beginners, but introducing students to the terms and characters actually used by the philosophers in question would not only make the appendices more valuable, they would be a clear reminder to Westerners that, as much as possible, one needs to place one's preconceptions in abeyance when trying to understand Chinese philosophy. One can only begin to understand it after becoming familiar with a great deal of the history, culture, and intellectual heritage of China.