Monday, April 28, 2008

A mediocre library... better than no library at all.

Yesterday I finally returned two books to the Taichung Public Library, which I had checked out for about 100 days. The clerk's eyes literally bugged out when she saw how much my late fee was. Not that it was all THAT high; just as a matter of custom, she had probably never seen such a stratospheric fee: $200 NT (one book per day late costs you $1 NT). Well, once that debt was cleared, I could check out books once more. So I did.

I picked up Wallace's CHOOSING REALITY, a Buddhist interpretation of physics and reality (at a reportedly significantly higher level of learning than Capra's THE TAO OF PHYSICS or Zukov's FLYING WU LI MASTERS, both of which have been harshly critiqued as facile eisegesis for New/Age ends).

I also stumbled upon Reimer's 2006 THE SOUL OF THE PERSON, a book which looks fabulous in its Wojtylan adaptation of Thomistic anthropology. It has quite a few entries in the index about teleology, which should prove useful for a book review essay I am cooking up for inFORM 1B.

I also finally decided to have a crack at Devlin's GOODBYE, DESCARTES. His arguments about "non-logical rationality" vis-à-vis programmable reasoning seem intriguing.

On a lark I also check out Boorstin's THE IMAGE and Cooper's A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF SCIENCE. Both are backburner books, but do offer rich insights if I can fit them in before May 27 (when I SHOULD renew or return my books!).

One book I nearly checked out was Harry Frankfurt's ON TRUTH, the quasi-sequel to his delightful 2005 ON BULLSHIT, a book which I rank among my favorite handful of books. And considering its size (a minuscule 100 pages or so), ON BULLSHIT is probably the best read in my library, in terms of proportional mass and volume. In ON TRUTH Frankfurt explicates why he bothered writing ON BULLSHIT, a book which is not only an elucidation of just what bullshit is, but also a protest against its prevalence in contemporary Western (esp. American) society. The bullshitter is not out to deceive anyone or falsify the truth, simply because the bullshitter is unconcerned with truth as such. The bullshitter is more concerned with his effect on people; if he happens to utter an untruth, it would be better he were not caught, but that is all. If he happens to utter a truth whilst bullshitting, so much the better for his credibility. If accused of error or deceit, the bullshitter might retort the accuser "is missing the deeper point" or is "missing the forest for the trees." Fundamentally, the bullshit has no respect for truth, while by contrast a frank deceiver at least values and acknowledges truth enough to know it is potent and should be obscured or destroyed.

But then Frankfurt realized one of his key assumptions--that truth is valuable and demands our respect in a way that bullshitters do not countenance--is not at all universally accepted, especially in the smoky milieu of postmodern revisionism. For many postmodern thinkers, the important thing is not being right, but using what we take as facts for various social, personal means. This spirit is, of course, not too far removed from the heart of the bullshitter, nor is it at all uncommon these days.

So Frankfurt devotes ON TRUTH to explaining why we should care about truth in the first place (and hence why bullshitters are scurrilous for taking truth lightly). His arguments for the value of truth are twofold: first, truth helps us survive and progress as a society, since civilizations never do too well for too long without a sizable body of recognized facts; and second, truth helps us be more fully human, since not only does knowing another is telling the truth help us feel connected to and accepted by that other person, but also because having a true picture of reality helps us form our own personal selves, insofar as the Self is radically dependent on its environment and relations to other people and things. If liars constantly rearrange the furniture of reality according to their own verbal fantasies, we will find ourselves stubbing against unseen realities frequently and painfully, whereupon we will distance ourselves from our fellow human beings, lose confidence in our own ability to grasp reality and “see into” other people, and, worse, gradually lose a sense of where we belong in the world.

A touching, winsome book, but much too costly ($12.50 US) for now. Perhaps I will ask for it as a birthday gift. I read it in about 20 minutes, but that was at a speed that only barely allowed me to enjoy the savory richness of Frankfurt's prose.

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