FROM BACTERIA TO BACH AND BACK

THE EVOLUTION OF MINDS

Anyone interested in modern theories of the mind and consciousness has to reckon with Dennett. This book, dense but...

The dean of consciousness-raising consciousness-explaining returns with another cleareyed exploration of the mind.

“How come there are minds?” asks Dennett (Philosophy and Cognitive Science/Tufts Univ.; Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, 2013, etc.), both beguilingly and with just a hint of a challenge. The human brain is both top-down and bottom-up, the latter reflecting automatic, animal impulses, the former the better angels of our nature. How did that top-down control system grow to dominate, producing what we think of as not just brain, but mind? Therein lies a tangled story with many threads, some of which lead into daunting territory: the thought, for instance, that consciousness is really a species of illusion on the part of the “user.” After a few hundred pages’ tour of an evolutionary theater populated by mirages, “feral neurons,” and words that struggle to reproduce and thrive just as living creatures do, such a possibility comes to seem not so strange after all. Dennett defends the human mind as the chief feature distinguishing our kind from other animals; after all, he notes, we are aware of bacteria, whereas other animals are not, and “even bacteria don’t know that there are bacteria.” Yet that knowledge comes at a formidable cost, and when the author enters into the territory of inversions of reasoning and of reasoning about reasoning, of “the evolution of the evolution of culture” and other seeming circularities, you know that you’re in for a bumpy ride: “There are reasons why trees spread their branches, but they are not in any strong sense the trees’ reasons.” The ride may be bumpy for casual readers, but it’s always interesting, as Dennett calls on the likes of Darwin, Descartes, and Gibson—the last the author of a fruitful theory of “affordances”—to explore how we represent and understand representations.

Anyone interested in modern theories of the mind and consciousness has to reckon with Dennett. This book, dense but accessible, is as good a place as any to start.

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-393-24207-2

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 7, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS

AND OTHER ESSAYS

This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

THE ART OF SOLITUDE

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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