Students of psychology and philosophy will find much value in Boyer’s treatise, but it will probably strike most general...




A roundabout consideration of why humans turn to otherworldly thoughts.

Boyer (Collective Memory and Individual Memory/Washington Univ.) is fluent in several disciplines that touch on the cognitive sciences, including physical anthropology and evolutionary psychology. All of these disciplines, along with classical philosophy, come to bear on his account of why humans in every place and at every time have found it necessary or desirable to think of gods, the afterlife, and other extraordinary matters, building “complex supernatural constructs out of very simple conceptual bricks” (such as the recognition that all mortal beings die). While recognizing that religious beliefs vary widely within and between cultures and individuals, the author suggests that we hold them largely because we can; that is, all humans possess “the mind it takes to have religion,” a mind that uses processes such as “decoupling” and “inference systems” to arrive at what Boyer considers to be eminently practical reasoning about the meaning of life (reasoning that can sometimes involve inventing cosmic explanations for the mysteries and problems the mind confronts). Regrettably, the author is rarely straightforward in making such arguments, preferring instead to linger over (and then demolish) straw-man arguments and to show the flaws in other influential theories of religion (such as those of William James). The noted biologist E.O. Wilson gives a more concise and better argued account of the evolutionary basis of religion—if one that seems calculated to offend believers, as Boyer’s is not—in Consilience (1998). For all that, Boyer’s account has many merits, showing how the mind works by means of analogy, trial and error, and sheer speculation (the more counterintuitive the better) in the service of helping us to become comfortable inside our own skins and sleep well at night.

Students of psychology and philosophy will find much value in Boyer’s treatise, but it will probably strike most general readers as dry and daunting.

Pub Date: June 15, 2001

ISBN: 0-465-00695-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2001

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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

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The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.


New York Times columnist Brooks (The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, 2011, etc.) returns with another volume that walks the thin line between self-help and cultural criticism.

Sandwiched between his introduction and conclusion are eight chapters that profile exemplars (Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne are textual roommates) whose lives can, in Brooks’ view, show us the light. Given the author’s conservative bent in his column, readers may be surprised to discover that his cast includes some notable leftists, including Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, and A. Philip Randolph. (Also included are Gens. Eisenhower and Marshall, Augustine, and George Eliot.) Throughout the book, Brooks’ pattern is fairly consistent: he sketches each individual’s life, highlighting struggles won and weaknesses overcome (or not), and extracts lessons for the rest of us. In general, he celebrates hard work, humility, self-effacement, and devotion to a true vocation. Early in his text, he adapts the “Adam I and Adam II” construction from the work of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Adam I being the more external, career-driven human, Adam II the one who “wants to have a serene inner character.” At times, this veers near the Devil Bugs Bunny and Angel Bugs that sit on the cartoon character’s shoulders at critical moments. Brooks liberally seasons the narrative with many allusions to history, philosophy, and literature. Viktor Frankl, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Tillich, William and Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Virginia Woolf—these are but a few who pop up. Although Brooks goes after the selfie generation, he does so in a fairly nuanced way, noting that it was really the World War II Greatest Generation who started the ball rolling. He is careful to emphasize that no one—even those he profiles—is anywhere near flawless.

The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9325-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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