Sunday, 25 September 2011

Status Syndrome; by Michael Marmot

Social standing affects your health:

Professor Michael Marmot is an eminent researcher, and is justly celebrated for his findings that social status, such as within the hierarchy of the UK civil service, have a clear and startling correlation with health and longevity. People at the top of the tree are healthier and live longer. He has diligently gathered and analysed the data, and the conclusions are clear.

This is good material for an extended essay, or a short book. What he has done is to batter this subject to death over nearly 300 pages, thereby battering me the reader and losing my interest. He drove me crazy with the endless repetition of the word ‘gradient’ – either social or health gradient. I counted the word popping up again and again in single pages and even single paragraphs. I started to dread the reappearance of the word, and wished he could find some other metaphor to vary the stodgy diet of ‘gradient’. It became a cliché, and an irritant, like the weather forecast saying ‘a touch of frost’, which similarly makes me wince.

Having, I am sure, got the gist of his message, I had to put the book down around page 100. Despite resolutions to pick it up again, and do justice to the friend who had lent me the book, a deep aversion has prevented me from doing so.

Unended Quest; By Karl Popper

An ‘intellectual autobiography’ of my favourite philosopher:

I was introduced to the ideas of Karl Popper by my school-friend ‘Toj’ Winter, and I learned the outlines of his thinking from a ‘Fontana Modern Masters’ paperback by Bryan Magee back in the 1970s. While acknowledging the persuasiveness and sanity of Popper’s thinking, and adopting many of this ways of thinking myself, I have flinched from the hard work of reading any of his main works directly. Tackling ‘The Open society and its enemies’ and ‘Conjectures and refutations’, for instance, remains on my intellectual To Do list.

A good substitute, though, is to read Popper’s autobiography: ‘Unended quest’, which I have just done again for the second or third time. This book explains many of his ideas in a succinct form, and shows that Magee’s book is a very good summary of Popper’s philosophy. Most of the 200 pages are devoted to philosophical discussions, backed up by at least 50 pages of notes, references and bibliography. The range of topics covered is dazzling: criticising Marxism, speculating about polyphonic music, the problem of induction, Quantum mechanics, the definition of science, ‘killing’ logical positivism, debates with Schrodinger, theories of knowledge, the process of learning, the tautologies of Darwinism, the objective reality of human theories and so on.

Popper gives us some interesting details of his personal life, particularly in the early chapters, but he becomes increasingly self-effacing as the book processes. I would like to know more about the man, and the details of his life, but we are vouchsafed only fragments of his personal biography. One can see how his views were shaped by the tumultuous years just after the First World War, as they were for various other prominent Austrian Intellectuals, such as F. A. von Hayek. Popper surprisingly worked as a cabinet maker for a couple of years, which he seemingly did in a dreamy way, while thinking great thoughts.

He left Austria as the Nazis came to power, coming to England. He is somewhat disparaging about the lack of intellectual rigour he encountered in England (and in New Zealand during the war), but is complimentary about the “honesty and decency of the people and their strong feeling of political responsibility”. He adapted to lecturing and writing in English, and published some of the most influential and important philosophic works of the 20th Century. When he moved back to England and lived in Buckinghamshire, he touchingly describes himself as “I suspect, the happiest philosopher I have met.”

Certainly Popper has a seemingly endless curiosity, and ability to understand the widest and deepest range of intellectual subjects. He is grateful to have found himself living in an ‘open society’, describing ‘Western’ liberal democracies as “the best and most equitable societies that have ever existed in the whole course of human history”. He declares at the end, in a postscript, “Our society is not only open to reform, but it is anxious to reform itself. In spite of all this, the propaganda for the myth that we live in an ugly world has succeeded. Open your eyes and see how beautiful the world is, and how lucky we are who are alive!”

It is not possible to explain all Popper’s lines of enquiry in this interesting and difficult book. But there is a common thread: Critical thinking. We have to look at all things with a critical eye, whether in the field of science, politics or whatever. We propose theories / conjectures, and hold them open to criticism and falsification. In his view theories cannot be proved or verified, and it was largely he who ‘killed’ the Viennese school of logical positivism. For him theories can only be falsified, and once shown to be wrong or inadequate, but build a better theory that incorporates the criticism (not just explain it away, such that the theory can never be disproved). He is particularly against the Marxists for their lack of honesty in not recognising that much of Marx’s theories are clearly falsified.

This line of thought is the key to many of the chapters. For instance he sees learning as a process of error correction and the discovery of polyphony in music as noticing the errors in congregations singing out of tune! He greatly admires scientists like Einstein, who overthrew the orthodoxy of Newtonian physics, by exposing its inadequacies and building a better theory that explains much more, and (crucially) makes predictions that hold themselves open to refutation.

There are some unexpected results, in that he is not greatly impressed by Darwinism. He recognises the usefulness of Darwin’s theories, calling them an important ‘metaphysical research project’. He points out that the ‘survival of the fittest’ formulation is essentially tautological. That which survives is that which is most adapted to survive – a tautology.

One would think that his theories lead to a permanent state of all our knowledge being provisional – an endless regression of uncertainty. But in the chapter ‘Values in a world of facts’ he recognises the existence of objective truth; almost in full Platonic vein. This is a fecund book, and I do not claim to understand all of it, or possibly even a fraction of it. But I recognise that there is much wisdom to be gleaned from this book, even if it is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Lustrum; by Robert Harris

Roman politics:

‘Lustrum’ is the second volume of a planned Trilogy about the Roman politician and philosopher Cicero. Robert Harris is continuing a strong tradition following William Shakespeare, Robert Graves and even the HBO channel. He has done his research thoroughly, and writes fluently, as ever.

He educates us about one of the important foundation stones of European civilization: Ancient Rome. In the process he tells a generally exciting tale. The plethora of characters is hard to follow, and I felt some tedium in the middle of the book from the repetition of speeches and court cases and triumphs. The defeat of the Cataline conspiracy, and his flight from Rome at the end of the book were particularly exciting, but the whole book is not consistently thrilling.

In the preceding volume ‘Imperium’ Cicero was portrayed as more consistently upright and good. Here we see weaker and less pure sides to Cicero’s character. So we lose a little sympathy for the protagonist, but he becomes more rounded and human. Another character comes more to the fore in this volume, the slave and secretary Tiro, who is the ostensible author of this book. He displays more initiative, wisdom and courage than his rather retiring personality in ‘Imperium’.

Harris draws out more universal lessons of politics, in an unobtrusive way. For instance: “There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events.” He seems to be making contemporary references at times: “We pile up riches for ourselves while the state is bankrupt…” There is an element of philosophy that can be picked up too: “It seemed to me… an act of madness for a man to pursue power when he could be sitting in the sunshine and reading a book.”

The Penelopiad; by Margaret Atwood

Odysseus viewed from a Feminist perspective:
I enjoyed this book. This is a good book. These two statements are not necessarily the same thing. Others do not necessarily come to the same conclusions from their readings of this book. My own views may change. A second reading is often more telling than a first.

Certainly ‘The Penelopiad’ is a short work. One could complete it in one concentrated sitting. That is not to say it is a slight book. It picks up on one incident in Homer’s Odyssey, where Telemachus, following his father’s instructions, executes 12 maids who were accused of consorting with the suitors who besieged Penelope in Odysseus’s palace. Atwood, taking her typical feminist fresh look at things, is obviously outraged by this incident. She explores how unfair and arbitrary this treatment was.

The story is told with a cool wit from the viewpoint of Penelope, speaking as a ghost. She speaks to us in our contemporary age, and hence makes ironic references to museums full of unused ‘trash’ and TVs as domestic shrines. This is amusing and quirky, lending a universality and relevance to the old story. But it also creates an unstable voice that is not successful throughout. There is an epigrammatic quality to the writing, mixed with some satire and irony.

The realistic portrayal of the unfree position of women in that society is one of the author’s main aims. Violence to the female body (and mind) is something I have noticed in all the books of hers that I have read. But it is intelligent, not virulent, feminism, and all the more effective for that.

The interpolated poems and theatre scripts may irritate some readers, but I liked them. They reminded me of some sections in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. They are poignant.

The portrayal of Helen (the famous one whose face launched a thousand ships) is particularly catty and telling. Atwood is alive to the destructive side of females too.