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Sticky: A Sceptical Anthology

Some favourite sceptical quotations, accumulated over the years

The authors cited
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Sticky: Becoming mobile-friendly

There's currently a lot of excitement among web designers about Google's announcement that they will penalise sites that don't work well on mobile devices. I've decided I need to comply with this although with less than total enthusiasm. Nearly all my pages now meet Google's new criteria (the only exception is my cycling pictures.)

The disadvantage of the change is that if you read my pages on a desktop or laptop the lines will be long (unless you adjust the width of your browser, of course). Perhaps I should have alternatives for people who are using those devices, though that would mean more complication and difficulty in maintaining both alternatives. And the variety of ways that web pages can be viewed has increased enormously, so it isn't possible to cater for all of them. Probably it's no longer a good idea to specify the width of one's lines as I did previously.

I'd be grateful for feedback on this.
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Last modified on 2015-08-15 15:13

Book review: Limpieza de Sangre [in Spanish], by Arturo Perez-Reverte

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This is the second novel in the series describing the adventures of Captain Diego Alatriste, soldier of fortune and hired assassin. We meet again with most of the characters who appeared in the first novel, El Capitán Alatriste, including his young page, Iñigo Balboa, and the poet Francisco de Quevedo, who has an important role in this book. There is also a new character, Angélica de Alquézar, a young girl who fascinates Iñigo and is destined to have a major impact on his life in later years.

The plot is triggered by Quevedo's request to Alatriste for help in rescuing a girl who has been forced to enter a convent. Iñigo climbs into the convent and opens a door to Quevedo, Alatriste, and the girl's family members, but they are caught in a trap and Alatriste and Quevedo barely escape with their lives. Meanwhile Iñigo, who has disobeyed Alatriste's instruction to return home, is captured by Alatriste's old enemy, the sinister Italian swordsman Gualterio Malatesta, who delivers him to the Inquisition.

Quite a lot of the book is taken up with Iñigo's experiences at the hands of the Inquisition. These are suitably horrific, although luckily he is not tortured on the rack because he has not quite attained the age of fourteen. (The Inqusition's rules did not allow torture of children below this age.)

The question of 'purity of blood' which gives the book its title, relates to people whose forebears had been 'conversos' (Jewish converts to Christianity) and who were suspected of backsliding. If convicted of this crime they were liable to execution by burning. The central event in the novel is an 'Auto de Fe', which is staged in Madrid with the King and Queen in attendance. Iñigo is one of the accused, alleged to have taken part in Jewish rituals, and is now awaiting sentence.

As usual, there is plenty of drama and sword-play, which on one occasion takes on a near-farcical character, when Alatriste breaks into the house of Luis de Alquézar, Angélica's powerful uncle and guardian, intending to terrify him into getting Iñigo released. But Angélica comes on the scene and attacks Alatriste savagely, scratching him and biting his arm.

There is a lot of local colour, with depictions of seventeenth-century Madrid low life. Sometimes the details of this may be obscure to readers who lack some background information. For example, Chapter III describes Iñigo's encounter with Angélica in the 'Acero' district of Madrid. This was a place where water containing iron was drunk for medicinal purposes ('acero' = 'steel'), but in the seventeenth century 'tomar el acero' ('to take the steel'—compare 'to take the waters') could also refer to the making of romantic assignations.

As in the previous book, Iñigo includes a good few verse quotations, mostly from Quevedo, in his story, along with political reflections on the sorry state of decadent Spain. Fortunately these don't hold up the action too much. The principal characters, Alatriste and Iñigo, continue to develop in a convincing manner.

The final episode in the book has Alatriste encountering Malatesta, with whom he had fought a few days previously, now lying in bed seriously injured. Alatriste wants to kill him but can't bring himself to do so while the man is defenceless. And he is forced to recognise that he and Malatesta have more in common than he likes to admit.

Book review: Who We Are and How We Got Here, by David Reich

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In 2003 Stephen Oppenheimer's book Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World, presented a popular but detailed account of the way that genetics was beginning to supplement, and sometimes contradict, archaeological evidence for how humans had populated the world after their exit from Africa. This information was based on mitochondrial DNA and on the sex chromosomes, Y for the male line and X for the female line. The new insights into human evolution that Oppenheimer described were certainly fascinating, but the whole scene has been radically transformed within the last decade. Two technological developments have brought this about. First, sequencing of the whole genome has become much faster and cheaper, so that it can be done on an 'industrial' scale. Second, it is now possible to extract DNA from much older bones than was previously thought to be possible.

The first, and most dramatic, development in the application of genome sequencing to archaeology was Svante Pääbo's sequencing oeanderthal genome in 2009, which showed that there had been interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans. Reich started working with Pääbo in 2007, and in 2013 Pääbo helped him to set up the first laboratory in the USA for the large-scale production of ancient genomes. Similar work is beginning to be carried out in other countries as well.

In this book Reich presents an overview of what has been discovered so far. He emphasises that this cannot be a definitive description; new discoveries are being made continually and much of what he says here will inevitably have to be modified or even contradicted later. Still, enough has been achieved, he insists, to produce a radical transformation in our ideas about prehistory. 'The ancient DNA revolution is rapidly disrupting our assumptions about the past.' This is the first book to provide a popular account of what has been discovered so far.

The central fact to emerge is that it is no use looking at the genetics of people alive today to infer where they come from or what happened in the past. Study of ancient DNA has shown, time and again, that earlier people were much more mobile than many scholars had supposed. Large migrations have occurred repeatedly on a worldwide scale and there has been a vast amount of interbreeding. So the metaphor of an evolutionary tree is misleading; what we have is more like a network.

The book is in three parts. Part I is about interbreeding between modern humans and other species—mainly the Neanderthals but also the Denisovans and other now extinct species. Part II looks at the evolution of modern humans in five regions of the world: Europe, India, America, East Asia, and Africa. Part III is more 'political' and considers the relevance of this work to modern life and ideas of identity.

Part I is mostly a recapitulation of Pääbo's work and adds little to what readers of Neanderthal Man will know already. However, Reich has an interesting discussion of the idea of a retrograde migration from Eurasia to Africa as the source of modern humans.

It is generally supposed that modern humans evolved in Africa from African Homo erectus. But Homo erectus had moved out of Africa and colonised much of the Old World long before this, and it is possible that the ancestral population that gave rise to Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans actually lived in Eurasia (pp.68–71). 'In this scenario, there was later migration back from Eurasia to Africa, providing the primary founders of the population that later evolved into modern humans.' The advantage of this idea is that it requires one less major migration between Africa and Eurasia. At present it is speculative, but it would fit with the discovery of skeletons of 'Homo antecessor' at Atapuerco, in Spain, dated to about a million years ago.

Whatever explains these patterns, it is clear that we have much more to learn. The period before fifty thousand years ago was a busy time in Eurasia, with mulltiple human populations arriving from Africa beginning at least 1.8 million years ago.


Part II, or at least its first two chapters, was for me the most interesting part of the book. For Europe, a very important event was the westward spread into central Europe of the Yamnaya, people from the steppes of Central Asia, about five thousand years ago. The existing population at the time was mainly derived from farmers who had themselves arrived from the Near East, largely replacing the hunter–gatherers who preceded them.

The Yamnaya, themselves of mixed ancestry, are credited with the introduction of Indo-European languages into Europe, along with Corded Ware pottery. The idea that migration was responsible for these changes had been proposed in the 1920s but fell out of favour after the Second World War as a reaction to the abuse of archaeology by the Nazis. Reich is clear that the genetic evidence makes the idea inescapable.

Our analysis of DNA from the Yamana…showed that they harbored a combination of ancestries that did not previously exist in central Europe. The Yamnaya were the missing ingredient that needed to be added to European farmers and hunter–gatherers to produce populations with the mixture of ancestries observed in Europe today. Our ancient DNA data also allowed us to learn how the Yamnaya themselves had formed from earlier [Armenian and Iranian] populations. ,/blockquote>

The Yamnaya also spread east, into India, again bringing Indo-European languages as well as the religious ideas we find in the Rig Veda. The genetic evidence for this agrees with what many Western scholars have believed for a long time. The end result is that India contains a mixture, in varying proportions, of two highly divergent populations. But expressing this in scientific terms required careful handling when Reich collaborated with two Indian researchers. They objected on political grounds to the proposed term 'West Eurasians' and to the suggestion that immigration had brought outside ideas into India. They even suggested that there could have been an Indian migration in the opposite direction, to the Near East and Europe. Eventually the issue was fudged, with no reference being made to migrations.

I found the remaining chapters in Part II less satisfactory, probably because less work has been done on America, East Asia, and Africa, so what we get is a number of facts but not much of a coherent story to tie them together. But things are changing fast and if there is a subsequent edition of the book or a sequel, no doubt we will get a more comprehensive picture. In relation to Africa, Reich remarks that most researchers take little interest in what happened after the emigration of modern humans about 50 000 years ago (more recently than the 85,000 cited by Oppenheimer in 2003), yet there is a huge amount to be studied.

Research of this kind cannot be separated from social and political questions, as Reich found in India. It has also cropped up in the USA, with regard to archaeologists' alleged interference with the graves of ancient Native Americans. In Part III Reich discusses these questions with sensitivity and also considers the relevance of his research to 'race'. I found this section to be somewhat peripheral to the main part of the book.

Book review: Psmith in the City, by P.G. Wodehouse

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The novels in which Psmith appears were written early in Wodehouse's career, before the first world war; this one was published in 1910. It has two main characters, Psmith and Mike, who is Psmith's friend from school and an enthusiastic cricketer. The two young men are sharing Psmith's flat in Clement's Inn, because both, for different reasons, have reluctantly started work in the City branch of a Far East bank.

Neither man is suited to life in banking and the humour comes mostly from Psmith's dealings with the bosses they encounter, especially the manager, Mr Bickersdyke. Psmith, a languid Old Etonian with an eyeglass, addresses everyone as Comrade and speaks in a formal, mannered, yet comic tone. He is, of course, the central character in the book, although we see events mainly through Mike's eyes. Psmith reminded me of another Wodehouse character, Jeeves. His attitude to his bosses—at once studiously respectful yet discreetly superior—also recalls that of Jeeves to his employer Bertie Wooster. Psmith's distress at the sartorial indiscretions of a young employee in his department is yet another echo of Jeeves.

The story has an autobiographical element. From Wikipedia I learn that Wodehouse, like his two main characters, was compelled as a young man to work, very unwillingly, in the London branch of a Far East bank (both he and Mike had fathers who had suffered financial losses which required their sons to take this course).

In spite of its age the book stands up well to a modern reading; the humour is timeless. It won't disappoint anyone who loves the mature Wodehouse oeuvre.

Should the healthy elderly be taking daily aspirin?

It has become quite fashionable for healthy people to take low-dose aspirin daily to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke (primary prevention) , although most of the evidence on which this is based comes from trials in people who have already suffered from cardiovascular disease (secondary prevention). It's not clear if the possible benefit outweighs the risk of bleeding for those who are healthy.

A new paper in the New England Journal of Medicine looks at the question in relation to older people (those over 70). The use of low-dose (100mg) enteric-coated aspirin over a median 4.7 year period did not prolong disability-free survival in this group. There was an increased incidence of serious bleeding in those taking aspirin (DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1800722).

Book review: Ludwig Wittgenstein, by Ray Monk

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Monk tells us in his introduction that people interested in Wittgenstein fall into two groups. Professional philosophers generally study his work without reference to his life, while the many readers who are fascinated by his life and personality find his philosophy unintelligible. Monk's aim is to bridge the gap between his life and his work and to show 'the unity of his philosophical concerns with his emotional and spiritual life'.

To accomplish this, he needed both to present a full account of the man and also to explain the main ideas of his philosophy. I should say he succeeds admirably in the first aim; as for the second, his success is perhaps only partial, but that was probably inevitable, because the difficulty of Wittgenstein's philosophy is different in kind from what is the case with most philosophers. The particular value of Monk's book is that he explains exactly where this difficulty lies. In fact, it has at least two roots.

First, philosophers' writing may be difficult either because they express themselves obscurely or because their ideas are intrinsically difficult to understand. Wittgenstein's difficulty is not exactly from either of these causes. He expresses himself very clearly, often in quite short sentences that are, in a sense, easy to understand; but he nearly always leaves you without the reference points you would expect. In particular, he completely refuses to announce any general conclusions, and this makes it hard to see the point of his remarks. 'As he himself once explained at the beginning of a series of lectures: "What we say will be easy but to know why we say it will be very difficult."'_(p.338)

Many non-professional readers probably get no further than dipping into the Tractatus, which is Wittgenstein's first published work and the only one to appear in his lifetime. It largely achieved its final form when Wittgenstein was a prisoner-of-war of the Italians at the end of the First World War. I found Monk's short paragraph describing this work to be illuminating (p.155).

In its final form, the book is a formidably compressed distillation of the work Wittgenstein had written since he first came to Cambridge in 1911. The remarks in it, selected from a series of perhaps seven manuscript volumes, are numbered to establish a hierarchy in which, say, remark 2.151 is an elaboration of 2.15, which in turn elaborates the point made in remark 2.1, and so on. Very few of the remarks are justified with an argument; each proposition is put forward, as Russell once put it, 'as if it were a Czar's ukase'. … [The propositions] are all allotted a place within the crystalline structure, and are each stated with the kind of finality that suggests they are all part of the same incontrovertible truth.


This exemplifies the difficulty described above. But there is a second kind of difficulty as well. To understand Wittgenstein seems to require a kind of moral seriousness on the part of the reader, particular in the case of his later work, the Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously.

Philosophical Investigations—more, perhaps, then any other philosophical classic—makes demands, not just on the reader's intelligence, but on his involvement. Other great philosophers' works—Schopenhauer's World and Representation, say—can be read with interest and entertainment by someone who 'wants to know what Schopenhauer said'. But if Philosophical Investigations is read in this spirit it will very quickly become boring and a chore to read, not because it is intellectually difficult but because it will be practically impossible to gather what Wittgenstein is 'saying'. For in truth he is not saying anything; he is presenting a technique for the unravelling of confusions. Unless these are your confusions the book will be of very little interest. (p.366)


Given this, there may be a temptation to wonder whether Wittgenstein's importance as a philosopher has been overstated. But this idea is hard to sustain in view of the impact that his ideas have had.

By 1939 he was recognised as the foremost philosophical genius of his time. 'To refuse the chair [of philosophy at Cambridge] to Wittgenstein', said C.D. Broad, 'would be like refusing Einstein a chair of physics.' Broad himself was no great admirer of Wittgenstein's work; he was simply stating a fact (p.414).

Long before this, Wittgenstein had had 'a decisive influence on Bertrand Russell's development as a philosopher—chiefly by undermining his faith in his own judgement.' (p.80) Their first encounter occurred in 1911, when Wittgenstein, then a student in aeronautical engineering at Manchester University, arrived unannounced at Russell's rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge. Russell later reported that 'an unknown German appeared, speaking very little English but refusing to speak German. He turned out to be a man who had learned engineering at Charlottenburg, but during this course had acquired, by himself, a passion for the philosophy of mathematics & has now come to Cambridge on purpose to hear me.' (p.38) Russell initially thought him a crank but later decided he was a genius. Looking back on their meeting three years later, Russell described it as 'an event of first-class importance in my life', which had 'affected everything I have done since'. (p.80)

Wittgenstein was at first 'passionately devoted' to Russell but later considered him to be 'not serious', which, for Wittgenstein, was a damning indictment that reflects a profound difference in temperament. Wittgenstein, unlike Russell, was fundamentally religious. As Monk makes abundantly clear, this theme runs through all Wittgenstein's philosophy. It appears as early as the Tractatus, where the concluding remarks are explicitly mystical and the book ends with the famous line: 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.' Before reading Monk's book I had been aware of this mystical element, but I hadn't realised the extent to which it pervades practically everything Wittgenstein wrote.

Religion first appears in the account of Wittgenstein's experiences during the First World War, when he volunteered to serve in the Austrian army in order to experience suffering. This, not surprisingly, altered his outlook on life permanently. At one point he came near to suicide (three of his brothers did kill themselves) but was saved by reading the only book he could find in a bookshop he visited: Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief. This brought about a religious conversion, albeit of a special kind.

One might expect that Wittgenstein, as a philosopher, would discuss intellectual arguments for God's existence, but that is something he very definitely rejected. Towards the end of his life he heard a radio discussion between A.J. Ayer and Father Copleston on 'The Existence of God'. His reaction was not what one might have anticipated.

Ayer, Wittgenstein said, 'has something to say but he is incredibly shallow'. Copleston, on the other hand, 'contributed nothing at all to the discussion'. To attempt to justify the beliefs of Christianity with philosophical arguments was entirely to miss the point. (p.543).


For Wittgenstein, religious belief is psychological: 'he does not see it as a question of whether Christianity is true but of whether it offers some help in dealing with an otherwise unbearable and meaningless existence. … And the "it" here is not a "belief" but a practice, a way of living.' (p.122)

Wittgenstein himself puts it like this:

Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don't mean visions and other forms of experience which show us the 'existence of this being', but, e.g., suffering of various sorts. These neither show us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts,—life can force this concept on us. (p.572)


Deciding how to live, and feelings of guilt at when he failed to live 'decently', preoccupied Wittgenstein throughout his life. At one point he insisted on making a formal 'Confession' to a number of his acutely embarrassed friends, although there is little information about what he actually confessed. He had a strong tendency to asceticism. As a young man he inherited vast wealth from his father but he gave it all away. He was attracted by the idea of becoming a monk at various times in his life and tried to do so on one occasion, but was told by 'an obviously perceptive Father Superior' that he was unsuited to this. He spent long periods living in semi-isolation in Norway, which no doubt reflects this side of his character.

A friend remarked on Wittgenstein's 'Hebraic' conception of religion, meaning the sense of awe which one feels throughout the Bible (p.540). I can see this, but it also occurs to me that Wittgenstein might have found Buddhism, at least its Theravada form, sympathetic, given its lack of emphasis on belief. So far as I know this didn't occur to him, which is perhaps surprising in view of his fondness for Schopenhauer, who was much attracted to Buddhism.

Although Wittgenstein was nominally a Roman Catholic, since that was his family religion, it seems to have left little trace in him; he was actually quite surprised to be told of the traditional Catholic belief in Transsubstantiation (the doctrine that the Host literally becomes the body and blood of Christ during the Mass). Two of his friends converted to Catholicism and he worried that he might have been partly responsible for this, unwittingly, by encouraging one of them to read Kierkegaard.

He has a brilliant simile to describe the difficulty of sustaining religious beliefs of this kind.

An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it. (p.463).


He had the greatest respect for those who could perform this feat but he did not think he could emulate it himself. He also had a lot of respect for primitive magic, of the kind reported by anthropologists from remote parts of the world, saying: 'All religions are wonderful … even those of the most primitive tribes. The ways in which people express their religious feelings differ enormously.'

On the other hand, he had a profound distrust of science and he disliked books of popular science, such as Sir James Jeans's The Mysterious Universe, which he thought inculcated a kind of idol-worship of science and scientists. (I can imagine what he would have said about Richard Dawkins.) A fascinating sidelight on this comes from a series of lectures on mathematics which he gave at Cambridge, with the specific aim of countering the adulation of science. Among those who attended, at least for a time, was Alan Turing, who himself was lecturing on 'The Foundations of Mathematics' at the time. (p.417)

The lectures often developed into a dialogue between Wittgenstein and Turing, with the former attacking and the latter defending the importance of mathematical logic. Indeed, the presence of Turing became so essential to the theme of the discussion that when he announced he would not be attending a certain lecture, Wittgenstein told the class that, therefore, that lecture would have to be 'somewhat parenthetical'. (p.417)


There seems to have been no true meeting of minds between the two participants in these discussions, and ultimately Turing ceased attending.

When told by his doctor that he had only a few days to live, he replied: 'Good'. But his last recorded utterance was: 'Tell them I've had a wonderful life.'

In spite of his rejection of Catholic beliefs, his friends arranged for him to have a Catholic funeral. Monk thinks this may have been appropriate, 'for, in a way that is centrally important but difficult to define, he had lived a devoutly religious life.' (p.591)

03-09-2018
%T Ludwig Wittgenstein
%S The Duty of Genius
%A Monk, Ray
%I Vintage
%C London
%G Epub ISBN 97811448112678
%P 582pp
%K biography
%O kindle version, downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk 2018

Book review: Beyond Weird, by Philip Ball

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Philip Ball is a science writer who was for many years an editor for physical sciences at the journal Nature. The subtitle indicates what his book is about. It is aimed at readers of books on popular science who have, Ball believes, been given a misleading impression of quantum physics, starting with the notion that it is 'weird', which Ball thinks is a cop-out. It's non-intuitive but not weird. The idea that it is

comes from our (understandably) contorted attempts to find pictures for visualizing it or stories to tell about it. Quantum physics defies intuition, but we do it an injustice by calling that circumstance 'weird'.


Quantum mechanics has the reputation of being probably the most obscure and difficult branches of science, but Ball insists that it isn't 'hard' in the way that car maintenance or learning Chinese are hard (his examples). That isn't to say that a slight readjustment of our intuitions will make everything suddenly explicable. 'Indeed, it is possible that we might never be able to say what quantum theory "means".'

Ball offers new ways of looking at all the hoary old chestnuts of popular accounts of quantum science: the double slit experiment, Schrödinger's cat, entanglement and non-locality (Einstein's 'spooky action at a distance') and the rest. On all these topics he makes one question the ideas one has acquired by reading popular accounts of them previously. His approach is based on work by a number of physicists in the last decade or two.

A central problem we are always told about in books of this kind concerns how the classical world of everyday objects, including us, emerges from the mysterious quantum world. This occurs thanks to something cryptically described as 'collapse of the wave function' Ball seeks to explain this, and much else, in terms of information. Quantum experiments take place within a wider classical environment, and what happens is that 'information gets out of the quantum system and into the macroscopic apparatus'.

There's then no longer any need for an ambiguous and contentious division of the world into the microscopic, where quantum rules, and macroscopic, which is necessarily classical. We can abandon the search for some hypothetical 'Heisenberg cut' where the two worlds impinge. We can see not only that they are a continuum but also why classical physics is just a special case of quantum physics.

On this interpretation there is no need for the radical 'many worlds' solution famously proposed by Hugh Everett III, according to which the world is continually splitting into different branches, in which innumerable copies of each of us continue to pursue different destinies. Ball treats this theory at some length and concludes that it is both unnecessary and unworkable.

Although this is mostly a book about theories, it does contain a quite lengthy discussion of quantum computers. This is included both as an illustration of the practical importance of quantum physics and also because Bell thinks that the questions it raises help to illuminate quantum physics. Perhaps the most striking thing to emerge from this is the fact that no one is entirely sure how these machines actually work. _

Ball is an experienced writer and he treats his subject with a light and often humorous touch, so the book isn't heavy reading even though one has to take it slowly because of the complexity and unfamiliarity of many of the ideas. Ball's usual method of approaching these is a little like a Socratic dialogue. Instead of coming straight out with what he thinks, he proposes possible answers to questions and then shows why they won't do, before offering an alternative; sometimes there are several stages in this process.

I've read a good many popular accounts of quantum theory in the past and had decided that I felt no great inclination to embark on any more. But I made an exception in this case and am glad I did, because I found I was genuinely being given a different way of thinking about the apparent paradoxes that swirl about the subject.

03-06-2018
%T Children of Time
%A Tchaikovsky, Adrian
%I Pan Books
%C London
%D 2016
%G ISBN 978-1-4472-7331-8
%P 600pp
%K fiction
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2018


Book review: The Roots of Romanticism, by Isaiah Berlin

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In 1965 Berlin gave a series of six lectures on romanticism at The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. He spoke with notes but no script. This volume has been edited by Henry Hardy, using transcripts as well as BBC recordings of the lectures, which gives the text an unusual degree of freshness and informality. Berlin had hoped to use the material as the basis for a full-length book but this didn't happen. The title of this compilation was chosen by Hardy.

'Romanticism' is notoriously difficult to define (a bit like 'religion') and Berlin explains at the outset that he isn't going to try. But, whatever it is, it's certainly important.

The importance of romanticism is that it is the largest recent movement to transform the lives and the thought of the Western world. It seems to me to be the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred, and all the other shifts which have occurred in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear to me in comparison less important, and at any rate deeply influenced by it (p.1).


Before reading this book I had a vague idea that romanticism originated in England, with poets like Shelley, Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth, and Berlin agrees that this is what most historians tell us; but he ascribes the primary role to Germany, and the book is mainly although not exclusively concerned with German writers.

Romanticism was a reaction to the values of the Enlightenment, with which France is particularly associated. We think of France in the late eighteenth century as characterised by reason, rejection of religion, and the advance of science—all of which culminated, perhaps unexpectedly, in the turmoil of the Revolution. Germany, meanwhile, was very different. While France was a unified, centralised and powerful state, Germany was split up into hundreds of small principalities and was, in consequence, relatively weak. Huge numbers of Germans had been killed by foreign troops, including those of France, in the Thirty Years War; nothing on this scale had been seen in Europe before. 'The truth about the Germans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is that they constitute a somewhat backward province' (p.34).

There was also a class division between Germany and France, Most of the prominent German writers—Lessing, Kant, Herder, Schelling, Schiller, Hölderlin—were lower middle-class, whereas nearly all the French radicals were upper-class, and many from the nobility. Hence a social chasm existed between the German intellectuals and the French; when Herder came to Paris in the 1770s he was unable to meet any of the French cultural elite.

Against this background there developed in Germany a religious mood, the pietist movement, which Berlin sees as the root of romanticism. Pietism was a branch of Lutheranism and consisted in closely studying the Bible and attending to man's relation to God. So we get an emphasis on spirituality and contempt for learning. 'What occurred was a kind of retreat in depth.'

Why pietism should have lead to romanticism isn't immediately obvious, but Berlin thinks it was largely due to one man, of whom most people today probably haven't even heard: Hamann.

My reason for introducing the obscure figure of Johann Georg Hamann is that I believe him to have been the first person to declare war upon the Enlightenment in the most open, violent and complete fashion. Nevertheless, he was not entirely alone in this, even in his own lifetime (p. 46).


Hamann was born in obscurity and lived a dissolute life for a time, but when he was at the point of suicide he had a religious revelation and became a writer. He was not successful at this either—Berlin describes his style as unreadable—yet for some reason he had a very strong influence on a number of other writers who did have a profound influence in Europe, including Herder, Goethe, and Kierkegaard.

Hamann's fundamental doctrine … was that God was not a geometer, not a mathematician, but a poet; that there was something blasphemous in attempting to foist upon God our own human, logical schemes (p.48).


Yet another writer who appears in association with Hamann is Immanuel Kant, who was Hamann's neighbour and friend. I hadn't thought of Kant as a figure in the romantic movement and in fact he hated it, yet Berlin identifies him as one of the fathers of the movement, because of his 'virtual intoxication' with the idea of human freedom. For this reason he welcomed the French Revolution (likewise the American Revolution), and even the Terror did not lead him to revise his view completely.

This indicates the passion with which this normally very conventional, very obedient, very tidy, old-fashioned, somewhat provincial East Prussian professor nevertheless regarded this great liberating chapter in the history of the human race, the self-assertion of human beings against huge idols as he thought of them, standing over against them. … He is not normally thought of in these terms, but there is no doubt that his moral philosophy is firmly founded upon this anti-authoritarian principle (p.77).


Although Berlin concentrates mainly on literature, he also looks at music and painting and even economics. It is here that, for me, what he has to say resonates most strongly with our present situation. The Revolution showed people that they had been paying too much attention to the upper portion of society—economists, psychologists, moralists, writers—intellectuals of every kind; but these were merely the tip of 'some huge iceberg of which a vast section was sunk below the ocean'.

This invisible section had been taken for granted a little too blandly, and had therefore avenged itself by producing all kinds of exceedingly unexpected consequences (p.110).


Indeed.

This is a short book but a rich one, brimming with ideas and extremely readable. It has certainly very considerably changed how I think about the romantic movement. For me, at any rate, its great merit is that it has introduced me to a range of German writers who were previously little more than names to me. It also let me see Kant in a new way. Encouragement to further exploration comes in the shape of a reference section at the end, although Hardy warns us that identifying sources for this 'most effervescent of historians' is no easy task.

27-08-2018
%T The Roots of Romanticism
%A Berlin, Isaiah
%I Vjntage
%C London
%G Epub ISBN 9781446496923
%P 148pp
%K literature, art history
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In memoriam: Dr Peter Fisher

I 've just received the sad news of the death of Dr Peter Fisher in a cycling accident in High Holborn, near The Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, where he had been a leading clinician for many years.

Peter was a good friend and colleague in my years at the hospital, where he was consultant physician and Director of Research, as well as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Homeopathy. He was a convinced homeopath but always took an evidence-based approach to the subject; for example, he criticised opposition to vaccination on the part of some homeopaths as unscientific (and contrary to homeopathic principle).. Nevertheless he was largely responsible for changing the name of the hospital from The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital to its present form in 2010. This was a wise move which reflected the fact that the hospital now offers a range of complementary treatments, always in the wider context of modern clinical medicine.

Peter's death will be an irreplaceable loss to British homeopathy.

Book review: The Crossway, by Guy Stagg

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n 2013, following his partial recovery after a long period of mental illness, which included alcoholism and a suicide attempt, Guy Stagg set out on a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem, following medieval pilgrim routes. Although an atheist, he hoped that the religious ritual of pilgrimage would somehow heal him after his illness. He walked for ten months and covered 5,500 km, passing through 11 countries if you include England.

This is a travel book in at least two senses: it narrates the author's arduous journey on foot and it also describes the accompanying inner journey through his own mind and memories. It's a long book—over 400 pages—and I have to say that I found reading it somewhat of a pilgrimage myself. I needed to take breaks in which I read other books to change the mood. Although there is certainly a sense of constant movement through different landscapes and variety in the encounters with people met on the way, this did not always counteract a sense of claustrophobia induced by the author's descriptions of his earlier depressive states.

This wasn't because of any lack of skill on Stagg's part—quite the contrary. He is a very 'literary' writer (some have compared him to Patrick Leigh Fermor) and the book is artfully constructed. The writing is complex and allusive and demands slow reading. The title reflects this, combining as it does multiple meanings within itself: the choosing of paths, suffering, Christ's cross, and a reference to the fact that in earlier times suicides were buried at crossroads rather than in consecrated ground; no doubt there are other meanings to be teased out as well.

Stagg began his journey on New Year's Day, which seems an eccentric choice, given that he would have to cross the Alps in midwinter on foot, but he felt that if he postponed starting until summer he would probably never go at all. The Saint Maurice pass in a snowstorm was quite as hazardous as one would expect, and even when he reached the other side the dangers didn't disappear. He nearly drowned trying to cross a river by a shaky footbridge and then was almost run over by a train when he used a railway bridge instead.

There is plenty of drama in the story, but Stagg's main interest is less in his adventures or misadventures than in the people he met along the way. Some of his encounters, related with deadpan humour, are very funny, but the dominant impression we get is of the extraordinary kindness of strangers. Often he stayed in monasteries or presbyteries, but also in private houses, and nearly always he was made welcome—until, ironically, he reached the Holy Land. The Turkish villagers were particularly hospitable and he acquired enough knowledge of their language to converse with them.

What one would expect to be the high .points of the journey, Rome and Jerusalem, were somewhat anticlimactic; especially Rome, where the Easter crowds occasioned panic and a psychological collapse. Later, in Greece, he went on an alcoholic spree in Thessaloniki and then was overwhelmed by a sense of failure. More than once, not surprisingly, he thought of giving up, and in fact decided he would do so when he reached Istanbul. But after making friends there and joining them in anti-government riots enlivened by tear gas, he changed his mind and went on.

So why didn't he give up? I don't think this was entirely clear, even to him. He no longer believed that the pilgrimage would heal him psychologically. But the root cause of his continuing seems to have been that he has, to a marked degree, what Thomas Nagel has called the religious temperament. He remained a convinced atheist but he found a deep meaning in religious ritual, at least in the form of the pilgrimage. His attitude to religious ceremony was more complex; he attended Catholic services in the monasteries where he stayed but what they meant to him is less clear..

He includes a good deal of historical information about the places he passed through. Some of this is well known (the First Crusade, the abolition of the Templars), some less so (the Bogomil heresy). He is evidently well read in this respect, which makes his reaction to Eastern Orthodox religion rather surprising. He apparently knew little about it in advance of his arrival in Greece and was disconcerted by its unfamiliarity, although his attitude changed somewhat after he spent a few days on Mount Athos. Here he met two Western converts to Orthodoxy who made the faith more comprehensible to hjm. He followed this up with a conversation with a monk in one of the monasteries he stayed at. The monk asked him to stay on indefinitely, and for a moment Stagg contemplated the possibility, before thanking the man hastily and making his escape.

He had to depart from his planned route after leaving Istanbul, owing to the civil war in Syria. He made a detour through Cyprus keeping to the high ground because of the heat. He crossed back to Lebanon, where he narrowly escaped a terrorist bombing in Tripoli. He reached Beirut, but then had to take a plane and several buses to Amman, before continuing his journey on foot over the Golan Heights into Israel.

The end of the book brings no final resolution or illumination. In an epilogue he describes leaving Jerusalem and heading south. He passes through Bethlehem but does not visit the Church of the Nativity because what he wants to see is the desert, which he describes as the most beautiful landscape he has ever seen. Arriving in the afternoon at an Orthodox monastery, he is refused accommodation because he has no letter from the Patriarch. He is advised to spend the night in a cave on the far side of the valley, which he does. Next day, he says, he will continue walking east.

08-08-2018
%T The Crossway
%A Stagg, Guy
%I Picador (Macmillan)
%C London
%D 2018
%G ISBN 978-1-5098-4457-9
%P 416pp
%K travel
%O hardback

Book review: On Faith and Science, by Edward J. Larson and Michael Ruse

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The relation between religion and science has a long history and it has gone through various phases, some amicable, some not. At present, thanks partly to a loosely knit group of writers who have been called the new atheists—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet. A.C. Grayling and others—relations are bad. But there are some non-believers who want to find common ground with religion, and Ruse has long been one of these; not that you would know it from this book, for both he and his co-author Larson are reticent about their own religious views.* No doubt this is due to a wish to appear even-handed, but I think it leads to a certain softening of focus throughout.

Both authors are distinguished academics. Larson is a historian; Ruse is primarily a philosopher of science who also has an interest in history, particularly that of the theory of evolution (see links to my reviews of books under his name in the list of authors). They write alternate chapters, although there is some flexibility, with some chapters containing contributions from both, and it isn't always easy to be sure who is writing at a given moment.

There are chapters looking at cosmology; physics; brain, mind, and soul; geology; evolution in general; and human evolution. The approach in these is historical; they look at how knowledge has evolved over time and how this has interacted with religion—mainly Christianity, but there is some reference to Judaism and Islam and a little to Hinduism and Buddhism. For each topic we get an outline of some of the religious issues that growth in our knowledge has given rise to. It is all done well enough, but there will be few surprises for anyone who is reasonably familiar with the subjects covered.

The last three chapters (7, 8 and 9) are a little different, in that they cover matters that are topical (and controversial) today: sex and gender, eugenics, and living on earth (which looks at global warming and other threats to our survival). In their closing paragraph the authors use the common ground they think exists between two very different people, Pope Francis and E.O. Wilson, to draw a moral for the relationship that ought to obtain between science and religion as it relates to our survival.

I'm sympathetic to the authors' wish to avoid facile condemnation of religion in the name of science, but I enjoyed reading this book less than I expected to. The tone is quite colloquial, almost to a fault, yet at the same time bland and a little flat. And at times the authors' evident desire to avoid giving offence becomes somewhat irritating. For example, they quote from Fritjhof Capra's 1975 book The Tao of Physics and remark that 'he remained an outlier among modern physicists', which seems a considerable under-statement; I wanted to know what they thought of it themselves. They are also fairly non-commital in their references to Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion, about which Ruse has been scathingly critical elsewhere.

The book concludes with an eclectic annotated bibliography which is quite useful, although I was sorry to see no mention of Taner Edis's books, especially his The Ghost in the Universe, which to my mind is one of the best books on theism by a sceptic who nevertheless takes religion seriously. He has also written well on science and Islam, something touched on only briefly in the present book.

*Ruse has recently publicly identified himself as an atheist, although he prefers the term 'sceptic'. See Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster.

29-07-2018
%T On Faith and Science
%A Larson, Edward J.
%A Ruse, Michael
%I Yale University Press
%C New Haven and London
%D 2017
%G ISBN 978-0-300-216717-3
%P 298pp
%K religion
%O hardcover