Umapagan Ampikaipakan takes a look at some essential philosophy books that seek to provide a better understanding of how and why we think about what we think about
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
480 pages, Random House
FOR generations, it was a widely accepted scientific truth that “all swans are white”. It was all anyone had ever experienced. It was empirically proven. It was a logical fact. At least until 1697, when the explorer Willem de Vlamingh came across Cygnus atratus in Western Australia. The discovery of the black swan negated years of accepted belief.
It is a metaphor that Nassim Nicholas Taleb employs to support his theory on forecasting and on predicting the future. He believes that most world-changing events in our history — 9/11, major financial crises — are rare and unpredictable. He believes that trying to extract generalisations and all-encompassing theories to explain them are irrelevant — however emotionally satisfying they may be. This thesis is a case for unpredictability. It is a theory against theories.
Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers
by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
352 pages, Ecco
THE story goes that in the autumn of 1946, the philosophers Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein squared off in an intense 10-minute quarrel. It was so heated it led to Wittgenstein supposedly brandishing a red-hot poker at Popper.
This legendary clash is widely considered to be modern philosophy’s most contentious encounter.
It is a mythos further exacerbated by the fact that none of the eyewitnesses could agree on what actually happened. David Edmonds and John Eidinow use this event as a starting point into the lives and philosophies of two men vying for intellectual immortality. One part biography. One part journalism. One part philosophy. The end result is one wildly entertaining and intellectually stimulating read.
In Praise Of Shadows
by Junichiro Tanizaki
80 pages, Vintage
WHEN writing about the aesthetics of the traditional Japanese toilet, Junichiro Tanizaki waxes lyrical: “The parlour may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can express that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden.”
This is a wonderful essay on how beauty evolves in concert with darkness and shadow. Tanizaki, one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists, delves into Japanese aesthetics, into the notion of natural impermanence, into melancholy, into refined simplicity.
Logicomix: An Epic Search For Truth
by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou
352 pages, Bloomsbury
THIS is an unexpected pleasure. A comic book about philosophy, about the quest for truth, for logical certainty in mathematics. A comic book where Bertrand Russell is the hero and there is plenty that is super about him. Because Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou tell us this tale in thrilling fashion, with a novelist’s eye for detail and drama, as Russell struggles to create a firm foundation of logic in mathematics while at the same time, fighting off his own inner demons.
It is a quest that spans decades. It is a quest that is ultimately a tragic one. Doxiadis and Papadimitriou have done the extraordinary in taking a particularly daunting aspect of philosophy and made it both engaging and accessible. Russell would be proud.