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Dangerous Ideas; Necessary Ideas: The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914

The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914 by Philipp Blom

My Rating★★★★☆

Dangerous Ideas; Necessary Ideas

The Vertigo Years traces the initial eruptions of some of the most explosive ideas and social phenomenons of the century that bore the brunt of the first mad rush of modernity —  from socialism and fascism, to nuclear physics and the theory of relativity; from conceptual art and consumer society, to mass media and democratization; to feminism and psychoanalysis. The many issues and the intellectual interplay is explored in great detail and gives an overall impression of what seems in retrospect like backing for the war that followed, by every section of the social classes, from the intellectual elite, to the middle classes to the oppressed classes. We may even be tempted to see the war itself as a subconscious eruption of such strong tendencies that pervaded a restless continent and thus the world.

Granted it was weird times, but the ping-pong of retrospectively attributing the war to all these ideas and tendencies, and all these back to the war is not valid. The turn of the century was marked by many leaps of understanding, and also by a blind faith in science and progress, and a strong tendency to believe simplistic arguments. The war itself was a product of this blind faith in technological advance and an inability to think through the various connected effects of each advance and its application in any field (including the military). A mad scramble for catch-all theories.

Most of the wildest surmises of the era seems laughable at best or dangerous at worst to us now, especially the term ‘Belle Époque’ and the many excesses of fields such as Criminology, Phrenology, etc. But what we need to understand is that without such wild forays and over-confident theories, science would not have progressed at such a rate. There is now an unfortunate tendency to look back at these theories and mock them with a typical – “Look what THAT led to!”

Isn’t it deplorable that even a theory like Darwinism still has to buckle occasionally under the weight of its origins and the distortions visited upon it back then? Isn’t it at least sad that the intellectual legacy of philosophers like Nietzsche is perpetually tainted by the twisting it was subjected to by over-zealous followers? Isn’t the same the case even with Marxism? Why do they all have to be judged with hindsight-bias? It is our loss that these ideas are tainted, and even more so when we know so well that there is enough wheat among the supposed chaff to make them well worth passionate study and engagement.

This book allows us to see those ideas, including the ones that seem virulent and culpable to us today, in a new light — in the light of exploration and intellectual abandonment. As necessary precursors to both the good and the bad, hard to distinguish or separate at the moment of conception.

This is to be achieved by seeing the whole period in a new light, far way from the shadow cast upon it by later events.

That is when we can understand and appreciate the many ideas and false starts and sputtering that were necessary to the march of progress. That is also when we can learn to liberate the ideas from the weight of history and set them free again, to rejuvenate our own times.


The Thought Experiment

Blom is well aware that it is impossible to see this momentous period without the perspective of the war that followed. True. And the period deserves to be seen without that shadow, but this book proves that it is impossible to read without that shadow and more importantly, the author must have realized that it is impossible to write without it either, especially when most of the readers who turn to the book will do so to understand the war and its lead up better.

That is why Blom asks us to indulge in a thought experiment that should be sustained throughout the reading of this book — Blom invites us to look at the era without the benefit of our retrospective blinkers. He asks us to imagine that written history ended on 1914, so that this complicated period is not overshadowed by the events that followed. This is very hard to do and the moment we loose sight of this and slip back into our impatience to ‘understand’ the war, much of the book will seem pointless to the reader. If the reader wishes to understand the period, he/she needs to persist in this little suspension of belief.

After all, no period deserves to be treated merely as a lead-up to some historic event, but needs to be approached on its own terms to discover the true complexity of the people and ideas which inhabited and shaped it.

A lot more was going on than just the war.

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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Marxism: Philosophy and Economics by Thomas Sowell

Marxism: Philosophy and Economics

Marxism: Philosophy and Economics by Thomas Sowell

My Rating★★★★☆

A subtle paean to Engels. Paints a picture of Engels as the precursor, refiner and ultimately the author of most of what today bears Marx’s name. I exaggerate but it is only because this take amazes me. The book is a great intro to Marxism and takes special care to interpret Marx on his own terms and to stick to all his terminologies and conventions and thus resolve some of the apparent contradictions. This is definitely a work I will keep in mind during my soon-to-begin exploration of Marx’s works and later interpretations.

When the conclusion has a passage like this, it makes the book so worth it! –

The Marxist constituency has remained as narrow as the conception behind it. The Communist Manifesto, written by two bright and articulate young men without responsibility even for their own livelihoods—much less for the social consequences of their vision—has had a special appeal for successive generations of the same kinds of people.

Not to Mention:

Despite the massive intellectual feat that Marx’s Capital represents, the Marxian contribution to economics can be readily summarized as virtually zero. Professional economics as it exists today reflects no indication that Karl Marx ever existed. This neither denies nor denigrates Capital as an intellectual achievement, and perhaps in its way the culmination of classical economics. But the development of modern economics had simply ignored Marx. Even economists who are Marxists typically utilize a set of analytical tools to which Marx contributed nothing, and have recourse to Marx only for ideological, political, or historical purposes.

In professional economics, Capital was a detour into a blind alley, however historic it may be as the centerpiece of a worldwide political movement. What is said and done in its name is said and done largely by people who have never read through it, much less followed its labyrinthine reasoning from its arbitrary postulates to its empirically false conclusions. Instead, the massive volumes of Capital have become a quasi-magic touchstone—a source of assurance that somewhere and somehow a genius “proved” capitalism to be wrong and doomed, even if the specifics of this proof are unknown to those who take their certitude from it.

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Posted by on May 3, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Book Review: Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht

Life of GalileoLife of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The play explores the pivotal moment in human history, at least in western history, when man confronts for the first time the proof that his conceptions of truth were entirely wrong.

Galileo comes alive as a larger than life genius from the pages, full of witticisms and blustering energy. Even his betrayal of his own science tends to be easily forgiven by the audience because he is such a genial revolutionary.

More than the drama of science standing up to the bully called religion, I liked more the instances of Marxism creeping into the play. In the discussions about Latin and how writing science in English will spell doom to the nobility, we get a sense that the real danger that Galileo represented was not just contradictory new knowledge but that the knowledge was suddenly out in the public realm. Galileo had to die because he was not just an academician, he was a new kind of preacher – a preacher of logic.

These instances are woven into the grander drama with small scenes of Galileo ranting about professors having to teach all seven days and having not “time for research and about “knowledge as commodity”, these are the scenes that to me made this a play of our times.

The true gist of the play comes out in the penultimate scene. I would like to put some of it here so that even if someone does not have the patience to read the play, they can still get the spirit of its core argument. This occurs immediately after Andrei discovers that Galileo has been working on a scientific treatise even during his imprisonment:

GALILEO: I had to do something with my time.

ANDREA: This will found a new science of physics.

GALILEO: Stuff it under your coat.

ANDREA: And we thought you had become a renegade! My voice was raised loudest against you!

GALILEO: And quite right, too. I taught you science and I denied the truth.

ANDREA: This changes everything, everything.

GALILEO: Yes?

ANDREA: You concealed the truth. From the enemy. Even in the field of ethics you were a thousand years ahead of us.

GALILEO: Explain that, Andrea.

ANDREA: In common with the man in the street, we said: he will die, but he will never recant. You came back: I have recanted, but I shall live. Your hands are tainted, we said. You say: better tainted than empty.

GALILEO: Better tainted than empty. Sounds realistic. Sounds like me. New science, new ethics.

ANDREA: I of all people ought to have known. I was eleven years old when you sold another man’s telescope to the Venetian Senate. And I saw you make immortal use of that instrument. Your friends shook their heads when you bowed before a child in Florence, but science caught the public fancy. You always laughed at our heroes. “People that suffer bore me,’ you said. ‘Misfortune comes from insufficient foresight.’ And: Taking obstacles into account, the shortest line between two points may be a crooked one.”

GALILEO: I recollect.

ANDREA: Then, in 1633, when it suited you to retract a popular point in your teachings, I should have known that you were only withdrawing from a hopeless political squabble in order to be able to carry on with your real business of science.

GALILEO: Which consists in …

ANDREA: . . . The study of the properties of motion, mother of machines, which will make the earth so inhabitable that heaven can be demolished.

GALILEO : Aha.

ANDREA: You thereby gained the leisure to write a scientific work which only you could write. Had you ended in a halo of flames at the stake, the others would have been the victors.

GALILEO: They are the victors. And there is no scientific work which only one man can write.

ANDREA: Then why did you recant?

GALILEO: I recanted because I was afraid of physical pain.

ANDREA: No!

GALILEO: I was shown the instruments.

ANDREA: So there was no plan?

GALILEO: There was none.

Definitely a play worth reading, not for a scientific or historic perspective but for a picture of how reason and logic broke free from dogma and of how one man made the whole world tremble by unfolding a telescope.

It is indeed a marvelous portrait of intellectual betrayal. The angry impotence of a man who realizes that he is ethically unequipped to deal with the consequences of his own genius.

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Posted by on December 3, 2011 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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