The rehearsed smugness of the presenters puts me off the content — which is all about making the simple sound profound
I liked some TED talks in the early days, but they quickly became a parody of themselves. They’re tied up with the tech CEO-worship that is severely harming the world, and they’ve become simply marketing tools for people with something to hawk.
The talks are so rehearsed that even the well-placed pauses and casual hair flicks look hideously false. TED bots strut around the stage, posing, delivering well-crafted smiles and frowns. It’s like amateur dramatics for would-be intellectuals.
Yep. It’s as if they all emulate Steve Jobs, who was arguably one of the best tech presenters of all time.
Many of the speakers state the blatantly obvious on a loop, sounding as though they have discovered the theory of relativity all over again. The pretentious gestures, rehearsed pauses and speech traits single them out from other public speakers. They appear to have learned the art of making the simplest ideas appear complex.
On the road to assist in the organization of a conference on William James, professor John Kaag stopped along the way for a cup of coffee. Telling a local what his job was, this man told him that there was a house nearby that had once belonged to William Ernest Hocking, and that it contained a library. Intrigued, Kaag had a look, and embarked on a journey that would change his life. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
Kaag was a specialist in this period of American philosophy, of which Hocking was an important figure. And this library turned out to be a collection of thousands of books, a mother lode of key texts of philosophy, including signed first editions by not only the great names of America – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost – but all the philosophers of the period, from Charles Sanders Pierce to William James. There were not just books by Americans; there were also first editions of essential books by Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, and others.
Kaag tells this tale as if it were a novel, but with him as the protagonist. As Thoreau says in the early pages of Walden, “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not
talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”
Kaag opens with a brief discussion of William James’s lecture, Is Live Worth Living?, and shows that he had been pondering this thought himself. After the death of his father – a distant alcoholic – and during the end of his failing marriage, Kaag has more questions than answers, to which even a professor of philosophy cannot reply. He presents the book as an epic tale taking him on a hero’s journey, with three sections: Hell, Purgatory, and Redemption.
Early on, in a marriage that isn’t working, he starts cheating on his wife; not with another woman, but with the books in this library, as he sets out to catalog them, and hopefully ensure that the collection will be accepted somewhere that the books can all remain together. He later sells his wedding ring, then tells his wife he wants a divorce, but finds love, in the end.
The majority of this book is discussions the various books he discovered in this collection, and the philosophers behind them. This book is a bit of a Trojan horse; in telling this story of books, he also gives an interesting overview of American philosophy, and of its European roots. He talks of Emerson and James, of Pierce and Royce, and many others. As he meanders through this library, the story of the originality of American philosophy becomes clear.
But redemption eventually comes, in the name of a married colleague, Carol, with whom he falls in love, and eventually marries. She, a Kant specialist, becomes interested in the library as well, and the two of them continue this obsessive journey to catalog the books, and discover the many minor philosophers, notable several women whose books were stashed away in the attic.
I have a long interest in this subject. I’ve been a reader of Thoreau and Emerson for several decades, and William James for a bit less. This book presents some of their basic ideas, but humanizes them, showing the relationships between these authors and others of their time, as well as their influences from Europe and Asia. One could not hope for a better introduction into the many-headed area of American philosophy.
This is a brief book – 235 pages, plus notes and index – and I read it in a day. It’s an intellectual page-turner, both through the explanations of American philosophers, and through Kaag’s own journey to redemption. As Kaag says early in the book, paraphrasing James, “The task of life is to transcend the past, to never remain where one starts, to find a place of one’s own.” At the end of the book, it seems that he has done just that.
FOR SOME, he was one of the most subversive thinkers of his time — a 20th-century Nietzsche, only darker and with a better sense of humor. Many, especially in his youth, thought him to be a dangerous lunatic. According to others, however, he was just a charmingly irresponsible young man, who posed no dangers to others — only to himself perhaps. When his book on mysticism went to the printers, the typesetter — a good, God-fearing man — realizing how blasphemous its contents were, refused to touch it; the publisher washed his hands of the matter and the author had to publish the blasphemy elsewhere, at his own expense. Who was this man?
Emil Cioran (1911–1995) was a Romanian-born French philosopher and author of some two dozen books of savage, unsettling beauty. He is an essayist in the best French tradition, and even though French was not his native tongue, many think him among the finest writers in that language. His writing style is whimsical, unsystematic, fragmentary; he is celebrated as one of the great masters of aphorism. But the “fragment” was for Cioran more than a writing style: it was a vocation and a way of life; he called himself “un homme de fragment.”
Cioran was one of the most fascinating thinkers of the 20th century. He writes a lot about failure, as this article points out, but when you get past the nihilism on the surface of his writing and read more than one or two of his books, you can see that his ideas are luminous, nearly mystical, in their simplicity and beauty. He shares the thoughts of great thinkers like Emerson, Thoreau, and authors like Beckett. His truths aren’t easy to digest, but they’re powerful.
His most interesting book is the 1000-page Cahiers (Notebooks), which he recorded between 1957 and 1972. It is just fragments, thousands of them, that circle around his main themes over and over again. Only available in French, if you do read that language, this is an essential book. (Amazon FR, Amazon.com, Amazon UK)