Books for the lifeboat, foggy thinking, and fascism

Having a tropical storm roll over me during the last couple of days and flood out some nearby streets reminded me that I live only a meter (about three feet) above sea level. Although it takes me twenty or thirty minutes to drive to the beach, I do live close enough to the ocean that a decent-sized tidal surge from a hurricane could force me to evacuate.

There is no guarantee that my home would be intact when I returned.

My wife and I have a lot of books and a small car. Assuming we had a few hours notice, we might have enough space for one box of books, assuming I let the cat sit in my lap and drive. (She would insist, believe me.) I think we could find enough space for twenty books apiece, tops. Maybe less, but let’s say twenty.

Which twenty?

Like most book-lovers who have for decades been patronizing bookstores (kids, take a good look before they’re all gone), I have quite a few books that mean something to me, including a few college textbooks that are, like me, slowly decomposing. I started making a list.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Check. It doesn’t have quite the vocabulary of a multi-volume monster you need a forklift to move, but it’s been able to provide me with clear definitions of nearly all the obscure words I run across in my reading. It also helps that I can pick it up without worrying about whether I’ll need physical therapy afterwards. I did a price check. Replacing it would cost twice what I paid for it. It goes in the box.

Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Transitive Vampire (original version) has reserved seating. I like that edition, and it’s probably impossible to replace.

After that, I discovered something interesting. The books I most wanted to save were books containing ideas and insights that, over the course of my life, I have found to be true. Although I had read some of these books when I was young (some of the keepers weren’t even published back then), they tended to have some common characteristics.

William James made a useful distinction between what he called tough-minded and tender-minded philosophies and philosophers. I’m going to steamroll all sorts of distinctions and nuances in the interest of clarity in the following examples, so fasten your seat belts and look it up yourselves later on.

Martin Heidegger, a heavyweight 20th century philosopher who still gets quoted a lot by a certain strain of philosophical and theological types, wrote that “Man is the Shepherd of Being.” Admirers of Heidegger and philosophers like him are the tender-minded: inclined to be mystical and deeply religious, inclined to regard the physical world as merely a cheap sweatshop knock-off of the Real World of Platonic Ideals and Being, and inclined to prize emotion and intuition over mere logic and empirical fact. They love statements like that.

(In 1933, Heidegger enthusiastically told some university students (he said similar things all the time during that era): “The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law. Learn to know ever more deeply: that from now on every single thing demands decision, and every action responsibility. Heil Hitler!” The Nazis had a mystical thing going about Blood and Soil and the Fatherland, so that may account for Heidegger’s “Springtime for Hitler” moment. (See the video clip at the bottom of this post.) For all I know, Hitler’s interest in astrology and the notion that we live inside a hollow planet Earth—he would have loved psychic fairs—may have played a role as well. In any case, after 1945, Lucy, Heidegger had some ‘splainin’ to do.)

At the other extreme, we have the skeptical Scotsman and tough-minded philosopher-in-chief David Hume, who wrote,”When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

For the tough-minded, an abstraction is just a kind of shorthand for a set of qualities shared by a collection of things existing in the physical world.

There is no Cosmic Cat on a Spiritual Plane. The term “cat” is no more than shorthand for a member of a set of animals living in the physical world that share a list of traits like purring, furriness, meowing, and so on.

The tough-minded will tell you the tender-minded are just playing games with words, and that if someone is posing as a philosopher and uttering a lot of incomprehensible statements that even highly intelligent people can’t translate into sense (or agree on what the hell they are supposed to mean), it doesn’t follow that he’s profound.

Most likely, it means he’s just blowing smoke.

(I remember something Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate who was brilliant at explaining sophisticated scientific concepts clearly, wrote about an experience at an academic conference. He addressed an audience of academics in a ballroom and attempted to describe his work in theoretical physics. Other speakers that evening included a number of people in the humanities. Afterward, a waitress approached Feynman and told him that he was the only speaker she was able to understand. Feynman hadn’t been able to figure out what his fellow speakers were saying either.)

William James thought that people tended to adopt philosophies that fit their temperament. I’ve discovered a philosophy that fits mine. David Hume’s book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding goes into the lifeboat.

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