Wednesday, April 26, 2006

What to read now?

I quit reading a book today. I don't particularly like quitting books. I generally think that once I've started I may as well follow through and see what the author has to say. In this case, however, I realized that I wasn't getting anywhere.

The book I quit was The Nature and Destiny of Man by Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr's name has been popping up all over lately. I've read quite a few essays, books, and webpages that mentioned him. Usually if someone's name keeps coming up it means I like things related to that person and therefore will probably like things by that person. In this case however it doesn't appear to be true.

I read about the first third or three chapters of the book. Most of the time he was criticizing rationalist philosophy (I'm fine with this), but he criticizes it from a rationalist point of view. He'll say that, for instance, Marx went too far here, or Nietzsche didn't go far enough there, but always with a nod to say that they were on the right track.

My problem is that I see most of this sort of philosophy nonsense. The Absolute. What's that? Above, below. What do these words mean when talking about individuality or consciousness? I don't know. Maybe it's my long held impatience with metaphysics or my sympathy with analytic philosophy, but I can't make heads or tails of it. I don't think that these philosophers were on the right track. I recognize that in some sense these writers were saying something. I even like Nietzsche's writing somewhat, but I see it more as literature than philosophy.

I sympathize more with William James or Wittgenstien. They recognize the usefulness of philosophy, getting your language straight, or clearing up the terms of an argument, but stop when they find that there's nothing to say on a subject. Sometimes our thoughts and our reasons are too subtle or complex for analysis. Ursula K. LeGuin noted in the introduction to her book The Left Hand of Darkness that people often wanted her to tell them what her book was about, but she couldn't do it. If she could have told someone what the book was in a few words then she never would have written the book. Read the book, she said. I think that many of the metaphysical topics that philosophers (mistakenly) debate are like this. You can't pin them down in a few words. They are more like impressions that we get, feelings, better left to the artist. Philosophy isn't a clearing house for whatever's left over when we're done with science.

Niebuhr seems to think that he can show how philosophers fail on their own terms, then he wants to defend a Christian interpretation of the same problems. Maybe he can, but I can't make heads or tails of it. Perhaps I should have run away when I saw "nature" and "destiny" in the title. Two ideas that are nothing if not metaphysical.

In any case, this leaves me without a book to read. A perilous state for someone like me who has to be thinking all the time or else suffer for it. Perhaps you have some idea of my tastes by now. I invite you to chime in and give me some book suggestions, fiction or non, your favorites or least liked, I'm up for something interesting.

In bike news:

I did a lot of work on my bike today. It's just about ready for TI, but I still need to figure out how to fit everything on the handlebars. The light, computer, mapcase combo I've got now isn't working too well. Any two and I can make it work, but all three, no. I think I'm going to have to do a custom mapcase out of a ziploc bag, cardboard, and duct tape rather than the fancy Jandd one that I was planning on using.

One thing I refuse to freak out about for TI is the weather. I can't control it so I'll just be prepared and see what I can do. I think I can make Algona in any case and if I do I plan to continue.


the recyclist said...

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse - It's short and simple, but one of my favorites due to the overall theme. One that I have struggled with myself.

Matt Maxwell said...

Read it twice and I own it. It's a good one no doubt. I also really enjoyed Demian. Perhaps Steppenwolf or Narcissus & Goldmund should be up next. When I was in college I once had a dream that a naked man in a shower told me to re-read Siddhartha. Maybe I should take his advice.