Friday, December 28, 2007

Social Studies

THE REALLY HARD PROBLEM: Meaning in a Material World, by Owen Flanagan. MIT Press.

Consciousness, or mind, is the hard problem, and also the topic that is threading through several sciences, the arts and what is often categorized as New Age spirituality, although this includes the very ancient inquiries of Buddhism. It is also re-focusing contemporary philosophy, specifically in the writing of Owen Flanagan. This thoughtful, up to the minute and accessibly written book outlines questions that are central to contemporary researches and also of important fascination to us as people trying to make sense of life in these suddenly uniting states. It does so in under 300 pages (including the kind of chapter notes you read on their own with pleasure and profit), and in six chapters, exploring “Meaningful and Enchanted Lives,” finding meaning in the natural world, Buddhism and science, “Normative Mind Science? Psychology, Neuroscience, and the Good Life,” the new science of happiness, and the intersection of nature and spirituality. This book is not only one of the most fascinating of the fall, but a contribution to an ongoing process of developing understandings and strategies of soul that can actually contribute to getting us through the 21st century and beyond.

PSYCHOTHERAPY WITHOUT THE SELF by Mark Epstein. Yale University Press.

Epstein’s earlier books on this subject—the intersection of Buddhist thought and psychotherapy-- Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, were pitched to a more general audience. This book is more scholarly, and goes into the subject more deeply. For me it doesn’t advance the ball, especially because Epstein continues to see psychotherapy as primarily Freudian. That it may be, but I find myself more interested in Jung—who I perhaps naively see as a better fit with Buddhism.

THE HIDDEN SENSE: Synesthesia in Art and Science by Cretien van Campen. MIT Press.

The different ways that people learn and experience the world by employing different dominant senses has been an important topic explored in the past decade. This book charts a new frontier: the experiences of people who “hear music in colors” or “taste voices,” mixing experiences and even our ideas of separate senses. Now that brain scans have revealed that the phenomena of synesthesia is real, (though the research is still fairly primitive) Van Campen explores the research and ramifications, inevitably crossing and re-crossing borders, including those between science and art. This is a frontier study of a potentially exciting and revealing phenomenon.

BLACK MASS: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia by John Gray. STRAW DOGS: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray. Both published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

John Gray is the most provocative author I've read this year. Straw Dogs (published several years ago in the UK, apparently revised and published in the U.S. this fall as a paperback original) is a series of terse, definite and challenging statements about the contemporary world, human nature and the ideas, ideologies and systems we use and have used in recent centuries to make sense of it all and to take action. Black Mass focuses on one of its assertions with a more detailed historical treatment. Gray sees things in black and white, though mostly in black. He challenges some cherished societal assumptions, and one of his major premises is that the widespread sense of "progress" and that sense of evolution is both delusional and a paradoxical product of belief in apocalyptic end time. His assumption that the failure of Soviet Communism proves the failure and pernicious nature of utopian thinking is familiar, but otherwise I find his assertions fertile (and often pretty scary), even as wrongheaded as some may be. I expect to be looking at these books and writing about them for years to come.

THE SHOCK DOCTRINE: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, By Naomi Klein. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt. This is probably the most important book I read this year, as well as one of the best.

SOLDIER'S HEART: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, by Elizabeth D. Samet. Farrar, Strau and Giroux.

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