Results for “straussian reading”
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Do we need a Journal of Controversial Ideas?

That is the topic of my latest column for Bloomberg, here is one excerpt:

Now enter a newly announced project, called the Journal of Controversial Ideas. It will publish one issue per year, devoted to ideas that otherwise may not receive a fair hearing, and it will allow for anonymous or pseudonymous publication. Princeton philosopher Peter Singer is one of the names associated with the journal, which does not yet have an agreement with a publisher.

I am skeptical though not hostile toward this enterprise. It is sad that such a journal is seen as necessary. But I would suggest instead putting forth your ideas on a blog, on Twitter or on YouTube. Many politically incorrect figures have done just that. A Jordan Peterson YouTube lecture might range from the Bible to Jung to a critique of contemporary feminism, none of it refereed, but he has attracted millions of viewers. At the end of it all you get the Jordan Peterson worldview, which I suspect has more resonance than any particular empirical claim Peterson might make along the way.

In an internet-centered intellectual world, what persuades people is reading or hearing a charismatic personality, year in year out, promoting a particular view of the world. A lot of controversial ideas will have to ride that roller coaster, for better or worse.

The Journal of Controversial Ideas is intended to be open access, though without a publishing contract we can’t know if it will have an open online comments section. It would be odd if not (would we have to create a companion Journal of Controversial Comments?), but with open comments you have to wonder whether a prestige publisher will take on the associated libel and reputational risks, and how high status the journal actually will be. It would not be practical to referee the comments, but that may mean the truly open internet, with its free-for-all atmosphere, will remain the dominant source for controversial ideas. “Controversial for me but not for thee” hardly seems like a winning slogan for such a revisionist enterprise.

Overall, I think controversial ideas will do best on the non-refereed internet, but I am not opposed to giving this venture a try.  Refereeing is supposed to boost status, but will anyone put a publication here on their tenure vita?  And:

To make a controversial idea stick through the academic process, maybe you do have conquer the biases and beat the odds against you, as Harvey MansfieldRobert P. George and Oded Galor have done (to name just three). You also might pursue a “Straussian” approach, embedding subversive messages in your paper and covering them up with flowery rhetoric, hoping that some but not too many people notice what you are really saying.

Do read the whole thing.

My Conversation with Ross Douthat

I think Ross, along with Steven Pinker, received the hardest (though never hostile) questions from me, but of course that is a measure of respect.  Plus serious questions about God are difficult by their nature.  Here is how the summarizers described the ground covered:

…Douthat’s views on religion and theology, but then moves on to more earth-bound concerns, such as his stance on cats, The Wire vs The Sopranos, why Watership Down is the best modern novel for understanding politics, eating tofu before it was cool, journalism as a trade, why he’s open to weird ideas, the importance of Sam’s Club Republicans, the specter of a Buterlian Jihad, and more.

Not to mention Reformicons, CRISPR, Thiel/Girard, Godwin’s Law, euthanasia, what Ross learned his mother, and the dangers of too much smart phone use.  Ross responded in fine form, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

DOUTHAT: I suppose that I’m drawn to the idea that the truth about human existence lies in what can seem like paradoxical formulations, and this is of course very Catholic in certain ways. Certainly a G. K. Chestertonian idea, so I’m just stealing it from other people. But the idea that various heresies of Christianity, Calvinism included — with apologies to my Calvinist friends — tend to take one particular element of you that’s supposed to be in synthesis and possibly in tension, and run with it. And therefore the truth about things lies in a place that may seem slightly contradictory.

And I think this is borne out in many ways in everyday experience. This both-and experience of human existence. The idea that you can’t split up grace and works in any kind of meaningful way. It’s connected to larger facts about the nature of human existence. The tension between determinism and free will that persists in any philosophical system. You can get rid of God and stop having these Jansenist Jesuit arguments about predestination and so on, but you’re still stuck with the free will–determinism debate. That debate doesn’t go away.

So, yeah, there’s a point at the intersection of different ideas that is as close to the truth as our limited minds can get and in Christian thought, we call that point orthodoxy. Now, how that is connected to my political views is a really good question.

And:

COWEN: We all know the Marcionite heresy: the view, from early Christianity, that the Old Testament should be abandoned. At times, even Paul seems to subscribe to what later was called the Marcionite heresy. Why is it a heresy? Why is it wrong?

DOUTHAT: It’s wrong because it takes the form . . . It’s wrong for any number of reasons, but in the context of the conversation we’re having, it’s wrong because it tries to basically take one of the things that Christianity is trying to hold in synthesis and run with it to the exclusion of everything else, and essentially to solve problems by cutting things away.

The Marcionite thesis is, basically, if you read the New Testament, Jesus offers you a portrait of God that seems different from the portrait of God offered in Deuteronomy; therefore, these things are in contradiction. Therefore, if you believe that Jesus’s portrait of God is correct, then the Deuteronomic portrait of God must be false; therefore, the God of the Old Testament must be a wicked demiurge, etc., etc. And the next thing you know, you’re ascribing to, again, a kind of . . . What is the Aryan Christianity of the Nazis, if not the Marcionite heresy given form in the 1930s and 1940s?

And so the orthodox Christian says, “No, any seeming tension between the Old Testament and the New, any seeming contradiction, is actually suggesting that we need to look for a kind of synthesis between them, and for a sense in which there is not contradiction, but fulfillment in some way, which —

COWEN: Bringing us back to Hegelian Douthat.

DOUTHAT: Yes, yes.

And:

I think it’s probably fair to say that Chesterton’s Father Brown stories had as much influence on my worldview as his more sort of polemical and argumentative writings. And, again, I think therein lies some important insight that I haven’t thought through, but I think you’re correctly gesturing at, about a particular way of thinking about God and theology that isn’t unique to Christianity, but that is strongly suggested by just the structure of the revelation that we have. Marilynne Robinson has a line, I think in Gilead, about — one of the characters is imagining that this life is like the epic of heaven. That we’re living in the Iliad or the Odyssey of heaven. This is the story that will be told in the streets.

And:

COWEN: When you see how much behavior Islam or some forms of Islam motivate, do you envy it? Do you think, “Well, gee, what is it that they have that we don’t? What do we need to learn from them?” What’s your gut emotional reaction?

On another topic:

I’ve been always disappointed that there hasn’t been a kind of sustained Watership Down revival because it’s such a great book and it’s a book about — essentially, it’s about a founding.

It’s connected, in a sense, to the kind of things that the Straussians are always arguing about and so on. What does the founding mean, and so on? But you have a group of rabbits who go forth and encounter different models of political order, different ways of relating to humankind, that shadow over rabbit-kind at any point.

You have a warren that has essentially surrendered itself to humanity and exists as a kind of breeding farm, and you have a warren that’s run as a fascist dictatorship essentially. And then you have this attempt to form a political community that is somewhere in between the two, getting back to the Hegelian synthesis and so on. And you have sort of this primal narrative where the problem is of course that they don’t have any females, and so there’s this competition, this competition for reproductive power that’s carried out between these different warrens where the rabbits from the good warren have to literally — not kidnap, because the does come willingly — but steal women from the fascist dictatorship, which maintains a ruthless control over reproduction.

So there’s just a lot of fascinating stuff there, and then it’s all interspersed with storytelling. There’s the sort of rabbit folktales that Richard —

COWEN: So, narrative again.

DOUTHAT: Narrative again.

Strongly recommended, and I do thank Ross for putting up with me.  Do read or listen to the whole thing.

And I very much enjoyed reading Ross’s forthcoming book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, which I found totally engrossing.

Tyler Cowen’s guide to Enlightenment

No, that is not enlightenment about life, that is enlightenment about Enlightenment, as in the eighteenth century phenomenon.  P., a loyal MR reader, wrote to me with such a request, noting correctly that “I usually find that broad, ambitious survey books are not the answer.”

That survey would be Peter Gay, recently a bestseller in China by the way, and then Ernst Cassirer, Jonathan Israel, and Roy Porter, but let me outline an alternative program of study.  The goal here is to be practical, engaging, and vivid, not comprehensive or scholarly per se:

Books:

Geoffrey Clive’s short book The Romantic Enlightenment.

James Boswell, Journals, selected excerpts, he was an early blogger by the way, and David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.  I find that to be one of the wittiest of books.  Plus Hume’s Essays.

Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, and Rousseau’s Second Discourse.  Condorcet, Essay on the Progress of the Human Mind.  Voltaire I consider overrated.

Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, yes I know it is arguably “anti-Enlightenment,” better yet.  If you insist on another Irishman, Bishop Berkeley is an entertaining writer as well.

Founding documents of the United States, and Ben Franklin, Autobiography.

Kant, Perpetual Peace, “What is Enlightenment?”, and Lessing, Nathan the Wise.

Beccaria, Of Crimes and Punishments.

If you have the time to tackle longer books, start with Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Boswell’s Life of Johnson and then Casanova and Tristram Shandy (there is by the way a splendid book on the postmodern in the Enlightenment but I can no longer remember the cite).  Leave Montesquieu to the Straussians, although the returns are high if you are so inclined.

For history, read up on eighteenth century scientific societies, Robert Darnton on the rise of publishing and the book trade, Habermas on the coffeehouse debate culture and the public sphere, and Brewer and McKendrick on the rise of consumer society in England.  Try Wikipedia for Catherine the Great, Frederick the Great, and other rulers of the time.  There is also Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment, and books on 18th century Freemasonry.  The French Revolution seems to require its own blog post, as does the Industrial Revolution, slavery too, in a pinch resort to the MR search function box on this blog.  Foucault will give you a sense of the dark side of the Enlightenment, his history is unreliable but read him on Discipline and Punishment and on ideology try the rather dense The Order of Things.

That all said, I would start with music and the arts first.

Music:

Haydn, the London symphonies and late piano sonatas and string quartets Op.76.

Mozart, the major operas, including reading through the libretti while listening.  If you can only do one thing on this list…

Gluck, assorted operas, noting he is not nearly the equal of Haydn or Mozart as a composer but he did capture the spirit of Enlightenment.

C.P.E. Bach, the Prussian Sonatas.

Painting:

Study French painting from Chardin through David, picture books will do if you can’t visit the original works.  Focus on Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, Vigée-Le Brun, Boilly, Hubert Robert, and others, how their works tie into the history of the period and how the styles transformed over time.  Visit Paris, Huntington Gardens, and Tiepolo’s work in the Residenz in Würzburg.  Do a tour of Georgian architecture in England, in a pinch visit the derivative works at Harvard, Yale, and Alexandria, Virginia.  Study Tiepolo more generally, Goya, and also Antonio Canova.

Canova

Movies:

Why not?  I’ll toss up Dangerous Liaisons (Vadim and Malkovich versions), Barry Lyndon, Casanova, Amadeus, A Royal Affair (can’t forget Denmark!), Marie Antoinette, Ridicule, and The Madness of King George.

What did I leave out that is of utmost importance?

Claims about Germany

When I say that growing up in Germany helps bestow independent thinking skills, I’m not saying that it’s because they’re all taught [the] Straussian art of close reading. Instead I’m arguing that society has suppressed the value of certain status indicators, and that encourages people to think for themselves. To put it another way, there are fewer tournaments for kids to go through, and the value of winning them is not so high. Germans I’ve met are incredibly humble. Nobody feels the need to perpetrate an international hoax about how desirable they are. In addition, people aren’t all drawn to the same fields like finance and consulting. They take up professions like baking or manufacturing, and work with the earnestness that comes from knowing that their work is dignified; it’s easier for them to do the equivalent of moving to Dayton to study widget machines.

That is from Dan Wang, who also offers remarks on the philosophy and writings of Peter Thiel.  My reservation about Dan’s argument is that Germans may use their independent thinking skills to question the entire value of traditional metrics of success, thereby making Germany less suited to produce certain kinds of innovations.

Here is an interesting Simon Kuper FT piece on Germans, mostly positive although “Germans are frequently wrong.”

*Philosophy Between the Lines*

This is the new and fantastic book by Arthur M. Melzer and the subtitle is The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.  It is the best book I know on esoteric writing and its history and furthermore it is clear and to the point!  (I think)

Melzer starts his chapter eight with this quotation from John Toland’s eighteenth century Pantheisticon:

[Esotericism is] practiced not by the Ancients alone; for to declare the Truth, it is more in Use among the Moderns.

Here is another bit from the book:

To begin with, we need an author who, in his interpretations, is willing to follow the very un-Straussian injunction — often found on mathematics exams — “show all work.”  We need to see, once or twice, how the sausage is made.  The best writing for this purpose that I am familiar with comes from an appropriately un-Straussian source: Stanley Fish.  His “Georgics of the Mind: The Experience of Bacon’s Essays” is a brilliant and nuanced exercise in textual analysis that openly displays, at every stage of Fish’s encounter with the text, what he thinks and why he thinks it.

…Another excellent and highly communicative reader…is Robert Connor.  His Thucydides is a very sensitive reading of Thucydides’s great history, a reading openly arrived at and clearly conveyed.  In conjunction with this, one should also read Clifford Orwin’s superb The Humanity of Thucydides.

Recommended.

My re-read of *Harriet the Spy*, by Louise Fitzhugh (spoilers)

1. From 1964: “Eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch is obnoxious. She dresses like a boy, throws temper tantrums, swears at her parents and thinks terribly unkind thoughts. She refuses to eat anything but tomato sandwiches for lunch. She even invents her own middle initial.”

2. She also keeps a notebook, spies on everyone, and writes down the truth about them.  Her notebook is made public and she is disgraced, until making a comeback as the elected editor of the school newspaper (though see below).  At the end she learns that some lying is necessary.

3. One message of this book is that writers, and journalists in particular, are neurotics.  And liars.  A more core message is that heroines are allowed to be nasty and tell the truth.  Harriet throws a pencil in the face of Beth Ellen.  Compare this with the goody two-shoes Nancy Drew.

3b. “Harriet…Are you still writing down mean things about people?” “No. I am writing my memoirs.”  When I first read this book at age ten or so, I didn’t get the jokes.  Note also the phallic wurst joke on p.105.  Food/sex references run throughout, and there is a running contrast between Harriet’s duty to be an onion (hard, gets cut down the middle) with her desire to instead do nothing but munch on tomato sandwiches.

4. The opening of the book makes Harriet sound like an macroeconomist: “Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play Town.  “See, first you make up the name of the town.  Then you write down the names of all the people who live in it.  You can’t have too many or it gets too hard.””

5. Harriet the infovore announces her intention to know “everything in the world, everything, everything.”

6. On p.278 author Fitzhugh indicates to us that she is not herself telling us the entire truth about growing up.  It is yet more brutal than this book is allowed to let on.  After that page, everything which happens in the text is a lie, designed to make the casual reader feel better and to sell more copies.  Harriet is not in fact voted editor of the school newspaper and not allowed to publish her critical rants to general acclaim with only a few retractions.  This is a Straussian text and it makes fun of the reader’s willingness to believe in happy endings.  The opening “make believe” scene mirrors these later deceptions.

7. This short essay compares Harriet to To Kill a Mockingbird.  Other commentators stress that Louise Fitzhugh, the author, was a lesbian and perhaps Harriet is a budding lesbian too (she dresses like a boy and has a tomboyish haircut).  I view Sport’s father, who is obsessed with getting a $$ advance for his book, as the stand-in character for Fitzhugh (start at p.260 and see also p.52 on the obsession with writing and money).  Luxury is portrayed as corrupting and leading to indolence, so becoming a successful writer is a self-destructive process, noting that Fitzhugh herself stagnated after this hugely successful book.

8. In this book parents are typically indifferent, brutally indifferent I would say, toward their children.

9. In the movie version “…Harriet competes against Marion Hawthorne to see who has a better blog.”

10. This is a deep work, rich in jokes, and more than worthy of its iconic status.  I am very glad to have reread it.

Here is my previous post on Catcher in the Rye.

Nick Beckstead’s conversation with Tyler Cowen

Nick is a philosopher at Oxford and he has worked with Larry Temkin and Nick Bostrom.  He typed up his version of our conversation (pdf), it starts with this:

Purpose of the conversation: I contacted Tyler to learn about his perspectives on existential risk and other long-run issues for humanity, the long-run consequences of economic growth, and the effective altruism movement.

Here are a few excerpts:

Tyler is optimistic about growth in the coming decades, but he doesn’t think we’ll become uploads or survive for a million years. Some considerations in favor of his views were:

1. The Fermi paradox is some evidence that humans will not colonize the stars.
2. Almost all species go extinct.
3. Natural disasters—even a supervolcano—could destroy humanity.
4. Normally, it’s easier to destroy than to build. And, in the future, it will probably become increasingly possible for smaller groups to cause severe global damage (along the lines suggested by Martin Rees).

The most optimistic view that Tyler would entertain—though he doubts it—is that humans would survive at subsistence level for a very long time; that’s what we’ve had for most of human history.

And:

People doing philosophical work to try to reduce existential risk are largely wasting their time. Tyler doesn’t think it’s a serious effort, though it may be good publicity for something that will pay off later. A serious effort looks more like the parts of the US government that trained people to infiltrate the post-collapse Soviet Union and then locate and neutralize nuclear weapons. There was also a serious effort by the people who set up hotlines between leaders to be used to quickly communicate about nuclear attacks (e.g., to help quickly convince a leader in country A that a fishy object on their radar isn’t an incoming nuclear attack).This has been fixed in other countries (e.g. US and China), but it hasn’t been fixed in other cases (e.g. Israel and Iran). There is more that we could do in this area. In contrast, the philosophical side of this seems like ineffective posturing.

Tyler wouldn’t necessarily recommend that these people switch to other areas of focus because people[‘s] motivation and personal interests are major constraints on getting anywhere. For Tyler, his own interest in these issues is a form of consumption, though one he values highly.

And:

Tyler thinks about the future and philosophical issues from a historicist perspective. When considering the future of humanity, this makes him focus on war, conquest, plagues, and the environment, rather than future technology.

He acquired this perspective by reading a lot of history and spending a lot of time around people in poor countries, including in rural areas. Spending time with people in poor countries shaped Tyler’s views a lot. It made him see rational choice ethics as more contingent. People in rural areas care most about things like fights with local villages over watermelon patches. And that’s how we are, but we’re living in a fog about it.

And:

The truths of literature and what you might call “the Straussian truths of the great books”—what you get from Homer or Plato—are at least as important rational choice ethics. But the people who do rational choice ethics don’t think that. If the two perspectives aren’t integrated, it leads to absurdities—problems like fanaticism, the Repugnant Conclusion, and so on. Right now though, rational choice ethics is the best we have—the problems of, e.g., Kantian ethics seem much, much worse.

If rational choice ethics were integrated with the “Straussian truths of the great books,” would it lead to different decisions? Maybe not—maybe it would lead to the same decisions with a different attitude. We might come to see rational choice ethics as an imperfect construct, a flawed bubble of meaning that we created for ourselves, and shouldn’t expect to keep working in unusual circumstances.

I’m on a plane for much of today, so you are getting Nick’s version of me, for a while at least.  You will find Nick’s other conversations here.

Why aren’t we using monetary policy to stimulate aggregate demand?

My NYT column today is about why we can't move to a three percent inflation target (which I favor, at least for some number of years) and how we might make the leap.  Excerpt:

…if the Fed announces a commitment to a higher inflation target but fails to establish its credibility, it will have shown impotence. It would be a long time before the Fed was trusted again, and the Fed might even lose its (partial) political independence. All of a sudden, the Fed would end up “owning” the recession.

Part of the credibility problem stems from the political environment, especially in Congress. Imagine the day after the announcement of a plan for 3 percent inflation. Older people, creditors and workers on fixed incomes – all connected to powerful lobbies – would start to complain. Republicans would wonder whether they had found a new issue on which to campaign, namely, opposition to inflation. And Democrats would worry about what position to take. Presidents of some regional Fed banks would probably oppose the policy publicly.

…The Fed lost some of its political independence during the financial crisis. It undertook major rescue operations in conjunction with the Treasury, and these bailouts proved extremely unpopular. Congress has taken a closer look at Fed operating procedures and will engage in a one-time audit of the Fed’s emergency lending. When it comes to inflation, the Fed cannot easily turn to Congress and simply ask to be trusted.

This is the sad side story of our financial crisis: especially when it comes to financial matters, a great deal of trust has been lost. There is the prospect of a free lunch right before us, yet it is unclear that we will be able to grab it.

…In failing to push harder for monetary expansion, is Mr. Bernanke a wise and prudent guardian of the limited discretionary powers of the Fed? Or is he acting like a too-hesitant bureaucrat, afraid to fail and take the blame when he should be gunning for success?

A few points:

1. For reasons of space, I could not note that the so-called "robust Reagan recovery" had price inflation of over four percent a year.  Many conservatives shy away from recognizing this.

2. Three percent inflation also would help the currently impossible state of the real estate market, by lowering the real value of debts.

3. I do not mean to discriminate against Scott Sumner's nominal gdp idea, but it is easier to explain an inflation rate target to a public audience.  Here is my earlier column on Scott.

4. Maybe we are in a new political economy equilibrium where each government agency is given "one shot" at a problem.  Treasury had its one shot with the stimulus plan.  The Fed had its exotic monetary policy operations and deal-making during the crisis.  Maybe in bad times voters aren't happy no matter what, and no one is allowed to try twice.  We have not yet thought through the political economy of this scenario.

5. If the Fed can't make the commitment today, when did it go wrong?  Perhaps at the peak of the crisis, when it was operating with a high degree of discretion, and various radical actions were viewed as justified, it should have announced that, to complete recovery, the three percent price inflation commitment would commence after the dust had settled.  That would have required Magnus Carlsen-like levels of foresight, however.  If nothing else, Bernanke may not have realized that some version of #4 was operating.

6. Contra Mark Thoma, I am not so worried about time consistency problems, provided that Congress supports the Fed.  As long as the economy is weak, it's in the Fed's interest to keep up the three percent inflation.  If people know that in better times we will eventually settle back to two percent inflation, I don't think this undercuts the whole idea.

7. It remains instructive to read Bernanke's 1999 Japan piece, for instance:

BOJ officials have strongly resisted the suggestion of installing an explicit inflation target. Their often-stated concern is that announcing a target that they are not sure they know how to achieve will endanger the Bank’s credibility; and they have expressed skepticism that simple announcements can have any effects on expectations. On the issue of announcement effects, theory and practice suggest that “cheap talk” can in fact sometimes affect expectations, particularly when there is no conflict between what a “player” announces and that player’s incentives. The effect of the announcement of a sustained zero-interest-rate policy on the term structure in Japan is itself a perfect example of the potential power of announcement effects.

With respect to the issue of inflation targets and BOJ credibility, I do not see how credibility can be harmed by straightforward and honest dialogue of policymakers with the public.

Maybe I'm too Straussian or too Freudian here, but I read him as trying to promote the commitment, without being totally sure it is possible; note the "distancing" language at the critical points of the argument.  I believe Bernanke wrote this next part before he completely understood the incentives of bureaucracies to conserve information:

But if BOJ officials feel that, for technical reasons, when and whether they will attain the announced target is uncertain, they could explain those points to the public as well. Better that the public knows that the BOJ is doing all it can to reflate the economy, and that it understands why the Bank is taking the actions it does. The alternative is that the private sector be left to its doubts about the willingness or competence of the BOJ to help the macroeconomic situation.

My favorite things London

No, I am not there, but this was a request from a loyal MR reader.  Here goes:

1. Mystery writer: Eric Ambler, most of all A Coffin for Dimitrios; the villain is pathetic, not fearful, and this is most of all a study in collective mythmaking.

2. Philosopher: Francis Bacon.  I’m not a Straussian but he really does have hidden and deep meanings.  Read Perez Zagorin on Bacon for a guide to the complexity of it all.

Honorary mention goes to Jeremy Bentham, whose proposal for interest-bearing currency, ideas on animal welfare, and Auto-Icon (most of all the text, not just the body) still stand ahead of their time.  He was a subtle thinker, not a one-dimensional simpleton.

3. Favorite song off London Calling: "Jimmy Jazz" remains dearest to my heart.

4. Favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie: Vertigo may be the most complete masterwork, but the best segments of The Birds, Psycho, and Marnie (all inconsistent movies) stick most deeply in my mind.

5. Favorite Henry Purcell recording: The Complete Odes and Welcome Songs, and no, eight discs of this music is not overkill.

6. 17th century economics pamphlet: Nicholas Barbon’s Apology for the Builder.  Barbon to Dudley North is a wonderful period in the history of political economy, spend a few weeks reading that stuff sometime.  This short pamphlet has increasing returns, aggregate demand management, urban economics, and the invisible hand, all well before Adam Smith.

7. Favorite neighborhood to stay in: Kensington, it is leafy green and away from both the monarchy and the hideous theatre district.

8. Favorite painting in: The National Gallery offers stiff competition, but how about this Gauguin, in the Courtauld?  As for carpets, here is the Ardebil, in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

9. Pianist: The elegant Clifford Curzon remains underrated.  He produced a lyrical account of Liszt’s B Minor Sonata plus try his Schubert B flat sonata and his Mozart.

Other stuff: Do I really have anything to add about Chaucer, Blake, Defoe, Forster, Keats, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Dickens, Orwell, Turner, Turing, Mick Jagger, Tim Harford, Stephen Jen, and The Economist?  Maybe, but not today.

Philosophical journeys

As a young teen I wanted to start with all of Plato’s Dialogues (yes including Parmenides, which I loved, but I didn’t finish The Laws) plus the major works of modern philosophy.  I used the old John Hospers text to identify Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant.  I read some Aristotle too, although he bored me.  Then I read lots of Karl Popper and Brand Blanshard, the old-fashioned defender of rationalism and critic of positivism.  I gobbled up George Smith and Antony Flew on atheism.  I was influenced by Ayn Rand’s moral defense of capitalism, though I was never impressed by her as a philosopher. 

Much later I read Nozick, Rawls, and Parfit.  Parfit made by far the biggest impression on me.  The other two, however smart, seemed predictable.

In graduate school I read Quine avidly.  George Romanos’s book on Quine I found more useful than any single Quine work, although Word and Object and the essay on "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" are the places to start.  Quine remains a major influence, including on how I think about blog posts.  Which thicket of assumptions might lead one to a possible conclusion?  I took a class on philosophy of language with Hilary Putnam and developed interests in Kripke and others, but they never displaced Quine in my affections.  I developed a fondness for William James.  From Rorty I saw more value in the Continentals, although I prefer to misread them.  I flirted with the early German romantics and their rejection of philosophy, at times mediated through J.S. Mill.

Later experience with Liberty Fund interested me in "deep" readings of Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Maimonides, and some of the other "Straussian" texts.  I’ve never been a Straussian, though.  I’ve made attempts to understand Heidegger but without any success. 

Right now the philosophy journals I read are Ethics and Philosophy and Public Affairs.  When it comes to metaphysics, mind-body problems, and the like, I prefer books, usually of a semi-popular nature.  The academic debates on these topics are too rarified to interest me very much.

That is my path, in a nutshell.  I don’t pretend it is an optimal sequence for others. 

The bottom line: I have learned to focus on the philosophy which clicked with me at the time.  The rest was just so much blah blah blah.  Philosophy books are more like self-help tomes, or fun record albums, than they let on.

Any suggestions for how our reader should choose a path?