Hi I happened upon your tumblr because you liked one of my posts. Your posts are very intellectually stimulating so that makes me wonder, what are some of your favorite books? Also, I noticed that you have a myriad of interests, what major did you pursue in college, if you don’t mind me asking?
Why thank you!
I apologize if this post is a little long, but do hope it will be interesting. Probably best to read it in small bites.
As you may have guessed, since I do have a very wide range of interests, it’s quite a task for me to pick out my favorite books! I do read a lot of books, but I also learn by watching lectures, documentaries, listening to audiobooks, talking to people, and even just taking what I’ve learned and applying it to experiences. I also read academic papers, encyclopedias (not just Wikipedia), or sometimes I’ll just read a chapter from a book. I think how I’ll reply to your question is that I’ll mention at subjects and bodies of work in general. Here goes—
The writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, especially Beyond Good and Evil, his essay called On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense, and a book called The Gay Science (sometimes translated as The Joyful Wisdom). Unlike many philosophers, Nietzsche’s writings are very accessible for anyone with a pretty good command of whatever language they’re reading him in.
Among many things, Nietzsche’s work centers around highlighting the inherent dissonance between human consciousdesires, reason, and our spontaneous organic nature (actually, for Nietzsche, reason is intimately bound up in being afunction of our organic-nature selves. Same goes with our conscious desires.) Put in modern Cognitive Science/Psychology terms, he’s pointing out the dissonance and the unity of humanexecutive functions, instinct, personality characteristics, habituation, and the subconscious, but also the unity that this internal conflict leads to.
These were revolutionary ideas for the 19th century, hugely influential on Freud and the foundation of modern psychology, and still remains a prominent force in modern philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology. However, I don’t believe Nietzsche’s critique has been fully appreciated or realized by the public at large, or by science.
As well, I do like Nietzsche’s breaking downexceptionalism and the sorts of myths we tell ourselves in order to conceive of such exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is the belief that a particular group is superior because this group is totally separate from underlying patterns and conditions that affect all things — it either wasn’t effect by them, or overcame them wholly. He does a lot of critiquing ofGerman exceptionalism (he was German himself, and German nationalism was starting to pick up as a prominent political force when he was writing in the late 19th century [Germany didn’t become a unified nation until 1871]), Western Christian exceptionalism(especially Protestantism), European exceptionalism and Europe’s imperial heritage, and I think most importantly, Human exceptionalism, and our tendency to try to separate us from Nature and animals.
Yet, another major theme in Nietzsche is the universal nature and diversity of humanity, and the universal nature ofconditions and patterns that make up all organisms, including humans.
His concept of “Philosophical Genealogy” (this warrants a future essay to get into!) is also a major influence on my approach to human history, politics, and even to some extent my approach to what’s cutely being called “Big History”.
Big History is a vast interdisciplinary approach to history that looks over mass time scales of the past 14.5 billion years of the universe. It studies the evolution of physical forces, the elements and substances, the origin of life, biological systems and the biosphere, and in particular how all of this has formed human origins and history. David Christian is the main figure in this discipline — and while I’m not 100% in agreement with all of his work, I do strongly recommend his work, and I think his approach to history is just awesome.
The Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft) by Immanual Kant. This book is a dense read. It was written in the late 18th century, and it’s a critique of the philosophical-scientific traditional as it was known at the time. The main thesis of the book is pointing out that reason, judgement, sensation, and the sorts of insight we can gather from experimentation and speculation, are entirely dependent on us as a spontaneously organized orgasm. Reason does not exist in a void — reason is conditioned by the limitations of our experience and the mind. There’s a tendency in many of us intellectual inclined to naively value this “pure reason” and totally ignore the spontaneous, non-rational conditions that make all of our experiences possible (including what we can and cannot think about) in the first place.
Of course, the Critique goes much deeper than this. It immensely influenced Albert Einstein, many scientists from the 19th century, and many Quantum scientists of the 20th. It was probably a reading inspired by Kant that got Einstein to seriously think about the nature of the Observer, and how the Observer influences the very experiment he is trying to conduct by just observing it. (Probably also some Hegel in there, and Ernst Mach.)
Unfortunately, Kant’s work is neglected by scientists these days — which I don’t blame them for, because “professional philosophy” practiced in the academia is becoming a very, very, very pedantic and pretentious subject, filled with useless dogmatic schisms over hair-splitting trifles. There’s also a lot of hyper-specialization going on in the academia, which prevents these multi-disciplinary insights. (See my essay on this subject [link].)
But I do think Kant has some very valuable insight into modern scientific practices and investigations. For instance, we see how much emphasis is placed in science nowadays onsimulation, data-mining, and certain paradigms that neglect the influence of the observer; or how there is a tendency in science to assume a one-to-one congruency of human conception about an observable phenomenon, and with what’s actually happening. We humans — as thinking, sensing beings — are intimately part of the very experiments that we conduct, and the very patterns we try to investigate.
A reading of Kant can give us valuable insight into this… But if you’re not already into philosophy, it’s a *very* time consuming process to go back and read Kant. I don’t recommend it. You’d have to read who he’s reacting to, reinterpret him in his historical context, and view him in the light of recent developments in science and math if you want him to be a gainful read, etc etc. Basically, we need a new commentator to step up and have another look at Kant for 21st century science and math. Maybe that’ll be me in a few years 😉
Writings of Stephen Jay Gould. He does a lot of work on Evolution, especially breaking down myths about evolution (mths both by Creationists, and people who accept evolution). He does a lot to smash this notion of teleology in evolution (the view that things evolve for a purpose), and a lot of valuable insight into human nature, underlying patterns in biology, etc. He’s also a very accessible and fun read — I highly recommend all of his books!
Favorite historians are Oswald Spengler and Ibn Khaldun — not that I think they were entirely right about everything they wrote (hardly!), but their approach to history is revolutionary. They focused on the collective, aggregateresults of human nature, especially human historical and sociological behavior, as something that can be understood in a greater World-System. There is also an understanding of human civilization, or particular kinds of civilizations, as a kind of organism.
As far as literature goes, hmm. Ludimagister has reminded me how much I love Goethe. The Romantics of the early 19th century — I love their seamless mixing of philosophy, mysticism, and science. William Blake, Percy & Mary Shelley,Schiller… Many 19th century poets actually drew a lot from the scientific tradition, like Robert Frost who actually wrote quite a bit about entropy and heat-death (which arrogant English majors don’t even realize!)
Also am quite fond of political writers like Joseph Conrad,George Orwell. Russian literature, especially Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Turgenev, Gogol.
Very fond of cyberpunk, certain science-fiction, historical fiction. And I read a lot of old religious texts and mythology.
Second part of your question:
In university, I majored specifically in Archaeology and Philosophy. (Double-major was required at the particular institution)
But I’ve been self-taught in many subjects since a very early age. As a small child, I used to spend hours at a time watch Discover Channel and TLC (back when it was aboutactually learning) on evolution, astronomy, psychology. My parents weren’t into such things, but they were into politics, so I had an early age exposure to political arguments at the dinner table. Slowly, that turned into an interest into philosophy and politics, then into history, I’ve stuck with it since.
Not to discourage others who, but at least in my particular case, university was the least productive learning experience in my entire life.
Btw, I absolutely love your art. Phenomenal astronomy work, wow, completely awe-inspiring. I highly recommend everyone to check it out! [Link to gallery]