Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 96

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

In Silicon Valley employees have drank the cool-aid and are now happy to be exploited.

Turns out, only children books with human characters make a moral impact.

The conceptual evolution of mass and matter, by my friend Jim Baggott.

The alleged crisis of the humanities is hardly such a thing after all.

Where modern philosophy began, maybe.

Why the coming-of-age narrative is actually a conformist lie.

These women were what they ate. Or where they?…


Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Thanks!

72 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 96

  1. couvent2104

    After reading the “coming of age”-article, I’m eagerly waiting for articles explaining in great detail why the real world is different from the world described in chick-lit. An article with sentences like:

    “Relations are a wave of events. As such, you don’t get relations, they just happen to you. Relations, if you must define them, are only a function of circumstances, in which case, to get a relation is merely to live in the right circumstances. Although it flies in the face of what chick-lit have taught us for generations, a new understanding of relations, in which there is no direct path to them, no single relation that might be discovered or created, has the potential to be incredibly freeing.”

    It requires a particular talent to write passages like that, but I’m happy I don’t have it. Did I already mention that there are practically no queer, black girls in chick-lit? (Although it does have an unmarried mother once in a while.)

    The article reads as if it’s written by someone who has never read a book.

    “A traditional coming-of-age story featuring a queer, black girl will fail on its own terms; for how would her discovering her identity allow her to enter a society that insists on marginalising identities like hers?”

    Really? I don’t know about queer black girls, but I bet there is a vast lesbian coming of age-literature. “Rubyfruit Jungle” just to give one example from a time when lesbian identities were far less accepted than they were now.

    And what about that “new understanding of coming of age”? It isn’t so new at all. In “Les Particules élémentaires” by Houellebecq the main protagonist has a coming of age, sort of, but it’s nothing like the ones described in the article and the book is now almost 20 years old. But I guess Houellebecq and Rubyfruit Jungle etc. don’t fit the narrative of the author.

    “Les Particules élémentaires” isn’t “incredibly freeing” either. And why should it be? Being incredibly freeing is not a literary merit.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thomas Jones

    Not to belabor the issue . . . but of what importance is Dennett’s “subselves”–or for that matter the essence of a “true” self or lack thereof, or of turtles (all the way down) in evaluating the Aeon piece? It is a particularly glib piece to my mind that sprinkles questionable psychology and literary criticism along with a blithe usage of the words like self, identity, and personality to distraction while absurdly citing literary studies of a genre comparing English/German vs French treatments of the evolution of a literary genre that I would guess the author doesn’t fully understand. To wit, the first sentence of Bellow’s “Augie March” is masterful in setting the tone and scope of what follows for over 500 pages. (Aside from Melville’s opening sentence of “Moby Dick,” one is hard-pressed to find a better beginning in American literature.) Bellow’s “March” completely turns the standard “coming of age” theme on its head, but there is no mention of it here.

    In the last paragraph, the author of the Aeon piece attempts to tie the beginning of his essay to its end: “If one wishes, one can stand in the rain, watching a carousel, finally feeling grown-up.” This sentiment supposedly frames “the message” for the reader of Salinger’s “Catcher.” Unfortunately, the author of the Aeon piece seems impervious to Salinger’s use of ambiguity. Instead, he treats us to this bit of pablum: “But, just as legitimately, one can simply experience it and enjoy it, and not feel the pressure to make anything of it all.” (No doubt such “legitimate” claims would have led J.D. from his legendary reclusiveness.) The same failure to recognize what is obviously meant to signify ambiguity is the author’s reference to the final scene in “The Graduate” (an overrated film though well-acted). If I recall correctly the author of the novel was not pleased with Mike Nichols treatment.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Massimo Post author


    I’m very familiar with Bayesian analysis. My point was that since your priors were rather arbitrary (as you admitted), then systematic empirical evidence ought — by Bayesian rules — to change them rather dramatically.


    Facts don’t determine a crisis, because “crisis” is a human concept. But surely those are correlated. The fact of climate change ought to determine a crisis, even though some people stubbornly deny it.

    As for rituals just being that way. Yes, they are. But rituals change, new ones are invented. Current ancient rituals were once new. So I don’t see that observation as a particularly good rebuttal to the article’s point. And metaphysically, in terms of personal identity, there absolutely isn’t any such thing as a crucial age for nothing, in human beings, it is all arbitrary, all a continuum.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. synred

    I’m very familiar with Bayesian analysis. My point was that since your priors were rather arbitrary (as you admitted), then systematic empirical evidence ought — by Bayesian rules — to change them rather dramatically

    Well, its not a problem I can solve.

    My gut reaction to this hypothesis is very negative and would take a lot to convince me it had merit, but the basis of my ‘gut’ is very thin — just my own experience as a kid, watching my daughter and grand daughter and my experience with totally incorrect statistical reasoning of my wife’s Poli Sci advisor (which I think I described previously).

    Fortunately, Funding decisions are not mine to make!


  5. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, all good points, whether one takes a totally Cynic POV on the rituals or not.

    Hell, as far as “coming of age,” rather than a bar mitzvah (and remember, a bath mitzvah is a secularized knockoff and thus modern/new, not traditional) or Christian confirmation, why not college frat house rush/pledge week? That’s a “transition” too. Or the barf-inducing kindergarten graduation ceremonies?

    Good existential-type sociology (anticipating an existential psychology piece) would say — make your transition rituals YOURS.

    And, speaking of differences in age of origin, non-original and derivative origin, etc., on bar vs bat mitzvahs as an example, let’s note that, until the 20th century, rites of passage rituals were … highly MALE.

    I’m sorry, is that identity politics?

    Thomas, I’m sorry that you don’t get why subselves and other things that undermine the idea that we have a continuous unitary self are relevant.


  6. synred

    The other problem with hypothesis like this ‘animal’ character one (which seems kind of arbitrary to me, but who knows there might have some ‘theoretical’ or anecdotal basis in the published article), is the selection effect, i.e., only those that get a interesting result get published in the papers and often presented as if it were some a ‘discovery’.

    Thus, when there is a seemingly interesting result in a statistically marginal sample sample the Guardian or somebody notices. Many other similar studies with null results or not ‘interesting’ never see the light of day.

    Even in published results selection effects can be strong. Many people do not publish results that are not statistically significant (a favorite drug company strategy now somewhat ameliorated by some journals requiring studies be registered in advance and published regardless of significance). Physicist do it to, but it’s not so important. This practice completely screws up the meaning of the statistics.


  7. Daniel Kaufman

    Hell, as far as “coming of age,” rather than a bar mitzvah (and remember, a bath mitzvah is a secularized knockoff and thus modern/new, not traditional) or Christian confirmation, why not college frat house rush/pledge week? That’s a “transition” too. Or the barf-inducing kindergarten graduation ceremonies?

    = = =

    What an absolutely obnoxious thing to say.

    And who are you “reminding”? You think I don’t know where the Bat-Mitzvah comes from? And I explicitly said I was talking about modern people. That doesn’t change the fact that these coming of age events and celebrations are enormously important to a large number of people. My daughter’s Bat-Mitzvah meant a lot to us, our family, and our community. And the same was true for my Bar-Mitzvah, which I had in the same synagogue in Tel Aviv where my father had his.

    I think it really stinks that you just cynically crap all over peoples’ deeply valued customs like this. Especially when talking with someone who has made it quite explicit how important they are to him and his community.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. brodix

    The coming of age article does present an interesting contrast between the reality of existence as these flashes of awareness that are the state of being, compared to the need and desire to extract useful and enlightening knowledge from the experiences.
    Yes, there are any number of events in one’s life that are transformative and they create the layers of our experience, through which further awareness flows, which does color our personality. Surprise: we are both nature and nurture.
    Necessarily the literary form works best to focus on particular such occurrences and reasonably magnify them, in order to make a compelling narrative, but the audience cannot live the entire life of another, so the focus on particulars.
    Basically the author has been disappointed and/or numbed in his quest for inspiration and felt compelled to express it.

    The article on children’s stories seems to focus on short term role playing, more so than long term inspiration. Maybe too much time in the lab and not enough time engaged with children interacting with actual animals, such as pets.

    The article on the crisis in humanities seems to drown the issue in statistics, but then much of life is drowning in “data.” Why not the humanities, as well? Quantity drowns out nuance.

    On the herd behavior of techies? As someone who has spent their life dealing with animals, the two levers of control are hope and fear. It’s up to us to modulate how they are used against us. Suckers.

    The article on physics? I better just leave that alone.

    The article on philosophy seems to go in subjective circles, but then…..

    On what women ate didn’t motivate me enough to become a subscriber to American Interest and get more spam.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. synred

    until the 20th century, rites of passage rituals were … highly MALE
    The transition from childhood to womanhood is an important event in almost any culture. Hispanics, however, mark this memorable occasion with the celebration of a Quinceanera or Sweet 15. The Quinceanera tradition is believed to have started many years ago when the Spanish conquerors brought the tradition to Mexico and others say the tradition originated with the Aztecs. Regardless, a Quinceanera celebration is a Hispanic tradition associated with Mexican, central and South American cultures. Through the different ceremonies that take place today, the young Quinceanera is formally introduced to society and it is a day to give thanks for having reached this age.

    Such celebrations seem to exist for girls well before the 20th century. They aren’t about independence as much as being ‘on the market’ in the rather blunt Victorian expression.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Mark Shulgasser (@astrodreamer1)

    Re: Mass and Matter:

    I had hoped this excerpt, in language at a junior high school level, might at least clear up the distinction between mass and matter as promised by the title. No such luck.

    “ . . . what does it really mean for mass and energy to be equivalent and interchangeable?” Indeed. Apparently we now deal with the concept of “total mass energy”. Are energy and matter then supposed to be two states of the same thing? Sounds like a fundamental dualism, as far as the eye can see.

    Interesting to learn that even simple arithmatic is one of the supposedly eternal logical verities which physics has shown to be only a local truth.

    “ As we descend through each layer of matter we find smaller and smaller constituents. This is surely hardly surprising. But then, just as surely, we can’t keep doing this indefinitely.” What justifies that certainty? We can’t because to discover the next level of particles would require a collider as large as the distance between the earth and the moon and a budget larger than the entire planet’s gross economy, so there is that. But our mathematics already allows for the infinitesimally small. What forbids the existence of infinitudes of tinyness?

    Re: Where modern philosophy began, maybe:

    “Gottlieb . . . leaves us with more doubts, not fewer.” While our philosophy textbooks suggest that philosophers improve on their predecessors each bringing new bricks to an edifice of real knowledge, this review demonstrates the opposite: the gravamen of philosophy is a history of unending and unavoidable intellectual conflict and confusion. Of course, history is but an obscure palimpsest created by the overlays of successions of historians, each interpreting according to the needs of his or her own time, and our time prefers bricolage to unity.

    Discussing the review of a book one hasn’t read is like eating soup with chopsticks. I was surprised to learn tho that Hobbes had few followers, since one can’t read very far in early 18c material without frequently encountering the dreaded Hobbists and Hobbism. Even if his work is not directly taken up by major philosophical writers, his attitudes are pervasive. As John Farrell puts it: “Hobbes is one of the style-setters of paranoid modernity . . . His ironic empiricism and satirically reductive materialism were to become central instruments in the arsenal of the modern, perennially available for deployment against idealistic opponents whenever they might emerge.”

    I’m also surprised to see simple acquiescence to the proposition that neither Hobbes nor Descartes was an atheist. But throwing a few phrases around 10 or so philosophers is never very satisfying. What is entirely lacking is any introduction of a critical, 20c. perspective on the term “Enlightenment”. Yesterday’s radicals are todays conservatives; so it is with the Enlightenment, tho one wouldn’t know it from this article.

    Re: Coming-of-age novels

    This prating on about how psychology tells us that there is no Self, is an example of scientism at its worst. A fuzzy ramble of ill-informed observation asserted to be meaningful because . . . Science! and psychology no less. The Gradgrindian logic that deconstructs concepts like god or self is simply tone-deaf to the function of metaphor in human thought and behavior.

    The food story looks interesting but is firewalled.


  11. leonids


    If I may suggest an article for next week’s reading suggestions, Aeon has a piece that caught my attention, “Where pain lives: Fixing chronic back pain is possible only when patients understand how much it is produced by the brain, not the spine.” A lifelong sufferer of back pain, I read the article, hoping to find new insights, and learned Stoicism, via Albert Ellis and CBT, is influencing novel approaches to treating back pain. “But many pain psychologists and rehab specialists believe that central sensitisation can be successfully treated with a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and graded, non-pain-contingent exercise,” author Cathryn Jakobson Ramin writes.”The good news is that several labs have now shown that, after a patient’s pain has been properly treated, three months of CBT can substantially reverse pain-induced changes in grey matter.” I immediately recognized Ellis’s influence when I read the author, bemoaning the failure of many approaches to back pain treatment, describe how under appreciated the role the brain plays in recovering from back pain: “I never encountered a single patient who described his or her struggle in terms of central sensitisation, or had heard of terms commonly used in behavioural psychology, such as ‘guarding’ (walking with an attention-getting limp) or ‘fear-avoidant behaviour’ (eschewing activities that might tax back muscles, thereby making them progressively weaker) or ‘pain catastrophising’ (ruminating over how severe the condition is likely to become, ruining any hope of a productive future).”

    Liked by 1 person

  12. synred

    Jim Baggott is an award-winning science writer. A former academic scientist, he now works as an independent business consultant but maintains a broad interest in science, philosophy, and history, and continues to write on these subjects in his spare time. His previous books have been widely acclaimed and include:

    Baggott, Jim. Mass: The quest to understand matter from Greek atoms to quantum fields (p. xvii). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

    I’ve been looking at this book. I rather like it so far. It is not as hypie as Carroll’s ‘The Big Picture’ [a] (which I think is terrible) or Krauss’ ‘Universe from Nothing’ (which is not as bad as it’s title, but leaves me confused at the end — when he gets down to near nothing about which he not very clear).

    I have hope that Baggott can explain the standard model and field theory w/o going over the top and claiming to have solved ‘the big questions.’

    [a]Martin Perl Book Club selection this month.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Alan White

    WRT to Baggott article, which I realize is not-quite-done as a piece on the concepts of mass and matter. (And I respect and echo some of synred’s remarks just above.)

    Concepts of mass and matter are ones that are typically quantitatively skewed toward measurements that are used in explanatory physical discourse that either entirely exclude temporal parameters or fix them to point-like times as references. The revolution of E=mc2 is that the spatiotemporal meaning of c as a constant that at once refers to a physical datum–the photon conceived in a quantum way, e.g.–but also inherently as something that stretches across space and time even as defined as a constant–imports space-time measurement into how one should not just understand the E, but also the m. Everybody talks about how that “most famous equation” (as Marc Lange termed it in his 2002 Journal of Philosophy article) made us understand how much energy may be made from mass as “mass” is understood from a temporally nihilistic perspective classically, but maybe we have failed to realize that the c2 attaches to the concept of mass as m as drastically modifying that concept as well. (Lange would not like what I said; he held in his JP article that mass is a real property, but not energy–here is a small argument that the c2 modifies E and m alike.)


  14. brodix

    If I may make one more comment, as synred alludes to above, losing one’s virginity is certainly a notable rite of passage in pretty much everyones lives, but as a literary device, poses some social restrictions on examining to closely.


  15. valariansteel

    Hi leonids.

    I haven’t read the article at Aeon (yet), so I am not sure whether I would agree with its general drift. I did work a total of six years with two different neurosurgeons, treating lots of acute and chronic LBP (= lower back pain) by nonsurgical and surgical interventions.

    However that may be, have you tried Cymbalta for your LBP? Though considered in the antidepressant class, this medication received FDA approval for treating “chronic muskuloskeletal pain”. Admittedly, it received this indication on the thinnest of evidence.

    Since I work in psychiatry, I have tried it on my patients who present with depression and LBP. I have them take Cymbalta 60mg for one month and then reevalute. If that did nothing, I then have them take Cymbalta 120mg for one month. It either works or it doesn’t. It’s anecdotal, but in about 50% of cases, it seems to reduce LBP. As usual, no one knows the true mechanism behind this relief (does it block “pain signals” from reaching the brain??). Who cares how it works — if it gives you relief, more power to it. I don’t treat over the Internet — if interested, please go to a medical doctor (PCP, psychiatrist) and inquire. Best wishes.


  16. SocraticGadfly

    We’ve not yet talked about the TLS review of Gottlieb’s book. I find it interesting for showing how much Gottlieb got wrong, as well as what he got right. There’s actually even more to discuss than that, such as Locke being a member of the board of governors of the Carolina Province, and in that, not extending application of natural law or other niceties to enslaved blacks, etc. That said, for the reasons the reviewer does mention, lumping Locke and Hume together (let alone including Berkeley) under some “British Empiricism” umbrella is no good.


    And, speaking of matters philosophical, Stephen Greenblatt, author of the hugely overrated “The Swerve,” has a new book coming out, “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.” It’s probably “OK,” and it’s probably also no more than that.


  17. synred

    However that may be, have you tried Cymbalta for your LBP? Though considered in the antidepressant class, this medication received FDA approval for treating “chronic muskuloskeletal pain”. Admittedly, it received this indication on the thinnest of evidence.

    My wife too Cymbalta for many years. It was prescribed to help with her chronic pain problems. It didn’t work for the pain, but we discovered it stop her Sphincter of Oddi spasms.

    She woke up with trigeminal neuralgia after her neurosurgery (a long story) and thanks to ‘christian’ neurosurgeon did not receive adequate treatment for it for more than a year.

    Oxycontin gave her her life back.

    I do have a warning about Cymbalta. You can not stop it suddenly, but must be weaned off it. The effects of sudden withdrawal are unpleasant and can (and did in Margaret’s case) cause, e.g., falls.


  18. SocraticGadfly

    Also on books, my local library, per a couple of weeks back, got a copy of “Why Buddhism Is True.” I can’t wait to see if it’s even more wrong than Gopnik said, or maybe “not even wrong.”


  19. synred

    .>My good friend Massimo Pigliucci, a scientist-turned-philosopher working at the City University of New York, suggests that history regards Descartes as a ‘philosopher’ only because he got the physics wrong.

    From: Baggott, Jim. Mass: The quest to understand matter from Greek atoms to quantum fields (p. 30). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

    Though I noticed a few problems, I’m still quite happy with ‘Mass’ at page 30.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. saphsin


    My problem lies just with the title of the book, who says things like “Buddhism is true”?

    A judgment I came around to throughout the years is that you often CAN judge a book by its cover.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. saphsin


    Okay I actually read Owen Flanagan’s book which I thought was interesting so if it’s of a similar content, I’ll probably like it so I’m clearly exaggerating (though I think that you often can tell if a book will be good or bad often by it’s cover)

    None of these books in my opinion really show that the claims of Buddhism are true outside a narrowly chosen range of its teachings though. So even if it makes a point, I’m not sure what it’s actually proving is “true”


  22. brodix

    So. About the philosophy of physics.

    Might this chasing down “stuff” and finding what might be considered cyclical processes, such as looking for ultimate particles and finding waves and fields, be at least telling us something about our own biases? We are tool using creatures and that started with sticks and stones, so it might seem logical to quantify reality in terms of lots of objects. I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes, but it would seem there is enough room for those outside the profession to examine the box, if not actually step outside it.

    That would be the philosophical approach.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. synred

    Take a peek at what the book says about what the title implies. It may be a bit of title hype, but that’s all. It does not seem to include re-incarnation and all that stuff. This crowd might find the evo-pych and neuro-‘science’ more problematic.

    I’m not sure the link will work, but you can peek at the book via Amazon.


  24. wtc48

    I found Delistraty’s essay interesting, although he makes so many different points that I don’t feel equipped to argue with any of them. But it did make me reflect on my own experiences in that area. My life has been somewhat episodic, and I think this has made me incline toward the notion of a unitary self, but in the sense that I perceive myself as the head of a small family of sub-selves who are trying to preserve whatever connects them with each other.

    The notion of coming of age, growing up, finding one’s place in society, etc., to me, revolves around achieving a sense of responsibility, and I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful experience in this department, entirely by accident, that could hardly be improved on. When I was 16, my grandfather and I set out for a month-long camping trip in the Kern River Canyon, in the southern Sierras. On the way to the trailhead, his car broke down early in the morning, and we decided that I would continue up the road with the two horses (a mare and her 3-month-old colt), while he dealt with the car problem and, hopefully, would pick me up further along the road. I set off, riding the mare and leading the colt. Eighteen hours and as many miles later, on foot and leading both of them, I arrived at the pack station, where I found my grandfather, who had passed me on the road while I was resting out of sight. To make a long story short, the next day, on the trail, grandpa was kicked in the shin by a rental horse, and was barely able to hobble for the next week, but we continued our trip to the camp, twenty miles from the nearest road, and while he recuperated, I found myself totally responsible for the care and feeding of the two of us, plus two horses, a couple of mules, and a dog. As initiations go, it was a godsend, and while I wouldn’t want to keep up that level of activity forever, it gave me a sense that I could probably handle anything that came along, which is very nice (and rare) to have at 16.

    Liked by 3 people

  25. SocraticGadfly

    Saph, usually, beyond a title, if it is a subject I know something about, by who blurbs the book, and what they say, and then, the table of contents, I can make a pretty good judgment.


  26. leonids

    Valarian & Synred,

    I appreciate the recommendations, especially one coming from a medical professional, but I’d prefer we not give anyone the (false) impression that we are promoting brand name drugs. I suggested the article to Massimo after being surprised Stoicism factors into the approach to treating back pain author details. I’ve recently learned that the lower back, far from being the delicate maladaptation to bipedalism that it’s so often portrayed to be, is actually a remarkably strong, flexible, and durable. Having suffered from LBP for some 35 years and having tried different treatment modalities, I’ve learned to manage it for now, with the assistance of nothing more than a heating pad. Whenever my lower back spasm violently, forcing me to walk with my torso bent at a 95-degree angle for a few days, I view it as an opportunity to practice the way I might be walking a bit later in life. I now get a kick out of looking at people’s faces when they see me shuffle along as if I’ve lost my walker.

    The author takes a dim view of opioids, writing, “One would think that opioid analgesics would be helpful in calming an agitated and dysregulated nervous system, but this premise has been debunked. In fact, to the contrary, long-term use of opioid analgesics, especially high-dose extended release drugs such as OxyContin and methadone, have been associated with the development of a particular type of central sensitisation called ‘opioid-induced hyperalgesia’, resulting in abnormal sensitivity to pain.”


    You’re onto something. In the Aeon piece, the author writes, “Anxiety, stress and depression are problems for an estimated 30 to 45 per cent of patients with chronic back pain, and an even higher percentage of back-pain patients who experience early childhood adversity.”


  27. SocraticGadfly

    On the Cymbalta, etc., I want to add a point. I’m not anti-pharmacology. I think it sometimes does a lot of good and often does at least some good. But, the “neurotransmitter hypothesis” is partial and incomplete, on both mental health and on the somewhat related issue of addiction. Partial, because it risks becoming too much a “nature”-only explanation. Incomplete because, beyond the “big three or four” neurotransmitters, our neural system has nearly 100 total, and most neurons, at least for the big neurotransmitters, have multiple receptors. And we still don’t know what the differences are with the different receptors, or which receptors an SSRI, or L-Dopa, affect.

    We’re no longer in the Stone Age on mental health. But (and no offense to Valerian or anyone else), IMO, we’re still in the Bronze Age. We’re moving forward, yes … and there’s plenty of field to move forward into.

    And, on mental health, tis not just me that says so on medications. A frontline pioneer from the early days of psychopharmacology, Bessel van der Kolk, has basically the same stance. Appreciate antidepressants and other drugs, but don’t treat them as wonder drugs either.


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