I finished off Roger Scruton’s Very Short Introduction to Kant while I was in New Zealand. As Scruton said at the start of the book, it’s a volume you need to read a couple of times to gain some sort of fundamental understanding of Kant’s ideas.
Just before I left for New Zealand, I read something about A.J. Ayer dismissing metaphysics as a bit pointless, and I’m inclined to agree. I know alone that the physics of perception ensure that I can’t know reality for certain, but that the signal inputs, except over large distances, are too fast for me to doubt the reality of what I perceive. I may misinterpret the information I receive, but reality remains unchanged, though I seem to perceive it otherwise. Similarly, if I don’t understand a language when I hear it, the reality of the sounds, the syntax, and the meaning of the words remains. I’m merely unable to interpret the information.
All right, that’s enough metaphysics.
David Bodanis’ book, Pasionate Minds, is about the relationship between Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet who wrote a commentary on and developed the work that Newton had expounded in his Principia. The book is a cross between a history and a biography and a novel. Although Voltaire and Châtelet were never a permanent item, they kept gravitating towards each other during their lives. The tale ends tragically with the death of Châtelet who died not long after giving birth to a daughter when she was over the age of forty. The child did not survive long either. Châtelet has since been forgotten by history, except as a footnote, yet she clearly deserves greater recognition for her contribution to science. Perhaps the following book has an explanation to offer.
Bill Bryson’s book is about the history of science and how we’ve come to understand the history of the world and life. I found that one message kept coming across time and time again: humans are stupid. Most of the scientists of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were barking mad. There were more than a few instances of members of the scientific community indulging in some very unethical practices, including stealing each other’s ideas; discrediting ideas; failing to recognise a good idea when it was right in front of them. It rather makes me wonder just how much of our current knowledge in any field is a complete bunch of rubbish waiting for someone to bring us a step closer to some sort of truth.
Actually, on that last point, it seems more likely that every time we think our knowledge is advancing, it is, in fact, going off in the wrong direction again.
It also seems likely that in the end, humanity is going to fall to some natural disaster such as a meteor hitting the planet, or Yosemite National Park blowing its stack.
As far as the science goes, Bryson is at least able to write comprehensibly about it. I’ve seen more than a few books on scientific themes which the authors have alleged to be comprehensible terms, only to find nothing of the sort. Then again, the author of such books is all too often Sir Stanley Cuppe-Holder, Professor of Unintelligible Science at Cambridge, who knows what he’s talking about, and forgets that no one, apart from his chums at MIT, have more than a vague idea.
Bottom line: you humans are a bunch of idiots.
I got a couple of books from the Philological Society of which I’ve been a member for about ten years now. One of them (Colonialism and Grammatical Representation: John Gilchrist and the Analysis of ‘Hindustani’ Language in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries by Richard Steadman-Jones; dude, easy with the snappy title) is on early attempts by Europeans to formulate a grammar of Hindi which has certain grammatical structures that were unknown among the European languages which most people were familiar with.
But there were also problems getting Europeans to accept that Hindi was worth studying. Gilchrist’s motivation was, in part, practical since there were occasions where the lack of Hindi posed a serious risk.
It’s an interesting study and I must delve into it a bit further.