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The Inequality Trap: Fighting Capitalism Instead of Poverty (UTP Insights)
The Inequality Trap: Fighting Capitalism Instead of Poverty (UTP Insights)
by William Watson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $26.57
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars On Not Throwing the Baby Out With The Bathwater, September 26, 2015
In this book, Canadian economist William Watson has Thomas Piketty squarely in his sights. Watson doesn't spend time (as others have) disputing Piketty's data purporting to show that inequality is rising at an astonishing rate. Watson's concern is more philosophical - to counter Piketty's blanket (or near-blanket) condemnation of all inequality as bad, and reducing inequality as an unquestioned good.

Watson's point is that some inequality is bad, other inequality is good, and still other inequality is benign. Reducing inequality is only good if you can ferret out and affect the bad inequality without affecting the good and benign inequality. So, Watson's early chapters are devoted to a discussion of what is meant by bad, good, and benign inequality. Bad inequality is the type of inequality where wealth is gained and the rich pull ahead by people getting income by dishonest means that doesn't create value - think Bernie Madoff. Good inequality is the kind where wealth accrues to those who are good at producing value for others and not leaving anyone (except maybe competitors) worse off while making society at large better off; think Steve Jobs. Benign inequality is the type where the rich pull ahead, or the poor fall behind, via a process that is based on some sort of choice or luck that, in or of itself, doesn't harm anyone. Here, Watson reviews data showing that where people used to marry a lot more outside of their social class, they do so less and less today. Thus, the rich marry the rich, the middle class marry the middle class, etc. No one is really harmed, and the inequality arises solely from innocuous personal choice, and it is hard to see how that kind of inequality could be remedied.

From there, we get a chapter exploring who the demonized 1% are, and contra popular belief, the majority are not financiers, but doctors, lawyers, farmers, and a lot of other folks (yes, including financiers). Later, we get some chapters discussing why certain kinds of widening inequality aren't problems. First, since we are often dealing with private goods (like carrots) that aren't positional goods (like homes in elusive neighborhoods), the fact that some can amass larger fortunes doesn't prevent others from attaining goods and services as well. Others argue that widening inequality decreases the poor's ability to do things like have a political voice (not quite true, of course, in a democracy), or buy positional goods (like the houses in exclusive neighborhoods or really good private education). But Watson suggests that, as pessimistic as it may sound, as long as inequality already exists, widening inequality generally doesn't put things that were in reach out of reach; it only puts things that were already out of reach a bit more out of reach.

Lastly, Watson suggests that while inequality should not be a primary concern, poverty (both absolute and relative) should be. And he reviews several ways to alleviate poverty - from doing things to foster "rising tide lifts all boats" economic growth to figuring out how to give the poor good "human capital" training, to direct wealth transfer that prevents people from living below a certain standard.

Watson considers himself (even in the book) a "conservative economist" tending toward belief in free markets. But even so, his discussion never comes off as ideological. He is generally skeptical of government's ability to remedy either inequality or poverty, but suggests that things like direct redistribution of wealth can sometimes alleviate poverty. Watson thinks governments have a role to play in aiding the poor's access to job and skills training (and things like drug treatment facilities), but is very skeptical of government doing anything more than providing the funding that the poor can use for private services; governments, he writes, generally do a bad job at providing those services directly.

The most disappointing aspect of the book is that Watson provides no real endorsements on solutions. The last few chapters are largely spent reviewing possible ways to alleviate poverty and their potential upsides and drawbacks. But Watson's main message, of course, is about what we should not be regarding as a primary policy issue: the "inequality trap" Watson refers to is the trap that we should focus on tackling inequality which often finds us putting less focus on the real problem of poverty.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 17, 2015 9:55 PM PDT

The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self
The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self
by Anil Ananthaswamy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.96
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Self And Its Supporting Cast, September 16, 2015
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In this book, Anil Anathaswamy sets out to argue that the self is not an illusion. But it also isn't a "thing" either. The self is the feeling we get when a variety of brain parts do their job correctly or well. His study examines the self and the feeling of it by looking at cases where some of those brain parts don't work as they should.

We start off with Cotard's syndrome, or, patients who are very much alive but believe themselves to be dead. (Imagine how strange it must be to have someone talk about how they think they are dead as if this weren't a contradiction.) This is a syndrome where the part of our brains that identify our actions and our bodies as OURS somehow isn't sending that signal.

Then there is Body Identity Integrity Disorder, where a person's body doesn't match with what they believe is really their body - maybe one of their legs feels like it shouldn't be there. These are the folks who quite deliberately seek out amputation, not because they WANT to look different, but because a part of their body feels like it is not really a part of their body. (This happens when the part of our brain responsible for mapping a mental image of our body doesn't align with how our body actually is.)

As a former special educator, I am quite educated on autism and schizophrenia, but Ananthaswamy talks of them in a bit of a different way - for instance, how some theorize that schizophrenia is basically what happens when the part of our brain that identifies mental thoughts or voices as ours (rehearsing my thoughts in my head) doesn't identify certain voices in my brain as coming from my brain. So they feel foreign. And mabe i feel like my thoughts are controlling me.

Anyway, that is a taste of how this book goes. In the style of Oliver Sachs, Ananthaswamy does a great job teling the stories of diverse others in a way that makes them quite relatable. But what was most fascinating about this book to me was watching folks create narratives to try and make sense of what their brains are telling them. If my brain is telling me that my body is not my body, then how do I make sense of that? Oh, well, I must be dead. I am hearing voices that seem to be in my brain, but I'm not intuiting that they are coming from me. Oh, there must be someone or something who has taken over part of my brain. Etc.

So, the author argues that the self is not an illusion, or at least not the kind of illusion that we can step out of to see if it is an illusion (making it unlike every other illusion we know of). But the story that emerges here is that the self is not really a thing, or one function of our brains. It is many functions of our brains coming together to give us this feeling. Whether that counts to someone like Daniel Dennett as an illusion is another discussion. But the self is a feeling that we cannot step away from, even when the brain parts giving rise to it don't always work right.

Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests
Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests
by Jason Brennan
Edition: Paperback
Price: $39.95
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If it's Okay to Do For Free, It's Okay to Do For Money: Challenging Some Conventional Wisdom!, September 8, 2015
Philosophy Professors Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski have a seemingly simple task in this book: to convince you that if it is not wrong to do a thing voluntarily, it cannot be wrong to sell the thing. In other words, the introduction of a money transaction into the equation cannot itself make a thing wrong. If it is morally wrong when it is bought and sold, it must be morally wrong for some other reason than that it is bought or sold.

But this is not so simple a task. Philosophers like Michael Sandel (and his bestseller, What Money Can't Buy), Deborah Satz (Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale) and others have argued that there are times when it is wrong to buy or sell a thing even if the thing isn't immoral itself. So, donating your kidney may be okay, but selling it is not. Standing in line for tickets to the free Shakespeare in the Park play is fine, but buying the services of someone to stand in line for you (or selling your ticket after you get it) is not.

With the skill of philosophical surgeons (and some very clear and engaging prose), Brennan and Jaworski dissect these arguments and find them wanting. They tackle several different kinds of objections. Some argue that markets are inherently corrupting (evidence shows this to be dubious). Others argue that markets introduce exploitation into the equation (which evidence again gives lie to, but even if they did, we can introduce regulations that will guard against exploitation). Still others argue that commodification takes something away from the dignity of the bought/sold thing (here is where I think Brennan and Jaworski's discussion is quite fascinating, as they review evidence that shows our perceptions of disgust/disapproval toward certain markets are more matters of cultural convention and anything inherently correct).

But we need to be clear about what Brennan and Jawarski are and are not arguing. Free market libertarians will probably be a bit disappointed in this book, as the authors are not making a case for FREE markets without limits, but simply that if you think buying and selling x is wrong, your objection is almost surely about something other than markets. So, there are times that this means the authors entertain the idea of regulated markets: if someone is concerned that selling body parts may take advantage of the poor or vulnerable, then what if we introduced regulations that the poor could only buy or sell organs with evidence of informed consent, or that the poor could not sell body parts? If we are concerned that those markets will result in only the rich being able to afford organs, introduce price controls that now put those body parts at a price more affordable. This will likely not satisfy the free market libertarian, but the authors' point is simply to pinpoint what it is (other than the existence of markets) that people are objecting to, and then show that markets could exist that take those factors into account.

This book was a really good read, and should challenge a lot of conventional wisdom (and intuition) on the matter of markets in certain areas - from adoption markets to sex markets to policy analyst markets that allow folks to place money on when the next terrorist attack will occur. One important role philosophy has to play is to analyze arguments and pinpoint where they go right and wrong. Brennan and Jawarski do that with great care here, and it makes for a fantastic and challenging read.

DBPOWER® Linckclock Smart Smart Alarm Clock LCD Display Light-activated Sensor Bedside Snooze Alarm Clocks, Rechargeable
DBPOWER® Linckclock Smart Smart Alarm Clock LCD Display Light-activated Sensor Bedside Snooze Alarm Clocks, Rechargeable
Offered by NovaPower
Price: $4.99

1.0 out of 5 stars Just Beware of Some Features The Description Doesn't Make Clear!, August 31, 2015
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I bought this clock based on the reviews for it and the product description. What I received was quite disappointing. There are several things to be cautious of about this clock that the product description doesn't make clear. Here they are:

a.) The clock is only chargeable by micro-usb cable (and they supply a cable, but you need to supply the actual plug). It is meant to run on an internal battery, which holds a decent charge, but is still less than reliable, and certainly not as reliable as keeping a clock plugged in. Each recharge takes about 6 hours.

b.) If you turn the clock off or run out of battery, you must reprogram everything. You lose your calendar (year and month) and your time. YOu'll need to do this every time you recharge or turn off the clock.

c.) If there is a way to get a 12 hour (rather than a 24 hour) time, I haven't found it, and the directions don't tell. I prefer 12 hour to 24 hour, so this clock is usable, but...

d.) The clock is VERY small. I don't have exact measurements, but my 6-inch-screen cell phone is longer than the width of this clock (not just the clock face, but the entire width of the clock.)

So, there you have it. This a a good clock, maybe, if you need a clock for traveling with. But I wouldn't and won't be using it as my bedroom alarm clock.

Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone (American Philosophy)
Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone (American Philosophy)
by John Lachs
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.32
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars On the Virtue of Not Telling Others What to Do!, August 10, 2015
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While I didin't get quite the bad taste another reviewer did (this book is much more than diatribes against Medicaid and other public policies), I cannot give this book high marks. I have read and enjoyed almost all of Lachs other works, and as one who values human freedom, I thought this book would be quite interesting. Some of it was, but the book (a) in my view, goes too far in what it is asking of people, and (b) does not go far in entertaining possible objections.

The book is about the virtue of non-interference in others lives. To Lachs, the avoidance of meddling is framed as a virtue, and like Aristotlean virtues, this one seems not to lend itself to iron-clad rules of use. There are times we can tell others what to do (when danger is imminent and we have no ability or time to ask permission), but generally, we must be careful to allow others to do what it is they want to do. Telling (let alone forcing) others to do as we'd like gets in the way of others doing as they'd like, and given that Lachs is committed to respecting the enormous amount of human diversity in values, he believes we are best to assume that others often just hold different values than we do.

First, I think Lachs goes a bit far in what he asks of people. Even most libertarians like myself are generally committed to not forcing others to do what they do not want to, but not telling others what we think they should do is quite different. Example: I cannot force racists to not be racists (to not associate with or disparage those of another race). But it seems like there may be a legitimate reason for me to tell racist that I believe their judgment to be wrong and maybe even despicable. And when I see someone about to make what I believe to be a poor financial decision, it is one thing for me to respect their right to make that decision, but I don't see why it is wrong (as Lachs does) for me to open my mouth and let them know why I think the decision may be a poor one. (It may be that I have experience with this kind of financial decision and can offer something the other doesn't know that they don't know.) Either way, if I'm in a position to get the person to reconsider, but deliberately don't say anything by assuming they just value finances differently than I - and then the decision DOES turn out to be a bad one - it isn't clear how my not talking can be described as virtuous.

This leads me to another point. I think Lachs exaggerates a bit on the motives people have for giving advice to others. He writes as if it all comes down to want of control. But my wanting to give advice to the person about to make (what sees) a bad decision isn't about control; it is about wanting to help another by giving a perspective that might save them from a seemingly bad choice. When I tell the racist that I think her choices are bad and dangerous, it is not motivated by a desire to control her, but a desire to do what I can to make sure there is one less racist in the world. Sometimes, the desire to tell others what to do IS motivated by a desire to control, but I think Lachs makes his case too easy (and weak) by writing as if this desire is always a sort of malevolent desire for control.

Lastly, Lachs doesn't deal much with potential objections. What if (like the case of the person making a financial decision) I have expertise in an area that the other doesn't realize she is missing and needs. If I speak up, I can save her from a bad decision, and she will be free to reject my advice. If I don't say something, it seems likely that she will make a bad choice, one she will likely regret. Why is my deliberately not speaking up a virtue? Is it a great respect to her personhood to not offer up advice when it really seems like I have information that might help her? And what about such recent trends as nudge paternalism (Thaler and Sunstein, Julian LeGrande, etc)? What about government 'nudging' us toward choices that seem objectively good, while still leaving us ultimately free to choose the 'bad' course? For the record, I think nudge paternalism is problematic for several reasons, but Lachs doesn't touch it. That is troubling for a book where the subject is so obviously relevant.

So, 3 of 5. This book gives a lot to think about and offers a fresh (and well-written) perspective/argument that most others have not given. And, yes, contra another reviewer, it is more than an argument against Medicare and other government welfare and regulatory policy. But at 127 pages, I really do think there is a LOT of substance that this book missed.

How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy
How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy
Offered by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Price: $14.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How the Medium Is The Message!, July 24, 2015
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This was one of those books I purchased (for Kindle) as an impulse buy, but found to be a really good one. Stephen Witt does a great job telling the story of the mp3 and how it revolutionized (for better and worse, I suppose) the music industry. He does this through very well-informed alternating chapters told from the vantage point of different characters - one of the inventors of the mp3, a hacker from North Carolina, a music executive at Universal Music, and some bit players like Steve Jobs and a representative from the Recording Industry Association of America.

In brief, the story is this: a fledgling technology, the mp3, is basically losing out to the industry's preferred mp2 and the Compact Disc... until music hackers discover the amazing potential for ripping music from CDs and keeping them on their computer. This, obviously, affects the music industry, who never anticipated (or didn't know how to think about) the mp3's rise to prominence. So, the music industry needed a way to stop this technology or incorporate it into their fold, which eventually they did with the rise of the mp3 player (which had questionable legality in its early years, as mp3s were primarily associated with hacking). Now, the music industry deals almost exclusively in selling digital media via the mp3, but even now, the music industry is a shell of its former self in terms of sales. The mp3 basically nudged them to monetize in less profitable ways; not only do they sell songs cheaper than via compact disc (and can't rely on selling whole albums), but venues like Spotify monetize music by selling advertising along with it.

So, this is a story ab out how the mp3 had huge effects all over the music industry; not bad for a technology that was largely declared dead in the water during its development. One thing Witt does really well - besides pacing the story like an expert journalist - is that he doesn't moralize too much. Was the mp3's rise because it allowed easy theft so that people could enjoy the fruits of others' labor for free? Or was it a natural and understandable reaction to the cartelization of the music industry (which, during the mp3's rise, was found guilty of collusion to keep the price of CD's up)? Witt doesn't say. If I had to guess, he sympathizes more with the latter (and suggests in the intro that he was one of the kids who got all his music by file sharing services). But he seems to keep the story a bit neutral, allowing each to come to their own conclusions (or read their existing conclusions in).

This was just a FUN book to read. It is about entrepreneurship, economics, hacking, and technology's capability to disrupt (not to mention... MUSIC) all in one. I found it gripping. Any music fan - and especially those who think the medium is the message - will too.

The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology
The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology
by Mark Rowlands
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.90
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Non-Cartesian Mind: Embodied, Embedded, Enacted, (or) Extended!, July 16, 2015
Philosopher Mark Rowlands attempts to explain and defend the rumblings of a new science of mind - one that replaces a Cartesian view that the mind can be understood as existing in the brain, to one where the mind is embodied, embedded, anacted, and/or extended. All of these views - and they are similar, but not always coherent with each other - view the mind as an interaction between brain, body, and world, where the resulting process is the mind. As an example, when someone solves a math problem by using their brain and a piece of paper/pencil (as a way to offload some of the operation and the short-term memory it requires onto the paper), the conventional Cartesian view is that the person is thinking and that the paper/pencil is a useful aid to thought. To these new non-Cartesian views, the paper/pencil either crucially changes how we think through the math problem (one can't think about how we do math without appeal to paper and pencil's role), or as a part of the thinking process itself.

One of the real strengths of this book is that Rowlands does a great job discussing these four ideas (embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended mind) as four different theories that are related but not quite consistent with each other. Embodied mind is the theory that the brain and how it works depends on the body and how it works. (The fact that I can think about depth depends on having eyes that can fuse images together to create depth). Embedded mind is the idea that our brain uses aspects of the environment to determine how it thinks (The way I do math largely depends on the technologies I have available to me as an aid). Enacted mind is the idea that cognitive functioning is highly dependent on how the environment is structured. And the extended mind - the most radical - is the idea that cognitive processes can exclude external things I do (use my cell phone to take down and read notes), not just as aids to cognition, but as part of cognition itself. So, Rowland notes, for example, that the idea of the embedded and extended mind differ over whether they view external devices as aids to cognition or as part of cognition itself.

Where the first part of the book is devoted to explaining these ideas, the second part is largely about defending them, and particularly, the view of the extended mind. He defends this view from charges that external processes are not owned by the cognitive agent; when I recall using Google Keep notes on my phone, I am not using MY mental processes, but an external device that jogs my mental processes. Rowlands distinguishes between personal and subpersonal ownership of cognition, and says that my Google Keep note is a subpersonal process, which if it occurred in my head, would be readily considered part of my cognitive process. (I am thinking about where a particular location is, but in order to do that, I need to remember where it was that I had dinner next door to that location. Remembering THAT leads me to remember the next-door location. The first is a subperosnal cognitive act, one that jobs my memory of the second location. That is what Google Keep does also.)

That is just one of the defenses. Rowlands also defends against the idea of 'cognitive bloat' (if Google Keep is part of my mental process, then what isn't?), and the idea that external storage devices don't bear the "mark of the cognitive." He does pretty well on these, but for my money, I am still unclear what the extended mind theory does that the embedded theory can't also do. What explanatory purchase, in other words, do I get by describing Google Keep as part of my cognitive process rather than a crucial aid to it? I am still left wondering.

Otherwise, this is a REALLY good exploration of the 'anactivist' theories of mind (as I've seen them called). Rowlands has a clarity in his writing that reminds me of Daniel Dennett, and he does a great job explaining these theories and how they fit (or not) together. Also, see the more technical book by Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind.

Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life
Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life
Offered by Macmillan
Price: $11.99

15 of 22 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Author Doesn't Understand His Own Case!, June 14, 2015
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This book is really hard to read, and I will confess at the outset that I voluntarily stopped reading it (a rare thing for me to do) after about 20% of the book. Had I any signs that the author would start making decent (maybe even coherent) arguments, I'd have kept going. To forestall criticism, I should also say that I am generally in sympathy with what I might call "soft postmodernism" of people like Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish. I have appreciated other books (like The Authenticity Hoax: Why the "Real" Things We Seek Don't Make Us Happy) that discuss the impossibility of authenticity. I honestly thought I'd like this one.

The first thing I am highly disappointed in is the author's writing style, which is very scattered and what seems like a very self-conscious attempt to emulate some sort of beatnik tone. The second thing I really didn't like about this book is that the author cites authors like Baudrillard, Foucault and other postmodernist authors without even trying to defend them against the routine pummeling in academic areas that he almost seem not to know exist. I have no problem with his citation of these authors; I admire much of Foucault's work. But to write a book where there thought plays a predominant role seems to me to accept the challenge of at least noting (and maybe defending against) some of the many criticisms that have been leveled at them in fields like philosophy.

The last thing - what really made me give up on the book - is that Wilson's defense of postmodernism, the idea that we can never quite escape the ideologies that permeate our atmosphere, is partial at best. He uses it the way people like Adorno and the Frankfurt school did; instead of using this to conclude that there is no non-culturally-permeated way to judge any economic system or aesthetic movement as better (let alone 'more natural') than others, he primarily uses it as a way to criticize the stuff he doesn't like: which really seems like hipsters and anything that occurs in a capitalist social order.

So, here's a good quote from Wilson to illustrate my point: "In addition, one can imagine other systems such as Marxism, that value objects for their intrinsic values and might bring us closer to palpable reality." Now, I KNOW a guy writing a book about how nothing can be called 'natural' didn't just make an argument that Marxism more closely appraises the intrinsic value of goods and services, right? Well, yes he did. Elsewhere, he suggests (kind of snobbishly) that when observing a scene populated by a lot of hipsters, "here in cool world, where its happening, nothing is happening." This implies that the author sees a difference between happening and what is going on in cool world. But if nothing is more natural than anything else, how can there be such a dichotomy?

I think it is fair to say that the author doesn't really understand the implications of what he is trying clumsily to argue. Maybe if I kept with the book, I'd find out differently, but if he doesn't do it in the first 40 or so pages, odds are he doesn't do it after that.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 4, 2015 6:09 AM PDT

Acts of Meaning: Four Lectures on Mind and Culture (The Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures)
Acts of Meaning: Four Lectures on Mind and Culture (The Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures)
by Jerome Bruner
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.87
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Essays on the 'Interpretive Turn.', May 23, 2015
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For sure, Jerome Bruner is an interesting guy (well, if you are interested in cognitive science). He has the unique perspective of having been at the forefront of both the information processing revolution and the constructivst (some might say postmodernist) backlash it inspired. This book collects four essays together that move quite well sequentially. Basically, the theme is that cognitive science - in its information processing zeal - has overlooked the significance of how humans make meaning of cultural symbols and how this meaning-making seems to resist being explainable in IP terms.

The first essay, The Proper Study of Mankind, is somewhat of an 'intellectual history' account of the development of cognitive science and its information processing roots, as well as a commentary on where Bruner believes it went wrong. Bruner believes that IP has become quite similar to behaviorism in reducing everything to a kind of input and output that leaves no real room for talk of how humans make meaning of things. If I may be so bold, for Bruner, IP has become a study of semantics without semiotics or pragmatics.

The second essay, Folk Psychology as an Instrument of Culture, is a discussion of what we are learning (at least as Bruner was writing) about how humans come to understand other minds and how they work; we erect a 'folk psychology' that owes at least partially to cultural learning. We learn how others think and act, in part, based on how we hear others talk about how others think and act. (Some of this is showing to be innate, too, and Bruner doesn't discount that. Studies in the last decade show that very early on, babies instinctively try to pick up and hand back something an experimenter drops, implying that some basic 'theory of mind' is already present shortly after birth.) But Bruner's big emphasis is the cultural influences on how we think about what others do.

Entry Into Meaning, third essay, is an expansion upon the second. Just as we learn our folk psychology partly from cultural surroundings, so do we learn how to narrate and think about what happens to us. We, as humans, not only think about what happens to us (or others) but why, and the attempts to make sense of those things (via some sort of implicit or explicit story) depends on what we learn about the world (and culture) we live in. What needs explaining? Well, says Bruner, usually, we usually devote our energies to explaining the unexpected - stuff that deviates from the norm. (He goes through some qualitative evidence that children pay most attention in speech to the unusual.) But that is entirely dependent on what the norm is, and that is generally a culturally-learned thing.

The last essay is perhaps the weakest - Autobiography and Self. I've read a lot about the narrative theory of identity, and that is what Bruner is talking about here. We are, in many ways, who we say we are. Moreover, Bruner suggests that our identity is relational; it is not just who I think I am, but who I think I am in relation to others. Again, Bruner recounts some experimental data (some of his own) suggesting that parts of our identity and our characteristics often change, at least slightly, depending on who we are with. (A confident person in one setting may become less confident in another. One is not just shy, but is shy in some settings and less shy in others.)

One small criticism is that in this book, Bruner seems to have a hammer that tends to make him see a lot of nails. In the last essay, for instance, he really overplays the degree to which what we tell others we are shapes who we are. To my mind, it seems that the opposite may be equally true: who we think of ourselves as being dictates what we tell others we are. And while a lot of our learning is 'culturally mediated,' Bruner takes this as evidence to suspect Noam Chomsky's idea of a universal grammar (which I honestly think Bruner misunderstands or exaggerates).

But those are small potatoes. I really like Bruner's work. He is our generation's John Dewey, for sure. And this work gets to the heart of some of Bruner's work in the 'interpretive turn.'

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights
Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $11.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "You Can Be Who You Are, As Long As You Act 'Normal.' Around Me!", May 23, 2015
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While I am interested in this book's subject, I'll admit that part of the reason I picked it up was the strength of its back-cover ecommendations: Barbara Ehrenreich, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and (Tiger Mom) Amy Chua. That is a very impressive and diverse lot. So, the book must be good. And it was.

Here, law professor Kenji Yoshino discusses the idea of covering, and how the demand (generally toward minority groups) to cover is in some way a violation of people's rights to liberty. What is covering? If 'passing' is the demand that people pass for something other than they are (blacks with light skin passing as white, gays pretending to be straight), 'covering' is the idea that, while you don't have to pass, you do have to keep your differences with others under wraps (blacks not acting "too black," or gays making sure not to "act too gay" in "polite company").

To discuss how covering makes life quite difficult, Yoshisno gets quite autobiographical, discussing and dissecting his own experience as a gay man who, at first, had to admit to himself that he was gay and, after that, had to navigate a world that might allow him to be gay but not allow him to (even inadvertently) draw attention to his homosexuality. So, while it has always been perfectly acceptable for straight couples to hold hands or walk arm-in-arm in public - without anyone accusing them of drawing attention to their own heterosexuality - gays who do the same thing will be readily accused of flaunting their homosexuality. Hence, while one might be allowed to be openly gay, whether to be openly gay in one's actions (and not just one's words) is often a pretty thorny question. Hence, the social demands to cover.

As the book progresses, Yoshino gets less autobiographical and more academic, discussing reports that others have of covering demands and how they affect many types of people, as well as cases in the law where the courts generally allow employers to enforce covering demands on the job. As to the former, Yoshino reports cases where women have been asked not to talk so much about responsibilities of motherhood in the workplace, and even to refrain from displaying pictures of their kids at their desks (where men generally are not asked to do this), the lengths the disabled often go to to hide their disabilities for fear of prejudgment by others, etc. As to the latter, Yoshino's conclusion is that while courts are generally good about barring employers from overt forms of discrimination around who one is (black, female, disabled, etc), the courts are generally content to allow employers to discriminate regarding what one does (wearing one's hear in cornrows, talking in a certain dialect, etc). Yoshino, though, questions whether and to what extent who one is can be separated meaningfully from what one does.

Yoshino concludes that the burden of proof should be on employers to give reasons why covering demands on employees are justified; they should have to give "reason-forcing arguments" in Yoshino's words, as to why covering demands shall be necessary. This is one of the few spots where I disagree with Yoshino, and I do so for two reasons. First, what is and isn't a good reason is a very fuzzy, if not a subjective, thing. If an employer wants, say, to prohibit employees from wearing cornrows because, say, they simply want their employees to look relatively 'mainstream,' could the court really find some objective way to determine whether this is a good reason? Indeed, if we follow Yoshino's opinions, he would almost never see a reason cor a covering demand to be good. Second, and more simply, we live within a legal system that puts the burden of proof on the plaintiff, not the defendant. Yoshino's idea would mean that every covering demand is guilty until the employer proves it innocent.

But Yoshino is also reluctant to use law as a way to remedy these things, mostly because he (rightly, I think) surmises that it would be VERY hard to get our legal system to change course, to allow judges to dig that far into employee-employer relations, and also, because he understands that covering is a social phenomenon, not just one confined to workplaces. And we can't (or shouldn't) likely expect the law to expland its scope of authority to all social interactions.

Anyhow, this is a really well written, and a very throughout, book. Ehrenreich, Chua, and Appiah were correct. Yoshino draws attention to a very little noticed (for those in the majority) phenomenon that anyone who cares about liberty in a pluralistic world should care about.

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