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The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener
The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener
by Martin Gardner
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.73
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fitfully reliable but hugely enjoyable, January 17, 2002
Martin Gardner is a writer for whom the term 'polymath' could have been invented. His reach in this idiosyncratic statement of beliefs covers philosophy, theology, literature, mathematics, physics, politics, economics and literature, and the book is excellently-written.
Inevitably some of this material looks either dated (the book was first published almost 20 years ago) or fitfully reliable. The weakest sections deal with economics and politics, in which Gardner - who counts himself a 'democratic socialist' - doesn't really have any insights that are not truisms (e.g. marginal tax rates should be neither too low to raise revenue nor too high to discourage enterprise), and evidences scant awareness of the arguments of the Public Choice school of economics regarding government failure.
Other chapters of the book, covering such matters as why Gardner is a sceptic regarding the claims of the pseudo-science of parapsychology, or why he believes that there are objective standards of aesthetic excellence, are deft in construction and more convincing in argument. He veers off-course again, however, when his theological premises turn him to the fideism expounded by such thinkers as Kierkegaard and Miguel de Unamuno. Gardner maintains that the essence of our humanity is not the capacity to reason but the capacity to feel, and restates William James's adaptation of Pascal's 'Best Bet' argument for the existence of God. This is one area where I cannot follow Gardner, for it seems to me that his religious credo requires the abnegation of critical faculties, but perhaps for the religious believer who respects science and reason there is nothing more to be said than Gardner presents. It makes, however, for a frustrating target for those who happen not to share Gardner's conclusions.
The best part of the book for me is the author's literary enthusiasms. Gardner's judgements almost never let him down: he explains well his admiration for G.K.Chesterton and Emily Dickinson (with which I entirely concur), but does so less successfully with H.G.Wells (who, contrary to Gardner's protestations, was a dupe of Soviet Communism in the 1930s quite as much as, say, the Webbs and Bernard Shaw).
All in all, this is a thought-provoking book that no one else could have written.


Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left
Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left
by Ronald Radosh
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.36
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35 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A notable activist's progress, January 14, 2002
Ronald Radosh is a first-rate historian who has travelled a well-worn political path from the Marxist left to the heterogeneous coalition devoted to the defence of liberal democratic values and processes. There are some fine autobiographical accounts of that journey - which many of us have also taken - extant, most notably the 1950s collection The God That Failed; Radosh's book is a valuable and often moving modern example of this literature.
The early chapters of the book evoke a distant world of Communist youth camps and Jewish radicalism. The author's insights into the nature of the Communists' exploitation of these movements (for example, protesting against the supposed anti-Semitic 'frame-up' of the atomic espionage agents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, while being silent over the ferocious anti-Semitic pogroms practised by the Soviet Union) make scandalous reading, while his account of the naivete of the 1960s counter-culture draws out the rather pathetic nihilism of that movement. But the story really gets going when Radosh depicts his gradual disillusionment with 'the Movement' from the early 1970s, dating from a trip he made to the prison-state of Cuba and continuing through his seminal research demonstrating the guilt of the Rosenbergs. His conclusion at the end of the book - articulating the premise of those who subscribe to Madisonian principles of deliberative democracy and thus who know that democratic politics can have no pre-defined 'end-state' - about the relative merits of western societies relative to the tyrannies that Marxism has always and everywhere established is so true, and so apt an epitaph on the bloody course of much 20th century history, as to be poignant.
There are minor quibbles to be had with the book. Radosh pays generous tribute to his editor, but there was no need: the book is peppered with mistakes that, while not serious, are certainly irritating and ought to have been picked up. (On more than one occasion the book spells 'minuscule' wrong; the notorious 1950s game-show cheat portrayed on film by Ralph Fiennes was Charles, not Mark, van Doren.) Overall, though, this is an excellent read.


Marxism and Beyond
Marxism and Beyond
by Sidney Hook
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $40.51
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The intellectual legacy of an outstanding democrat, January 13, 2002
This review is from: Marxism and Beyond (Hardcover)
This collection of essays, published in 1983 (in the last decade of the author's life) serves as an apt summary of the philosopher Sidney Hook's intellectual legacy as America's pre-eminent scholar of Marxism. To the end of his long life, Hook never abandoned his belief that the essence of Marx's thought was alien to the monstrous totalitarian regimes that, for much of the twentieth century, bore his name. The principal long essay in this book aims to give a 'synoptic exposition' of Marx's thought, and is the finest - and certainly the clearest - such attempt I know. At the same time, Hook allied his respect for Marx's thought to a passionate belief in the defence of western liberal democratic values against Communist tyranny. This idiosyncratic combination informs almost every essay in this volume, which comprises philosophical treatments of Marx, some excoriating book reviews of those who overlook the moral imperative of a vigorous prosecution by the western democracies of the Cold War, and various expositions of Hook's own credo as an anti-Communist social democrat.
Inevitably the reader's estimate of the success of this set of arguments will depend on the degree to which he believes Hook succeeds in allying his sympathies for Marx with his anti-Communist principles. To my mind, Hook's attempt fails because he underestimates the extent to which Marx's notion of Communist society - a perfect social unity - is essentially, and not accidently, totalitarian. Hook reviews - highly favourably - in this volume the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski's magnificent Main Currents of Marxism, but never really comes to grips with this insight that Kolakowski first articulated some 30 years ago. Nonetheless, Hook's courage and eloquence in defending western civilisation against Communist despotism are displayed at length in this book. There is a particularly fine review demolishing David Caute's tendentious attempt, in his book The Great Fear, to draw an analogy between Stalin's purges and McCarthy's denunciations: as Hook acidly comments, whereas McCarthyism produced an abridgement of civil liberties, Stalinism produced rivers of blood. As an exponent of a principled anti-Communism of the Left, Hook stands in the company of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. This book is an apt testament to the qualities of intellectual honesty and a devotion the principles of a free society.


Henry M. Jackson : A Life in Politics
Henry M. Jackson : A Life in Politics
by Robert Gordon Kaufman
Edition: Hardcover
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4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A model biography of a good man, December 5, 2001
Henry `Scoop' Jackson is rarely referred to in contemporary political debate. The American polity and indeed the western alliance are much the poorer for his absence. This is a fitting - indeed, a model - biography of a notable American patriot.
Senator Jackson represented a distinctive, honourable and above all prescient tradition in American politics: that of the liberal hawk. He was unfortunate, in respect of his presidential ambitions, to hold consistently to his pro-western principles at a time when the Democratic Party was abandoning (or at least, compromising) the staunchly anti-Communist tradition of Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Humphrey. Rent asunder by the experience of Vietnam and the rise of the New Left, the Democrats polarised around Jackson, on the one hand, and the party's disastrous 1972 presidential nominee, George McGovern, on the other. Only because of Watergate - and even then, only by a whisker - did a Democrat win the White House in 1976, and his presidency proved to be the most ineffectual in living memory.
Kaufmann describes this political background with a sure touch. He is unflinchingly honest in his depiction of Jackson's personal flaws, such as periodic irascibility with aides, but the essential Jackson - a man of deep humanitarian impulses, evident in such causes as his campaign for persecuted Soviet Jewry, and searing moral insight into the nature of Communist totalitarianism - shines through. The book is a fine political biography, but also a most touching personal portrait. It depicts admirably and with fine insight the circle around Jackson, some of whom later held office in the Reagan administration. I was unaware, for example, that the common view that Jackson's adviser, Richard Perle, was responsible for Jackson's unwavering support for Israel has it exactly the wrong way round. In fact, Perle, a secular Jew, came to see the urgency of supporting Israel because of the influence of Jackson - a Niebuhrian Protestant who understood better than any post-war American politician the moral import of a liberal democracy's struggle for survival while assailed by totalitarian states and terrorist organisations.
Jackson has the biography he deserves; I hope it is widely read and studied.


The Elusive Quest for Growth : Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics
The Elusive Quest for Growth : Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics
by William Russell Easterly
Edition: Hardcover
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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deft deflation of myths, November 16, 2001
This is surely the most important book published in the field of development economics for many years. The author, who is Senior Adviser to the Development Research Group at the World Bank, is highly familiar with economic theory and empirical research, and is able to expound his knowledge in an engaging and jargon-free manner.
Easterly's aim - in which he succeeds brilliantly - is to show the self-defeating nature of most conventional prescriptions for development, notably foreign aid, investment in technology, education, population control and debt forgiveness. Against all these chimeras - many, if not all, of which, are desirable in their own right in some circumstances - he poses the economic common sense of provision of incentives. The argument is complex but two of Easterley's observations are especially worth noting.
The professional (and almost always economically-untrained) development lobbyists are fond of arguing that what they tendentiously call the neo-liberal consensus ignores the poorest. Easterley demonstrates that this is untrue, citing the work of David Dollar and Aart Kray of the World Bank, who have found that global poverty is attributable, rather, to lack of growth. Using statistical techniques to isolate the direction of causation, these analysts find that a 1 per cent increase in per capita growth in the developing countries causes a 1 per cent rise in the incomes of the poor.
Secondly, debt cancellation has become a fashionable cause for development lobbyists and the Churches - unaware, apparently, that the idea has been tried for at least 20 years (I recall it very well from my time at the Debt and Capital Markets Group at the Bank of England in the 1980s) and has resulted in a self-perpetuating cycle of bad lending. Eaterley's proposal is to tie lending to past performance (i.e. good economic management) to give Third World governments an incentive to pursue growth-creating policies. The alernative - unconditional debt forgiveness - would damage Third World living standards by ensuring a rise in developing countries' cost of capital. Easterley does not spell it out, but affluent western campaigners' demanding a course of action that the Third World would end paying a high cost for is not the most edifying of spectacles.
This book puts paid to much self-serving nonsense. It is a rare gem in a quarry of dross.


The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses
The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses
by Reinhold Niebuhr
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.70
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84 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential indeed, November 8, 2001
Niebuhr was not only one of the great Protestant theologians of the last century: he was one of very few thinkers ever to have derived a sophisticated and illuminating approach to the worldly order from theological premises. This collection of his writings contains some truly essential expressions of his philosophy, in the form of shorter essays and addresses.
The volume's consistent theme is the Augustinian realism that Niebuhr expounded in the darkest years of modern history, when the western democracies faced the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and expansionist Communism. Against these messianiac creeds, Niebuhr posited the merits of democracy, *not* because of its supposed congruence with the characteristics of the Kingdom of God but because of its effect in tempering the destructiveness of man's urge for dominion.
He did so, moreover, when many Christians were susceptible to the romantic illusion that discipleship required them to oppose the militant defence of western values. No one has better exposed these pretensions than Niebuhr in his essay 'Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist', included in this volume. Those Christians' mistake was to fail to understand the nature of evil. To regard the Sermon on the Mount as a manual for political action without seeing it in the context of Jesus's expectation of the irruption of the Kingdom of God into human history is a misreading. The message of the Gospels is not non-violence, but the immanence of the Kingdom. Niebuhr argues that while conflict is not part of the Kingdom of God, it does not thereby dissipate if Christians act as though they are already living in the Kingdom.
This is a powerful corrective to much wishful thinking that passes for Christian social ethics. It ought to be read urgently by anyone who imagines that the sentimentality of today's anti-war movement, when the western democracies are fighting an enemy as destructive and nihilistic as any seen in the last century, is an expression of the Law of Love.


Portfolio Selection: Efficient Diversification of Investments
Portfolio Selection: Efficient Diversification of Investments
by H. Markowitz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $71.55
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant intellectual feat, August 30, 2001
While Markowitz is a name well-known in economics (joint winner of the Nobel Proze in 1990) and the investment industry, it is known hardly at all among the public. Perhaps this is the inevitable fate of a man well ahead of his time: Markowitz's work on the relationship of risk and return is truly one of the staggering intellectual achievements of modern economics, and has a great practical impact on people's economic welfare. This volume recapitulates his argument that risk is what drives return, rather than being (as was thought by earlier generations of money managers) merely an unfortunate by-product of the search for higher returns, that the portfolio dominates its constituent assets, and that the way to minimise risk for a given level of expected return is to minimise the covariance of returns of the assets within that portfolio using a quadratic programming algorithm. This is brilliant, seminal stuff, written with a liveliness usually lacking in economic texts.


The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 21: What I Saw in America / The Resurrection of Rome / Side Lights
The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 21: What I Saw in America / The Resurrection of Rome / Side Lights
by G. K. Chesterton
Edition: Paperback
Price: $21.84
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8 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Deeply embarrassing for Chesterton admirers, August 30, 2001
Few writers of the last century deserve a more drastic upward revision in their reputations and popularity than Chesterton. His magnificent prose, humanity and gift for paradox shine through his writings. His account in this volume of American culture and society exemplifies these strengths, and is the reason for my awarding it a second star. Yet this volume also includes his worst book by a long way, namely his first-hand account of Italy under Mussolini. This book doesn't approach the mendacity of some starry-eyed intellectuals who travelled to the Potemkin Villages of the Soviet Union and came back with glowing accounts of happy and fulfilled proletarians - Shaw and the Webbs, Henry Wallace (Roosevelt's Vice-President), and their equivalents (Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky) who travelled as political pilgrims to China, Vietnam, Cuba and Nicaragua more recently. But it is still indefensible, and we admirers of Chesterton will just have to admit it. The author is massively confused; he goes on for pages and pages skirting round the question of whether he's for or against the Fascists. I'm afraid he even explicitly commends to his readers' attention the system of Fascist Syndicalism in preference to capitalism ("[A] policy ... which is worthy of a sharp and close attention which it has hardly received. It is not Socialism; it is not Distributism; but it is distinguished and divided in a most startling manner from anything to which we are accustomed as Capitalism.") All in all, this volume shows us a good and gentle man out of his depth; I'm sorry the book is in print and cannot recommend it.
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Hugh Gaitskill
Hugh Gaitskill
by Brian Brivati
Edition: Hardcover
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First-rate biography of Labour's forgotten leader, August 30, 2001
This review is from: Hugh Gaitskill (Hardcover)
Hugh Gaitskell was leader of the British Labour Party from 1955 till his tragic premature death in 1963. That period, in which Labour was continuously in opposition, was marked by internal strife between Right and Left within Labour's ranks, on such issues as nuclear disarmament, with Gaitskell representing the pro-Nato, Atlanticist wing of British social democracy.
Brivati's book is a model biography: balanced, historically-informed, and original. It portrays Gaitskell as a politician of immovable convictions about the proper end-state of a good society, and fewer fixed ideas about the means to achieve them. Most important, it relates Gaitskell's ideas to the changes in western society that have taken place since his death, and tries to assess his historical significance. And it compares him with his obvious successor, Tony Blair, who succeeded where Gaitskell failed in getting Labour to jettison its historic commitment to public ownership. Brivati sympathetically portrays Gaitskell's revisionism, which was 30 years ahead of its time; his irrevocable commitment to the values of western liberal democracy, an instinct that led to his courageous and historically vindicated stand opposing unilateral nuclear disarmament; and his insights into the political implications of what was then known as the Common Market. But Brivati also makes a telling point that Gaitskell's belief in equality and indicative planning has been rendered largely irrelevant by modern economic developments. There are still aspects of Gaitskell's political judgement that are timeless strengths and that stand out from this book. Brivati comments, "Gaitskell's revisionism offered a process of asking of each institution and relationship in our society: What is it for? Who [sic] does it benefit? Should it be changed?" That process of interrogation is an essential one for a healthy democracy, even if Gaitskell's criteria for answering those questions have been superseded by events. Moreover, Gaitskell, so far from his image of a dry technocrat, was a man of passion combined with a critical intellect. Though the collectivist ideology that informed his egalitarian principles has now (as Brivati again rightly comments) slipped into history, the wish for a more tolerant and gentle society has not. To that extent, Brivati's book is an inspiring as well as a scholarly and informative read.


The Prudent Investor's Guide to Beating Wall Street at Its Own Game
The Prudent Investor's Guide to Beating Wall Street at Its Own Game
by John J. Bowen
Edition: Hardcover
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of a kind, August 29, 2001
There is a huge mismatch between what is known by finance professionals and academics, and the literature that is generally targeted at retail investors. Forty years after the economist James Tobin set out his Separation Theorem disposing of the 'interior decoration' approach to investment (a little bit of growth here, a value stock there, not forgetting some fun on technology stocks), financial advisers are still getting away with peddling truly outlandish and superstitious notions. (My personal favourite among these fallacies is the notion that 'dollar-cost averaging' is a sensible and risk-averse approach to investing. Exactly the opposite is true.)
In short, investment advice aimed at the retail investor often does far more harm than good. This is one of the very few books aimed at retail investors that does more good than harm. Indeed, it does a lot of good, by explaining in a non-technical but non-patronising way the essentials of modern portfolio theory (a discipline that sees investment as a process of risk management rather than of 'picking winners'), and advises on cost-effective ways to put them into practice. Retail investors looking to make a killing on the stock market by day-trading should take a deep breath, forget everything they once believed, throw away all their market tip sheets, and buy this book instead. Among its many virtues, this book will ensure that they no longer *worry* about what the stock market does - the first step to getting a happy and fulfilled life. Strongly recommended.


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