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Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Routledge Classics)
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Routledge Classics)
by Ludwig Wittgenstein
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.46

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence, 23 July 2011
This knotty and cryptic work was very difficult for me to comprehend at first and, as I have only a superficial knowledge of philosophy, I still find it somewhat bewildering.

Here is a very simplistic summary of how Wittgenstein develops his argument in the Tractatus via seven propositions (which are in turn supplemented by numerous pithy elucidations):

1. "The world is all that is the case."

2. "What is the case - a fact - is the existence of states of affairs."

3. "A logical picture of facts is a thought."

4. "A thought is a proposition with a sense."

(And here is where I start to get a little lost...)

5. "A proposition is a truth-function of elementary propositions (an elementary proposition is a truth-function of itself)."

6. "The general form of a truth-function says that every proposition is a result of successive applications to elementary propositions of an operation."

7. "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

(Because this final statement stands alone, it seems even more stark and startling than what has gone before. Just what does he mean?)

What he seems to be saying is that to describe something that has no basis in physical reality is akin to nonsense, e.g. abstract concepts such as evil, God, love, and truth.

While this is all very well, what is the significance of this philosophy, and where did it come from?

It will be grasped more readily by those who have acquainted themselves with the branch of philosophy called logic; and more specifically, with logical atomism (as propounded by Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica). They argued that Principia gives us the picture of a perfect language, via symbolic logic, because it mirrors the structure of the actual world. Principia informs us that the world is made up of "facts", and that all such facts are atomic in nature, i.e. every fact can be described by an atomic proposition (we call them sentences; logicians call them propositions).

Wittgenstein went on to develop in part of the Tractatus his own version of logical atomism, which is known as picture theory. According to him, the ideal language pictures or mirrors the world, just like a map mirrors a territory.

A perfect language pictures the structure of reality, or facts, since facts are composed of objects and their properties. These logical atoms stand in a 1:1 correspondence with the individual elements of the world.

What's the point of all this? To eliminate the confusion that can arise from the use of everyday language. For example, "The present king of France is wise" may make sense, but in fact it is nonsense because "the present king of France" does not refer to anything directly in the actual world.

All that said, Wittgenstein came to believe that the search for a perfect language which accurately mirrored the world could not be realised. Instead, in Philosophical Investigations, he went on to develop a technique called "language games", to identify the actual rules for the use of ordinary expressions, what they allow and forbid, and to pinpoint deviations from actual use which lead to conceptual confusion.

His view was that: "Philosophy is [a] battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language."

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
by Naomi Klein
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.79

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A commanding critique of the cancer of capitalism, 28 Sept. 2010
To follow her acclaimed debut, No Logo, investigative journalist Naomi Klein prepared for her next book with four years of reporting in disaster zones across the world, from bombed-out Baghdad to tsunami-hit Sri Lanka.

Such unstinting and scrupulous research has inspired a body of trenchant writing that brims with measured anger at how capitalism is geared to reward the elite at the expense of the masses.

First we enter the Torture Lab, a horrifying account of how the CIA and a tragically wayward psychiatrist (Ewen Cameron) developed brutal methods - prolonged isolation, cocktails of drugs, electroshock therapy - to remake the human mind.

As if minds can simply be remade. Our brains are reckoned to be the most complex known structures in the universe, comprising some 100 billion neurons - each with thousands of synaptic connections - which make up an unfathomably complex network of experiences and memories that give us the sense of who we are.

Intoxicated by the deluded notion that minds really could be erased and reprogrammed, the methods of Cameron and his colleagues instead turned their subjects into babbling wrecks and hollow shells of what were once people.

It is staggering to read that people in privileged positions of power could abuse their authority with such apparent impunity. But when the business of remaking minds expands beyond the individual to the population at large - when economies are forcibly restructured, when countries and cultures are ripped up by the roots - what starts as absorbed horror soon turns to an impotent kind of fury.

Klein develops her argument with the story of how Milton Friedman, a professor at the Chicago School of Economics, spawned a strain of what he called pure - but what others might call extreme - capitalism in the 1950s.

This counter-revolution against Keynesianism, an economic theory that advocates a mixed economy (mostly private sector, but with considerable public sector influence), was fervidly embraced by his many acolytes, who became known as the 'Chicago Boys'.

Support came from the highest echelons. Then US President Dwight Eisenhower was keen to defeat developmentalism, a theory that promotes a strong internal market and imposes high tariffs on imported goods, which had taken root in South America, particularly in Chile.

As a result, the Chile Project was launched in 1956. This saw 100 Chilean students pursue economic degrees at the University of Chicago between 1957 and 1970. These committed Friedmanites became known as 'Los Chicago Boys', and set to work promulgating this doctrine throughout their home country.

Yet Friedman's dream of free markets, free prices and economic liberty took some time to be realised. The argument advanced is that it could have taken even longer had the government of president Salvador Allende not been overthrown on 11 September 1973 - Chile's own 9/11 - thanks to backing from the CIA and several major US multinationals.

Chile's coup comprised three forms of shock: the putsch itself; Friedman's economic shock therapy; and Cameron's drug and sensory deprivation research, now catalogued in a torture manual and propagated in CIA training programmes for the Latin American police and military.

Interests of the CIA and multinationals were served by a rash of 1970s coups throughout the Southern Cone - Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay - that promoted to power various military juntas. Their rule was one founded on a murderous brutality that was calculated to shock people into confused and helpless acquiescence. Those who defied these regimes were soon dispossessed or 'disappeared'. Thousands were executed; lifeless bodies began to appear on major roads or in murky waterways.

But President Augusto Pinochet and Chile's economic model so impressed former Chicago School professor and Nobel laureate, Friedrich Hayek, that he wrote a letter to his friend Margaret Thatcher, urging her to transform Britain's Keynesian economy in 1981.

The Prime Minister's candid reply stated that "with our democratic institutions... some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable... At times the process may seem painfully slow."

The Falklands War changed all that. Klein argues that Thatcherism thrived only after the war that was waged on a distant island outpost in the southern Atlantic. It was victory that gave Thatcher the political cover to introduce a programme of radical capitalism to a Western liberal democracy for the first time, just as the roots of Reaganomics were beginning to spread.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, Chicago School economics tightened its grip via the IMF and US Treasury. As Soviet communism crumbled, these institutions allowed first Poland and then Russia to fall deeper into the shock of debt and thereby more readily accept total conversion to unfettered capitalism. And with so many state assets to be privatised, those who struck first would rapidly reap the rewards of gargantuan profits.

Still, in the mid-1990s, the Asian Tiger economies of Thailand and South Korea seemed to be proving an exception to the rule that only liberalised economies could prosper. But their highly protectionist policies did not sit well with the investment banks and multinationals. Finally, under sustained pressure from the IMF and WTO, Asian governments compromised by lifting barriers to their financial sectors.

This left these economies vulnerable to financial speculation: sentiment, even panic, made deadly by the speed and volatility of globalised markets. What began as a rumour - that Thailand did not have enough dollars to back up its currency - triggered a series of events that led to $600bn being sucked out of the Asian economy.

After months of doing nothing while the emergency worsened, the IMF finally entered negotiations with Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea. In return for tens of billions of dollars in loans, these countries would be stripped of all the trade and investment protection that had helped build their wealth. Such shocking change could not have been tolerated in any other circumstances.

Thailand was obliged to allow foreign firms to own large stakes in its banks. Indonesia had to cut food subsidies. South Korea's banking sector was compelled to lay off 30% of its workforce.

Two months after the IMF reached agreement with South Korea, Wall Street's vulture capitalists swooped to feed off the carrion. Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley were two among many prominent investment banks that scoured the Asia-Pacific region for companies to snap up at bargain prices.

That the economies of the Asian Tigers had been destabilised was of little or no concern to the profiteers. "Of course these markets are highly volatile," said the head of one investment management firm. "That's what makes them fun."

The human costs of this fun-seeking were devastating. According to the ILO, some 24 million people lost their jobs, while the World Bank estimates 20 million Asians were thrown into poverty. Many rural families in the Philippines sold their daughters to human traffickers. Suicide rates in South Korea more than doubled from the pre-crisis rate. Try explaining fun to those who ended up in slums, brothels and cargo ship containers.

So far shock therapy has been described as a tool the United States used to harden its hegemony. But now we come to the leader of the free world itself, transmogrified under the neocon regime of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. After 9/11 began the commercial outsourcing of government functions including defence and homeland security. Such a radical move paid dividends for Halliburton - an oil, gas and equipment services company once headed by Cheney - and Gilead Sciences, a biotech firm where Rumsfeld was once chairman.

The US war on terror brought with it the promise of huge profits for corporate giants. Once shock and awe had subsided, Halliburton moved in to set up the infrastructure of prolonged US military occupation, creating a wealth of luxury for troops in Baghdad's green zone.

But much loftier ambitions were being pursued via the private sector. How, for instance, do you build a market-driven system in Iraq? Why not pay BearingPoint, an offshoot of KPMG, $240m to do it. And how do you cultivate local democracy in Iraq? What could be a better way than awarding Research Triangle Institute a contract worth up to $466m to inculcate in the Iraqi people such ideals?

Such blatant disregard for the good of Iraq caused private firms to close in multitudes, unable to compete with imports streaming across open borders, leading its people to see this corporate restructure as a mechanised form of pillage.

As one Iraqi worker responded when asked would happen if his plant were sold despite widespread local objections: "There are two choices. Either we will set the factory on fire and let the flames devour it to the ground, or we will blow ourselves up inside it. But we will not be privatised."

And as Klein neatly summarises, the war in Iraq did not create the Tiger on the Tigris that the neocons had proclaimed. It was instead a model for privatised war and reconstruction. The Bush administration first claimed it had a right to cause unlimited pre-emptive destruction. Then it pioneered pre-emptive reconstruction: rebuilding places that had not yet been destroyed.

Disaster capitalism is thrown into sharp relief in the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. The tragedy killed 35,000 people and left one million more homeless. When the dispossessed returned to rebuild their homes, they could not. Police were obstructing them in the name of safety, in case another tsunami should strike.

But these restrictions did not apply to the tourism industry. Hotels were being encouraged to build on valuable waterfront where local fishermen and their families had lived and worked.

The plan to remake Sri Lanka had actually begun two years before the tsunami struck. Once the civil war had ended, USAID, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank drew up plans to turn the country into a bankable growth market through high-end tourism.

Draconian restructuring was the only thing that was needed. Sri Lanka had to drop the barriers to private land ownership, introduce more "flexible" labour laws and modernise its infrastructure. Because Sri Lanka could not afford the undertaking on its own, the World Bank and the IMF offered loans in exchange for agreements to open up the economy to privatisation.

For millions of people, this meant leaving their villages to free up beaches for tourism and land for roads and resorts. Just before the disaster struck, Sri Lankans staged a series of militant strikes and street protests, voting in a coalition that pledged to tear up the development plan.

But now the new government needed billions in loans from foreign creditors to rebuild roads, homes and schools destroyed in the tidal wave. And the protestors were preoccupied trying to rebuild their lives. As it transpired, any nascent growth was soon halted when civil war erupted again in 2006. New structures lay ruined from shelling or riddled with bullet holes.

Klein ends her book on a redemptive note, providing some evidence that the tide may be turning. Across Latin America, Venezuela has withdrawn from the IMF, Brazil is refusing to enter into a new agreement and Nicaragua is negotiating to quit the fund. The IMF is now a pariah in countries where it has treated crises as profit-making opportunities, while the World Bank faces a crisis of credibility in the face of tougher stances from Bolivia and Ecuador.

Since this book was written in 2007, the world has become engulfed in the financial crisis, triggered by the shortfall of liquidity in the US banking system. The collapse of major financial institutions, bank bailouts, stock market slumps and austerity measures are as savage an indictment of unrestrained capitalism as Klein has brought to bear in nearly 500 pages of excoriating prose.

Criticisms of Klein's work include the overly dramatised link between economic shock therapy and Cameron's psychological experiments, which some may agree with, and her conflation of free market orthodoxy with predatory corporate behaviour, although it would seem difficult for the latter to exist without the former. Some cite a lack of balance, with no well-reasoned critique of free market principles in evidence. Others accuse her of exaggerating the importance of the Falklands conflict on Thatcher's subsequent crushing of the unions and march towards unrestrained capitalism.

These objections aside, very few fair-minded reviewers would denigrate the work that has gone into writing such a remarkable book. It may not be perfect, but it is as penetrating a thesis on the consequences of radical capitalism as you are likely to read.

Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality
Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality
by Manjit Kumar
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Quantum mechanics puts physics in a quandary, 25 Sept. 2010
This may be heavy stuff in places, but you don't need to be a mathematician or physicist to understand the importance of how profoundly Relativity and Quantum Mechanics have altered our view of the universe.

At their core were Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, two titans of physics who challenged each other's theories and assumptions in the pursuit of understanding the nature of reality.

Einstein's breakthroughs revolutionised physics. But the principles of QM were too mind-bending even for Einstein. Developed to go beyond the limitations of classical physics, QM attempts to explain the behaviour of matter and its interactions with energy on the scale of atoms and sub-atomic particles. But its conclusions are shocking because they describe behaviour very differently to that perceived on a visible scale. In essence, it is impossible to know a particle's position and momentum at the same time.

Kumar puts these exciting developments into historical context, charting the growth of Göttingen, Berlin and Copenhagen as institutes that nurtured some of the greatest minds of the 20th century.

You find yourself marvelling at such startling progress despite the turbulent times they lived through: two World Wars, the Great Depression, the pernicious growth of Nazism, and the development of the atomic bomb - a device that unleashed its horror on the world soon after we learned how to split the atom.

If you've ever wanted to know about Planck's Constant, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Schrödinger's Cat, or whether an electron is a particle or a wave (or perhaps both), then this book is just about as accessible as it gets. Exhaustive without being exhausting.

The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science and What Comes Next
The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science and What Comes Next
by Lee Smolin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How our biases are blocking breakthroughs in physics, 25 Sept. 2010
This thoughtful book explains why the momentum of progress in physics seems to have ground to a halt in the past couple of decades.

Since the standard model of cosmology was formulated in the 1970s, and despite the promise of string theory through the 1980s and 1990s, we are no closer to knowing the true nature of reality (if indeed we can ever know it).

But what is string theory? Simply put, it is an attempt to unify gravity with the other fundamental forces (electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces). If we can achieve this we may, finally, have arrived at a theory of everything, which is nothing less than the Holy Grail in physics.

Based on the abstract world of mathematics, this theory describes the properties of fundamental particles. It represents these particles as one-dimensional string-like objects, which exist in the normal four dimensions of space-time plus additional, unseen dimensions. The number of these can be ten, eleven, or twenty-six, depending on the version of the theory.

Smolin himself favours an alternative approach known as Loop Quantum Gravity, which tries to reconcile the theories of Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity without recourse to a higher-dimensional world.

Indeed, reasoned analysis has shown that various string theories, with their landscapes of higher dimensions and an infinitude of possibilities, cannot be proved or disproved. There are no experiments that can falsify them. In effect, a string theorist can always move the goalposts.

Smolin goes on to argue that advances in physics have been stymied by such sleights of hand, along with a confounding mixture of subjective and institutional forces: tribal rivalries, fads and fashion, academic bureaucracy, and the disproportionate influence of the elder statesmen of the science.

What science has in abundance are craftspeople: those who are rigorous and technically gifted. But Smolin argues that is not enough. What we need now are seers: those who are innovative and radical, the philosophers who are not afraid to question laws the rest of the community seems to regard as sacrosanct. People like Einstein.

But what if Einstein's theories of relativity are wrong; what if they are just an approximation of a deeper, more fundamental truth? And what of the career prospects of a scientist who is prepared to tread that lonely road?

The sad picture painted is that many physicists will follow the road most trodden - right now, it's string theory - because that is what attracts the funding, the acceptance and the plaudits.

Unsurprisingly, Smolin's views have provoked acerbic reactions among the string theory community. Criticisms include his perceived failure to capture the logic of string theory, using arguments that are actually speculations and based on irrational statements. Others believe his overstated and poorly supported argument against string theory risks overshadowing his valid argument about academic culture and the need to nurture new ideas.

So what does all this say about our quest for a deeper truth? That we continue to strive to understand our place in nature embodies what it means to be human. Even though we have evolved over many thousands of years, we are still essentially hunter-gatherers with our own innate biases, instinctively looking for patterns in nature that helped us kill quarry or avoid being eaten by predators.

Science exists as a discipline to help us try to rise above our subjectivity; but it is exactly this which seems to have physics in such a stranglehold.

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