Why We Should Talk to Terrorists

23232Last night I went along to a public lecture by Jonathan Powell at LSE. It was called Why We Should Talk to Terrorists and was discussing people’s reticence to engage in conversation with terrorists and his own experience of negotiating with various terrorist organisations, most notably the IRA.

I went partly because I’ve been thinking about starting a new piece of research about terrorism for a while, and Powell’s view seemed to back up my own thoughts about there not being very much psychological research about understanding the behaviour and ideology of terrorists.

It is, in my opinion, a fascinating area of study and one that is certainly topical. I took copious notes throughout Powell’s lecture (detailed below) and ended up impulse-buying a copy of his book, Talking to Terrorists, which is out now.

Notes

In order to negotiate with terrorist groups, you need to be willing to put yourself in their territory and demonstrate trust.

Northern Ireland was the most difficult terrorist negotiation with which he was personally involved.

There is no such thing as a single model for dialogue with terrorist groups; all conflicts have different resolutions, but there are lessons that can be learned.

Governments always say they won’t talk to terrorists, but they almost always do so in the end. We have a collective amnesia about this, but we ought to remember it.

The main arguments people use against opening a dialogue are appeasement, legitimising and rewarding bad behaviour. Powell believes all of these to be invalid.

There seems to be no real alternative to talking if the group has genuine support; you can’t “police them out”. Decapitation – i.e. removing the leader – doesn’t usually work.

“If there’s a political problem, you have to find a political solution to it, not a military one.”

It’s difficult for democratic governments to be seen to talk to terrorists. People do understand in time, though. Governments will usually use intelligence agencies for these kinds of negotiations rather than speaking to them directly; for example, the SIS was used in communications with the IRA.

You need a level of bipartisanship when negotiating for peace. For example, Tony Blair supported John Major’s efforts to negotiate with the IRA; it would have been much more difficult if he hadn’t. In places where the government’s opposition party is working against the leading party, negotiating becomes almost impossible.

It is much easier if a third party is involved, but this can be difficult for a government. They fear a loss of control. However this has improved since the end of the Cold War. Sometimes this is the UN or a non-threatening government with a non-colonial past, e.g. Norway. Sometimes NGOs can now also play a part.

Making contact with/finding armed groups can be difficult. Upon making first contact with one terrorist group, the negotiator was told “No one has tried to talk to me in thirty years.” Sometimes you can find them in jail, e.g. starting conversations with Mandela in Africa. The point of first contact is to build trust; these groups want people to listen to them. Often you have to do a lot of listening, sometimes thousands of hours. It’s not just about listening, though, but actually hearing what they’re saying; understanding the nuances.

This can be difficult: sometimes mediators get a form of Stockholm syndrome or start “going native”, sympathising too much. Often terrorists live in a (physical and) mental ghetto, only communicating with those who share their views.

At some point an academic stalemate is reached, in which both sides realise they can’t win and it becomes uncomfortable.

There is a problem with these mutually hurting stalemates if they are too comfortable. Both sides need to be feeling the pain in order for negotiations to properly get under way.

Strong leadership is important for a successful peace process, e.g. Nelson Mandela.

“It’s when a leader thinks that a problem can be solved and that he can do it that it gets solved.”

Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe the problem of the IRA could be solved. John Major believed that it could be solved but that he couldn’t solve it. Tony Blair believed that it could be solved and that he could solve it, and that is when the negotiation process stepped up.

Almost no preparations seem to be made for negotiations, and they need to be. Negotiation isn’t an event, it’s a process.

“The good news is there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is there’s no tunnel.”

Your job as a negotiator is to build the tunnel: put in place a process that allows negotiations to happen.

You need ingenuity to finish a negotiation. Getting to an agreement is not the conclusion. Usually it then takes several years to implement.

Terrorism isn’t going to go away. The only tools we’ll ever have are fighting them and talking to them. We also have to deal with the communities in which they move.

An agreement/conclusion is generally built on failures. Strange thing that happens in negotiations: you end up at a place of peace which seems inevitable once you’re there but which previously seemed insoluble.

Sometimes people try to use a process to manage a situation rather than to actually solve it. You do need a process in order to get to an agreement.

There should be no limit on whom we talk to; sometimes you can’t properly negotiate, but it’s worth talking. Each time we meet a new group, we say we can’t talk to them, but eventually realise it’s the only solution.

“Their rationality tends to be found out when you sit down and talk to them.”

What could we talk to ISIS about? There are genuine concerns of the Sunni population in Iraq and Syria which make ISIS’s life easier and which need to be addressed.

Q&A

1. Should there be an International Justice Court? Could this provide a platform for community groups to deal with people who are ‘above the law’, e.g. political and religious figureheads? 

There already is an international court (ICC) but it wouldn’t help. Terrorism feeds on grievances but it tends to be frustrations about people not being able to get what they want through political means.

2. Hostages – should we engage in negotiations? 

This is always a difficult question because it’s so emotionally charged. Of course if you were being held hostage you’d want your government to negotiate for your release, but hostage ransoms is one of the main ways terrorists fund their organisations, therefore by bowing to their requests you’re supporting their cause.

3. Colombian government – what measures should they take to deal with the eroding trust in the institution of government? 

The public often want difficult things, e.g. a peace agreement with no price. The ICC has changed a lot; now you can’t have amnesties and let people off because the ICC argues that without justice you can’t come to a proper agreement. Very difficult balance; Colombia will be the guinea pig for this kind of situation moving forward.

4. Is there any way to factor in the behavioural sciences (and awareness thereof) into counter terror?

Yes, definitely. Psychology and anthropology are very important. These are the skills that make a real difference. Currently the literature is scarce but it is a field that is likely to grow over the coming years.

5. What are your conclusions on what happened to Terry Waite?

He deserves credit for trying to negotiate; it’s a shame he got captured.

6. Are mutually hurting stalemates a prerequisite for negotiations? If not, whose is the prerogative to start negotiating? 

Mutually hurting stalemate is a useful tool.  You have to keep trying to negotiate; don’t wait. Most times you’ll be frustrated, but keep trying. Responsibility for this rests with the government. Governments always try military solutions first; when this doesn’t work they sometimes resort to other methods e.g. killing people, sometimes they up the ante, etc. Often this doesn’t make a difference.

7. Most of the literature on terrorists is written by psychologists who have little expertise in actual negotiations. What is your view on academic input? Is there something missing? 

There is crossover between the literature on negotiation and terrorism. It’s useful but it’s unripe. It’ll be a couple more decades before it’ll really be a proper academic field.

8. What are the personalities of terrorists and negotiators? 

A certain amount of humility is required to be a negotiator. In terms of terrorist leaders, to be successful in negotiations you need to have someone who thinks politically about an issue in order to have a political discussion.

9. What about insurgencies and disparate groups with no organisation / military response? 

The importance of a group being coherent and cohesive is crucial. Boko Haram is a good example of this: it’s not cohesive so you can’t make peace with the whole thing.

10. How to define the parties: who are the terrorists? Who are the ‘we’? 

Terrorism is not a useful term. Terror is a tactic that can be used by anyone, and often the people who we start off by calling terrorists we end up welcoming and even celebrating, e.g. Nelson Mandela. Unless you understand this you will never get anywhere.

The talk was fascinating and a real insight into the mind of a negotiator. Needless to say the views above are those of Jonathan Powell rather than my own, but it’s certainly given me some things to think about if I do decide to pitch some ideas for a study on terrorists.

LSE run public events on a regular basis, you can find out more about them here.

Advertisements

Who Needs to Think When You Have a Smartphone?

When was the last time you did maths in your head? Dividing up the bill at a restaurant has become much easier now that everyone has a smartphone and there’s no need for mental acrobatics. Likewise, if you’re debating a point with a friend and you reach an impasse (or even just get a bit tired of arguing), you can easily pull out your smartphone and find out who’s right.

A group of researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have been studying this phenomenon among smartphone users, and have published an interesting study entitled The brain in your pocket: Evidence that smartphones are used to supplant thinking.

Barr et al frame smartphone usage as an example of what they term the ‘extended mind’. What does this mean?

5551772922_61255e9b24Like we were saying before, it means that we no longer rely on our brains for some of the analytical types of thinking that can easily be passed on to a smartphone. Their study relies on already existing data which suggest that, given the choice, people will forego analytical thinking, which requires a significant level of effort, in lieu of quick and easy intuition.

Across three studies, it was discovered that people who are generally prone to thinking more intuitively and less analytically when given problems to test their reasoning abilities were more likely to rely on their smartphones for information in day-to-day life. However, the amount of time spent using a smartphone for entertainment or social networking had no effect, and nor did proneness to boredom.

Instead, it seems that people, and particularly those who rely on a more intuitive way of thinking generally, are using their smartphones as a sort of extension of their minds, passing on certain higher cognitive functions such as analytical and mathematical skills to their devices.

The full study can be accessed in volume 48 of Computers in Human Behaviour.

photo credit: LG전자, 고성능 스마트폰 내세워 북미시장 공략 via photopin (license)

Parental Expectations, Perfectionism and Spirituality

A fascinating study from the University of Michigan has recently revealed a correlation between perfectionism, spirituality and parental expectations.

Chang et al examined the relationships between perfectionism and spirituality in a sample of college students. They found that students who exhibited perfectionist behaviours, such as maintaining excessively high personal standards and organisational skills, also scored highly on a spirituality scale.

100_0556.JPGUpon conducting regression analyses, the team found that dimensions of perfectionism were also unique predictors of different dimensions of spirituality, and that parental expectations were a positive predictor for all three dimensions of spirituality being studied.

Interestingly, maladaptive dimensions of perfectionism, such as concern about making mistakes or parental criticism, were negatively associated with spirituality.

Personally, I would be interested in seeing an extension of this study in which the religious beliefs of the adult students were charted against those of their parents, in particular looking at those who had converted to a different religious faith upon growing up. Presumably Chang et al‘s results indicated that the level of spirituality remains the same regardless of the beliefs themselves, but I believe it would be interesting to look into conversion rates, compared with the general population, and any potential differences in fervency of belief between those who had converted to a different spiritual belief system and those who had remained with the beliefs of their parents.

The full study can be found in volume 79 of Personality and Individual Differences.

photo credit: 100_0556.JPG via photopin (license)

Notebook Scribblings – Part Two

The other day, my computer broke and I had to find the receipt to check whether it was still in warranty (it wasn’t). This led to a frantic scrambling through the drawers in my office, where I found several cardboard boxes marked ‘receipts’. When I opened one of them, out fell a load of pieces of paper that definitely weren’t receipts, which turned out to be notes I made on scraplets of paper between the ages of about 17-21.

I don’t know what I meant by some of them, but perhaps typing them up will jog something in my memory and I’ll end up solving the Riemann hypothesis. More likely, I’ll never work out what most of them meant and will remain as confused as I no doubt was when I wrote them.

Anyway. Here goes.

Did they need their solitude? Wise women and cunning folk in pre-Christian society. Set apart because “wisdom” (of their sort) springs partly from solitude, but everyone knew who they were. When Christianity came along, it was all about the community becoming a homogenous mass of belief; anyone on the outskirts was immediately and automatically viewed with suspicion?

Role of imagination in forming the world. Strong desire. Will.

The overcoming of matter

JpegInterior glasses through which knowledge passes
Falling into the traps of the antinomies

(No, surprisingly, I wasn’t on drugs. Just weird.)

Perhaps I wore a hairnet of the mind,
To stop trailing tendrils
Across my thoughts.

(Still not on drugs. Somehow.)

Why is it that the very successful always have to break out of the cycle? If the cycle were really that great, wouldn’t the most successful be the ones who stayed in it?

JpegIs this the bread? I think it is. But maybe that’s just because we’re observing it; maybe it’s not really there at all. And maybe we’re not really going to eat it. And maybe the universe is fractal and Einstein was wrong. But right now it’s 4.00 in the morning and I don’t really care.

It’s all about definitions. Once you know the word, you know the thing.

Is there a universal linguistic form?

Correlation between subjects chosen to study at A-level and personality type/susceptibility to certain types of mental illness

To cut a long story short: An essay on contemporary culture

Why is human life so full of grotesque irony?

Disappear in a puff of logic

Ayez donc le coeur si plein, que la vengeance ne peut y trouver place.

Boethius – simultaneous observation
Existence as a temporal concept

Can you predict that which is undetermined?
Is Jung talking?

Can potentiality have a history?

Jpeg

To make a promise is to vouch for oneself as future. Such is the long history of the origin of responsibility. Responsibility without promises?

Pregnant with the future

Without causation, would life be suspended?

“Some things are so important that they cannot be communicated directly.” – Søren Kierkegaard

If we project words onto god, how do we know we’re hitting our target? Couldn’t we equally be projecting god onto words? The priority is god’s speech about godself, and everything else flows from that.

“Deus est circulus cuius centrum est ubique, cuius circumferentia vero nusquam.”

Is Jung talking about god, or about an aspect of the self that he’s calling god? Is there an aspect of the self with which we can know the reality of god? Or is this god?

God transcends the categories that the human mind can use, but the knowledge of god is caused by “psychical collision”. With what?

“The movement towards god is through interiority.”

Dieu est lieu?

Does god lie on the outside of the limits of what our reason can handle?

The inner reality of selfhood; how do you know that ‘the god’ encountered in the self is really distinct from the self?

Is religion what you do with your solitude?

Prayer is a ritual whose point lies in itself

JpegStrange, isn’t it, how  you can suddenly wake up and see the world through a haze, as if it isn’t really there. Or perhaps it is there, and you’re not.

Is movement any more than imagination?

“‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, is there a sound?’ Forget the sound, is there a tree?” – Peter Gallagher

What is life a tangent from?

“It is in mathematics that our thinking processes have their purest form.” – Penrose, Shadows of the Mind. Looking at his views re. Goedel’s theorem, does this mean that thought, in its purest form, is not sound? 😉

Might the cosmos not exist without our understanding? And might that not be true of ouselves? “Things are the way they are because we understand them.”

Can an actual infinite ever ‘exist at a particular time’?Jpeg
What if paradox IS the answer? pcq souvent on y arrive !

Do there have to be words about god for human beings to know god?

…reach the final point, where self-consciousness is conscious of itself.

What is it like to be, and to know non-being as my horizon?

Could we apply the notions of nonbeing and non-existence discussed in the introduction to Plato’s Sophist in a direct relationship with the concept of nothing in philosophy of mathematics?

There are several more, but I’ll leave it there for now. I do enjoy ploughing through old notebooks, though. It allows me to reknow myself as I was several years ago. And in some ways, I strive to recapture the time when everything was philosophy. I’ve lost some of that, in going to work all day and doing jobs that require my mind to be turned to them. When I was at university, I was working in a shoe shop, which meant that I could spend all day thinking about philosophy and no one was any the wiser (pun unintended…). Now, however, my mind is taken up by spreadsheets and clients and to-do lists, and I’d like to get back to a stage where that isn’t entirely the case.

But, you know, philosophy’s not such a feasible career option these days, and a girl’s gotta make rent.

Your challenge for today: I dare you to find an old diary, notebook or blog, reread it and remember fondly the parts of yourself that have been swallowed up since you had to become a Responsible Adult.

Atheist Pilgrims

4679548147_f6f6a8191e

The Pilgrimage Project has been going on for seven years now (or maybe eight. Wow, is it eight already? It actually is), and in that time we’ve made a number of unexpected discoveries. One of those was the sheer number of people on pilgrimages who declared no religious interest at all.

The paper that I’m currently rewriting, per the ‘revise & resubmit’ guidelines given to us by the journal we submitted it to, looks at some of those atheists. Travelling a traditionally Catholic pilgrimage route which has seen a huge uplift over the past twenty years, many of them profess no belief in a higher being, but report similar experiences to the Catholics’ own.

Unfortunately our survey wasn’t set up to record people with no spiritual beliefs – although ‘Atheist/Agnostic’ is an option on the questionnaire, it’s not something we expected to have to explore in-depth, so we didn’t include much in the way of questions regarding the nature of non-belief.

My job at the moment is to try to make something of the data anyway. Part of the survey we did was qualitative, giving people the chance to explain their thoughts and experiences to a certain extent, and this was helpful. Ideally I’d like a larger pool, and some more broken-down data, but you can’t have everything in this world, and especially not in academia.

I’m intrigued by these atheist/agnostic pilgrims and want to know more about them. One of my favourite quotes from an atheist on one of the pilgrimages was:

“Over the last few years I’ve become a committed atheist, so I’m investigating this belief in nothing. That’s what I’m investigating. How much there is to this nothingness.”

I liked this explanation, and I’d be interested to see how this pilgrim felt at the end of the journey, but unfortunately he was one of those whom we didn’t manage to interview again.

Reading through the literature – specifically, looking at Bainbridge, Baker & Smith’s papers on atheism, I’m seeing a trend in people who identify as unreligious and/or unspiritual, but who still sometimes engage in activities that most would put under these headings. One of our atheists said they pray “several times a week”. I can only assume that, since they said they were atheist rather than agnostic, they took ‘prayer’ to mean the same as ‘meditation’, but I’d like to have explored it more as a concept.

I’m thinking about proposing a new study of atheists taking part in activities that would traditionally be viewed as religious, and talking about how they would define these activities in the light of their own beliefs. Whether there is a latent religiosity there, or whether they would class themselves as more spiritual than other atheists, or whether they are hardcore atheists engaging in such activities for reasons arguably completely unrelated to religion. As an atheist myself, for example, I can still enjoy the silence and stillness of sitting in an empty church. But what I experience in such a building is an appreciation of its atmosphere without attributing it to a spiritual being. I assume that the atheists we met on pilgrimages have similar thoughts, but it would be good to gather some empirical data to back it up.

I would also be grateful for any recommendations you might have regarding the current literature on atheism, and particularly on atheists practising spiritual rituals. And, of course, any suggestions to feed in to future research would be very welcome.

Out of interest, how do you identify religiously? Do you practise rituals or engage in activities that would traditionally be viewed as part of a different religious group? Why?

photo credit: Brain of the Sistine Chapel via photopin (license)

Reasons Why I Love Kierkegaard – Part One

My first ever introduction to philosophy was reading Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder when I was twelve. I was quickly hooked, and devoured as many philosophy books I could throughout my teenage years. I’d still say, though, that my first true introduction to philosophy was through Kierkegaard.

I’m not sure quite how to define the difference. I’d loved chewing over the big philosophical questions for years; I read Plato on the train, imagining myself at the Academy, taking part in the conversations. But Kierkegaard was how philosophy became personal to me.

I was seventeen years old and trying to decide what to do with my life. A lecturer at one of the universities I’d applied to sent me some quotes from The Sickness Unto Death, which he thought would be helpful. They were.

I went to my local library and asked if they had The Sickness Unto Death. I wanted to read the whole thing. They didn’t, but they did have a copy of Fear and Trembling. I checked it out, took it home and read it. And philosophy became real to me. All of a sudden I understood how I could create my own philosophical arguments; how I could look around at the world and think more deeply about it, without having to lean on texts that had already been written. It also helped me to make my decision about what to do with my life. It is a very special book to me. And I’ve had the same experience ever since: whenever I pick up a book by Kierkegaard, it seems to have entered my life at precisely the right time.

A couple of weeks ago I was wandering around London when I found myself in a bookshop. You know how it goes. Suddenly you have eighty-three books and no money. It wasn’t quite that bad, but I did find a biography of Kierkegaard for £7. It had to be mine.

Usually, I read obscenely quickly, but this is one of those books which I enjoy so much that I’m savouring it – reading slowly, reading other things in between – because I never want it to end. One of my favourite extracts so far:

“When I look upon the many and varied examples of the Christian life, it seems to me that instead of strength, Christianity… has deprived such people of their manhood, and that in comparison to the pagans they are like a gelding compared to a stallion.”

This amused me. In context, it also spoke of a similar phenomenon to one which we have studied as part of the Pilgrimage Project: that Pagan rituals are often less structured and ‘freer’ than Christian ones. By this I don’t mean that they’re superior. There’s a lot to be said for ritual that includes a level of gravity. The Catholic rituals we encountered on the Pilgrimage Project were often serious, perhaps even sombre: each part of the ritual including a sort of solemnity that underlined just how sacred the Catholics’ god is to them.

4458267041_b8bbe22965

The Pagan rituals, by contrast, often felt like more joyful affairs. Perhaps to some this might seem inappropriate for a religious or spiritual setting, but it is representative of Pagan spirituality in general, or at least the parts of it I’ve studied. The goddesses, gods and spirits of the Pagans are more earthy, more real. They don’t bring to mind a faraway, unreachable being who may or may not be listening to entreaties from its followers, so much as a cacophony of voices who are accessible and somehow quite human – or perhaps not human, so much as ‘having personhood’.

A Pagan Beltane ritual
A Pagan Beltane ritual

Well, there you go. I have a few other quotes in my notebook and I was going to write about all of them, but this has taken up more words than I’d thought it would, so I shall leave it there for now and continue my raving about Kierkegaard in some future posts.

photo credit: Beltane 33 via photopin (license)

photo credit: White Wafer, Body of Christ, Film ‘Angels and Demons’, “Cardinal Strauss”, fictional depiction of the Catholic faith via photopin (license)

Paper Planning for 2015

I can’t believe I haven’t posted since September. The final part of 2014 went by really quickly and most of it was spent travelling around doing all my other jobs, so despite having a couple of other papers to write I didn’t get around to looking at them at the end of the year. This means I now have to plan my papers for 2015 and probably have a bit more work to do than I’d anticipated. But that’s not exactly something I’m unused to.

There are three main papers planned this year:

1. A study of atheists travelling the Santiago pilgrimage. We met quite a lot of them along the way and conducted some interesting interviews. We have a paper already written, but it needs to be expanded with a bit more of a literature review, and maybe made into something a bit more involved than just a research note.

2. A study of the psychological impact of investigating crimes against children online, and the different methods people use to deal with this. I still need to start reading the literature on this; I’ve read a lot about the investigative methods themselves, but not so much about the psychology behind the investigators’ motives for doing these jobs and their coping methods, so that’s step one for this project. And funding, I need to find funding. That’s always the exciting part…

3. And if those two get under way properly and aren’t too time-taxing, I’m also thinking about doing a study into the psychology of terrorism and its similarities with fringe religious cults. Specifically, looking at the ways in which counter-terror deprogramming methods parallel the steps taken to deal with people who have been brainwashed by religious indoctrination.

Studies #2 and #3 are quite ambitious projects, I think, which will take a lot of time and involvement, but I’m hoping I can get at least one of them started this year. Plus, the bulk of the actual work for #1 has already been done, I just need to write the literature review and add in a few more statistical bits, so I’m sure it will be fine. Or that’s what I’m telling myself.

What about you? What are your research plans for the year?

Notebook Scribblings – Part One

Scribblings from my notebooks over the past few weeks

In his book The Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuscinski discusses teletypists in Dar es Salaam, who are taught to copy not words or sentences, but letter after letter, meaning that they can transcribe into any language with great speed and accuracy. “So far as we’re concerned,” they said, “we are not sending meanings, but marks”.

I couldn’t help but see a correlation with Searle’s Chinese room. Implications for AI? Perhaps.

Notes from The Logical Syntax of Language by Carnap:

We may aim at discovering a definite criterion of validity – that is to say, a criterion of a kind such that the question of its non-fulfilment could in every individual instance be decided in a finite number of steps by means of a strictly established method. If a criterion of this kind were discovered we should then possess a method of solution for mathematical problems; we could, so to speak, calculate the truth or falsehood of every given sentence, for example, of the celebrated Theorem of Fermat.

Pure syntax, of course, cannot speak of individual sentences as physical things, but only of designs and forms.

Syntax, pure and descriptive, is nothing more than the mathematics and physics of language.

Notes from Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology by Dennett:

It used to be popular to say “A computer can’t really think, of course; all it can do is add, subtract, multiply and divide.” That leaves the way open to saying, “A computer can’t really multiply, of course; all it can do is add numbers together very, very fast,” and that must lead to the admission: “A computer cannot really add numbers, of course; all it can do is control the opening and closing of hundreds of tiny switches,” which leads to: “A computer can’t really control its switches, of course: it’s simply at the mercy of the electrical currents pulsing through it.” What this chain of claims adds up to “prove”, obviously, is that computers are really pretty dull lumps of stuff – they can’t do anything interesting at all. They can’t really guide rockets to the moon, or make out paychecks, or beat human beings at chess, but of course they can do all that and more.

Notes from Star Trek:

I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose. – Spock

General notes & thoughts:

“Feels” etc. – internet language – and the international nature of the internet; its effects on communication.

Ten Classic Philosophy Texts

A while ago, one of my Twitter friends (@SDMumford) tweeted about his ten classic philosophy texts to read before you die. His picks:

  1. Plato – Republic
  2. Descartes – Meditations
  3. Locke – Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  4. Hume – Treatise of Human Nature
  5. Kant – Critique (which one? I’d go for one of the ‘reasons’. Probably both).
  6. Spinoza – Ethics
  7. Aristotle – Metaphysics, Physics or Ethics?
  8. Berkeley – New Theory of Vision
  9. Mill – System of Logic
Hmm, that seems to be only nine. Unless you count Kant’s critiques as two, which would make sense.
 
This got me thinking about my top ten philosophy books – or the ones I think everyone should read. Honestly, it sort of depends which stage of philosophy you’re at, but assuming you haven’t read any at all, I’d go for:
  1. Russell – History of Western Philosophy
  2. Plato – Republic
  3. Descartes – Meditations
  4. Aristotle – Metaphysics
  5. Kant – both critiques
  6. Kierkegaard – Fear and Trembling
  7. Locke – Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  8. Hobbes – Leviathan
  9. Montaigne – Essays
  10. Sartre – Being and Nothingness
What would your recommendations be?

Book Review: Words of Wisdom

Books about quotes often fall into the trap of being a bit twee. Wise words from the ancients are recycled all the time, taken out of context, not thought about and bantered around as if you can boil down a whole philosophy into a couple of lines.

This is my usual rant about quotation books. Luckily, it doesn’t apply to Gareth Southwell’s Words of Wisdom. There were many, many things I loved about this book, so I’ll start with arguably the most important: Southwell’s analysis of the philosophies (and philosophers) he’s quoting. It’s evident that he’s thought deeply about all the meanings, that he’s read them in context, and that he’s spent a lot of time studying philosophy. The descriptions are well thought out and not at all cloying.

Whenever I open a book, I also open my notebook and jot down any interesting passages I find. In a book about quotes, I expected these to be numerous, and they were. The surprising thing was that many of the most interesting quotes in the book were from Southwell’s descriptions as well as from the philosophers he was paraphrasing. His sense of humour shone through and provided an easy-to-read but still in-depth analysis of philosophy from ancient to postmodern.

Which brings me to my next point: the number of modern and post-modern philosophers in the book. Often I find myself slightly irritated by the proliferation of quotes from Plato, Confucious and so on. Sure, they’re fantastic, and they have a place in any book about philosophy, but there are a lot of people who have been around in the past 200-300 years whose views are also well worth sharing. Southwell devotes a significant part of the book to these guys, thus avoiding the trap of writing a fusty, outdated tome and instead showing the relevance of philosophy to life nowadays, which is especially important in an age in which philosophy seems to be viewed more and more as ‘just people waffling on about their own empty opinions.’

Yet another thing I appreciated was the fact that Southwell doesn’t only treat writers as ‘valid’ philosophers if they have a philosophy degree and lectured in it at some point. The inclusion of Helena Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley pleased me especially; controversial figures many people would shy away from, but still leading lights in the philosophy of spirituality.

All in all, a glowing review for a fantastic book. I think it would make an excellent introduction to philosophy, and also a great point of reference for anyone looking for inspiration. It took me about four times as long to read as most books do, because I kept having to stop to jot down ideas that had been inspired by the writing. Definitely worth a read.

Follow the author on Twitter here

Buy the book here