Those of us who are avid readers like to know what our friends are reading and what books they most recommend. In the coming weeks I’ll begin to provide a running list of books that I’m currently reading and have recently read, along with brief comments and recommendations. What are some of your favorite books? What are you currently reading?
I find that much of my reading is driven by particular questions I’m asking and problems I’m trying to solve. One of the persistent philosophical questions is the mind-body problem, which in some ways is a modern version of the ancient spirit-matter problem. The four most common worldviews that attempt to respond to the question of the relationship between mind and matter, spirit and nature are known as dualism (including theistic, deistic, gnostic and Cartesian substance dualism), idealism (pantheism), materialism (physicalism) and panpsychism (panexperientialism).
There is, of course, a fifth ideal, one that decides that for now the problem is undecidable. That tends to be my view, but I also lean toward either panpsychism or a dialectical relationship between all four worldviews.
Since I have had the least adequate understanding of panpsychism I decided to spend some time reading several of the most highly respected books that approach the mind-body and spirit-nature problem from this perspective. Here are a few I recommend:
Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem, by David Ray Griffin
Radical Nature: The Soul of Matter, by Christian De Quincey (Also Radical Knowing)
Panpsychism in the West, by David Skrbina
Not unrelated to Panpsychism is Panentheism, though the two are distinct ideas. I recommend Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers, by John Cooper, and various books by John Cobb, the Whiteheadean process philosopher.
Several other books I’ve enjoyed reading recently that explore the mind-body problem are:
The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems; The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living; The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture, all by Fritjof Capra.
The Reflexive Universe: Evolution of Consciousness, by Arthur M. Young
Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe, by George Santayana (the author takes a naturalistic approach)
The Cosmotheandric Experience: Emerging Religious Consciousness; The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery, by Raimon Panikkar (the author takes an interfaith approach that is probably panpsychist and even panentheistic with Divinity, Nature and Humanity engaged in a differentiated but inseparable and mutual relationship)
Like most book lovers I not only have books arranged by subjects upon my shelves but also book in current review piled in various stacks around my study. Different kinds of books carry us away into different kinds of adventures of the mind, and perhaps there is great advantage in having been carried away often and upon many different kinds of ventures. In this way we develop a heterogeneous quality of thought and reflection that is resistent to narrow ideology and single-minded obsession. The intellectual and creative process of making new connections across a wide spectrum of knowledge and experience becomes our passion rather than becoming a narrow specialist who writes a single hobby-horse.
Here are a few of the current stacks of books that regularly tug for my further attention:
The Literary and Cultural Essayists: Resting upon the shoulders of Montaigne, Emerson, Thoreau, Samuel Johnson, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and countless others (see List of Essayists, Wikipedia), the literary and cultural essays of Lional Trilling were a force of nature and vast intelligence. Presently I’m reading The Liberal Imagination and The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent, along with Why Trilling Matters, by Adam Kirsch. Trilling displays a large understanding of the humanizing and liberating influence of the general study of literature, philosophy, art, science, economics and political theory, among other disciplines, and a commitment to to the nobliest aims of higher education in a democratic society. It is a travesty that most “educated Americans” have never heard of Lional Trilling or experienced the powerful force of his essays . He writes as if literature matters, indeed, as if philosophy, history, art and science matter to the preservation and renewal of our American society. One of his concerns is “the loss of the past” in the moral imagination of our contemporary society, a loss which contrasts sharply with the Jeffersonian ideal, and with the leading lights of the 18th and 19th Centuries.
Along with Trilling I enjoy returning to Roberson Davies who is better known as a Canadian novelist. His two books, The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books, and Happy Alchemy: On the Pleasures of Music and the Theatre embody the demonstration of an extraordinarily wide reaching and refined intelligence.
For a broad sampling of some of the best essays ever written, I recommend The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, by Phillip Lopate.
Another stack of books that call to me is labeled Biographies. Among my recent favorites are: How to Live Montaigne, Or a Life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell; Love, Life, Goethe: Lessions of the Imagination from the Great German Poet, by John Armstrong; Emerson: The Mind on Fire; Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind; William James in the Maelstrom of American Modernism, all by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.; Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, by Megan Marshall. The best biographies reveal the subtle and complex interactive influence of the inner reflections and outer experiences that co-create a unique individual’s life.
Another stack of books that calls to me is The Literary and Philosophical Canon that encompasses “the best that has been said and written across the ages.” Setting aside the ancient quarrel between the philosophers and the poets, exemplified in Plato vs. Homer, we need the complementary benefits of the great literary narratives and the great philosophical ideas. Anthologies and summaries of the great narratives and ideas give us a quick introduction and prepare us for more rigorous and in depth exploration. In literature such books as The Literary 100 and The Drama 100, by Daniel S. Burt, and The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages, and Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, by Harold Bloom will get you started, as will Smiling through the Cultural Catastrophe: Towards the Revival of Higher Education, by Jeffrey Hart. For philosophy I recommend Masterpieces of World Philosophy, by Frank N. Magill, editor, along with A World of Ideas, by Chris Rohmann and Ideas that Matter: The Concepts that Shape the 21th Century, by A.C. Grayling. I particularly enjoyed reading The Passion of the Western Mind, by Richard Tarnas. For western intellectual and cultural history I highly recommend From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, and The House of Intellect, by Jacques Barzun, and The Creators and The Seekers, by Daniel J. Boorstin. While they are heavy reading, I also recommend Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, and A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor.
For an understanding of the world’s esoteric traditions, I know of no better book than The Inner West: An Introduction to the Hidden Wisdom of the West, by Jay Kinney.
Well, there is no end to good reading, and I’ve not even touched upon some of the best reading in science. I’ll save that for another time.
The joy of music and the arts invite another kind of “reading” and need to be approached on their own terms. That too I’ll save for a later occasion when they can be given their proper due.
So here’s to good reading!