Book: The End of History

This book has a similar problem as The Selfish Gene, namely, both authors chose as their title a provocative phrase that is easily misunderstood without reading further, thus inviting a host of criticism from people who did not bother to read between the covers.

That being said, this book does have a number of flaws. The basic premise is that Hegel’s conception of dialectical history (as interpreted by a later philosopher, Alexandre Kojeve) is true as given and liberal democracy represents the end point of history in the sense that it contains none of Hegel’s contradictions which lead to the next stage in history. So, while history seen as a flow of events will continue, History as the directional progression of societal forms stops essentially with modern day Western civilization. Lucky for us!

Fukuyama does raise a number of interesting and sometimes forceful arguments for his case. Sometimes, though, his argument boils down to a failure of the imagination in which a better alternative to liberal democracy is inconceivable to those of us living today.

The oddest theme in this book is a heavy reliance on Plato’s metaphysical concept of the thymos, or the thymotic soul, which Hegel understood as the “struggle for recognition”. The thymos seems to be the metaphysical source of all the social emotions, like pride, shame, anger, etc. It’s a bit like picking up a modern work on physics and finding long passages about the Ether.

I found myself mentally subsituting ‘the social emotions’ every time I read ‘thymos’ and that seemed to make the argument more understandable and plausible. I do wish that Fukuyama had made some effort in updating thymos to a modern conception of human nature, but he seems to be restrained by that strange conservative fear that a biological basis for human drives and emotions will rob us of the possibility of moral choice. Silly conservatives, metaphysics is for kids.

At the very end, in an odd parable involving a wagon trail, Fukuyama seems to back off his strong claim and allow for the possibility of something new to come.

Anyway, I do recommend this book. Fukuyama’s not the best writer, but he’s good enough and this book is thought-provoking if nothing else.

Book: The Party’s Over

Heinberg presents a compelling and rather startling case for the near-term end of the industrial era, caused in large part by the end of cheap supplies of petroleum.

This book is part of the burgeoning movement known as Peak Oil.

Heinberg’s argument is generally quite solid, but he may be dismissing some alternative forms of energy, such as nuclear, too quickly. Although it may be too late to avoid the effects of the decline in petroleum production, as those effects begin to sink in the current political and social barriers to the construction of new nuclear plants may begin to fall.

In any case, after reading this book I find myself looking around my surroundings and wondering what will remain and what will have to go when the oil runs out.

Book: The Origins of Virtue

Ridley surveys the current state of research on the evolutionary origins of cooperation, altruism, obligation, and other social behaviors and emotions.

It is an excellent overview and Ridley makes a great case that much of what we view as social and cultural necessarily has its roots in human instinctual behavior.

In the last chapter, Ridley strikes out on his own and, based on what he has presented, makes a call for smaller government with power ‘devolved’ to local groups that are tied together by trade. He does not attempt to explain how that might be achieved.

Book: Looking for Spinoza

Damasio lays out the latest thinking and research (his and others) on the neurological and biological basis of feelings and emotions.

He winds into his narrative a discussion of Spinoza and the ways that 17th century philosopher’s thoughts prefigure the nascent modern understanding of mind and body.