Review: Lost in Thought

Lost in Thought, Zena Hitz. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Summary: A defense of the love of learning for its own sake, for how it enriches our existence as human beings.

Zena Hitz grew up in a house full of books. Curiosity, lectures, exploration, family conversations. All of this prepared Zena for an academic career, with the stimulating years of graduate school followed by a faculty position. And then the let down:

In exchange for my comfortable salary, excellent benefits, and ample control over my work schedule, I delivered preprocessed nuggets of knowledge in front of a crowd and doled out above-average grades upon their absorption. The teaching that formed the central activity of my professional life seemed nothing like the lively and collaborative pursuit of ideas that had enchanted me as a student. (p, 17).

It led to three years in a Catholic retreat center, a process of discerning a vocation. She describes a journey of asking whether the love of learning may be defended for its own sake. She examines the things that may lure one away from this, as she was in her early faculty career: the love of money, social recognition, and spectacle. She takes a deep dive into the life of learning, the experience of refuge known to every bookworm, the inwardness it cultivates, in which she holds up Mary (thought in ancient times to be a reader), who understood that “a virgin must conceive” and so was prepared for the angel’s message. She is reminded of how learning gets at the core of what it means to be human–the common human experience that binds us together. She considers the uses of of the apparent uselessness of learning. Dorothy Day is a particular exemplar, whose service, advocacy, and imprisonments were sustained by her inner life of learning and prayer.

She wrestles with elitism. Is the quest for learning simply a preserve for the elite, those with enough time and money to do so? She recalls the workers libraries and the hunger for intellectual life of many who were not college educated. What she doesn’t address are those at the lowest rungs of poverty whose time and energy are devoted to surviving. As others have argued, there must be some time of leisure to pursue thought for its own sake. Perhaps this is as good an argument as any to pursue the eradication of poverty.

In the end, she comes to a renewed embrace of the intellectual life. She concludes:

I have argued that intellectual life properly understood cultivates a space of retreat within a human being, a place where real reflection takes place. We step back from concerns of practical benefit, personal or public. We withdraw into small rooms, literal or internal. In the space of retreat we consider fundamental questions: what human happiness consists in, the origins and nature of the universe, whether human beings are part of nature, and whether and how a truly just community is possible. From the space of retreat emerges poetry, mathematics, and distilled wisdom articulated in words or manifested silently in action (p. 185).

She longs that universities would become places once more where this would occur. I found myself wondering, though, whether this was ever the case en masse in colleges and universities or whether some gravitated more to this life than others. And for this to occur today amid the explosion of knowledge in every discipline, would this not require either extending the undergraduate degree to six years or more of full time studies, or making graduate education even more common? And this goes against the grain of our cultural imperatives of equating education with preparation for a job, and the pressures to shorten, not lengthen this time.

It makes me wonder whether the impetus must come from somewhere else in a soulless technological world. At one point, churches were the place where learning was preserved in Europe, learning not only of scripture but Aristotle and Plato. It is hard for me to see this arising from churches of the present day and it seems unclear, apart from the outposts like St John’s (where the author is a tutor) and a few others, mostly private institutions, where this might come from in the world of higher ed. Will our bookstores and libraries become the modern day athenaeums where those hungry for more than being instruments in our technological apparatuses seek refuge and insight? Will we find the resources to sustain these places and those who curate them? And who will teach the disciplines of careful thought? Will a title like Lost in Thought even make sense? I fear if it doesn’t we will have lost what makes us most human, what gives meaning and texture to life, that separates us from the automatons increasingly capable of learning but unable to derive any pleasure from it.

Review: Ideas Have Consequences

Ideas Have Consequences, Richard M. Weaver. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984 (first published in 1948, link is to expanded 2013 edition).

Summary: An argument tracing the dissolution of Western society to the abandonment of philosophical realism for nominalism and what may be done to reverse that decline.

Many authors have traced the decline of the West (if there is such a thing) to the ideas that shape our culture. Few have argued that more trenchantly or been cited more often that Richard M. Weaver, an intellectual historian and professor of English at the University of Chicago during the mid-twentieth century. I’ve been aware of this book for over twenty years but just now have gotten around to it.

Weaver’s argument begins with the abandonment of philosophical realism, the existence of transcendent or metaphysical truth for nominalism, the denial of absolute universals but only the particulars of our existence. He then traces some of the ways this manifests itself. First he discusses the obliteration of the distinctions and hierarchies which constitute society for an egalitarian ideal. He then notes the fragmentation of modern societies. No longer capable of philosophy, we are reduced to facts without coherent structure. Without the transcendent, the self is the measure of value. Egotism is a word that runs through his discussion. When work is only about self-realization rather than being divinely ordained, work becomes a matter of getting the better of others rather than pursuing the common good. Art, as it becomes solipsistic, degenerates. Weaver saves his harshest criticism for the distinctly American music of jazz.

In the rejection of a transcendent metaphysic, moderns come up with a modern synthesis which Weaver calls “the great stereopticon” consisting of the trinity of the press, the motion picture, and the radio (television was just coming on the scene in 1948). These foster the fragmented, disharmonious experience of our lives, often distracting us from their banal character, a critique that seems to have anticipated Neil Postman’s, Amusing Ourselves to Death. All of this fosters in us a “spoiled child” psychology amid technological advances that believes in a material heaven easily achieved.

Weaver’s final three chapters address his proposed remedy–what must be done. First is to reassert and protect the right of private property, the only metaphysical right he believes has not yet been jettisoned in the four hundred year decline he traces. The extension of this from homes to businesses to agriculture preserves and restores volition and undercuts authoritarian tyrannies–whether capitalist or communist. He also argues for the power of the word, both poetic and logical, advocating for instruction in logic and rhetoric. Finally, he contends for restoration of “spirit of piety” with regard for nature, for one’s neighbors, and the past.

For me, what I would most criticize is his concern about distinctions and orders, that seem for him established on the basis of heredity and immutable characteristics, like gender. It felt like women, and perhaps the races must be kept in their places, an idea more in a Platonic rather than Christian metaphysic. It also makes me wonder whether Weaver would want to extend private property to all in society, or is arguing for the protection of the “haves.” I also don’t think much of his application of egotism to the arts, and especially to jazz, rooted in the laments of the blues, and the transcendent hope of the spirituals. I thought this deeply dismissive and a critique imposed from a superficial extension of his basic idea of egotism that little considers the actual work of the artists.

That said, his basic discussion of the consequences of the shift from realism to nominalism, from absolutes to relativism, particularly in the rise of fragmentation, exacerbated by the stereopticon of our media is worth our attention, prescient as it was in 1948. I find myself wondering whether his remedies of private property, the power of words, and the recovery of piety toward the earth, our neighbors, and history get us all the way back to life grounded in transcendent realities, from which he traces our decline. These seem more a holding action at best.

I also found this a challenging read in which the thread of argument gets buried in prose, sparkling at times, and obscuring at others. It felt like reading John Henry Newman–there is a great argument in here, somewhere! It’s an important work, especially for classic conservatives, that anticipates the thought of others. Just be ready for some work as you read it!

Review: Grief

Grief: A Philosophical Guide, Michael Cholbi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.

Summary: A philosophical discussion of the nature of grief, why we grieve, and its importance in our lives.

The journey of the last several years has been a time of grief for many of us, losing loved ones to the pandemic or to other causes. A host of books have been written over the years, addressing psychological and spiritual dimensions of grief. What distinguishes this book is that, while referencing this literature, this work is a philosophical discussion that seeks to understand what grief is, who is the object of our grief, and how grief is important within the human experience.

Michael Cholbi observes that in much of the philosophical literature, grief is regarded as shameful, a sign of weakness. Cholbi argues otherwise, getting there through a sustained inquiry into the nature of grief. He admits that this may not help a person amid the tumult of grief, but may help prepare us to understand what is happening and how we may grow through it. He begins by considering for whom we grieve, why we grieve some and not others. He proposes that we grieve those in whom we have invested our practical identities, that is those who play important roles in our lives. He then considers what grief is, arguing that it is not a single emotion but a series of affective states, not necessarily those of Kubler-Ross’s five stages, or in that order. In addition, he suggests that grief is a form of attention, challenging us to interrogate the meaning of our emotions toward the one who has died, and what they reveal about our relation with the one who has died, a relation that has been transformed by death.

He then turns to some ethical questions. One concerns what he calls the paradox of grief. Grief is both painful and distressing, which seems detrimental to our flourishing and yet also capable of yielding insights and self-knowledge, shaping how we may live, moving forward. Can something so terribly painful be good? Cholbi moves on then and explores the rationality of grief. Instead of considering grief either arational or irrational, he argues that it is contingently rational, that is, it is “rational when we feel the right emotions in the right degree in light of the loss of the relationship with the deceased that we have suffered” (italics in the original). He then considers whether we have a duty to grieve. He argues that we do not have a duty to other grieving persons or to the deceased but to ourselves because of the good of the self-knowledge that may come when we attend to our relationship with the deceased and grow as rational agents. Most intriguing is that he wonders whether C. S. Lewis, at least on the evidence of A Grief Observed, grieved well in terms of growth in self-knowledge.

One of the most interesting questions Cholbi deals with is whether the peculiar “madness” of grief is a type of mental disorder. Cholbi would argue that grief is a human experience rather than a mental disorder, one from which most emerge, often with greater self understanding that shouldn’t be circumvented. Rather than treating grief as a pathology, he would want to treat the instances of pathology that emerge when grief goes awry.

In his conclusion, he distinguishes grief from other traumas, like divorce, contending that the loss of a person is more severe. I’m not so sure–sometimes the loss of a spouse or a parent to divorce is a living wound that never resolves. He also considers whether a considered philosophy of grief may change the experience of grief. While it may offer understanding of what we are undergoing, the emotional experience of grief and its course is unpredictable, nor can it determine what the specific content of our self-knowledge will be.

I suspect this is not the book to give someone amid grief, if one even can read books at some points during the grief process. I found the book helpful in reflecting upon what my experiences of grief have meant for me. I also suspect such a book, with its contention that we ought lean into the paradox of grief with attentiveness, is helpful. I believe attentiveness is the basis of various spiritually formative practices. It seems consistent that this would be so in the practice of grieving the loss of someone significant to us. Also, the careful discussion that distinguishes grief and mourning, that thinks about who we grieve and why, and that normalizes grief as part of the human experience are all important contributions of this work.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

Summary: A philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic explores the nature of satisfying work and the intellectual dignity of the manual trades.

Why would a Ph.D. give up a prestigious job in a Washington think tank to open up a motorcycle repair shop? Why does he find greater intellectual satisfaction tearing apart a motorcycle engine, working with solvents, grease, and oil, than producing articles on political philosophy? This work is Matthew B. Crawford’s personal answer to those questions.

He begins with some observations that caught my attention and helped explain the title of the book. When I attended middle school, all the boys (sexist as we were in those days) had to take classes in the mechanical arts–shop class. Even though I was on the geekier end of the spectrum, I had to buy the requisite safety glasses and learn mechanical drawing, basic wood and metal working including working around power equipment without losing a finger or other appendage. We learned what tools to use for different jobs. From about the 1990’s on, such classes were phased out because the emphasis increasingly was on preparing for college, and for becoming a knowledge worker. Which explains Crawford’s friend who has a surfeit of power equipment (as well as the dearth of people in the trades).

Crawford argues that our society’s focus on “knowledge work” has degraded the manual trades. Principally, it fails to recognize the kind of intelligence it takes to wire a house, build a building, plumb a bathroom properly, or diagnose a misfiring problem in a motorcycle when all the diagnostic procedures fail to yield an answer. Crawford observes that we no longer know how to care for and repair our stuff–indeed, some of it has been engineered by people who haven’t thought about making such repairs, or made those repairs a proprietary process. We’ve separated thinking and doing, denigrating the doers whose work takes skill, intuition, problem-solving ability, and imagination, while upholding knowledge workers often disconnected from the world of things.

Crawford narrates his own journey from electrician to working for an abstracting service whose productivity demands impaired his ability to do what the work really required. After completing a doctorate in political philosophy, he went to work for a Washington think tank but quit after five fatiguing months of struggling to do anything of tangible worth. He found he had more of a sense of individual agency and connectedness to his work and community as an electrician or mechanic.

He takes us into a deep dive into the work of motorcycle repair, describing challenging repair jobs on old machines he’d never encountered. We learn about the “guild” of mechanics, the wisdom acquired from years of experience that leads to a kind of intuitive knowledge when one encounters a particular problem. He traces the journey from apprenticeship to becoming a master mechanic. This work occurs in a community of other mechanics, parts dealers, enthusiasts, and novices in which one is alienated neither from the material one works on or the web of relationships within which the work occurs.

The subtitle of this book is “an inquiry into the value of work.” Crawford argues that many are disconnected from the value of their work, and sometimes find this in leisure activities. Meaningful work, he would argue, involves full engagement with the stuff of one’s work, allowing for “progress in excellence,” contributing to a life well-lived by those served by the work. He argues that a humane economy allows for and rewards such work. He also notes the built in accountability of good work–an improperly vented toilet stinks up the whole house! Such accountability needs to be built into knowledge work as well, and happens best in community. At one time, for example, mortgage lenders were in a community and knew their clients and were responsible for good lending practices. The loss of this connection to one’s work contributed to the disaster of 2008.

I found myself applauding much of this book. My father-in-law, a high school educated laborer, designed and built his own garage–a structure still standing fifty years after he passed. This kind of intelligence needs to be honored and those who work in these kinds of jobs held up to high regard if they do their work to the standard of excellence Crawford describes. I hope at the same time that this will not have the effect of denigrating all knowledge work. I think of researchers who build their own research apparatus, write their own computer code and combine mental and mechanical skill with the same skillful agency Crawford describes. I think of skillful managers who combine technical expertise and soft skills to develop products that serve others while creating flourishing environments for those on their teams. His larger discussion of what makes good work applies both to manual trades and “knowledge work.” All good work involves both thinking and doing, agency and engagement, the flourishing both of worker and the common good.

Both manual and knowledge work can be organized in ways that demean or dignify the worker. Good societies will not play one off against the other but recognize the dignity of meaningful work in all arenas. Crawford also raises good questions about the communities within which good work takes place. Increasingly, I find myself wondering if we can afford the global economy we have created, where we rely on workers and supply chains half way around the planet while living disconnected economic lives from our neighbors. This book is about a lot more than shop class!

Review: From Plato to Christ

From Plato to Christ, Louis Markos. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A discussion of the most significant ideas of Plato, summarizing his works and the influence Platonic thought has had on Christian theology.

One of the things readily apparent to anyone who reads the theology of the church fathers is their indebtedness to the Greek philosophers, and particularly Platonic philosophy. Eusebius even believed that Plato’s work was a preparation for the gospel.

In this work, Louis Markos does two things. One is that he offers an introduction to Plato for those unfamiliar with him (and a good refresher for those of us who are). The first part reviews his major works and the key ideas that early Christian thinkers believed anticipated the coming of Christ. Of particular interest is the Cave and the rising path from the shadows of the forms to the forms in all their perfection, the sum of goodness, truth, and beauty. All this serves as a basis of our moral awareness and striving, and may become the basis of our awareness of our need for grace. He understood that we are both physical and spiritual beings. In The Laws Plato comes near a Christian understanding of a God intimately involved in his creation and a cosmology with which Christians deeply resonated. Markos notes where Christians part ways in the Platonic idea of the transmigration of souls, the relative denigration of the body, and the inferiority of women (although I suspect this also had an influence on Christian theology that Markos doesn’t discuss).

The second half of the book treats the Christian thinkers who draw upon his ideas beginning with Origen, the three Gregorys, Augustine, Boethius, and Dante, and more recently, Erasmus, Descartes, Coleridge, and finally C. S. Lewis, whose Professor Digory remarks in The Last Battle as they go “further up and further in” that “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato.”

The work also includes a bibliographic essay, not only of works drawn upon but comments on works and editions the reader may consult who wants to explore the connections of Greek thought and Christianity further. One of the most attractive things about this work is that Markos makes such a prospect inviting.

Aside from acknowledging some of the clear places Plato got it wrong, and some of the erroneous conclusions Origen reached, the book takes a very positive view of how Plato may prepare one for Christ. This may well be the case but I wish Markos would have dealt more with those who question the influence of Greek thought on Christian theology. While this engagement no doubt contributed to the spread of the gospel, the views of the body, the view of women, the “gnostic,” anti-material character of Christianity that led to a divorce of work and worship, of physicality and spirituality, are downplayed if acknowledged.

This needn’t detract from Markos’ argument. Plato undeniably influenced Christian thinkers through history, and if for no other reason (and there are other good reasons) ought to be read. At the same time, syncretism is not just a phenomena of modern missions. Christians have always faced the challenge of how to contextualize without compromising. They have always believed God has both left a witness to God’s self, and yet this is never unalloyed. I wish Markos would have done more with this which would have enhanced the instructiveness of a fine work.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: On Consolation

On Consolation, Michael Ignatieff. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021.

Summary: On how significant figures through the ages have found comfort amid tragedy and hard times, enabling them to press on with hope and equanimity.

Finding consolation, the solace that enables us to face tragedy and not relent nor give way to despair, has not been a theoretical exercise in the past pandemic years. Many of us have grieved the untimely deaths of friends and loved ones, and the rancorous discord of our public health debates, while healthcare workers dealt with multiple deaths every day during the peak of the pandemic.

In On Consolation, Michael Ignatieff, novelist, columnist, sometime politician, and historian of ideas, explores how people through the ages have found solace when faced with the worst life can throw at one–war, plague, tragic deaths. Ignatieff writes his book particularly with those in mind who reject the comfort offered by traditional religion. How do those who do not embrace a religious faith find consolation? He would contend that many have and that we may find help from them.

He begins with Job and the Psalms of lament. These do not offer answers for Ignatieff, but model the “doubt that is intrinsic to belief” and their preservation affirms that we are not the first to ask these questions. He then turns to Paul, contending that when Paul, as an aging man realized he may not live to see the return of the Messiah, turned to love as the sign of what the God he does not see is like (even though the text Ignatieff cites is one of Paul’s earliest letters, written at a time he was bidding people to be watchful for Messiah’s return). I think Ignatieff misinterprets Paul, though noting the theme of love that remains is an important observation, and one that runs through all Paul’s letters.

He explores the great conflict in Cicero’s loss of his daughter between the self-command of Stoicism that did not allow the show of emotion and his deep grief. Consolation comes from one’s male peers for that self-command. And sadly, men have been holding back their tears since. For Marcus Aurelius, consolation came from fulfilling his duties, even amid loneliness and loss. Boethius, facing execution contemplates his death and his fear of how it would come and finds consolation in his writing, both in the knowing of himself and the contemplation of God that enabled him to endure. And he hoped that he would be remembered, and he is.

In Goya’s The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Ignatieff identifies our longing for timelessness in the elongated figures of Goya. Montaigne points us in the other direction. We find consolation in our love of life, the succession of pleasures, pains, and indignities of our embodied existence that signals we are yet alive. For David Hume, consolation came in the form of an unsent letter as death approached, summing up his life and that he had been true to his ambitions.

Condorcet, facing his own death in the French revolution, found hope in the idea of historical progress and the progressive perfectibility of man. Marx was similar in some ways, envisioning a utopia beyond capitalism, and a materialist grasp of life in which consolation was no longer necessary if a just world order can be attained. Lincoln found consolation in the humility that renounced vengeance for reconciliation, drawing upon a store of biblical wisdom.

For Mahler, he worked out consolation in his music, supremely perhaps in the Kindertotenleider, adapting five Ruckert poems and the lieder style, to trace a journey of coming to acceptance of the death of a child. For Weber, consolation took the form of finding meaning with one’s calling, in a world without God, where calling may only arise from within the self. For several, Akhmatova, Levi, and Radnoti, consolation as survivors of the Holocaust came in the form of faithful witness. Camus wrestled with what it was to live outside the grace that offers final consolation, concluding that living with the grace that accompanies another at life’s extremities is the consolation afforded us.

The final individual focused on is Cicely Saunders, who founded the modern hospice movement. Her consolation was the compassion that relentlessly sought to create the conditions physically, socially, psychologically, and spiritually. Her watchword was that of Christ in Gethsemane: “Watch with me” and she created a setting where one could reflect on the shape of one’s live among their loved ones. She helped people find closure and console those from whom they would soon be parted.

This book might have been called “the varieties of consolation” and what this suggests to me is that in a world where transcendent belief has waned, consolation is something each must find for oneself, and often it is within the contours of one’s particular life, experience, and, especially, relationships. The book offers the consolation that whatever we experience, whatever we ask, we are not the first, which may be some comfort. Ignatieff argues in the end that it is not in doctrine but in people that we find consolation:

“It is not doctrines that console us in the end, but people: their example, their singularity, their courage and steadfastness, their being with us when we need them most. In dark times, nothing so abstract as faith in History, Progress, Salvation, or Revolution will do us much good. These are doctrines. It is people we need, people whose examples show us what it means to go on, to keep going, despite everything.”

Ignatieff, p. 259.

I think there is much in what Ignatieff says. “Presence” that walks with one in the hardest times, sometimes the “presences” of those who have gone before, are deep sources of consolation. Yet there is something that Ignatieff, in his “age of unbelief” fails to account for, I believe. That is faith incarnated in believing people. Ignatieff speaks of how the dying console others. This happened on a visit to my grandmother in the last weeks of her painful death from cancer. Through the pain, she spoke of her faith in life everlasting. I’m sure my love meant something to her but her embodied faith has touched my life and my view of dying to this day, 57 years later. Faith ceased being an abstraction for me that day. Ignatieff has written with eloquence of the consolation found apart from transcendent belief, a vital concern in our day. Perhaps for those who find consolation in our doctrines as well as our community, writing a similar work may be a timely contribution to the discussion Ignatieff has initiated so well.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Philosophy of Walking

A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros, translated by John Howe, illustrated by Clifford Harper. Brooklyn: Verso, 2014.

Summary: An extended reflection on the significance of walking as part of the human condition, consisting of short chapters interspersed with accounts of walking philosophers.

During the pandemic, the daily walk, usually about an hour before the last light of the day, has become part of my pandemic routine. It is the time I de-compress from a day of zoom calls and other activities that usually involve sitting in front of a computer. I need to move my body and clear my head. Sometimes I pray, sometimes I think, sometimes I notice the effects of the changing seasons on the yards of my neighbors. And sometimes I’m just present, putting one foot in front of the other in this most basic of human activities.

It turns out I’m hardly the first to reflect on something we’ve been doing since late in our first year of life. Frédéric Gros is a philosopher at the University of Paris, specializing in the philosophy of Michel Foucault. In this work, Gros explores the meaning of walking, the different ways and reasons we walk, and offers vignettes of other philosophers for whom walking was important. Each chapter is headed with finely drawn illustrations reflecting the chapter theme.

He begins by reminding us that walking is not a sport. We don’t keep track of rankings or times (although walking apps actually do this, which seems to be a good way to ruin a good walk). He observes: “Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.” He considers the freedom of walking and the reversal of our normal indoor lives, especially on long walks where we spend our days outdoors and only shelter indoors, or sometimes in a tent we carry. Basic to walking is its slowness that lengthens and enriches time. He discusses the paradox of solitary walking, in which we are actually more aware of the company of the world about us. Even when we walk with others, we enjoy solitude as our paces vary. We embrace silence as the chatter of our days falls away. We experience states of well-being.

Gros considers various kinds of walks beginning with the ultimate walk, the pilgrimage, the walk that symbolizes our journey through life. Pilgrims embark to bear witness to and deepen their faith, and sometimes to expiate their sins. Over a couple of chapters he considers some of the most significant pilgrimage routes in various parts of the world. Then he turns to the Cynics, whose walks are a kind of protest against all the conventions of human society.

At the opposite end of walking is the stroll, probably describing the kind of walks that are part of my daily routine (as well as the philosopher Kant–although don’t set your clocks by mine!). Then there are the promenades in public gardens and the flaneurs, strolling and stopping to gaze at the crowds and the scene. That might describe our teen years at the local shopping mall!

Gros breaks up his musings on walking with vignettes on philosophers who walked. Most fascinating, and perhaps the most disturbing was Nietzsche, who walked to relieve his terrible headaches, who composed some of his greatest works while walking, and whose physical and mental decline corresponded with an eventual paralysis that ended his walks, his work, and his life. We meet the poet Rimbaud whose walking led to a swelled knee requiring amputation, which led to his death. We trace the passage from morning to night in Rousseau’s life, from the exaltation of his youth evident in Confessions, to the increasing solitude of his middle years when he identified himself as homo viator, and finally the last walks in the evening of life around Paris, when he wrote Reveries.

Thoreau’s writings are filled with his walks. We meet the melancholy Nerval who in the end hangs himself. Perhaps the great contrast to so many of these is Kant who loved his work and his table and adhered to a disciplined schedule people could set their clocks by. Gros contends that the monotony of bodily effort liberated the mind, that the regularity of walking fueled the steady and massive output of thought, and its inescapability reflected a will working steadily toward the arrival at an end. Most inspiring, perhaps was his account of Gandhi, who walked and marched throughout his life, a picture of simply keeping going.

It was fascinating how important walking was to the work of these philosophers. Yet walking was far from a panacea it seems–in some cases like Rimbaud, a contributing factor to his death. I wonder if there was something in walking, and this is apparent in Thoreau and Gandhi, of life stripped to its essentials, its marrow. I wonder if we also walk in an awareness of the shadow of death, walking while we can in the awareness of the coming day when we will be unable.

Frédéric Gros has given us a book filled with reflections of why we walk, stroll, go for hikes, embark on pilgrimages. He invites us to not leave our walking unexamined but to live in awareness of this elemental practice capable of giving us joy, wonder, clear minds, and awareness of our nature and destiny.

Review: The Sense of Beauty


The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of Aesthetic TheoryGeorge Santayana. New York: Dover Publications, 1955 (originally published 1896).

Summary: A philosophical discussion of the nature of beauty, grounding it in the pleasure of the perceiver with an object and its associations.

Classically, philosophy has spoken of three transcendentals: Truth (logic), Goodness (ethics), and Beauty (aesthetics). To satisfy the requirements of tenure at Harvard, George Santayana wrote this book, based on lectures, to offer his own outline of an aesthetic theory in what was his first book. Perhaps the most striking move of Santayana was to move beauty from the realm of the transcendental to that of human perception of value in the object perceived. He contrasts physical pleasure, focused on the organ of sensation, with aesthetic sensation, focused on the object from which pleasure arises. He defines beauty as “pleasure objectified.”

He then explores this sense of beauty under three headings: the materials of beauty, form, and expression. The materials of beauty focus on the  various human senses, chiefly sight, hearing, memory and imagination, through which perception and appreciation of objects occur. Form has to do with both external realities that give rise to sensation and their mental representation. He explores aspects of these that produce pleasure including symmetry, uniformity, and multiplicity, and also the idea of “indeterminate” forms such as landscapes that derive their beauty from the perceptive interpretation of the observe. Finally, Santayana explores the nature of expression which means the qualities one associates with an object. This suggests that one’s sense of beauty develops from immediate perception to a deeper perception where past experience, imagination, and other associations shape the kind of aesthetic pleasure one has in the object.

Santayana elaborates each of these elements in a discussion that is highly abstract, that I won’t attempt to outline or summarize here. What troubles me in his treatment, which seems to me a sophisticated way of saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is the elimination of the transcendent aspects of beauty. For those who sense beyond perceived beauty an author of beauty, Santayana would say this is simply one’s sense experience, and one’s sense of the sublime is simply ecstatic pleasure. There is nothing “beyond” to which beauty points. The sehnsucht or longing that C.S. Lewis writes of in Surprised by Joy when listening to Wagner, or glimpsing a scene in nature, to Santayana signifies nothing more than the interplay between object and sense eventuating in aesthetic pleasure. When Bono says, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” Santayana might reply, “and you never will. All you may find is what you are looking at.”

I find myself wondering how much Santayana’s aesthetic has shaped both the making of and the appreciation of art. How might artists pursue their work differently when they do not compose and paint, write and dance, with the object of “Soli Deo Gloria” and instead see their work as evoking aesthetic pleasure in those who partake of them. How are we changed as we are discouraged, when experiencing what we might call the “transcendent” in a work to think of it as nothing more than a confluence of the material of our senses, the form of a work, and its expressive associations. What happens when wonder is turned inward, rather than upward?

These were some of the questions I was left with on reading Santayana.

Review: In This World of Wonders


In This World of WondersNicholas Wolterstorff. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: A memoir tracing vignettes of the different periods of the author’s life from childhood in rural Minnesota to a career in higher education in which he was instrumental in leading a movement of Christians in philosophy.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, along with Alvin Plantinga, is a leader of a movement of Christians who have thoughtfully engaged the academic discipline of philosophy, including forming the Society of Christian Philosophers. His teaching career included permanent academic positions at Calvin College and Yale University as well as visiting professorships at a number of universities including Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Notre Dame, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Virginia. His academic works have included publications on aesthetics, Reformed epistemology, justice and political philosophy, metaphysics, and the philosophy of education.

His memoir is composed of “vignettes,” from the different periods of his life. He begins with his roots in rural Minnesota, the loss of his mother, the family dinner table that anticipated philosophical discussions, and the opening vistas provided by his education in a Christian high school. He traces his educational journey through Calvin College, and the influence of Harry Jellema and Henry Stob, his marriage to Claire Kingma, and his graduate education in philosophy at Harvard. He chronicles his early teaching experiences at Yale, including an embarrassing class he offered at a nearby prison. Much of his career was spent at Calvin College, and he recounts his friendship with Alvin Plantinga, and the turbulent times of the sixties and the seventies. He also recounts a fascinating consulting assignment with Herman Miller, manufacturer of the famous Eames chair, and the questions about aesthetics Max DePree and others asked, rooted both in Christian conviction and a concerned for excellent craft.

He recounts his “awakenings,” including his rejection of foundationalism for a Reformed epistemology that contends that there are certain beliefs, for example concerning the existence of God, that are properly basic. In Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, Wolterstorff elaborated these ideas. He traces his exploration of aesthetics, a growing concern for justice in his encounters with South Africans, Palestinians, and Hondurans, and his developing ideas of a philosophy of education, all subjects on which he wrote.

The most poignant part of the book is his narrative of the loss of his eldest son, Eric, in a mountain-climbing accident. He describes the writing of Lament for a Son, and admits both that he cannot make sense of what God was up to in such a loss, and yet that he cannot give up on a God who he believes performs the cosmos. Personally, I found this one of the most compelling discussions of the nature of grief and the profound questions it raises in anything I have read.

His narrative of Amsterdam brings out his love of architecture and well made objects, including chairs. It was clear throughout that Wolterstorff not merely writes about aesthetics–he loves beauty in both the creations of God including flowering gardens and in the creations of good craft on the part of human beings.

The final parts of the book include his later years at Yale, his retirement and visiting appointments, his life in Grand Rapids, and his family. A thread here that comes up throughout is that he is a lifelong churchman of the Christian Reformed denomination. Not only has the legacy of Calvin and Kuyper shaped his philosophy, but also the liturgy of the church shaped and formed his life, another subject on which he later wrote in a book on liturgical theology, in which he explored the understanding of God implicit in our liturgy.

This memoir is a wonderful example someone who has lived the life of a scholar Christian, one whose faith serves to draw together all the threads of his life, including a rich marriage and family life, enabling him to see and rejoice in worlds of wonder, and whose faith shapes his engagement with his chosen discipline of study, philosophy. Anyone who has read the resulting scholarship, and particularly his books, will find this memoir a fascinating journey describing how he came to write these works. Most of all, he captures so much of what is best in scholarly work, endangered by the corporatization of higher education. He writes:

“What do I love about thinking philosophically? I love both the understanding that results from it and the process of achieving the understanding. Sometimes the understanding comes easily, as when I read some philosophical text that I find convincing and illuminating. But often it comes after struggle and frustration. My attention has been drawn to something I do not understand, which makes me baffled and perplexed. Questions come to mind that I cannot answer. I love both the struggle to understand and the understanding itself–if it comes. The love of understanding and the love of achieving that understanding are what motivate and energize my practice of philosophy. For me, practicing philosophy is love in action” (p. 105).

I think this describes what motivates many scholars. This is a great book to read for anyone who aspires to such a life, or for anyone who wants to understand those who engage in scholarly work.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A History of Western Philosophy and Theology

FrameA History of Western Philosophy and Theology, John Frame. Phillipsburg, NJ: Puritan and Reformed Publishing Company, 2015

Summary: This is a survey and critique of the major philosophers and theologians of the West beginning with the Greek philosophers and early church fathers up to the present day, written from a reformed perspective.

Yes, this really is what you think it is, a one volume survey of Western philosophy and theology! It is a massive volume, coming in at over 800 pages, and yet to distill the material Frame covers even to this length is a not insignificant undertaking.

Here’s what you will find in this book if you decide to dig in. Frame begins with a discussion of philosophy and the Bible and reveals his own approach at the outset. Frame was deeply influenced by his association with Cornelius Van Til, his teacher at Westminster Theological Seminary, and writes as a presuppositionalist. In brief, he begins with the belief in a God who reveals God’s self, as basic to all else and a commitment to the authority of that revelation as found in the Bible. He contrasts this with philosophy, which he understands as a human endeavor of autonomous reason. This is not without worth but in his view exists in a rational-irrational tension that can only be resolved by divine revelation and he traces this idea throughout his survey. In the following twelve chapters he surveys the major philosophers and theologians beginning with Greek philosophy, early Christian thought, medieval philosophy, early modern thought, theology in the Enlightenment, Kant and his successors, nineteenth century theology, Nietzsche, pragmatism, phenomenology and existentialism, twentieth century liberal theology and language philosophy, and recent Christian philosophy.

His format is to outline the thought of the theologian or philosopher in question, situating them in the context of ideas of their time. Then, more briefly he gives a critique. Fundamentally, he will evaluate on the basis of the degree to which the philosopher or theologian in question roots his ideas in revelation versus autonomous reason. Yet I did not find this repetitive but nuanced to the specific thought of the person in question. In most chapters, he will cover the thought of several major thinkers, and then more briefly touch on others. Each chapter concludes with a glossary of terms, a bibliography for further study that includes print, online, and audio materials (the latter consisting of lectures by Frame available at iTunes).

In addition to this survey, the volume includes twenty appendices, consisting of a number scholarly articles and reviews Frame has written on subjects related to the book. I found a number of these quite illuminating and good resources for apologetic (Christian defense of the faith) discussions including essays on the ontological argument, self-refuting statements, and on God and biblical language. Of personal interest to me was his essay on certainty and his discussion of the work of Esther Lightcap Meek, an epistemologist teaching at Geneva College. She asserts that while we cannot hope for certainty, we can attain to a proper confidence in knowing. Frame would argue that if one presupposes revelation, then there are some things pertaining to God’s nature, our condition and salvation that we may know with certainty. This challenged my own thinking (I have tended toward Meek’s ideas) and actually is something I want to pursue further. One also glimpses some of the scholarly “battles” he has engaged in such as his dialogue with Gordon Clark.

This touches on what I thought was the value of Frame’s work. In addition to surveying the sweep of Western philosophical and theological thought, his discussions served to whet the appetite for pursuing some of these in further depth. I would not have know, for example, of Meek’s books (Longing to Know, Loving to Know are two of these). Along the way, I also found myself longing to read Anselm, to re-read Pascal, to dig into the common sense philosophy of Thomas Reid. Frame even made me curious to explore some Van Til, who I’ve never read. Frame has a teacher’s ability to unravel complex ideas in a highly readable form.

I fully suspect that a number who do not share Frame’s perspective will take issue with his judgments on philosophers and theologians. He is less charitable, for example, to Barth, than many contemporary writers, although not uncharitable in his judgments of any. One has to understand the deep passion for truth as he understands it that under girds Frame’s writing.  And certainly, any specialist would probably take issue with his treatment of this or that figure. Yet that is always the challenge of undertaking a work like this.

For those sympathetic with a reformed, presuppositionalist perspective, this will provide a thoroughly engaging course on Western thought that will deeply inform one’s own intellectual life. For pastors, this is useful for understanding various currents of thought through history. For those working in university ministries or engaged in discussions at the philosophical level, this is an especially useful reference.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”