a guide to contemporary appropriations of Hume

...the platitudes with which ‘Humean positions’ are defined just do not fit with what Hume actually says. Most of the time Hume’s texts simply do not lend the necessary support for this label ‘Humean’...

– Tamás Demeter

David Hume is an Analytic darling; you can find post-hoc principles bearing his name in every major subfield. (In the ahistorical laboratories of English-speaking philosophy, naming things is less scholarly attribution of primacy and more equivalent to naming an asteroid after him. Or asserting your work's importance by tying it to a Proper Name bandwagon.)

In fact, there are so many principles that we've run out of synonyms for "principle" to attribute him. Let's see:

  • Hume's Principle (in the logic of mathematics): "The number of Fs is identical to the number of Gs if and only if F and G are equinumerous. (#F = #GFG)." This is a contextual definition of the concept number; in case it isn't obvious: that's cool. This result is important for salvaging something from Frege's ruined lifework on the foundations of mathematics. It defines number as a non-mathematical concept that some people still claim can establish a kind of logicism.

    We are possessed of a precise standard, by which we can judge of the equality and proportion of numbers; and according as they correspond or not to that standard, we determine their relations, without any possibility of error. When two numbers are so combin'd, as that the one has always a unit answering to every unit of the other, we pronounce them equal; and it is for want of such a standard of equality in extension, that geometry can scarce be esteemed a perfect and infallible science." (Treatise, Book I:III)

    Coined by: George Boolos in his 1987 "The Consistency of Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic"; first recognised as key to neo-logicism in Crispin Wright's (1983) Frege’s Conception of Numbers as Objects.

    Huminess: 5/10. Frege did the legwork in proving it, and Wright & Hale did the salvage work. And Hume would have rejected many of Frege's conclusions, like the infinity of infinite sets (see Hume's dictum below).

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  • Hume's fork (everywhere): the strict, exhaustive division of propositions into either "relations of ideas" (which are necessary, a priori, and analytic) and "matters of fact" (which are contingent, a posteriori, and synthetic). He uses the fork as a very early meaning criterion: any claim which is neither purely conceptual or experiential is meaningless. This includes, for instance, all arguments for the existence of God. ("Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.")

    It's useful but imprecise, and was superceded by Kant's breakdown into analytic/synthetic, apriori/aposteriori, and necessary/contingent. Playing around with these three variables sustained metaphysics/language throughout the 70s: Kripke's most seminal work amounts to a lengthy rejection of the Fork, and Quine also messes with the scheme. This is a fun reductio of the Fork.

    All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, relations of ideas, and matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of geometry, algebra, and arithmetic... Matters of fact, which are the second objects of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing ... It may, therefore, be a subject worthy of curiosity, to enquire what is the nature of that evidence which assures us of any real existence and matter of fact, beyond the present testimony of our senses, or the records of our memory.

    This part of philosophy, it is observable, has been little cultivated, either by the ancients or moderns, and therefore our doubts and errors, in the prosecution of so important an enquiry, may be the more excusable, while we march through such difficult paths without any guide or direction. They may even prove useful, by exciting curiosity, and destroying that implicit faith and security, which is the bane of all reasoning and free enquiry...
    " (Enquiry, Section IV:1)

    Coined by: Anthony Flew in his 1961 Hume's Philosophy of Belief.

    Huminess: 9/10.

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  • Hume's Copy Principle (in philosophy of mind): "all constituents of our thoughts come from experience; all our simple ideas are copies of impressions." HCP is a big axiom that much of his work relies on; this is Hume's empiricism, in miniature. He uses it to test the legitimacy of metaphysical concepts in a similar way to the Fork, and reminiscent of Wittgenstein. I am sad and foolish over this reminiscence, because I realise more and more that the Tractatus isn't as original and invulnerable as it looked when I was 18.

    Source: All over the place, but e.g.
    "Now since all ideas are derived from impressions, and are nothing but copies and representations of them, whatever is true of the one must be acknowledged concerning the other. Impressions and ideas differ only in their strength and vivacity..." (Treatise, I:7)

    Coined by: James Noxon in his 1973 Hume's Philosophical Development: a Study of his Methods?

    Huminess: 9/10.

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  • Hume's dictum (1) (in Metaphysics): "There are no metaphysically necessary connections between wholly distinct, intrinsically typed entities". This dictum is a core sceptical doohickey in the combinatoric juggling games called "causality" and "modality". If you take HD as given, you can read failures of necessitation from one thing to another as a sign of their distinctness, which is useful in various places - for instance in finding the number of doohickeys you have to argue about. (Unfortunately 'distinctness' can be given at least five readings, and the truth of HD depends on which one you're hearing at one time.) HD stands at a nexus of current debates - motivating, and motivated by, combinatorial theories of possibility, four-dimensionalism, anti-necessitarianism, etc. It also raises a fairly grave problem for physicalisms which use the idea of supervenience.

    "There is no object, which implies the existence of any other if we consider these objects in themselves, and never look beyond the ideas which we form of them. Such an inference would amount to knowledge, and would imply the absolute contradiction and impossibility of conceiving any thing different. But as all distinct ideas are separable, 'tis evident there can be no impossibility of that kind." (Treatise, Book I:III)

  • Coined by: David Lewis in his 1986 On the Plurality of Worlds.

    Huminess: 7/10. (While it is a strong generalisation of a view he did hold (generalising as it does across any relation between any entities - including e.g. facts; reading "metaphysical necessity" out of his talk of "implication"; and taking his idea of distinctness not to be mere numerical distinctness), HD is now more often applied to possibility, and most often used for distinguishing properties. It's unclear he would have gone in for this.)

  • Hume's dictum (2) (in meta-ethics): "judgments of fact, apart from desires that might accompany them, do not move us in any way". This is the "motivational inertia of belief" thesis, aimed squarely against moral rationalisms. My favourite word for these positions (one qualified form of which I endorse) is sentimentalism. HD is a mirror of Hume's Law (below): "since there is an is-ought gap, and since reason deals only with matters of fact: one cannot use pure reason to ascertain moral principles."

    "I shall endeavour to prove first, that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will... Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." (Treatise, Book II:3)

    Coined by: Unknown. Possibly this.

    Huminess: 6/10. The attribution of this view - and an entailed moral noncognitivism - to Hume has been challenged by several good scholars of his morals (e.g. Rachel Cohon).

  • Hume's dictum (3) (in comparative psychology): "when assessing whether some psychological capacity is shared between humans and animals, (1) we should adopt competence criteria that can be fairly applied to both; and (2) set competence criteria for vaguely-defined capacities not to the highest ranks of human performance, but rather only to the typical performan ce of e.g. children." Acts as a counterpoint to Morgan's Canon - which is Occam's Razor for animal minds: "assume animal s lack higher processes if experiments fail to establish them" (Both principles are useful: Buckner suggests using both to navigate between anthropomorphisation and anthropocentrism.)

    "When any hypothesis . . . is advanc’d to explain a mental operation, which is common to men and beasts, we must apply the same hypothesis to both; and as every true hypothesis will abide this trial, so I may venture to affirm, that no false one will ever be able to endure it.

    The common defect of those systems, which philosophers have employ’d to account for the actions of the mind, is, that they suppose such a subtility and refinemen of thought, as not only exceeds the capacity of mere animals but even of children and the common people in our own species.
    " (Treatise, Book II:16)

    Coined by: Cameron Buckner in this cool paper.

    Huminess: 7/10.

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  • Hume's maxim (in epistemology / science): "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". In which Hume founds a powerful proto-Bayesian tradition, just to question one kind of unusual claim: miracles. (In the detail, he finds it can never be rational to believe in miracles.) As you can imagine, this gets wielded in atheist circles a lot. The Bayesians have spilled much ink over the argument (cf. Hume’s Abject Failure). Thus as recently as 2003 the view had to be defended at book-length.

    "In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence... The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that case, there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior." (On Miracles, Part 1)

    Coined by: Himself (see brackets in that source). Still gets called "Hume's dictum" (4) sometimes.

    Huminess: 7/10? (Since Robert Fogelin calls the above, standard interpretation of On Miracles as apriori a 'gross misreading'.)

  • Hume's Theorem: Related formalisation of Hume's Maxim. From Sobel (1991).

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  • Hume's Maxim of Conceivability: "Conceivability implies [metaphysical] possibility." Held by many people before Hume, not least Descartes a full hundred years earlier, but never mind primacy, we're in the get-close-to-our-hero business.

    Tis an establish'd maxim in metaphysics, That whatever the mind clearly conceives includes the idea of possible existence, or in other words, that nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible. We can form the idea of a golden mountain, and from thence conclude that such a mountain may actually exist. We can form no idea of a mountain without a valley, and therefore regard it as impossible."

    Coined by: Thomas Reid, in a way, since he addressed his attacks on the MoC to Hume rather than any antecedents.

    Huminess: Yes.

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  • Hume's Postulate: "The assumption that interesting probabilities can only be obtained from completely straightforward evidence." Cool move, specifying that inductive logic can only be properly applied given good epistemic positions, minimising theory-ladenness.

    Source: Maybe:
    Our reason must be consider'd as a kind of cause, of which truth is the natural effect; but such-a-one as by the irruption of other causes, and by the inconstancy of our mental powers, may frequently be prevented" and None but a fool or madman will ever pretend to dispute the authority of experience, or to reject that great guide of human life." (Treatise, IV:1)

    Coined by: Ian Hacking, in his 'Linguistically Invariant Inductive Logic'. He's a remarkable man; though he accepts the Postulate, he goes on to develops a logic that doesn't need it for anyone who really doesn't want to use it.

    Huminess: 5/10

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  • Hume's Law (in meta-ethics): "you can't get an ought from an is". Logical thesis asserting that you can't deduce moral conclusions from non-moral premises. An early identification of the naturalistic 'fallacy'. The is-ought gap has come under fire since its forty years of hegemony (c.1910-1950), the best being Hilary Putnam's work on "thick" concepts. There's a great discussion of how HL can still be defended here.

    In every system of morality ... all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence.

    For as this
    ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason." (Treatise, Book III:1.)

    Coined by: RM Hare's 1963 Freedom and Reason. (HL is also known as "Hume's Guillotine", from Max Black (1964) and "Hume's Rule" (1977), both of which imply that insisting on the total division of the two is an active stance - one is guillotining naturalistic theories, rather than just describing a gap.)

    Huminess: 7/10.


There are many Humes out there. There is Hume the epistemologist, or more exactly the epistemologist whose project 'failed' because he lacked the philosophical resources of the twentieth century — namely, either a Fregean or (late) Wittgensteinian theory of meaning and language. There is Hume the skeptic. Then there is the Hume who is held up as the darling of free market, laissez-faire capitalism. I prefer to think of Hume as a realist, or, and this may express it better, a hyper-realist. Yes Hume is a skeptic, but why is he a skeptic?"

– Jeffrey Bell

"[Hume's] empiricism is a sort of science fiction avant la lettre. As in science fiction, one has the impression of a fictive, foreign world, seen by other creatures - but also the presentiment that this world is already ours, and those creatures, ourselves... Science or theory is an inquiry, which is to say, a practice; a practice of the seemingly fictive world that empiricism describes."

– Gilles Deleuze, mad, brilliant thing to say

It doesn't stop there. Hume talk is usually about the Analytic Hume, the quintessential sceptical naturalist enshrined above, the weighty figure who lends himself to the crunchy formalism and speculative parsimony of our time. But! this is an odd, selective reading of his work. (A 'shadow history', in Richard Watson's helpful phrase.)

So there's a surprising movement to reclaim Hume as Continental humanist and nominalist. (Look at the fucking title of this book!) These readings are a bit less shadowy, since they are well aware that they're reconstructing when they read, and since they're in the habit of tagging readings of philosophers with the reader's name (e.g. "Deleuze's Hume"; "Zizek's Hegel"). I unwittingly participated in this move when I was starting to teach myself Continental stuff. (For examples, see here or here.)

The revisionists point out that Hume neither solves nor dismisses many of the problems he raises (e.g. of induction, morals, causality, identity). He doesn't view this failure of (his) philosophy as a cause for angst, either. He's anti-foundationalist, anti-transcendental, psychologistic, "fundamentally aesthetic" - thus, one of them, or near enough. They overlook his being a enthusiastic experimentalist because he does this pragmatically and with irony. Best of all, personal identity is underdetermined and unstable ("upon a more strict review of the section concerning personal identity, I find myself involv'd in such a labyrinth, that, I must confess, I neither know how to correct my former opinions, nor how to render them consistent"). This all suggests irony.

The Continental Hume first appeared ages ago, in a 1953 book by the outsider's outsider, Deleuze. He talks about Hume as an early phenomenologist, a 'transcendental empiricist', of all things. This is bizarre because I had taken empiricism to be the philosophy of looking outward, of trying not to be just a subject. ("Empiricism is by no means a reaction against concepts ... On the contrary, it undertakes the most insane creation of concepts ever." - GD) He's a gnomic and speculative writer, full of needless neologism and sententious contortions; but the project that Deleuze's Hume undertakes is super-original, and genuinely can be found in the books. That project consists in the questions "how do the multiplicity of ideas in the imagination become a system?" (which sounds like what we now call the Binding problem); "How is the subject (human nature) constituted within the given?" - without transcendental principles, how can a person more than the sum of their ideas arise? - and "How can things like us be ampliative, get past today's sunrise to tomorrow's, etc?")

In brief: "Nature causes human nature - which then governs itself oddly and creatively. "We are habits, nothing but habits – the habit of saying ‘I’. Perhaps there is no more striking answer to the problem of the Self. "We are made of involuntary associations and imagination. Reason is passive; perception is passive; therefore only imagination is active and powerful. Belief is the application of habits, our instinctively going beyond the given. "Belief and invention are the two modes of [natural] transcendence." Imagination is power is madness." It's a charming picture.

One thing I really dislike about postmodern stuff is when it totally ignores Nature, goes off to hide inside its anthropocentric, irreferential, politicised bubble. Deleuze does not do this, and - no matter how many poststructuralist themes you project on to him - Hume certainly doesn't.


The appropriations are also celebrations - we are all crowding to get close to him - flattering loudly, saying how similar we are to him! in the hope of approval.


as per

as per usual, of journeys, remembrance, death, love
"stars, blood, soul". on you go again.

were the whole of your poetries
a pitiful corner of the real and potential world.

Whitman's loud prancing, Breton's vomit,
Ginsberg's pissy apocalypse?

severed prose for lazy ponces
selected razors for slight minds.

comes from allergic living. Write about normality all you like
it's no realer for description.

of word-wrapping repels ordinariness,
negates as it affirms.

in ordinary life more than I can manage.
I amn't wonderful enough to be happy with just sense.

Ahl al-Kutub

We people of the books
agree on nothing -
but all disagree with the
pyre and the gag.

All good books are holy
- but criticism more.

spring miscellany

Charlotte Salomon (1942), '#4835', detail from the incredible 'Life? or Theatre?'

A classic is a book that someone very powerful once said was good.


OOF. A friend once nicknamed me "Ellsworth". This is a brilliant insult; Ellsworth Toohey is the villain of Ayn Rand's Fountainhead - he's a fake socialist, a grand demagogue, and wolf in sheep's ideology. Despite his public moralising, he's one of her Übermenschen - a brutal, self-actualised, and enormously manipulative spirit - and thus a Worthy Opponent for her pet mavericks. His role in the book is risibly didactic: "Yes, my heroes are assholes," Rand tells us, "but look how much worse they are when they pretend to be good!"


LOL. This is from a speech by the old pope, against gay marriage and queerdom and other good things:

People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but something that they make for themselves.

Thing is, stripped of sarcasm (and the assumption of an essentialist audience), this is actually an objective statement of pomo people's outlook! You could attribute this exact statement to a Stonewall spokesperson or Judith Butler without raising comment. This is funny.



With the recognition of the massive role of the enteric nervous system in constituting the self, mind-brain identity theorists will now be required to call themselves "mind/brain-gut identity theorists".

With research on the potential effects of the microbiome on human behaviour progressing apace, further regulatory additions are not ruled out at this time. (e.g. "Mind/brain-gut-microbe identity".)


CONTRA. One of my lecturers at Aberdeen was signatory to this historic document.

It's quite the roll call to be on (alongside Sen, Giddens, Kaldor, Robinson). Reading it makes me proud to be associated with the discipline, for once. However, the journal that re-published it placed it alongside a piece called "How could 364 economists be so wrong?" or some crap, so posterity has some work to do.


SQUICK. Learned about two absolutely horrible disorders today:

  • The teratocarcinoma. (A cancer that tries to grow an embryo inside you. They've been known to feature eyes and teeth.)

  • Infant inguinal hernia. (i.e. A burst groin.) Happens in 1/6 of preemie baby boys.


PHALL. Best summary analysis of modernism I've ever seen:

[In the early C20th,] the glorious unity between...imagination and sight, intellectualism and love, and self and family was destroyed by unrelenting disease and death. In its place arose a culturewide self-protection in form, abstraction and misogyny. Deprecate a joyful woman as "ordinary" because you cannot see her beauty. If the world is full of hidden riches, do not see them as eathly constellations but exploit them for gain. If the visible world is a miracle, rename it a wasteland before it has a chance to decay or die. If you risk loving your family, declare domesticity insupportable in case that family should disappear. And if you are in any danger of knowing, valuing, loving yourself, trade in such knowledge for the ineffable, immeasurable, annihilating sublime, for that is pure and invulnerable to desire, and hence incapable of causing disappointment. Above all, value freedom -  from love, desire, family, objects - for then you will be immune to contingency and context: you will truly be a Ding an sich. And if a certain kind of art can create this feeling, then make that art your goal.

- Wendy Steiner

You could put this more briefly - as "Modernism was phallogocentric" - but in doing so you'd lose the thought's wit, emotion and persuasiveness.


SHOCKER. Turns out that my apparently ascetic, countercultural morals entail worldly ambition. (Said morals: "anti-real satisficing pluralist consequentialism".) This is disorientating. For a full decade of my short life I was fated to be a bohemian academic contra: I was raised on punk's diluted critical theory, imbibed Pilger and Chomsky at 14, was an antitheist by 15, etc. As with many anti-capitalists, my rejection of standard lifestyles was only partly about capitalism, as much about trying to express myself. The options for my adult life were, then, third-sector work; art; or academia. Once I became a utilitarian, only the first of these seem maximal - and once I studied the history of foreign aid (and charity generally) even that looked dodgy.

The usual route to careerism is simple and contemptible:

How punk leads to careerism:
Step 1) Moral outrage at the state of the world.

Step 2) Contrarian rejection of the Script. (i.e. of consumerism, status acquisition, casual selfishness, the nuclear family, nationalism, patriarchy, and the globe's obsession with "practicality", a.k.a productivity.)

Step 3) Learn economics. Learn about the historical failure of aid and revolutionary politics, but also about effective altruism.

Step 4) Meta-contrarian rejection of the scripted rejection. (In particular, embrace practicality as a moral necessity.)

Step 5) Grasp idea of professional philanthropy. Swallow disdain of private sphere for the greater good.

Step 6) Career. Give as much as possible to demonstrably life-changing charities.

There is an at least ok socialist critique of professional philanthropy. (A longer post about it is forthcoming.) We cannot reduce moral responsibility to the cash nexus: we have awful experience with systems that allow one to buy absolution. Also, working in oil or speculative finance is plausibly too harmful, even given the considerable donations it yields. But this remains the single most powerful way an individual can redress global economic inequality - and it doesn't preclude social activism if you think that's an effective route to making the world suck less.


Revolution is the lie that wants to be true.


OH. We have tentative reason to believe that severe calorie restriction extends lifespan. If the evidence continues to build, we'll have to slightly re-evaluate the cruel dietary strictures women face as a result of pathological body standards. You could argue that dieting - that sadistic hundred-year calorie-restriction project - produced more bad, oppressed years of life, but it's still a confounder.


RETCON. Rewritting two of my big pieces atm, watch these spaces: my lengthy gush about Joanna Newsom and my measured estimation of Scottish independence. The changes are mostly stylistic, though I am now openly in favour of the latter.


GRR. A nasty little Platonist equivocation hidden in our language: when we use the word "ideal" we risk evoking two very different senses: ideal as in abstract, and ideal as in best.


I still quite like the idea, although — as with other conceptual art projects — perhaps as much is achieved by describing it as by actually creating it.

- Julian Baggini

talking about ritually burning his mouldy copy of the Britannica.


HOMONYMITY. Some philosophers have a problem: you can't easily google them because pop stars get in the way.

  • Neil Tennant, philosopher of mathematics at Ohio State, is not a Pet Shop Boy.
  • Michael Lockwood, philosopher of physics, is not Fiona Apple's guitarist.
  • Robert Plant, metaphilosopher and Continentalist, is not in Led Zeppelin.

Though obviously Charles Taylor has a rather larger problem.



 I'm a fan of philosophy, but only a student of economics. A spy at your service.



So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of Eden...
a flaming sword which turned every way,
to keep the way of the tree of life

- Genesis 3:24

there's something wrong with everything
in this post-lapsarian land.
standing east of what he thinks is eden
stands the fire brand.

ward me, terrible agent;
stop up our eden's ears,
justice itself, flame left long,
withstand lyrical jeers.

no anchor put to windward
no philosophy onstage;
many men, falling foully,
all phonelines engaged.

Consider the Menshevik; do recall the wet,
Ta Thu Thau the Girondin,
dispensed-with, soon-null sets.
so too next time, I bet.


I am the offending article.

So redescribed, transmuted,
I haunt, heedless, automatic, unfeeling.
My actions are oppressive.
The memory of my actions is oppressive.
My gaze is oppressive.
The idea of my gaze is oppressive.
My existing oppresses.
My longevity promises to.
I am deep in debt and they do not
make my currency anymore.

So I sing, must thus roll.

demon denominalisations, or, the vicious verbing

Suddenly monied,
we got pilled-up:

He necked them all
so I kneed him.

Newly enemied, he knifed me;
Newly knifed, he was defriended.

He gunned me for my demogoguing;
I gerrymandered his face.

Entreating, he sexted sexily
(I pencilled it in).

We dialogued long, drank our dranks,
youtubed the workshopped process.

Newly employed by shady intelligencers
We actioned when ordered.

Renditioneering, they quickly
signatured what we told them to signature.

In the end we'll all nuke together.
It will impact you, but not for long.


I have been reading, Q1 2013

(c) Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c.1570)

As before, loads of non-fiction and no poetry. Grading system:

1/5: No.
2/5: For enthusiasts?
3/5: Skim.
4/5: Read receptively.
4.5/5: Exceptional, but one readthrough is enough.
5/5: Read it now, slowly, and probably repeatedly.

  • Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell. Was impressed by this, but I also felt a little contempt. It has features befitting a great book: stunning detail, perfectly historicised prose, engaging characters, intricate narrative structure, embrace of multiple genres. It's too clean, somehow. Though it depicts us being preyed on by us at our worst; though its dystopic future is a plausible extrapolation from our current world-system, it's not as challenging as it thinks it is. Pop-Hegel, pyrotechnic Joyce. On structure: there are ten sudden and non-linear narrative shifts, moving back and fore through four or five centuries in a world which almost matches our history up to 2000CE. These sections are connected by each having a reader (the opening sea journal being read by the Romantic composer, whose letters are obsessed over by the journalist, whose memoir is seen by the hack editor, whose tale is seen as an ancient film by the saintly clone, who is remembered as a god in the post-apocalypse story that is as far forward as we see. (They are also connected by a nice reincarnation overlay - but apart from giving brutal history more chances to be brutal to the same people and giving matters a hint of fatalism, I don't really get it.) The bit with the composer Frobisher is my favourite strand: he transcends his cheeky bohemian archetype and becomes horribly tragic despite his pig-headedness and camp pretention. The book's last line, returning to the original C19th narrator, is a good summary of the book's wounded, pessimistic collectivism: "He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’ Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?" So: Enjoyable, ambitious, occasionally profound, unsatisfying. 4/5

    (PS: Think about how weird the phrase 'undeniably impressive' is. So mean.)

  • Still Life with Woodpecker (1980) by Tom Robbins. Funny, cynical comedy about the politically radical hippies. DeLillo on MDMA (if he had less of a problem with women). The narrator is loud (talking to his typewriter and the moon) in the manner of Douglas Adams but with subtler prose. ("It worked. Mongooses did kill the rats. They also killed chickens, young pigs, birds, cats, dogs, and small children. There have been reports of mongooses attacked motorbikes, power lawn mowers, golf carts, and James Mitchener. Hawaii had traded its rat problem for a mongoose problem... Society had a crime problem. It hired cops to attack crime. Now society has a cop problem.") While it mocks New Age politics, Robbins still loves an outlaw and a weirdo, and so he takes on their anarchic personal project, to "preserve insanity" and all that. ("A better world has gotta start somewhere. Why not with you and me?") The book's conclusion is funny and irresponsible: roughly that, when faced with a conflict between social activism and romantic individualism (as we all always are), ditch the former. Man. 3/5.

  • [A bunch of works of philosophy of essential indexicals.] Interesting stuff. It's an oddly light-hearted debate, I suppose because the wry John Perry got to set the tone. I'm now convinced that (some) indexicals are irreducible, and need to be included as a base ontological category, if you're into base ontological categorisation. So that makes for three types of things in fundamental reality: physical units, qualia, and (some) indexicals. 3/5.

  • The 80,000 Hours website. Graduates attempt to maximise the good one can do with a life (within the system). I don't endorse every part of their bright-eyed gradualist careerism - but it's broadly the correct way to live, so I joined up. (For something more substantive, try Will Crouch's piece on the ethics of career choice.) 4/5.

  • Edge Magazine's Answers 2013. A portrait of the worst things in the world by some of the cleverest people in it. Loads of people went for the cheap way out and said "We should worry about too much worrying", which is true. Quality varies: these are the most astonishing bits. 4.5/5.

  • Is that a Fish In Your Ear? (2012) by David Bellos. Great strident stuff, wrestling against the prevailing pessimistic dogmas of English lit and ling. (e.g. "We can never fully understand each other as individuals or cultures." "Truth is just power.") This is a poppy treatment of his work, but he stills manages to pack in a lot of brilliant (original?) theory, a refutation of Sapir-Whorf in four pages, and lots of charming stats about the state of world language today. I imagine he's a great teacher - provocative, clear and original. 4.5/5

  • Read aloud: And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie. My first go with her. Didn't guess the baddie. 3/5

  • The March of Unreason (2005) by Dick Taverne. Good and grumpy attack on the strange alliance of anti-vaxers, environmentalists, and anti-globalisers that attack science when it shows up their ideologies. Greenpeace's internal mechanics turn out to be quite Stalinist. Rorty is cited in this - as a man of unreason -and Taverne's whole chapter on postmodernism misses the point profoundly, but still. Optimistic in the manner of successful scientists. 3/5.

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahneman. Gentle collation of forty years' work on systematic errors in the human mind. Basically a quieter, less hostile version of The Black Swan (which was based in equal measure on Kahneman's research and Classical stoicism). I confess to being a bit obsessed with the Heuristics and Biases program. They are hard ideas to grasp, no matter how they are presented, and since the science he presents is solid - and vital for the prosecution of a halfway rational life - I'll be back. 5/5.

  • Kluge (2009) by Gary Marcus. A rare beast: a funny and humane work of evolutionary psychology. Part of the cognitive bias project and so I am mad for it. 4/5

  • [Loads of Critical theory, Queer theory, Race studies, two sociology dictionaries, a lot of Tumblrs, and a shower of political philosophy], for my piece on Liberationism. 2/5

  • The Social Construction of What? (1999) by Ian Hacking. Wonderful. Balanced and humane analysis of the usually partisan matter of constructionism. I've been sympathetic to SC for years (anyone who looks closely at gender must be), but he is the first scientific constructionist to not irritate me. He gives an illuminating logical analysis of the different kinds and many muddled uses of the idea. He concludes that, in science at least, construction is a very real and consequential process, one that cannot be dismissed by appeal to the "Context of Justification". This is all the more plausible because (like, say, Bruno Latour), he is clearly very well-informed about the science he discusses. He's fond of the science, even. The section where he tries to navigate the trade-off between realism's history of oppression, and relativism's potential for totalitarian abuse is really touching. (He concludes that he is of the wrong generation to get behind radical constructionisms!) Required reading for anyone who wants to use, or dismiss, the concept. 4.5/5. (First two chapters 5/5.)

  • Unspeak (2006) by Steven Poole. Startling and witty linguistic analysis of modern politics' framing. ("UNSPEAK - mode of speech that persuades by stealth, E.g., climate change, war on terror, ethnic cleansing, road map.") Poole is a model for political writing in his eloquent, empirical, reasoned rage. It is a product of the time - attacking New Labour and the Bush administration in particular - but its principles transfer to today. Enough to radicalise anyone. I've struck off "ethnic cleansing", "community" and "West Bank barrier" from my active vocabulary, so should you. 4.5/5

  • Everything Zach Weiner has published online, including his reading lists (2005-13). He's just a really inspiring guy. A literature graduate, now studying physics, his webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has an amazing wry grasp of basically every academic field. His jokes are sceptical and romantic, puerile and hyperintelligent. (Unlike most topics, there are not enough jokes about economists being bastards!) His science podcast with his wife is badly recorded but always worthwhile, his Youtube group is always funny and often transcendent, and even many of his blogged offcuts are charming- see in particular this one about the future of the library. /mancrush. 4/5

  • How to be an Existentialist (2011) by Gary Cox. Chatty, trite, and presumptuous. ("Young people are stupid", "disabled people should stop moping" "political correctness is oppressing me".) It is at least trying to process the massive abstractions into an accessible intro, but ends up childish and uncritical. He's a tenured academic, too! Taken as systematic description of the real world, Existentialism is a fruitless neo-Kantian mess. Taken as extreme postwar poetry or stoic-fictionalist cognitive stance, it is beautiful and stark. 2/5.

  • My Uncle Oswald (1979) by Roald Dahl. Comic novella about raping famous men for money. I got appalled at this here. 3/5. (1/5 if you're sensitive to blithe horror.)

  • Social Identity (2003) by Richard Jenkins. Was drawn in by the cute epigrams ("Everybody needs somebody"), but this is turgid. Sociology/anthropology mix, producing an airless, evidence-poor citation-circle-jerk. Reading around, I find this to be typical of the field. 1/5.

  • 'The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth About Morality & What to Do About It" (2010) by Joshua David Green. The first PhD I've ever read: a witty and authoritative piece of meta-ethics. He surveys almost every large approach under the criteria of strong naturalism, and concludes that anti-realist utilitarianism is the least unsatisfying - which is handy, since I just read 377 A4 pages, and anything that long had damn well better confirm my prejudices. 4.5/5


"People" (2012) by Alan Bennett

- Bennett's Dottie Stacpoole

You go to a Bennett play, you expect the inherent tragedy of progress, that's the deal. Before I saw People, I gave the following slightly cynical prediction of its plot: "Rich people larking about, paradoxically raging against the system, poignant ending regarding the inevitable decay of grandeur." This is not exactly right. The play is his usual warm, satirical tragicomedy, but it's not nostalgic, instead looking like nihilism. (The humour left me a bit cold, too. It's panto calibre: bishop on a porn set, cackling old lady, slack-jawed tourists.) If anything, it's touting the inherent tragedy of conservation.

So: A grand decaying house is to be sold - or given to the National Trust. But the public-minded people are more awful than the oily City shark. Everyone hates 'people': "People spoil things." The haughty, reclusive, indecisive lead, Dottie Stacpoole, is another in a long line of Bennett's quietly, unpretentiously broken people. She lives in the past, never leaving the house, no radio even, reading papers from the 1970s. She's hostile to change, people, and heritage. Her sister is a profane deacon, pushing the deal with the Trust, but also chatting happily about selling Winchester Cathedral. She rages at length. Doom manifests itself regularly, in the rumbling of the hollow coal shafts below the manor. The backing cast are underdeveloped - for instance, Dottie is supposed to connect with the porn makeup artist, but she's sketched too sparsely. After a comedy-of-errors porn shoot, the Tories retract their offer. Dottie capitulates, becoming a bitter and perversely devoted tour guide to her home. ('Undramatic defeat'; another motif of his.)

The Trust's an unexpected target for him - brave, in a way. (Dottie notes that the National Trust's audience is almost identical to the Anglican Church's flock. But the Trust's faithful also overlap enormously with the audience of a National Theatre production of a Bennett play...) They sell "a pretend England" - the real thing often sad and unremarkable, but at least allowed to slip away, in time. The protagonist, and the play, try to resist the stock metaphor - the house as metonym for Country - but fails to parry it. It's too obvious, too convincing. Dottie is faced with two bad options - actually one option, with two spins: give in to money directly, or to a commoditised public institution. The 80s are taken to be a grand pivot in our civilisation, when "things" (e.g. health, education, employment, welfare) could "no longer be taken for granted". Never mind Bennett-the-historian attacking a giant conservation project: that contradiction is minor compared to the still-bizarre spectre of Thatcherism, the conservatism that violently tore down the past in favour of unprecedented, inhumane things. So one of People's villains is the Trust as consequence of Thatcher.

The other is related, but much less worthy of attack: simply, self-conscious public history. Doors flung open; interactivity; the ability to see anything. (Compare "everything has a price".) More than the noble political stuff above, Dorothy just wants privacy. (The cause of her retreat from the world, from 'people', is a miscarriage some fifty years before. But it's only sketched, and it's implied she never had much enthusiasm for her life.) Call it the Trust-as-voyeur. The Trust-as-transparency, as Google.

In the face of these two villains? Death. People is not an argument in favour of death, but only just. At more than one stage Dottie gets nihilistic: "bring it on" (where "it" is the End, The Future, as represented by oily monied Tories). The act of preservation is presented as ludicrous, with Kipling's piss and Cilla Black's childhood home treated with fossilising reverence. Again, it's not the past they're yearning for, just a time when things could be taken for granted.

Is decay authentic? Yes - unless you apply cosmetic dust and mould, as the Trust supposedly do.

The play takes place after the battle's lost, but there are small victories. Dottie tells no-one about her priceless, "Henry VIII" rosary - and gives it away as a fond token, without identifying it. This is an amazing conceit, first because it treats the priceless casually, a powerful, pre-Thatcher action; and second because it is Dottie's rebellion within the Trust's victory, an instance of literally taking the past for granted.

In her hostility to Heritage, Dottie shows modernist spark: she tries to shock the Trust away with the porn shoot, but they turn out to be "wholly unembarrassed by the seedy or the disreputable", these days. The Trust is the real Modernist force, holding that "Nothing is not visitable. That at least the Holocaust has taught us". This steely pragmatism yields another very good image: by recording and replaying the noise of the house's coal tectonics, the National Trust can co-opt even doom itself.

So People's contradiction - love the past, hate the Trust - is only apparent. Bennett knows and owns the past's emotional power, and thus hates the conservation industry insofar as it is an industry, inauthentic and controlling. People is silly and provocative. But it's venomous too. It yearns for the reversal of what we call Thatcherism, though it gives us absolutely no hope of this happening.

"Some plays seem to start with an itch, an irritation, something one can't solve or a feeling one can't locate. With People it was a sense of unease when going round a National Trust house and being required to buy into the role of reverential visitor."
- Bennett

"It’s sad that the world is very commercial but we need money to do our conservation work and if we are going to save beautiful places, we need to have the funds to do that. That is just a regrettable realpolitik of life. If we could do it without money, rest assured we would."
- Ivo Dawney, director of the National Trust


study in usb sticks lost at my workplace

Black telescopic macho toy, 4GB:
Primary school lesson plans, LGBT materials, and Beyoncé's discography.

Cartoon flowers on white, 512MB:
A man's CV in Czech, alone.

Sleek redblack, no bigger than it ought to be, 8GB:
I ate your children - and what's more they are happier now.

Clearplastic 'Silicon Power', 1GB
Passworded; not for you. Filenames evoke the particular banality of Property work.

Green squidgy Chibi with a thin white extending tongue, 2GB:
Work on the Anammox bacteria disguised as denitrifiers, nitrate reduction to dinitrogen gas via nitrite and ammonium.

Massive 90s red plastic, 32MB:
Tab for Maggie May and Ticket to Ride. Beginner's German materials.

Turqoise switchblade, "0.5GB":
Esoteric file formats: Jar files. LSTs, IVSs, .gzs. I draw blanks, no association.

Plastiglass Sleek: 'ANTIVIRUS', 4GB:
Top Gun.mp4, a resignation letter, a rant about the ex-employer in question in Estonian.

Sleek redblack again:
Sports "science". An e-book called 'Strength and Power'.

Bright blue telecscopic macho toy, 4GB:
Protocols for programming a PDP. The cleaning rota at Topman.

Just the naked circuit with the jack of all bus jacks, 512MB:
DaemonTools up to no good. Brazilian and Portuguese passports, Saudi visa. The smell of money.

Gaffa tape and hope, DEADFORMAT NOSTALGIA, 1GB:
The menu of a competitor.

Chunky black, more a train rotator than a switch, 1GB:
"Biletas i Glazga." Torrent of the last Arctic Monkeys. Laddish photos from Tenerife.

Amber switchblade with epileptic blue LED, 2GB:
Papers on the role of calcium in the brain.

Needlessly elaborate hinge-and-cap, 4GB:
Eurocopter blueprints.

White ergonomics, 1GB:
Years of boarding passes and three Spanish arthouse films.

Black stanleyknife 'Sony', 16GB:
A price list of obscure rock albums. Four pictures of Toby jugs.

Greyblue maxell with her redlight on, 8GB:
The complete David Attenborough's Life Stories.

Decrepit tech. Black and silver a lá 2000AD, 128MB:

Transparentred, circuitous, 2GB:
Signed landlord documents and one soft porn film of 50mins.

Switchblade in chrome, from a roustabout, 4GB:
Powerpoints on advanced actuarial maths and a boarding pass to the Caribbean.

Switchblade in chrome, 2GB:
Technical documents in Polish. Hans Zimmer's True Romance OST.


works whose titles are their conclusions

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
The Importance of Being Earnest.
My Stepmother is an Alien.
The Only Necessity is Verbal Necessity.
We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families.
What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire.
Lord I Just Can't Keep from Crying.
Every headline.
Everything is Illuminated.
La vita é bella.
Things Fall Apart.

works whose titles are their conclusions and are false

All Quiet on the Western Front
God's Gonna Cut You Down.
I Will Always Love You.
I Will Survive.



heave me away with light iron

Sometimes I say I love irony,
though he'd call me a poof if he overheard.
I suppose I should not love him.

But he's more than a sarky sneer at our soft places:
he is the hope of other minds,
Pyrrho in a harness put out to till the fields.

Bewilder me, world, unseat and unsex,
lead me through cognitive forests with two clearings only:
sweet ironism or pure reason.

In the end I cannot dissolve.
The power now vested is worse vested elsewhere.
Strong admiration of irony is my distance from his distance.


inter faeces et urinam nascimur

On entering The Academy mall, Belmont Street, Aberdeen.

stink a shite in thi shoapin sintr thi day
(place isna taen thi piss na mair)

so yis swither as yis come in: neb-struck, oocha.
cmoan! daunder through! dree the reek poshboy!

Canna staun this globalised a aesthetic, sicht o naewhere
signifyin nithin, £90 jersey an $100 smirk.

Och och noo. Abdy kens abdy shits!
I amna Grampian's Metatron. Ma synthetic Scots is

the lyk of yir synthetic lifiness
aboon fit these folk ken naethin.

Onywauy. "Among piss n shite wir born";
aw thi money comes oot that sea winna buy off that.


Terroir and Milieu

The plant I am today is hard to know.
Nurtured in loam (over-watered,
water-warped, filled with inorganic ideation),

said loam was seminal, certainly.
No one may outrun their given rootstock,
though the young, pollen, uproot anyway,

try bootstrap our own wind, flee town on whatever copter sycamore.
I fend phylloxera, plumb-line roots into deep clay,
strain to stockpile auxin, to bud, fruit, ripen in one day;

branch against the dim light of my loam and chill of this tight clay -
that said, I present this grape.

[NaPoWriMo #1. I will write one poem a day, supposedly. Be sure to follow Johnny and Kit going for it here and here.]