Monday, 14 December 2009

Patrick's Top 6 Books of 2009

Ok, everybody. Seeing as it’s the time of year for lists and ‘best-ofs’ etc. and all types of E4 and Channel 4 hackery I thought I would add my tuppence to the pence. Below are the top three books that influenced me most this year. You might find some of them interesting and some of them not so interesting. Of the books I have read here, I think the following made the most impression on me. Unfortunately, I didn’t get through many novels this year, which is a shame. If I did this last year, I think it would have been a Nabokov only top 6!!!

1. G.W. Leibniz – Philosophical Essays, trans. Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber, Cambridge, IN: Hackett, 1989.

OK, to me Leibniz is one of the most underrated of all philosophers. For me at least, he would probably edge out Nietzsche and come a close second behind Hegel in an all time list. He was probably one of the last universal geniuses we had. As well as being a philosopher of note, he was a diplomat, mathematician, inventor of the calculus, engineer, technological innovator, inventor of binary, and if only for the lack of technology quite possibly would have invented the computer (Look up the ‘Stepped Reckoner’which was and is a mechanical calculating machine!!! ), and general all round polymath. This collection is just brilliant; it contains the ‘Discourse on Metaphysics’ as well as the ‘Monadology’. You can learn tonnes about Metaphysics by reading any of the essays here, and also many of the essays are short if dense. Also much of his texts are in the form of letters which are quite dramatic once you get into them. On many an occasion Leibniz is downright insulting. It is worth looking at his letter to Queen Sophie of Prussia where he patiently explains the history of philosophy to her, in as basic terms as he can muster, through gritted teeth. I guess what I found valuable about Leibniz is that he presents a Metaphysics that can be construed in a radical light. Much has been made in the academy of the critique of metaphysics in recent years, that metaphysics is a dead end, that it is only ever a static enterprise, that it arrests the flux of the world and differences. In no way can one make this claim with Leibniz. Like Heidegger, metaphysics is a much more radicalized affair; Leibniz’s system presents a dynamic and active realization of the nature of reality. He allows us to ask the most traditional philosophical questions - what does it mean to be human, what is reality, what is the nature of existence – in the most radical and innovative way. Highlights in this text for me were his account of force and its relation to inertia. While most people get hung up on Leibniz’s theodicy and his justification of God and this as the best of all possible world, for me these would not be possible without the dynamic of force and inertia between monads. This is something often overlooked in historical summaries of Leibniz’s place in philosophy. Another highlight is Leibniz's meditations on the relativity of space, time and objects. What is most attractive for me is that Leibniz is such an imaginative philosopher; he forces you along with his journey. Reading Leibniz is just downright trippy at times; he places a huge demand on the reader to get a sense of his whole system is discernible in the minutest part. In short, how every monad potentially contains the entire universe!

2. John Milton: Paradise Lost, Harmondsworth, 1996.

It is always dangerous talking about Milton without skirting the danger of going into cliché about rebels and existential angst. While Milton’s Lucifer is certainly a proto-genitor for the tortured existential hero railing against all odds there is so much more to this rich text. Anyway, what I can say in a few words hopelessly fails to do justice to the richness of Paradise Lost. What I took from this stunning work was Lucifer as the essential figure of the human; brooding and vain, stuck somewhere between a desire to be human and a desire to be God. In an odd way, Milton makes humanity the hero of the text. Lucifer knows he will lose his fight with God, but getting his claws and a stake in human beings will alleviate the pain of hell. Nothing is worse than hell after all. The human therefore is his end; it is what gives his existence purpose, in a sense what he aspires to, something lesser than the Gods. For this reason the human is seen as a cosmic battle ground of good and evil. It is never a case of a clear demarcation of the two for Milton. There are no binary opposites here. The human is caught between the stars and the dirt. Milton dialectically presents the best and worst of humanity: a being with a foot in both camps and a home in neither. Milton’s work presents a meditation on the capacity and futility of man’s ambitions at one and the same time. The notion of fruit at the core of this poem presents us with the definitive metaphor of the human condition. Fruit, fruition, power, capacity; these notions, what they achieve and what they fail to achieve, are the heart of any human endeavour. This is why ‘fruit’ is so omnipresent in the arts from poetry, art and drama; fruit presents the perfect metaphor of decay, growth and flourishing and beauty and achievement at one and the same time. Satan’s advises Eve to eat the apple which sets in motion the necessity of human development. Right at human’s inception is a play between freedom and necessity. Without this, humans would not be what we are, we would remain reposed and comfortable in the Garden of Eden without struggle or challenge, safe and harmonious; a mere adornment to the divine. This is Satan’s paradoxical logic, by getting Eve to eat the apple, it opens us to the possibility of challenge and struggle and the attendant wisdom that comes with such experience. Without eating the apple, we would never have grown, we would never reach maturity nor would we ever recognize the limits of our ambitions. Correlatively, Satan is both Sophist and Philosopher at once. Without challenge and struggle we would never reach any form of wisdom about the world, we would only remain in a state of innocence, conversely without keeping ourselves in question and maintaining a sceptical stance to our wisdom we would only revert to an ignorance masquerading as innocence. Other highlights of Paradise Lost include Satan’s speech convincing the populace of hell to rise up once more after their defeat; never a finer sophistic oration will you get in the history of literature. Another highlight would be Milton’s presentation of the irreducible tension, jealousies, insecurities and class war between demons, angels in their relevant hierarchies. One of the most striking scenes is when Satan gets on the archangel Gabriel’s goat, by accusing him for being no more than an obsequious and servile middle manager. I know Milton will never be taken for a feminist but Eve’s eating of the apple, well what can you say, only ‘Good for her’! Milton’s Satan does us the service of showing us truly what we are, caught between the divine and the dirt, between Heaven and Hell.

3. Lucretius: On the Nature of the Universe, trans. Ronald Melville, Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1997

I think this is also a bit of a neglected gem. Although I think Deleuze has made some efforts in rehabilitating it. It is also quite an oddity in the history of philosophy. It has been neglected because its scientific metaphysics obviously seems arcane and twee to the modern world view. Moreover, and as Alain Badiou points out it does not really get a mention on Heidegger’s list in the history of philosophy. This is relevant given Heidegger's long shadow on the humanities. Badiou rightly sees this as somewhat suspect given that Lucretius presents a dynamic metaphysics which does not fit so easily with Heidegger’s history of the metaphysics of presence. Another oddity about this text is that it is an epic poem; one of the few great attempts to salve the difference between philosophy and poetry the sibling rivalry that Plato argued put them both forever in tension. With regard to second claim, and without wanting to downgrade modern science, Lucretius’ brand of stoic philosophy makes a metaphysical claim about the nature of reality in terms of Being qua Being. He was not doing science as we nowadays conceive it i.e. experiments, trial and error etc. Lucretius wants to present an ontology from first principles, one that gives expression to the place of human beings as effects of the the nature of the universe. The modern separation between the ontological and the ethical ala Kant was not an issue here. So what is it that merits reading Lucretius work? I think Lucretius is valuable as a materialist metaphysician, he presents a radically dynamic and strife ridden view of reality. There are only two things for Lucretius, Being and Void. Being is only the collision and contact of atoms in the Void or space. Everything that is the case comes from the inertia of the atomic collisions. This is to say, if there is an event, if something happens, there has to be a collision of indivisible and infinite atoms. While the atoms are small and of varying sizes, they are multiple and generate the events that we take to be real; objects in the world are thus only ever what they are because of their relationality and minimal contact with other objects. Highlights of De Rerum Natura for me would be the alleviation of human mortality in the face of death, also, stylistically Lucretius is up there with the great stylists in philosophy (he would be on a par for me with Nietzsche had he only written more works) Lucretius offers a viscous account of the nature of the universe, it is thick with the sensuality and sensuousness of material experience. Also, I admire the poetic unity of De Rerum Natura , it moves from life to death, from the most high to the most low; death and life are held in fine balance at all stages of existence as well of the cosmic relation of all Beings. In effect, Lucretius has one metaphysical principle that explains all things: that of Being and Void. There is a strange egalitarianism to this; everything from the most high to the lowest is a result of singular instances of the same principles. Thus the human is no more centre of the universe than sheep in a field, fish in the sea or scales on a fish. All of this and 1600 years before Galileo!!

Honourable mentions:
4. Tony Harrison: V. Bloodaxe: Newcastle-on-Tyne: 1989. Tony Harrison’s epic meditation on the letter 'V' presents an exceptional account of class war, internal and external and cultural tensions during the Miner’s Strike.
5. Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials. London: Scholastic Books, 2000-2007. Pullman’s trilogy is special. He sets himself the daunting task of asking how one has a soul in a materialist universe!
6. Ullrich Haase, Starting with Nietzsche, London: Continuum, 2008. This is a brilliant little book. The best and most imaginative introduction to Nietzsche you will find. Clear, concise and original; Haase presents you with an existential Nietzsche who’s ultimate concern is giving expression to our ‘historicity’. Mercifully, it forgoes the usual Nietzsche as proto-fascist and frustrated over man type of stuff.


  1. Great choices Patrick!

    Although there is at least one 'old chestnut' here!! But I am sure the Philosophy and English students will have a lot to say about your interpretation of Milton!

    More philosophically, is this a coded celebration of the 'satanic materialist skinhead windowless monad', fighting for the 'republic of heaven'?

    Neil Turnbull

  2. Leibniz's Philosophical Essays has been sitting on my shelf for about a year (I mysteriously seem to have acquired two copies, if anyone wants one!). You've convinced me to bump it further up my never ending list of things to read.

  3. 'Satanic materialst skinhead windowless monads' Hah hah! 'I'm having that' as you Mancunians say. It would be a great name for a band as well!

    It also was pointed out to me rather quickly that Satan was based on Cromwell and free will monistic protestantism. Not going to go down well over Xmas at home; no, not one little bit!!!

  4. Personally, I seem to be suffering from an inverse ratio situation- an ever increasing pile of books and an ever-decreasing amount of time to read them! Acquiring them from Amazon is the easy part. Strange, since reading is meant to be part of the job!
    I'm currently exploring Zizek's book for the reading group (and have acquired a couple more Zizeks to add to the pile) and am hoping to get along to the reading group next time, which will be an incentive. But sadly, I seem destined to only half read 'academic' books at the moment, while novels are the only books which seem to be completed...
    My New Year's resolution will be to read more academic books to completion! I hope I'm not the only one to suffer from the half-read book syndrome?


  5. I'm currently into Sartre's 'Baudelaire', which seems to be a pretty nice, analytical & philosophical look at this French poet, but I will definitely have to catch up and get hold of your 1st position!