Five books to read in times of crisis and contemplation

The University of Birmingham Philosophy Department shares five reading recommendations for times of crisis and contemplation.

a selection of book covers of the publications recommended

Luke Brunning recommends Radical Hope by Jonathan Lear

In the late 19th century, the Crow tribe of Native Americans were forced to abandon nomadism and enter a reservation. Plenty Coups, the tribe’s distinguished chief lamented: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” Radical Hope is a nuanced meditation on those last words; of what it means to lose the material and conceptual foundations of one’s flourishing.

Do important ethical ideals, like bravely ‘counting coups’ in war, simply wither away? Do familiar words hang idle in the mouth? Is despair inevitable?

In this incomparable book, Jonathan Lear describes Plenty Coups’ avoidance of both desolation and fury. Although pressured differently, and less absolutely, we too can learn from Lear’s conception of radical hope as “a commitment to the idea that the goodness of the world transcends one’s limited and vulnerable attempts to understand it.”

Nikk Effingham recommends The Meaning of Travel by Emily Thomas

               
                                               

During lockdown, travelling the world may seem a distant memory. But it won’t last forever. With that in mind, I recommend this book as a source of inspiration for future journeys. Thomas’s own trip from Groningen to Alaska is the framing device as she covers all sorts of issues in the philosophy of travel: from the nature of the sublime to the ethics of tourism, from how travel has value to how it put pay to the idea that belief in God was innate. Being a metaphysician, my favourite part was the discussion of maps: can they be just sheets of paper given there are ‘virtual maps’ like Google Earth?

The icing on this baked Alaska are the numerous details, stories, and asides. Little things like learning of famous chicken ghosts, of how George Berkley fought off wolves, or of the science fiction of Cicero make this book all the more enriching.

Henry Taylor recommends Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

               
                                               

One of the most exciting aspects of philosophy is the chance to draw on the insights of other disciplines.  The octopus represents an amazing opportunity to do this, as it is a hyper-intelligent animal, but unlike other hyper-intelligent animals (like chimps), it has a mind that is completely and utterly alien to our own. In this book, philosopher and SCUBA diver Peter Godfrey-Smith takes us on a tour of the octopus mind. It’s an amazing blend of philosophy, marine biology, evolutionary biology and touching personal experience (the bit where an octopus grabs his hand is particularly heart-warming).

Along the way, you’ll learn a torrent of amazing facts about octopuses and their close relatives. Did you know they have three hearts, and green blood? Have you ever wondered how an octopus can change the colour of its skin? Most octopuses die when they’re only a few years old; why are their lives so tragically short? The author also draws on his knowledge of octopuses to answer some profound philosophical questions: what is a mind for? Why do we age? Why must we die? Where did intelligent life even come from?

I love this book. If you want to know how to blend philosophy with science to come up with a truly mesmerising and beautiful view of the world and our place within it, this is a good place to start.

Jussi Suikkanen recommends Minimizing Marriage by Elizabeth Brake

               
                                               

This is a fascinating critical philosophical and ethical exploration of the institution of marriage that leads to very surprising and yet compelling conclusions. It argues, for example, that wedding wows as promises to love are failed promises and a poor commitment strategy. It also suggests that marriage has no inherent moral value but rather its worth is based on care and social support.

Because of this, Brake believes that the liberal reasons to widen the access to the goods of marriage, including state recognition, to same-sex couples also ground an argument for making minimal marriages available for friends, adult care networks and polyamorous groups or otherwise the institution leads to unjust discrimination.’

Jeremy Williams recommends The Trolley Problem Mysteries by F.M. Kamm, with Judith Jarvis Thomson, Thomas Hurka, and Shelly Kagan, and edited by Eric Rakowski.

 The ‘trolley problem’ is undoubtedly among the philosophical puzzles best known to the general public. It was recently made yet more famous thanks to a particularly memorable episode of the sitcom The Good Place, in which one of the characters is forced to live through endless variations of the bizarre and gruesome thought experiment that gives the problem its name. In this thought experiment, an out-of-control trolley (or tram, as Brits would usually say) is hurtling down the track, threatening to kill five people. We can divert it onto a side-track, saving the five, but at the cost of killing one, who happens to be in the way. The trolley problem is the problem of explaining why it is morally permissible (as most agree that it is) to kill by diverting the trolley, when in other cases killing — even to save the greater number — remains intuitively wrong. This excellent book is, unusually, both a great introduction to the relevant issue (albeit sometimes complex), and a cutting-edge contribution to the debate, written by some of the leading figures in the field. The back-and-forth between Frances Kamm, whose lectures form the core of the book, and Judith Thomson, who first coined the term ‘trolley problem’ and whose earlier work was crucial in bringing the puzzle to prominence, is a particular highlight.