R.I.P. Hector Black

If you have never heard of a man named Hector Black, from Cookeville, Tennessee, I hope you will continue to read this.  Hector died on August 20, 2020, at age 95.  Born in New York City, he served in the Army in World War II.  After the war he studied at Harvard, and began to attend Quaker meetings, being attracted by their non-violent creed.  He and his wife became involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and moved to Atlanta in 1965 with their three daughters, where they protested for racial justice alongside Martin Luther King Jr.  While in Atlanta, they also adopted two more daughters, making a family with five children, all girls.

Continue reading “R.I.P. Hector Black”

Lawyers and Leadership

I am pleased to announce the release of my latest audiobook, Dangerous Leaders: How and Why Lawyers Must be Taught to Lead, by Anthony C. Thompson.

What do the collapse of Enron (2001), the “Bridgegate” scandal (2013), and the Flint water crisis (2016) have in common?  Each incident occurred as a result of multiple failures of leadership.  In particular, there were failures of leadership by decision-makers with legal training.

If you think that sounds like a good topic for a book, you are right.  I am pleased to announce the release of my latest audiobook, Dangerous Leaders: How and Why Lawyers Must be Taught to Lead, by Anthony C. Thompson.  The author is a Professor of Clinical Law at New York University, where he teaches courses related to criminal law, race and leadership, and civil litigation.  A member of NYU’s law faculty for over 20 years, he is also the founding director of NYU’s Center on Race, Inequality and the Law.  The book was originally published by Stanford University Press; the audiobook is from University Press Audiobooks, and it is available at the normal audiobook outlets.  A limited number of promo codes, redeemable on Audible, are available here.

Continue reading “Lawyers and Leadership”

For the love of wisdom (and a free audiobook)

All of us have probably spoken and written the word “philosophy” at various times in our lives.  It might have been when we were teenagers or young adults, at a time when we strove to more clearly define our individual identities by expounding on “our philosophy”, possibly to receive an adult eye-roll in response.  It might have been in college, when we took “Introduction to Philosophy” as an undergraduate.  (I did, and I got the worst grade of my entire college career, but that is another story.  I think I was too young to get it.)  Or it might have been when we encountered the term in studying the foundations of a formalized belief system.

The English word “philosophy” is derived from two Greek roots:  philo- , meaning love, and –sophos, meaning wisdom.  The meaning of our English word is therefore concerned with a “love of wisdom”.  It refers to the pursuit of knowledge about questions that pertain to our existence as human beings: Why do we exist? How should we live?  What is the nature of reality? And so on. 

There is a big world out there

The word “philosophy” is, in short, a rather small door to a very large and profound set of questions.  The pursuit of answers to those questions is by definition speculative.  Those who attempt to answer them cannot do so using empirical methods, as can, for instance, physicists or climatologists.  There is no CERN supercollider in which to bombard neutrons, and no Antarctic ice cores from which to measure concentrations of atmospheric CO2 from 400,000 years ago. 

Philosophical thought is also recursive, in that the philosopher “thinks about thinking”.  In so doing, he or she must begin at first principles, mercilessly stripping away all assumptions and striving to build a consistent logical rhetorical framework “from the ground up”.

The practice of philosophy therefore requires its practitioners to address questions of the greatest profundity, using a logical approach that eschews the assumptions that underly most daily undertakings, and which cannot ever reach a “provable” final conclusion because the fruits of the exercise are not quantifiable. 

Why bother?

There are those who think that such an undertaking, yielding such a result, it not worth the effort.  But despite the absence of hard answers, human beings have been grappling with these questions for as long as they have been “human”: from the ancient Greeks, to the builders of the Egyptian pyramids before them, to Stone Age cave painters and tool makers before them, and on and on back to the most distant pre-history.  One might therefore argue that, despite the fact that you cannot put a bow on it and ever call it “finished”, some sort of philosophical inquiry is a requirement for a full life.  It may come in any number of forms, but at some point it would seem to be as necessary to human life as water.

I was therefore very pleased to narrate The Human Place in the Cosmos, by Max Scheler, for University Press Audiobooks.  Scheler, a German philosopher who died in 1928, was one of the leading voices of phenomenology, or the study of the experience of reality.  He examined traditions ranging from Greek rationalism, to Judeo-Christian theism, to Darwinian natural science, in an effort to answer the questions “What is man?”, and “What is our role in the universe?”.  He proposed as an answer what he called a “philosophical anthropology”.  It was an approach that influenced thinkers as varied as his fellow German philosopher Martin Heidegger, and Karol Wojtyla, later to become Pope John Paul II.

The Human Place in the Cosmos is one branch of a giant philosophical tree.  If you care to take a reflective detour from your everyday life, there are a limited number of free US and UK promo codes that can be redeemed on Audible.  Otherwise, the book is available where audiobooks are sold.  It is not “beach reading”, but it is winter after all, and you might find that the insight is worth the effort.  And if some of the ideas bear repetition (as they probably will from time to time) you can always hit “replay”.

Creating a Language

One of the greatest mysteries about the development of Homo sapiens concerns the acquisition of what is arguably our most important skill: language.  It is regarded by many scientists as the single most critical faculty separating us from the other animals.  It is the attribute that allowed knowledge of discoveries such as tool-making to spread between peoples and across generations, to audiences far larger than those who might have seen something with their own eyes.  But how did our ancestors learn it?  Many questions in science can be answered, or at least investigated, by means of controlled experiments.  Answering the question of how a language is created on that basis would seem to be nearly impossible.

Continue reading “Creating a Language”

Travelogue of a 17th Century Survivor

In the summer of 1627, corsairs from the Barbary Coast sailed about 3,000 miles to Iceland, killed or captured nearly 400 people, and took their captives back to North Africa to sell as slaves.  Ólafur Egilsson, a 65-year old Icelandic Lutheran pastor, was taken in the raid, along with his wife and children.  The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson is his first-person account of how he survived the raid and its aftermath, written after his return to Iceland in 1628.

Continue reading “Travelogue of a 17th Century Survivor”

Looking for a Good Book?

The New York Antiquarian Book Fair is underway at the Park Avenue Armory this weekend.  Among the offerings is a first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), printed in Nuremberg in 1543, the year of the author’s death.

According to The New York Times, the book, which is one of about a dozen copies that are in private hands, is being offered at a price of $2 million.  If that happens to be out of your price range, it can also be found in the usual places, and even in free pdf downloads.  But the alternatives won’t look as good, or feel as good in your hands. Continue reading “Looking for a Good Book?”

Statues without Controversy

The New York Talking Statues Project is now live, in all five boroughs, and all you need to enjoy it is a cell phone and a few minutes.  Go to one of the 35 statues on the website’s map, scan the QR code you will find next to the statue, and the statue will call you and tell you his/her story.

You can hear famous Americans such as Washington, Lincoln, Tubman and Douglass; Continue reading “Statues without Controversy”

e pluribus unum

You may have never seen a silver dollar like the one in the picture above. They are no longer in circulation, and exist in the domain of coin collectors and dealers. But that coin bears a Latin phrase that was the unofficial motto of the United States from 1795 to 1956: “e pluribus unum”, which translates as “out of many, one”. Adopted at the beginning of the republic, the motto has both symbolic and literal meaning. Continue reading “e pluribus unum”