November 2005

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 2: Hegel and Marx. London: Routledge, [1945, 1962, 1966, 1995] 2003. ISBN 0-415-27842-2.
After tracing the Platonic origins of utopian schemes of top-down social engineering in Volume 1 (December 2003), Popper now turns to the best-known modern exemplars of the genre, Hegel and Marx, starting out by showing Aristotle's contribution to Hegel's philosophy. Popper considers Hegel a complete charlatan and his work a blizzard of obfuscation intended to dull the mind to such an extent that it can believe that the Prussian monarchy (which paid the salaries of Hegel and his acolytes) was the epitome of human freedom. For a work of serious philosophical criticism (there are more than a hundred pages of end notes in small type), Popper is forthrightly acerbic and often quite funny in his treatment of Hegel, who he disposes of in only 55 pages of this book of 470. (Popper's contemporary, Wittgenstein, gets much the same treatment. See note 51 to chapter 11, for example, in which he calls the Tractatus “reinforced dogmatism that opens wide the door to the enemy, deeply significant metaphysical nonsense…”. One begins to comprehend what possessed Wittgenstein, a year after the publication of this book, to brandish a fireplace poker at Popper.)

Readers who think of Popper as an icon of libertarianism may be surprised at his remarkably positive treatment of Marx, of whom he writes (chapter 13), “Science progresses through trial and error. Marx tried, and although he erred in his main doctrines, he did not try in vain. He opened and sharpened our eyes in many ways. A return to pre-Marxian social science is inconceivable. All modern writers are indebted to Marx, even if they do not know it. … One cannot do justice to Marx without recognizing his sincerity. His open-mindedness, his sense of facts, his distrust of verbiage, and especially of moralizing verbiage, made him one of the world's most influential fighters against hypocisy and pharisaism. He had a burning desire to help the oppressed, and was fully conscious of the need for proving himself in deeds, and not only in words.”

To be sure, this encomium is the prelude to a detailed critique of Marx's deterministic theory of history and dubious economic notions, but unlike Hegel, Marx is given credit for trying to make sense of phenomena which few others even attempted to study scientifically. Many of the flaws in Marx's work, Popper argues, may be attributed to Marx having imbibed too deeply and uncritically the work of Hegel, and the crimes committed in the name of Marxism the result of those treating his work as received dogma, as opposed to a theory subject to refutation, as Marx himself would have viewed it.

Also surprising is his condemnation, with almost Marxist vehemence, of nineteenth century “unrestrained capitalism”, and enthusiasm for government intervention in the economy and the emergence of the modern welfare state (chapter 20 in particular). One must observe, with the advantage of sixty years hindsight, that F.A. Hayek's less sanguine contemporary perspective in The Road to Serfdom (May 2002) has proved more prophetic. Of particular interest is Popper's advocacy of “piecemeal social engineering”, as opposed to grand top-down systems such as “scientific socialism”, as the genuinely scientific method of improving society, permitting incremental progress by experiments on the margin which are subject to falsification by their results, in the same manner Popper argues the physical sciences function in The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Permit me to make a few remarks about the physical properties of this book. The paperback seems to have a spine made of triple-reinforced neutronium, and cannot be induced to lie flat by any of the usual stratagems. In fact, when reading the book, one must either use two hands to hold it open or else wedge it open with three fingers against the spine in order to read complete lines of text. This is tiring, particularly since the book is also quite heavy. If you happen to doze off whilst reading (which I'll confess happened a few times during some of the more intricate philosophical arguments), the thing will pop out of your hand, snap shut like a bear trap, and fly off in some random direction—Zzzzzz … CLACK … thud! I don't know what the problem is with the binding—I have any number of O'Reilly paperbacks about the same size and shape which lie flat without the need for any extreme measures. The text is set in a type font in which the distinction between roman and italic type is very subtle—sometimes I had to take off my glasses (I am nearsighted) and eyeball the text close-up to see if a word was actually emphasised, and that runs the risk of a bloody nose if your thumb should slip and the thing snap shut.

A U.S. edition of this volume is now back in print; for a while only Volume 1 was available from Princeton University Press. The U.K. edition of Volume 1 from Routledge remains available.


Spencer, Robert. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-013-1.
This book has the worthy goal of providing a brief, accessible antidote to the airbrushed version of Islam dispensed by its apologists and echoed by the mass media, and the relentlessly anti-Western account of the Crusades indoctrinated in the history curricula of government schools. Regrettably, the attempt falls short of the mark. The tone throughout is polemical—you don't feel like you're reading about history, religion, and culture so much as that the author is trying to persuade you to adopt his negative view of Islam, with historical facts and citations from original sources trotted out as debating points. This runs the risk of the reader suspecting the author of having cherry-picked source material, omitting that which argues the other way. I didn't find the author guilty of this, but the result is that this book is only likely to persuade those who already agree with its thesis before picking it up, which makes one wonder what's the point.

Spencer writes from an overtly Christian perspective, with parallel “Muhammad vs. Jesus” quotes in each chapter, and statements like, “If Godfrey of Bouillon, Richard the Lionhearted, and countless others hadn't risked their lives to uphold the honor of Christ and His Church thousands of miles from home, the jihadists would almost certainly have swept across Europe much sooner” (p. 160). Now, there's nothing wrong with comparing aspects of Islam to other religions to counter “moral equivalence” arguments which claim that every religion is equally guilty of intolerance, oppression, and incitement to violence, but the near-exclusive focus on Christianity is likely to be off-putting to secular readers and adherents of other religions who are just as threatened by militant, expansionist Islamic fundamentalism as Christians.

The text is poorly proofread; in several block quotations, words are run together without spaces, three times in as many lines on page 110. In the quote from John Wesley on p. 188, the whole meaning is lost when the phrase “cities razed from the foundation” is written with “raised” instead of “razed”.

The author's earlier Islam Unveiled (February 2003) is similarly flawed in tone and perspective. Had I noticed that this book was by the same author, I wouldn't have read it. It's more to read, but the combination of Ibn Warraq's Why I Am Not a Muslim (February 2002) and Paul Fregosi's Jihad in the West (July 2002) will leave you with a much better understanding of the issues than this disappointing effort.


Thorpe, Peter. Why Literature Is Bad for You. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1980. ISBN 0-88229-745-7.
Techies like myself often have little patience with students of the humanities, particularly those argumentative types ill-informed in anything outside their speciality often found around university campuses. After escaping from an encounter with one of these creatures, a common reaction is to shrug one's shoulders and mutter “English majors…”. I'd always assumed it was a selection effect: a career which involves reading made-up stories and then arguing vociferously about small details in them just naturally appeals to dopey people who those more engaged in the real world inevitably find tedious and irritating. But here's a book written by a professor of English Literature who argues that immersion in the humanities manufactures such people, wrecking the minds and often the lives of those who would have otherwise made well-balanced and successful accountants, scientists, physicians, engineers, or members of other productive professions.

This is either one of the most astonishing exemplars of academic apostasy ever written, or such a dry satire (which, it should be noted, is one of the author's fields of professional interest) that it slips beneath the radar of almost everybody who reads it. Peter Thorpe was a tenured (to be sure, otherwise this book would have been career suicide) associate professor of English at the University of Colorado when, around 1980, he went through what must have been a king-Hell existential mid-life crisis and penned this book which, for all its heresies, didn't wreck his career: here's a recent biography.

In any case, the message is incendiary. A professor of English Literature steps up to the podium to argue that intensive exposure to the Great Books which undergraduate and graduate students in English and their professors consider their “day job” is highly destructive to their psyches, as can be observed by the dysfunctional behaviour manifest in the denizens of a university department of humanities. So dubious is Thorpe that such departments have anything to do with human values, that he consistently encloses “humanities” in scare quotes.

Rather than attempting to recapitulate the arguments of this short and immensely entertaining polemic, I will simply cite the titles of the five parts and list the ways in which Thorpe deems the study of literature pernicious in each.

  1. Seven Types of Immaturity
    “Outgrowing” loved ones; addiction to and fomenting crises; refusal to co-operate deemed a virtue; fatalism as an excuse; self-centredness instead of self-knowledge; lust for revenge; hatred and disrespect for elders and authority.
  2. Seven Avenues to Unawareness
    Imputing “motivation” where it doesn't exist; pigeonholing people into categories; projecting one's own feelings onto others; replacement of one's own feelings with those of others; encouragement of laziness—it's easier to read than to do; excessive tolerance for incompetence; encouraging hostility and aggression.
  3. Five Avenues to Unhappiness
    Clinically or borderline paranoia, obsession with the past, materialism or irrational anti-materialism, expectation of gratitude when none is due, and being so worry-prone as to risk stomach ulcers (lighten up—this book was published two years before the discovery of H. pylori).
  4. Four Ways to Decrease Our Mental Powers
    Misuse of opinion, faulty and false memories, dishonest use of evidence, and belief that ideas do not have consequences.
  5. Four Ways to Failing to Communicate
    Distorting the language, writing poorly, gossipping and invading the privacy of others, and advocating or tolerating censorship.

That's a pretty damning bill of particulars, isn't it? Most of these indictments of the rôle of literature in inducing these dysfunctions are illustrated by fictionalised anecdotes based on individuals the author has encountered in English departments during his career. Some of the stories and arguments for how devotion to literature is the root cause of the pathology of the people who study it seem a tad over the top to this engineer, but then I haven't spent my whole adult life in an English Lit. department! The writing is entertaining and the author remains true to his profession in invoking a multitude of literary allusions to bolster his points. Whatever, it's comforting to believe that when you took advantage of Cliff's Notes to survive those soporific equation-free requirements for graduation you weren't (entirely) being lazy but also protecting your sanity and moral compass!

The book is out of print, but used copies are readily available and inexpensive. Special thanks to the visitor who recommended this book.


Hitchens, Peter. The Abolition of Britain. 2nd. ed. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. ISBN 1-893554-39-2.
History records many examples of the collapse of once great and long-established cultures. Usually, such events are the consequence of military defeat, occupation or colonisation by a foreign power, violent revolution and its totalitarian aftermath, natural disasters, or other dramatic and destructive events. In this book, Peter Hitchens chronicles the collapse, within the span of a single human lifetime (bracketed by the funerals of Winston Churchill in 1965 and Princess Diana in 1997), of the culture which made Britain British, and maintained domestic peace in England and Wales since 1685 (and Scotland since Culloden in 1746) while the Continent was repeatedly convulsed by war and revolution. The collapse in Britain, however, occurred following victory in a global conflict in which, at the start, Britain stood alone against tyranny and barbarism, and although rooted in a time of postwar privation, demotion from great power status, and loss of empire, ran its course as the nation experienced unprecedented and broadly-based prosperity.

Hitchens argues that the British cultural collapse was almost entirely the result of well-intentioned “reform” and “modernisation” knocking out the highly evolved and subtly interconnected pillars which supported the culture, set in motion, perhaps, by immersion in American culture during World War II (see chapter 16—this argument seems rather dubious to me, since many of the postwar changes in Britain also occurred in the U.S., but afterward), and reinforced and accelerated by television broadcasting, the perils of which were prophetically sketched by T.S. Eliot in 1950 (p. 128). When the pillars of a culture: historical memory, national identity and pride, religion and morality, family, language, community, landscape and architecture, decency, and education are dislodged, even slightly, what ensues is much like the “controlled implosion” demolition of a building, with the Hobbesian forces of “every man for himself” taking the place of gravity in pulling down the structure and creating the essential preconditions for the replacement of bottom-up self-government by self-reliant citizens with authoritarian rule by élite such as Tony Blair's ambition of U.S.-style presidential power and, the leviathan where the road to serfdom leads, the emerging anti-democratic Continental super-state.

This U.S second edition includes notes which explain British terms and personalities unlikely to be familiar to readers abroad, a preface addressed to American readers, and an afterword discussing the 2001 general election and subsequent events.


Gingerich, Owen. The Book Nobody Read. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. ISBN 0-14-303476-6.
There is something about astronomy which seems to invite obsession. Otherwise, why would intelligent and seemingly rational people expend vast amounts of time and effort to compile catalogues of hundreds of thousands of stars, precisely measure the positions of planets over periods of decades, travel to the ends of the Earth to observe solar eclipses, get up before the crack of noon to see a rare transit of Mercury or Venus, or burn up months of computer time finding every planetary transit in a quarter million year interval around the present? Obsession it may be, but it's also fascinating and fun, and astronomy has profited enormously from the labours of those so obsessed, whether on a mountain top in the dead of winter, or carrying out lengthy calculations when tables of logarithms were the only computational tool available.

This book chronicles one man's magnificent thirty-year obsession. Spurred by Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers, which portrayed Copernicus as a villain and his magnum opus De revolutionibus “the book that nobody read”—“an all time worst seller”, followed by the discovery of an obviously carefully read and heavily annotated first edition in the library of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland, the author, an astrophysicist and Harvard professor of the history of science, found himself inexorably drawn into a quest to track down and examine every extant copy of the first (Nuremberg, 1543) and second (Basel, 1566) editions of De revolutionibus to see whether and where readers had annotated them and so determine how widely the book, of which about a thousand copies were printed in these editions—typical for scientific works at the time—was read. Unlike today, when we've been educated that writing in a book is desecration, readers in the 16th and 17th centuries often made extensive annotations to their books, even assigning students and apprentices the task of copying annotations by other learned readers into their copies.

Along the way Gingerich found himself driving down an abandoned autobahn in the no man's land between East and West Germany, testifying in the criminal trial of a book rustler, discovering the theft of copies which librarians were unaware were missing, tracking down the provenance of pages in “sophisticated” (in the original sense of the word) copies assembled from two or more incomplete originals, attending the auction at Sotheby's of a first edition with a dubious last leaf which sold for US$750,000 (the author, no impecunious naïf in the rare book game, owns two copies of the second edition himself), and discovering the fate of many less celebrated books from that era (toilet paper). De revolutionibus has survived the vicissitudes of the centuries quite well—out of about 1000 original copies of the first and second editions, approximately six hundred exemplars remain.

Aside from the adventures of the Great Copernicus Chase, there is a great deal of information about Copernicus and the revolution he discovered and sparked which dispels many widely-believed bogus notions such as:

  • Copernicus was a hero of secular science against religious fundamentalism. Wrong!   Copernicus was a deeply religious doctor of church law, canon of the Roman Catholic Varmian Cathedral in Poland. He dedicated the book to Pope Paul III.
  • Prior to Copernicus, astronomers relying on Ptolemy's geocentric system kept adding epicycles on epicycles to try to approximate the orbits of the planets. Wrong!   This makes for a great story, but there is no evidence whatsoever for “epicycles on epicycles”. The authoritative planetary ephemerides in use in the age of Copernicus were calculated using the original Ptolemaic system without additional refinements, and there are no known examples of systems with additional epicycles.
  • Copernicus banished epicycles from astronomy. Wrong!   The Copernican system, in fact, included thirty-four epicycles! Because Copernicus believed that all planetary motion was based on circles, just like Ptolemy he required epicycles to approximate motion which wasn't known to be actually elliptical prior to Kepler. In fact, the Copernican system was no more accurate in predicting planetary positions than that of Ptolemy, and ephemerides computed from it were no better.
  • The Roman Catholic Church was appalled by Copernicus's suggestion that the Earth was not the centre of the cosmos and immediately banned his book. Wrong!   The first edition of De revolutionibus was published in 1543. It wasn't until 1616, more than seventy years later, that the book was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and in 1620 it was permitted as long as ten specific modifications were made. Outside Italy, few copies even in Catholic countries were censored according to these instructions. In Spain, usually thought of as a hotbed of the Inquisition, the book was never placed on the Index at all. Galileo's personal copy has the forbidden passages marked in boxes and lined through, permitting the original text to be read. There is no evidence of any copy having been destroyed on the orders of the Church, and the Vatican library has three copies of both the first and second editions.

Obviously, if you're as interested as I in eccentric topics like positional astronomy, rare books, the evolution of modern science, and the surprisingly rapid and efficient diffusion of knowledge more than five centuries before the Internet, this is a book you're probably going to read if you haven't already. The only flaw is that the colour plates (at least in the UK paperback edition I read) are terribly reproduced—they all look like nobody bothered to focus the copy camera when the separations were made; plates 4b, 6, and 7a through 7f, which show annotations in various copies, are completely useless because they're so fuzzy the annotations can barely be read, if at all.