Rätt och rättfärdigande: en tematisk introduktion i allmän rättslära

After I walked out of Kammarkollegiet’s auktorisationsprov last October, I sent a joke about going to law school to a friend married to a lawyer. Her response was, “It’s OK, we all have intrusive thoughts sometimes.”

Not that I would actually make a huge life-altering decision just because I found a particular translation assignment appealing, of course. I sent the same joke to the lawyer husband of the aforementioned friend and he observed that legal texts will probably the least likely to get outsourced to machine translation, so not necessarily a bad career move. He’s certainly not wrong!

After I found out I failed the legal translation portion of Kammarkollegiet’s auktorisationsprov, the joke became a bit more serious. Again, I wouldn’t actually make a huge life-altering decision just because I failed a test… but if it was the legal text (and specifically, incorrectly using legal terminology) that knocked me out of the running, I could at least make sure to be better prepared. I found the reading list for an introductory course in business law and dutifully added the most relevant volumes to my TBR, including Christian Dahlman’s brief introductory text Rätt och rättfärdigande: en tematisk introduktion i allmän rättslära.

This one might be even more niche than Den högsta kasten or Språkets myller so literally the only point to me noting it here is for my own recollection. It’s short and it’s nothing I didn’t already have in the back of my head thanks to a background in philosophy, especially since one of my intro courses was taught by a member of the philosophy department who specialized in law. Worth having the vocabulary in two languages, I suppose? Though I don’t think anything in here is the kind of terminology I need for Kammarkollegiet.

What Money Can’t Buy

What Money Can’t Buy was probably one of the first books I read after I moved to Sweden, and it’s been in my library ever since. Every time my eye passed over the title when looking for something new to read, I tried to remember what the book was about and couldn’t; mostly I just remembered being underwhelmed. I thought about it even more often after I finished Debt: The First 5,000 Years back in January this year and decided this time I would be more diligent about putting down my impressions.

Michael J. Sandel hit the popular philosophy market with the book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? based on a long-running course he had been teaching at Harvard. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets is a follow-up that focuses on how moral judgments and free market practices are entangled, based on an article he wrote for The Atlantic on the same topic.

I think what I found frustrating in 2013 was the way Sandel shrugs and seems to just give up on a providing an answer or at least a clear-cut condemnation. (Except in the case of baseball. That’s a topic where Sandel finds the courage of his convictions.) Most of What Money Can’t Buy consists of lists of things that can be purchased, sorted into five rough categories: queue jumping, incentives (which he often compares to bribes, “the cost of doing business,” or indulgences), relationships, advertising (which he calls “naming rights”) and corporate-originated life insurance and the “life settlement” market. The question for each category is then whether or not these things should be available for purchase. Which instance of queue jumping or advertising is permissible? Which isn’t? What’s the difference between them? Most of the time Sandel doesn’t present a particularly strong opinion either way and just reminds the reader that the two main objections to purchasing certain kinds of things are either based in “unfairness” or “corruption.”

What I found frustrating in 2023 was the lack of context and historical consideration for some of the problems he raises, taking certain problems to just be natural facts of life rather than something that can be addressed or prevented, or that have a specific material history behind them. When highlighting Project Prevention, for example, Sandel glosses over the (very fair) criticism of the project as a form of eugenics and instead credulously rehashes the 1980s moral panic of “crack babies,” even though by the time he was writing in the Atlantic in 2012 the entire phenomenon had been called into question.

Or when discussing carbon offsets and credits, Sandel argues that emitting carbon dioxide is “in itself” a morally neutral act. After all, we all do that every time we breathe! Such an assertion is such a patently facile rhetorical trick that you almost wonder if he’s being facetious. But no, Sandel is seriously attempting to equate the human need to breathe with the act of burning fossil fuels to ship consumer goods from “low-cost” countries to rich nations because you don’t want to pay workers a decent wage or the carbon cost of maintaining the US military apparatus. And even when he goes on to admit that yes, carbon dioxide emissions en masse constitute a serious problem for everyone on this planet, he sidesteps the fact that almost none of the countries and communities that are already bearing the brunt of climate change are the ones actually causing the carbon dioxide emissions in the first place.

Milquetoast moments like these deflate everything Sandel is trying to say, which already feels like an article-length thought padded out to meet the minimum page count for a standalone book. The thesis that market thinking can “crowd out” morals and social norms is a compelling and defensible one, but What Money Can’t Buy ends up being a feeble “could we have a civil discussion about this, guys?” rather than any kind of clarion call to action or bold moral assertion.

Except when it comes to baseball. Sandel’s not afraid to make moral assertions there: Billy Beane definitely ruined baseball.

Becoming Beauvoir

This was actually my second read-through of Becoming Beauvoir. I alluded to it, briefly, in a summary on my vacation reading in Falun from 2021 but it deserves a bit more than a one-sentence summary.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote voluminously about her own life and had already been profiled in several biographies by the time Kate Kirkpatrick sat down to work on Becoming Beauvoir. Is there anything else one more biography could add?

Actually, yes. Kirkpatrick was able to draw on a great deal of previously unpublished or untranslated documentation and correspondence to shed light on relationships and ideas that for whatever reason Beauvoir herself had been less than forthcoming about in her own writing. Kirkpatrick’s stated thesis at the beginning is to rebut what she considers to be ad feminem attacks against Beauvoir: criticisms that boil down to “you’re just an unhappy woman” and “you’re just Sartre’s lapdog.” Thus the focus is on leveraging Beauvoir’s early student diaries and correspondence to show that she was puzzling over the same philosophical issues as Sartre before they ever met, or how she influenced him in these matters. Kirkpatrick also uses later correspondence (some of which not available until 2018) to highlight Beauvoir’s philosophical and ideological criticisms of Sartre and, despite the closeness of their relationship, her erotic and intellectual independence from him.

Kirkpatrick also takes up Beauvoir’s relationships with Bianca Lamblin, Natalie Sorokin, and Olga Kosakiewicz, perhaps as a means of allowing the deceased Beauvoir to respond to the allegations from all three women, pointing out that Beauvoir’s own correspondence indicates that she felt remorse over her (and Sartre’s) treatment of them. It would also seem a pretty glaring omission, all things considered, to not address them. And here we land in one of Beauvoir’s favorite topics: ambiguity. Kirkpatrick doesn’t give much space to the allegations from Lamblin, Sorokin, and Kosakiewicz. Is it because this is a biography of Beauvoir, and not them? Is it an attempt to gloss over abuse? How should we read that editorial decision in tandem with the total lack of reference to Beauvoir’s connection to the “Affaire de Versailles”?  Then, larger questions: How would we read these relationships if Beauvoir were a man? How much moral commentary and judgment should a biographer provide on their subject?

I don’t know. I find Beauvoir’s ideas and writing compelling, and I’ll continue to engage with her ideas and take the best of them with me. In other words:

A printed quote from Marcus Aurelius: "You are not compelled to form any opinion about this matter before you, nor to disturb your peace of mind at all. Things in themselves have no power to extort a verdict from you." Magenta text has been digitally superimposed on the image: "Marcus Aurelius has already released you from the obligation to have a take"

Philosophy in the Flesh

“There are two major contemporary philosophical traditions,” my professor told the class on our first day of a survey of contemporary philosophy course, the third such survey course required for the degree. “You have analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. If you were studying in Europe, you’d be studying continental philosophy at this point. But in the US and England, we follow the analytic track instead.”

Not an exact quote, but the gist of it. That class was a slog, not through any fault of the professor’s but because the material was deeply frustrating and not the kind of thing any starry-eyed teenager is excited about when declaring their major. Boo on analytic philosophy, in other words. What a surprise, then, that Lakoff and Johnson have a whole chapter in Philosophy in the Flesh dedicated to dunking on on it!

I was originally interested in the book for entirely different reasons, however. Somehow or other I’d been pointed in the direction of Lakoff and Johnson’s earlier book, Metaphors We Live By, and I loved it and wanted a deeper dive into the topic. Philosophy in the Flesh is just that: a comprehensive look at the mechanics of brain studies carried out to investigate their points, a summary of the larger organizing metaphors in English, “primary metaphors” to use their terminology, and an examination of some of Western Philosophy’s Greatest Hits through the lens of these metaphors. All of this is in support of their thesis that the human mind (and other minds as well) arise from being embodied, and that sensory input from existing and moving in the world fundamentally shapes our thinking, even for the most abstract discussions. They claim that the idea that we can use a purely disembodied reason completely abstracted away from physical experience and the body, à la Cartesian dualism, is at odds with the evidence we now have about how the brain works. A section-by-section summary is available through the archives of the NYT. The claim seems pretty well argued to me, though I am a mere layperson unqualified to fight in the Linguistics Wars. I only have two disappointments/criticisms, and they pertain more to the presentation rather than to the actual content.

The first is that I felt like the level of universality they were ascribing to their primary metaphors was unclear. While Lakoff and Johnson emphasized that the metaphors they were proposing were not all necessarily universal across languages or cultures, they didn’t provide enough details about exceptions or variations from these primary metaphors to really drive the point home. More comparison between two distinct, relatively unrelated languages/cultures would have been helpful, for example English and Navajo.

The other was the near-complete lack of attention given to AI. Lakoff and Johnson aren’t the first to tackle the mind-body problem—it’s a tale as old as time and all that—but the cognitive science they bring to bear, thanks to new studies we can carry out regarding human cognition, is above and beyond the usual hot takes on Cogito ergo sum and sets the ground for some potentially formidable criticism of strong AI. (Related reading: Nicholas Humphrey’s A History of the Mind.) But Philosophy in the Flesh came out in 1999 and in a very different technological context. The concerns we had about AI were pretty well summed up in The Matrix; we had no DALL-E, no ChatGPT, no LaMDA, and we were still over a decade away from automatically generated sports journalism. The discussion of embodied minds seems more relevant than ever now, so reading this book in 2023 is a bit frustrating in that regard. The points that Lakoff and Johnson raise have a lot of juicy implications for people working with AI, and for anyone in jobs that might be affected by the introduction of AI, but those implications aren’t discussed because the text is simply too old.

But just because AI looked different in 1999 doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, and the topic still feels underexamined and overlooked. Funnily enough, Lakoff and Johnson take the time to dissect John Searle’s famous Chinese Room argument against the possibility of AI, but only to point out the network of primary metaphors underlying Searle’s thinking—they leave the actual topic of AI well enough alone. We can hope that an updated edition will come out and give the discussion the space it deserves, I guess, but that seems unlikely. Philosophy in the Flesh hasn’t been updated since its original publication, perhaps because these days Lakoff appears to be more focused on politics and policy than academia. (For comparison, 1996’s Moral Politics has been updated twice; a third edition that came out as recently as 2016.)

But those are small nitpicks for an otherwise fantastic book. I’ll probably eventually splurge and buy a copy of for myself. Not only would it be handy to have their list of primary metaphors at hand to occasionally ponder and review, but there’s no way you can take in everything a 600-page book is saying in just one reading.

Axplock ur idéhistorien II

I guess the theme so far in 2023 is “reading other people’s books.” I closed out 2022 with The Power of the Dog and then ended up reading Stick (twice! for translation’s sake!) straightaway in 2023, both at the recommendation of a friend. In between those, Axplock ur idéhistorien II arrived on my doorstep—a book I’d promised to babysit for a digital nomad friend who wanted to order it off Adlibris but had no Swedish address to ship to.

And one does not ask me to babysit a book without expecting me to read it.

It’s a tidy little collection spanning just about two hundred years of Western thought, with a focus on the major social ideas that continue to leave their mark on politics today. (This is a polite way to say that a few of the selections are nothing less than noxious.) The selections are abridged when necessary, with context for each selection as well as a short biography of each author:

  • Kant, “Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”
  • Hegel, “Reason in History”
  • Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity
  • Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety
  • Marx & Engels, “The Communist Manifesto”
  • Gobineau, “An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races”
  • Bremer, Hertha
  • Darwin, On the Origin of Species
  • Mill, “The Subjection of Women”
  • Spencer, The Man Versus the State
  • Nietzsche, On the Geneaology of Morality
  • Freud, Introduction to Psychoanalysis
  • “Program of the NSDAP”
  • Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism”
  • Beauvoir, The Second Sex
  • Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
  • Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition

If you took the above table of contents as a reading list it would probably keep you busy for a year, so collections like these with just The Hits and the central theses are great to have on hand and are much cheaper than, say, a first-year philosophy survey course textbook. (Did I keep mine because I knew I would want to revisit it later? Yes. Have I done so? Actually, also yes.)  I might buy my own copies of both volumes just to have around for reference, who knows.

Do I have a similar English recommendation? Not really. Passion of the Western Mind has a similar, if broader scope, but it’s entirely a secondary source. I had Ten Great Works of Philosophy in my library for years and kind of wish I still had it.

The Burnout Society

Three things happened over Easter weekend. First, my sambo remarked offhandedly that PewdiePie has started making YouTube videos about philosophy. Then I tried to start reading Cat Rambo’s You Sexy Thing, but after about ten pages was ready to throw the book across the room in revulsion. Finally, a friend of mine was in town over the weekend and wanted to meet for dinner in the opposite end of Stockholm.

These disparate events led to me picking up the slim but impactful Tröthetssamhället: I had a sudden craving for scholarly rigorous philosophy and meaty content, and the small book fit neatly in my purse.

Cover of the Swedish translation of The Burnout Society
Image courtesy Ersatz

The Burnout Society (German original: Müdigkeitsgesellschaft) had probably been on my TBR for a year and a half by the time I saw it on the shelves at Söderbokhandeln in February. Han outlines his points in clear, direct language so it goes down smooth.

There’s not a whole lot in this essay that’s particularly revolutionary for anyone who’s familiar with Arendt, Foucault or Handke. Han’s comparisons and criticisms are certainly interesting, but not mind-blowing. For the layperson, The Burnout Society serves as an excellent introduction to a strain of academic philosophy that’s immediately relevant to their lives and concerns.

I have only one minor criticism. Han suffers from a problem specific to philosophers—attributing existential and abstract causes to phenomena that could easily have material origins and subsequently eschewing any reference to scientific research. There are two instances of this in The Burnout Society. One is only incidental to his claim, but the other is more closely tied with one of his central premises.

Right at the start, Han describes ADHD, depression, and borderline personality disorder as results of an excess of “positivity” in today’s society, as if there’s no underlying brain with its attendant neurological wiring and chemical (im)balances that come into play. However, he doesn’t claim that the prevalence of these conditions somehow irrefutably proves his point. Rather, Han seems to take them merely as examples of the problems he is discussing.

On the other hand, Han seems to build a rather large part of his argument on ideas about the differences between human and animal cognition (focus versus multi-tasking) that lack any reference to contemporary studies or research. It’s a metaphorical leap that I can accept because I’m sympathetic to Han’s ultimate thesis, but as a premise it requires more scientific backing.

At the end of the day, I’d love for Han to replace our current crowd of useless “public intellectuals” but life isn’t fair, is it?

The Best Books of 2021, According to GoodReads

I could have sworn that I did one of these posts for 2019 and 2020, but apparently not? I usually enjoy looking at the “My Year in Books” feature on GoodReads, but they seem to have revamped it and made it uglier so I won’t even bother including it here.

During the fiery hellscape that was 2021, I read 59 books. The most popular book I read was The Art of War and the least popular was a re-read of a Swedish civics textbook that I can assure you is very rough going.  The five-star books of the year were:

I’m excluding from the list books in an extremely selective niche that are of huge personal importance to me and are not a “public” or “objectively” 5-star book the way that these are. (Would everyone benefit from reading The Human Condition? Yes. Would everyone benefit from reading a collection of ghost stories from my hometown? Probably not, no.) I’ve included links to blog posts for books that I wrote about during the year and will provide brief nutshell reviews of the remaining six books here.

Literature

The Deep

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I didn’t care for my first tango with Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts, but The Deep was as polished and needle sharp as Unkindness should have been. Genre fiction doesn’t have to use fantastical conventions as a way to externalize complex psychological elements of our lives to justify its existence as a genre qua genre, but it certainly is uniquely equipped for doing so.

Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)

This one’s a bit of an easy title to knock out. It’s not really purely text, or available in any kind of dead tree form—my encounter with it was in a 15? 25? minute YouTube clip, captured footage of the original program being run in an emulator. At the end of the year (or the beginning of the next one), I don’t know that I can remember any concrete lines or images from Gibson’s poetry (I do recall the rather fuzzy, janky sound effect of a single gunshot), but I remember the overall effect and I appreciate the novel approach with form and media. It all felt inherently tied to the content rather than just a cheap gimmick.

A Memory Called Empire

Another Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick, this time a more traditional galactic empire intrigues and high-tech tale. I think this one would pair really well with Ancillary Justice as two examinations of empire: one from relatively deep within the beating heart of empire and one from the outside.

Philosophy and Current Issues

Människans villkor

Who am I to review a Hannah Arendt book? Who is anyone to review a Hannah Arendt book? All I can say is: as the years go by, I get angrier and angrier over the fact that we never covered any of her work in my philosophy undergrad career.

Project Censored’s State of the Free Press

This collection is a nice round-up of important but overlooked journalism, sourced from university journalism programs and advised, filtered and vetted by a board of professional journalists. I consider this collection an essential part of my yearly reading.

Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?

Another collection, this time of essays on policing and police violence. Sitting here doing my annual write up, I can remember that it was a compelling read full of new information but none of that new information specifically. This is not criticism of the collection, but rather a reflection of the fact that 1) I read it on Kindle, which doesn’t seem to ever stick in my memory, 2) much of it was (probably) grimmer information that I realized so I think my brain is kind of choosing to forget, and 3) 2021 was, as mentioned, a fiery hellscape, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was experiencing some kind of stress-induced brain fog.

Surfing With Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry Into a Life of Meaning

I found Surfing With Sartre during a bookstore meander back in the spring. When it was still there in October, I took it as a sign from the book gods and took it home with me. Oh, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned bookstore browse! Which is probably why Amazon is opening up brick-and-mortar stores.

Surfing With Sartre, Aaron James
Image courtesy Anchor Books

Author: Aaron James

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.55 stars

Language scaling: B2 (except the occasional quotes from other, older, deader philosophers or surfing terminology)

Summary: Surfing as a framework for philosophy: how does the physical act of surfing embody philosophical concepts? Do surfers have a paradigm with sound philosophical grounding?

Recommended audience: Surfers, philosophers, socialists

In-depth thoughts: There’s been a tradition of _____________ and Philosophy books: The Matrix and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, The Beatles and Philosophy, etc. etc. and frankly I’ve found them dubious, with the philosophical connections to mindless pop culture tenuous at best. But Aaron James is more thoughtful than that, and even though he could have called the book Surfing and Philosophy and thrown it on the pile, this is a much more thorough examination, and with much better grounding.

Sartre was apparently into water skiing. Who knew? (Now you do!)

James has a knack for simple, elegant explanations of knotty philosophical concepts. His writing is conversational but steers clear of condescension. My own quibbles are of the Not For Me variety: leaning more on the surfing framework more than I was expecting (so much surfing terminology throughout that is defined much less clearly than the philosophical terminology) and a needless aversion to singular “they” (“he or she” is so damn clunky!). I’m mostly on board with James’s philosophy, so I don’t have any arguments against his thesis, though I did note the occasional “I’m a white guy doing OK for myself” blind spot and what I would consider contradictions. For example, it’s a bit odd for someone who’s genuinely concerned about climate change and the state of the planet to be so glib about the many long-haul flights they take just for the sake of a hobby, and even to encourage others to do the same. There’s a tension here that I don’t think James really resolves.

That unresolved tension, and the fact that reading the book was essentially preaching to the converted, is why I didn’t rate the book higher. James is an agreeable and lucid writer, so I can imagine in the hands of another person, this might lead to a major paradigm shift. No regrets, though: the book is en route (hopefully now in the hands of?) one of my philosophy nerd friends, so I’m glad I coughed up the money for it.

Currently Reading: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Because one doorstopper isn’t enough, I decided that this was also going to be the year that I read Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. According to GoodReads, it’s been on my “to read” list for ten years.

The cover of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
Image courtesy Basic Books

I took a philosophy of mathematics course in undergraduate, which involved a lot of set theory and discussions about infinity and  things I didn’t quite grasp. The only question I could meaningfully wrap my head around was whether or not numbers are real—I spent the rest of the seminar feeling a little outclassed and outsmarted.

One of the readings for that class was an extract from Godel, Escher, Bach, the little thought experiment with the MIU system. I liked that well enough, and I suspect that’s why I put the book on my to-read list (the timing would be about right). It stayed on there because once in a while, people would recommend it to me. And now I’m finally reading it because I’m making a concerted effort clear out my 235-title “to read” list before I embark on another “TIME Top 100 Novels” style reading project.

Current thoughts: this could have used some serious editing.

Having worked on dense, academic texts and abstract subject matter myself, I recognize that it’s a humbling project to edit something you’re not entirely sure you understand. So when I say “serious editing,” I mean something more like peer review: someone else in the know going through the material and suggesting revisions, deletions, and additions.

I don’t mind all of the dialogues, or the Escher illustrations. But sometimes an author goes on a really deep dive into their passion projects and it only ends up being to the detriment of their book. I say this as someone whose favorite parts of Infinite Jest were the loving descriptions of tennis; I have a high tolerance for people’s enthusiasm for things I don’t know or particularly care about.

The difference between Godel, Escher, Bach and Infinite Jest is that Godel, Escher, Bach is very desperately trying to teach and communicate something, whereas at the end of the day, Infinite Jest is just (“just”) a story. There are countless little asides and meanderings that don’t seem to support Hofstadter’s thesis, or clarify it, but are rather amusing consequences thereof.

As if to underline my point, the 20th Anniversary Edition (the one I’m reading) includes a new preface by the author which could be summarized “No one got my point!” If that’s the case, Hofstadter, I don’t think the fault lies with the readership. I assume it won a Pulitzer Prize because it was big and heavy and was about an issue of the moment (artificial intelligence).

I’m 520 pages in and I’m a little disappointed so far, as what prompted me to pick this up was an article Hofstadter recently published about machine translation (translated into Swedish, funnily enough). Nothing that was interesting in that article has turned up in Godel, Escher, Bach. It seems that after all these years, Hofstadter has walked back his estimations of what artificial intelligence can do, or has at least revised it for more nuance. Or maybe I’m just more interested in what he has to say about machine translation than about machine intelligence.

The Internet seems to agree that his follow-up book, I Am A Strange Loop, does a better job of more clearly and concisely explaining the points Hofstadter mentions in Godel, Escher, Bach, so perhaps I’ll add that one to the “to read” list after this one is done.

So much for whittling down said “to read” list….