I Get Levied, and I Read Books

As I mentioned , the IRS levied my bank account. , my bank cut the U.S. Treasury a check for $1,384.71 and debited my account by that much.

In-between, there was a period of a few days in which the account was completely frozen. After that, I was able to make ordinary withdrawals and pay bills and such, but I had to get a special phone authorization to transfer money between accounts (even if the amount was small enough that it left enough to satisfy the levy). Overall, the process was pretty painless, except for that part about the government getting my money.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, mostly in the philosophy area, but not a lot of posting about it. It’s been interesting stuff, of the sort that usually makes me pour out words hereabouts, but so far it’s been all-input, no-output. I’ll try to make up for it today.

Ernst von Salomon’s Fragebogen
Summary: We Germans who tried to be patriotic and come to the aid of our nation during the Nazi period by following the law, supporting the military, and doing our various duties while trying to avoid getting any more mixed up in all those atrocities than we really had to… why can’t the world respect us as the really good, honorable people we are, especially the noblemen and officers among us? Actual quote:

“[T]his was precisely the point at which the problem collided with individual conscience. This was every individual’s experience. No matter what route he might have followed to join the movement [Naziism] he was fully informed in advanced concerning [it’s attitude toward] the Jewish question. But in almost no case did this question impinge on the realms of his own problems[!]. Only gradually, but steadily, did the Jewish question seep into the individual’s own field of activity. And each man was at a given moment faced with this decision — how far did the measures periodically ordered (almost always recognised for what they were, but not as steps in a culminating process) affect the carrying out of what he regarded as his own task and duties. I must assume this: that the decision was honestly faced. But even that meant nothing more than the insinuation, into each man’s own sphere, of the foulest sort of corruption of which the conscience can conceive, the corruption that compels the individual to choose the lesser of two evils.”

This prefaces his discussion of one of his prisoner-of-war camp friends, Hanns Ludin, whom he tried to help escape, but who ended up being hanged for war crimes. Ludin, you see, had helped the Reich carry out its extermination of Jews in the Slovak Republic — but, von Salomon notes, at the time Ludin cried out (to himself) “This is an unspeakably foul blunder!” See, he was good inside. Imagine the lesser of two evils conundrum that was “insinuated into his sphere”: Do I quit the Nazi party and/or my post in the Foreign Office and therefore abandon my party in its time of need, or do I help Hitler perpetuate his reign of butchery? And then they went and hanged the nice fellow, whose only wish was to carry out his “field of activity” without having to get tangled up in this “Jewish question” any more than he had to! This book became a big deal best-seller when it came out in Germany in . It was a good focus for Germans who were sick of being told that a bit of contrition and self-examination was in order.
Thomas Pink’s Free Will: A Very Short Introduction
Such a tiny, slim book, and yet it took me so long to get from one cover to the other. It’s clearly-written, for the most part, and dense with information. The first and better part of the book concerns itself with how the philosophical debate about free will has developed, and what the main points of contention are. The last bit is the author’s own attempt to recover free will from the ashbin of philosophical skepticism. It’s less-clearly written, but does a good job of knocking down a bad argument or two — it mainly argues that confident philosophical skepticism about free will tends to assume what it sets out to prove, which was a new counter-argument to me, and which Pink makes a pretty good case for.
A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic
Brash, ballsy, brainy, take-no-prisoners philosophy from a guy who was in his mid-twenties. Now I understand why logical positivism and its ilk got such an enthusiastic response. Shorter Ayer: Much of what is marketed today as philosophy isn’t philosophy. It’s so mistaken that it isn’t even coherent enough to be wrong. Metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, theology, and their cousins are all hereby banished. All of the opinions that have been expressed on these topics are agglomerations of words that are impenetrable by meaningful philosophical investigation and are therefore meaningless linguistic artifacts that can be of no interest except to disciplines like psychology, sociology, & anthropology. I shall now go on to solve the mind/body and idealism vs. realism non-problems, the monist/pluralist debate, reveal the nature of the self, and abolish all “schools” of philosophy as superfluous, so that we can get on with business.
John L. Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia
Having read Ayer, I had to read the great anti-Ayer. Not quite as good, but almost as combatative, and it makes some good points. Unfortunately, it was cobbled together from Austin’s notes by someone else, so it doesn’t cohere as well as it ought, and sometimes the counter-arguments seem to miss the point of the arguments.
Matt Taibbi’s The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire
A good “America is so going to hell” book. The best bit is where he tries to write the script for the meeting at which was planned the 9/11 conspiracy that the Truthers imagine. Funny stuff.
Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Experiments in Ethics
It’s nice to find a book on philosophy that’s written in a challenging way, but in which the challenge doesn’t come from obscure and poorly-chosen language, but from well-presented but difficult topics. Appiah does a good job of reconciling abstract ethical philosophies with psychological/sociological experiments in ethical reasoning and behavior (he insists that until recently the philosophy of ethics was uncontroversially considered to have such an empirical component). He concludes that ethics is a messy business, and that the many attempts to reduce it to a simple formula, while they have had obvious appeal to reductionists and to anyone who hoped there might be something simple about it, have all failed to be up to the task of encompassing the whole problem
Mary Warnock’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics
I picked this up because I’d really enjoyed Warnock’s Ethics Since . This one, though, reads more like it was written by the “Ethics” columnist for a newspaper than by a philosopher.
Derrick Jensen’s and Stephanie McMillan’s As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial
A comic parable about environmental catastrophe that makes some good points and doesn’t bother to try to avoid radical environmentalist hyperbole. It’s designed to reach folks who believe that people are making the planet uninhabitable out of short-sighted greed, but who are still hoping that the solution won’t be terribly disruptive to the status quo. It poses a challenge to folks like me who concentrate on individual, lifestyle changes, rather than on organizing and directly confronting the powers that be.
Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling / The Sickness Unto Death
I finished Fear and Trembling but barely got started in Sickness before I gave up. I think Kierkegaard may be too far over my head. Or maybe it’s crap. On the plus side, I think that this translation is much more readable than, say, the last of the Camus I read. However, Kierkegaard is notoriously slippery — for instance in the way he uses pseudonyms to give plausible deniability to anything he asserts. His shtick here is to suggest that there’s something beyond ethics — something that is of the same sort of pull on our behavior but that is less publicly justifiable. We can justify our deviations from self-interest by appealing to a Kantian universal standard, but Kierkegaard says there’s also a possible appeal to an entirely immediable relation between the individual and God that may justify any goddamned thing at all. His prototype for this is the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. He goes to great pains to make this story vivid and awful, and succeeds to some extent. But every once and a while, I have to retreat from my suspension of disbelief, and at that point the whole exercise reminds me of those cheap op-ed pieces in which the author does the math to determine just how much effort Santa Claus would have to go through to deliver that many packages to that many children in that little time, and whether it worries the laws of physics that he does so. The fact that the whole exercise seems to (biographically) have been a horrible post-facto excuse for a terribly bungled love affair doesn’t make it more interesting in my eyes, but merely more pathetic. I can’t help but think that I’m just not getting it on some grand level, and if I devoted myself to the pursuit of the rest of Kierkegaard’s more challenging oeuvre, I’d get it.

Bonus Kierkegaard quote:

“The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but that the relation relates itself to its own self.”