Book Reviews: Philosophy, Religion

Listed alphabetically by author.


Mister God, This Is Anna

Generally interesting, occasionally tedious, sappy, or scarcely credible. Worth reading, especially if you're interested in fundamental questions of theology, but more suggestive than coherent. Some good use of dialect. 6/30/88

Anna's Book

Very much like the first book, or what you would expect in a "sequel." A very remarkable story begins on p. 64. Astonishing to think this was written by a seven-year-old. Excellent form.

The book as a whole is more consistently interesting than the first, probably because it is so short (too little time to really drag). Occasionally too sentimental, naturally. 7/14/88

Anna, Mister God, and the Black Knight

Very like Fynn's earlier books: quirky, sentimental, not especially well written, but fun, quotable, occasionally moving, touching, and sublime. This one dragged a bit in spots, but it would be foolish to make much of the flaws when much else is wonderful and not to be missed. Not unlike Pollyanna (= Anna?) in many ways: a flawed but indispensable delight. 3/12/92 [Makes the above two reviews sound like faint praise indeed.]

Martin Gardner

The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener

Comment on finishing reading Chapter 4: In this chapter, Gardner tries to dance on one leg, and ends up hopping about. 10/9/87

Overall review: A very stimulating and educational book. Though I can't accept most of his opinions, still he asks the right questions. Generally quite interesting, but occasional dull spots (fortunately not very long). Might well repay a second slow reading. 10/15/87

William James

The Varieties of Religious Experience

1st Review: Important, illuminating, readable, though over-long. I regrettably felt it necessary to skip some of the later sections to get to the last couple, which are worth reading on their own. A necessary antidote to [excessively] "rationalist" views of religion. Uniquely valuable and well worth reading again, at least in part. 9/16/90

2nd Review: Very worthwhile reading, insightful, almost consistently interesting and informative, and even persuasive that there is "something to" religious experience. The conclusion is useful in drawing science as far as possible in the direction of granting validity to religious experience. That is, he sort of equates the experience of communion with God with the awareness of the unconscious by the conscious mind. Worth rereading, though a more recent treatment (psychology of religion, say) would help. 4/25/99 [This time I read the whole thing.]

Essays in Pragmatism

Generally not very exciting, though often close to what I believe. Most interesting is the first half of the first essay. Much of the rest is rather dull. Didn't read "The Will to Believe" or the "Conclusions" (which I read previously).

James's talks on pragmatism seem inconsistent and finally unconvincing. If it is useful in an overall way to believe something that is false, why insist thereby that it's "true"? Better to say "I act as if this were true, merely to reap the benefits thereof, but we both know it's not true." [This misstates and overstates James's position.] 10/4/90

Walter Kaufmann

Religion from Tolstoy to Camus (anthology)

Generally excellent throughout, though I skipped many of the popes, etc. It's hard to see, though, the point of it all, except as a readable and thought-provoking collection. [I'd say that's a sufficient point!]

I skipped the Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, having read them before. Clifford and James were excellent, Wilde was very interesting, as were Cohen and Hay. Wisdom's piece was dense and somewhat obscure, but very suggestive---reread this one. Much of the rest I skimmed or skipped, more due to the subject matter [which didn't interest me] than the quality.

In all, a valuable and readable collection. As usual, Kaufmann is more interesting than the contributors. His words on Tolstoy were great, but I did skip much of his other comments. [Note: I also read this once before.] 10/14/92

Existentialism, Religion, and Death (essays)

Some excellent, invaluable essays. The essay on Tolstoy/Dostoyevsky is extremely valuable re Anna Karenina. "Existentialism and Death" is slow at the start, but the remainder is wonderful, W.K. at his best.

I read only the essays listed below by number. The others didn't sound too interesting.

2. Excellent. 8. Very good critique and rejection of Christianity and an alternate morality is proposed. Valuable. 11. Starts slow but is finally great. 12. OK. 13. OK. Last 4 poems [Hoelderlin] are valuable, if grim.

[Re]read especially: chapter 8 and the poem on p. 209. 12/18/88

The Faith of a Heretic

Probably the most important and meaningful book I have ever read, or am ever likely to read. A unique, profound, human point of view on the important questions of life and death. 1/3/89

Noteworthy: Structure of the Hebrew Bible, p. 206; crime and religion, p. 281; meaning of life, p. 381-382.


The Examined Life (read to p. 39)

The first chapter offers an excellent and useful summary of the human condition . . . seemed very valuable. Regrettably, thereafter the book plunges into an Aristotelian analysis and system-building that suffers from the usual defect: it's nonsense. Reread the first chapter, but skip the rest. 1/11/93

Bryan Magee

Confessions of a Philosopher

An impressive, even brilliant, review of some key philosophers and issues in modern philosophy and a thoughtful look at what philosophy is and should be. Generally an exciting and readable book, mostly right on target, but with an unfortunate tendency to wordiness and repetition. Magee has some harsh and perhaps unfair criticism of Russell and some well-deserved praise of Popper. His high praise of Kant and Schopenhauer and his detailed review of their theories may not persuade or entertain all readers (i.e., I was not persuaded). Invaluable and well worth rereading. Read 10/00; reviewed 11/10/00

Karl Popper

The Myth of the Framework (essays)

Excellent, stimulating essays with some surprising and appealing ideas. Also some repetition and some dull essays. It's been a while since I read this so I don't have much to say . . . it's worth rereading, a very good book indeed. 3/12/98


Belief in Man

Full of specious reasoning and semantic confusions, therefore worthless regarding its subject matter (a critique of secularism, etc.). However, interesting and even enlightening as a historical record. It's interesting to see how far we've come. [The implication is that this is so bad it wouldn't fly today, a doubtful proposition.] 11/9/89

Bertrand Russell

The Art of Philosophizing

A fine introduction to the philosophical approach, with many quotable statements, etc. Deceptively easy to read, occasionally challenging. The third (last) essay is pretty tedious, however, though with an occasional good point that goes beyond the putative subject [I believe the title is "The Art of Reckoning," i.e., mathematics]. Will pay rereading. 10/6/92 [Also read previously.]

Why I am Not a Christian (essays) [Second reading, read to p. 157]

The foregoing has been excellent---clear, convincing, and important---though somewhat dated. I don't have much interest at the moment in the subjects of the following essays and so am abandoning further reading here. 11/8/88

Unpopular Essays

1st Review: One of Russell's best collections of essays. Especially good, useful, and quotable are "Philosophy for Laymen" and "Philosophy's Ulterior Motives." "An Outline . . ." is quite hilarious. "Future of Mankind," though, is pretty terrible and a genuine embarrassment . . . indefensible and surprising [from such a great writer]. The others were unremarkable and I skipped several. Well worth reading and a great book to recommend to non-philosophers. 3/12/93

2nd Review: This is the book that got me hooked on philosophy, and no wonder---it's vintage Russell, showing insight and wit in a variety of areas. Excellent virtually throughout, though I found nos. 1 and 13 to be the least interesting. No. 4, "Philosophy's Ulterior Motives," is priceless for its antiphilosophical stance and wry observations on some of the eminent names in philosophy. And no. 7, "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish," is delightful and valuable. All in all, great reading that rarely flags, if not necessarily a great philosophy book. 4/29/99

A History of Western Philosophy

Read 1998, single comment: Excellent. Bryan Magee has unkind things to say about this book that somewhat dampened my enthusiasm. I will grant that Russell's critique of James in this book is surprisingly poor work, and his discussion of Analysis (last chapter) is way too short for such an important and influential movement. I've read this book twice now, and that's amazing considering its length and subject matter---Russell can really hold your interest.

Wisdom of the West Fair; not finished. 1998

Bertrand Russell on Education, by Joe Park

Russell's ideas about education seem quirky and rather underwhelming, though the Beacon Hill school is interesting and vaguely like Summerhill. The chapter on the influence of the church, the state, and the herd seems good. I think Russell was more of a follower than a leader here. Don't bother to reread this. Russell's own books are likely more interesting even if his theory is weak. 10/17/98

Janet Scott

What Canst Thou Say? Towards a Quaker Theology

A challenging reading experience. At times it seemed as though my suspension of disbelief spilled over into a desire to believe. This is a surprising and even disturbing thing to have happen. This is something it will be well to explore in depth, but not in this book review!

As it is, this book is a reasonable effort to rationalize the author's beliefs about God. It's not fully successful, but there are some valuable insights here---I was pleasantly surprised that it was so thoughtful and hard to dismiss out-of-hand (unlike Kushner's feeble efforts, for example).

Highlights: the "Christ-event" as one revelation, among many, of God's presence. And, God does not "show himself" unequivocally because this would deprive us of our freedom. [Freedom to burn in Hell forever?] Lots to think about. Reread some time. 1/6/98


Meaning In Life

Well worth reading, but not well organized. His final answers were that the meaning of life is to lead a meaningful life and to love the love in all living things, more or less. This is not quite the double talk it sounds like. Anyway, it's worth a second reading some time. 12/27/91

Houston Smith

Beyond the Post-Modern Mind

Generally dull and fuzzy-minded. Occasional interesting points, but seems to worth the effort it takes to read it. Read to p. 110. 10/5/88

Alan Watts

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York, 1972

Watts labors mightily to persuade us that the self is the universe. I was unpersuaded, but I think he does a good job nonetheless. There is much here that is challenging and worthwhile, so the book is well worth reading and rereading even though it may not change one's mind about "who you are." However, Does It Matter? contains a good dozen of stunning ideas where this book contains only a few.

After reading pages 10 and 11 I wrote: "Just because it is incoherent to speak of my self as something physically separable from the universe doesn't mean that equating the self with the universe makes sense. My self is simply the most important part or focus of the universe." I now would add, most important to my ego. Watts' conception of the conscious mind as a narrowly-focused beam of attention is worthy and important. We tend to think of the contents of the conscious mind as being "all there is"; much, much more is out there, however, than we are aware of.

After reading pages 55 end-56, I wrote: "What is the value of religion to the religious? What do they get out of it? The above pages suggest one answer."

During the reading I noted some additional highlights that now don't seem worth typing out; these are: 10 end-11, 55 end-56, 70 last , 75 2, and 77 end. Date: mid-1999.


Belief and Make-Believe

Excellent, sensible, readable, full of good insights. Part One is especially good, and the defiance-reliance labels seem very useful. Some of the later parts are a bit slow, and the bits about poetry, etc., seem generally dull. But in all it's excellent and wide-ranging. Could use a summary. 1/25/93

Colin Wilson

The Outsider
This seems to me a very great book, unlike his others that I've read or tried to read. He reviews the ideas of a number of important writers, mostly existentialists of the more popular sort. Unfortunately, it's been several months since I read it (some time in 2003) and I no longer remember many details. Wilson writes well but seems to me (mostly from his other books) insufficiently critical and too likely to be carried away by his enthusiasms. In this book I share his enthusiasms, and find myself described, and this is its unique value to me: it helps me understand myself. As such, it probably will not strike most other readers so forcefully.