All 3 entries tagged Philosophy Books

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October 20, 2005

Book Review: small world networks and other amazing coincidences

4 out of 5 stars

A quick detour into the theory of small world networks (six-degrees of separation, friend-of-a-friend, etc) has just provided me with some ideas that I suspect will resurface in both my philosophy research and my e-learning work. It also gave me a remarkable coincidence of the kind described in the book itself.

After spending a few weeks away from my research project, I usually restart my thinking by quickly reading a popular-science/history/art-theory book of some kind. My means of choosing such a book is usually quite aleatoric: the criteria being "something that sounds good, is easy and fast to read, and which may provide some unforeseen empirical data for my conceptual activities".

Mark Buchanan's book, selected from the popular-science section of Waterstone's in an instant, without much consideration, met these criteria well. The aim of the book is to convey and contextualize what is a fairly simple idea. But what makes that simplicity into something more significant is that it is an idea that seems to have been overlooked, and which once brought into consideration, gives explanatory sense to lots of seemingly unrelated phenomena. For me as a philosopher, that is interesting: what thoughts were impossible before the arrival of this concept? what errors were made?

The concept is, superficially, that of the "small world network": that is to say, how networks seem to naturally form from highly chaotic and random situations, into simplified but still random organisations, connected together by specially priveliged nodes that do much of the work of maintaining order and flow in the system. As a result of this priveliged position, and the dynamics of its connectivity, all kinds of sophisticated behaviours (economic, social, cognitive, ecological) can be seen to emerge: results of what has been called the network effect (although there is much more to this than the business model). It plausibly demonstrates how it is quite feasible for one random person to be only six degrees of separation from another random person. And then it extends this model to many further domains (physical, ecological, computational etc).

I'm thinking: Kant, sensus communis – what if he new about small world networks? Or conversely: Nietzsche – what did he know? And of course it is there in Deleuze and Guattari (concepts such as transversality), but rarely with the very definite examples that we now know of. A fascinating question to consider would be: when exactly did the concept of "network" arise? – and at what point did people start realising that the conditions for the establishment and operation of a network may cause certain behaviours, patterns and organisations to emerge (the network effect)?

Connect it to Andy Clark's extended cognition theses (with its tightly coupled systems). And throw in our experiences with the small world system known as Warwick Blogs. Interesting. Very.

Even more so because it turned out that, as I discovered on page 16 as the author described the kind of surprising coincidence that a small-world network can cause, I am in fact only two degrees of separation from Mark Buchanan! He is a friend of a friend As I read…

I moved a few years ago from the United States to London to take up an editorial position with Nature

…I dropped the book when I realised that he may well share an office with my friend Karl, who is also an editor with Nature, also working in the physical sciences. Karl is a Moosehead, with whom I occassionaly drink, eat chillis, and bellow loudly. On Friday night (whilst in the Bilash in Botley) I explained this to Travis (also a Moosehead, if not the head Moosehead). Travis was actually planning, that night, to write an email to Mark Buchanan. It may even be that I have met the author at some Moosing event at some time (although I may have been drunk and therefore incapable of remembering the names of any new acquintance). Spooky. Or just the result of a small world network.

Buchanan's book does well to rapidly explain the work of Watts and Strogatz, Granovetter, and other pioneers. It is entertaining and full of fascinating examples throughout – especially when dealing with the ingenious experiments of the sociologist Stanley Milgram. The connecting-up of cases from such a wide range of domains begs many questions (important philosophical questions that I think Deleuze and Guattari address effectively in What is Philosophy?). But it is very much worthwhile because of that.

I'll give the book 4 stars (not 5, as it could do with a bit more detail on the mathematics and mechanics of the networks).

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October 08, 2004

Review: Kandinsky Complete Writings On Art

3 out of 5 stars

This is a fascinating book. It does exactly what it says on the cover. Kandinsky, although criticized by some for his argument that painting could follow exactly the same rules as music ( a misrepresentation?), had some powerful ideas on art, painting, creativity and pedagogy. For example, this from his time teaching at the Bauhaus…

The main aim of all teaching should be to develop the capacity for thought in two simultaneous directions: 1. the analytical and 2. the synthetic. We should thus exploit the heritage of the preceding century (analysis = diessection) and, at the same time, so extend and deepen it by our synthetic approach that young people acquire the ability to experience and to demonstrate organic connections between apparently widely separated realms (synthesis = connection).
Then young people would desert the petrified atmosphere of "either-or" for the flexible, living atmosphere of "and" – analysis as a means to synthesis. Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, Lindsay and Vergo, publ. Da Capo 1994, p.724

He goes on to assert that there are not different "modes of thought" and creativity applicable to the different arts and sciences. This is, as Duchling claims, what leads him into the disagreement with Klee over the applicability of musical methods to painting.

Did Deleuze and Guattari read this? Disjunctive synthesis, conjunctive synthesis, connective synthesis being key elements in Anti-Oedipus.

The book only has black and white images, and index is not quite as extensive as i'd like. As a cosequence i've not yet found anything on synaesthesia. So i only give it three stars.

May 29, 2004

Francis Bacon – for Undercurrent

Writing about web page

5 out of 5 stars

I've just bought a nice copy of this from Borders in Oxford. It's not this one though as our book review system is currently using the US Amazon database, but rather it is a new UK edition from Continuum. Again without the pictures, but still a great book. Why? Well here's one reason as Deleuze goes beyond anthropocentric phenomenology:

This ground, this rhythmic unity of the senses, can be discovered only by going beyond the organism. The phenomenological hypothesis is perhaps insufficient because it merely invokes the lived body. But the lived body is still a paltry thing in comparison with a more profound and almost unlivable Power [Puissance]. We can seek the unity of rhythm only at the point where rhythm itself plunges into chaos, into the night, at the point where the differences of level are perpetually and violently mixed. Deleuze, 1981: p.44

Where the phenomenological hypothesis finds a grounding to sensation in the finality of the lived and existentially limited and de-lineated, Deleuze sees Bacon's encounter with in-human sensation as the irreversibility of creation, as pure sense without causal or teleological recuperation, as the explosive power of creation, elan vital. The rhythmic nature of this sensation is key. Bacon's figures are repetitive, and each repetition forcibly engages with its predecessor for no apparent reason. However, each attempt at re-engagement pushes the figure one step further away from its predecessor, back into disengagement. Pulsing between the two, but ever onwards. The explosive and inescapable creativity of Bergson's duration, as KAP describes it:

…duration 'is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances'. Duration involves a process of repetition and difference. It is irreversible since 'consciousness cannot go through the same state twice. The circumstances may still be the same, but they will act no longer on the same person, since they find him at a new moment of his history'. Ansell Pearson, 1999: p.35–35

Looking at a series of Bacon's works is like listening to extensive and pulsating music, as Mackay describes:

And sound, on its broad peripheries, creeps out of the brain and into the body, then out of conscious sensation altogether. Mackay in Ansell Pearson, 1997: p.249

The last word for now I shall give to Deleuze:

This is one way of introducing time into the painting, and there is a great force of time in Bacon, time itself is being painted. To put time inside the Figure – this is the force of bodies in Bacon…

(image from the Francis Bacon Image Gallery )