Monday, September 8, 2014

10 Influential Books, aka What goes around comes around

Back in 2010, at the urging of one of his readers,Tyler Cowen seems to have started a books meme: What 10 books have influenced you the most? I posted my answer back then (you can find it tacked to the end of New Savanna's "Bill Benzon" page) and now I'm reposting it.  My list is limited to non-fiction.

My Teacher

David Hays, Cognitive Structures. Hays was my teacher, and most of what I learned from him I learned directly from him. His aim in this book was to integrate the analog and servomechanical model of William Powers (see below) with the propositional and digital style of his own earlier work in computational linguistics. It is embodied cognition before the term was coined and gained currency. I believe this is the most profound such attempt to date (Hays wrote the book in the Spring of 1976), but, of course, I am biased. It is also, alas, rather obscure in points, no bias.

Some Others

Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked. I’ve read a good deal of Lévi-Strauss, and this wasn’t the first. But it has had the most lasting effect on my thinking, which I’ve discussed at The Valve. Lévi-Strauss sees that there is a rigorous, but hidden, logic to a body of South American myths. He evokes this hidden logic by careful comparisons between myths, while discussing them in their larger socio-cultural context.

John Bowlby, Attachment. I read this in typescript under the tutelage of the late Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby set out to reconstruct psychoanalytic object relations theory using systems models (TOTE from Miller, Gallanter, and Pribram, Plans and the Structure of Behavior) and evidence from ethology, especially of primates. This became my model of biologically-based psychology.

Jean Piaget, Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. I’ve read a good deal of Piaget, and this wasn’t the first (most likely that was The Origins of Intelligence in Children.) Though now somewhat eclipsed, his concept of developmental stages was enormously useful and, I believe, still holds water. But be careful. (Given its subjects, this book connects nicely with an interest in literature.)

Lev Vygotsky, Language and Thought. Vygotsky argued that children acquire language by completely internalizing that started as interaction with another. First the parent uses language to direct the child’s attention and behavior. Over time the child becomes able, first to use his own speech for those tasks, and then becomes able to dispense with external speech entirely.

Karl Pribram, Languages of the Brain. Pribram was a champion of the notion that the brain processes and stores information holographically. You’ll find that idea here, plus much more besides. Pribram was, and remains, one of our most comprehensive thinkers about the brain and its mind. But this book’s a tough read.

Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood. Medievals and Early Moderns didn’t think about children as we do, which Ariès argued from paintings, diaries, and other sources. The basic idea is that people way back when didn’t think and act about something very basic in the way we do. Children are children, no? Well, biologically, yes. Culturally, no.

William Powers, Behavior: The Control of Perception. Powers has two ideas, both from control theory (and one of them is more or less given in his title), and both quite elegant. This is how to go about theorizing, be as clear as you can and use elegant examples. FWIW, Powers was an engineer and very much concerned with building real things.


Except for the Powers, all of the above books came to me within a minute or two. Then I drew a blank for a couple of minutes. “But you know,” says I to myself, “I was quite influenced by some philosophers early on, even if I no longer read philosophy. Oo why not mention them.” So I will. That I had to kick Merleau-Ponty into the omissions pile, rather than one of these, is somewhat arbitrary.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Two things got me, the rigorous order of the whole affair, each proposition numbered in outline form. And the mysticism.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy. Read a lot of Nietzsche too. But his account of the birth of tragedy linked up with other things in a powerful (including two of the books in the omissions pile.) And, of course, the Apollonian and Dionysian.


Since the exercise limited us to ten I didn’t list Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, Walter Wiora, The Four Ages of Music, or Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion. The more I think about this, the longer this list will get. Some Freud belongs on the list (The Interpretation of Dreams?). And Gregory Bateson, Bertrand Russell. Well, I know why Russell didn’t make the list. I read a lot of his stuff in my mid-teens, but not after. I hadn’t started “serious” thinking when I left off reading him.

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