Daniel C. Dennett – From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds
Dennett’s ostensible goal is to explain how consciousness emerged. But he mostly offers a lively tour of modern evolutionary thinking, with extended discussions of language, memes and other topics. This book isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but evolutionary thinking offers valuable insights to a number of disciplines, from traditional biology to artificial intelligence and self-improving algorithms, to the spontaneous order that animates quality social science work. Dennett has written earlier well-regarded books about consciousness; perhaps I’ll turn to those.
Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan – In Defense of Openness: Why Global Freedom Is the Humane Solution to Global Poverty
Argued from a philosopher’s point of view, though both authors are economically literate. They argue that the most effective poverty-relief policies involve positive-sum interactions. A more open approach to trade, immigration, and entrepreneurship are the most important positive-sum policies, and they back them with strong moral and consequentialist arguments.
People have the right to make deals with each other, or to move somewhere else if they like. For a third party to get in the way and forcibly stop them requires a very strong reason. The burden of proof is on that third party.
Conservatives and nationalists offer few strong justifications for their force-happy trade and immigration policies. Progressives also come off poorly for preferring zero-sum redistribution policies even when positive-sum policies are readily available. Both authors argue instead for a more permissive, open, and liberal approach–liberal in its original, correct sense.
Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America
Tocqueville, a Frenchman, visited America for a period of nine months around 1830 and published this two-volume work after returning home. Tocqueville is incredibly insightful, which is why his book is often cited and occasionally read today, nearly two centuries later. He has a mostly sunny disposition and a generally liberal outlook (in the correct, classical sense of the word), but this book is not quite the love letter to America many make it out to be.
Dennis C. Rasmussen – The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought
A highly enjoyable dual biography of David Hume and Adam Smith that mixes the personal and the intellectual. Rasmussen spends too much time on their religious beliefs for my taste, but still gives plenty of attention to more interesting topics. Hume was famously gregarious while Smith was intensely private, though their friendship was a close one. Despite some differences, they were also close intellectual allies who repeatedly defended each other from their many critics.
Hume gets the lion’s share of the book’s attention, mainly because Smith asked that most of his papers be burned after his death. His wishes were mostly respected, leaving less material for the historian to work from.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola – Oration on the Dignity of Man
This short text is informally called the manifesto of the Italian renaissance. Pico della Mirandola was a brash twenty-something when he wrote this, and more than a little bit of a pedant. But all the hallmarks of renaissance thought are there—human-centered rather than god-centered; engaged with Greek and Roman classics, previously forbidden or forgotten in the Christian world; ditto Arabic and Jewish texts; a flowery, ornate prose style; a belief in progress and perhaps even the perfectibility of man; and a general spirit of can-do audacity.
All of these were breaks with medieval tradition, and an important step on the way to Enlightenment-style modernity.
Richard Overton – An Arrow against All Tyrants
In this short 1646 pamphlet, Overton favors civil disobedience, the higher rule of law and principle over faulty man-made legislation, the separation of powers, and religious freedom. All this at a time when an absolute monarch, Charles I, held the throne. And he wrote it from prison. Overton had guts, give him that. The parallels with today’s political debates and the competing principles behind them is startling.
Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu – The Spirit of Laws
One of the most important texts of the French Enlightenment. Interested in human progress, Montesquieu sought out larger laws of history that might explain why some countries are rich and others poor, why some have despotic governments while others use a lighter touch, and why social customs differ—and how this might affect future progress.
Montesquieu also offers a defense of free trade, which he called doux commerce, or sweet or gentle commerce. The theory is that trade and economic interdependence foster peace and prevent war, a sentiment U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull very much had in mind in attempting to rebuild post-Depression trade infrastructure and prevent World War III.
Montesquieu also offers an early version of the quantity theory of money. Finally, he in ludes lengthy narrative histories of Roman and French law.
If all that sounds a little scattershot, that’s because it is. The book almost has a stream of consciousness quality, as though Montesquieu, like Montaigne before him, simply wrote down whatever arguments and facts he had in his head as he sat at his desk.