Archive for the ‘Sound Bite Society’ Category

Great Book = Interesting Information + Arguments

July 29, 2007

What is the longest argument you’ve ever made? What is the longest argument you’ve ever read?

By an “argument” I mean: collect together some information nuggets, show how they are related, and then draw a logical conclusion from them.

Most of the (engineering) books I read are oriented toward providing information and techniques, not toward forming arguments.

Recently, however, I have been reading two outstanding books:

— Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

— Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred Whitehead

And through careful reading I have become aware of the arguments being made in these books.  I say “careful reading” because their arguments aren’t immediately obvious, at least not to me.

After reading a page I pause and reflect on the ideas presented.  Slowly I am seeing how the arguments are being constructed.

In Smith’s book the arguments are well contained; at the end of each chapter he ties together the various parts of the argument.  Whitehead’s arguments are more complex and subtle; they can span multiple chapters.

Whitehead’s book is on mathematics.  It occurred to me, “Why are there arguments in a book on mathematics?  Shouldn’t it just contain information and techniques, like my engineering books?”  I’ve been puzzling over why I like Whitehead’s book so very much, particularly since I am not especially interested in mathematics. Now I think I know why: because it contains both information and arguments.

The realization that I have come to is that I like books which contain both interesting information as well as arguments.

Whitehead was both a mathematician and a philosopher.  Smith was both an economist and a philosopher.

A philosopher is a master of arguments.

I think great books are those that contain interesting information and are also philosophical (i.e. contain arguments).

In our sound bite society we don’t see many long, elaborate, elegant arguments.  That’s a shame.