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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy


Grand Theories
and Everyday Beliefs

Wallace Matson

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To purchase Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs

Title: Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs
Author: Wallace Matson
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2011
Length: 206 pages
Availability: Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs - US
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  • Science, Philosophy, and their Histories

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Our Assessment:

A- : interesting idea, fascinating (and appealingly sly) presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 30/1/2012 .
Science . 17/2/2012 P.William Hughes

  From the Reviews:
  • "While utilizing the insights and criticisms of philosophers and scientists before him, the book avoids the literary downfalls of its predecessors; it is succinct, approachable, and immensely enjoyable to read. Each chapter offers up a distinct focus and resolves in a clarifying abstract." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In his Introduction, Wallace Matson explains that in considering the 'Demarcation Problem' (succinctly put: "How to separate sense from nonsense") he wondered:

What if instead of propositions, we consider beliefs ? And instead of verifiability, actual verification ?
       Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs, then, is how he sees that play out, in a fascinating book that is both philosophical tour and carefully constructed argument. Matson proceeds chronologically: his focus is the human condition, of course, but as he repeatedly notes, modern civilized man has occupied only a fraction of the time in which life (and the earth, and the universe ...) have been in existence; to drive home that point he even begins at the very beginning, with the Big Bang itself.
       Matson suggests we think in terms of 'low beliefs' and 'high beliefs', defining them as follows:
Let us call any belief formed this way, in an encounter with the thing or situation that the belief is about, a low belief; and any belief formed in some other manner, a high belief.
       The beliefs of animals, and early man, are entirely low, for example. High beliefs -- generally (and certainly initially) in the form of variations of invented stories -- arise with civilization, as social units grow much larger and with the invention of the state:
For high belief systems are social glue, indispensable for keeping large populations together that are not united by the natural bonds of family and tribe, nor even by common acquaintance.
       A consequence of their nature is also that:
     Once established, high beliefs possess their own inertial mass: as there is little or no ground for challenging them, and so many interests both conscious and unconscious are served by their being kept viable, they tend to persist indefinitely. After all, they enshrine the values of the society: not only do they make sense of the world, provide the framework of explanation, ad account for why things are as they are; they define what is worthwhile, what needs protection, what must be furthered, and what cannot be allowed. As such they are instinctively protected. In every society the most assiduously instilled of high beliefs is that of the wickedness of questioning high beliefs.
       Religion is the most obvious (also in the sense of loudest ...) high belief -- and naturally, as accumulated experience and knowledge diverges from its premises, it begins to get hollowed out and undermined and look evermore silly -- a major problem for high beliefs that are based on foundational texts that offer only so much flexibility (as the currently most popular ones all are) and find themselves less and less adaptable to new circumstances, lessening their use as 'social glue'.
       Nevertheless, some of these high belief platforms seem to manage to hang on surprisingly tenaciously (i.e. against all reason), leading Matson to acknowledge:
     Yet the question cannot be avoided, Why has Christianity not gone the way of phlogiston and phrenology ?
       He does offer several explanations -- including that people are obviously more invested in Christianity than most ever were in phlogiston or phrenology -- and notes that it may well be rooted more deeply than that, too. (Regardless, it's hard to imagine its survival over any significant longer term is likely (as is also true for our other religions du jour).)
       Religion is, of course, not the only high belief, but remains the most obviously problematic. As Matson notes, others are more readily undermined by their inadequacies: Marxism, for example, he suggests, "included all too definite predictions of what would happen in given circumstances, and the failures of things to work out according to the schema were too manifest"; hence, it was soon consigned to the ash heap of history.
       More interesting are other institutional high beliefs -- notably issues of law and justice. Matson notes (though of course some would take issue with the claim):
     There are no such things as natural rights. All rights are institutional.
       Jefferson's claim of Creator-endowed rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness Matson correctly dismisses as: "effective rhetoric but dubious philosophy". The fact that 'rights' are institutionally-created high beliefs does, of course, bring problems with it, and Matson consider this, as well as matters such as ethics. His careful and succinct presentation -- addressing much head-on, but also leading readers to the most provocative conclusions and consequences rather than insistently hammering them home -- makes for sly argument, much of the provocation suggested but then also left to the readers to unfold in their own minds.
       The chronological presentation is also a whirlwind philosophical tour, as Matson uses historical examples (and specific philosophers) to chart the evolution of scientific thinking and high and low beliefs -- an effective, if at times almost overwhelming, method.
       Matson dates the birth of science to Milesian times, and the philosopher Thales: by giving an impersonal account -- by 'leaving Marduk (a Babylonian deity) out' -- Matson says mankind made the transition to scientific thinking, with Thales' account not a 'story', and his way of explaining the world moving beyond simple story-telling. Nevertheless, the separation of low and high was difficult to maintain, and he blames Plato for mucking things up again soon enough, straying from the purely scientific path:
     Plato, by forcing an unnatural union between logic and high beliefs, invented theology, a mimicry of scientific reasoning that superficially makes high beliefs look as if they have scientific support.
       Matson's chronicling of the shifting approaches is fascinating, and he ties it in well to the theoretical issues. With each short chapter also including a brief summary at the end the work is built up in a very user-friendly and approachable manner.
       Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs is both enjoyable and thought-provoking reading. It's cleverly done, and there's a great deal here -- more than the barely two hundred pages might at first suggest.
       Fascinating stuff.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 May 2012

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Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American philosopher Wallace Matson taught at University of California, Berkeley. He lived 1921 to 2012.

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© 2012 the complete review

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