Thursday, June 20, 2019

Book Review: Disorder And Order: Proceedings Of The Stanford International Symposium (Sept. 14 16, 1981)

This was a hard book to track down, but it was worth it. Cynthia Haven's biography of Girard describes a conference he helped host in the 60s in great detail. In 1981, after moving to Stanford, Girard co-hosted another conference with a Nobel Prize winner ... in Chemistry. The Nobelist was Ilya Prigogine, who has some very interesting ideas about complex chemical systems that help reinterpret quantum mechanics and even challenge the common conception of time itself. What do Girard and Prigogine have in common? I wished I could attend that 1981 conference. And lo and behold, in a sense, I can. Every talk from the conference, with discussion, is recorded in this book. Some of the essays are five-star essays. There's enough essays not up there that my rating's brought down to four stars, but the essays worth reading are very much in the majority. Here's my favorites with a sentence about how I liked each one. (Full text is here:

ILYA PRIGOGINE, "Order out of Chaos": One of the best summaries of Prigogine's ideas for a general audience ... well, a more general audience than Ph.D. chemists, at least. 
RENE GIRARD, "Disorder and Order in Mythology": A fine summary in itself, although I was mostly familiar with this from my recent reading already. The discussion afterwards may be more originally illuminating than the talk itself.
JEAN- PIERRE DUPUY, "Shaking the Invisible Hand": A nice take on how Adam Smith and Girard fit together. Also, might be a better summary of Girard's application than Girard's own talk!
JOHN FRECCERO, "Cosmology and Rhetoric": The hidden gem of the conference. I expected a wonderful reading of Dante from a Dante scholar, but this is a reading of my favorite image from The Divine Comedy that extends to show how Augustine of Hippo anticipated an answer to one of Einstein's big questions, and it all has to do with reading the universe like a poem, with attention.
FRANCISCO J. VARELA, "Living Ways of Sense-Making: A Middle Path for Neuroscience": Another hidden gem. Varela raises some very good questions about perception of color and puts things together in a way that's new for me, and bridges both Prigogine's ideas about the importance of the observer and Girard's ideas about order from chaos.
Workshop 1: Girard's comments are of course good, but the best parts are when Isabelle Stenger (Prigogine's colleague and co-author) speaks. Pay attention -- I wish she had been given her own talk.

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