email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecoming AnnaBecoming MyselfBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEarly ExposuresEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFrank Ramsey (1903-1930)Franz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFreudFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Am I Am I AmI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNo One Cares About Crazy PeopleNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabSet the Boy FreeSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Amazing Things HappenSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTell Me Everything You Don't RememberTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Art of MisdiagnosisThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Big FixThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved Too MuchThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Bright HourThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Infidel and the ProfessorThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Mother of Black HollywoodThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe RecoveringThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Undoing ProjectThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinThis Close to HappyThomas S. SzaszTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Going to Need More WineWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I Left, Why I StayedWhy I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
A Numerate Life, by mathematician John Allen Paulos, is memoir that uses the author's autobiography primarily as a jumping off point for an exploration of a number of interesting concepts in mathematics, philosophy and psychology. Paulos is an engaging writer who is able to explain a wide range of concepts in a way that is accessible while at the same time precise and informative. Although a large part of the aim of the book is simply to introduce readers to ideas that Paulos finds interesting or important, a consistent thread throughout the book is an extended argument about the limits of biography.
Throughout his descriptions of his own experiences, Paulos self-consciously cautions his readers about the unreliability of biography. He notes that much of his book is intended to show that "people in general and biographers in particular are often, to use a common slang expression, full of it." (pg. 163) One might reasonably ask, however, whether most readers really need much convincing of this claim. Surely the fact that many biographies are inaccurate, whether through intentional bias or simple error, is a well-established bit of folk wisdom. In fact, though, his focus on biography undersells what's really most interesting about Paulos's arguments, which is that they serve to challenge popular preconceptions about personal identity and selfhood.
His central argument is relatively simple. He notes that memory is notoriously unreliable, even as regards deeply personal events, and suggests that much of what we think of as accurately describing the past is in fact a kind of personal autobiographical storytelling. All storytelling, he argues, involves the creation of a coherent and interesting narrative, and so our personal storytelling requires that some salient features of past situations be emphasized over others, some motivations exaggerated and others forgotten. The result is that one's notion of one's "deepest self" is a kind of fiction that probably fails to reflect the more complicated and less coherent aspects of our actual lives.
One's reaction to this realization, Paulos suggests, should be an increased humility about the limits of self-knowledge. Far from being uniquely accurate reporters on our own lives, we are hopelessly self-interested interpreters of a vast complex of events, which we remember, if at all, only through a fog of bias and self-mythologizing. This sort of skepticism about the essential self has a long philosophical pedigree (as Paulos readily acknowledges), but it is relatively rare to see it expressed outside of the philosophy classroom. Given the prevalence of appeals to personal identity in popular discourse ("this is just who I am. . .", "you've got to be true to yourself" etc.) a thoughtful, accessible challenge to the coherence of such notions is a welcome development.
Throughout the book, Paulos illustrates his points and entertains his reader by telling stories from his own life. However, anyone looking for a revelatory exploration of who John Allen Paulos really is will not find it in this book (and Paulos of course will say there is no such thing as "the real John Paulos" to be found). The personal anecdotes largely serve to illustrate his points, a task at which they for the most part admirably succeed. These stories are also invariably entertaining, whether they're concerned with the shoplifting exploits of his grandmother, his youthful correspondence with Bertrand Russell or his grandson's potty training. Collectively they make reading the book something like having a friendly conversation at a bar with a very erudite drinking companion.
One of the anecdotes appearing near the end of the book provides a particularly striking example of how Paulos uses his own biography. Having noted that biographers are likely to luck into accurate claims about their subjects, he relates this possibility to Edmund Gettier's famous examples of beliefs that appear to be both true and justified and yet fall short of knowledge. He illustrates this point with an example taken from his own childhood involving another child's justified belief that Paulos had broken a window playing ball. Having read most of a book-length discussion of the unreliability of biography, most readers are likely to wonder whether these events really occurred as Paulos remembers them. How likely is it, really, that something happened to him as a child that so perfectly illustrates a famous philosophical argument? I strongly suspect that Paulos expects and welcomes this kind of question, and they readily give substance his description of the book as a "meta-memoir, or even and anti-memoir." (pg. 10)
Paulos has spent much of his career actively engaged in teaching mathematics and evangelizing for the importance of his field, both in his capacity as a professor at Temple University and as a writer of books and articles intended for a general audience. This book continues that mission by very effectively explaining a wide variety of mathematical ideas. The connections between the particular mathematical examples Paulos discusses and his central thesis about biography are occasionally somewhat tenuous, but that is simply a product of the dual purposes of the book. Paulos has substantial points to argue regarding biography, and he does so effectively, but he also obviously intends this book to further his readers' understanding of the usefulness and beauty of mathematics, and in order to accomplish that he is often willing to stray away from discussion of biography in order to give proper due to the mathematical issues that he raises.
Popular accounts of technical subjects invariably face a difficult task in balancing accessibility with rigor, but Paulos successfully meets this challenge. His explanations avoid the tendency towards vague metaphor that frequently plagues popular writing on mathematics, but still remain accessible to readers with little background in mathematics. Paulos makes the case for mathematics in at least two different ways. He first of all shows how fluency with mathematical concepts is a key part of general good reasoning. For instance, he argues that the ability to properly interpret statistics can increase our understanding of current events, and he discusses how conspiracy theories often result from misinterpretations of probability claims. The second way Paulos advocates for mathematics is by simply displaying the inherent beauty and interest of mathematical results, which he accomplishes in the course of covering topics including the continuum hypothesis, Kruskal's card trick and Benford's Law.
A Numerate Life is worthwhile reading for anyone with a general interest in mathematics and philosophy. It is consistently enlightening and entertaining, and it provides an accessible tour of topics of mathematical and philosophical interest that reflect the author's wide and varied knowledge in a number of fields. The central thesis of the book is well-argued and substantial, offering something for both the general reader unfamiliar with the traditional issues raised by personal identity and the philosopher looking for new perspectives on how to teach those issues.
© 2016 T.G. Murphy
T.G. Murphy, Assistant Professor, Philosophy, SUNY Potsdam