Review Roundup

Peter Kalkavage. The Logic of Desire. A helpful, accessible commentary on the Phenomenology of Spirit.

Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Remarks. First, philosophy of mathematics takes up a very large chunk of this MS, the first large, self-contained, continuous piece of work Wittgenstein produced after the Tractatus. In light of the fact that Russell’s and Frege’s logic was crafted primarily to further a logicist philosophy of mathematics, one wonders if previous scholars have underestimated the significance of Wittgenstein’s possible reflection on the logicist project as a unitary motivation for his early doctrines. For example, the saying/showing distinction might have been crafted with an eye toward the avoidance of paradox. Second, it is somewhat surprising that there is a discussion of the nature of temporality here. This could be attributable to the overall “Kantian” flavor of the proceedings, but I couldn’t help but notice that the nature of the subjective experience of time was a topic in the air, most notably in Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927). One senses that we still don’t quite “get” Wittgenstein’s historical context, because we read him more as influence than influenced, and as the lone intellectual hero.

Gary Gutting. Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity. Gutting begins with a view of epistemology, ethics and politics adapted from Rorty and proceeds to improve it by critical reflections on him, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor. Though I found myself in broad sympathy with Gutting’s views and aims, this book probably wouldn’t be terribly useful to someone who wasn’t at least acquainted with Rorty first. Two objections occur to me, more about completeness than about flaws: first, though Gutting discusses the role of those not privately committed to pragmatic liberalism (e.g., the religious conservative), the fact that Gutting himself expresses support for the public furnishing of certain economic goods blurs the distinction between pragmatic liberalism as a framework within which discussion between various types of “liberals” occurs (F. A. Hayek is a type of liberal in this sense), and “liberalism” as a particular position within that framework (roughly, Democratic Party politics in the U.S.). In the former sense, and setting aside the true religious conservative as Gutting describes him, we are all liberals now. In the latter sense, we aren’t and need not be. The second issue I had with the book was that, while Gutting criticizes Rorty’s tendency to conceive of private life in a pragmatic liberal society in a certain way, Gutting still seems to inherit Rorty’s sense that there will be a significant split between public and private. But if pragmatism means that the institutions of a liberal society will be the product of a contingent cultural history, and will be sustained by certain cultural norms, how can these norms not penetrate into the private identities of the public participants? I think we need something more Hegelian here: a conception of a public sphere that provides community, but community organized around the norms that valorize individual freedom. To vary the old saying, we not only need people who can amicably disagree with what the other says, but people who are willing to defend to the death their right to say it. It’s unclear how that is possible if commitment to the neutral framework of a liberal society isn’t a deep, identity-constituting one.

Robin Waterfield. Why Socrates Died. This is the only book I’ve read on the historical Socrates question, so I can’t evaluate it professionally, but it was plausible and convincing. Since part of the task of the book is to set up Socrates’ context, the book proves to be an excellent synopsis of the Peloponnesian War. Waterfield’s conclusions are similar to I. F. Stone’s: Socrates is far closer to Plato than the conventional wisdom suggests, and the motivation for prosecuting him is his association with, and advocacy of, oligarchic politics. I am now far more hesitant to embrace the “early-middle-late” model of Plato, along with the notion that distinctive views of the middle Plato are more Plato than Socrates. Socrates as martyr to liberal inquiry and Plato as forerunner of fascism won’t wash–they are too close, too similar, on Waterfield’s view. That seems right to me. Highly recommended.

Randall Collins. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. OK, so I didn’t read the whole thing. I read most of the history of western philosophy (skipping medieval and recent French) but not the Asian material and skimmed lightly the sociological chapters. This is an odd book, and I find it hard to imagine an audience for it. It is purportedly a sociological explanation for the history of philosophy. Though there are a few bells and whistles, the crux of it is that people who make noise for a living seek attention, attention is scarce, some people are better than others at eliciting it, certain kinds of discussions are more likely to attract attention than others, etc. Though I imagine most philosophers would be really offended by all this, I wasn’t, because it says nothing about the value of the content of philosophy, and it is in some sense obviously true as far as it goes. The problem is that most of the sociological claims seem rather trite, and none of them forced surprising reinterpretations of the philosophical material itself. The most interesting claim was the link alleged between the rise and fall of Idealism and the movement of modern philosophy into the academy, though the causal mechanism itself was somewhat elusive (and these were among the portions that I read most thoroughly). If my amateur understanding of sociology is right, then this will not seem particularly illuminating to sociologists (unless triteness commands great interest among them, which is possible, I suppose–it is sometimes astonishing what social and behavioral scientists will regard as unobvious). But the lack of revision in our understanding of the history of philosophy, and the appropriate non-engagement with the philosophical content itself, means that there’s not much here to interest philosophers. The book, however, has great utility, but for something it is clearly not intended to do: it is a wonderful introductory text sketching the history of philosophy, similar in many respects to Russell’s. I have already urged a student to read the chapter on the emergence of analytic philosophy and phenomenology because it is so short, comprehensive and accurate. But I think I was expecting something along the lines of “everything you think you know about philosophy is wrong.” Instead I got “it’s not what you know but who you know,” and I think I already knew that.

Michel Foucault. Lectures at the College de France, 1977-78: Security, Teritory, Population. The rise of the state. That’s a bad thing.

Michel Foucault. Lectures at the College de France, 1978-79: The Birth of Biopolitics. The state as we now have it, alas.

Ray Monk. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. For non-philosophers, this is probably the book to read if you are curious about who that Wittgenstein fellow was. For philosophers, I noted three things. First, I did not experience any professional winces (an example of a professional wince–once, when I was taking a literature class in graduate school, the professor commented in lecture that the most important philosophical event of the 20th century was Wittgenstein’s suicide, to which I replied patiently that perhaps it would be, except that Wittgenstein died of prostate cancer). That’s good. Second, the cultural agenda of his thought is far clearer when he is encountered biographically–his affinities with Heidegger jumped out at me, and never would have done so if I had I not read this. I was unaware of his reading of Spengler for example. Third, without especially trying to, the “Wittgenstein was a saint” is deftly punctured by the endless supply of anecdotes illustrating his social insufferability. It looks more like Keynes, Moore, Russell et. al. were the saints… for putting up with him!

David Sheff. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction. Been there, done that, bought the wall to bash my head against.

Don Herzog. Happy Slaves: A Critique of Consent Theory. The Herzog Effect is to take some category central to the social sciences and then transform it into a romp through British history, in order to show the genealogy of the category and, as with all genealogical investigations, how thoroughly we now misunderstand ourselves. Here the target is contractarianism. Yet Herzog does not want to distance himself from the better sorts of societies we now live in that are associated with this notion, nor even to utterly discredit the idea that we do enjoy, in some partial and incomplete way, some say over the political circumstances we live under. A must read for political philosophy people, the whole book is wonderful, but the chapter on Hobbes stands out as exceptional. Only slightly marred by allusions to the time of composition (this is strange–the publication date is 1989, and yet I felt the ghostly presence of President Ford lurking within–perhaps the book was long gestating?), the book would be a classic with light revisions; as it is, it is a near classic from one of the best political thinkers of his/our generation.

Xenophon. Conversations of Socrates. Unutterably dull, unless of course this is the Real Socrates, in which case it is fascinating.

Christopher Priest. The Separation. Priest’s books are marketed as science fiction (in this case there is an alternate history component, which is also for some reason considered a sci-fi bailiwick) but are better thought of as akin to literary magical realism. As in many of his novels (e.g., The Prestige) the theme of personal identity and doubling plays a central role (the two protagonists are identical twins). The doubling allows Priest to play games with narrative structure that keep your attention and keep you puzzling to figure out what exactly is going on. But the principal doubling is of the world itself into two histories. Since this is another in the “what if World War Two had gone differently” subgenre, it is important to know that this is not Fatherland or The Man in the High Castle. Priest does not use the what-if to reaffirm the conventional wisdom about the Good War; he is a pacifist brave enough to tackle the toughest case imaginable and stand his ground. This is the moral vision of Human Smoke in fictional form, in a hauntingly sensitive and delicate prose, committed to the task of showing the utter futility of all violence.

Richard Mason. Before Logic. Amplifies a small still voice in every philosopher’s head that says that assumptions are assumptions even if you succeed in not examining them.

Nino Ricci. Testament: A Novel. Suppose that Dominic Crossan wrote a novel…

Alastair Reynolds. Revelation Space. Like a cross between Dashiell Hammett, H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur C. Clarke. At one time, all I read was science fiction, and at some point I lost interest. Alastair Reynolds and Kim Stanley Robinson brought me back. Though I’ve read a few others of Reynolds’, the first, Revelation Space, still seems the best. Terms like “gothic” and “noirish” come up when people try to describe his approach to space opera, but I find myself thinking instead of the great Arthur C. Clarke, both for the careful fidelity to scientific plausibility (no zipping around the cosmos–it’s too damn big, and the light speed limit is adhered to scrupulously), and a penchant for sublime, quasi-religious themes. Though the characters don’t always seem real (perhaps they are bit too noirish?) the unfolding backstory, like space itself, eventually inspires a kind of cold, still awe.

Iain Pears. An Instance of the Fingerpost. Rashomon in Restoration England; stunning ending.

Clues, Ctd.

Posidonio_de_ApameaBorn in an era when the best was behind him, he read a bit of everything and wrote a bit on everything; all that remains now are isolated fragments. He trained as a Stoic. As a citizen, he participated in his local government, and appreciated the stabilizing effects of the empire. He traveled everywhere, saw much of Europe and even North Africa. Like many of his school, he believed that philosophy was a tripartite discipline providing world-orientation, puzzle-solving, and advice. Alone among the Stoics, he believed that emotions were not intellectual, and therefore that right-thinking, without personal strength and practice in self-restraint, was insufficient for right-living; in this he followed Plato instead of his mentors. He calculated the size and distance of the moon, and from the shores of Cadiz, observed the tides and speculated that the moon was the cause of them. The lunar crater at 31.8°N 29.9°E is named for him; otherwise, he is now forgotten.

John Dewey? Or Franz Fanon?

Well, one of those.

Two pieces of political propaganda are hitting the shelves almost simultaneously, James T. Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama, and Dinesh D’Souza’s The Roots of Obama’s Rage. One can get the gist of each of them here and here. I have not read either book, so anything I say must be taken with a grain of salt. First, the good news: the First Amendment lives. You can say almost anything about the president of the United States and suffer no consequences at the hands of the government. We should be rightly proud of that. Not only that, but apparently we live in a society where the pressures to conform to a unified community view are sufficiently light that two views so divergent can be articulated, find adherents, and flourish.

And yet, and yet. First of all, these two books suggest the limitations on one approach to understanding others. In philosophy of language, there is this discussion about the conditions of the possibility of interpretation; two views have emerged. According to one, which Dan Dennett calls “the Normative Principle,” interpretation requires that we assume that others are rational, that most of their beliefs are true (this always startles cynical non-philosophers until one notices that this includes beliefs like “it is raining now” and “can openers open cans” and the like, so that the majority of beliefs are also exceedingly dull). I advert to this idea incessantly; this is what I’m doing when I say “charity requires…” or allude to Donald Davidson, who with W. V. O. Quine, bears most of the responsibility for the idea and its impact. My only originality is to suggest that using it in political discussion is not only an epistemic necessity, but an ethical and political virtue. In any case, we must start here before we can locate the crux of disagreement.

Most political discussion, however, is not conducted under the auspices of the Principle of Charity, but instead using another set of hermeneutical techniques most associated with the “masters of suspicion” Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. It is only slightly ironic that we find this sort of thing as frequently among conservatives now as we do among liberals (the reason being, again, Ayn Rand, who, in assimilating Marx and Nietzsche, served as a conduit of these techniques to the right). The basic idea here is, when someone speaks, assume that they are lying if you can identify some self-interested reason why they would do so. I wish I could say “the dangers of this are obvious” but apparently not yet, not to enough people, so I will just say that they range from well-poisoning and indifference to evidence, all the way to, at their far extreme, madness. The results of a dogged refusal to be lied to are no guarantee that one will get closer to the truth. Consider the following remarks, in an Amazon review of a book about “alien abduction”:

“It’s all well and good for people to be researching this subject. As an ‘abductee’ (that word just doesn’t do it justice), my first thought when I heard Mack had finished his book was ‘It’s about damn time a major figure got into the field’. But then I got really ticked-off when I heard about his past life regression and other new-age consciousness theories. I read the book and was appalled that someone of his collegiate stature would be lured-in by this contactee bull dung. Sure enough, months go by and his contactees start admitting they made the stuff up. OF COURSE THEY DID! Anyone who thinks the…’things’ act with ethical benevolence is either lying or delusional. The truth is bitter and unpleasant.”

No comment is necessary.

But the problem with the two Obama books I want to discuss is elsewhere. I had said there are two principles of interpretation. The other is what Dennett calls “the Projective Principle” which begins the process of interpretation with the assumption that others are like myself. And both books illustrate its limitations, since each of them is utterly in thrall to the assumption that Obama is, in important respects, just like the author. This is perhaps more evident in the case of Kloppenberg, a historian with interests in the relations between philosophical pragmatism and political progressivism in American history, who finds after a careful but sympathetic reading of Obama’s writings that he seems to be a man with an affection for philosophical pragmatism as a basis for political progressivism. I don’t think this is entirely wrong, but there may be a bit of overthinking here.

The role of projection in D’Souza’s book is less obvious but no less important. Less obvious because on D’Souza’s view, Obama hates America because of his Third World Anticolonialism. Now D’Souza loves America. D’Souza, being a Third World (Indian) immigrant, hates Third World Anticolonialism. What could be more opposed? Yes, but D’Souza and D’Souza’s Obama have one thing, the biggest thing, in common: they both view everything through the lens of a conflict between America and Third World Anticolonialism. For D’Souza, Obama’s is the road not taken. Obama is D’Souza’s Jungian Shadow. One small clue here is that D’Souza carefully warps the data about Obama’s residency in the United States (by not counting Hawaii as a part of America) to make the case that he was not sufficiently enculturated by American values before beginning his political career, because Obama only came to the real United States after growing up elsewhere for exactly the same number of years D’Souza grew up elsewhere before emigrating to the United States.

Both of these cases shows that the Projective Principle is epistemically dangerous. There is something faintly absurd about turning a middle class Hawaiian who came up in the era of disco, a lawyer who reinvented himself as a kind of faux Martin Luther King in order to facilitate becoming the next Bill Clinton, into either a toga-draped deep thinker, or an AK47-toting jungle insurgent.

During the 2008 campaign, there was much talk about Obama’s messianic qualities, real or fake. I am reminded of David Bowie’s wonderful turn as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. Pilate asks Jesus to do magic tricks for him, and Jesus refuses. Pilate replies,

“This means you’re just another… politician.”

Yep, pretty much.


The first were initially colonists from Sybaris (from which we get the words “sybaritic” and “sybarite”) and the survivors of its destruction at the hands of the Crotonians. Croton at that time was ruled by a cult of ascetics led by Pythagoras. In the end, this conflict contributed to the collapse of Pythagorean rule of Croton. Such experiments in governance are seldom successful, except at destroying cities, at which they excel.

The Horror. The Horror.

We just received our Blu-ray of Apocalypse Now, and though I am tempted to talk about that, I really don’t know what to say other than that it not only still holds up, but seems to occupy its own territory in humanity’s imagination, a place where a man named Willard is always heading up a river into the heart of darkness. The first few minutes, even on my little television, reminded me of when I had first seen it in the theater, the utter astonishment I felt at watching an entire jungle transmogrified into pure flame. And that was only the beginning. These minutes are some of the finest in all of cinema.

But that is not what I wanted to talk about.

To know man is to know war, and one can only know war by losing one. Perhaps this is why Americans’ understanding of war only seems to begin with Vietnam. But Vietnam was by no means the most dreadful experience of living memory. That honor goes to the “good” war, which we still fail to fully grasp. To grasp it fully would be to collapse into Kurtz’ madness, yet to grasp it is a moral necessity. As good a place as any to begin would be here.


Apparently a journalist celebrity, Jonathan Chait, used the expression “curb-stomped” to describe one opinionator expressing disapproval for another’s opinions. The subject matter is unimportant, but the response was interesting.

I think that how one reacts to this is entirely a function of one’s mode of access to the term. I had never heard the expression used before metaphorically, but I had seen American History X, so until it was made clear to me that the term refers the act portrayed in the film, I had no idea what it meant, and once the connection to the film was made, I could not associate it with anything else. If you haven’t seen the film, all I can tell you is that this is killing someone by crushing their skull, in, if this can be conceived, an unusually nasty manner. When I saw it I found it to be one of the most disturbing portrayals of an episode of violence I have ever seen, period. So I must say that my reaction to the expression was essentially similar to the negative reactions I’ve seen: horror, astonishment. But this is because I can’t get that image out of my mind. The discussion that ensued seemed to assume that Chait had the image in his mind in the first place. It is one implication of my commitment to Davidsonian charity to think that he simply couldn’t have. Using the term in a sentence playfully is only possible for someone whose exposure to the term isn’t by way of American History X. Using the term playfully is perhaps facilitated by the fact that its constituent parts are not necessarily violent, so it does not wear its violence on its sleeve. Maybe it means urban outdoor dancing to the tune of Queen’s We Will Rock You?

So now we have a rather testy and insincere apology from Chait, and a lot of folks talking about what it is about the internet, if it is the internet, that has us wanting to murder each other by crushing each others’ skulls with our boots. Rather, I think that this is about the time it takes for live metaphors to become dead ones. If someone began a discussion with the phrase “Not to beat a dead horse, but…” I would not think at all about animal cadaver abuse unless the context were about, say, animal rights, or horse racing, in which case it would suddenly seem an unfortunate phrase. Similarly when we say, about some symbolic but decisive victory “he really kicked the shit out of him.” I must confess that I had never in my life concretely imagined what that phrase means, until just now (you can thank me for sharing later).

So here’s what I think. I speculate that the expression initially circulated in social milieus closer to gang violence than the milieu Chait moves in. In those milieus, it is probably not always intended to imply the act, but is always intended to evoke the gravity, extremity and overwhelming character of the domination implied by the act. The internet probably is involved here, not because of its propensity to breed conflict, solidarity, demonizing, rage, etc., however real those things may be, but because of the speed with which it allows forms of language to circulate to and among the opinionators. I suspect that Chait had seen the expression in other blogs, not used to describe curb-stompings, but to describe ‘curb-stompings.’ What’s remarkable there is that the term probably traveled from the streets to the journalist’s lexicon in nothing flat. Reading Chait’s apology, which is half-hearted and bemused at best, it seems clear to me that he is still not visualizing boots in brains the way we who are less hip and happening than he are.

So now I’m going to say that we all need to be more sensitive and not choose such words? Or is it that I’m going to say, oh, get over it, it’s a metaphor. Nope. It really is as horrifying as Chait’s critics think. But language is permeated with dead metaphors and can’t live and breathe without them. Now no one is suggesting that language be stripped of all dead metaphors, except perhaps the ghost of some mad member of the Vienna Circle. Perhaps we should avoid using dead metaphors with a violent undercurrent? But then, I would submit, we would lose the capacity to talk about conflict meaningfully at all. We are a violent primate species (I gather) but we are also an intelligent species that has learned to sublimate and regulate these things in peaceful and even constructive ways, one of which is debate. And we are, also, a linguistic species whose even most mundane comments are laden with unintended poetry. Should Lyndon Johnson not have said “War on Poverty”? I mean, didn’t he mean that we were to attack it ruthlessly and destroy it utterly, with courage, intolerance and as if our very lives depended on it? Because this word comes from the ancient practice of mutual slaughter? No, we cannot step outside of the human condition or our own language, and attempts to cleanse it of all offense only make it all the more useful to those who would rule us with euphemisms. What we should do is know what we are saying. I’m pretty sure that Chait didn’t, and I’m not sure he does even now, even after the whole blogosphere kicked the shit out of him.

Liberalism, Classical and Pragmatic

liberal (adj.)
late 14c., from O.Fr. liberal “befitting free men, noble, generous,” from L. liberalis “noble, generous,” lit. “pertaining to a free man,” from liber “free,” from PIE base *leudheros (cf. Gk. eleutheros “free”), probably originally “belonging to the people” (though the precise semantic development is obscure), from *leudho– “people” (cf. O.C.S. ljudu, Lith. liaudis, O.E. leod, Ger. Leute “nation, people”). Earliest reference in English is to the liberal arts. Sense of “free in bestowing” is from late 14c. With a meaning “free from restraint in speech or action” (late 15c.) liberal was used 16c.-17c. as a term of reproach. It revived in a positive sense in the Enlightenment, with a meaning “free from prejudice, tolerant,” which emerged 1776-88. Purely in reference to political opinion, “tending in favor of freedom and democracy” it dates from c.1801, from Fr. libéral, originally applied in English by its opponents (often in French form and with suggestions of foreign lawlessness) to the party favorable to individual political freedoms.

classic (adj.)
1610s, from Fr. classique (17c.), from L. classicus “relating to the (highest) classes of the Roman people,” hence, “superior,” from classis (see class).

1590s, “of the highest rank,” from classic + –al.

1540s, from M.Fr. pragmatique, from L. pragmaticus “skilled in business or law,” from Gk. pragmatikos “versed in business,” from pragma (gen. pragmatos) “civil business, deed, act,” from prassein “to do, act, perform.”

—Douglas Harper