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.

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