Monday, May 14, 2007

Confer, I say!

As I mentioned a while back, the 2nd Online Philosophy Conference is scheduled for (checks watch) right now. Actually it began yesterday. Mostly analytic (not that that's a bad thing ...), but/and there's a paper on Wittgenstein by Meredith Williams. Go confer!

Reminder HT: Leiter

UPDATE: New Philosophers' Carnival too!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

No sale

So I went to another library sale, but this time I didn't buy anything. That's because by the time I got there they were giving the books away for free (they were just going to trash anything left over). So I took some things off their hands, as requested.

Starting off, we have a tasty item:

F. Brobeck – Cooking With Curry (1952)

This one comes from the library of my local alma mater. I'm not sure why they took so long to get rid of it (actually, maybe they didn't). Most of the recipes call for "curry powder" rather than, you know, Indian spices; and the section on vegetable dishes is called "Poor Man's Dinners – Vegetable Curries: Eight Menus for Lent" (because, you know, one only eats vegetables if one is giving up meat – for Lent, no less). Check out this epigraph, by Aleister Crowley (!): "Curries [...] sting like serpents, stimulate like strychnine; they are subtle, sensual like Chinese courtesans, sublime and sacred, inscrutably inspiring and intelligently illuminating, like Cambodian carvings." Yes, but I don't want to eat Cambodian carvings. And you might want to have that alliteration looked at, just to be on the safe side.

As at the other library sales, the religion section was particularly fruitful:

Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. – The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought (1990)

This Book of the Month Club release, a collection of snippets from everyone under the sun, is remarkably ecumenical: it even begins with a section called "The Unbeliever".

R. Greeley, ed. – Ingersoll: Immortal Infidel (1977)

For example, this guy. The back cover has him with hands on hips, looking stubborn. Nothing's getting past this doughty defender of the non-faith!

James Hitchcock – What is Secular Humanism? (1982)

The subtitle of this Servant Books release is "Why Humanism Became Secular, and How It Is Changing Our World." The cover illustration shows a shirtless guy, eyes blunked out like silent scream star Lulu Arfin' Nanny, either reaching futilely for the sun with his left hand, or playing volleyball with a grapefruit.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

This one is lauded on the front cover as "The International Bestseller" (I imagine it would be) and "A sure norm for teaching the Faith – Pope John Paul II" (and he would know!). 825 pages, plus a 15-page table of contents.

Nyanatiloka – Buddhist Dictionary

Another country heard from. For those of us who can't tell our Vibhajja-Vada ("Analytical or Discriminating Doctrine") from our Vibhava-Tanha ("Craving for Non-existence"). The preface to the first edition ends, as many prefaces do, with the place and date of writing, which is here: "Central Internment Camp," Dehra-Dun, India, 28-8-1946. Not sure I like the sound of that.

F. Smith, ed. – Pure-Land Zen Zen Pure-Land: Letters from Patriarch Yin Kuang

I've never heard of Pure Land, but the preface asserts that it is "by far the most widespread form of Buddhism in East Asia." It also explains that "[i]f you are suffering and if you realistically discover that you have only average motivation, then Pure Land is for you. Pure Land is about suffering and the liberation from suffering." Well, that part sure sounds like Buddhism anyway. Yin Kuang: (1861-1940).

The next three are also vaguely religion-related:

Stanley Fish – Surprised By Sin (2nd ed., 1997)

I was sinfully surprised to see this at the book sale. Most, or at least some, people who know Fish as a pomo lit-crit enfant terrible (and it's not clear that he's even that) don't know that a) he's a Milton scholar who b) made a big splash in that little pond with this book. One blurb says that the preface to this edition is "not only an apologia but also a brilliant critical manifesto in its own right." I did try to read Paradise Lost a couple of years ago, but I only got up to the middle of book 2 (it's longer than I thought). I liked it though, so maybe I'll give it another go.

Wolfram von Eschenbach – Parzival (Penguin edition 1980, first written, um, A.D. 1200 or so).

As a Wagner fan, I couldn't pass up a book about one Wagner character written by another Wagner character (a real person, obviously). It's billed as "a re-creation – and completion – of the story of the Holy Grail which [the story, I think they mean] was left unfinished by its initiator, Chrétien de Troyes." I wonder if there's anything about Grail-shaped beacons.

Emmanuel Carrère – The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception (2000)

I mentioned this a while back, in the context of Laurent Cantet's free adaptation (Time Out; more faithful treatment here). "The Adversary" is a traditional name for Satan, and there is much rumination here on evil and redemption. So not a book about religion, exactly, but there it is.

I usually don't get fiction at these things (that's what libraries are for, so you can take the book back when you're done), but I did spare these few from the dumpster:

The Pelican Shakespeare – The Sonnets

I have a complete Shakespeare, but I'm not lugging that one around just for the Sonnets. An inscription reads: "Dear H____, Sometimes reading this book may be hard. Just read it over & over & let your emotions tell you the meaning. Don't Worry, I only have read and understood only few of them myself. Love J___." Isn't that sweet?

E. Mitchell/R. Schulte – Continental Short Stories: The Modern Tradition

This collection has stories by Sartre, Kafka, Borges, Camus, Pirandello, Lagerkvist, Böll, Babel, and a few others.

Earl Miner – An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry (1968)

The back cover says that the poetry in question dates from A.D. 550 – 1350, but then goes on to say that this book is "at once a condensation, a re-organization, and an extension (to A.D. 1500), of Japanese Court Poetry (1961) by the author and Robert H. Brower, the standard treatment of the subject in English." So, a 150-year bonus.

Edith Wharton – Ethan Frome (first pub. 1911)

This is a slim paperback, very portable. From the back cover [Alfred Kazin]: "In its spare, chilling creation of rural isolation, hardscrabble poverty and wintry landscape, Ethan Frome overwhelms the reader as a drama of irresistible necessity."

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. – Welcome to the Monkey House (1970)

I couldn't resist this given his recent death. Plus I haven't read this one. It's a collection of shorter things going back to 1950.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some reading to do....

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Another book sale

This one must have set me back, oh, five bucks at least (hee hee!). Read and marvel.

1. Baird & Kaufmann, ed. – Philosophic Classics, Volume II: Medieval Philosophy

I used vol. I of this series when I taught ancient philosophy. It's primary sources with limited commentary, which is both good and bad. Vol. II has many short snippets from the usual suspects as well as some more obscure but still important names (Origen, Pseudo-Dionysus, Nicholas Cusanus). Interestingly, right after I bought this (the fourth edition) I got another copy in the mail! The publisher, thinking I might be teaching the course again (not likely), and thinking that we might use vol. II as well (they usually do, actually), sent me the fifth edition. The only difference I can see is that they dropped the New Testament readings at the beginning in favor of Machiavelli and Montaigne at the end, I imagine because the former are fairly easily available elsewhere and the latter are not. Oops, they spelled it "Montiagne." Better bring out a sixth edition!

2. Bohannan and Glazer, ed. – High Points in Anthropology (1973)

They're not kidding; I don't know much about anthropology and I've heard of two-thirds of these people: Boas, Kroeber, Sapir, Whorf, Kardiner, Durkheim, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, Marshall Sahlins. Hot stuff.

3. Gary Witherspoon – Language and Art in the Navajo Universe (1977)

This book is mostly about categorization and concepts in the Navajo language, so it's very relevant to my interest in interpretation/hermeneutics. Foreword by Clifford Geertz. Cool 70's cover, like the preceding book.

4. Joseph Fletcher – Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1st pub. 1966)

I used to think that when right-wingers complained about "situational ethics" they just meant "moral relativism" – you know, the outrageous doctrine that there are no "moral absolutes." But then I learned that there actually is a doctrine by that name, which I take to be some sort of contextualism (or maybe it is relativism – who knows). This book, which seems to have started it all off, is decidedly theological in orientation: it's part of the Westminster John Knox Press Library of Theological Ethics series, and six of the ten chapter titles begin with the word "love" (so, not exactly Gilbert Harman). I may rue the lack of philosophical, um, dare I say "rigor"? Here are the first sentences of the first chapter: "There are at bottom only three alternative routes or approaches to follow in making moral decisions. They are: (1) the legalistic; (2) the antinomian, the opposite extreme—i.e. a lawless or unprincipled approach; and (3) the situational." Phew – stack the deck like that and of course you win; but your victory will be hollow if that's all you've got (was there really no virtue ethics before MacIntyre?). It looks pretty clearly written and jargon-free, though, so that's good.

5, 6. R. G. Collingwood – The Idea of History (first pub. 1946) and The Principles of Art (first pub. 1938)

When I saw these I was pretty sure I already had one of them, and even that I had gotten it at a previous book sale in that very locale. Turns out I have both of them. If only that made me twice as likely to read them. Mark my words, philosophy of history is going to get very hot someday (maybe even Collingwood himself). Then I'll sell my extra copy of The Idea of History and retire to the Bahamas. With the other one.

7. Edith Kern, ed. – Sartre: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962)

This series ("Twentieth Century Views") is more literary than philosophical in focus (there's a Camus one too, I know, but I forget what others), but there's a section in this book on philosophy too. Includes essays by René Girard, Fredric Jameson, Edmund Wilson, and Hazel Barnes.

8. Jacob Burckhardt – The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Volume II (original German edition 1860-something)

As you may know, Burckhardt was the inspiration for the character of Herr Naphtha in The Magic Mountain. At the time I read the book I was more of a Herr Settembrini man, but I imagine I would feel differently now. This book is much shorter than The Magic Mountain. My guess is I can skip vol. 1 and still pick up the plot quickly enough. Should I ever get to it, that is.

9. Max Weber – The Sociology of Religion (first pub. 1922)

There isn't a philosophy section at the book sale, so a lot of the good stuff ends up in the religion section (along with stuff like Embraced by the Light and whatnot). I once again passed over a collection of Aristotle (even though it probably has something Ackrill doesn't). I did get a bunch of other things though. This looks pretty heavy-duty. It is, apparently, a selection from a vast systemization of his work that Weber left unfinished at his death. As the editor tells us, "this great work has been rent into segments and even now, after the appearance of the present volume, some sections of the huge treatise [Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft] will remain untranslated." Talcott Parsons likes it, according to the blurb on the back (he would, though).

10. R. K. Narayan, tr. – The Ramayana (this Penguin edition 1972)

I used to get this mixed up with the Mahabharata, but finally I read a much abridged version of the latter. When I did I found out that on the day before the climactic battle, Lord Krishna sits the great warrior Arjuna down and says to him: "Well, Arjuna, [the entire Bhagavad-Gita]." (Oh, now you tell me!) Now if I read this I'll get them mixed up again (because it will no longer be the one I haven't read). This too is an abridged version (167pp.).

11. R. C. Zaehner – Hinduism (2nd ed. first pub. 1966)

Short basic intro, probably owned (if the pink highlighting is any clue) by the same person as the previous book. Looks good.

12. William James – The Will to Believe and other essays in popular philosophy and Human Immortality

A Dover Edition designed for years of use! The former book contains the famous title essay and nine others I have never heard of. It is dedicated to "My Old Friend, Charles Sanders Peirce" – who as we know was not particularly pleased by James's use of the term "pragmatism," which motivated him to rename his own doctrine "pragmaticism" – a name "ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers" (heh heh). The latter book is a single lecture, an Ingersoll Lecture in fact, and thus required to address the title subject. James uses the preface to the second edition to address a particular objection to the "'transmission-theory' of cerebral action" defended in the text: "If our finite personality here below, the objectors say, be due to the transmission through the brain of portions of a preëxisting larger consciousness, all that can remain after the brain expires is the larger consciousness itself as such, with which we should thenceforth be perforce reconfounded, the only means of our existence in finite personal form having ceased. But this, the critics continue, is the pantheistic idea of immortality, survival, namely, in the soul of the world; not the Christian idea of immortality, which means survival in strictly personal form." I do not reveal Prof. James's response to this objection (that would be telling).

13. Trevor Leggett, ed. and tr. – A First Zen Reader (1960)

Mr Leggett, the cover text informs us, "is an Englishman who has lived in Japan both before and after World War II. He holds the grades of sixth dan (a senior teacher's rank) in judo and of fifth dan in Japanese chess." The selections range from the 10th century to the (then) present, two-thirds of the text being taken up by a 20th-century commentary on Hakuin's 18th-century "Song of Meditation." Yow.

14. Eric Weisbard and Craig Marks, ed. – SPIN Alternative Record Guide (1995)

I love record guides with rankings, as most of the fun is agreeing and disagreeing. This is clearly a collaborative effort, given the not simply eclectic but seemingly self-contradictory aesthetic manifested herein. I think I'll leave the details for another post (and no, I haven't forgotten about the other, other post I owe from the last book sale, or was it the one before that).

Saturday, May 05, 2007

I really have no comment on this one

Although I do wonder what the caption is on that illustration (warning: weird).

Friday, May 04, 2007


John Protevi is a philosopher employed by a French department, as well as one of the many wiseacres who used to congregate at Michael Bérubé's place. Since the GNF Event (don't ask), many such have been seen wandering aimlessly around the blogosphere, evoking pity and fear in Aristotelian proportion; but Prof. Protevi has channelled his, well, whatever emotion was evoked in him by the Event, into a blog of his own, where he recently posted his own contribution (spurred by Leiter, as was the one here) to the discussion about analytic and continental philosophy. Check it out, and tell your stories there! (I see that John McCumber has posted in the comments.)

Meanwhile, at butterflies and wheels, Ophelia directs us to another post relevant to our discussion, this one by philosopher Stephen Law. (I keep wanting to write "Olivia" instead of "Ophelia"; anyone know why?) Prof. Law there interviews Nigel Warburton, another philosopher whose blog I enjoy (when it doesn't crash my browser), asking him about clarity in philosophical writing and the virtues of same.

Much of what Prof. Warburton says is as expected: yay clarity, boo obscurity. And of course this is an easy case to make. Clear writing is writing we understand, and we naturally project our success back onto the writing. It, or its author, succeeded in communicating something to us, where obscure writing failed; and success is necessarily better than failure. So naturally (as Prof. Warburton puts it) "obscurity can never be a virtue in Philosophy."

However, clear philosophical writing cannot simply be equated with successful philosophy; for one virtue of clear (or "transparent") writing is that it gives unclear thought (or downright charlatanry) no place to hide. Some clearly written philosophy can thereby be seen clearly to fail (that is, seen clearly to present invalid arguments, albeit clearly stated ones). Of course even this can be "successful" philosophy if, however unwittingly, it clearly exposes a philosophical error we had not previously seen to be one, or not that one anyway. (This is why I have no objection to Warburton's examples of clear writers, such as Peter Singer and Thomas Nagel; indeed, Nagel is a favorite of mine for that very reason.) Conversely, some profound philosophers (*cough* Kant *cough*) were poor writers struggling with deep and difficult topics. The point is simply that while obscurity may be a necessary evil in this case, given the writer's ability, it cannot be a virtue.

So the importance of clear writing, according to Prof. Warburton, is this: if (or: to the extent that) you can't understand what someone is saying, it is (to that extent) impossible to evaluate it, to judge whether or not it is true. Warburton generously allows that "not all continental philosophers fall into this category [i.e., that of "charlatan"]," excepting Kierkegaard and ("in places") Sartre. But one anonymous commenter thinks that Prof. Warburton is "only rehearsing the rather tired analytic vs continental divide"; that "most analytic philosophy [...] is one dimensional and the clarity reveals nothing"; indeed, "because they are so clear, they tell you nothing." This is what raises Ophelia's ire – in fact she hopes it's a joke, it's so ridiculous.

Also ridiculous, she feels knows for a fact, is our commenter's complementary assertion that "that is what is good about [post-Hegelian continental philosophy], after really wrestling with the language and the mode of expression, we feel that we are in fact thinking more deeply about the issues of philosophy" – to which she replies by underlining the distinction between such a "feeling" and being, well, non-deluded (having this feeling means "we've been conned"); and Prof. Warburton adds that this "is part of the seductive power of pseudo-profundity: it gives you the illusion of great depth."

Not too enlightening was that contretemps. But another commenter (also anonymous, but clearly a different one) makes what looks like a similar point to that of his/her anonymous comrade, albeit more judiciously:
While analytic philosophy is going to proceed with the demand for argumentation from premise to conclusion, much continental thought moves along the lines of engaging in qualitative description to explore a given line of inquiry. The goal would seem to be to develop the subject, rather than reduce it to a final conclusion. [...] No responsible thinker would push for intentional confusion. At the same time, there is such a thing as too much specificity. More so, there is definitely such a thing as too much deduction. A lesson the analytic school of philosophy still needs very badly to learn: moving only within the loop of premise to conclusion, the relevant qualities of the issues are often lost, and the real clarifying force of language is forfeited.
This is much better, but I'm not sure that this is quite what I would say. First, it doesn't seem that the issue concerns specificity exactly. We might, for instance just as well say that there is such a thing (and that this is an indulgence to which analytic philosophers are characteristically susceptible) as too much generality. But that just means that I don't particularly want to say either of these things: the point is symmetrical. Every specific claim is a generality at the next lower level, and every general claim is (obviously) the specific claim that it is. If there's a problem here (i.e. with analytic philosophy), it concerns something a bit different than specificity or generality.

Of course our commenter means not so much that the writer's claim is specific or general, but that its written expression is "specific" in the sense that it has to mean a specific thing. Still, it seems the same point applies. Everything (including meanings) is the specific thing that it is and not something else; and whatever makes every instance of that thing an instance of that thing and not of something else is itself a generality as well. I'm quibbling, but all I mean is that I think we can do better in getting at this issue than speaking of specificity. (For context, I should actually restore the part of the comment that I elided above, to wit: "[Heidegger] made a point about clarity in one of his lectures. He said that metaphysical concepts had to remain slightly ambiguous to be useful. While this seems intellectually offensive at first glance, I eventually saw a basic strategy within it which I believe is characteristic of continental thought; the intention of defining broader abstractions which render many issues clear in one shot. After all, that is essentially the advantage of abstract thinking, is it not?").

Nor would I accuse analytics of being deduction-happy. Of course they (we) pay attention to the deductive consequences of what they say; and if anything follows directly from what we think we know, then by all means let's find out what that is. (That, after all, is how we decide what exactly those things are -- that is, how they are individuated.) But I don't think it's fair to imply that analytic philosophers proceed simply by trying to squeeze the maximum amount of deductive juice out of this or that set of foundational assumptions. They're perfectly capable of speculation, conceptual innovation, and even ontological profligacy (i.e. the opposite of parsimony).

Still, our commenter is clearly (no pun intended; or was it?) onto something. Phenomenologists, for example, explicitly claim to be describing rather than deducing. (At the same time, a description is a claim of some sort: things appear thus, where this need not mean things appear to be thus whether they are or not, which it will take a peek behind the veil to determine). Wittgenstein is similarly categorical: "We must [i.e., in philosophy] do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place [...] The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known" (PI §109; see also §124). Of course we have to be careful in swooping down on §109 out of the blue like this (note for example the vexed questions of what "explanation" and "problem-solving" amount to here), but then see also §126ff, e.g.: "Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything."

Clearly [!] we have only begun to unpack this issue, and I have to go to bed now, so we'll have to come back to this. But I did find it interesting that Prof. Law himself brings up Wittgenstein in this context, in order to use him as a counterexample to the general claim that "analytic philosophy is going to proceed with the demand for argumentation from premise to conclusion" -- making the question now the sense in which and the extent to which one can helpfully describe Wittgenstein as an analytic philosopher (which of course in at least some sense he clearly is, qua student of Russell and father (however involuntarily) of logical empiricism). This (that is, my interest in seeing this move by Prof. Law) is because as far as your typical analytic philosopher is concerned (very much including Leiter, for example), Wittgenstein – his concern for "clarity" (in the very particular sense he uses it in the relevant sections of the Investigations) notwithstanding – is the very poster child for Gnomic Obscurantism Syndrome. So I do find this move somewhat disingenuous: he's an analytic philosopher when we defend same against single-minded obsession with deductive argument; but at other times it seems he might as well be (*gasp*) Heidegger.