This is the title of a paper I wanted to write years ago, dealing with the position of the author in philosophy. It would have dealt with questions of individual responsibility and linguistic normativity of the kind addressed here. It would have focused, of course, on Mulhall's views on these issues. I don't think I will ever write it now.
But Mulhall is interested in the question of what philosophy is, or ought to be, or can be, which is an excellent question. And his answer seems to be roughly that philosophy is reading texts. The texts he chooses are typically ones that have the potential to illuminate our lives, and his readings build on this potential, helping his readers to benefit from those texts, perhaps even without reading them. I have not seen all the Alien films, for instance, but still think I have gained from reading what Mulhall has to say about them.
Authors are not necessarily infallible about the meanings of their works, but commentators are in an even less certain position. Hence an understandable hesitancy sometimes in Mulhall's writing. In The Wounded Animal (p. 192), for instance, he brings up Hamlet because Coetzee's description of a man laying a woman out sounds (to Mulhall) more like something a funeral director would do with a corpse than part of a sexual encounter and because the man (the fictional writer Emmanuel Egudu) goes on to introduce something to her (Elizabeth Costello's) ear. Hence the relevance of the dumb show in Hamlet. Mulhall recognizes that the connection here depends on feelings that might not be universal. It isn't only that you won't see the connection unless you feel this way: there simply is no connection unless this feeling is in some sense normal or normative. He is a tremendously sensitive, perceptive reader, but how can anyone judge whether connections that are not blindingly obvious are real or imagined? Does Mulhall's sensitivity and knowledge of the literature make him an authority on the reality in question? Perhaps it does. But if it does, this is surely an interesting fact about reality.
I don't mean "Who the hell does Stephen Mulhall think he is?" (which is roughly what I did mean when I talked about David Brooks). What I mean is more like "Who is the reader?" And what happens when the reader is also an author?
As I think I've said before (here), my problem is not so much that Mulhall hears echoes that are not there. Rather it is that he hears some and not others. And, the point is, this will be true of any reader. If I'm criticizing Mulhall at all it's because I think he is as good a philosopher as there is today, and he might well represent the (best possible) future of the subject. On the back of The Wounded Animal Cora Diamond is quoted as saying that Mulhall claims that philosophy can be radically changed, that his work attempts something very ambitious, and that it is a great success. I agree with all that, but I would struggle to say what exactly it is that he is doing and why it matters.
Perhaps I just want a manifesto or a slogan, which would not be very impressive of me, but there's something unsettling about his project and I'm not sure I can put my finger on it yet.