Thursday, May 5, 2011

Book recommendations

I'm halfway through Christine Korsgaard's Self-Constitution, which I'm finding surprisingly congenial. She develops an Aristotelian Kantian theory of agency and integrity, and hence ethics, which I think I disagree with only here and there (so far). She is pretty dismissive of Mill (not without argument), but actually I think Mill could be read as being closer to Aristotle and hence closer to Korsgaard than she recognizes. For instance, she quotes Mill saying that, "All action is for the sake of some end," which I tend to read as a conscious echo of Aristotle, and then goes on (immediately, as if merely glossing the quote) to say that, "According to Mill, action is essentially production," and to contrast this with Aristotle's view that virtuous actions are chosen for their own sake or for the sake of the noble. I think Mill would agree with Aristotle on this, but perhaps I'm misremembering what he says. Doing something for the sake of some end does not necessarily mean doing something in order to produce something else. If I could play the violin, for instance, I might play it for the sake of the music. The violin might be said to produce the music, but we might also say that I am playing music for the sake of playing music. Mill might call this an instance of producing (or trying to produce) happiness, but I think he says that music is happiness in cases like this. See this, for instance, from Chapter 4 of Utilitarianism:
What was once desired as an instrument for the attainment of happiness, has come to be desired for its own sake. In being desired for its own sake it is, however, desired as part of happiness. The person is made, or thinks he would be made, happy by its mere possession; and is made unhappy by failure to obtain it. The desire of it is not a different thing from the desire of happiness, any more than the love of music, or the desire of health. They are included in happiness. They are some of the elements of which the desire of happiness is made up. Happiness is not an abstract idea, but a concrete whole; and these are some of its parts. And the utilitarian standard sanctions and approves their being so.  
Anyway, what strikes me about Korsgaard's book is the way it is written: it's learned, intelligent, and careful, but also sort of chatty. One sentence reads: "Be patient with me." You feel as though a real person is talking to you. Not what you might expect from a Kantian!

Secondly, one I've mentioned before, How to Live, Sarah Bakewell's book about the life, work, and reception through history of Michel de Montaigne. I haven't finished this one yet either, but I'm nearly there. It might seem a bit meaningless to use the word 'masterful', but I don't know how else to describe the amazing control she seems to have over her material and her presentation of it. Why would I care how Montaigne's essays have been thought of in past centuries? Really I don't, but she makes receiving this not-very-wanted information painless, and mixes it with all sorts of stories about Montaigne's life, ideas from his essays, and pictures, so that the whole book is a delight. I wonder whether more philosophy could be presented this way, although the philosophical content of this book is probably too slight for it to be a perfect model for how to teach or write about philosophy.

And finally, one that isn't out yet. This interview with Lee Braver says that he has a book on Wittgenstein and Heidegger (Groundless Grounds) coming out from MIT Press in January. He describes the content thus:
I wrote 5 chapters, each taking on a central topic of their work: their views of philosophy, their main candidate for bad philosophy, holism, the nature of thinking, and anti-foundationalism.
Wittgenstein presents an interesting test for classification.  Imagine that he wrote his works in private, and there were just published today without their implication in the history of analytic philosophy.  What impression would they make on eyes unaware of their history?  The Tractatus obviously has a great deal to say about logic and the philosophy of language with the clear influence of Frege and Russell, but equally prominent are elements of Kant and Schopenhauer.  Indeed, like Kant’s treatment of science, Wittgenstein is clear that despite its length, the logic is there to limit language, to set off what lies beyond, the mystic which is far more important.  And the later work can be just as easily read as a deconstruction of metaphysical conceptions of knowledge and the self as, say, a work of ordinary language philosophy.
 Sounds like a must read to me.


  1. reception history is important! it can help explain, among other things, why people no longer read something that is awesome and good.

  2. True. But recognizing the importance of something and actually caring about it aren't quite the same thing, I think. And if people no longer read Montaigne I don't know how much that has to do with the history of the reception of his work. It's probably more that people just don't read much any more, or don't read long books, or don't read old books (if it's the case that Montaigne is no longer much read, that is).