Saturday, November 29, 2014

What should we read?

I've just (much too late) started reading Ian Hacking's The Social Construction of What? and think that maybe everyone should read it. It's written in a funny way though, being superficially accessible but assuming a fair amount of background knowledge and quick comprehension. He brings up relativism, for instance, but then refuses either to define it or to argue for or against it. He seems fairly sympathetic, but it's hard to tell. Mostly he seems to think that talking about it is a waste of time. But then why does he bring it up? Never mind, we're on to the next topic: the point of talk about social construction. As far as I can see (I'm on p. 16) the book is written for a general audience, but a general audience either with some familiarity with the people and ideas Hacking talks about or else without any concern to understand the references he makes. What kind of audience is that? Perhaps the rest of the book explains things more, or else avoids references to Sartre's early work, etc. It's relatively easy reading, and seems like a good aid to cultural literacy, but I think my students would be lost. Is there anything similar but better?

Speaking of books that everyone should read, Jon Cogburn writes:
I think Kaufmann is an underappreciated treasure, especially for ninteen year olds. His Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ is up there with Ray Monk's The Duty of Genius, Marcuse's One Dimensional Man, and Magee's The Philosophy of Schopenhauer as easy to read philosophy books that would be required teen reading if I had my druthers.
And elsewhere (although I can't find it now) he has suggested that everyone should be familiar with the critiques of religion presented by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. (If he didn't say this then I will.) But what exactly should people read by Nietzsche? As far as I know he didn't write a nice 20-page "Right, here's what I think about religion" essay that teenagers could read and understand. If everyone ought to know what he thought, though, then it would be handy to have some version of it to give to people who won't (or haven't yet had the opportunity to) study his work more seriously.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what else should everyone read? I'm thinking especially of lucid, accessible, reliable critiques of influential ideas and ideologies. Partly I'm thinking what I should try to get my students to read, but partly also I'm wondering, if I've missed Hacking (whose book I was at least aware of), what else might I have missed? And someone with a slight knowledge of Derrida's work recently asked me how Wittgenstein's related to it. What should someone like that (an interested non-philosopher) read? I'm tempted to tell people like that just to give up, but that's not very friendly, and they aren't likely to listen. So is there a decent Philosophy of Language for English Professors book out there? (That's not an English professors = dummies joke. The friend who asked is an English professor, and he's not alone in being interested.) Or perhaps these books don't exist and I should be writing them.

15 comments:

  1. http://pages.uoregon.edu/koopman/courses_readings/rorty/rorty_CIS_full.pdf
    -dmf

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    1. also James C. Edwards, Ethics Without Philosophy: Wittgenstein and the. Moral Life
      -dmf

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  2. could just read garver and lee's book, i last looked at it probably more than 10 years ago, but i remember it being quite good, and as someone looking for derrida to be given a fair shake it struck me as fair.

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  3. A bit off topic perhaps, but I read Nietzsche when fairly young and what bothered me most about Nietzsche scholarship is that the scholars seem to have no concept of Christ clear enough to see what Anti-Christ was about. It's worth remembering that Georg Brandes worked hard to get Nietzsche to read Kierkegaard, the arch-Christian philosopher and critic of Christentum, and vice-versa. One has to see the concept of Christ Nietzsche worked with to see what is negated in Anti-Christ.

    Jon Cogburn's take on Nietzsche doesn't speak well for his recommendation of Kaufmann, either. "[M]arketplace Schopenhauer with that kind of Ayn Rand condescending affectation"? Seriously?

    If I had to recommend one short work by (on) Nietzsche I'd pick Anti-Christ. Providing it is read. Shun introductions altogether. (My druthers.)

    What I wanted to say when first reading this post is that what really needs to be taught, if it can be taught (if it's not too late that is), is reading or how to read. In the only published obituary I've ever written I closed it with the line "If you take just one thing away from reading NN let it be this: read carefully". The obituary was for Derrida. And I have to say I do not agree with muchof what he says, but I do think e.g. John Searle's reading of him does philosophy a disservice (either that or it is emblamitc of it, I'm not sure), and I was reminded of that when reading your take on Carnap's reading of Heidegger in "Did Wittgenstein Disagree with Heidegger?"

    It is said that what Socrates taught was that listening is of the greater importance than talking. If that's right then reading is merely a variant form of listening. And reading well should is a, if not, the virtue. As Nietzsche says (and I quote from memory) understanding comes before interpretation. To understand you have to read/listen. I imagine Wittgenstein would agree.

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    1. Yes, you make several good points. You've also prompted me to re-read part of the Anti-Christ, and I think it comes as close to what I was looking for as anything. This part is certainly relevant:

      What has become of the last trace of decent feeling, of
      self-respect, when our statesmen, otherwise an unconventional class of men and thoroughly anti-Christian in their acts, now call themselves Christians and go to the communion-table?... A prince at the head of his armies, magnificent as the expression of the egoism and arrogance of his people--and yet acknowledging, _without_ any shame, that he is a Christian!... Whom, then, does Christianity deny? _what_ does it call "the world"? To be a _soldier_, to be a judge, to be a patriot; to defend one's self; to be careful of one's honour; to desire one's own advantage; to be _proud_ ... every act of everyday, every instinct, every valuation that shows itself in a _deed_, is now anti-Christian: what a _monster of falsehood_ the modern man must be to call himself
      nevertheless, and _without_ shame, a Christian!--

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    2. Excellent passage. Nietzsche's Anti-Christ was the negation of the (Paul's) negation. That make's him, practically, a disciple. The least a scholar of Nietzsche can do is read the Bible, and read it well, as he clearly did. Here's one back at you:

      “The fact that humanity knelt down before the opposite of the origin, the meaning, the right of the evangel, the fact that in the concept of ‘church’, humanity canonized the very thing the ‘bearer of glad tidings’ felt to be beneath him, behind him - you will not find a greater example of world-historical irony - -”



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    3. Thanks! I think it's time to re-read this book.

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  4. Thanks for the suggestions. There is also this:

    I was able to cobble together my own version of a humanistic education, wth a little help from Wikipedia, the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy, and helpfully illustrated books with titles like "Introducing Cultural Studies" and "Foucault for Beginners".

    From here.

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  5. Re Nietzsche, the two works I'd go for would be Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil. GM is a good route in if only because it's not as cryptic or aphoristic as most of his other stuff. BGE builds on GM and contains important passages about key Nietzschean ideas: will to power, slave morality, eternal recurrence, etc.

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    1. Thanks, Yes, those are both good ones, and probably easier starting points than the Antichrist.

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  6. Although it doesn't cover Derrida, I really liked Ian Hacking's "Why Language Matters to Philosophy". That said, it's been many years since I read it.

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    1. Thanks. That's something I'd like to read.

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  7. The really good book on relativism probably remains to be written, even today. The Finnish translator of Hacking's book is a close friend, and she's just finishing her PhD on the philosophy of science of ethnography (taster) which she's basically having to found from scratch. A large part of it involves showing, in response to alarmist denunciations of relativism and social construction in the human sciences – with which ethnography is of course associated especially strongly – that that particular kind of (epistemic) relativism is in fact quite rarely indulged in by actual working ethnographers. On the other hand, some completely different types of relativism, which have had too little critical attention for their own good, but which are still nevertheless defensible in some particular carefully formulated forms, are almost everywhere in cultural anthropology. But no philosopher of science is interested in them.

    Talking with my friend, it seems like a typology of different relativisms, all subsets of the word as used in ordinary language, could be drawn up that would be almost Austinian in its heft and depth. I'm hoping she'll do it so I don't have to.

    But speaking of good popular books on relativism, I have two, perhaps surprising, recommendations: Mary Midgley's Can't We Make Moral Judgements?, and Simon Blackburn's Being Good (also published as Ethics: A Very Short Introduction). Both wear the colours of a very short introductory book on ethics, for Jon Cogburn's teenagers and whatnot. But they expand effortlessly to a very much more broad and judicious treatment of precisely relativism, in an astonishingly compact way. There is also in both book a family resemblance to Wittgenstein, particularly On Certainty, which is hard to put your finger on for the most part, but which is perfectly obvious as you read. Both were unlooked-for discoveries in second-hand bookstores, only during the past couple of years, and are seemingly seldom recommended even for their ostensible purpose. A pity.

    As for "lucid, accessible, reliable critiques of influential ideas and ideologies", I'll limit myself for now to just 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang. I continue to feel bad about the way the Oxford PPE degree seemingly put you off economics forever, as you've related more than once in the past. I keep hoping that I could not just bring you to the water but make you to to drink, and this is one short book – extremely empirical and extremely witty at the same time – that just might be able to do it.

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    1. Thanks, Tommi!

      I don't remember whether I've ever read Midgley's and Blackburn's books. I should certainly take another look at them.

      And I will read Ha-Joon Chang. I wish I had more time, but I think economics is important enough that I need to make the time. A short, empirical, and witty book sounds like just the thing.

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