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Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse Paperback – June 17, 2003

4.2 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Kimball, a respected critic and managing editor of the New Criterion, applies the pornography standard to intelligence in this collection of essays about famous men and their smarts: it's hard to define, but he knows it when he sees it. "Intelligence," Kimball writes, "like fire, is a power that is neither good nor bad in itself but rather takes its virtue, its moral coloring, from its application." Among the figures the author identifies as having constructively applied their intelligence are Plutarch (who taught us about character), Kierkegaard ("the supreme anatomist of the aesthetic mode of life"), Wittgenstein (for whom philosophy was an "existential imperative") and, of course, Descartes. (Apparently, real intelligence requires a Y chromosome). Kimball notes that in these studies the heroes "rather outweigh the villains," but a little more abuse might have helped liven things up. The personal bits-Kimball's sickbed discovery of Wodehouse, or Trollope's account of his schoolyard woes-stand out brightly in essays that are earnest and rigorous, if occasionally a bit dry.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

One of the best kinds of writing about writing--criticism, literary history, and all that--is the cultural review article, short enough to be read in a sitting and long enough to educate. Kimball is a master of the genre, as collections of his pieces attest, none more impressively than this set concerned with philosophers, political commentators, two novelists, and one artist--modern, post-Enlightenment figures, most of them; the exceptions are the Greco-Roman biographer Plutarch and that forefather of modern philosophy, Descartes. Kimball customarily begins a piece with some characterizing remarks about the figure at hand, proceeds to a little biography, and then comments on the subject's writings and what others have said and written about him. Kimball likes most of his subjects, and when he doesn't, as in the cases of Hegel and Bertrand Russell, he is fastidious about stating why; not for him the malicious squelch or iron-fisted put-down. As for the leitmotiv of this book, the expression of intelligence, Kimball acknowledges it in all his subjects, but discriminates among them according to his preferences for common sense, custom, traditional religion, the cardinal virtues, and the enjoyment of present pleasures, and against ideology, revolution, materialism, expediency, and utopian promises. His essay on the least-known figure here, Australian philosopher David Stove (1927-94), is not to be missed. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ivan R. Dee (June 17, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1566635241
  • ISBN-13: 978-1566635240
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,558,668 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Roger Kimball is managing editor of The New Criterion, a neo-conservative journal of arts and letters. I gather that most of these essays were published as book reviews and essays in that publication. (Strangely, the book nowhere tells you where the essays come from.)
I enjoyed this book a great deal. Kimball is an excellent writer and all of the essays are well written and lively. Because many of the essays are book reviews, the essays actually provide handy introductions to certain thinkers. The essays on Schopenhauer and Descartes are a good mix of biographical background and philosophical explanation. There is also an enjoyable introduction to David Stove, an Australian philosopher that Kimball helped introduce to the American public when he edited a collection of his essays a few years back (called AGAINST THE IDOLS OF THE AGE).
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I am ecstatic to inform you of the noble presence of Roger Kimball. This man, the Managing Editor of The New Criterion, had made his career a tenacious crusade to save our history and to publicize the great minds and ideas that have made our culture the greatest on this earth.
Kimball is one of the few men who recognized the cultural calamity from its beginnings. His Tenured Radicals was one of the first publications to identify and showcase the current bizarre practices in our universities. It came out over a decade ago and, since that time, he has written numerous books that examine the major figures and trends within literature, art, philosophy, history, and political science. Unlike the rest of us, Kimball has the ability to specialize in the liberal arts on the whole.
Even though it lacks the earth-shattering power of The Long March; Lives of the Mind is an exquisite endeavor.
The book showcases 18 "minds" or intellectuals and its theme is that "intelligence, like fire, is a power that is neither good nor bad in itself but rather takes its virtue, its moral coloring from its application." Although, no chapter is assigned for him in the text, Karl Marx would be the perfect example of the misapplication of intelligence. Hegel and Wittgenstein, who both receive treatment in Lives of the Mind, would be two others.
All of the 18 essays originally appeared in The New Criterion, and, as I have a subscription to the excellent journal, it was my second chance to read many of them. My favorites involved Plutarch, P.G. Wodehouse, and George Santayana. Yet, all of them have value as they inform us of lives and works of writers who are rarely discussed within the current Kultursmog.
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That Roger Kimball is armed with a formidable erudition has been conceded even by those whose loathing is his highest honor. But an arsenal of erudition is available to anyone with the time, the interest and an IQ slightly above average; it is the deployment of his intellectual armament that distinguishes this author above all but a few others now writing.
All the essays in this volume exhibit identical elements: 1) an elegant, lucid, and vigorous style that carries the reader smoothly into, and through, the subject; 2) command of the writings of the author under consideration; 3) mastery of a wide range of the best biographical and critical material; 4) an extended examination of some recent work; 5) a structure which binds all the elements seamlessly together; 6) evaluations that excite an interest in further exploration OR clarify the reader's predilections OR summarize in a cogent manner the reader's pre-existing distaste OR justify the reader's disinclination to waste his time on some over-rated windsock.
It is my considered judgement--founded upon prayer and long hours of solitary meditation--that any reader who fails to find these essays interesting should consider confining his future intellecutal explorations to the pages of the TV Guide.
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This book is a series of essays on various thinkers and their works (Plutarch) supposedly wrapped around a theme -- criticism of "great' thinkers, persons who over-think and over-write (Hegel), who ascribe to systems of thought that obviate common sense (Marx). He champions thinkers who connect their thoughts to every day lives, who do not over-reach.

The book is not pointless. It is frustrating.

I found the essays wandering and vague. In every instance, I would suggest reading the author being discussed. That may seem like common sense, but when you are reading a 4-10 page essay, you want illumination, percipient discussion, the trenchant and focused portion of the larger argument. In too many of these essays, there was a sense that the author just wandered over to his book shelf to pull down a volume of his favorite writers (to praise) or his least favorite (to flame).

The result is not a waste of time. The book educates and discusses, and unless the reader is a complete omnivore, there are undiscovered writers and works to be introduced to... I just did not think that the book paid off it's promise.

Also, there is a colloquial style that is off-outing. "Good stuff, no?" "Each of us, probably, has a dozen or so caricatures by Daumier in his head:"... This may be a magazine writer's off-hand guys around a bar writing style, pretentious and annoying, but when dropped into a book the result is unserious.
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