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The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will
The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will
by Heidi M. Ravven
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.66
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars No Man is an Island, March 22, 2014
This might have been several books - one on the educational system in the US, one on the Milgram/Zimbardo experiments, one on Abu Ghraib and on the Holocaust, one on social psychology and one on the ethics of Maimonides and Spinoza and finally yet another one on brain science. But it isn't. In an effort to develop a sustained argument, Heidi M. Ravven, professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, aims at incorporating these themes in a grand synthesis. How convincing this endeavour comes across is perhaps dependent on your own background and point of view. In any case the book is bound to raise considerable controversy.
The first parts seem fairly straightforward. An historical overview of the US educational system with its stress on individual responsibility following Kant and Rawls and a discussion of the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust and the dangers of groupthink leads up to chapter four. Here the going gets tough. Ravven defends a form of determinism and denial of free will as articulated by 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Many philosophers consider the problem of free will to be the thorniest of all. For starters, the shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that more than 200 senses of the word "free" have been distinguished (p.287).
In a discussion on Descartes, Ravven proposes that the French philosopher leans heavily on St. Augustine, calling him an Augustinian revivalist and theologically conservative, "perhaps even reactionary". She goes so far as to state that Descartes's voluntarism outstrips even Augustine's own (p. 178). Citing the work of historian of philosophy Stephen Menn she comes to the conclusion that "Descartes's conscious intention (was) to develop a philosophy in an Augustinian key" to meet the demands of the Counter-Reformation. (p. 175). She also sees as a sign of his religious, rather than philosophical intentions the fact that he offered his work to theologians for approval. By this she probably means Nicholas Malebranche and the famous Porte-Royal school of Antoine Arnauld. But according to another scholar this was "indicative of no intellectual affinity" (Henri Gouhier, A Companion to Descartes, Blackwell, p. 35). Gouhier is also of a different opinion concerning Descartes's deep indebtedness to Augustine. Professor of philosophy at the city university of New York Catherine Wilson, states that in his old age Augustine, in contrast with Descartes, rejected philosophy in favour of faith. In her opinion Descartes's Augustinian metaphysics complemented rather than supported the scientific image of the world. "It substituted monotheism for the atheism and nature-worship associated with the science, and often metaphysics, of the ancients" (p.36).
Although Wilson says that it may somehow be possible to reconcile these different views, she concludes that "Augustinian theology...is very far from Descartes's " (p. 40). A difference of opinion perhaps, but one wonders if Ravven doesn't squeeze the facts (if indeed they are facts) to fit her bill.
She also cites an amazing amount of recent findings in brain science and psychological research to undergird her thesis. This part takes up about a third of the book. It's sometimes so overwhelming that one starts wondering if it weren't possible to gather support for just the opposite view, e.g., on the questions of innate ideas versus the impact of the (social) environment, a modular brain versus cerebral plasticity, or group selection versus the selfish gene. Ravven never mentions Richard Dawkins and refers to the hotly debated evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker just once - parenthesized in a footnote. Nevertheless, the sheer effort and perseverance she puts into her line of argument is astounding. To be able to follow her, the reader must exhibit a fair amount of staying power as well as flexibility. It's certainly a highly original and thought-provoking book, written with gusto, conviction, and clarity. It's also a considerable mine of information on a wide range of subjects. But even if it contributes to a shift of emphasis, it's doubtful whether it succeeds conclusively in relegating free will to the realm of the mythological.
Her invocation of Spinoza gets an unexpected twist in the final chapter where she tries to combine his thoughts with the contemporary deep ecology movement. At the risk of sounding fuzzy, she says that to be ethical is "to be with others and make the best of the world" (p.418) and that "a self-reflecting understanding of the eco-biological reality" is needed to integrate "the self-reflection into the self - and thereby transforming the self as within its eco-world and universe" (p.479).
We've come a long way from the educational curricula of the opening chapter.


The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Pagden, Anthony (2013)
The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Pagden, Anthony (2013)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The postman always rings twice, November 16, 2013
The dust jacket of this book is adorned with an "Allegory of the Planets and Continents" which is credited to Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. This, however, is the wrong Tiepolo. Domenico is the painter's son (who together with another son collaborated with his father). The more famous of the Tiepolos and the one to whom the painting should be attributed is Giovanni Battista (1669-1770).
This particular painting is also a slightly surprising choice as cover. What one would expect to see is a couple of scientific minded men gathered round some optical or astronomical device, or some fashionably dressed people reading learned journals and playing the piano in an overwhelming library - here we get an elegant and airy rendering of assorted putties, horses and half naked women roaming the heavens. If this is a depiction of THE Enlightenment, it's certainly in an advanced, not to say decadent state. Many enlightenment thinkers condemned the period of Rococo for being immoral, indecent, and frivolous.
Be this as it may, historian Anthony Pagden (who succeeded J.G.A. Pocock at Johns Hopkins University in 1997) has now put his stamp on the debate of the merits of this seminal period. Of the many eminent books on The Enlightenment one might mention works by Cassirer, Gay, Jacob, Israel or the wonderful "The Crisis of the European Mind" by Paul Hazard, originally published in 1935 (2013, nyrb). Still, if you had to choose a single book on the Enlightenment, this might just be the one. Pagdens proficiency and erudition informs practically every page. It's written for the general public without being populist. Though it might sometimes resemble Philipp Blom's "A Wicked Company", it comes across as a far more solid effort. Especially on the subject of empire, Pagden is superbly confident.
From the outset the Enlightenment has suffered from a two-headed ghost image: the supposedly sacred beast of Reason and Progress. Many writers have challenged this view, characterizing it as an oversimplification and a stereotype. On the contrary, they aver, the philosophes turned against the metaphysical certainties and philosophical dogmatism of previous centuries. A case can be made that the Enlightenment strived to temperate reason rather than to emphasize its absoluteness. Peter Gay for example, in a chapter called "The Revolt Against Rationalism", states that: "In its treatment of the passions, as in its treatment of metaphysics, the Enlightenment was not an age of reason but a revolt against rationalism" (Gay, The Science of Freedom, p. 189). According to Paul Hazard this was a new kind of reason; one that did not try to impose an order but was "a critical force whose main duty was to enquire, to examine, to question" (Hazard, p. 320). What was agreed on was that critical thinking could be a useful tool in the face of oppressive authorities, be it state, church, or otherwise.
Perhaps the most well known example of casting doubt on the supreme power of reason is to be found in Hume. But he was by no means alone. Shaftesbury, who seemingly had everything - except good health - states that our sense of morality works not through reason but through imagination. Likewise Adam Smith says that what unites us is not reason but imagination. Diderot, d'Alembert, and Condillac also recognized the limits of a stark rationality.
On page 153 Pagden says that all the writers of the Enlightenment were in no doubt that our species is headed towards perfection. This is clearly a simplification of matters and has for a long time been a moot case among scholars and laymen alike. With a few exceptions, of course the Enlightenment thinkers were in doubt. The main point was rather to use your sceptical faculties and to put doubt before belief. Again, in Peter Gay indications of this abounds. Prophets of progress reminded Kant of physicians consoling their patients, Hume had no room in his philosophy for the claim that the future guarantees man even higher peaks (than his own civilization), Montesquieu thought that empires as well as men must grow, decay, and die, and for Voltaire the decline of culture was an obsessive theme. According to Gay, the philosophes ultimately regarded progress as a highly ambiguous blessing (pp. 100-105).
At least since Adorno and Isaiah Berlin, but perhaps especially since the event of Postmodernism, it has been in vogue to criticize The Enlightenment for its naive belief in progress, materially as well as morally. Pagden quotes John Gray characterizing the Enlightenment as a form of "western cultural imperialism" (p. 15). The ultimate consequence of this line of thought is that the spirit of Enlightenment inevitably ends up with the horrors of Gulag and Auschwitz. A consensus seems to have evolved that this view is untenable. Mankind as perfectible and the envisaging of a bright, spotless future around the corner for us all - as Susan Neiman has noted, one often forgets to mention who actually held such a dim-witted view. Baron d'Holbach has been one contender, otherwise the evidence for the existence, never mind omnipresence of such a shallow creed has turned out to be rather shaky.
To make enlightenment thinkers responsible for the Holocaust or to lay the excesses of the Terror at the feet of Rousseau is a recurring theme, applauded by some, fiercely contested by others. Though not going that far, Pagden shows a certain disdain of Rousseau, regarding him as deeply inconsistent and at one point calling him a "hysterical misogynist" (p. 224). Contra these views, Judith Shklar thinks Rousseau felt a deep sympathy for his readers and that he possessed a profound unity (Shklar, Men and Citizens, pp. 220-223). Let's settle for Cambridge Companion's more guarded characterization of the Genevan as being a "sociological neurotic" (p. 45). For an accessible account of his troubled character and unsettling encounter with Hume, see The Philosopher's Quarrel by Robert Zaretsky.
There are a number of typing errors one wouldn't expect to find in an ambitious book like this. One of the funniest appears on page 240 where there is a reference to "a scared text". To name the famous Dutch statesman Jan van Barneveldt rather than by his real name, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, is perhaps more of a lapse of concentration (p.101). A wild guess would be that Pagden has confused the Grand Pensionary with former dart world champion (and postman) Raymond van Barneveld.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the problematic matter of rating this book, it feels unjust to deduce any star. One can raise objections or have difference of opinion about this or that, in the end "The Enlightenment" by its sheer scope, wit, and readability is a rare achievement.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 16, 2014 1:20 PM PDT


Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
by Jim Holt
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.15
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Like a Rolling Stone, June 19, 2013
Most reviewers of Jim Holt's "Why does the World exist?" seem to have missed out on the author's odd claim to be unable to get the Rolling Stones' song "This Will be the Last Time" out of his head. So what is he humming about? Is it perhaps only the tune and not the lyrics that matter? Granted, Holt drinks and smokes a lot and somewhere wonders how it can be that philosophers prefer caffeinated drinks to beer. In the very last sentence he describes how in melancholy despair he ends his quest by flipping his cigarette butt in the Seine - how's that for coolness? It was raining slightly too. But did he really listen to the Rolling Stones?
If he gets such a simple thing wrong, what about his other conjectures? On page 84 for example, he states that the character Cleanthes comes closest to being the spokesperson of David Hume in his Dialogues on Natural Religion. While this is far from straightforward and scholars are divided, Holt offers his opinion as a matter of fact. In his introduction to the Dialogues, Martin Bell states that "Philo's methods of reasoning are the closest of the three to Hume". According to Paul Russel it is Philo who more closely represents the irreligious intentions of Hume. His book "The Riddle of Hume's Treatise" (Oxford 2008) is in effect a sustained effort to convince his readers that Hume to all intents and purposes was an atheist. Cleanthes defends the Argument from Design and Philo is the sceptic. With a combination of scepticism and naturalism (the "riddle"), Hume provided an argument for nonbelievers in his own time as well as ours.
With his usual brio Holt en passant announces that the whereabouts of the skull of Descartes is a mystery. While it is not quite certain that the skull kept in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris is that of the philosopher (see e.g. Russel Shorto), one feels inclined to trust the testimony of the Swedish 19th-century chemist Berzelius who obtained the skull and donated it to the museum. Findings of an expert panel from the Swedish city of Lund further corroborate its authenticity (Nordin 2012). Be this as it may, perhaps in "An Existential Detective Story" we are in dire need of a modern Hercule Poirot to solve the case.
There has been no shortage of reactions to the book, including both from Michael Wood (LRB, 21 March 2013) and Freeman Dyson (NYRB, 8 November 2012). In a strangely dystopian tirade Dyson is surely overstating his case: "Holt's philosophers belong to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Compared with the giants of the past, they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant. At some time toward the end of the nineteenth century, philosophers faded from public life. Like the snark in Lewis Carroll's poem, they suddenly and silently vanished. So far as the general public was concerned, philosophers became invisible". He goes on to ask: "When and why did philosophy lose its bite? How did it become a toothless relic of past glories? These are the ugly questions that Jim Holt's book compels us to ask."
Holt travels enthusiastically all over the place to meet some of those uninteresting people. They include puny characters like Weinberg, Parfit, Penrose, Swinburne and John Updike (thrown in for good measure). One wonders if Dyson has ever set eyes on Parfit's magnum opus On What Matters (Oxford 2011, two volumes). The question Holt asks, as he with boundless zest keeps telling us, is Leibniz's perennial "Why is there something rather than nothing?" (Parmenides wondered the same thing around 500 BCE). And of course this question is true to the book's title even if the resulting lack of a satisfying answer is less than surprising. His book is certainly enjoyable and triggers curiosity about some of the many philosophers and scientists he mentions, but it strikes me as more of a sophomore effort than the real thing. Whatever that might be.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 25, 2013 12:34 PM PDT


The "Origin" Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the "Origin of Species"
The "Origin" Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the "Origin of Species"
by David N. Reznick
Edition: Paperback
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars UNDERGROUND FEMALES versus SURFACE MOSQUITOES, April 3, 2012
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David N. Reznick (professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside) describes The Origin Then and Now as a reader's guide to Darwin's original Origin of Species from 1859. With an introduction by the ubiquitous and ever-energetic Michael Ruse, it reads as a textbook of short chapters, each accompanied with suggested further reading. And it's a marvel of clarity, knowledge, and wit. He tells us, tongue in cheek, that one of his proudest moments in science occurred when the National Enquirer headlined his findings as "Uncle Sam wastes $97.000 dollars to learn how old guppies are when they die" (p.128).
What he actually learned was that evolution can happen much faster than Darwin envisioned, which turns out to be one of the recurring themes of this book. By adding or subtracting predators in a stream of guppies, he could observe how fast the control group developed changes as a response. This is a crude description of his sophisticated and time-consuming experiments carried out in the field as well in a controlled laboratory environment. There are other aspects of Darwin's thinking that have not stood the test of time. His ideas about inheritance were wrong due to the fact that the work of Mendel was not yet known and Darwin didn't know about the phenomenon of continental drift either. There was a lot of speculation about how similar life forms could turn up on different continents or faraway islands. Darwin ridiculed ideas about long - sometimes exceedingly long - land bridges that could have connected remote areas. He favoured airborne transportation, for example by snails clinging to the feet of geese, or imagined stowaway passengers on tree trunks over sea, and also carried out experiments for life expectancy of seeds submerged in water and so on. The famous artist and ornithologist James Audubon once reported finding the very large seed of a water lily in the stomach of a heron (p.334). Undoubtably this provided some of the answers, but the real solution lay elsewhere. The idea of plate tectonics was not yet known and it too was duly ridiculed when Alfred Wegener published his theory in 1915. The idea of drifting continents seemed even more farfetched and as so often with unfamiliar ideas, it took time before it was accepted. In a way, what Darwin characterized as "The silliest of All Land Bridges" turned out to be not so silly after all.
An often-heard objection against Darwinism is that it's "just a theory". Although it has been done over and over by others, Reznick offers a succinct clarification of the meaning of the word "theory". Most dictionaries have different definitions, one being "speculation". In science, though, it carries the meaning "systematically organized knowledge". Science is not based on mere speculation, but on a body of well-established data. In this sense, the theory of evolution is a fact; we know that it happened. There is scientific debate over the details of just how it happened but not about the reality of evolution itself. The argument that Darwinism is "just a theory" is a non-argument.
So what's this thing about mosquitoes? In a chapter dealing with the thorny question of speciation ("species" being a concept Darwin never defined), Reznick exemplifies this process with a mosquito population in and around the London Underground. Some mosquitoes ventured down into the tunnels and started to develop a different strategy to survive in these changed environments. No sun, no winter, and no birds to feed on - only rats and humans. Underground females developed the capacity to produce eggs without a blood meal. Surface females cannot do this and furthermore have a seasonal diapause during the winter. The invading mosquitoes could be active all year long and were a nuisance to the construction workers and during World War II also for Londoners seeking refuge from the Nazi bombings known as the Blitz. (On a personal note: the drawings by Henry Moore of these sheltering people are more moving than many of his monumental sculptures.) Reznick is cautious not to conclude that these insects have definitely developed into different species, but shows us that they are a living example of how this may occur. The process started with the opening of the Underground in 1863, the first winged trespassers apparently entering at the Oval station. This postdates the publication of The Origin, thus again bearing witness to the speed of actual evolution happening before our eyes, as it were. Divergence, and ultimately speciation, can occur within a much shorter period of time than Darwin thought possible.
The Origins Then and Now unfolds as an imagined murder investigation; the last chapter is called "The Witness Has Been Found, Again and Again". Unsurprisingly, the accumulated evidence in favour of Darwinism is so strong as to be conclusive. Even if Charles Lyell in his day wasn't prepared to "go the whole orang" (p.404), evolutionism doesn't necessarily pose a threat to religious belief. Reznick concludes his inquiry with the remark that faith is not that fragile. It will surely survive the challenges of Darwin's theory.


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4.0 out of 5 stars Honest to Marx, January 20, 2012
You can't judge a book by its cover, so the saying goes. Well, this book is all white and on the dust jacket only the title is spread across the middle with the name of the author printed in shrimp-red letters just above. This might give something away. Given his political affiliations, one could hardly imagine Alain Badiou going for blue or purple. On the back is a short appraisal by literary critic Terry Eagleton, his name likewise in bright red. Now we're closing in. Alain Badiou is the far left French philosopher who has emerged as a mentor for a whole crop of neo-Marxist thinkers. This has found its expression in the book THE IDEA OF COMMUNISM that relates a conference held in London in 2009, where many luminaries of the current Left were present.
They want to inform us, in case we haven't noticed, that there is a formidable revival of Marxist thought going on. As Slavoj Zizek somewhere says about liberal capitalism: you've had your fun, now let's get back to business. 1989 already seems far away and the purported End of History feels antiquated. Let's put an end to all Ends, Badiou exclaims. Let's pick up where the thread was broken. Marx looms large again, even Mao, Trotsky and Lenin are read, not to mention other stars of days gone by: Marcuse, Althusser, Gramski, and others. Add to this the legacy of Freud and Jacques Lacan and you have an explosive cocktail indeed.
POLEMICS is a collection of articles and political essays (and one Art Manifesto, which is also strongly politically flavoured), all of a polemic, not to say combative, nature. They have been published before in various constellations and cover everything from 9/11, the Iraq war, the law against headscarves (in France), to the Cultural Revolution in China, and much more. The long chapter on the uses of the word "Jew" has, unsurprisingly, got him into a lot of trouble, as has his defence of certain aspects of the political thinking of chairman Mao.
Not a person of modesty or compromise, Badiou is prone to more than the occasional hyperbole, which in the long run makes for rather strained reading (though never dull). When someone is in love it's not enough to describe the feeling as strong or deep, it must surely be "obscure and violent". If someone hesitates, he will typically add "not for a second" - as for the UN to transform itself to the arbiter of local wars (p. 41). In "The word `Jew' and the Sycophant", his heated reaction against a critic tends to undermine his - otherwise probably justified - arguments. And in his listing of approved artists (p.141) the purportedly cool and "mathematical" anti-romantic reveals himself to be less then level-headed, witness his exclamation of "oh drapery of the soul!" (echoing Burke). These artists, by the way, include one Charlie Chaplin. This seems an odd choice given this artist's sentimentality, at least when compared to the uncrowned king of cool, the dispassionate and "subtracted" character of Buster Keaton. One somehow gets the feeling that the list contains favourite artists rather then those that necessarily fit the blueprint. How on earth could one imagine Henry Moore's "colossal pregnancies" as being "subtractive"? Because there are holes in them? The obvious choice would here rather be Giacometti. Perhaps not to be taken quite seriously, his manifest does manage to get some points across loud and clear. It's about how art should not be democratic, not circulate within the pre-established circuit and not communicate with anyone in particular, among other things. How such an art is supposed to reach an audience is never elaborated; except "necessarily with a little touch of terror", which sounds awfully elegant but is of course totally unrealistic. In his spirited A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION to Critical Theory, Stephen Eric Bronner asks if it's really impossible for (popular) art to be critical and at the same time part of the establishment. Surely, that's not the case with great artists like...Charlie Chaplin! In the totally administered society art is treated as any other commodity and its critical character thereby duly nullified. "Insisting that genuine art must somehow contest the ontology of false conditions is nostalgia for the seminar room masquerading as radicalism," is his pithy conclusion (p.112). Of course, Alain Badiou is no member of the Frankfurt School, but he exhibits the same forbidding rigour of thought. The last point of his manifest dryly states that it's better for an artist to do nothing than to make visible what "the West declares to exist" (p.148). Be this as it may, one can hear Badiou laughing just now. As he says in his introduction to this "Third Sketch of a Manifesto of Affirmationist Art", a previous version was "in style no doubt driven by sarcasm."
Admittedly, it's refreshing to read a philosopher who works against the grain and who doesn't care if his points of view are in any way fashionable. Badiou is genuine and honest to, well, Marx and there's no way getting around it. His philosophy proper is only touched upon here and not having read his BEING AND EVENT, not to mention his mathematical writings, is certainly a disadvantage. POLEMICS is nevertheless a sure-fire way to shake up ingrained prejudices. To call this book thought provoking would be a fair assessment - to call it provocative would perhaps be more to the point.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 29, 2012 1:27 AM PST


The Origins of Postmodernity
The Origins of Postmodernity
by Perry Anderson
Edition: Paperback
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pomo Revisited, September 24, 2011
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Reading The Origins of Postmodernity some thirty years after the beating of the waves is a delight. Perry Anderson has rapidly become one of my favourite writers. A former editor of The New Left Review, he wears his political heart on his sleeve. But being one of those rare intellectuals who do not view the world with their blinkers on, he readily admits his admiration for the fertile dynamics of Oakshott and Hayek as opposed to the dour prose of Habermas and Rawls. In his collection of essays entitled "Spectrum", he states without hesitation that in reality Hayek has been far more influential than Rawls, despite the vast amount of writings on the latter.
With sentences like: "The postmodernism of 'neoconservatives' welcomed the reification of separate value-spheres into closed domains of expertise armoured against any demands of the life-world, with conceptions of science close to those of early Wittgenstein, of politics borrowed from Carl Schmitt, of art akin to those of Gottfried Benn" (p.39), Anderson occasionally crams a bit too much information into one sentence. Granted, this is taken out of context and of course ¬"reification" is a standard notion in Marxist theory. One could at least have hoped he'd leave out that unbeautiful expression "the life-world" (from the German "Lebenswelt"). But for the most part his arguments are brought forward with imposing force and learning.
I remember, when studying at the Art Academy in Copenhagen, how Postmodernism yes, with a capital P, as befits a grand narrative) swept the art-scene like a veritable tsunami. Anything goes, as the war cry went. And so the circus started, leaving the poor modernists fending with their "unfinished" squares and circles. At the time all the buzz was Lyotard, Bataille, Kristeva, Feyerabend, you name them. As the dust has since settled, this book helps sort things out.
Enter Frederic Jameson; in Perry Andersons view a thinker in a different league. After a brief survey of the roots of the term "Postmodernism", Anderson spends time on Lyotard and Habermas respectively. Lyotard admits to never having read "a quantity" of books to which he had referred in his (in)famous " The Postmodern Condition" - he later called it his worst book (p. 26). Habermas just barely admits to the postmodern being "on the agenda", without, according to Anderson, being able to explain exactly why. He offers no coherent historical or theoretical understanding of its emergence. Paradoxically, both Lyotard and Habermas were "deeply attached to the principles of high modernism" (p. 45).
Nobody in the avant-garde of bygone days had ever heard of Jameson. An American literary critic and Marxist theorist born in 1934, he is one of the most radical thinkers to throw light on postmodernism. Contrary to many others, he does so from a far-left perspective. Maybe his main effort has been to demonstrate how postmodernism grew logically from late capitalism. He thinks it is futile to oppose, or indeed endorse, the phenomenon from a moral standpoint. Although he set out with his focus on the West, Jameson is also one of the few intellectuals who have a truly global vision. He has written about Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Senegalese, Mexican, and Cuban writers and filmmakers. His lectures in many countries, especially China, have been influential. Furthermore, his writings feature a style of complex splendour. We are dealing with a great author (p.72). Who else can match this (p.75)?
The last part of the book offers a rather complex discussion of the arts, notably the purported Death of Art. This was the title of American critic Arthur Danto's 1984 book, preceded a year by the German art historian Belting's "Das Ende der Kunstgeschichte". One can wonder how many times the death of something or other has been and will continue to be announced (Hegel, Kojève, Fukuyama, Harris to name a few). The nature of art may have changed but it has proven capable of many a resurrection. Strange thing is, the more Anderson analyses its contemporary status, the more the once so revolutionary power of postmodernism appears to have been weakened by internal discrepancies. Some artists embrace the spectacle, others find it abhorrent; some architects love embellishment, others are quite constrained and so on. There are critics who prefer to instead talk of ultramodernism. Postmodernism is a reaction against modernism but nevertheless shares some of its characteristic features. Even its celebrated conflation of High and Low culture has of course been an important aspect of both Surrealism and Dada. Strangely, Dada doesn't figure in Anderson's analysis; was it perhaps too postmodern?
In an effort to sort out two contrasting strands of modernism, he offers a rather strained argument by making a distinction between August Strindberg and James Ensor, among others (p. 103-104). Is it possible to classify Strindberg as belonging to the zone of "the upper atmosphere of titled leisure," taking into consideration his famous socialist novel "The Red Room", his "A Thousand Years of the History of Swedish Culture and Manners" (originally titled "The Chronicle of the People"), and the explosive class- and gender-problematics of his play "Miss Julie"? And how can one plausibly categorize Ensor as investing in "the lower deeps of manual labour?" He did paint "the ordinary man", but probably more out of personal misfortunes and an aversion against a narrow-minded petty bourgeoisie than on account of any clear-cut working class commitment. Inspired by the souvenirs, chinoiserie, and masks in his mother's shop, he developed his singular carnivalesque style. After having been rolled up for thirty years, his most famous painting, "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889", was for the first time exhibited in 1929. Measuring over four meters by two fifty, its' now in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. When he belatedly did achieve success and a title (baron), he could be seen strolling up and down the beach boulevard of Oostende in his finery. The Ensor house is now a museum, with the souvenir shop belonging to his uncle and aunt left intact on the second floor. Reproductions of his celebrated paintings are displayed, cheaply plastic-coated, on the walls. The ultimate postmodern modernist museum, if you ask me.
Anderson's argumentation as to why a painter should be more prepared for the postmodern than other artists is also less than convincing. He states that a painting is cheap to produce, but so is of course a poem on a sheet of paper. In contrast to the painter a writer would then need a printing press to reproduce the poem. The painter is solely responsible for his work and "as a rule needs no further intermediation to realize a work of art" (p.94). This reawakens the age-old question of how to define Art. In many definitions the setting - the art-scene, the audience, the collector, the critic and so on - is a crucial ingredient. Anyone can make a painting, sure, but is it thereby art? In my experience there are a lot of things to factor in before a painting can reach its audience, all of them more or less costly. Another criterion for Anderson is that, although the artist produces his work alone, painting is "objectively" the most collaborative of modern arts. Training at the academy is supposedly a deciding factor in this. Of course, one is free to speculate, but that these features should have marked painting out in advance for a transition to the postmodern sounds far-fetched to these ears.
Be this as it may, Frederic Jameson has himself retracted some of his early enthusiasm. He seems especially troubled by the revival of the aesthetic in cinema and art (and religion!). The "cult of the glossy image" is like the "ultimate packaging of Nature in cellophane" (p.102). In short, the borderlines between the modern and the postmodern are blurred. Which makes for all the more fascinating reading... With a final discussion on the tension between aesthetics and economics and their relation to politics proper, one is left exasperated by the sheer range of thought Perry Anderson puts on display. From Gramsci to Lucàcs and Adorno, from Mallarmé and Braudel to Giovanni Arrighi; this slender book calls for a lot of homework indeed. This would have to include his 2009 "The New Old World", on the history of the European Union, as well.

The Origins of Postmodernity - Verso 1998, this paperback 2006
Spectrum - From right to left in the world of ideas, Essays, Verso 2005
The New Old World - Verso 2009
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Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy
Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy
by Bernard Arthur Owen Williams
Edition: Hardcover
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Face the Truth, August 11, 2011
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Published in 2002, this was to be Bernard Williams's last book. The concept of Truth has had a rough time since Rorty and company have done their best to bring it in discredit. The dominant trend has been to question the validity of any universal truth and to render everything relative. Your truth is as good as mine. Or alternatively, since truth is not obtainable one should rather seek what is workable. We speak of a giraffe "because it suits our purposes to do so," as Rorty says in Philosophy and Social Hope. We construct the world around us according to our needs and wishes. Knowledge and truth are no more than subjective features of our daily lives. Anything goes... This is, or rather was, the fashionable tenor in academia. Since the first decennium of this century, voices have been raised against this view and in defence of a more commonsensical understanding of truth and truthfulness. "How did so many contemporary scholars come to be convinced of a doctrine as radical and as counterintuitive as equal validity?" asks Paul Boghossian in his 2006 Fear of Knowledge. "The work of Richard Rorty provides striking examples of what in this respect might be described as running on empty," as Williams puts it (p. 59). Consequently, Williams doesn't believe there is such a thing as a history of the concept of truth. It has always and everywhere been the same. "The inquiry, then, is rather into human concerns with the truth" (p. 61).
Williams traces his genealogy with Nietzsche as guiding-star. Contrary to received knowledge, Nietzsche was no enemy of truth; "there are facts to be respected" and "there are such truths" (p. 16). Williams himself stresses the double-edged character of the Enlightenment's relation to truth. While he acknowledges the potentially destructive capacities of the Enlightenment, he nevertheless cherishes its concern for transparency and truthfulness (p. 231). Accuracy and sincerity are two key concepts in his pursuit of the virtues of truth.
Delving into history, psychology, and politics as well as philosophy, TRUTH AND TRUTHFULNESS is a triumph of erudition and eloquence. He takes into account thinkers ranging from Aquinas to Diderot, from Kant to MacIntyre and many others, including Herodotus, Thucydides and Hayden White. There is also a useful five-page bibliography. The only dissonance is indeed the presence of untranslated Greek quotations in the Endnote, leaving ordinary mortals out of the picture.
Sometimes sharp, funny, and witty, sometimes demanding - this is a brilliant book only a professional philosopher would venture to criticize. A penetrating inquiry, destined to exert a lasting impact.


Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002-2008
Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002-2008
by Thomas Nagel
Edition: Hardcover
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Seeking a secular alternative, June 5, 2011
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This collection of essays from 2002 to 2008 is divided in three parts: Religion, Politics and Humanity. The latter is a tribute to `four admired philosophers' - Bernard Williams, David Wiggins, Brian O'Shaughnessy and, perhaps surprisingly, Jean-Paul Sartre. The middle part of the book deals with International Law, Global Justice and Cosmopolitanism and is written with Nagel's usual clarity and wit, if at times with a somewhat technical feel to it. These thirty pages also seem to have jumped right out of another book. On the other hand, being a professor of Law, this is of course his field of expertise.
The first part is perhaps the most interesting. Here Nagel confronts the New Atheists and their fight against creationism and the ID-movement, in and out of court. After accusing Richard Dawkins of philosophical amateurism he goes on to argue for `an inclusion of some mention an ID in a biology class' and that `a noncommittal discussion of some of the issues' in public education would be preferable to an absolute exclusion. Apart from it being unclear which these `some' issues might be, the question surely is not if creationism and ID might be mentioned and discussed but rather if it should be taught on an equal footing with evolutionary biology and Darwinism. Nagel says he can't pass judgement as a layman and that he merely wants to stress the importance of the current debate. Here it appears that Nagel does the same thing he accuses Dawkins of doing, namely arguing as an amateur in a specialist field. This seems to be a case of the biologist turned philosopher and vice versa. He brings in a number of biologists to buttress his argument, which is fine, but isn't that what Dawkins & co also do? Set out for unchartered territory, which in some quarters might be called trespassing?
The question naturally arises why this is important to Nagel. He could just as well have dismissed `The God Delusion' together with `God is not Great' as being two of the most superficial pamphlets of the latest year - as Peter Sloterdijk casually does in his recent `You must change your life'. The answer is to be found in the first essay, which also gave the book its title. Here Nagel argues that `there must be something more', i.e. more than scientific naturalism. If everything is reduced to physics there's no naturalistic answer to the cosmic question - how can we make sense, not only of our own lives, but indeed of everything? An avowed nonbeliever, he asks what a secular philosophy can put in the place of religion. Nagel talks about recognizing one's relation to the universe `as a whole' and wonders in an almost New Ageist manner if there is a way to live in harmony with the universe, and not just in it. Talking about the Darwinian theory of evolution, he says he's surprised that most evolutionary biologists seem to regard fundamental problems with the theory as unthinkable (as opposed to problems of detail). On page 44 he states that: `...there could be scientific evidence against it (and new evidence is constantly becoming available...).' The way he stresses evolution as being a `theory' is striking. For a discussion of the meaning, or rather meanings, of this word, see Dawkins (The Greatest Show on Earth, chapter one).
This is all rather surprising, coming from a leading secular philosopher. He calls the material in this section `preliminary' and hopes to develop this theme more thoroughly in the future. In fact, it's quite possible that he has already published a new book when you read this. We would all want to read it.
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Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid
Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid
by Wendy Williams
Edition: Hardcover
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Of Squid and Men, April 26, 2011
The New York Times Book Review characterized her 2007 book " Cape Wind" as a great summer read. That can certainly also be said of Wendy Williams's latest - KRAKEN - a survey into the wondrous world of squid, cuttlefish and octopuses. "Kraken" was the name given by seafarers to a mythological and allegedly dangerous sea-monster nobody had really encountered and of which there was only superficial knowledge. It reportedly could drag a whole ship, sailors and all, down to the bottom of the sea. Williams, who has written for the New York Times, Scientific American and many other publications, acknowledges that the size of animals might have been considerably greater in prehistoric times, but such a giant squid would even then have made an unlikely appearance.
As Williams herself says, the science of these animals is not for the faint of heart. There's a lot of catching, cutting and dissecting of the Cephalopods - animals with their legs attached to their head. This is graphically rendered in the b/w illustrations and might indeed reduce that great-summer-read experience. But with the recommendation of Neil Shubin, the quality of the science should be in order. One can think of his " Your Inner Fish" and another wonderful book " A Fish Caught In Time", written in 1999 by Samantha Weinberg. The latter relates the search for the " living fossil"- fish the Coelacanth, eventually found in the waters around Madagascar and named "Latimeria Chalumnae" after Marjorie Latimer who at the time was a junior member of the research team.
Not surprisingly, there is a journalistic feel to Williams's writing. It's casual and loose and makes for pleasant reading. Some sentences could perhaps have been looked over a bit more. " To better understand why some cells become cancerous, researchers need to better understand..." or " The two formed the exceptionally powerful bond of two scientists..." are cases in point. But let's not be fussy, KRAKEN is fun to read and thought-provoking as well.
Forget about shark and tuna. Look into the flashing eye, perhaps as big as your own head, of a huge cephalopod, and try to figure: How intelligent are these creatures? And how, indeed, are we?


The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics (Richard Lectures)
The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics (Richard Lectures)
by Martin Jay
Edition: Hardcover
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read my lips, March 15, 2011
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THE VIRTUES OF MENDACITY was published in 2010 but professor of history Martin Jay says he has been working on it, on and off, for about ten years. Erudite and thoroughly researched, it covers a vast area. Although slender, this book is a virtual "Who's who" on mendacity from classical antiquity to present times. It's assumed that the reader is familiar with the basic tenets, as well as terminology, of Western philosophy. Furthermore, 50 of the 230 pages consist of notes and these are not just references but sometimes rather extensive reflections as well. This makes for a demanding read for the non-expert and non-native speaker alike.
This is thus not just a book about the ordinary mendacity of, say, Clinton or Bush; it's a philosophical overview from Plato and Saint Augustine to Machiavelli, from Hannah Arendt and Carl Schmitt to such modern political theorists as Rosenvallon and Frank Ankersmit. In many ways it might be rewarding to simultaneously read Jay's SONGS OF EXPERIENCE (2004), which offers discussions, albeit from a different angle, on some of these thinkers.
Contrary to what is commonly held (or so one might be excused for assuming), it's by no means clear that lying in politics is an altogether bad thing. Jay contrasts Plato's "noble lie" to the deontological ethics of Augustine, and Benjamin Constants consequentialist objections to the stern principles of Kant. Truthfulness is not the same thing as always telling the absolute Truth. The newly minted word "truthiness" springs to mind. Speaking of present-day phenomena, it's perhaps surprising that there are no references to WikiLeaks. But after the tremendous attention it has recently received, this might come as a relief of sorts. One can anyway imagine instances where a total transparency might not be the most desirable state of affairs. In this context, Burke's poetical reflections on the conquering empire of light and reason and the decent drapery of life being rudely torn, ring strangely modern.
Jay asserts, pace purists as Arendt, that it may be impossible to separate the political from other realms of human endeavour. Utopian versions of a pure political sphere are just that-nowhere to be found. The boundaries are fuzzy and morality tends to "leak" in. While members of Congress may lie with impunity (as in the case of Senator McCarthy, p.128), Jay can find no unequivocal defence of political mendacity; "the person underneath is still a product of the moral and social norms he or she absorbed before entering the space of the political. Even Lady Macbeth had trouble sleeping at night" (p. 179). Nevertheless, the dangers of absolute truthfulness, a "big truth", loom large. In Jay's view, it's probably healthier for society to foster little lies or at least half-truths. Absolute truth in the hands of the powerful can be a dangerous weapon indeed, while lying may be a permissible tactic of the weak. Compromise and flexibility is in all likelihood preferable to en "ethic of ultimate ends" (Weber)-responsibility rather than conviction being the key word.
THE VIRTUES OF MENDACITY is no easy read, to be sure, but it's an ambitious book that deserves a wide audience.
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