Thursday, December 7, 2017

"The Stone Reader": Book Review

Neither op-ed pieces nor arcane articles (at least in editorial theory), these appeared sponsored by the New York Times circa 2010-15. The contributors attempt to connect current issues with moral treatments, as well as take on philosophical contentions, to explain them to their educated readership.

The results prove mixed, as tying big issues to the passing headlines leaves many pieces already dated rather than relevant, although the larger ethical concerns may remain appropriately applied; other writers dive into deep debates within academia, about gender and racial bias, or claims peddled by colleagues or rivals. Certain essays churn out as dutiful term papers, or earnest self-promotion, introspective ruminations from diaries, or niggling hairsplitting about (to me) self-evident points.

Co-editor Peter Catapano quotes his editing partner Simon Critchley: "Philosophy assesses and presses public opinion by asking essential questions: 'What is knowledge?' 'What is justice?' 'What is love?' He continues: "The hope that drives this activity is that the considerations to which such universal questions give rise can, through inquiry and argumentation, have an educative or even emancipatory effect. Philosophy, as the great American philosopher Stanley Cavell puts it, is the education of grown-ups." (loc. 364) Costica Bratigan, early in the first part which explores the pursuit of wisdom, reminds us that the "ultimate testing of philosophy takes place not in the sphere of strictly rational procedures (writing, teaching, lecturing) but elsewhere in the fierce confrontation with death of the animal we are." (27) She challenges the reader to deal with one's fear of annihilation, so she can tell you about which approach suits your attitude best. She links this to philosophers who have died in testament to their convictions. "Dying for an idea" may seem less strange, I aver, when we testify to this principle in patriotism and commemoration in memorials of those named heroes by us.

Critchley listens to Socrates and Phaedrus to place this endeavor into a less morbid expression, when "we have to meet the other on their ground and in their own terms and try and bring them around. slowly, cautiously, and with good humor." (55) His writing keeps lively, and he offers sufficient  background for us to keep up, a feature not always shared by his contributors. Adam Etinson puts Montaigne's "On Cannibals" into an ethnocentric realm, and he warns that if we'd been born maybe down the block or certainly across the planet, we'd hold different of our "deepest-held beliefs," and this fact "should disconcert us, make us more open to the likelihood of our own error, and spur us to rigorously evaluate our beliefs and practices against alternatives, but it need not disillusion." (86)

Peimin Ni applies this well by encouraging the lack of labels rather than their proliferation to bring in disparate legacies, fresh texts, ignored values, and global perspectives. Yet the persistent slant of this volume, speaking of bias in academia, shows in its presumption that its audience fully supports the progressive mindset the NYT and the Stone blog articulate. This may be inevitable, but incorporating other flavors of diversity, ideological and intellectual, could have enriched too-homogenous a flavor.
Even traditional thinker Roger Scruton echoes the previous critic, Slavoj Zizek, suspecting reformers.
Overall, more gadflies buzzing would have stirred up the status quo perpetuated by the NYT as here.

So Gordon Marina's sharp innovation blending pugilism with philosophy stimulates."While Aristotle is able to define courage, the study and practice of boxing can enable us not only to comprehend courage, but 'to have and use' it. By getting into the ring with our fears, we will be less likely to succumb to trepidation when doing the right thing demands taking a hit," he concludes. (218)

The editors open part 2 musing "whether it makes any sense to talk about that which comes after or beyond nature. Is everything explicable through science?" (237) This section delves deep into biology, neuroscience and psychology. Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson champions multiple over kin selection vigorously, warning that to "yield completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would dissolve society. To surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots--students of insects call them ants."(273) He's adroit at conveying data, better than many of the scientists among whom he offers a second vigorous entry. He compares our "campsite-anchored prehumans" with our "immense memory banks," while arguing how our abilities to figure out alliances and rivalries, bonding and deception galore in the past, present, and future links to our instinctual "delight in the telling of countless stories about others as players upon the inner stage." (395) Out of this process, we've evolved the humanities, creative arts, and political theory--ethics too.

Winding up an eloquent paean to faith, from his non-Christian point-of-view, Critchley testifies to its "enactment of the self in relation to an infinite demand that both exceeds my power and yet requires all my power."(421) One so-called faithless along with those affirming creeds, he reckons, can affirm.

Another unbeliever, Louise Antony, aligns in her thoughtful peek back at her childhood Catholicism. She reflects: "Some people think that if atheism were true, human choices would be insignificant. I think just the opposite--they would become surprisingly important."(486) Well stated, but for balance I'd have liked it if adherents of religion found a place, to contend with or to agree with the dissenters.

Joel Marks narrates another shift from youthful to mature ideal. He abandons moral labels. He pragmatically addresses situations and perspectives. No god, no supernatural law, not even his conscience will convince him of an ethical obligation. "Instead I will be moved by my head and my heart. Morality has nothing to do with it."(508) This spirited attitude refreshes, amidst duller articles.

Scruton, himself an object of attack by many who'd favor this book and nearly every one of its liberal pundits, chooses hope rather than truth as a counter to dangerous "collective enthusiasm" and those optimists goading on the more tentative and thoughtful to social engineering and geopolitical folly with sometimes fatal results, as the past and present century show. "People interested in truth seek out those who disagree with them. They look for rival opinions, awkward facts and the grounds that might engender hesitation. Such people have a far more complicated life than the optimists, who rush forward with a sense of purpose that is not to be deflected by what they regard as the cavilings of mean-spirited bigots." (613) What bridges Scruton to Zizek across a supposed divide: lessons from those feted by the left who wind up as corrupt as those they toppled, as totalitarian impulses remain.

Nancy Bauer ends her look at Lady Gaga within feminist thought with another glance at the gap between idea and action, ambition and hypocrisy. "It remains to be seen whether philosophers will be able to pick up the gauntlet that's still lying on the ground more than half a century after Beauvoir passed it down: whether we can sketch a vision of a just world seductive enough to compete with the allures of the present one." (635) Frequently, Gary Gutting appears, more aware than many academics herein that he seeks to get across arcana to those outside the ivory tower (or in it four years at best).

Weary of the "outrage" every time a racial incident is publicized and polarized, he prefers "serious discussions about economic justice," and if our capitalist system is "inevitably unjust."(Some attempt was made three years after he wrote this, in the 2016 Democratic campaign, as an instructive example of Gutting's advice playing out in the media and among the populace.) How might the current set-up be reformed or replaced? "If it is not, what methods does it offer for eliminating the injustice?" (657) Although many essays involve the Trayvon Martin case, the better ones demonstrate that truly salient issues outlast the tweets, memes, and soundbites. Reports of racial tensions in Cuba and immigration clashes in France, too, expand what is overwhelmingly an American-centered NYT compendium.

Perhaps a few those preached to in this liberal choir may harbor hesitation at particularly rarified or idealistic nostrums. Todd May tackles whether nonviolence in America could triumph. He as many of these professors cites Kant's imperative, not to treat others "simply as a means but also as ends in themselves." (700) He makes a concerted case, pondering as others within the sly 2nd Amendment.

Jamieson Webster joins Critchley late on in a sharp rejoinder to hipster commodification and preening postures. They confront the reader to scrutinize what he or she surrounds life with--is it ironic or loved? Why ape ugly, louche poses and pursue the cult of this selfishly acquisitive mindset? "Is the prosperous self the only God in which we believe in a radically inauthentic world"? (732) This message resonates with many, hipster or not, I suspect, and at its best, the core of the morals that persists in these pages, from Aristotle and Plato down to our contentious and fragmented global spirit.
(Amazon US 12/8/17)

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