Category Archives: Philosophy

Disparities

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Disparities
By Slavoj Zizek
Bloomsbury – £19.99

One need only negotiate this book’s Introduction to partially comprehend the enormity of the philosophical subject matter contained herein: ”[…] when a philosopher deals with another philosopher, his or her stance is not that of a dialogue but of division, of drawing the line that separates truth from falsity, from Plato whose focus is the line that divides truth from mere opinion up to Lenin obsessed with the line that separates materialism from idealism. As Alain Badiou said, a true Idea is one that divides.

Enough philosophical food for initial thought (a mere few pages in)?

From such sub-headings as ‘The subject’s epigenesis’ to ‘In defence of Hegel’s madness’ to ‘The lesson of psychoanalysis;’ from ‘The divine death drive’ to ‘The parallax of drive and desire’ to ‘Materialism or agnosticism,’ Slavoj Zizek’s Disparities is indeed a book of profound philosophical investigation.

Ought this be in the least surprising?

Zizek is after all, a Hegelian philosopher, a Lacanian psychoanalyst as well as a Communist. He is also international Director at the Birkbeck Institute of Humanities at the University of London and visiting Professor at the New York University (not to mention Senior Researcher at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia).

So when he continues on from the above opening quote with: ”The present book is an exercise in this art of delimitation: its aim is to specify the contours of the dialectical-materialist notion of disparity by way of drawing a line that separates it from other deceptively similar forms of thought, from Julia Kristeva’s abjection to Robert Pippin’s and Robert Brandom’s version of self-consciousness, from object-oriented ontology to the topic of post-humanity, from the god of negative theology to millenarian politics.,” the art of one’s own previous held delimitation(s), be they political or philosophical, need to be ever so partially reconciled with that of Zisek’s.

Especially if one is to fully comprehend and continue.

Reason being: ”The method of such a procedure is not learned in advance, it emerges retroactively – one should remember here Pascal Quignard’s definition of method: ‘Method is the road after we traversed it.’ Method is not learned in advance: it emerges retroactively.”

Categorised by three distinct different sections (‘The Disparity of Truth: Subject, Object and the Rest,’ ‘The Disparity of Beauty: The Ugly, The Abject and the Minimal Difference’ and ‘The Disparity of the Good: Towards a Materialist Negative Theology’) these 385 pages – excluding Notes and Index – are an in-depth, complex and surprisingly enlightening read if ever there was one.

Although it does have to be said that the book would have benefited from a little light relief from time to time. An abundance of (too much of) anything, especially from a literary angle, is never a particularly good idea.

Under the heading ‘A Comical conclusion,’ this might partially explain the following: ”Today sexuality is more and more reduced to pleasures in partial objects: we are more and more bombarded with objects-gadgets which promise to deliver excessive but effortless pleasure […]. the Stamina Training Unit, a counterpart to the good old vibrator – a masturbatory device that resembles a battery-powered light (so we’re not embarrassed when carrying it around). You put the erect penis into the opening at the top, push the button, and the object vibrates till satisfaction. The product is available in different colours, levels of tightness, and forms (hairy or without hair etc.) that imitate all three openings for sexual penetration (mouth, vagina, anus). What one buys here is the partial object (erogenous zone) alone, deprived of the embarrassing additional burden of having to deal with another entire person. How are we to cope with this brave new world which undermines the basic premises of our intimate life?”

Ahem, it’s the one section of the book nigh guaranteed to make a wider readership sit up listen. And dare I say it, partake in Zisek’s acutely focused, philosophical vision.

As such, the one thing I’d suggest to make Disparities something of a far more forthcoming and ultimately beneficial read, would perhaps be more writing of a personable persuasion.

David Marx

Logic, Truth and Meaning

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Logic, Truth and Meaning
By G.E.M. Anscombe
Imprint Academic – £19.95

Logic, Truth and Meaning, now there’s a thought, now there’s a title.

I can think of a great many people I’d like to alert and address those words to: The Islamic State for one; along with Donald Trump, Cameron’s (entire) Cabinet, Sir Philip Greene, scum-bag people traffickers, varying oiks amid Portsmouth’s council estates, Jeremy Kyle and of course, Donald Trump.

Or have I already mentioned him?

Edited into three distinct sections (Part 1: Wittgenstein and the Tractatus, Part 2: Thought and Belief and Part 3: Meaning Truth and Existence), there’s no denying that editors Mary Geach and Luke Gormally have in these 312 pages, covered a wide terrain of idiosyncratic intellectual thought – the sort of which will compel many an inquisitive soul to ponder way beyond the parameters of ones’ comfort zone.

Amid such chapter titles as ‘Elementary Propositions,’ ”Mysticism’ and Solipsism,’ ‘Thought and Existent Objects,’ ‘Grammar, Structure and Essence’ and Existence and the Existential Quantifier,’ it has to be said that much of the writing throughout Logic, Truth and Meaning will no doubt trigger a process of (perhaps inadvertent) questioning. The sort of questioning which will in turn, induce a philosophical snow-ball effect whereby all stands to be gleaned by way of pronounced investigation.

After all, wasn’t it the American writer Glenway Westcott who wrote: Language is a god, sex is a god, time is a god./Fate is a convocation or combination of gods, an entire Olympus?

This fourth (and final) volume of writings by Elizabeth Anscombe essentially reprints her Introduction to Wittgentein’s Tractatus, along with a number of other essays in which she confronts thought and language. The fundamental essence of the essays traversing such in depth issues as truth and existence, reason and representation. So in all, pretty big stuff – of which the following from the fifth chapter of part two of the book is as good an example as any: ”Wittgenstein once answered a question of mine by saying that a lot of the works of philosophy of the recent centuries had titles which either referred to the mind in some fashion, or contained the word ‘principles.’ This very much characterised the philosophies, and that gathered – for in this sentence I have not been quoting his actual words, but only the gist of them […]. However it is not important for me to elucidate Wittgenstein’s earlier or later opinions on experimental psychology. I have said what I have in order to avoid inaccuracy. My main aim is to point to the very great importance of the Tractatus thought that theory of knowledge is philosophy of psychology” (‘Knowledge and Essence’).

As mentioned earlier, the final sentence ”theory of knowledge is philosophy of psychology,” triggers a further process of questioning: Is the theory of knowledge the philosophy of psychology?

As Roger Scruton has written (whose own book, Conversations With Roger Scruton I shall soon be reviewing): ”Elizabeth Anscombe was the most important of Wittgenstein’s pupils, with an intellect as great and wide-ranging as her teacher’s. She thought deeply, wrote beautifully, and was never taken in by pretence.”

That Anscombe was ”never taken in by pretence,” is a truth induced testament to that of not only her work, but her legacy. And for that alone, her philosophy and her writing(s) warrant investigation.

David Marx

The Quotable Kierkegaard

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The Quotable Kierkegaard
Edited by Gordon Marino
Princeton University Press – $24.95

As much as the sui generis work(s) of the so-called father of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, is herein brought to acute, enthusiastic and colourful bear, it is the director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Gordon Marino, who may knowingly beguile many a (new) reader unto a path of earnest re-consideration.

Not only does Gordon academically kneel at the alter of all things Kierkegaard, his unrelenting zest throughout this delightful book’s Introduction, is endemic of someone wholly prepared to go out on a philosophical limb. So as to reach, teach, if not actually touch, the reader: ”Most of us feel more urgency about the size of our waistline than about the girth of our capacity for compassion. Doing the right thing still has valence, but it is just one option among many, as in, I want to be a successful lawyer, have a good marriage and family, and be a good guy. Often by daubing a picture that the reader can see himself or herself in, Kierkegaard tries to kindle a concern about the self, but with a different set of categories up his sleeves than we are likely to find in the likes of Eat, Pray, Love and the boundless literature of the self-help happiness market.”

That Gordon recognises as much; whether by way of the Dane’s trajectory of compelling thought or by way of his own, is in itself, commendable.

Surely this is a quality which, like much of The Quotable Kierkegaard as a whole, is frank, illuminating, and within the literary world of philosophical prowess especially, surprisingly refreshing.

As much is underlined by the issue of how the author came to stumble upon ”the Mozart of the spirit” in the first place: ”I came to Kierkegaard crawling on cut glass and on the tail of a brutal marital breakup. I had dropped out of graduate school for the second time. My untethered life was like a page from a newspaper blowing around in the wind.”

It was probably due to having been simultaneously ”untethered” and in pain, that Gordon got to embrace the true value of Kierkegaard’s philosophical currency: ”And if there was one thing that […] the preternaturally talented Kierkegaard was convinced of, it was this: in the realm of the spirit, all worldly differences, talents, and bank accounts will have no purchase. Pascal famously said that if we could just learn to sit still for ten minutes and do without distractions, there would be no more wars […]. Rather than pass on knowledge, Kierkegaard hoped to direct us to the study of ourselves. He once confessed, ”I want to make people aware so that they do not squander and waste their lives.””

Drawn from the authoritative Princeton editions of Kierkegaard’s many, many writings, The Quotable Kierkegaard includes an Introduction (as in the above quotations), a brief account/timeline of his life and a guide to further reading.

So in all, this most quotable of literary companions makes for illuminati induced reading. Then again, the book does contain some eight-hundred quotes, of which the following is perhaps one of my favourites:

”But the person who can scarcely open himself cannot love, and the person who cannot love is the unhappiest of all.”

David Marx

Honorable Bandit – A Walk Across Corsica

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Honorable Bandit – A Walk Across Corsica
By Brian Bouldrey
Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press –  $26.95

Brian Bouldrey teaches creative writing at Northwestern University in the USA, has already written six books and edited several others; including three volumes of Best American Gay Fiction. So in coming to read Honourable Bandit – A Walk Across Corsica (my first of his books), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – but somehow had a feeling it would probably be anchored within the parameters of good writing.

Suffice to say, I wasn’t disappointed.

A textured, snapshot view of the Corsican hiking trail through Bouldrey and his German friend, Petra’s eyes, does indeed, make for an interesting, if not overtly American travelogue; that is both thoughtful and philosophical. Thoughtful, because of the gentle considerdness of the writing, philosophical, because of some of the issues contained within the actual writing: ”If you steal a loaf of bread, you go to jail; if you steal a railroad, you’re a senator” (‘Why I Walk – Walk-Off’); ””I have walked myself into my best thoughts,” said Soren Kiegegaard, ”and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it;”” ”I do my best thinking in crowds, oddly enough, at the symphony or during a play. Dull plays are best for thinking. My playbill is always coated with notes scrawled in the dark concert hall or theatre, sad inscrutable scribble, and usless once the lights are up. When walking, the only thing that can save me from my own shallow thoughts is civilized conversation with a fellow walker.
”Shut up, stupid German girl.”
”Shut up, stupid American boy.”” (‘Jet Lag’).

Comfortable, colourful and simultaneously witty, Honourable Bandit is a pleasant and slightly provocative read, that, although perhaps a little too opinionated for its own good (although said dictum could just as readily be applied to most writing); is still nevertheless distinctive enough to linger.

As Tim Miller – he who wrote 1001 Beds has been quoted as saying: ”A remarkable achievement. Deeply felt, humorous, and extremely wise, Honorable Bandit takes the reader on a journey across Corsica, but even more takes us on a charged – Dantean, at times – journey that explores the nuanced corners of life: our most intimate infernos, purgatories, and paradiosos, all on one island.”

To a degree, I cannot help but agree – as there really is a very deep sense of thought taking place amid these 234 pages. As for Dantean thinking, I’ll leave you with the following excerpt (from ‘Lammergeier’): ”I must rephrase my wonder – how is it that beautiful things come out of ugly things? There is Dante again, betraying his own personal hatred, his own voceru, until it turned into lyric in The Inferno. Picasso’s Guernica transforming genocide, if not redeeming it. What art, after all, isn’t begotten of pain? Could something beautiful come out of all the terrorism, all our military maneuvers? And who will do the transforming?”

David Marx

Evil Men

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Evil Men
By James Dawes
Harvard University Press – £19.95

I do believe there’s a lot to be said for writing about things in such a way that most people can relate to. Regardless of the subject matter, whether it’s poetry or philosophy, music or madness, theology or torture. I mention the latter because torture is one of the prime areas brought to bear throughout Evil Men by James Dawes.

A book that to my mind, really ought to have touched, if not effected the reader in a far more profound way than it unfortunately does.

Referring to many first-hand discussions with convicted war criminals of the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937–1945 (upon which this book is fundamentally based), the author occasionally summons the reader unto a certain considered darkness, that is no more disturbing or dare I say it, substantially revealing, than that which is currently taking place in Syria.

To be sure, I’m none the wiser for having read this book – regardless of how staunchly I wanted to be. The revelations by an assortment of the very soldiers who perpetrated some of the worst crimes imaginable – such as murder, rape and medical examination upon living subjects – remain subliminally confined within the parameters of the far too clinical and the far too scientific.

None of the reasoning behind any of the barbarity, let alone any of the physical and emotional hurt it must so obviously have caused, is quintessentially divulged. As a result, much of the book reads as if we should already know the reasoning behind why one person, or several, simultaneously, can do such ghastly things to another person.

By quoting the scholar Dorothy Hale towards the end of the book – one of many scholars who is currently working to integrate theoretical work into the language and rhetoric of human rights – Dawes draws our attention to the ever increasing underlying acceptance of flippant and/or spontaneous cruelty: ‘’The all-too visible incarceration of subjectivity by aesthetic form is decried as an abuse of representational power. The author who must more or less use a character for his or her expressive ends is felt to be exploitative. The reader who identifies with a character worries about emotional colonization. And the reader and author who feel only the aesthetic thrill of the character’s fate carry the guilt of the voyeur.’’

Upon reflection, this can be especially relevant with regards the character-driven world of inexorable callousness within certain dramatized literature; such as that found within the character traits of both protagonists in Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit To Brooklyn and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Not to mention the filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction as a whole.

Yet, rather than embrace the almost bankrupt humanity of this book’s sordid subject matter, Dawes tries exceedingly hard to ultimately decipher, if not deliver. This is partially evident, where he writes in immediate response to the above: ‘’This guilty pleasure, however, is precisely the starting point of a literary ethics. In novels, the argument goes, we encounter characters as simultaneously free persons and constrained aesthetic artifacts. They exceed our ways of knowing, and because this unsettles us, we seek to reduce them to limited things that we can understand. In this way, literature holds up a mirror to our own being in the world, allowing us to see – or rather, to experience – the way all of our human possibility ‘’is produced in and through the operation of social constraint.’’’’

Surely ‘’the operation of social constraint,’’ is the very premise upon which Evil Men is based? ‘’The operation of social constraint’’ is the ultimate presupposition that the author endeavours to comprehensively dissect, no?

And in so doing, hopefully engage and enlighten the reader.

Rather than truly touch on the underlying behaviour behind the potential for despicable cruelty, James Dawes, has within these 224 pages, done much to further the argument; but very little to quench any philosophical thirst for profound reasoning.

As he poignantly states at the very outset of this academic analysis: ‘’If Elie Wiesel is right in saying that to forget is to kill twice, then the Second Sino-Japanese War never ended. It just shifted to the landscape of memory.’’

Evil Men is something of juxtaposition: it may well ensure that evil men aren’t forgotten, but in so doing, it does much to elongate the painful landscape of memory itself.

David Marx

For The Time Being – A Christmas Oratorio

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For The Time Being – A Christmas Oratorio
By W.H. Auden
Princeton University Press – £13.95

All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

It’s hard to tell what makes a great poet. Obviously language plays a considerable part, but more often than not, it’s the imagination at play or at rest within the language, that sets the many thousands of dull poets apart from the mere handful of geniuses.

W. H. Auden was such a genius.

His flight of imaginative prowess and command of the English language, not to mention his extraordinarily, relentless pursuit in wanting to get it just right, remains (almost) unsurpassed to this very day: ‘’Therefore, we see without looking, hear without listening, breathe without asking.’’

Admittedly, there are great poets out there, but I believe Auden – along with the likes of Ted Hughes – is simply exemplary. For The Time Being – A Christmas Oratorio is not only a fine example of this, but could well be the first Christmas related review you have so far read this year!

Written in Memoriam of his mother Constance Rosalie Auden (of whom he wrote: ‘’When mother dies, one is, for the first time, really alone in the world and that is hard.’’), this collection is exactly what its title suggests. Although, as with much of Auden’s work, the trajectory of some of his writing meanders unto territory that is not in the least expected. Some might consider this to be both dangerous and exciting, while others might feel a little abandoned, if not lost at the first staging post.

For instance, in relation to the Wise Men towards the end of the oratorio (‘At The Manger’) Auden writes:

Love is more serious than Philosophy
Who sees no humour in her observation
That Truth is knowing that we know we lie.

While in relation to Shepherds, he immediately continues:

When, to escape what our memories are thinking,
We go out at nights and stay up drinking,
Stay then with our sick pride and mind
The forgetful mind.

Might not the above seven lines actually equate love within philosophy?

Again, the territory into which Auden occasionally ventures really does need to be delicately deciphered. It’s like drinking a fine wine with a certain after-taste that is simply unknown – but provocatively alluring nevertheless. And it is this altogether unknowing trait of Auden’s, which invariably continues to ensure that his reputation remains nigh unsurpassed.

David Marx

Moral Perception

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Moral Perception
By Robert Audi
Princeton University Press – £24.95/$35.00

For a very brief period of time, I played in a band where the prime songwriter wrote songs in such a complicated manner, with such profoundly complex chord structures and arrangements, that the music ultimately left everyone cold. Cold, not because they, the audience, chose to feel as such; but because they somehow felt utterly disconnected. After all, most forms of music, whether its pop or jazz or rock’n’roll (in particular), isn’t about analysis.
It’s about making a connection.

The same very much applies to literature, and surely, to a certain degree, philosophy?

The twain has been known to occasionally meet, and when they do, all sides irrevocably win. This includes the writer, the reader, the idea itself and the eventual recipient of the idea. But when literature and philosophy don’t meet, not only is it a mighty shame, it’s frustrating. As what might have been gleaned by thousands of readers, lies unfortunately discarded amid a vast pit of philosophical potential, simply emblazoned with the words: too hard to comprehend/maybe next time.

Such is the case with Moral Perception.

Its author Robert Audi – who is not only Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, but whose previous books include Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, Moral Value and Human Diversity, The Good in the Right (Princeton), and Practical Reasoning and Ethical Decisions – has herein written a book that is so dense, and so utterly didactic in the extreme, I found myself having to re-read certain paragraphs perhaps forty-five times – just in order to grasp what on earth was being conveyed (and I have a Masters in Ethics).

For instance, in Chapter Six (‘Emotion and Intuition as Sources of Moral Judgement’) under the sub-heading ‘The Intentionality and Judgmental Aspects of Emotion’ – which I have to admit, I found an idiosyncratically inviting title – Audi writes: ‘’We might also speak of attributive emotions, on analogy with attributive perceptions, where the emotion is toward a thing as taken to have a property. These emotions constitute an intermediate case, lying between simple emotions like fearing the pit bull and propositional ones like fearing that an accident will occur. I might see an approaching bear at nightfall as I take out recycling on a farm. Fearing such an approaching figure as threatening is possible without conceptualising the figure, and certainly without verbally labelling it even subvocally, though not without a discriminative grasp of the property of being threatening (one sees it as, say, animalic, large, and approaching).’’

Surely there’s an easier, simpler way of saying this?
Let alone a more direct, succinct and far more literal way?

It’s often been said that the best writing is to convey what you’re trying to say, by utilising the least amount of words possible. In other words, ye olde dictum LESS is MORE – which comes wholeheartedly into play in this instance.

Such is most certainly the case throughout the 173 pages of Moral Perception, where, for whatever reason, the book reads as if its author is juggling numerous arguments simultaneously; which, as mentioned at the outset of this review, is both a mighty shame as well as frustrating. Reason being, Audi clearly has some very valid things to say, such as the following in Chapter Two: ‘’Perceptual properties are perceptible, but not all perceptible properties are perceptual, nor need every instance of a perceptible property such as injustice be perceptible. A number of our examples indicate how perception reveals the perceptible. We can see this more clearly by considering whether the kind of perceptibility in question is a matter of being observable.’’

Now you tell me you don’t feel the need to read that again?

David Marx