Saturday, December 18, 2010

Philosophy Books for Literature Students

It is a familiar fact that the term “literary criticism” has been stretched further and further in the course of our century. It originally meant comparison and evaluation of plays, poems, and novels – with perhaps an occasional glance at the visual arts. Then it got extended to cover past criticism (for example, Dryden’s, Shelley’s, Arnold’s, and Eliot’s prose, as well as their verse). Then, quite quickly, it got extended to the books which had supplied past critics with their critical vocabulary and were supplying present critics with theirs. This meant extending it to theology, philosophy, social theory, reformist political programs, and revolutionary manifestos. …

Once the range of literary criticism is stretched that far there is, of course, less and less point in calling it literary criticism. But for accidental historical reasons, having to do with the way in which intellectuals got jobs in the universities by pretending to pursue academic specialties, the name has stuck. So instead of changing the term “literary criticism” to something like “culture criticism,” we have instead stretched the word “literature” to cover whatever the literary critics criticize. A literary critic in what T. J. Clarke has called the “Trotskyite-Eliotic” culture of New York in the ’30s and ’40s was expected to have read the The Revolution Betrayed and The Interpretation of Dreams, as well as The Wasteland, Man’s Hope, and An American Tragedy. In the present Orwellian-Bloomian culture she is expected to have read The Gulag Archipelago, Philosophical Investigations, and The Order of Things as well as Lolita and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The word “literature” now covers just about every sort of book which might conceivably have moral relevance – might conceivably alter one’s sense of what is possible and important. The application of this term has nothing to do with presence of “literary qualities” in a book. Rather than detecting and expounding such qualities, the critic is now expected to facilitate moral reflection by suggesting revisions in the canon of moral exemplars and advisers, and suggesting ways in which the tensions within this canon may be eased – or, where necessary, sharpened. (Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 81-2)
Whatever the specifics of Rorty’s picture of what a literary critic is today (I say this partly because Rorty was reflecting on this at the end of the ’80s), the historical picture he sketches in the first paragraph is roughly what happened and gets at the consequences we still deal with. Because of further reactions to the “Orwellian-Bloomian culture,” the present state of becoming professionalized in an English department has become even more complicated, as the addition of what we call “New Historicism” and “cultural studies” adds even more kinds of possible books to be familiar with (such as adding “history” to Rorty’s list, which is all I think New Historicism amounts to, their protests to the contrary). This creates a frenetically anxious environment for the would-be practitioner, just coming through the door wanting to learn what’s what. By the mid-’70s, Said was already describing the situation as “less background, less formal training, less prescribed and systematic information, is assumed before one begins to read, write, or work. Thus when one begins to write today one is necessarily more of an autodidact, gathering or making up the knowledge one needs in the course of creating. The influence of the past appears less useful and, as two recent critics, W. J. Bate and Harold Bloom, have argued, more likely to produce anxiety” (Said, Beginnings, 8).

That’s only kind of what Bate and Bloom meant, and perhaps Said’s somewhat sunny slant on being the autodidact is because he was already so well-learned. The past isn’t “more likely to produce anxiety,” it just does—and particularly when you have less background, less training, and no systematically arranged information to peruse. The situation of the young literature student starting out is similar to that of the amateur philosopher—both are autodidacts, with many avenues of thought that could be pursued, which presents both the freedom and the dilemma: I can only go one way at a time, so which shall it be? Given the limits of time and energy, you don’t want to waste your time. But, too, Rorty’s pragmatic sensibility reminds you that at some point, you’re going to want to get a job doing this, which means you’re going to need to fake knowing something. Every tenured professor has a youthful story about a book that everyone else around them seems to have read but that they didn’t learn about until later. The goal of every student looking into the future is to minimize the length of that list of books.

It is in this situation that I make the following short list. The American education system does not prepare a young student very well to pursue philosophy, and it does this by slighting a historical background in the major thinkers. As a matter of cultural conversation, it doesn’t help to know that they were mainly white men who are now dead—if everyone assumes you know something about them, then you’d better know something about them. Who this unidentified “everyone” is, however, has been shrinking, at least in the United States. The fact is that after the ’60s and ’70s, if you were a budding literary critic, it’s quite probable that you read some Continental philosophy, like Derrida or Foucault or Lacan, because that was hot in those days. The trouble for us now is that it isn’t so hot: which means you are much more likely an autodidact trying to pick it up by yourself.

What makes Continental philosophy difficult is that their frame of reference is often either the history of philosophy or really weird descriptions of “common experience” (think: Being and Nothingness or Being and Time). The latter can be very useful in an ad hoc way, but it’s difficult to feel like you’re getting in the middle of a conversation because Continental philosophers often don’t talk to each other, but rather to the major figures of the past. And if you don’t know how to negotiate through those old figures, you can get lost pretty quick. The only way to get through that problem is to learn something about the past. But, as Said pointed out, there are no how-to manuals lying around. And on top of that, the philosophers who speak your language are nattering on to almost exclusively each other about problems only they (so they say) find interesting—this is why no one knows anything about Anglo-American philosophy either.

The list below is to help with getting into the Anglo-American conversation, to find an entry point into their conversation (unless you already understand Derrida, in which case go to Samuel Wheeler’s Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy). There’s no particular reason why one would need to, but the anglophone philosophical conversation does have some distinctive things it does better and there is the added bonus of knowing something no one else knows (distinguishability is a valuable intellectual-market commodity). In addition, if you want to know more about the Big Dead Guys, you can’t read just any English-speaker’s introductory version, because they often won’t tell you anything relevant to the way the Continental philosophers are talking about them. (Exemplary exception: Robert Solomon’s Continental Philosophy Since 1750. And also, though a Frenchman, Vincent Descombes’s Modern French Philosophy is a brilliant discussion of the Continental mid-century ferment.) And that’s just what a growing intellectual needs: coin to make your way between disciplines, not burrowing into one extra discipline that might never come in handy. Said’s literary critic as quasi-autodidact is very much right insofar as the problems that a student will become immersed in and seek to solve might take them in any number of directions, and the trick is to be able to very quickly sink into a pile of research without getting lost and going the wrong direction (the problem of the red herring).

What makes the list below what it is is that 1) each philosopher was important at some point to the specialized conversations of anglophone philosophy, 2) the books in some way recapitulate facets of those conversations, 3) they are also about much bigger fish than those narrow conversations, 4) they are very well-schooled in the history of philosophy and the books enter into that larger sequence, and 5) they all have an eye towards an even larger intellectual conversation that, for example, includes literature. Because of those 5 things, the list below is designed to not waste a literature student’s time.

After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre—One of the most important books of moral philosophy in the last 50 years, this was MacIntyre’s first extended attempt to link together work in epistemology, philosophy of action, and the fate of our moral and political cultures. And while disagreement with some of its central claims is almost necessary for anyone who doesn’t think God is a necessary presupposition, it is a fascinating tour de force that takes you through the Greeks and the Enlightenment on the composition of communities. In order to get past the notion that Lyotardian postmodernism means the death of continuity and the birth of free-wheeling relativism, one needs a working notion of tradition and practices. MacIntyre offers an excellent version here, while at the same time arguing (as Marxists will love) that liberalism is still undermining their composition. One interesting facet of the book is his treatment of Jane Austen as a moral philosopher.

Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor—Taylor’s book might be an even larger story with a similar perspective as MacIntyre’s, though their titles effectively give you each of their focuses. Taylor’s story is especially important given the kind of sophistication literature students are to show in handling a “character” as a locus of selfhood—for if a character has a self, it might be useful to know how our notions of what a self is have evolved (and thus plunk an author in their own historical milieu). This was a major entry into the debates about “modernity” (even if I think that word is overused), just as Taylor’s recent A Secular Age is a major entry into the somehow still-ongoing debates about secularization. Taylor and MacIntyre were two major thinkers identified as “communitarians”—the position you get when you want to throw away the worst of Marx and keep the best of Hegel. Hegel’s “beautiful soul” is (with good reason) hot right now, and that description of the Romantic self perfectly complements Taylor’s story, which engages heavily with literary traditions, particularly poetry.

Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy by Bernard Williams—this book is largely supposed to be about ethics and political philosophy, but it is something like a comprehensive system inasmuch as Williams situates it within a set of relationships with philosophical neighbors like the philosophy of science and of language. The chapters on their interrelations are some of the best of its kind. Williams also has a historical depth of understanding that is nearly matchless, and his unique ability is to distill the past into its heritage for us today without harming it. Transforming the past into a set of problems to be negotiated is an excellent way to make the actual reading of Plato’s Republic or Kant’s Critiques not just a haze of bare understanding of what’s going on.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty—while MacIntyre’s book distills his earlier work on the philosophy of the social sciences and of action and Williams his work on science and language, they don’t go into extraordinary detail on those conversations. Rorty’s book is, by itself, the most comprehensive recapitulation of the minute details of the “core subjects” of the first 100 years of analytic philosophy available (roughly, 1880 to 1980—Frege to Davidson). It is beautifully Hegelian in its ability to tell a progressive story about how one philosophical position was transumed by the next up to this present (late ’70s) moment. Even if disagreeable in its conclusions, its ability to lay bare the reasons for one position against another is the ideal starting point to understanding what philosophers of language and of mind are going on about. It also situates these smaller conversations into a larger story stretching back to the Greeks and makes inroads to connecting the anglophone conversation with the Continental one.

Must We Mean What We Say? by Stanley Cavell—if it was difficult to choose one book from the array of useful and powerful books from each of the previous authors’ storehouse (it being very difficult not to choose Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity), it was particularly difficult to choose which Cavell book to single out. However, given my commitment to the utility of the book to introduce an autodidact into the specialized conversations of anglophone philosophy, I chose this book on the basis of each essay’s sterling compactness on an array of relevant issues. The Claim of Reason was difficult not to choose, but Cavell’s discussions of Austin, Wittgenstein, and aesthetics and his general performance in the vein of “ordinary language philosophy” (while offering penetrating insight into what the hell that is) are perfect introductions to their subjects and the occasional weirdness of his later work.

Those are my five suggestions, five being a nice round number, though now I will indulge in four more that more or less fail in the “introduction to anglophone conversation” criterion. These are just brilliant.

The Art of Living by Alexander Nehamas—Nehamas is the most eminent philosophical scholar (a philosopher, not a classicist) of Socrates and Plato living today. This book is, actually, an excellent introduction into a host of scholarly problems about reading Plato, with dense endnotes. Its brilliance, however, is in its humane rendering of what the “philosophical life” is, beginning with the impact of Socrates as a figure in the mind of the philosopher. What follows are amazing discussions of silence, discussion, arête, knowledge, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Foucault and, above all, irony. If you work anywhere in the vicinity of the trope of irony, you cannot afford to pass up this book.

The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch—this book is worth getting just for its first essay. Murdoch was a novelist in addition to a philosopher, and she was also a Platonist. Every single person on my list is, in an important (and delimited) sense, an anti-Platonist. So what gives? To my mind, Murdoch offers one of the best, distilled accounts of the problem of the modern notion of the self taken for granted by early liberal theory. In my favorite phrase of hers, it is “a happy and fruitful marriage of Kantian liberalism with Wittgensteinian logic solemnized by Freud.” And while Brandom’s Kant, Cavell’s Wittgenstein, and Lear’s Freud should all be friends of ours, Murdoch points out a pressing problem at that stage of the conversation, and in its face presents an excellent discussion of the pressure of context in ethical decision-making. She puts it in Platonic terms of sight, of “contexts of attention,” but its ancestor, I should say, is rather E. M. Forster. For literary critics who want a good illustration of what a “literary point of view” might be as giving a distinct angle on a philosophical topic, there is nothing better than this very short book.

Ordinary Vices by Judith Shklar—if much good moral philosophy these days is “virtue-centered” in its approach (in contradistinction to a Kantian-style search for principles), then Shklar offers an extraordinary meditation on its darker flipside (much as she does for liberal discussion of justice in The Faces of Injustice). Shklar moves easily back and forth between contemporary practical problems (international, domestic, personal), theoretical problems, history both social and intellectual, and sources of our moral thinking as diverse Machiavelli, Montaigne, Christianity, James Madison, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Thackeray, and Hawthorne.

Evil in Modern Thought by Susan Neiman—if Rorty offers a narrative of what he even puts in scare quotes as the “core subjects” of anglophone philosophy, then Susan Neiman offers a tremendous narrative of the history of modern moral philosophy, which she argues was actually at the core (at least at its early stage in the 18th century). Ranging from close readings of Leibniz, Kant, Marx, Bayle, Voltaire, Freud, and a really interesting one on the Marquis de Sade, Neiman’s story centers on the importance, in particular, of two world-historical events that have shaped in sometimes subtle ways thinking about evil: the earthquake at Lisbon in 1755 and the holocaust at Auschwitz. Her understanding of how our thinking about moral responsibility and the sources of evil have changed and might yet still change (with a short, speculative section on September 11) is penetrating and well-worth thinking about.

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