Current Reading Interests

Almost every professional bio has a spot for "current research interests," but for someone like me, "research" sounds a little too pretentious. But here are some things I'm interested in reading about, or have recently stuck my nose into more.

American pragmatism — the evolution of something called "pragmatism," particularly its roots in James and Dewey, but also its relationship to Santayana. This demarcated area primarily concerns itself with pragmatism as a set of theoretical theses, which—since pragmatism preaches the evolution of theoretical attitudes out of extra-theoretical concerns—would involve itself in the complex question of the relationship between theses about knowledge and the milieu in which these theses were articulated. So, while Rorty's PMN is useful for the dialectical back-and-forth that takes us from Plato's theses to Davidson and Kuhn's, David Hollinger's In the American Province is better at sketching where they were coming out of socially.

The Emersonian dispensation — this vague interest involves the notion that Emerson's self-aggrandizement had an instrumental effect on American intellectual development. Stanley Cavell, particularly in The Senses of Walden, sketches out this train of thought, as does Harold Bloom, if a bit more remotely, in Ruin the Sacred Truths. The subtitle of Bloom's book gets at what I think is central to the American intellectual project of which Emerson was its premiere theorist: "Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present." The distinction between poetry and belief is the Blakean sense that Rorty inherits when he says that beliefs are dead metaphors—deriving a belief from poetry involves killing it, but better beliefs is one (very important) goal of life. Emerson encapsulated this dialectical tension between romanticism and liberalism, between private sublimity and public utility, with his formula of "solitude and society." Two of the most important thinkers on this topic—the two supreme Emersonians of the 20th century—were Kenneth Burke and his friend Ralph Ellison.

The American Middle Century — when you study literature in an English department, part of the professionalization process is to become specialized in demarcated fields. This way hiring departments something to put on calls for applications in the way of who they are looking for and desperate academics have something to put on CVs in the way of what they do. The two most common ways of demarcating fields are Genre and Period. Nobody's happy with it, but it's just the way of the world that, additionally, your periods get carved up most often by century.

I'm not sure if anyone's coined a term for the period between 1850 and 1950, the slate of books that run from Emerson to Ellison, but the American Middle Century sounds good, since I won't be so grandiose as to use "the American Enlightenment" (and its taken anyways). All of my favorite writing happens in this period, from Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville to James, Faulkner, and Ellison. This is my period "sweet spot," though I hesitate to list any thesis about movement. I leave that for other reading interests.

American Romance — no, not the supermarket trash, though I got a book on that, too. What I find interesting are the relationships between the development of historical romance that extends from Sir Walter Scott (and influenced James Fennimore Cooper) and the philosophical aura of the poetic tradition of Romanticism. Hegel gave Continental philosophy its historical instinct, but Scott gave the novel in America its, and I haven't quite gotten my head around yet the relationship--not conceptually, but historically--between Scott and the Scottish Enlightenment, Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth and the poetic combat with self-consciousness, and Hegel and his transmutation of the Rousseauian dispensation of social struggle and conceptual development. Each one has very particular ways of becoming entwined with the others (e.g., Goethe's influence on Scott, Emerson reading Kant through Coleridge, Rousseau's paranoid friendship with Hume). But the more I read on the philosophical, literary, moral and political valences within this province, the more Hawthorne rises to the top as an enigmatic figure of understated power.

The African-American literary tradition — this is a now well-honed area, but how we get from Frederick Douglass to Jean Toomer to James Baldwin to Toni Morrison is very exciting. It is particularly the rhetorical figures that Douglass uses that become disseminated and transformed that catch my eye, for instance literacy in Wright's American Hunger (the full version of Black Boy) or religious rhetoric and figuras in Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain or the North as a symbol of freedom in Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada.

Greek philosophy — I don't know how anyone gets on in this world without a little knowledge of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Particularly if you have any relationship to people writing "high theory" (the theory of various disciplines before, maybe, 1950), just a little familiarity with how basic images, concepts, and oppositions work can unlock a lot of interesting associations. Right now Walter Burkert's Greek Religion, Jean-Pierre Vernant's Origins of Greek Thought, and Werner Jaeger's Paideia hold me enthralled, though I have R. B. Onians's massive Origins of European Thought sitting near by. Pierre Hadot's What Is Ancient Philosophy? is indispensable for amateurs, and his Veil of Isis is a fascinating collection of ideas. I also find indispensable Martha Nussbaum's The Fragility of Goodness and Bernard Williams's Shame and Necessity.

Narrative and moral philosophy — The power of dramatic narrative was an indispensable piece of Rorty's philosophy, and particularly its relationship with argument. Piecing together the relative importance of different tools and strategies to education and persuasion, the merits and whatnot in different contexts, is an on-going project that Rorty left behind. For all the differences Martha Nussbaum perceives between herself and Fish and Rorty, her work on the value of literature, particularly in Upheavals of Thought and Poetic Justice, is invaluable. Upheavals has been criticized for its treatment of aesthetic experience, most notably by Charles Altieri (in his Particulars of Rapture), but the scope of her project of integrating moral philosophy, a better understanding of emotions, and the effects of literature on balance with argumentative reasoning is sound and is only made better by what I view as amending disagreements.

Hume or Hegel? — When avoiding Kant, is it better to go back to Hume or forward to Hegel? Rorty preferred going to Hegel because of the emphasis on narrative we get, and so always recommended Brandom's Hegelian inferentialism to overcome Sellars' Kantian inferentialism. But while the story of Tales of the Mighty Dead is fascinating, it misses on the existential qualities of moral quandary that exercised Hume and Annette Baier brings out so well in The Progress of Sentiments and her essays in Moral Prejudices. Jeffery Stout used to like to say that whenever he caught Rorty quoting Sartre favorably, he took it as a sign of backsliding. There's something important there, but the situation of individuals is something that Rorty only ever awkwardly was able to reinstate personally, though the virtue ethics one finds in Baier and the Greekly-tuned Bernard Williams were the antidotes. And while we're at it, we might even reconsider Kant in light of J. B. Schneewind's The Invention of Autonomy and Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought.

Theory and narrative — these are my two keywords, the most potent terms in my philosophical vocabulary. The best way to perceive the power I attribute to them is to first associate them with the synchronic and the diachronic. In Saussurean linguistics, the synchronic denotes the systematic relationship between words abstracted from history and the diachronic the evolution of a word over time. The relationship between theory and narrative is simple, and yet complex, because of the difficulty of flip-flop—a theory of narrative is not a narrative of theory, and the entwinement of the two far from necessary theoretically (e.g., Rorty did not adumbrate a theory of narrative in PMN, a narrative of theory, though he did in "The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres," which did not include narrative of that theory) though absolutely necessary practically (i.e., in the former case, Rorty's story about philosophy rested on an implied theory about how a story might be told, and in the latter case Rorty could have told a story about how he came to write the essay). The reason for the theoretically unnecessary entwinement of theory and narrative is because, one will notice, the theoretically opposed terms in the previous sentence were theory and practice. A theory of practice would tell us that a practice is temporal, diachronic, and narrativizable, though a narrative of a practice would tell us that practice is spatially-embodied, synchronically-performed, and theorizably-improved. A full theoretical articulation of the relationship between theory and narrative would explain all of the syntactical shifts in my previous oppositions, though it would not narrate how I came to think this way. A full narration of how I came to think this way (either personally or in the Geistesgeschichte sense of how I'm an instantiation of a dialectic that began—easiestly—with Plato) would explain why I chose to include that parenthetical in this sentence but not the last, but it would not tell you why you should write this way. In other words, I've come to think that theory and narrative are the proper opposition terms in any systematic articulation of how humans have evolved because the one is what is being suppressed at any particular moment of the other. Understanding this flip-flop would help to understand the increasingly distant relationship between the history of theory that leads from Plato to Robert Brandom (who outlines theoretically the contours of how language must work) and the history of communicative technique, developed by people like Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan, and Walter Ong. In other words, it would help you understand why theoria was built originally out of ocular metaphors and how this fact can be neutralized and ignored when doing our own thinking. It teaches mystics why they shouldn't be so afraid of abstraction.