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brb

brb has written 84 posts for The Berlin Review of Books

Dangerous Ideas

Is ‘cultural appropriation’ a pervasive injustice or merely a figment of the imagination? And when did it become ‘a thing’? And is it justified for a prominent white (=non-minority) writer to dismiss those who argue that minorities should be able to tell their own stories, without fear of being drowned out by establishment writers who use such stories as fodder for their next novel? BRB contributor Yen-Rong Wong takes an encounter with Lionel Shriver at this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival as an occasion to reflect on these and other identity-related issues. As she argues: “Identity is important, and yes, making sure that we don’t pigeon hole ourselves into one thing, or into what others want us to be is also important. But it’s easy to say that ‘Asian isn’t an identity’ when you haven’t experienced what it’s like to have to confront racism (both casual and overt) in your everyday life.”

Kaufmann’s ‘Methodenlehre der Sozialwissenschaften’

Having been only a peripheral member of the Vienna Circle, Felix Kaufmann (1895-1949), philosopher of law, mathematics and social science, contributed knowledge and perspective beyond the empiricist ideal. This detailed and conscientious work led Kaufmann to his little-discussed ‘Methodenlehre der Sozialwissenschaften’, published recently, in an English translation, as ‘Theory and Method in the Social Sciences’. BRB reviewer Adam Tuboly makes the case that Kaufmann’s work merits greater attention and, while lauding the editors for their translation, also reflects on how shortcomings in the production — in a volume priced at $179.00 no less! — can detract from the reader’s experience.

Felix Kaufmann and the Merging of Traditions

The history of twentieth-century philosophy may be considered as the development of nineteenth century thought into the so-called “analytic” and “Continental” philosophies: on the Continental side, hermeneutics, existentialism, phenomenology, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty & Co.; on the analytic side, logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, Rudolf Carnap, W. V. O. Quine, Saul Kripke, David Lewis, and much of contemporary English-language philosophy. But is it really ever that simple? Take the example of Felix Kaufmann (1895-1949): in 1930, he published ‘Das Unendliche in der Mathematik und seine Ausschaltung’, attempting to give a systematic and comprehensive account of mathematical intuitionism from the viewpoint of Husserlian phenomenology. As Adam Tuboly argues in this short piece, followed by a review of Kaufmann’s ‘Methodenlehre der Sozialwissenschaften’, such examples should give us cause to reconsider our convenient ways of dividing up 20th-century philosophy.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock

From 21st-century TV adaptations to steam-punk movies based on Conan Doyle’s original stories, Sherlock Holmes is hot. In this two-part article, BRB contributor Bruce Fleming looks for the real in the fictional stories of murder, crime, and 19th-century forensics. What he finds are stark contrasts: between urban life and the dark side of the English countryside; between Romantic ennui and eccentric exhilaration; between the dull and predictable life of the English worker and the exoticism of the colonies. In the end, it turns out, Holmes is both a Romantic — a brother to Baudelaire and his contemporaries — and something different altogether. Where Baudelaire celebrates, and wallows in, ennui, Holmes is a curiously passive rebel against the forces of lethargy. Holmes, then, is perhaps more human than his super-human inferential abilities might suggest, and a quintessentially modern figure to boot.

Sherlock Holmes, Romantic

From 21st-century TV adaptations to steam-punk movies based on Conan Doyle’s original stories, Sherlock Holmes is hot. In this two-part article, BRB contributor Bruce Fleming looks for the real in the fictional stories of murder, crime, and 19th-century forensics. What he finds are stark contrasts: between urban life and the dark side of the English countryside; between Romantic ennui and eccentric exhilaration; between the dull and predictable life of the English worker and the exoticism of the colonies. In the end, it turns out, Holmes is both a Romantic — a brother to Baudelaire and his contemporaries — and something different altogether. Where Baudelaire celebrates, and wallows in, ennui, Holmes is a curiously passive rebel against the forces of lethargy. Holmes, then, is perhaps more human than his super-human inferential abilities might suggest, and a quintessentially modern figure to boot.

Photography and the Art of Chance

How does photography deal with, and co-opt, the element of chance that comes with any engagement with the material world around us? In his book ‘Photography and the Art of Chance’, Robin Kelsey brilliantly interweaves the history of photography with a broader history of art and an intellectual history of chance. This interdisciplinary approach helps Kelsey sidestep certain problematic moves in the historiography of art, which often result in a certain exceptionalism about photography as being qualitatively unlike other art forms. As reviewer Lauren Kroiz argues, Kelsey makes a persuasive case for the centrality of chance to the history of photography, starting from its early days and ending with a critique of our current enthusiasm for digital manipulation and posed photography, be it in the works of Cindy Sherman or in the — nowadays ubiquitous — “selfies” of individual consumers.

Phallacies of the Phree Market

Why does the phenomenon of ‘phishing’ — getting others to act against their self-interest, instead exploiting them (or their gullibility) to further one’s own agenda — emerge with such high degree of reliability wherever ‘free markets’ reign? In their book ‘Phishing for Phools’, economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller argue that phishing strikes at the very heart of economics, by calling into question our capacity to rational decision-making and thereby undermining the very idea of ‘homo oeconomicus’. What explains phishing, Akerlof and Shiller suggest is a fundamental mechanism that connects psychological and informational malfunctions in modern economics: namely, the human tendency to engage in, and fall for, storytelling. Drawing on a wide range of examples — from the economics of slot machines, to health clubs, lobbying, junk bonds and finanical crises — this astonishingly witty book offers insight and diversion for economists and laypersons alike. However, as BRB reviewer Gabor Istvan Biro concludes, new trends in economics such as evolutionary economics and economic anthropology — neither of which is discussed in ‘Phishing for Phools’ — hold out the promise of making sense of phishing in a potentially more rigorous and unified way.

The Dream of Algorithms: Our Calculated Existences

Most visibly for Google, Facebook, and Amazon, but perhaps more importantly for banks, insurance companies, and major corporations, “Big Data” provides a new paradigm for organizing information, to which the use of algorithms has become ever more central. In his book ‘What are Algorithms Dreaming Of: Our Lives in Times of Big Data’ (‘A quoi rêvent les algorithmes: Nos vies à l’heure des big data’, Seuil, Paris 2015), Dominique Cardon aims to show how these new computing techniques are revolutionizing our society. Through new ways of classifying information, personalized advertising, product recommendation, and the track of consumers’ behaviour and interested, large-scale calculating infrastructures are trying to interfere ever more intimately in individuals’ lives. Yet far from being merely technical tools, algorithms bring with them an emergent political project. As reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein notes, there is a sinister paradox here. People are by and large suspicious of centralized powers, be it the power of politicians, journalists, or unions; they (profess to) abhor being classified into broad categories, believing instead that their individuality fits into no “box.” Yet, these very same individuals allow themselves to become locked into the bubble of algorithms – partly because this new algorithmic authoritarianism has successfully been camouflaged as non-authoritarianism, partly because they are impressed with the speed and the effects of algorithmic coordination.

World in a Bag

Dubbed a mere fashion accessory, a handbag is anything but. Deep in its depths lies a fascinating world of secrets, dreams, and — perhaps more mundanely — everyday items and tools for getting along in the modern (esp. urban) world. In his book ‘Le Sac: Un Petit Monde d’Amour’ (JC Lattès, 2011), Jean-Claude Kaufmann explains why this is so and what role a handbag plays in making and remaking women’s identities. Through the life stories of women, he pieces together — from the many things we toss into our bags — an overall account that vindicates the handbag as a ‘privileged place’. As reviewer Giovanna Colombetti argues, behind the sometimes mundane observations lies a broader story of how people manipulate and relate to objects in order to support and structure their affective life. This makes the book not only a joy to read, but may even lead its readers on a journey of self-discovery.

Explicating Explication: Carnap’s Ideal

Carnap’s ideal of explication has become a key concept in contemporary philosophy, especially within the analytic tradition, and lies at the heart of a method of analysis that has sometimes been placed in opposition to various forms of naturalism. A new collection of essays, edited by Pierre Wagner, explores a range of issues in connection with ‘Carnap’s Ideal of Explication and Naturalism’. The essays in the book may be roughly divided into three parts: first, an exploration of the historical context of Carnap’s philosophy; second, a set of detailed case studies concerning explication and its evaluation; third, a critical assessment of recent claims (and counter-claims) concerning the dialectical nature of Carnap’s notion of explication. While not all essays aim for the same level of detail or historical depth, taken together, writes BRB reviewer Adam Tuboly, the essays point to fruitful new lines of research in Carnap studies and in the history of analytic philosophy more generally.