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brb

brb has written 106 posts for The Berlin Review of Books

How to Get it Right: In Memory of Tony Judt

10 years ago to this day, on 6th of August 2010, the Postwar European historian and public intellectual Tony Judt died. A decade on, BRB reviewer Mario Clemens revisits Judt’s legacy — and finds him a superb companion for thinking about the prerequisites of sensible political judgment, which, it seems fair to say, is sorely lacking in these “post-truth” times. While the appeal of “higher truths” may have waned, public intellectuals now sometimes act in too timid a fashion — foregoing the very courage and independence so valued by Judt. This, as Judt observed, renders intellectuals vulnerable to vacuous, yet dangerous, posturing — a professional risk of “all-purpose intellectuals”.

Mary Midgley, Covid-19, and That Beastly Illusion

Mary Midgley (1919-2018) wrote her first book, Beast and Man, in her fifties; it was published shortly before her 60th birthdy. In her fifteen more books that followed, she continued to explore, with great subtlety and a far-reaching philosophical imagination, the relationship between humans, animals, nature, and the environment at large — all of which are notions that have been thrown into sharp relief by the global covid-19 pandemic. The very term “zoonosis” for a disease that crosses the animal-human boundary seems to suggest that animals are to blame. But, as BRB contributor Istvan Zardai, argues, such one-dimensional thinking would go against all that Midgley has shown us. In the end, the very notion of “beastliness” is an illusion we ought to resist, if we are to find better ways of living together with nature — which is, of course, the only way to live at all.

Homer rather than Hegel: On Arendt’s political thinking and its roots in literature

The global intellectual community has long recognized Hannah Arendt as one of the crucial voices of the 20th century. In her 2019 book “Hannah Arendt: Die Kunst, politisch zu denken” (Hannah Arendt: The Art of Thinking Politically), Maike Weißpflug explores what one could call Arendt’s version of political criticism, where ‘the political’, for Arendt, is the “sphere of appearance, of opinion, and plurality”. Yet beyond the purely political dimension, Weißpflug also traces the lasting influence of literature on Arendt’s thought and her relevance to political thinking in the age of the Anthropocene. Not primarily as an academic text, Weißpflug’s book, according to BRB reviewer Mario Clemens, presents to us a Hannah Arendt who can teach us a way of thinking about political problems that has the potential to open up new avenues of thought and counter prevailing wisdom.

Down to Earth

In his book “Down to Earth” (2018), Bruno Latour explores the way in which global political action today embodies multiple contradictions in our relationship to that part of the Earth that comprises the crust and the atmosphere: that is, the narrow segment of the planet that we spend most of our time on and whose energy flows we harvest — and change. What happens when we come back down to this earth (or, as in the origianl French title, “Où atterrir”, where we land) from the lofty heights of most political and social criticism? As BRB reviewer Eric Kerr argues, first and foremost we must recognize that both localists (some of whom tend towards the reactionary) and globalists (who tend towards progressivism) are enmeshed in contradictions, and that our global and local politics, which seems so strangely — indeed, incommensurably — estranged, are, at the same time, deeply connected.

Philosophy With a Human Face

Vienna in the 1920s was an extraordinary centre of intellectual activity. From amidst a social milieu of artists, philosophers, and scientists, the Vienna Circle — a group of roughly a dozen academics from a range of disciplines — coalesced around, among others, Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, Friedrich Waismann, Heinrich Neider, Herbert Feigl, and Karl Menger. Others, like Karl Popper and Kurt Gödel, were moving in the periphery of the Circle, and through its common goal of (in the words of historian Karl Sigmund) “forging a great unification of human knowledge”, it ‘radiated outwards’, ultimately leading to the dominance of logical positivism across much of English-language philosophy in the mid-20th century. The English edition of Sigmund’s book, ‘Exact Thinking in Demented Times’ (Basic Books 2017), is the first ‘picture book’ of the Vienna Circle, telling the various interconnected life stories of its main representatives. While not always fully accurate in portraying the philosophical views of the Circle, when understood as a ‘family saga’ about the very human lives of a group of innovative and socially engaged philosophers — writes our reviewer Adam Tamas Tuboly — the book is well worth buying.

The Making of Isaiah Berlin

“In Search of Isaiah Berlin” by Henry Hardy (Tauris, 2018) is the testimony of an editor that devoted the better part of his life to a search for Isaiah Berlin. Often, this was a literal search — for unpublished texts buried in various corners of Headington House — yet also metaphorically Hardy’s task often was to find the appropriate meaning in vague or even contradictory passages of Berlin’s writing. Often delightful and always interesting, the book, writes BRB contributor Mario Clemens, constitutes an essential contribution to the study of Berlin’s ideas, providing not only helpful commentary but also making available new materials and offering context and contour to Isaiah Berlin’s intellectual development.

A Sociology of Texas

Texas looms large in the story that America tells about itself, and this has given rise to a subgenre where male writers from Texas (usually of European ancestry) seek to understand better, apologize for, and thoroughly explain to their readers the conditions of the author’s home state. Though Lawrence Wright’s ‘God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State’ (Knopf, 2018) nominally falls into this subgenre, it manages to overcome the constraints that some with it, or so BRB reviewer Christopher Landrum argues. While much of the book examines how Texas’s economy, population, and political influence over the rest of the nation have expanded since about 1978, Wright is ambivalent, and more than a little impatient, with the continued “immature political culture” of Texas — a culture that, as the current occupants of the White House demonstrates, has long rubbed off on the rest of the country. All in all, the book, in spite of some glaring omissions, provides a readable and informative for Texas and non-Texas alike to gain a new perspective on the ‘lone star state’.

On Flusser in Artforum

In 1986, following the warm reception of his ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’, Vilém Flusser began a regular column in Artforum Magazine, New York. The recent volume ‘Artforum // Essays’ (Metaflux, London 2017) gathers together for the first time, in one volume, all twenty-nine essays, both published and unpublished, which Flusser wrote for the magazine until his death in 1991. As BRB reviewer Frank Karioris argues, the volume not only vividly illustrates the ability of Flusser to engage in dialogue across disciplines and fields, but also shows him to be a masterful theorist — in the original sense of ‘theoria’ as itself a view of view, viewing, and viewpoints. What is important is not so much what was said in these essays, but that the essays and thinking drive one out into an open field of thought.

Essay Review: Greening Berlin

In his book ‘Greening Berlin’ (2013), Jens Lachmund contributes to the growing genre of the social studies of environmental science and governance. Focusing on Berlin’s biotope-protection policy, Lachmund’s work provides an analysis of the co-emerging of ecology and urban environmental planning. Lachmund’s presentation of empirical material and context as well as his line or argument are certainly compatible with his objective to demonstrate the co-production of science, politics and urban nature. Yet, as BRB reviewers Ingmar Lippert and Josefine Raasch argue in this essay, review Lachmund’s approach is not uncontroversial and without problems. For one, conflict seems rather marginal in Lachmund’s analysis of the production of environmental information. His analysis focuses on the version of greening that wins. Another criticism relates to the tension emerging from Lachmann tendency to write himself out of the text and the very real need to reflect on his own knowledge production. Yet, all in all, Lachmund presents a comprehensive and ‘systematic analysis of the development of urban nature conservation in one German city’, Berlin — one that has played a cetral role in constituting environmentalist publics and attempting to deal with the way in which city, humans, and nature co-constitute each other.

Making a Masala Modern Anglophone Indian Philosophy

A handful of conventional narratives dominate the Western world’s view of Indian philosophy: while some commentators cling to the view that India’s pristine philosophical heritage has been preserved in Sanskrit texts, others dismiss pre-colonial traditions as ‘non-philosophical’. Philosophy, on this latter view, did not arrive in India until the onset of modernity under British colonialism, and whatever philosophical insights earlier traditions may have had, can only be unearthed through analysis from within the dominant Anglophone philosophical tradition. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth — or so argue the authors of ‘Minds Without Fear’, Nalini Bhushan and Jay Garfield. Epistemology — to mention just one example — was not transported to Indian shores by the ships of the East India Company, but was explored in intellectual communities and movements such as the Navya-Nyaya long before colonialism took hold. And the discomfort with using the English language after colonialism, as expressed by, say, Rabindranath Tagore, does not reflect any incompatibility of Indian thinking with philosophical traditions, but instead reflects the distrust of a colonial mindset that gave rise to Thomas Macaulay’s infamous remark ‘that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’. In offering a historical explanation for this discomfort, Bhushan and Garfield place their philosophical protagonists in a broader, political context, while also making a case for the richness and intellectual depth of what they aptly call the ‘Indian renaissance’. By deftly combining criticism of established narratives with a positive case for the intellectual value of Indian philosophy, Bhushan and Garfield — argues BRB reviewer Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach — succeed in nudging their readers to seek a truly free knowledge, a knowledge which honestly faces up to its social grounding and which confronts the prejudices that stand in the way of truly globalizing our philosophical thinking.