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brb

brb has written 89 posts for The Berlin Review of Books

Vanishing Points of Representation: How They Change and Why

How does science manage to represent the world around us? Beyond the abstract question of how scientific theories represent the world, in recent years the material practices and the important role of formats and media have come into full view. More than twenty years ago, the volume ‘Representation in Scientific Practice’ (MIT Press, 1990) did much to bring out the material side of scientific representation as a process. Now, the original editors, together with a team of younger-generation scholars in science and technology studies, have returned to the question of representation in their ‘Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited’ (MIT Press, 2014). An important new dimension: the digital processing and representation of data. While there may not be, in the end, such a thing as a unified notion of ‘scientific representation’ simpliciter, and hence, as BRB reviewer Gabor Istvan Biro argues, the exact location of the ‘vanishing points’ of the discourse on representation may not be found in this volume, it nonetheless has much to offer in terms of insight into how and why scientists struggle with scientific representation in the digital era.

The Living Truth

The Russian thinker Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) is an elusive figure: just when you think you’ve got the right idea about him, a central insight, he turns away. In her book ‘The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen’, Aileen M. Kelly makes a heroic effort to give unity and coherence to Herzen’s oeuvre. Correctly seeing Herzen as an anti-systematiser in an age of grand theories and projects, Kelly grounds her subject in the natural sciences. She casts him as a humanist par excellence, who nonetheless started with a fierce interest in science, developing into a Darwinian before Darwin, later taking evolutionary theory to be a paradigm for exploring all that is contingent, messy and disruptive. And yet, argues BRB reviewer Andre van Loon, for all her intellectual brilliance and elective affinity with Herzen, Kelly focusses too much on the brain, often remaining neutral or silent about the heart, in a way her subject certainly did not. But this does not diminish Kelly’s achievement: to synthesise Herzen’s enormous literary output into various interconnected themes and strains.

Visions of Berlin

“When I returned from Berlin I found ants had moved into the kitchen. I knew to watch my step, having received a warning from a solitary soldier some years before. It happened when I was resting my bones on a bench on the Walter Benjamin Trail near the Spanish border. The heat was intense, and I could do no more than watch ants at work – there was an entire army of them, hundreds, maybe thousands (impossible to count with all those jerky legs) in two long supply lines. Benjamin, escaping the Nazis, may himself have rested somewhere around there and watched the ancestors of those very same ants. A thought. Having nothing better to do, I laid a twig across the supply lines, between the legions: would the ants instantly climb over the stick, the shortest route, or walk around? Shortly afterwards, an ant – some sort of army scout – appeared on my shoulder. It stood there staring at me, motionless and menacing. I wondered if it was aware of what I was up to, if it was giving me the option to back off or be bitten. Small but deadly serious. I withdrew and he fell back to his ranks.”

A Message to Donald Trump

This is the translation, based on the official transcript (in German), of Angela Merkel’s remarks on Donald Trump’s electoral victory in the 8 November 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

What’s New About ‘New Realism’?

Every so often, philosophers of one tradition rediscover problems and approaches that have long been explored, in detail, in other traditions. In recent years, advocates of ‘New Realism’ have been advocating an end to what they see as postmodernist nihilism, according to which there are no facts, only interpretations. The world and its constituents are ‘out there’, before our very eyes, and indeed they have been all along, or so New Realists suggest. Yet, as BRB contributor Gloria Origgi argues, in their quest for a pre-Kantian ontology, new realists run the very real risk of merely selling new wine in old bottles. Worse, they ignore the lessons learnt by realist philosophers in the past, who have had to fend off various criticisms of naive realism left unaddressed by the ‘New Realists’. This, argues Origgi, does a disservice to philosophy as a whole: if philosophy is to avoid the fate of being marginalized, its practitioners cannot simply resolve to return to a practice uncorrupted by science, politics and reason. Instead, they must live up to the epistemological responsibility of being modern subjects who observe reality through complex filters, endless negotiations and a variety of perspectives, influenced by power and authority.

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.