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brb

brb has written 92 posts for The Berlin Review of Books

Unity, (Inter-)Nationalism, and Science

One might think that there is only one genuine science, and that all the various disciplines and approaches are just historically contingent, or simply a matter of convenience. The general question of what provides the ‘cement’ that does the unification — whether this is achieved by laws of nature or shared concepts, say — is rarely asked these days. Partly this is because a major part of contemporary philosophy of science has moved towards the actual, micro-level description of scientific practice. Yet broader forces are at play too. Up until the mid-20th century, Unity of Science movements flourished since — in the minds of philosophers, at least — social and moral virtues were firmly attached to the epistemic virtues of unification, reduction, and conceptual economy. Yet during the Cold War period this link was permanently severed, and discussions about the Unity of Science were at best confined to questions of scientific knowledge in the abstract. A recent edited volume by the late Harmke Kamminga and Geert Somsen gathers new essays on the rise and decline of Unity of Science movements. As BRB reviewer Adam Tamas Tuboly argues, the volume makes a convincing case that questions concerning the Unity of Science cannot be separated from questions of ideology; indeed, that the history of science, philosophy, persons, and institutions can only be told successfully once this link is accepted and subjected to rigorous analysis.

Love in the Time of Swarms

What sort of life has digital technology given us? The techno-utopians of Silicon Valley claim to have the answer: connectivity — the ‘neutral’ fact of creating links between nodes in a network — has the potential to transform and improve every aspect of society, from economics to politics and culture. In a series of recent books, Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who teaches cultural studies at the Berlin University of the Arts, has explored a diametrically opposed vision of digitally mediated societies: The vanishing, in the digital age, of established norms of privacy has not led to the promised condition of transparency and openness, but has only furthered neoliberalism’s project of surveillance and control, while the constant demand for self-improvement and an entrepreneurial notion of the self has given rise to a pandemic of existential fatigue. In his two most recent translations, ‘In the Swarm: Digital Prospects’ (2017, original German 2013) and ‘The Agony of Eros’ (2017 [2012]), Han turns his eye to the digital terrain of contemporary social relations, in politics as well as at an interpersonal level. And in both cases, the promised means of transformation turns out to be a very real hindrance: In politics, digital connectivity does not facilitate, but more often than not precludes, the establishment of meaningful political collectives; likewise, the ubiquitous availability of pornographic images does not liberate sexuality, but rather impedes intimacy. Yet, as reviewer James Daniel concludes, Han’s incisive criticism of boilerplate techno-utopianism raises a thorny question: How can we effectively condemn the supremacy of the digital without at the same time appealing, at least implicitly, to technophobia?

Knowledge in a Conspiratorial World

Do conspiracy theories merit belief? Of course not, or so a nascent consensus of political commentators tells us. But conspiracies do happen — think Watergate — so an outright dismissal of theories that do not fit with a given consensus might risk overlooking important facts. In his recent book ‘The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories’ (2014), philosopher Matthew Dentith — a self-professed ‘conspiracy theory theorist’, i.e. someone who researches belief in conspiracy theories (rather than proposing conspiracy theories himself) — tackles the thorny epistemological questions that emerge from the nexus of secrecy, ideology, and the social world. As BRB reviewer Ori Freiman summarizes the gist of Dentith’s argument, while some (or perhaps most) conspiracy theories are irrational, some conspiracies are rational, and we must therefore not dismiss a theory *only* because it invokes, or asserts, the existence of a conspiracy. Once we acknowledge that a belief in conspiracy theories can be rational, we can further investigate the existence of a conspiracy and the evidence the theory cites. If we succeed in making a tight connection between the conspirators and the events in question, we can consider the conspiracy theory in relation to other possible explanations. Dentith’s book, Freiman concludes, is a thoughtful exploration of the world of conspiracy theories, based on vivid examples from history and fantasy, and rigorously argued.

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.

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.”

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.

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.