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Biography & Memoirs

This category contains 13 posts

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.

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.

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.

Excellent Sheep, Excellent Shepherds?

In his book ‘Excellent Sheep’ (New York: Free Press 2014), William Deresiewicz offers a probing indictment of America’s top universities which, with few exceptions, turn young people into narrow-minded and career-oriented drones, who are more likely to pad their resumes in order to secure a job in finance than to cultivate intellectual growth or develop world-changing insights. The student-inspired title of Deresiewicz’s book (the term ‘Excellent Sheep’ is traced by Deresiewicz to a comment by a Yale student) is supplemented by two subtitles, joined together somewhat awkwardly with just an ampersand: ‘The Miseducation of the American Elite’ & ‘The Way to a Meaningful Life’. While this three-part title reflects the three main strands of the book, they do not always sit very well together. Thus, BRB reviewer Bruce Fleming argues, it is unclear what the search for a ‘meaningful life’ has to do with the curricula of elite universities and the alleged miseducation of the elites: Surely Deresiewicz does not want to suggest that there can be universal institutionalized ways for finding one’s true self and becoming the person one truly wants to be? We may all dream of being bohemians, but most of us aren’t cut out for it. And even for those of us who are, the quest for meaning can hardly be reduced to the problem of curriculum reform.

Work and Structure

Writer Wolfgang Herrndorf committed suicide in the summer of 2013, at age 48. He was best known for his bestselling novel “Tschick”, which garnered Herrndorf many literary accolades, even as he was diagnosed with a brain tumour shortly before its publication. Herrndorf documented his thoughts and the final years of his life in a blog, which has now been published as a book entitled “Arbeit und Struktur” (“Work and Structure”, Rowohlt, Berlin 2013). The title is derived from a comment by one of many doctors (Herrndorf, in his diary, resorts to referring them by numbers), who had recommended “work and structure” as a way of confronting fear and despair. Yet, as reviewer Frank Berzbach observes, no matter how depressing the diary’s entries are getting, at no point does Herrndorf allow his suffering to wrest control of his life from him: “This, indeed, is a reason to read his book: so as to maintain the upper hand, come what may. So as not to be driven to madness, or to escapism.”

Unifying Historical Perspectives

Greg Frost-Arnold’s first book, ‘Carnap, Tarski and Quine at Harvard’ (Open Court, Chicago 2013), has as its subject matter a manuscript by Rudolf Carnap that was recently discovered in the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives of Scientific Philosophy. The original German manuscript is about the conversations of Carnap, Tarski and Quine (sometimes featuring Goodman) which took place at Harvard in the academic year 1940-41. That year marks a decisive point in the evolution of Carnap’s thought on semantics (one year later, he published his Introduction to Semantics). As Carnap and Quine reported in their intellectual autobiography, the dispute about analyticity played a crucial role in that highly productive year. ‘Carnap, Tarski and Quine at Harvard’, argues BRB reviewer Adam Tamas Tuboly, is a highly elegant edition and commentary of Carnap’s notes, claiming just as much as is warranted on the basis of the manuscript and other relevant texts. Its scholarly assumptions are carefully formulated and manage to unify three co-existing historiographical strategies: narrative, argumentative and micro-historical. The micro-history, in this case, consists in the conversations between Carnap, Tarski and Quine, yet the overall story fits with an emerging bigger narrative concerning the history of logical empiricism and analytic philosophy.

The Great Rubber Robbery: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis

In ‘Fromms: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis’, Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer tell a meticulously researched story of how entrepreneur Julius Fromm, who had built a lucrative enterprise around a series of inventions and improvements of latex production techniques, lost his ‘condom empire’ in the process of ‘Aryanization’ in Nazi Germany. However the injustice persisted until well after the fall of the Nazi regime. Following Julius’s death in 1945, the Fromm family attempted to regain possession of their property, yet in 1951 they were merely offered a settlement that required the Fromms to pay (!) 174,300 West German marks to Otto Metz-Randa who, as a profiteer of the ‘Entjudung’ had gained ownership in 1939. Why then, asks reviewer Leon Rocha, did the American publisher tone down the original title of the book, ‘Wie der jüdische Kondomfabrikant Julius F unter die deutschen Räuber fiel’ (‘Fromms: How the Jewish Condom Manufacturer Julius F. Fell Prey to German Robbers’)?

Happiness, Sadness, Death

Ten days after submitting the manuscript of his novel “Suicide” in October 2007, French artist and author Edouard Levé hanged himself in his Parisian apartment. Yet, as reviewer Hugo Wilcken argues, it would be quite misleading to read Levé’s last book as a fictionalised account of his own suicide; it many ways it is a negative image of it. While the book may start as if it was a memoir, the reader soon begins to doubt. There are unlikely moments (the night where the protagonist talks for eight hours straight about Marx and Freud); even more suspicious is the way the author gets inside the suicide’s head, and recounts scenes he couldn’t possibly know about. “Suicide” was widely and favourably reviewed in France. It has since been translated into Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese; translations into German and English are in preparation.