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Intellectual History

This category contains 22 posts

The New French Right

A growing number of French intellectuals, from Alain Finkielkraut to Jean-Pierre Le Goff and Michel Houellebecq, are dissociating themselves from liberalism, which they consider to be undergoing a crisis, and a few are openly aligning themselves with what one might call the ‘New French Right’. BRB reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein examines two recent books in this vein:
‘The New Children of the Century’ (Les Nouveaux Enfants du siècle) by Alexandre Devecchio and Bérénice Levet’s ‘Twilight of the Progressive Idols’ (Crepuscule des idoles progressistes). Where Devecchio openly declares his sympathies for a new generation of right-wing activists and thinkers, whom he believes have little in common with the older Le Pen generation, Levet takes herself to be defending originally progressive Enlightenment ideals and reinvents many points that international critics of neoliberal education have been working on for years. Yet both books suffer from serious oversimplifications. Devecchi laments that cultural liberalism was the Trojan horse of the free circulation of capital, and Levet speaks likewise of a ‘tacit pact between cultural leftism and economic liberalism’. Yet such connections are merely asserted — and reflect a willful ignorance of the far more complex relationship between cultural and economic liberalisms and freedoms. Instead of obsessively fighting against liberalism, it would be more constructive and also logically cogent to fight against what Gilles Lipovetsy has called “hedonist capitalism” — yet such an analysis would require more depth and fewer polemical distractions.

Life, ‘Technics’, and the Decline of the West

With the unexpected resurgence of ‘völkisch’ thinking in German politics in recent months, and a concomitant revival of the old antagonism between ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’, it may be high time to re-examine the philosophical sources of such thinking. The recent reissue of Oswald Spengler’s ‘Man and Technics’ (first published in 1932 as ‘Der Mensch und die Technik’) is a good occasion to reflect not only on Spengler’s dark vision of history and life, but also on the celebration of martial heroism, which — in the age of weaponized populism and American-style ‘Trumpism’ — seems once again so eerily familiar. ‘Man and Technics’, argues BRB reviewer Ian James Kidd, has many things in common with Spengler’s more well-known ‘The Decline of the West’ –- its brooding character, grand ambition, and agonistic vision of life. But there is also, underneath that, something different. For, only when the depth of ‘technics’ is properly grasped can the ‘soul of man’ be set free — or so Spengler suggests in his plea for a genuine ‘philosophy of life’, fuelled by the release of vast energies and power. ‘Man and Technics’ describes a restlessly stirring ‘will-to-power’ that ‘embraces the world’ in the ‘gigantic power of its technical processes’. Sleepless factories, roaring furnaces, tireless production lines –- all of these show the on-going manifestation of ‘technics’, the dynamic, agonistic force that Spengler conceived as a metaphysical force. There is, then, in ‘Man and Technics’, a rich (if deeply problematic) resonance with deeper currents in German intellectual history, including those that aligned themselves with the most reactionary and destructive political forces. Engaging with these tendencies, without thereby endorsing them, may be unavoidable, lest ignorance of the technological mediation of political hubris breed intellectual complacency.

The Passage of the Text

Books are — or, at any rate, used to be — powerful tools of fantasy, ambition, and enlightenment. Even today, those affected by war, disaster, or oppression, risk their lives preserving the remnants of literary culture. How do books inspire such care and passion? How do they travel across cultures? How do they resonate with readers across time and space? It is such questions concerning the movement of literature that guide the investigation of B. Venkat Mani in Recoding World Literature: Libraries, Bibliomigrancy, and Germany’s Pact with Books (Fordham, 2016). Mani’s term for the movement of texts, both the central paradigm of the work and a theory of world literature writ large, is “bibliomigrancy”, i.e. “the physical and virtual migration of literature as books from one part of the world to another”. In Mani’s dutiful reading, Germany plays a crucial role in the history of bibliomigrancy and the construction of the paradigm of world literature. Mani focuses specifically on Goethe’s internationalism, a literary worldview that saw the book a site of connection to other texts and to non-European literary traditions. It is such a relation, of Europe with “non-European peripheries”, that Mani regards the conceptual genesis of world literature in Germany. While the book is comprehensive and offers a deeply nuanced portrayal of global networks of writing and readership, BRB reviewer James Daniel wonders whether Mani should not perhaps also have included further discussion of the contemporary political crises and the attendant migrancies they have borne. How, for example, has the rising tide of nationalism and xenophobia influenced world literature? These are questions that a future-oriented study of the phenomenon of world literature might need to tackle.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.