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Intellectual History

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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.

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.

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.

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.

The Changing Faces of STS

Four editions and counting: our BRB reviewer Gabor Istvan Biro takes the publication of the new edition of the ‘Handbook of Science and Technology Studies’ as on occasion to reflect on the changing character of the research field better known under its acronym ‘STS’. Whereas the first edition was very much programmatic, in that it set the tone for the consolidation of STS as an academic field and its methodological proliferation, the current — fourth — edition, with its thirty-six chapters, provides a snapshot of a multi-faceted ‘living’ interdisciplinary entity, rather than presenting a thoroughly pre-visioned and planned state-of-the-art narrative.

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.