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Intellectual History

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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.

A Tradition Uncovered

Whereas most historians and commentators have thought of the history of Hungarian philosophy as a history of the reception of Western ideas, a new book by Tamas Demeter sets out to identify a distinctively ‘Hungarian’ strand within twentieth-century philosophy in Hungary. What gives Hungarian thought its distinctive flavour, Demeter argues, is a keen awareness that many of the most pressing philosophical problems are deeply connected to problem of society and sociality. So thoroughgoing is this strand that one might plausible speak of ‘Hungarian sociologism’ (by analogy with ‘German idealism’ and ‘British idealism’). As reviewer Akos Sivado argues, the book succeeds in establishing “a framework that provides the interpretational basis for a coherent narrative of twentieth-century intellectual life” in Hungary and, as such, contributes to a continuation of the very tradition it identifies.

Exchange of Glances: Florence and Baghdad

In his new book, ‘Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science’, German art historian Hans Belting re-examines the dual use of perspective, as a transformative device of depiction in Western Art and as a form of geometrical abstraction in Middle Eastern Islamic art. While the theory of perspective was first formulated in eleventh-century Baghdad by Ibn al-Haithan (Alhazen), it was in Florence that its potential as a mirror of the human gaze was fully explored. However, writes reviewer Jerry Brotton, in re-evaluating the origins of perspective in Western art, Belting stays clear of clichéd arguments about how Arab and Islamic thinkers ‘got there first’ in the discovery of perspective. Instead, he asks the more profound question of why Alhazen developed the visual principles of perspective but did not translate them into an artistic theory. Central to his answer is the recognition that, on Alhazen’s account of vision, images were thought to originate in the imagination, not the eye: In other words, they could not be made visible because they did not occur in the external world.

The Aesthetics of Evil

Love and Evil are the driving forces of most, if not all, plots of dramatic and fictional literature. Yet, in discussions of aesthetics, evil has often been given short shrift. In his ‘Ästhetik des Bösen’ (Beck, Munich 2010), Peter-André Alt embarks on an in-depth study of the aesthetics of evil. From the Biblical myths of Lucifer’s and Adam’s Fall, through the 19th-century’s fascination with the social construct of the ‘criminal mind’, to the genocidal horrors of the 20th century, Alt ploughs his way through (mainly literary) material of intimidating scope and completeness. Yet, writes reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, Alt’s attempt to rectify the omission of evil in discussions of European literary history is hindered by a strangely parochial blindness to outside (esp. British) influences on Continental Europe’s fascination with the topic.

Rage, Time, and the Politico-Religious Revenge Banks

In his recent book ‘Rage and Time’ (originally published as ‘Zorn und Zeit’ in 2006), Peter Sloterdijk, best-known to the English-speaking world for his ‘Critique of Cynical Reason’, published in the 1980s, tells a compelling story of the mediations, exploitations, and translations of rage through, and into, the great religious and political ‘cosmologies’ of Western civilisation. ‘Rage and Time’, according to reviewer Francisco Klauser, is a powerfully written book about the sociopolitical ordering, coding, and accumulation of rage; a book which, in sum, acknowledges and investigates the role of rage as one of the driving forces of human history. However, while Sloterdijk’s narrative is rich in suggestive power, his analysis of the upcoming sociopolitical challenges in the 21st century remains essentially incomplete — the future of rage has yet to unfold.

The Fame Game

Every Friday morning, postmasters in the United States send out over a million copies of ‘US Weekly’ to subscribers. ‘US Weekly’ is only one of many periodicals that report, and sometimes fabricate, events in the lives of the rich and famous. Where does this cult of celebrity come from? Fred Inglis, in his ‘Short History of Celebrity’, traces the historical origins of celebrity in the modern sense to eighteenth-century London — according to Inglis, ‘the first city to construct itself as a city in a form that would prove recognizable to modernity’. Inglis’s narrative quickly moves from London’s aristocracy and the arcades of Paris to the money- and gossip-obsessed New York of the Gilded Age. Somewhat problematically, according to reviewer Alex Prescott-Couch, he extends his analysis of ‘supreme celebrities’ to the quintessential 20th-century dictators Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. While he may have overshot the mark in this respect and while some attempts at conceptual disaggregation might have been in order, Inglis manages to draw the reader into tales of the rich and fabulous, while at the same providing much elegantly written material for a closer analysis of the phenomenon of celebrity.

Tracing the Origins of Islamophobia

Recent polls conducted by a number of polling institutes indicate that, in the minds of Germans and Europeans, Islam – more than any other religion – is associated with negative feelings. A recent edited volume, ‘Islamfeindlichkeit – Wenn die Grenzen der Kritik verschwimmen’ (roughly: ‘Islamophobia: When the Limits of Criticism become Blurred’), traces the origins of these negative connotations, along with more recent expressions of resentment towards a visible presence of Muslims in Western societies. But, argues reviewer Mohammed Khallouk, the book may also be read as a manifesto for cultural dialogue, with the goal of finding a consensus on values.

A German Affair

Germany’s most characteristic contributions to nineteenth-century world culture, music and speculative philosophy, are so thoroughly romantic that they alone would give the whole movement a German flavour. But in Germany romanticism did not stay within the boundaries of art and philosophy, it gave momentum to political nationalism, to an irrational Lebensphilosophie and to a fatal departure from the path of the Enlightenment. In his new book, “Romantik: Eine deutsche Affäre” (Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2007), Rüdiger Safranski travels into “Germany’s heart of darkness”, but, says reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, is missing out on the social dynamics of the romantic value system, which English writers were the first to respond to in the early eighteenth century.