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Philosophy

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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.

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.

World in a Bag

Dubbed a mere fashion accessory, a handbag is anything but. Deep in its depths lies a fascinating world of secrets, dreams, and — perhaps more mundanely — everyday items and tools for getting along in the modern (esp. urban) world. In his book ‘Le Sac: Un Petit Monde d’Amour’ (JC Lattès, 2011), Jean-Claude Kaufmann explains why this is so and what role a handbag plays in making and remaking women’s identities. Through the life stories of women, he pieces together — from the many things we toss into our bags — an overall account that vindicates the handbag as a ‘privileged place’. As reviewer Giovanna Colombetti argues, behind the sometimes mundane observations lies a broader story of how people manipulate and relate to objects in order to support and structure their affective life. This makes the book not only a joy to read, but may even lead its readers on a journey of self-discovery.

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.

The Realization of Something New: The Life of the World to Come

Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov (1853-1900) is widely considered one of Russian philosophy’s most ambitious figures. His magnum opus, ‘The Justification of the Moral Good’, ranges from a characterization of humans as spiritual creatures to discussion of the historical development of our socially situated consciousness, and on to questions concerning the morality of war and the moral organization of humanity. Contemporary readers may reject, or even mock, Solovyov’s musings, not least on account of their unabashed Christian roots. But, as Andre van Loon argues in his review of a new (and refreshingly unfussy) translation of Solovyov’s book by Thomas Nemeth, closer inspection of his Solovyov’s writings reveals a sophistication that eludes his critics and may vindicate him as ‘cleverer, more insightful and spiritual than his critics’.

Cultural Curmudgeons

Recently, a string of authors have lamented the state of American university education, including the limited aspirations of college students. Instead of pursuing, as William Deresiewicz called it, “passionate weirdness”, students major in applied subjects such as business studies, enter the financial sector and management consultancies, quickly leaving a more critical engagement with the status quo behind. What’s striking for the student of cultural history is the fact that every quarter-century or so this sentiment resurfaces, with professors expressing extreme frustration with how unlike them their students are, how docile and unquestioning. Tracing a trajectory from Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘Dialektik der Aufklärung’ (1947) via Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ (1987) to more recent examples such as Deresiewiciz’s ‘Excellent Sheep’ (2014), BRB critic Bruce Fleming analyses this historical phenomenon. What he finds is that reading all these eerily similar books back to back suggests larger truths that no individual author can more than hint at, truths about the position of cultural critics and their ultimate inability to change that culture.