Book Advice from a Nonexistent Bookstore

Now that Newman Books is closed, DC doesn’t have a really good philosophy/theology bookshop. Okay, granted, Newman’s selection could be pretty spotty at times,* and Kramerbooks can be surprisingly good,** but that’s beside the point for those of us who want our critical Latin editions of Ockham and Scotus, 5 different translations of Augustine, more stuff on the Reformation than most stores devote to religion, or a whole section on Aquinas. We want our bookstore, complete with people who know a critical edition from a public domain Latin version. It’s something you just can’t get from Amazon—well, along with the feeling you get from not sending money to Satan’s minions—and will be sorely missed.

But. But! I’m gonna give you the next best thing: a series of lists (what is this, Buzzfeed?) of books worth reading on any number of philosophical*** topics, complete with caveats, explanations, and my own opinions, which are completely right and you should never question ever because they’re right. Some of these are syllabi for imagined courses I’ll never get to teach, but have always wanted to—a few of them I’ve been developing since reading Plato’s Republic, scarily enough—while others are just “look, don’t read bad translations like I did, try these instead.” It’s advice I’d give to hypothetical customers or students, written up in a big ol’ binder at the front of the store that you could whack me over the head with when you disagreed with something I said.

You don’t get the binder, but you do get my opinions. Sorry ’bout that. Continue reading

High Art, Good Art, & Bad Ideas

Context, if you want it: a recent article in The Stone, the NYT’s philosophy blog that Brian Leiter likes to mock. The position, if you want it: some forms of art/music/etc. are superior to others, with classical music, for instance, being superior to pop music.

My views, if you want them: sure, there’s good art and bad art. There’s also a whole lot of complications that philosophers of art, especially those who think you can make simple divisions between high culture (the kind academics like and participate in) and low culture (the kind they look down on, or study in “studies” departments) with impunity. Continue reading

What’s the Great Scholastic Novel?

Yes, another aside at the beginning of a post, but, thanks to a very nice reference from The Smithy, home of other fans of John Duns the Subtle, ye olde humble blogge’s visitor counter’s pretty much exploded. Seriously, I’ve gotten almost as many people visiting in the last three days as I’ve ever gotten in a month around here. Thanks for visiting, y’alls!

Why aren’t there any great novels written from a Scholastic viewpoint? For that matter, how many truly great works of literature that weren’t written by Dante can those of you who don’t study the middle ages name that explicitly follow a Scholastic worldview? Heck, what about the great Stoic novel? Sure, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations aren’t poorly written at all, but really, what great play, poem, or book follows a Stoic worldview, rather than explicitly espousing one?* It seems that you can’t be an existentialist without writing novels (Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir were all pretty dang good novelists), and postmodern nihilism, especially of the “there is no truth—which should really scare you” postwar variety, produced any number of temporally disjointed and bone-crushingly dense black comedies. The Greek aristocratic ideal gave us some of the greatest epic poetry and drama the world has ever known, while postwar Japanese novelists infuse their works with Zen Buddhism’s unique wabi-sabi aesthetic, and Romanticism and German Idealism gave us a flood of great poetry. Heck, even Puritanism has produced great novels—according to at least one argument I’ve read, all of them.** So where’s the great stuff involving the nuances of virtue ethics, natural ends, and hylomorphism? Continue reading

Underrated Philosophers III: Blaise Pascal

This here is the absolute high point of anything I will ever write about underrated philosophers. Sure, there are others like Ramon Llull who are less known, some who get misinterpreted (Wittgenstein, anyone?), some who are so stunningly original that nobody quite realized the significance of what they were saying at the time (Dante), but none who are a combination of all the above like Pascal.

I’ve wanted to write about Pascal since I started this silly blog.* Okay, probably since before then. Pascal is my favorite philosopher by far, which is hard to explain to people; he’s also the one who’s most criminally ignored, which is hard for those of us who love him to explain. Continue reading

The Complete History of Philosophy, Abridged

This, perhaps more than anything else, may be my biggest scholarly disagreement with how philosophy is practiced today.  Sure, I have much bigger gripes on a personal and professional level—the casual sexism for starters—but this is less depressing.

Philosophy has a history, and its history shapes how we do things.  The problem is that each side of the philosophical turf war has its own narrative, and these narratives . . . well, they’ve got issues. Continue reading

Yves Klein and Interpretation III: Much Ado About Nothings

I know I’ve talked about Klein’s Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility before, but, wouldn’t you know it, it’s hard to leave a good nothing alone.  As I’ve hinted once or twice before (what blog title?) I’m a fan of Eco’s rather Augustinian school of interpretation that allows for multiple overlapping interpretations of a single work—so let’s have another go at interpreting the Zones, shall we? Continue reading

Yves Klein and Interpretation, Part 2: The Strange Hell of Beauty

I left off last time with the idea that Klein’s works seek to create a void, to instantiate a nothingness.  Why, exactly, is this such a horrifying idea?

Short answer: anyone can play God; Klein’s trying to become Anti-God.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

Creating the Immaterial Zone—annihilating gold in the Seine

Now, the idea of creation ex nihilo is something that drives philosophers batty; to make a very long story short, it’s something only God can get away with.  Of course, creation has a flip side in annihilation; anything that now is, can just as easily not be.

This is the key message of Yves Klein.  To return to the original primal void requires more than simple destruction, but rather an act of God, a true annihilation of being.  Klein, time and again, attempts to create this utter nothing, to sell “zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility” to those willing to embrace annihilation and negation: Continue reading

Yves Klein and Interpretation Pt 1: Why Art Museums Need Philosophers

Blue Monochrome (IKB 45)

Last year, the Hirshhorn put on about the best exhibition I’ve ever seen at any museum—which as a chronic museum rat, is saying a lot.  Their Yves Klein retrospective, “With the Void, Full Powers,” was nothing if not spectacular, thought-provoking, and, for reasons I’ll get into later, terrifying.  It was about as close to a perfectly curated exhibit as you could ask, with the exception of one thing.

The title was completely wrong. Continue reading

Michel Foucault, Relationship Counselor: Philosobabble Has a Point

So this is part two of an unintentional series, it seems.  I don’t know if I’m on to something or not here, but . . .

If words and language support and are supported by a whole network of epistimic presuppositions, power structures, assumptions, overtones, nuances of meaning, etc., then, if somebody was trying to do something constructive with language, such as correct an unhealthy pattern of thought or interpersonal interaction, then it would seem logical to suppose that the words and patterns of language chosen should be those most apt to the task at hand.  This at least partially explains why philosophers love technical and specialized jargon, besides the fact that we just really love tossing around fun words; certain terms have specific connotations, implications, and shades of meaning that naturally lead the listener to the intended conclusion, as well as bearing a whole web of related information.  For instance, the term “quidity” has implications neither its translation “whatness” or strict Latin rendering “quiditas” have; while sounding like something that is part of a specialized philosophical lexicon, with its own particular uses, rather than a word made up on the spot, it still sounds like something used in current debates, rather than historical medieval disputations.  Using either the translated neologism or the strict Latinism would detract from the philosophical point at hand, while the Anglicized form of the Latin references the metaphysical debate in contemporary philosophy. Continue reading

Jean-Paul Sartre, Relationship Counselor

I know, I know, taking relationship advice from disillusioned French intellectuals may not seem like the best idea, but it works.


First, the idea of philosophical counseling isn’t exactly new; to be honest, if I weren’t so interested in publishing (yes, I have more than a little bit of a soft spot for making academic prose look good), I’d probably get myself certified and become Phill Melton, Philosopher at Large.  There’s something about helping people with conundra and difficulties that seems to get back to the Socratic ideal of the philosopher as a doctor for the soul, rather than an isolated practitioner in the academy.  I’ll probably address this in a later post, but much of philosophy nowadays isn’t particularly concerned with whether or not belief in proposition X entails action Y; ethicists, for instance, have a reputation as actually being somewhat unethical, and metaphysicians will gladly bang their fists on tables that they’re trying to prove don’t exist.  There are a few branches of philosophy—especially feminist philosophy—that actually care about the practical implications of all these abstruse reasonings, but they’re definitely outside the Anglophone analytic mainstream.

So, now that I’m out of school, I can actually admit that some of what I do has very practical applications.  Like existential relationship counseling.  Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus has nothing on Being and Nothingness as a guide to understanding the significant Other. Continue reading