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

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Science Shouldn’t Be Objective

So why does flying my SSK Freak Flag™ and denying the objectivity of science get me hate mail? What is it that we really prize when we say something is objective, and why is attacking that Bad?

For starters, I’m not even going to really go into intelligent design, climate change denying, anti-vax, or paleo diet hooha. If you’re looking for support in your quest to unmask the Vast Scientific Conspiracy, look elsewhere, and if you’re supporting any of these things (or any other pseudoscience), I’d suggest revising the background assumptions that govern the foundational rules behind the discursive field of your form of life.*

So, my objection to objectivity is this: not only is it not true that science is objective, but the term “objective” is really masking a whole bushel of values that we ought to embrace, but, because we value our form of empirical inquiry acting as if it’s value-neutral or even value-free, we claim that it’s objective, and seek to behave in a way that we believe people engaged in an objective form of empirical, inductive reasoning based on observation ought to behave. Continue reading

What Should Aesthetics Do?

“Explain beauty,” obviously. Why thank you, that wasn’t entirely obvious.

The problem here is that “beauty” is a pretty complicated notion, with a lot of intertwined ideas wrapped up into it. Do you have to have a certain approach to metaphysics, anthropology, or ethics to explain beauty, or can it be explained without reference to a particular concept of being, human nature, or morality? Can it be applied to all things that are called “beautiful,” which would be ideal, or only certain classes of these things? Finally, what exactly is the beautiful (assuming it even exists!), and how can it be distinguished from similar, related, or easily confused things?

This would cover the concept’s intension (what is its definition, how is it distinguished from other concepts); its extension (to what things does this concept apply); and its connected presuppositions and implications (what concepts do you need to understand before you get to “beauty,” and what do you need it to understand). Once you have these three, I’d say you have a pretty good working theory.

So simple, it seems, and then you try to actually figure it out. 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

Philosopher Shaming!

Time for some philosopher shaming.  Things I actually and truly believe, but know I probably shouldn’t:

  • There is no way we can have anything worth calling knowledge of objective scientific truths.  This shouldn’t bother us, though.
  • We can have knowledge of moral truths.  It may be that it’s not that hard to know what they are, even; it’s just that, since they make inconvenient demands of us, we choose to act like we don’t know them.
  • I studied Thomas Aquinas mostly because I thought he was respectable and Blaise Pascal wasn’t.
  • I really, really dislike reading Aquinas, and I don’t think burnout explains all of why.
  • Thomas Hobbes is nowhere near as shocking, modern, or cool as Marsilius of Padua once you understand the latter’s philosophical context.  Seriously, writing a work in the middle ages without a lengthy discussion of human nature or happiness?  If that doesn’t start ringing all sorts of alarm bells, you evidently didn’t spend way too much time studying Scholastic political philosophy.
  • Basically, Kant was right.
  • John Duns Scotus may just be the most brilliant person who wrote during the 12oo’s.  That’s saying a lot.
  • Realizing I’ve always had sympathies with French continental philosophy was . . . well, I still feel kinda dirty about it.  Also that I should have saved it for 11 October.
  • I sometimes read feminist philosophy just for the great titles.
  • The more Aristotle I read, the more I’m convinced he’s the third most overrated philosopher ever.  One and two are Berkley and Lacan, by the way.
  • On Tuesdays, I think David K. Lewis was right.

Book Design and Philosophy

Last week, our press kinda cleaned up at the Washington Book Publishers’ annual design and effectiveness awards.  Three of our books won prizes,* two of which were first place awards.  Seeing as we compete in the most competitive category here in DC,** that’s no small feat.

Kudos to our people.  They do good schtuff.

We’ve already dealt with good/bad/ugly covers, but what makes the body and text of a philosophy book well-designed—or, more to the point, what are the unique challenges that philosophy books pose to designers, and what are the best ways to address them? Continue reading

Academic Ebook Conversion Sucks

No, really.  It does.  Ain’t no other way to say it.

Part of this, as seen in this lovely little Gruniad article, is because ebooks are essentially different editions of the same book.  Just as paperback books don’t follow hardback pagination, ebooks, being their own strange format, won’t follow any print pagination. Continue reading

The Medieval Ebook, Part II: Writing in the Margins

As I mentioned last time, the odd writings you find in the margins of medieval books (and, for that matter, in between the lines or on loose sheets of paper inserted between the pages) are often of great importance.  Known as marginal or interlinear glosses (or, if on loose paper, extras), these notes, asides, and corrections took on a life of their own, sometimes rivaling the importance of the book they were written in.  Perhaps the most famous collections based largely on these writings would be the Catena Aurea of Thomas Aquinas, one of many such catenae aureae compiled by late antique and medieval authors, and the four books of Peter Lombard’s Sentences—though most any Scholastic writing on philosophical or theological  matters will cite glosses or extras at some point or other.

Royal 10 E IV   f. 59v   Rabbit shooting

We've lost a lot since we decided "*" was good enough.

Which brings me to the point I was making at the end of my previous post.  If you have a copy of the books/papers being cited at your fingertips, in parallel with a paper or essay using them, then, rather than having some artifact of scholarship divorced from its roots, you can see the organic growth and web of relationships between source text and new work.  Though this would be helpful enough if you could click on a citation in a paper and be taken directly to the location cited, the reverse—reading a book or paper and seeing who and what cites it as you’re reading it—could be more interesting and fruitful. Continue reading