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

Exile, Occupation, Persecution: The Birth of Philosophers

Bertrand Russell, Typical Philosopher

Time to pick up where I left off last time—why so many of The Greats come from less-than-ideal circumstances. While today’s philosopher is stereotyped as a rather comfortable man in his armchair complete with tweed, pipe, and beard, it seems that most philosophers, especially before Kant, spent some time on the run, hungry, alone, forsaken, and with the law at their heels. For a few of them, there was a jail cell and executioner rather than departmental office and publisher.

I’m all about historical narratives around here, so let’s whip up another one—how philosophers found themselves on the wrong end of The Man: Continue reading

Underrated Philosophers IV: John Duns Scotus

General Note: there will eventually be something other than this series again. I might even get back to talking about publishing, for those who like that—possibly even the next post! Just not yet.

17542vScotus, like Machiavelli, is another philosopher who might get certain people going after me with pikes for calling him “underrated.” After all, he’s probably the second most studied Scholastic philosopher after Aquinas, so how underrated or unappreciated  can he be?

Well, Christopher Marlowe is the second most namedropped Elizabethan playright in high school English classes, yet I’d never read Edward II until after I’d specifically told my English tutor I wanted to read no Shakespeare at all in my Elizabethan drama tutorials. Just because people mention him as the also ran and occasionally make their students read the (very short) Doctor Faustus doesn’t mean he actually gets real attention. He’s still “not Shakespeare,” rather than ever becoming “Christopher Marlowe.”

Similarly, Scotus, along with Bonaventure, Ockham, and every other Scholastic, remains “not Aquinas.” Fat Tommy remains the default (and usually right) opinion, with everyone else judged correct by how much they agree with the Angelicus. Never mind that some of his positions were entirely unique (meaning everybody else ever must be wrong), some were condemned, and some get used as “it’s not a straw man if you can cite it!” canon fodder by every later author. 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

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

Ebooks and Philosophy: Odd Writings and Aphorisms

It’s no secret that philosophers are often odd people.  They also write strangely sometimes, too.

“No, really?  We didn’t notice.”  Yes, I know philosophical writing is notoriously bad—there’s a reason I put a pot leaf sticker on my copy of Heidegger’s Being and Time*—but some philosophers (oddly enough, often the ones who could actually write) use very odd formats for their works.  Though several philosophers have peculiar styles they’re associated with—Plato’s dialogues, Nietzsche’s aphorisms, Aquinas’ disputed questions—two thinkers seem to have writings that beg to be dealt with in a way electronic publishing could do a better job of than print media ever could.

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