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

Underrated Philosophers VI: Jorge Luis Borges

And this is where I jump the shark. Dante’s understandable—he at least wrote a couple of philosophical treatises, he gets an entry in the Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy—but Borges? The whacked-out Argentinian surrealist writer of trippy short stories with a weird obsession with tigers and labyrinths? The man who never wrote anything over fifteen pages? The man who said that metaphysics is really just a branch of the literature of fantasy? Seriously? Seriously?

Nicolás Menza, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), 2000.

First, his poetry’s awesome, so shuddup. Second, you have to read his essays to really make sense of his short stories and poetry (assuming you’d actually want to, rather than just enjoying the Weird). Third, his essay on Ramon Llull is both the inspiration for this underrated philosophers series and why I’m not doing one on Llull, much as I’d like to; it wouldn’t be as good as the one that already exists. Fourth, there are lots of philosophers who love Borges, some of whom even organize traveling art exhibits based on his work.*

But, as a philosopher…well, he may be the only absolute idealist worth reading. Granted, there aren’t a lot of absolute idealists (Borges, Berkley, and…um…uhh…), and Berkley’s bad crazy, but that’s beside the point (kinda). What isn’t beside the point is what happens when an absolute idealist goes blind and starts writing fiction. 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

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