Jon Baskin on Ben Lerner and the Novel of Detachment


Ben Lerner

In his recent review of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (“Always Already Alienated,” The Nation) Jon Baskin explores themes of bad faith, fraudulence, and misanthropy in contemporary American fiction. Baskin’s prose is as precise as ever and his insights shine out. I dare say his review does the rare work of ‘raising and cheering’ us (à la Emerson’s American Scholar). Of course I encourage you to read the essay in full. At the risk of spoiling your dinner, I include the punchline below.

. . . Though they measure success by different criteria, this doesn’t mean it is impossible to adjudicate between the novel of detachment and other trends in contemporary literary fiction. I’m sure my preference is clear. “A wise and hardy physician will say,” wrote Emerson in his great essay “Experience,” “Come out of that, as the first condition of advice.” What Lerner calls “fraudulence” does not indicate the failure of modern society but the condition of its possibility. We show different parts of ourselves to different people; there is a gap between our inner lives and our public “performance”; at times, it is incumbent upon us to assume roles that may feel artificial to us, or to hide what we are feeling from those closest to us. So what? We have been acknowledging such facts for some time now; perhaps we are ready for an art that will accept them, and keep walking.

New Review of Avner Baz’s When Words Are Called For by Nat Hansen

“Philosophical Quarterly” has recently published a review of Avner Baz’s When Words Are Called For: A Defense of Ordinary Language by Nat Hansen. The review begins:

imgresIn this fascinating and provocative book, Avner Baz argues that the much maligned methods of Ordinary Language Philosophy (OLP), when properly applied, reveal that central debates in contemporary philosophy are fundamentally misguided. Baz’s radical argument targets what he calls the ‘prevailing program’ in philosophy. The ‘prevailing program’ is an approach to gathering data in support of philosophical theories:I will call the question of whether or not our concept of x, or ‘x’, applies to some real or imaginary case when it is raised as part of an attempt to develop or test a philosophical theory of x, ‘the theorist’s question’; and I will call the research program that takes answers to the theorist’s question as its primary data ‘the prevailing program’. (p. 87)

For example, philosophers have investigated the concept of knowledge, or the meaning of ‘know’, by asking whether or not the concept (or the expression ‘know’) applies in, or truly describes, certain imagined situations: Gettier scenarios, barns in barn façade county, Mr. Truetemp’s reliable beliefs about the temperature, contextualist ‘bank’ cases, and so on.

While it is controversial to describe this particular methodology as the ‘prevailing program’, there is little doubt that it is an influential aspect of contemporary philosophy. Baz’s criticism of the ‘prevailing program’ aims to show that there is a sense in which, contrary to appearances, we do not in fact understand the ‘theorist’s question’, or the data generated by attempts to answer the question (that is, judgements or intuitions about whether or not some situation should be described as involving someone knowing something). In that respect, Baz is following the lead of classical proponents of OLP, like J. L. Austin, who argues that by removing words from their ordinary contexts, we thereby deprive those words of meaning and end up speaking nonsense, even though, by using familiar expressions, there is an appearance of sense. For example, in Sense and Sensibilia, Austin says that use of the word ‘directly’ has been ‘stretched’ by philosophers to the point that it has become ‘meaningless’.1 According to Austin, if philosophers used the word in the way it is ordinarily used, they would be simply saying something false, and they fail to supply an alternative meaning for the word according to which their claims would be true.

[Click here to continue reading]


Jennifer Mather Saul (University of Sheffield) has a new book out from Oxford University Press: Lying, Misleading, and What is Said: An Exploration in Philosophy of Language and in Ethics. The publisher’s blurb reads:

Many people (both philosophers and not) find it very natural to think that deceiving someone in a way that avoids lying—by merely misleading—is morally preferable to simply lying. Others think that this preference is deeply misguided. But all sides agree that there is a distinction. In Lying, Misleading, and What is Said, Jennifer Saul undertakes a close examination of the lying/misleading distinction. Saul begins by using this very intuitive distinction to shed new light on entrenched debates in philosophy of language over notions like what is said. Next, she tackles the puzzling but widespread moral preference for misleading over lying, and arrives at a new view regarding the moral significance of the distinction. Finally, Saul draws her conclusions together to examine a range of historically important and interesting cases, from a consideration of modern politicians to the early Jesuits.

Luvell Anderson (University of Memphis) recently reviewed it for NDPR. His review begins:

In this excellent and enjoyable book, Jennifer Saul explores issues at the convergence of the philosophy of language and ethics. Her book is an excellent addition to a growing literature of what might be considered applied philosophy of language.

In chapter 1 Saul lays out her definition of lying. She indicates that although there are senses of lying that may include all intentional deceptions, she is only interested in the sense of lying that contrasts with misleading; and this will importantly involve the notion of saying. That there is a linguistic distinction between lying and misleading is quite intuitive. Saul illustrates the distinction with the following statement by former president Clinton on his relationship with Monica Lewinsky,

(1) There is no improper relationship.

If we are taking ‘is’ in (1) as a present-tense denial, then it seems Clinton cannot be charged with lying if at the time he was not involved with Lewinsky. Although (1) might be misleading, what Clinton said was strictly speaking true (as opposed to what he may have conveyed, which is that he and Lewinsky never had any improper relations, at anytime whatsoever). [Click here to read on]

NDPR Review : Fatalism in American Film Noir (Robert Pippin)

imgresJerrold Levinson recently reviewed Robert Pippin’s 2012 Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy.

The review can be read in full here. It begins:

This slim volume is essentially a detailed and nuanced philosophical examination of three classics of American film noir, all from the very fateful 1940’s: Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai, and Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street. Though Pippin pays some attention to specific techniques of meaning-making in film, such as montage, framing, camera angle, and mise-en-scene, his primary focus is on eliciting clear accounts of what on the human level is actually going on in the films he examines, in terms of action, thought, and feeling, and then articulating philosophical perspectives on the human condition — or at least that in post-war America — that the films can be seen as exploring, or even advancing.

Pippin skillfully demonstrates that complex relations among ideas such as those of action, character, intention, self-control, and self-knowledge are undeniably part of the content of these strangely gripping cinematic tours de force, as is more overtly, the idea that the main characters in these claustrophobic scenarios are in some sense fated to do what they do. He convinces us that these films raise, if without definitively answering, questions about how these various notions are related, in what circumstances, and to what degree . . . [Keep reading]

New Book + Review — Groundless Grounds by Lee Braver

9780262016896Not so very long ago MIT Press published a book that should be of interest to our readership: Lee Braver’s Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and HeideggerBelow you’ll find the publisher’s overview as well as the opening paragraph of Gary E. Aylesworth’s NDPR review.

Overview [from MIT Press]

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger are two of the most important–and two of the most difficult–philosophers of the twentieth century, indelibly influencing the course of continental and analytic philosophy, respectively. In Groundless Grounds, Lee Braver argues that the views of both thinkers emerge from a fundamental attempt to create a philosophy that has dispensed with everything transcendent so that we may be satisfied with the human. Examining the central topics of their thought in detail, Braver finds that Wittgenstein and Heidegger construct a philosophy based on originalfinitude–finitude without the contrast of the infinite.

In Braver’s elegant analysis, these two difficult bodies of work offer mutual illumination rather than compounded obscurity. Moreover, bringing the most influential thinkers in continental and analytic philosophy into dialogue with each other may enable broader conversations between these two divergent branches of philosophy.

Braver’s meticulously researched and strongly argued account shows that both Wittgenstein and Heidegger strive to construct a new conception of reason, free of the illusions of the past and appropriate to the kind of beings that we are. Readers interested in either philosopher, or concerned more generally with the history of twentieth-century philosophy as well as questions of the nature of reason, will findGroundless Grounds of interest.

Review [from NDPR]

Lee Braver, Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, MIT Press, 2012, 354pp., $38.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780262016896.

Reviewed by Gary E. Aylesworth, Eastern Illinois University

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger are the two most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Though they were aware of one another, each made only one recorded mention of the other, and these were made in passing. These remarks open a narrow pathway into a large field of investigation. However, perhaps because they came to represent opposing camps of professional philosophers, few have attempted to read them so as to bring them into productive dialogue. Lee Braver’s publication is the latest of these relatively rare efforts. His general thesis is that, despite their differences, Wittgenstein and Heidegger both insist upon our radical finitude as human beings, and that there is an unsurpassable limit to the reasons we give as to why things are the way they are. In other words, reason as a ground-giving activity cannot ground itself, but arises out of our situation in a world that is always already “there” before the question of grounds or reasons can arise in the first place. In developing this thesis, Braver hopes to begin a dialogue between so-called analytic and continental philosophers and to inaugurate a re-appropriation of the philosophical tradition on the basis of mutual understanding. That is to say, he believes his study can lead “analysts” and “continentalists” to agree on what philosophy is, on what it has been, and on what it ought to become. Given the institutional divisions within professional philosophy, in place for two or more generations, this is no small ambition, and it is unlikely to meet with a friendly reception from all quarters (see Richard Rorty) . . .

To continue click here.

Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity — New Book by Colin Koopman

Some of you will remember Colin Koopman’s 2009 Pragmatism as Transition, which treats the usual pragmatist suspects old and new (Dewey and James, Rorty and Putnam), but with the help of some perhaps-unlikely figures (Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Bernard Williams, and Stanley Cavell). The text labors to reconcile select conflicts within the tradition, as well as to rescue certain pragmatist insights for the sake of a forward-looking critical-philosophical project.  His second book, just out from Indiana University Press, takes that forward-looking critical-philosophical project as both its object of inquiry and aim. More information about the text can be found here, and below.


Viewing Foucault in the light of work by Continental and American philosophers, most notably Nietzsche, Habermas, Deleuze, Richard Rorty, Bernard Williams, and Ian Hacking, Genealogy as Critique shows that philosophical genealogy involves not only the critique of modernity but also its transformation. Colin Koopman engages genealogy as a philosophical tradition and a method for understanding the complex histories of our present social and cultural conditions. He explains how our understanding of Foucault can benefit from productive dialogue with philosophical allies to push Foucaultian genealogy a step further and elaborate a means of addressing our most intractable contemporary problems.

Table of contents
Introduction: What Genealogy Does
1. Critical Historiography: Politics, Philosophy & Problematization
2. Three Uses of Genealogy: Subversion, Vindication & Problematization
3. What Problematization Is: Contingency, Complexity & Critique
4. What Problematization Does: Aims, Sources & Implications
5. Foucault’s Problematization of Modernity: The Reciprocal Incompatibility of Discipline and Liberation
6. Foucault’s Reconstruction of Modern Moralities: An Ethics of Self-Transformation
7. Problematization plus Reconstruction: Genealogy, Pragmatism & Critical Theory

Colin Koopman is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oregon and author of Pragmatism as Transition: Historicity and Hope in James, Dewey, and Rorty.

For those of you interested in Foucault studies, Clare O’Farrell does an exemplary job administering Foucault News.  I’ve also heard rumor of a conference in Paris this June on Foucault and Wittgenstein, but can’t seem to find an announcement online.  I hope you’ll contact me with any leads!



NDPR Review: “Stanley Cavell and the Education of Grownups” (Saito and Standish, eds.)

NDPR has just published a review — written by Stanley Bates (Middlebury College) — of the recently published essay collection Stanley Cavell and the Education of Grownups (Fordham University Press), edited by Naoko Saito and Paul Standish.

To access the whole review online, please click here.

Here is how it begins:

Stanley Cavell’s influence on a variety of contemporary fields continues to grow. It has been marked, in the past decade or so, by a number of distinguished anthologies in a wide range of disciplines including politics and literature. It is heartening for those of us who think that this influence is overwhelmingly (though, perhaps, not universally) positive to have witnessed the continuing (re)discovery of his work, and its significance for American Studies, Film Studies, Shakespeare studies and, of course, for what should be its home country, philosophy. (Whether academic philosophy as presently constituted in American and British universities is home country for Cavell is a continuing topic in much of this literature and in much of Cavell’s own writing.)

The relevance of Cavell’s thought to reflection on education should be obvious, since it is implicit in all of his writing including his interpretations of the opening of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and his discussion of, e.g., the “scene of instruction.” Moreover the title of the work under review is drawn from Cavell’s explicit characterization of philosophy as the education of grownups in the concluding paragraphs of Part I of The Claim of Reason. Perhaps the lack of interest in thinking of Cavell on this topic is related to the negligible place of philosophy of education in most departments of philosophy. Philosophy of education has been primarily pursued in departments, programs, and schools of education, and in those places it also has a somewhat tenuous position. Academic programs in education tend to be primarily concerned with issues about schooling, and the preparation of teachers who will operate in schools. Though schooling is almost always an important part of someone’s education (sometimes negatively) Cavell’s characterization of philosophy as the education of grownups is mostly about what happens out of school. Nonetheless reflections on his line of thought might have implications for how we think about the characterizations of education in some contemporary discussions.

New Books in Critical Theory (website): Audio interview with Avner Baz

Brandon Fiedor — host of the website New Books in Critical Theory (which features “discussions with critical theorists about their new books”) — has just posted an audio recording of an interview he recently conducted with Avner Baz (Philosophy, Tufts University), about Prof. Baz’s book When Words Are Called For: A Defense of Ordinary Language Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 2012). To listen to this interview online, please click here (and look for the audio player near the bottom of the page). Our thanks go to Brandon for letting us know of this!

NDPR Review: “Iris Murdoch, Philosopher: A Collection of Essays”

NDPR has just published a review — written by Megan J. Laverty (Teachers College, Columbia University) — of the 2012 essay collection Iris Murdoch, Philosopher: A Collection of Essays, edited by Justin Broackes (Oxford University Press). To access the whole review online, please click here.

Here is how it begins:

This collection is a milestone in the history of Murdoch scholarship. It seeks to establish “that Murdoch is of importance and interest to the same people as read the moral philosophy of Kant and Plato or Philippa Foot and John McDowell” (p. v). The volume stems from a conference (held in 2001) that brought together celebrated Murdoch scholars — including Maria Antonacio, Carla Bagnoli, A. E Denham, Lawrence Blum, Peter J. Conradi, Margaret Holland and Martha C. Nussbaum — and relative newcomers — including Justin Broackes (the volume’s editor and the conference’s organizer), Bridget Clarke, Roger Crisp, Julia Driver and Richard Moran. The contributors’ major publications on Murdoch are listed at the end of this review. Iris Murdoch, Philosopher comprises eleven original essays, an edited extract from Murdoch’s unpublished manuscript on Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, a personal vignette by John Bayley and a comprehensive introduction by Broackes.

The extract from Murdoch’s abandoned book-length manuscript on Heidegger is invaluable for Murdoch scholars. Until now the manuscript had been available only at the Murdoch archives at Kingston University, London. Murdoch is a lucid expositor of Heidegger’s ideas. In so doing she develops themes integral to her own philosophy including the character of perception, truth as an achievement and the relationship of philosophy and literature. The extract serves as the perfect companion piece to Murdoch’s other writings on Continental thinkers, including Jean-Paul Sartre (Sartre, Romantic Rationalist) and Jacques Derrida (Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Chapter 7).

Broackes’ introduction is so thorough that it threatens to overshadow the essays it is meant to support. It offers a meticulously researched and detailed historical overview of Murdoch’s philosophical career that positions her arguments in relation to the philosophical debates of postwar Britain. Broackes usefully distills Murdoch’s ten “largest ideas for academic moral philosophy” (p. 8). Many of the ideas will be familiar to readers of Murdoch, including her anti-scientism (2), anti-reductionism about value (9), and anti-Humean psychology (3). Together, these provide the basis for a form of moral realism (1) that emphasizes moral perception, the reliance of moral perception on moral concepts, and the inevitability of moral disagreement (6). More surprising is Broackes’ identification of G. W. F. Hegel as the source of Murdoch’s realism (10) which is usually tied to the philosophers that she explicitly draws upon, most notably Plato and Simone Weil. Yet, Broackes provides detailed textual support for Murdoch’s study of idealism, esteem for Hegel and recognition of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (1843) as one of only three philosophical texts to have greatly influenced her (p. 17, fn. 42). Broackes completes the introduction with a finely calibrated treatment of Murdoch’s scholarly output from her earliest papers of the 1950s to The Sovereignty of Good (1970). He acknowledges the importance of her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals although he admits that its argument still proves elusive. Broackes is preparing a commentary on The Sovereignty of Good which is much anticipated.

NDPR Review: of Avner Baz’s “When Words Are Called For”

NDPR has just published a review — written by Sari Nusseibeh (al-Quds University) — of Avner Baz’s recently published book, When Words Are Called For: A Defense of Ordinary Language Philosophy (Harvard University Press). To access the review online, click here.

Here is how it begins:

In order to appreciate the radical thesis of this work and the case Baz defends — that Ordinary Language Philosophy (OLP) has been fundamentally misunderstood and therefore unfairly put to rest in the analytic tradition when in fact it still constitutes a ‘best-practice’ for doing philosophy — it is necessary from the outset to make clear that for OLP, a word’s meaning remains ‘in limbo’ (for all intents and purposes) until it is determined by context. Until then, it better be looked upon as a variable and not as a given. What Baz reveals in his new book is the astonishing fact that, even in eulogizing OLP as it is being pronounced dead, many of its half-way sympathizers suffer precisely from continuing to hold on to a semanticist/pragmatist distinction in meanings when, for OLP, there is none.

The ‘decline’ of the interest in OLP as an approach is vouched for by the fact that, among other things, not a single book in English on the one person who first tried to articulate this approach, J. L. Austin, has been published in the last thirty years or so (the exception, this year, is a volume edited by Martin Gustafsson and Richard Sorli, published by Oxford University Press, to which Avner Baz contributed versions of his third chapter in the book under review). A biography of Austin — the professional impact of whose sudden and premature death in 1960 at the age of 48 on OLP’s founding early years and his colleagues cannot be underestimated — is also now in the works, and will hopefully shed more light on a region of under-exploited intellectual wealth that has long been kept in the dark.