Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, editors
The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments
724 pp. Liveright
Peter Catapano, on the first page of this volume, canvasses some of the things philosophers have been thought to be, or have declared themselves to be: "Truth Seeker. Rationalist. Logician. Metaphysician. Troublemaker. Tenured professor. Scholar. Visionary. Madperson. Gadfly. Seer."
As I suppose will be the case with many of my fellow Rationalists and Madmen, my initial response to this collection of essays from the New York Times' philosophy blog was: where's my damned essay? How come they're not calling me to do that piece on the Hillary Clinton campaign as seen through the lens of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus? Why would they run Freddy? Christ, he wasn't even that good in grad school.
This review requires a disclaimer. I've been pitching the New York Times op-ed page for thirty years. I've hit a few times, missed dozens. I have written many essays intended for the Stone and tossed them at Catapano, the editor of the blog and co-editor of the book. Sometimes I don't even get a response, though they've taken a few. The first thing I looked for in the table of contents was my own name, for that is what a true Metaphysician does; I got stuck part way through Descartes' Meditations, and concluded that I am the only person of whose existence I can be objectively certain. But I do want confirmation of that in a by-line.
Failing to find it, I am justifiably resentful, for I am an exquisitely beautiful writer as well as a slash-and-burn logic-chopping machine who can destroy anyone, including the editorial staff at the New York Times. Also, if there's one thing we Logicians can agree on, it's that I'm right and the mediocrities they are running are wrong.
On the other hand, it may well be that if I write an extremely positive review, praising Catapano and Critchley's amazing acuity, they will view my next submission with more sympathy.
Writing this review, then, is a complex and difficult negotiation between my envy and my ambition, a kind of psychological and ethical crossroads, a dilemma fit for a Tenured Professor such as myself. I have arrived at a solution: I will scrupulously conceal all these factors as I write; that is, I will approach the task with unimpeachable objectivity.
Alright, I do think the Stone is one of the best things to happen to philosophy in some time. If you are yourself a professor or author of philosophy texts, you may have noticed that no one reads philosophy. Well, this may well have something to do with the way we're writing. But the Stone is not only a useful forum and provocation among philosophy professors; it is one of the few places that 'the ordinary reader' might run into the ideas of Thomas Nagel or Slavoj Zizek, Linda Martin Alcoff or Avitall Ronell.
(Nevertheless, the thing is white-male-dominated, which is perhaps reflective of the composition of academic philosophy, but for all that impoverishing. In general, the female philosophers address issues of gender, the black philosophers those of race. I was struck, looking at the table of contents, by the fact that my profession looks a little like American television in 1965.)
In addition, the Stone has noticeably increased the ideological, intellectual, and stylistic range of the Times's opinion section as a whole, which I regard as gratuitously narrow. It has made philosophers regularly part of the public discourse in a way we rarely have been in recent decades. It is a contribution both to philosophy and to opinion journalism.
Some of these people (Nagel, for example) are both extremely impressive Scholars and good prose stylists. But I picture Catapano's struggles with many others and the process by which clotted academese, presupposing that its audience knows dozens of relatively obscure books, becomes something that the readership of the New York Times could want to read and could get something definite from.
In this the Stone is succeeding, I believe. I would hardly have believed it possible. I read most of these essays as they came out, but seeing them all together in this big cube of a book impresses me again with the range of issues addressed, the approaches taken, the variety of voices (albeit a bit toned down by the thorough and extremely competent editorial process).
There are continentals and analytics. There are discussions of the classics and direct addresses to contemporary issues. These essays constitute relatively accessible, relatively clear, relatively well-written ways to introduce students, for example, or my Mom (a faithful reader of the Stone), to the ideas of Peter Singer, Phil Kitcher, or Roger Scruton.
Perhaps a prof here and there regards some or even all of these essays as mere popularizations, or simplistic presentations of complex ideas. Indeed, Truth Seeker Brad Leiter often digresses from such declarations as that Thomas Nagel is the 14th most important philosopher since 1945 to describe the Stone as "an embarrassment" and likes to put scare quotes around its self-description as a 'philosophy' blog. I think he's missing some excellent material, as well as the point of the thing.
We Seers are going to have to come down to earth a little if we want any sort of cultural influence, or if we think that philosophical ways of thinking could be of use in the public sphere or of interest to the general literate population. The Stone, I believe, makes this difficult negotiation extremely well, encourages philosophers to make it themselves, and edits them toward it in a constructive way. Even the length of the essays (1200-1700 words on average, perhaps) makes them relatively inviting to someone who does not want to spend a month or two struggling through Kitcher's last book.
Even for philosophy professors, often specialized in one sub-discipline or even in a single issue or figure, this book may yield a better sense of how philosophy is being pursued in corners of the profession other than the ones they inhabit.
It also yields a responsible vision of the terrain of philosophy today insofar as this can possibly be mapped in relatively ordinary language. Speaking of Logicians, I recently tried to read Timothy Williamson's book Modal Logic as Metaphysics. Now, I was trained in analytic philosophy for a decade, can read a modal logic formula, and am familiar with the basic approaches in the literature to the semantics of modal expressions. That book was too hard for me.
I do not believe Williamson could compress that book into a Stone. But here he is, writing lucidly and accessibly about naturalism, scientism, and the scientific method. Then Alex Rosenberg gives a reply. Then Williamson fires back, quite getting the better of the exchange.
It is a good model of philosophical argumentation, one I intend to try on my introductory students next Fall. I don't think I would build an intro course around this book: the overall effect is too scattershot, the voices and positions too various. But I think it could be an extremely useful supplement to such a course. Have you ever tried to run through Kant's Prolegomena with undergraduates? Sometimes you have to, but I do not recommend it overall. After I did, I'd want to give them something in a contemporary voice that shows that some of these questions are still vital and even applicable. There are a number of essays here that might help me do that.
The Stone Reader includes 133 contributions arranged topically into such clusters as "Rethinking Thinkers" (including Spinoza, Kant, and Kierkegaard), "Old Problems, New Spins" (hence my Hillary/Ludwig pitch), evolutionary ethics (contributors include Edward O. Wilson and Huw Price), "What is Faith?" (where one finds Samuel Scheffler and the flamboyantly brilliant Tim Crane, to whom I'm always pitching reviews), "Black, White or Other" (including Robert Gooding-Williams and George Yancy), and the meaning of America (if any). We will all have our favorites and our whipping boys (again, they're mostly boys), whether we went to grad school with them or not. I find Gary Gutting's contributions rather plodding, but then I already know a lot of what he's trying to explain to a wide readership. His contributions are often solid reformulations of, excellent introductions to, the areas they discuss. Some of his essays might be among the first I'd try on students, or send as a link to non-philosophy-professor friends and colleagues interested in the issues in philosophy of religion to which Gutting gravitates.
As well, there are some lovely curiosities here that made me more optimistic about the current range of what philosophers are doing and the directions we might head from here. For example, a personal essay by Ronell brings together Jacques Derrida and seasonal affective disorder. For another, Lisa Guenther describes her own testimony to a U.S. Senate committee on the effects of solitary confinement. The philosophical frame around the issue is relatively light-handed; the emphasis is on the real horror. But philosophical ethics informs her discussion in a way that I think intrinsically illuminates the issue and also shows the relevance of ethics to urgent contemporary questions.
The Stone began in 2010, and already many excellent pieces have appeared in it that might have come too late to make the volume, for example George Yancy's long series of interviews with various thinkers on race, and his own "Dear White America." I hope that the thing persists long enough to produce a series of volumes, perhaps focusing on sub-disciplines or particular issues in philosophy. Such a thing might indeed by an extremely useful text for a course on ethics, or philosophy of religion, or critical race theory. Given the blog's relative popularity, that is likely.
It's a hard thing they're doing at the Stone, and I think they are doing it about as well as it could be done, except for one embarrassing symptom of ineptitude: like so many prestigious venues today, they desperately need more me: Crispin Sartwell, Visionary.
tim crane's response at the times literary supplement, more or less: we love it! masterful! could you delete the jokes?