The Year in Books

Academic presses are still creaking under the weight of books published, so you would be forgiven if the occasional gem passed you by. It being the end of the year as well, I thought I would flag some notable philosophy books published this year, as well as point to some to look out for in the coming year. I’d be happy to hear of any of your own picks for this year’s best too.

My favourite book to appear this year is one I’m still reading — Robert Pippin’s masterful Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life. As ever, Pippin manages to combine a wonderful lucidity of thought with a rich and suggestive prose style, which makes all his work a pleasure to read. This book develops the reading of Hegel which he shares with Terry Pinkard, which sees Hegel as engaged in the project of constructing a theory of normativity which would build upon, whilst radically revising, Kant’s talk of self-legislation. As long-time readers will be aware, I think this project is flawed both historically and philosophically. Nonetheless, Pippin has brilliantly buttressed his case here; and even where I think he goes astray, he is always insightful, especially when engaging with contemporary philosophical developments. If you have any interest in Hegel, metaethics or normativity, this comes highly recommended!

Another book in a similar vein, though this time arguing against a central role for autonomous agency, was Charles Larmore’s The Autonomy of Morality. Like Larmore’s other books, its mainstay is a collection of revised articles, loosly connected to the central theme. These are tied together by a central essay, arguing against Kantian constructivism as a metanormative theory. Larmore thinks that in place of a morality of autonomy we need to reclaim an autonomous morality. To unpack that slogan a little, he thinks that treating autonomy as a foundation for normativity is incoherent: any norms based upon autonomous endorsement alone will be little more than products of what Donald Regan calls ‘arbitrary self-launching’. Any putative norms arising from a process of self-legislation, so understood, cannot have a rational claim upon us. Instead, he thinks we must suppose that morality itself (and presumably other normative domains) is autonomous — independent of our practices, insofar as its ultimate authority is concerned.

My main reservations about his position arise with his conception of this independent normative realm — something he takes to be a robust metaphyiscal space, akin to the space of physical or psycholgical inquiries. In one essay, ‘Attending to Reasons’, he argues against the more Wittgensteinian conception of philosophical inquiry which animates McDowell’s work on just this sort of issue. It seems to me that Larmore lacks any good argument against such a position though; he simply restates the demand for philosophical explanation — e.g. surely we need to know what reasons are — which is the very thing that the Wittgensteinian tries to get us to loosen our grip upon by directing us to more modest questions about what we do and what we treat as a reason. This is a debate which needs reformulating if either side is to find traction with the other — something I am finding myself tasked with doing at the moment.

Talking of Wittgenstein, Oskari Kuusela’s The Struggle against Dogmatism: Wittgenstein and the Concept of Philosophy came out in April. This is another which I have not got all the way through yet, but the parts I have read are promising. The book is an attempt to describe Wittgenstein’s methodology, especially as it blossoms in the later philosophy. I had occasion this year to speak to Oskari whilst attending an event we were at, and I was struck by the intensity of his commitment to reading Wittgenstein with an anti-dogmatic tenor — one in which we have to radically rethink philosophy’s approach, as opposed to sliding into an equally formulaic characterisation of philosophy (e.g. the first thesis of Philosophy Club is that there are no theses in Philosophy Club…). What is particularly striking about Oskari’s approach is that it takes the question of methodology to be the beating heart of Wittgenstein’s work, whilst nevertheless letting us see how genuinely productive, progressive and insightful philosophy can still be done under its auspices.

I was rather less enamoured with Brandom’s Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism, in which he attempts to reconcile pragmatism and more mainstream analytic philosophy. He claims that it is pragmatism in both the classical and Wittgensteinian senses which are to be one side of this reconcilliation. However, Brandom’s Wittgenstein is the worst of caricatures — a sloganeer, reduced to spitting ‘meaning is use’ and other proto-systematic dictums. His is a decidely non-Kuuselic reading. This bears upon his recent book insofar as it is animated with the worst of Brandom’s habits, and indeed the red thread which will unravel most of his work: reductionism. Brandom seeks to describe a set of reductive relations between different sets of vocabulary (logical, modal, normative, intentional, etc.). My thoughts here are that Brandom is doing little more than repeat the mistakes of traditional metaphysical inquiry in a semantic key. The lure of reductive accounts is great, and they are quite rightly indispensable in the natural-scientific enterprise. But philosophy is neither natural science nor composed of formal systems like logic, and the understanding which a massive program of theoretical interdefinability promises is little more than a mirage. It is Wittgenstein himself who provides the greatest lesson about this in the development of his early work away from the false clarity of the thoroughgoing analysis of the logical structure of natural language. This is yet another reason why Brandom counting Wittgenstein as an ally, albeit a misguided one, is perverse.

On a happier note, the blogosphere’s very own Sinthome, of Larval Subjects, published Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence. The project is an exciting one: a rehabilitation of a Deleuzian metaphysics as the ground of rethinking the perennial philosophical questions surrounding the particular-universal, existence-essence and sensible-conceptual relationships. It is the last of these which takes centre-stage, with the guiding question being how we are to understand Deleuze’s ‘transcendental empiricism’, which seeks to unfold the productive conditions for experience. It is in virtue of this topic that those of you with a ‘post-Sellarsian’ temperament may find it particularly interesting, since it tackles questions surrounding the intelligible structure of experience, familiar in the neo-pragmatist literature, from an interesting angle. Unfortunately, it has proved a little too hard-going for a casual reader like myself with little exposure to Deleuze. I hope to have the stamina for another go in the future though.

McDowell-watchers will have noted John McDowell: Experience, Norm and Nature, edited by Jakob Lindgaard, which collects many of the recent essays on his work from the European Journal of Philosophy, including new replies by McDowell. The most notable addition is a new essay by McDowell in which he revised his long-held and controversial position on the propositional structure of experience, replacing it with a claim that experience is conceptual simply in virtue of its ability to be discursively articulated. This claim is ostensibly made in response to Charles Travis’ arguments about conceptual content, though I think it may come to be seen as being heavily influenced by the next book I’ll mention.

I’ve yet to read more than a handful of pages of it, but Micheal Thompson’s book Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought looks fascinating. In it, he undertakes an Aristotelian analysis of the concepts of life, action and practice, as the basis for a clear view of practical philosophy. As I say, I suspect that it is Thompson’s influence on McDowell which can account for some of the impetus for his revised position, as reflected in McDowell’s eagerness to make room for a distinct mode for the representation of life within experience. I am reliably informed that Thompson’s work is attracting a lot of attention amongst the Chicago-Pittsburgh circuit, and I would expect to see his work discussed widely in the future. Were I to hazard a guess for which philosophy book this year in the broadly conceived post-Kantian tradition will end up being most influential, it would be this one.

Next year will see another promising book on metaphysics, namely, Robert Stern’s Hegelian Metaphysics. It’s going to be a collection of some of his essays, both new and old, on Hegel and metaphysical themes. In particular, there’ll be essays on themes from Hegelian metaphysics, like concrete universality and the Hegelian conception of truth, alongside critical and comparitive essays on historical movements influenced by Hegel, like the classical pragmatists (especially Peirce) and the British idealists. Again, Deleuzian metaphysics comes up, with a defence of Hegel’s position against Deleuzian criticism.

Also next year, two McDowell collections appear, The Engaged Intellect: Philosophical Essays and Having the World in View: Essays on Kant, Hegel, and Sellars. The contents should be familiar to those already keeping up with McDowell’s recent work, though there is what appears to be a new essay on Hegel which I am keen to see. Korsgaard’s Locke Lectures, Self-constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity, also come out. From the lecture texts already online, this looks like it will be a good read, and will no doubt draw a lot of attention! (She also had a collection of essays out this year on similar themes, called The Constitution of Agency: Essays on Practical Reason and Moral Psychology.) A volume of essays on Making It Explicit is also due out, called Reading Brandom: On Making It Explicit. The contributors are not quite as illustrious as those for the McDowell volume in the same series, but it looks interesting nonetheless.

As I say, I am happy to hear your own notable philosophy books of the year!

6 thoughts on “The Year in Books

  1. That description of Kuusela, and by extension his book I presume, makes it sound quite interesting. It sounds quite promising. I take it from your parenthetical comment that it doesn’t go so far as McDowellian quietism, but it does make something of the methodology implicit in Witgenstein’s work.

    Why do you think reductionism will be the big problem with Brandom’s work? It has been a while since I looked at Between Saying and Doing, but I don’t remember Brandom wanting to take the relations between vocabularies to be reductive in the way that, say, Hempel or Carnap wanted to reduce theories. Brandom wanted to present the diagrams and relations between vocabularies as a tool of analysis, I had thought. Is that a bad characterization? Your criticism of his project resonates with McDowell’s, which you should check out if you haven’t yet heard it. I think it should be available in the video on Brandom’s website. Also, I agree that Brandom’s Wittgenstein is a weak point in his books. At times I think nothing much rests on it, and at times I think the project could be greatly improved by coming up with a better interpretation of Wittgenstein to integrate into it.

  2. Thanks for this report. I too look forward to reading Kuusela’s book (and kudos to you for “non-Kuuselic”). I think “anti-dogmatism” is just the right term, in that it leaves room for us to reject a simplistic (metaphilosophical) skepticism, such as to be found in Fogelin’s interpretation, as well as some versions of “quietism”. And that idea is indeed the “beating heart” of Wittgenstein’s philosophy on my reading as well. But of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    I guess I’m surprised to see you speak so harshly about Brandom. I had thought you were higher on him than that. I’ve never really gotten what he was after – it always seemed to me that everything good about what he was doing was already in McDowell twenty years ago, or at least by M & W. And you are right that his Wittgenstein is a disaster, which is one reason why I haven’t even bothered that much with him (although I do have a copy of MIE around here somewhere) – that just seems fatal to any pragmatism I would be interested in. I am glad that the subject of an alliance between pragmatism and Wittgenstein is being discussed, but I am less savvy about a reconciliation with analytic philosophy. Not with the interpretations of Davidson (clearly the pivotal figure) coming out of that latter tradition nowadays (with some exceptions …). It’s worth trying though, I think. Maybe when the lessons of the later work sink in, if they ever do.

    As for Deleuzian metaphysics, I would be very happy to read a clear account of same. One of the big disappointment of my grad school experience was that I never found anyone to explain him to me. There is clearly something there. From what I’ve read at LS, though, I bet Sinthome’s book is way over my head. I like what I’ve read of Stern, and it will be interesting to see what he says about the matter. My guess is that Deleuze’s “Hegel” (like Kierkegaard’s) is not particularly Hegelian, but instead stands in for some philosophical tendency Deleuze wants to use as a punching bag (i.e. as his Nietzsche et al stand in for those he wants to encourage).

    I think you hit all the high points, but I would like to mention that I just got Zahavi’s Subjectivity and Selfhood, which looks good (for me at least, given my sketchy understanding of phenomenology). There’s clearly something there too, which is sometimes hard to keep in mind when it seems that the only role phenomenologists play in the conversation is to make decidedly undermotivated trouble for McDowell’s “rationalism.”

  3. The McDowell collections are already out; the Seminary Co-op had them in early December, and I got my copies off Amazon for Christmas. I haven’t read the Hegel essay yet (I presume you mean the reading of “Reason” in the PhG?), but it does look good.

    I can confirm again that Thompson is very well-liked in Chicago, and he’s friends with McDowell. He’s apparently also barking mad, and used to show up to class in a bathrobe. He reportedly gave his interview at Notre Dame by talking to a shark handpuppet (they stopped him before he could finish the dialogue, and, I gather, didn’t offer him a job). Thompson Anecdotes have provided hours of fun this year.

    So far I’ve only read the introduction to “Life and Action” and the first few pages of “The Representation of Life”. I think we’re supposed to have read him before Ford’s seminar next quarter, so I should probably get on that…. I do rather like Hegel’s treatment of “life” in the Logic (and the realphilosophie application of it is one of the two parts of the Philosophy of Nature I’ve read without feeling embarrassed about it, the other being the Introduction).

    I’ll second (third?) the defense of Brandom. I think he does a pretty fine job of defending the aim of his project in his response to McDowell’s response to the first Locke Lecture; if he can lay things out in a way that makes sense, then he will have succeeded in pointing out some connections among our concepts that might otherwise be occluded. I don’t think his aim is “reductionistic”, in the sense a lot of things like Brandom’s project are reductionistic (Huw Price comes to mind), since there’s no “privileged vocabulary” beyond whatever one happens to be trying to put to work at any given moment. If a “reduction” can’t be made to work, well, then it doesn’t work. There’s no suggestion that, failing such a reduction, the vocabulary that one was attempting to reduce (=explain in terms which did not include those of the target vocabulary) is somehow “illegitimate” or anything like that. And what’s reduced away one day might very well be reduced to on the next (“the language of modality is a transposed language of norms”). Brandom just thinks that there’s interesting things to be seen from attempts at “reduction” of this sort — the social nature of meaning, his “transcendental argument” for the existence of objects, etc. I don’t think he’s trying to lay out the “logical structure of natural language” so much as he’s trying to see how far attempts at such, of various sorts, can go. Now, I’m skeptical of whether or not Brandom’s various attempts work (I think some of them clearly fail), but I think it’s an interesting attempt. His stuff on logic and modality in “Between Saying and Doing” is something I mean to look at again; there’re certainly interesting ideas floating around in there.

    The lectures probably do suffer from not having the responses/Q&A periods, though. I think Brandom starts to sound a lot more sympathetic once people hold his feet to the fire. And I haven’t read the Epilogue to the book, which I gather is devoted to Brandom’s defending his continued commitment to “analytic philosophy” in the sense in which McDowell & Rorty think analytic philosophy is dead. But I did come away from the Locke Lectures with a modestly positive opinion of Brandom.

    You are of course entirely right that his use of Wittgenstein is a travesty; he’s not much better with anyone else from the history of philosophy — or with McDowell, for that matter. He’s an astonishingly bad reader of philosophy. It’s really rather impressive.

    I also wish to read Kuusela’s book. Certainly the spirit sounds right.

    Sinthome’s book did sound interesting, for the “post-Sellarsian” reasons you gave. Though I’m not surprised to hear that it’s a hard read for outsiders; suspecting as much prevented me from purchasing it.

    I hope Stern’s collection is affordable. He’s a great read.

    From the brief look I had at Koorsgaard’s latest, there’s definitely interesting stuff in there. Certainly looked a lot better than the stuff of hers I read as an undergrad.

  4. Perhaps I should clarify my attitude towards Brandom — and note that the depth of my feeling against Between Saying and Doing is not matched by the depth of my reading of it…!

    First off, perhaps ‘reductionism’ is too strong a word for Brandom’s aspirations. Shawn, you are right to say that there is no Carnap-strength attempt to analyse vocabularies without remainder into an Ur-language of some sort. It’s not as if Brandom is trying to reprise the Aufbau. However, something of that spirit remains in what might still be called his ‘reconstructive’ aspirations. While these may fall short of a full reduction of one vocabulary in terms of another, I think the aim might be put as follows: we have a number of vocabularies, some more mysterious than others, where we elucidate the more mysterious ones by systematically drawing connections between the general form of those vocabularies and those more sturdy, well-understood, vocabularies.

    There is one way of understanding this project that is quite modest — there are lots of different ways of talking, so let’s develop some analytic tools to systematically relate some aspects of these modes of discourse so that they shine light on each other. Even put like this, I don’t think such a project is likely to be too helpful since I think the pretheoretical bafflements they are meant to clear away (e.g. how we can make sense of activities like saying that language refers, or that Ruth wants to fall down some stairs, or that we ought to X and not-Y) are not going to be cleared up with a theoretical account of the target discourse. That a theory of Brandom’s sort is required is an undermotivated assumption.

    However, I think Brandom’s project goes further than this. There is a sense in which Between Saying and Doing provides an architechtonic for Brandom’s semantic enterprise as a whole, into which the analysis of intentional vocabularly in Making It Explicit can be placed. The more lengthy analysis presented there is, I think, something of a clue to the structure of the analysis Brandom wants to undertake.

    In MIE, we find three levels: intentional talk, pragmatics talk and logical talk. Intentional discourse is reconstructed in terms of pragmatics, and the structure of pragmatics is analysed logically (e.g. in terms of material conditionals). Brandom makes it clear that his aim is to understand the intentional in terms of a prior and independent grasp of pragmatics. Inferentialism, as a robust explanatory project, builds talk of propositional content out of the pragmatic material of the concept of a normative attitude.

    This is the fatal move. I have no objection to Brandom drawing our attention to the inferential structures immanent in our practice of using language, and I think he does us a service in so doing. However, he fails to show that the order of explanation ought to only flow one way: understand content in terms of a prior grasp of inference, or understand inference in terms of a prior grasp of content (i.e. inference in terms of truth-preserving routes between propositions). It is this lopsided structure to the analysis that leads me to say that Brandom is reductionist, though, as I say, ‘reconstruction’ might be a better word in this context.

    (McDowell’s ‘Motivating Inferentialism’ gets at a few of these issues vis-a-vis Brandom.)

    Why the need to need to restrict the explanatory materials to one side? The answer is that Brandom is after an ambitious amount of explanatory power so as to conduct a reconstruction of intentionality in more primitive terms. But why would anyone think that was a viable, or indeed necessary, project? Ultimately, I suspect that he thinks there is something fishy about intentional talk and normative talk taken on their own, and that they must be put on the gold standard by tacking them to more anodyne talk about doing things, namely, implicitly treating things as reasons in our workaday activities. So, Daniel, at some level, I guess I disagree with you on this. While I accept that Brandom doesn’t think that using a certain mode of talk is illegitimate until it can be buttressed by analysis, there nevertheless seems to be a philosophical suspicion hanging over certain areas of language, such that, while we should not forswear using them, there’s nonetheless something deeply weird about them in the absence of a Brandom-style analysis.

    This is reflected in his acceptance of the Weberian problematic of Entzauberung in ch.1. I think that Weber provides a helpful diagnosis of contemporary attitudes towards the fabric of the world, but that should be the starting point of a critique of that attitude rather than a premise in an argument that tries to show that we can have all the supposedly spooky things (norms, possibilities, intention, etc.) which disenchantment seems to deny us. This, amongst so much else, is one of things that pushes me towards McDowell so much more than Brandom.

    I see the same sorts of analytical structures in BS&D and MIE, though my reading of the latter is cursory at best, and I’m open to the idea that something quite different is going on — though whatever it is, I can’t as yet see much use for it. I don’t expect to have convinced any of you as yet: I need a more rigorous account of my objections to certain types of analysis as a philosophical method.

  5. Other stuff:

    Shawn –

    I think Kuusela’s Wittgenstein is actually more radical in his methodological aspirations than McDowell’s Wittgenstein (or even thoroughgoing Wittgensteinians like Marie McGinn). It’s hard to do the reading justice in summary though — which I guess is the whole point…

    Dave –

    I do admire Brandom’s work and, to put it crudely, he is certainly one of the ‘good guys’. My somewhat irked tone is a result of disappointment that, as I see it, he is going further off the rails.

    Sinthome’s book is by no means impenetrable — it is just a little too hard going given the amount of time I would have to devote to it. Usually, I find him a model of clarity on what are often murky topics, especially for those without a prior background in what he discusses; though obviously it is difficult to transfer that wholesale from blog posts to a scholarly work.

    Daniel –

    Sadly, here in little old England, Amazon have the McDowell collections down as released in February. I’m considering inquiring about doing a review of them somewhere so as to get them free and early.

    The Thompson anecdotes are gladly received!

    The hardback of Bob’s book is a bit pricey. I’ll ask him whether there’s a paperback version planned when I have my next supervision meeting.

  6. Thanks guys, that’s very helpful. I still don’t want to read any of those big long Brandomian tomes though. Maybe when all the kinks get worked out, eh?

    BTW, Amazon U.S. has one of those three-in-one deals (you know, the kind where you don’t actually save any money for buying all three books) which encourages you to buy: 1) Life and Action; 2) Between Saying and Doing; and 3) … can you guess? Right! Timothy Williamson’s The Philosophy of Philosophy! (Huh?!)

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