Way back

Somebody asked me yesterday about the Library section of the first B&W, so I dug it up on the Wayback Machine and sent him the link. I was quite fond of that section, so I thought I would post a few items from Favourites.

Frederick Crews ed., Unauthorized Freud

Unauthorized Freud is a collection of excerpts from books and articles by eighteen writers, all of whom as the title hints are Freud-skeptics.  The collection is edited and annotated by Frederick Crews, whose own article ‘The Unknown Freud’ in The New York Review of Books in 1993 generated a torrent of controversy.  The authors include Frank Cioffi, Malcolm Macmillan, Frank Sulloway, Stanley Fish and Ernest Gellner.  Crews’ Preface and Introduction give a useful guide to the chronology  and character of recent revisionist scholarship on Freud, starting with Paul Roazen, Henri Ellenberger and Frank Cioffi in 1969 and 1970, and continuing with book after book by a variety of authors, especially during the 1990s.  The aim, Crews points out, is merely to scrutinize Freud’s system of psychological presuppositions as one would that of any other science–a proceeding Freudian loyalists like to call “Freud-bashing”.  Even some semi-critics, Crews says, admit certain of Freud’s mistakes but still avoid criticising the self-validating character of his method, what Crews calls “the black hole of circularity”.  Freudians on the defensive, Crews points out (p. xxvii), say that critics “are ignorant of postmodern insights into the relativistic nature of science.”  Such defenders treat us to a simplification of Thomas Kuhn on the incommensurability of competing paradigms and, ignoring Kuhn’s disclaimers, interpret this to mean that “evidence” is whatever a given paradigm-partisan says it is.  Others give up the science ground altogether and say that psychoanalysis is not a science but a hermeneutic activity, which is all very well except that real world truth-claims are still made on the basis of Freudian “hermeneutics,” notions of repressed memory prominent among them.  All of these arguments and counter-arguments make the subject a “paradigmatic” study in Fashionable Nonsense.

Frederick Crews ed., Unauthorized Freud, Viking:  1998.

Susan Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays

There’s nothing like a good witty oxymoron in the title to set the tone, and this one is well chosen. It makes the point, in a subtle, implicit way, that moderation doesn’t necessarily have to mean fence-sitting and bland and indifferent. Haack’s moderation consists in not pushing concepts or words to extremes of meaning, and she is far from indifferent. She casts a cold eye, for instance, on Richard Rorty’s way of stretching Pragmatism’s view of truth until it squeals, and provides some good laughs in the process. The second essay for example presents Rorty in conversation with Charles Peirce, juxtaposing quotations from each as if they were chatting; the effect is fairly hilarious.  But Haack is not only witty, she is also admirably clear and clarifying, for instance on another concept stretched until it squeals: what she dubs the ‘passes for’ fallacy. This is a popular move in which critics of science observe that scientists sometimes (or often) allow their interpretations of the evidence to be shaped by pre-existing biases, and conclude from that not that they should do better, but that all interpretations of all evidence are so shaped and thus all knowledge is mere mud-wrestling. Haack give short shrift to this sort of fuzzy thinking; her Manifesto is both an indispensable tool and an excellent read.

Susan Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays, University of Chicago Press: 1998.

Susan Miller Okin et al., Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? consists of an essay by Susan Moller Olkin that first appeared in the Boston Review, along with fifteen replies, many of which also appeared in the Boston Review.  In the title essay, Okin discusses ‘a deep and growing tension between feminism and multiculturalist concerns to protect cultural diversity’ and argues that ‘we,’ especially those of us who think of ourselves as progressives, have assumed that feminism and multiculturalism are two good things and so must be compatible.  ‘I shall argue instead that there is considerable likelihood of tension between them–more precisely, between feminism and a multiculturalist commitment to group rights for minority cultures.’  She points out that most cultures are organized around the control of women by men, and that they ‘substantially limit the capacities of women and girls of that culture to live with human dignity equal to that of men and boys, and to live as freely chosen lives as they can.’  She cites a paper by Sebastian Poulter in which ‘Almost all of the legal cases discussed by Poulter stemmed from women’s or girls’ claims that their individual rights were being truncated or violated by the practices of their own cultural groups.’

The replies, some of which agree with Okin and offer supporting arguments and evidence, and others of which agree in part or disagree, are by among others Katha Pollitt, Martha Nussbaum, Homi Bhabha, and Cass Sunstein.  Pollitt points out that ‘not just any immigrant’ can appeal to his culture to explain why he murdered his wife or married his twelve-year-old daughter.  ‘A Russian, an Italian, could not justify beating his wife to death by referring to the customs of dear old Moscow or Calabria…That is partly because of multiculturalism’s connections to Third Worldism, and the appeals Third Worldism makes to white liberal guilt…The cultural rights argument works best for cultures that most Americans know comparatively little about: cultures that in our ignorance we can imagine as stable, timeless, ancient, lacking in internal conflict, premodern.’  But there are few such societies left.  Furthermore, Pollitt adds, the excuse works with gender issues in a way that it wouldn’t with others, ‘due to the fact that gender and family are retrograde areas of most majority cultures, too: these are accommodations majority cultures have often been willing to make. How far would an Algerian immigrant get, I wonder, if he refused to pay the interest on his Visa bill on the grounds that Islam forbids interest on borrowed money?’

The subject is important, fascinating, and entirely unresolved and pressing.  This book presents an excellent discussion and excellent arguments.

Susan Miller Okin et al., Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, Princeton University Press: 1999.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

The Demon-Haunted World was Carl Sagan’s last book (apart from the posthumously published book of essays Billions and Billions).   It is an impassioned defense of science, aimed at the general reader, in which the opposition mostly consists not of Social Constructivism or the Strong Programme or Postmodernism (although Thomas Kuhn does get a mention) but fans of UFOs, alien abductions and John Mack their prophet, New Age, therapy and recovered memory, Satanic ritual abuse, faith healing, and similar popular and populist versions of pseudo-science.  Sagan wrote a column for the US Sunday supplement Parade, and much of Demon-Haunted World is an expanded version of those columns, or is an outgrowth of responses to them.  Sagan was a dedicated and tireless public educator, a mission that on the one hand made him rich and famous but on the other hand long prevented his election to the National Academy of Sciences.

But he persisted.  He patiently and clearly explained how science works and how much less likely to claim certainty it is than pseudo-science.  He mused on how struck he always was, when people asked him (as they did incessantly) whether he “believed” in UFOs, by the suggestion that this is a matter of belief not of evidence.  He pointed out that religious and New Age people like to say that scientists think “what they find is all there is,” and how far this is from being the case.  He explained that when we confuse wishes with facts, that is pseudo-science.  He remarked that one of the great commandments of science is “Mistrust arguments from authority,” and added that as scientists are primates and so given to dominance hierarchies, they don’t always obey their own rule.  In short he did his best to make it clear that evidence, testing, doubting, and questioning tend to get at the truth about the world better than credulity and blind leaps.  As Richard Dawkins said in The Skeptical Inquirer after Sagan’s death, ‘It is hard to think of anyone whom our planet can so ill afford to lose.’

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, Random House: 1995.

Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism

Ryan’s study of Dewey is an intellectual biography, which keeps the parochial personal details to a minimum and concentrates on the ideas.  Ryan carefully and delicately examines Pragmatism, analysing both strengths and weakenesses, and discussing the criticisms of thinkers hostile to Pragmatism.  Ryan is particularly interesting on Bertrand Russell, since he has written a book about him as well, and also because he shares Russell’s experience of teaching at American universities and thus seeing American life and ideas at close range but as an outsider. (There are several dry asides about the shock of first encountering strange American institutions, such as multiple-choice tests.)  Dewey’s ideas on truth were anathema to Russell, Ryan says, because ‘in a cold and Godless world the only objective value mankind had left was the belief that what is true is true because of the way the world is, whether we believe it or not, and whether we are helped by it or not’.  There were also interesting differences (as well as similarities) in their ideas on education: Dewey wanted to integrate the child into society whereas Russell wanted to protect the child from society.

Dewey had a long life and was involved in many projects and currents of thought.  He was a close friend of Jane Addams’, he helped to found the Laboratory School in Chicago, he wrote extensively for the New Republic, he had a very public quarrel with Randolph Bourne over his support for US entry into WWI and then backed the Outlawry of War movement, he headed a committee that investigated the Moscow Trials, and much more.  This is a dense, rich book, full of implications and suggestions for thought.

Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, Norton: 1995.


  1. Sastra says

    Oooh, YUM!

    Thanks for this. I’ve been reading you for many years and remember many essays in this library… but have not read all, and would like to re-read most. Funny how a lot of it is still topical. Maybe more so…

  2. says

    :- ) Thanks!

    I see I quoted Katha Pollitt a good deal in the one on Is Multiculturalism…. Katha will be at Women in Secularism 2. I’m soooo happy about that.

  3. ismenia says

    I did a dissertation on legal philosophy and multiculturalism. I used Okin’s essay (I didn’t have the whole book sadly). Also included Sebastian Poulter and Thomas Kuhn and others mentioned above. I was quite surprised to find the origin of the concept of incommensurable paradigms, which was intended to explain why brilliant scientists in the past could be so badly wrong about some things (because their frame of reference was different so what is obvious to us was not to them).

  4. phil zombi says

    Thank you for posting this. My library is constantly expanding and suggestions are always welcome.

    As for WiS2 I can hardly wait. One of my few regrets concerning WiS1 is that I did not approach you personally so that I could say how much I love your writing.

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