No Exit

So I'm in a bookstore yesterday, trying to buy a novel that has nothing whatever to do with any of the subjects I usually think, write, and teach about. I pick up Lorrie Moore's very highly praised new novel A Gate at the Stairs, flip randomly to the middle, and what should I read?  A character is talking about how Peter Singer (or is it "Pete" or is it "IB Singer"--there's some fumbling about the name) thinks we can kill kids with disabilities but shouldn't eat meat.  Well OK, it's a tricky combination of positions, but not as crazy as it sounds....Hold on!  So much for escaping in a novel.

I left the store empty handed and read some essays in Twilight and Philosophy last night.  There's some good stuff in there, and I'm not talking about my essay ("Dying to Eat: The Vegetarian Ethics of Twilight"). It turns out I'm not the only one who thinks there are some serious problems with the messages the Twilight books are delivering to our daughters.  Both Bonnie Mann and Rebecca Housel are worried too. Next I'm going to read the essays on mind-reading (Eric Silverman), immortality (Brendan Shea) and free will (Sara Worley).  Despite all the whining of people who look down on the "philosophy and pop culture" series (plural), they're worth reading. My only complaint:  there are just too many of them crowding the shelves at mainstream bookstores these days.   That means less space for other kinds of readable philosophy.


Faust said...

I like "unreadable" philosophy, because that's where most of the action is.

But pop philosophy is like good technical writing, like popular science writing: translating technical language games for a broad audience.

If you want a real screed against Singer in a fictional book, try some Dean Koontz. That guy has it out for Singer big time. Not that I've read much Koontz but I've sworn never to read another book by him again I found his stuff to be so dishonest.

Jean Kazez said...

Deen Koontz...hmm. I confess I barely know the name. Maybe that's a good thing.

"But pop philosophy is like good technical writing, like popular science writing: translating technical language games for a broad audience."

Ah, but "readable philosophy" is not all just translating stuff for a broad audience. Actually, popular science writing isn't all like that either. I just read the book "Catching Fire" by Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham. It couldn't be more readable, but it contains a new theory about the role of cooking in human evolution. No mere translator, he. I see my writing in the same way. By the way, the master of that genre--original thinking plus readability--is Peter Singer.

Wayne said...

I'm reading a book called Justice by Sandel, its very readable. I haven't gotten very far into it, so I don't know if he is saying anything new or controversial, but I've liked some of his thought experiments so far. (should Post traumatic stress syndrome count for the purple heart?)

In defense of popular culture and philosophy, I always point to Aristotle, and Shakespere. Aristotle critiqued the popular culture of his time, tragedies, and people are to this day still critiquing the bard, which was very much popular culture. So now we've just moved to Twilight and The Golden Compass (coming soon to a retailer near you, with an essay from myself).
Not to say that Twilight is greek tragedy or Romeo and Juliet, but Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings might be.

On a side note, I was thinking about other popular culture topics that would make really good volumes for the series.... I came up with one that is sort of from left field, but the more I think about it the more I think there is a very real possibility for a volume here. Jean would you be interested in co-editing a volume possibly with me? I'll send you the idea via e-mail.

Faust said...

Koontz is like Stephen King, very mainstream guy, very prolific, lots of hack writing. No need to read him, pretty much a waste of your time. But one of his books is full on anti-Singer propaganda.

Fair points about readability. Even within any given official philosophy cannon some books are going to be more readable than others. Even within a given writer. Beyond Good and Evil is easier to understand than Zarathustra etc.

Jean Kazez said...

I was recently surprised to hear a student say she liked reading X because X was "hard." It's satisfying working through something very intricate and difficult. You can forgive some people for being hard (old stuff is written in a different style, some topics are just very hard), but sometimes it's just unforgivable. Some people write in a way that's meant to exclude people, or at least isn't designed to include. That's what I find annoying. There's something comparable to Occam's Razor here--don't multiply hardness beyond what's needed to talk about the subject. Something like that!

Faust said...

For sure. There is a difference between the the difficulty of Leibniz's Monadology and Derrida's...whatever. Heck even Foucault called Derrida a "terrorist of obscurity." It all depends on what your purposes are. If you are trying to show off for a tiny tiny tiny crowd you do one thing, if you are trying to convey ideas to the public you do something else.

amos said...

I like to read someone who is smarter than I am or wiser than I am. Why read someone who tells me what I already know? So, if I read stuff by people who are smarter or wiser than I am, I generally read stuff which is hard for me, maybe not for you smart people. I can tell from the first paragraph if a book is too simplistic. I don't read books which simplify reality: I read books which allow me to see complexities where I didn't see them previously.

Dominic said...


relating to your comment about misrepresentations of Singer.

At a conference I went to last year in New York, Peter Singer was attacked after his presentation for caring more about non-human animals than about humans with disabilities, and for supporting better treatment of animals than of individuals with severe cognitive disability. His reply was he did not advocate, and had never advocated such a difference, and seemed puzzled that his interlocutors had misunderstood his position.

But this is a fairly pervasive view about Singer. In part it relates to a combination of misquoting and taking out of context. It also potentially relates to third hand attributions to Singer that are distorted and sometimes completely wrong.

But there is a slightly more charitable interpretation of the misunderstanding that might arise in people who have actually read some of his work.

One possible explanation for the misunderstanding is a sort of parallax error in interpretation of Singer’s views. He argues for animals to be treated better than they currently are (and than many people think they should be), while also arguing that our moral obligations to individuals with severe cognitive disability are less than currently held.

Imagine a seesaw representing our current treatment of individuals, with non-human animals at one end and humans with severe impairments at the other. [This is not a very good analogy, but I think it captures one way that people think about Singer's views].

Singer appears to be raising up the non-human end, and lowering the human disabled end. This might give the impression that he is advocating preferential treatment of animals, yet in fact there is such a wide gulf between our treatment of humans and non-humans, that his arguments merely represent some narrowing of that gap.


PS - what is your favourite 'readable' philosophy?

Jean Kazez said...

Dom--Yes, he's raising the status of one and lowering that of the other. I think people need to think about what it would be like to deal with the birth of a severely impaired newborn before they attack Singer. It's partly for failure to look at those predicaments "close up" that people think he's somehow just "anti-disabled." He isn't "anti-disabled"...which isn't to say there aren't qualms a reasonable person could have about his views.

Let's see...readable philosophy. Well, speaking of disabilities, I think Jonathan Glover's "Choosing Children" is a good example of readable philosophy. What I mean by "readable philosophy" is stuff that's truly readable, but not less interesting philosophically, for that. Unfortunately, lots of stuff that needs to be read is gruesomely unreadable. I just feel abused by some writers.

amos said...

There is stuff that is hard to read because it is badly written and full of jargon, and there is stuff that is hard to read because the thought behind it is complex or hard to express with our usual conceptual apparatus. Proust's Search of Lost Time is not easy to read, but it's worth the effort, for example: if he had written it with a normal chronological sequence, which would make it easier to read, the whole idea behind the book would be lost. There are some things which cannot be expressly simply.

Faust said...

Sci Fi recommendation:

In the Country of the Blind by Michael Flynn.