The philosopher as a toad

I have been reading all summer – right across the field, whatever has come into my hands. My seminar last semester on Foucault’s  “The Order of Things” stimulated my interest in French literature and because of Foucault’s well-known hostility to Sartre I decided to have another look at that philosopher. So I took up Sartre’s autobiographical work “Les Mots” which had been on my bookshelf for quite a while.

Certainly an intriguing and disturbing book. Intriguing as a description how Sartre leaned to read and began to write. But disturbing also because Sartre speaks about himself in the starkest terms.  We read, for instance: “My long hair got on my grandfather’s nerve. ‘He’s a boy,’ he would say. ‘You’re going to make a girl of him. I don’t want my grandson to be a sissy!’ One day – I was seven years old – my grandfather could no longer stand it. He took me by the hand, saying that we were gong for a walk. But no sooner had we got around the corner than he rushed me into a barber shop, saying: ‘We’re going to give your mother a surprise.’ I returned home shorn and glorious. There were shrieks, but no hugging and kissing, and my mother locked herself in her room to cry. Her little girl had been exchanged for a little boy. But that wasn’t the worst of it. As long as my ringlets fluttered about my ears, they made it possible to deny my obvious ugliness. Yet my right eye was already entering the twilight. She had to admit the truth to herself. My grandfather himself seemed nonplussed. He had been entrusted with her little wonder and had brought back a toad.”

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Democracy Is in the Streets

I have been re-reading James Miller's 1987 "Democracy is in the Streets" since he was in Oakland a month ago. The book provides a richly detailed account of the short life of the "Students for a Democratic Society" (SDS) from their beginnings at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1962 through their being a major driving force behind the protests against the Vietnam war to their collapse in 1969.

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And how about democracy?

"Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we'd be asking? … We have spent years researching new forms of authoritarianism emerging around the globe. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession. But now we turn to our own country."

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die

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Politics in an age of advanced technology

Technology has transformed and deformed our long-evolved political order and it is likely to do more of that. A technologically enabled economic and financial system has certainly diminished the regulatory power of the state. Goods, services, and people can now move easily across continents, not always under the control of governments. Pictures, words, ideas, and information are massively channeled within and between political systems, often defying the power of states but also often abetting it. At the same time, the state’s tools of surveillance and repression have become definitely more effective. Its military strength has vastly increased and can be projected over wider distances. We notice, thus, a diminution of state power in some respects, but also an increase in others.

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Reading Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the leading philosophical minds of the twentieth century and his thought remains of live interest. Twenty years ago, David Stern and I published the Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein which was intended to help readers of Wittgenstein along. We have now brought out a second edition of this work with some great new contributions and a completely updated bibliography.

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A Bad Bargain

Joshua Green, Devil's Bargain. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Nationalist Uprising, Penguin Books 2017, republished with a new preface 2018.

Joshua Green's book has been somewhat overshadowed by the publication of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury but it adds significantly to Wolff's account and corrects it at some important points. It tells in fascinating detail the story of bad bargain the American people accepted when they elected Trump.

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Who is responsible for our decline? – The Frankfurt School, of course.

Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss. The Lives of the Frankfurt School, Verso, London 2017

Poor Frankfurt School. Turn to the internet these days and you realize that the handful of German professors who go under that name are being held responsible for almost everything bad that has happened to society since … when? !990? 1970? 1945? Or even 1920? All these dates are being tossed around on those feverish websites. Neo-Marxism, cultural Marxism, feminism, multiculturalism, sexual excess, postmodernism, political correctness, and all in all the entire “Western decline” are due to their nefarious doings.

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Forget Fire and Fury; It’s Confusion and Turmoil in Trump’s White House

Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury. Inside the Trump White House, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2018

On August 8 of last year, Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” His words were meant to cow the North Koreans into abandoning their nuclear and missile arsenal but until now, at least, they appear to have been only idle threats. Michael Wolff has now adopted the phrase as the title of his book on the first nine months of the Trump presidency – surely, a cleverly ironic choice. For since his election Trump has proved to be more a source of combative words than of real achievements.

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Does philosophy have a future?

Does philosophy have a future? That is the question Raymond Geuss asks in his latest book. And the answer he gives is unsettling. Philosophy, as we have known it, may, in fact, have already come to an end behind our backs – sometime in the second half of the twentieth century - without any of us realizing this.

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