Reviewing the Review: February 19 2006

I’m always up for a good philosophical smackdown, and when I saw that New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier was challenging atheistic philosopher Daniel Dennett in today’s New York Times Book Review I knew some good punches would get thrown.

Daniel Dennett, a grizzled middle-aged professor at Tufts University who’s lately been firing volleys at the intelligent design movement and standing up for the intensely skeptical philosophical tradition of David Hume and William James, has put together an intentionally controversial book about the balance between spirituality and science, Breaking the Spell. Wieseltier isn’t going to let religion get kicked around like this, and the critic gets some good bashes in. From the second paragraph:

Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.

That’s one well-crafted sentence. He continues in the third paragraph, mocking the Tufts philosopher’s arrogance:

In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero. He is in the business of emancipation, and he reveres himself for it.

Then again in the fourth:

Dennett flatters himself that he is Hume’s heir …

And at this point it’s starting to sound like a diatribe, and I want to pound a gavel and ask Wieseltier to start bringing out some evidence. In fact, the New Republic editor’s arguments are mostly ad hominem, all bluster and no refutation. Though I respect Dennett very much (I studied his superb book about the meaning of consciousness, Brainstorms while I was getting a degree in philosophy years ago, and it was one of the most memorable books of my college career), I am nowhere near as philosophically offended by religion as this ultra-logical thinker is, and in fact I might side with Wieseltier against Dennett on many of the major issues here, if only Wieseltier had done a more substantial job of refuting him. Instead, Wieseltier simply lets us know that he vehemently disagrees with Dennett, over and over.

And why is Dennett so certain that the origins of a thing are the most illuminating features of a thing, or that a thing is forever as primitive as its origins? Has Dennett never seen a flower grow from the dust? Or is the dust that he sees in a flower?

Nice poetry, Weiseltier, but I thought we were doing philosophy. You had two full pages and you didn’t punch a single hole in Dennett’s logic. You only managed to hurt his feelings a few times.

I’m glad to see the Book Review entertaining the important field of academic philosophy, anyway. It’s not like the New Yorker covers this stuff, or Oprah.

The rest of this weekend’s issue is lively and almost uniformly good. Laura Miller provides a passionate, convincing thumbs-up for The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright. It’s yet another novel about the civil war (“a subject already mummified by History Channel documentaries”, Miller says; not to mention Doctorow) but Miller loves it and I’m probably going to go out and get a copy.

Vendela Vida’s review leaves me unsure whether or not I’m interested in Alice Greenway’s White Ghost Girls about American teenage girls coming of age in Hong Kong. Maybe I’ll wait for the inevitable Sofia Coppola movie. Douglas Coupland‘s flattering appraisal of Max Barry’s office satire Company is an enjoyable Coupland moment, especially when the critic compares the book he is reviewing to his own work (his only justification is that the comparison is inescapable). I am not convinced, however, that this book can outshine the weekly apparition of Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute.

Ada Calhoun slaughters a new book of autobiographical essays by Norwegian-American postmodernist Siri Hustvedt, who may or may not be Paul Auster‘s Yoko Ono, and Paul Gray is downright nasty to Jay McInerney‘s The Good Life. Then there’s a blurb next to the Best Sellers list gushing over the fact that The Good Life is McInerney’s first novel to land on this list (it’s number 16). Ummm … that’s because his only good novel was a paperback original, and paperbacks aren’t allowed on the Best Sellers list. Is anybody paying attention over there? You guys are doing that fact-checking stuff now, right? Anyway — great issue otherwise.

10 Responses

  1. Dennett and HustvedtA while
    Dennett and Hustvedt

    A while (quite a while) back, I’ve read Dennett’s and Hofstadter’s “The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul”, a collection of essays on the subject of mind and self, identity and consciousness, and I found it to be very interesting. I hadn’t yet heard of “Breaking the Spell”, though, so thanks for drawing my attention to it. I might want to check it out eventually.

    As for Siri Hustvedt – are you talking about “A Plea for Eros”? Have you read it? I’ve liked what I’ve read from Hustvedt so far (“The Blindfold”, “What I loved”) and am curious about this essay collection, even though most comments on it that I’ve read weren’t very enthusiastic.

  2. double doseDiscussions and/or
    double dose

    Discussions and/or debates about spirituality vs. science are right up my alley, so this LitKicks piece was a great way to start my day. Not only did I get to read about the new book, Breaking the Spell, I also enjoyed a review of the review that was both plucky and insightful.

  3. Yes, the book is “A Plea for
    Yes, the book is “A Plea for Eros”.

    That’s encouraging to hear that you’ve liked Hustvedt’s work. I tried “The Blindfold” long ago, but it didn’t work for me. I guess I did wish for greater differentiation between her work and her husband’s (and I guess in a way this fact proves that Hustvedt is *not* Paul Auster’s Yoko Ono, because regardless of what you think of her music, Yoko definitely pushed Lennon in new directions and added unique elements to his work, whereas Hustvedt definitely writes like her husband’s prize student).

    Anemone, feel free to send us a full review of this book once you’re finished with it, if you feel inspired to do so! Sounds like she could use an uplifting review.

  4. Why, I suppose I am, old
    Why, I suppose I am, old sport!

    btw, I’m reading Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, which I first heard about in one of your previous NYTBRs. While you said that the NYTBR didn’t pursuade you to read it, I’m finding that I like it very much!

  5. Well, I think the similarity
    Well, I think the similarity between Hustvedt’s and Auster’s style of writing may have even been part of why I liked her books – I’ve always liked Auster’s work a lot (I kept thinking that the man wrote the books I would have liked to have written), and I guess hearing him in a female version just added to that appeal and made his / her / their voice sound even more attracting and familiar to me.

    I haven’t read “A Plea for Eros” yet – it’s not even (yet) translated to German, but should I dare to read it in English anytime in the near future, I’ll happily review it for you, hoping it’ll be an uplifting review indeed!

  6. Bill, I’d like to hear more
    Bill, I’d like to hear more about the Barnes book once you finish it.

    One thing that persuaded me not to pick this up, despite my great affection for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, was a bizarre interview I read with Barnes (also in the Times) in which he said that he didn’t actually care for Doyle as a writer. I am puzzled why he wrote this book in that case. Maybe you can provide the answer.

  7. Interesting you should
    Interesting you should mention that…

    Yes, within this novel, I can see evidence of Julian Barnes’ take on Doyle as a writer. Without going into much detail, I think that Barnes recognizes much of Sherlock Holmes’ supposed scientific method as antiquated by today’s standards. Doyle’s famous detective sometimes resorted to popularly held notions of social class and physical appearance to arrive at conclusions which, in real life, would have been dubious.

    Barnes seems to like Doyle as a person, if not as a writer.

    More on this later.

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