Two weeks ago the New York Times Book Review stirred up a bit of a tempest by publishing Leon Wieseltier’s stinging, passionate rebuke to a new book of philosophy by Daniel Dennett, “Breaking The Spell”, itself a stinging and passionate critique of modern neo-religious trends in popular science, such as the anti-Darwinian theories of Intelligent Design.
Dennett has been one of the most prominent and respected academic philosophers of our age for over twenty years, and the dirisive, bitter tone of Wieseltier’s article about Dennett seemed over-the-top to me. It’s also been discussed by several other philosophy bloggers.
As I wrote two weeks ago, I am sympathetic to both sides of this argument. I studied Daniel Dennett’s work extensively in college and am very familiar with his slightly gonzo approach to epistemology and metaphysics. I generally think he’s great. On the other hand, I don’t find Breaking The Spell as exciting or groundbreaking as his work on the nature of consciousness and human thought, and I also agree with Wieseltier that Dennett goes too far in laughing off religion as the folk mythology of an only half-evolved intelligent species. However, I don’t think Wieseltier represents the opposing side of this debate very well with his near-hysterical tone of disgust at Dennett, and I wonder why a mature critic would consider this the best approach to take in discussing this book.
Daniel Dennett has now responded with an extensive letter to the editor that appears in this week’s issue of the New York Times Book Review, and the Book Review has also seen fit to let Wieseltier get the last word in with one of their usual ‘Leon Wieselter replies:‘ numbers. It’s time to declare a winner, and that winner is Daniel Dennett. Wieseltier continues to whine, pout and tap-dance (and do anything but engage in an actual philosophical argument) while Dennett calmly submits his case to us for judgement. In today’s response to Dennett’s letter, Wieseltier complains that at one point in the book Dennett approvingly quotes an author who is not actually an atheist, as if Dennett is responsible for verifying that every thinker he quotes shares all his beliefs. Ridiculous. Is that all Wieseltier’s got? The guy writes well, but he’s in over his head.
It’s a pleasure to read about philosophy on a Sunday morning, and today’s issue also offers a substantial review by William Saletan of psychologist Judith Rich Harris’s No Two Alike, a discussion of the latest surprising findings regarding the classic question: which shapes our personalities more, our environment or our genes?
There’s a very clever piece about science-fiction by Dave Itzkoff, who defends the genre of sci-fi against accusation of extreme nerdiness. His capsule summaries of several stories by a writer named David Marusek make me want to run out and read them all despite the fact that I still don’t like sci-fi (although not for any of the reasons Itzkoff suggests; I just have trouble with all the character names that start with ‘Z’). There’s other good stuff in this issue: an interesting endpaper about Pearl Buck’s conflicts with the past and present governments of China, an introduction to a new biography of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins and a reconsideration of the career of American populist and wind heir William Jennings Bryan (further evidence that Darwin is the hot topic of the day, even more than gay cowboys).
It’s a good issue but far from perfect. Several articles are duller than they have any right to be. Jim Windolf’s review of Simon Reynolds’ history of postpunk Rip It Up And Start Again is extremely weak and predictable (if literary critics would spend half the time analyzing hiphop lyrics as they spent analyzing hip punk bands from the 80’s and 90’s, they’d discover some real poetry). As for the cover story on Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster, Elizabeth Royte’s article turns out to be no big oyster. But it’s a decent Book Review overall, for almost the fourth week in a row (I wonder what next week will bring).