Reviewing the Review: March 5 2006

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).

3 Responses

  1. just a quickiethought, here,
    just a quickie

    thought, here, i skimmed some of the
    blogs, and i read the above, and i had a sort of insight,

    and it is this: how is it possible
    to ever imagine anything pure, be
    it arguments for God, or a Science
    or a Philosophy, there of, when it
    is dragged into the arena of “culture”
    or the various mouth pieces
    of opinion churners?

    How odd that we pretend that there is some intelligent discourse, as soon as a work of philosophical thought hits the book stores, or
    university libraries, or beer joint.

    odd indeed, that we are seeing the same sort of nonevent, shell game
    in the realm of “politics” daily
    dragged through its instant replay.

    as if God himself is a Scientist,
    or a critic of his own earthly
    mouth pieces, or heaven forfend
    that GOD of all Gods would be a philosopher, or egads a POET!
    or maybe as in that song; a bum
    on the bus just like one of us.

    i know, i know, it’s much more complex then my simple thought.
    i will now attempt to wrap myself
    around this very serious issue.

  2. you don’t need a
    you don’t need a weatherman

    It’s like having ringside seats at a boxing match. Whoo-Ha! I like this debate. I guess Wieseltier never heard this story I heard as a child; something about the sun and the wind made a bet on who could make a man take off his coat. The wind went first. He howled and blew, first from the Northeast, then the Southwest, then in whirling spirals all around the guy, kicking up sand and a cow, but the man just lowered his head and pulled his coat tighter around him. Then it was the sun’s turn. The sun beamed calmly and didn’t do much of anything else. Soon, the man smiled and removed his coat.

    You know, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick addressed the question of science vs. relgion his his novel Valis. I wonder if the Times will ever discuss sci-. . .

    WoW! Look at that! A mention of Philip K. Dick and science fiction by Dave Itzkoff in the Times Book Review! Cool . . . good article, too. I like Itzkoff’s top 10 list. I agree with what he says about Bradbury’s R is for Rocket.
    Maybe I should mail a copy of Time Adjusters to this astute gentleman.

  3. What is realityProbably not
    What is reality

    Probably not good, otherwise people would do it. Is there anything we do in our daily lives or throughout the entirety of our lives that can’t be explained by Freud or Pavlov, or Sartre’s concept of trying to fascinate “the other.” Is there any action or thought of ours that isn’t genetic or trained. Personally, I mean. Is there anything we do differently or better than other animals. They are profoundly superior in mating, child rearing, and functional purpose. We don’t even know what our functional purpose is, and don’t even stop to think about it.
    We chug along in a world we never made, and do little if anything to change it. Maybe we resent our parents for not being successful enough, resent ourselves for not being successful enough; and have no idea what success is. It’s relative to somebody else, is all. And worst of all, there’s a time limit to it; we’re always running out of time and have no concept of what to do with our little limited time. It’s insulting to question people about what they do, where they hope to get, where they are. It’s all definitive by lack. We lack the will to stop war, to have honest governance, realistic economics, thoughtful religion. It’s all sham.
    We’d rather be entertained, just get by, get stoned and forget about it; doped with religion and sex and tv. We live in our own little fictions. And I’m the worst of all; ashamed to be such a failure at what we jokingly call life.

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