From the category archives:

Intellects vast and warm and sympathetic

On Tuesday, I discovered that the Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy has 23 chapters (the introduction included), of which 20 have been written by political philosophers based in the USA, 2 by political philosophers then based in the UK who have in the meantime moved to the USA, and 1 chapter by a duo of political philosophers based in Oxford. And while this is a pretty striking case, in many if not most handbooks authors from the USA and the UK are numerically dominating.

I’m not going to argue why this is undesirable. If you think this is not a problem, then you don’t have to read on. I have very little time right now, so I’m going to focus on solutions, rather than trying to convince those who haven’t been part of this conversation before on why this is a problem.

But for those of us who think this is a problem, the question then is what to do. [click to continue…]

Danielle Allen – a personal endorsement

by Henry on April 19, 2021

Danielle Allen phot

I imagine that many Crooked Timber readers are familiar with Danielle Allen – her book, Our Declaration, was the subject of a Crooked Timber seminar a few years ago. However, some people may not know that she is in the early stages of running for governor of Massachusetts. She is an extraordinary person, and would do extraordinary things if she were elected. I’m writing this both to endorse her (in a purely personal capacity – this is not a general CT endorsement, although I know that some other posters also know her and think she’s wonderful) and to suggest that if you agree and are in a position to, you should donate to her campaign.

The reason that I support her isn’t that she’s one of the finest academic political theorists of our age (she is; but that is beside the point). It’s that she is uniquely capable of bridging between a deeper understanding and the ordinary business of politics. I can’t think of anyone who even comes near to her ability to weave the two together to good purpose. She’s also someone who identifies problems and gets things done. And she has the kind of charisma that stems from deep moral seriousness combined with kindness and a real delight in other people.

The question is getting her to the place where voters can see who she is. This is a tough race – for starters, Democratic politics in Massachusetts is dominated by a well-oiled party machine. But it is far from impossible for her. A lot depends, as everywhere else in American politics, on money. Endorsements and political support depend on whether she can demonstrate that she has enough financial support from enough people. It helps that Massachusetts has donation limits that are lower than in many other states, making it harder for big donors to swamp the process. It also helps that her fundraising got off to a strong start, but a strong start isn’t enough on its own.

That’s why I’m asking that you donate, if you are a US citizen or a permanent resident, and are in a position to support her. If you want to find out about her campaign, you can get more information here. And if you want to find out more about how she helped shape the response to coronavirus, more details are here. There aren’t many people who have what it takes to potentially transform politics, if they get the chance. I believe she’s one of them.

Hollow Nuts

by John Holbo on March 18, 2021

Now that I’m back, I should stick around. My discovery that Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra started as ‘a Seuss book’ is pretty neat, I admit. But, it turns out, the surprises run in the other direction as well. A lot of famous comics started out as attempts to adapt Nietzsche’s great work into English – to popularize German metaphysics. These original Charles Schulz ‘woodcut comics’, for example. (Very rare. I’m working on ‘discovering’ a few more.) You can see a lot of Schulz’ later work already here, in seed form. (There was no money in it, and he said he got sick of carving the pearwood blocks to make the prints.)

The weirdness of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

by Henry on September 11, 2020

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a few years, and the impending publication of Susanna Clarke’s new book, Piranesi, has finally prompted me to get off my arse and do it. The short version  – Clarke’s first book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is deeply beloved, as it damn well ought to be. But it’s often misclassified. Because it is so funny and charming, people tend to read it as whimsical, but beneath the whimsy lies the weird. It’s usefully read (as Clarke herself suggested in her contribution to the seminar we ran with her), as a book about the weirdness of the English landscape, and in a backhanded way about Piranesi too.
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Danielle Allen wins the Kluge prize

by Henry on June 22, 2020

The New York Times story is here. We ran a Crooked Timber seminar on her book on the American Declaration of Independence. I am delighted to see this prize be awarded not for past achievements, but for someone who is still caught up in doing, thinking and changing the world.

Wishing Is Free

by Belle Waring on May 8, 2019

As has been established. So, I am curious about you and your mode of daydreaming. There is a type which, according to Wikipedia, eats up 47% of your time but consists only of rehearsal for future tasks, mild mind wandering away from the book you’re reading, turning over creative puzzles while doing repetitive tasks, staving off boredom but with short non-recurring fantasies, or generally spacing out. In one of the studies referenced, workers like truckers who face extensive expanses of boredom used daydreaming to mitigate this, with only 5% of the fantasies having sexual content and few being violent. There are some very credulous researchers out there, was my main takeaway from that study.

No, but do you create and maintain elaborate fictional worlds which you keep for months or years at a time? I feel like this is a very normal thing to do but it’s unclear to me how common it is. Recently people have decided that this form of extensive world-building is either evidence of or in itself a form of mental illness, dubbed maladaptive daydreaming. It’s alleged to be linked to depression, OCD and childhood trauma. Moving swiftly on, whether the creation of intricate internal universes is maladaptive or not seems surely to vary according to how dependent the person is on daydreaming, whether it’s interfering with their life somehow, if they are being made unhappy by it, etc. And I’m not sure why it would ever be making you unhappy since you can just change whatever it is that’s troubling you. I mean, people can’t torture you in your fantasy world–unless you happen to want to be tortured, in which case, wish away!
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Gene Wolfe has died

by Henry on April 15, 2019

One of the great authors of our time

<blockquote>The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well, stumps and limbs that time had turned to stone, so that I wondered as I descended, if it might not be that Urth is not, as we assume, older than her daughters the trees, and imagined them growing in the emptiness before the face of the sun, tree clinging to tree with tangled roots and interlacing twigs until at last their accumulation became our Urth, and they only the nap of her garment.

Deeper than these lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity. (And it may be that those of other races lay there as well, for several of the stories in the brown book I carried seemed to imply that colonies once existed here of those beings whom we call the cacogens, though they are in fact of myriad races, each as distinct as our own.) I saw metals there that were green and blue in the same sense that copper is said to be red or silver white, colored metals so curiously wrought that I could not be certain whether their shapes had been intended as works of art or as parts for strange machines, and it may be indeed that among some of those unfathomable peoples there is no distinction.

At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached the base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river. Yet as I walked, I saw it as an insect may be said to see the face in a portrait over whose surface it creeps. The tiles were of many shapes, though they fit together so closely, and at first I thought them representations of birds, lizards, fish and suchlike creatures, all interlocked in the grip of life. Now I feel that this was not so, that they were instead the shapes of a geometry I failed to comprehend, diagrams so complex that the living forms seemed to appear in them as the forms of actual animals appear from the intricate geometries of complex molecules.</blockquote>

Air Is Real

by John Holbo on October 20, 2018

This image (I snagged it from an FB group) is evidently from this book [Amazon]. Science For Work And Play (1954).

I think someone should write Philosophy For Work and Play. “Error is real.” We could keep the picture the same.

One-Star Reviews of Chartres Cathedral

by John Holbo on August 25, 2018

Of course you can write online Google reviews of Chartres Cathedral, so sometimes it gets one star.

“wrong location information, wrong in a game to find the place because of it”

(Reminds me of a story.)

“Nothing to do with that of Quasimodo’s film”

(Oh, THAT Notre Dame!)

Moving on to two-star territory:

“The mosaics are impressive, although too bluish for my taste, for the rest despite its size I was disappointed.”

“well, look like so many others”

(If you’ve seen one Cathedral at Chartres, you’ve seen them all.)

Three-Stars

“It’s A huge Building …”

“… Found this Cathedral while walking around …”

(Wouldn’t it be amazing to have been the first person to discover the Cathedral at Chartres?)

“Big, fresh, relaxing, silent, meditating, beauty …”

(Considerable consensus on bigness. But not unanimous!)

So then I checked one-star reviews of the Grand Canyon. It seemed like more reviewers were in on the gag by now. There are also reviews for the Pacific Ocean (3.5 stars average). I think being a professional ocean critic would be an ok gig. Then I checked Northern Hemisphere. Google doesn’t let you rate hemispheres. Or elements on the periodic table. Who decides? Then I walked right into it. ‘Why can’t I rate the sun?’ I asked the youngest daughter. ‘Dad, it would only get one star.’ Oh, snap. You see what I did to myself there?

Crowley On Ancient Blurb Technology and Le Guin

by John Holbo on March 8, 2018

I was most gratified when John Crowley showed up – easy as pie – in comments to my “Omelas” post. I will try to repay the compliment of this gesture (nigh-effortless to its author!) by linking to his new Boston Review piece, reminiscing on Le Guin and blurb technology of yore.

In 1973, when I finished my first novel, the difficulties of the blurb-solicitation process were enormous, or would surely seem so to writers now who send digital files effortlessly to famous people through websites and email. The great new advance then was the Xerox machine; you at least didn’t have to produce carbons (hopeless) or photostats (expensive) to send out. But still, as often as not—or more often than not—your solicitations weren’t responded to, which could seem like a foretaste of failure: perhaps readers wouldn’t respond either. Now and then a query would get a curt reply asking that the manuscript not be sent, that the recipient didn’t read such submissions.

For my first novel, I received a hand-written postcard from Ursula K. Le Guin welcoming me to the fold.

I once sent a large manuscript to Anne Rice, the vampire biographer­. What I got back was a postcard, filled edge to edge with typing, asking why I felt I had a right to send her this mass of paper, did I really think she had any reason to read it—she did not—and what was she supposed to do with it? I thought of writing her back to say that she might just toss it in the trash with the rest of the week’s paper, but I didn’t.

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Themes! What Are They?

by John Holbo on March 6, 2018

I’m writing something introductory (intended for a general audience) about ‘themes’ in literature. Obviously my theme must be that the term is a bit hopeless until you say what you mean by ‘theme’. I’m thinking of introducing it with reference to memories of writing book reports in 6th grade (I think it was.) Mr. Lofton’s (?) class at McCornick Elementary. (Or was he my 5th grade teacher? Can’t remember.)

Anyhoo: it was requisite, on pain of getting no credit for your report, that you correctly check one or more box(es) for ‘theme’. There were exactly four options:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Self

That’s all there is, there ain’t no more!

(Sorry, ladies! It was the 70’s, and Ms. was a magazine, but you got no love when it came time for themes.) [click to continue…]

I’m doing a lot of SF research these days. Specifically, I’m reading (takes a breath): The statesman’s manual: or, The Bible the best guide to political skill and foresight: a lay sermon, addressed to the higher classes of society, with an appendix, containing comments and essays connected with the study of the inspired writings, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1816).

It’s not really about science fiction. It’s best known, I guess, for Coleridge’s well-known distinction between allegory and symbol, drawn in these pages. But it’s fun! Remember when I had the great idea of reading all the Silmarillion in the voice of Lumpy Space Princess? Well, I would get behind a Kickstarter to record all of the Statesman in the voice of Monty Burns:

Yet this again – yet even Religion itself, if ever in its too exclusive devotion to the specific and individual it neglects to interpose the contemplation of the universal, changes its being into Superstition, and becoming more and more earthly and servile, as more and more estranged from the one in all, goes wandering at length with its pack of amulets, bead-rolls, periapts, fetisches, and the like pedlary, on pilgrimages to Loretto, Mecca, or the temple of Jaggernaut, arm in arm with sensuality on one side and self-torture on the other, followed by a motly group of friars, pardoners, faquirs, gamesters, flagellants, mountebanks, and harlots.

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The Overton Window As Metaphysics

by John Holbo on January 31, 2018

Eric Schwitzgebel informs me that, annoyingly, the Overton Window turns out to be, like, something a libertarian dude published after he died. But, you know, there is actually a lot of plausibility to it. Eric is thinking about how, in philosophy, ideas migrate from unthinkable to sensible to popular. Maybe even policy! It would be fun to write a history of philosophical common sense. Try to trace shifts in what people have thought is obvious vs. weird. Eric is thinking, specifically, about local, recent shifts in attitudes towards panpsychism. Pretty wild idea, panpsychism! But if it moves from unthinkable to merely radical, probably notions like plant cognition and group cognition move from radical to … acceptable?

But here’s the thing. He’s burying the lede, my old poker buddy Eric is. (Or maybe he’s just playing his cards close to his chest.) If panpsychism is true, the universe could, like, BE an Overton Window. It started as unthinkable. Then there was that Big Bang moment when it passed from unthinkable to radical, and rapidly moves from there to acceptable, sensible. I would say that the existence of the universe is a very popular policy, in space and time, at present. It just makes sense, and the thought of nothing actually seems the radical option, by contrast.

Perhaps you would also like to subscribe to my metaphysics of cognitive bias newsletter: The World As Willed Misrepresentation.

Ursula Le Guin has died

by Henry on January 23, 2018

She was a wonderful, vexing, intelligent writer, and great humanist. I was lucky enough to be able to tell her once how much her work had meant to me (via email – we had been talking about doing a Crooked Timber symposium, which she decided in the end she didn’t have sufficient time to commit to). There are a very few books that I’m simply not able to talk about coherently, since they’ve shaped me so deeply that I can’t think straight about them. The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are among them.

Adam Smith against nativist immigration policy

by Chris Bertram on January 21, 2018

Paul Sagar has [a very nice piece at Aeon about Adam Smith](https://aeon.co/essays/we-should-look-closely-at-what-adam-smith-actually-believed), his legacy, and his contemporary relevance. Towards the end of his essay, he quotes a famous passage from Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments:

> [The man of system] seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chessboard have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

An arresting passage when considered against the background of the nativist immigration policies of countries like the United Kingdom and the United States and one that underlines the utopian (in a bad way) nature of natonalist projects. At present our governments are conducting a war against migrants. In the UK, “foreign criminals” (who may or may not have been convicted of actual crimes) are deported to countries they may be utterly unfamiliar with, landlords and employers are threatened with fines if they house or employ people without the right of residency (and deprive many others of opportunities because they look or sound as if they might be “foreign”), asylum seekers are deported to war zones like Afghanistan (a “safe country”) and thousands of people are separated from partners or children because they don’t earn enough for a spousal visa. Brexit Britain has now cast this shroud of insecurity over EU nationals too. In the United States, Trump is still going on about his wall, thousands of young people who are functionally Americans can’t rest secure because politicians can’t agree how to regularize their status, whilst others who came as children are ripped from their families and deported.

And yet we will win. The “game” is going on “miserably” and human beings who have principles of motion of their own, altogether different from those that polticians seek to impress on them, will carry on moving, fleeing, working, associating, trading with, and loving those of nationalities other than their own, because human beings always have and always will. When we talk of freer movement, of more open borders, of a global order that works for everyone and isn’t just in hock to nativist anxieties in wealthy countries, the conventional wisdom is that this is unrealistic and utopian. Yet the true unrealism and utopianism is the project of keeping human beings in self-contained political orders with others “like them”.

My book, [Does the State Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants](http://politybooks.com/bookdetail/?isbn=9781509521951), comes out with Polity on May 25th.