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Contemporary Philosophy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Close Reading: The Reader edited by Frank Lentricchia, Andrew DuBois (Duke University Press) (hardcover) An anthology of exemplary readings by some of the twentieth centurys foremost literary critics, Close Reading presents a wide range of responses to the question at the heart of literary criticism: how best to read a text to understand its meaning. The lively introduction and the selected essays provide an overview of close reading from New Criticism through poststructuralism, including works of feminist criticism, postcolonial theory, queer theory, new historicism, and more.
From a 1938 essay by John Crowe Ransom through the work of contemporary scholars, Close Reading highlights the interplay between criticsthe ways they respond to and are influenced by others works. To facilitate comparisons of methodology, the collection includes discussions of the same primary texts by scholars using different critical approaches. The essays focus on Hamlet, "Lycidas," "The Rape of the Lock," Ulysses, Invisible Man, Beloved, Jane Austen, John Keats, and Wallace Stevens and reveal not only what the contributors are reading, but also how they are reading.

Frank Lentricchia and Andrew DuBois's collection is an essential tool for teaching the history and practice of close reading. The introduction by Andrew DuBois offers a sustained rationale for the selection and order of chapters in the anthology.
Contributors. Houston Baker, Roland Barthes, Homi Bhabha, R. P. Blackmur, Cleanth Brooks, Kenneth Burke, Paul de Man, Andrew DuBois, Stanley Fish, Catherine Gallagher, Sandra Gilbert, Stephen Greenblatt, Susan Gubar, Fredric Jameson, Murray Krieger, Frank Lentricchia, Franco Moretti, John Crowe Ransom, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Helen Vendler

As a religion grounded in a book, the Bible, Christianity faced a crisis in response to the Enlightenment: how might texts from that book be interpreted? Following upon the analyses of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) who held that readers must understand the socio-cultural mindset of the writers of any textual communication, Christian theologians and philosophers attempted to devise ways of understanding the Bible, and, indeed, the whole corpus of its theological writings composed centuries and millennia ago. This field is generally called hermeneutics (interpretation) and has contributed in profound ways to the development of secular literary criticism of the past century. This anthology is intended to represent and undercut what the editors take to be the major clash in the practice of literary criticism in the past century: that between so-called formalist and so-called nonformalist (especially "political") modes of reading. The headings of the two major sections are meant to suggest that formalist critics are always interested in the vast world which lies outside literature and that the nonformalists who have dominated literary criticism and theory over the last decades of the twentieth century do their most persuasive work by attending closely to the artistic character of the text before them. The common ground, then, is a commitment to close attention to literary texture and what is embodied there. We emphasize the continuity, not the clash of critical schools--this is the implicit polemical point of the book--though remaining on high alert to the major differences should not be attended to. One might imagine an ideal literary critic as one who commands and seamlessly integrates both styles of reading.

The work might well inform an intelligent on how best to stylize their own on-going reading not only of critics but of their own interpretive dialogue with any reading matter. By reading "critically" the editors mean "independently": persons who wish to preserve and sustain their independence of point-of view and parrallel voice are good close readers.

Futures of Critical Theory; Dreams of Difference edited by Michael Peters, Mark Olssen, Colin Lankshear (Rowman & Littlefield) (Paperback) This volume explores the possibility and usefulness of enlarging the conventional use of the term "critical theory." It encompasses what is considered to be work that is broadly critical in both a reflective and a reflexive manner belonging to the traditional of Western thought starting with Descartes and Kantrather than confining our scope to thinkers who can demonstrate some historical or conceptual link to the founders of the Frankfurt school. By "critical" is not mean only those thinkers who begin with Hegel or Marxbut although most of those discussed here acknowledge some connection to these philosophers, whether by way of acceptance or departure.

'What is distinctive about critical philosophy is that it is largely based on what has come to be known as the "reflexive turn." In other words, prior to the acquisition of knowledge we must first inquire into and establish what may or may not count as knowledge. Based on the reflexive turn, critical philosophy offers a distinctive answer to the problem of rationality. It maintains that only through an inquiry into the nature and scope of human knowledge will we be able to determine what counts as knowledge. Implicit in this reflexive method is the assumption that such critical philosophy is both autonomous and neutral. This is to assume that the metalevel inquiry is above and beyond the normal structures that apply to human understanding and reason. Critical reason has been thought somehow to be exempt from the limitations on the legitimate use of reason it has made known.

Common to both Kant and Locke was the attempt to resolve certain philosophical questions that occasioned disagreement at the first-order level by inquiring at the second-order level into the nature and scope of our intellectual apparatus to deal with such logical problems. Such second-order inquiries led them to emphasize the limitations in the scope and nature of human reason in pursuit of these questions, but it was not thought that such limitations applied in any way to our ability to carry out the critical reflection or inquiry in the first place. Rather, it was assumed that whatever limitations operated at the first-order somehow evaporated, or did not exist, when it came to the second-order analysis. It was assumed that somehow this second-order "removal" from first-order questions ensured a privileged access to, and guaranteed a neutral standpoint for investigating those issues that precipitated initial disagreement among philosophers.

Critical inquiry is concerned with determining the nature and scope of our understanding in order to discover in what areas we can hope to attain knowledge, and in what areas we must be content with belief. It is seen as a necessary preliminary to answering substantive questions. Although it provides the means by which to differentiate the limits of knowledge there is no suggestion that those same limits will in any way impede the course of critical inquiry. Kant is motivated by similar concerns to Locke, and he adopts the same reflexive strategy. The Critique of Pure Reason (1929) can be read as a critical study of philosophical method in the sense that it is based on the assumption that before we can employ reason in the solution of any philosophical problem it is necessary first to examine its credentials. In the various Prefaces and the Introduction Kant castigates the dogmatism of traditional metaphysicians who use the faculty reason to come to general conclusions about God, freedom, and immortality "without any previous examination of the parity or incapacity of reason for so great an undertaking" (A3/B7, p. 46).

Now it does seem natural that, as soon as we have left the ground of experience, we should, through careful enquiries, assure ourselves as to the foundations of any building we propose to erect, not making use of any knowledge that we possess without first determining whence it has come, and not trusting to principles without knowing their origin. It is natural, that is to say, that the question should first be considered, how the understanding can arrive at all this knowledge a priori, and what extent, validity, and worth it may have. (A3/B7, 46)

Later Kant tells us "we can regard a science of the mere examination of pure reason, of its sources and limits, as the propaedeutic to the system of pure reason." As such it could properly be called a critique, and its utility lay in clarifying our reasonin keeping it "free from errors." In other words, Kant believes that prior to examining first-order philosophical questions we must first answer a host of questions concerning philosophical method and, specifically, those that will determine for us what counts as genuine knowledge and what does not. Only by answering these crucial preliminary methodological questions are we entitled to believe that we have avoided the risk of error and, accordingly, avoided producing a philosophical view that is empty or nonsensical. But nowhere in the Critique does Kant addresses the question of how such critical inquiry itself is possible. A critical standpoint is established through the reflexive turn and is considered to be neutral, autonomous, and capable of attaining certainty. There is no suggestion that such a standpoint is, or should be, self-reflexive. Only those standpoints that are self-reflexively consistentthat meet the same standards, or tests for rationality laid down in the accountescape the dilemma facing traditional epistemological programs, and the skeptical challenge based on it. They can then be seen to be genuinely critical.

In its original sense "critical," as it occurs in "critical theory," was used to refer to social theory that was genuinely self-reflexive: that is, theory that could account for their own conditions of possibility and for their potentially transformative effects. The other features of critical theory have been seen to include its explanatory, normative, and practical dimensions: it must provide empirical and testable accounts of social conditions (focusing on the causes of oppression); it must aim toward change for the better, an alleviation of the human condition or "emancipation"; and it must do so by providing a better self-understanding of the social agents who aim at transformation. Certainly, critical theory does not remain simply at the level of description. Since its adoption by Horkheimer, as a revision of Marx, it has gained a wider acceptance as a term for describing any theoretical approach that is critical in this sense. These include feminism, psychoanalytic thought, a large body of cultural theory, thevarious forms of structuralism and poststructuralism, "French theory," and postcolonial studies. We have used the term in this wider sense in relation to the chapters that follow.

The contributions to this collection fall into three groups. One group of chapters addresses a number of historically important philosophers whose work prefigures many of the major themes of contemporary philosophy and critical theory. These themes include the critique of modernity, the significance of technology, humanism and the problem of relativism, critical theory of self, and the ethics of the Other. Chapters falling within this group address Nietzsche (Michael Peters); Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Foucault (James D. Marshall); Heidegger (lain Thom-son); and Levinas (Denise Ega-Kuehne).

A second group of chapters profiles and discusses the work of a range of preeminent poststructuralist thinkers. These chapters address Foucault (Mark Olssen), Deleuze (John R. Morss), Derrida (Gert J. J. Biesta), Irigaray (Pheng Cheah), Lyotard (Peter Pericles Trifonas), and Guattari (Peters).

Finally, the book also includes an eclectic set of chapters on Bourdieu (Roy Nash), Zizek (Peter McLaren), cyberfeminism (Rosi Braidotti), Giddens (David Scott), and Said (Bill Ashcroft).

 Philosophy, Literature, and the Human Good by Michael Weston (Routledge) Weston examines the role of literature in philosophical reflection on the significance of life, addressing both the European "Post-Nietzschean" tradition and the increasing importance of these issues for major American and British thinkers.

Contents: Preface; Introduction; 1. Life as Art: Kant, Schlegel, Nietzsche; 2. Georges Bataille: The Impossible; 3. Maurice Blanchot: Literature's Space; 4. Jacques Derrida: The Staging of Deconstruction; 5. Iris Murdoch: The Transcendent Good; 6. Martha Nussbaum: Moral Fortune; 7. Richard Rorty: Philosophy as Literature; 8. Stanley Cavell: Language, Therapy and Perfectionism; 9. A Kierkegaardian Intervention; 10. D.Z. Phillips: The Mediation of Sense; 11. A concluding Reading: Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim

Critique of Violence:  Between Poststructuralism and Critical Theory by Beatrice Hanssen (Routledge) is a highly original and radical investigation of the heated controversy between poststructuralism and critical theory. Renowned scholar Beatrice Hanssen uses Walter Benjamin's essay, "Critique of Violence," as a guide to analyze the debate, shifting the emphasis from struggle to dialogue between the two parties. Regarding the question of critique and violence as the major meeting points between the two traditions, Hanssen positions herself between the two in an effort to investigate what critical theory and poststructuralism have to offer each other. In the course of doing so, she assembles incisive and imaginative new readings of Benjamin, Arendt, Fanon and Foucault on war, the politics of recognition, the violence of language, and feminist theory.

Meandering, meditative essays, written more for the ear than the eye, these philosophical reflections have a poetic and existential focus on the significance of life itself. The theme alludes to a variety of literary works, (fairytales, Shakespeare, Melville, Dostoyevsky, in particular) to throw new angles upon, if not quite eternal verities, then perpetual questions. Hamlet and the Snowman: Reflections on Vision and Meaning in Life and Literature by Benjamin Newman is a pleasant read for a quiet Sunday afternoon.


The years go on and on, round and round they go, one by one the seasons come and go. Each year, each turn, brings with it a finality of one kind or another, and then, in the course of time, a special moment will come to some human soul when life itself emerges as the finality, a thing to behold, something that is the last of everything. Standing then as if upon nothing in some vastness looking on, one thinks and wonders, is that what it is, the whole of it, established, examined, and final. It is then that literature, like some subservient conspirator eager to join in, comes running, carrying its bundle of delights and all its sundry seemings, calling out its confirmation. Yes, is its cry, I have seen it too, I know it well, and here is my vision of all that it is. And meaning, where is it to be found? It is the feelings that accompany vision and move us to ask, can it be, is it truly so, and now ....

Existence does not seem to want to be spoken or written about too openly and freely, and literature, its bosom companion, does its best to hide right along with it behind a vast inventory of metaphor and story. In the end, what is the hiding but a loneliness amid silences. The need to know, to know and then to know more and more, to say, to listen, can life be life without it. And that is why I wrote this book, to talk things over as it were, and pass along reflections and wonderings that have come to me with the years about the truth and the meaning of what lies behind literature's entrancements, and dormant or insulated in the hearts and minds of all the living…

Slowly, drop upon drop, the answer came to me. There is an onlyness to this place in which we live, to each life, and to the mankind that carries its lives from one generation to the next. One, the single one, the only world, the only life, hold it up for examination and fear will come to us; it is fragile, precious, be careful. The fear is for a permanence that may be lost, leaving nothingness in its place. And each human mind as it struggles with its own life and its own mortality, in its anguish seeks to shelter itself within the shadows of permanence cast by an inert world of earth and stars and space, by the mankind from which it came, and by the beliefs it holds dear. Yes, a universal sacredness, but seen through the eyes of only one, ourself, watching, trembling, anxious that none shall be marred and the worthwhileness of each guarded. Hence the guilt for the words said, the truth uncovered, and the need to be silent, or to whisper, but barely

An onlyness, is it not like a summation compressed into a single word that betokens purest essence. Like a brooding presence, it underlies every work of literature and every vision one may have of our human life, and it is lived and borne by every human soul as we grope about for meaning. Speak of essence in life or place or self and soon the variegated dress and decoration of familiar ordinariness will be swept aside, and the image will come to us of a single something that is what it is, and it is forever closed as if locked away within itself. Call it onlyness, call it what you will, and let the words be one or many, it doesn't matter, for life itself will bring it all together as an ultimacy that is enshrined in the tales of the masters and the songs of the poets and in the dreams and longings of our lives. And inasmuch as it is life that has made it so, we too may speak of it now and then, yes, plainly and openly but with kindness, and for that, amends will not be ours to make.

I MAY BE SOME TIME: Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford (St. Martin’s Press, $26.95, hardcover, 381 pages, notes, index, 0-312-17442-X )

In the spirit of Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster and The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, Francis Spufford explores the British obsession with polar exploration in a book that Jan Morris called "a truly majestic work of scholarship, thought and literary imagination." The title, a last quote from one explorer to his party as he left their tent never to return, embodies the danger and mystery that fueled the allure of the poles. This look at the British obsession with polar exploration and the human desire to conquer faraway places is far from being a conventional history of polar exploration., I MAY BE SOME TIME attempts to understand the minds of the polar explorers as they headed toward destinies like Terra Nova. Serving up a heady brew of Captain Perry, Jane Eyre, gastronomic obsessions with iced desserts, and the daily lives of the Eskimos, Spufford treats the reader to one of the most satisfying and imaginative contemporary works dealing with exploration and human need.

I MAY BE SOME TIME is the winner of the Writers Guild Award for Non-Fiction.

Francis Spufford hailed as a member of Britain’s new literary generation, has edited two acclaimed anthologies, The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature and The Chatto Book of the Devil. He has also recently coedited Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention

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