Eagleton is a maddeningly sloppy writer/thinker. He obviously knows a lot about this stuff but the breeziness with which he sweeps over important issu...moreEagleton is a maddeningly sloppy writer/thinker. He obviously knows a lot about this stuff but the breeziness with which he sweeps over important issues, the frequent use of highly tendentious examples, all of it clothed in a language of apparent care and precision, is dispiriting.
One example: his first chapter is on what ideology is. He is obviously drawing on a tradition of philosophical conceptual analysis here, and the intent is good. He starts by noting that the word "ideology" is used to mean a bunch of different things and that no single definition can capture them all. Fair enough. But then he goes through a bunch of possible definitions and rejects them because some uses of the term would not be covered by them. Perhaps the point of the chapter is simply to prove, or illustrate, the original contention that no single definition will be adequate to all the uses of the word. But if so, it is passed off very strangely, since the bulk of the chapter is written as a consideration of various answers to the question of what ideology is, not what the word "ideology" means. It is thus always unclear whether he's got a specific phenomenon in his sights, one that is referred to by "ideology" (but may not be the only thing referred to by that terms) and is considering various theories of it; or whether he is talking about the meaning of the word "ideology" as it is used in a full range of uses.
Of course, this is a problem that afflicts discussion of many topics. The first chapter of Eric Foner's The Story of American Freedom is similarly confused and confusing. But a careful thinker, something Eagleton's approach seems to make clear he is aspiring to be, should confront these issues and try and disentangle them.(less)
I will write only about the 90 or so page introduction to this volume by the editor, Niall Ferguson, which I began by reading assiduously and ended by...moreI will write only about the 90 or so page introduction to this volume by the editor, Niall Ferguson, which I began by reading assiduously and ended by skimming quickly.
Counterfactual history is history written mainly in counterfactuals – sentences of the form “if x had/had not been the case, then y would/would not have been the case.” (Obviously, most sentences in such a history might not actually be counterfactuals, but the main theses will be.) Of such historical endeavors, four questions must be asked, and it is surely the main job of an introduction to a volume of essays of counterfactual history to state these questions and discuss the possible answers to them. a) Which counterfactual suppositions (the “if” parts of counterfactuals) make interesting counterfactual history? There is not much interest in wondering what things might have been like had Lincoln been a Martian spy or had Chamberlain mooned Hitler in Munich. b) Are counterfactuals capable of being true or false? And if so, what makes one true and another false, and how might we determine their truth or falsity? c) If the answer to b) is no, then by what standard do we assess the value of a counterfactual? Interest? Plausibility? Verisimilitude? And d), how do we operationalize a measure of whatever answer we give to c)?
Ferguson does address a). His answer is that we should restrict ourselves to suppositions that were seen as possible by the people to whom they pertain. If Chamberlain really did consider mooning Hitler, then the supposition that he did would be a permissible one by this criterion for counterfactual historicizing. Presumably, it never crossed Chamberlain’s mind and would not have been seen by anyone then as a likely course of events, so in fact it would not be a good basis for counterfactual historicizing. Ferguson’s answer successfully serves to exclude some worthless suppositions, but probably excludes too much. Perhaps no-one in Britain during the Industrial Revolution worried about an end to the supply of iron; but it might be interesting to think about what might have happened had iron become unavailable.
About the remaining issues, Ferguson, as far as I can tell, says nothing whatsoever, essentially rendering his introduction irrelevant to the essays that follow. What he does do is to give a whistle-stop tour of philosophies of history, particularly focusing on issues of determinism. It seems plausible that one’s views on determinism might have some impact on one’s views on counterfactual history. But what that impact might or should be is far from evident. One could be a determinist, in the strictest, Laplacean sense and hold a variety of views about the answers to a) to d) above. If Ferguson wanted to dwell on determinism in the philosophy of history in this context, this is what he should have attempted to articulate.
I was amazed that no mention at all was made of the work of David Lewis, who has provided the most sustained philosophical treatment of counterfactuals in existence. Lewis certainly has things to say that bear on questions a) to d). And I noted some pretty shoddy summary of Hume that makes me question the quality of his descriptions of other figures. Finally, he mentions Robert Harris’s novel Fatherland and says that the possibility of a German win in WWII also inspired several “less successful” novels, such as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle! In what counterfactual universe is Dick’s novel less successful than Harris’s (though I don’t disparage the latter at all)?(less)
Not sure this belongs on my "read-enough-of" shelf (for books where I think I've got the gist adequately) rather than on my simply "unfinished" shelf,...moreNot sure this belongs on my "read-enough-of" shelf (for books where I think I've got the gist adequately) rather than on my simply "unfinished" shelf, but what the heck. I'm gonna live dangerously. The first chapter is on some competing theories of the development of the ego, focussing mostly on what the author calls "intersubjective theory," inspired by Hegel (on the master-slave dialectic) and Winnicott - her approach - and the alternative ego-psychology account (associated here with Margaret Mahler). The former, preferred, account sees subjectivity as arising from the beginning on the basis of mutuality and recognition of the other. The latter sees the ego as as differentiating itself from a primal unity with the early caregiver (referred to as the mother, since it is usually the mother) and deploying a range of identifications and introjections in its engagement with the world, thus not really confronting the other in her own reality.
The second chapter, near the end of which I felt I had read enough of the book, deals with the problem of domination in the erotic context, via a lengthy discussion of The Story Of O. After a while, the descriptions of what goes on in this book in terms of recognition, annihilation, ideal other, dependence, and so on becomes like white noise. If all the sentences were shuffled into paragraphs randomly, I suspect I would not be able to tell the difference. I seem to have this reaction to some psychoanalytic writing (see my review of Bechdel's Are You My Mother?). Not sure whether this is a deficiency in me or it.(less)
I seem to have naturally ground to halt with this one, and I'm not going to fight it.
I was interested in this since I have come to be more and more su...moreI seem to have naturally ground to halt with this one, and I'm not going to fight it.
I was interested in this since I have come to be more and more suspicious of the idea that there is any "fallacy" involved in appealing to intentions when talking about art. The idea that such appeals are illegitimate was part of a New-Critical move to establish the hegemony of one kind of reader, and one kind of reading, alone. In fact, we are interested in talking about (and experiencing) art for any number of different reasons; and any number of different intentions on the part of artists may be relevant to what we want to say about, or get out of, art.
I think that basically Baxandall is on my side in this, though he explicitly declines to engage (at least, head on) with the issues I have just raised. In fact, his use of "intention" is quite idiosyncratic and confusing. Intention is "the forward-leaning look of things," it is not an "historical state of mind" but "a relation between the object [i.e. picture, poem, artifact] and its circumstances." It is "referred to pictures rather more than painters." (All quotations from p. 42.)
What I think he is doing is attempting to read back, from examining a work of art, to the kinds of historical ideas that determined the artist's "brief" (his term for the task the artist is addressing in creating a particular piece of work). For ideas to function in this way, as part of our description of an artist's brief, we do not need evidence that the artist actually thought about them (that's the point of the disclaimer that intentions are not "historical states of mind") but merely that they were such that the artist could have thought about them (they form part of the relevant circumstances of the work).
On this basis, we get several case studies, which involve much fascinating detail about the history of the art market, the history of science, etc.
One interesting point, made in passing, was that the nature of art criticism has changed dramatically in response to the different ways in which the picture under discussion was (or was not) represented along side the criticism.(less)
Time to call it quits on this one. I really really liked it; it's beautiful and moving. But it's also very slow, and so little happens, or rather, a l...moreTime to call it quits on this one. I really really liked it; it's beautiful and moving. But it's also very slow, and so little happens, or rather, a lot happens, but it's always the same, that I just ground to a halt. I've tried going back to it a couple of times and each time, I think, wow this is great, I'd love to finish it, but then I go read other things. It's entirely my failure. I think it's a wonderful book.(less)