Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Lesson in Platonic Interpretation


Socrates and the Gods: How to Read Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito. By Nalin Ranasinghe. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2012. Pp. 256. Cloth $28. ISBN: 978-1587317798.

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Like many authors of serial texts, Nalin Ranasinghe did not anticipate that his work, The Soul of Socrates (Cornell University Press, 2000) would become the first text of a three-work series on the life and death of Socrates; yet, two events inspired him to pen sequel works. The first event, Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Address, led to a first sequel, his Socrates in the Underworld: On Plato’s Gorgias (St. Augustine’s Press, 2009).1 Ranasinghe writes, “I wanted to show how the model of the cosmos and the anti-sophistical political art set forth in the Gorgias was the antidote to the plague of voluntarism-based consumerism and valorized violence that afflicted the West” (5). In his final sequel, Socrates and the Gods, Ranasinghe explores Plato’s Apology using two supporting dialogues: the Euthyphro and the Crito. In his treatment of these works, Ranasinghe continues to investigate the theme of voluntarism, or the belief that morality need not align itself with what is good according to reason. Yet, as Ranasinghe tells it, a second event provoked this last publication within the series. He recalls that, during a conversation with his distinguished teacher, Stanley Rosen, Rosen recounted his disappointment upon learning that his own teacher, Leo Strauss, did not possess the “final answers to the ultimate questions” (6). This encounter with Rosen serves as a good introduction to Socrates and the Gods, for it indicates an essential and often-misunderstood feature of Socrates’ character—the understanding that Socrates, too, did not possess the final answers guides Ranasinghe’s interpretation. Rather, in Ranasinghe’s Socrates, the reader encounters a man who simultaneously understands the limits of the human condition yet recognizes the divine gifts bestowed upon him.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Caputo and Divine Insistence


The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. By John D. Caputo. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013. Pp. xxi+307. Paper $30, ISBN: 978-0-253-01007-0.

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As a leading philosopher and thinker in the field of Continental philosophy of religion, Caputo’s latest book represents an important contribution to scholarship in this field. This book will receive wide reception as well as careful theological and philosophical reflection. The old adage notwithstanding, we learn much from the artwork selected for the cover of his book, Jan Vermeer’s “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.” It depicts Jesus’ visit to Martha’s house found in the Gospel of Luke 10:38–42. The standard interpretation emphasizes Jesus’ criticism of Martha for preparing him a meal—for tending to his animal needs, as Caputo says—instead of sitting, like Mary, at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teachings. Though we cannot know from the painting that Caputo will reverse this interpretation, we soon learn that he follows Meister Eckhart’s interpretation of this passage. Caputo writes, “Eckhart’s Martha is a clue to everything I say” (20). In Caputo’s repetition of Eckhart, Martha is the pivotal figure in the painting because she recognizes that the presence of Jesus in her home is a calling or solicitation that requires a response. Martha provides the principal concern for Caputo’s text around the ideas of insistence and existence. Caputo, in attempting to advance beyond other contemporary philosophical approaches to theme of the event, characterizes insistence as the action of the event underway in the name of ‘God.’ The event calls or insists1 in the name of ‘God.’ As such, insistence does not exist. He argues, in turn, that existence names our response to the demand of this calling, through which we make actual the solicitation of the event. So, Martha, to use Caputo’s trope, “knows that insistence requires existence” (45). With this, Martha’s hospitality for Jesus’ animal needs indicates the kind of realism and materialism that Caputo advocates at the chiasm of God and humans, and humans and the non-human animal. Caputo’s concern here is not ethics but the role of responsibility in religion. God insists and leaves “the existing to us, where the question of ‘existing’ is a matter of human responsibility” (15). Eckhart’s Martha is his hermeneutic key for this responsibility.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Kant on Critique


Kant and the Subject of Critique: On the Regulative Role of the Psychological Idea. By Avery Goldman. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012. Pp. 249. Paper $27.95, ISBN: 978-0-253-22366-1.

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Kant needs little introduction. No doubt, the significant influence of his Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87) alone stands to testify to his monumental stature in philosophy, not the least of which because of the widespread reception the text continues to receive. These varying accounts cause diverging rifts in the interpretation of Kant’s philosophy, often due to the highly technical nature of Kant’s writing. One problem that continues to hover over Kant’s text concerns the nature of criticism itself. Commentators have suggested that if the critique intends to expel the dogmatic use of reason, then there should be a method in place to ensure that this criticism is also safeguarded from such abuse. Avery Goldman’s Kant and the Subject of Critique: On the Regulative Role of the Psychological Idea proposes that such a method has been discovered. His book opens with a problem: the purported cognition of appearances requires a metaphysical claim regarding the status of finite cognition (1). As readers of Kant will recall, Kant argues that the claims of dogmatic metaphysics regarding the determination of the objects in themselves are completely unknowable. While Kant aims to criticize previous metaphysical theories by arguing that we can only determine objects of sense insofar as they are appearances, Goldman argues that, nevertheless, there must be an unconditioned idea of reason that guarantees this determination. The method of criticism employed by Kant halts these kinds of dogmatic claims, and yet, Kant never actually tells us what this so-called method of criticism entails.

The William Desmond Reader


The William Desmond Reader. Edited by Christopher Ben Simpson. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012. Pp. xvii+257. Paper $29.95, ISBN: 978-1-4348-4292-1.

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The renowned American philosopher, John Caputo, opens his forward to The William Desmond Reader with substantive praise: “[Desmond] is best known as an original philosopher in his own right, having been at the forefront over the years in cultivating a singularly contemporary style of metaphysics (vii).” Just as Bertrand Russell remains generally positive with regard to Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language in his introduction to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Caputo’s introduction seems to acknowledge similarly the significance of Desmond’s achievement as that which “no serious philosopher can afford to neglect.”1 Despite the celebrated overture to the selected writings of the contemporary thinker, there are two challenges facing the meaningful publication of so-called ‘readers’: (1) to offer a text with an organic unity, and (2) to find an appropriate length for the representation of a thinker. I would like to reflect on these challenges in discussing this work.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Spinoza on Monism


Spinoza on Monism. Edited by Philip Goff. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Pp. x + 295. Hard Cover $90. ISBN: 978-0-230-27948-3.

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At its inception, Analytic philosophy had always maintained a certain distance from Spinoza. In the sense of method, Spinoza’s systematic rationalism seemed worlds apart from the more positivistic approach of the Analytic thinkers of the early 20th Century. There was, perhaps, no element of Spinoza’s philosophy more responsible for this distance than his radical substance monism. Like the great German mathematician of Spinoza’s day, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, Analytic thinkers held in suspect Spinoza’s claim that “there must follow infinite things in infinite ways [modis]” from a single substance.1 Not only did this fly in the face of empirically-grounded scientific method, but it arguably defied simple, common sense. A. J. Ayer’s “Solutions of Outstanding Metaphysical Disputes,” provides an excellent example of the former criticism, prevalent at the time:
The assertion that Reality is One, which it is characteristic of a monist to make and a pluralist to controvert, is nonsensical, since no empirical situation could have any bearing on its truth.2
What is more, there is a sense in which certain prejudices about Spinoza and monism were carried over from the days of German Idealism—viz., that monism did not just transform the world of finite things into modes but, rather, it abolished their reality altogether. This is clearly visible in Bertrand Russell’s essay, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” wherein he states:
I share the common-sense belief that there are many separate things; I do not regard the apparent multi-plicity of the world as consisting merely in phases and unreal divisions of a single indivisible Reality.3
While Spinoza has come to play a greater role in the development of Analytic thought, these early criticisms continue to hold a powerful sway. Whether from Jonathan Bennett’s critique of the third kind of knowledge,4 or Donald Davidson’s conclusion that Spinoza may have indirectly shown us that a monist psychology was, in fact, “impossible,”5 one cannot help but wonder if these are signs of a lingering prejudice against monism.