The BRB will be right back.

Founded in 2009, and having continuously published articles and reviews on a monthly basis until a hiatus beginning in February 2022, The Berlin Review of Books is currently revamping its website and assembling a new editorial team. In the meantime, we are gradually re-uploading some of our original articles from the 2009-2022 archives of the BRB.

Please look for more content from spring 2024 onwards.

A Short History of Sociology in Germany

by Gábor István Bíró

The rise of the so-called ‘social question’ (soziale Frage) marked a milestone in thinking about society in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. Society was getting increasingly complicated and traditional ways of talking about society were unable to address this complexity. Contractarian theories had been designed to explain society as an autonomous system based on the free association of independent individuals. But they could not really explain either the constraints on this autonomy (an increasing need to adapt to an international order) nor the increasing differences between the individuals constituting society (social classes based on a global division of labour). Meanwhile, the science of the state (Staatswissenschaft) had been designed to be a discipline that covers legal, financial, law enforcement and social studies, that is, every field of knowledge that was needed to govern a country. But it could not really explain social dynamics that did not originate from top-down social policies. A new discipline was needed that would study society as a separate subject and not as a consequence of the state. The science of society (Gesellschaftswissenschaft) was born.

Stephan Moebius’s Sociology in Germany: A History (Palgrave 2021) starts from this defining moment and presents the fascinating consecutive episodes of the history of thinking about society in Germany. From the establishment of the German Reich in 1871 to the contemporary trends of sociology in Germany, this little book addresses the history of the analysed discipline over a surprisingly long period. One of the chapters addresses how the 1968 generation of students and young professionals managed to induce large-scale social changes, among others giving a boost to sociology. Another discusses what happened to sociology in Germany in the Reconstruction era after World War II. A third engages with the history of sociology in West Germany during the Cold War, a fourth deals with the hostile attitude against sociology in the German Democratic Republic. The last chapter examines sociology in the unified Germany from 1990 until today and offers insightful discussions of what is going on and what to expect.

One of the dangers of writing disciplinary history is that it becomes too internalistic, that is, limiting itself only to the sequence of results of the studied discipline without paying much attention to the external factors underlying the practices of making science. Stephan Moebius brilliantly avoids this common mistake. The narrative of the volume is a skillful amalgamation of various strands. The complex topic of the history of sociology in Germany since World War II is presented from multiple angles. Inquiries into political, social and intellectual history complement inquiries concerning specific sciences, mostly sociology and its perceived ‘anti-sociologies’ resulting in a well rounded, socially sensitive and interpretative historical account of the period. Geographical and institutional strands, too, are present in this sociology of the history of sociology in Germany. The most relevant cities, universities, research centres, journals and their specific contexts are discussed to the degree it is necessary for this endeavour.Yet the whole narrative feels simple, clear-cut, accessible and exciting. The volume gives an introduction to the topic without being too reductionist or dry. It manages to present both the political and the disciplinary tensions and conflicts, as well as their perceived stakes in specific settings, and by doing so, developing a ‘feeling’ for sociology in the sense Evelyn Fox Keller (1983) used the term. The narrative also stays critical and provides disclaimers where necessary without discouraging novice readers of sociology or intellectual history by including too many layers to follow. It is rich but easy to read.

If two things could be considered missing from the book, then these are not flaws because both would lay outside the well-defined scope of the volume. The first would be a more extended discussion of the prehistory of sociology. Several fascinating organic or vitalist theories of society were developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that might be seen, perhaps in an anachronistic way, as precursors to later theories of society as an organism. Kant’s organism, Hegel’s geistiger Organismus, Fichte’s state, Müller’s nation, Roscher’s volk, Knies’ life force, Lilienfeld’s social neurons, Schäffle’s social tissues. While some of these theories were not developed in Germany (e.g., Paul Lilienfeld’s), they might be relevant for understanding the early evolution of social thought in Germany. The second thing that is missing is a more systematic treatment of the co-development of science and technology studies (STS) and sociology. The author does briefly mention the interdisciplinary field and even addresses some slight changes in the most popular theoretical approaches of younger scholars engaged with STS, but he does not thoroughly explore the tensions and conflicts between the various schools within the field. Science and technology studies faced serious challenges and perhaps even an identity crisis from the 1970s onward. This disciplinary coming-of-age story might come handy either as a foil to emphasize the uniqueness of the road taken by sociology in Germany, or by emphasizing the similarity of the challenges these fields faced and the similarity of the solutions they delivered.

Stephan Moebius’ skillfully written and engaging book can be recommended both for undergraduate and postgraduate students who seek an accessible introduction to the history of sociology in Germany. The exciting and easy-to-read narrative, the surprisingly comprehensive, socially engaged and critical nature of the volume and the fact that the book is (currently) open access suggests that it will be read by many. It is reasonable to expect that this charming little book will shortly find its way into the syllabi of sociology courses not just at German universities but in higher education all around the world.

Stephan Moebius (2021)
Sociology in Germany: A History
Palgrave Macmillan: Cham.
ISBN 978-3-030-71866-4
222 pages, Hardcover, 32,09€

Dr. Gábor István Bíró, PhD, is a member of the MTA Lendület Morals and Science Research Group and an assistant professor at Budapest University of Technology and Economics.

Belonging to the Land: Bruno Latour’s “Down to Earth”

by Eric Kerr

Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth explores the way in which global political action today embodies multiple contradictions in our relationship to land. More precisely, our relationship to that part of the Earth that comprises the crust and the atmosphere, where we spend most of our time and on which we spend most of our energy. Wrapped up in this relationship are ideologies of nationalism, the politics of climate change, and the exploits and exploitations of capitalism.

On the one hand, blood-and-soil nationalists are sowing seeds across Europe and North America, defending “their” patches of earth and mending walls to protect what Latour calls a “made-over Local” (30). The Rassemblement National (fomerly, Front National) in France, the Lega Nord in Italy, Brexit in Britain, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the Trumpist “MAGA” movement in the US, among others, aestheticize a land from the past that never existed, a pastoral landscape “definitely left behind by modernization” (30) and frequently accompanied by a rejection of the theory of anthropogenic global warming. Environmentalism seeks a custodial relationship to the land. Green parties across Europe argue for a return to a sustainable relationship with the planet and its life. However, according to Latour, the Greens have been stuck in a debate that pits the earth against economics, and usually the earth gives way (46).

Latour sets up a number of “attractor poles” (pôle attracteur) to describe the vectors along which different political actors may be placed, a metaphor which calls to mind both the magnetic poles of the Earth and the French idea of a pole of attraction, a place that is particularly appealing to visitors, migrants. The first two attractors describe a line from the local to the global, with the sense of inevitable progress pushing us towards modernization. While globalization has cultivated the idea that we are moving towards a “flat” Earth, increasingly integrated and unified through international markets and the movement of capital, businesses, and people, Latour observes that rather than expanding and broadening our horizons, including myriad traditions and perspectives, this has instead meant the imposition of one, increasingly infertile, perspective. Today, Latour says, the promises of globalization, progress, and modernization, and the possibility of undoing it all, seem impossible.

“People find themselves in the situation of passengers on a plane that has taken off for the Global, to whom the pilot has announced that he has had to turn around because one can no longer land at that airport, and who then hear with terror… that the emergency landing strip, the Local, is also inaccessible. It is understandable that these passengers would press against the plane’s windows to try to see where they are going to be able to attempt a crash landing.” (32)

A third attractor emerges through the clouds. This comes in many instantiations and Latour’s favoured example is the US pulling out of the Paris climate change accord in 2017. Instead of opposing globalization or ethnic nationalism, Trump’s followers embraced both and behaved as if they could somehow be conflated. For Latour, this is a kind of denial of reality, a denial of the ground upon which one stands.

The focus of much of Down to Earth is on those who have, in various ways, abandoned the project of belonging to the earth. At one end of the scale, we have those denizens who seem to have created their own reality, unmoored from the common ground we once thought we shared, who are radically skeptical of the very idea of expertise and who favour conspiracies over cock-ups. Although they are not in Latour’s sights in this book, at the other end of this scale, we have the super-wealthy building gated communities, seasteading, digging huge apocalypse-proof bunkers into New Zealand turf, or even hatching plans to fly off the planet to Mars. Alongside this is the project of epistemic corruption undertaken by, chiefly, the fossil fuel industry to muddy scientific consensuses and fertilize the natural inclination towards skepticism of the person-on-the-street (Gardiner 2011). Latour’s focus seems to be on the ideological commitments of ordinary people although it’s worth noting that billionaires live as unmoored from reality as the figure of the internet-dwelling climate troll.

Bruno Latour (photo by Kokuyo / released under CC-BY-SA-4.0 licence via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s no coincidence that localists are often committed to climate change denial. Our whole political ecosystem, Latour claims, is being reoriented around climate politics. We can flesh out Latour’s thought by considering the shared commitments of climate change scepticism. Scepticism, after all, assumes that we all occupy the same reality (climate change sceptics call into question knowledge of the same climate as the rest of us). The kind of scepticism adopted by Latour’s third pole looks less like someone urging caution and rigour about the climate and more like someone indicating that they do not belong to Earth and so their actions have no impact on it. This “epistemic dissonance” (Gelfert 2014) has given rise to a new kind of politics, that Latour intriguingly calls “post-politics”. The term seems to be a deliberate move away from talk of post-truth, which Latour considers to have been given a light touch by journalists who avoid talking about the root causes of ordinary people’s disdain for claims to truth. Unfortunately, Latour doesn’t spend a lot of time on what he means by post-politics – what he calls a “politics with no object” (38) – save through a multitude of examples from recent history.

Climate change scepticism, at one level, is a disavowal of responsibility. Even when it admits climate change (but not its anthropogenic origins) or admits human causes but not the solutions on the table, it always leaves unanswered the question: well what should we do then? This is also, then, a story of taking responsibility for what one creates or, refusing to or, perhaps worse, taking action that only feels like taking responsibility. In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, a myth that Latour has often returned to, smith-god Hephaestus is forced to reckon with the consequences of his craftsmanship bestowed upon him by Prometheus:

Hephaestus: I hate my craft, I hate the skill of my own hands.

Kratos: Why do you hate it? Take the simple view: your craft is not to blame for what must be inflicted now.

In the Anthropocene, the metaphor is twofold. Latour charts how we are the authors of our own destruction: Sky-rocketing inequality, populist politics, and mass migration all have their roots in the Earth’s reactions to globalization which itself began in old West industrialization. Reactionaries are becoming aware of how climate change is the axis around which the rest of politics gyrates. The far-right gunman who killed twenty-one people in El Paso was motivated by a Malthusian concern for population control in the face of ecological collapse. The Christchurch shooter described himself as an “eco-fascist”. Marine Le Pen, and other ethnic nationalists, frame their arguments, intermittently, in environmentalist terms. This is not to say that we should take such claims simply at face value. They are symptomatic of the expanding influence of the climate on politics. At the same time, climate sceptics have stolen the tools of STS, its tools for doubting the authority of expertise in particular, to seed confusion and epistemic corruption.

I think this is a neat explanation for why denialists are so committed to their denial (as are many who explicitly commit to the idea of climate change but, like Hephaestus, don’t really want to go as far as to do much about it). Since climate change is a reaction not just to a scientific theory but to an entire political reality of migration, nationalism, economic and physical protectionism, globalization, and much more besides, it’s not surprising that quibbling about its scientific veracity is not conclusive. Indeed, awareness polarizes people further.

So what happens when we come back down to earth or, as put by the original French title (“Où atterrir: comment s’orienter en politique”) of Latour’s book: Where to land? We can start by recognizing that, at both poles, populists and progressives share a premise: that the traditional order is being torn apart by globalization, by liberal “obscurantist elites” (19), in ways that flatten the earth but also take us away from it and are, ultimately, destroying it. They do not see a way out in the options presented by those with the power to take action. Isabelle Stengers describes this as a kind of pharmakon, both remedy and poison (Stengers 2015). Remedies to climate change are presented as objections, dangerous, and used to silence mention of alternatives to the status quo rather than offering a genuine counterargument. Problems are framed in terms of individual responsibility – recycling, plastic straws, ethical consumption, wildfires ignited by unextinguished cigarette butts – rather than effects of the things themselves. Talking of scepticism she writes: “The necessity of paying attention where there are doubts, what one would require of a ‘good father’, what one teaches children, is defined here as the enemy of Progress.” (ibid p. 63)

Latour wrestles with what “attachment to land, maintenance of tradition, and attention to the earth,” means at a time when what we usually think of as global and local politics seem so strangely so incommensurably estranged and, at the same time, deeply connected. He argues that everything has to be “mapped out anew, at new costs.” (33) While Isabelle Stenger’s recent climate manifesto calls for “experts, diplomats, and victims, to testify to the relationship between themselves” (Stengers 2015: 15) Latour places that testimony in the ground: experts and victims must both find a relationship to the land that we share.

Latour’s reply to Prometheus has always been grounded. In a keynote lecture for the Networks of Design meeting of the Design History Society in 2008, Latour opposed the hubristic, heroic “dream of action” embodied by Prometheus to the cautious, less committed detail-work of design. Latour recommended a “precautionary Prometheus” to the attendant designers and historians of design, thereby channeling the EU’s commitment to the precautionary principle. Latour asks: “Will Prometheus ever be cautious enough to redesign the planet?” (Latour 2008: 11)

It’s consequently not surprising that Latour wants to land in Europe. Latour imagines the bureaucracy of the EU as reaching “the complexity of an ecosystem” (100). This is clearest seen in the UK’s attempt to leave, being so entangled in that system that the “idea of sovereignty delineated by impermeable borders” (101) becomes a nonsense. As in his lecture, Latour again returns to German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. He quotes him, seemingly approvingly, saying that Europe is the “club of nations that had definitively given up empire” (101) and credits Europe with inventing “the Globe” – through the techniques of cartography – being a home for ecological and linguistic variety but also with a “particular responsibility,” (102), despite its history. This final section is presented more as a declaration than something argued for; a statement of what Latour believes and is willing to defend. He ends: “Now, if you wish, it’s your turn to present yourself.” (106)

Here is my very brief reply: When Latour notes that climate denialists claim that their actions cannot affect the world (34) – aren’t they correct? The idea that individual, aggregated choices may affect the massive tide of climate change is fanciful, like trying to empty the ocean with a collection of, individually built and operated, buckets. Does it matter if they believe in climate change or not? They have no power to do anything meaningful anyway. And even when one does attempt to convince the other, few take the opportunity and most dig in their heels even deeper. Perhaps to get out of this ditch, we could look to other forms of belonging to the land. Listen to those closest to the effects of climate change: indigenous people, climate refugees, and those living in island nations, for example. Broaden out our conception of what can belong.

New forms of legal personhood indicate an emerging response that mirrors the legal personhood that catalysed capitalism. In New Zealand, the Te Uruwera forest, the Whanganui river, and Mount Taranaki have been given legal status as living entities. Incidentally, I find it curious, although I’m not quite sure what to make of it, that both these radical new forms of legal personhood and the elite survival bunkers are located on the same islands. Citing the Whanganui Act, an Indian court recently granted legal personhood to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers as did Columbia for the Atrato river. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to make the rights of nature (“Pachamama” or “Mother Nature”) part of the constitution. The Eerie Bill of Rights granted, albeit symbolically, legal personhood to the eponymous lake. These moves have often been supported and pushed by indigenous people in their respective nations. Perhaps this is a way of expanding our horizons of who, and what, belongs to the earth.

Bruno Latour: Down to Earth. Politics in the New Climatic Regime
Translated by Catherine Porter.
London: Polity Press 2018.
140 pp., paperback, US$14.95

Eric Kerr is a Research Fellow at Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, and also teaches at Tembusu College, Singapore.


Gardiner, Stephen M. 2011. A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. Oxford University Press.

Gelfert, Axel. 2013. “Climate Scepticism, Epistemic Dissonance, and the Ethics of Uncertainty.” Philosophy and Public Issues 3 (1): 167-208

Latour, Bruno. 2008. “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (With Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk).” In Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society edited by Fiona Hackne, Jonathn Glynne and Viv Minto, 2-10. e-books, Universal Publishers.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2015. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Translated by Andrew Goffey. Open Humanities Press.

The Making of Isaiah Berlin

by Mario Clemens

Henry Hardy, the main editor of Isaiah Berlin, has invented a new genre, a sort of “making-of” for academic publishing. If Hardy will not have many emulators – and I doubt that he will – this is only because of the lack of stories equally suitable for such an approach.

Hardy’s book, with the seemingly odd title, “In search of Isaiah Berlin. A literary journey” consists of two independent parts. First, Hardy tells the story of an editor (himself) who struggled with an author (Berlin) unusually reluctant to have his works published. In the second part of the book, Hardy discusses some perceived obscurities within Berlin’s writings, which he had the chance to address in a vivid correspondence that lasted for slightly more than two decades, from 1975 until Berlin’s death in 1997.

Hardy first met Berlin in the early 1970s when studying philosophy at Wolfson College, Oxford, where the latter served as president. Hardy had already some experience with editing, an activity that suited his temperament. “Evidently the process of gathering together a jumble of material and turning it into a presentable form appealed to my somewhat obsessive and organizing nature” (p. 24), Hardy observes. A friend of him, who knew of those qualities and who understood that Berlin’s scattered and widely unknown oeuvre was in dire need of editing, suggested to Hardy to contact Berlin. Once the later had agreed that a couple of his writings be published as a book, Hardy started by compiling a bibliography; an undertaking that proved hard in a time before the internet and with Berlin remembering only parts of what he had written. When done, the list of Berlin’s writings contained 137 items – even those close to Berlin were astonished, not least since Berlin had been regarded as a great thinker – a great thinker –  but one with a rather poor publication record. 

In between spring 1978 and autumn 1980, four volumes with ‘selected writings’ appeared: “Russian Thinkers” (1978), “Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays” (1978), “Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas” (1979) and finally “Personal Impressions” (1980). It followed a comparatively quiet decade for the duo Hardy/Berlin, which nonetheless produced the fruit of yet another volume; in 1990, “The Crooked Timber of Humanity” appeared.

Isaiah Berlin at the Erasmus Prize ceremony in Amsterdam, 27 October 1983 (Source: Nationaal Archief NL/Rob C. Croes, released to public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of the 1980s, Berlin had reached the conclusion (or perhaps better: had been convinced by others) that it was best to ensure that his ‘posthumous writings’, as he mockingly called them, were better edited while he was still alive. Once the funding was secured, Hardy became Berlin’s full-time editor, dealing with the massive treasure of unpublished material that he had discovered only shortly before when he was allowed to take a look at the heaps of unsorted and half-hidden unpublished papers in Berlin’s Oxford home, Headington House. Hardy continued his work beyond Berlin’s death in 1997 and when he ‘retired’ in 2014 had edited (or co-edited) 22 books, mainly comprised of compilations of lectures, essays, and letters; most of them had been substantially improved in the editing process in terms of accuracy while some had even been compiled from different manuscripts and recordings.

What may sound like a smooth story of success was, in fact, the result of a constant struggle. Not only was Berlin hesitant to publish, but he also changed his mind regularly. On one occasion – the “Philosophical Papers” were ready for print, all the editing was done, and the unavoidable minor fights about what papers to include and which not had been fought –  Berlin suddenly doubted that the volume should be published at all (p. 41).  As Hardy reports, “throughout our relationship I felt I had to push as hard as I dared, at every step, in order to secure the best outcome that I could in the face of Berlin’s ingrained self-doubt, hesitancy and caution.” (p. 31).

Why, one inevitable wonders, was Berlin so reluctant to have his works published and re-printed? In some cases, Berlin gives the impression that he doesn’t take himself too seriously and hence couldn’t care less whether his writings were being published. There is a certain plausibility here, since, how could it otherwise be that such an enormously productive author did not take any action whatsoever to further his reputation by (re)publishing, many of his already written texts?

However, indifference can not be the whole story, as this would explain his lukewarm reaction to the offer to get his writings (back) into print, but not his active resistance to it; indifference would have meant to not care either way. Apart from a couple of reasonably plausible objections against the publication of this and that particular piece, what seems to lay at the bottom of Berlin’s notorious reluctance to publish is captured in a sentence of a letter Berlin wrote to Hardy: “‘Fear shame’ (…) I think this is probably the governing motto of my life.” (p. 78). Berlin must have suffered from an almost neurotic fear to embarrass himself in public. A character trait that also let him prepare lectures and public speeches with extreme care: “Lectures always involved compulsive over-preparation, endless refining from sixty pages to thirty, then to ten, and finally to single-headings on a single piece of paper, which were ignored when he entered seance-like state of performance” (Ignatieff, p. 225).

If Berlin might be called a perfectionist in this sense, he surely wasn’t one in another sense. When, for instance, asked by Hardy if he could possibly give him the source for a quotation used in one of his texts, he replied: “Again, you don’t need a reference, it is a very famous formula (…), always attributed to Barrès, nobody bothers about where it is to be found – like ‘blood and soil’ as a Nazi slogan (did Hitler use it in Mein Kampf or somewhere else? Who knows, who cares?)”. (p. 77). On which Hardy comments: “For me the fact that nobody so bothers is an increased incentive to pin down the original source. I care.” (Hardy, p. 77). Their striking difference in temperament – also a source of tensions on rare occasions – must be considered a fortune, as it led to an extremely productive work relationship. Hardy’s pedantic nature not only led him to detect – like a tracker dog, as Ignatieff puts it – every missing source and incorrect quotation but also ask for clarifications when he felt Berlin was being vague or contradictory in his arguments. The later partly served the practical purpose of getting manuscripts ready for print but was also driven by Hardy’s personal obsession with specific questions. “My close work on his texts”, Hardy explains, “reopened for me questions about his thought that had long preoccupied me – even tormented me – and I began to ask these questions in my letters. I am astonished today at the patience and thoroughness with which he replied, and it seems to me that, taken together, his answers constitute an important supplement to his published work, clarifying it at certain crucial points and preventing natural misinterpretations at others”. (p. 133). Selected parts of this correspondence combined with interwoven commentary by Hardy form the second part of the book, evidently of particular interest toexperts on Berlin’s thinking.

The book’s second part contains delightful passages such as when Berlin explains that he had always felt that there should be a third category in addition to ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’, as he doesn’t understand what ‘God’ is supposed to mean; “‘agnostic’ means one who doesn’t know,; ‘atheist’ means one who doesn’t believe; but there is no word for one who doesn’t understand”. (p. 216) Apart from such beautiful passages, the second part of the book can best be understood as an inherent critique of some of the central concepts of Berlin’s writings with the attempt to reduce internal inconsistencies and present Berlin’s ideas in the most precise way possible. This attempt manifests in the form of selected passages from their correspondence as well as taking the form of posthumous philosophical comments provided by Hardy.

Although Hardy worked hard in his letters to lead Berlin to a clarifying explanation of this or that passage or idea, there are occasions where he does not succeed and is left with the impression that this might be because Berlin simply does not know the answer himself. Hardy – on a different occasion – makes the interesting observation, that Berlin’s later writings suffer from a lack of productive critique:

“When Berlin turned from pure philosophy to the history of ideas, and increasingly took on the role of a public moralist, he moved into territory that was sparsely populated in his immediate intellectual environment, and populated, if at all, by persons not specially inclined or able to subject his observations to the exact and exacting challenge of a Frank Hardie [Berlin’s tutor at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, “who taught him philosophical self-discipline”; Ignatieff, p. 49]. In short, he became intellectually imprecise because no one stood up to him.  (…) Again and again, I have had occasions to regret that Berlin was not challenged earlier and more rigorously. If he had been, we might today be less puzzled about some features of his outlook.” (Hardy, p. 170-171)

“In Search of Isaiah Berlin” is the testimony of an editor that devoted the better part of his life to a search for Isaiah Berlin – literally, when digging out unpublished texts buried in Headington House, and metaphorically when trying to find the appropriate meaning in blurry or even contradictory passages of Berlin’s writing.

The second part of the book is an essential contribution to the study of Berlin’s ideas, providing not only helpful commentary but – through its drawing on many hitherto unpublished letters – entirely new insights and bases for further debate. In the first part of the book, Henry Hardy shares his “literary adventure”, starring two unequal heroes with opposite talents, whose meeting let the one find his true vocation while turning the other from an alleged “salon virtuoso” into one of the most important political thinkers of the 20th century.

Henry Hardy: In Search of Isaiah Berlin, A Literary Adventure
I.B.Tauris, London/New York 2018.
ISBN: 978-1788312448
320 pages, £20.00.

Michael Ignatieff: Isaiah Berlin, A Life.
Metropolitan Books, New York 1998.
ISBN: 978-0805055207
356 pages, US$32.00

Mario Clemens is a staff member of the Institute of Conflict Management (IKM) at Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder).

Making a Masala Modern Anglophone Indian Philosophy

by Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach

Minds Without Fear attempts to showcase the intellectual agency of Anglophone Indian philosophers living under coloniality. The book’s thirteen chapters are framed by the acute professional anxiety many of them experienced then, and its rippling effects which continue till today. Like their predecessors, contemporary Indian philosophers worry that colonialism has crippled their intellectual abilities. Authors Nalini Bhushan and Jay Garfield argue that this anxiety is simply a type of “false consciousness” (38). The book follows on the heels of their anthology Indian Philosophy in English: From Renaissance to Independence (Oxford University Press 2011). While the anthology simply collates the material of important Hindu philosophers living under coloniality and in the early years of the Indian Republic, Minds without Fear seeks to show how all the collated material hangs together. In addition, the latter also references the work of Muslim contemporaries, who were conspicuous by their absence in the anthology.

Brajendra Nath Seal (1864-1938), Source: Wikimedia Commons/public domain

The introduction actively encourages readers to approach the book’s material with a fearless mind. One should not buy into any narratives that claim philosophical originality died in India under colonialism and has been dormant since. While the reasons driving the aforementioned anxiety should be taken seriously, one should neither be cowed down by it nor should it negatively affect our own engagement with, and evaluation of, the work of these “denizens” of “masala modernity” (318). Furthermore, one should be ready to concede that some of these positions curiously helped (and continue to help) bolster, even if inadvertently, several one-sided narratives about India’s philosophical past (a point I will return to below). Moreover: This period was “one of prodigious philosophical activity,” which contributed to the development of a philosophical nationalism within India and to a “global philosophical culture” beyond (5). Only minds without fear can take stock of the new narratives these very philosophers initiated—narratives which are still subcutaneously present in debates about Indian philosophy and about a public philosophy for the Indian nation. Only minds that are ready to cross disciplinary boundaries again and again, will be ready to plumb into the creative depths of some of these positions, even when these positions do not always neatly segue with their philosophical counterparts in Europe and America.

The first chapter sets the stage by sketching the intellectual alienation experienced by colonial Indian philosophers, as philosophers. The colonial situation confronted them with the self-image of European philosophy, which positioned itself as being neutral, self-evident, objective etc. This self-image was transported through a language (English) which was complicit in promoting the universalizability of this self-image too. Access to indigenous norms and ways of seeing and interpreting the philosophical significance of the world was severed inasmuch as educational institutions in colonial India adopted this ideologically-charged conceptual framework. As philosopher Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya (1875-1949), who spent his whole career at the University of Kolkata (then Calcutta), put it, “habits of soulless thinking that appear like real thinking” (8) were cultivated; the springs of creativity and authenticity were lost. The only cameo role reserved for a colonized intellectual was that of an obedient imitator.

This subjective, critical self-assessment forced upon a colonized philosopher the difficulties of finding an apt self-description for one’s own work. Did one engage in “Indian” or “Western philosophy?” One’s own positioning in these very colonial educational institutions came in the way of actively seeking to integrate indigenous ways of practicing philosophy into academic philosophy. The latter self-description was found inappropriate too. As Daya Krishna (1924-2007), an important figure in the development of philosophy in post-independence India, said: The “deepest anguish of an Indian intellectual” was that one was not treated as an intellectual equal in Europe (11). Struggling to find an appropriate self-description of one’s work, these intellectuals were also plagued by methodological concerns. Should one disinterestedly, and systematically, pursue philosophical truths like European colleagues? Not only would one then take up the cameo-role mentioned above, one would, more importantly, also stray from one goal important to the Indian tradition: liberation, mukti. Concentrating on the history of India’s “embalmed tradition” (10), an alternative canvassed by some European Indologists, was not viable either. It conflicted with these philosophers’ own endorsement of political independence for colonial India and with their mastery of, and immersion in, indigenous languages. The latter pointed to resources within the tradition itself, which were by no means completely embalmed. As Brajendranath Seal (1864-1938), the first King George V Chair in Kolkata, envisaged, some of these difficulties could be countered by engaging in “comparative philosophy.” Some critical voices found this third alternative wanting too. Daya Krishna, for example, warned that trivial comparisons with Indian philosophy would “turn it into a mere object of the European intellectual gaze” (15).

Chapters 2 and 3 deftly endeavor to upend several interrelated, conventional narratives still in currency. One such narrative doggedly holds on to the view that premodern India’s pristine, linguistic and philosophical purity was conserved by Sanskrit. In the wake of British colonialism, a “radical discontinuity” between this pristine past and colonial India was thought to have ensued (37). A second such narrative ties the onset of modernity to processes initiated under colonialism. According to this view, the professionalization of philosophy is considered a British import; scholarly philosophical prose, as well as the development of a private and public audience, are traced back to the advent of the British. A third narrative sets up a sharp dichotomy between a purportedly sublime and spiritual “East” as opposed to a rational “West.”

Rabindranath Tagore in conversation with Jawaharlal Nehru, 1940 (Wikimedia Commons/public domain)

The authors don the hats of cultural historians to debunk such narratives. Epistemology, they show, was not transported to Indian shores by the ships of the East India Company. Philosophers in India were not “hermetically sealed in a subcontinental philosophical bell jar” (38). Intellectual communities like the karaam in medieval South India and the later munshī class in North India, produced written texts for a learned, trans-local, polyglot audience, despite certain internal differences. In both cases, the audience dictated the choice of an idiom and conceptual frameworks which were secular and not parochial. Communication with this large audience necessitated the medium of other (vernacular) languages and conceptual frameworks, which could be comprehended across different contexts. By virtue of their professional work, these intellectuals placed themselves—and their work—in a larger world, and engaged with it philosophically. Even later movements like the Navya-Nyāyā (albeit being centered around Sanskrit), did not step into unchartered territory when its proponents sought to engage in a philosophical dialogue with the outer world. In fact, their engagement with the work of Descartes and Gassendi (through their Persian and Sanskrit translations) is only another episode in this intellectual encounter. Having brought into view this trail of early modernity in precolonial India for its readers, the book turns to another salient question: If the sub-continent’s scholarly tradition was woven with a rich warp and weft of different languages, why did colonial intellectuals like Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) express their acute discomfort in using English? Why was English not quickly appropriated across the board as yet another potential vehicle of philosophical expression?

In offering a historical explanation for this discomfort, Bhushan and Garfield place their philosophical protagonists in a broader, political context. Notably, the younger ones were socialized in institutions which arose after the British refurnished India to better access its markets. In Bhushan’s and Garfield’s reading, Thomas Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Education’ (1835) becomes a “pastiche” (41) of a crafty, “middle-brow” employee of a global company, who sought to find the right balance between his Utilitarian mentor-supporters in England and his partners in India (English Orientalists and Hindu anglophiles). The ‘Minute’ mirrored the interests of this relatively-mixed coterie. It also established the centrality of English as the only language which could enable the future of a modern India, while simultaneously allowing the East India Company to grapple with, and further strengthen, its role in a “globalized labor market” (49).

Unsurprisingly, it was easy for younger colonial philosophers, or “Macaulay’s children” if you will, to believe that philosophy in India was a promise to be achieved in the future, in a language, which, as these institutions made them believe, was not, and could not, be their own. Their own classical languages (like Sanskrit or Persian) were “deadwood” of the past; only English, the “language of modernity the world over” (56), could lead them into a new future. (Notice how this reading directs attention to the manner in which this European vernacular fashioned itself as a language of philosophy under colonialism, at least in the Indian context.) However, as some of the then-young, political talents like Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), who went on to become the first Prime Minister of independent India, seem to have guessed, the promise of education (and philosophy) in English came at a price: it would never become fully desi for one simple reason: Becoming desi, was akin to going native, “it was to fall from the norm” (58). To be philosophers, Indians had to, as their professional creed demanded, engage with (social) reality. However, the language in which they philosophized (English), operated with the understanding that it was simply not applicable to this reality. Thus, their philosophical ruminations in English were either removed from their own (social) reality or if they referenced the latter, their reflections were rendered unphilosophical. Contemporary Indian philosophy’s anxiety-syndrome was born.

Bhushan and Garfield are not caught up in the web of this anxiety. In their endeavor to show that it is ungrounded, Minds Without Fear now sets to work out different aspects of an “Indian Renaissance” (chapters 4, 5 and 6). Their choice in applying this highly valorized term to the Indian context is mainly two-fold. For one, it accords with the use of the term by some of the participants themselves, a prime example of which is the nationalist-philosopher-saint Aurobindo Ghosh (1872-1950). For another, we can ex post facto track certain “renaissance tropes” (64) in the works of individuals working in this period. These individuals perceived themselves as initiating a new future through an intercultural encounter, a future which would significantly differ from India’s recent, “degenerate” present, as well as from European modernity. Through their efforts at rejuvenating their tradition, these renaissance efforts took on an Indian inflection as well. Together, they distilled the essence of an Ur-Indian soul. This soul took on different garbs through its wandering in different historical epochs and also at the hands of those who cast it in these garbs.

The Indian-renaissance lens does important strategic work for the book’s larger philosophical project. The book, firstly, perceives philosophy as one of many social activities. Its practitioners’ views and interests are actively informed by their social positionings; they cannot honestly claim that their discipline allows them to retreat to a transcendental space which is completely uninflected by the social. Secondly, placing modern Anglophone Indian philosophy in a broad socio-cultural setting adheres to one core component of the self-understanding of Indian philosophical traditions themselves: In their philosophical musings, these traditions did not seek to sunder their relation with this world. Even highly abstract ruminations were grounded in this wordly life. Thirdly, and related to the other two, this lens allows us to draw in, and where necessary separate, different dimensions. Taken together, all these dimensions promise to reverse the “contemporary amnesia” that has befallen knowledge about contemporary Indian philosophy. Separating them, puts the spotlight on different moments of this intercultural encounter.

Deploying the cultural-history register, for example, one can ascertain how secularization processes initiated by social movements like the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj (founded in 1828 and 1875 respectively) went on to deeply affect the formation of modern Anglophone Indian philosophy. By layering a fine, permeable, political dimension over the first, we can perceive how Indians under colonialism challenged the “colonial industry of national narrative production” (91), which tended to portray India as a “subject nation” (92). In reaction, colonial Indian intellectuals developed a multiplicity of narratives underscoring the social unity of India (whether as a promise or as an actuality). Despite their internal diversity, all these narratives posited India as a “distinctive cultural space” (99), although some, warning about nationalism’s dangers, demanded a more sophisticated and sustainable alternative to better fit India’s intellectual heritage. Tagore, for example, pleaded with Gandhi to understand that the “egoism of the People” (i.e. nationalism) cannot be a viable alternative for “true” India, which for Tagore was “an idea and not a mere geographical fact” (142). Tagore’s wariness about the nation was shared, albeit from another perspective, by the pan-Islamist Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938). Perceiving a hiatus between Islamic political theory and modern notions of a secular state, Iqbal, for his part, endorsed the development of communities within India. However, throwing out the baby (the Indian nation) along with the bath water (nationalism) was easier said than done for Macaulay’s children (see chapter 7). As the biting rhetoric of Aurobindo Ghosh observes, why should the “enlightenment [ideals] so kindly vouchsafed to us” (134) not be expressed and implemented by colonial subjects in India? Ghosh’s rhetorical question reflected the reality on the ground only partially. While Macaulay’s children were not allowed to implement their thoughts, they were indeed able to develop rich swaraj accounts, in which epistemological, ethical, political and aesthetic dimensions of social and political freedom were fleshed out (chapter 8). In this vibrant interaction about how best to (if at all) materialize Indian modernity, some voices noted the importance of spelling out modernity in India by placing her in a larger world. India’s intellectual traditions, they reasoned, did not place any heightened value on rejecting an idea simply because it arose elsewhere.
Layering another permeable dimension over this political one, we would be able to glimpse Hindu and Sufi remappings of idealistic trends provocated by encounters with speculative philosophy (chapter 9 and 10). But Bhushan and Garfield press upon the reader not to stop here. At what might appear to be a dead-end, they promise, await rich, desi accounts developed by colonial Indian philosophers (chapter 11). A closer study of their works will reveal just how fearless these philosophers really were. The lesser-known A. C. Mukerji (1888-1968), for example, drew on a host of resources (like Advaita Vedānta, Buddhist idealism, British neo-Hegelians) to achieve a plausible synthesis between idealism and realism, correspondence and coherence and metaphysics and science. His contemporary, the aforementioned K.C. Bhattacharya, leaned upon elements of Vedānta, Nyāya, Vaiśnava tantra, Kant and Husserl in explicating different modes of subjectivity, and drawing up nuanced interrelations between them and progressions in freedom. Imagistic, idealistic and spiritual thought were placed on a graded plane, all of which are grounded in an imaginative-reflective subject experiencing itself being in different modes in the world. But this is not all. Minds without Fear promises us a glimpse into yet another philosophical vista: Masala modernists like Mukerji and Bhattacharya expressed their deep dissatisfaction with a comparative philosophy, which in Mukerji’s words, “contented itself with discovering stray similarities between the Western and Indian thought” (258). Rather than treading down this barren path, they chose to draw upon all registers to make sense of the world they found themselves in (Bhattacharya, in fact, developed a theory of aesthetic experience which was related to his ruminations on subjectivity; see chapter 12). By engaging philosophically with a broader, global context, their philosophical efforts helped to renew and reinvigorate a living Indian philosophical tradition. They developed desi and modern Indian philosophical conceptions in an Indian vernacular (English). Interestingly, these were no lone rangers; their attempts at making sense of a hybrid world were matched by artists and aesthetes in the public sphere too (chapter 12).

We see how at least two of the aforementioned narratives begin to tumble under the weight of this analysis: (1) that colonialism brought intellectual activity to a complete standstill and, (2) that Indian philosophy is solely driven by spiritual concerns. Notice too how the—almost nonchalant—use of the renaissance-lens itself makes short shrift of the powerful narrative that the renaissance is unique only to Europe.

Famously, “comparative philosophy” began in India with a glint in B. Seal’s eye when he seized upon the opportunity afforded to him through, as he put it, the “fortuitous juxtaposition of two great cultures” brought on by colonialism (13). Today, this project has found its place in at least some niches in the modern global academy. Minds Without Fear makes us consider the possibility that simple compare-and-contrast exercises may be intellectually empty for reasons elucidated by some of Seal’s progeny. The book nudges its readers to seek a truly free knowledge, a knowledge which honestly faces up to its social grounding. With a wink towards those philosophers, who still await conclusive proofs of philosophical activity in non-Euroamerican philosophical traditions, the book would say: Sometimes, the “confirmation [may simply be found] in the kheer [a pudding-like dessert in India]” (69).

Nalini Bhushan and Jay L. Garfield: Minds without Fear, Philosophy in the Indian Renaissance
Oxford University Press, 2017
ISBN 135798642, 334 pages, US$49.95 (hbk)

Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Konstanz.

Life, ‘Technics’, and the Decline of the West

by Ian James Kidd

Oswald Spengler is best known as the author of Der Untergang des Abendlandes, ‘The Decline of the West’, a classic doomsday vision, first published in 1917. Describing the inevitable slide into intellectual, social, and cultural decay of our ‘Faustian’ culture, it was followed, two years later, by Preussentum und Sozialismus, which called for martial virtues, like discipline and self-sacrifice, as the best, most heroic responses to the doom awaiting us. Both the dark vision of history and life and the celebration of martial heroism persisted into Spengler’s next book, Der Mensch und die Technik, first published in 1932 and reissued, last year, by Routledge as part of their ‘Revivals’ series.

Oswald Spengler (Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R06610 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, this new edition is a flat reprint, lacking an introduction, therefore leaving readers in the dark about how the book fits within Spengler’s oeuvre. That’s to be regretted, since in certain respects, Man and Technics, its English title, represents a change of mood for Spengler. Its subtitle – ‘a contribution to a philosophy of life’ – strikes an oddly positive tone, where the ‘life’ spoken of is the raw, almost primal thing spoken of by early twentieth century Lebensphilosophen, like Spengler’s French contemporary, Henri Bergson. Certainly Man and Technics has many things in common with Der Untergang – its brooding character, grand ambition, and agonistic vision of life. But there is also, underneath that, something different. To see what this is, though, a little context might help.

The historian Jeffrey Herf classified Spengler as a ‘reactionary modernist’, one of a loose group of German historians, philosophers, cultural critics, and others, that included Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, and others. The reactionary modernists aimed, says Herf, to ‘reconcil[e] the antimodernist, romantic, and irrationalist ideas present in German nationalism’, with the ‘most obvious manifestation of means-end rationality’, namely, technology. An older cultural spirit filled with Geist, völkisch identity, and Nietzschean will-to-power was merged, remarkably, with new industrial and military technology, fulfilling the idea of a reactionary modernism – an embrace of the modern, but reacting against what Spengler lambasted as the ‘devastating shallowness’ of its liberalism, utilitarianism, and materialism. Profit, utility, and other bourgeois values stifle the true ‘essence of technics’, complained Spengler, who inveigles against ‘progress-philistines’ who fail to perceive in machines a pulsing Will zur Macht.

Cover of Ernst Jünger’s Der Arbeiter. Herrschaft und Gestalt (1932)

Only when the depth of ‘technics’ is properly grasped can the ‘soul of man’ be set free. Such is the aim of a genuine ‘philosophy of life’, fuelled by a philosophy of technology and history, focused on the release of vast energies and power. Understandably, Spengler’s vision in Man and Technics was welcomed by the National Socialists, with Josef Goebbels’s proclaiming the inauguration of ‘an age that is both romantic and steellike’ – a vision of a reactionary modernist state. But Spengler, for his part, resisted their efforts, complaining, if obliquely, that their militaristic zeal was just as shallow as those of the bourgeoisie. ‘The essence of technics’, he wrote, is identical with ‘the soul of man’, not the ends of military ambition. Man and Technics is less a manifesto for a militarised technological state than ‘the history of Man from his origins’, that affords, at its most portentous, ‘a provisional glimpse’ into our ‘destiny’.

Talk of destiny is, of course, not new to Spengler. Decline of the West offered a ‘morphology of world-cultures’, a description of the cyclical processes that dictate the movement of a Kultur into the degenerate form Spengler called a Zivilisation. With a sweeping historical gaze, the waxing and waning of these ‘world-cultures’ is described, from the Classical culture of ancient Greece and Rome, through the ‘Hindu’, ‘Magian’, and, finally, the ‘Faustian’. In the beginning, these cultures are potent and energetic, generating original images and values that coalesce in a ‘Prime Symbol’, like the nude statue of Rome, a symbol of pride, power, and autonomy.

Such ‘cultural-forms’ (Gestalt) are, however, swept up in irresistible transhistorical forces, destined to gradually decline, losing the vitality and energy that sustained their rise. In time, they degenerate into civilizations, orderly and stable, lacking vigorous energy and so declining into defeat or extinction. It was, of course, Spengler’s explanation of the decline of German culture into Weimar civilization as a product of historical forces beyond knowledge or control that made Decline of the West so popular in its day. Scholars, of course, attacked Spengler’s procrustean historiography and his vast generalisations, but the German public was captivated. Socially depressed and politically exhausted as much of Germany was, it’s easy to see why Spengler’s appeal to ‘morphological’ forces was an attractive diagnosis of decline, even if it came at the cost of profound fatalism.

By the 1930s, though, the appeal of Spengler’s original pessimistic historical determinism was fading. Emboldened by the rise of National Socialism, the new mood was more optimistic. Germany’s political and economic fortunes were changing, pushing out talk of inevitable decline. Certainly it now came to seem premature for Spengler to speak of German decline, with so many signs of activity, life, and power. Similar sentiments flowed through writings by other reactionary modernists in the early 1930s, always with industrial technology as a proof and symbol of this restoration. Among the most important of these fellow-travellers was the war hero, writer, and rhapsodist of battle, Ernst Jünger.

A couple of years before Man and Technics, Jünger published two landmark works, a vivid essay, Die totale Mobilmachung (1930), and its longer companion, Der Arbeiter (1932). The titular concepts pull together in a vision of a ‘totally mobilised’ society, whose entire energies, resources, and people are concentrated into a singular goal, pursued by a vast collective of ‘Workers’. These are not muscular fellows labouring in overalls, but creatures, at once ‘bees and titans’, utterly dominated by an inexorable desire to ‘summon … all possible forces’, deploying them for the purposes of struggle, domination, and violence. Technology, on this vision, is an expression of this primeval impulse to ‘total mobilisation’, to generate and unleash a collectivised will-to-power upon the world.

Spengler, too, celebrates the violent, transformative character of ‘technics’. Man and Technics describes a restlessly stirring ‘will-to-power’ that ‘embraces the world’ in the ‘gigantic power of its technical processes’. Sleepless factories, roaring furnaces, tireless production lines – all of these show the on-going manifestation of ‘technics’, the dynamic, agonistic force that Spengler conceived as a metaphysical force. Channelling Nietzsche’s Der Wille Zur Macht, ‘technics’ is characterised as ‘immemorially old’, ‘immensely general’, underlying all of life and history.

Through much of our history, ‘technics’ was manifested mainly in natural forces and processes, but with the age of technology – of Jünger’s world of ‘totally mobilised’ Arbeiter – we enter a new stage in the history of our species. Indeed, ours is the final stage, the dramatic point of culmination. ‘The creature is rising up against its creator’, warns Spengler, since under loathsome bourgeois influence we are ‘becoming the slave of the Machine’. Seeking comfort, profit, and utility, we are being lulled to sleep, dominated by ‘technics’, surrendering our vital power and spirit. Man and Technics contributes to a ‘philosophy of life’, then, by awakening in us a sense of our ‘doom’.

It is at this point that Spengler combines his earlier historical determinism with the new sense of agency and power. Ultimately, we are ‘doomed’, he says, to live in a stage in the history of human cultures where the release of those underlying energies reaches its final stages. Mass mobilisation, mechanised warfare, and other dimensions of modern industrial and military existence force us into ‘a grim, pitiless, no-quarter battle of the Will-to-Power’, the ultimate expression of ‘technics’. Unlike every age before, the ‘active, fighting, charged’ nature of the ‘soul of man’ finds total expression – a vast outpouring of power, able, on the one hand, to display our potencies, but, on the other, to culminate in our destruction. The ‘curse and … grandeur’ of the modern age, declares Spengler, lies in our being witnesses to – and, indeed participants in – the historical moment of the total realisation of ‘technics’, when the ‘soul of man’ finds its fullest, most satisfying expression.

The cost, of course, is our destruction, eradicated in a titanic, global release of violent energies, insatiable strife, and vast chaos, that will leave our ‘Faustian civilization … in fragments, forgotten … in ruins, like old Memphis and Babylon’. For Spengler, however, this is no cause for despair, since it affords us something momentous, ‘the Choice of Achilles … a short life, full of deeds and glory, [or] a long life without content’. Although the bourgeoisie of Weimar Germany urge the latter, those who appreciate that the ‘essence of technics’ is identical with the ‘soul of man’ will see – acutely, keenly – that a short life, ‘active, fighting, and charged’ affords our only true satisfaction.

Man and Technics is full of these sorts of remarks, testaments to the evocative style and vision of its author. Spengler is, if nothing else, a fascinating read, captivating and frustrating in almost equal measure. Certainly no-one should read his works as historical analyses, much less as prognostications, even if his vision of the relentless extension of technology into all areas of life does ring true. There are many technophiles writing, during this period, among whom Spengler sits among the most dramatic. In a sense, the interest of his work lies in its emotional appeal, his capacity, in the words of one historian, to ‘bewitch’ you, the way he ‘compels you to forget that we know better’. Perhaps it’s best to explain Spengler’s appeal in terms of his capacity to dramatize an ideal, better than any other reactionary modernist. The ideal or vision is what Thomas Mann called a ‘technological romanticism’, infusing technology with ‘soul’, even with ‘Destiny’. If ‘technics’ goes deep, an embrace of it is a source of depth, a way to be, says Spengler, ‘in the silent service of Being’.

There’s a rich resonance, here, with deeper currents in German intellectual history. A full account of Spengler needs to include German Romanticism, Kant, Lebensphilosophie, Hegel’s vision of history, Nietzsche’s metaphysics of the will-to-power, the later Heidegger’s ‘history of Being’, among others. If locating Spengler among such philosophically illustrious company seems overgenerous, one should consider, to take one example, his influence on Heidegger’s later writings, themselves so important to modern cultural criticism and environmental thought. Man and Technics describes how ‘we think only in horsepower now’ – a waterfall appears as a source of electric power, a field of cattle is ‘a source of meat-supply’ – and we see the origins of the later Heidegger’s conception of ‘technology’, a ‘way of revealing’ things and the world in the narrow terms of human use. Both Spengler’s ‘technics’ and the later Heidegger’s ‘technology’ offer a vision of reality and human life – totalising, violent, dramatic. The difference is, however, that the former ends in our inevitable doom, whereas the latter offers the enigmatic prospect of a ‘saving power’, an eventual emergence into a post-technological world.

Spengler’s own life ended without the drama and vigour described in his books. His criticisms of Nazi ideology, such as its racist biology, made his final days uncomfortable. Declining invitations to honours, professorships, and invitations to address the Nazi elite, Spengler awkwardly played up to his lone prophet status. ‘I do my thinking independently of parties, tendencies, and interests’, he said, and for that reason ‘see more keenly’. Studying the morphology of world-history, then, meant staying away from local and particular manifestations of its deep rhythms and dynamics.

Fortunately for Spengler, the Nazis froze him out, leaving him to live out his days reflecting on his Cassandra status as an unheeded prophet. By 1936, his influence was almost nil, although interest in his work would sporadically recur, not least among scholars of Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and other cultural pessimists. Certainly the existing scholarship on Spengler does not exhaust his interest or influence on twentieth-century history, politics, or philosophy—barely a handful of books exist, alongside a small scholarship.

It is to be hoped that the reissue of Man and Technics might encourage others to look again at Spengler, although this Routledge edition – a straight reissue of Charles Francis Atkinson’s 1932 translation, with no introduction or scholarly notes, priced at seventy pounds – is overpriced and underserved. The few who read it, though, may find something more interesting than they might expect from the brooding, pessimistic author of Decline of the West.

Oswald Spengler: Man and Technics. A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life
Translated by Charles Francis Atkinson
London: Routledge, 2016
ISBN 13-978-1-138-23180 (hbk)
104 pages, hardback, GBP 68.00

Ian James Kidd is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, UK. He has research interests in the history of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Austro-German philosophy and co-edited Wittgenstein and Scientism (Routledge, 2017).

Love in the Time of Swarms

by James R. Daniel

What sort of a life has new technology given us? To abide by the gospel of the digital age, it’s an ecstatic one. In recent years, a litany of tech advocates from Silicon Valley CEOs to futurists like Ray Kurtzweil have framed technological advancement, particularly in the area of digital communication, as the patron of the good life. As Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt told Berkeley graduates in 2012, “connectivity can revolutionize every aspect of society — politically, socially, economically.”

A similar question, albeit with a profoundly different answer, has oriented the prolific career of Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. In over twenty books, Han, a professor at Universität der Künste Berlin, has considered how capitalist accelerations and digital technology have undermined global society. In his most renowned work, The Burnout Society [Müdigkeitsgesellschaft] (2015, first published in German in 2010), Han details the existential fatigue resulting from the rise of the entrepreneurial self. Contemporary society, he claims, exhausts us, having stripped away all accoutrements save the drive to succeed. In The Transparency Society [Transparenzgesellschaft] (2015 [2012]), he argues that the vanishing privacy of the digital age, touted by the tech scene as a boon for social cohesion, furthers neoliberalism’s project of surveillance and control. These critiques, while they may track familiar lines in their analysis of the faulty logics at the heart of our technologically dependent culture—Bernard Stiegler and Maurizio Lazzarato are similarly inclined—offer one of the most cutting responses to Silicon Valley’s cyber-utopianism and the cult of neoliberal self-actualization.

Sketch of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (1791), public domain (source: Wikimedia Commons)

In two recently translated books, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects [Im Schwarm: Ansichten des Digitalen] (2017 [2013])and The Agony of Eros [Agonie des Eros] (2017 [2012]), Han turns his eye to the digital terrain of contemporary social relations. The former surveys the crisis of the commons and the technologically mediated loss of political subjectivity, theorizing the swarm as the key social actor on the global stage. The latter takes up technology’s devastation of the romantic relationship, suggesting that our reliance on the digital inhibits true intimacy. While entirely distinct works, both share a critique of digital capitalism’s betrayal of the human subject and theorize how a loss of the negative (in thought and in human relations) undermines contemporary life. Accordingly, against the increasingly common assertion that digital innovation offers us a way out of the isolation, poverty, and subjugation that defines late capitalism, Han maintains that technology has only buried us deeper.

In the Swarm is chiefly concerned with the question of collective subjectivity in the age of digital communication. In Han’s view, the Internet’s isolation of individuals has led to the emergence of a political unit without intersubjectivity or the capacity for substantive political engagement. More mob than assemblage, the swarm is a body that “lacks the soul or spirit of the masses” (10), a collective that subsumes rather than expresses individuality. Wielding a single weapon, the “shitstorm” (3), swarms unleash digital waves of destruction obliterating norms of governance and discourse across the Internet. Lacking the discipline of organized political collectives, Han regards swarms as ultimately ineffectual, haphazardly attacking individual victims rather than organizing against worthier sites of neoliberal authority (12). 

This disparaging view of the potential for contemporary political organizing crucially positions itself against post-Marxist theorists far more sanguine about agency in the context of late capitalism. Han explicitly contrasts his model of the swarm with Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Paolo Virno’s concept of the multitude, “an aggregate of singularities communicating with each other over networks and acting collectively” (12). For Han, this mode of collective deterritorialization responds to an outdated Marxist model of class society based upon the proletariat’s subjugation by the ruling class (13). On Han’s account, the contemporary subject is self-subjugating, an isolated and disconnected figure unable to find collectivity with other similarly disconnected subjects (13). Such a position underscores the singularity of Han’s critique as it negates the cautious optimism of leading critical theorists on dissent—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s rhizome is implied here as are theorizations of dissent by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. Against the prevailing tendency among critical theorists to locate the potential for new forms of political agency to emerge from networked relations, Han understands the network itself as maintaining political quietism.

Han’s other interlocutor in the text is Czech-born philosopher Vilém Flusser, a critic whose technological idealism parallels that of Silicon Valley. Throughout the book, Han consistently positions himself against Flusser’s techno-utopian position, locating peril where Flusser sees only possibility. Han opposes Flusser’s praise of the atrophy of the human body in the digital era, a condition that Flusser welcomes as the human being merges with technology and enters an age of leisure (32). For Han, atrophy represents the loss of the potential of resistance and the hegemony of labor: “the utopia of play leads to a dystopia of achievement and exploitation” (33). Against Flusser’s call for a new anthropology based on the digital world’s capacitation of invention and the merging of art and science, Han sees the establishment of solipsism and social isolation, calling digital networking “a narcissistic ego machine” (48). Regarding Flusser’s prediction of technology’s role in establishing a more democratic politics, Han portends the decline of discourse and the substitution of consumerism for politics: “Consumers buy what they wish, following personal inclination. Like is their motto. They are not citizens” (69).

Cumulatively, the work can be understood as a renovation of Michael Foucault’s critique of biopolitics, neoliberalism, and disciplinary society. While Foucault’s project concludes with the emergence of these forces, Han follows them into their flourishing. Against the explicit disciplinary of Bentham’s Panopticon, with its imposed isolation, Han regards the Internet as offering the false promise of liberation. As he argues, consumerism, social media, and smart devices have sold discipline in the guise of agency and affluence. “Digital technology” he writes, “has perfected Bentham’s Panopticon” (75). Further extending Foucault’s critique, Han asserts that power is now exerted not through biopolitics but “psychopolitics” (78), power that intervenes in “psychological processes themselves” (78). For Han, psychopolitics have closed the circle instantiated with the birth of the biopolitical, governing our “unconscious logic” (80) and entirely mediating our approach to reality as well as our embodied practices.

The Agony of Eros, whose introduction is penned by Alain Badiou, investigates the narcissism of romantic relationships in the digital era. For Han, lost is our capacity to see the Other as Other. Instead, the false freedom of the entrepreneurial self immerses the contemporary subject in the capitalist drives of “debt and default” (11), transforming the negativity of sex to the positivity of achievement. As Han writes, “When otherness is stripped from the Other, one cannot love—one can only consume” (12). On his account, such a substitution represents an inherent betrayal of the loving relation by the engine of capitalism as “Otherness admits no bookkeeping” (16).

A crucial outcome of this loss of otherness, for Han, is the attendant rise of “bare life” (21), what Giorgio Agamben has theorized as life exposed to political violence. In Han’s assessment, as we flee from negativity in all its various forms (sex and death), we indulge a cultish devotion to both health and work (19). Hence, we instantiate our physical existence and deny the potentiating encounter with otherness that eros provides (20). Contemporary global society, with its “Work Hard, Play Hard” lifestyle typified by increasingly long workweeks and cult-like group exercise culture precisely exemplifies such resistance to otherness. As Han argues, this denial perpetuates an attenuated half-life in which we subsist, “too dead to live, and too alive to die” (26). 

As in Han’s other critiques, the text constructs the digital as accessory to the eradication of otherness in contemporary culture.  On his account, pornography, and its digital proliferation, profanes eros by submitting it to a calculus of positivity (29). Pornography, in other words, by revealing what is meant to be done behind closed doors, removes all mystery from the sexual act by displaying it in lurid detail. Following Agamben’s analysis of profanation, Han argues that as concealment and occlusion are crucial for the erotic encounter, the revelatory nature of pornography as exhibition precludes eroticism (32). “Capitalism,” he further notes, “is aggravating the pornographication of society by making everything a commodity and putting it on display” (32). Han likewise credits the tendency of the digital world to display with annihilating our capacity to draw upon our interior resources of imagination and fantasy. As he argues, “faced with the sheer volume of hypervisible images, we can no longer shut our eyes” (40). For Han, digital culture’s capacity to realize and display the fantastic obviates the need for invention and accordingly turns the productive work of the imagination into the passive work of consumption.

Like in his critique of In the Swarm, The Agony of Eros similarly credits capitalism, the digital, and the reign of positivity with political impuissance. In Han’s assessment, the substitution of the purely sexual desire (epithumia) for passion (thumos) precludes mass political subjectivity (44). Just as digital connectivity paradoxically precludes the establishment of meaningful political collectives, Han similarly suggests that the pornographic impedes intimacy. Insofar as the intensities of neoliberalism and the digital draw us away from others and into ourselves, the exchange of the pornographic for eros, Han claims, robs us of our capacity for political resistance (45). Even more disastrously, Han suggests that esteeming the visible for the unseen ultimately privileges quantifiable, data-driven thinking at the expense of philosophical inquiry. As philosophy engages in inquiry of occluded depths, it is, at heart, an engagement with and a desire otherness. As Han writes, “Eros infuses thinking with a desire for the atopic Other” (53).

While both texts are exquisitely theorized, the determinative role Han ascribes to negativity may strike some as reductive. For Han, it is the loss of the negative that is ultimately at the heart of the crisis of eros and our digitally mediated isolation. Badiou notably questions this assessment of negativity in his introduction to The Agony of Eros, writing, “Must absolute negativity be mustered to counter the crass positivity of repetitive, self-serving gratification?” (xi). To extend Badiou’s question, why is a return to a negative dialectic (and it would certainly be a return) a means out of our contemporary bind? Putting aside the question of whether such a return would be possible, how would a rediscovery of the negative not ultimately be regressive?

Han is certainly careful to avoid any trace of nostalgia in his condemnation of positivity, yet by locating the contemporary crisis in an imbalance of positivity wrought by the digital, his analysis seems to tempt it. Here, Han encounters the thorniest problematic of digital criticism, namely the question of how to condemn digital supremacy without implicitly appealing to technophobia. In part, Han’s response lies in the structure of his critique of negativity. As Han critiques the overabundance of the positive without offering a solution or political program, he presents a negative, non-affirmationist response to the crisis of positivity. Because an explicit tactical response or a political program would indulge a pornographic tendency to display what is to be occluded, internal, and cognitive, Han demurs. Such silence following his critique, accordingly, should not necessarily be viewed as indecision but rather as an invitation for the reader to engage the negative on their own. However, Han’s silence additionally emphasizes the supremacy of the digital and the inherent difficulty of theorizing other possibilities. Effectively, Han’s silence also intimates that digital capitalism is hegemonic precisely because it brokers no alternative. 

Byung-Chul Han,
In the Swarm: Digital Prospects
Translated by Erik Butler
Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780262533362
104 pages, Paperback, US$ 13.95

Byung-Chul Han,
The Agony of Eros
Translated by Erik Butler
Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780262339230
88 pages, Paperback, US$ 12.95

James Rushing Daniel is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of writing at Philadelphia University.

Felix Kaufmann and the Merging of Traditions

by Ádám Tamás Tuboly

In 2015, Robert S. Cohen and Ingeborg K. Helling edited Felix Kaufmann’s Die Methodenlehre der Sozialwissenschaften as Theory and Method in the Social Sciences. Kaufmann’s book, originally published in German in 1936, at the peak of the logical positivists’ activities in Europe; but given Austria’s highly unfavorable circumstances (before and after the Anschluß), Kaufmann, in 1938, like many logical positivists, emigrated to the United States. After his arrival, he was invited to produce a similar work as his 1936 book, but instead, during the arrangement of the publishing process, he completed a new manuscript which, in 1944, became the Methodology of the Social Sciences (New York, Oxford University Press).

Thus the new book was not just a translation of the older, but a polished and updated one, adapted to the new American environment: it was injected with John Dewey’s pragmatism and logic of inquiry. The English-speaking world had to wait almost eighty years for a translation of the original book – but, as I will attempt to show, it was worth it for various reasons.

Felix Kaufmann, 1895-1949 (source: public domain)

A few words of contextualization may help the reader to appreciate Kaufmann’s work both in its original and contemporary circumstances. The history of twentieth-century philosophy may be considered as the development of nineteenth century thought into the so-called “analytic” and “Continental” philosophies. Though there are numerous definitions of these types of philosophy most of them cannot be viewed as exclusive and comprehensive. A few names and debates shall suffice to motivate this distinction: Whereas hermeneutics, existentialism, phenomenology, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty are typical examples of the continental movement, logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, Rudolf Carnap, W. V. O. Quine, Saul Kripke, and David Lewis are examples of analytic philosophy.

These two traditions or canons are usually held to be separated by their problem-horizons, definitions of key term and notions, their historical self-estimation, their goals and aims, and their scientific-philosophical character. These features in themselves should not be expected to stir up more than some heated academic and institutional debates conducted in professional journals. But given the highly questionable and isolated character of much of contemporary philosophy, as practiced in university classrooms, any inside debate about its very legitimacy – and the debate between Continental and analytic philosophers has often tended to degenerate into existentially loaded disputes about who is a real philosopher – may come at the detriment of the discipline as a whole.

In recent decades, however, there has been a growing awareness of the hidden dangers behind the divide that characterizes the profession and people have started to work out different strategies to bury the hatchet. This could be done, in very general terms, as either a normative or a descriptive project. (i) One might attempt to show that even if there are few prima facie substantial connections between the traditions (besides both calling themselves ‘philosophy’) one has to work out such connections for the greater good. (ii) Or it might be shown that there is no need to work out such a faux rapprochement since the required connections and linkage are already there; scholars just need to dig deeper into the history of philosophy.

Occasionally, the second approach even tries to show that back in those days the aforementioned deep-seated divide within philosophy as we know it today either did not exist or surfaced in very different ways. The typical examples in this respect are the problem of non-existent entities (with the names of Bertrand Russell, Alexius Meinong, and Edmund Husserl), considerations of relativity, space and physics (with Husserl, Nicolai Hartmann, Ernst Cassirer, Hugo Dingler and Rudolf Carnap), the status and meanings of metaphysics (Martin Heidegger, Carnap), and the philosophy of mathematics (Husserl and Gottlob  Frege). Finally, a lesser-known example is Oskar Becker’s ‘Mathematische Existenz,’ which appeared in Volume 8 of Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung (1927), founded by Husserl. Becker is interesting for two reasons. On the one hand, he tries to combine mathematical intuitionism with a vaguely Heideggerian philosophy. On the other hand, Becker’s work was published in the same volume as Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit and did not become as widely read and discussed as the later.

Interestingly a quite similar story can be told also about Felix Kaufmann. He published his Das Unendliche in der Mathematik und seine Ausschaltung in 1930 (the English translation, together with other articles, appeared in 1978 as The Infinite in Mathematics – Logico-mathematical Writings, as volume 9 of the Vienna Circle Collection): in it, he tried to give a systematic and comprehensive account of mathematical intuitionism from the viewpoint of Husserlian phenomenology. While Kaufmann’s work did not get much attention (though Carnap made an effort to debate Kaufmann’s ideas in his Logical Syntax of Language), it is still an important historical document. It was written and published the year before Kurt Gödel announced his incompleteness theorem, one of the cornerstones of twentieth-century (philosophy of) mathematics. Thus, it was not only the nature of philosophy and metaphysics in general, and mathematics and phyics in particular, which provided a common field for many philosophers during the first decades of twentieth century; the philosophy and methodology of social science, too, meant a shared interest for analytic and Continental thinkers. Kaufmann’s aforementioned Methodenlehre der Sozialwissenschaften, in this sense, may be just what one needs to turn to if one is looking for a documentation of that shared interest.

Having been only a peripheral member of the Vienna Circle, Felix Kaufmann (1895-1949), philosopher of law, mathematics and social science, contributed knowledge and perspective beyond the empiricist ideal. His basic interest, and the influence of friends, directed him to another philosophical school, Husserlian phenomenology. This detailed and conscientious work led Kaufmann to his — unfortunately, and unjustly, neglected — Methodenlehre der Sozialwissenschaften, published recently, in an English translation, as Theory and Method in the Social Sciences. The English version consists of two parts: the first is an editorial introduction written by Helling, which runs to some 100 pages, the second is the actual translation of Kaufmann’s book.

The introduction aims to serve as a general account of Kaufmann’s overall work, and in particular as a shorter contextualization of his 1936 book. The adjective ‘shorter’ is justified by the fact that it is only slightly longer than 30 pages: Helling discusses some biographical dates, Kaufmann’s original context regarding the social sciences in the interwar Vienna-period, his position in the book, his relation to the Vienna Circle and Austrian economists (he participated in many discussion groups, among others, the Schlick Circle and the von Mises Group), and his position in the philosophy of law (Kaufmann’s first doctorate was in law, while the second from philosophy). These topics are considered in the first half of the first part of the introduction (pp. 2-19); the second half (pp. 19-34) is devoted to Kaufmann’s relation to Alfred Schütz and John Dewey, so the reader gains some insight into Kaufmann’s American period, his intense correspondence with Dewey and some of his phenomenological context; unfortunately Schütz, whose important role in Kaufmann’s life is beyond doubt, received more attention than Husserl, who was one of the heroes in the 1936 book.

The second part of the introduction is a collection of interviews and recollections of friends, colleagues, students, and his family (pp. 34-94). Helling conducted interviews, amongst others, with Ernest Nagel, Friedrich August von Hayek, Ilse Schutz, and George Kaufmann. Though the interviews contain many repetitions, and they are quite hard to read given their oral style, the  documentation, which runs to some 60 pages, is still a very important part of the book: it does a good job of offering the so-called emic, that is, inner perspective of the milieu in which Kaufmann worked in Vienna and later in the United States. To mention just one example: Helling did not ask whether Kaufmann was a logical positivist or a phenomenologist, but which of the two he was considered to be by his associates. We almost never get a straightforward answer, though. The reason behind this might be that Kaufmann was not interested in labels, so he never cared about what he was called: a phenomenologist or a logical positivist (pp. 91-92). Tellingly, however, Kaufmann was not listed in the Vienna Circle’s manifesto whether as a member, or as a close associate, though the latter he indeed was – it is known from Carnap diaries that they discussed Carnap’s Aufbau, as well as Kaufmann’s work in the philosophy of mathematics, and he often participated in the Circle’s regular Thursday-meetings. On the other hand, Gustav Bergmann, in his recollections, claimed that Kaufmann was from the phenomenological school, and though Moritz Schlick, the informal leader of the Vienna Circle, was usually a patient and sober person, he occasionally showed signs of impatience and sometimes even interrupted the Circle’s discussions when it was Kaufmann’s turn to speak.

Kaufmann indeed was very close to the phenomenological movement. He held a course in the United States about Husserl’s Ideen (p. 90), admired Husserl’s work which he discussed with Schütz many times; furthermore, he wrote a piece for Husserl’s 1940 Festschrift edited by the founder of the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Marvin Farber. In that article, Kaufmann compares Husserlian phenomenology to logical positivism and gives a critique of the latter’s atomistic epistemology. Even when he wrote a review of a collection of articles by Philipp Frank, the founder and director of the Institute for the Unity of Science in the United States, he complained about the neglect of the Husserlian insights in the works of logical positivists.

Most of the time, however, Kaufmann was regarded as a bridge-builder between phenomenology and logical positivism or, at the risk of sounding anachronistic, between Continental and analytic philosophy. And his major step toward the unity of philosophy was his 1936 book whose aim it was “first to attain a clear orientation with respect to the research goals and research procedures of the social sciences” (105). The social sciences and their methodology provided the subject matter and some clarificatory remarks are in order.

Edmund Husserl (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

By the ‘methodology of social sciences,’ Kaufmann did not mean the actual, technical practices of a professional social scientist. He never talked about collecting empirical (social or economic) data and performing statistical analysis, about preparing objective questionnaires for interviews, about the nuts and bolts of preparing anthropological fieldwork. “A methodology of the social sciences, as we understand it”, Kaufmann claimed (p. 106), “has to set as its task a systematic analysis of types of problems and types of procedures.” Therefore ‘methodology’ is a meta-investigation of the scientific field, a philosophical inquiry into those problems and practices that might be overlooked by social science practitioners: what do they count as the cornerstones (i.e. analytic, a priori) statements of their theories? what would they willing to revise (synthetic statements) in light of their experiences? Therefore, the majority of the Methodenstreit’s content (the well-known debate about method in the early twentieth century German-speaking world) is embedded in the debate about the relation of natural to social sciences. The path could be cleared only if we clarify the nature of “mathematical and physical lawfulness” (108), and that is the point where the logical positivists’ philosophy of mathematics and logic proved handy to Kaufmann.

Nonetheless, he was quite critical about some of the most important thoughts associated with logical positivism like the unity of science, physicalism, and the supposedly atomistic approach to experience and knowledge. Connecting the second and the third, Kaufmann summarizes the typical positivist position regarding the ‘interpretation of statements about other human beings’ as follows:

‘All knowledge about one’s fellow men arises by means of establishing links between observations of their body movements, and thus all control statements must be directed toward such observations, and accordingly the thesis, that sentences about one’s fellow men have an added meaning that goes beyond that, is uncontrollable, unverifiable in principle, and thus unscientific (metaphysical).’ (p. 215)

He claims that “[n]ot many words are required to refute this argument” (ibid.), but still provides some typical analogical arguments.

Some of the main strengths of the book lie in the last two chapters, where Kaufmann utilizes his methodological and philosophical achievements to reconstruct the logical structure of the scientific theories of law and economy (pp. 307-337 and 337-353). As a regular participant in economics meetings and as a law lecturer, Kaufmann was in a rather good position to attempt a synthesis between these fields and the approaches of logical positivism and phenomenology. He thus argued for the thesis that even if there is some important and essential difference between the natural and social sciences (somehow undermining the thesis of the unity of science, pp. 207-208), that does not mean that one should immediately draw the conclusion that social investigations are thereby unscientific in character.

A few words should be said about the recent edition itself. Though the editors did an excellent job on the translation, initiated first by John Viertel and Carolyn Fawcett (always, for example, providing the important original German notions and phrases) and though the introduction is likewise full of helpful material for the interested reader, some more care would have been desirable regarding the edition in general. Three things should be mentioned.

First, there is no detailed table of contents – what we have, instead, lists only the major parts (the introduction, Kaufmann’s work, and the index); given that the original book has many subsections, it would have been useful to see them (and not just a photo of the original book cover, p. 103) in order to facilitate navigation. Secondly, the page breaks are handled in an unfortunate way – often they aren’t there where one would expect them. Part 1 and Section 1 begin on the same page the Introduction ends on – with barely as much as a blank line in between. Thirdly, though Kaufmann mentions (p. 105) that the book has two indexes (for names and subjects), and there are indeed two of them in the original German version, yet in the English translation we find only the index of names, and not of subjects, which would, in fact, be quite important to keep track of the various approaches, ideas, and notions used by Kaufmann in the book. Given the richness of the content and the importance of the material, the reader rightly expects more editorial care and better production value.

Nonetheless, Theory and Method in the Social Sciences is both a very important historical source, a document of the early synthesis of what would later become Continental and analytic philosophy, and a useful text for anyone interested in the general philosophical-methodological problems of sciences, especially those of the social sciences in relation to the Naturwissenschaften.

Robert S. Cohen, Ingeborg K. Helling (eds.): Felix Kaufmann’s Theory and Method in the Social Sciences.
Series: Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, Vol. 303
ISBN: 978-3-319-02844-6
Price: $179.00
Springer, 2016, x + 357 pages, hardcover

Ádám Tamás Tuboly obtained his PhD at the University of Pécs and is now a junior research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy, Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He works on problems in the history of analytic philosophy, especially in the historical reception of Rudolf Carnap and logical empiricism.

(c) 2016 The Berlin Review of Books

This article was first published in two parts (29th June and 2nd July 2016; it was subsequently re-issued using the first date).

World in a Bag

by Giovanna Colombetti

Have you ever paused to consider the role your handbag plays in your life? Or, if you don’t own one, in the lives of those who do? If you are a pragmatic type of person, chances are you think of the handbag as primarily a container for toting useful items around. I certainly did—until, that is, I came across Le sac: Un petit monde d’amour (literally, “The handbag: A small world of love”) and realized just how naïve this assumption is. As one of the women quoted in the book says: “if you examine a woman’s handbag, you can almost understand her, define her, define who she is and what she has gone through in her life” (p. 129, my translation). Whether or not you agree with this statement, I am sure that reading Le sac will change how you think of and look at the handbag.

Hermès Kelly bag. (Photo by BrandMerchandise; source: Wikimedia Commons; used under CC-BY-SA 3.0 License)

The author of this engaging book, Jean-Claude Kauffman, is a prolific French sociologist, essayist and novelist who has written more than 20 books over 30 years, many of which have been translated into several languages (see Some works that have appeared in English are Dirty linen: Couples and their laundry (1998), The single woman & the fairytale prince (2008), The meaning of cooking (2010) and Love online (2012). As these titles indicate, Kaufmann is primarily interested in relationships, women, and ordinary activities. In Le sac he discusses the handbag as an object of everyday use, and develops a variety of considerations related especially to how people manipulate this item to fabricate their identity.

The book is a joy to read, with plenty of intelligent, sensitive and playful reflections. Kaufmann composed it by drawing primarily on personal narrations from 75 members of the public, collected by posting a survey on (the French edition of) Psychologies Magazine. Other sources include blogs and email exchanges with the respondents. Le sac is divided into snappy chapters that discuss disparate but related topics, such as the various contents of the handbag, the difference between the act of filling and that of emptying the handbag, the functions and uses of larger and smaller handbags, the difference between women’s and men’s handbags, and the various roles the handbag plays at different stages of one’s life.

I am not a sociologist, so I am not in a position to assess the contribution of this book to the sociological debate on artefacts and to other themes briefly touched upon, such as secrets, gender, and consumerism. In fact, I think it would be inappropriate to subject the book to a too-analytical scrutiny, given that it is not an academic book; it is directed rather at a general well-educated public, and as such is intentionally light and playful, avoiding jargon and technical theoretical reflections. So I will leave hair-splitting analyses and criticisms aside, and rather explain why, in spite of this lightness, as an academic I found the book not only very pleasant to read and entertaining, but also stimulating and inspiring for my own research.

The author of this engaging book, Jean-Claude Kauffman, is a prolific French sociologist, essayist and novelist who has written more than 20 books over 30 years, many of which have been translated into several languages (see Some works that have appeared in English are Dirty linen: Couples and their laundry (1998), The single woman & the fairytale prince (2008), The meaning of cooking (2010) and Love online (2012). As these titles indicate, Kaufmann is primarily interested in relationships, women, and ordinary activities. In Le sac he discusses the handbag as an object of everyday use, and develops a variety of considerations related especially to how people manipulate this item to fabricate their identity.

Model with Louis Vuitton handbag at the New York Fashion week (Photo by David Shankbone; released under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 License; source: Wikimedia Commons)

The book is a joy to read, with plenty of intelligent, sensitive and playful reflections. Kaufmann composed it by drawing primarily on personal narrations from 75 members of the public, collected by posting a survey on (the French edition of) Psychologies Magazine. Other sources include blogs and email exchanges with the respondents. Le sac is divided into snappy chapters that discuss disparate but related topics, such as the various contents of the handbag, the difference between the act of filling and that of emptying the handbag, the functions and uses of larger and smaller handbags, the difference between women’s and men’s handbags, and the various roles the handbag plays at different stages of one’s life. I am not a sociologist, so I am not in a position to assess the contribution of this book to the sociological debate on artefacts and to other themes briefly touched upon, such as secrets, gender, and consumerism. In fact, I think it would be inappropriate to subject the book to a too-analytical scrutiny, given that it is not an academic book; it is directed rather at a general well-educated public, and as such is intentionally light and playful, avoiding jargon and technical theoretical reflections. So I will leave hair-splitting analyses and criticisms aside, and rather explain why, in spite of this lightness, as an academic I found the book not only very pleasant to read and entertaining, but also stimulating and inspiring for my own research.

I am a philosopher of emotion and cognition, and I stumbled upon this book while looking for works discussing how we relate affectively to our material surroundings. More specifically, I wanted to find evidence of how people manipulate and relate to objects in order to support and structure their affective life. Kaufmann’s book proved to be very informative. As he puts it, “there are all the emotions of the world in a handbag” (p. 8, my translation) and his account indeed reveals many different ways in which the handbag plays an affectively salient role in our lives. As Kaufmann does not provide a systematic account of this aspect of his work, let me do so for him.

I spotted at least seven different affective roles/meanings of the handbag, going from its interior to its exterior:

(1) The contents of the handbag appear to have a variety of affective functions. A central one is to rekindle personally significant memories, and to this aim people carry all sorts of things: pictures of loved ones, journals, old cinema tickets, lovers’ poems, and more. Sometimes the handbag itself, when inherited from a loved one for example, is a cherished memento.

(2) Other contents influence one’s sense of what one can do, for example by making one feel safer, as in the case of personal alarms or small weapons.

(3) Then comes the affective quality of the action of putting things inside the handbag, and of taking them out, which Kaufmann insightfully and quite comically describes as diametrically opposed: whereas the former comes with a sense of ease and comfort, and has a markedly pleasant character, the latter can be frustrating and exasperating as one ends up finding anything but what one is looking for.

(4) The act of organizing the handbag for the day is itself often accompanied by affective feelings too, as some people enjoy planning and imaginatively structuring their actions and the parts they will play in various situations.

(5) Moving outward, to the handbag’s looks and feels, we find that many people cherish the physical contact with their handbag, the sense of reassurance that comes from touching, carrying and even smelling it, or the uplifting character of its colours and the sheer aesthetic pleasure of looking at it. As Kaufmann discusses in one dedicated chapter, several people recall buying a handbag after falling in “love at first sight” with its appearance.

(6) Then there is the affective feeling of how the handbag looks on oneself, how it fits with one’s cloths and body shape, and how it helps define or redefine one’s image and style.

(7) And finally, the affective value of the handbag is also revealed in how other people regard it—as something profoundly personal, intimate, so much a part of one’s self that its contents can be explored only with the owner’s permission and, even then, with respect and consideration.

Who are the people whose narrations contributed to making this book so insightful? Unfortunately, we are not told where they are from—socially, culturally, geographically—and what they do in their lives. Many of them come across as strikingly perceptive and self-reflective, clearly cherishing the opportunity to reflect on their relation to their handbag (or, more often, handbags) and to further their self-understanding. Although Kaufmann does not provide statistics, it is apparent that the vast majority of his respondents were women. And indeed, as he notes, the handbag appears to be primarily, still, a woman’s object. His suggestion is that this is because of the lingering role of women as primary carers and providers-for-others—a plausible explanation I thought, further supported by the finding that the handbag tends to grow bigger or smaller in a woman’s different life stages: heavy and full of things when she is growing a family, less voluminous and lighter later in life, when she discovers a new freedom less encumbered by responsibilities.

Reading this playful book was a journey of self-discovery for me as well. Before reading it I was, I confess, entirely oblivious to the handbag. As I cycle most of the time, I mainly use a pannier, and generally try to carry as little as possible on me, preferring to keep my hands and shoulders free. My attitude, I now know, resembles in this respect that of (most) men, indicating perhaps a certain reluctance to take on the role of “carrier” of others’ needs. In fact, I do not even own a handbag—or rather, I should say, I did not even own a handbag when I first read this book… because I have in the meantime gotten myself one! Aware of its importance, I have chosen it carefully, making sure I like how it looks and feels. Predictably, however, I have thereby also joined the rows of those who spend hours rummaging in it to find things that inevitably slip in its deeper layers. More importantly, I do not look at the world in the same way anymore: I find myself observing people’s handbags on trains, social gatherings and conferences, and wondering what role this object plays in their lives. So, in my case at least, Le sac has successfully achieved one of his main aims: by foregrounding the ordinary, it has changed my way of looking at the world, making me more aware of the many meanings of our everyday things and actions. I think Kaufmann would be pleased.

Jean-Claude Kaufmann: Le sac. Un petit monde d’amour
Paris: JC Lattès
ISBN: 9782709635462
Paperback, 252 pages, EUR 17.80

Giovanna Colombetti is Associate Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy, and Anthropology at the University of Exeter, UK, and the author of The Feeling Body: Affective Science Meets the Enactive Mind (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press 2014).

(c) 2015 The Berlin Review of Books

Democracy in Retreat?

by Soraj Hongladarom

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow of the Council of Foreign Relations, an independent organization devoted to the study of international relations and global security. It is well-known as the publisher of the journal Foreign Affairs. Kurlantzick’s field is South-East Asian politics and democratization of third-world countries. His new book, Democracy in Retreat, details a monumental change in democratization, or the reverse thereof in many of these countries – a worrying trend that deserves the attention of world leaders and everyone who cherishes democracy.

Speech by anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban in the run-up to the Feb 2014 elections. (Photo: Takeaway, Source: Wikimedia Commons – Used under Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)

Kurlantzick’s main argument is that democracy is in retreat in many countries. What is surprising is that the retreat is driven by the same middle class who fought for democracy in the last few decades. By contrast, they are now fighting for less democracy, or are starting to view it with much less friendly eyes than before. Many in the middle class in these developing countries have come to believe that democracy does not bring them what they value the most, namely rule of law, transparency, and political and economic justice. As a consequence, they are starting to call for a return to more autocratic forms of government, which they believe to be less corrupt and more responsive to the needs of the people. Most importantly, however, the middle class believes that this more autocratic form will secure its position as the privileged class in the face of rising challenges posed by the rising “new middle class,” namely the people who used to be villagers and farmers but now have benefited from economic development and who start to demand their fair economic share.

The argument is based on a historical analysis of democratization in these countries, which Kurlantzick divides into several waves. The First Wave took place roughly after the end of World War I, when countries such as Germany and Italy became democratic. This wave included Russia, which became a democracy for a brief period after the fall of the Tsarist regime. China also became democratic after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 that toppled the emperor and created the Nationalist Government. Japan developed its democratic constitution during the reign of Emperor Meiji in the years leading up to the First World War. What ties these countries together is that the democratization process was closely connected with modernization and the sudden change from the old autocratic, monarchical system to a democratic one. Siam (as Thailand was called before 1942 when the name was changed) became democratic during this time too, when the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932.

The Second Wave occurred after World War II. What is characteristic of this period is that many colonial countries became independent and began to search for the most suitable forms of government for their countries, which in most cases were the democratic ones. Countries such as India and Indonesia became democratic at this time. However, democratization during this wave was beset by frequent coups d’états and the Cold War struggle between two competing global political ideologies.

Kurlantzick’s Third Wave of democratization first took shape in the 1970s in the context of these frequent coups d’états, when the people started to fight against militarism and instituted democratic change. Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution” was credited as the first of these campaigns against military rule, which led to waves of democratization mostly in Latin American countries. In Thailand, the Third Wave coincided with the uprising of students and the middle class against military rule in 1973, leading to a short-lived democratic period from 1973 to 1976.

The Fourth Wave is a result of the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union opened up the flood gate that had held at bay the democratic aspirations and independency ambitions in many countries. The Fourth Wave is associated with the view of Francis Fukuyama, who in the early 1990s, proclaimed the ‘end of history’ and declared that the ideology of liberal democracy had triumphed. Many countries in Africa became democracies during this wave. As for Thailand, we can see that the promulgation of the 1997 Constitution, which was believed to be the country’s most democratic, took place alongside this wave. What is notable during this period is that the middle class was the key player in the transformation process to a fully democratic form. They believed that democracy would bring in a fresh form of government, one that was free from arbitrary, inept and corrupt military rule.

However, Kurlantzick notes in the book that the Fourth Wave is now fast losing steam. The middle class who had supported democracy at the inception of the Fourth Wave is now turning its back against it. The trend, according to Kurlantzick, is truly global. In Egypt, a government that had been elected by the people was toppled in a coup d’état in 2013, a move that was supported by a rather large proportion of the middle class. In Thailand, the protracted protests against former Primer Minister Thaksin Shinawatra can also be seen as a reaction of the middle class to a democratic regime.

Apparently, then, the middle class is disillusioned with democracy. Instead of realizing their dreams when they fought for democracy during the Third and Fourth Waves, the elected leaders behaved in such a way that they became “elected autocrats.” Using their clout obtained via populist policies, leaders in these democratic regimes manage to get themselves elected time and again, leading to the middle class despairing over measures to get these leaders out of office. Instead of ousting these autocratic leaders through the ballot box, they choose to do so through street protests and violence. In either case, then, the democratic process is seriously impaired.

So these newly democratizing countries are facing a dilemma. On the one hand, they seem to be mired in the seemingly perpetual rule by elected autocrats; on the other hand, they believe that the only way out is to rely on military force or other non-democratic means. In either case democracy cannot fully function. Kurlantzick, in his book, provides a number of recommendations regarding how to break out of the dilemma. One thing is that people have to realize that the best way to combat corruption sustainably is through a fully functioning and mature democratic process. This takes a long time, and the middle class are notorious for their impatience. So they prefer quick fixes, such as violently toppling an elected leader whom they perceive to be corrupt, but then the vicious cycle continues. The middle class need to have a realistic expectation of democracy. Democracy is not a panacea, but an ideal that requires everyone to work for it. Furthermore, Kurlantzick clearly suggests that powerful democratic countries in the West must support these struggling democracies by ensuring that institutions in those countries are strong enough to withstand the force of anti-democratic sentiments. What is missing in his book is an account of this “Fifth” Wave of democratization. This wave has not happened, of course, but it certainly will, as it will be a reaction against the various attacks on ‘Fourth Wave’ democracy by the current disillusioned middle class. It is up to all of us to design what the Fifth Wave will actually look like.

Kurlantzick’s argument is quite startling. After all, the middle class has traditionally been perceived as a champion of democracy. However, the data reported by Kurlantzick is unmistakable: the middle class is indeed disillusioned with democracy. The ongoing protests against the establishment in the United States also add fuel to the fire. Many Thai members of the middle class, for example, seem to genuinely believe that democracy is broken and needs to be fixed, and they would not mind a system that takes away their rights and liberties. Perhaps they have been in a democracy for too long and take their rights and liberties for granted, so they cannot imagine what it would be like to be without basic democratic rights. In any case, Kurlantzick’s book is an urgent call for action. If democracy is actually worth saving, which indeed it is, then it is the duty of all of us to help realize it, especially where it is most precarious.

Joshua Kurlantzick: Democracy in Retreat. The Revolt of the Middle Class and
the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government
ISBN: 978-0300175387
Price: US$18.90
Yale University Press, New Haven 2013, 304 pages, Hardcover.

Soraj Hongladarom is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and Director of the Center for Ethics of Science and Technology. He works mainly in the fields of bioethics and information ethics.

(c) 2014 The Berlin Review of Books.