The Philosophers Stoned

Review: Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley (editors), ‘The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments’

The School of Athens by Raphael
Raphael, The School of Athens / Wikimedia Commons

The pieces in this book are referred to on the dust jacket as "essays," but really they are blog posts, reprinted without alteration from the website of the New York Times. It is odd to be holding a hardback volume of more than 800 pages and read sentences such as "In a recent essay for The Stone [the name of the Times’s philosophy blog], Timothy Williamson correctly reports that naturalism is popular in philosophy."

A few pages later we are told:

In response to the question posed in my previous essay in The Stone—"What is Naturalism"—Alex Rosenberg defines it as "the philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge." His post, "Why I Am a Naturalist," nicely exemplifies one of my main complaints, by leaving it unclear what he means by "science" or "scientific method," even though it is crucial for what he is committing himself to as a "naturalist."

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If you are like me, when faced with this kind of writing you are conditioned to look for a hyperlink somewhere. Shouldn’t there at least be a footnote telling us the page where we can find what Rosenberg said about Williamson’s response to so-and-so? Reading the grown-up equivalent of a flame war on paper is very disorienting.

There are other problems that remind the reader of the book’s online provenance. Typos ("creedal," "raison dêtre") are everywhere, as is dumbing down, applied with the inconsistency that is unavoidable in daily journalism. How many people who will need to be informed that Kant was an "eighteenth century moral philosopher" will nod along when poor old R.G. Collingwood is mentioned sans bio?

The Stone Reader is divided into four sections: "Philosophy," "Science," "Religion and Morals," and "Society." The title of the first is oddly chosen in the sense that for the purposes of this volume it should embrace the other three, but according to the acknowledgements at the back, the selection and organization was largely the work of graduate students, who probably worked without pay.

The book is subtitled "Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments," but a great deal of material here involves neither philosophy nor argument. The personal reflection on the school shooting in Newton, Connecticut, the breezy encyclopedia-style recounting of the history of just war theory in recent American foreign policy, and the statistical overview of race-related income disparities in the United States and Cuba in the "Society" section could each have appeared on or any number of websites with no philosophical pretensions.

"The proportion of high school graduates was actually higher among blacks than whites in Cuba," Alejandro de la Fuente writes in "A Lesson From Cuba on Race," "whereas the opposite was true in both Brazil and the United States. Whites continued to enjoy an advantage at the college level, but it was miniscule. About 4.4 percent of white adults (twenty-five or older) had a college degree, compared to 3.5 for those counted as black in the census or 3.2 for those counted as mestizos or mixed race." Not exactly Nietzsche, or even Quine.

Even those items here that approach the discipline seriously and address pressing questions—the mind-body problem, the shortcomings of methodological naturalism, the existence of God—in philosophical language and on philosophical terms, have the scope of, well, blog posts. Gordon Marino makes a good argument in favor of boxing lessons and dodge ball in school—"how are we supposed to learn to stand up to our fears if we never have any supervised practice in dealing with the jitters," but his references to Aristotle and "the German idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel" seem like so much padding here. Even more bizarre is "The Core of Mind and Cosmos," which is, as its title suggests, an excerpt from a book by Thomas Nagel, the kind of thing that sometimes appears in magazines or online for promotional reasons. Why, with the book available in stores, would anyone have bothered reprinting this?

I am not arguing that things first published in periodical form should never appear between hardcovers (hint, hint). But anyone interested in, say, the controversies surrounding physicalism can read Jaegwon Kim’s excellent primer or one of the numerous Very Short Introductions from Oxford University Press. Those with less time on their hands could read these pieces from online, free of charge.