The Broken Estate

I recently read James Wood’s The Broken Estate. Essays on Literature and Belief. It was utterly riveting and I stayed up late to keep reading essays on the novelists I was most familiar with. It is the best kind of literary criticism: sensitive, serious, morally charged, subtle; emerging from a broad and deep knowledge of the canon; above all, it makes one want to read better. Wood is a very talented writer whose own thought displays a novelistic fluidity and suppleness. His essays on Pynchon, DeLillo and Updike confirmed some intuitions I had about them and his essay on Sabbath’s Theater was moving. Highly recommended.

Interview with George Pattison


A history and historical novel

I’ve recently finished two fairly lengthy and very good books. Philipp Meyer’s pulitzer-finalist The Son is a historical fiction of Texas from the mid-nineteenth century until the present. Steven Ozment’s A mighty fortress is a briskly narrated history of Germany from the ancient tribes to today. One of the novel’s themes is the difficulty of being an individual with a different morality from the prevailing one. Peter is a character extremely uncomfortable with the killing and stealing that most people consider perfectly normal, whether indigenous tribes people, White or Mexican. Nor can he accept the stratification of wealth and the selfishness of his surrounding culture. Yet he is despised as weak by those he would help, whose lot he would improve (in part because he is too weak to do anything towards that end). I was struck, by the accidental juxtaposition of both books, not so much by the difficulty for the individual but Aristotle’s insight of the need for a moral culture to make moral individuals. The question shifts to how entire cultures can morally change, and this is an epically long process, as Hegel taught us long ago. Yet certain strains within a culture perdure even through enormous changes, as Ozment implies, which makes one wonder if the US and UK will perhaps never attain the kind of social solidarity evident in some European countries. Complete speculation on my part but recommended reads in any case. 

A short paper in the future

On September 26th, all being well, I’ll be giving a paper at the ‘Religions, environments and popular culture’ conference in Manchester. It’s called ‘May I watch TV or must I help the environment? Supererogation and imperfect duties as alternative structures for the demandingness of environmental ethics.’ Maybe I’ll see you there.

30 Years of Bernard Williams’ Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy

2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the first publication of one of the most remarkable books in ethics to appear in the last 60 years. This international conference, organised collaboratively by members of Oxford University’s Faculty of Philosophy and The Open University’s Ethics Centre, will be held in the Philosophy Faculty, Oxford, from July 3-5 2015. A selection of speakers is currently being drawn together who will aim to explore the ways in which Williams’ book, despite its indisputable status as a modern classic, still remains an under-utilised and under-explored resource for creative and rigorous ethical thinking in and beyond the analytical tradition in philosophy.
Provisional agreement to be involved has been obtained from the following speakers:

Marcel van Ackeren (Universität Köln)
Simon Blackburn (University of Cambridge)
Daniel Callcut (University of North Florida)
Timothy Chappell (The Open University)
Roger Crisp (University of Oxford)
Miranda Fricker (University of Sheffield)
Lorenzo Greco (University of Oxford)
Edward Harcourt (University of Oxford)
Gerald Lang (University of Leeds)
Adrian Moore (University of Oxford)
Anthony Price (Birkbeck, University of London)
Paul Russell (University of British Columbia)
John Skorupski (University of St Andrews)
Roger Teichmann (University of Oxford)
Candace Vogler (University of Chicago)
Catherine Wilson (University of York)

For further inquiries (not that there is much to do at this stage except note the dates in your diary) please contact

Normativity and German Idealism CFP

Normativity and German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives
25th May 2015
Department of Philosophy University of Sussex

The aim of the conference is to examine whether resources drawn from the German Idealist tradition help address important questions about the nature of normativity. As recent work by Christine Korsgaard and Robert Brandom shows this is a fertile territory.

We construe the topic of normativity broadly to include epistemology and theories of meaning, moral and political philosophy, aesthetics, and theories of practical reasoning and action.

We would especially welcome submissions addressing anything from the following non-exhaustive list topics:
• how we justify to ourselves and to others what is good to do or to believe
• what are norms and what are reasons
• modalities of normativity
• how reasons guide beliefs, actions, values
• reasons and Reason
• how does it mean to think of oneself as a rational being
• normativity and freedom

Please send a 500-700 word anonymised abstract with author details on a separate attachment to
Deadline for receipt of abstracts: 13 February 2015

The organisers wish to thank the Hegel Society of Great Britain and the UK Kant Society for their generous support. Without them this event would not have been possible.

Attendance to the conference is free of charge but registration is required- to register please email
putting ‘registration’ in the subject field and your name in the body of the message.

Informal inquiries: Katerina Deligiorgi (Sussex)
See too:
Organising committee: Sorin Baiasu (Keele and Vienna), Katerina Deligiorgi (Sussex), Manuel Dries (Open University), Andrew Huddleston (London), Edward Kanterian (Kent), Joseph Schear (Oxford)

Reading Gillian Rose

Gillian Rose is, by all accounts, not easy to read. This more than anything else accounts for her ‘cult’ status: unknown to many but very important to those familiar with her. At the same time, many are aware only of the part of her work that relates to their field. This turns out to be quite a wide selection: Adorno and the Frankfurt School, Hegel and German idealism, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, post-Kantian philosophy and social theory, Jewish philosophy and theology, Christian political theology, post-structuralism, classical sociology, Auschwitz, fascism and aesthetics, anthropology, and literature. There are signs her work is becoming more widely recognised, with studies on her thought in relation to, for example, education, international relations, and (so-called) Holocaust studies. The conference on her work in Durham University (UK), to be held on 9th January 2015, is another sign of this increasing popularity. There her work will be discussed in relation to Hegel (Rowan Williams), Marx and Fichte (Peter Osborne), politics (John Milbank), theology (Andrew Shanks), Žižek (Marcus Pound) and social theory (Andrew Brower Latz). Those papers and others will be collected in a special edition of Telos.

Having read all her books several times, beginning with bafflement and progressing to admiration (with remaining moments of consternation and surprise), I here offer a suggestion for the best way to approach her work.

Many people (really) like Love’s Work (1995), her philosophically inclined memoir. So this is not a bad place to start. I have to confess it didn’t at first quite excite me as much as her short book of popular essays, Mourning Becomes the law (1996). (Though all her books offer more the second time around). MBL shows various ways in which Rose’s social philosophy cashes out in relation to, inter alia, architecture, film, politics, death, reason, Auschwitz. If you like Love’s Work, you will probably enjoy her final, posthumous piece, Paradiso (1999): a strange, alluring series of prose poems. All three of these books are short, which helps.

If your appetite is whetted for some heavier intellectual lifting the next book to reach for is Judaism and Modernity: Philosophical Essays (1993). Zygmunt Bauman’s glowing review of JAM described it in the lovely metaphor of the guided tour of her intellectual castle. He’s right: here she lays out her view of the way various thinkers go wrong and how that can often be traced to their relation to law and society. A wide range of figures is discussed, providing something for everyone.

Next up should be the (amusingly dated) 1984 Dialectic of Nihilism: Post-structuralism and Law.Here again, law and the structures of society provide a foil for an immanent critique of post-structuralist thinkers (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Saussure and Levi-Strauss). Kant, Heidegger and Nietzsche are thrown in for good measure. This is perhaps her least read book, for no good reason I can discern.

At this point it may be good to take a step back and engage with the two fundamental traditions in which Rose worked, the Frankfurt School and Hegelianism. As it happens, her first two books were close, exegetical-and-constructive studies of Adorno and Hegel: The Melancholy Science (1978) and Hegel Contra Sociology (1981). These were significant studies at the time (indeed, her Adorno book was one of the first English works to deal with Adorno’s whole corpus) and provide the groundwork for the rest of her thinking. HCS in fact forms a trilogy with DN and her magnum opus, the formidable The Broken Middle: Out of our Ancient Society (1992). This is the pinnacle, and it probably helps to approach it last, with the rest of the works absorbed. Be ready to encounter Kierkegaardian indirect communication with an enormous range of figures, covered at high speed. Dense and difficult, it defeats many. But if you’ve come this far, in this order, you should be prepared.

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