Michelle Boulous Walker on the difficulty of practicing philosophy in modern institutions, and an alternative approach that might encourage a more careful and attentive relation with the world
Michelle Boulous Walker - Slow Philosophy
Michelle Boulous Walker, Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution (Bloomsbury, 2016)

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, and what inspired you to write Slow Philosophy?

I’m a philosopher who works in the European tradition. I have a background in political theory and an ongoing commitment to feminist politics. I’ve been teaching for some years now, and this has provided me with the opportunity to re-read key texts with my students.

For example, I’ve read Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus countless times with both undergraduate and graduate students. The joy of re-reading is what first alerted me to the power of slow reading because for me slow philosophy is partly about the quality of attention that comes through repeated engagements with a work or text. Each time I’d return to Plato’s dialogues I’d uncover new possibilities – new meanings that were possible partly because of the new frames I was bringing to his work. (more…)

As spring arrives in Cardiff, I divide my time between teaching responsibilities and reading. This week marks the final week of semester before Easter break. In my spare time, I am reading Marilynne Robinson‘s 2005 novel, Gilead. And in light of Teju Cole‘s essay collection, Known and Strange Things, I have have also been keen to return to his breakthrough novel, Open City.

Over the weekend, I watched an interesting documentary on the life and work of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The film was produced for BBC’s Horizon series back in 1989, and in just under 49 minutes manages to mount an engaging profile of the twentieth-century thinker. The film includes interviews, anecdotes, and rare photographs of the people and places connected to the philosopher’s life. All in all, it’s a good general primer. For those interested in finding out more about Wittgenstein’s life, Ray Monk‘s excellent biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, is the place to go.

Michael Lackey on the popularity of the biographical novel, and what it can tell us about the relationship between literature, history and truth
Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What motivated you to write The American Biographical Novel

Through my reading of biographical novels, I noticed a shift in the nature of literary truth.  In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad illuminates the colonial mentality that enabled Europeans to plunder Africa and to abuse Africans with impunity.  Conrad represents that mentality through Kurtz, and as the narrator says, “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.”  In essence, if we want to understand the European mentality that justified colonization and its horrific outcomes, we can look to Kurtz for some answers.  But with the rise of postmodernism, there has been growing skepticism about the traditional literary symbol.

Put simply, postmodernists question the value of an overarching truth claim, because they realize that someone constructed that truth for an ideological or political reason.  This approach to truth impacted the traditional literary symbol, so a postmodernist could easily say: “Look, Joe, you constructed the character of Kurtz in order to promote your own ideological agenda.  Therefore, I don’t see any reason why I should consider a character like Kurtz as symbolic of the European mind.”It is my contention that biographical novelists were becoming increasingly aware of the problems with the traditional literary symbol, but they also did not want to get rid of the literary symbol, because they realized that it could be effectively used to expose the structures and conditions of oppression.  (more…)

Nigel Warburton speaks to the biographer of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and physicist Robert Oppenheimer
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Ludwig Wittgenstein

Philosophy Bites: “Ray Monk discusses the relationship between philosophy and a philosopher’s life in this interview with Nigel Warburton for the Philosophy Bites podcast. Can understanding the biographical context of a philosopher and the type of person that they were help us understand their philosophical writing? Is there anything that philosophers might learn from biography? Monk as an award-winning biographer of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell is well-placed to address these questions.” [Listen to the Podcast]

The great Austrian philosopher was born on this day in 1889


Links: Portraits of Wittgenstein · Ludwig Wittgenstein on Twitter · Wittgenstein vs. Scientism · Wittgenstein: A Memoir · Homes of German Philosophers

An extract from one of Steiner’s literary reviews
I’ve been poring over a collection of George Steiner’s articles from The New Yorker magazine. It’s a fascinating selection that includes shrewd reflections on an impressive range of writers and thinkers. Among them are essays on Graham Greene, George Orwell, Jorge Luis Borges and Samuel Beckett. But for now, Steiner’s remarks on the work of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard are catching my eye. Steiner was one of the first critics writing in America to recognize the significance of Bernhard’s work, and his 1986 essay for The New Yorker offers an insightful and enthusiastic appraisal…

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Will Self contributes to The Observer’s ‘My Other Life’ series by pondering an alternative career as an academic
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Will Self

I thought I might be an academic. I read PPE at Oxford and was very interested in Marx, Wittgenstein, Habermas – theories of knowledge and praxis. I applied to do an MPhil, but unfortunately I was busted for drugs before I sat my finals and went into something of a tailspin. I would’ve been a crap academic anyway – like most novelists I’m only really interested in being interested. When I left university I took a job as a driver/labourer for a builder in Stoke Newington. I lasted about six months and was about to get a raise when – feeling my Tolstoyan Pierre moment ending – I threw it over. A succession of deadend jobs followed, strung together by the cartoons I published in the New Statesman and other small left-wing periodicals. The only proper suit-and-tie job I’ve had in my life was the two years in the late 1980s when I ran a small corporate publishing company. I even had a Ford Sierra! Actually, I quite enjoyed it, and learned about every element of the publishing process, from copy editing to layout to print. I wrote my first book, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, in the early mornings before the rest of the staff came in for the day. [Read More]