Robert Doran examines how critical theory has always been a form of ethical practice
Robert Doran, The Ethics of Theory: Philosophy, History, Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Robert Doran, The Ethics of Theory: Philosophy, History, Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What led you to write The Ethics of Theory?

The impetus for this project was a feeling that the tectonic shift of Theory–from a hermetic-textualist to a culturally-focused and politically-driven discourse–had not really been examined. This shift (circa 1987) was simply accepted, celebrated, or lamented without any real thinking about how we got from here to there or from there to here. Thus, I wanted to reflect on how this transformation happened and what it means for us now.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about critical theory?

That it is definable in terms of some general consensus, that there is some general agreement about what it is and what role it should play, when in fact it embodies many competing and at times mutually exclusive paradigms and assumptions. Nevertheless, I think that what binds everyone (or most everyone) together under the Theory banner is the sense that Nietzsche’s challenge to philosophy (continued and amplified by Heidegger) represented a fundamental break in the intellectual history of the West. On the one side, Nietzsche contested the hegemony of scientific inquiry, which, in the late nineteenth century, had attained great cultural prestige, displacing philosophy’s traditional role as the arbiter of knowledge. On the other side, Nietzsche held that human beings make their own truth–or decide what counts as truth–and that all knowledge is therefore contingent on human projects. The concept of objective, value-neutral knowledge is thereby torn asunder, giving way to the idea that seemingly “objective” knowledge is permeated with social, ethical, and political considerations that can never be completely expunged. The role of Theory or Critical Theory is to keep pointing this out. (more…)

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Sarah Hammerschlag discusses how the work of Levinas and Derrida can help us to rethink the relationship between religion, literature, and philosophy

What motivated you to write the book?

Sarah Hammerschlag, Broken Tablets: Levines, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016)
Sarah Hammerschlag, Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016)

This project developed organically out of my first book The Figural Jew, which focuses on the revalorization of the figure of the Jew in post-World War II French literature and philosophy. At the center of that project there was already a nascent argument for introducing literary modes of speech into the political sphere to capitalize on the ways in which irony and plurivocity complicate the politics of identity. The last couple of chapters of that book argue that Blanchot and Derrida develop a literary concept of the Jew and Judaism through a reading of Levinas. But I was still concerned to represent the differences between Derrida and Levinas on the question of how to think about the cultural relevance of Judaism in the post-WWII context and to consider the very important political implications of their respective choices. Broken Tablets  gave me the opportunity to track the implications of those differences and to conceive of them in terms of how each philosopher negotiated his relationship to religion and literature as competing discourses to philosophy. (more…)

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft takes a look for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Tim Crane (TLS) reflects on the life and work of the enigmatic Austrian philosopher
ludwig-wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Among all twentieth-century thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein stands out as the one whose life fascinates almost as much as his work does. Even the life of Martin Heidegger, with his controversial Nazi connections and his later attempt to live the authentic life of a peasant, looks dull and suburban by comparison. Wittgenstein was born in 1889 into one of Austria’s richest families. His father was a self-made industrialist who built his fortune in iron and steel; his mother came from a Prague Jewish family. Ludwig was the youngest of eight siblings – he had three sisters and four brothers. Tragedy hit the family again and again. Three of Ludwig’s brothers committed suicide. The fourth, Paul, was a concert pianist who lost his right arm in the First World War and later commissioned works for the left hand from Ravel, Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith and Erich Korngold. (Music figured significantly in the family’s life: Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss were among the composers who heard their works performed at the Wittgenstein house in Vienna.) Ludwig originally studied engineering, first in Berlin and then in Manchester, where he became interested in the design of aeroplane propellors. At this time he developed a deep interest in mathematics and its foundations. Having studied the ground-breaking works of philosophy of mathematics by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, he visited Frege in Jena who advised him to study with Russell in Cambridge. Wittgenstein turned up, unannounced, at Russell’s rooms in Trinity College in October 1911, and discussed philosophy with Russell regularly over the next few months. Russell wrote to Ottoline Morrell that his “Austrian engineer” was “rather good” but “very argumentative and tiresome”. But Russell was sufficiently impressed to accept Wittgenstein as a student at Cambridge in 1912. Wittgenstein had a huge impact on the intellectual scene there, but throughout his life he claimed to dislike Cambridge and preferred to spend time writing and thinking in remote, isolated places (Norway and Ireland were favourites).

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