Monday, April 10, 2006

Economy of Prestige

It is time to announce the results of the competition to supply an exquisitely mean review. The criteria of judgement were as follows:
  1. The review must have a worthy target. Thus, I was forced to ignore, among other things, A. O. Scott's review of Gigli.
  2. The review may be grossly unfair, but…
  3. It has to give good arguments, or memorable ones that contain a grain of truth.
  4. Finally, preference was given to reviews that made good use of sarcasm.
We received 16 entries:
  • John Kekes on Martha Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity
  • Peter Medawar on Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man
  • Michael Dummett on G. P. Baker and P. M. S. Hacker, Frege: Logical Excavations
  • Charles Pigden on Sabina Lovibond, Realism and Imagination in Ethics
  • Hilary Putnam on Gareth Evans, The Varieties of Reference
  • Henry Sidgwick on F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies
  • Myles Burnyeat on Leo Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy
  • Peter Geach on Philip Quinn, Divine Commands and Moral Requirements
  • Michael Dummett on Ernest Gellner, Words and Things
  • Alasdair MacIntryre on Hans Kung, Does God Exist?
  • Alasdair MacIntryre on Ved Mehta, The New Theologians
  • Alasdair MacIntryre on Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity
  • Simon Blackburn on G. E. M. Anscombe, Human Life, Action and Ethics
  • Alex Oliver on David Armstrong, A World of States of Affairs
  • Garrison Keillor on Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo
  • Colin McGinn on T. M. Scanlon, What we Owe to Each Other
It almost goes without saying that the reviews were uniformly bad, and comparative assessment was difficult. But decisions had to be made…

Thus, the award for meanest reviewer goes to Dummett, on the basis of two ferocious assaults. Honorable mention goes to Keillor on Lévy, which was certainly the funniest review submitted. Professional standards permit philosophers to be harsh, but not to engage in undue ridicule, so their scope for humour is limited. (I still think the funniest philosophical mean review is this one; see the paragraph on Wiggins at the end.)

Finally, the grand winner is…
Myles Burnyeat on Leo Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy
Admittedly, Burnyeat has an unfair advantage of scale, since his "review" runs to 6000 words. But, as mean reviews go, it has everything: a worthy target, memorable (even influential) arguments, and a wonderful line in invective.

(Zed: Send me an e-mail with your mailing address to claim your prize!)


Blogger bza said...

Regarding the Putnam review of Evans: I once heard Putnam express regret about both this review and the dismissive footnote about Evans in (IIRC) "Models and Reality." He now admits that at the time he misunderstood the nature of Evans's project.

I don't know if he's ever corrected the record in print, though.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Putnam does indeed say in print, in one of his later books, that he misunderstood Evans and was sorry about the review and now thinks it was an important and interesting book. I can't recall the exact citation now, but he does say this in one of his later works.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Jacob said...

My personal favourite mean reviews are Ryan Bigge's review of The Continuity Girl and Mark Ames' combined review of Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground and An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror

1:16 AM  
Anonymous Abbas Raza said...

Brilliant idea. Too bad I didn't see this contest until it was over, otherwise I might have submitted Leon Wieseltier's recent review of Dan Dennett's new book in the NY Times. (See this.)

Colin McGinn was a good choice. He can be quite ridiculously vituperative (and wrong) when he is in fighting form.

I enjoyed the whole list, actually, so thanks.

3:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i realise i'm a bit late to this party, but how is it that no one nominated matt taibbi's review of the world is flat? i suppose you could query whether it's a worthy target, but surely it meets all the other criteria.

5:45 PM  
Anonymous Niklas said...

I thoroughly enjoy Roger Ebert's review of Rob Schneider's Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.

Sheer slaughter, done well; Schneider deserves it.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

A related reference (courtesy of Zed): the Lexicon of Musical Invective.

7:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorite reviews are written by John Dolan at Here are a series of reviews where Dolan destroys James Frey before the Smoking Gun article exposed him.





7:52 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

In a comment on another post, John Dolan nominated his review of Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit, to replace the ones about James Frey.

It's certainly mean. But for all the rhetoric about Aristotle's Rhetoric, it's a bit deaf to the tone of Frankfurt's essay, which is partly tongue in cheek. See this post for some thoughts in its defence.

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Andy said...

Hi Kieran

Your e-mail reminded me of this review, which I think you'll enjoy, even if it doesn't mention Aristotle. I remember the buzz before this book was published.

Love to you both/all

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Point, counterpoint.

6:53 PM  

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