Monday, April 03, 2006

Utter Rubbish

Having partly defended one, I've been thinking a bit more about polemical reviews. They are, for me, a guilty pleasure. I don't like the idea of trashing what may have been the work of many hard years, and it's painful to imagine how the author must feel. But I can't deny that they are fun to read.

A recent example is Joe Queenan's vicious jab at The Know-It-All by A. J. Jacobs. Here the bitterness was soothed when the New York Times gave Jacobs an op-ed in which to reply, and he was able to hold his own. On other occasions, the rancour is not diminished by going back and forth.

One could publish a very satisfying anthology of mean reviews. My collection begins with the following two:
James Klagge on David Wiggins, at the end of this review

Joseph Ullian on Paul Weiss, writing about the "philosophy of sport".

Readers are invited to submit their favourites; a prize will be awarded for the best.


Anonymous Brad C said...

This is, by far, the harshest recent review I have read: John Kekes on Martha Nussbaum's "Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law." It is in the April 2005 issue of Mind.

Link to review

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Alejandro said...

Are old classics allowed? If so, how about Peter Medawar's review of Teilhard de Chardin's "The Phenomenon of Man"?

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dummett has several wonderfully harsh reviews, such as this demolition of Baker and Hacker.

2:59 PM  
Anonymous Zed said...

The best polemical review I've read recently is an old one: Charles Pigden's review of Sabina Lovibond's "Realism and Imagination in Ethics" (Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 62, No. 3, September 1984). Although many of its criticisms of Wittgenstein-inspired moral realism have become familiar (e.g,, through Cora Diamond's essay in the Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, and Blackburn's and Wright's criticisms of the quietist tendency to discourage philosophical attempts to articulate differences between different types of discourse), Pigden's short review is certainly an early instance of such criticisms and contains remarkably pithy formulations of them. Here's a teaser:

"Did the Wittgenstein of 'I'll teach you differences' really dissolve all indicatives in a homogenous semantic soup?"

Further, for a short review it spends considerable time going line-by-line through McDowell's blurb on the back cover of Lovibond's book, with witty rejoinders to McDowell's compliments. I don't think I've ever seen a blurb taken that seriously before, though I would like to see more of it! (It's hard to imagine that there's a proper forum for McDowell to respond to Pigden's rejoinders, however, which definitely puts Pigden at a rhetorical advantage.)

9:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've heard that Hilary Putnam wrote a very negative review of The Varities of Reference in the London Review of Books. (May 1983 from what I've been able to learn.) I haven't managed to find a copy, so I don't know if it compares to any of these. But I have heard it mentioned for its negativity on no fewer than four unrelated occasions.

12:23 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Here is a link to the Pigden review, for those with institutional subscriptions.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've got an even older classic -- Sidgwick's review of Bradley's Ethical Studies:


There's also a reply from Bradley and a defense from Sidgwick here:


-Andrew Sepielli

9:13 AM  
Anonymous Zed said...

I dug up Putnam's review of Evans a few years ago, alongside McDowell's response to Putnam (on Evans's behalf), and, as I remember it, although Putnam's comments are very critical, they're rather misdirected in that he sees Evans as doing essentially the same thing as the MIT folks were doing down the road from him: which, of course, isn't the best way to understand Evans's project. McDowell's response, as I remember it, hints that Putnam was rather sloppy in this regard and that the criticisms in his review are better directed at the MIT folk themselves, rather than Evans. But I don't know where I've put the review and don't remember it being worth digging up again.

Another old review and ensuing exchange that I think would be worth digging up again is Myles Burnyeat's review of a posthumously published book by Leo Strauss ("Sphynx without a Secret," New rork Review of Books, May 30, 1985: 30-36). Burnyeat uses the review as an opportunity to take on Strauss's methodology for interpretting the classics (as a teacher of mine who had Strauss as a teacher once said to me: "I'd heard of reading between the lines before, but I'd never heard of reading without the lines"). And, to my mind, Burnyeat's criticisms are pretty accurate. The best part, however, is the ensuing exchange, in which Burnyeat more than holds his own against the various students of Strauss who respond in Strauss's defense.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Again, it may be subscription only, but here is Burnyeat on Strauss.

3:32 PM  
Anonymous Heath White said...

Peter Geach's review of Philip Quinn's Divine Commands and Moral Requirements is pretty tough.

Link to review

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another classic review by Dummett is his response to Ernest Gellner's Words and Things. I can't find it online, but it's anthologized in Truth and Other Enigmas. The highlight is the final sentence:

"But of Gellner's book one can only say that it is a depressing illustration of the philistinism of what he calls the 'general educated public' in this country that they could be deceived by a book which does not even have the smell of honest or seriously intentioned work."

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Heath White said...

Three more by Alasdair MacIntyre. The first two are quite harsh but about theology books:

"Dr. Kung's Fiasco", review of _Does God Exist_ by Hans Kung, in London Review of Books Feb 5-18 1981, pp. 7-8.

"The Well-Dressed Theologian", review of _The New Theologians_ by Ved Mehta, in Encounter 28(3) March 1967, pp. 76-8.

The third is not quite as harsh, but with a much more prominent philosophical target. His review of Richard Rorty, _Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity_ in Journal of Philosophy 87 (1990) pp. 708-11.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Here is MacIntyre on Rorty.

12:46 PM  
Anonymous Timothy J Scriven said...

This is pretty harsh.

8:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about Alex Oliver on David Armstrong's A World of States of Affairs?

Link to review

7:21 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

John MacFarlane proposed Colin McGinn's review of T. M. Scanlon, What we Owe to Each Other in the New Republic.

This link may be subscription-only.

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Zena said...

A non-philosophical treat: Garrison Keillor's recent review of American Vertigo in the NYT (1-29-06):

Link to review

3:16 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I realize that is is too late for the competition now, but Nathan Salmon's 1988 Phil. Review review of David Lewis's On the Plurality of Worlds is worth a read.

8:08 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Here is the jstor link to Salmon on DKL.

8:16 PM  
Blogger Jacob said...

Also too late for inclusion, but might as well offer them up in the interest of google-posterity.

Brian Barry on Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Political Theory. (utterly unfair, to my mind, but certainly meets the criteria.)

Martha Nussbaum on Judith Butler, The New Republic.

Peter Berkowitz on Peter Singer, The New Republic ("Other People's Mothers")

12:35 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Odd that I forgot to mention Nussbaum on Butler, which is cited here. It's certainly a classic.

4:53 AM  
Anonymous Jimmy Doyle said...

Too late for consideration:

Jenny Teichmann's take-down of the same Rorty book Alasdair MacIntyre savaged: Link

and her survey of various writings and sayings of Peter Singer (a particular favourite): Link.

Finally, I was surprised that no-one mentioned Dennett's review of Searle's The Rediscovery of Mind: Link.

4:55 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

A late addition: Dorothy Parker's "Constant Reader" on A. A. Milne:

"[It] is that word 'hummy,' my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up."

12:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone mentioned Dummett. Have a look at his "Oxford Philosophy", trashing Ernest Gellner, reprinted in Truth & Other Enigmas.

A more recent stunner was Eric Griffiths' knife job on Roger Scruton in the TLS in spring 1999 sometime.

- JN

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your reference to Michael Tanner has just renminded me that his Fontana pocketbook to Nietzsche got an absolute trashing in the journal of the Nietzsche Society 10 years ago.


8:41 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Ah yes. Dummett was in fact awarded a prize, in part on the basis of the "Oxford Philosophy" review of Gellner, which was mentioned in a previous comment. I'll try to look up the Tanner review.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

It looks as though the Griffiths review is subscriber-only, which means I have to wait for my next TLS and copy the number from the plastic wrap. Early evidence suggests that the book under review is the one that was also chastised here.

11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scruton was genuinely hurt by the Griffiths review (you'd think he'd have got used to it by now). I think I read somewhere in a later TLS that Griffiths apologised for it, but I can't swear to that.

I'm surprised to see Macintyre-on-Rorty cited as a bad one, as my vague memory from reading it around the time was that it was an example of the respectful I don't agree with him but I can he's very clever genre. Another example of which was the recent TLS review of Hilary Putnam by Peter Van Inwagen, which ended in him admitting he did not understand what the new argument was meant to be, and just giving the page numbers for others to look for it.

Oh, and also Colin MacCabe gave a scorching hot review of Melanie Phillips' All Must Have Prizes in the New Statesman in 1996... but that doesn't count as a book, does it?


3:25 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

A recently discovered gem: James Wood on Fury by Salman Rushdie, "a novel that exhausts negative superlatives".

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Paul Raymont said...

A little outside philosophy proper, but there was Major John J. Stonborough's review of W.W. Bartley's biographical work, Wittgenstein ("Wittgenstein," The Human World,no. 14 [Feb. 1974]: 78-84). Stonborough, Wittgenstein's nephew, said that Bartley and his publisher had "put out a book in which they pee on the graves of men whom honest and upright people admire and respect."

He also called the work "a farrago of lies and poppycock." Bartley elected to wear that last remark as a badge of honour, including it as a blurb on the back cover of the 2nd edition of his Wittgenstein bio (Open Court, 1986).

8:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Baroness Warnock's (unfair but fun!) review of James Stacey Taylor's Stakes and Kidneys in the THES of April 7th, 2007 ends with the wonderful lines:

Finally, how did any sane publisher allow such a title for a book that is meant, I presume, to be widely read? I have had to keep the cover permanently with its title concealed for fear of catching sight of it inadvertently and experiencing terminal nausea.

Baroness Warnock has the vapors!

8:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Denis Dutton on Elaine Scarry:

On Beauty and Being Just is a scandal, a travesty of art theory. Were it a master’s thesis submitted to a New Zealand university, I could imagine passing it in today’s environment, but I’d explain to the writer that it was high time she started the task of hard, critical thinking. The mediocrity of this book is appalling because the writer is not a grad student, but the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, and the book records the Tanner Lectures, given at Yale in 1998.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nastiest I have seen is Neil Tennant's review of Christopher Peacocke, The Realm of Reason, in the Journal of Philosophy, March 2005.

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RM Hare's review of A Theory of Justice is one that always gives me hope.

In the last two paragraphs, he notes that Rawls had had promise, but that it was painful to read the book and that he feared that many folks would waste a good deal of time taking the book seriously.

I would have never gotten out of bed again.

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Jon Cogburn said...

Anon 9:06,

You haven't read Neil Tennant's review of Hintikka's, "The Principles of Mathematics Revisited," (Philosophia Mathematica 1998 6(3):351-352). It concludes with a long list of everything Tennant finds wrong with the book and one of them is that the ink rubs off on the reader's fingers.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Another classic via Zed.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try Nina Strohminger on Colin McGinn.

8:02 PM  

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