The Year in Reading

For this week’s column (the last one until the new year) I asked a number of interesting people what book they’d read in 2010 that left a big impression on them, or filled them with intellectual energy, or made them wish it were better known. If all three, then so much the better. I didn’t specify that it had to be a new book, nor was availability in English a requirement.

My correspondents were enthusiastic about expressing their enthusiasm. One of them was prepared to name 10 books – but that’s making a list, rather than a selection. I drew the line at two titles per person. Here are the results.

Lila Guterman is a senior editor at Chemical and Engineering News, the weekly magazine published by the American Chemical Society. She said it was easier to pick an outstanding title from 2010 than it might have been in previous years: “Not sleeping, thanks to a difficult pregnancy followed by a crazy newborn, makes it almost impossible for me to read!”

She named Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, published by Crown in February. She called it an “elegantly balanced account of a heartbreaking situation for one family that simultaneously became one of the most important tools of biology and medicine. It was a fast-paced read driven by an incredible amount of reporting: A really exemplary book about bioethics.”

Neil Jumonville, a professor of history at Florida State University, is editor of The New York Intellectual Reader (Routledge, 2007). A couple of collections of essays he recently read while conducting a graduate seminar on the history of liberal and conservative thought in the United States struck him as timely.

“The first is Gregory Schneider, ed., Conservatives in America Since 1930 (NYU Press, 2003). Here we find a very useful progression of essays from the Old Right, Classical Liberals, Traditional Conservatives, anticommunists, and the various guises of the New Right. The second book is Michael Sandel, Liberalism and Its Critics (NYU Press, 1984). Here, among others, are essays from Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Alisdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, a few communitarians represented by Sandel and others, and important pieces by Peter Berger and Hannah Arendt.”

Reading the books alongside one another, he said, tends to sharpen up one's sense of both the variety of political positions covered by broad labels like “liberal” and “conservative” and to point out how the traditions may converge or blend. “Some people understand this beneficial complexity of political positions,” he told me, “but many do not.”

Michael Yates retired as a professor of economics and labor relations at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in 2001. His most recent book is In and Out of the Working Class, published by Arbeiter Ring in 2009.

He named Wallace Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail, originally published in 1964. “I am not a Mormon or religious in the slightest degree,” he said, “and I am well aware of the many dastardly deeds done in the name of the angel Moroni, but I cannot read the history of the Mormons without a feeling of wonder, and I cannot look at the sculpture of the hand cart pioneers in Temple Square [in Salt Lake City] without crying. If only I could live my life with the same sense of purpose and devotion…. It is not possible to understand the West without a thorough knowledge of the Mormons. Their footprints are everywhere."

Adam Kotsko is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College. This year he published Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Continuum) and Awkwardness (Zero Books).

“My vote," he said, "would be for Sergey Dogopolski's What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement, on all three counts. It puts forth the practices of Talmudic debate as a fundamental challenge to one of the deepest preconceptions of Western thought: that agreement is fundamental and disagreement is only the result of a mistake or other contingent obstacle. The notion that disagreements are to be maintained and sharpened rather than dissolved is a major reversal that I'll be processing for a long time to come. Unfortunately, the book is currently only available as an expensive hardcover.”

Helena Fitzgerald is a contributing editor for The New Inquiry, a website occupying some ambiguous position between a New York salon and an online magazine.

She named Patti Smith’s memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, published by Ecco earlier this year and recently issued in paperback. “I've found Smith to be one of the most invigorating artists in existence ever since I heard ‘Land’ for the first time and subsequently spent about 24 straight with it on repeat. She's one of those artists who I've long suspected has all big secrets hoarded somewhere in her private New York City. This book shares a satisfying number of those secrets and that privately legendary city. Just Kids is like the conversation that Patti Smith albums always made you want to have with Patti Smith.”

Cathy Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, was recently nominated by President Obama to serve on the National Council on the Humanities. She, too, named Patti Smith’s memoir as one of the books “that rocked my world this year.” (And here the columnist will interrupt to give a third upturned thumb. Just Kids is a moving and very memorable book.)

Davidson also mentioned rereading Tim Berners-Lee's memoir Weaving the Web, first published by HarperSanFrancisco in 1999. She was “inspired by his honesty in letting us know how, at every turn, the World Wide Web's creation was a surprise, including the astonishing willingness of an international community of coders to contribute their unpaid labor for free in order to create the free and open World Wide Web. Many traditional, conventional scientists had no idea what Berners-Lee was up to or what it could possibly mean and, at times, neither did he. His genius is in admitting that he forged ahead, not fully knowing where he was going….”

Bill Fletcher Jr., a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, is co-author, with Fernando Gapasin, of Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice, published by the University of California Press in 2009.

He named Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon, 2001), calling it “a fascinating look at the development of capitalism in the North Atlantic. It is about class struggle, the anti-racist struggle, gender, forms of organization, and the methods used by the ruling elites to divide the oppressed. It was a GREAT book.”

Astra Taylor has directed two documentaries, Zizek! and Examined Life. She got hold of the bound galleys for James Miller’s Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, out next month from Farrar Straus and Giroux. She called it “a book by the last guy I took a university course with and one I've been eagerly awaiting for years. Like a modern day Diogenes Laertius, Miller presents 12 biographical sketches of philosophers, an exploration of self-knowledge and its limits. As anyone who read his biography of Foucault knows, Miller's a master of this sort of thing. The profiles are full of insight and sometimes hilarious.”

Arthur Goldhammer is a senior affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University and a prolific translator, and he runs an engaging blog called French Politics.

“I would say that Florence Aubenas' Le Quai de Ouistreham (2010) deserves to be better known,” he told me. “Aubenas is a journalist who was held prisoner in Iraq for many months, but upon returning to France she did not choose to sit behind a desk. Rather, she elected to explore the plight of France's ‘precarious’ workers -- those who accept temporary work contracts to perform unskilled labor for low pay and no job security. The indignities she endures in her months of janitorial work make vivid the abstract concept of a ‘dual labor market.’ Astonishingly, despite her fame, only one person recognized her, in itself evidence of the invisibility of social misery in our ‘advanced’ societies.”

Anne Sarah Rubin is an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and project director for Sherman’s March and America: Mapping Memory, an interactive historical website.

The book that made the biggest impression on her this year was Judith Giesberg's Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2009. “Too often,” Rubin told me, “historians ignore the lives of working-class women, arguing that we don't have the sources to get inside their lives, but Giesberg proves us wrong. She tells us about women working in Union armories, about soldiers' wives forced to move into almshouses, and African Americans protesting segregated streetcars. This book expands our understanding of the Civil War North, and I am telling everyone about it.”

Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia. His next book, The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry), will be published by the University of California Press in March.

He thinks there should have been more attention for Carolyn de la Pena's Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda, published this year by the University of North Carolina Press: “De la Pena (who is a friend and graduate-school colleague) shows artificial sweeteners have had a powerful cultural influence -- one that far exceeds their power to help people lose weight. In fact, as she demonstrates, there is no empirical reason to believe that using artificial sweeteners helps one lose weight. One clear effect, de la Pena shows, is that artificial sweeteners extend the pernicious notion that we Americans can have something for nothing. And we know how that turns out.”

Vaidhyanathan noted a parallel with his own recent research: “de la Pena's critique of our indulgent dependence on Splenda echoes the argument I make about how the speed and simplicity of Google degrades our own abilities to judge and deliberate about knowledge. Google does not help people lose weight either, it turns out.”

Michael Tomasky covers U.S. politics for The Guardian and is editor-in-chief of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

“On my beat,” he said, “the best book I read in 2010 was The Spirit Level (Bloomsbury, 2009), by the British social scientists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, whose message is summed up in the book's subtitle, which is far better than its execrable title: ‘Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.’ In non-work life, I'm working my way through Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate from 1959; it's centered around the battle of Stalingrad and is often called the War and Peace of the 20th century. I'm just realizing as I type this how sad it is that Stalingrad is my escape from American politics.”

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Where in the World Is Carmen de Macedo?

Note: Inside Higher Ed gave the editors of the Journal of Philosophy the opportunity to respond to this article. They declined, but did confirm the change in editorial policy noted below.

What would you feel if you were informed that, for the first time in your academic career, your article was accepted for publication in the very top general journal in your discipline? Pride? Elation? A delusion of grandeur?

I had some of these feelings myself a couple of years ago when my wife phoned me one morning to tell me that I had just received a letter with the very good news from the Journal of Philosophy. I still remember how excited I was that my article "Guilt by Statistical Association: Revisiting the Prosecutor’s Fallacy and the Interrogator’s Fallacy" would appear in the journal that to philosophers is approximately what Nature is to scientists. But I also immediately became worried. Although the paper offered a completely honest and responsible analysis of its topic, there was a problem with the authorship of that wretched article.

No, it was not plagiarized. In fact, quite the opposite. Whereas plagiarizing is publishing someone else’s work under one’s own name, what I was about to do was publish my own work under someone else’s name. And this someone else did not exist.

OK, why did I use a pseudonym? Was I merely trying to be funny or amusing? Was I just fooling around like the late (and delightfully extravagant) linguist Jim McCawley who enjoyed publishing stuff under names like “Quang Phuc Dong“ or “Yuck Foo“ (a spoonerism of you know what)? Or was I perhaps trying to imitate the playfulness of philosopher David Lewis who once wrote an article in which he criticized his own views and then published it under the pseudonym “Bruce LeCatt“ (the name of his own cat)?

Not really. Although I do love this kind of humor, I had a more pressing reason for hiding my identity. The thing is that at that time the Journal of Philosophy did not have a practice of blind refereeing of submitted papers. On the contrary, it even publicly advertised on its website that decisions about publication were usually made without the submissions being anonymized: "A majority of papers submitted to us are reviewed by the members of our editorial board… Manuscripts while in circulation inside the editorial board are not blinded." (In 2010 the journal changed its policy without explanation and introduced blind refereeing.)

What exactly was the problem with my name being known to the journal editors, who were to read my manuscript and decide about it? Well, I don’t want to go into too much detail about this delicate matter. It should suffice to say that several years ago one of the editors took umbrage at my published criticism of his views and even became angry (on his own admission). Therefore, arguably, had the article been associated with my name, any lingering resentment could have easily interfered with impartial refereeing. Notice that no accusation is being lodged here, not even a hypothetical one. I am not claiming that I had compelling grounds to believe that this kind of bias would happen, but only that I feared that it might happen.

Now, even if my fear had no basis in reality, I still thought that the journal itself was to blame for this awkward situation. For if it had only adopted the usual practice of blind refereeing (the norm for most scholarly journals), the worry that troubled me could not have arisen. So although the use of pseudonyms is indeed quite rare in academic publications, it seemed to me that it could be justified in this case.

The reader may wonder why I did not deal with the worry about potential bias by simply submitting the paper to another philosophical journal that had a better policy of reviewing manuscripts. There is an answer to that. Since my article went beyond "pure philosophy" and addressed some specific issues in statistics and criminology, the Journal of Philosophy was clearly the best choice because among the top general philosophy journals it is by far most open to interdisciplinary contributions. Moreover, its officially declared purpose is to "encourage the interchange of ideas, especially the exploration of the borderline between philosophy and other disciplines." In sum, the nature of the article dictated the journal, which didn’t have blind refereeing, which in turn made the use of a pseudonym advisable.

The first step then was to choose a nom de plume. Obviously I didn’t spend a huge amount of time on that, for I was well aware from the beginning that the chance of my article being accepted for publication in the Journal of Philosophy was very low. It's not that I had any doubts that my paper was an earth-shattering contribution to philosophical knowledge. It's more that I was afraid that others might not be able to recognize that.

Anyway, the name that soon sprang to mind and won the competition hands down was "Carmen de Macedo." One of its advantages is that it really has a good sound to it. Besides, I knew that in the unlikely case that I pulled the trick off, the name could be neatly used for a catchy title (see above), if I eventually decided to tell the entire story.

After the plan was promptly approved by my superego in January of 2008, I proceeded to open a Gmail account in the name of my nonexistent doppelgänger: Using that email I electronically submitted the article to the Journal of Philosophy under this false name, explaining along the way, somewhat apologetically, that I (Dr. Carmen de Macedo) was not currently affiliated with any university. I gave my own Hong Kong home details as Carmen’s contact address.

Five months later, instead of a rejection letter (which I frankly expected) a thick envelope addressed to Dr. de Macedo arrived in my mailbox, with the editorial verdict "Accepted without revisions" and with all those usual pre-publication documents and instructions. Wow, I did it!

Immediately, however, I was facing a new dilemma. Should I finally disclose my identity at this point, given that the decision has already been made and announced? Or perhaps not? Indeed, did any good reason remain to continue with my clandestine authorship? Actually, yes.

It could be plausibly assumed that the editors might be annoyed by my antics, and that, if told about the whole thing, they might reconsider their decision to accept my paper. Again, I am not saying that this would happen or that this was the most probable reaction. Yet it was definitely a possibility to be reckoned with.

I asked for advice from several prominent philosophers (some of whom had been editors of leading philosophy journals), and they agreed that my disclosure might well make the editors angry and lead to their retaliation. One of these consultants told me that he would himself feel bamboozled if something similar happened to him as the editor and that he did consider concealing the author's identity ethically inappropriate. He conceded that the policy of non-blind refereeing was unacceptable but he added that, in his opinion, the fact of the journal behaving badly did not justify doing likewise.

Some other colleagues, although by no means all of them, expressed similar concerns. Yet I just couldn’t see what could be morally objectionable about continuing with the Carmen gambit. The way I saw the situation was that, first, the authors surely have a right to be protected by anonymity while their articles are being evaluated. And second, since the journal failed to provide the blind review, I simply arranged for the service myself and by using a pseudonym I effectively blinded my own paper.

In the process I may even have decreased the chance of my article being accepted for publication because it could now raise many eyebrows by being linked to an author without any university affiliation and with no public record whatsoever of any academic activity or qualifications. But if I was myself ready to pay this price (for whatever reason), what was the harm in all this?

Moving from defense to offense, isn't the official doctrine in scholarly circles that it's what you say, not who you are, that counts? What’s in a name really (I mean, in this context)? Admittedly, there are situations where the use of a pseudonym would be illegitimate, as for example if writing under a different name in order to praise one’s own work or to get around the one-item-per-author rule in some publications, etc. But under normal circumstances, it is hard to see why scholars using an alias in publishing their work would be doing anything improper, irrespective of whether they did that because of some personal quirk, or because of a fear of being exposed to a personal bias, or for some other reason.

Clearing my conscience in this way and absolving myself from sin, I concluded that I was in fact not facing a moral dilemma at all but a pragmatic choice. I just had to weigh the two courses of action open to me (the Carmen strategy and the Neven strategy) and to see which of them had a higher expected value. It was a no-brainer. The Carmen strategy (continuing with the pseudonym even after receiving the editors’ letter of acceptance) would make it virtually certain that there would be no nasty last-minute surprise and that my article would see the light of day. On the other hand, the Neven strategy (coming clean about my name at this late stage) could possibly jeopardize the whole intricate scheme that was so beautifully planned, while the only advantage would be that, if everything went well, I would get the pleasure of seeing my own name printed in the Journal of Philosophy. Although I admit that this would have been kind of nice, I easily decided that having an opportunity for such an ego trip was not worth the risk.

After the decision was reached, the only thing left to do was to sign a copyright transfer form and send it back to the journal secretary. So I went ahead and drank the magic potion that helped me transform from the evil Mr. Hyde (or better, Mr. Hide) into the good Dr. de Macedo, and I then signed the form in her name. I felt a bit uneasy entering “my” new signature for the first (and last) time. For some reason, I even tried to make my handwriting look different from usual, although I was not quite sure why I really bothered. The article appeared a few months later in the June issue of 2008.

Alas, now it’s time to say good-bye to that formidable woman Carmen de Macedo, an incredibly low-profile person, an exceptionally silent collaborator and a highly elusive philosopher who just didn’t manage to make that crucial step and spring from nothingness into being. Thanks for everything, dearest Carmen, and I must say it’s a great pity that you don’t exist. For if you did, I’m pretty sure you would be quite a gal!

Neven Sesardic
Author's email:

Neven Sesardic is a professor of philosophy at Lingnan University, in Hong Kong.

Attitudes Toward Kenneth Burke

“I am not a donkey,” Max Weber once said, “and I do not have a field.” And yet it is always possible to label Weber as a sociologist without unduly provoking anybody. Things are decidedly more complicated in the case of the American thinker Kenneth Burke (1897-1993). Situating such Burkean treatises as Permanence and Change (1935), A Grammar of Motives (1945), and Language as Symbolic Action (1966) in cultural and intellectual history is a task to test the limits of interdisciplinary research. His theories concerning aesthetics, communications, social order and ecology took shape through dialogue with the work of Aristotle, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Bergson, and the American pragmatist philosophers, to make the list as short as possible. (And Weber too, of course.) It’s still hard to improve upon the assessment made by Stanley Edgar Hyman, the literary critic and Bennington College professor, more than 60 years ago: “He has no field, unless it be Burkology.”

The triennial meeting of the Kenneth Burke Society, held at Clemson University over the Memorial Day weekend, drew a diverse crowd, numbering just over one hundred people -- with at least a third, by my estimate, being graduate students or junior faculty. The Burkological elders told tales of the days when incorporating more than a couple of citations from “KB” in a dissertation would get you scolded by an adviser. Clearly things have changed in the meantime. Tables near registration were crowded with secondary literature from the past decade or so, as well as a couple of posthumous collections of KB's work. The program featured papers on the implications of his ideas for composition textbooks, disability studies, jazz, environmental activism, and the headscarf controversy.

There were also Burkean discussions of “Mad Men,” Mein Kampf, and the Westboro Baptist Church. Unfortunately I missed it, but Camille Kaminski Lewis gave a paper based on her continuing analysis of the history and ideology of Bob Jones University, where she once taught. (Her book on the subject did not meet with the institution's approval, a matter she discussed in an essay for the Burke Society's Journal.)

The range of topics would sound bewildering to anyone uninitiated into KB’s work; likewise with the vocabulary he created along the way (“dramatism,” “logology,” “terministic screen,” “socio-anagogic interpretation”). But people attending the conference received commemorative tee-shirts bearing excerpts from KB’s “Definition of Man” -- an essay attempting to reduce his thinking to a succinct formula, devoid of any jargon:

"Man is the symbol-making animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, moved by the sense of order, and rotten with perfection."

Quit a bit is going on within that nutshell. (The phrase “rotten with perfection,” for example, is Burke’s idiosyncratic take on Aristotle’s idea of entelechy.) But an academic organization devoted to an esoteric thinker who fits comfortably in no particular departmental pigeonhole would seem unlikely to have much potential for growth. On the final day of the conference, David Cratis Williams told me that when the Kenneth Burke Society formed in 1984, he suspected that it would for the most part appeal to people who had known KB personally. And that small circle was bound to shrink over time, as people retired.

Something else has happened instead. There was more to it than a few then-young Burkologists becoming institutionally well-situated – though that no doubt made a huge difference. Williams, for example, is the director of the graduate program in communication and media studies at Florida Atlantic University. (He is also working on a biography of the maverick thinker.) And David Blakesley, who organized the conference at Clemson just a few months after arriving there to assume an endowed chair in English, is also the founder of Parlor Press, a peer-reviewed scholarly publishing house. The name of the press is taken from a passage in which Burke describes the world as a parlor where an unending conversation unfolds.

Having a few well-placed and entrepreneurial Burkeans has certainly helped to consolidate the Society. But I suspect that other factors are involved in the continuing vitality of the KB scholarship. Three things stood out about the conference: the crowd was multigenerational; many of the younger Burkeans have a strong interest in archival research; and the scholarship is now orienting toward digital media, not just to study it but to use it.

These tendencies seem to be mutually reinforcing. Since the early 1990s, Jack Selzer, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University's main campus, has not only been doing archival research on Burke’s involvement with a number of literary and intellectual circles, but encouraging his students to use the Burke papers at Penn State as well. One of his graduate students was Ann George, now an associate professor of English at Texas Christian University. In 2007, the University of South Carolina Press published Kenneth Burke in the 1930s, which situates its subject in the political and cultural context of the Depression. (While specialized and extremely suggestive to the longtime Burkean, it’s also the book I’d be most likely to recommend to someone new to KB.)

Now students of both Selzer and George are digging around in the 55 linear feet of Burke papers at PSU -- and sometimes taking trips out to the farmhouse in New Jersey where Burke lived and worked, full of still more manuscripts as well as KB’s heavily annotated library. Besides his correspondence with other literary and academic figures, they’re finding unpublished manuscripts and notes showing his concern with economics, music, and other areas relatively neglected by earlier Burke scholars. One senior figure told me that the influx of graduate students was both encouraging and anxiety-inducing: “I really have to finish the project I’ve been working on because now it’s just a matter of time before one of them beats me to it.”

The value of having digital editions of his writings seems clear -- especially in the case of works that Burke revised from edition to edition. In the meantime, two graduate students are digitizing "Conversations with Kenneth Burke," which consists of eight hours of interview footage with Burke conducted by Clarke Rountree at the University of Iowa in 1986. (He is now a professor of communication arts at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.)

Joel Overall, who is one of Ann George's students at TCU, told me about it. "Our project involves upgrading 8 hours of interview footage from VHS to DVD format,” he said. “In addition to upgrading the graphic design of packaging materials, DVD titles, and credits, we're also working on transcriptions of the interview that will be included through subtitles and a searchable pdf file. This is a particularly valuable contribution since KB was somewhat difficult to understand at the age of 89.“ (The other member of the project, Ethan Sproat, is at Purdue, where he worked with David Blakesley before DB's move to Clemson.)

The DVD will be released by the Society within the next year. “Since [Burke’s] written works are often difficult when first encountered, these interviews allow us to hear his voice and see him in cinematic motion, providing us with extra-textual elements that are crucial to understanding his work.”

Following the conference, David Blakesley pointed out another development in the Burkological world. While he was a polyglot as well as a polymath -- reading and translating work from from French and German, and an ardent student of Latin literature as well -- Burke's reputation has long been almost exclusively confined to the United States. But Belgian and French scholars were at the conference.

“They, too, felt welcome, “ he said, “and are excited about their prospects for future work on Burke. In fact, Ronald Soetart (University of Ghent) wants to organize a European Burke conference now. The French contingent was eager to see that as well since there appears to be a groundswell of interest in Burke throughout Europe. I noticed that when I presented on Burke and visual rhetoric at the International Association of Visual Semiotics in Venice last April, too.”

I attended the conference as a keynote speaker, and also delivered a paper -- and so was sitting there feeling mildly fried when I was invited to participate in another multimedia project. A group of Clemson graduate students in the master of arts in professional communication (MAPC) program were conducting a series of interviews for a video on the field of rhetoric. (That is rhetoric understood as the well-established study of effective communication, rather than in the modern sense of a technique for evading reality.)

Drew Stowe, a second-year student in the program, explained that the project would “show the importance of rhetoric for modern students, in the modern university, and to lay audiences such as parents of prospective students, the board of trustees and other corporate partners who recruit graduates from the MAPC program.” Burke is considered one of the most innovative thinkers in rhetoric since antiquity, so scouting the conference for talking heads made sense.

In front of the camera, I aspired to coherence rather than eloquence. My main point was that KB’s work is a toolbox of ideas useful for analyzing the messages with which everyone is bombarded. As someone who’s read a few of Burke’s books until they’ve worn out -- my hardback copy of the first edition of Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), for example, started falling apart during the conference -- I take his continuing relevance as a given. But where did it come from?

“I've always sensed that KB lived at a particularly interesting cultural moment,” wrote Jack Selzer to me by email, following the conference. “Major wars were changing international affairs fundamentally, new communications technologies were so important, and of course postmodern and post-Nietzschean philosophies (and the linguistic turn) were troubling modernist and rationalist assumptions. Somehow he was brilliant enough to perceive the vitality of these changes even as he was living amidst them, and he was able to theorize and meditate on things so productively -- even though (or because?) he was so close to them. As a consequence, what he has to say remains very contemporary. It was wonderful to see the younger scholars drawn to his work in every way imaginable, and I think it has to do with how shrewd KB was about such important intellectual currents.”

Ann George described teaching Burke in a couple of courses over the past years and finding that students “were struck with, and even a little dispirited by,” the parallels between Burke’s motivating concerns and the present scene. “His political, economic, and environmental insights are remarkable: American exceptionalism and the war in Iraq; 'socialization of losses' via government bailouts, 'rereadings' of the Constitution, Ponzi schemes -- it's all there. Of all the theorists we read in the modern rhetoric course … though, students felt Burke offered more answers -- or more hope -- because he didn't idealize human motives or overestimate how much we might be able to change things for the better. “

That’s a very good point -- and there is a profoundly humanist vision that emerges as the pieces of Burke’s theoretical jigsaw puzzle come together.

He put it best in Attitudes Toward History (1937): "The progress of human enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken.

“When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that undergirds great tragedy.” Studying Burke is sometimes difficult, but there are moments when it makes the world seem a little less mad.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Offend 2 Students, Lose Your Job

Smart Title: 
An adjunct says that sharing his master's thesis on pornography with his class left him without any more teaching assignments.

What Would Wittgenstein Do?

Smart Title: 
New Web site lets members of the public get expert answers from philosophy professors.

Faith on the Quad

Smart Title: 
Scholars issue draft "declaration" calling for expanded role of religion in curriculum and student life -- at religious and secular colleges.

Scholar of Peace in the Line of Fire

Smart Title: 
Earlham professor was home visiting his family in Beirut. Because he's not a U.S. citizen, he's not sure he can return to his job.

The 'Great Divide' in Religious Studies

Smart Title: 

When it comes to introductory courses in religion and theology, the big division isn't a question of faith, but of priorities. 

Students want lots of discussion in class sessions and they want to learn facts about religious groups. They also want to become better people. Professors aren't opposed to any of those things, but they are much more interested in teaching critical thinking. While the numbers vary, the gap between students' and professors' goals for these courses is evident at both religious and non-religious institutions.

Did Peter Singer Back Animal Research?

Smart Title: 
No, but the intellectual father of animal rights admitted the possibility that some experiments might be justified.

Stanford's New Grants for the Humanities

Smart Title: 

Winning research support is tough for faculty members in all disciplines -- and makes or breaks careers, especially at research universities. For those in the sciences, competition from many federal agencies has grown more intense in recent years, but there are still billions given out annually and even relatively junior professors can hope to land grants of significant size.


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