Sunday, October 2, 2011

Philip Kitcher

Philip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.

His new book is The Ethical Project.

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
At present I’m reading three books (at different times of day). I tend to begin with the final volume of Thomas Mann’s diaries (Tageb├╝cher). All ten volumes are a wonderful mixture of the mundane and the unusual. Mann tells us all sorts of details about his intake of coffee, his sleep troubles and his constipation, his visits to the barber and his daily walk. He also records his recurring struggles to write, the oppressive obligations imposed by all the letters he receives, his omnipresent sense that he is in decline and that life isn’t worth living, and – occasionally – the joy he feels at receiving an honor, or having a good conversation, or seeing a beautiful young man beside the seaside (or in a restaurant, or on the tennis court ...). The last volume is particularly poignant, because, while he is being celebrated day after day, he is wracked by the difficulty of finding a rewarding writing project: his life is superficially triumphant but feels desperately hollow.

Later in the day, I turn to James Wood’s beautiful little book, How Fiction Works. Wood is a marvelous companion to literature in a variety of traditions across several centuries. He writes easily and clearly about complicated ideas, and enhances any avid reader’s understanding of the techniques of fiction. Since I am very interested in philosophical themes in works of literature, I was on the look out for an accessible theoretical discussion of fiction. It’s a joy to find it.

In the evenings, I’m trying to remedy my appalling ignorance of the history of the American Civil War (something they never told us anything about in my, otherwise excellent, British school). James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom came with some really impressive recommendations, and I’m reading it on my Kindle. Warning: better to buy the old-fashioned book, since crucial tables and maps are illegible on the Kindle version. McPherson deserves high praise for his ability to organize the material, and for his wide-ranging coverage of issues. But how I wish he were a better writer! The prose is sober, comprehensible, straghtforward ... and leaden. Maybe, it’s just because I read it in the evening, but I don’t think so.
Learn more about Kitcher's new book, The Ethical Project.

The Page 69 Test: Philip Kitcher's Living With Darwin.

--Marshal Zeringue