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Strawson reviews Kitcher

Galen Strawson (a known philosopher, of course, and son of a better-known (and better) one) concludes his review of Philip Kitcher's new book, Science, Truth, and Democracy with the following:

The book as a whole is a remarkable illustration of the sheer force of thought, the conceptual firepower, conferred by successful training in philosophy. (Some years ago, The Economist reported on a survey, conducted over 19 years, that showed that philosophy students scored at least five percentage points above average in admission tests for professional and graduate schools in America. No other subject matches that.) Perhaps the relevant government officials should be enrolled in Philosophy 101 and kept there until they can follow every move in ''Science, Truth, and Democracy.''

This passage typifies Strawson's review as a whole: Mostly irrelevant to its purported topic, largely simplistic, and, overall, a disservice to philosophers and non-philosophers alike.

It's apparent that Strawson has a chip on his shoulder; no doubt he feels that philosophy is underappreciated, and perhaps rightly so. I was a bit tickled to read his conclusion, having studied philosophy myself, but before I even finished chuckling over it I became annoyed — since when do scholars consider admissions tests a measure of anything worthwhile? Do they really offer any measure of what is relevant here — actually understanding the issues involved?

Distasteful to me, too (and also irrelevant to the issues at hand), was a lengthy rant toward the beginning of the review, against "the relativists, the subjectivists, the antirealists, the postmodernists." Here Strawson appears to condense thousands of books and papers on a surprisingly subtle question (which, I confess, I don't dare tackle here) into a few short paragraphs, only to conclude that the answer is patently obvious. Is he on drugs? Any rigorous thinker will see that his argument (though I hesitate to call it that) is superficial at best (he simply denies the premise of the dispute, wording it to make it appear trivial). And any non-philosopher will be left only to conclude that a large number of professional philosophers (for there are many non-realists, in philosophy) are bumbling old dolts. So what is Strawson trying to do here?

Well, alas, he hardly seems worried about actually reviewing a book. He reiterates some of Kitcher's main points, but offers his readers no context for them, and no perspective on the broader field (within either philosophy or politics), or Kitcher's place within it. It's scant compensation, but his "review" does, however, appear to be directly relevant to a certain other book (recently discussed here), on how it happens that academics end up publishing such mediocre work for the mainstream....

January 22, 2002 11:46 AM

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