Hitler’s German

•July 10, 2022 • Leave a Comment

It is interesting to contrast him with two of his Viennese contemporaries. Vienna was the capital of a declining/collapsed multiethnic polyglot empire. The German that was spoken in Vienna at the time was highly varied, picking up variations from the Czech, South German, Hungarian, Slavic, Jewish, etc. people that spoke it. Each group would color the language with their own pronunciation, grammatical “errors,” loan words, word order, accents, and slang.

Wittgenstein pushed against this tradition by trying to distill and purify the language. His German is pristine, succinct, and deliberate. His sentences are short, and he avoids complex grammatical constructions. His language is technical and universal—in the sense of one perfect language for everyone to better communicate with each other.

Karl Krauss embraced the chaos of Viennese language. He revels in the subtle variations and variety. He understands their social, cultural and class associations. He is a master of the heterogeneous and turns it into an art form. His universality is different from Wittgenstein’s. He embraces everyone in their own unique individuality.

Hitler’s German has many of the characteristics of Krauss.’ Full of cultural and class associations, colorful and rambling grammatical constructions, words with strong emotional resonance. Yet while Krauss if fully in control of this multifarious language, Hitler’s prose is like a fast-moving train that has run off the rails. His long sentences, while grammatically possible and correct in German, are so full of mixed metaphors and highly emotional but utterly vague terminology they verge on the nonsensical. I imagine the effect is a feeling of outrage and persecution, without a clear sense of what one is outraged about.

Sorry to make the obvious and over-used analogy but Hitler’s German reminds me a great deal of Trump’s English. His long rambling speeches start off in a direction, he loses the train of thought, eventually building to a garbled word salad climax of emotionally charged vagueness and clichés and ending with a flurry of outrage and entitlement.

Bourdieu’s Distinction

•September 12, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Pierre Bourdieu (1930 –2002) was a French sociologist, philosopher, and well-known public intellectual. From 1964 he served as Professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris and from 1981 held the Chair of Sociology at the Collège de France.

The focus of his work has been on the role of power in social relationships, particularly the ways in which that power is maintained, preserved, and handed down over generations. While acknowledging the importance of economic factors, he looked primarily at how symbolic systems and cultural production function in the reproduction of social hierarchies. Like the way physical violence is used to maintain positions of power, symbolic violence uses cultural signs to hide the arbitrary and repressive nature of dominating class relationships and makes them appear natural, reasonable, and legitimate.

Bourdieu’s work is a blending of Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Structuralism into a philosophical sociology. He draws upon Weber’s analysis of how symbolic systems are used for domination of the social sphere. From Marx, the understanding of capital is expanded from a primarily economic analysis to emphasize the social, cultural, and symbolic mechanisms of social relationships. From Structuralists like Levi-Strauss and Althusser, Bourdieu utilized structuralist interpretations of how social structures reproduce themselves. At the same time, he is highly critical of mainstream approaches to economics, particularly those based on rational choice theory, as they misrepresent how actual social agents behave.

In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979), Bourdieu developed these ideas into a theory of social stratification through the mechanism of aesthetic taste. Bourdieu expands on the notion of capital, to include various forms: the standard economic capital but also symbolic, cultural and social capital. Your place in the social hierarchy is the result of not just financial and economic accumulation but also your possession and display of symbolic and cultural artifacts. Your understanding and choice of cultural associations signals your status and distances yourself from other classes. From the start, children internalize an affinity for their appropriate social position and its associated behaviors, inclinations, and preferences as well as an aversion towards other ones.

Distinction brings up fascinating questions about the relationship of philosophy and empirical sciences, the impact of social position on taste and aesthetic judgements and how culture can be a mechanism for replicating social class relationships. As the book is 600 pages long, we will limit our discussion to Chapters 1-3 (p. 9-225) and the Conclusion (pp. 466-484).

Print copies are available online. Prices vary so it would be worth searching more than one retailer.

There is also a pdf version available here:


There are few good resources available on the Internet in English. However, there is a presentation from Stanford University that discusses Bourdieu’s ideas of taste as part of a class taught by Dan Jurafsky & Yoshiko Matsumoto on “The Language of Food”

For those of you who are not up-to-date on French culture of the 1970’s, Josee Johnston and Shyon Baumann apply Bourdieu’s approach to recent American food and food writing

Žižek’s Trouble in Paradise

•February 15, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Slavoj Žižek is by far the most popular contemporary philosopher. His many books sell well, he regularly speaks before packed auditoriums and he has been the subject of at least two films. Despite that popularity, most people do not seem to have a good understanding of what he is saying. He is criticized from the Left as well as the Right. If you look at any six articles on Žižek you would mostly like have six completely different, even contradictory, descriptions of what he is saying. Why is this? What makes this eminently popular theorist so hard to grasp?

There are three things that make it hard to get a handle on Žižek. The first is the enormous volume of his writing. There is just too much for most people to consume. He writes and publishes in several languages and in the last 30 years has published 60 books in English alone. This makes it hard to get an overall perspective on his work and with two or three new books coming out every year it is hard to stay on top of his new developments and directions.

The second challenge is Žižek’s writing style. Žižek’s writing is full of entertaining stories, off-color jokes and surprising twists. This is what makes him so enjoyable to read and listen to. Yet, in the profusion of jokes, stories, examples and digressions it is easy to lose the overall direction. This is particularly the case because his stories and jokes are so interesting, funny and memorable. When reading Žižek you remember so many of the details, often at the expense of the argument.

The third and probably most difficult challenge is his methodology. In Žižek’s writing it is difficult to pick out anything like a “thesis statement,” and the argument most often proceeds via intuitive leaps rather than tight chains of reasoning. It is one of the reasons his work is so often misunderstood.

He uses a dialectical-analytic approach that combines Hegel’s dialectic with Lacan’s version of psychoanalysis. We are trained to look for logical steps that lead to a conclusion. But Žižek’s dialectical-analytic method proceeds by inversions and reversals that end, not in aporia (e.g., Socrates, Derrida) but rarely with clear conclusions. His goal is not to arrive at a settled view, but to achieve greater clarity about what is really at issue, about what is at stake in a given debate. In most cases, for Žižek, the method is the conclusion.

If there is any foundational idea for Žižek it would be that ideology leads to conflicting answers not because people are stupid or evil. Our cherished idea that there is a stable natural order obscures the fact that reality is in itself inconsistent. Nothing is inherently stable, but only temporarily stabilized. As a result, all our conflicting positions are the result of our attempts to manage this unmanageable conflict.

We will be reading Žižek’s Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism (2017). It is a recent book that represents his mature philosophy and his typical trademark approach applied to the emancipatory struggles related to the recent crisis of global capitalism.


What to Read Next




Why Read Lacan?

•October 18, 2019 • Leave a Comment

“Thinking is not an illness in itself, but it can make some people ill.”
Lacan, My Teaching

Lacan viewed himself as a clinical psychoanalytic practitioner, however his impact and influence went far beyond the psychoanalytic community:

  • He is viewed as one of the three primary “Post-Structuralist” philosophers
  • His approach implies a sort of metaphysics, epistemology & ethics—the three traditional elements of philosophy
  • It is important to grasp these ideas if one is to better understand the work of Laclau, Zizek and Judith Butler.

Therefore our reading and discussion we will try to focus on Lacan from a philosophical perspective and only look into clinical practice if it enlightens our philosophical understanding.

Lacan’s purpose was not to write a book to explain his ideas, and what he did write was not for a general audience but rather was directed at psychoanalytic specialists in the contexts of his seminars. If fact he himself describes Écrits as “no more than a few threads, floats, islands or markers that I put down from time to time for the people I’m teaching.”

“In the course of those long years of teaching, from time to time I composed an écrit and it seemed to me important to put it there like a pylon to mark a stage, the point we had reached in some year, some period in some year. … I was speaking for the benefit of people it concerned directly, for the specific people who call themselves psychoanalysts. It had to do with their most direct, most day-to-day, and most urgent experience. It was done expressly for them, and it’s never been done for anyone else.”

To create these “markers,” Lacan uses numerological mathemes in a pseudo-geometry of his own invention. These curious glyphs seem to symbolize rigor and clarity without actually providing it. It is the same with his prose, which borders on the richness of poetry.

Many of the words he uses have very specific and technical meanings. A good example is the term translated as “Name-of-the-Father.” This is one (of many!) untranslatable puns used obsessively by Lacan. In French, it is “le nom du père” literally “name of the Father” which describes the function of the Father in the Symbolic realm (another very complex and idiosyncratic idea from Lacan that means something very specific and technical and nothing like what you assume reading the words). The French pronunciation of “le nom du père” is homophonous with two other phrases that underlie and inform the first: “le non du père” means “the prohibition by the father,” which is very similar to Freud’s Über-ich, and the very interesting and very confusing phrase “les non-dupes err” which means something like “the mistakes made by those that are not fooled” a phrase so rich with meaning it could easily take several pages to unpack.

This makes for very challenging reading, particularly if one is not prepared to do a lot of homework. Most importantly one must attempt understand what this technical vocabulary is supposed to mean for Lacan, rather than assuming you can guess at the meaning based on the common usage of the translated English words, which only leads to chaos and confusion.

To help us see through the chaos we will be reading Bailly’s Lacan: A Beginners Guide  ($6-15) 248 pages. Available at Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y4sgzqmj

This short and inexpensive volume is very good at explaining all the key philosophical concepts. It is generally easy to follow, but not dumbed down, and still provides some challenging reading as many of the ideas are counterintuitive. But the effort pays off and should leave a reader better prepared to dive into reading Écrits or any of Lacan’s followers like Laclau, Zizek or Judith Butler.



Aesthetics and Politics

•June 4, 2019 • Leave a Comment

The Germans have a long philosophical tradition in aesthetics. In fact the term “aesthetics” was appropriated from the Greek and given its new meaning by Alexander Baumgarten in 1735. Leibniz, Mendelssohn, Lessing, Herder and Kant all made significant contributions. But it was Friedrich Schiller that made the most explicit connection between aesthetics and politics.

Schiller published his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man in 1795. They cover a wide variety of issues including an analysis of the French Revolution, a view of human psychology, an argument for art’s political importance, and suggestions for new forms of government that would enable individuals to reach their full potential. For Schiller, art is how you educate men to be free and live successfully in a world of democracy and self-determination.

The spirit of Schiller’s Letters influenced many and was incorporated into the later 19th century Marxist tradition that viewed cultural analysis as a valuable method of political critique. These ideas came to a crisis in early 1930’s when the rise of Hitler brought an end to the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era began.

It was a dangerous and exciting time for both art and politics. While the German Republic was collapsing under the rise of National Socialism, the once bold and optimistic Russian experiment with Socialism was giving way to Stalinism and the totalitarian Communist State. In the US, widespread financial speculation led to a stock market crash and the largest financial crisis in its history, setting off a world-wide economic depression.

At the same time the world of art was continuing a period of rapid advance. There was a profusion of new forms, styles and genres that had started in the 1920’s. Literary modernism explored new approaches to prose fiction with experimental writers like William Faulkner, James Joyce, Robert Musil, Andrey Biely and Alfred Doblin. Brecht’s Epic Theater and Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty broke with established dramatic traditions. Jazz and atonal music stretched the limits of music. There were many influential movements that effected artistic styles across genres: Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism. The rise of film provided an exciting new medium for artistic expression.

Making sense of all these rapid and radical changes in both art and politics was a driving concern for a group of German language intellectuals in the late 1930’s. They all knew each other well and were friends, despite their differences of opinion. Most of them were at least peripherally associated with the Frankfurt. School and the Institute for Social Research. They all were deeply engaged with some form of socialism. Some of them were even artists themselves: Benjamin experimented with the dramatic possibilities of the new medium of radio, Adorno was a student of composer Alban Berg and wrote music in the style of the Second Viennese School, and Brecht, of course, was one of the great poets and playwrights of the twentieth century.

The Hungarian theorist Georg Lukács contributed to an understanding of the relationship between historical materialism and literary form, in particular with realism and the historical novel.

Adorno held that the mass culture produced by capitalist society is an instrument of domination. He believed that these new mass cultural forms—jazz, film, advertising—reproduced the relationship of domination in the nineteenth century industrial factory into the twentieth century cultural sphere. Creativity and cultural production in capitalist society is co-opted for mere entertainment. The capitalist political and economic framework utilizes sensory stimulation and repetitive clichés to distract from sustained deliberation and critique.

Brecht was much more enthusiastic about these new cultural forms and excited incorporated “bad new things” as mechanisms of disruption and verfremdung (alienation) into his Epic theater so that spectators would cease to empathize with the characters and step back and think critically about situations. Others like Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin were more hopeful about the utopian potential of new art in the age of its “technological reproducibility.”


The Verso collection we are reading does not form a typical anthologized collection of separate documents but presents a continuous debate between these interlocutors on several issues related to politics and art. Almost all of the writings in this collection are from the years 1935-38 when Germany was ruled by the increasingly totalitarian Nazi state and all of the writers had scattered into exile across the globe.

Bloch and Lukács argued against each other over the nature of expressionism and the techniques of literary modernism. Brecht argued against Lukács’ literary formalism. Benjamin debated the relevance of classical and modern works of art with Brecht. Adorno criticized Benjamin’s hermeneutics, challenged Brecht’s populist poetics and questioned Lukács’ politics. Despite their arguments and different approaches to both politics and art, they (for the most part) maintained their friendships and as their fortunes ebbed and flowed, helped each other with jobs, money and places to stay.

 All these writers were concerned with the relationship of art and culture to a society of free and autonomous individuals. Writing in the 1930’s when art became a major political battleground, their ideas still offer enormous resources for progressive approaches to culture and their debates remain relevant even today as we continue to use free creative expression to counter the trends of authoritarian politics and social inequality.

The collection that we are reading, Aesthetics and Politics, is available on Amazon or directly from the publisher.

Resources for Aesthetics & Politics

•June 4, 2019 • Leave a Comment

“Marxism, Art and Utopia: Critical Theory and Political Aesthetics” Cat Moir

“5. Critical Theory” Aesthetics in Continental Philosophy in IEP

“Culture Industry”

Expressionist Theater: Crash Course Theater (video)

Georg Lukács
The Hungarian theorist Georg Lukács contributed to an understanding of the relationship between historical materialism and literary form, in particular with realism and the historical novel.
Favored Artist: Thomas Mann
Recommended Art Form: Historical Novel
Exiled to: Moscow & Tashkent, USSR

The Theory of the Novel “Preface” Georg Lukács

“Georg Lukács” in SEP
Particularly “2.3 Modernity and te Loss of Totality” and “4.4 Aesthetics: Realism and the Work of Art as Closed Totality”

Ernst Bloch
Ernst Bloch was more hopeful about the utopian impulses present in art, literature, religion and other forms of cultural expression, as these helped us to envision and take steps toward a better future state for mankind. 
Favored Artist: Richard Wagner
Recommended Art Form: Music and Opera
Exiled to: Switzerland, Austria, France, Czechoslovakia, New York

“Reclaiming Utopia: The Legacy of Ernst Bloch” Tim Dayton

The Principle of Hope “Introduction” Ernst Bloch

“Ernst Bloch, Utopia and Ideology Critique” Douglas Kellner

Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin celebrated the modern means of artistic production and technological reproduction that have destroyed the aesthetic, cultural, and political authority of art allowing it to finally “become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.”
Favored Artist: Charles Baudelaire
Recommended Art Form: Film, Photography & Radio
Exiled to: Ibiza, Nice, Paris, France

“The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility” Walter Benjamin

“Walter Benjamin: Art, Aura and Authenticity” Andrew Robinson

“Walter Benjamin” in SEP
Particularly “6. Art and Technology” and “7. Baudelaire and the Modern”

Theodor Adorno
Adorno held that the mass culture produced by capitalist society is an instrument of domination. He believed that these new mass cultural forms—jazz, film, advertising—reproduced the relationship of domination in the nineteenth century industrial factory into the twentieth century cultural sphere. Creativity and cultural production in capitalist society is co-opted for mere entertainment. The capitalist political and economic framework utilizes sensory stimulation and repetitive clichés to distract from sustained deliberation and critique.
Favored Artist: Arnold Schoenberg
Recommended Art Form: Music
Exiled to: Oxford, New York, Los Angeles

“On Jazz:” Theodor Adorno

“The Culture

“Theodor W. Adorno” in SEP
Particularly “4. Aesthetic Theory”

“Adorno and Standard Criticisms” The Aesthetics of Popular Music in IEP

Bertolt Brecht
Brecht was much more enthusiastic about these new cultural forms and excited incorporated “bad new things” as mechanisms of disruption and verfremdung (alienation) into his Epic theater so that spectators would cease to empathize with the characters and step back and think critically about situations.
Favored Artist: Everything from Shakespeare to sideshow barkers
Recommended Art Form: Poetry and Drama
Exiled to: Prague, Zurich, Paris, Copenhagen, Moscow, New York, London, Sweden, Finland and California

“Brecht’s Marxist Aesthetic” Douglas Kellner

Bertolt Brecht and Epic Theatre: Crash Course Theater (video)

“Bertolt Brecth” in Wikipedia
Particularly “Theory and practice of theater”

“Epic Theater” in Wikipedia

Understanding Brecht  Walter Benjamin

“Bertolt Brecht” in FBI Records: The Vault


2018 Reading

•December 31, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Reading rate has dropped the last five years. I’m afraid that is a permanent state of affairs. The period of dozen years I was able to read more than a hundred books ended in 2013 and shows no sign of returning. It has been a frustration to me that I don’t have as much time to read, but it seems to be an unsolvable problem and better to just accept it.

Also the kind of reading has been different. It is more functional and less inspirational. I have read fewer “great books” and very little that has been influential, inspiring or changed my life.

On the other hand I have done a lot of “functional” reading—reading books for information that is important or interesting to me, at least at the time. Much of it has to do with travel, places that I have gone that sparked my interest in something and I want to know more. While few of these are “great” books, some of them really capture my attention and most help me learn something or answer questions that I have.

Some of the best ones this year include: Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, biographies of Gaudi (Hensbergen), Goethe (Safranski) and Humboldt (Wulf), the novels of Perez Galdos, Basile’s Tale of Tales and Crowley’s Empires at Sea.

In philosophy reading this year Simone de Beauvoir, Claude Levi-Strauss, Friedrick Hayak and Alister MacIntyre were the most interesting. In history, Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History and Hume’s History of England were surprisingly enjoyable classics.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

•January 6, 2018 • Leave a Comment

“Enough ink has been spilled in the quarreling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more about it.”

This is from the opening paragraph of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, the woman and the book that most modern feminists look back to as the start of the movement. Was she being ironic? Yes and no. It is easy to recognize the ironic part. Weighing in at nearly 1000 pages it certainly seemed like there was more to be said and much of what she said set the feminist agenda for the next generation. The serious side of her comment is a little harder for us to see today but from where she stood in the late 1940’s it looked like feminism had run its course.

We don’t think about it much today but what is now known as First Wave Feminism started in the 19th century and lasted until the mid-twentieth century when de Beauvoir was writing her book. The aim of First wave feminism get woman the right to work, own property in their own name and most importantly to vote. As the first women cast their ballots in the French election of 1945, it looked like feminism may achieved its goals.

But de Beauvoir knew that while the aims of the only feminism she knew were being accomplished there was so much more to do. Drawing on Sartre’s existentialist idea that “existence precedes essence” she examines the social construction of the idea of woman and its effects on society.  The Second Sex laid the groundwork for what would come to be known as Second Wave Feminism which became widespread in the 1960’s through works like Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970). Her formulation that “one is not born a woman, but becomes one” distinguishes sex from gender and inspired later Third Wave Feminists like Judith Butler who try to break down rigid categories and create a more fluid notion of gender.


Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908. She had a strict Catholic upbringing and at one point considered becoming a nun. At the age of 14 she had a crisis of faith and declared herself an atheist. She attended the Sorbonne where she studied philosophy and completed her thesis on Leibniz in 1929. That same year she met Jean-Paul Sartre, forming a partnership and romance that would shape both of their lives and philosophical beliefs. De Beauvoir published countless works of fiction and nonfiction during her lengthy career—often with existentialist themes.

Her first major published work, the 1943 novel She Came to Stay. It looks at existential ideals and was based on her relationship with Sartre and a student named Olga Kosakiewicz. The next year she published a philosophical essay, Pyrrhus and Cineas, which takes an existentialist view of the human situation and our purpose in life.

In 1949 she published her best known work, The Second Sex. The book was received with great controversy, some even considered it pornography and was it placed on the Vatican’s list of forbidden books. In 1954 she published The Mandarins, a semi-autobiographical novel that won the Prix Goncourt. This was followed by her influential four volume auto-biography which included: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), The Prime of Life (1960), Force of Circumstance (1963) and All Said and Done (1972).

De Beauvoir traveled widely and supported various political causes including the independence movements in Hungary and Algeria as well as participating in the student protests in France and the United States during the 1960’s. Much of her later work explores issues of aging and death. She died in Paris in 1986 and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery with Sartre.

Some Key Ideas

Sartre’s work provided de Beauvoir the conceptual foundation for the The Second Sex. Particularly important is his existentialist notion, derived from Hegel, of an opposition between a sovereign subject and an objectified Other.

The Other—The notion that women are defined in opposition to and different from men rather on their own terms. While it is natural to define things in contrast to others, doing this with gender effectively denies women their humanity.

Nature vs. Nurture—Woman’s so-called inferiority is not the result not of natural deficiency but is culturally determined and comes from their upbringing and education. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

The Eternal Feminine—This is a myth takes many forms—the sanctity of the mother, the purity of the virgin, the fecundity of the earth and of the womb. In each case the myth serves to deny women their individuality and hold them to impossible and unrealizable ideals.

Immanence and Transcendence—Traditionally, men have “transcendence” and are active, creative, powerful and productive, while women have “immanence” and are passive, introverted and static. But every human should enjoy the interplay of these two ideas in constructing their life and place in society.


The recommended version is the 2011 Vintage edition with the translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier which is the first complete and unabridged English version that restores much material edited out of previous translations. It is available on Amazon for under $15

While it would be great to read the entire book—and I would encourage you to do so when you have time—we will focus this time on some of the more influential and better known chapters. This is just over 200 pages but provides many of the key themes and ideas. The chapter titles are from the Borde & Malovany-Chevallier translation but are similar in the other translations.


Biological Data (I: Part 1, Chapter 1)

The Point of View of Historical Materialism (I: Part 1, Chapter 3)

Dreams, Fears, Idols (I: Part 3, Chapter 1)

Myth and Reality (I: Part 3, Chapter 3)

Childhood (II: Part 1, Chapter 1)

The Girl (II: Part 1, Chapter 2)

The Married Woman (II: Part 1, Chapter 5)

Woman’s Situation and Character (II: Part 2, Chapter 10)

The Woman in Love (II: Part 3, Chapter 12)

The Independent Woman (II: Part 4, Chapter 14)




Christina Hoff Sommers dismissed The Second Sex, claiming that its “reputation as a masterpiece, a work of art, or even an inspiring manifesto, depends heavily on no one reading it.” Now that you have read some of it, do you think the book lives up to its reputation? How is the actual content of the book different from your expectations?

How does de Beauvoir’s view of historical materialism differ from other writers that we have read (e.g., Marx, Adorno, Sartre)? How are women similar and how are the different from other oppressed or marginalized groups (e.g., Marx’s proletariat)?

The poet Stevie Smith said of de Beauvoir that “She has written an enormous book about women and it is soon clear that she does not like them, nor does she like being a woman.” Why are her characterizations of women primarily negative? Can she be considered a misogynist?

Simone de Beauvoir was heavily influenced by Sartre. Likewise, Judith Butler was inspired and influenced by de Beauvoir. How are their ideas different? Where might these three agree or disagree with each other?

 B. Radford said that The Second Sexis “primarily a middle-class document, so distorted by autobiographical influences that the individual problems of the writer herself may assume an exaggerated importance in her discussion of femininity.” How widely applicable are the ideas in The Second Sex? Is this a book that is merely about “first world problems”?


Additional Resources

Simone de Beauvoir






1965 Paris Review Interview

1975 Interview (Video in French with English subtitles)


“Philosophy Talk: Simone de Beauvoir” Laura Maguire

“Did Simone de Beauvoir’s open marriage make her happy?” Lisa Appignanesi


“A Brief History: The Three Waves of Feminism” Carolin Dorey-Stein

“Four Waves of Feminism” Marth Rampton

“History of Feminism” Wikipedia

The Future

“Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex” Judith Butler

“Beauvoir revisited: Butler and the “gender” question” Maria Luisa Femenias

Reading in 2017

•January 2, 2018 • Leave a Comment

2017 was an interesting year for reading. In looking back there was perhaps only one book that stood out however, there were a few patterns and themes that emerge. More than anything this was a year of revisiting old favorites.

I was finally able to read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations thoroughly, comprehensively and in its entirety at one time. The book, long a favorite, is too easy to read in pieces or to dwell on particular comments, problems or ideas. However, unlike other writers (one thinks particularly of Hegel), this comprehensive approach did not uncover any profound new insights I might have missed over the years of piecemeal reading.

On the other hand, a more comprehensive approach to Heidegger did yield a better more complete picture. It began with revisiting an old favorite, Being and Time and was followed two books, The Bremen Lectures and Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event). These were new to me but help to provide a framework for understanding the later Heidegger and where he was going after his most famous work. Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event) was particularly interesting. It reads like a dystopian science fiction novel written in the form of a philosophical treatise.

I had the opportunity to reread Dialectic of Enlightenment along with Minima Moralia and a good sampling of Adorno’s writings on art, music and aesthetics. Also had the chance to expand my understanding of Max Weber & Emile Durkheim beyond their most well-known books. For Weber this included the massive and sprawling Economics & Society. For Durkheim it was the lesser known works on education and socialism as well as his work on L’Année Sociologique.

It was also a good year for reading biography. Miles Unger’s Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces provided a novel approach to understanding the life and times of the great artist. Unger organizes Michelangelo’s lilfe into six periods, each featuring one of his creations that exemplifies his attitude, approach and problems of that era of his life.

I continue to enjoy Rüdiger Safranski, this year reading his biographies of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Gareth Stedman Jones’ new biography Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion helps to set Marx’s large ouvre into its historical context and provides an interesting contrast to Jonathan Spencer’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. Robert Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism was a great supplement to reading and discussing his essays as well as a visit to his house and neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Odds and Ends
A few other books merit mention. A trip to San Diego led to some reading about the history and settlement of that area. Helen Hunt Fuller’s novel Romona was perhaps the most noteworthy. In a year of rereading and old favorites I  found my old copy of Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Thinking this would be a great optimistic corrective to the cynicism and despondency of the Trump era I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with this influential book from my youth. Sadly, it has not aged well and Fuller’s genial utopian buoyancy fails to make up for the fuzziness of arguments or his questionable social science. He will always be remembered as hero of my youth, but today’s heroes require a good deal more rigor and detail.

Background to Dialectic of Enlightenment

•December 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Philosophy and the world

We often think of philosophy as an activity of the mind, performed by intelligent people in the leisurely and safe environment of a university office or seminar room. Philosophers write books, present papers, go to conferences and sleep comfortably in their own beds. This has not always been the case. And Europe in the 1930’s was a particularly dangerous time to be a philosopher which can be seen by the fragmentary and unfinished state of what would have been the era’s most important works.

Antonio Gramaci’s Prison Notebooks consist of 3000 pages in 30 notebooks written while he was imprisoned from 1926 to 1936. The notebooks were smuggled out of his cell in 1936 but were not published until the 1950’s. They consist of fragments on various themes ranging in length from a few lines to several pages. The conditions of their composition were horrendous. “His teeth fell out, his digestive system collapsed so that he could not eat solid food… he had convulsions when he vomited blood, and suffered headaches so violent that he beat his head against the walls of his cell.” Gramsci died in prison a few months later in 1937. He was 46 years old.

Walter Benjamin, a close associate and some time member of the Frankfurt School worked on his magnum opus during roughly the same years, from 1927 and 1940. Known as the Arcades Project, it would have been one of the great texts of the 20th century. It was never completed and what remains are several boxes of fragments, outlines, sketches, photographs and postcards. Despite its reputation it was not published until 1999. Benjamin eventually took his own life in 1940 while trying to escape from Nazi Europe. He was 48 years old.

Of the three, Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness was the only work to be completed and published intact, probably due to it being completed by 1923. The book was soon condemned in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Lukács was forced to publically repudiate his ideas. In 1930 he was summoned to Moscow and was not permitted to leave until the end of the war. Lukács was one of the few that survived the purges of the Great Terror from 1936-38 which claimed the lives of 80% of all Hungarian émigrés living in the Soviet Union.

The Institute for Social Research

History and Class Consciousness was a major inspiration for the work of the Frankfurt School. What happened to Lukács made it clear that any serious conceptual progress would have to be made independently of the official Communist party and the development of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Also, as Marxist-associated thinkers with Jewish ancestry, their safety in increasingly National Socialist Germany was extremely problematic. The Institute was moved from Frankfurt to Geneva in 1933 and soon after to New York in 1934.

In fact, the Institute for Social Research was made up of theorists who felt alienated from all the current political trends of the era: communist, fascist and capitalist. They looked for alternative ideas and approaches that would explain the events of the early twentieth century that seemed to defy the path outlined by the first and second generations of Marxist and socialist thought. Even though it was founded by Felix Weil in 1923, the Institute is most closely associated with Max Horkheimer who became the institute’s director in 1930 and recruited it’s most well-known theorists: Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and  Erich Fromm.

Looking to understand and explain the inadequacies of classical Marxism, the members of the Institute looked to other schools of thought including Weber and Simmel (antipositivist sociology), Freud (psychoanalysis) and, of course, Lukács. They wanted to overcome what they perceived as the limits of sterile positivism of Comte and the materialism of the Marxists by revisiting Hegel’s dialectic and Kant’s notion of critique—viewing opposition and contradiction as important, even essential, aspects of human society. As a result, Horkheimer & Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment is one of the primary texts of the movement. A manifesto of sorts that outlined the future direction and preoccupations of the group that would be expanded upon in Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason, and Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson & Sanford’s The Authoritarian Personality.

Dialectic of Enlightenment

The book explores several themes in contemporary thought and culture that are held together by the notion that there are limits to the modern project of the enlightenment and that a tendency toward paranoia, xenophobia and self-destruction—so apparent in the Nazi and Stalinist terror—are not exceptions but were always undercurrents of the European Enlightenment. They were always part of the dialectic of the civilizing influence of society with the need to dominate nature.


The Stanford University Press is the only English edition of Dialectic of Enlightenment that is widely available and easy to find. I would recommend that one although any of the others are similar and should be acceptable if people want to use them.









Dialectic of Enlightenment


Culture Industry




Frankfurt School / Institute for Social Research