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Nowadays I have been listening to the audio version of A Good Look at Evil (forthcoming on Amazon, early 2021). Jane Cullen, who was my editor at Temple University Press when this book first came out, has a young relation who is an actor, has studied philosophy and is a practiced professional in the production of audio books. 

Who knew?

As one who has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century, I myself had never listened to an audio book.  A book, for me, is a visual and tactile experience.  (When I say “visual and tactile” I don’t just mean feeling the paper and seeing the font.  Confessions of a Young Philosopher will have real illustrations!)  But I know that people used to read books aloud.  “Reading” was hearing.  In fact St. Augustine, as I dimly recall, was noted for his atypical propensity for silent reading.

That means that a book – like a poem or a play – used to be enacted.  But how, I wondered, can a philosophy book be enacted?  Isn’t philosophy too abstract to give the listener the experience of suspense or a dramatic plotline?

Well no.  It’s not too abstract to be riveting.  What Matthew Cohn’s audio version is bringing out is what has always gripped me about philosophy.

People live and die by ideas.

Whether these are good ideas or bad ones doesn’t affect the degree of hold they might have on an individual.  We plot our courses in life in terms of what we think reality is like.  We don’t make that up out of whole cloth.  The surrounding culture, where it touches us – filtered first through those who were nearest to us – supplies an initial picture and framework.  Details are filled in as we go along, revising and reframing to fit the successive layers of experience and our own discovered propensities.  Out of it all comes a moving, shaping set of ideas that form the stage set on which the dramas of our lives play out.  These scenes take place in time, forming the plotline of our life story.

Although we can revise these plotlines, adjusting our aims or methods as we learn more about how well they serve us in real circumstances, we don’t do these revisions easily.  And revamping or replacing the background ideas about reality – the stage set – is still more costly.  These revisions, revampings and replacements go to …

the question of who we are

as a culture, as individuals:

identity questions.

The high drama of philosophy is that it tackles directly the terms in which we live: the terms of our stories.  Back of any culture where thinking is encouraged lie philosophic claims.  The dramatic fact is that these claims are not incorrigible.  They can be found to be wrong!

And what is at stake in each such discovery is not only the sustainability of the abstract claims, but also the lives – of persons and whole civilizations – that were staked on those claims.

So philosophic argument can be terribly exciting – totally dramatic and absorbing.  And that, mesdames et messieurs, is how I am finding the audio version of A Good Look at Evil.

I am also rather amazed, nay stunned, to discover that I, the philosophic author, am – how shall I say this? – awfully good!

The reading has intrinsic drama because it makes apparent that the author is entirely sincere in her search for truth.  This is not make-work.  I am not trying to impress anyone or cut a figure or cut competitors down to size.  I really mean every word I put down.  My first and most pitiless critic is myself.  If I am satisfied that all relevant objections have been met, then I think I’m right and am prepared to build on that.

This listening experience has, for the first time, prompted a question for me: Why then didn’t I build a more towering “career” in the profession of philosophy than I did?  There were eminences, at the top of their game in the field, who expressed real regard for work of mine they had read.  At the time I took this for a nice reaction to the fact that I was a nice Jewish girl.  Or possibly a regard they might have had for my parents.  But there are many nice Jewish girls.  And most of the philosophers didn’t know my parents.  I just dismissed it.  Only now does it occur to me that maybe people like that don’t freely give away commendations.

Of course, “eminence” is itself hard work, almost a parallel career.  You’ve got to keep up with the latest from the best, carve out your territory on the professional map and be prepared to defend it.  

Instead, I needed to spend long afternoons at the Metropolitan Museum, or find a rock in a gated garden (like the Guggenheim Museum’s on 91st and Fifth) and lie back on the rock looking up at the leafy tree overhead.  Or stroll around the reservoir.  I needed a lot of time to be alone and think.

I don’t know if I could have done the job of eminence.  I have an excessively receptive kind of empathy that produces porousness to my critics.  The more harshly they might condemn me, the more completely I might see it their way.  At least in the moment, when you have to think on your feet.  Possibly that fatal degree of empathy might eventually have been overcome, with experience.

Is it feminine?  Is it hyper-feminine?  Or was it just not my calling to be eminent?

I don’t know.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Eminence?

  1. Judy Dornstreich says:

    In my humble opinion…you definitely are awfully good!
    And porous empathy may not by a quality conducive to eminence as a philosopher.
    But it is a quality of an eminent human being.
    That it appears to be a primarily feminine quality is perhaps due to most cultures discouraging it in men. After all, the wife is probably busy nursing the baby, perhaps even pregnant with the next one. It becomes necessary to bring home dinner, and thus one cannot allow oneself to feel empathy for the poor possum one is about to shoot.

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