ndpr review of moral fool

Stephen had kindly placed his reference to a recent and extremely negative review of the Moral Fool only at the end of the no longer much frequented discussion of this book in this forum. I had requested the publishers of the review, the editors of the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, to be granted the right to a reply. This request was denied. I might thus as well say a few words here.

It is not really worth the effort to respond in detail to the many often incorrect and contradictory claims of the reviewer. In general, he accuses me of not having written a book in the only genre that he seems to deem academically appropriate, namely an exegetical study on the secondary literature in one’s field. Of course, as will be most obvious to any reader, I intentionally did not make such an attempt in the Moral Fool, but rather tried to develop a perspective of “negative ethics” derived from various philosophical sources, including Chinese ones and to relate them to some current social issues and viewpoints.

Some colleagues and friends have asked me if I knew why the reviewer had been so extraordinarily hostile. I did not know this, since I had never heard his name before. However, I subsequently became aware of some “dots” which perhaps are entirely disconnected: Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews often commissions its contributions directly through requests of their editors. P.J. Ivanhoe is an editor of this journal. In the review, I am accused of not citing major authorities on Chinese Philosophy, among which the reviewer lists P.J. Ivanhoe. The reviewer, in the acknowledgments in his book on W. James, thanks P.J. Ivanhoe. I co-published a critical review of Prof. Ivanhoe’s religious interpretation of the Zhuangzi some years ago in Philosophy East and West.

6 thoughts on “ndpr review of moral fool

  1. Frank Perkins, known and respected by many frequenters of this blog, has written of Moeller’s book, “The Moral Fool fully and easily engages the philosophical issues that are present in contemporary life. Hans-Georg Moeller moves naturally from more theoretical discussions to the analysis of concrete social phenomena. His facility with applying philosophical discussions is what makes his book important, relevant, and engaging, not to mention provocative, remarkably clear, and even funny. In fact, this book is the best attempt I have read to bring Chinese philosophy into contemporary philosophical discussion.”

    I wish Moeller had responded to the content of the ndpr review. Even without having read his book, I find the review sufficiently problematic to warrant comment.

    A reviewer is responsible for conveying a somewhat sympathetic vision of the book’s unifying line of thought, before attacking. The ndpr review does not seem to me to make an adequate attempt.

    Moeller has told us that in this book he claims to use “morality” and “ethics” to refer to a type of communication, not to living morally well. The reviewer is duty-bound to highlight that claim of (as I think) idiosyncratic usage, in order to avoid serious misrepresentation throughout the review. The reviewer does not mention the claim.

    The reviewer thinks the book is probably aimed at a general readership, and Moeller has said as much. A book for the general public should omit qualifications and complexities that would be mandatory in a book for professional philosophers. To rely heavily on quotations in reviewing for professionals any ambitious general-audience book on highly abstract matters, as the reviewer does, seems bound to make the book look bad.

    The review focuses to great excess on whether Moeller answers other thinkers, gives them due credit, and gives references when he cites them. For example, because Moeller acknowledges heavy but incomplete influence by Nietzsche, the reviewer says there ought to have been a whole chapter on Nietzsche.

    On the other hand, I disagree with Moeller’s claim that the review demands too much exegesis of secondary literature. In fact the review never mentions exegesis of secondary literature, unless Wittgenstein’s Lecture on Ethics is secondary literature.

    If the review has all the problems I’ve alleged, that’s a perfectly ordinary phenomenon, suggesting no conspiracy.

    • Thanks for your comments, Bill. Just two things:

      1) The appropriate place to respond in detail to the review would have been, in my view, the journal in which it appeared. But my request to do so was denied by the editors.

      2)The review seems to indeed demand the exegesis of secondary literature. The author accuses me of ignoring the entire (Western) “literature” on ethics of the past hundred years (with “one” undefined exception) and then dismisses my unsatisfactory treatment of the ethical positions of the following nine authors that I DO discuss, namely: Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Gray, Niklas Luhmann, Walter Berns, Richard Rorty, Lawrence Kohlberg, John Rawls, Martha Nussbaum, and Michael Walzer. With “literature” I assume, he must then mean “secondary literature”. All the authors (including Ivanhoe) on Chinese Philosophy which I am accused to ignore are secondary literature authors. For better or worse in my book I do not discuss the respective advantages of existing interpretations of Daoist philosophy, but do something different.

  2. I agree that the review’s general claims such as “With one notable exception, it deals with no literature in ethics written in the last hundred years” flatly contradict other things the review says. But I think one can’t reasonably conclude that by “literature in ethics” here the reviewer meant “secondary literature,” i.e. commentaries on other texts. Also, I take it that by “deal with” (and “discuss,” “engage,” etc.) the review typically means “rebut (or parry or credit),” not “interpret.”

    Offhand the reviewer’s expectations about engagement with “the literature” strike me as wrongheaded.

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