Unread Dust

I just moved an entire print run of a philosophical journal from one room to another.  Published four times each year for about the past 100 years, this was not an easy undertaking.  With a dusty stack of volumes under your nose as you walk from one room to another, you just have time for a potted glance at the last century of philosophy, between your sneezes.  Here’s a taste of the titles chosen as randomly as possible (eyes shut, finger down and keep it unless it’s rubblish), one from each decade, starting with the twenties:

  • ‘The Primitive and the Civilized Mind’
  • ‘Itinerarium Mentis In Deum’ (for Latin slackers, that’s ‘The Journey of the Mind into God’.)
  • ‘Community of Purpose and the Nazi Lesson’
  • ‘Use and Misuse of the Unknown’
  • ‘A Scientific Morality?’
  • ‘Dignity’
  • ‘The Morality of Terrorism’
  • ‘What’s Wrong with Prostitution?’ (and the swift reply ten years later…)
  • ‘Punishment and Repentance’

Here’s another almost random run through the decades:

  • ‘The Philosophy of a Business Man’
  • ‘The Philosophy of Mysticism’
  • ‘The Development of Bishop Butler’s Ethics’
  • ‘Thinking Machines’
  • ‘Berkeley, the Sun that I see by Day, and that which I imagine by Night’
  • ‘More Deviant Logic’
  • ‘On Wanting to be Somebody’
  • ‘Davidson on Intentionality and Externalism’
  • ‘What’s Wrong with Megalopsychia?’ (for Greek slackers, that’s ‘magnanimity’.)

You really can feel the times when you glance at the covers.  You can see the linguistic turn turning, watch behaviourism bubble up and recede, hear wars (largely ignored) in the background, observe falsificationism storm in and, eventually, quietly leave through a side door.   You can feel the floor go out from under religious enquiry.  You can see philosophers marching with jaws set into what you know will turn out to be a dead end and watch them beat countless dead horses.  It might be the latter which lead to a seriously bad Bartleby the Scrivener vibe.

So many philosophers I’ve never heard of, talking about something that never mattered, toiling away, probably proudly, to end up as unread dust.  Maybe worse.  Maybe faintly ridiculous unread dust.  This, by the way, is the fate of the published ones.  God help the ones who aspire to be faintly ridiculous unread dust.   That sad thing said, I’m glad they did it, sometimes even grateful.  Working that one out — how ridiculous unread dust is of enormous value — might be a clue to the point of philosophy.  It’s beyond me right now because I’m going to read ‘What’s Wrong with Prostitution?’  Obviously.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Obviously, what’s wrong with prostitution is that it’s gotten too expensive.

  2. Ralph Sabella

    My first choice would be
    ‘More Deviant Logic.’
    I’ve always considered logic with some suspicion, even that it might be bent. At last someone is exposing it for what it is.

  3. Amos – This is further evidence that I am doomed to play the straight man for philosophers everywhere.

    Ralph – An associate who had something of the night about him and did nothing but nonclassical logic always called it ‘pervert logic’.

    Might have a look at ‘Thinking Machines’ next, published in 1958. (All of this is preventing me from doing any more moving, which is excellent).

  4. I suppose that the next generation of philosophers (or the one after that) will be dealing only with digital dust. On the plus side, moving all those old digital journals will be easy…and no sneezing.

  5. Actually, it is a real question how much junk is needed to produce a maximum of the good stuff. Why be coy? You are obviously talking about Philosophy the journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. They tried very hard to bring philosophy out of its ghetto, but I’m not sure of the outcome. They also run conferences, which are wonderful, but in the end I could not affort to continue to subscribe. Do you think I should go back to taking Philosophy?

  6. Interesting site, but much advertisments on him. Shall read as subscription, rss.

  7. Interesting. Although perhaps a bit whiggish.

    Before Kripke one would probably have regarded Leibniz as naive for thinking that there are modal truths independent of our language.

    Or the whole discussion of the Ontological argument as being doomed before it was revived by Malcolm and Plantinga.

    Perhaps some of those dead horses have life in them yet. My prediction for a surprise revival is dualism, but maybe I’m misjudging the direction of philosophy.

  8. Kyle, I suppose, in darker moments, I’d love to be whiggish.

    There is a lot of junk out there, isn’t there? Real, objective junk, not just work I don’t find interesting or understand. It’s a familiar point but maybe worth thinking about anyway. Philosophy as practiced in many places seems geared to produce something no one wants to read or could really care about. The ‘good stuff’ as David White says above, wouldn’t be published in the current climate. People point out that The Tractatus would not now have reached the viva stage, no one would touch Republic, and what editor would give Thus Spake Zarathustra a second glance?

    What do you do with that familiar point, the thought that philosophy ain’t what it was? I do wonder, looking at all these journals, whether it ever was what it was.

  9. I so understand, in last paragraph just whole salt and is stated

  10. James,

    Could you unpack this a little more:

    What do you do with that familiar point, the thought that philosophy ain’t what it was? I do wonder, looking at all these journals, whether it ever was what it was.

  11. What did the prostitution article say? I’m curious now…

  12. Hello Faust: Not sure what I mean. I think a lot of people believe that philosophy has somehow lost its way. Maybe what we do now is nothing like what we think of the greats as doing. But it’s easy to wonder whether philosophy was ever what we think it used to be. Maybe it’s always been in the business of piling up unread dust. The odd Plato or Hume are just bizarre anomalies.

    Hello Eve: According to the author, nothing is wrong with prostitution. Arguments under the headings paternalism, some things are just not for sale, feminist critique a: degradation of women and feminist critique b: oppression of women are considered and found wanting.

  13. James,

    I see. I thought that’s what you meant just making sure. I fairly recently read the essay “The Philosopher as Expert” by Rorty. I recommend it if you haven’t read it, it’s pretty fun.

    The basic distinction he makes is that philosophy is filled with a tension between science and vision and that very generally speaking the “great” philosophers are philosophers who manage to ask new questions or resolve old ones. These giants of philosophy are, in addition to being markers of a certain kind of genius, markers of beginnings and endings in various conversations. Meanwhile the bulk of philosophers wrestle inside the frameworks defined by the visionaries testing the framework, adjusting it, challenging it, fleshing it out, and so forth.

  14. A funny quote from Rorty:

    Everyone is dimly aware that there are some people who make philosophizing a full-time job, and who might presumably be expected to have the profoundest philosophies. But no one is particularly eager to find out what these experts think, nor do they themselves seem anxious to communicate anything.

  15. IMHO, philosophy is just pompous rubbish clad in the guise of serious-looking prose. It’s definitely not worth the paper it’s printed on.
    As Cicero observed, there is nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it. Moreover, the fact that you can argue for and against almost any conceivable philosophical position with practically the same efficiency for millenia shows the complete uselessness of this enterprise.
    I hope Jason Brennan’s latest article ‘Scepticism about philosophy’ (http://philpapers.org/rec/BRESAP)will prove to be the beginning of the end, the last self-destructing act of the philosophical ‘profession’.

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