About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

David Brooks wrong on philosophy and history

OK, time to take on Mr. Brooks, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. Recently, he has gotten more irritating – and inaccurate – than usual, so here we go.

A few days ago, Brooks wrote a column on how Plato's concept of “thymos” (one of the three parts of the soul, together with appetites and reason) explains a lot of our troubles. Thymos, according to Brooks, is the urge for recognition, which drives so much politics and human affairs, especially when men are involved. Wrong. Plato's thymos was actually the emotional part of the soul, a much broader concept than Brooks' simplistic rendition. Moreover, as much as I admire Plato, surely we don't want to go back to his Republic as a good model for political discussions – unless Brooks is fascinated by the idea of a fascist state controlled by philosopher kings.

Today, he did it again, this time waxing poetical about how 2008 presidential hopefuls should be looking at Lincoln as a model. You see, he didn't shrink from the possibility of war, he expanded its scope to make it right. But surely Brooks knows better than to think that the so-called Civil War (which in the south they still call "the war of northern aggression") was predicated on the ideal of racial equality. It was largely (at the political level) a matter of economic resources and territorial power -- just like any other war, including the one in Iraq. If we really wish to learn something from history, let's look at the Peloponnesian war instead (see "A War Like No Other," by V.D. Hanson). There, "exporting democracy" was clearly a thinly veiled excuse for imperial Athens, and the effort ended in a disaster from a cultural, political, and human perspective.

David, a few days ago you got Plato completely wrong, now you present us with an exceedingly naive view of history. Next time, a bit more home work and less ideological grandstanding perhaps?


  1. I too read David Brooks commentary today. Here is my reaction as I wrote to my local paper The Oregonian.

    David Brooks brought up an interesting thought in his commentary (GOP losing faith in high ideals, 3/26/2006). He said that certain conservatives “look at car bombs and cartoon riots and wonder whether Islam is really a religion of peace.” I often wonder the same.

    But then I look at unjustified war, indiscriminant killing of civilians, torture approved by the highest levels of government. I look at Christian leaders calling for assassination of foreign heads of state, condemnation of school boards and entire cities because they refuse to bow to fundamentalist dogma, and vicious picketing of funerals spurred by homophobia. Then I know that Christianity, the self-proclaimed basis of our government and especially the administration in power, is not a religion of peace either.

    I ask Mr. Brooks: Were there ever any high ideals?

    At least he wasn't as nasty as Krauthammer, or especially Lowry.

  2. Hi Massimo,

    I've been a regular visitor to your blog & website and I admire your work to the extent of choosing a path similar to yours (I'm a physics major and I plan to go on to earn Ph.D.'s in Theoretical Physics and in Philosophy of Science). Thaks for keeping a few bright spots of rationality in this overcrowded net.

    Throughout your blogs you use the term "research programme" which I suspect comes from Imre Lakatos, whom I've read thank to you. I've found that the methodology of scientific research programs is a very accurate description of how we do science.

    I've been wondering, what other philosophers (post-Popper) are under current study in the field?
    which do you consider the most interesting ones?

    I'm aware that it's a digression from the topic of the post, but I hope you understand.

    Best regards

  3. PhysicsVenezuela,

    thanks for the nice comments. You as a good question, but a bit broad. I can mention philosophers in the area of biology, but you are in physics. My impressin is that the kind of philosophy of science that Popper, Lakatos and Kuhn were doing is not very popular these days, and has yielded to a lot of in-depth analysis of specific research programs. There are exceptions, for example Chang's idea of "philosophy as complementary science," as well as work on scientific progress as a result of a quasi-Darwinian process of selection of ideas.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.