Emphatics (review)
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 15.4 (2001) 321-323

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Book Review


Emphatics. Paul Weiss. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000. Pp. xii + 257. $34.95 h.c. 0-8265-1353-0.

To read any book by Paul Weiss is to enter into an ongoing philosophical discussion. Emphatics is no exception. Here Weiss takes up some issues from previous work but from a new angle of vision. Much of what he says also moves beyond the content of earlier writings, which is as it should be. "A creative, systematic philosopher," Weiss says, "is somewhat like a poet rewriting a long poem, preserving some parts of earlier versions in later ones. What has been done is not invalidated, but moved beyond" (37). Another characteristic Weissian feature marks Emphatics: it is difficult to read. The ideas themselves are difficult, and Weiss doesn't go out of his way to coddle his reader. Serving as his own interlocutor, Weiss addresses himself in chapter 8: "I must confess that much of what you say is darker than the middle of the night . . ." (177). But this also seems to me as it should be; good philosophy demands something of the reader. Weiss is hard at work throughout the book--projecting, reflecting, reconsidering--and he expects the reader to work hard as well.

Each chapter opens with a thematic description of some role played by emphatics, followed by a dialogue between a questioner and an answerer, with Weiss playing both roles. The dialogues are shot through with refreshingly direct challenges to himself, and they serve to exemplify the theme of the book. They are emphatics: "intrusions that alter the import of that which they are intruded on" (1). Indeed, they seem to me exemplary emphatics, because there is a tendency to want to think of emphatics as always being like exclamation points--as merely emphasizing something already in place. But exclamation points are only one sort of emphatic. The chapter-ending dialogues are fully intrusive and transformative, thus helping to illustrate the kind of breadth Weiss has in mind when he talks about emphatics and the work they do.

Although the book opens with a definition of an emphatic, Weiss does not spend much time in direct explication of the meaning. Instead, he focuses on bringing emphatics to our attention as he finds them. He finds them in marks of grammar, in signs and symbols, in actions, in experiences of divine presence, and in everyday human conventions. Emphatics can be both ordinary and extraordinary. Throughout the [End Page 321] book, Weiss's approach to the definition and description of emphatics is strongly reminiscent of Peirce's various attempts to exhibit his categories of firstness, secondness, and thirdness. I don't mean that Weiss imitates Peirce--he never comes across as an imitator. Rather, they share a philosophical style that seems to stem from their brute honesty with themselves as they think through philosophical issues.

As he identifies the places of various kinds of emphatics, Weiss also builds out his systematic approach to philosophy. Though he might not like this way of putting it, he seems to me a creative metaphysical mediator. Like the pragmatists, he believes that formal structures cannot capture the dynamism of experience, but he also shows that the formal structures are requisite for communicating and acting. Weiss also makes an appeal to the experienced necessity of Being, but at the same time maintains that any "account of reality that provides no explanation for the existence of contingent realities is incomplete" (182). His mediating impulse--seeing importance in various perspectives--and his fallibilistic assertiveness lead Weiss to explore the complexity of metaphysical outlooks. This seems to me the philosophical strength of the book. His creative mediating is not simply a formal map stretched out across the history of ideas or some conception of experience. Rather, Weiss appears as a genuinely inquisitive being who happens to know a lot about the history of philosophy. This trait is readily apparent when he tracks emphatics related to time and truth.

In chapter 6 he explores emphatics as they appear in the...