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The American Philosopher: Conversations with Quine, Davidson, Putnam, Nozick, Danto, Rorty, Cavell, MacIntyre, and Kuhn (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 19, Number 2, October 1995
pp. 388-389 | 10.1353/phl.1995.0059

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Reviewed by
The American Philosopher: Conversations with Quine, Davidson, Putnam, Nozick, Danto, Rorty, Cavell, MacIntyre, and Kuhn, by Giovanna Borradori; translated by Rosanna Crocitto; xii & 177pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, $32.00 cloth, $12.95 paper.

The idea for this book, first published in Italian in 1991, was good—to assemble a collection of interviews with the key figures in American philosophy. And the list of philosophers whom Giovanna Borradori chose as representing the best in contemporary American thought was very good—as becomes especially clear when in her introduction she mentions the ones who, for whatever reason, got away: Noam Chomsky, Jerry Fodor, Nelson Goodman, Saul Kripke, John Rawls, and John Searle (p. 5). Add these names to those of the philosophers whom she was able to interview for this volume, and you have an impressively complete roster of the thinkers who have made the postwar era in the United States arguably one of the great periods of philosophy.

Unfortunately, the execution of the book does not fulfill the promise of its conception. And perhaps nothing could have; the fact remains, however, that Borradori proves herself singularly ill-equipped, in terms both of background knowledge and of intellectual orientation, to bring out very much of importance in these important philosophers’ ideas, either in the interviews that she conducts with them or in the prefatory material that she supplies to bind the collection together.

The essence of Borradori’s problem is that she approaches these professional academic philosophers with the incongruous assumption that they are [End Page 388] people with interesting general ideas about history, society, art, religion, or whatever—she assumes in short that these professors are intellectuals. But that is scarcely a term that describes your typical American philosopher. Nor do I mean this condescendingly: on the contrary, just what is significant and valuable about contemporary philosophers in the analytic mold (as almost all of Borradori’s interviewees are) is the narrowness of their focus on problems and methods of logic and the natural sciences, the two Archimedean levers by which analytic philosophy has come far closer than anyone could have predicted to moving the conceptual universe decisively.

Of course, not everyone views matters this way, and Richard Rorty in particular has made a spectacular career out of disputing this image—largely a self-congratulatory one, as he takes it—of the analytic tradition. Whether his dissent is justified or not, his role in the collection constitutes another of its problems, because he is not just one of the group of thinkers whom Borradori is interviewing: beyond this, it is Rorty’s ideas which supply Borradori with an intellectual program (in default of one of her own), which necessarily distorts her presentation of the other philosophers’ thoughts, and her line of questioning in these interviews. So, for example, all the interviewees are subjected to questions about American Pragmatism generally and John Dewey in particular, not because these things are of any inherent significance to most of them (as several of them point out, politely), but because Rorty thinks that they should be, and because Borradori follows his line unquestioningly. Thus most of the conversations recorded here are at cross-purposes to start with.

Borradori provides brief introductions for each interview, betraying little familiarity with the work of the philosophers, particularly when the work involved is at all technical, or more than about ten years old. Except to summarize these summaries her general introduction for the volume does no more than to indulge in the kind of military and cartographic metaphors made tiresomely familiar by such recent European thinkers as Foucault. Little seems to have been lost in the retranslation of this volume from the Italian, except that the historian of science George Sarton has somehow become “Georges Sardon” (p. 31).

David Gorman
Northern Illinois University
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