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The Play of Reason: From the Modern to the Postmodern (review)
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.4 (2001) 308-311

Book Review

The Play of Reason: From the Modern to the Postmodern

The Play of Reason: From the Modern to the Postmodern. Linda Nicholson. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1999. Pp. vii + 179. $45.00 h.c. 0-8014-3517-X; $17.95 pbk. 0-8014-8516-9.

Unearthing the evidence for the historicity of reason is a difficult and potentially tedious task. Philosophers should be grateful that Linda Nicholson has undertaken it. Nicholson's new book, The Play of Reason: From the Modern to the Postmodern, contains a collection of essays that, in their detail and historical focus, cast implicit shame on those too quick to invoke "the" postmodern take on rationality, as well as those too eager to construct straw persons as a way of avoiding the complexity of postmodern thought.

Nicholson not only articulates her arguments clearly, but also is consistently forthright about the motivations behind those arguments. The explicit attention paid to motivation reinforces one of Nicholson's central claims about reason, namely, that it is not a means for the establishment of objective and universal truth, but that it is a tool wielded always for particular purposes. The particularity of those purposes does not indicate that it is a useless or ineffective tool (as critics of postmodernism would have it). Quite to the contrary, it indicates that in certain contexts, reason and rationality are powerful means of, for example, establishing knowledge and resolving ethical difficulties. Under different circumstances, however, those same tools may prove to be ineffective, unwieldy, or simply not up to the task. We are not at risk of losing access to reason itself, Nicholson reminds us. We simply must give up our faith in its universal appeal and relevance.

The volume's first section considers a variety of topics, many central to feminist thought, through a carefully historical lens. In these essays, Nicholson argues that the material realities of ethical theorists are (and, in fact, have always been) crucial to the ethical conclusions those theorists reach; that the categories of "public" and "private" often veil their own historical particularity; and that the family of which contemporary conservatives are so fond is a recent invention whose predominance arrived only after World War II. As she criticizes a variety of perspectives, ranging from contemporary conservative rhetoric to Marxism to feminist theories of difference, Nicholson urges us to remain suspicious of any theory or political position that does not recognize, and indeed is by definition incapable of recognizing, its dependence on its position in history. She then proceeds to articulate particular historical factors that led to these perspectives.

In the second part of the volume, Nicholson turns her focus specifically to postmodernism. With Nancy Fraser, she sets the stage for a more productive meeting of feminism and postmodernism; she criticizes Charles Taylor's theory of recognition and difference; and finally she concludes the volume with a consideration of the increasingly public nature of emotion. While the first part of the volume is concerned with the ramifications of the particularity of modernity, the second is more focused on engaging with some of the current philosophical and political issues facing postmodernity.

Insofar as Nicholson has set out to defend the historicity of reason, she has done an exemplary and wholly persuasive job. However, the results of this postmodern turn are not always clear. For example, in "Interpreting 'Gender'," Nicholson persuasively traces the concept of sex identity to a particular shift in scientific ideology in the eighteenth century. In the course of this shift, women moved from being understood as an inferior version of men to being understood as wholly other, on the basis of biological difference. Nicholson concludes that "[t]he consequence is our idea of 'sex identity'--a sharply differentiated male and female self rooted in a deeply differentiated body" (63). In reading this discussion, I found myself wondering about the possible connections between the concepts produced by a certain culture and the members of that culture itself. Nicholson is not particularly interested (in this volume) in theories of the self, perhaps because such theories rarely adopt a historical perspective. However, one can raise this same question...



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