Bookshelf Life

03-30-2005

Because Interboro’s bookcase isn’t very big, and because it buys so many books, it often finds itself in the unpleasant situation of having to decide what books should stay in its bookcase and what books should not. Every month or so, when the number of vertically-stacked books occupying the tiny space between the spines of the horizontally-shelved books and the edge of the shelf obscures the horizontally-shelved books entirely, Interboro is forced to “rotate the crops,” so to speak, with certain books being demoted, one level at a time, to the dusty, lower shelves of the bookcase, where they try their hardest to avoid still worse fates: the closet, or – what is surely the mark of utmost irrelevance – a forced exile to the damp, dark basement of some parent’s suburban basement.

But books don’t die, really. The suburban basement is a tomb, but it is a temporary one. Maybe the only thing more exciting than discovering a new book is rediscovering an old one. Usually, this happens on holidays, when, having nothing better to do, one of us will descend into said suburban basement, where we navigate around boxes marked “Halloween,” “Taxes” and “Goalie Pads” to find ones marked “Philosophy,” “Art,” and “Fiction.” Sadly, many of these books – there are thousands – will spend the rest of their lives in their cardboard caskets. But then there will be those who will get the call, and will again know the warmth of a good bookcase. The context will be different – the neighborhood will have changed – but the book is happy to be relevant again.

 

Recently, many of Interboro’s old philosophy books – dog-eared, yellowed, pages heavy with underlines and margin notes – have been finding their way back to the upper shelves. Though Interboro has always sung the virtues of certain philosophers, it had been a long time since it actually read any of them (few had anything too profound to say about the extraordinary, exciting complexity of the contemporary city). But after reading Louis Menand’s wonderful, Pulitzer-Prize winning The Metaphysical Club, Interboro was reminded of how relevant thinkers like William James, Charles Sanders Pierce, and John Dewey are, and how much Interboro has been influenced by them. What’s remarkable is how much they anticipated, and how much many of the later thinkers that Interboro admires (for example, Deleuze, Latour and of course, Rorty) are in many ways saying things the pragmatists said 120 years ago.

So if you happen to browse through Interboro’s bookcase around now, you’ll see books like The Quest for Certainty, Essays in Radical Empiricism, and Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings right up there on the upper shelves, next to perennial favorites like Cities: Reimagining the Urban, Delirious New York, and The Origins of the Urban Crisis.

As a small token of our appreciation, Interboro would like to pay homage to Peirce, James, and Dewey by citing some of its favorite, most relevant quotes. In no particular order:

From C.S.Peirce

“[Cartesianism] teaches that philosophy must begin with universal doubt. . . .We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. . . .Let us not doubt in philosophy which we do not doubt in our hearts.”

From William James

“All classic, clean, cut and dried, noble fixed, eternal Weltanschauungen seem to me to violate the character with which life concretely comes and the expression which it bears of being, or at least involving, a muddle and a struggle, with an ‘ever not quite’ to all our formulas, and novelty and possibility forever leaking in.”

“The relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so or less so than the things themselves.”

“In our cognitive as well as in our active life we are creative. We add both to the subject and the predicate part of reality. The world stands really malleable, ready to receive its final touches at our hand. Like the kingdom of heaven, it suffers violence willingly. Man engenders truths upon it.”

“Everything is many directional, multi dimensional. . . . No one point of view or attitude commands everything at once in a synthetic scheme.”

“Things are with one another in many ways, but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything. The word “and” trails along after every sentence. Something always escapes.”

From John Dewey

“Instead of personal and purely speculative endeavors to contemplate as remote beholders the nature of absolute things-in-themselves, we have a living picture of the choice of thoughtful men about what they would have life to be, and to what ends they would have men shape their intelligent activities. . . .When it is acknowledged that under disguise of dealing with ultimate reality, philosophy has been occupied with precious values embedded in social traditions, that it has sprung from a clash of social ends and from a conflict of inherited institutions with incompatible contemporary tendencies, it will be seen that the task of future philosophy is to clarify men’s ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day.”

“An organism does not live in an environment; it lives by means of an environment. The processes of living are enacted by the environment as truly as of a person.”

“Environment is not something around and about human activities in an external sense; it is their medium, or milieu, in the sense in which a medium is inter-mediate in the execution or carrying out of human activities, as well as being the channel through which they move and the vehicle by which they go on.”

“If it be true that the self or subject of experience is part and parcel of the course of events, it follows that the self becomes a knower. I t becomes a mind in virtue of a distinctive way of partaking in the course of events. The significant distinction is no longer between the knower and the world; it is between different ways of being in and of the movement of things; between a brute physical way and a purposive, intelligent way.”

“We cannot permanently divest ourselves of the intellectual habits we take on and wear when we assimilate the culture of our own time and place. But intelligent furthering of culture demands that we take some of them off, that we inspect them critically to see what they are made of and what wearing them does to us.”

 

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