03 February 2008

Reviewing by Proxy

It's difficult to review a book without reviewing it, and yet that is just what Palmer does, and what he admits to doing.

Rickless' book is an interpretation of the Parmenides, and, if you consult its TOC, you'll see that its pages 53 to page 250 (the last page) are dedicated to that task.

This is the bulk of the argument of the book, and whether the book succeeds or not, depends upon whether it succeeds at this task. In fact, since Rickless claims that his interpretation is the first which allows a reader to understand each particular twist and turn of the complex deductions of the dialogue, then presumably that claim at least needs to be considered. (That is, if someone is reviewing this book. If such a task seems unpleasant or too onerous, then one ought to decline to review it.)

Yet if you examine the review, you'll find that the following, extremely superficial sketch, is just about all that Palmer says about this main burden of the book:

Chapter 2 considers how Parmenides' criticisms suggest this theory needs to be modified. Chapter 3 articulates a view of the method Parmenides recommends that enables one to read it "as a direct and rational response to the problems raised in the first part of the dialogue" (95). Chapters 4 through 7 then run through the arguments in Parmenides' demonstration of this method to reveal what Rickless takes to be the Parmenides' fundamental lesson, namely, that certain principles of the high and higher theories of forms are to be abandoned.
Then, strangely, he says the following:
It will not be necessary further to summarize Rickless's understanding of Parmenides' criticisms of Socrates' theory and of the response to them indicated in the dialectical exercise, for he has himself done so at length in his article on the Parmenides for the web-based Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
That is, Palmer declares that he isn't going to explain--or, presumably, examine critically--the main argument of the book he is reviewing.

Now I don't know what it means to summarize something at length. Rickless' SEP entry is 18,000 words long, or about 55 double-spaced pages. Imagine that instead of referring us to the encyclopedia, Palmer at this point in his review had said, "First I'll summarize the argument of the book; then I'll criticize it", and he proceeded to give an 18,000 word summary. How would that have been adequate, as a review? A fortiori.

But then the encyclopedia article does not present itself as a summary of a book, so if a reviewer were to explain the book by the article, he'd need to say how the book differs, and which parts of the article represent the book. And then of course after doing all this, he would need to give a judgment on whether the book or the article is better, and how. (To bring in a separate article actually implies more work for a reviewer, not less.)

There's also a question of whether a reviewer isn't shirking the responsibility of giving his own judgment if he, in effect and in his own mind, allows the author to summarize the book for him.

Palmer's reply might be that in examining only the first chapter of the book (which is what he does), he says enough to undermine the presuppositions of Rickless' interpretation, which therefore makes a consideration of the rest of the book unnecessary. The reference to the SEP article was a mere courtesy.

I'd be more inclined to accept the integrity of such a strategy, if it didn't also turn out that it's much easier to examine chapter 1 than the rest of the book.

But, be that as it may, I'll look at the success of Palmer's approach in another post.


Eric Brown said...

Once again, I feel obliged to defend a reviewer from some rather unfair remarks on Dissoi Blogoi.

I think I understand why you assume that the only adequate review of Rickless' book would offer a reckoning of how it explains all the twists and turns of the Parmenides. But you also recognize a good reason why someone might not share that assumption. Someone might think that, as you say, "the presuppositions of Rickless' interpretation" are so seriously misguided as to vitiate the details of the interpretation. But you discount such a point for Palmer by saying, "I'd be more inclined to accept the integrity of such a strategy, if it didn't also turn out that it's much easier to examine chapter 1 than the rest of the book."

This is uncalled for, as it insinuates that Palmer concentrates on chapter one of Rickless' book because he is lazy and not because he thinks that the the most significant weakness of the book is its presuppositions. The review shows this insinuation to be patently false, as it includes significant care and detail. Moreover, what I know of Palmer makes this insinuation laughable; he's not a man to skip on the details.

A further point. It is simply untrue that Palmer examines only the first chapter of the book. The last two paragraphs of his review complain that Rickless is insensitive to different kinds of predicate in the Parmenides' deductions. What makes this complaint especially pointed is that it is connected with a similar charge Palmer also makes about Rickless' understanding of the "Theory of Forms."

I do not here contend that Palmer is right about Rickless' book. I'll prescind from making that call until I've read the book. But I do think that he's written a reasonable review that raises a couple of very significant red flags. And, yes, I am also grateful to learn that there's a shorter version of Rickless' reading in the SEP.

Book reviewing is not the easiest or most heavily rewarded task, and I'm dismayed to see Dissoi Blogoi used to criticize a book review unfairly (and in this case rather nastily).

Michael Pakaluk said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for your comment, this one as much as others that you have offered.

A few points to clarify.

I took care to write "just about all" in my post, because it is untrue that Palmer examines only the first chapter of the book.

Also, I wrote "I'd be more inclined", to suggest that I was inclined to some extent to accept the integrity of such a strategy. (The line was intended to be a point about antecedent assessment, and it was written with another, later post in mind, in which I plan to address more directly whether that strategy is defensible.)

I couldn't have been insinuating laziness, even if I had wanted to, because there are many reasons for someone's not taking a more difficult path besides laziness.

Finally, I know nothing about Palmer's character or work habits, but I do know that it doesn't follow from the fact that someone is 'not a man to skip on the details' that he never does so.


Eric Brown said...

An apology would be more fitting than that response.

1. You wrote, "Palmer's reply might be that in examining only the first chapter of the book (which is what he does)..." That is false.

2. "I'd be more inclined" is part of what makes your remark an insinuation rather than a straightforward declaration. I don't think it is any more noble to insinuate nastily than it is to straightforwardly declare nastily.

3. Of course, when someone insinuates they do not say anything that requires a given interpretation. That's just what makes insinuations different from straightforward declarations. But I'd be surprised if I was the only reader who thought that you were suggesting that Palmer was lazy when you write, "I'd be more inclined to accept the integrity of such a strategy, if it didn't also turn out that it's much easier to examine chapter 1 than the rest of the book" (emphasis mine). You might not have intended this message, but if so, perhaps you should have been more careful about the words you chose.

4. This point is correct so far as it goes. But we are here talking about how to determine what prompted Palmer's decision to spend the bulk of his words on chapter 1 of a book, and we do not have much evidence of his state of mind when he wrote the review. We do know, however, that he is regularly keen to engage the details, and one can know this without ever having met the man, as his published work makes it plain as day. So there is something laughable about nevertheless suggesting--without any evidence to support the suggestion (as opposed to the interpretation that Palmer genuinely believed that chapter 1 of Rickless' book vitiated the rest of it)--that Palmer was somehow eager to take the easy road in his review.

Remarks that derogatorily implicate others' character are inappropriate however common they are in the broader blogosphere.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Hi Eric,

1. Palmer does indeed examine only chapter 1 of the book. I chose that word advisedly. My claim is not false.

2. "I'd be more inclined" says just what it says.

3. I tell you plainly I don't accuse Palmer of laziness, never thought he was lazy, and never intended to suggest he was lazy. Nonetheless I picked the word easier quite deliberately.

4. In these posts I'm considering the appropriateness of the review on its own.

I share with you completely a dislike for bad temper and derogation on the internet and blogosphere and try my best to avoid these things in everything that I write.