Mark Greif

Mark Greif is a founding editor of n+1 and an assistant professor of literary studies at the New School.

Recent Articles

History Lessons

When historian Tony Judt cared passionately about a problem he was able to redefine its terms. Pity he didn't care about a few more things.

(Joe Ciardiello)
T hinking the Twentieth Century lets us listen in on conversations between distinguished colleagues, the intellectual historian Tony Judt and the Eastern Europeanist Timothy Snyder. It conveys the sort of conversation that two scholars may have when they share the same knowledge, references, and opinions. I can think of older historians possessing a greater range of scholarship and biographies of more significance—among writers on modern Europe, Eric Hobsbawm or Peter Gay—whom one might want to hear from before Judt in this unusual format. But this book was motivated by tragic circumstances. Judt suffered from ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Snyder began his interviews after the point at which his senior colleague had lost the use of his hands and had begun to dictate rather than write. Judt’s courage and clarity of mind were celebrated, as he continued to deliver important public addresses in the early stages of the disease and produced two more short books. One was an impassioned defense...

The Corrupter of Youth

Richard Rorty's provocative pragmatism reached an audience far beyond academic philosophers. A new biography unfortunately ends before he ascends to that larger stage.

Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher by Neil Gross, University of Chicago Press, 367 pages, $32.50 By the last years of the 20th century, Richard Rorty was probably the best-known university-based philosopher in the United States. In recent years he has been surpassed in notoriety by the utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer, known for his advocacy of animal rights and the acceptability of euthanizing severely disabled newborns. Rorty, in his time, was accused of murdering truth. He argued the position that there was no standpoint outside of human descriptions of the world from which to decide that any one view was false and another true. There were only descriptions in more or less convincing language, with more or less convincing uses, by which people might persuade one another how to live in the world. Rorty called his position pragmatism, following in the grand tradition of John Dewey and William James. Critics called it relativism, or a claim that no view or behavior...

The Corrupter of Youth

Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher

By the last years of the 20th century, Richard Rorty was probably the best-known university-based philosopher in the United States. In recent years he has been surpassed in notoriety by the utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer, known for his advocacy of animal rights and the acceptability of euthanizing severely disabled newborns. Rorty, in his time, was accused of murdering truth. He argued the position that there was no standpoint outside of human descriptions of the world from which to decide that any one view was false and another true. There were only descriptions in more or less convincing language, with more or less convincing uses, by which people might persuade one another how to live in the world. Rorty called his position pragmatism, following in the grand tradition of John Dewey and William James. Critics called it relativism, or a claim that no view or behavior is better or worse than another, except as it appears to its possessor or practitioner. The unshakeable consistency...

Dying Did Not Become Her

David Rieff's memoir of the terminal illness of his mother, Susan Sontag, shows the consolations of philosophy deserting her and the denial of truth sustaining her as death approached.

Susan Sontag during a press conference at a book fair in Frankfurt, Germany in 2003. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir by David Rieff (Simon and Schuster, 192 pages, $21.00) Western thought records a long tradition of morbid interest in how philosophers met their deaths. Memorials, testimonies, and whole Platonic dialogues have been devoted to great thinkers' final hours. That's because, historically, the ability to face mortality with perfect equanimity, and fearlessly hold onto values higher than those of daily life, was considered the greatest part of wisdom. "And is not philosophy a practice of death?" Socrates asked in the Phaedo . It was, of course, a rhetorical question: Socrates drank his hemlock, calmed his disciples, and earned the amazement of posterity -- his death demonstrating how great a philosopher he was. Epicurus, who famously preached the doctrine that death must hold no fear because no person persists past death to suffer from it, proved his consistency by dying happily, drinking wine in a warm bath. In modern times, too, philosophers'...

Life After Theory

Not long ago, I watched a panel of noted literary scholars conclude a conference at Yale. The professors were just putting away their papers and wrapping up when, somehow, they started passionately debating the case of James Yee, the Guantanamo Bay chaplain accused of espionage. To explain the government's charges, they hauled out whatever lingering theory they still had available: Walter Benjamin's theories of translation from the 1920s and jargon drawn from the French theorist Alain Badiou. Things were going downhill. At this point, a noted political scientist stood up in the audience and proclaimed, “I would first like to clear up a few points of fact about Guantanamo Bay.” It was gratifying that a political scientist had shown up at a literary conclave. It was even more impressive that the literary types were eager to listen to her. The moment seemed somehow symbolic of a larger story that's been unfolding in the humanities for some time now. After years of apparent disengagement...

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