Books that Have Changed My Mind

Here’s a question: what books, stories, or essays have changed your mind, and how? (via)

It’s pretty common to talk about the books that influence us, but I tend to think that these texts make us more ourselves or cement already existing biases: anti-authoritarian teenagers read Ayn Rand, young people of faith read C. S. Lewis, do-gooders read George Eliot or F. Scott Fitzgerald, feminists read Virginia Woolf or Simone de Beauvoir, nerds read Robert Heinlein or Bruce Sterling, etc. It’s less common to talk about the books that have forced us to shift in our courses, to change from nerd to feminist or from socialist to libertarian. Ideally, these would be books read in adulthood rather than adolescence, and they needn’t be fiction although that’s probably more interesting.

In thinking about this question, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s especially tough because we tend to paper over our previous errors and mistakes. We believe ourselves to be much more self-consistent over time than we actually are, and when we do note major shifts in our perceptions and attitudes, we record those shifts as a part of a dramatic narrative rather than the slow accretion of facts and arguments. Books and articles are less likely to star in these dramatic self-narratives than major life events.

However, here is my best guess at texts that transformed my thinking or forced me to amend my opinions.

1. Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution forced me to give up on the notion that liberal societies still need revolution. I’ve always had a fascination with insurrection, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I began to see the value (rather than the elitism) in Edmund Burke’s criticism of revolutionary fervor and radical change. Arendt’s account of the differences between the French and American Revolutions sparked both a dissertation and a turn away from radical politics towards civic republican accounts of political institutions.

2. In Augustine’s Confessions I encountered the personal and phenomenological basis for modern Christianity. I count this as a mind-changer because I was, and am, an atheist. Augustine reminded me that there’s a difference between faith and simply believing the proposition “God exists.” There are many things I resent about Christian hegemony in the West, but Augustine always reminds me that true faith requires first and foremost that we question everything, indeed, it requires that we first “become a question to ourselves.” So long as Christianity contains the Augustinian thread, I will defend it from the new atheists bent on irreligion. (It’s probably no surprise that Augustine also figured heavily in my dissertation.)

3. David Estlund’s “Beyond Fairness and Deliberation: The Epistemic Dimension of Democratic Authority” is a short essay that changed the way I understand the justification for democracy. Along with Robert Talisse, Cheryl Misak, and Steven Maloney, I’ve become persuaded that the epistemic defenses of democratic institutions are actually much better than the liberal and deontological justifications. In other words, the best defense of democracy is that it “gets things right.” Since reading this essay (and dozens of other books and essays on these themes, as well as writing a few articles in this vein myself) I’ve radically changed my commitments professionally and personally. But it was Estlund’s simple challenge to describe why we ought to prefer voting to choosing a random citizen to act as “Queen for the Day” that got me thinking on this track, so he gets the credit, though Nozick’s essay from Philosophical Explanations on truth-tracking and the skeptic deserves honorable mention.

4. Wendell Berry’s “The Pleasures of Eating,” “The Failure of War,” “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” and “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Berry’s poetry has a bit too much of Heidegger in it, but his account of the world constantly pulls me up short when I try to assume that metropolitan life and sociability is to be preferred. Of all of these, Berry’s work has not so much changed my mind as unsettled it. I’m hoping to teach a course on Philosophy and the City at some point in the future, using Berry as the foil.

5. Martha Nussbaum’s work on capability theory supplied some of my current research and political commitments. I had largely ignored Nussbaum until a friend asked me what I thought of her work, and my answer was so ill-informed that I set out to formulate a less-ignorant opinion. It turns out, she’s damn smart, and right about most things to which she turns her attention. She also dissuaded me from a long-standing intellectual crush on Judith Butler. Mind, changed.

One particular risk in these self-evaluations is that we will tend to pick books that signal intelligence or status, or that we would like our friends to read. From my list it looks like I didn’t avoid the signaling problem, but I did try to distinguish books that persuaded me from the books that I believe might persuade others. A much more boring, non-signaling list might include several policy texts on health care and political economy, some (offline) secondary sources on F.A. Hayek, the Pitchfork review essay “Twee as Fuck,” Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and of course The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

12 thoughts on “Books that Have Changed My Mind”

  1. The Nussbaum essay on Butler is so, so bad. For example, when Nussbaum provides her 'clearer' re-writing of the sentence that Butler won the Bad Writing Contest with, Nussbaum gets the sentence completely wrong. As a random free floating sentence, that is surely understandable. However, if Nussbaum had gone and found the original essay, it is completely clear in context what that sentence means.

    Oh well. That silly essay kept me from reading Nussbaum for years.

  2. I still appreciate Butler for many of her early works, but I no longer think that it's useful to follow or emulate her. Perhaps I am wrong, but your comment has not changed my mind.

  3. I guess I wouldn't say my comment was meant to change your mind, as much as lodge of complaint.

    However, Butler's work continues to be incredibly important. Not only has her writing style changed dramatically over the years (the major complaint from Nussbaum), but her work remains interesting and fresh. I'm not sure what was the last thing but Butler you read, but her most recent work continue her early question of trying to determine what bodies get to matter, and why. What are the bodies that we are allowed to mourn, what are the ways we find that some lives are grievable and count as lives, and other lives do not. In so doing she is attempting to create a political or social ontology of precariousness, that is fundamentally non-anthropocentric, and would allow us to think questions of shared vulnerability and finitude. So, this means her current work has a few important directions: (1) A political and aesthetic dimension, in which she attempts to understand the frames by which we determine who counts and doesn't count. (2) An ethical dimension in which she attempts to understand the way subjectivity functions and is produced, while at the same time figuring out how we give an account of ourselves. In so doing she she tries to think us out of a certain aporia that either follows a type of foucauldian critique against any sort of normativity, or follows a refusal to critical interrogate the power and violence of a normalizing society. (3) Following up before, she is also working out an ontology that understands and valorizes vulnerability, in such a way to oppose the impulses to invulnerability and immunity that so often characterizes subjectivity (both singular and plural).

    Now, some of these questions are more thoroughly explored than others, and I am sure you might disagree with some of the answers. But I find it hard to dismiss Butler's current work as anything but timely and valuable. Indeed, this is perhaps the weirdest thing re-reading Nussbaum's article several years later: almost everything she accuses Butler of maintaining in her earlier works are strongly dealt with in later works. So, even if you believe that Butler and Foucault refuse all norms, Butler directly explores the problem of the norm and normativity in Giving an Account of Oneself. Now, Butler isn't a liberal (and Nussbaum is), so of course they aren't going to agree here. But many of Nussbaum's criticisms turn out to be untrue or directly confronted in Butler's later works. And about a year ago I listened to a lecture delivered by Butler that specifically refuted her own earlier conceptions of gender/sexuality in favor of something closer to Anne Fausto-Sterling's stance, so somethings she would even agree with Nussbaum.

    1. I don't agree that Nussbaum's major complaint is Butler's writing style: her major complaint is that Butler's writing style serves to disguise a fairly standard denaturalization of gender and a political quietism that retreats into involuted writing. Surely that's quite different? Given the love of Hegel I share with Butler, I never felt particularly troubled by the Bad Writing Contest.

      Butler's work subsequent to Nussbaum's review can't serve as a refutation of that review: it's a response to criticism, and thus a correction in light of new facts. So I'd say that Butler recognized where Nussbaum had hit the mark and moved to amend herself.

      As for the problem of precarity, it seems to me that Butler's work is basically secondary scholarship on Giorgio Agamben, so I'm not sure why she'd get mentioned as a major thinker in this regard. (Which is not to say that some of those essays aren't tremendously *personally* important to me — they are! — just that they don't appear to be major works of novel scholarship.) And Nussbaum's work with Amartya Sen was addressing precarity decades before Butler, so it's particularly galling that Butler should receive some sort of credit for timeliness.

  4. Trying to convince someone else that a thinker is important is basically the definition of the sort of debate I cannot stand. I shouldn't have gone off in that direction, and I am going to stop with it. Thanks for the discussion, and thank you for the book suggestions.

    There is one last point I'd like to address, which is the relationship of Agamben and Butler, but I think I will do that in a post over at my place.

    1. You "cannot stand" it? Sheesh.

      It's not like I'm unfamiliar with Butler. As an undergraduate, it was a reading of her Psychic Life of Power that persuaded me that work as an investigator of police misconduct would be preferable to pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, it was a reading of Butler's essay "Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear," that drove me back to graduate school in philosophy. And during my studies, it was Nussbaum's excoriating review essay that finally persuaded me that I did not want to pursue research in the fields that Butler had staked out.

  5. Yeah, I really can't. That's why I said I shouldn't have steered the conversation in that direction. And I never felt you were unfamiliar with Butler. I just get a lot that is useful from Butler, and she never seems to short circuit political change for me. But that is me, and I could certainly be wrong. But I'd much rather discussions over particular positions, than sort of generic discussions of Butler's project. So, I apologize for pushing the conversation into something I just don't care about talking about.

  6. Well, one thing I'd be interested in, as far as particular positions go, is your conception of political change and what enables or short circuits it.

    Another particular thing I'd be interested to read is if you'd take up the "books that changed your mind" prompt.

    So that's me: interested in political and psychological change.

  7. I actually have been thinking about what works to include on my post of books that changed my mind.

    As to your first question, well, that would be a fun book to write. I'll try to see if I have something shorter to say on that issue later.

    Also, just in case someone else is reading this and you don't read my blog, here is my post on the relationship of Butler and Agamben http://criticalanimal.blogspot.com/2010/11/giorgi

  8. Hey Josh,

    This was good reading. I like the way in which the post suggests that at least one purpose of reading philosophy (and other books) is to change the way we think. That’s why I was originally attracted to the discipline. Seems sometimes that the academy wants us to present ourselves as though we are settled experts in a particular point of view. If anything, I’m an expert in being unsettled, and that’s why I looked for a home in philosophy. Sometimes I’ve even found one.

    Cheers,
    Jeff

Second Opinions