Unexpected Essays on Philosophy, Art, Life, and Death
University of Chicago Press
What if Immanuel Kant floated down from his transcendental heights, straight through Alice’s rabbit hole, and into the fabulous world of Lewis Carroll? For Ben-Ami Scharfstein this is a wonderfully instructive scenario and the perfect way to begin this wide-ranging collection of decades of startlingly synthesized thought. Combining a deep knowledge of psychology, cultural anthropology, art history, and the history of religions—not to mention philosophy—he demonstrates again and again the unpredictability of writing and thought and how they can teach us about our experiences.
Scharfstein begins with essays on the nature of philosophy itself, moving from an autobiographical account of the trials of being a comparativist to philosophy’s function in the outside world to the fear of death in Kant and Hume. From there he explores an impressive array of art: from China and Japan to India and the West; from an essay on sadistic and masochistic body art to one on the epistemology of the deaf and the blind. He then returns to philosophy, writing on Machiavelli and political ruthlessness, then on the ineffable, and closes with a review of Walter Kaufmann’s multivolume look at the essence of humanity,
Discovering the Mind. Altogether, these essays are a testament to adventurous thought, the kind that leaps to the furthest reaches of the possible.
Ben-Ami Scharfstein is professor emeritus of philosophy at Tel-Aviv University. He is the author many books, including
Of Birds, Beasts, and Other Artists and
Art Without Borders, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
“Scharfstein can always be counted on to provide fresh and at times surprising perspectives on topics of reflective interest. Unusual for a philosopher, his deliberations are routinely informed by wide-ranging nonphilosophical reading, in a broad spectrum of disciplines and cultures. Scharfstein’s insatiable curiosity ensures a firm factual basis for his writing, which he then transcends to enter the realm of philosophical reflection. Unusual, too, are such conscious attempts to write as clearly and accessibly as possible, and of course the near century of scholarly and personal experience that Scharfstein brings to his most recent work.”
— Wilfried van Damme, Leiden University
“The desirability of having a book that draws together the interesting and important thought of an influential philosopher is not mysterious or controversial. But what is the aim of drawing together Scharfstein’s essays? Perhaps, partly, it is a metaphilosophical workshop, a picture of how a philosopher is able to, over the course of decades, practice a ‘generalized attentiveness,’ and in doing so ‘disregard the borders’ of the disciplines. The book makes vivid and compelling Scharfstein’s long standing opposition to philosophical self-isolation.”
— Victor Kestenbaum, Boston University
“A Renaissance man (or woman) worthy of the name is not just someone who happens to be knowledgeable in a number of different fields, including both arts and sciences, but someone who, in addition to this, possesses a temperament that combines curiosity concerning not only what is known but also what is not known and perhaps cannot be known, tolerance, humane skepticism, and, inevitably, some opinions with which any given person will disagree (as a Kant enthusiast, I myself have been quarreling with Ben-Ami about Kant for as long as I can remember!). Scharfstein is a man of the Renaissance in this demanding sense, and his books—which include some of the best studies there are on world art and comparative philosophy—show one or another side of his immense learning, wisdom, humor, and individuality.
The Nonsense of Kant and Lewis Carroll is a set of reflections on Scharfstein’s life and work that provides stimulation and pleasure in equal measure to heart and mind. It belongs in every civilized person’s library.”