‘Things That Bother Me’: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Courtesy of New York Review Books

By D.A. Dellechiaie
BU News Service

You do not have ultimate moral responsibility because you can’t make yourself. There are these intellectual ninnies that are running around saying that consciousness doesn’t exist and that you should think of your life as a narrative. Oh, and you’re going to die. And you have no right to your future after you die.

These are the conclusions of one of the most important modern iconoclasts Galen Strawson in “Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, The Self, Etc.” For how interesting it sounds in subject matter, “Things That Bother Me” is not a diverse essay collection, but instead a smattering of literally repetitive essays.

Strawson does inform us in the preface that, “[The essays] overlap directly at certain points, which might have been a fault if the book were meant to be read straight through; but it isn’t.”

This sentence should be read as a warning because whole paragraphs and arguments are repeated word for word multiple times. The repetition is harmful because if you don’t understand the point the first time, you won’t necessarily understand it the second time. And for those who understand it, they are disappointed that they’ve paid for the same essay twice.

While I do believe that philosophy demands re-reading, it does not require enough repetition to cause Flaubert to spin in his grave like a carousel outfitted with a jet engine.

Strawson commits two of the faults he ascribes to other philosophers in the essay “The Silliest Claim.” In the words of Descartes, “Confident assertion and frequent repetition are two ploys that are often more effective than the most weighty arguments when dealing with ordinary people or those [including philosophers] who do not examine things carefully.”

Strawson’s arguments, such as his famous one about the impossibility of ultimate moral responsibility repeated twice as an essay in “Luck Swallows Everything” and as a “transcribed conversation” in “You Cannot Make Yourself the Way You Are,” are well-argued but are undermined by his admissions that it’s pretty hard to act it out in praxis.

This is not because Strawson is an iconoclastic thinker. It is because he is so thorough in his writings about the self and the benefits of thinking things non-narratively but still gives off a feeling that it’s impossible to think otherwise.

In fact, “The Silliest Claim” relies on you having to agree with him before he evens states his argument, “What is the silliest claim that has ever been made? … The answer is easy.” No matter how right Strawson is (and he is right), it comes off as arrogant to assume that he is completely right and the others are wrong at the start.

Unlike other recent essay collections such as “Feel Free” by Zadie Smith or “The Rub of Time” by Martin Amis, Strawson doesn’t share much about himself. He does admit he has a bad memory, but it would have been helpful and created a more interesting read to hear more directly from him other than in the fragmentary biographical essay “Two Years’ Time.”

“I Have No Future,” an essay about the death of his best friend, is one of the only essays in which we hear from Strawson the human thinker and not Strawson the academic philosopher.

“My grief—which remains powerful, and surfaces in various ways, including, still, recurrent flashes of disbelief that he is dead—is for myself and for those who loved him, because I know that he has suffered nothing in being dead.”

Strawson ties his thesis about how we should think about death to this tragedy from his life. It makes him relatable and sheds the intellectual distance that philosophy often creates.

My uncle died a few hours before I read “I Have No Future.” Strawson’s arguments spoke frankly to me about death and how it is something you can fear, but shouldn’t worry too much about what you’ll be missing because it isn’t yours to worry about. Death still worries me, but it no longer torments me. Strawson’s essay wasn’t an escape but instead a guide towards acceptance.

There are very few contemporary fiction authors referenced in “Things That Bother Me” and those that are are almost exclusively old or dead white men. While the classics are important, the issues that Strawson is arguing about are recent issues and aren’t abstract. It would have only helped his argument if he included some contemporary literary voices other than just Ian McEwan.  

In “A Fallacy of Our Age,” Strawson argues life shouldn’t be thought of as a narrative because you will end up acting inauthentically and will begin thinking that your life has to be one way or another. In his words, “People can develop and deepen in valuable ways without any sort of explicit, specifically narrative reflection, just as musicians can improve by practice sessions without recalling those sessions.”

While the argument is much more complex than this — and encompasses ideas of revision, reflection and ethics — it is written in such as simple style that it is intellectual candy for literary critics, philosophers and lay people.

Strawson’s simple but profound style does not work in every essay. “The Silliest Claim” and “The Sense of The Self” are both written in an easy-to-read style, but the ideas they argue for are a lot more complex than Strawson gives off.

For example, “But it’s likely that it is also functional in some way, part of a basic process of regirding [sic] attention: a new ‘binding’ of the mental manifold, a new synthesis in the Kantian sense. … It’s not hard to overlook the absolute fugues and interstitial vacancies of consciousness.”

Simple words, big ideas—but almost incomprehensible.


Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, The Self, Etc.

By Galen Strawson (1952-)

236 pp. New York Review of Books. $17.95.


1 Comment

  • Some of the criticisms in this review were a little surprising. The reviewer does not seem that interested in reading the book on its own terms. For one, the reviewer chides the philosopher for not being more personal in his writing, contrasting his philosophical essays to personal essays and fiction. But there is no reasonable expectation that every book needs to be written in the style the reviewer prefers, certainly not when it comes to philosophy. The comment that goes “it comes off as arrogant to assume that he is completely right” betrays a naïveté to the particular debate in question (realism vs anti-realism about consciousness) and its sui generis nature. For a realist about consciousness to not claim that their position is obvious would be to concede to much rhetorical ground (and I suspect you can figure why). I understand why someone not used to reading philosophy of mind would see it as “arrogant”, though.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.