Michael Steinberg,

The Fiction of a Thinkable World,
Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism

Monthly Review Press, 2005

They say you can't judge a book by its cover, which is true; but publishers certainly want you to make such a judgment, a favorable one. That is the essence of advertising, to catch the attention of consumers and attract them to the product. On television, this is often done simply with loud music and attractive women. In academic publishing, something more substantial is usually involved. The abstract or advertising blurb for a book should alert its potential readers with the right buzz-words, endorsements by well-known reviewers, and a general idea of what the book is about.

When the book happens to be anti-capitalist, by an author who despises advertising, on the theory that advertising creates unnecessary desires and false consciousness in consumers, there is some irony in the situation. The author thus hopes that everyone else who hates capitalism will be drawn in by the pitch and actually buy the book. At the same time, an honest description of the book will put off those who do believe in capitalism and advertising, and they will probably not buy the book.

Now, when I receive an advertising flyer for some trendy anti-capitalist book, the only reason to buy the book is if it may contain novel ideas or arguments that it would be helpful to be aware of. On the other hand, by not buying the book, I implicitly refute the idea that advertising can manipulate people into buying things they don't need. I don't need another trendy, anti-capitalist, Marxist retread of a book. Nor do I want to pay money that will end up in the hands of some swimming pool socialist -- and certainly not, as in this case, a successful lawyer.

Consequently, what I do about the flyer I received for Michael Steinberg's The Fiction of a Thinkable World, Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism will very properly depend on my evaluation of the abstract and endorsements it contains. So let's have a look.

The title already says something. The Fiction of a Thinkable World implies that the world is not thinkable, which presumably would mean that it is inconceivable or that we cannot think in a way that will truly describe or represent the world. If the world is indeed unthinkable, then it would seem a little incongruous that Mr. Steinberg would think about it enough to write a book about it, presumably a meaningful book. But then there is precedent for such a thing. Kant thought that things-in-themselves were unknowable, but then he did believe that they could be thought and that the phenomenal world was both thinkable and knowable. He believed that was important as a vindication of science. Steinberg's title, on the other hand, might imply an anti-scientific thesis. If the world is unthinkable, then even science is not going to be thinking or knowing it. A truly "unthinkable" world is more like what we might find in Buddhism, where metaphysical propositions about reality all lead to the Four-Fold Negation -- that A is neither B nor not-B nor both nor neither. Perhaps Steinberg has something of the sort in mind. We shall see.

The abstract about the book begins thus:

In the culture of the modern West, we see ourselves as thinking subjects, defined by our conscious thought, autonomous and separate from each other and the world we survey. Current research in neurology and cognitive science shows that this picture is false. We think with our bodies, and in interaction with others, and our thought is never completed. The Fiction of a Thinkable World is a wide-ranging exploration of the meaning of this insight for our understanding of history, ethics, and politics.

This looks like a bad start. "...separate from each other and the world we suvey" is an ontological assertion. This has not been shown to be false by neurology or cognitive science, whose program is cognitive and epistemological, not metaphysical. Nor can cognitive science possibly show that we are not thinking or conscious subjects, independent of others. These are in fact what it studies. Steinberg has evidently either drawn the metaphysical conclusion that we are not substantially independent, which is beyond any implication of neurology (which looks at individual brains), or that consciousness and thinking simply do not exist, which is the thesis of a very old and outdated Behaviorism, not of any new developments. The philosophical urge to dismiss the existence of consciousness certainly still exists, but it is now also ably refuted by John Searle. Steinberg is one of the people who, in Searle's words, "lost" the mind.

Even worse, the thesis evident at the beginning of the abstract already introduces an incoherent element into Steinberg's theory. If we "think with our bodies," and our bodies are real, then the world, as a world of bodies, would indeed be "thinkable." An unthinkable world would require that thought be a fiction, or be inherently unrelated (as in Buddhism) to reality. If it is our bodies that think, however, neither of these will be true. I already suspect there that Steinberg will maintain an ambiguity and will insensibly shift between arguments that thought (or consciousness) does not exist and that thought (or consciousness) is a kind of behavioral reflex of the body. In many ways, these will be practically equivalent, but only the former is consistent with the assertion of an "unthinkable world."

In saying that "our thought is never completed," Steinberg perhaps reflects the trendy notions from Quine or Wittgenstein that there is no determinate abstract meaning to linguistic utterances. This would be the kind of naturalism or behaviorism ably refuted by Jerrold Katz.

Ambitious but never overwhelming, carrying its immense learning lightly, The Fiction of a Thinkable World shows how the Western conception of the human subject came to be formed historically, how it contrasts with that of Eastern thought, and how it provides the basic justification for the institutions of liberal capitalism.

This part of the abstract was not present in the flyer I received but occurs in a longer abstract posted on-line. It is revealing in its vague mention of "Eastern thought." There is no "Eastern thought" in which "interaction with others" determines thought or meaning. There are varieties of Vedanta where the self is not substantially independent from other selves, but then there are varieties where it is, with all the rigor of Cartesian dualism. In Confucianism we have a paternalistic interdependency of persons, but then truth and right depend on the Mandate of Heaven, not on an interaction of persons. In Taoism, truth and goodness derive from the Tao, and this happens easily in isolated individuals, like the Taoist hermit sage, not just with an interaction with others. Indeed, Taosim favors a simple rural life, where social interaction is going to be limited. It would be nice to know what Steinberg thinks that "Eastern thought" is, but that would not be reason enough to buy his book.

The fiction of a world separated from each of us as we are separated from each other, from which we make our choices in solitary thought, is enacted by the voter in the voting booth and the consumer at the supermarket shelf. The structure of daily experience in capitalist society reinforces the fictions of the Western intellectual tradition, stunt human creativity, and create the illusion that the capitalist order is natural and unsurpassable.

Now we get to the frightening part. Here we get the "fiction" of independent existence linked to democracy and capitalism, since the individual votes and the individual buys. If it is then an "illusion" that the "capitalist order" is "natural and unsurpassable," then, by the same token, it would also be an illusion that liberal democracy, with individual voters, is "natural and unsurpassable." The abstract doesn't seem to want to make a point of that, which is understandable since it would turn off a great many possible buyers of the book. The open and honest assertion that both liberal (i.e. individualistic) capitalism and democracy are bad and need to be replaced with something collective and interdependent would alert a great many that we are dealing with a kind of collectivist or totalitarian ideology. In those terms, it doesn't much matter whether Steinberg erases thought or reduces it to the body:  the independence and autonomy of the individual are the target. But now, there can be no more sour a retread of Hegel or Marx, and Steinberg's book is hardly necessary when so many others, with all the trendy academic rage, say the same things.

Steinberg's critique of the intellectual world of Western capitalism at the same time illuminates the paths that have been closed off in that world. It draws on Chinese ethics to show how our actions can be brought in accord with the world as it is, in its ever-changing interaction and mutual transformation, and sketches a radical political perspective that sheds the illusions of the Western model. Beautifully conceived and written, The Fiction of a Thinkable World provides new ways of thinking and opens new horizons.

This passage, off the internet, is stated somewhat differently than it is in the flyer. The reference to "Chinese ethics" is eliminated. For contrast, the flyer says, wrapping up the abstract:

Steinberg reveals the ethical roots of this condition and shows how our actions can be brought in accord with the world as it is, in its ever-changing interaction and mutual transformation. Beautifully conceived and written, The Fiction of a Thinkable World provides new ways of thinking and opens new horizons.

Again, it might be worth it to know what kind of "Chinese ethics" Steinberg thought he was talking about. Both Confucianism and Taoism endorsed traditional, paternalistic societies in which there is neither "ever-changing interaction" nor "mutual transformation." The only "Chinese ethics" that would do that would be Maoism. So Steinberg is either very confused about traditional Chinese ethics, or we again are getting another covert expression of Marxism. I suspect that the former is the case, but then he is confused enough about it to accidentally fall into the latter. He may also have missed that Japan and Korea are very successful capitalist countries, while China, although still a one party dictatorship, is rapidly adopting capitalist production.

Again, we have the problem that, if the world is unthinkable, how Steinberg can know how we are to "be brought in accord with the world as it is." We cannot think or know the world as it is. In Buddhism, indeed, life involves "ever-changing interaction," "mutual transformation," and interdependency (in a reality we cannot ultimately think), but then we have the problem that these are all causes of suffering and must be suspended for Nirvana. To be sure, there are forms of Buddhism in China and Japan where Nirvana can be enjoyed among "ever-changing interaction," etc., so perhaps this is what Steinberg has picked up. None of that, however, implied any disagreements with the paternalism and authoritarianism of traditional Chinese, or Japanese, ethics and politics.

My impression of The Fiction of a Thinkable World, consequently, is that it must be an appalling hash of half-baked and incoherent ideas, mostly lifted from recent leftist politics and "theory" and wedded to some equally confused and ahistorical impressions of "Eastern thought." The latter may be potentially the most embarrassing thing about the book, which might be why references to it were deleted from the flyers sent to philosophy departments.

We can also examine the endorsements found on the flyer:

"It's one thing to say that the Cartesian mind/body dichotomy is meaningless. Everyone does that. It's quite another to actually try to figure out what the world would be like if this were really true. In a work of remarkable intellectual courage and extraordinary erudition, Michael Steinberg tries to do just that. The result is a groundbreaking work of ethical theory and a fascinating read. I don't know if this book will be considered important fifty years from now. But I certainly hope so, because it deserves to be."
-- DAVID GRAEBER, Yale University, author of Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value

Now Descartes' metaphysics certainly do not work very well for the mind/body problem, but this hardly makes the "mind/body dichotomy" something that is "meaningless." Only the harshest kind of behaviorist, reductionist, or materialist would say so. David Graeber must be among them. An anthropologist (confusedly) trying to derive a theory of value from anthropology is not so surprising, but perhaps Graeber has missed the anti-scientific and anti-cognitive overtones of Steinberg's thesis. An anthropological theory of value sounds like something "thinkable." At the same time, if "everyone" thinks that a mind/body dichotomy is "meaningless," it hardly takes "remarkable intellectual courage" for someone to say so. Indeed, it is the conventional wisdom of a certain group of bien pensants, a group rather like the reporter in 1972 who didn't know anyone who had voted for Richard Nixon.

"In a world in which theory and political action are so often disconnected, Michael Steinberg has done a masterful job of showing us the connections. This book will deepen our insights into the struggles we face to make meaning in this world."
-- ROBERT JENSEN, University of Texas at Austin, author of Citizens of the Empire:  The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity

In a world where combining theory and political action is actually all the vogue, the only suprising thing is that anyone would think otherwise, especially the author of a book called Citizens of the Empire, which is certainly some anti-American diatribe. Indeed, Robert Jensen is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas and looks to be all too typical a case of the politicized and radicalized academic purveyor of crude, English-department Marxism. His next book will be The Heart of Whiteness:  Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege -- the sort of book, indeed, whose contents can be predicted from the title alone. An endorsement from such a person tells us more than we need to know about how Mr. Steinberg's book is expected to "deepen our insights into the struggles we face to make meaning in this world." If Steinberg is anywhere near the lunatic fringe leftist that Jensen is, the best use of The Fiction of a Thinkable World might be to make papier-mâché.

Michael Steinberg actually is not an academic at all, but a lawyer. I would not hold that against him. Certainly no one believes that lawyers reason any better or worse than most academics. Some original philosophy from a non-academic would have been nice, especially when the man is in his 50's and has reportedly been writing the book for thirty years. That the book got published and is exciting to people like David Graeber and Robert Jensen perhaps testifies more to its lack of originality than to the opposite. In a world where theory and political action are all too often combined with the deepest folly, it is a shame to have another anti-capitalist lawyer, let alone an aspiring philosopher, running around. But I don't want to be unfair. If Mr. Steinberg thinks the abstract misrepresents his book, or that I have misunderstood it, he is welcome to strike a blow against consumerism by sending me a free copy.

I have now actually received e-mails from Mr. Steinberg, who seems angry that I wrote about his book without reading it. Well, I wrote about whether I should buy the book, based on its advertising and endorsements. He hasn't offered any substantial correction to my impressions. Nor has he offered to send a free copy.


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