Academic Fencing: Review and Counterreview.

Margaret J. Osler‘s recent review of Catherine Wilson‘s new book – Epicureanism at the Origin of Modernity – is feisty to say the least. According to Osler,

A good history of Epicureanism in early modern thought would be a welcome addition to the existing literature. Unfortunately, this is a gap that Wilson’s book does not fill. It suffers from a number of problems — some systemic and some detailed — that undermine its reliability. Her view of seventeenth-century issues is blinkered because she restricts her analysis to an account of philosophers who hold a place in the modern canon of the history of philosophy. This limitation coupled with a tendency to make anachronistic judgments prevents her from examining the abundance of alternatives that competed with Epicureanism in seventeenth-century philosophy. Further, she neglects to consider other traditions — such as late Scholasticism, alchemy, Renaissance humanism, Copernican astronomy, and Galileo’s new science of motion — that contributed directly to the development of a corpuscularian philosophy and an empirical and experimental approach to natural knowledge. Her own patently intolerant attitude towards theology prevents her from understanding that theological presuppositions were virtually axiomatic for most of the philosophers of the period.

That’s pretty rough, don’t you think? “She neglects to consider other traditions” is the most annoying move in the above citation – the book clearly limits itself to Epicureanism, therefore the charge that one neglects other traditions is preposterous, but let’s read on.

Many of the book’s flaws flow from the narrow range of Wilson’s definition of philosophy, a neglect of much recent scholarship, and what I can only call a perverse reading of some of the texts.


Wilson’s discussion of the mechanical philosopher and chemist Robert Boyle suffers from an incomplete reading of both his own writings and the wealth of recent scholarship about him. The sources of Boyle’s philosophy of nature are far more complex than Wilson suggests.


Because the book suffers from both a shortage of connective tissue binding the separate chapters into an organic whole and a general conclusion, there are problems of organization and unity.

This is just mean, I think, a kind of an academic bitch slap: “Not only is your book bad, you are also stupid to have written it, if of course one assumes you can write at all.” What is the deal with this? Next thing you know, Osler will be criticizing the cover of the book and the general smell of its pages. Where does such aggression originate? Be patient, faithful reader, I believe we have the answer.

Catherine Wilson is not taking this bullshit of a review without a fight – she has posted a response to Osler on PhilPapers, you can see the document here (.doc). It begins with the same reaction that I had to the review (confirming that I am not crazy):

My book, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity, OUP 2008, is said to be unreliable, to lack connective tissue, to have problems of organization and unity, and I, the author, am said to be blinkered, anachronistic, neglectful, uncritical, old-fashioned, narrow, a perverse reader, and a historian who makes claims with no support.

I am surprised by all this. How could a reviewer get so little out of a book, especially one that, as MO notes, is based on previously published (and mostly refereed, I might add) articles and chapters appearing over the last 25 years?

It’s a bit of a weak start, basically an academic equivalent of “who do you think you are?!” – others read my work and approved of it, how can you suggest it’s all wrong in so many ways? But Wilson gets right to the point – this mean review is a reaction to Wilson’s own mean review of Olson twelve years ago:

Twelve years ago I wrote a somewhat critical review of Margaret Osler’s own Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy ( Dialogue 36 (1997), pp. 597-606.)… I invite anyone interested to look up that review and compare the language and tone with that of the NDPR review.

That is – “I might have been mean to Osler, but the language and tone were completely different.” Now, suggesting that Osler is motivated by revenge, a strange kind of revenge, before Wilson goes through the major objections and refutes them is a nice move aimed to show that Wilson is not below a good old fashioned punch in the ribs. Wilson then goes through a number of objections and responds to them.

What puzzles me here is, of course, the utter idiocy of exchanging mean remarks (admittedly most of them come from Osler) on such a topic without a real engagement with the issues at hand. The remarks themselves are quite lame and unimaginative – if you are going to openly abuse each other, dear scholars, why not do it with venom and style that was so prevalent and so masterfully applied in… well, I don’t know, let’s say SEVENTEETH CENTURY!

12 thoughts on “Academic Fencing: Review and Counterreview.

  1. You’re welcome. I couldn’t find the 1997 review so my sarcastic account was without a valuable piece of evidence. Even if it was mean, that was 12 years ago, so it would have been strange to wait for so long.

    I thought your response was both to the point (I haven’t, of course, commented on the whole of your document) and polite, even though Osler’s rather nasty review could have provoked some strong language from yours truly.

    Seriously, what is the deal? When I read the review, having read your work for some years (I thought of using your intro to Meditations instead of actual Meditations in some of my classes), I found its hostility simply hard to explain…

  2. Have you tried emailing Osler and asking her for an explanation of such unprovoked hostility? I mean there are harsh reviews and there are harsh reviews, this one seems to be so personal and vicious that one wonders if there’s some huge grudge behind it – is she just a generally mean scholar?

    I mean no offense, but academics are notorious back stabbers – I remember seeing one of my profs disparaging an essay by his colleague to his students and then just chatting away with the mentioned colleague like they were best friends – is it all just a strange perverse game?

  3. “The author neglects to consider” often is code for, “my studies in this area specialized in factors not addressed here”.

  4. True – still I think Jackson is raising a valid issue, I don’t think I’ve seen much discussion of it especially among the prominent academics themselves – clearly there’s something vicious about Osler’s review, but maybe she and others don’t see it that way? I mean if this was bar talk, I’m pretty sure it would be begging for a brawl, not just especially intense exchange, right?

  5. There is something about the academic game, (despite the fact that it is loaded with personalities, driven by emotional investments), that is like Chess. In the game of chess the goal of the game seems to implicitly be the declaration to your opponent, “You are an idiot!” (or at least that is often how one comes to feel under criticism.)

    They way in which one presents all one’s arguments and evidence out there in the open is something like how all the moves on the board are right there in plain sight, and anyone smart enough would see the relative substance of an attack coming. Argumentation and description though is something more than chess moves. It becomes the habit of academics to think they are saying more than they are when they are venting a disagreement.

    It is amazing how immature a place academic houses are. Hundreds of chess players huddled together afraid to play a game, lest they be defeated in public, and lose the authority of their small voice.

    Very seldom do you seem to find the simple joy of an idea. With ideas seem to come the entire regalia of arms and gems.

  6. Thanks to Mikhail first of all for those very kind remarks about my Descartes’s Meditations. That book was an unmitigated pleasure to write.
    The joy of an idea-isn’t that what it’s all about as kvond asks? My motive in replying to the review was to make that as clear as I could. Not just to defend my reputation as a philosopher and historian–though I care about that–but because so many people might be put off by the review from even reading my book.
    The whole point of writing is I think to give the reader a good (intellectual) experience, show them something you think is new and interesting, hoping for a bit of feedback in turn–and if your audience is taken away by a review, well, it’s felt as a loss.
    The chess metaphor is a good one–better than fencing. You can respect an opponent who concedes to you because there can be intelligence shown in knowing when to give in. So, much of the agonistic aspect actually involves considerable respect. Jackson’s anecdote though shows that there is a lot of petty striving in our field as well.

    • I see your point about chess, just for the sake of this argument I would say that fencing was mostly associated in my head with stabbing and therefore some back stabbing since publishing a rather dismissive review online is a kind of sneaky move (why bother writing the review if you hated the book so much? is my question) – but mostly, of course, it could be chess…

  7. I don’t think people would be put off from your book by this review – it’s clearly nasty enough to actually raise interest in the book and see if it really is that “bad” – I think your scholarship has been established and confirmed by your previous publications, still very unpleasant, I assume.

  8. How much striving is there in the field of 17th century history and philosophy? Seems like a very small circle – are you sure you didn’t cut her off in a line or somehow offended her at a conference?

  9. Catherine Wilson: “The whole point of writing is I think to give the reader a good (intellectual) experience, show them something you think is new and interesting, hoping for a bit of feedback in turn–and if your audience is taken away by a review, well, it’s felt as a loss.”

    Kvond: I like this very much.

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