Standpoints

by Svend Brinkmann, Polity, 176pp, £12.99

I was a little wary of a book that, early on, announced itself as a “source of existential inspiration” and promised maxims “that you can learn off by heart and keep in mind as you go through life”. It all smacked of self-help gimmickry. Happily, Brinkmann’s guide to the good life has philosophical depth beneath the twinkly surface. We are invited to seek out ethical lodestones that transcend instrumental value and are ends in themselves. The notion of intrinsic value is king. Utilitarianism or nihilism are to be approached with caution. The subjective self is to be toppled from its throne. It’s an old tune, but Brinkmann whistles it well, although he recruits an eclectic bunch of allies. You’d expect Aristotle and Kant, but Derrida on forgiveness?

Well, Brinkmann actually pulls that one off, deflecting charges of Derrida’s charlatanism, and he almost makes Nietzsche attractive in his meditation on the importance of keeping promises. Two chapters share the laurels, however. Brinkmann is excellent on Iris Murdoch and on Hannah Arendt who – and here comes one of the promised maxims – opined that “although there is no truth, man can be truthful”. In a contingent world, the simple attempt to sustain or create truth is a necessary act. Brinkmann wants us to locate values upon which we can stand firm. He doesn’t really dodge the question of who or what should be the arbiter of such weighty decisions, and his whole enterprise rests, perforce, on a rather monochrome vision of something called human nature.

Still, while such philosophical musings are often rather ponderous, Brinkmann is positively breezy, which makes for an invigorating read.

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