*A Life Beyond Boundaries*,by Benedict Anderson

by on May 21, 2016 at 1:01 am in Books, Education, History, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the title of his posthumous memoir, highly recommended.  It is one of the best books on the charm of studying Southeast Asia, and also a very good look at how American academia rose from mediocre to excellent in the postwar era.  It is short and can be consumed in a single gulp.

Here is Andrew Batson on the book.  Here is Anderson on Wikipedia; he was best known as a theorist of nationalism but he also did important work on Indonesia and Thailand.

Ratio of most-cited publication to second-most-cited publication for authors among the top-10 most cited books in the social sciences:


1 John Gibson May 21, 2016 at 1:34 am

I’m a bit dim and easily startled. Does a posthumous memoir include heaven, or did you mean ghost writer?

2 prior_test2 May 21, 2016 at 1:52 am

I’d planned remarking along the lines that ‘A Life Beyond Boundaries’ and ‘posthumous’ would seem to be synonomous, but that is a much more clever direction.

3 So Much For Subtlety May 21, 2016 at 3:40 am

Posthumous was a perfectly good Roman name. Meaning the father died before the birth. That made it very unlike Spurious.

A book is presumably the same – after the completion of the moment of creation there is a delay before it is brought forth into the world.

4 John Gibson May 22, 2016 at 5:08 am

Which makes my little joke imperfect. Mea culpa. But it was sooo funny!

5 Doug May 21, 2016 at 2:08 am

“[H]ow American academia rose from mediocre to excellent in the postwar era.”

Haven’t read the book, but it doesn’t seem like there’d be much to explain besides a massive brain drain of Ashkenazis from Europe to North America circa 1933-1945.

6 Kurt Schuler May 21, 2016 at 7:50 pm

Yes, along with quite a few non-Jewish scholars opposed to dictatorship. Perhaps the most eminent faculty that any university has ever had was the New School in that period.

7 James Thomas Madison May 21, 2016 at 3:29 am

American Academia excellent huh?

What really fantastic philosophers have we produced in the postwar era? In the 75 prewar years Germany alone, with 1/5th of our population and a fraction of our wealth they produced Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Frege, Husserl, Heidegger and plenty of other less famous but still good ones. We have managed to produce Chomsky, Dennett, Rawls, Arendt, Rand, if you want to consider her a great philosopher instead of a pale imitation of Nietzsche, and a few others, who are all very lovely philosophers in their own way but, I would argue, are an absolutely dismal showing compared to what we should have produced with our colossal pile of universities and our giant heaps of cash.

The same applies to plenty of other stagnant disciplines. What discipline really exceeded reasonable expectations of what America ought to have been able to do given its resources? Sure we are good at science, science is easy, you put money in and science comes out – but when it comes to original thinking, I’m afraid I feel as if we are behind.

8 Doug May 21, 2016 at 3:49 am

Bro, forget about 19th century Germany. Ancient Athens produced Socrates, Plato and Aristotle with 1/100 the population.

Comparisons of intellectual achievement between time periods is stupid. The past almost always has more low-hanging fruit. Particularly when it comes to philosophy.

9 So Much For Subtlety May 21, 2016 at 4:49 am

Scientists may or may not have low hanging fruit. I doubt that Western philosophy has since Aristotle.

Philosophy after all is not much dependent on prior work. It is dependent on a tradition to some extent, but mainly it comes down to individuals. And if you look at those Germans – Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Frege, Husserl, and Heidegger – and you compare them to their American equivalents mentioned here – Chomsky, Dennett, Rawls, Arendt, and Rand – it is just embarrassing. Especially as Arendt didn’t become an American until she was 45 and should be classed with the Germans. Chomsky is a fool. Rand needs no comment.

Dennett and Rawls are in a different category. But they are not in the same category as Wittgenstein or Heidegger. I doubt they would have been famous if they had been born in Hungary.

My assumption is that all the brightest Americans go to Wall Street. In Europe they go into philosophy. Not sure who got the best of that deal.

10 tjamesjones May 21, 2016 at 9:01 am

I agree this is striking & interesting. I think where the “brightest & best” go does vary from time to time and place to place, and explains a lot. I don’t know, however, if the brightest & best Europeans still go into philosophy? Where do they go? Perhaps it used to be banking and the professions – is there a chance today it is business (startups etc)? I hope so.

11 Urstoff May 21, 2016 at 9:47 am

Heidegger is nothing but nonsense. I’ll take any of the major American analytic philosophers over him: Quine, Putnam, Kripke, etc. I’d also rate those three in particular over Frege and Husserl (Nietzsches in an idiosyncratic category all his own).

12 Sam Haysom May 22, 2016 at 12:14 am

Heidegger wasn’t nonsense he just was way too prolific so most of what he published is nonsense. Have you read Introduction to Metaphysics? It’s a pretty remarkable little book as is a lot of what Heidegger wrote about the Greek Philosophers.

He was also without a doubt the most influential philosopher of the 20th century outside of the US were his influence has been pretty recent and not productive.

13 freethinker May 21, 2016 at 7:41 am

Add Karl Popper to your list and the German contribution to philosophy is all the more phenomenal

14 stephan May 21, 2016 at 10:44 am

@JT madison Please explain why Heidegger is such a genius and why his philosophy is valuable. Here is some help from Wikipedia:

“In the first division of the work, Heidegger attempted to turn away from “ontic” questions about beings to ontological questions about Being, and recover the most fundamental philosophical question: the question of Being, of what it means for something to be. Heidegger approached the question through an inquiry into the being that has an understanding of Being, and asks the question about it, namely, Human being, which he called Dasein (“being-there”) “

15 Troll me May 21, 2016 at 7:06 pm

It’s stunning how NOT obvious the “what it means for something to be” question is. It seems trivial and dumb, until you read Heidegger. Then again, I haven’t read it for quite some years, so it seems rather trivial and dumb again 🙂

My favourite takeaway from Heidegger is “humans are questioning beings, and it is the act of questioning that makes us human”. If I remember correctly, this is effectively defended as requiring good answers to the “what it means for something to be” question to get there.

But I never really believed that he deserves status as a giant. A serious philosopher would probably assume that means I just didn’t understand him very well, which is probably true.

16 Bob May 21, 2016 at 3:23 pm

To be fair, Anglo-American “analytic” philosophy doesn’t even qualify as philosophy, so it’s not like American academics have actually been doing philosophy. So it’s an unfair comparison.

17 Urstoff May 21, 2016 at 10:43 pm

What does qualify as philosophy? If analytic philosophy doesn’t count, then neither does Descartes, Hume, Kant, etc., as analytic philosophy addresses many of the same questions.

18 Thor May 21, 2016 at 5:35 am

Could be worse. I don’t see Gramsci, and there’s very little sign of Saussure. So there’s always that…

19 Sam Haysom May 22, 2016 at 12:22 am

What disciplines are included under social studies in this case? It doesn’t always include psychology, anthropology etc. That might explain Saussure’s absense. But mostly I just think using citations as a proxy for influence is flawed. Once a writer becomes significant to generate his own body of secondary writings then of course that’s going to dilute the tendency to quote direct from his texts.

One of the only nice things about Derrida was when you looked in his citations you could generally tell who the chapter was focused on by adding up the citations.

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