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The Body in Pain’

In response to:

Unspeakable Acts from the February 27, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

I do not know either Mr. Singer or Ms. Scarry. But when I read his review of her The Body in Pain [NYR, February 27], I was struck by the great disparity displayed between his comments and what he quoted and incidentally revealed. I thought he was singularly obtuse and pontifical, and sensed that he was beyond his depth, writing about a work that deserved study:

I have now read her book. It is brilliant, daring, challenging, and will, I think, outlast our time. Again and again, I had to stop reading to reflect on what she said, to rethink issues on which I had worked on over the years, to attend in new ways to familiar items, and to reflect on many neglected and novel distinctions, comparisons, and investigations. It is a work that deserves rereading, perhaps a number of times.

It is surely inexcusable for a reviewer to concentrate on one eighth of what he considers to be an “unusual” book. It is no less inexcusable for him to hold that the proper counter to her reference to Marx as “our major philosopher on the nature of material objects” to be “Hobbes, Locke [!], Hume [!!!], and Kant [!!].” Still, I am grateful to him. Had he written a mildly favorable or a better balanced review, I might have missed the work of a remarkable thinker, a master of dialectic, a fine writer, and a conscientious scholar. The editors, though, should have suspected that something was amiss.

Paul Weiss

The Catholic University of America

Washington, DC

Peter Singer replies:

In my review I explained why I concentrated on one part—though an absolutely central part—of Ms. Scarry’s book. It was the only way of displaying the weakness of her method, in particular her tendency to make unsupported assertions, many of them demonstrably false. I can only regret that Professor Weiss does not indicate why, in his opinion, the deficiencies I noted do not detract from the value of the book.

Nor, unfortunately, does Professor Weiss enlighten me as to what is so important about Ms. Scarry’s book. In fact I still do not understand why it is “inexcusable” to regard Hobbes, Locke, Hume, or Kant as superior to Marx in the category of philosophers who have discussed the nature of material objects. Since Marx wrote virtually nothing about the nature of material objects (as distinct from the role played by material objects in human history) it seems to me quite obvious that all the philosophers I have mentioned did make much more significant contributions to our philosophical understanding of what material objects are.

Perhaps Professor Weiss does not believe it important to offer reasons for his views. In that case, I can understand why he thinks so highly of The Body in Pain.

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