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Lerner, Ralph. Naive Readings: Reveilles Political and Philosophic.

LERNER, Ralph. Naive Readings: Reveilles Political and Philosophic. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016. 240 pp. Cloth, $42.75--Ralph Lerner is, I firmly believe, the only person in North America who could have written Naive Readings. He has left his mark on this book as decisively as if each copy had his DNA sample on every page. The most obvious such marker is the subject matters of the ten chapters (and brief "afterword") that comprise the book. It contains a short introductory essay that presents Lemer's methodology and then nine substantive chapters divided into three parts, one of which contains interpretive essays on two of the major texts of medieval Jewish philosophy/theology, Judah Halevi's Kuzari and Moses Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed. A second section contains three chapters focused on early modern texts and authors: Francis Bacon's Essays, Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Edmond Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France played off against Alexis de Tocqueville's Ancien Regime and the Revolution. Finally, there is a third section, this one devoted to American writers and texts, two chapters of which are on Ben Franklin, and the other two on Thomas Jefferson as rhetorician and Abraham Lincoln as statesman.

Something noteworthy about this volume is signaled in its title. These are "naive readings," which suggests they are readings not as the experts would present to their fellow experts but readings that an intelligent, patient, attentive nonexpert would give when approaching texts known to be complex and elusive. "In proposing that we approach such works naively, I am suggesting that we not give short shrift to the obvious," Lerner writes. This is not to say that Lerner aims at or produces a Cliff Notes version of any of the texts he considers, but they are readings that put aside many of the suppositions experts in a field bring with them to texts. Lemer's readings are thus light on historical background or philological considerations. Rather, he attends to the text itself and aims to practice the less flashy virtues of "caution and patience."

The practitioner of naive reading pays very close attention to the structure of the texts being read. That reader seeks "the pattern in the carpet" or the "thread through the maze" of these complex texts, but does so by looking for the obvious things, such as "the way the structure shapes [the] work." A fine example of this is Lerner's reading of Bacon's Essays. He seeks "a clear way through Bacon's collection," which is difficult to find because the Essays appears to be "an assemblage and not a whole," and therefore it is a "challenge to discover a coherent pattern of developing argumentation in the Essays as a whole." Lerner notices, however, that the first and the last essays, "by virtue of their exposed placement ... at the head of the collection and ... at the end ... take on the appearance of pillars or portals through either of which readers might pass into or out of Bacon's works." Taking seriously the way the two essays relate, Lerner extracts from them an understanding of the aim of the Essays and of Bacon's entire enterprise as a philosopher.

Lerner's book itself demands just such a naive reading as he provides within it. It requires that we struggle to find "the figure in the carpet" by taking due note of the obvious, by allowing our curiosity to be piqued and our attention focused by odd ripples on the surface. In Lerner's case the ripples strike the reader with great force. In a book so concerned with the order of books, Lerner has set us puzzle right at the outset: his three sets of topics--medieval Jewish, early modem, and American political thought--are presented in the reverse of the "natural" or chronological order. We proceed from Benjamin Franklin to Moses Maimonides. Given his methods of reading, a reader is likely to judge this striking ordering is intentional and important. Taking a clue from the Bacon essay, we might take the opening and the closing substantive chapters as our thread through the maze. The essay on Franklin considers his "secularism." "Close reflection on [Franklin's] thoughts and words disclose that both his starting point and his end point were firmly lodged in this world, in this life." Part of Franklin's effort to lodge himself in this life was his project of moral perfectionism: he committed to this life as a counter to the life of piety that was the way of life of his fathers.

Lerner's chapter on Maimonides turns out to have the same concerns, but not quite the same answers. Rather than firmly planting himself in this world, Lerner's Maimonides issues "a call to assimilate our actions to God's and to follow a way of life here on earth that emulates divine loving kindness, righteousness, and judgments." Lerner reveals that for Maimonides, again in contrast to Franklin, "the moral virtues 'do not perfect the individual in anything.'" Here is the almost concealed thread through this book. Lerner thus invites his own "naive readers" to join in the delight of filling in the figure in the carpet that his thread begins to limn.--Michael Zuckert, University of Notre Dame
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Author:Zuckert, Michael
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2017
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