Columbia Ink

Feb. 13, 2014Bookmark and Share
The Metaphysics and Ethics of Relativism
BY CAROL ROVANE
Harvard University Press
In her second book, Columbia philosophy professor Rovane explores different formulations of the doctrine of relativism. She rejects the idea that certain unavoidable disagreements are irresolvable, leading to the conclusion that “both sides are right,” and that truth is always relative to context. The most compelling theory, she argues, is the “alternatives intuition.” Alternatives are truths that cannot be embraced together because they are not universal. The practical consequence is that some forms of interpersonal engagement are confined within definite boundaries, and one must view what lies beyond those boundaries with “epistemic indifference.” In other words, some people inhabit different worlds—true in themselves but closed off to belief from those who hold incompatible truths.
     
Do Muslim Women Need Saving?
BY LILA ABU-LUGHOD
Harvard University Press
Media and human rights groups’ reports of honor killings and other crimes against Muslim women have led to a widespread perception in the West that this population is in need of rescue. Abu-Lughod, a Columbia anthropologist whose ethnographic work focuses primarily on Egypt, challenges that conclusion in this book, which questions whether generalizations about Islamic culture can explain the hardships these women face and probes the motives of the individuals and institutions advocating on their behalf. Offering detailed vignettes of the lives of ordinary Muslim women, Abu-Lughod demonstrates that the problem of gender inequality cannot be laid at the feet of religion alone and that poverty and authoritarianism—conditions not unique to the Islamic world—are often more decisive.
     
Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950
BY MARWA ELSHAKRY
University of Chicago Press
In her first book, Elshakry, an associate professor of history, explores current ideas about Islam, science and secularism by examining how Darwin was read in Arabic from the late 1860s to the mid-20th century. Darwin’s ideas and other works about evolution arrived at a time of regional and international political upheaval amid widespread anxiety about the future of empire and civilization, and the debates about evolution influenced Arabic thought in almost every arena. Weaving together the history of science with intellectual history, she explores Darwin’s global appeal from the perspective of several generations of Arabic readers and concludes by looking at his waning influence on public and intellectual life in the Arab world after World War I.
     
What Is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans
BY KENNETH PREWITT
Princeton University Press
Prewitt, the Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs and a former director of the Census Bureau, argues in this book that the way America counts its population by race is flawed, and he calls for radical changes. He says the nation is mired in race classifications whose origins are in now discredited 18th century race-is-biology science. For instance, Japanese and Chinese were once classified as separate races but the census now combines them as a statistical Asian race. Prewitt clearly lays out the steps that can take the nation from where it is to where it needs to be. It’s not an overnight task—particularly the explosive step of dropping today’s race question from the census—but Prewitt argues persuasively that change is technically and politically achievable and morally necessary.
     
Leaving the Sea: Stories
BY BEN MARCUS
Knopf
This collection of stories showcases Marcus’s mastery of forms, from relatively conventional narrative to experimental work. In “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” a washed-up writer toying with infidelity leads a creative writing workshop on board a cruise ship. In “Rollingwood,” a divorced father struggles to take care of his ill infant, as his ex-wife tries to render him irrelevant. In “Watching Mysteries with My Mother,” a son meditates on his mother’s mortality, hoping to stave off her death for as long as he sits by her side. And in the title story, told in a single sentence, we watch as the narrator’s marriage and his sanity unravel. In these otherworldly landscapes, characters resort to extreme survival strategies to navigate adulthood; an automaton discovers love; and the distance from a cubicle to the office coffee cart is reconfigured as an existential wasteland, requiring heroic effort.
     
Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People
BY NADIA URBINATI
Harvard University Press
In Democracy Disfigured, Urbinati, the Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory and Hellenic Studies in the Department of Political Science, identifies three threats to democratic society in an age of hyper-partisanship and media monopolies. She offers a spirited defense of the messy compromises that define democracy. For Urbinati, democracy entails a permanent struggle to make visible the issues that citizens deem central to their lives. She focuses less on the overt enemies of democracy than on those who pose as its friends: technocrats wedded to procedure; demagogues who make glib appeals to “the people”; and media operatives who, given their preference, would turn governance into a spectator sport and citizens into fans of opposing teams.
 
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Milestones

Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies Rashid Khalidi, won the 2014 Lionel Trilling Book Award for Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.

Allison Lewko, assistant professor of computer science, was named to the annual Forbes 30 under 30 list in the science and health care category for her work designing encryption algorithms and keeping data secure.

Victor P. Goldberg, Jerome L. Greene Professor of Transactional Law, has been elected to the American Law Institute.

The Record