Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: Sophists, Schmitt, Shakespeare, and more.

The editors

March 27, 2023

Rediscovering reason: Is rational choice-making a product of modernity or do we owe it to the ancients? In his new book The Greeks and the Rational: the Discovery of Practical Reason, Josiah Ober argues the latter, tracing the history of theorizing rationality to ancient Greece. The Stanford University professor of political science and classics explores how Greek sophists, historians, and philosophers developed ideas pertaining to practical reason while recognizing that “not every decision can be reduced to mechanistic calculations of optimal outcomes.” He points out that we would be wise to take a similar approach when applying game theory to politics, economics, and business management. Ober has authored or edited eighteen books, including The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece and Demopolis: Democracy before Liberalism in Theory and Practice, published in 2017.

Artificial tyranny: The world of artificial intelligence has come. A.I. governs our social media pages, informs our Google searches, and writes (some) of our papers. It also baffles government regulators and threatens the traditional place of human, and perhaps humanistic, decision-making in governments and bureaucracies. This week, Sheila Jasanoff, the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard University, will come to the University of Chicago to discuss the dangers that A.I. poses to democracy. The event is organized by the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, and will explore the place of human rights in a social order being rapidly transformed by new and intelligent technology. The conversation will take place on Friday, March 31st, from 1–4 p.m. in the Regenstein Library.

William Fakespeare: There is a spectre haunting Shakespearean scholarship. A theory claiming that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, is the real author of the playwright’s works is gaining prominence in right-wing circles. De Vere, so-called “Oxfordians” claim, was high-born and cultured, making him more apt to write about kings and queens than the lowly Shakespeare. Matthew Gasda writes for Compact Magazine that though this proposition has been championed by the reactionary right as evidence that elites guide culture, this concept of an impossibly stratified society doesn’t hold up. When the right insists that socioeconomic class dictates creative potential, Gasda argues that its position upholds the liberal elite status quo it aims to undermine. Instead, Oxfordian advocates should recognize the meritocratic hope Shakespeare represents: genius and natural potential can mean as much, or more, than a finishing-school education.

Left behind: Philosopher Susan Neiman will speak this Wednesday evening at the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore about her new book Left Is Not Woke. Aiming to comb out these two, now seemingly inextricable, terms, Neiman argues that leftism has lost sight of its former universalism—that is, the insistence that justice, for example, exists independent of cultural particularities. The misstep comes from two names that still pepper college syllabi today: Michel Foucault, the French philosopher famous for his History of Sexuality, and Carl Schmitt, a political theorist and prominent Nazi Party member. Neiman argues that Schmitt’s tribalism, classically right-wing, and Foucault’s subordination of justice to power are attractive because they reveal the weaknesses of liberalism. But, she says, the contemporary left would do well to remember the universally progressive principles of its forefathers. Neiman will be joined in conversation by Wendy Doniger, professor emerita of religious studies at the University of Chicago.