_ In his review of Eric Schwitzgebel's A Theory of Jerks and Other
Philosophical Misadventures, Scott McLemee also focuses on love. _
ITS SUITABILITY MAY NOT be obvious from the title, but Eric
Schwitzgebel's _A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical
Misadventures_ (MIT Press
proves surprisingly appropriate for discussion on Valentine's Day. It
has things to say about love that ring true, although their connection
to the theory of jerks will require some clarification.
The book consists of not quite 60 short essays, each between one and
10 pages long. A few are excerpts from academic papers; several are
off-the-cuff in ways almost unthinkable (and certainly unpublishable)
before the advent of blogging. They are arranged into more or less
A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures
By Eric Switzgebel
MIT Press; 384 pages
Hardcover: $27.95; Paperback: $19.95
October 11, 2019,
But the author, a professor of philosophy at the University of
California, Riverside, encourages readers to disregard the arrangement
entirely, if so inclined. The tone is light, but the range of concerns
includes metaphysics, philosophy of consciousness, artificial
intelligence, deathbed regrets, the psychology of decision making and
rationalization, statistical evidence regarding careerism among
philosophers in the Third Reich, and whether or not professional
ethicists behave more ethically than the rest of us. (If not, why not?
What would be the excuse?) Schwitzgebel makes no claim to some deeper
unity. The pieces cross-connect in various ways, but you still get to
choose your own misadventure.
TWO TOPICS WILL BE the focus here: jerks and love. They may look
random; you might find them all too closely related. Here goes.
The essay lending Schwitzgebel's collection its title recalls Aaron
James's groundbreaking _Assholes: A Theory_,_ _which drew particular
attention during the last presidential election
[[link removed]] cycle.
Both, in turn, follow in the footsteps of Harry Frankfurt's _On
Bullshit_, taken up here
[[link removed]] 15
years ago almost to the day. In each case, we find the author giving a
twist to old-school ordinary-language philosophy
[[link removed]] by inspecting a vernacular (in
fact, coarse) expression to find its implicit concept.
Per Schwitzgebel's refinement of the term, "jerkitude" is a moral
failure presenting itself as a social nuisance. The failure is both
emotional and intellectual. "The jerk," he writes, "culpably fails to
appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as
tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with rather than as moral
and epistemic peers." The author's reference to "the perspectives of
others" applies to both their feelings and their intellectual
capacities. The jerk is often bewildered to discover that he is
surrounded by idiots. They reveal themselves as such by failing, or
refusing, to do what he expects -- even though that is clearly their
obligation, a point he may well emphasize in the bluntest possible
In everyday use, "jerk" and "asshole" tend to be almost synonymous,
though the latter may connote a higher degree of obnoxiousness. But as
our philosophers parse the terms, a significant difference bears
noting. The jerk, to quote Schwitzgebel again, "can't appreciate how
he may be wrong and others right about some matter of fact, and what
other people want or value doesn't register as of interest to him,
except derivatively upon his own ignorance." The asshole, as depicted
by Aaron James, is, by contrast, quite aware of others' feelings and
opinions but makes a point of disregarding them. Think of someone
getting into an elevator, lighting a cigar and smoking it with the
hint of a sneer as other passengers cough.
The jerk in Schwitzgebel's model is entitled but oblivious. Where the
asshole's actions may aggressive, defiant and contemptuous to the
point of being tinged with sadism, the jerk is self-centered while
lacking much self-awareness. The latter requires a capacity to imagine
one's behavior and attitude from the standpoint of those affected. It
helps as well to be as generous in assessing other people's motives
and circumstances as in rationalizing one's own. The encouraging word
here is that a jerk can reform. An interesting question, requiring
further study, concerns which comes first: Regret or maturity?
FEW PEOPLE'S ROMANTIC LIVES do not involve at least a jerk or two
along the way. Often this can be laughed off as a learning experience.
Not always, though. At times, the jerk is in the mirror; honesty may
require an even harsher judgment than that.
But the regrets can still be redeemed, against all odds, with a stroke
of good fortune. "Falling in love" is the easy part; it's the
follow-through that requires the most attention. "Rather than a
feeling," Schwitzgebel says in a text written for the wedding of two
friends, "love is a way of structuring your values, goals and
reactions … Only if this restructuring is so rooted that it
automatically informs our reactions to the person and to news that
could affect them, do we possess real love."
Even "real love," so understood, can be carried another step forward,
as suggested by the title of the essay: "Thoughts on Conjugal Love."
The author invokes "an implacable, automatic commitment to responding
to all major life events through the mutual lens of marriage." The
expectation of permanence is implied: "Each partner's commitment is
possible, despite the contingency of conjugal love, because each
partner trusts that the other partner's commitment is unshakeable."
In this society, at this point in history, permanence is not
obligatory. But neither is it impossible. "One's life becomes a
coauthored work," says Schwitzgebel -- a line I bring to the attention
of one reader in particular, to celebrate this holiday for our 27th
_Book Author ERIC SCHWITZGEBEL is Professor of Philosophy at the
University of California, Riverside, and the author of Perplexities of
Consciousness (MIT Press). His essays on philosophical topics have
appeared in a range of publications and on his blog, The Splintered
_[Essayist SCOTT MCLEMEE writes the weekly Intellectual Affairs column
for Inside Higher Ed. His reviews, essays and interviews have appeared
in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The
Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other