It usually is the case that scholarly books reflect a number of years of work by the author on a specific subject matter involving considerable research and writing. A reviewer, therefore, ought to identify at the outset the author’s primary subject, his aims in composing the work, and his or her relative success in accomplishing those aims. The reviewer may wish to put the author’s book in some interpretive and/or historical context that is not the author’s, to add significance to the book as a linguistic act and perhaps cogency to the reviewer’s critique.
A perfect example of how this first guideline for book-reviewing was not observed is Michael Kochin’s review of my book, The Platonic Political Art: A Study of Critical Reason and Democracy (BMCR 2001.08.24). The subject of my book is best understood by a gloss of the title: a study of the political art in Plato’s dialogues, which I regard as a delicately dialectical concept relating techne to arete and logos to ergon in the political context of democratic Athens, highlighting the way in which Plato’s efforts may be read in terms of a relationship between critical reason and democracy that includes his specific historical context but also transcends it. I articulate this subject in my book initially by situating my study in terms of both contemporary scholarship concerning Platonic ethics and politics, as well as political theory and democracy more generally, and the political and intellectual context of Plato’s time. The result is a comprehensive interpretation of Plato’s political theory that challenges conventional readings of Plato as a philosopher and political theorist.
A reader of Kochin’s review gets very little sense of the character of the book. It opens by identifying my book as a reading of Plato’s relationship to democracy but then cites two disparate pages in the middle of the book to illustrate his point. He proceeds to mention the names of the book’s chapters but fails to note or appreciate the larger, tripartite structure of the book. My book is divided into three parts (after the thirty-nine page Introduction). Part I is titled “Settings” (two chapters, totaling 78 pages). Here, I critically evaluate the contemporary scholarly and ancient historical and philosophical contexts of Plato’s interest in the political art. Part II is titled “Interpretations” (three chapters, totaling 265 pages). Here, I interpret Plato’s treatment of the political art initially (Chapter 3) in those dialogues that are set within the conventional political and intellectual contexts of Plato’s time; these dialogues are sometimes called “aporetic” dialogues because they offer no lengthy affirmation of a particular conception of the political art; then, in the Republic, as “The Constitution of Justice” (Chapter 4), and finally, as two kinds of political rule (in the Statesman and the Laws) and “An Appropriation” (one chapter, 40 pages, entitled “The Platonic Political Art and Postliberal Democracy”) — enacting an interpretive method that I call “critical historicism.” Kochin does not mention this tripartite structure, does not refer to my interpretive approach, and does not take account of the historical, contemporary, or scholarly significance of the book’s focus on the political art.
The reviewer, secondly, ought to note and evaluate how the author develops his argument and whether he follows through felicitously. Kochin ignores any of the claims made in the Introduction or first three chapters of the book and shows no interest in their scholarly substantiation or their significance for the book’s argument as a whole. Instead, he offers two critical but unsubstantiated, and relatively arbitrary, comments which minimize or undermine the significance of these initial chapters for the subsequent arguments and arc of the narrative in Parts II and III. He proceeds to jump to Chapter 4 and offers a 9-line account of 117-page chapter on Plato’s Republic, again offering relatively random critical comments about the chapter, some of which actually are radically inaccurate—such as his claim that Wallach slights the importance of stasis or class conflict for Plato’s argument in the Republic (which he substantiates by citing one of his own articles!). Indeed, the reviewer mentions authors whose work I should bow to, but he fails to notice my discussion of their work or any other scholarly foundations or context for my argument—even though the book’s bibliography is twenty-five pages and its index is eleven pages.
Finally, a reviewer ought to attend to the author’s efforts to address scholarly controversies or insert his or book in contemporary scholarly debate. Thus, my book takes issue with Straussian, Vlastosian, post-structuralist, and radical-historicist or Marxist-ideological readings of Plato—all of which, I argue, fail to account adequately for Plato’s conceptualization of the political art or his relationship to Socrates (as a historical or dialogic figure). It also engages in contemporary debates about the relationship between critical, theoretical discourse and democracy. Kochin mentions none of this in his review. Instead, he takes me to task for not engaging an interpretive discourse (that of British idealism) that was of marginal relevance to the express argument of the book and pegs me as a partisan “social democrat” writing from the perspective of a member of the Democratic Party in the United States. (The last chapter of the book comments on contemporary scholarship and political affairs, but I avoid engaging in practical political debate.)