True to his own foundation, Lear’s writing demonstrates a great deal of creative freedom, exploring the ironic interplay between Plato and Kierkegaard, the psychoanalytic dimensions of Shakespeare, J.M. Coetzee, and Marilynne Robinson, and the connections between Aristotle’s ethics and Native American cultural heritage. In relationship to psychoanalysis proper, Lear is not offering a belated entry in the Freud wars or an attempt to repristinate what’s become an unfashionable legacy. Instead of settling or fixating on Freud, Lear argues, we need to work through him: “if psychoanalysis is to live up to its promise of being a moral psychology—one that contributes as it comes to understand what it is to lead a full, rich, meaningful human life—it must find ways to mourn Freud’s legacy and move on.”
Interest in their lack of sentimentality is not necessarily full-throated endorsement. In the chapters on Sontag and Didion, Nelson sharply brings forward the limits of a self-consciously unsentimental pose, which can devolve into smugness or self-satisfaction. Still, she insists, what links the six women discussed in the book is not simply their toughness but a need for reality, a move toward the painful. If there’s not a sisterhood, there is at least a school of unsentimentality here. In their attitudes toward their subjects, they sought to comprehend, to rebuke, to pay attention, but not to justify or to comfort. One could characterize them as seeking, in every instance, to be deliberately uneasy.
One can legitimately question why Godfrey-Smith’s story about how nature—or creation—became aware of itself features a protagonist that is alien to the human species. It seems that it would make more sense to talk about nonhuman intelligence—which to a degree is a requirement for consciousness—by starting with mammals or at least birds. These animals are known to possess high levels of cognitive functioning exhibited in the form of learning, memory, and decision-making. But perhaps the octopus is smarter than we think. Certainly Other Minds makes a compelling case that this is so.
It is a wildly ambitious book, and even its 500 pages are probably half as many as a thorough telling of its story would require.… But a much longer book would have struggled to find a readership, and this is a book that needs to be read by people with a wide range of interests and disciplinary allegiances.