By Rebecca Goldstein.
New York: Penguin Books, 1983. 275 pages. ISBN: 78014-172454

Comments of Bob Corbett, August 2000.

See notes at bottom for a reader's response.

A delightful and very funny novel of a philosophy graduate student at Princeton who undergoes a crisis of self-confidence and tries to resolve it by finding meaning second-hand in another's life. The whole book is a long clever and non-standard treatment of the classic philosophical mind-body problem.

Renee Feuer, namesake of Rene Descartes, has always been the intellectual superstar in her small world. Growing up in a Brooklyn orthodox Jewish family and then shinning in philosophy at Bernard, Renee wins an attractive scholarship to Princeton. Here, for the first time in her life she is not the main attraction. Princeton's philosophy faculty and graduate students are not only bright and a serious challenge to her, but the universally accepted focus in Anglo-American analytic philosophy is one which for Renee is simply not philosophy.

She meets mathematical genius, Noam Himmel. He is the superstar of the faculty and Renee, beautiful and physically attractive who would attract virtually any heterosexual male, decides she will play the classic role of woman (her view, not mine!) and marry the genius.

However, her option is, in a way, a testing of a solution to the mind-body problem. What is the relationship between the external world and the physical body, and the mind and inner life? That is, for Renee, the central question of philosophy. Standard positions are ones that see the body as totally body and mind as just bad science; a view that sees the mind (and soul) and the primary reality and the body as merely the house of the mind; the mysterious third position, to try to provide some account in which the two work together and somehow communicate. Renee seems to favor a fourth account: we have a mind (unlike contemporary materialists), but it is the body which is central.

In working out this position her difficult account was such that I could not state her solution in a clear fashion, but she presents us with the story of her life and loves, her family and her rather hilarious movement away from orthodox Judaism which ends up maintaining a much greater hold on her than she would want. And Rebecca Goldstein makes me laugh, often out loud and prolonged.

I much enjoyed the novel. Given my own biases toward Continental philosophy I especially enjoyed her railing against the 1970s analytic absolutism she perceived at Princeton. I have heard that this is a roman a clef. If so, then I am very happy I don't know the people involved. If, indeed, Goldstein is describing folks who could well be identified, then there is a very nasty quality about the book since there's not a character in the book, including the narrator who would presumably be Goldstein, who doesn't have many skeletons brought out of closets that few would welcome.

Author Rebecca Goldstein, like her main character Renee Feuer, attended Barnard College and Princeton University in philosophy. Unlike where we leave character Renee at the end of the book, Goldstein did finish her PHD. She then returned and taught at Barnard for ten years.

If any are interested, it is a book I would enjoy discussing, particularly the great similarities between Renee's fascinating "mattering map" and the phenomenological conception of meaning and point of view.


Gary Ostroff

Gary Ostroff
March 2006

I tried to read this book on the recommendation of a friend, but I gave up after fifty pages. I didn't think she did well as a novelist.

Her portrait of the Philosophy department at PU in the 1970s is dead-on. I was an undergrad there at that time, until I concluded that the philosophers there were not interested in philosophy so much as their own puzzles, which gave them great job security. My experiences there, in particular with Nagel, who was Goldstein's doctoral advisor, instilled in me a lifelong skepticism and antagonism to academics and intellectuals of all types. I regard that philosophy department - I think they're still on the same jag, from what I read - as a bunch of academic frauds, and rigid dogmatists. This is probably why I didn't find her book amusing.

I am reminded of my experience watching the play "Travesties" by Stoppard in the 70s. The Tristan Tzara character evoked uproarious laughter from the audience, while I sat there thinking, "Why, he's only transcribed, word for word, what Tzara wrote. Why are they laughing?" As I read The Mind Body Problem I thought, but she's just doing journalism.

Well, I should probably get over it.


Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett