Monday, 14 July 2014

the philosophy department

When I started working as a freelance editor for Longman and Routledge in the early 1990s, I put my name down to edit science books. This made sense, given that I have a science degree and a good understanding of science in general. However, I also put my name forward to edit philosophy titles, which made a lot less sense, my only previous encounter with the subject being a one-year course in formal logic that I attended as an undergraduate. My only ‘qualification’ for the role was that I was interested in the subject.

Some of the books I edited turned out to be very rewarding, while others were absolute horror stories. In the first category, I include Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge by Robert Audi, which I edited in 1998 and which I found to be the most intellectually challenging book I ever worked on, mainly because it discusses, from first principles, how we know what we think we know, what justifies us in believing what we believe, and what standards of evidence we should use to reach our conclusions. It was admirably well written, but you can’t edit something that you don’t understand, if you can’t follow the argument, so I had to be careful to ensure that any changes I made did not affect the intended meaning.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but Professor Audi had apparently had a bad experience with the editing of his previous book and had asked to see the edited typescript before it went for typesetting. I must have understood the book, because the author asked for my name to be added to the acknowledgements at the front of the book.

Another book that I found interesting was Rules, Magic, and Instrumental Reason by Israeli philosopher Berel Dov Lerner. The passage that has stuck in my memory from this book describes how we use rules that govern common activities such as hammering a nail into a piece of wood, even though those rules are not formally codified. I recall this passage because I spotted that the rules that the author had proposed for hammering a nail wouldn’t work. Not only did Professor Lerner ask for my name to be added to the acknowledgements, he also wanted it noted that I’d ‘saved him from his own stupidity’ by spotting his mistake.

And now for something completely dreadful. The worst book I ever edited was entitled From Hegel to Derrida and was what is known in the trade as a contributed volume. This means that each chapter is by a different author, with an ‘editor’ whose name will appear on the cover of the book and to whom any queries need to be addressed. And I had a lot of queries. Example: why is the title of this chapter enclosed in parentheses? Answer: I’m not sure I understand the parentheses around the title either. But then this guy is known for strange titles. I’d hate to disappoint his fans….

Some of the writing was appalling, especially in the chapter by Jean-Luc Nancy (“I really went cross-eyed with this essay”—the editor). When editing, I had a general rule that if I needed to read a sentence more than once in order to apprehend its meaning, then that sentence should be rewritten. Imagine my horror upon encountering a sentence that ran to fourteen typewritten lines and included eight dashes and three lengthy strings of text within parentheses. I wish I’d kept a copy as an example of how not to write English.

The editor concluded his reply to my queries with the following paragraph:
Thanks for all the work you’ve done on this. I’m sure it was not pleasant. I can imagine that, to a sensibly minded speaker of English, this book would be like trying to copyedit Finnegan’s Wake. Just how do you tell when it’s wrong? As my wife says—why can’t they just write English? Ah! But then we wouldn’t impress each other.
I still have the fax, which I’ve quoted verbatim.


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