Archives For Nicholas Wolterstorff


A Life Well-Lived.

A Feature Review of

In This World of Wonders:
A Memoir in a Life of Learning
Nicholas Wolterstorff

Hardback: Eerdmans, 2019.
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Aaron Morrison

All humans philosophize, but few make philosophy their career, and fewer still do so since Nicholas Wolterstorff first became a professor. Even so, the practice of philosophy–as with the rest of the humanities—remains ever relevant for our own search for what makes a life well-lived. In This World of Wonders: A Memoir in a Life of Learning functions as a moving testament to what a lifetime spent around the subject of philosophy can look like from the perspective of one of Christian Philosophy’s significant figures over the past generation. Even if readers are unfamiliar with Wolterstorff’s corpus, they can glean wisdom for finding beauty, acting justly, and meditating on grief.

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A review of

Journey Toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South
Nicholas Wolterstorff

Paperback: Baker Academic, 2013
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Reviewed by Marilyn Matevia
Some of the clearest contemporary thinking and writing about the theory and practice of justice has come from Nicholas Wolterstorff.  A philosopher and Christian theologian, Wolterstorff’s standout previous books on the subject include Until Justice and Peace Embrace (1983), Justice: Rights and Wrongs (2010), and Justice in Love (2011).  In each of these, Wolterstorff combines careful theory-building with real-world applications and examples, and always with an undertone conveying the urgency and imperativeness of working for justice.
Journey Toward Justice displays these same characteristics, but weaves in an autobiographical thread.  The book was invited to launch a new series published by Baker Academic, “Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity,” in which North American Christian scholars reflect on how encounters in the global south have shaped or changed their thinking.  Wolterstorff acknowledges in the preface that he is uncomfortable with this format; he considers himself a philosopher who “deals in abstractions,” not a story-teller who deals in narratives.  But Nicholas Wolterstorff has always been very skilled at (and insistent about) connecting his so-called abstractions to concrete situations – that is, at uniting theory and praxis.  Indeed, he urges that other scholars develop this capacity as well (see the final chapter of Until Justice and Peace Embrace).
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Book News

Some interesting bits of book news and conversations collected over the last week:

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by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs is a magisterial book. In it and in its smaller forthcoming companion volume Justice and Love, Wolterstorff has gotten justice right. This, in case the thrust of my terse comment wasn’t plain enough, is very high praise. I’ll register a few small gripes and suggest a shift in emphasis. But these mild criticisms, even if I am correct in making them, don’t take much away from the greatness of Wolterstorff’s extraordinary achievement or from the basic correctness of his position.


Together with two of my colleagues at Yale Divinity School, David Kelsey (emeritus) and John Hare, I have started a multiyear project entitled “God and Human Flourishing.” That project provides the angle from which I write. I will ask of Wolterstorff’s books two principal questions: What is the account of human flourishing that they contain? And what is the relation between God and human flourishing thus understood? A conception of justice and the relationship between love and justice will turn out to be central in answering both of these questions.


Part of the foundation of Wolterstorff’s proposal about justice—and about the relation between justice and love—is an account of human flourishing. He distinguishes his own account from two prevalent positions. A flourishing life is neither merely an “experientially satisfying life,” as many contemporary Westerners think, nor is it simply a life “well-lived,” as a majority of ancient Western philosophers have claimed. Instead, argues Wolterstorff, explicating the moral vision of the Christian Scriptures, human flourishing consists in “the life that is both lived well and goes well.” The “life lived well” component brings out the agent dimension of human flourishing and of the moral order that underpins it; a well-lived life is one that a person leads well. The “life goes well” component brings out the recipient dimension of human flourishing and of the moral order that underpins it; the life that goes well is one in which a person enjoys good things and right kinds of relationships. In a sense, Wolterstorff’s third account of human flourishing is a synthesis of the prevalent two.

Read the full review:

Nicholas Wolterstorff.

Hardcover: Princeton UP, 2008.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

NY TIMES review:
“What Are the Odds a Handy, Quotable Statistic
Is Lying? Better Than Even”

It’s hard to resist a book that tells you that most people have more than the average number of feet. Or that researchers have found that Republicans enjoy sex more than Democrats do. Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot delight in bringing such facts to our attention — and then in explaining them away.


Because of amputations, birth defects and the like, the average number of feet per person across the human population is slightly fewer than two. As for those randy Republicans, the information that matters is that men vote Republican more than women, and also say that they enjoy sex more than women say that they do.


“The Numbers Game” grew out of a popular BBC radio show called “More or Less”; Mr. Blastland is the show’s creator, and Mr. Dilnot its former host. Their book appeared in Britain two years ago under the title “The Tiger That Isn’t,” and though it has been “extensively revised” for its American edition and, more mysteriously, given a new title, it still retains a British orientation.


That’s O.K. Its examples travel well, as do the authors’ lucid, unruffled style and their wholesome commitment to public enlightenment. “The Numbers Game” is no “Fun With Math” divertissement; its aim is to render its readers a little smarter about statistics, to make better citizens of them. It’s a sugar-coated civics lesson.


Most of us, Mr. Blastland and Mr. Dilnot observe, expect numbers to do too much. We like their precision and want to believe that statistics can tell us all we need to know about the world. But precision comes at a price: before you can count something, you have to define what it is you’re counting, and often that’s not as simple as it sounds.

Read the full review:

THE NUMBERS GAME: The Commonsense Guide to
Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life
Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot

Hardcover: Gotham Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Doulos Christou Books $18 ] [ Amazon ]

A Review of Aristotelian Philosophy:
Ethics and Politics from Aristotle to MacIntyre

Kelvin Knight, who previously edited The MacIntyre Reader, has several goals in this new book. He identifies three explicitly: first, “to present an interpretive narrative of the formation of MacIntyre’s philosophy”; second, “to chart the main course through the history of ideas taken by MacIntyre’s Aristotelian tradition, from Aristotle to himself”; and third (the book’s “unifying intention”), “to argue that Aristotelianism has now been revitalized once again, by MacIntyre” (222-23). Weaving these together is an emphasis on the “revolutionary” character of MacIntyre’s views. Unlike either Aristotle or the Aristotelian tradition, which Knight characterizes as frequently legitimating elitist and exclusionary politics, MacIntyre offers a theory of the virtues that is inclusive, egalitarian, and deeply opposed to the global capitalist order of (post)modernity. Knight achieves his goals with varying degrees of success, and at times the attempt to juggle so many balls at once leaves his narrative somewhat disconnected, as the effort to trace out an Aristotelian tradition over centuries is punctuated by sideways glances at various interpretive disputes. This is most pronounced in the third chapter, where in a mere 35 pages Knight follows Aristotle’s path through the remarkably diverse cast of Luther, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, and Gadamer, not to mention several lesser figures and a handful of contemporary thinkers. Knight seems to recognize the problem, admitting, “This book is victim to the author’s overnumerous intentions” (222). He is, nevertheless, more successful than not. In particular, his account of MacIntyre’s development into a “revolutionary Aristotelian,” supplementing Thomist Christianity with a residual fidelity to Marx, is both helpful and persuasive.

Read the full review:

Aristotelian Philosophy:
Ethics and Politics from Aristotle to MacIntyre
Kelvin Knight.

Paperback: Polity Press, 2007.
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Ragan Sutterfield on the “Social Value of Fruit Trees”

Imagine what it would be like to go to a long-neglected neighborhood where fresh fruits and vegetables are all but absent and find apple, pear, peach, pecan, and walnut trees everywhere. The amount of food these trees would produce would be immense—around 5 or more bushels from one apple tree. Imagine the productive power of a once empty lot with five mature trees!

Beyond the ecological qualities of trees and the food they produce, there is also a social value that fruit trees bring. As Liberty Hyde Bailey writes in his excellent pamphlet, The Apple Tree, “Life does not seem regular and established when there is no apple-tree in the yard and about the buildings, no orchards blooming in the May and laden in the September, no baskets heaped with the crisp smooth fruits; without all of these I am a foreigner, sojourning in a strange land.” Fruit and nut trees create a certain kind of domestication. In neighborhoods that have been blighted these trees could be powerful symbols of growth and vitality.

Read the full article:

The Apple Tree.
Liberty Hyde Bailey.

Pamphlet: Doulos Christou Press, 2008.
Buy now: [ Doulos Christou Books $5 ]

A Review of Bas Van Fraassen’s

What does The Haywain represent? Or Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie? How about Rothko’s Red on Maroon? In the case of the Constable painting, the answer seems straightforward, and we can even visit the site of the scene he sketched (more or less). Mondrian, rejecting the distinction between abstract and representational art, himself suggested that his work represented structure. But with Rothko, talk of representation seems inappropriate.

What about scientific theories? Certainly they’re not easily comparable to a Rothko, but are they more like The Haywain or Broadway Boogie Woogie? The notion of representation has recently risen to prominence in the philosophy of science, with arguments and examples imported from the world of art.

Bas van Fraassen has played a leading role in these discussions, grappling with representation and its mechanism from the perspective of the empiricist stance he first took in his now-classic text, The Scientific Image. Densely argued, erudite and rich in examples from both art and science, his latest book expands on his John Locke Lectures, given at Oxford in 2001, to cover not just representation, but also measurement and models, structuralism and, finally, the distinction between appearance and reality.

Read the full review:

Scientific Representation: Paradoxes of Perspective
Bas C. van Fraassen

Hardcover, Oxford UP, 2008
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The Christian Century reviews
Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Citizens
In Collateral Damage, Chris Hedges (author of War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning) and Laila Al-Arian interview 50 American veterans of the war in Iraq. Many talk freely about the atrocities against innocent civilians being carried out by Americans in Iraq. For some interviewees, this openness seems to be a way of dealing with their own sense of culpability and guilt.
One of the problems is that the rules of engagement aren’t always clear—or they don’t work amid chaos. Commanders seem to deliberately disregard the Geneva Conventions. One soldier tells the authors that the real rule of engagement is to “cover your own butt.” In other words, shoot first rather than be shot, then sort out the mess later. The main mission is to get out of there alive.

Many American soldiers and Marines also take with them a cultural or racial bias. It is common for Americans in combat to refer to Iraqis as “f—ing hajis.” (Among Muslims, “haji” is an honorary term for those who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca.) Iraqis sometimes are even called “camel jockeys” or “sand niggers.”

Read the full review:

Collateral Damage:
America’s War Against Iraqi Citizens
Christopher Hedges and Laila Al-Arian

Hardcover: Nation Books, 2008.
Buy Now: [ Doulos Christou Books $18 ] [ Amazon ]

Justice: Rights and Wrongs by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a gifted moral philosopher and among the most eminent Christian scholars in any discipline. His project in Justice: Rights and Wrongs is to ground—to “account for,” as he puts it—the language, morality, and reality of human rights and for the “deep structure of the moral order.” The book is, in some ways, a work of righteous anger—an “attempt to speak up for the wronged of the world”—but it is unfailingly warm, inviting, and humane. The exposition is unapologetically theistic, but never awkwardly apologetical. Even those who are not trained philosophers, and who might not appreciate the significance of each move executed or every distinction drawn, can appreciate his defense of “our moral subculture of rights.”

“There are,” Wolterstorff insists, “natural human rights,” and “human beings, all of them, are irreducibly precious.” This is true, but how is it true? What makes it true? Wolterstorff concludes that “it is impossible to develop a secular account of human dignity adequate for grounding human rights” and challenges his readers to confront squarely the “unsettling question”—the challenge issued by Nietzsche—that this failure raises. In the end, Wolterstorff proposes that “being loved by God” alone “gives a human being great worth.”

In the first part of his book , Wolterstorff presents and defends his basic thesis that the “inherent rights” of human beings—not right order, not social utility, not preference-satisfaction—are at the root of justice. His aim is to engage and displace a particular narrative—a “story of decline”—in which “the dominance in ancient and earlier medieval times of the concept of the right and the conception of justice as right order” somehow slides down to the “dominance in modern times of the concept of rights and the conception of justice as founded in natural rights.”

Read the full review:

Justice: Rights and Wrongs
Nicholas Wolterstorff

Hardcover: Princeton UP, 2008.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]