What Nobody Knows
Cunning. By Don Herzog. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2006. Pp. x, 192. $24.95.
By meditating on displays of cunning in literature, history, and current events, Don Herzog in his new book isolates and probes difficult puzzles concerning how to understand and evaluate human conduct. The point of the exercise is not to offer a system or framework for resolving these puzzles. Quite the opposite, Cunning aims to discomfit its academic audience in two ways. First, it sets out to show that some of the central dichotomies of modern thought—those between means and ends, reason and desire, self-interest and morality, fact and value, virtue and vice, knowledge and politics, authenticity and artifice, and appearance and reality—tend not to function as useful analytic constructs, but instead operate as blinders that prevent us from accurately grasping the wellsprings, stratagems, and character of human action. Second, it asks us to confront related and daunting questions of what and whom one can justifiably believe, and how one ought to behave in a world that, at every turn, seems to invite and reward artifice and deception.
In addressing these topics, Herzog eschews road maps and linear exposition for casuistry and jazzy riffs. The result might profitably be described as Wonka for professors—a fantastic, vertiginous, somewhat menacing tour of a rogue’s gallery, led by a guide with roguish sensibilities of his own. Painstakingly crafted, darkly witty, honestly observed, and hyper-literate, the book delivers on its promise to unsettle. It also demonstrates the edifying power of a style of analysis that is historical, philosophical, humane, and resolutely anti-reductionist but not ethereal, arcane, grandiose, or soft-minded. In short, Cunning’s mind-bending inquiry teaches us as much about the possibilities for humanism as it does about humans.