Reviews as Rants

Here's a book that I actually am reading: Aquinas' Theory of Natural Law: An Analytic Reconstruction, by Anthony Lisska (Oxford, 1998). It argues--gasp!--that Thomas Aquinas--prepare yourselves, now!--is an Aristotelian in the foundations of his moral theory!

Tony is a friend of mine, and I know him to be a very serious scholar. Although he is not a religious person (he actually argues that Aquinas' moral theory, grounded in natural law, works better without the notion of God floating around in it like a turd in a cesspool), this book makes for a very good introduction to the scholastic version of natural law theory. I was therefore somewhat amused by one of the reviews of the book available at, written by Stephen Heersink, a gay activist who rejects natural law morality for rather obvious reasons. He completely trashes the book, even going so far as to impugn the editorial process at Oxford University Press ("How this travesty passed its high editorial standards is deeply puzzling"), and yet, when one reads around in his other writings available on the internet, one cannot help but think that he doth protest too much.

Heersink (he has a blog here) claims to have some education in philosophy, and yet he writes the following inexplicable sentence:
A fifth principle [of natural law] requires "truth" as a correspondence theory between mind and things (see, Searle, "Construction of Social Reality" for why this is no longer so).
While it is true that correspondence theory has its difficulties, it is simply ludicrous to "cite" a single book--not a scholarly book but one intended for a general audience and that is now quite dated--as though this somehow "proves" that the whole project has been toppled and is now as unworkable as phlogiston theory. This betrays a rather shallow and banal grasp of the principles of philosophical methodology, and succeeds only at vitiating the entire review.

To see an example of Heersink's capacity for serious philosophical reasoning, check out his blog entry on abortion.

I've written a couple of reviews for myself, but lately I've begun to wonder what the point of such an exercise is. Most of them are completely worthless (well, except for mine, of course). Sometimes you can use them to figure out whether or not you want to read a particular mystery novel, but more often than not they are just rants. Pick some particularly popular or controversial book, for example, and check out the customer reviews. Try it with the Da Vinci Code. There will be hundreds of five-star reviews, all challenged by hundreds of single-star reviews. It's as if the purpose is to drive the overall rating in one direction or another regardless of the means necessary to accomplish that end. Such reviews are basically useless from a critical point of view.

On the other hand, I recently saw a review at that consisted entirely of the sentence "This is the worst book I have ever read", and 13 out of 30 voted it a "helpful" review! And there are dozens of such reviews on makes me wonder about the methods employed at for "clearing" these reviews. Even though I've seen many of these vapid reviews consisting os single sentences, there have been a few times when I've had reviews rejected by, with bizarre reasons being given: "It did not say anything substantive about the book", "it was too negative", etc. Too negative? Since when do you reject a review because it was too negative? Maybe the author himself was checking the reviews. And in light of the millions of illiterate and pointless, single-sentence reviews they do accept, it's hard to make sense of their policy, if they really have one. And in one case, a review I wrote (of Allan Levine's [Pavel Chichikov] Lion Sun) was actually removed after being on the website for nearly a year. So who knows what's going on at


Tom said…
The worst book I have ever read (a mystery novel) has two reviews on Amazon, one five star (2 of 2 found it helpful) and one four star (5 of 5).

The four star review begins, "For anyone who has ever spent time in Paris, and hence become immersed in the environment, this book will compel you to return to that nostalgia." Far be it from me to argue with that.

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