Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."





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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

AN IMPORTANT BIT OF INFORMATION

I am sure we are all interested in the lively discussion about Hegel prompted by my remarks, but we must not lose sight of what is the most important tidbit of information to emerge from the fog.

CHRIS IS FINISHING UP HIS DISSERTATION!

Congratulations to Chris.  I wrote a letter in support of his application to graduate school, and now he is about to finish up!

I hope, Chris, that in this brutal job market, you bag a good tenure track job somewhere.

I feel as though one of my children has taken a first step.

Monday, March 18, 2019

A RESPONSE TO TALHA


In the midst of a quite complimentary, indeed even fulsome [in the original sense] reference to me, Talha says this:  “Why Prof. Wolff should despise Hegel so much is a fun mystery!”  Talha goes on to note that I draw insights from and praise the work of Karl Mannheim, Herbert Marcuse, and others who were themselves deeply influenced by Hegel.  So what’s up with my hate on Hegel?

I think it is worth replying, not merely to clarify my personal preferences [a rather minor matter, after all], but to spell out my views on how one ought to do philosophy, which may be of interest to a slightly larger audience.

Personal matters first.  I hate Hegel because he makes relatively clear ideas obscure, whereas I have spent the last sixty years trying to make difficult and puzzling ideas as clear and transparent as I am able.  I freely acknowledge that Hegel had some interesting ideas.  I just can’t stand reading his exposition of them.  So sue me.  I don’t like Mahler either.

Now let me try to be a bit more serious.  I was introduced to philosophy at a relatively early age [from sixteen to nineteen] by a group of very gifted philosophers in what was then called the analytic tradition:  Willard Van Orman Quine first, then Nelson Goodman, after that Henry Aiken and Morton White, and then most importantly of all, Clarence Irving Lewis.  By the time I was old enough to get a driver’s license, I had internalized standards of clarity and precision that have stayed with me to this day.  Some were rather trivial: never to confuse use and mention, always to make sure I had the same number of left and right parentheses in a logical formula.  Some were a good deal more important: always to struggle to say what one had in mind as simply and transparently as possible, never to be satisfied with a metaphor that I could not, if called upon, cash in for a literal assertion.

Quine and Goodman and White struck me as supremely intelligent but lacking a certain moral urgency, a deep conviction that what they were doing was important as well as interesting.  It was in Lewis that I, at the age of eighteen, found a satisfying combination of intelligence and moral passion.  To this day, I cherish his comment on the term paper I submitted to his graduate seminar in epistemology.  I had written a paper on Hume, ripping various of his more questionable claims to shreds.  Lewis treated my efforts very gently, and after remarking that "in this paper, it would be out of place to ask that [the points] should 'add up' to something in conclusion," he wrote, "I should hope that this general character of the paper is not a symptom of that type of mind, in philosophy, which can find the objection to everything but advance the solution to nothing."   If I could be described, rather extravagantly, as having had a revelation on the road to Damascus, that was it.

Once I began my own philosophical work, I was guided both by the demand for clarity and precision and by Lewis’ inspiration.  My first major effort was a struggle to come to terms with the Critique of Pure Reason.  I could chop logic with the best of them, but I sought, like Gandalf in the Caves of Moria, to dive deep and struggle with the Balrog to discover the argument lying at the heart of Kant’s great work.  Like Jacob, I wrestled with the book and would not let go until it bless me.  I insisted [and here the voices of Quine and Goodman spoke to me] that what I found within it must be stated by me in clear, precise English, capable of being presented in the shape of a valid formal argument without losing the depth of Kant’s insights.

I brought the same need to Das Kapital, which was, I found, much more difficult to cope with because to succeed I needed to deploy not only the resources of philosophy, economics, mathematics, and history but also the insights of literary criticism.  I brought the same need for both clarity and depth to the writings of Mannheim and Marcuse, in  both of whose works I found insights and arguments of great power.

When I read the writings of Gerald Cohen, Jon Elster, and the other so-called Analytic Marxists, I found that they had achieved clarity and precision at the expense of Marx’s deepest insights, a disappointment I expressed in my essay on Elster [to be found in Box.net].

I can easily imagine that were I to bring to Hegel the same generosity of spirit that has animated me in the reading of these other authors, I would find much to value.

But you must allow an old man his crotchets.



Saturday, March 16, 2019

COMMENTING ON THE COMMENTS, AKA NOT HAVING ANTHING TO SAY TODAY

I have read with interest and some amusement the series of comments triggered by my remark about Paul Krugman.  I was particularly struck by one of Chris's observations, both because I think it is absolutely correct and because I do not recall having seen anyone else make it.  It is something that first crossed my mind a long time ago.  Here is what Chris wrote:


"Chomsky is a genius yes, but you know as well as I do, besides his encyclopedic memory, his genius is almost largely relegated to linguistics. His political commentary, while often correct, is actually transparently simple. I don't think the general public struggles to understand his political points. So we don't have to say genius in politics must be tantamount to Chomsky's genius in linguistics (which the general public would and should find confusing - 'merge' is infuriatingly difficult for me to wrestle with)."

Noam's capacity for absorbing and remembering factual detail is phenomenal, and since he is supremely intelligent and clear-minded, his mustering of that detail is impressive and usually overwhelming.  But he speaks and writes from the standpoint of a disillusioned moralist.  He does not seem to possess, or at least to deploy, the sort of deeper insight into capitalism that Chris and I more or less take for granted.  If I may attempt something approaching a bon mot, he unfailingly locates everyone's clay feet but seems not to grasp the distinction between base and superstructure.

On the other hand, his grasp of grammar is transformative.

Friday, March 15, 2019

DUE DILIGENCE

OK, so I watched the Netflix documentary on the Fyre fiasco [well, sort of watched it -- I clicked through and watched maybe thirty minutes of it, quite enough to get its gist.]  For me, it was like watching one of those old National Geographic travel documentaries about strange "primitive" people with incomprehensible customs not wearing much in the way of clothes.

Is Ja Rule a big deal?

EVEN A STOPPED CLOCK IS RIGHT TWICE A DAY


Inasmuch as the Good Book tells us “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” [Matthew 20:16], we ought to celebrate Paul Krugman’s recognition today of the fact that the deliberate destruction of labor unions is a significant cause of income inequity in the United States.

To be sure, Krugman did write, on the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, that “By my reckoning, Karl Marx made about as much contribution to economics as Zeppo Marx made to comedy.”

Let us grant that Paul Krugman has a good heart.  It is his brain that fails him.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

LIVE AND LEARN

The college entrance scandal has intrroduced me to a new social category.  The daughter of one of the actresses, whose college entrance [the daughter, not the actress] was facilitated by hefty bribe payments, is described in news stories as an "influencer."  

Am I the last kid on the block to learn this term?

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

MY J. D. SALINGER MOMENT


I have often wondered over the years what it is like to be Ralph Ellison – an author who wrote a great book young and then spent the rest of his life giving readings from the book, and listening to people wondering what he was going to write next.  Our perception of such an author is completely different from our perception of an author who writes his or her great work late in life.  And yet, in each case the authorial output is the same.

What on earth got me thinking about this today?  Well, if you leave aside the fact that I am not a great author, I was brooding during my morning walk about the big college admissions scandal.  I wanted to write something serious about it, and then it occurred to me that in fact I had.  Some years ago, I gave a talk at Teacher’s College at Columbia, in which I said – rather well, it seemed to me – some things I had thought about education for a long time.  “Why don’t I post that today?” I reflected.  So when I got home, I reread the talk.  I still liked it, though I did think I could leave out one or two of the stories.  But out of an excess of caution, I checked to see whether I had ever posted it before.  And by God, it turned out I had.  Twice!  AND THE LAST TIME ON MAY 30, 2018, ONLY TEN MONTHS AGO.

Socrates remarks to Callicles that he does indeed talk about the same things, and in the same way too.  Kant responded to critics who said the Moral Law was nothing more than the Golden Rule by observing that since the truth never changes, of course what he says has been said before.  And Kierkegaard built an entire book around the thesis that although the essence of the aesthetic is novelty, the essence of the ethical is repetition.

But the blogosphere cares nothing for Socrates, Kant, or Kierkegaard.  It asks only, What have you tweeted in the last nanosecond?

So I shall remain silent about the admissions scandal, having had my say.