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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Friday, September 25, 2009

THE TWO C ULTURES

Some of you may be familiar with the expression "the two cultures," made popular half a century ago by the Englishman C. P. Snow. Snow, who used the phrase first in a speech, then in an essay, and finally in a short book expanded from the essay, was referring to the intellectual and cultural chasm he observed between the science dons and the humanist dons at Oxford, a chasm that, by extension, divided educated people throughout the English-speaking world. Snow himself was both a science don and a novelist, and hence was well positioned to bridge the gulf between the two groups of intellectuals. No scientist, he observed, would willingly acknowledge not knowing who Shakespeare was, and could be expected at the least to have a few bits and snatches of information about him -- "the Bard of Avon," "Macbeth," "To be or not to be," that sort of thing. But supremely learned, sophisticated, and self-admiring humanists would openly confess, indeed sometimes even brazenly announce, that they had not the slightest idea what the Second Law of Thermodynamics might be, and felt no impulse to find out.

The starkness of the division was heightened in England by the practice [which may no longer be in effect -- I have not checked] of examining boys and girls in what we would consider roughly the beginning of high school, and then sending each one off either into a science/math stream or a literature/classics stream. This determination continued right on through university, with no "General Education" courses to give the scientists a taste for the humanities and the humanists a glimmer of the sciences.

As this brief description suggests, Snow, while claiming that each of the two cultures was ignorant of the other, really thought the split was, if I may combine a political metaphor with an American football metaphor, unbalanced to the right. The humanists were more deeply ignorant of the sciences than the scientists were of the humanities.

Throughout my long teaching career, which lasted fifty-three years and spanned six decades, I have brooded on this chasm between the two cultures, particularly because in my own intellectual work I strive not merely to work in a version of the two cultures but to fuse them seamlessly in order to achieve a deeper and more complex understanding than might otherwise be possible. I began my undergraduate education, in 1950, as a mathematics major, and though I quickly shifted to philosophy, I devoted a good deal of time and energy to the study of mathematical logic. Later on, when I became involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, I taught myself Game Theory and studied the physics of radiation and fallout shelters, in order to debate against Herman Kahn and other defense intellectuals. My first teaching job, after getting my doctorate and spending six months on active duty in the Army National Guard, found me teaching European History at Harvard, while also teaching a graduate course on Kant's CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. I next taught undergraduates at the University of Chicago some of the classic texts of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and philosophy, while also teaching a more advanced course on military strategy and foreign policy and a variety of graduate courses in philosophy. In the course of a long career, I taught Rational Choice Theory to graduate students, introductory microeconomics to undergraduates, and ended up running for twelve years a revolutionary doctoral program in Afro-American Studies.

This broad array of materials has always seemed to me to be seamlessly connected, demanding the same sorts of intelligence, intuition, rigor, and clarity. But to my very great sadness, I have virtually never found students able to draw, with my guidance, on a similar spectrum of disciplinary specialties. The consequence has been that I have never truly found students who can carry on the sort of work I do. If they can handle the math, the literary criticism and sociology and philosophy is a closed book to them. And if they are comfortable with the history or anthropology or literary analysis, they are almost certain to confess, only a trifle shame-facedly, that they were "never good at math."

When I started to study the thought of Karl Marx, I found in him a catholicity of intellect and breadth of learning that I admired, and I formulated the plan of writing a study and explication of his great work, DAS KAPITAL, that would bring into fruitful conjunction the modern mathematical interpretation of his economic theories with a literary, philosophical, sociological, and historical understanding of his devastating expose of the mystifications of capitalist market relations. I did not conceive this as some sort of scholarly analogue to the old parlor trick of rubbing one's stomach and patting one's head at the same time. Rather, I was persuaded [and still am] that only such an integrated approach could do justice to the depth and complexity of Marx's insights.

My friends made it urgently clear to me that there would no readership at all for a book that combined linear algebra equations with explications of Marx's literary metaphors, and I compromised by producing two books, the first of which [UNDERSTANDING MARX] analysed the economics [with the linear algebra consigned to an appendix] and the second of which [MONEYBAGS MUST HE SO LUCKY] dealt with the literary/philosophical dimensions of the first ten chapters of CAPITAL. The joke was on me, alas. The first book had a minor success in certain economic circles, while nobody at all read the second one.

Despite what has been, if one be honest, a career-long failure both to teach and to write in the way I think best, I remain wedded to the belief that an understanding of the complex capitalist world in which we live requires a fusion of the insights from as broad an array of disciplines as one can manage. Perhaps someone out there will pick up the torch.

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