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Thursday, April 8, 2010


I wanted to teach a course in Philosophy before my Instructorship ran out, so in the late Fall of 1959, I called Donald Williams, who was acting as Chair in Rod Firth's absence, and asked him rather tentatively whether there was any chance of my offering a course in the department, next year perhaps. He thought not, but said he would get back to me. After a few days, he called and said that the department needed someone to teach the Kant course the next semester.

I was staggered. After I had stammered my agreement, I sat down to contemplate what this meant. I was to teach Philosophy 130, the famous Kant course, in the same room and from the same platform where Lewis had sat for all those years, guiding generations of philosophy students through the most important work of Philosophy ever written. Could I possibly teach a course that would in any way do justice to so great a tradition?

Naturally, I would use the Kant summary system. I wrote a note to Lewis, who was living in Menlo Park, California, telling him that I intended to use the system he had created. He wrote back a very nice reply, telling me that in fact he had learned the system of Kant Summaries from his professor, which, according to my calculation, meant that it had been devised by Josiah Royce or George Santayana. I went into what can only be described as panic overdrive, and started to prepare my lectures.

I was living then in Winthrop House, where I had secured a Resident Tutorship. This meant essentially that in return for a beautiful Harvard suite and free meals, I was to be available for Winthrop House students who wanted to talk to a professor. But at that moment the delights of House living were lost on me. My mind was totally absorbed by the need to prepare for teaching the Kant course.

When I am trying to understand a great work of philosophy, I do not work as most scholars do. Indeed, what I do cannot really be called scholarship at all. The usual procedure is to go through a series of stages - first one reads the work itself. Then one reads secondary and peripheral writings by the same author. In the case of Kant, this would mean reading all of his other published works, then his letters, and then the unpublished manuscripts and scraps of paper that he left at his death - the so-called Nachlass. Thanks to the labors of generations of German scholars, all of this is beautifully collected into a multi-volume edition published by the Prussian Academy. Finally, one surveys the secondary literature, focusing especially on the most recent journal articles, where the latest scholarship tends to appear. Oh yes, and of course one reads Kant's works in the original German.

Since I am writing my memoirs, I think it is time to come clean and confess certain things that will shock any Kant scholars who happen upon these words. When I wrote the book that established my reputation as a Kant scholar, I took none of the steps I have just laid out. Indeed, to this day, I have never read many of Kant's minor published works. I read none of the letters, save the famous letter to Marcus Herz, most of which is reprinted in Norman Kemp-Smith's magisterial commentary. I glanced briefly at the Nachlass, not even reading the opus postumum which serious Kant scholars think so important. And as for secondary literature, I was, to put it delicately, selective.

What is more, I worked in English, using Kemp-Smith's translation, as Lewis had, and going to the German only for selected passages in which the precise wording made some major philosophical difference. Indeed - and this is perhaps more difficult to confess than any of my various venial and mortal sins - I cannot actually read German very well at all, certainly not well enough to read the entire Critique of Pure Reason. God knows, I have tried, but I am seriously challenged when it comes to learning languages, and despite the flipping of countless word cards, I have never succeeded in making German a usable tool of research.

My approach is completely different. Since I had worked through the Critique in Lewis' course, and had then studied it carefully while writing my dissertation, I did not feel the need to read it straight through again, although by the time I was finished teaching the course and writing the book, I knew some portions of it virtually by heart.

Instead, I began by trying to figure out what Kant's core philosophical problem is, and what central thesis he advances to deal with it. A great work of philosophy always grows out of some core problem, although sometimes the author himself cannot identify it or state it clearly. And every great work of philosophy has a central powerful thesis driving the argument. There will then be an elaborate fretwork of definitions, distinctions, criticisms of predecessors, and the like, sometimes quite clever and often difficult to master. But none of that surface argumentation is very important, and it never matters if there are contradictions in it.

My job as commentator is twofold - first, to find that core problem and central thesis, and second, to discover an argument that can sustain the thesis, even if the author never actually succeeds in articulating it in the text. In effect, what I try to do is to make the great philosopher more perfect, more successful, than he actually was, by reconstructing, and if necessary even inventing, the argument as he should have stated it. Most great philosophers, I believe, have brilliant intuitions that they are only partially successful in bringing to the level of explicit expression. They see more than they can say. If my commentary is successful, it will say clearly what they have had the genius to see, and I will then be able to hold this idea up to readers and show it to them in all of its conceptual beauty.

This rather unorthodox method of textual commentary can succeed, needless to say, only on truly powerful texts. Secondary philosophical works, of the sort that most of us write, are all surface elaboration, and cannot stand up to the pressure of the sort of inquiry I am describing. Examined in this way, they will merely reveal, in the lovely words of Gertrude Stein, that there is no there there.

What makes the Critique of Pure Reason unique in the exclusive company of immortal works of philosophy is the fact that in it Kant seizes on two or three great ideas, not just one, and advances a beautifully interlocked complex of three or four great arguments. In the entire history of Western philosophy, there is not another work of which that can be said. The book is, of course, filled with endless definitions, distinctions, arguments, objections, and the like, any of which I and most other philosophers would be proud to have thought up. To understand the Critique, one must master all of them, so that they pose no obstacles to real understanding. But they do not in the end matter one bit. All that matters, all that justifies spending the enormous energy that the book demands, are those core ideas and driving arguments.

In preparing to stand on Lewis' platform and teach his course, the greatest philosophy course ever given anywhere, I set myself a task that no one before me had ever successfully accomplished. I sought to wrestle with the central passage of the book, the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding, and finally to exact from it in clear, simple, coherent fashion its central argument, which I would then be able to show actually did succeed in demonstrating his fundamental thesis.

I did not know any of this when I started preparing my lectures. It has taken me fifty years of reflection and introspection to arrive at some understanding of the way my mind works. In the late Fall of 1959, all I knew was that come February, I was going to stand up in Emerson Hall, room F, and begin to lecture on Kant.

Twenty-six students turned out that Spring, including five graduate students and nine undergraduates who were or would be in my tutorial groups. The lectures were scheduled for Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at nine in the morning, but it had been a long time at Harvard since anyone had dared actually to meet on Saturdays. Tom Cathcart was there, and Owen de Long, and Carol Wolman. Tom and I have stayed in touch, and a few years ago, he had a paper accepted by a philosophical journal, even though he is not a professional philosopher. Toms' greatest claim to authorial fame is a simply wonderful little book of jokes about philosophy, nicely organized like an introductory text by branch of philosophy, called Plato and a Platypus Walked into a Bar. When I came to revise a philosophy text book I wrote for the tenth edition [more of that much later in these memoirs], I put one of Tom's jokes at the head of each chapter, with suitable acknowledgements and permission fees. Last year, I had the great pleasure of seeing a French translation of Tom's book in a Paris bookstore. Tom, by the way, was part of the same tutorial group that included David Souter, Carol Wolman, and Owen de Long. I have vivid memories of Tom, a tall young man with a great shock of red hair, but no visual memories at all of Justice Souter.

Owen was going steady then with Jane Mansbridge, the daughter of the head of the American office of Cambridge University Press. Jane, or Jenny, as she now calls herself, has become an important feminist political theorist, teaching at the Kennedy School at Harvard. Carol Wolman will always stay in my mind because she was a tremendously gifted young woman living under the weight of an ambitious domineering mother who could not stand to share the limelight with her talented daughter. If Google is to be believed, Carol became a psychiatrist and has written a brilliant essay entitled "Is the President Nuts? Diagnosing Dubya."

By the time I met the class that first day, I had already prepared several weeks of lectures, but I knew that they would all too rapidly be used up. Lewis's method called for reading anywhere from 40 to 60 pages of the Critique each week. Unfortunately for me, the most challenging portions of the book turn up quite near the front. By the beginning of the fifth week of the semester, I would be lecturing on the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding. All the while, I was grading twenty-six papers each week, teaching my tutorial groups, and racing through the history of Europe for the second time.

As the day approached for me to unfold the mysteries of the Deduction, I turned more and more into myself, running over the argument in my mind, telling to an imaginary audience the story of Kant's great discovery, doggedly refusing to rest so long as even a single step in the argument was unclear or incomplete. I can recall one evening walking for hours around the block on which Cindy's apartment was located, half speaking out loud to myself as though giving a lecture.

The assignment for that week was the shortest of the semester - only twenty-five pages in the Kemp-Smith translation - but it might as well have been a thousand pages, for in that passage Kant undertook to establish with a priori rigor the foundations of all human knowledge. By the time I finished my Thursday lecture, I still had a ways to go, so I told the students to show up at 9 a.m. that Saturday for an extra lecture. To my delighted astonishment, they did. Without any preliminaries, I launched into the last stages of my explication of Kant's argument, speaking without stop for an hour and a half. When I wrote the last line of my reconstruction on the blackboard, appending with a flourish Q. E. D., the students burst into a spontaneous round of applause. That moment, coming so soon after I had begun to teach, was the high point of my entire career. I am glad to say that I realized it at the time.

The very next semester, I taught the course again. Another twenty-six students enrolled, including thirteen graduate students, among whom were several destined to become philosophical stars. Margaret Dauler became a very distinguished scholar of early modern philosophy, publishing under her married name, Margaret Wilson. Thomas Nagel is one of the best-known moral and political philosophers in the world. For a time he taught at Princeton, but he now teaches both philosophy and law at NYU. Both of them earned A's, heading up an outstanding group of students. Tom's summaries were a tad better, but Margaret wrote the best final exam in the class.


Bryan said...

Wonderful post, thanks for this. What's the "Kant summary system"?

Mohan Matthen said...

Followed the link from Leiter yesterday. Already, I am addicted and have bookmarked your site. A treasure. May I ask: are there a lot of reminiscences in your posts of past years?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The previous chapters of the Memoir are full of reminiscences. And countless more to come.

Bryan: The Kant summary system, briefly, is this: For each forty to sixty page reading assignment, students are required to write a section by section, in some cases paragraph by paragraph summary of the text -- not commenting on it, or criticizing it, or comparing ot to what other philosophers have said, just summarizing it. Along the right hand margin one puts the pagination in the first [A] or second [B] edition of the Critique. The summary is to be six or seven pages long. Not longer, not shorter. This length is chosen with devilish precision. Shorter, and you can leave out too much. Longer, and you don't have to master the argument well enough to compress it successfully. Each summary took me perhaps twenty hours to do, and was far and away the hardest assignment I ever received in a philosophy course.

Bob said...

An interesting set of characters indeed, but I do long for some dialogue! Department meetings are a rich source of blah-blah-blah, sometimes amazingly funny.

Aaron Garrett said...

Fantastic stuff!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thanks, Aaron. Wait 'til I get to my stories about BU!

Tombo said...

A few years ago, Bob, I wrote to you and said that at age 60-something I had had an epiphany about your use of the Kant summaries. I had remembered your telling us on the first day that anyone in that room could write an A exam criticizing the Critique without ever having understood it (or even read it), and that we were going to do something very different--we were going to learn what Kant actually said! What a radical idea! Well, like you, I found it the most challenging thing I did in my college career. My epiphany was that you had to READ twenty-something of them twice a week and read them closely enough to evaluate our efforts. I remember writing to you that I was too ignorant to thank you then, but that I wanted to thank you now. Do you remember how you responded?
Tom Cathcart

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Hi, Tom. I am afraid I do not. But ask me what I did in 1948, and I can recall it vividly! What did I say?

Tombo said...

You said, "I knew I was doing the Lord's work." I thought, "That must be how religions get started---atheists reaching for metaphors!"

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Beware of Satan quoting scripture!

David Pilavin said...


I read this post (and some other posts of your memoirs) and was fascinated.

I was especially interested in your account of the "inner structures" of great works of Philosophy.

As a student of Philosophy, I now try to apply this account to works that I am familiar with and see how it works (or rather, see if I could reconstruct on my own the central thesis + the central argument that supports this thesis in those works).

You say that there are 3,4 central ideas in Kant's philosphy and approximately the same amount of core arguments.

I just wandered if you could please present them here - or, at least, the one argument you presented there, in class - when everybody clapped their hands?

If you would do that, I would thank you cordially.

Or is it a professional secret?



David Pilavin said...

PS - I do not ask for any explanations - just the thesis and the argument (I assume it is not more than 10 stages long?)

Thanks again!

PPS (I am not doing to use it for any paper without your permission and without due credit)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Dear David, the entire reconstructed argument, in five stages, can be found in my 1963 book, KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, reprinted by Peter B. Smith publishers [originally by Harvard University Press]. feel free to use any or all of it in any way you wish!

David Pilavin said...

Thank you very much Prof. Wolff!

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