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Saturday, April 17, 2010


My first serious task in Chicago was to complete the fine-tuning of my manuscript on the Critique so that it could be sent off to Harvard University Press. I had no particular reason to suppose that they would publish it, but it never occurred to me to consider another publisher. As part of my final preparations, I did something that I have never done since with any of my subsequent books: I gave it to two friends to read, and asked them for their comments. Most of the books I have written have gone straight from the typewriter or the word processor to the publisher without even significant revisions by me. Since this is, I gather, a trifle unusual, I ought to try to explain why I have adopted this practice. It is not overweening arrogance, although heaven knows I have more than enough of that. Rather, it has to do with what I imagine myself to be doing when I write a book.

I am not a scholar. I have never been interested in finding new documents, amassing data, or comparing different editions of the same text. I am also not an ideologue. I actually do not care very much whether the people who read my books agree with me. That may come as a surprise, inasmuch as my books are frequently argumentative, or at least about highly contentious subjects. Odd as it may seem, I care a great deal more that readers find my books well written and interesting than that they think my books are true. Judging from sales and translations, my best known book is a little eighty page tract, In Defense of Anarchism. When it was published in 1970, it received a very gratifying amount of attention, which delighted me. The almost unanimous consensus of the reviewers was that it was dead wrong. I was completely unfazed. Not only did I think that their objections were misguided. I simply did not care whether readers agreed with me or not.

I am not a scholar or an ideologue. I am a story teller. In each of my books, I tell the story of an idea. In one, it is the story of the central ideas of one of Kant's great works. In another, it is the story of Marx's core critique of capitalism, in a third the story of the idea of a modern university, or the true story of America, as told to me by my colleagues in Afro-American Studies. But always, I am telling a story. That is why my books have few if any footnotes. Story tellers do not footnote their stories. When I become fascinated by an idea, I tell its story over and over in my head until I know it as well as I know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Should there be something missing from the story, a break in the narrative, the imaginary audience to whom I am telling the story can be counted on to call me to account, just as a child would if I were to describe Jack climbing the beanstalk without first explaining where the beanstalk came from.

I cannot begin to write until the story is clear and complete in my mind. That is why the writing process itself goes rather quickly. Kant's Theory of Mental Activity took two summers to write, and it was far and away the most demanding book I have ever written. My textbook, About Philosophy, now in its tenth edition, took eight weeks. Understanding Rawls took three weeks, and In Defense of Anarchism was written in a few days. The only book that cost me years of effort was The Autonomy of Reason, my commentary on Kant's Grundlegung. The problem there was that I could not get the story right. I was unable to find an argument to sustain Kant's claim that the Moral Law can be established with unconditional universality a prior.

I first showed the manuscript I had completed to Ingrid Stadler, a friend from Harvard and student of Kant who spent her entire career at Wellesley College. I was so grateful for her comments that I gave her a copy of the third edition of the Critique that I had picked up in a second-hand book store. For anyone reading this memoir who is unfamiliar with the arcana of Kant-studies, I should explain that the important editions of the Critique are the first, of course, published in 1781, and the second, published in 1787, in which Kant made major and philosophically important revisions and additions. The third edition [1790] merely corrects some spellings and such. Grateful as I was to Ingrid, I do not think I could have parted with a first or second edition.

The other person to whom I sent the manuscript was Charlie Parsons. Charlie had gone to the Cornell Philosophy Department, where he was teaching a course on the First Critique. On January 8, 1962, he wrote me a long letter, part of which was devoted to the manuscript. Something he said in the letter hurt me very deeply, so much so that I simply put it away in my mind and tried not to think about it. While preparing to write these pages, I pulled the file of Charlie's letters from my file cabinet and reread them. With the passage of almost half a century and the wisdom of hindsight, I can see now that I rather overreacted. Charlie's letters were, of course, careful, thoughtful, intelligent, scholarly, and precise. How could they be otherwise, given who he is? I realize now that part of the problem stemmed from the fact that his central interest in Kant's philosophy of mathematics, to the understanding of which he has since made major contributions, led him to focus on parts of the text -- especially the Transcendental Aesthetic -- very different from those that had been the object of my interpretation.

Here are the lines that I found so hurtful, back when I was twenty-seven. "It is certainly one of the clearest writings on Kant and was very helpful to me in preparing my lectures. I have a lot of disagreements and think it has quite serious deficiencies. In principle, it seems to me rather rash that someone our age should publish a commentary on Kant's central argument. I am fairly sure that none of the great Kant scholars attempted such a thing." The words were a bucket of ice water poured over my head. I felt sure that I had cracked the central argument of the Critical Philosophy, the first commentator ever actually to do so. I thought then, and half a century still think, that that book was my greatest intellectual achievement.

One thing was perfectly clear to me: I had not the slightest intention of altering a word in the manuscript as a consequence of Charlie's criticisms. At the time, I just felt arrogant and angry. but I see now that there was really a deeper reason for my stubbornness. I was telling a story, and each bit of that story fit together with each other bit in an integral fashion. Would Mozart transcribe a quartet into a new key if Haydn expressed disapproval of his original choice? Would Picasso go back and add a bit more red to the upper right hand corner of a canvas at Matisse's suggestion? Would Edith Wharton rewrite the ending of A House of Mirth to please Henry James? I know, I know. I get above myself by putting the names of these master artists in the same paragraph with my own. But if I do not believe that I am creating a truly beautiful and finished story, why on earth bother to publish it at all?

Despite Charlie's doubts, the manuscript got a thumbs up from Lewis White Beck, the acknowledged Dean of American Kant scholars, and Harvard agreed to publish it. I had finally entered the Great Conversation.


Michael Zhou said...

I remember reading In Defense of Anarchy in a undergrad seminar in Berkeley in 2003, and although I found myself almost completely disagreeing with it, I nevertheless found it nothing less than engaging. In fact, reading that book really got me interested in political theory/philosophy, and now I'm at U of Chicago finishing my MA in political theory. So thanks, Professor Wolff, for writing such a great book!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You are very welcome. I hope you enjoy my stories about the University of Chicago.

David Berry said...

Wonderful to read these chapters. Very interesting to see your experiences of microcosmographia academica. So little has changed..


Velicia MacKay~ said...

I simply enjoy your work. I am a philosophy student and very much in the same boat. The many papers I've written have been reiterated in a story fashion to get my point across with no more than a C for a grade and a rude comment. I've become fearful of writing any papers for my major and yet I still want to learn, know and understand the great minds of the past. I am now stuck writing a paper on the better version of Kant's reconstruction Dicker vs Wolff and I'm petrified literally! He will fail me for sure. I love your work, please write Velicia A. Stewart

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Velicia, Why don't you email me one of your papers and let me take a look at it?