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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Thursday, December 2, 2010

MORE ON THE CREDO

The comments on my Credo, both on line and in emails, indicates some unclarity about the meaning and purpose of my effort at a fundamental statement. I was not presenting a philosophical defense of a certain moral principle, and I certainly did not intend my reference to lone prairie riders and barn-raisings as the sort of silly-clever thought experiments that some philosophers are so fond of. Rather, I was trying for a brief, simple vision of the human condition, something that could inform and guide philosophical and other reflections on the particularities of our present situation. Free market enthusiasts employ a competing vision, of isolated individuals whose most important relationships are market contracts. That, I believe, is simply factually wrong as a vision of the human condition.

Now, there is a great deal to be said about my bonds with persons very far from me in time and space, and there are always conundrums regarding people in comas and so forth. There is plenty of time to worry about such ephemera.

Had I wanted to lengthen and complicate my account of our interdependence, I would have invoked developmental psychology, the works of Erik Erikson, and much else, to explain why the notion of an isolated and independent individual owing nothing to anyone is simply a [culturally conditioned] fantasy, corresponding to nothing at all in the real world.

Now, if anyone wants to engage with me on that level, fine. But please, let us not waste time on wondering what I can possibly owe to someone whom I do not need.

17 comments:

Chris said...

Professor,
Lately you've been providing "list" of "best books to read regarding..."

I was wondering if you could recommend the best books to read regarding Marx and Marxism?
-Chris

Robert Paul Wolff said...

:) Well, there are always my two books: UNDERSTANDING MARX and MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY. And the old classic by Edmund Wilson, TWO THE FINLAND STATION. But the best thing is to read Marx himself.

Chris said...

That's a life long task! I'll get right on it haha.

Mike said...

Right. The problem with your account of interdependence is not that nothing of normative interest flows from it, but that it was insufficiently lengthy and insufficiently complicated. And who, pray tell, are these free market enthusiasts employing visions of isolated, market-obsessed invididuals? Even if they're out there, I can't help but wonder how they "employ" these visions, since these visions seem just as bereft of normativity as that of an Amish barn raising. Finally, coma patients are not the issue. The fact of the matter is that there are very few essential people. I am not one of them, and neither are you. If the guy who bakes my bread had never been born, surely someone else would have taken his place. We're all replaceable, and thus inessential. If your morality is based on the opposite premise, it is just as fictitious as one based on lone horsemen on the prairie.

Murfmensch said...

Mike writes: "And who, pray tell, are these free market enthusiasts employing visions of isolated, market-obsessed invididuals [sic]?"

Have you attended a business class at just about any school? Have you listened to the radio? Have you read Robert Nozick? Sarah Palin's argument contra Biden that paying taxes is "not patriotic" was accompanied by this vision.

Wolff is proposing an alternative picture. We are hostage to a bad picture, which he also describes. Being hostage to a bad metaphor is just as big a problem as being hostage to a bad idea.

Chris said...

I was going to say...it's impossible to read, watch, or listen to ANYTHING political without a free-market enthusiast cropping up.

Mike said...

Jesus people. Of course there are free market enthusiasts. The question is whether their enthusiasm stems from a "lone wolf" conception of human nature. That's what I'm denying.

Nozick's free market enthusiasm, by the way, is grounded in the idea of self-ownership and in a particular conception of what it means to respect persons. It has nothing to do with some ridiculous "vision" of a bunch of lone wolves who care only about making a buck.

akapital said...

"We are all replaceable and thus inessential"

I think that this statement is a fallacy in many ways. I think that making the case for the essentialness of the inessential further enforces the Professor’s credo that nothing exists in isolation.


First off, the concept of replaceable assumes something taking the place of something else. For a thing to take the place of something else requires that there be at least two essential things. This is true both logically and if you believe in science it is true in physics as far as objects taking the physical place of another thing. If you accept that one thing can take the physical space of another thing you are recognizing something essential about each of those things, even if a third thing replaces that second thing and so on…

Let us consider how it is false biologically and socially as well. If we take the case of the child taking the place of the father and mother and then makes them unessential, this is of course seems to be the case in so far as the development of the child is from total dependence to eventual independence . But Children are indeed and in fact at first totally dependent on parents (this is especially true in the development of human beings).

Moreover, the dna passed down from generation to generation is essential to the development of the next. Every single human being still has fundamental traces of originary dna which traces to Africa.

Let us move on to linguistics. The development of languages and thought development is passed down through both an oral and written history which is inextricable from social dynamic. Language is not possible without social dynamic. Thoughts do not exist independent from words, and words do not exist independent from the social dynamic. Individuals cannot think freely and write books like the Wealth of Nations or Das Kapital without education.

And yet, the student can usurp the teacher. New words may usurp older words. New generations may replace radio and tv with internet. Hunting and gathering may be replaced by farming. But widely accepted anthropological studies indicate that both the impetus and formation of the new is only made possible through the old. This is most often true in a formative cultural way (as yeast culture is formative in the beer making process) but is also true in a negative way (the electric car owes its existence to the gas powered car, someone writes “everything is replaceable and thus inessential” which provides the impetus for someone else to write a response).
This is true of the history of philosophy itself whereby the many successive philosophies have merely been in reaction to the one before (this is pretty much out of the preface of Hegel’s Phenom of Spirit). But this is not unessential or inessential. For the very relationship between opposites many have argued to be the basis of formative generation and regeneration as well as evolution and revolution (think Yin Yang, think Hegel’s and Heraclitus’ unity of opposites, and of course Marx’s Proletariat/Bourgeois, there is the force of magnetism at work in plate tectonics, etc. I am probably missing a few more Greeks and of course some reference to the relationship between the sexes but I hope you get the idea)
So what’s the point? Yeah, sure we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants…we have climbed a ladder to get the current view point but can’t we just cut all of the rungs below? The point, at least Hegel would have us believe, is not to let difference go into an empty meaningless nothing. The contradiction or unity of opposites is what drives us forward. The inessential is essential.
I think the case for the essentialness of the inessential further enforces the Professor’s credo that nothing exists in isolation.

akapital said...

"We are all replaceable and thus inessential"

I think that this statement is a fallacy in many ways. I think that making the case for the essentialness of the inessential further enforces the Professor’s credo that nothing exists in isolation.


First off, the concept of replaceable assumes something taking the place of something else. For a thing to take the place of something else requires that there be at least two essential things. This is true both logically and if you believe in science it is true in physics as far as objects taking the physical place of another thing. If you accept that one thing can take the physical space of another thing you are recognizing something essential about each of those things, even if a third thing replaces that second thing and so on…

Let us consider how it is false biologically and socially as well. If we take the case of the child taking the place of the father and mother and then makes them unessential, this is of course seems to be the case in so far as the development of the child is from total dependence to eventual independence . But Children are indeed and in fact at first totally dependent on parents (this is especially true in the development of human beings).

Moreover, the dna passed down from generation to generation is essential to the development of the next. Every single human being still has fundamental traces of originary dna which traces to Africa.

Let us move on to linguistics. The development of languages and thought development is passed down through both an oral and written history which is inextricable from social dynamic. Language is not possible without social dynamic. Thoughts do not exist independent from words, and words do not exist independent from the social dynamic. Individuals cannot think freely and write books like the Wealth of Nations or Das Kapital without education.

And yet, the student can usurp the teacher. New words may usurp older words. New generations may replace radio and tv with internet. Hunting and gathering may be replaced by farming. But widely accepted anthropological studies indicate that both the impetus and formation of the new is only made possible through the old. This is most often true in a formative cultural way (as yeast culture is formative in the beer making process) but is also true in a negative way (the electric car owes its existence to the gas powered car, someone writes “everything is replaceable and thus inessential” which provides the impetus for someone else to write a response).
This is true of the history of philosophy itself whereby the many successive philosophies have merely been in reaction to the one before (this is pretty much out of the preface of Hegel’s Phenom of Spirit). But this is not unessential or inessential. For the very relationship between opposites many have argued to be the basis of formative generation and regeneration as well as evolution and revolution (think Yin Yang, think Hegel’s and Heraclitus’ unity of opposites, and of course Marx’s Proletariat/Bourgeois, there is the force of magnetism at work in plate tectonics, etc. I am probably missing a few more Greeks and of course some reference to the relationship between the sexes but I hope you get the idea)
So what’s the point? Yeah, sure we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants…we have climbed a ladder to get the current view point but can’t we just cut all of the rungs below? The point, at least Hegel would have us believe, is not to let difference go into an empty meaningless nothing. The contradiction or unity of opposites is what drives us forward. The inessential is essential.
I think the case for the essentialness of the inessential further enforces the Professor’s credo that nothing exists in isolation.

akapital said...

"We are all replaceable and thus inessential"
I think that this statement is a fallacy in many ways. I think that making the case for the essentialness of the inessential further enforces the Professor’s credo that nothing exists in isolation.
First off, the concept of replaceable assumes something taking the place of something else. For a thing to take the place of something else requires that there be at least two essential things. This is true both logically and if you believe in science it is true in physics as far as objects taking the physical place of another thing. If you accept that one thing can take the physical space of another thing you are recognizing something essential about each of those things, even if a third thing replaces that second thing and so on…
Let us consider how it is false biologically and socially as well. If we take the case of the child taking the place of the father and mother and then makes them unessential, this is of course seems to be the case in so far as the development of the child is from total dependence to eventual independence . But Children are indeed and in fact at first totally dependent on parents (this is especially true in the development of human beings).
Moreover, the dna passed down from generation to generation is essential to the development of the next. Every single human being still has fundamental traces of originary dna which traces to Africa.
Let us move on to linguistics. The development of languages and thought development is passed down through both an oral and written history which is inextricable from social dynamic. Language is not possible without social dynamic. Thoughts do not exist independent from words, and words do not exist independent from the social dynamic. Individuals cannot think freely and write books like the Wealth of Nations or Das Kapital without education.
And yet, the student can usurp the teacher. New words may usurp older words. New generations may replace radio and tv with internet. Hunting and gathering may be replaced by farming. But widely accepted anthropological studies indicate that both the impetus and formation of the new is only made possible through the old. This is most often true in a formative cultural way (as yeast culture is formative in the beer making process) but is also true in a negative way (the electric car owes its existence to the gas powered car, someone writes “everything is replaceable and thus inessential” which provides the impetus for someone else to write a response).
This is true of the history of philosophy itself whereby the many successive philosophies have merely been in reaction to the one before (this is pretty much out of the preface of Hegel’s Phenom of Spirit). But this is not unessential or inessential. For the very relationship between opposites many have argued to be the basis of formative generation and regeneration as well as evolution and revolution (think Yin Yang, think Hegel’s and Heraclitus’ unity of opposites, and of course Marx’s Proletariat/Bourgeois, there is the force of magnetism at work in plate tectonics, etc. I am probably missing a few more Greeks and of course some reference to the relationship between the sexes but I hope you get the idea)
So what’s the point? Yeah, sure we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants…we have climbed a ladder to get the current view point but can’t we just cut all of the rungs below? The point, at least Hegel would have us believe, is not to let difference go into an empty meaningless nothing. The contradiction or unity of opposites is what drives us forward. The inessential is essential.
I think the case for the essentialness of the inessential further enforces the Professor’s credo that nothing exists in isolation.

JP said...

I am somewhere in between Robert and Mike on this one. A recognition of our interdependence would be socially useful as people do allow people's 'contribution' to count when assessing how wealth should be distributed. And here it is important to counter (one understanding of) the 'self-made man'. People's contributions always depend massively on the society they live in and the goods they inherited from the past. (None of us discovered the laws of motion, how to mine ore, etc. None of us invented mathematics or for that matter, created public language. We are the inheritors of a rich bounty.) Simply put, man is not born free, but naked, screaming and tied to his mommy. I do think that the actual real-world views of people implicitly deny some of these facts, though not to the degree that Robert thinks is the case. Hence I do think that an explicit recognition of these facts would be useful.

I also think that, while people do allow 'contribution' to count, that it is danegrous to do so. Here I agree with Mike, though I think the idea of a person being inessential is a red herring. Rather I think his important point is that, by any measure, people contribute unequally (and some detract) from the the combined social product. Anyway, my 2 cents.

Jim said...

Chris –

Regarding books on Marx, in addition to the titles mentioned by Professor Wolff, I would recommend Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism”, particularly Volume I. Also, anything by Ernst Bloch is well worth reading, especially his “On Karl Marx” (now out of print, but you should be able to find a copy online).

Jacques Ellul Chest Hair said...

Professor Wolff,

Since books on Marx has been brought up, would you recommend any of the following on Marx?

*G.A. Cohen - KARL MARX'S THEORY OF HISTORY

*Jonathan Wolff - WHY READ MARX TODAY?

*John Elster - MAKING SENSE OF MARX

*Derrida - SPECTERS OF MARX

Just kidding about the Derrida selection! :)

GTChristie said...

Well, Professor, at least I understand the word "credo"! It is a statement of vision. As such, it would lose focus if it were anything other than simple, and it would lose value if it were anything other than idealistic (in the non-philosophical sense of that word). Let's all remember that a vision statement is not a program or a plan. It is an approach -- essentially an attitude or point of departure, not a philosophical argument or system. Those come later. Your instincts are admirable. Let us not squabble much about "practicality" at this level. Appreciate the vision.

Chris said...

Jacques,
I read the Wolf book "Why Read Marx Today." It's probably the most elementary and readily accessible book I've ever read on Marx. So it's an ideal starting place, but by no means a consummate work on Marx. Also, it's short and easy to read, I believe I finished it in 48 hours.

Charles Richard Booher II said...

With regard to books, many of the best ones have been recommended. However, there are two omissions which I believe are particularly good, and which I recommend to students who ask about books on Marx.

First is Etienne Balibar's "The Philosophy of Marx". It has two virtues. First, it is clear and simple, but indicates clearly the issues which are unclear in Marx's ouvre and which require careful interpretation and criticism. All of this coming from a Frenchman who was a pupil of Althusser is quite a surprise! Second, it offers a useful introduction to the major moverments in European Marxism (all the big 'continental' thinkers like Lukacs, Althusser, etc.).

The second book is Allen Wood's Karl Marx. It's a great introduction to the philosophical issues in Marx. It has enough detail to be of interest to specialists, but is generally presented in a way that should be accessible to assiduous beginners.

Angus said...

Two observations. First, I think the distinction between barn-raisers and lone-riders helps explain the distinction between those who are for and against the welfare state, not those who are for and against the free market. So, for example, there are a few lonely libertarians - who get kicked out of "venerable" libertarian institutions (http://www.frumforum.com/the-purge-at-cato) - who are barn-raisers and for the free market (but they are also, usually sotto voce, sympathetic to the welfare state, if also suspicious of those who oversee it).

The suspiciousness, though not hostility, barn-raising free marketeers harbor towards the welfare state identifies a second kind of distinction that helps to explain the cleavage between those in favor of beneficent government programs and those opposed; there are barn-raisers who think of community against the government, and barn raisers who think of community via the government. I don't have the skill to encapsulate the imagery that accompanies these two thoughts as beautifully as "barn raiser" versus "lone-rider" does, but I expect it has something to do with whether you think the government is more like the DMV or more like the Peace Corp.

Finally (Mike), my sense is that, unless you're totally arid, you aren't initially motivated to identify with one or another political program by such abstract constructs as "self-ownership" or a particular conception of individual rights that (if you beg every question) is supposed to follow therefrom. Those are rationalizations that people already within a political movement devise in order to legitimate policies that are designed to effectuate the vision - e.g. barn-raiser versus lone-rider - that captured their political sympathies in the first place.