As I re-read and edited each chapter of my Autobiography, in preparation for posting it on box.net, I thought again of a lesson I have learned from my many years of involvement with USSAS, with the SUMMA program, with the Scholars of the Twenty-first Century program, and with my other efforts actually to change the world in one way or another. Since I am still, in my heart of hearts, a Kant scholar, let me introduce the lesson by quoting a passage from The Transcendental Dialectic. The passage, as all philosophers reading this blog will know, appears in Kant's famous refutation of the Ontological Proof for the Existence of God:
"A hundred real thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible thalers. For as the latter signify the concept and the former the object and positing of the object, should the former contain more than the latter, my concept would not, in this case, express the whole object, and would not therefore be an adequate concept of it. My financial position is, however, affected very differently by a hundred real thalers than it is by the mere concept of them (that is, of their possibility.)" KRV A599=B628.
During my long career as a philosopher, stretching back now into the middle 1950's, I have devoted a good deal of thought to Big Questions. What is the nature of political Liberalism? Is there an a priori proof of the universal validity of The Moral Law? Can there be a de jure legitimate state? Had my tastes run to metaphysics and logic rather than to ethics and political philosophy, I might have pondered the fundamental nature of the one actual world, or even of the infinity of possible worlds.
We philosophers are much attracted to Big Questions. They seem much more important than Small Questions. If I am going to think about the nature of a hundred possible thalers, why not think about the nature of a million possible thalers? It costs no more, takes up no more space on the page, and is not one whit more difficult.
But as soon as I tried to change the world ever so little, by offering partial bursaries to a handful of poor Black South African students, I discovered that it is very difficult indeed actually to produce even the slightest real world alteration. I cannot count the hours I have spent over the past twenty-one years writing letters of appeal, rounding up signatories to those letters, xeroxing, merge printing, folding and stuffing,tr, sealing the envelopes, putting stamps on them, writing thank you letters to the donors, arranging for bank transfers to South Africa, traveling there to meet with the students and the university officials who are looking after them. And all that effort just to help perhaps fifteen hundred young people get a university education. Considering how fast I write, I would imagine I could have written five or ten more books in the time that all took. And those books could have dealt with the very largest questions I could think to ask. But as Kant so wisely says, even though a hundred real thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible thalers, the hundred real thalers have a quite different effect on my financial situation.
What do I learn from this life lesson, buttressed as it is by a quotation from my favorite philosopher? Very simply, I learn that although as a blogger and an author of political writings I can with no effort at all proclaim on the largest of questions -- the future of capitalism, the possibility of socialism, the imperial thrust of American foreign policy -- when it comes to actually trying to change the world, the most I can hope to do is to make a tiny impact, utterly unnoticed by any regional, national, or transnational measures. Because the gap between what I earnestly want and what I can realistically accomplish is so vast, I must find quotidien satisfactions sufficient to sustain me, so that I will, day after day, year after year, continue to make the effort. Not to do so would be shameful, an abdication of my humanity. But to expect triumphs, or even measurable results, would be foolish indeed.