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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Sunday, May 8, 2011

WEARING MY HEART ON MY SLEEVE

Yesterday evening, as Susie and I ate dinner, I spoke to her about what really lies at the heart of the work I have done all my life, and of how, after all these decades, it still animates me when I write "tutorials"and other multi-part blog posts. I spoke too of my distress at the fact that I seem so rarely to find readers who truly understand what I am doing, and why. The fault is largely mine, of course. Since I have chosen so often to write about subjects that generate intense controversy -- Marxian political economy, anarchism, the proper interpretation of the CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, now the thought of Freud -- it is perhaps not surprising that most people who find their way to my writings imagine me to be an ideologue intent on cramming a doctrine down my reader's throat.

The truth is completely different. My work has a strong aesthetic motivation, if I may put it that way. I seize upon texts or ideas that strike me as profound, powerful, and impenetrably complex, and I puzzle over them, think them through, until I can see them in all their underlying simplicity and beauty. I then search for the simplest, least intimidating, most accessible way of showing those ideas to my students or my readers, in the hope that they will experience the same rush of aesthetic and intellectual pleasure that I do at contemplating them. To take one small, simple example, readers of Karl Marx's great work, CAPITAL, almost immediately encounter, in Chapter One, a long and seemingly incomprehensible passage about what Marx calls the Relative Form of Value and the Equivalent Form of Value. What on earth is that about?, every reader wonders. The passage is so off-putting that Louis Althusser actually advises readers of CAPITAL to skip Chapter One and return to it later on. I spent a long time brooding about that passage, until I finally saw exactly what Marx was saying there. It turned out to be quite simple, rather obvious in a way, and very important. When I came to write MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, I hit upon the happy idea of treating the entire passage as modeled on an old Jewish joke about a little boy who is afraid of blintzes. I was delighted to have found so elegantly simple a way of explaining something so deep and important, but so far as I have been able to discover, I am the only person who saw the real meaning of the joke. Had I written fifteen dense Hegelian pages quite as mysterious as Marx's text, I am sure I would have found an audience suitably impressed with my profundity. If I may get way above myself, I am reminded of a wonderful story about Michelangelo. He presented himself to compete for a commission at which other artists were offering samples of their most recherche work. Michelangelo, so the story goes, picked up a piece of chalk, walked up to a large piece of slate, and free hand drew an absolutely perfect circle. I do not know whether he got the commission.

Well, back to work, writing about The Thought of Sigmund Freud.

3 comments:

Graham said...

Robert, thank you for posting your expository writing. While dedicated scholars will need to go to the primary sources, those of us not so implicated in this world find your explanations inviting, clarifying, and illuminating to these subjects.

Debbylee said...

Professor Wolff, if I had an email address for you I would write a more personal, direct response to your posting. I wanted to let you know that back in the day, at UMass, I completely understood what you were doing and why. This is exactly what made you such an inspirational teacher for me. I was in love with interpretations that made the texts come alive with meaning....getting hold of the ideas and sticking with the complication until you get to the ‘AH!’ at the simplicity of it once revealed. I read Capital three times and loved it more each time. The incredible talent of the pool of professors who chose to work within the newly, loosely formed STPEC program was what drew me to the program and provided me with the true nourishment I was seeking in my higher education experience. Had I not been a bit of a traveller over the last 30+ years I might still have my endless notes to reflect upon. Finding your blog has been a delight, as I know I have already mentioned a few times, bravo and thank you.

Chris said...

Having just finished Capital a few months ago, I remember being - and still am! - quite confused by that very passage. Perhaps I'll order your book to help clarify the point.