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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Friday, June 17, 2011

FRIDAY THOUGHTS

I was paging through the first section of the NY TIMES this morning, while having my regular lemon poppy seed muffin and decaf at the Carolina Cafe, when I came across a full page ad for something called The Nook, which is apparently a competitor for Amazon's Kindle. I have no interest in either, but my eye was caught by the photo of the [supposedly inferior] Kindle on which was displayed the first page of Pride and Prejudice. I read what is certainly one of the most famous first lines in the entire genre of the novel: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Reading that sentence gives me the sort of familiar and reliable pleasure that I derive from hearing yet again Haydn's "Kaiser" quartet or seeing Notre Dame at the bottom of my street in Paris. As I am sure any student of literature will agree, Austen's words are deceptively simple, and it would take several careful paragraphs to unpack their complexities of ironic voice and narrative point of view.


Then I thought to myself: "In a career spanning fifty-three years, at Harvard, Chicago, Columbia, Barnard, CCNY, Rutgers, CUNY, UMass, Williams, Yale, Boston University, Northeastern University, Duke, and UNC Chapel Hill, I have taught untold thousands of students, and yet there are probably no more than a handful -- five score, perhaps -- who could, if called upon, give unprompted an accurate, intelligent interpretation of that sentence."


The thought saddened me, but it also troubled me, because the ability to grasp easily and intuitively the nuances of language is one of the preconditions, I believe, of effective participation in the public life of a democracy. It is not, by itself, sufficient, heaven knows. Still, if one has no more than a coarse, ham-fisted grasp of language, then one's thoughts will be equally crude, lacking in the ability to make fine distinctions or balance competing claims and arguments. I hope my lengthy discourse on Ideological Critique demonstrated that even the domestic narratives of a Jane Austen, if managed with sufficient intelligence, are capable of encompassing the most controversial themes of the larger world, such as slavery and empire.


We see today an assault world-wide on the Humanities in tertiary education, as budgetary constraints and a corporatist mentality threaten any discipline that cannot prove its worth in the marketplace. Having spent a lifetime fighting losing political battles, it is, I suppose, only fitting that I should devote my declining years to one more lost cause. And yet, there is some reason to hope that though the Humanities may lose their once secure place in the Academy, Jane Austen's words, and those of David Hume, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Mannheim, and countless others will live immortally in cyberspace, ready to captivate and challenge a lively mind idly surfing the web.


9 comments:

Michael said...

I have a similar reaction to the opening sentence of my favorite novel, Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." It's remarkable how well that sentence sets the stage for the rest of the novel.

English Jerk said...

In my Linguistics & Literature course I schedule a week to analyze and interpret the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice. At the end of the week, we've usually made enough progress to see that we could easily spend a month on it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

English Jerk, that is marvelous. Your students are well served! Where does this take place, may I ask.

English Jerk said...

I used to teach that course at a small liberal arts college in New York State. But, being untenured and mightily sick of living in a different zipcode from my spouse, I followed her when she got a better tenure-track job in a large northeastern city. So now I'm teaching just a bit of straight introductory linguistics and a slew of comp (in fact, I'm getting paid 1/5 as much to do more--and less rewarding--teaching than before). Maybe one day I will, like Pinocchio, become a real live boy.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh. This is more and more a common story. I wish I knew how to change what is going on in the Academy. These are hard times.

Angus said...

Of the readings I was able to think up my favorite is "it is one of those rare things that is, indeed, both true and universally acknowledged - that if you have good fortune you lack a wife!"

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I see not all my readers are romantics.

Angus said...

You wrong me, Professor. I am steady in my conviction that there is somewhere an Eleanor to whom I can play Henry II!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Let us hope that when she leaves her Louis for you, she and not he gets custody of the girls!