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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Monday, September 19, 2011

NO HUME TODAY

Since we leave for home the day after tomorrow, we have been using up what is in the refrigerator. Today, there was nothing left for lunch, so we walked across two bridges to the Right Bank and had lunch at the Cafe Louis Phillippe, a lovely old institution on the Quai de l'Hotel de Ville [i.e., city hall]. It is a sparkling early Fall day, with bright sunshine, crisp, cool breezes, and puffy white clouds scudding by overhead. Susie had quennelles, I ordered hareng pommes de terre a l'huile and a dozen snails. Each of us drank half a bottle of wine, I a red, Susie a white. Then we staggered home, fell on our bed, and slept for two hours. I am, I fear, in no shape to write a post about the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, so that shall have to wait for tomorrow. Life doesn't get much better than this.

High Arka asks how reading Hume will make one a better person. I must confess that I am not really sure what makes one a good person. Pretty clearly, education does not. I know too many superbly education swine. Nor does a comfortable and protected childhood. Adversity seems to make some people better and some worse. The same is true for religion. Perhaps a multiple regression analysis would reveal some unsuspected factor, but I rather doubt it. Part of the problem, of course, is that opinions differ considerably about just who is a good or bad person. It is hard to do a scientific study of gravity when there is no agreement on what is up and what is down!

I can, however, suggest some other benefits that it seems to me we can derive from a close reading of Hume. The first is an appreciation for compact, powerful arguments stated simply but forcefully. A second is a recognition of the weakness of the grounds for a rational belief in a divine being. One can also gain some insight into the origins of the modern discipline of Psychology. And of course there is the sheer pleasure in the elegance and succinctness of Hume's use of English, something I very much wish more of my students over the years had managed to emulate.

None of these will make one a better person, I am sure, but they might make one a more interesting person with whom to have a conversation.

6 comments:

Jordan said...

As Nietzsche said of pain, and may well have said of reading great writers like Hume: "[it] forces us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and put aside all trust, everything good-natured, veiling, mild, average -- things in which formerly we may have found our humanity. I doubt that such...makes us 'better' -- but I know that it makes us deeper." (Gay Science, preface 3.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Nice quote

High Arka said...

Are you saying that you don't know what makes someone a better person because there is no generally accepted standard? Some would say there is no generally accepted standard of beauty, or of how to judge the quality of a piece of music, but this one assumes you would not shrink from calling certain people, or certain pieces of music, beautiful.

You do seem to have strong moral opinions on some subjects, and to be willing and able to pass judgment based upon them. This one also doubts that you would like to condense your viewpoint into "being an interesting conversationalist (or being "deeper," as Jordan may prefer) is the only thing that makes you a better person."

Still, if you're willing to pass part of that judgment and say that being more interesting makes someone a better person (the pop-culture irony, or at least the majority view, might be that being well-versed in ancient philosophy makes one less likely to be socially interesting), it assumes a standard of judgment. Specifically, if being interesting is in any way good, then there must be a rational framework for identifying goodness, from which we could theoretically extract the means to identify other things besides "deepness" that are good.

What is that framework? To what end do and/or should we seek the ability to speak succinctly and well, and to be interesting to others? You challenge in your post the belief in a deity of absolute power, so this one will assume that you are not resting your framework upon any variety of blind faith.

Amato said...

High Arka,

I recently read an interesting NYtimes Op-Ed written by Stanley Fish(http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/does-philosophy-matter/#more-101467) and I think you are making what he calls the "theory mistake"; that is to say "the mistake of thinking that your philosophical convictions (if you have them; most people don’t) translate directly or even indirectly into the way you will act."

Basically he argues believing there is an objective set of criteria on which morality is based (moral absolutes) or not (moral relativism) means something within the parameters of philosophical debate, but has no bearing on our normative actions, save possibly when we reflect why we acted in one way vs. another. So it very well may be true that professor Wolff doesn't believe there is an objective standard for evaluating what makes a good person as a philosopher, but still is able to point out traits and people he thinks are good.

High Arka said...

This one understands the concept of faith, and the concept of utter relativism. To which are you referring, or is there something else?

Marinus said...

Stanley Fish is a bum and you shouldn't believe a word that he says. Here is Paul Boghassian (the philosopher he was responding to) replying to that rather sorry op-ed. http://nyu.academia.edu/PaulBoghossian/Papers/845903/Does_Philosophy_Matter_--_It_Would_Appear_So._A_Reply_to_Fish