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Sunday, August 18, 2013


I had a curious reaction after writing my little blog post about our condo porch bird house, reflection on which has taught me something about myself.  Inasmuch as blogging is to narcissism, we might say, as pornography is to eroticism -- a bastardized form of an already suspect obsession -- I suppose it is perfectly appropriate that I should write about my reaction here.

After posting my report about my anxious interest, and Susie's, in the fate of the baby bird in our birdhouse, I promptly lost all interest in the bird.  Now, very little, save the life of a sparrow, hangs on that bird's successful launch from the birdhouse, and although the Good Book assures us that His eye is on the sparrow, He is, after all, omniscient, so He has lots of unused RAM for such things.  But why should this avian domestic drama lose its appeal for me so abruptly?

I am, as I have often observed, a writer before all else, and to write is to transmute some moment of transient reality into eternal art.  Once I had found the right words to report the Bird House moment, it underwent a transformation for me into something approximating art.  Its potentiality as a subject of a blog post was realized, and hence its importance to me ended.

Kierkegaard observes that the essence of the ethical is repetition, whereas the essence of the aesthetic is novelty.

I have often observed very much the same pattern in my philosophical writing, but until now I do not think I fully understood its meaning.  My first book, published just half a century ago, was Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, a scholarly explication of Kant's First Critique.  The customary academic response to such an achievement would have been for me to become a Kant Scholar, which is to say, someone who goes on to write other books about the same subject, gives conference talks about the same subject, reviews other books on the same subject, and very quickly becomes known as "Wolff, the Kant scholar."  But in fact I did nothing of the sort.  Almost immediately, I began writing about nuclear disarmament, then about political theory, then about educational theory, and finally, after the passage of some time, about Kant's ethical theory.  It was thirty years before I wrote another original paper about the First Critique.  The same thing happened with regard to Hume's Treatise of Human Nature.  After publishing in 1960 a major paper, much read and reproduced, on Book I of the Treatise, I never again published a word about Hume until I began writing my blog tutorials fifty years later.

I have often remarked that I am not a scholar.  I mean by that not merely, or principally, that I write books and essays that lack footnotes, but that my writing is not, for me, a participation in an on-going scholarly discussion.  Rather, writing for me, despite the fact that I write serious argumentative non-fiction, is an act of artistic creation.  That, I think, is why I never show what I have written to other scholars before publishing it.


Michael Llenos said...

"I am not a scholar." There is no way in heck that you could synthesize (in your own way) different philosopher's ideas and splay them out so brilliantly, as you do, without the training you recieved in getting your PhD. And anyone who owns a PhD has got to be a scholar. But if you mean "I have more passion and heart and fairness than the average scholarly type", I am forced to agree with you that you are not a scholar.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Bless you, Michael. I think my notion of a scholar was formed when I was young by such great scholars as Harry Austryn Wolfson.

Don Schneier said...

I have a PhD, but little that I have done since then can be classified as "scholarly", e. g. my recent projection here about the capacities of what some scholars call 'Evolutionary Theory'.

Michael Llenos said...

Although scientists now believe the Universe is 14.5 billion years old, or around that time period, it seems that scientists have been increasing the age of the Universe with each bigger and more powerful telescope they build and turn towards the heavens. As a monotheist, I have a very far left opinion of the age of the Universe. Perhaps the Universe is between 1 trillion to 100 trillion years of age. If the Universe is around that time frame, it would be no wonder that many prophets and apostles said that the end was near. That's of course if someone gave them that information. I mean if the end was only several thousand years away, and the Universe was 60 trillion years old, it would make sense if the prophets thought the end was near, since most of the past was already done and gone with. Perhaps evolution, in its various forms, took place many times on this planet, just as I believe mankind was created a couple of times already.

Don Schneier said...

Maybe a better example will make my point clearer. Suppose there were an attempt to develop a theory of Anarchism from a concept of Autonomy, in the course of which ascriptions to previous texts were made, e. g. that that concept of Autonomy is Kant's Now, I propose that if the soundness of the development is dependent on the truth of those ascriptions, then the project is a 'scholarly' one, but if not, then not. For a more authoritative treatment of the topic, I can recommend Part Six of Beyond Good and Evil.

Michael Llenos said...

Some what off topic again...

Although, I know little to nothing about Kant, I believe one of his ideas is incomplete. Kant says that objects alter themselves to our minds. I believe, instead, that objects alter themselves to our senses and that our minds alter themselves to those objects once those objects get past our senses. Meaning, our senses alone see appearances but our minds, combined with our senses, can probe the truth. Anyway, that's just my opinion summarized.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, no, that is not what Kant says, but that is a very long story.

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

I'll repeat what you wrote in your anthology, Ten Great Works of Philosophy: "But suppose we consider the opposite hypothesis for a moment. Instead of the mind conforming to the object, what if the object conforms itself to the mind?"

When I say, 'Objects alter themselves to the mind,' I mean: Objects conform themselves to the mind.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

ok, I see. The full story is rather complex, and involves the claim that empirical objects are organizations or structures of judgments, the content of is perceptions and the form of which is trhe categories of the understanding. But none of thbis can be said, as the Talmud scholar put it, while standing on one foot. It is a long story. Sorry.

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

Although, I am not versed in Kantian logic, I think I get what Kant was trying to say. I'll quote here a part of what I have previously wrote that proves that objects conform themselves to the senses, but the mind conforms itself to those objects when those objects get past the senses:

"5. For example: If some man is nearsighted and wears glasses that give him 20/20 vision, and he took off those glasses, that same man would be able to understand that the surreal vision he was viewing was not as accurate as the 20/20 vision of the glasses he was wearing previously. Then when that man put his glasses back on his face, his mind would tell him that he was seeing better vision than the blurry vision he saw before. So the eyes (or other senses) themselves will not tell us which reality was clearer—but the mind can since it is independent from the senses. I mean if objects alter themselves to the mind, the mind would think that: glasses or no glasses, both visions would be totally confusing. In another way of saying it: the mind would have no introspection at all if objects altered themselves to the mind and not just to the senses alone."

Michael Llenos said...

I believe my paper, Part Four, Anti-Prolegomena: A Brief Refutation of Immanuel Kant, deserves to be admired, just as Immanuel Kant's Prolegomena has its fans. I named it after Anti-Cato by Julius Caesar, in Plutarch's biography.

I just edited my paper so it makes more sense now, and I am still in the editing process. It's free if anyone wants to read it.

Please, no one think that I am being arrogant in my comparing my paper to Caesar's Anti-Cato. I just don't think all wisdom was born and died with Kant.

The greatest philosopher ever was Plato. Some of the culture in Ancient Greece was nefarious: but I try to look at the good parts instead, as with all other eras of philosophy.