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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Friday, August 30, 2013

REPETITION


One of my favorite passages in all of the Platonic Dialogues appears in the Gorgias, at the end of 490E.  Callicles, with great bravado, has enunciated his shocking proposal that the strong should rule and get the lion's share of whatever there is to grab, and Socrates is systematically taking him apart.  Socrates begins by getting Callicles to admit that by "stronger" he means "better" -- a serious concession seeded with hidden mines and snares.  He then gives a series of humble examples -- farmers, shoe makers, weavers -- that exasperate Callicles, who wants to talk about big questions in a serious way.  Finally, totally out of patience with this puzzling, persistent man, Callicles bursts out:  "Socrates, you always keep saying the same thing over and over again!"  To which Socrates replies, "Not only that, Callicles, but on the same subjects, too."

This is a lovely passage.  Kierkegaard glosses it [or so I interpret him -- I do not recall that he ever actually refers to this passage] as meaning that whereas the mark of the aesthetic is novelty  [see Diary of a Seducer in Either/Or], the essence of the ethical is repetition, for the truth never changes.  Kant suggests the same thing in his well-known rejoinder to critics who said that his Categorical Imperative is nothing more than The Golden Rule.

I thought of all this as I was listening to a late Beethoven quartet, Opus 135.  There is an astonishing point in the second movement [between letters O and P, if you happen to have a score] in which the second violin, the viola, and cello, in unison, play the same five-note figure for forty-seven measures.  That is an eternity in a string quartet.  In my parts, the measures are numbered so that players will not lose their way.  There is a manic courage in Beethoven's willingness to violate all the rules with this seemingly endless repetition.  I would like to think that he was trying to tell us:  This is not merely beautiful, it is good and true.

I have never played opus 135.  It is well above the level of competence that I and my fellow quartet players in Pelham, Mass had achieved.  But I would like to have given it a try, just to see what it would be like to play that passage.

1 comment:

Don Schneier said...

To anyone unfamiliar with the flaw in the Golden Rule-- consider someone who enjoys fighting, for example. Kant's genius was to grasp that Reason is the only qualified arbiter of what kind of conduct is worthy of reciprocity. Relatedly, the appropriate interpersonal attitude is Respect, not Sympathy or Tolerance, according to his doctrine.