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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

SUPERANNUATED RAMBLINGS

When I began my undergraduate studies in 1950, Harvard was in the process of phasing in a program of large required lecture courses taught by the most distinguished members of the faculty, with discussion sections led by legions of "Section Men," as they were called [there were precious few Section Women in those days.]   Undergraduates were required to satisfy this new General Education requirement by taking one course in Humanities, one in  Social Sciences, and one in Natural Sciences [although serious science students could satisfy the third of these by taking a real science course.]  My second year, I signed up for Hum 3, an omnium gatherum of a course in which we read some epics, some history, some novels, and a bit of this and that .  Hum 3 was taught entirely in sections, and my Section Man was an entirely forgettable little man named Mr. Brown.  I was also taking Willard van Orman Quine's graduate course on Mathematical Logic, Hao Wang's graduate seminar on Set Theory, and Henry Aiken's course on the Treatise of Human Nature, so I did not actually pay much attention to Hum 3, but one of the readings, Feodor Dostoyevsky's great novel Crime and Punishment, did make an impression on me.  So much so, in fact, that in my spare time I read The Possessed, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov.  Most readers of this last novel focus their attention on the saintly Alyosha or the earthy Dmitri or the intellectual Ivan, but I was always fascinated by the bastard son Smerdyakov, who imitates his legitimate brother Ivan without any real understanding of the spiritual dimensions of that ostensibly coldly rational man, and ends up actually murdering the father of this unlikely brood, old man Karamazov.

Nine years later, when I was myself teaching one of those General Education courses [Soc Sci 5] as a young Instructor in Philosophy and General Education, Senator John F. Kennedy ran for the Presidency against Vice-President Richard M. Nixon.  Nixon, as my older readers will recall, was a rather creepy character.  Recalling The Brothers Karamazov, I took to comparing him to Smerdyakov, saying that he bore to Kennedy the same relation that the bastard son bore to Ivan.  This was, needless to say, a complicated snark, considering Dostoyevsky's evident distaste for the Western irreligious rationalistic philosophy that so fascinates Ivan.

In the past several days, the news has been dominated by the war that has broken out between Texas Senator  Ted Cruz and his fellow Republicans.  A lengthy portrait of Cruz published by GQ [you can find it here] has provoked a good deal of discussion, especially with such tidbits as the revelation that when Cruz was a Harvard Law student, he let it be known to his fellow students that he would only study with graduates of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, and not with graduates of the "minor Ivies" like Brown and Penn. 

Chris Matthews has, with considerable justification, spent a good deal of time comparing Cruz to the late Senator McCarthy, whom Cruz both physically resembles and in various ways manages to channel.  But I have found myself thinking more and more about Smerdyakov.  There is something both corrupt and pathetic in Cruz's endless self-advertisement and his obsessive fascination with the most external marks of intellectuality, such as his possession of degrees from Princeton and Harvard.  Obama exhibits something of the same fascination [witness his otherwise incomprehensible support of Larry Summers], but in Obama this is modulated and humanized by a measure of genuine transactional intelligence and imagination [Chris, do not even bother -- I know you disagree].  Cruz is, in a sense, Obama's Smerdyakov.

Just a thought.

2 comments:

Chris said...

I don't doubt for a minute that Cruz is a dumb bigot. And by comparison Obama is dozens of IQ points more intelligent. But intelligence has never been a good in and of itself, and dumbness has never been a crime either.

As your colleague Kant once said, the only thing that's good in and of itself is a good will. And neither Obama or Cruz seem to have that, intelligence aside.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Cruz is in fact not dumb at all. Quite the contrary, he is apparently very smart, by all conventional m,easures [as Joe McCarthy probably was not, for example].