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Thursday, March 6, 2014



Johannes Climacus
Responsible for publication Robert Paul Wolff


The Workshop in Kantian Legal Theory, of which the papers reproduced here are a partial record, was a curious event, withal. Nineteen men and one woman, closeted - and cossetted - for three days in Columbia Univer­sity's Arden House for the avowed purpose of discussing the jurisprudential theories of the greatest philosopher who ever lived, Immanuel Kant. Fifteen hundred dollars plus expenses for the six authors of the papers circulated in advance for discussion, five hundred for those charged with participating in the discussion, the bill to be paid by the right-wing Liberty Fund, whose minatory representative, eerily resembling the Jehovah's Witnesses who every day radiate from their home in Brooklyn Heights to proselytize the faith, attended each session to make sure that the hired hands put in a full day's work.
Five of the nineteen were professional philosophers, four of them Kant scholars who had made their reputations struggling with one or another of Kant's great works. Twelve hours of concentrated discussion on Kant's phil­osophy was, in Eliza Doolittle's words, mother's milk to them, and Philoso­phy being what it is, the pay wasn't bad either. But the remaining fourteen were professors of law - two from Canada, one from England, a lone represen­tative of the German Federal Republic, and the rest from the United States. What, one could not help but wonder, were they doing there? What could Kant possibly have to say to them that would justify three days of unrelenting Kantshtick?
The cast of characters itself was more than passingly interesting. Leading the group, the organizer of the conference, diminutive, erect, rath­er military in bearing, looking like nothing so much as the Major in BEAT THE DEVIL, was George Fletcher, Professor of Law at Columbia University. Kant clearly had a powerful valence for Fletcher, and one felt that the in‑


vocation of his name was code for intensely felt hostility to unspecified, but dangerously lax, tendencies in modern legal thinking. Re seemed to draw strength from even garbled allusions to significant texts in Kant's ethical writings.
Most voluble of the nineteen was Fletcher's colleague, Bruce Ackerman, brilliant, precocious, enormously — and on occasion, with some justification — pleased with himself. Antaeus—like, Ackerman would draw renewed strength from the sound of his own voice, so that launched upon a comment of finite scope, he would be refreshed by his words, and extend his remarks to fill all available space and time. Competing with Ackerman for the floor most often was the radical philosopher and sometime Kant scholar Robert Paul Wolff, whose face, contorted by a persistant facial tic, showed excitement, disgust, irritation, and exasperation in quick succession. Ackerman and Wolff, like the two youngest boys at a Seder, frequently competed to see who could ask the most questions from a reclining position, both of them manifestly expecting an indulgent Jewish mother to pat them on the head and offer them another piece of cake.
Intervening with impassioned criticisms that often outran their target somewhat was newly—tenured Andrzej Rapaczynski, also of Columbia Law School. Rapaczynski, quite possibly the philosophically quickest mind at the conference, had many years earlier been a brilliant student in the Columbia philosophy department, and had studied with Wolff. Now that he is safely tenured, it can perhaps be acknowledged that Rapaczynski is really a philosopher, not a Jurisprude, and in his youthful enthusiasm he was frequently less successful than his fellow philosophers in concealing his dismay at the appallingly low level of understanding of Kant manifested around the table.
Across from Ackerman and Wolff sat tall, thin Mary Gregor, bent in a


question mark of deference to her neighbor, Douglas Dryer, a long—time Kant scholar from Canada. As the only real expert present on the subject of the conference — she is the author of the major commentary on the work under discussion — Gregor was of course almost silent during the three days. Genuine technical knowledge was in short supply, and would, if too often dis­played, have tended to inhibit the free flow of conversation.
Casting something of a pall on the proceedings was Professor Dr. Wolfgang Naucke of Frankfurt University, a Professor of Law and a Judge. For Naucke, it appeared, Kant constitutes the last barrier separating western civilization from barbarism, although whether from the left or from the right remained for a while unclear. Naucke's discussion of Kant was couched in a grammatical mode that might be dubbed the incantatory imperative, inspiring in the listener contradictory impulses to cheer and salute. Naucke's true colors were revealed almost by accident, midway through the discussion of his paper. Asked directly and flatly whether he considered Kant's jurisprudence incompatible with the welfare state, he replied, laconically, yes. At that, Wolff, who had been dozing, sat bolt upright like the dormouse at the Mad Hatter's tea party and confessed himself suddenly to have recaptured an interest in the proceedings.
In striking contrast to Naucke, Herbert Morris, Dean of Humanities at UCLA, brought a welcome touch of laid—back California cool to the conference, taking the sting out of the Morningside Heights intensity of Ackerman, Rapaczynski, et al. Morris is well known for his philosophical discussions of the theory of punishment, and had in previous years carried on a debate in the literature on that subject with one of the Kant scholars present, Jeffrie Murphy of Arizona State. Prompted by a question during the discussion of Murphie's paper, Morris treated the conference to an exquisite illustration of how to expound a systematic philosophical position while ap‑


peering merely to reminisce about an experience on a California freeway. Morris' impromptu remarks were one of the few moments of genuine style in an otherwise pedestrian three days.
The non—Canadian North Americans around the table were intermittently chivvied, with ironic deprecation, by crypto—Thomist Ernest Weinrib from the University of Toronto. Weinrib, and his killer rabbit sidekick Peter Benson from McGill, were the only lawyers at the conference who appeared seriously to be interested in the substance of the law. Weinrib's complaint, the internal incoherence of tort law south of his border, and the contrasting beauty and elegance of Canadian tort law, utterly mystified the philosophers around the table, but appeared to be an old familiar tune to the other lawyers.
As Spinoza noted, the self comes to know itself only as it sees itself reflected in others. Hence lovers need the beloved, actors crave audiences, and professors tolerate students. Fletcher, understanding these needs, had, like a good host, provided a symbolic student presence in the form of the editorial board of the Columbia Law Journal. They were of course enjoined from interrupting the heavenly discourses by juvenile interventions, but they were permitted to be present at the proceedings, with the understanding that they would in due course turn over the pages of their journal to the finished products.
The relation of the students to the conference participants, peripheral though it was to the main action, offered a lovely example of the sort of ironic misperception of which Jane Austen made such elegant sport. The students were of course perceived by their mentors as adoring acolytes, consumed by academic primal scene scopophilia [a technical term from psychiatry, meaning the obsession to observe one's intellectual parents in rational


intercourse]. The students, all of whom had done philosophy either as grad­uates or as undergraduates, were in a state of shocked dismay, quite well aware of the philosophical shambles unfolding before them, and unable to im­agine how they could in good conscience feed the audience of their journal so thin a gruel.
And there they all were, removed from the distractions of Manhattan, fed and cared for by a silent, efficient Arden House staff, serenaded by a chamber trio on the second evening, and embarked on twelve hours of investi­gation Of the Rechtslehre, Part One of Kant's late, minor work, THE METAPHY­SICS OF MORALS.
Each two-hour session was devoted to one of the prepared papers, which all conference participants had received in advance. Robert Paul Wolff led off on the first afternoon. Wolff, accustomed to the terse prose style of the philosophical world, and mistakenly expecting to have to read his paper aloud, had been well along in the drafting of eighteen or twenty carefully crafted pages when a chance phone call to Fletcher had revealed that the other participants were producing 'fifty to eighty pages.' Panicked by the potential mortification of showing up with the shortest paper on the block, Wolff discarded his draft and began again. Since the paper was intended for non-philosophers, he reasoned, a fair amount of space could usefully be de­voted to teaching them something about Kant. Having written two books on Kant's philosophy, and having taught Kant for thirty years, Wolff found it no great strain to churn out fifty pages in the next four days, and it was this effort that the conferees had all read. [Wolff was inordinately pleased with his effort, and much excited by the prospect of publishing a fifty-page paper in the Columbia Law Journal. The students, not fooled for a moment, spoke many kind words to him but chose not to publish.]
The gravamen of Wolff's effort was that just as Kant's moral philosophy


has to be read in the light of the deeper doctrines of the CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, in which context it becomes clear that there are fundamental contradictions between the two which mortally undermine the moral philosophy, so too Kant's legal philosophy must be interpreted through its relation to Kant's fundamental epistemological teachings, with equally disastrous consequences. The implication of Wolff's remarks was that the Kantian legal philosophy was without defensible foundation. Consequently, although the session was pronounced a great success, and was said to have started the conference off in fine style, Wolff's argument was henceforth completely ignored.
A break for drinks and dinner, and the participants returned, fueled and lubricated, for an evening discussion of Fletcher's 89 page note. Fletcher's paper bearing only a parametric relation to Kant, there was considerable hermeneutical space between object—text and subject—discourse within which an unfettered conversation could develop, and everyone pitched in with enthusiasm.
And so it went for two more days. The next morning, Naucke's apocalyptic warnings were followed by Weinrib's animadversions, with Murphy's scholarly and professional addendum to his well—known writings on Kant's retributive theory of punishment preparing the group for the chamber music to follow. The conference was brought to a close with an elegantly evasive defense, by the cultivated Oxford homophobe John Finnis, of his utterly appalling paper.  David Richards, a principal target of Finnis' crabbed and ungenerous remarks, conducted himself with a restraint that was made all the more effective by the eloquence of his reply. The Finnis session was graced by the one moment of genuine scholarship: in rebuttal of Finnis' implausible attempt to claim Kant's support for his own sectarian views, Mary Gregor,


apparently from memory, conjured an obscure Kantian text that decisively demonstrated the incorrectness of Finnis' interpretation. Finnis, his hands contorted into twisting claws of emphasis in the characteristic third—generation Wittgensteinian manner, was momentarily reduced to silence.


Turkle said...

Professor, this is hilarious.

Kevin said...

I agree. I laughed out loud at the suggestion that citing Kant boosts your hit points.