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Saturday, September 27, 2014


I was introduced to serious philosophy sixty-four years ago, when I was a sixteen year old Freshman at Harvard,  by two of the leading analytic philosophers of the middle of the twentieth century, Willard van Orman Quine and Nelson Goodman.  Their standards of clarity and precision in the explanation of formal ideas and arguments made a lasting impression on me.  And yet I have, all my life, been drawn to what I found to be the deeper insights of thinkers whose writings did not always comport with the rather stringent standards of clarity urged by the best analytic philosophers.  Rather than give up those insights, I have throughout my long career sought to articulate them in ways that remained true to them while also achieving the clarity I came to admire in the work of Quine and many others.  Looking back now on all that I have written, I realize that this quest has been my dominant philosophical impulse.

It began, of course, with my struggle to make clear to myself the complex and very deep arguments in the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason, but the same impulse led me to write the chapter on "Community" in an early book, The Poverty of Liberalism, as well as my critical book on Rawls' A Theory of Justice [Understanding Rawls], my two books on Marx [Moneybags Must Be So Lucky and Understanding Marx], my highly critical journal articles on Bob Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia and Jon Elster's Making Sense of Marx, and much else besides. 

As a frequent commentator on this blog, Andrew Blais, can attest, I liked to say in my lectures on the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding of the Critique that a metaphor is not an argument, so that until we can explain exactly what Kant means when he describes synthesis as a "running through and holding together of a manifold in one concept." we do not understand the Critique.  The most original and important contribution of my first book on Kant was precisely the unpacking of that metaphor, which then enabled me to state clearly in the forms of elementary logic Kant's central argument, something that no commentator before me had succeeded in doing.  The same impulse led me to struggle with Chapter One of Capital until I could explain clearly, precisely, and non-metaphorically what Marx means by his extended talk about the Equivalent and the Relative Forms of Value [an explication I enlivened by exhibiting the formal similarity of Marx's exposition to an old Jewish joke.]

Speaking generally, my work has been a constant effort to show that we can preserve and learn from the insights of the great philosophers and social theorists of the Western tradition without reducing them simplistically to one-dimensional caricatures, while at the same time refusing to  succumb to the temptation to sink into the bafflegab of a Hegel. 

As Kierkegaard says in what by now you must realize is one of my favorite works, the Philosophical Fragments, we must shun "a state of ineffable bliss in what might be called the howling madness of the higher lunacy, recognizable by such symptoms as convulsive shouting; a constant reiteration of the words 'era,' 'epoch,' 'era and epoch,' 'the System' ... "

Only rarely have I undertaken in my writing to state and defend new ideas, rather than to clarify those I have found in the writings of others -- mostly notably in In Defense of Anarchism, but also in The Ideal of the University, and perhaps in The Poverty of Liberalism [three books that I published in the space of three years.]

Although I have frequently written about controversial authors and subjects, my greatest pleasure comes from the aesthetic gratification of a complex idea rendered clear and simple.  Some who read what I have written confuse simplicity with superficiality, rather like a reader who cannot distinguish between Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov and Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. 

It is said of Michelangelo that he went one day to the palace of a Prince to seek a commission for a work of art.  When the Prince asked to see a sample of his work, Michelangelo picked up a piece of charcoal, went to a blank wall, and freehand drew an absolutely perfect circle.  I have sometimes fantasized that if I were a violist auditioning behind a screen for a position in a great orchestra, I would want to play nothing but a simple three octave C major scale, so perfectly in tune and with so rich and seamless a tone as only a transcendently great violist can produce.  When I am at my best in my writing, it is that perfect simplicity and beauty to which I aspire.


Joe Doubleu said...

I've been following your blog with great interest for some time, but I can't help but be taken aback every time you take a pot shot at Hegel.

Why such animosity? Is there absolutely nothing in his writings you find the least bit compelling? Judging from your comments it would seem not.

In other ways you seem quite generous in at least trying to understand where other folks' ideas are coming from, even if you don't agree. With Hegel, though, it seems you don't want to even give his thought a hearing.

If I'm wrong, and you've dealt substantively with his ideas at some point, please point me to those writings so I can learn from whence this animosity comes.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

My apologies for the animosity toward Hegel. I ought to be more generous. I have read only two things by Hegel -- The Phenomenology and the Philosophy of History -- and I hated both of them. When I have that sort of antagonistic response to a book, I just put it aside and turn away from it. I will try to refrain from gratuitous snipes at him.

T Gent said...

Please don't abstain Prof! I have always found Hegel - and I do apologise to any who study and appreciate him - a bit, shall I say it, thick.
By the way, I remember I had left a bit of a snarky comment a while ago in response to something complimentary you had said about Nozick. After seeing this post, I have read your article on 'Anarchy, State and Utopia' on the UMass website and thought it was absolutely brilliant and agreed with every word of it. I should have read what you have said elsewhere before reacting to an isolated sentence!