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Wednesday, October 1, 2014


My recent posts have provoked a stream of quite interesting comments, which as yet I have not responded to, so rather than reply in the comments section, I have decided to write an omnium gatherum post in which I try to address some of the many questions that have been raised.

Let me begin with two comments [or rather three, actually], by Andrew Blais and Warren Goldfarb, that take me back quite a way to my early days as student and young Instructor, in the 1950's and early 1960's.  Andrew Blais asks me some pointed questions about my relation to Quine's nominalism and whether it is in any way related to my oft-expressed belief that we must struggle to translate metaphors into arguments if we are to make them clear.  My initial reaction to this question was that I had never been much interested in the Nominalism-Platonism debate and thought that it had no impact at all on my thinking about Philosophy.  But then I recalled Martin Jay's wonderful account in The Dialectical Imagination of his interviews with the surviving members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research.  Jay asked some of the leading members of the School, who had sought refuge in America from Nazism [many at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan], what significance there might be in the fact that almost all of them were upper middle class assimilated German Jews.  These were folks -- Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, et al. -- who were capable of discerning deep ideological resonances and complexities in the unlikeliest artifacts of popular culture, and yet they all brushed the question aside and said there was no significance to it at all.

Now, I studied with Quine and Goodman when I was not yet eighteen years old.  How plausible is it that I was blithely unaffected by the philosophical issue that at that time completely absorbed them?  Good grief, my first serious college term paper, written my Freshman year, was a "Calculus of Size" using Nelson Goodman's nominalist Logic of Individuals as it was set forth in his first book, The Structure of Appearance.  Would I believe Aristotle if he said he had been uninfluenced by studying with Plato?  Or Marx, if he said that although Hegel might have been in the air in Berlin, he had not inhaled?

Quine was meticulous about the niceties of formal logic in a way that he thought mathematicians were not.  I imbibed the distinction between use and mention with my mother's milk, as it were.  So, if I may view myself objectively, it seems indisputable that I was influenced by whatever Quine, Goodman, and certain other members of the Harvard Philosophy Department [most notably C. I. Lewis] thought were the important philosophical questions.  I can recall vividly staying up all night puzzling over the analytic/synthetic distinction and rushing into the Adams House dining room on Sunday morning to tell Stanley Cavell what I had discovered, only to be dismissed by Stanley and his guest, poet John Hollander, with the languid remark, "Please, not before breakfast."

There can be no doubt that my conception of clarity comes directly from that handful of analytic philosophers with whom I studied as a boy, even if the formal issue of nominalism was never on my mind.

Blais goes on to ask, "Why is it that all the great philosophers (the ones that you have explicated, for example) have all left posterity complicated argumentative structures that rest on metaphors that need so much effort to explain?"  I think I know the answer to that one.  The very greatest philosophers are never content with neat, precise superficial explications of reasonably transparent questions.  They are constantly struggling to put into words insights they have, sometimes only dimly, into very deep and complex questions, the articulation of which forces them beyond whatever is the received and widely understood state of the art when they are working.  They are unwilling to let go of those insights, even if they are not yet able to state them clearly.  So they grasp at metaphorical articulations that keep alive as much as possible of the insights.  Sometimes they are then able to restate those insights clearly and precisely, but often it is left to us, coming after them, to do that work.  But if they are so brilliant, why can they not do this themselves?  I will answer with a metaphor.  When I was young, the four minute mile was the unattainable goal of every world-class long distance runner.  Finally, in 1954 [as I was preparing to take the famously formidable Prelims in the Harvard Philosophy Department] Roger Bannister broke the four minute barrier in a race at Oxford University.  Pretty soon, all the great runners were running sub-four minute miles, and these days good high school runners can do it.  But until John Bannister did it, it seemed impossible.

Which, by a process of Shandean association, brings me to Warren Goldfarb's interesting response to my facetious post about first and last lines.  Professor Goldfarb writes that "in the late 1950s J.L. Austin and my late colleague Roderick Firth were planning a book of opposing views in epistemology that they hoped to title Price and Prejudice (after H.H. Price, the stalwart of English sense-data theory)."   The late 1950's is just when I was writing my doctoral dissertation under Firth's direction and teaching in the Department as an Instructor when Firth was acting as Chair.   I never heard about the plan for a book with Austin, but I can easily imagine it.  Roderick Firth was a wonderful man -- ramrod straight, slender, a man of impeccable moral character, with a charming little smile flirting with the edges of his mouth.  I heard that as a Quaker he "witnessed" during the Viet Nam War by attending public demonstrations.  It was Firth who gave me an invaluable little piece of advice on writing my dissertation.  He put a pair of x and y axes on the board and then drew two lines -- a straight line rising slowly from the origin, and an arc curving up from the origin farther and farther above the straight line.  "The straight line is your ability to write a good dissertation, rising slowly as time passes," he said.  "The curved line represents the sort of dissertation you think you should write, and as time passes and you do not finish, it rises faster and faster.  The sooner you finish, the smaller the gap will be between the dissertation you do write and the dissertation you think you should write."  It was the best advice I ever received, and I responded by writing the entire dissertation, from the time I chose the topic until the day I handed it in, in eighteen months.

My first year as a graduate student, I took a reading course with Firth.  I read Hastings Rashdall's Theory of Good and Evil and Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics and Collingwood and Moore and Ross and Ewing and lord knows what else.  I am sure I am a better person for it all, but I found it hopelessly boring.  I actually went off to Europe for my wanderjahr thinking I would write a dissertation on ethics, but by the time I got home, I had given that up and turned instead to Kant and Hume.  Whew!  Close call.

Professor Goldfarb mentions H. H. Price.  How that brings back memories!  Price's book, Hume's Theory of the External World, now long forgotten I am sure, had an enormous impact on me during the time when I was so deeply engaged with the Treatise.  Those were the days when Oxford and Cambridge were the Promised Land to American philosophers.  It is all associated in my mind with those severe black volumes that Oxford University Press put out, many of which still grace my shelves here in Chapel Hill.

Which  brings me to Andrew Levine, my old student, now retired [I believe.]  I have not yet gotten around to reading Andy's book on Marx, which I shall, so I must hold serious comment for the moment, but I could not let his name pass without noting that for a brief moment [his "fifteen minutes of fame," pace Andy Warhol], he was known on television as Professor Backwards because of his bizarre ability [demonstrated, if I remember correctly, on the Johnny Carson Show] to repeat what someone says backwards -- not word by word, but phoneme by phoneme, so that it sounds like what a person who does not speak Chinese thinks Chinese sounds like.

Well, I think that is enough, though it only scratches the surface of the interesting comments that have popped up lately.  Thank you all and keep them coming.


wallyverr said...

Could you also say something about C I Lewis? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states

"Clarence Irving (C.I.) Lewis was perhaps the most important American academic philosopher active in the 1930s and 1940s. He made major contributions in epistemology and logic, and, to a lesser degree, ethics. Lewis was also a key figure in the rie of analytic philosophy in the United States, both through the development and influence of his own writings and through his influence, direct and indirect, on graduate students at Harvard, including some of the leading analytic philosophers of the last half of the 20th century"

I remember glancing at but never actually reading Mind and World Order, and An Analysis of Knowledge of Valuation, when I studied some philosophy in the 1970s. Are those books worth reading now?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

WallyVerr, I can say a good deal about Lewis, and will tomorrow. he is, in my opinion, one of the most important philosophers America has produced.

Carl said...

You're misusing the Latin preposition pace. It means "contrary to the opinion of."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Oh dear. That's not good. I shall leave it there as an evidence of my limitations. Thank you.