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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Monday, January 5, 2015

AN ENLARGED EXPLANATION FOR JACOB T. LEVY

Jacob T. Levy is a valued visitor to this blog, even though I have long recognized that he and I have very different opinions on important matters, so I am very troubled by his response to some comments I made about the necessity in this life of choosing one's comrades and identifying one's enemies.  I am afraid I spoke too hastily about a matter that is bound to raise the hackles on some readers.  So let me explain.

I began my philosophical career persuaded that it was possible to find objective moral principles that could be established by rational argument alone.  Call it my Kantian moment.  I devoted a good many years to the study of Kant's moral philosophy, and finally concluded that no such rationally establishable principles exist.  Instead, following the advice of a young Columbia University student in one of my classes, I concluded that in life it is necessary to decide whom to make common cause with -- in short, whom one's comrades are.

It was my experience in South Africa that convinced me that it is also necessary to recognize that there are men and women so fundamentally opposed to everything I value that reasoned discourse with them is fruitless.  The defining experience for me was a dinner in Pretoria one evening with a defender of the South African system of apartheid.  This man, Koos Pauw, was at that time [1986] the number three figure in the Ministry of Education, a professor of philosophy with a first-class education.  Talking with him was like talking to a really smooth, sophisticated, educated Nazi.  It was obvious to me that there could be no via media for us.  I was utterly committed to ending this man's way of life, and he was as committed to preserving it.  I would have the same response to an encounter with a sophisticated defender of slavery -- say Thomas Jefferson.

Now, it is not necessary to take up arms against anyone with whom one has utterly irreconcilable differences about matters of the most fundamental importance.  Indeed, the evils of war are so great that peaceful resolutions are always to be preferred if they are at all possible.  But it would be rank hypocrisy, and quite inauthentic, for me to say that when it comes to apartheid or slavery or the equal rights of women, I can simply live and let live with those on the other side of the divide.

My guess is that Jacob T. Levy and I do not in fact disagree about these sorts of questions on which there really can be no compromise.  I would like to think that our disagreements are over matters of economic and political theory, where a tactful modesty in the assertion of one's views is always to be desired.  But there are people out there who are committed to racial oppression or the consigning of women to second-class status, or to denying gay men and women equal legal and social rights in contemporary America, and those people, however genial and engaging they may be in conversation, really are my enemies.  I make no apology for that.

8 comments:

Kevin said...

If it is any consolation Professor, I regularly pass out to my political theory students your blog post from many years ago--your speech at a Harvard social studies graduation--where you told them what a Columbia student once told you re: one must first choose one's comrades.

So there are dozens (!) of mini-RPWs out there, choosing their comrades as matters of first principle (myself included, obviously). I think they genuinely understood the importance of doing so, too.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"My guess is that Jacob T. Levy and I do not in fact disagree about these sorts of questions on which there really can be no compromise. I would like to think that our disagreements are over matters of economic and political theory, where a tactful modesty in the assertion of one's views is always to be desired. "

I think all of that is quite right! Apologies if I misread what you said before; but the combination of language of "most important," "which side," and "enemies" sounded more expansive.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jacob [if I may], I am quite relieved. It would be a sad world in which we were enemies.

Jacob T. Levy said...

You certainly may-- colleague though not comrade-- and I quite agree!

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

In the absence of objective moral principles, how do you explain the claim that the evils of war are so great that peaceful resolutions are always to be preferred, if they are at all possible?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is a statement of one of my deepest and most strongly held commitments, not a statement of an objective principle binding on all rational agents as such.

Jerry Fresia said...

"....and those people, however genial and engaging they may be in conversation, really are my enemies."

Bravo! Totally agree.

But why are exploiters of labor not included on your list?

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Ok, that was expected. How about psychological manipulation? Appealing to objective principles is out, as is a shooting war. How about non-shooting wars? If that is out, what is left?