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Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Carl asked me to include the comment I am responding to, so here it is:  "I'm happy to hear that you're thoughts have turned to this, as this is something we in literature deal with all the time, both in texts and criticism. I am curious about why you seem to value this style in Marx, when you seem to detest it in others (say Hegel, for whom similar arguments have been made, I believe). Not that I would ever try to force someone into loving Hegel, but as someone who deals in a tradition of scholarship that is often torn between a desire to write in beyond the mystification of the everyday (taking its cue from Foucault, Althusser, Butler, etc.) and a desire to express ideas clearly and lucidly, I'm curious to pick your brain on the issue further."

[See the comments on my previous post].  Yes, of course.  I pointed out to my students, but neglected to mention in my post, that the mode of interpretation I was adopting, while almost unheard of in Economics, is, as Eliza Doolittle might say, mother's milk to literary critics.  Questions such as "whose voice is it?" or "what is the relation between what an author is saying and how he or she says it?" are standard fare in literature courses.  That is why I told my students that I would be combining, in my course, economic theory with history, sociology, philosophy, and literary criticism.

But your later remarks call for me to say something methodological or systematic about how I do philosophy.  I was trained as a teenager by several of the leading analytic philosophers of the mid-twentieth century:  Willard van Orman Quine, and Nelson Goodman, when I was not yet old enough to drive, as well as rigorous logicians like C. I. Lewis and Hao Wang.  The two great philosophers who first engaged my energies were David Hume and Immanuel Kant.  Educated in that tradition, I acquired a life-long commitment to clarity, precision, and an unwillingness, if I may put it this way, to use a metaphor that I could not, if necessary, cash in with a literal explication.

At the same time, I was distressed by what seemed to me the thinness of much analytic philosophy, its tendency to confuse one-dimensionality with rigor.  To choose just one example among many, John Rawls writes A Theory of Justice without, so far as I can tell, ever having read Freud, relying on an old-fashioned moral psychology that is utterly inadequate to an understanding of human motivation.  Thus, I have striven during my entire career to embrace the insights of thinkers far from the analytic school while finding ways to render those insights in a fashion that would, if I may put it subjectively and personally, pass muster with Quine or Lewis.  If one were to go back and look at some of my earliest writings, such as the essays in The Poverty of Liberalism, one would find evidences of this effort.  My interpretation of Capital is my most sustained of these efforts.

When I read Hegel, I do not find sharp, powerful insights that can be rendered in a fashion that will pass the test of rigor and clarity that has been, for me, the touchstone of good philosophy.  Hence my rather scandalous expressions of revulsion, which should perhaps be taken simply as an old man's crotchets.


Jerry Fresia said...

On a somewhat related note: signs of a rising left movement in Europe are in evidence. Thousands have taken to the streets in Europe to support Greece's Syriza party's resistance to austerity and the EU's Troika:

And Greece's finance minister, Yannis Varoufakis, a self-proclaimed ("erratic") Marxist, has written an op-ed piece for the NYT's which not only gives expression to a fierce class-based resistance but in it he also invokes Kant for ethical leverage:

Might happy days be here again? In any case, expressions of solidarity are urgently needed.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Wow! I had not seen this. Thank you, Jerry. Why am I not surprised that Germany is once again the bully? Paul Krugman, a much bigger voice than I could ever hope to be, has written repeatedly and well about this. Whether happy days are here again, at least someone is singing the old songs.

David Auerbach said...

I read that piece by Varoufakis and it was incredibly impressive. Not just the invocation of Kant but its lucidity.

Chris said...

I read somewhere that when Rawls wrote Theory of Justice he hadn't read Marx. But after writing he did, and in his later works he tries to wrestle with Marx's theory of exploitation as a legitimate critique of his just society. Have you any experience or knowledge of this aspect of Rawls's work?

Chris said...

Also the greek finance minister has a piece out in the guardian on his marxism:

Michael said...

This was really quite fascinating, and I'm glad to have prompted this reflection!

Carl said...

It would be helpful, and surely not too much trouble, if you'd quote what you're responding to instead of asking us to look it up.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

sorry about that.

Chris said...

Carl, is that response to me?

wallyverr said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Late to the party, but wondering what you think about Quine's indeterminacy of translation and the question of whose voice. Quine made a big deal out of the in principle possibility of multiple translation manuals. Is this Quine's way of dealing with voice?

LFC said...

Re: "John Rawls writes A Theory of Justice without, so far as I can tell, ever having read Freud"

Rawls mentions Freud in A Theory of Justice, e.g. pp.539-40 (TJ, 1st edition), where (as best as I can tell) Rawls criticizes Freud for conflating envy and resentment. As R. defines it, envy is not a moral feeling but involves "rancor and hostility," whereas resentment is "a moral feeling," the feeling of having been unjustly treated (quotes from p.533). R. uses this distinction to criticize Freud's "speculations about the origin of the sense of justice" (p.539), citing Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.

I'm not saying Rawls adequately came to grips with Freud in A Theory of Justice (and I no have idea how much of Freud's work Rawls had read), simply noting that he does mention him.

LFC said...

that should be I have no idea

Demonax said...

"When I read Hegel, I do not find sharp, powerful insights that can be rendered in a fashion that will pass the test of rigor and clarity that has been, for me, the touchstone of good philosophy. Hence my rather scandalous expressions of revulsion, which should perhaps be taken simply as an old man's crotchets."

I sympathize, as I've shared this reaction to Hegel from the moment I cracked into his Phenomenology. From what little I could pluck out of the baroque writing, I found what I thought were interesting glimpses of insight, but nothing I felt could be made rigorous.

It was only later that I came to learn that philosophers I respected, among others being Wilfrid Sellars, Habermas, and Brandom, all thought highly of Hegel (or at the least could be said to have found him a source of rich insights).

My instinct when I see what looks to me as obscurantism is to say "obscurantism". But I also tell myself that I know better than to write off someone's work on the grounds that I find it difficult going -- if I stuck to that rule I don't think I'd have spent much time with anyone of interest.

It's an interesting point, I guess, where we draw this line.

classtruggle said...

Marx openly avowed himself a pupil of Hegel, whom he called a 'mighty thinker.' Countless of commentators have criticised his poor old master (Hegel) for his style and language. Few, however, have offered an explanation.

Here is one from Walter Kaufmann (who I believe knew his Germany philosophy very well):

"If I am right, Goethe and Schiller, not to speak of later Hegel scholars, did not quote understand Hegel's case. Unlikely as it may sound, Hegel was not unable to write clearly, but he felt that he must and should not write in the way in which he was gifted. The only person who saw this clearly and stated it beautifully was Nietzsche. He was not a Hegel scholar, and his early admiration for Schopenhauer makes it surprising that he should have understood Hegel so well. But then it was also Nietzsche who in Ecce Homo: "Who among philosophers before me was a psychologist?." Here is Nietzsche's analysis of Hegel, from the Dawn:

"The Germans, who have mastered the secret of being boring with ''esprit'', knowledge and feeling, and who have accustomed themselves to experience boredom as something moral, are afraid of French esprit because it might prick out the eyes of morality - and yet this dread is fused with tempation, as in the bird faced by the rattlesnake. Perhaps none of the famous Germans had more esprit than Hegel; but he also felt such a great German dread of it that this created his peculiar bad style. For the essence of this style is that a core is enveloped, and enveloped once more and again, until it scarcley peeks out, bashful and curious - as 'young women peek out of their veils', to speak with the old woman-hater Aeschylus. But this core is a witty, often saucy idea about the most intellectual matters, a subtle and daring connecting of words, such as belongs in the ''company of thinkers'', as a side dish of science - but in these wrappings it presents itself as abstruse science itself and by all means as supremely moral boredom. Thus the Germans had a form of ''esprit permitted'' to them, and they enjoyed it with such extravagant delight that Schopenhauer's good, very good intelligence came to a halt confronted with it: his life long, he blustered against the spectacle the Germans offered him, but he never was able to explain it to himself."

This aphorism throws more light on "The Secret of Hegel" than Sterling's huge work with that title, either in its two volume or its one volume edition. This example shows that it was not an idle boast when Nietzsche said in Twilight of the Idols: "It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book - what everyone else does not say in a book."

Hegel: A Reinterpretation, 1966, p.99-100