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Sunday, October 4, 2015


Immanuel Kant was, in my judgment, the greatest philosopher who has ever lived, but he is very far from being my favorite philosopher.  For sheer beauty, wit, depth, and ironic distance from the philosophical bog, as Emily Dickinson would have called it, I prefer Kierkegaard.  My text for today [it is, after all, Sunday] is this brief passage from the coruscatingly brilliant Preface to Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments:

"It is not given to everyone to have his private tasks of meditation and reflection so happily coincident with the public interest that it becomes difficult to judge how far he serves merely himself and how far the public good.  Consider the example of Archimedes, who sat unperturbed in the contemplation of his circles while Syracuse was being taken, and the beautiful words he spoke to the Roman soldier who slew him: nolite perturbare circulos meos.  [do not disturb my circles -- ed.]"

All but overwhelmed by persistent pain, I have decided to contemplate my circles and leave it to others to decide whether such meditation serves the public good.  My topic today, as it has been on many other days, is how one ought to study philosophy, how one ought to read philosophers, and -- by extension -- how one ought to write philosophy.

My answer to these questions places me in conflict with contemporary professional philosophers, at least in the American academic philosophical world.   To state my conclusion as simply as I am able, I believe that in studying philosophy, you would be well advised to devote your time to reading the writings of the great philosophers, and that it is imperative to read the entire books they have left for us, not merely those passages in which they appear to be addressing some problem that interests you.  When it comes time to put your own thoughts into written form, you should undertake a systematic book-length consideration of the problems or topics that seize you, rather than confining what you have to say to brief essays suitable for publication in the professional journals currently admired by the inhabitants of the bog.

This answer, as I say, puts me at odds with most professional philosophers in the American academy.  When I was young, an aspirant for admission to the guild was required to write a doctoral dissertation, which was understood conventionally to be the length of a short book -- perhaps 75,000 to 100,000 words.  It goes without saying that very few dissertations actually were short books, and fewer still found publishers.  Not every garage band becomes The Beatles, after all.  But the dissertation was understood to require a breadth of learning, a care in scholarship, and a quality of sustained argument that distinguished it from the seminar papers that by then one had cranked out in such proliferation.

At some point, when I was no longer paying close attention to the profession, the practice arose of substituting for the dissertation three "publishable" papers on related subjects.  These papers were to be modeled on the articles that were regularly published in professional journals, and as the competition for entry-level jobs intensified, students were encouraged actually to try to publish one or more of their "dissertation" essays, in hopes of improving their chances on the job market .

Seemingly as part of this fundamental change in the requirements for the degree [although there may be no connection here -- I simply do not know], professors stopped assigning entire books in their courses, and took to assigning selections -- a chapter here, a handful of pages there -- as though trying to communicate that Descartes or Kant or Hobbes really would have written journal articles, if only there had been journals in which to publish them.  Now that I have become somewhat more deeply embedded in the UNC Chapel Hill Philosophy Department [to use the term of art for reporters assigned to front-line fighting units], I have taken to asking the students I encounter what they are reading in their other courses and seminars.  For the most part, it seems, they read recent journal articles or selections from the classic canon of full-scale philosophical books.  There may not be a graduate student in the department who has been asked to read the entire Critique of Pure Reason, and I would bet that not one of them has plowed through all three books of A Treatise of Human Nature.

So what?  Let  me attempt a reply that rises above the level of a shocked "Well I never!"

Great philosophers, as I have often observed, see more deeply on occasion than they can say.  They grasp complex conceptual relationships that may actually exceed the capacity of their received philosophical language to articulate.  A fruitful engagement with the mind of a great philosopher is therefore not merely an effort to understand what the philosopher intended to say, but also a struggle to make connections among parts of his or her text that allow one to bring to the surface and clarify one of those deep insights.  The philosopher may actually believe that the several parts of his or her text cohere comfortably, but we, coming later and with the benefit of hindsight, may recognize things going on conceptually that the philosopher either did not fully see or could not clearly state.

Let me give just two examples, taken from my own encounters with great texts.  The first example comes from David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature.  As even the most casual students of Hume know, far and away the most famous argument in the Treatise is Hume's sceptical critique of causal inference -- the critique that awoke Kant from his "dogmatic slumbers."  That argument is found in Book I, Part iii, Section iii of the Treatise, "Why a Cause is Always Necessary," and occupies a mere three pages of text. 

Having demonstrated that we have no rational ground for asserting the necessity of connection between an event and its supposed cause, Hume goes on later in Part iii to ask whence we derive this notion of necessary connexion.    Hume's answer occupies the eighteen pages of section xiv, although the heart of it can be found in the first few pages of the section.  The key, not to dive too deeply into the weeds, is a category of mental representations that Hume labels "impressions of reflexion."

A professor of philosopher these days would, I imagine, think it satisfactory merely to assign sections iii and xiv to the students in his or her class.  If the class were being taught at the graduate level, the professor might even go so far as to assign some additional sections from part iii, as background.

But in all likelihood, unless the professor had a better philosophical education than he or she was offering his or her own students, that professor would be blithely ignorant of the fact that the category of "impressions of reflexion" was actually invented by Hume to explain the passions of love and hatred, desire and aversion, subjects not mentioned until Book Two of the Treatise.   A student who does not read the entire Treatise will never really understand what Hume is talking about.

But why not therefore just beef up the assignment with a few selected pages from Book II, or even, if one really thinks it necessary, from Book III?

Because to do so would be to deny the student the opportunity to make his or her own connections and interpretations, drawling perhaps on part of the Treatise that I, or some other professor, did not consider provocative or suggestive or dispositive.  It would thus deny the student the opportunity to become -- a philosopher.

A second example, this one rather more serious [and also, I fear, a bit more complex to explain], comes from Kant's philosophy.  A central philosophical impulse driving Kant's philosophy was his desire to make the deterministic physics of his day compatible with the freedom underpinning our actions as moral agents.  His somewhat formulaic solution was to confine Newton's laws [and Euclid's] to the realm of things as they appear to us in space and time [phenomena, so called], reserving the realm of things as they are in themselves  [or noumena] for moral agency.  In organizing the extraordinary philosophical undertaking in which he would demonstrate all of this [while also making room for aesthetic judgments and heaven knows what else], Kant thought he had found a way to show that the concepts we employ in our scientific analysis of phenomena -- causation, substance, and the rest -- could have possible, consistent, meaningful application to the realm of noumena, so long as we did not make Leibniz's mistake of supposing that such application yields knowledge.

All was well, in the Kantian scheme of things, so long as one remained at a relatively superficial level [superficial for Kant, that is to say -- profound and deep for everyone else!]  But when Kant was in the depths of writing the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding, the most important passage in the Critique of Pure Reason [an effort that I have elsewhere on this blog compared to Gandalf the Grey's wrestling with the Balrog in the depths of the Cave of Moria, a struggle from which he emerged changed as Gandalf the White], Kant fundamentally changed his analysis of the nature of concepts.  One of the clear implications of that change was that concepts such as substance and causation do not have even possible application to the realm of noumena.

And that knocks Kant's "resolution of the conflict between free will and determinism" into a cocked hat.

This problem is so serious that it calls into question Kant's entire ethical theory.  Kant himself never realized it, and neither, so far as I can tell, have any serious Kant commentators save myself.  [This is my blog, damn it, and you are just going to have to allow me to channel Mr. Toad!]

You see, Kant is so hard that for a long time, until I came along, the only person writing in English who had ever attempted books on both the First Critique and Kant's ethical theory was the Scotsman H. J. Paton, who, unfortunately, never saw a sentence by Kant that he did not unthinkingly endorse.  So people have gone on writing about Kant's ethical theory without the slightest awareness that there might be a problem.

So not only is it a very bad idea to read snippets of Kant -- the Second Analogy from the First Critique or the famous four examples of the Categorical Imperative from the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  It is even a very bad idea to read just Kant's theoretical philosophy without his moral philosophy, or vice versa.

Enough said.


Lounger said...

I think you will look back in a few years and consider this, as I do, to be one of your best short blog posts. I am sad to hear about your pain; maybe it helps concentrate your mind.

Jerry Fresia said...

I will second Lounger's conclusion!

So much is packed into this blog that it requires several readings, at least for me. But what does jump out easily for me, and delightfully so, is the Professor's direct attack on the instrumental rationality embedded in advanced education if not
most forms of contemporary life. Pushing aside the hope of improving one's "chances on the job market" in favor of "a fruitful engagement with the mind" is, indeed, akin to the plea of Archimedes and goes some distance, as well, to a philosophy that changes the world.

Gene said...

I think you have inspired me to try Kant again. And this time maybe I'll write about it (or blog about it). When I did the Critique of Pure Reason twenty-ish years ago, I found the deeper I dug the shallower it seemed. I've been pretty Kant-averse ever since. If I try again, hopefully I'll gain an appreciation for him, or at the very least be able to articulate my problems with him.

Amanda Mg said...

Hello, Dr. Wolff,

I am a senior philosophy major at a top-ten school that shall remain nameless. I find that my entire philosophical education has been of the sort you deride, save for one class on Aristotle, in which we were asked to read all of the Metaphysics and the Nichomachean Ethics rather than selections. What do you recommend that students do when professors only assign recent, < 20-page journal articles and selections from classic texts rather than full books? I have long wanted to read all of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, but instead I was only given the chance to do exactly what you described: preface, 1st and 2nd analogies, transcendental deduction, a bit of the Prolegomena, and then BAM! it's on to the moral theory. I feel voiceless. I can't compel my professors to teach differently -- especially if they themselves are not comfortable with, for example, the whole of the CPR or the Treatise or what not. And I'm in no state to teach myself the entire CPR (I guess, but perhaps I'm wrong about thay?).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Amanda, if you are really serious about your desire to study philosophy as I prescribe, make contact with me via email. I shall undertake over time to guide you through a philosophical education more of the sort I believe in. I will do this only if you are serious about it and willing to do some hard work not assigned by, or even necessarily valued by, your professors.