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Sunday, November 29, 2015


Magpie asks whether I am fluent in German.  As I explained in my reply, I am and always have been linguistically challenged [to use the current euphemism for cognitive deficits.]   I studied French in High School, and although I was in love with my teacher [as was every other teenage boy in the class], even that erotic impetus was inadequate to enable me to achieve any mastery.  I took a year of College German, aware that the doctorate would require a "reading knowledge" of two languages, and there was in fact a time, fifty years ago, when I managed to work my way through several serious volumes of Kant scholarship in German.  But on one of the few occasions when I actually attempted to order a meal in German [on the train from Paris to Vienna in 1959], I mistakenly asked for the menu instead of the karte, and got the set meal delivered to my table.  [It was all right.  The set meal was wiener schnitzel, which is probably what I would have ordered had I thought about it.]

But, you will protest, how on earth can you present yourself to the world as a Kant scholar, a Marx scholar, a Mannheim scholar, if you cannot read German?  How indeed?  The answer is rather complicated, as self-justifications tend to be, so bear with me.

First let me say that I am no sort of scholar at all, and have never pretended to be, save when I have been attempting to curry favor with Herbert Marcuse or Hannah Arendt.  I have on several occasions in my long career committed what I would be happy to consider acts of scholarship, but they have never risen much above what one might expect from a reasonably good undergraduate.  My greatest scholarly achievement, made possible by an interlibrary loan arranged by Harvard's Houghton Library, was to establish that the 1772 German edition of James Beattie's Essay on the Nature and Immutability of the Truth read by Kant was made from the original 1770 edition, and not from the 1771 second edition, and therefore did indeed contain the passage from Hume's Treatise that "awoke [Kant] from [his] dogmatic slumbers."  [See the Prolegomena.  You can look me up in the Journal of the History of Ideas for 1960.]

As a boy, not yet nineteen, I learned what real scholarship is by attending Harry Austryn Wolfson's lectures on the philosophy of Spinoza.  Wolfson was one of the great scholars of his time, a jewel in Harvard's crown, a master of two millennia of philosophical and theological literature in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and all of the modern European languages.  I would consider myself to have blasphemed were I to suggest that I in any way inhabited that empyrean realm.

To count oneself a Kant scholar, one must at the very least read all of Kant's writings in the original, the published and the unpublished [the nachlass, the Opus Postumum, the letters], together with all the major and most of the minor commentaries.   Nor, I might add, can one count oneself a scholar of Plato or Aristotle without a firm grasp of classical Greek, or of Descartes without Latin and French, or of Kierkegaard without Danish and German. 

But if that is to me forever terra incognita, what on earth have I been doing all my life?

Well, the answer is this.  If you want to know what Kant really said, read him in the German, and then read the commentaries in whatever language they are written in.  But if when you are done, you still cannot for the life of you figure out what on earth Kant meant;  if you cannot say what the argument is of the central portion of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft; if you cannot state clearly and simply the premises of the argument, the conclusion, and by what sequence of arguments Kant moves from the first to the second, then I may be able to help you.  Indeed, I flatter myself that I was the first student of Kant's philosophy ever actually to accomplish that seemingly simple but actually quite difficult task.  How can this be?  The answer is rather deep.  I have alluded to it on several occasions on this blog.  Let  me try to spell it out. 

Truly great philosophers do not write philosophy the way the rest of us do.  They do not string together sequences of sentences, fussily making sure that they never contradict themselves, tidying up the surface of their discourse, footnoting their sources, making it all neat and properly publishable in a peer reviewed journal.  Great philosophers wrestle with a problem as Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord, refusing to let go until it bless them.  They have and pursue deep, unified, and ultimately simple intuitions that they believe hold the key to the resolution of the problem, and they care less about maintaining surface neatness than they do about being true to the original conceptual intuition. 

It is no good searching their minor works or their unpublished papers for clues to what they meant.  There is nothing for it but to dive into the morass of ideas after them, like Gandalf descending into the depths of the Caves of Moria to do battle with the Balrog.  The goal is not, as Kierkegaard mockingly says, "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.' "  The goal is the Holy Grail of all philosophical thinking:  a clear, coherent, simple argument whose strengths and weaknesses can be grasped by reason.

Now, the intuitions of a great  philosopher are often at odds with one another, a fact that the philosopher himself or herself may not fully recognize.  So we as students of their works must make choices.  We must take risks.  We must gamble our time and energy and devotion in the hope that we, like Jacob, will be blessed.  And like any gamble, there is no certainty on which cards to place our money.  If we are truly seized by the text, we will be guided by our own philosophical concerns as well as by our understanding of the concerns of Kant or Marx or Plato or Hume.  So two of us may descend into the depths of the cave and emerge with differing and incompatible understandings.  That is not a sign of failure.  It is the inevitable and unavoidable consequence of real philosophical work.

What have I been doing all my life?  I have been wrestling with the Angel of the Lord, whether He present himself as Immanuel Kant or David Hume or Karl Marx.  I have been seeking the clear, coherent arguments that will succeed in capturing the deep intuitions that drove those great thinkers in their work.  And then, emerging from the depths, I have struggled to present those arguments to my students or readers so simply, so quietly, with so little jargon or mystery, that they can enjoy their beauty as I do.

So Magpie, no, I am not fluent in German.  Nor am I fluent in French, Latin, Greek, Arabic, or any other language save English.  But if my life has seen some successes together with the inevitable failures, then here and there in my voluminous writings are objects of real beauty  -- arguments mined from some of the great texts of our tradition that bring clarity and understanding to us all.


Magpie said...

Prof. Wolff,

I am sorry I asked that question. I -- obtusely but without ill-intention -- created the opening which "Nick" used to attack you. My apologies to you.

I might be mistaken, but the real target of the venom -- directed nominally against you -- are your beliefs. It's not the first time I see this happening, and I a fear it won't be the last.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

As an English only speaker, I could not have offered a better defense than you. I struggled with Spanish, German, and Latin, to little avail. (I was actually in love with two of my college Spanish teachers, but the most I could muster was to ask them if they favored Puerto Rican independence [somewhat of an issue at the time and what I considered to be an appropriate question since both happened to be Puerto Rican nationals]. Both replied "no." Oh well.). New translations of classic works are released on a regular basis, so I like to think that there is some adequate compensation for my lack of language knowledge.

-- Jim

Jerry Fresia said...

"And then, emerging from the depths, I have struggled to present those arguments to my students or readers so simply, so quietly, with so little jargon or mystery, that they can enjoy their beauty as I do."

This ability to emerge from the depths and convey that sense of beauty that you refer to, simply and without jargon, is, in my mind, the measure of a true scholar. Chomsky is in that category. Talcott Parsons and, no doubt, a few other jewels in Harvard's crown, are not.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Magpie, no aology called for. I thought your question gave me an opening to say something I have long held in my heart. But I cannot find the comment you refer to by Nick. Where is it?

Magpie said...

It was a comment following your reply to me:

vathek said...

Magpie, you're overreacting. Nick comments that looking at the Prof's bookshelves is delightful and that this is a shallow comment to make. It might have been shallower to say "My, that is one pretty music stand." I don't believe Nick was referring to the Prof's reply to you.

Magpie said...


Maybe I'm overreacting, like you say. That's possible. In which case, another apology is in order. Perhaps I tend to go into a defensive mode too quickly. I've been told that, as well.

However, I've seen this kind of thing happening in other lefty blogs I follow. This, for instance, is the first of several comments, posted by the same person, replying to a professor and leftist blogger. By comparison, this one is not particularly offensive, but is the link I have at hand:

When too many coincidences happen, I tend to suspect they are not entirely coincidental.

At any event, apologies again.

ES said...

Thank you for the beautiful analogy. It helps me see why I (should) keep doing what I am doing.