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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Saturday, January 31, 2015

BUSY BUSY BUSY

I have been hard at work on next Wednesday's lecture since early this morning.  I have only worked this intensively on the preparation for a course twice before:  in 1960, when I worked up my course at Harvard on the Critique of Pure Reason for the first time, and in then 1975, when I first taught a course on The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy at UMass.  On Wednesday, I shall complete my analytical exposition of classical Political Economy, bringing the story up to the point at which Marx entered the picture with Volume One of Capital.  Then I shall stop doing mathematical economics for a bit and start doing literary criticism!

I realized this week that I am really teaching two courses, not one.  [I plan to say this to the students on Wednesday, so those who have followed Jon Tostoe to this blog are getting a preview.]   The manifest subject of the course is "Karl Marx's Critique of Capitalism." but the latent subject [to borrow a distinction from Robert Merton] is "How to do Philosophy."  I want the students to learn, through this course, the importance of taking the time and expending the energy to learn a great deal about all the disciplines that bear in one way or another on the philosophical questions they are interested in. 

If you are doing the Philosophy of Mind, in my view, then you really need to familiarize yourself more than casually with neurophysiology.  If you are doing the Philosophy of Science, then it should go without saying that you need to know a very great deal, in a serious way, about modern Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.  If you are doing Political Philosophy, then you need to know a great deal about Political Sociology [I leave to one side Political Science, which has never struck me as an authentic discipline.]  And if you are doing Moral Philosophy, then you simply must inform yourself about Psychiatry, among other things.

This is not the dominant view in Philosophy these days, so far as I can tell.  Philosophers who are very smart, in a narrow, clever way, seem to imagine that they can rely on their innate intelligence to guide them through the Realm of Ideas.  But I disagree.

My favorite counterexample comes from the great neurologist and author Oliver Sacks.  Many of you may have come across the notion of "contrast-dependent terms," which is to say terms that are defined by reference to one another and therefore, it is supposed, can only be understood as a pair -- right and left, for example, or, for that matter, right and wrong..  There are philosophers who, after a bit of reflection undisturbed by any substantive knowledge, will assert confidently that no one could grasp the notion of to the right who did not also grasp the notion to the left.  Oliver Sacks, in one of his books, describes one of his patients, a woman who had suffered a traumatic brain injury.  She had lost all understanding of the concept to the left, while retaining a quite satisfactory functional grasp of to the right.  If she was looking for something on a table in front of her, and was told it was on her left, she would turn herself all the way around to the right until the object came into view.  Now, of course, a philosopher could try to "save the appearances" [to co-opt a phrase from the Greeks] by saying that the woman did not really understand the concept "to the right."  But that seems to me a counsel of desperation.

Oh well, I am only an Adjunct Professor in the Department, so I suspect I shall not make too lasting an impression on the students.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

SELF-JUSTIFYING POSTSCRIPT

In the Fall of 1951 [yes, really sixty-four years ago -- that is not a typo] I took Willard van Orman Quine's graduate Math 280 course at Harvard, "Mathematical Logic."  We used as a text his book by the same name.  One of the other undergraduates in the course was Ralph Krause, a very smart young man.  Ralph found an error in the book and called it to Quine's attention.  Quine was very grateful, and corrected it in the next edition with a footnote acknowledgement to Krause.

Now, when it comes to all things formal, I am not fit to carry Quine's briefcase, and that is not modesty or hyperbole, just the plain truth.  So I figure, if it can happen to Quine ...

EGG ON MY FACE

I published Understanding Marx thirty-one years ago.  In the intervening three decades, although I have of course looked at the book from time to time, I have never read it with the care I am now giving it as I prepare my lectures on it for my Marx course.  Last Wednesday and next Wednesday, I am covering the first three chapters, roughly half of the book, dealing with the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo.  Last week, while carefully re-reading the chapter on Smith, I discovered a mistake.  It is a small mistake, which is in fact corrected in the next paragraph, so it has no impact on the argument.  But it is a flat out mistake.  Having quoted Smith as stating that it takes Diana one day to catch a deer while it takes Orion two days to catch a beaver, I go on to say that when they meet in a clearing in the woods after two weeks of hunting, Diana is carrying five deer and Orion is carrying ten beaver.  Aaaarrrggghhh!!!!  I think it just seemed intuitively obvious to me that deer are harder to catch than beaver  [but what do I know?].  In the next paragraph, I say that after some bargaining, they agree to exchange two deer for one beaver [which is correct].  Thus is born the Labor Theory of Value.

I challenged the class to tell me where I had gone wrong, and after a few minutes one of the students correctly identified the error.  O.K.  Cute.  Shows the Professor has humility, right?

Sigh.  Today, I have been working on my lecture on Ricardo's version of the Labor Theory of Value [embodied labor and all that good stuff], preparing to go through a rather more complicated example of the calculation of prices, for which purposes I must invoke the dreaded quadratic formula of high school algebra fame.  [You all recall it, no doubt:  "x equals minus b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus four ac, all over 2a."  Sound familiar?] 

The example is designed to illustrate Ricardo's important claim that the wage and the profit rate are independent of commodity prices, a claim that is in fact true for the special case that Marx later dubbed "equal organic composition of capital."  The algebraic manipulations, although conceptually elementary, are actually a trifle complex, since one carries along terms with the wage rate, w, in them that then miraculously drop out at the end.

In my book, I did what all serious economists and mathematicians do -- I left out half of the steps, relying on the reader to supply them.  And since I wrote the book three decades ago, I had of course long since forgotten those steps.  But it occurred to me that if I were going to stand up before a class and teach this stuff, I had better reconstruct them, in case some alert student asked me to fill in the gaps.

Out came a pad and a pen, and I began.  Things did not go well, and I finally discovered that in my book, I had neglected to factor out 90 from one side of the equation when I factored it out of the other side.  Now, this is not a total disaster, because the solution I got for the equation is in fact correct.  It is merely an editing error, right?

Once, I can smile and get away with this sort of thing.  But twice?  I live in terror of what I shall find when I get to the mathematical examples of Marx's theory in the next chapter.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

LIEBENBERG YET AGAIN


Last Sunday, I posted an omnium gatherum that included a response to Carl's friend, who had commented to Carl about my post on The Origin of Science by Louis Liebenberg.  This morning Carl posted a follow-up comment, also from his friend.  [I find the social structure of the Internet a trifle odd, but then I am very old.]  I am afraid I have brought on this exchange by the unclarity of my original report of Liebenberg's book, which has an extremely misleading title.  Since I find Liebenberg's central point fascinating, I am going to try again to explain it.  It has, let me say right up front, virtually nothing to do with the origin of modern science, so far as I can tell [hence the inappropriateness of the title.]

Some long time ago -- maybe half a million years, maybe only two or three hundred thousand years, I am not sure -- animals of the genus homo ranging across the East African savanna developed really big brains.  These brains were [and are] way larger than one would expect in mammals of their size.  The random mutations that produced these enlarged brains must have had significant survival value in order to take hold and become characteristic of late hominids, including of course homo sapiens sapiens, which is to say us.  Leibenberg observes that these big brains are required for scientific reasoning [and also for writing iambic pentameter, although Liebenberg does not seem to notice that], but since what we identify as advanced human culture came along way after the brains got big, that fact can have played no part in the evolution of the big brains, teleological explanations being definitely unacceptable.

Now Liebenberg is pretty clearly a novice on the subject  of the history and philosophy of science, but he is a world-class expert on the people who practice a hunter-gatherer existence in the Kalahari desert today -- people sometimes referred to as the Zhu.  When the Zhu hunt, they engage in what is called persistence tracking.  They do not lie in wait and attack animals, or charge them and shoot them with bows and arrows.  Instead they run an animal down, tracking it for eight, ten, twelve hours or more in the great heat of the desert, until the animal grows exhausted and simply lies down, at which point it can be killed.

Persistence tracking requires an enormous amount of very detailed knowledge, not only of the general habits of each species of game, but also of the most minute variations in the tracks they leave in sand or on hard clay or in brush.  Since the hunters are pursuing one particular animal, trying to exhaust it, they must be able to identify its tracks in the midst of many other overlapping tracks of the same or other species.

Furthermore [and this is Liebenberg's big boffo point], it often happens that the hunters lose the track -- the animal may run over rocky terrain, for example.  When this happens, the very most skilled hunters [not all Zhu are alike in their hunting skills] have the ability to form hypotheses about where the animal has gone, based both on general knowledge and on their reading of subtle signs.  They quite consciously identify with the animal, asking themselves, "where would I go if I were that kudu?"  Liebenberg calls this "speculative tracking."  Clearly, the ability to engage in successful speculative tracking will greatly improve the chances of making a kill, and hence of being able to survive.

Thus far, I think Liebenberg has a good deal on his side.  Now he makes his big [and very debatable] leap.  The intellectual capabilities called for by speculative tracking, he argues, which quite plausibly appeared several hundred thousand years ago, are fundamentally the same at some very basic and general level as the techniques of reasoning employed by modern scientists.  The big brains were, so to speak, ready at hand when social, historical, economic and other factors combined to produce the rise of modern science.  In effect, he says, the early hominid hunter gatherers engaging in speculative persistence tracking were proto-scientists.

If you begin with the established fact of the emergence of big-brained hominids several hundred thousand years ago and ask what specific survival skills those big brains made possible for those hominids, Liebenberg's hypothesis has a certain plausibility.

Does any of that make sense?

 

 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

BACK TO THE CLASSROOM

My Marx course takes a sharp turn tomorrow, from the free-wheeling excitement of the Manifesto to the details of the dismal science.  For the next five hours [two classes], I shall be talking about the modern mathematical interpretation of classical Political Economy, from the Physiocrats, through Adam Smith, to David Ricardo.  The students are to read the first three chapters of my book Understanding Marx, in which I expound and interpret that mathematical reinterpretation using nothing more than high school algebra.   I have prepared a series of charts and tables and equations which I shall attempt to project onto a big TV screen in the classroom, using a USB cable and control already there.  Since it has been almost a quarter of a century since I did serious teaching, all of this technology is totally new to me, but I shall rely on my students to guide me.

Three weeks from now, the course will take another abrupt turn as we finally open Capital to the first page and tackle the famous, and famously mysterious, first chapter.  With that chapter, to which I plan to devote two entire two and a half hour classes, I ask them to read my little book, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.

I have no idea what the students are making of this very strange course, but I am enjoying teaching it more than I have enjoyed any teaching experience in at least forty years, and maybe as much as fifty-four years [when I first taught the Critique of Pure Reason.]

Wish me luck!

Monday, January 26, 2015

FASCINATING STUFF I NEVER KNEW

A little backgound is called for.  My family history suggests that I am at risk for heart attack or stroke.  My father's  father [the socialist] died of a stroke, my mother's father suffered a debilitating stroke, and my mother died of a heart attack.  All of this is compounded by the fact that a good many years ago, I suffered a transient ischemic attack [or TIA, as it is called in the trade], a short-lived mini-stroke.  [Readers are free to invoke this fact as explanation for my bizarre beliefs, although I was assured that I recovered competely.]  Accordingly, I watch my diet, eat very little salt, exercise, and take various medications designed to lower my blood pressure and cholesterol level.  In addition, like millions of other Americans, I take daily what I still refer to as a "baby aspirin," which is to say an 81 mg. tablet.

This morning, I checked in on the UPSHOT, a NYTIMES column for the statistically obsessed.  There, I found a fascinating column about medical statistics, which introduced me to the concept of Number Needed to Treat, or NNT.  This is the minimum number of persons taking some medication required statistically to account for one cure or disease prevention.  Apparently, doctors now know stuff like this, as a result of keeping elaborate records.

The NNT for a baby aspirin is 2000!   Here is what the UPSHOT reports:

"According to clinical trials, if about 2,000 people follow these guidelines over a two-year period, one additional first heart attack will be prevented.  That doesn’t mean the 1,999 other people have heart attacks. The fact is, on average about 3.6 of them would have a first heart attack regardless of whether they took the aspirin. Even more important, 1,995.4 people would never have a heart attack whether or not they took aspirin. Only one person is actually affected by aspirin. If he takes it, the number of people who remain heart attack-free rises to 1996.4. If he doesn’t, the number remains 1995.4. But for 1,999 of the 2,000 people, aspirin doesn’t make any difference at all."

Needless to say, there is no way of knowing who that single individual is.

I have to say, this gives me pause, although I will continue to take the aspirin, of course.  I mean, with my luck, I might just be that one person.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

CATCHING UP


I have been so wrapped up in preparing the next lecture for my course on Karl Marx's Critique of Capitalism that I have allowed a number of comments to go by without proper responses.  Perhaps a Sunday morning, now that the crossword puzzle and double crostic are out of the way, is a suitable time to catch up.

I have a special treat for my UNC students, by the way.  They get to watch an octogenarian attempt to employ modern technology.  It seems that the classroom in which I teach is equipped with whatever device it is that allows me to project prepared images of one sort or another onto a screen.  I have been creating these on my home computer and transferring them by way of a flash drive to the laptop I plan to take to Paris.  I will take the computer with me to class and, with the assistance of some of the students, connect it to the device.  All of this will produce yawns in my readers, but this is the first time I have attempted this, and I am enormously impressed with myself.

Herewith some responses:

To Andrew Blais, who asks, "Aren't your comrades a result of your socialization and other extra deductive causal factors? "I'm with the rabbit whompers like my father and my father's father...." Why, then, is it a matter of choice?"  Yes, absolutely, but that is the human condition.  There are countless examples of people who have made life commitments very different from what their social location might have led us to expect, but enough probing usually exposes causes and reasons for those choices.  That is the human condition.  There is no escape from it, not into pure reason, not into an Original Position.

To Carl, who wrote:  "I showed this post to a friend who's a philosopher of science. He notes that the more commonly cited Cognition in the Wild (http://hci.ucsd.edu/hutchins/citw.html) advances the same thesis, and comments, "The big problem for the view is why, if scientific reasoning is 'fundamentally identical' to tracking cognition that has been part of the human cognitive endowment for 100k years, did modern science only arise in Europe in the 1500s?"  I think Liebenberg's response [and mine] would be that the fundamental structure of scientific reasoning has been a part of human intellectual capabilities for 100,000 years, but social, religious, economic and other factors explain why the distinctive explosion of knowledge that we identify with modern science is a very recent development.  The ancient Greeks thought "scientifically," as do all other peoples of whom we have any knowledge.  If you look at what sorts of thought processes Kalahari trackers go through, you will recognize them as the common possession of all human groups, though manifested in many different ways.

Again to Carl, who remarked, a propos my post on Deflate-gate, "The argument for disqualifying the Patriots is not that they won because they cheated. The argument is that they should be disqualified because they cheated."  I know that.  I was just snarking at the TV commentators who talked as though the inflation of the ball had anything at all to do with the outcome of the game.  Besides, I am a Patriots fan.

Jerry Fresia responds to my rendering of the wind-up of my last Marx lecture:  "Thanks for the summary. This is quite a course! I love the parallels you are drawing. I can't remember: what level are the students? What has been the reaction thus far? I suspect a few heads are exploding."  The course has seven graduate students in it and twelve undergraduates, almost all of whom are Juniors or Seniors.  I really am not sure yet what the reaction of the students is.  I suffer from a life-long character defect -- I cannot stop talking.  I warned the students about this on the first day, and told them that if they waited until I fell silent before making a comment or asking a question they would never get a word in edgewise, but so far the tsunami of words coming out of my mouth has all but swamped them.

As Porky Pig used to say, "Tha tha tha that's all folks."  Keep the comments coming.

THE WEALTH EFFECT

I have on many occasions made reference to my Paris apartment, the most economically daring purchase I have ever made and far and away the most rewarding.  Now that North Carlina has turned back from its purplish trend to become one of the most appallingly red states in the Union, I think I could not bear life if I did not have the chance to escape to Paris periodically.

Our apartment in Paris is tiny.  It is a tad more than 31 square meters, which is to say roughly 330 square feet, a bit more than one-fifth the size of our condo here.  [It is a tribute to our marriage that Susie and I can spend five weeks there at a time without filing for divorce.] 

Because the apartment is in a prime location, it is, per square meter, fabulously expensive.  From time to time I check the postings in the windows of real estate offices and calculate in my head the amount in dollars that our apartment would be worth, and I then experience what is called by economists "the wealth effect," which is to say the illusion one has of being in funds when an illiquid asset one has no intention of selling goes up in price.

Those of you with a special interest in the Eurozone may be aware that in the last several months the value of the Euro has plummeted against the dollar.  Last July, one Euro was going for about $1.35.  This morning, it was going for $1.12. 

How should I react to this news?  On the one hand, I have "lost" a bundle because, although the Euro value of the apartment has not declined, the dollar equivalent has taken a beating.  On the other hand, when we go to Paris in March for a brief visit during UNC Chapel Hill's Spring Break, everything we buy will be a good deal cheaper, and that is real money, not notional money.

So, should I be feeling richer and splurge on an extra glass of wine at dinner out, or should I be feeling poorer and eat in more often, substituting a cheap fish like Dorade for a pricier fish like Dorade Royale?

Inquiring minds want to know. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A MUST READ

Just today I stumbled on a wonderful blog maintained by Art Goldhammer, who is among many other things the translator of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  You can find it here under the title French Politics.  Take a look at it.  I think you will find it as interesting as I do.  I plan to check it every day.

Friday, January 23, 2015

LECTURING ON THE MANIFESTO


The irresistible temptation when lecturing on the Communist Manifesto, a temptation to which, I am afraid, I succumbed, is simply to read aloud from the text, page after page, line after thrilling line.  "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."  ""For exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, [the bourgeoisie] has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."  As the transformations wrought by the bourgeoisie spread throughout society, "all that is solid melts into air."  "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers."  "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.  Working men of all countries, unite!"

And, of course, that chilling opening line:  "A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of communism."

What is there left to say after quoting these and countless other passages?  

Having turned the last page of the text in my lecture, I returned to the opening words.  Here, reproduced somewhat as I delivered it, is the commentary I offered.

"A spectre is haunting Europe."  Marx was right.  There was indeed a spectre haunting Europe, but it was not the spectre of communism.  It was, rather, the spectre of capitalism, for in 1848, capitalism had scarcely begun its world-historical mission of uprooting and transforming world society.  Even in England, where capitalism was most fully launched, there were still profound transformations yet to come.  In France, capitalism had begun to take root, in Marx's Prussia, barely at all, and in Eastern and Southern Europe it was still entirely in the future. With the benefit of one hundred sixty-seven years of hindsight, we can see how much more work lay before capitalism in its historic assault on traditional feudal society.

Marx knew this, as some of his statements in the Manifesto make clear, but he was beguiled by the popular uprisings in France and elsewhere, and willed himself to believe that the next stage of history was in the wings. 

The failure of the uprisings also compelled Marx to completely reverse his understanding of the relationship between feudal and capitalist society [or bourgeois society, as Marx repeatedly labels it in the Manifesto, revealing thereby how shallow his understanding still was of what was being wrought by capitalism.]  Previously, Marx had viewed Feudal society as mystified and bourgeois society as naked, raw, unmystified, with the exploitation in plain view for all to see.  But after '48, Marx came to view Feudal society as relatively less mystified.  Indeed, the mystification of capitalism was so complete that its most gifted theoreticians were utterly incapable of recognizing it at all.

The devastating failure of those uprisings forced Marx to reconsider everything he had so optimistically concluded.  By 1859, we see him, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, articulating for the first time one of the most important insights of those post-Manifesto years.  This passage from the Preface announces an entirely new theory of historical change:

"No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself."

As one who began his long career as a Kant scholar, in an effort to understand the nineteen years that separate the appearance of the Manifesto from the publication of Volume One of CAPITAL, I find it useful to look back to the period in Kant's career between 1770 and 1781.  In 1770, Kant was elevated to a professorship at the University of Königsberg.  As part of the formal ceremony installing him in his new position, he delivered a public address, now known as the Inaugural Dissertation of 1770.  In this Dissertation, Kant announced a bold new philosophical position that broke decisively with the version of Leibnizean philosophy on which he had been raised.  Kant believed himself to have arrived at a thoroughly satisfactory compromise of the competing claims of metaphysics and natural science.  Shortly thereafter, in a letter to his friend Marcus Herz, who had served as the official Respondent to the Dissertation, Kant announced that he would very soon publish a "Critique of Reason."  But then, in 1772, Kant encountered David Hume's crushing critique of causal inference.  Perhaps alone in the world, Kant understood how deep Hume's scepticism cut.

A personal and private word, by way of interpolation.  The medium of Kant's encounter with Hume was a 1772 translation of a wretched little English book called On the Nature and Immutability of the Truth, by one James Beattie.  Beattie's book was an attack on those he called "sceptics," among whom, by the bye, he included Descartes.  Beattie's arguments were hardly worthy of attention, but to the eternal benefit of Philosophy, he quoted at length from the books he attacked, including Hume's early anonymously published work, A Treatise of Human Nature, the greatest work of philosophy ever written in English.  Hume, who was a modest, unassuming man but very vain of his literary reputation, was stung by Beattie's criticisms.  In a new edition of his Enquiries, he inserted a disclaimer, disavowing the Treatise as a work of his youth.  [I wept when I read those words for the first time.]  Beattie, whose book was a rave success and went through annual editions for six years, rather grandly replied, "Fine, I shall delete all the passages quoted from the Treatise."  As a dissertation writing graduate student, I undertook to ascertain whether the German translation read by Kant was made from the first edition, which contained the crucial passages from Book One, Part Three of the Treatise in which the sceptical arguments were set forth, or from later editions from which Beattie had removed them.  I was astonished to find that Harvard's Widener Library did not possess a copy of the German version of the Essay on Truth [I was only twenty-two, and still thought that Widener contained every book ever written], but Harvard graciously obtained a microfilm of it from Vienna, and I was able to demonstrate that the edition read by Kant did indeed contain the most important passages.  I presented this as an Appendix to my dissertation which was subsequently published in the Journal of the History of Ideas.  Inasmuch as it is the only genuine scholarship I have done in my entire life, I am inordinately proud of it.

But back to Kant.  Confronted by Hume's arguments, Kant set aside plans for a Critique of Reason, and embarked on deep and intense investigations.  Like Gandalf the Grey, who plunged into the depths of the caves of Moria in a death struggle with the Balrog, to emerge victorious but transfigured as Gandalf the White, so Kant plunged into the philosophical depths and emerged, nine years later, grasping in his hand the Critique of Pure Reason, the greatest philosophical work ever written in any language.

This is how I understand what Marx went through after 1848.  The defeat of the popular uprisings was for him what Hume's sceptical critique was for Kant, and like Kant, by the time he emerged from his intense investigations, his understanding of capitalism was completely transformed.

During those nineteen years, Marx read every work of economic theory on which he could lay his hands, be it in English, French, Italian, Spanish, or Latin.  if we in this course are to understand the progress of Marx's thought, we must therefore follow him into the bowels of Classical Political Economy.  That is why, next week, we shall for a time set aside Marx's writings and devote ourselves to an exploration of the central works of that classical tradition, as they came to be understood by a world-wide network of brilliant mathematical economists in the 1960's and 70's, and as I have set them forth using only elementary mathematics in the next assigned reading, chapters I-III of my book Understanding Marx.

Until next Wednesday.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

DEFLATE-GATE

Only the terminally over-educated and the totally clueless are unaware of the brouhaha that has erupted over the report that in the AFC championship game last Sunday between the Patriots and the Colts, most of the footballs used by the Patriots were underinflated by about two pounds per square inch of pressure.  This underinflation apparently makes the ball easier to grip in the bad weather conditions in which the game was played.  As I write these words, the world is waiting for Tom Brady, the Patriots quarterback, to appear before the microphones to make a statement.

It is worth pointing out that the Patriots squeaked by the Colts, 45-7. 

All of this, as you would expect, makes me think of the prolific nineteenth century French novelist Alexandre Dumas pere [as he was called], author of, among countless other books, the Count of Monte Cristo.  Dumas is said once to have bragged that he could write a novel in one sitting, and when challenged, he allowed himself to be locked in a room with food, drink, paper, pen, ink, and a chamber pot, whereupon he proceeded to write an entire novel, passing the pages under the door to his sceptical challengers as he finished them.

One year, Dumas published an impossible flood of books over his name -- sixty, as I recall.  When critics accused him of having an atelier in which low paid scribblers cranked out books to which he attached his name, he confessed.  "All right, all right, I admit it," he said, "I only wrote thirty of them!"

Does anyone imagine that the Colts would have pulled out the game if only the balls had been pumped up a bit more?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A REPLY TO MAGPIE, NOW THAT THE DAY TRIPPERS HAVE LEFT THIS BLOG


It is 4:30 a.m. and I think that is a trifle too early to commence my morning walk, so I shall while away the time by replying to a very interesting question posed by Magpie [I really love these web aliases -- if I am not mistaken, Magpie is an Australian academic.]  Here is what Magpie says:

"[I]n your Mannheim tutorial you mentioned that Mannheim conceived the "free-floating intellectual" as a workaround to the relativism resulting from the ideology problem.   This "free-floating intellectual", however, was clearly a self-serving solution. Besides, how could one defend one's perception of being a "free-floating intellectual", if one were challenged by another would-be "free-floating intellectual" with opposed views?  So, Mannheim's solution is not a very good one. But, is there any other solution?"

Magpie is of course quite right.  Mannheim's "solution" is so manifestly self-serving as to be a tad embarrassing, although I suspect in the social and intellectual context in which it was advanced it would not have seemed so to many readers.  Is there another solution? Magpie asks.

My own view is, No.  I spent a good deal of my earlier career looking for some pou sto [as the Greeks would have said] from which to make moral and political judgments, and indeed In Defense of Anarchism is written with the expectation that such an objective standpoint could be found [although that assumption plays no role in the argument of my little book, fortunately.]   My search, for a long time, took the form of a deep engagement with Kant's ethical theory.  In effect, I adopted the operating premise that if anyone could find such an argument it would be Kant.  When I concluded, in The Autonomy of Reason, my commentary on the Grundlegung, that Kant had failed, I drew the conclusion that the argument was not to be found.

The most heroic effort after Kant to find such a standpoint, I thought, was Rawls' A Theory of Justice, but I quickly concluded that Rawls had failed, and I demonstrated that failure in Understanding Rawls.  Oddly, and completely in contradistinction to Mannheim, I found that outcome of my long search liberating, not immobilizing.  I embraced the wisdom of my young student at Columbia who told me that if I wanted to know what I should do, first I must decide [not deduce, but decide] which side I am on.

For many years now I have defended the view that in this life, the most important moral and political choice one makes is the choice of one's comrades.  Do you make common cause with the exploiters or with the exploited, with the oppressors or with the oppressed, with those who seek to work for the common welfare of common men and women or with those who defend the interests of the privileged elite?  These are not questions to which there are objectively defensible answers.  They are questions whose answers define who you are and seek to become.

This is a view I have several times expressed on this blog, and as my golden years approach [which I identify as the time when I turn ninety  ;) ], I find myself more and more comfortable with it. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A FASCINATING QUIRKY BOOK

More or less by accident, I stumbled on a curious book that I downloaded from Amazon.com for one dollar with my free Kindle App.  It is called The Origin of Science by a South African [I think] anthropologist named Louis Liebenberg.  It is like nothing else you have ever read, and for all I know the central thesis may be true.

Liebenberg is a serious expert on the hunter-gatherer culture of the Kalahari [recall, by the way, my tutorial on Ideological Critique, and my discussion of Edwin Wilmsen's wonderful book Land Filled With Flies.]  In particular, he is an expert on the hunting techniques of the Zhu [as Wilmsen calls them, and so shall I.]  The Zhu hunt by engaging in what is called persistance tracking, which is the relentless tracking and following of an animal until it becomes exhausted and drops, allowing the hunter to kill it  [until quite recently, the inhabitants of the Kalahari did not have bows and arrows efficient enough to actually hunt with.]  This is no mean feat, and sometimes involves steady running and tracking for eight, ten, or more hours in the blistering sun.  The animals [kudu, gemsbok, caraval, etc.] become overheated and must find shade to rest and cool down.  Their bodily capacity for such cooling is inferior to that of humans, which gives the hunters an edge.

The hunters must track the animals across sand, through brush, across rocky patches, finding faint tracks and distinguishing the tracks of the animal they are hunting from other animals that may cross its path.

There are several levels or styles of tracking, the most difficult of which Liebenberg calls "speculative tracking."  Sometimes, the spoor of the animal disappears completely and the hunter must form a speculative hypothesis about which direction it has gone in, based on faint evidences or tracks, a general knowledge of the behavior patterns of the species, and a kind of imaginative identification with the animal, asking himself "if I were that kudu, what would I do now?"  Liebenberg reports that there are very marked differences in skill levels among the Zhu with a large percentage of the meat being brought in by the efforts of a relatively small percentage of especially skilled hunters.

So far, so good.  Now comes the kicker.  Liebenberg asks the following question, one that has troubled evolutionary biologists for as long as there have been evolutionary biologists:  The hypothetical-deductive reasoning of modern science requires a very considerable intellectual capacity, which in turn requires a brain that is, in a manner of speaking, much too large for an animal our size.  The modern human brain is way out of proportion to the human body as compared with the brains of other mammals and reptiles [a comparison that evolutionary biologists have long carried out].  So how and why did it develop?

The point is that Darwinian natural selection eschews all teleological explanations.  No doubt the over-sized modern human brain has turned out to be enormously useful now, but it does not seem that it would have been at all useful 100,000 years ago, which is roughly when it evolved, according to the fossil evidence.

Liebenberg offers the following [somewhat speculative] answer:  the big brain of the hunters on the African savanna developed because right then and there, the ability to go beyond regular tracking to speculative tracking had immediate survival value.  It meant catching animals that would otherwise elude hunters using regular persistance hunting techniques.  And that ability, developed 100,000 years ago, is fundamentally identical with the ability that modern scientists employ in their modern research endeavors!

The book itself is the oddest combination of extremely detailed, knowledgeable descriptions of the tracking techniques and practical knowledge of the Kalahari hunters, and rather amateurish citations of philosophers of science and scientists about the structure of scientific reasoning.

Maybe I am just a sucker for the wonderful descriptions of the tracking skills of the hunters, but for a buck, you can't go wrong.

THE POWER OF LEITER

Well, judging from Google's stats on visits to this blog, I figure every Philosophy Professor and Philosophy grad student in America has eyeballed my list of the 25 [26] must reads.  There is something irresistible about a list.  We few, we happy few [to quote Shakespeare] can return to whispering in a corner [to quote Plato] in a few days.

TEASER

A key to understanding my interpretation of the MANIFESTO is understanding what happened to Gandalf in the Caves of Moria.  More after my lecture.

Monday, January 19, 2015

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

I have on several occasions told the story of how I came to choose the title In Defense of Anarchism for what turned out to be my best known book.  When asked by Hugh van Dusen at Harper TorchBooks to find a better title for the essay than "Political Philosophy," which was what it was called when I wrote it, through my mind flashed an essay by Mark Twain called "In Defense of Harriet Shelley," and I adapted its title to my purposes.  Today, while reading Louis Liebenberg's The Origin of Science, which traces the evolved human capacity for scientific reasoning to the modes of thinking used by pre-historic animal trackers on the African savanna, I discovered to my chagrin that Twain was himself playing on the title of a famous essay by Percy Bysshe Shelley [famous to everyone but me, that is] called "A Defense of Poetry."

So, forty-five years late, I have discovered the real source of my title.  I think if I had it to do over again, I would go back and get a decent education.

IF I WERE INCLINED TO SCEPTICISM, NOT TO SAY CYNICISM ...

I might wonder why President Obama waited until he was absolutely certain that there was no chance at all of his proposals even coming to a vote in either chamber of the Congress before proposing a tax on the rich to help the poor and the middle class.  Nevertheless, since I have made a life decision to be a Tigger rather than an Eeyore, I will simply express pleasure that this idea has now been given a presidential imprimatur.  It is too much to hope that Hilary Clinton, should she secure the nomination, will endorse the proposal, but it might give liberal Democrats a flag to rally to.  I mean, we have to start somewhere!

THIS ONE'S FOR THE OLD FOLKS

Yesterday, after watching the Seahawks' dramatic overtime victory over the Packers, I stumbled on a screening of the 2003 delightful romantic comedy, Something's Gotta Give, starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton.  It gave this old guy real pleasure to see the glamorous Keanu Reeves and Amanda Peet kicked to the curb by Nicholson and Keaton, who bring to the screen every aging romantic's idea of what true love might be like for the over fifty-five crowd.  I had forgotten that Nicholson is, among many other things, an accomplished slapstick comedian. 

The baby boomers are really only a relatively minor demographic blip, but ever since they reached AARP age, movie makers have been catering to them in a way that is quite satisfying even for those of us who are a generation older.

Inasmuch as many wise commentators on the human comedy have observed that sex is ninety-five percent in the head, it is quite gratifying to see Hollywood portraying the troublingly overweight Nicholson and the menopausal Keaton as capable of getting it on. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

SECOND THOUGHTS

After promising to talk about my reactions to the MANIFESTO, it occurred to me that some of my students might be reading this blog [stranger things have been known to happen], and I do not want to tip my hand, as it were, so I shall reserve most of my thoughts until after my lecture.  One thing that struck me powerfully is that the MANIFESTO is very much the work of a young man.  It is full of conceptual flip-flops and linguistic inversions that  come directly out of the Hegelian tradition in which Marx was raised, philosophically speaking.  Phrases like "the worker is at home when he is not at work and when he is at work he is not at home," or "the more powerful become the products of his labor, the weaker the worker becomes," and so on.  Some of these turns of phrase actually articulate important ideas --  he is Karl Marx, after all.  But when Marx wrote the MANIFESTO, he did not yet have the deep knowledge of the details of capitalism that fill Volume One of CAPITAL.  He was at this point enchanted with the play of ideas.

Another striking characteristic of the MANIFESTO, of course, is its irrepressible optimism.  Europe was on fire when Marx wrote, and he and his comrades were confident that a revolutionary change was at hand.  By the time he emigrated to England a year  later, those hopes had been dashed.  In reaction, Marx carried through a complete transformation of his understanding of capitalism, with the most profound and far-reaching theoretical implications.  I plan to spend some time at the end of the lecture explicating some of that transformation.

RED LETTER DAY

I finished the crossword puzzle, both Ken-Kens, and the diagramless puzzle in the NY TIMES this morning.

Big blip up in visits to this blog.  Brian Leiter linked to my list of 25 [26] must-read Philosophy classics.  Nobody can resist a list.

Now that my lecture for Wednesday is prepared, I shall say a few words later today about my major themes.  Preparing a lecture on the MANIFESTO is a little like practicing a Beethoven string quartet.  No matter how well you know, it, it still has the capacity to delight and amaze.

I shall refrain from commenting on Mitt Romney's re-entry into the Presidential sweepstakes.  I consider it a moral imperative not to mock the lame, the halt, and the weak of mind.

Friday, January 16, 2015

THE MANIFESTO

I am now preparing my lecture for next Wednesday on The Communist Manifesto.  Lecturing on the Manifesto is a little like being let loose in a candy store or a Ben and Jerry's.  So many tasty morsels in every direction that it is hard to know where to begin.  I shall start by reading aloud the first and last lines:

"A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of communism"  and

"The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.  Workingmen of all countries, unite!"

I mean, after that, we sing the Internationale and I cancel the rest of the two and a half hour class, right?  Alas, UNC is rather prickly about these things, so I must fill the remainder of the time with scholarly explication.

I do plan to quote on of my all-time favorite lines:  "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."  This is one of the many insights that have become commonplaces once they were stripped of any association with Marx's name.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

TEACHING UPDATE


Well, my second class is over.  I talked more or less non-stop for two and a half hours.  I keep telling the students that they should interrupt me with comments, objections, and questions, but they rarely do.  I wonder why that is.  :)  The students are very bright and lively  -- maybe the tsunami of words issuing from my mouth has just submerged them. 

Next Wednesday, the reading assignment is The Communist Manifesto.  I considered bringing in a tape recorder and playing the Internationale, but thought better of it.  No pickets and demonstrations against the class yet.  I am rather disappointed.  Maybe it is because Caldwell Hall is the most  handicap-inaccessible building I have ever seen.  Geoff Sayre-McCord, the former Chair, told me that it is the second oldest building on campus, and was once a surgery!  I have listened carefully but cannot hear the screams of former patients.

The UNC Philosophy Department is the only Philosophy department I have encountered that is rather well-endowed.  An old-time professor, Horace Williams, left it title to some land that became very valuable as Chapel Hill grew [I hope I have this right], and when the University sold the land, the Department came into a bundle.  One consequence is that the lounge has the fanciest coffee maker I have ever seen, and the coffee is free! 

I now have a working parking permit that gets me into a nearby garage.  To keep the fee manageable, I paid for it to work only on Wednesdays, when my class meets.  If I want to go to school on another day, I am on my own.  I really enjoy being back in harness.  Because of my long sojourn in the UMass Afro-American Studies Department, this is actually the first real philosophy course I have taught in twenty-three years [and "Karl Marx's Critique of Capitalism" is not exactly an orthodox philosophy course.]  I figure it is like riding a bicycle.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

THE LAST SOVIET COMMISSAR

Today, at long last, I got a UNC ONYEN ["the only name you'll ever need"], a PID [a Personal Identification Number], a working computer in my basement office at UNC, and a One Card, with which, by paying some money, I will be able to use a parking garage only four or five blocks from Caldwell Hall, the home of the UNC Philosophy Department.  I have arrived!  At the One Card Office, the secretary took my picture, inasmuch as the One Card is a photo ID card, not just a card to swipe to get into the garage.

Here is the picture.  I do believe I look like the last Soviet Commissar.  If I could figure out how to do it, I would exchange this one for the photo now on this blog, which shows me with a lopsisded grin inappropriate for a very senior serious person.

THIRD PHOTO


SECOND PHOTO


THE PARIS DEMONSTRATIONS


My good Parisian friend, Philip Minns, a long-time simultaneous translator, has sent me three pictures he took of the Charlie Hebdo demonstrations in Paris.  He describes them as illustrating Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, the classic French political slogan.  For some reason my program will only allow me to upload one photo to a blog post, so I will try to upload the other two in the next two posts.

AN INTELLECTUAL SELFIE

The selfie is, it seems to me, the defining cultural artifact of the modern age, given immortality by Andrew Weiner.  [thanks for the correction.]  Like all cultural practices, it has its intellectual version [think The Whore of Mensa by Woody Allen.]  Well, I am not immune to the tides of fashion.  Last Friday I did a one hour interview with a North Dakota philosopher named Jack Weinstein who runs an NPR program out there called Why? when he is not teaching at UND.  He sent me a podcast of the show, and after listening to it, I have decided that it is no more than ordinarily embarrassing, so here it is.   It can fill the need for sensory stimulation while you are cleaning the house or driving to work.

Monday, January 12, 2015

O BRAVE NEW WORLD

Half a century ago, Clark Kerr, the Chancellor of the University of California, remarked that the modern university is "a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over car parking."  [He also observed in his influential book The Uses of the University that a university president is expected to achieve three goals:  "sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking for the faculty."  He thought only the last presented a problem.]

I am here to testify to Kerr's prescience [about parking -- I remain mute about the other matters.]  I am teaching a course at UNC Chapel Hill that  meets in the Philosophy Building, Caldwell Hall [the second oldest building on campus, and the most handicapped-inaccessible building I have ever seen.]  Inasmuch as Caldwell is some distance from reliable public parking, I need a permit to park in a nearby campus garage, the Cobb Deck.  For the past week and a half, much of my time has been spent attempting to navigate the UNC system, ConnectCarolina, and satisfy its increasingly rigorous demands, all apparently issuing from an obsessive concern with security.  At this point, well into the second week of the semester, I still have not managed to obtain a parking permit, despite the heroic efforts of several Departmental staff. 

Oh, by the way, in ninety days, my password expires and must be re-set.  Seriously.

THIS AND THAT

1.  The Wonders of Modern Medicine:  Last Wednesday, before the first meeting of the Marx course, I finally had a cortisone shot in my  painful left elbow.  The entire procedure was almost painless and took about fifteen minutes.  As of yesterday, I am totally pain free.  The doctor told me to wait a week and then start a little routine of exercises to strengthen the tendon.  He said I should do it "until you forget why you are doing it."  Now that the pain is gone and I can do a variety of simple things, like putting on and taking off sweaters, without discomfort, it is difficult even to remember how painful it has been for four and a half months.  Remarkable.

2.  Several comments on the list business, by LFC, Ludwig Richter and others, raised in various ways the notion of a canon, or received list of recognized texts, that has so dominated academic disciplines from the Renaissance onward.  The origin of the notion, of course, lies in the debates over which books of the New and Old Testament shall be authorized or certified or canonical.  My half-serious list of 25 Great Works of Philosophy was, among other things, a satirizing of the notion of a Canon. 

One of the ways of understanding the evolution of the field of Literary Criticism is to see that there is a constant tension between the list of Great Works that  one must master  to enter the field and the insistent demands from outside the walls of the redoubt for admission to the Canon:  Demands that novels be admitted, demands that works by women be admitted, demands that works by African-Americans be admitted, demands that works by or about Gays and Lesbians be admitted, demands that the writings of subaltern populations from the territories conquered and colonized by Europeans be admitted.  With these demands come also the demands that genres not acknowledged as literature be admitted -- movies [or films, as serious students call them], television shows, comic books, and so on.

What does it matter? you might ask.  Ah well, a great deal turns on what counts as part of the Canon:  publication, respectability, employment, tenure, a guaranteed inclusion in Distribution Requirements for the Bachelor's Degree.  Most of you are too young to remember when studying novels [as opposed to reading them for idle amusement] was not a fully respectable occupation for an aspirant to inclusion in the Academy.

3.  Ludwig Richter mentioned Machiavelli's Discourses on The First Ten Books of  Titus Livius.  In the Spring of 1958, having just completed my six months of active duty in the Army as part of my National Guard obligation, I took up a Social Science Research Council Post-Doctoral Fellowship that I had been awarded to study the history of Political Theory.  I proceeded to read my way through the canon of texts in that field, taking notes as I went.  I read Machiavelli's Discourses -- I still have the notes to prove it [as I do for every course I took as an undergraduate or graduate student], but I do not recall a word of it.  I was rather more impressed with the Defensor Pacis of Marcilius of Padua and the Six Books of the Republic of Jean Bodin, I must confess.  I even read Locke's First Treatise of Civil Government.  [Since no one ever reads that work any more, I will just  tell you that it is a crushing refutation of Sir Robert Filmer's claim that the authority of all of the ruling monarchs of Europe can be traced by primogeniture back to God's assignment to Adam of lordship over the earth.  Locke, of course, was holding out for a Social Contract -- see the Second Treatise.]

The six months I spent on the SSRC's dime was, by the way, the only time off in my fifty year career paid for by a grant.  I also had three one semester sabbaticals, which I put to good used.  Now that I am retired and collecting two pensions [one from TIAA-CREF, the other from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts], I am, as it were, on permanent sabbatical. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

THE GEOLOGY OF PHILOSOPHY


My light-hearted attempt at list-making seems to have caused a slight disturbance in the Force, as we aficionados of Star Wars would say.  Since my daily blog visits [leaving aside RSS feeds, whatever they are] only blipped up from one thousand to two thousand, it would be excessive to say that the list went viral, but it certainly seems to have gone bacterial, at the very least.  Lost in the flurry of comments was any sense of why on earth I gave that advice to Matthew Mccauley in the first place.  Perhaps I should explain.  You may call this the geological or paleontological theory of American Philosophy Departments.

There are three main types of rocks:  sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous.  Here is a brief description of sedimentary rock, snatched from the Internet:  "Sedimentary rocks are formed from particles of sand, shells, pebbles, and other fragments of material. Together, all these particles are called sediment. Gradually, the sediment accumulates in layers and over a long period of time hardens into rock. Generally, sedimentary rock is fairly soft and may break apart or crumble easily. You can often see sand, pebbles, or stones in the rock, and it is usually the only type that contains fossils."

Paleontologists find sedimentary formations extremely instructive because by looking at a cross section of the layers of sediment that have been transformed into rock, they can date the relative age of the fossils found therein. 

American departments of philosophy have something of this same sedimentary structure, as a consequence of the flows of European theories washing up on our shores and depositing layers of silt that harden as they settle.  Ever since the first colonists came to the New World in search of land they could wrest from the local inhabitants, they have been receiving waves of philosophy from  the old country.   On my shelves, for example, is a slender, leather-bound volume titled Elements of Logick  that I picked up second-hand many decades ago.  It was originally published in 1827 [my edition dates from 1835] and the author, Levi Hedge, L. L. D., tells us in the Preface that he has drawn on Locke's Essay and a number of other familiar works of the English seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

By the time I was studying philosophy at Harvard in the 1950's, the sediment of successive philosophical waves was clearly visible in the major departments.  There were still some aging senior professors who had brought German Idealism back with them from their student years abroad.  Transformed by tenure into solid layers of academic rock, they were trapped like fossils in the lowest and hence most ancient layer, still teaching what they had learned as young men [there were no young women, needless to say].  A bit younger were the Logical Positivists, for whom  the Wiener Kreis was still their point of reference.  They also had achieved the rocky permanence of tenure, trapped in the layer above the Absolute Idealists.  And so it went.  Wittgenstein [early and then late], Oxford Ordinary Language Philosophy, Existentialism, Phenomenology -- wave after wave crashed against the Atlantic shore, the waves sometimes washing all the way across the Appalachians to the Midwest.   Each wave, when it receded, left a sediment of young professors for whom that was the happening thing.

Each new group of eager young graduate students would immerse itself in the latest philosophical style to arrive from Europe [Pragmatism being the only indigenous American philosophical school], avidly reading the journal articles in which the new thing was anatomized.  At about the time when they earned life tenure and sedimented into stone, a new fashion would arrive.   

The students who had neglected to study the history of their discipline, bemused and excited by the novelty of the nouvelle vague, were condemned endlessly to recapitulate their graduate student days in courses that were ever farther from what was happening in the journals of the moment.  If you made a vertical cut in a large Philosophy Department, there you would see the successive philosophical styles frozen in tenured stone and laid out for view.

So it was, last Wednesday after class, that I advised Matthew to read the great works of the tradition as a way of escaping the intellectual claustrophobia of the moment in which he happened to be serving his graduate student apprenticeship.  His professors would do a fine job of introducing him to the latest disputes in the professional journals, but, I warned, no matter what is right now the hot, pressing question that everyone is talking about, you may be absolutely certain that twenty years from now it will be something totally different.  With a certain careless joie de vivre, I remarked that there were only twenty-five or so books one absolutely needed to read.  Quite naturally, Matthew asked me what they are.  Inasmuch as I am roughly four times as old as Matthew, I felt a certain pedagogical responsibility to produce the list.

 

 

Friday, January 9, 2015

A WORD OF CLARIFICATION

Well, I knew I was letting myself in for it when I posted a list.  The number of visits to this blog blipped up, and, everyone has a candidate for addition or substitution.  Recall the point of the list.  It is not a list of my favorite philosophers, or a list of the people anywhere in the world who have, in my judgment, made important contributions that I consider philosophical.  It is a short list of books [not people] that a graduate student pursuing a professional career as a Professor of Philosophy in America should read before he or she gets the doctorate and goes out to start teaching.  And it is not all the books he or she should read, of course.  Note that it stops in the earlier nineteenth century.  After that, philosophy goes in a number of different directions and there is no longer a single tradition one can identify.  I also simply assume that any graduate student will, in courses, become familiar with whatever contemporary texts his or her professors especially value.

The real point of the list was as part of a warning that no matter what hot questions and modes of philosophical discourse are "in" right now, you can be sure that in  twenty or thirty years [i.e., when the young grad student is still teaching and writing], they no longer will be.  So just reading the journals will prepare you rather badly for a lifetime of ptofessional philosophy.

Now, you may respond that to do serious philosophy well requires reading widely in fields other than philosophy, but if you said that, you would be guilty of teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, as the most casual perusal of this blog or my published works would make clear.

So, go read the twenty-six books on the list, and then we can have a fruitful discussion about what you should read next.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

REPLY TO A. CAMERON

A. Cameron asks why I equivocate on Spinoza but include Leibniz in my list of twenty-five.  I studied Spinoza's Ethics in a semester-long course with the great Harry Austryn Wolfson that was one of the high points of my undergraduate education, so I was inclined to put him in.  Wolfson taught him as, in effect, the last and greatest of the Medievals.  His course connected Spinoza to the great debates in the Christian/Jewish/Muslim tradition.  Leibniz, on the other hand, had a profound influence going forward on Kant and others.  In addition, I think the Ethics is really impenetrable without a guide [such as Wolfson's own magnificent two-volume study].

However, my advice in all such cases of uncertainty is, Read it!  This list is deliberately kept short and manageable in the perhaps vain hope that a serious graduate Philosophy student will actually attempt it. 

By the way, I notice that I made a mistake in the numbering [see Aristotle].  The list is actually 26, not 25, titles long.  I just reviewed it, and I think I had read maybe 24 or so of the titles [including a mess of the medieval stuff] by the time I got my degree, but I was only twenty-three then, so perhaps I may be excused.  Also, I had taken four courses in Mathematical Logic plus Nelson Goodman's course on his first book, The Structure of Appearance.

I pass over in silence the suggestion that I comment on books I have never so much as looked at.  I may be a blogging hacker, but I have some shreds of principles remaining!

THE 25 MUST READ PHILOSOPHY BOOKS FOR GRAD STUDENTS

I met my Marx class yesterday for the first time, and talked non-stop for two and a half hours!  After class, I was chatting with one of the Philosophy Department first year grad students in the course and I mentioned that there are about twenty-five books by great philosophers that every grad student should read by the time he or she gets the Ph. D.  That, along with a firm foundation in mathematical logic, would stand you in good stead for a career.  Naturally he asked what they were [who can resist a list], and I told him I would work up a list.  I plan to hand it out next Wednesday, but it occurred to me that readers of this blog might be interested in it.

1-5.  Plato, the EUTHYPHRO, APOLOGY, and CRITO [all short, pretty much a quick read], the GORGIAS [my all time favorite dialogue], the REPUBLIC, the THEATETUS, maybe the SOPHIST.  I consider this five books, not seven.  The first three are really one book.

6-7.  Aristotle, METAPHYSICS, PHYSICS, NICHOMACHEAN ETHICS. 

8.   Medieval Philosophy -- I don't know.  You can't read the entire SUMMA by Aquinas, God knows.  But you need somehow to familiarize yourselves with the metaphysical debates of the Middle Ages [which includes the important Jewish and Arabic philosophers].

9-10.  Descartes, DISCOURSE ON METHOD and MEDITATIONS.  With the MEDITATIONS, it is fascinating to read around in the volume of Responses that Descartes got when he sent it out to all the important philosophers in Europe [there is a funny story with that -- remind me to tell you.]  The fascinating thing is that most of the objections that four centuries of philosophers have thought up to the MEDITATIONS appear in those responses, which were written within weeks of receiving the work.

11.  Leibniz, MONADOLOGY

[Maybe -- Spinoza, ETHICS.  Maybe not.]

12.  Thomas Hobbes, LEVIATHAN

13-14.  John Locke, ESSAY CONCERNING THE HUMAN UNDERSTANDING, SECOND TREATISE ON CIVIL GOVERNMENT [the FIRST TREATISE is a hoot, but it is not necessary.]

15.  George Berkeley, either A TREATISE CONCERNING THE PRINCIPLES OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE or THREE DIALOGUES BETWEEN HYLAS AND PHOLINUS.  Berkeley published both of these in his middle twenties!  When I was a student, we had a game called "I am now older than *** when he wrote ***.]  Berkeley and Hume were killers.  Locke and Kant were reassuring.  There was still plenty of time.

16-18.  David Hume, A TREATISE OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE, ENQUIRY CONCERNING THE HUMAN UNDERSTANDING, and DIALOGUES CONCERNING NATURAL RELIGION.

19.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, OF THE SOCIAL CONTRACT.  [When I went to Oxford in 1954 as a twenty-year old graduate student on a traveling fellowship, the Kant scholar T. D. Weldon, who, I later learned, was more or less permanently drunk, told me I had to read MILE.  It was not good advice.]

20-22.  Immanuel Kant, CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, FOUNDATIONS OF THE METAPHYSICS OF MORALS, CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT

[I pass in silence over Hegel]

23.  Jeremy Bentham, INTRODUCTION TO THE PRINCIPLES OF MORALS AND LEGISLATION [If you are going to study Utilitarianism, you might as well know where it came from.]

24-25.  John Stuart Mill, UTILITARIANISM, ON LIBERTY

At this point, everything explodes, with Kierkegaard [one of my favorite philosophers], Nietzsche, Frege, and all manner of other big names cropping up.  I leave all of that to your professors.

And there it is!  Are there other great books that I have omitted?  Good lord, yes.  Political Scientists are all gaga over Machiavelli, but I can't see it.  Should you read Augustine's CITY OF GOD?  Of course, but there are limits.  "Twenty-five" has a nice ring to it, and if you get through all of the books on this list, you will have a better education than your fellow students [and very possibly than some of your professors, but don't tell them I said that.]

The really great thing about this list is that it has not changed since I was a student, and it will not have changed, I warrant, by the time you are my age!  That is a claim that cannot be made in many other academic disciplines.