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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Thursday, June 23, 2016

OFF TO SARAH PALIN LAND

In a few hours, we shall take a taxi to the airport, fly to Seattle, and tomorrow board something called The Celebrity Solstice for a one-week cruise up and down the southern Alaskan shore with Susie's entire family -- two sons, two daughters-in-law, and four grandsons.  We shall make stops at Ketchikan, Skagway, and Juneau, and view several glaciers.  I shall return on July 2nd, and resume blogging, probably, on  the third.

Last night saw a sit-in in the House chamber, led by John Lewis, to protest Congress' inaction on gun control.  It was the first time in many years that I have had the slightest positive feeling about the halls of government.  Something is stirring in this country, not at all caused by Bernie but powerfully amplified by his candidacy.  I don't ask for much  -- just a slight breath of air suggesting that the wind is shifting.

Perhaps I shall not be forced to embark, in the evocative phrase used by Russian dissidents, on an inner migration.

Sarah Palin to the contrary notwithstanding, we shall not be able to see Russia from our boat deck.  I am taking the Critique for light reading during the long daylight hours.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A STUDENT PAPER

A year ago, as I reported at length, I taught an advanced course in the UNC Philosophy Department on the thought of Karl Marx.  The liveliest and one or the most interesting students in the class was a first year doctoral student named Matthew Duvalier McCauley.  At the end of the semester, Matthew told me that he would be forced to suspend his doctoral studies to return home to California to get a job and help to support his mother.  I offered to mentor him while he was withdrawn from formal study, and when he was settled at home and working for Whole Foods, we began our work together.  I arranged for Amazon.com to deliver to him copies of the Meditations, the Mondadology, the Treatise of Human Nature, and the First Critique.  As he read through the first three of these works, he wrote papers on them which I read and commented on.  [He will read the Critique and write the weekly summaries in conjunction with my videoed lectures]  During this time, Matthew applied to a number of doctoral programs on the West Coast and will continue his studies at Berkeley in the Fall semester.  Although his principal interest is in formal logic and the philosophy of mathematics, he has enthusiastically embraced the plan of reading all twenty-five of the Great Works that I put on a list of “must read” classics.

When Matthew completed his study of the Treatise, I suggested he go on to Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, inasmuch as he has several times expressed great interest in religion.  He replied that he had just read them, and asked whether I wanted him to write a paper about them.  I said that perhaps he could write a paper on his own personal engagement with religion, a suggestion he enthusiastically embraced.  With his permission, I am reproducing here the short paper he wrote, after which I will write some comments on it.

                                                  On Religion   by Matthew Duvalier McCauley

I try not to make unwarranted generalizations. But if I may be permitted a slight exaggeration, I would say that the distinctive cultural ethos of black-American families is to be religious. This is not to say that all black Americans are Christian, or even that they all believe in God. What I am saying is that you will never have a conversation with the head of a black household without hearing an “Amen” or a “thank you Jesus” or a “praise God”, nor will you listen to a family voicemail that is shorter than ten minutes and absent of Christian-themed background music and in which you do not receive a number of blessings.

            But not all black Americans are religious. Some of them arrived at the conclusion that they are too intelligent for religion – immediately after an evening of YouTube-ing such philosophical heavyweights as Joe Rogan and Sam Harris, of course. Those black Americans are the enlightened ones. I suspect that their attitude is not new and is instead an artifact of the tradition of, after every human achievement, rejecting belief in God as childish and obsolete. After the discovery of the Higgs Boson, we became too intelligent for religion; after writing the Origin of Species, we became too intelligent for religion; after the creation of the printing press, God became a childish fiction; after the invention of the chariot wheel, we became enlightened. Probably some precocious caveman fancied himself too intelligent to believe in gods when he discovered fire.

            Now, my immediate family – me, Mom, and cat – was never really that religious. I went to church a few times as a small child, but I pretty much stopped going when I was eleven. I don’t think we had any particular reason for no longer going to church. I certainly believed that there was a God. And I’m sure my mom did, too, although nowadays I have no idea what she believes. Honestly, I just think she didn’t think questions about seeking God were all that important, and so she stopped taking me to church.[1]

            Freshman year of college is when I began taking religion seriously. After having what some would call a mystical or religious experience, God became the most important thing in my life. Theology[2] became so important that I directed, to (I think) the best of my ability, everything toward the end of seeking or serving God. That was five years ago. I am going to have to skip over a lot because so much has happened since then that I do not know what to focus on.

            Nowadays, theology is still the most important thing to me, and, in certain respects, even more important than before. But my views have changed. Then, it was as obvious as anything that there was a God and that Christianity was true. Now, I’m not so sure that there is a God. My lack of confidence is not due to any philosophical objections to the idea of God or the truth of Christianity.[3] 
           I think I believe that there is a God. But my confidence in that belief is so low that I do not know whether I should call myself a doubting theist or a very religious agnostic. All I know is that, if there is a God, I want to know him and know how to think rightly about him. That is the most important thing, and the issues surrounding it are so fundamental that I try not to philosophize about anything else until I am more clear on where I stand theologically. MY thoughts about God inform my thoughts about everything else.

            Now, I cannot end this paper without acknowledging a very curious brand of theism that I encounter from time to time. More often than not I meet these theists who believe that there is a God who intervenes in world affairs – a God who feeds the birds and clothes the lilies – but do not find theology[4] interesting enough to study it. I cannot understand that. I cannot understand a mind that is 1) convinced of the existence of a God who cares about humans, and 2) not devoted to theology. This is the mind of the nominal Christian or the cultural Muslim or one of those oppressively liberal New Age harpies who characterize themselves with such vacuous descriptions as “spiritual but not religious”. They who believe in the power of God and yet do not study theology are like those sick individuals who see the necessity of a certain vaccine and yet do not take it.

            The questions of theology are either the most important questions or a waste of time – a complete waste of time, on the order of speculating about the sociology of Atlantis. I see no middle ground; the nature of the discipline implies that if it is not the most important subject, it is not important at all.

[1] Interestingly, this seems to be the attitude of nearly everyone I’ve ever met in my extended family: both my biological father and his wife, most of my aunts and uncles, and nearly all of my cousins seem to find the question of seeking God unimportant. I guess, in a way, my family is an exception to my armchair statistic about all black American families being religious.

2 I loosely define theology as the discipline concerning right thinking and relation to God. So, theology, in this sense, includes prayer and holiness, as well as reading and thinking.

3 I’ve heard very many of those arguments against God’s existence. Frankly, they just strike me as childish puzzles that people who do not have an existential foot in the question of God’s existence throw together. The brainchildren of the Saints of counterfeit charity, who feign an air of horror at the idea of hell, but can’t wait to see their own enemies destroyed; who demand God to do something about all this evil, but who would love nothing more than the opportunity to do what they know is wrong. The last thing these people want to know is the truth, and indeed, I suspect that they are all too happy that the world is exactly as God created it. Jesus had an exchange with these disingenuous fellows in John 8.

4 See my loose definition in Footnote 2.

                                                                ----------------


Let me say, first of all, that is an authentic, charming, and thoughtful paper.  This and Matthew’s other papers strike me as the work of someone with a genuinely philosophical turn of mind.  And about religious faith, I think he has it exactly right.  To be religious is not to believe that certain propositions are true, or that certain entities exist.  It is to experience the world in a certain manner, one that is utterly incompatible with a non-religious experience of the world.  There cannot be disagreements between two persons, one of whom is truly religious and other of whom is genuinely not.  They may agree to coexist, and they may engage together in certain common projects, but they cannot possibly communicate.  I myself am thoroughly secular, though as should be obvious from this blog I have very great emotional sympathy with the religious experience of the world.  But it would be utterly pointless for me to argue with a believer about such things as heaven and hell or faith or election or, it goes without saying, the existence of God.

I look forward with great anticipation t Matthew’s Kant summaries.








Tuesday, June 21, 2016

FROM THE HORSE'S MOUTH

Professor Warren Goldfarb recently sent me an e-mail message with the following very interesting and useful comment on my argument that we should read philosophical works in their entirety.  Goldfarb is the latest in Harvard’s long line of philosophical logicians – a line that includes my classmate Charles Parsons, his doctoral dissertation director Willard Van Orman Quine, and his dissertation director Alfred North Whitehead.  Here is what Goldfarb had to say:


“Let me add something to your reasons for reading philosophical works whole, which you posted about a few days ago. 

Philosophical methodology is not a set thing.  In dealing with a philosophical issue, a great philosopher is at the same time working out the tools you can use to treat the issue, what the nature of the problem really is, and so redoing the whole nature of the enterprise.

There is no way of gleaning all that by reading excerpts.  You can't understand the real shift that Descartes was making without reading the whole of the Meditations and the Discourse, at least; or Hume without reading most of the Treatise (the interplay of skepticism and naturalism is certainly not something you can get by reading the usual excerpts).  The idea that the philosopher is reshaping the question while trying to answer it is very prominent in my area: when Frege says "arithmetic is nothing but logic" he means something very different from what Lotze meant; Carnap means something different again, although using the same language.  And of course, the interplay of methodological reshaping and the content of the philosophical question is the most important thing in all of Wittgenstein's work.”

Monday, June 20, 2016

OFF AGAIN

On Thursday, Susie and I shall fly to Seattle to begin a one week family gathering cruise with her two sons and daughters in law and four grandsons.  The cruise ship will take us to such world cities as Skagway and Ketchikan.  I plan to sit on the deck sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them and watch the passing dolphins.  We return home July 2nd, just in time for the Fourth.  I shall not be blogging while afloat [though, if I had a laptop, it would I think be possible], but I shall be re-reading the Critique to prepare myself for my lectures.

Only a fool would try to predict the politics during that [or any other] period.  My principal concern, which has not yet been addressed, is whether Bernie really plans to transform his campaign into an on-going movement.  If he does, I shall be there with bells on.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

SUNDAY MORNING MUSINGS

1.         I have started reading a book recommended by my sister, Barbara:  Beethoven for a Later Age, a memoir by the Takács quartet’s first violinist, Edward Dusinberre of his experiences with the quartet.  The book begins with Dusinberre’s recollections of his audition with the other three members of the quartet, all much older, all Hungarians, and all having played together for a long time.   As Dusinberre tells it, he was a very nervous twenty-four year old, fresh out of Conservatory.  His account focuses in great detail on the details of the music that had been chosen for the audition, in this case Beethoven’s Opus 59 number 3, the third Razumovsky.  As it happens, I have played this quartet [see my June 5, 2016 post], but at a very low level of technical competence.  Reading Dusinberre’s thoughts about the subtle interplay of the instruments and the musicians gives me some small sense of the chasm between my playing and theirs.  I had thought the differences were mostly technical.   The chapter is something of a revelation.


2.         Yesterday, prodded by curiosity, I did a quick check of the file drawers in which I keep materials, in chronological order, from every course, tutorial, section, and discussion group I have taught over the past sixty-one years.  I discovered that between 1960 and 1992, I taught the First Critique fourteen times – I then transferred to an Afro-American Studies Department and turned my attention to other things.  On twelve of those occasions, I used the system of required weekly Kant Summaries that I learned from my teacher and predecessor at Harvard, Clarence Irving Lewis, and twice I did not.  In late August, when I launch my videotaped lectures on the Critique, I shall of course not be able even to require that participants read the text, let alone write Kant Summaries, and once the lectures go into the Cloud via YouTube, there is no way at all to know who will be viewing them or what, if anything, they will read as an accompaniment to the viewing experience.  I plan simply to assume that viewers are reading the text as they watch.  I cannot imagine how else to teach so difficult a book.

Friday, June 17, 2016

RIGHT BACK AT YOU

My Preview of Coming Attractions triggered a number of interesting comments, so I am going to dedicate this post to replying to some of what has been said.  As always, I thank you for your continuing participation in this blog.  It has become, in effect, an endless seminar, with a large number of thoughtful participants, both those who comment and those who do not.

1.         S. Wallerstein asks why a Marxist like me is fascinated by Kant.  Well, Kant was my first love, which explains a part of it.  But more than that, I do not choose my intellectual associates on the basis of their compatibility with my politics.  I find Michael Oakeshott’s work fascinating and instructive, even though he is, or was, the intellectual guru of English conservatives, and I take the very greatest pleasure in reading Kierkegaard, even though I am an atheist.  I am beguiled by the beauty of clear, profound, elegantly constructed arguments.  I have strong political commitments, but at the very deepest level my response to ideas is aesthetic rather than ideological.

2.         Jerry, not only do I underline books and write marginal comments, I also cannot read a student paper without doing the same, a fact that slows me up something awful when I am grading a stack of papers.  Fortunately, I do not often have a truly rare book in my hands.  I know that one can make marginal comments to an e-text, but I find that to be a barbaric custom.  I also have an immediate sensory response to the feel and loo and smell of books.  My favorite book – for sensory and for intellectual reasons – is the Selby-Bigge edition of Hume’s Treatise.

3.         Anonymous – I was unaware of the Nietzsche passage you quote, but upon reading it, I am afraid I find it rather superficial and, dare I say it, juvenile.  I understand why Nietzsche might have been irritated by the enormous respect paid to Kant in his day, but his comments do not seem to me to rise above the level of really class schoolboy snark.

4.         S. Wallerstein again.  I love the fact that cartesiano means exceptionally clear and logical.  When I first got our Paris apartment, I decided that to improve my terrible French, I would read In Defense of Anarchism in the French edition.  To my delight, I found that in French I was cartesiano – exceptionally clear and logical.  Then it occurred to me that probably in French everyone sounds cartesianio!

5.         mesnenor suggests that one read the Objections and Replies with the Meditations.  Indeed!  There is a lovely story associated with them.  It seems that Descartes sent copies of the Meditations to all of the most important philosophers in Europe with precise instructions as to how to read them:  First one day on each of the six Meditations, resting, as is appropriate, on the seventh day.  Then spend a week re-reading and thinking about each Meditation, for a total of seven weeks in all.  Then send comments.  Descartes was very put out when comments began to arrive by return mail.  What is more, the most serious objections to Descartes’ arguments, which first-rate philosophers have managed to cough up over the last four hundred years, were to be found in those instantaneous replies!

6.         matt, it sounds to me as though you have gone way beyond what I would ever suggest!  If you studied the Critique with Bob Howell and Paul Guyer, then you had the best there is.  That is fabulous.  As for Locke’s First Treatise, I agree that it is tediously dull, but it does put the important Second Treatise in an interesting light.

7.         Tom, that is lovely about Kermit Roosevelt and the Penn connection.  I must ask Tobias about him.

Well, that will do it for now.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

PREVIEWS OF COMING ATTRACTIONS

I imagine it is obvious that my mind has been much absorbed with my forthcoming lecture series on Kant’s First Critique.  I have decided to write a post today explaining, as I will in my first lecture, why I think it is important to read entire great works of Philosophy rather than just the tasty bits.  This latter seems to be the approach of graduate Philosophy programs these days.  I was startled to learn, when I asked the UNC graduate students in my Marx course last year, that they were required to read journal articles but not complete works by the great philosophers.  Think of this post therefore as a preview of coming attractions, rather like what one is regaled with at the movies before the main feature comes on.  
  
Why read entire works of philosophy?  There are three reasons.  The first is that those of us who choose to make a career of Philosophy enter into the oldest continuous intellectual discipline in Western civilization, indeed two and a half millennia old.  I genuinely believe that those who arrogate to themselves the honorific title “philosopher” owe a duty of respect to that immensely long tradition, a duty to be fulfilled by at least acquainting oneself with the most important writings of Plato, of Aristotle, of St. Thomas, of Descartes, of Spinoza, of Leibniz, of Locke, of Berkeley, of Hume, and of Kant, as well as the other immortals of our profession.  Sneer if you will at an old man’s ramblings, but I really believe that.  To be a philosopher is something, it is a calling, not just a way to pay the bills or [when I was younger] to stay out of the army.

The second reason is that if you only read the selections from Descartes’ Meditations or Hume’s Treatise or Aristotle’s Physics that your instructor has assigned, then you are a prisoner of his or her judgment of what is philosophically important.  You may get an A, you may publish an article, you may even get a tenure-track job – all important and admirable ambitions – but you will never have a genuinely original response to the text you have dipped into, because you will simply be echoing what your instructor said or thought.  Mind you, your instructor may be a fine philosopher, but the world does not need acolytes, it needs original minds.  There may – indeed I can guarantee that there will – be portions of the text not assigned in which you find important, challenging, provocative ideas, ideas whose pursuit may make you a fine philosopher as well.

Third – and this is the deepest and most important reason – great philosophers, unlike those who write journal articles, think more deeply and in more complicated ways than even they on occasion realize and can say.  There may be important logical interactions between the parts of the text you have been assigned and other parts whose importance your instructor does not understand – indeed, that the author himself or herself does not understand.  You will never discover these connections if you read snippets.

 Here is one profoundly important example that, to the best of my knowledge, I was the first to point out:  In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant says that the pure concepts have possible or problematic, but not actual or assertoric, application to things in themselves.  His entire moral philosophy, as expounded most famously and powerfully in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, depends on this claim.  But in the First Edition version of the “Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding” in the Critique of Pure Reason, at the very deepest level of his investigations, Kant presents an analysis of concepts, on which his entire theoretical philosophy depends, that implies that pure concepts [the so-called Categories] cannot even have possible application to things in themselves.  Kant himself never realized this, but it undermines his moral philosophy.  Only someone prepared to study both Kant’s theoretical philosophy and his practical philosophy in the most profound way can discover this fact and confront it.  No one who tries to talk about Kant’s moral philosophy without a deep knowledge of his theoretical philosophy has a clue.


Well, my two minutes and twenty-four seconds are up.  I trust this will make you want to see the movie, which may run twenty-four hours or more [be sure to get plenty of popcorn before taking your seat.]

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

BACK FROM PARIS

A long direct flight, Paris to RDU -- I had the great pleasure of seeing Manhattan from 40,000 feet -- couldn't spot Zabar's at the elevation but it was there.  I spent part of the flight re-reading my book on the First Critique by way of preparation for my lectures.  I was appalled by how much of it I had forgotten.

My lectures will resemble the drawing in The Little Prince of a boa constrictor that has eaten an elephant [or alternatively, of a bowler hat.]  That is to say, I will cruise along easily and smoothly until I get to the First Edition Deduction, at which point my commentary will balloon and go on for some weeks, before I resume my leisurely stroll through the text.  I hope the students in the lectures, and the dozens, even scores, of people who watch them on YouTube, will read the text as they follow my lectures.

This should be exciting.

Monday, June 13, 2016

RETURNING TO REALITY, HOWEVER DISTASTEFUL


Last December, my curiosity piqued by the conventional wisdom that Trump could not win the nomination unless he drew more than 50% of the vote in the primaries, I carried out and posted on this blog a careful calculation based on two assumptions:  That there would be three candidates left in the race until late in the primary season [Trump, Cruz, and Carson, or Trump, Cruz, and Rubio] and that Trump would draw between 35-40% of the vote.  I concluded that under those conditions, he would win the nomination.  I was right.  Emboldened by my success, I return now to the task of prognostication.  Needless to say, this effort carries no more weight than my previous effort.  But blogging is not for the faint of heart.

Accordingly, I offer the following prediction:  Shortly after the Democratic Nominating Convention in late July, Hillary Clinton will open up a widening lead in national polls and a very substantial led in Electoral Vote estimates.  Sam Wang and Nate Silver will project the probability of a Clinton win in the high 80 percents or better, and this estimate will grow as November 8th approaches.  Clinton will win the election.  The Democrats will regain control of the Senate, and will gain seats in the House, but will probably fall short of regaining control, although it is not impossible that they will gain the 30 seats needed to make Nancy Pelosi once again Speaker.  What leads me to this optimistic conclusion?  [I have already indicated that I view a Clinton presidency with dismay, but I consider a Trump presidency a disaster fraught with dangers of genuinely democracy-ending potential.  I really am not interested in re-litigating this matter here.]

The calculation begins, of course, with the well-known and much discussed Electoral College advantage enjoyed by the Democrats together with the demographic changes that are favorable to them.  But what has eased my deep anxiety about the prospect of a Trump presidency is the clear evidence that Trump is utterly incapable of controlling his self-destructive impulses.  It has very quickly become the conventional wisdom that he is a narcissistic bully, but in addition he has, as Elizabeth Warren noted, a very thin skin.  He is compulsively incapable of ignoring criticism from any source, and his response to it is becoming increasingly desperate and unconvincing.  What is more, he is, astonishingly, utterly unable to recognize that a general campaign requires a quite different organization and approach than a primary campaign.

That he is despicable goes without saying.  That he is a non-stop braggart is well established.  But he has acquired, perhaps it now appears unjustifiably, a reputation as a shrewd businessman, which would seem to imply some capacity for acknowledging and adjusting to reality.  There is a good deal of evidence accumulating that he completely lacks that capacity.

Now, all this may be wrong, but I am reminded of David Hume’s observation that the degree of our emotional investment in an event irrationally colors our estimate of its probability.  A Trump presidency would be so utterly awful that we tend to exaggerate its likelihood.

If my confidence is misplaced, it will not matter, because the day after Donald Trump is elected, we will have more serious matters to concern us than failed predictions.  And it goes without saying that I shall work all fall to help Clinton win North Carolina, which in a very close election could be the margin of victory for her.  The day after she wins, I will go back to doing what I can to mitigate the harm she will do as president.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

MY BRUSH WITH IMMORTALITY

I had intended my next post to deal with the election, but news has come to me that takes precedence.  This is as close as I will ever get to immortality, so you will forgive the interruption.

Many of you will be familiar with the famous nineteenth century French painter Edouard Manet.  One of Manet's best known models, herself a noted painter, was Victourine Meurent.

It seems that for some part of her life, Meurent lived in the very building in which I am now writing these words, Number 17 rue Maitre Albert!

Whether she lived in my apartment, I do not know.  It would appear that there is a 20% chance, since the building has five floors, each one of which is an apartment [save for mine, on the ground floor, which is only half as large as the upper apartments, but never mind.]

How's them apples!

PARIS MUSINGS

The Seine is receding from its flood levels, and the banks of the river are reappearing, although there are still stretches of the Right Bank under water.  I hear from friends that farther down river, nearer the Eiffel Tower, things are a good deal worse, but that is not my quartier, so I take very little interest in such tidings.

Rascasse tonight, filet et sans peau, which is to say filleted with the skin removed.  I looked up "rascasse" and discovered that the English is "devilfish."  It is a scary looking fish before it is filleted.  I hope it tastes good.  Caramelized mandolined sweet onions and baby potatoes will complete a simple dinner.

The big news locally is the Eurocup soccer matches.  Lots of cheering from the sports bar at the end of the street each evening,  but I must confess that I do not care.  For some very odd and incomprehensible reason the French [like everyone else in the world except Americans] call Soccer "football."  Maybe it is just as well that I am going home on Tuesday.

Which brings me to the election.  But that deserves a separate post.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

DOWN MEMORY LANE

Earlier this morning, I spent a pleasant half hour listening on YouTube to the Alban Berg Quartet playing Beethoven's Opus 59 # 3, the third Razumovsky Quartet.  Listening to it here in Paris triggered a memory about which, I find, I wrote on August 2, 2009, not long after I began serious blogging.  As the post indicates, the hot political topic then was the struggle for the health care law that eventually came to be known as Obamacare, but on reflection, the lesson I drew in that post applies even more urgently to the current concern many of us have about the future of the Bernie movement.  I have decided therefore to reprint my seven year old post.  Here it is:

I find myself caught in the cross-currents of the wise advice given to me by my two sons. Two years ago, as I contemplated with apprehension my imminent retirement, I confessed to Patrick, my older son, that I was not certain how I could fill my days. I had been in school continuously, in one capacity or another, since 1936, when my parents enrolled me in the Sunnyside Progressive School, and I was not certain that there was life outside the academy. He suggested that I might try writing a blog, and with the help of Google, I launched The Philosopher's Stone. My younger son, Tobias, cautioned me that writing a blog could become all-consuming -- quite different from simply offering an opinion now and again in polite company. It seems they both were right. This little effort certainly soaks up the spare time, but it is relentless. Now that my readership has swelled, perhaps to as many as twenty friends and acquaintances. I experience what aesthetic theorists some years ago took to calling the "objective demand of the gestalt."


Having written yesterday about the play of competing interests in the writing of health care reform legislation, I think I should like today to say a few words about cooperation and collective undertakings. I shall begin with a wonderful little story that appeared in the NY TIMES five years ago. It seems that the sixteen violinists who made up the first violin section of the Beethoven Orchestra in Bonn were suing to earn more money because in most of the compositions selected by the conductor for performance, they played more notes than the wind and brass players, not to speak of the percussionists. [Honestly, I am not making this up. You can Google it.] The reporter, tongue firmly fixed in cheek, pointed out that oboists play more sustained notes, which ought to count for something. He concluded by predicting that the German audiences were likely to hear Brahms' Serenade No. 2 a good deal more often, it being a piece that Brahms scored for NO first violins. I am glad to report that the suit failed.


At the time, I was playing the viola regularly in an amateur string quartet that met weekly at the home of the now sadly departed Barbara Greenstein, second violin. The three other members of the quartet, with extraordinary patience and forebearance, permitted me to join them while I took weekly lessons and practiced feverishly until I was able to hold my own. We spent a cheerful quarter hour laughing about the story before returning to our Mozart.


Some while later, we decided to tackle the third Rasomouwsky quartet, Beethoven's Opus 59 No. 3. This was definitely at the outer edge of my abilities, so I took my viola and the music to Paris with me for a four week stay, and spent a week practicing each of the movements. The fourth movement of Opus 59, No. 3 is especially beloved by violists because it is in the form of a fugue in which the viola states the subject, playing gloriously all alone for ten whole measures. This is unheard of in quartet music, the viola usually being consigned to a subordinate status [rather like Nanki Poo, who masquarades as the second trombone in a traveling band to escape the loving attentions of Katisha.] Beethoven must have been in one of his manic phases when he wrote the quartet, because he gives as the tempo for the movement a quarter note = 162 -- which is to say, one hundred sixty-two quarter notes per minute. The only string quartet I have ever heard play the movement at this impossible speed is the Emerson, which is in general famous for playing everything very fast. At that speed, the music goes by so fast that you cannot actually listen to it. You must simply cringe in your chair and let it assault you.

Well, there was no question of my playing the damned thing at that speed, but with serious practice, I did get up above 100. When I got home, the quartet met, and at the start of the fourth movement [which starts attacca subito right after the third movement, so there is no pause to discuss tempi] I launched into my solo as fast as I could manage it. After a measure or two the others coughed politely and told me that they were not up to playing their parts at that speed. The over-achiever in me gloated secretly at having "won," but the musician in me, always struggling to get to the surface, recognized that winning was simply not part of the collaboration that constitutes quartet playing. Getting to the end of a movement first is an occasion for embarrassment, not congratulation.

You see, playing quartets is an inherently cooperative venture. The cooperation is not instrumental to the activity [if I may be permitted that word], it is essential to it. The collaborative character of the activity is part of the value of it. [This is one of the ways in which amateur chamber music differs from professional performance. For professionals, all that matters is the quality of the music produced. Cooperating with their fellow musicians, while usually instrumental to that end, is not at all an essential part of the experience.]

What has all of this to do with health care reform and American politics? Very simply, and far too briefly [I refer you to the last chapter of The Poverty of Liberalism for a fuller discussion], the American political system completely fails to make an important place for the ideals of comradeship, collective action, and the intrinsic value of shared commitment. To be sure, many people who become active in politics find these valuable experiences as they work to advance some agenda, but the genius of the American system is competition, not cooperation.

I think this is why I fell so completely in love with South Africa when I first went there in 1986, before liberation. In South Africa then, the instant I met someone, I knew that person was either my comrade or my enemy. The practice of calling one another comrades was not some automatic verbal tic, as in the great old Peter Sellars movie, I'm All Right, Jack. It was an expression of a living commitment to a collective undertaking whose value lay at least in part precisely in its collective form.

That is part of what I was trying to capture in my vision of a college as a community of shared responsibility. So, by all means, let us collect signatures and ring doorbells and contact our representatives and try to bring on them sufficient pressure to get a good health care bill. But let us also search for ways to build into our lives the ideal of comradeship that inspired the early Socialists, and still has the power to capture at least some hearts today.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

THE PEACE THAT PASSETH ALL UNDERSTANDING


For months now I have been in an almost constant state of agitation about the current political campaign.  My distaste for Clinton and fear of Trump color my days and nights.  Now, happily, a soothing calm has settled on me, making even the daily chores of shopping at the market and preparing dinner once again joyful.  [Tonight?  Seared tuna with a dipping sauce of garlic, ginger, and soy sauce, haricot verts, and my signature dish of cherry tomato halves sautéed with garlic and chopped fresh basil.]

The cause of this calm?  The thought that very soon I shall again be teaching Kant’s First Critique.  It is for me what it must be for a pianist or harpsichordist who returns to playing Bach’s Art of the Fugue.  I find myself throughout the day delivering the first lecture in my head, planning the sequence in which I shall explain the countless things students must know in order to begin to appreciate that transcendently [and also, as it happens, transcendentally] great work.

Oh, I shall volunteer for the Clinton campaign in North Carolina and do my little bit to carry the state for her, perhaps also helping to rid us of our egregious senior senator and appalling governor.  But as I enter data or walk door to door, in my head I shall be revisiting the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding or the Second Analogy.

What fun!

PERSONAL BEST


My older son, Patrick [the famous chess Grandmaster], and his wife, Diana Schneider, started a charitable fund several years ago.  They raise money by putting on an annual conference that business people pay to attend and they distribute the funds they raise to worthy educational projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they live.  I have from time to time mentioned University Scholarships for South African Students, a charitable 501(c)(3) fund which I started to help Black students to attend historically Black universities in South Africa.  I think Patrick and Diana have raised more in the several years they have been running their conference than I managed to raise for USSAS in a quarter of a century.

This put me in mind of something once said to me by my younger son, Tobias.  Tobias is not only a brilliant legal scholar.  He is also in spectacular shape.  When I see him and give him a parental embrace, I feel as though I were hugging a tree.  He works out at gyms wherever he is.  Eight years ago, when Susie and I moved to Chapel Hill, I started going each morning to the nearby Wellness Center, where I would walk for a half hour on the treadmill, slowly increasing the speed and raising the angle at which I was “climbing.”  Like as not, right next to me would be a trim young man or woman running full tilt at an even greater angle.  When I mentioned this to Tobias one day, he said, “Dad, there is always going to be someone faster or stronger than you.  You must concentrate on your personal best.”  That makes me feel better when I compare my rather feeble fund-raising with Patrick and Diana’s much more spectacular success.

I had occasion this morning to call up Tobias’ wise words yet again.  My standard morning walk here in Paris takes me along the quais on the Left Bank, a favored route for runners.  There are always dozens of men and women pounding past me, some wearing shirts with the message “Finisher in 20k Race” and the like.  That does not bother me.  I never liked to run even when I was a young man, so I just stand aside and let them breeze past me.  But this morning a young woman in high heels, hurrying to work passed me, and that sort of depressed me.  So I bethought myself of Tobias’ wise words, and concentrated on my personal best.

Of course, at my age, even that has slipped somewhat.  My daily walk in Chapel Hill used to take me exactly one hour, but now it takes an hour and twelve minutes.  I have, as they say in baseball, lost a few steps.  I imagine that when I am ninety it will take me an hour and a half or more.  I will cling to Tobias’ wisdom.

Monday, June 6, 2016

MANY THANKS

Many thanks for all the advice about the books.   It is only ten books, so I shall load up my one piece of luggage, put the rest in my briefcase, and lug it all back to Chapel Hill to prepare for the Kant lectures.  They should start in late August.

I did a little calculation, and if any of the grad students who join the "study group" have grandparents who went to Harvard or Radcliffe, I could well have taught them Kant as well!  [The class Tom Cathcart took met fifty-six years ago.  Perfectly possible.  I am afraid I still think of him as Young Tom.]

FRANCE LURCHES UNSTEADILY INTO THE STONE AGE

There are times when I wonder whether this charming country will ever make it into the twenty-first century.

I had a small disaster  in my apartment -- a water leak from the floor above that destroyed a large chunk of my ceiling. It has been repaired, and my insurance company has actually sent me a large check [minus a deductible, of course] for the damages.  Now I wish to deposit the check into my French bank account, which I opened twelve years ago with the large international bank BP Paribas.  There is a branch of BNP Paribas in Place Maubert, a stone's throw from my apartment.

HOWEVER:  In France, one may only deposit money at the branch where the account was opened, which in my case is [or was -- more of that in a moment] the main office in Place de l'Opera, a complex Metro trip from my apartment to the Right Bank,  Apparently the bank does not trust me to give them money -- TO GIVE THEM MONEY -- unless they "know" me!  I put "know" in scare quotes because over the years I have had a series of "conseillieres," none of whom knows me at all.

But international accounts are no longer handled in the main office.  That service has been moved to another office on rue de Notre Dame-des-Victoires, which is even harder to get to by Metro.  I have sent an email to my new conseilliere asking for an appointment so that I can make a deposit.  I live in fear that she will say I must go to Place de l'Opera, where, however , they will say that they no longer know me.  Do you suppose they are even interested in getting money?  They are, after all, a bank.

I don't even want to talk about what I would have to do to take money out of my account!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

BAD NEWS :)

Twelve years ago, when we bought this little apartment in Paris, I was totally invested in the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies at UMass, of which I was the Graduate Program Director.  To fill the shelves here, I brought over a heap of books on Kant, which have sat undisturbed on the shelves all this time.  Now that I have decided to deliver a semester long series of lectures on the First Critique, I realize that I need some of those books.  I just made a judicious selection to bring home on June 14th.  My luggage is going to weigh a ton!

GOOD NEWS

I had a very encouraging and helpful response from the UNC Philosophy Department to my inquiry about teaching a Reading Group [not for credit] on the First Critique so I am going to do that this fall.  It will be a series [perhaps twelve or more] of two hour lectures on the work, taking students through the entire text.  The lectures will be recorded and put up on YouTube as I proceed.  It has been more than twenty years since I taught the Critique, and I am looking forward to the challenge.  If my Brown experience is any indication, the classroom format should work nicely.  Whether anyone will actually watch even one of them, let alone all of them, I leave to the ages.  Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe would not be concerned about such things.

Wallyver, the only good English translation, which is the gold standard, is by Norman Kemp Smith, readily available.  With that I strongly recommend my commentary, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity.  I just checked Amazon.com, and there are copies available, plus a Kindle edition [who knew?]

Don't read the Prolegomena first.  It is actually misleading, for reasons I will perhaps explain in my lectures.  But it wouldn't hurt to review Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy and Book I Parts i and iii of Hume's Treatise of Human Nature.

Friday, June 3, 2016

OMNIUM GATHERUM


This morning, I find myself turning over in my mind three or four things I should like to talk about.  As they seem to have nothing at all to do with one another, I have decided simply to deal with them seriatim, as it were.  Hence the title of this blog post.

First:    It has been raining heavily in Europe for days, and as a result, the Seine has risen way above its normal level.  The wide walkways and sitting areas right next to the river have been totally obliterated by the rising water, which is reported to be 6 metres{!!} above normal.  Houseboats are marooned, their gangplanks useless.  The Batobuses, including Yves Montand and Jean Gabin, are unable to carry tourists up and down the river because their landing places are swamped.  The stairways leading down from the quais to les berges [the banks of the river] are under water half way up or more.  And on my walk this morning, I saw a large rat on my street squashed by a car – I think the rising water is driving the rats out of the sewers.  Yesterday it was announced that the curators at the Louvre are moving artworks up from the lowest level for fear of flooding.  How long will this last?  Well, the Seine flows, I would estimate, at maybe 3.5 or 4 miles an hour, which means that water from the east will take one day or a bit more to travel 100 miles.  So it will take at least a week for things to get back to normal.  And more rain is forecast!  Our apartment is in a seventeenth century building half a block from the river.  Fortunately, our little apartment does not come with a storage locker on the basement level of the rest of the copropriété. 

Second:  Readers of this blog may recall some of the problems I have had with the combined TV/Internet/Telephone service I get from a company formerly called France Telecom [sort of like the late pop icon formerly known as Prince.]  This time when I arrived, I tried everything with trepidation only to find that it all worked perfectly.  Until three days ago.  Then, unaccountably, my phone went missing.  I could not get a dial tone, and when I tried calling it from my IPhone [which works so long as it has Internet access], I got a message [in French, of course] saying that it was going direct to voicemail, without ringing.  The handset is very upscale, with many buttons whose functions are totally beyond me, so I figured that I had accidentally pressed something that had screwed it up.  After several days, I decided to unplug the unit and take it along to the big phone store on the right bank that has tech support.  But before doing that, I tried it one more time – and it worked.  Why?  Beats me.  Maybe it does not like to be taken into the shop.  Maybe the phone company was just having fun with me. 

Third:  I have been brooding about the idea of a new series of videoed lectures, and the idea of a series on the Critique of Pure Reason is very attractive.  However, I feel that my Ideological Critique lectures were stiff and unappealing, whereas the Brown lecture, delivered to real people, struck me as relaxed and much more attractive.  So here is what I am thinking about:  I will offer a non-credit “reading group” next Fall in the UNC Philosophy Department on the Critique, and advertise it in the Duke department as well.  I am reasonably sure the UNC department will have no objection.  I will meet once a week for as long as it takes, and record it all on my little camcorder, unless UNC has better equipment that they are willing to allow me to use.  The real question is whether there are any students actually willing to stay with a close reading of the greatest work of philosophy ever written.  Since apparently their professors do not by and large ask them to read entire books of any sorts, and since studying the greatest work of philosophy ever written will not directly help them to get jobs, I may find that there is no interest at all.  Stay tuned.

Fourth:  Responding to yesterday’s post, Michael links to a symposium on Herbert Marcuse and asks whether I would like to comment [see the comments to that post for his lengthy quote from the symposium.]  Let me make a brief response.  To cover all of the things said in that symposium would take me far too long.  Perhaps because Marcuse was a friend of mine, I do not view him sub specie aeternitatis, as it were.  I leave that to the ages.  Certain of the things he said, principally in One-Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization, seem to me to have been simply brilliant, and as true now as they were when I read them in the sixties.  My essay, “What Good is a Liberal Education,” draws on those ideas.  If I may use a shorthand to save time and space, I have in mind the notions of surplus repression from Eros and Civilization and repressive desublimation from One-Dimensional Man.  Like all of us, Marcuse was thoroughly a person of his time and place.  He explained the excessive abstractness of One-Dimensional Man by noting that all true ideological critique must be rooted in real movements on the ground, and since he could see no such movements in the America he was looking at in the early sixties, he was forced, as he said, to retreat to abstractions.  No sooner had he written that than “the Sixties” burst on the scene.  Herbert was delighted by the upheavals, and he was especially entranced that an old academic pedant like him could become the darling of the rebellious young, in France and Germany as well as in America.  I do not think he had a theory about that.  He just thought it was delightful [rather like Noam Chomsky, after establishing himself as the leading linguistic theorist of his day, became a guru to the left.  Except that I suspect Noam takes himself more seriously than Herbert did.]

 

 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

WORLD FAMOUS IN POLAND


In the remake of the old 1942 Jack Benny comedy, To Be Or Not To Be, Mel Brooks plays the head of a two-bit touring company of  actors trapped in Poland when the Nazis invade.  At one point he describes his performance of Hamlet’s soliloquy as “world famous in Poland,” which I have embraced as a splendid description of someone who is a moderately big frog in a very small pond.  I was reminded of this by the suggestion of several blog readers that I do a series of videoed lectures on Marx, or even on Kant’s First Critique.  As a way of measuring pond sizes, let me list some figures on the views of various videos, as recorded by YouTube.
Here first are the figures on my ventures into The Cloud:

Brown Lecture:                                   1704 views
Ideological Critique, Lecture One:    3174 views
Ideological Critique, Lecture Two     1193 views
Ideological Critique, Lecture Three   1208 views
Ideological Critique, Lecture Four      798 views
Ideological Critique, Lecture Five       767 views
Ideological Critique, Lecture Six         508 views
Ideological Critique, Lecture Seven    356 views
Ideological Critique, Lecture Eight     320 views
Ideological Critique, Lecture Nine      230 views
Ideological Critique, Lecture Ten        189 views

You will notice a certain pattern!
Now compare these figures with two others:

Richard Wolff, Marxian Economics Versus Capitalism, 70,627 views
Michael Sandel, Justice, Episode 1   6,466,665 views.

I think I can without fear of contradiction describe myself as a tadpole in a teacup sized pond.
A series of lectures on Kant’s First Critique would make my Ideological Critique lectures look viral by comparison, I rather suspect, leaving to one side the fact that they would necessarily presuppose that the viewers were actually reading the Critique!  Perhaps I should return to my hut and practice the viola da gamba.
 

 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

COMFORT FOOD

For all of you who are sore afflicted, Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium has this balm.

MY PARIS DIGS

Having posted YouTube videos of myself lecturing in my office in Chapel Hill, I thought someone might be interested in what my Paris workspace looks like.  Below is a photo I took earlier today.  The map of Paris over the desk dates from 1789.  Our little street, rue Maitre Albert, is on it -- too small to see in the photo, of course -- but back then it was called rue Perdu, the lost street.  It was renamed in the 19th century, when the Louis Napoleon/Baron Haussmann renovation of Paris took place.  Our street was named after the great medieval teacher of Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus.

The shelf of books directly over the map holds one copy of almost every edition and translation of every book I have ever published -- the others are displayed on shelves not shown in the photo -- seventy-one volumes in all.  Above that shelf and extending to the right are the dark blue volumes of the complete German edition of the works of Marx and Engels.  I often wonder whether any of the more than one hundred renters have dipped into the Collected Works.  I hope so.

Opposite my desk at the other end of this tiny 330 square foot studio is the lovely kitchen area where I cook the dishes I mention in my blog posts.  Sitting at my desk, the big French doors that lead into the apartment from the interior courtyard are to my right.

NOODLING

My old student Tom Cathcart asks whether I ever taught the famous Kant Course at UMass.  The course was famous, by the way, not because I taught it but because Clarence Irving Lewis taught it for decades at Harvard, and generations of Harvard philosophy students, of whom I was one of the very last, took it.  It was ferociously difficult and the best course I ever took in my life.

The answer is yes, I taught it on several occasions.  There is a sad story connected with one of the first times I taught it at UMass.  In the middle '70s [I am in Paris and do not have access to my file cabinet] I decided to offer a year-long graduate seminar on Hume and Kant, something I had always wanted to do.  I took the students, over the course of the year, through Hume's Treatise and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Kant's First Critique and the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.  At the time, I was living in a beautiful brick Federal style house in Northampton, six or seven miles to the east of the university, and I thought it would be splendid to have the seminar meet in my home one evening a week.  I would serve tea and coffee and snacks and hold forth on Hume and Kant.  What could be better?

Well, some while into the first semester word came back to me through the rumor mill that the students were seriously put out by the necessity of having to come over to Northampton for the course, so I gave in and rescheduled it for one of the ugly barren seminar rooms in Bartlett Hall where the Department had its offices.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that the experience put me in mind of the Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 7 verse 6.  Oh well.