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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."





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Sunday, October 1, 2017

WHY I DO WHAT I DO -- A RESPONSE TO COMMENTS ABOUT RAWLS

The comments attendant upon my remarks about Rawls’ work incline me to say something of a systematic nature about how I read a work of philosophy.  The first major works with which I engaged seriously were Hume’s Treatise and Kant’s First Critique, which together were the subject of my doctoral dissertation.  Both works are long, extremely complex, and filled with seemingly endless detail, all of which is, as one might expect, elegantly and intelligently presented.  But despite the fact that I became deeply steeped in both works and knew that detail intimately, when it came time for me to write about them, I ignored the detail, the elaborations and fine work, as it were, and instead approached both works in a quite different fashion.  I saw Hume and Kant, and then by extension other great philosophers as well, as engaged in trying to bring to the surface and articulate deep conceptual insights into complex core arguments.  My job as a commentator, I decided, was to try to dive as deeply as they had, to follow them like Gandalf wrestling with the Borlag in the caves of Moria, and to grasp those central ideas, shaking them loose from the accompanying detailed elaborations as though they were barnacles growing on the hull of a sunken ship.  Very early in my philosophical work, I realized that I experience philosophical arguments as stories, which it is my job to re-tell as simply and clearly as I can.

The greatest philosophers, I found, sometimes could see more deeply into certain ideas than they could say clearly the core of those ideas.  So it was that in my struggle with the Treatise, I concluded that to understand Hume’s most powerful arguments, it was necessary to set aside his claim that every idea is a copy of a preceding impression, and instead bring to the surface the fact that at the critical turning points in his arguments, he appealed not to ideas copied from impressions but to acts of the mind.  Hence my phrase “theory of mental activity” which I used both to describe Hume’s argument and as part of the title of my book on the Critique

Kant posed a problem of the highest order.  On the one hand, Kant presented a theory of almost unmanageable detail and complexity, in which the detailed elaboration was said by him to be central to his argument.  On the other hand, as I plunged deeper and deeper into the central portions of the Critique, it seemed clear to me that one could only articulate Kant’s enormously powerful argument by simply ignoring almost all of that fretwork and taking seriously in my reading of him certain passages that he himself said were unimportant or needed even to be omitted from the Second Edition.

Is this the right way to read a great work of philosophy?  Of course not.  Countless commentators on a great text have grappled successfully and valuably with portions of that text that I have chosen simply to ignore.  Is it a right way to read a great work of philosophy.  I believe that it is, but there is no point in arguing that as a general proposition.  In each individual case, readers must judge for themselves whether my monomaniacally focused reading of the text is valuable to them.  If it is, then in that case I have been successful.


It is in this way that I approached A Theory of Justice.  The fretwork and elaboration interested me not at all, but I saw in the book a central argument worth extracting from the text and engaging with.  Those who do not find this approach illuminating ought simply to move on.  For those whose minds work as mine does, my analysis may be enlightening.

6 comments:

Howard Berman said...

Would the word 'agon' as applied to poets by Bloom apply to your dealings with Hume and Kant?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It would if I were as great a philosopher as they, which I am not. But it most certainly applies to Hegel's relationhip to kant, or Marx's relationship to Hegel.

Howard Berman said...

So

Wolff is to Kant as Bloom is to Shakespeare?

Jerry Brown said...

I don't know philosophers nearly as well as I know Tolkien. Gandalf fought a Balrog in Moria, and both were killed in that battle- so be careful in your fights. On the bright side, Gandalf was sent back to finish his mission in Middle Earth, and the Balrog was just dead. Of course, comparing yourself to Gandalf- one of the wisest and most powerful entities on the side of the Good in Middle Earth- might be further evidence of that arrogance thing you had been talking about :)

F Lengyel said...

Bernard Gert included a critique of Rawls's veil of ignorance in Morality: Its Nature and Justification. I'll include a link -- I don't have time at the moment to copy out and comment on the relevant excerpt (last paragraph). But I thought it might be useful to draw attention to it.

F Lengyel said...

I do have time for a capsule summary of Gert's point: going under Rawls's veil of ignorance will guarantee unanimity, but this is unnecessarily restrictive: morality (and justice) require only impartiality. Gert also claims that Rawls requires unanimity because of Rawls's notion of rationality requires it; Gert provides a different account of rationality.