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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Friday, August 24, 2018

THOUGHTS HIGH AND LOW ON AN EARLY FALL MORNING IN AUGUST.


1.         The medium of the blog never fails to astonish me.  I pour my heart out in a series of deadly serious multi-part on-line essays, some as much as 30,000 words in length, and the response is quiet, respectful, rather muted.  I post two brief, humorous remarks, one about the Manafort trial and the other evoking some phrases from the Watergate era, and instantaneously there is a blizzard of comments, the first eliciting 19 and the second 22.  Perhaps the Zen Buddhists have it right – less is more.

2.         I try to follow Michelle Obama’s advice and go high when my opponents go low, I really do.  But I am only human.  So I must confess that the pictures of Eric and Donald Jr. inspire me with loathing.  I do understand that we must not judge people by their looks, and as someone who has been afflicted all his life with a disfiguring array of facial tics and involuntary grimaces, I take this caution to heart.  But I really, really yearn to see those smug smiles wiped off the faces of the Trump boys.  That moment may be approaching.

3.         Rather unexpectedly, in the midst of the discussion about the decision of the Manafort jury, a mini-dispute broke out about the epistemological views of David Hume.  I must confess that I did not expect things to turn in that direction, but since they have, let me say a few words about some ways in which modern readers tend to misunderstand the Treatise of Human Nature.

Hume is perhaps most famous for his refutation of the claims made for causal inference, a refutation that takes no more than a portion of one paragraph of Section 3, part iii of Book I of the Treatise, a section with the title “Why a Cause is Always Necessary.”  In that section, Hume offers a brief but devastating critique of causal inference, and his argument is justly famous.  But Hume is not a pyrrhonian sceptic of the ancient Greek sort, as he makes explicitly clear.  Most of part iii is actually devoted to an imaginative, albeit somewhat speculative, explanation of our natural tendency to believe causal reasoning, a tendency that he has absolutely no interest in undermining.  Hume would have understood and approved the charge to the jury that they must decide whether a defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  He coins the phrase “natural belief” to describe our inescapable human belief in causal judgments.  As Hume says, famously, in section 1 of part iv, "belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary and creative part of Hume’s argument is found in the very next section of part iv, which extends uncharacteristically for 31 pages.  Hume argues there that even after we have accepted causal inference as an ineliminable component of our mental processes, we must still recognize that our belief in the continued and independent existence of objects goes beyond anything that causal reasoning can establish.  This is, in my judgment, the philosophically most interesting section of the Treatise, a view that was shared, I think, by some early twentieth century British empiricist philosophers, most notably H. H. Price.

3 comments:

Unknown said...

For myself, Book III is the most philosophically interesting part of the Treatise.

Anonymous said...

Since your writing about philosophy ...

I'm reading "Beyond the Limits of Thought" by Graham Priest (2002). On page 81,in a section about Kant, he writes "A number of perceptive commentators have noted the similarity between noumena .. and prime matter.", citing Wolff (1963), p152 n

And on the evidence of your blog, still a perceptive commentator.

Graeme

Anonymous said...

The recent discussion of Hume on this site set me thinking about an infamous note that Hume made in connection with his essay, “Of National Characters.” In that note, Hume expresses the suspicion that Africans are “naturally inferior to” Europeans. He gives various reasons for this suspicion and then, at the end of the note, he expresses the doubt that any African could be, as he puts it in now-quaint 18th century terms, “a man of parts and learning.” No Enlightenment for them. No invitations to ‘the Party of Humanity.’ Hume doubts reports that there are (or can be?) cultured blacks, in one of the most striking lines I’ve read in his works: “In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.” This is no longer a sentiment that can be held or expressed by a decent, intelligent, and psychologically normal person. Only an unhinged bigot would today believe such a thing, let alone publicly admit and argue for it. But Hume evidently did believe it (I thought of all this when I read the discussions on this blog about Hume’s epistemology—a very large part of which is about the nature of belief). If Hume were around today, I’m certain that he wouldn’t believe this. But what Hume said has the permanence of print, and he’s stuck with that. Our moral sense seems really to change with history, and it seems to me there’s no getting outside of this. Jefferson today would not have the racial views of the actual Jefferson, and Burke wouldn’t write off most of humanity as “the swinish multitudes.”