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Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Thursday, April 15, 2010


This is the final installment of Volume One. Tomorrow, I start Volume Two

No sooner had I finished my doctoral dissertation than I was overtaken by the fear that I would never manage to write anything again. I do not know what recess of my mind this fear springs from, but I have experienced it each time I have finished writing a book. Once out of the Army, I made some attempts to place portions of the thesis as journal articles, and actually succeeded in two cases. The Appendix to my dissertation contains the only real scholarship I have done in my entire life. It dealt with the interesting and important question what Immanuel Kant knew, if anything, about David Hume's philosophy, and how [and when] he knew it. The Appendix appeared in the Journal of the History of Ideas under the exciting title, "Kant's Knowledge of Hume via Beattie" [you could look it up.] I boiled down my lengthy and rather innovative interpretation of Book I of the Treatise of Human Nature to a mere forty pages or so, gave it the title, "Hume's Theory of Mental Activity," and sent it off to The Philosophical Review, the Cornell journal that was then, and I imagine still is, a premier place to publish. To my delight, they accepted it, with the proviso that I cut what I had submitted in half. Pride of authorship gave way to ambition, and I agreed. I can still see myself sitting on a plane, flying to California to visit my big sister, Barbara, slashing away at the text until I got it down to the appropriate size. When it was published in 1960, I ordered one hundred offprints. Forty-eight years later, when I retired and downsized my belongings to fit a condominium that Susie and I bought in Chapel Hill, I still had about ninety-six of them. I kept a few, and sadly threw the rest away.

But my father had instilled in me the deep-rooted belief that it was books that counted. I toyed with the idea of writing something on the philosophy of history, growing out of the thought I had had while teaching Soc Sci 5 that there was an interesting methodological or epistemological contrast to be drawn between the reasoning of a medievalist like Henri Pirenne, who had far too little data to work with, and a student of the French Revolution like Georges Lefebvre or Alfred Cobban, who had far too much. But nothing concrete came of it.

Then I taught the Kant course, accumulating three fat binders of lecture notes along the way. When the course finally ended in Late May, I decided to write a commentary on the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique. I was going to try to capture on paper my revolutionary reconstruction of Kant's central argument. As soon as my grades were in and my tutees had left, I sat down at my desk in Winthrop House and began to write. The mind represses the memory of pain, so that after a terrible trauma like childbirth, a mother can consider getting pregnant again. This no doubt has great survival value for the species. I think I have a similar psychic mechanism for the pain of writing. On Sept. 11, 1959 I wrote home to my parents, "God, how I hate to write, and love to publish." Yet once the pain of writing has faded from memory, and only the printed page remains, I go right back to it.

Once again, I wrote in longhand on sheets of unlined paper, counting the words at the end of each day and noting them obsessively in the text. Some of the writing went easily, as I transformed my lecture notes into fully formed sentences and paragraphs, but as I dug deeper into the underlying structure of Kant's argument, I encountered a problem. Even in my reconstruction, Kant's argument was so complex that I could not lay it out clearly and transparently in one unbroken line of exposition. There was just too much for the reader to grasp. I puzzled over this problem, and finally hit upon a solution. Instead of stating Kant's argument once, I presented it in five stages of evolution. At each stage, I would introduce a new element of the final argument. Then I would explain in what ways this version of the argument was unsatisfactory, and introduce yet another element to clear up the problem. This in turn would lead to another formal statement of the argument. Continuing in this fashion, I exhibited the full argument as growing organically in a succession of five stages, each one more complex than the one before, until with the fifth stage, the full-scale argument in all its power and subtlety could be presented in a form that was immediately comprehensible to the reader. In the book as it was finally published by Harvard University Press in 1963, my explication of the twenty-five pages of Kant's "Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding" fills one hundred four pages. Those pages cost me more labor and took me more deeply into the foundations of philosophy than anything else I have ever written.

When I had completed my handwritten draft of that section of the book, I showed it to Cindy with excitement and trepidation. Cindy was ferociously smart, but she had no head for philosophy. She had never read a word of Kant, or of any other philosopher, so far as I could tell, and she could not easily understand what I had written, a fact that made her intensely uncomfortable. When she put down the sheets of paper, she laughed nervously and said, "Nobody believes that." I put on my game face, but I was secretly very hurt. Readers of the book have for more than forty years remarked on the charm of the dedication, which reads, "For Cindy, who laughed." Until now, only I have known the pain behind those words.

By the end of the summer, I had written most of a draft of the book, but I set it aside to attend to Social Studies, tutorials, and all the other duties of a very junior Instructor. Firth had made it clear when I began the Instructorship that it was not renewable, so once again I was on the job market.

Nelson Goodman remembered me from the time ten years earlier when I had taken his course as a Freshman, and invited me to apply for a position at Penn. On a rainy Fall day, I took the train to Philadelphia to read a paper on the Deduction and be interviewed. The paper went all right, I guess, though the energy level in the room would have been more appropriate for a wake. But at the little dinner beforehand, I blew the job without even realizing it. The conversation turned to General Education, and thinking that this was my chance to shine, I expatiated on the Harvard program and my great pleasure at being offered the opportunity to range so far afield from Philosophy. Alas, Goodman was a sworn enemy of General Education, so the job possibility was dead before I even gave my paper.

Bundy wanted me to be kept on at Harvard so that I could continue to run Social Studies. He even offered the Philosophy Department half of an Assistant Professorship to make up the portion of the job not absorbed by administrative duties, but despite the efforts of White, who was back from the Institute, the Department wasn't buying. They had seen first Wang, then Dreben, then Cohen, and finally Cavell get Assistant Professorships, and they didn't want yet another Quine or White protegé foisted on them. I told Rogers Albritton that I had most of a book written on Kant, and asked him whether he thought the members of the Department would like to look at it. He thought for a long minute, and then said simply, "No." Had he stayed in Cambridge, Bundy might have managed to arrange something, but by then he was in Washington approving the invasion of Cuba.

In the end, it was Demos who came through. Donald Meiklejohn at Chicago wrote to ask him whether he knew a young philosopher who could teach in the big Sophomore Social Sciences course in the college - one of the last remaining fragments of the revolutionary educational program put in place by Robert Maynard Hutchins. Demos gave him my name, and I got the job. I had never studied Anthropology or Sociology or Psychology, of course, although I was teaching all of those disciplines in our Social Studies tutorial. Following the practice that I now recommend to my job-seeking doctoral students, I told the folks at Chicago that teaching social sciences was what I had always most wanted to do, and that it was only the narrowness of the Harvard mindset that kept me trapped in Philosophy. I figured I could learn anything between April and September. When my students ask me about my career, I say that I started teaching at Harvard and then went on to teach at the University of Chicago. It all sounds very glamorous - the royal road to academic success. Little do they know that neither school hired me to teach what I actually knew something about.

I was fast approaching the end of my extraordinary eleven year Harvard adventure. In Winthrop House, we gathered for a farewell dinner for one of the resident tutors who was about to go a good deal farther than Chicago. Karl Heider was a tall, lanky Anthropology graduate student who had been offered a chance to join an expedition to uplands New Guinea to study a headhunting people called the Ndani. This was a Stone Age society in which the men wore nothing but what Karl tactfully referred to, in German, as peniskocher. The expedition was being funded by Nelson Rockefeller's son, Michael. The local currency was cowrie shells, traded up from the coast, so the expedition was taking a hefty supply, figuring that American Express traveler's checks might not be readily negotiable. One old lady from Natick offered a monster cowrie shell from her shell collection that would be worth a king's ransom in uplands New Guinea at the current rate of exchange. As the drinks flowed at the dinner, we got a bit boisterous, and accused Karl of planning to inflate the currency, with dire consequences for the Ndani economy. Sure enough, Karl wrote back some time later that after they had been there a while, it ceased to be possible to buy a pig with just one shell. Karl's research was a success, but the expedition suffered a terrible disaster. Michael Rockefeller was lost on the coast in a canoing accident, and was never found.

I spent that last summer finishing my manuscript and preparing to leave Cambridge. In late August, I wrapped up the book and decided to take a little vacation. Since I had never visited Washington D. C., and now knew several people in the new Kennedy Administration, I took the train down to spend a week there. I checked into a hotel near the train station and went round to various office buildings to visit my friends. They were tremendously excited by their new jobs, but as I spent time with them, I grew more and more uneasy. It was all a bit like the court at Versailles under the ancien régime. There was a great deal of gossip, and a constant anxiety about the thoughts, the feelings, the preferences, the moods of one person, the President.

When I went over to the Capitol to take a look at Congress, my view of the government changed entirely. I spent several days in the visitors' gallery of the Senate, watching debates and votes. The fact that it was the one cool place I had found in a steamy town may have had something to do with my reaction. I watched with great amusement as Everett Dirkson protested his love of duck hunting and hunters, imitating to great effect a duck settling onto a pond at sunset. Apparently the government had imposed a tax on duck hunting in order to raise money for wetlands preservation, and then had used the money to drain swamps for development. The duck hunters of America wanted a five million dollar appropriation to make things right, and Dirksen, who was opposing all spending that week on grounds of fiscal responsibility, was trying to convince the duck hunters of Illinois that he felt their pain. I watched the great maverick, Wayne Morse, bellow to an empty chamber that he was not going to kowtow to the Catholic Church, with regard to what I can no longer recall. And I watched as all but two of the senators came to the floor to vote on the renewal of the Civil Rights Commission.

What attracted me so greatly was the fact that each of these men and women was an independent person, beholden only to his or her constituents, and not subservient to the President, regardless of how charismatic and powerful he might be. These were men and women with honor, not servile courtiers hoping to be given pride of place on a balcony or in a presidential jet. Exactly the same sentiments welled up in me as I watch octogenarian Robert Byrd deliver speech after speech calling George W. Bush to account for the damage he did to the U. S. Constitution.

It was fun visiting Marc Raskin in the Executive Office Building, and listening to the rumors about Kennedy and Marc's secretary, Diane DeVegh. It was interesting hearing Dick Barnet talk about the inside story at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. But it was ennobling to watch the debates on the floor of the Senate. I think it was that week in a hot Washington summer, rather than any of the books I had read, that once for all time soured me on the Imperial Presidency.

The University of Chicago, which runs on the Quarter system, gave me permission to skip the Fall Quarter so that I could prepare the manuscript for submission to a press, and Morty White arranged a small grant from the Kendall Foundation to help pay the bills until I started my Chicago job. But there was to be one more bit of draft dodging before my Harvard days were over. When a crisis blew up in Berlin that summer, leading to the erection of the Berlin Wall, Kennedy pre-alerted four National Guard divisions, preparatory to calling up two of them to active duty. Alerting a Guard unit froze everyone into place, all transfers or resignations cancelled. But pre-alerting did not have that consequence. I did not want to return to latrine duty, however fond my memories of it, so I decided to transfer to the Illinois National Guard and move out to Chicago prematurely.

I rented a U-Haul trailer, hitched it to the ancient Plymouth that I had bought from Sam Todes for one hundred dollars, loaded up my books and bits and pieces of household goods, said goodbye to my friends and to Cindy, pointed myself to the West, and set out to discover whether there was a world beyond Harvard.


Aliyah said...

Wonderful! and "God, how I hate to write, and love to publish" is a priceless gem. Thanks for the history of your Hume article, which I recently read for a course I'm teaching, and for the backstory on your Kant book, which I have started to read for the same course. I took the dedication to be in the same coy (and frankly annoying) vein of Fodor's dedications in his books, and was pleased (sad) to learn its true meaning. I'm looking forward to comparing your analysis of the deduction with Strawson's and Allison's, and awaiting with eager anticipation Volume Two...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you for writing, Aliyah. Knowing that someone out there is listening makes it all worthwhile.

David Pilavin said...

Good luck with volume 2!

(Although I am not sure that "luck" is the right word...)

Ever since you were mentionned in that other blog, I read your comment every day (and I read all of your memoirs up to date...)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good to have you with this blog, David. Brian Leiter's fascinating blog has led a great may people to find their way here. I am very grateful to him for that.

David Pilavin said...

I had a remark about "Cindy, who laughed".

Setting the emotional aspects of the story aside for a moment, I think she did stumble (if intuitively) upon an important philosophical issue.

Some philosophical stances are indeed unbelievable - however justified they may be.

Parmenides constructed one "true" metaphysical system and another one to live with.

Hume admits that he is unable to believe his own stances for more than so an so.

Now, one may say that the issue of believability is not a philosophical concern but a psychological one.

But Moore's paradox, for example, sheds a heavy doubt upon such a strict differentiation in this case: If a philospher does not truly believe in his own philosophy, he might be quite contradicting himself or herself.

Or, in Putnam's wording, one cannot look at the world "from God's point of view"...