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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Although I had been hired to teach the Social Science survey course, I was also a member of the Graduate Philosophy faculty, and it was there that I made my real intellectual home. My interactions with the more senior members of the department were quite cordial, but not really intimate. My most vivid memory of Gewirth, for example, is a conversation I had with him on the street. I ran into him on my way to campus, and he stopped to tell me that he had been reading my Kant book [which would date this in the Spring of '63]. He paused with one foot on the sidewalk and one foot in the curb while he gave me his take on my various claims about Kant's philosophy. With regard to each one, he would either say "That rings a bell, Bob ," or "That doesn't ring a bell, Bob." Try as I could, I was unable to hear the tintinnabulation that served him as a guide to philosophical truth.

Warner Wick, who was at the time Dean of Students, also read the book the year after it came out, by which time I was visiting at Wellesley. [I shall pass over the contrast between this collegial behavior and that of the Harvard department. I never took it personally, however. It was my impression that they did not read each other's works either.] Warner wrote me a letter that started with two really odd sentences. Here they are. "Dear Bob, In the course of teaching 'your' course on the Critique of Pure Reason last quarter, I got fairly well acquainted with your book. I'm sure you will understand my saying that although I think I could have written a better one, I haven't and I probably won't, and that in the meantime yours is by far the best there is." That's a compliment, right?

The people I spent most time with, of course, were the other junior faculty. Sylvain and I knew one another from Harvard, although we had not been especially close. Sylvain is nine years older than I and actually served in the U. S. Army during World War II, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. [It was always fun at meetings of the APA to listen to Sylvain and Jack Rawls swap war stories. Jack served in the South Pacific, I think.] He had a wonderful, guttural, infectious laugh, and a perpetual smile on his face. The two of us collaborated one quarter on a graduate course in the Philosophy of History, a subject that had interested me ever since I had served as Morty White's grader in his course on analytic philosophy of history at Harvard. I thought we taught a pretty good course, but only two students signed up. The four of us used to meet in a seminar room and huddle at one end of the long table for warmth.

My relationship with Marshall Cohen actually went back a very long way. In the summer of 1948, when I had just completed my Sophomore year in high school, my big sister, Barbara, went to something called The Encampment for Citizenship, a camp for teenagers that had been founded two years earlier by Al Black and the Ethical Culture Society. Barbara, who was a terrific dancer, came back raving about a young man named "Mish" who was, she said, a really good social dancer. By the time I met S. Marshall Cohen, he was a balding philosopher, an intimate acolyte of Morty White with an eagle eye for social status. It was a little hard to put these two images together in my mind, but Marshall [as he was known by the time I met him] was very bright and lots of fun to have around. At one point after Cindy and I had married, we ran into Marshall in the elevator of our building. He gushed excitedly about the woman he had become involved with, telling us proudly of the famous people with whom she had had affairs. That struck both of us as really weird, even in the liberated Sixties, but social status seemed to mean more to Marshall than fidelity.

Dudley Shapere, of course, was a good friend. Joe Ullian and I had stood up for him at his wedding to Alfreda Bingham, the year that the three of us got our Ph. D.'s [see Chapter Four of Volume One]. Dudley was a thin saturnine man with a long death's head of a face and a puckish manner. To the collective astonishment of the department, it turned out that he had known Hugh Hefner in the Army, who gave him a member's Key to the first Playboy Club when it opened in Chicago in 1960. Dudley was a man of parts, being a terrific ping pong player in addition to doing the Philosophy of Science. I was meeting Vere Chappell and Bob Coburn for the first time. Little did I then know that Vere and I would be colleagues at the University of Massachusetts from 1971 until I left Philosophy to join Afro-American Studies in 1992.

The most junior member of the department was Roy Lawrence, a slender, enormously cheerful and ebullient man whose wife, Ann, was a brilliant doctor at the University of Chicago Hospital. After Cindy and I married, we became very friendly with Roy and Ann. When Roy found out that I knew Jack Rawls from Harvard, he hauled out of his file cabinet what he said was Jack's first published work, a review Jack had written for The Princeton Review of a translation of the works of the Church Fathers. Jack had actually considered entering an Episcopalian Seminary, and obviously knew a good deal about Catholic theology. The review was remarkable in its tone. Jack had written a judicious, balanced, considered evaluation of this multi-volume work, managing to sound as though he were an eighty year old monk who, after meditating on the Church Fathers for a lifetime, was now breaking his silence to offer his reflections on these immortal texts. Needless to say, I was very impressed. It gave me an insight into Jack that was absent from his later, famous writings.

Although I was not a member of the College Philosophy Department, I was a member of the College Faculty because of my involvement with the "Culture and Freedom" course, so I was invited to the periodic meetings of that body. I am not much of a fan of faculty meetings, although I have always, somewhat perversely, enjoyed department meetings, but the University of Chicago College Faculty was a fascinating collection of people, and attending one of their meetings was a bit like taking a time machine back several decades. These were the less distinguished survivors of the grand old Hutchins experiment, still hanging on long after the famous intellectuals who had made it so exciting had moved on to other pursuits. There is a curious episode of the original Star Trek in which Kirk, Spock, and the rest come upon a planet populated by folks who are engage in religious rituals that involve chanting what at first sound like nonsense syllables to the Enterprise crew. After a bit, they realize that the chants are actually fragments of the Declaration of Independence and other documents of the Founding Fathers which, being repeated ritually century after century, had slowly been linguistically corrupted until they lost all coherent meaning, retaining only the capacity to inspire awe.

That was roughly the relation of the College faculty to the principles of the original Hutchins vision. They could no longer actually remember the rationale for that experiment, but they were determined to cling to its fragments for as long as they could. This was a source of constant frustration to the new young faculty, whose desire for innovation constantly ran up against the complain that that was not the way things used to be done. At one point, one of us proposed requiring the undergraduates to study some history, which would have constituted an innovation. One of the old-timers actually got up and argued against the idea, on the grounds that Aristotle in the Poetics had judged history to be inferior to poetry because it dealt with particulars rather than with universals. He wasn't being witty, or faux erudite. He was serious. There was a certain pathos to the mindset of the old guard. Their world was changing, and they didn't like it, even though they couldn't really stop it. After one unresolved argument about curriculum, a newcomer suggested that each of us be allowed to make his or her own decision how to proceed. This struck me as self-evidently reasonable, but it was met with a cry of dismay. They did not want to be free! I felt embarrassed for them.

My commitment to nuclear disarmament did not wane as I pulled away from Cambridge on my way to Chicago. My old associations with Riesman, Erickson, Muste, and the Cambridge crowd atrophied, but I established new links in Chicago with what was really a world-wide struggle against the dangers of nuclear weapons. The University of Chicago was home to the oldest and most important disarmament voice, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, founded by the distinguished scientist Eugene Rabinowich in 1945, shortly after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In '47, the editors of the Bulletin came up with the dramatic idea of the Doomsday Clock, a stark image of a clock face with the hands pointing to seven minutes to midnight. Over the years, as the danger of nuclear war waxed and waned, the Bulletin moved the hands closer to or farther from the fateful twelve midnight. I had lunch with Rabinowich, and on May 23, 1962, he wrote to invite me to join the Board of Editors of the Journal. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to be associated with so distinguished a group of Sponsors as Hans Bethe, Detlev Bronk, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, Harold Urey, and the son of my old violin teacher, Jerrold Zacharias. For the next several years, even after I had left Chicago, I continued to review manuscripts for them, write reviews, and publish the occasional article.


Robert Paul Wolff said...

aaaarrrrgggghhhh. I wish they would stop doing that.

NotHobbes said...
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Anonymous said...

I was touched by the obituary on the passing of Dudley Shapere as I had been a personal friend since the early 60s. He was the actual advisor on my dissertation as my official one know nothing about the Philosophy Of Science. When I called to tell Hannah how sorry I was I got Dudley.
He is in ill health but still here. Another lesson to beware of what you read on the internet. Dr Stanley Wallen

Business Leads World said...
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