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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Saturday, August 27, 2011


The thing about waiting for a hurricane is that there is not much to do but sit and search the skies for indications. One thinks of the greatest hurricane scene in American literature: "The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God." [Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, 1937, Chapter 18.]

I have filled my bathtub, so that we will have water for the flush toilet if the power goes out. Susie and I brought many of her plants in from the porch, but she is soft-hearted, and when the hummingbirds began fluttering about looking for the missing feeder, she relented and put it back up. Here in Chapel Hill we are on the outer Western fringe of the storm area, so the only threat is that heavy rain will bring down trees in already soaked earth, triggering power outages. I bought some food we can grill, should we be unable to use the gas stove.

To amuse myself, I idly went back over all the writing I have done for my blog since I began posting my Autobiography fourteen months ago. Leaving aside the commentaries on the passing scene, and also setting to one side things I had already written [such as Volume One of the Autobiography, journal articles and speeches, and the unpublished book on deterrence theory from the early 60's], I calculate that in those fourteen months I have written 360,000 words of new material -- Autobiography, tutorials, and so forth. That is the equivalent of four short books, a lot even for me. I have enjoyed the writing enormously, and though some of it has been taxing, taking all in all, it hardly seems to have been a great effort. The hardest part of it all has been wrestling with the computer problems that crop up from time to time.

After mulling it over in my mind, I have decided to undertake a tutorial on the Philosophy of David Hume, even though the core of what I have to say is contained in the journal article I published in 1960 and wrote in the summer of 1956 [when I was twenty-two!] Because that piece was intended for a professional journal, it omitted all of the background and supplementary commentary that readers of this blog might find interesting and useful. In addition, I shall include in the tutorial a discussion of Hume's other great work, the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, on which I have never written anything. A word of explanation: Hume considered his two Enquiries his most important works, and many commentators have concurred, but I am very much more partial to the Treatise, which, as I have many times said, is in my judgment the greatest work of philosophy ever written in the English language. [Its only competitor, I would say, is Leviathan by Hobbes.]

I had another idea, which I may yet attempt after the Hume tutorial is ended, viz., an informal discussion of a number of books from different disciplines of which I am especially fond, and which may be not well known to modern readers. But that is for the future.

One cautionary note: in just ten days, Susie and I go to Paris for a short two-week stay. If I have not completed the Hume tutorial when it is time to leave, I will try to continue it from rue Maitre Albert, but the charms of the fifth arrondissement may deduce me away from the life of the mind. We shall see.


Unknown said...

I'm a sucker for Leviathan (the central text I examined in my undergraduate thesis) but Hume ain't bad either. I'm looking forward to the tutorial and the book discussion.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think Leviathan is simply beautifully written, and it is way more important than Hume on politics, of course, but I still think the Treatise is a greater philosophical work. Still and all, I can spend a happy hour re-reading either of them. Hobbes' definitions of "superstition" and "religion" are worth the price of even an expensive copy all by themselves.

Unknown said...

Leviathan also contains what I think might be the funniest jab at clergy ever written in any language. In chapter 47, Hobbes compares the Catholic clergy to the fairies of English folklore and makes the following remark.

"The fairies marry not, but there be amongst them incubi that have copulation with flesh and blood. The priests also marry not."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Lovely! One of the nice things about the Leviathan is that there are, as it were, dueling editions, one with an Intro by the great Canadian progressive political theorist C. B. MacPherson, and the other by the great English conservative political theorist Michael Oakeshott.

Marinus said...

I thought a lot of Leviathan was rubbish. The first third of it, where Hobbes runs through what he takes to be the background for his theory, is very, very bad indeed. His logic is a mess, his meta-ethics a joke, the scholastics he denigrates had far more complete and satisfactory accounts than what he offers there, he complains of people equivocating and offering definitions as conclusions and then promptly does the same (hypocrisy might not be a formal fallacy, but it is an embarrassment). What maybe makes it worst of all is that, once we get to the heart of the piece, none of the background plays any role and his politics is independent of it. It all smacks of someone getting carried away a bit.

Then there's the middle bit, which is... well, you know what the middle bit is. It's why we talk about this book.

If there is anything of significance in the final third, it has escaped me. Well-written, yes, an illuminating glimpse into the standing of religion in Elizabethan England, yes. But a philosophic advance? No.

Unknown said...

Marinus, I think it's a real shame that people tend to overlook the second half (parts 3 and 4) of the book. Hobbes was one of the first major thinkers to engage in what's come to be called higher criticism of the Bible, i.e., the study of the Bible using tools of textual criticism without assuming that it's divinely inspired. (Spinoza was the other big shot who helped initiate this.)

For instance, before Hobbes, nobody had made the rather obvious point that, if Moses wrote the books of the Pentateuch, it's puzzling that the end of Deuteronomy describes Moses's death. A traditionalist could easily respond to this (the usual counter is that Joshua wrote the end of Deuteronomy), but the point is that nobody had pointed this out before.