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Sunday, September 2, 2012


This being Sunday, obsessive browsers in the land of punditocracy like myself are presented with a surfeit of opinions, from the right, from the self-satisfied middle, and from what passes for the left in this benighted land.  The opinions themselves are for the most part toothless, no danger to themselves or others, but the reading of them, I find, can be very dangerous indeed.  They raise my blood pressure alarmingly.  This is, I suppose what it is to be addicted -- consuming something that long experience teaches can be harmful to one's health, and yet unable to stop.  My father was both an alcoholic and a nicotine addict.  If necessary, he could stop drinking, but he was completely unable to stop smoking, and in the end, it was the cigarettes that killed him.

Having an opinion is at once so easy and seemingly so important.  The official purveyors of opinions -- the Thomas Friedmans and Maureen Dowds and the rest -- appear to think that when they have formed an opinion they have done a good day's work, and can knock off.  It is rather like those media stars, the Kardashians, who are said to be famous for being famous.

It all puts me in mind of one of the most poignant and moving passages in all of Philosophy, the Preface to Kierkegaard's short, beautiful work The Philosophic Fragments.  Here he is as he begins the last long paragraph of the Preface:

"But what is my personal opinion of the matter herein being discussed?   ... I could wish that no one would ask me this question;  for next to knowing whether I have an opinion or not, nothing could very well be of less importance to another than the knowledge of what that opinion might be.  To have an opinion is both too much and too little for my uses.  To have an opinion presupposes a sense of ease and security in life, such as is implied in having a wife and children;  it is a privilege not to be enjoyed by one who must keep himself in readiness night and day, or is without assured means of support."

To have an opinion about public affairs implies that one has a secure income insulated from the matters about which one has formed the opinion.  Thomas Friedman will continue to live a comfortable upper-class life regardless of the total disconnect between his opinions and the events of the world.  Maureen Dowd is free to write dismissively of Barack Obama as a "disappointment" because the TIMES will continue to pay her salary regardless of what happens to the auto workers in Detroit or to a gay couple in Mississippi.  And of course, I sit here in a comfortable Chapel Hill condo, confident of receiving my pension and Social Security bank deposits every month, no matter how witty or penetrating or banal and superficial my blog post of the day may be.

At the same time, I am struggling to launch a program at Bennett College that may, if I have some success, help a few students to earn a college degree who otherwise might drop out.  In Kierkegaard's words, when it comes to my involvement with Bennett, "to have an opinion is both too much and too little for my uses."  Each day, I must make decisions with too little information and nothing like adequate resources, hoping that the choices I make will lead to at least a modest success.

The contrast between my efforts at Bennett and my self-indulgence as a blogger makes me wonder whether perhaps I should be engaged in the latter at all.


Jerry Fresia said...

Somehow I can't believe that you wrestle with the question of blogging. Sure, your work at Bennett is a pinnacle of sorts. But your blog is a parallel achievement. I had been puzzled by an issue for years before I finally solved the problem because of a blog of yours on Marcuse. I'm sure others, many more than will ever get degrees at Bennett, could say something similar. Synaptic pathways connecting neurons are being opened all the time. Not a small thing. Regarding the opinion side of things, didn't Beethoven, in between his major works, write little playful things? All part of the creative process. Actually, if I were in charge, I would make it a requirement that full professors, in order to get their pension, would be obligated to blog and/or do youtube videos - if, indeed, "the point" is to change the world.

Jerry Fresia said...

PS To cover my bets, I just sent Thomas Friedman a note asking him what he knows about the vision of Goethe and how it relates to the revolts against mechanism of the late eighteen century.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jerry, you are a balm to my soul. Thank you. By the way, I would love to know whether Friedman replies.

Derek said...

If you ever wonder about the aim of your blogging, you might ask what Kierkegaard must have thought about the purpose of his authorship: was he just aiming to have as many readers as possible talking about his works in parlors? Or would he think his purpose as an author to be better fulfilled by the sincere engagement of a single individual? What he says of faith applies here: "Anyone who believes that it is fairly easy to be the single individual can always be sure that he is not a knight of faith, for fly-by-nights and itinerant geniuses are not men of faith," and his proclaimed target was always the individual. Blogging itself isn't self-indulgence; blogging just for the sake of garnering a big audience does. But the latter, it seems to me, is certainly not your aim.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The truth is that I am most at ease, happiest, most fully engaged not when I am offering an opinion, but when I am explaining a difficult or complex idea as simply and transparently as I can.

I readily admit being seduced by the idea of a big audience [the day after Brian Leiter first mentioned me on his blog, my hits soared, and, momentarily, my spirits did as well]. But the experience is ephemeral and meretricious [i.e., "falsely alluring, like a prostitute," to give the correct definition of that word.] On the other hand, writing what I call a tutorial, in which I sort out Kant's central argument in the Analytic or Marx's Labor Theory of value is truly and deeply pleasurable.

Don Schneier said...

Or, to generalize, whether or not any activity is 'self-indulgent' is independent of the nature of the activity.

P. J. Grath said...

Even if (which I do not believe) your motivation for keeping the blog were purely self-indulgent, it provokes thought in and provides pleasure to others. You would deprive us if you blocked up this playful outlet of yours. Please continue!

Seth said...

My guess is that Friedman doesn't know who Goethe was. "Gunther who? Is he involved with the ECB? Or is it Deutsche Bank? How do you spell that, by the way?"

If you can't be content to indulge yourself with blogging, well, then just indulge *us* :)