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Sunday, March 24, 2013


Immanuel Kant's Metaphysische Anfangsgrunde der Naturwissenschaft, Or Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, was published in 1786, which is to say between the first [1781] and second [1787] editions of the First Critique.  I have always considered it very much a minor or secondary work by Kant, and after reading it once never went back to it.  When I offered this dismissive evaluation recently, my old friend Charles Parsons, perhaps the leading expert on Kant's philosophy of mathematics, called my attention to the fact that the distinguished Kant scholar Michael Friedman had written a monumental work on the Metaphysische Anfangsgrunde, and hence that I might want to rethink my opinion of it.

This got me musing about how and why we read the works of the great philosophers.  Long, long ago, when I wrote my first book, on the Transcendental Analytic of the First Critique, I observed that the distinctive mark of the truly great philosophers, it seemed to me, is that they were able to see more deeply than they could say, and refused to relinquish their grasp on that deeper insight merely to achieve surface consistency.  It was therefore always worthwhile to wrestle with them, struggling to liberate the deeper insights.  Since it is inevitably a matter of judgment what is deep and what is not, what is worthwhile and what is not, we keep returning to those great texts, generation after generation.

I mean, think about it.  Who is far and away the greatest commentator on the works of Plato who has ever lived ?  The answer is obvious:  Aristotle.  Not only is Aristotle the most brilliant philosopher who ever wrote about Plato, he actually studied with the man for twenty years!  And yet, this fact has not stopped two thousand five hundred years of philosophers from puzzling over Plato's Dialogues, poking at them, prodding them, reinterpreting them, translating them into every imaginable language.  No one would ever say to a Plato scholar who has just brought out a new book on one of the Dialogues, "Why do you bother?  Aristotle already has told us what to think about that."

As for Friedman's decision to focus on what I and at least some others have thought of as a minor part of the Kant corpus, we need only remind ourselves that in the nineteenth century, there were many serious thinkers who considered the Third Critique more important than the First!  In the eighteenth century in England, Cicero was taken seriously as a thinker, a judgment that I have always considered bizarre and absurd, even thought it was apparently shared by David Hume, who was, for my money, the greatest philosopher ever to write in English [his only competitor being Thomas Hobbes.]

There is a view that has gained some traction with young philosophers today that Philosophy is now a science, and need no more concern itself with its history than physicists need waste time reading Einstein's early papers.  I do not share that view, needless to say, but it too has its history, and crops up every few centuries.

All of which leads me to hope that after I have passed on, there will continue to be a few readers who are able to find something of value in my first book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity.

[By the way, when I spellchecked this post in Blogger before hitting "publish," it highlighted the word "philosophers," which I had mistyped as "philosopehrs."  It suggested "flyspeck" as a correction.  Do you think it was trying to tell me something?]


Bill Glenn Jr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Glenn Jr. said...

I'm actually heading to the Stephen A. Schwarzman building right now to read "Kant's Theory of Mental Activity"!

If you want my vote for the next book you should release on Kindle, it would be this one. That way I wouldn't have to commute to the library to read the next chapter! :)

Sean said...

Bill's comment reminds me to ask: are there plans to release MONEYBAGS on Kindle?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Kant's Theory of Mental Activity is in the works, and will be posted as soon as it is ready. Moneybags is still in print [barely, I might add] so it is probably not possible, although I can certainly ask UMass.

Don Schneier said...

Kant's Theory of Mental Activity has been especially helpful to me because of its emphasizing that his treatment of Causality is a "response to Hume". That emphasis has directed my attention to the crucial role that the Second Analogy plays in another response to Hume--that Reason is not the 'slave of the passions', but can freely affect them, a response which requires an a priori concept of Causality.

David Auerbach said...

about your typo and the computer's correction:
Many years ago, in the early days of home computers, I used 'Rockefeller', which the word processor's dictionary didn't have. It offered 'racketeer'.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is even better! I sometimes think these things are really fronts for little people with mordant senses of humor who sit in little cages inside the computers and type out malicious messages.

mesnenor said...

The term for an error introduced by a word processor user unthinkingly accepting a spelling correction suggestion made by the software is a "Cupertino". The name refers to the once-widespread symptom of the word "Cupertino" appearing in official European Union documents from the 90s. "Cupertino" would occur where "cooperation" was meant.

Apparently, there was a word processor that would suggest Cupertino as the first choice for a variety of mis-spellings of cooperation. Investigators have since determined that the software in question was Microsoft Word, in particular 90s versions of Word for the Mac OS, for the European market.

Thus the possibility exists that this widespread error was due to an engineer at Microsoft maliciously tweaking the software to make fun of rival Apple, who are based in Cupertino, CA.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

See, this is what I love about the Internet. In the old days, it would have taken me six months to find that out! And we ae only at the dawn of this new age. What will the world look like to my grandson, Samuel, when he is the age I am now? It is impossible to imagine.

Michael Llenos said...

The reason people don't get tired of reading about Plato, in his own light, is because he was so clever. Forget Aristotle and his belief that TIME IS INFINITE in our Universe etc. and the rest of his nonsense. I'm just happy that Aristotle's dialogues haven't survived to the present day. I'm sure that Wisdom is a woman and that she loves Plato and all of his hidden symbology.

Speaking about myself, I don't think there exists anything more fun to read than Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo, when you take your very first philosophy class.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Bits and pieces of Aristotle's dialogues did survive, I believe [see Werner Jaeger's old book on Aristotle], and they were, as you surmise, pretty awful.

Michael Llenos said...

I had the impression that not one of his dialogues survived-- even in fragments. I also had the impression that his dialogues rivaled in quality that of Plato's--I guess I was wrong.

It's not that I believe Aristotle wasn't eloquent (his On Rhetoric proves he was eloquent) it's just that some of his ideas I don't agree with and I'm glad haven't come down to us in dialogue form.

They might have destroyed the great legacy Plato left us. Think of all those other books that would have been written for the sake of Aristotle's dialogues. Instead of one St. Thomas, we might have had one hundred similiar giant lovers of Aristotle's writings.

And where would Plato be then? Just as Montaigne wrapped up the classics, Aristotle's dialogues could possibly have wrapped up Plato--and I believe for the worse.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jaeger's discussion of Aristotle's dialogues begins on page 27, and goes on for a while. He makes it clear that fragments survive. Jaeger shares your admiration for Plato's dialogues, which he considers inimitable, but I think I have misrembered his evaluation of Aristotle's efforts, which does not seem at all as negative as I recalled. I confess that I have a higher opinion of Aristotle than you do, but in any debate about the relative merits of the two philosophers, I do not, as the old saying goes, have a dog in that hunt.

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

Professor I was wondering if you could do a review of the discussions regarding God's existence in the work of philosophers like Leibniz, Kant, Hobbes, Descartes, etc. Maybe you did this already, but if not, I think it would be a great addition.