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Thursday, November 21, 2013


Jerry Fresia asks what my views are on the intersection of art and philosophy or politics.  I do not have worked out views on this general question, but I do have an autobiographical answer, if that is of any interest.  I have written about this in my Memoir, but I will briefly reprise those thoughts here.

Although I spent my professional life as a scholar, presumably engaged in making "contributions to knowledge," as the common phrase has it, I have never really thought of my work in that fashion.  Perhaps that is why I so rarely put footnotes in what I write, and do not "keep up with the literature," even on subjects on which I am thought to be an expert.  Philosophy for me has always been essentially an aesthetic undertaking.  Over and over again, I have engaged with profound and difficult books or ideas, and then have struggled to make them so transparently clear that their beauty shines forth.  My writing, as I imagine it, is a gift to my readers, allowing them to see the simplicity of the ideas that I have succeeded in wresting from their obscure and often confusing settings.  That is what I thought of myself as doing when I searched for, and believed I found, the central argument of the Transcendental Analytic of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.  That is also what I sought to do in my books on Marx's Capital.

When I am struggling to clarify the core idea of a text or a subject, I cannot write until I have told the story of the idea to myself, in my head, as clearly as though I were telling a fairy tale to a child.  Then the words flow easily, as quickly as my stubby and inaccurate forefingers can get them down.  When I have told the story, be it the immortal story of Kant or Marx or the flawed story of John Rawls, I present it to the world -- I publish. 

It never occurs to me to show what I have written to another scholar before publishing.  What would be the point?  If the story is perfectly clear, it is an aesthetic whole, and to tinker with it, add caveats or footnotes or addenda, would be like editing Jack and the Beanstalk or Snow White.  I sometimes think how odd it would have been for Matisse to show a painting to Picasso for "criticism" before exhibiting it to the world.  "I think a little more red here in the upper right corner, Henri, and maybe just a tad more blue around the edges.  You really ought to check with Braque.  He is doing some nice things with that yellow you have used."

This explains the odd fact that although it is terribly important to me to be known, to have what I write be read, I never much care about reviews or critiques,  The little book that made me a household word in unlikely places like Croatia and Malaysia, In Defense of Anarchism, was universally panned when it appeared, a fact that did not trouble me at all.

One might ask, as Plato has Callicles ask Socrates in the Gorgias, whether this is a way for a mature adult to spend his or her life.  To which perhaps the only answer is to recall the story that Kierkegaard deploys so powerfully in the Preface to the Philosophical Fragments: 

"Consider the example of Archimedes, who sat unperturbed in the contemplation of his circles while Syracuse was being taken, and the beautiful words he spoke to the Roman soldier who slew him: nolite perturbare circulos meos."


James Camien McGuiggan said...

Everyone does things their own way and I'm not suggesting you'd've been better off sending your work to other academics before publishing it - although personally I can't imagine doing without that support - but pace your bewilderment at the thought, artists do it all the time! The most obvious example that comes to my mind is T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which was heavily changed in light of Ezra Pound's criticism; and Eliot was so sure it was an improvement that Pound is in the dedications, if memory serves. Further, it's standard practice in pop/rock music to have producers who are often really collaborators. (In mainstream music they're perhaps more the person who keeps things not too radical, but in much music they're in it for the sake of the music, not the returns on the record company's investment.) And of course bands change and criticise each other's ideas in a way that's hardly stranger than your example of Picasso and Matisse. And then of course there's the tradition of novels' editors, and that's not always for the worse (although I would have preferred to read the full version of Infinite Jest).

And that mention of Braque and doing really nice things with yellow - well that's in a way precisely how the history of art goes!

decessero said...

The gift that your writing clearly is for your readers, Dr. Wolff, is in that crystalline clarity of the language you use for explaining complex ideas. That in itself is an art form.

Nolite Perturbare circulos meos is ever so much more beautiful and memorable than Callicles' answer to that question: His take was that when he saw an older man showing no sign of giving up his dwelling on philosophy, such a man, rather than win arguments in the centers of cities... would end up skulking around with a few young lads, never pronouncing any large, liberal, or meaningful utterance. I doubt that would be your fate!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you. That is always my hope. It is much, much less important to me that people agree with me, simply that with me, they enjoy the beauty of the ideas.

James, you are of course correct about the influence of artists on other artists. As for editors, I have never been willing to allow anyone to edit what I write, in one case choosing not to publish an essay rather than permit an editor to re-write it. I think I am odd in that respect.

decessero said...

Relevant to absolutely nothing in particular, but by way of thanking you, Dr. Wolff, for all the pleasures you afford your readers:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Decessero, thank you. I have actually seen this before. It is simply wonderful. The responses of the on-lookers are priceless. This is the way great music should be brought to the people! It is like Haydn's farewell symphony in reverse.

Jerry Fresia said...

This post, apart from being wonderful - perhaps even in a literal sense, is quite instructive. The emphasis on independent creative expression stands in stunning contrast to the world of the entrepreneur, where both philosophy and art, today, are degraded by the instrumental rationality so central to the philosopher and artist as entrepreneur. Further, the question posed by James about which way of being in the world best contributes to being "better off," has been answered powerfully: one may truly be better off by revealing the beauty of profound and inaccessible ideas, by making them as accessible and beguiling as a child's fairytale, by making one's work a gift, and/or by being swept away by the extraordinary moments that happen along the way as one, with three others, take flight in an attempt to make extraordinary music. This is, to me, is the cruz, of Marxism. Goodbye, instrumental production, career hoop jumping, networking, and all the rest. My mistress now is beauty and the conversation of beauty with justice that all of this implies.