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Wednesday, January 1, 2014


It is a new year, and though the world looks pretty much unchanged from yesterday, some drawing of a line is called for, so today I shall try to catch up on a variety of interesting comments to which I have not yet responded.  In no particular order:

Andrew, when I wrote that post, I thought of your difficulties many years ago with my insistence that a metaphor is not an appropriate foundation for a philosophical theory.  Apparently it continues to haunt you.  I shall take a pass on your invocation of Plato and Aristotle.   Far be it from me to attempt to settle a dispute between those distinguished gentlemen.

Chris, the answer to your question is yes.  When I wrote In Defense of Anarchism in 1965, I was convinced that an  a priori justification of objective moral principles could be found.  When I published that little book five years later, I was in the midst of my struggle to find such a justification in the pages of Kant's Grundlegung.  It was my failure to find the argument there that persuaded me to give up my long-held belief [on the pious supposition that if Kant could not produce the argument, it did not exist, a methodological guideline that I still adhere to all these years later, having seen nothing to change my mind in the intervening forty-four years.]

LFC. a propos Sam Beer, I actually once scrubbed his floors!  As an undergraduate, I earned my own pocket money as a way of lifting from my parents some of the burden of putting me through school -- tuition at Harvard when I began was $400 a year, after all, rising to $600 by the time I graduated.  One of the odd jobs that I got through the Student Employment Office called for me to wash the floors in the Beer household.  I met Mrs. Beer, a wonderful woman who chatted with me as I worked.  She told me a hilarious story that, for some reason, seems not to have made it into my Autobiography, so I will tell it here.  Shortly after her husband was made a tenured Associate Professor in the History Department, she invited the wives of the senior members of the department to tea.  Although she made every effort to produce an elegant afternoon tea, it was obvious to her from the stiff and awkward behavior of her guests that something was seriously wrong.  As everyone was leaving, one of the oldest ladies kindly took her aside and explained what the trouble was.  Mrs. Beer had seated the wife of an Associate Professor higher up at the table than the wife of a Full Professor.  To Mrs. Beer's credit, she made it clear when she told me the story that she thought it was hilarious.

Joseph Streeter, I was quite interested in your comment about Lewis and Cheryl Misak.   There is no question that Quine and others took a dim view of Lewis' pioneering efforts in modal logic -- Quine because he thought all modal logic was nonsense and others because they thought [correctly] that Kripke's work made Lewis' work outdated.  But it is Lewis' work in the theory of knowledge that I consider important, and still do.  For those of you who are completely unfamiliar with it, I can perhaps say, in a phrase, that it was an effort to achieve a fruitful conjunction of Kant with Peirce and James.  As I think I indicated, it is in my opinion Lewis' early book, Mind and the World Order that is really important, not his magnum opus, Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation.   My copy of Analysis by the way is a gift from Lewis and is inscribed by him.  His very last semester, Spring of 1953, which was my last undergraduate semester, I took Lewis' graduate seminar on Theory of Knowledge.  At the last session, he brought in a stack of books he had no further use for -- mostly presentation copies of new books from the authors.  He offered them to the students.  The grad students -- stupidly, in my opinion -- grabbed for the latest work by some minor figure, but I saw a copy of Lewis' own book in the pile and dove for it.  That last year, I took all three courses Lewis offered, including his great course on the Critique of Pure Reason.  The paper I mentioned on Hume to which he penned his comment was the term paper for his Fall semester undergraduate course.

Michael, I have lots of stories about Harry Austryn Wolfson, who will always be my image of what a true scholar is.  I have told some of them on pages 97-100 of my Autobiography, which you can find by following the link at the top of the blog to [look for Total Memoir, or alternatively look in Volume I.]

Several people:  I agree with many of you that severe income inequality is not the root of the problem, although it is a very severe symptom.  As Chris said, the root problem is capitalism.  But there is no serious possibility of capitalism being replaced by socialism in America, so having identified capitalism as the problem, we must then ask, What if anything can we do to alleviate the suffering of those who are so adversely affected by the workings of capitalism?  I do not take the apocalyptic view that we must hope for things to get worse so that then they will [miraculously] get better.  That way lies end times eschatology.  I also agree that the Occupy folks were quite wrong to think that greed, as a human failing, has anything at all to do with the workings of capitalism.  But we are in a bad way, folks, and we must start with whatever we have.  If large numbers of people can be brought out into the streets to protest Wall Street, that is a start, admittedly a small start, but a start.  It is a measure of how bad things are that we would all consider it a great victory to return to the state of affairs that obtained at the beginning of the nineteen seventies.

And finally, to one and all, another warm thanks for the generous and friendly birthday wishes.  On the basis of the early evidence, I can report that being eighty is pretty much like being seventy-nine.  Who knew?


arfamo said...

Dear Professor Wolf, You say: "When I wrote In Defense of Anarchism in 1965, I was convinced that an a priori justification of objective moral principles could be found". Is this still your view? I wonder since a little way down in the post you say: "[W]e must start with whatever we have". Is it not reasonable to say the same about govenment?

Richard said...

Re your observation that being 80 is pretty much like being 79, I've noticed that in many ways 2014 is pretty much like 2013.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Hmmmm, ok, pass on Plato-Aristotle, fair enough, but answer me this, then, were you converted by Quine, Goodman or anyone else for that matter to nominalism?

Michael said...

I read with great interest the relevant sections of your memoir discussing your experiences with Wolfson. The "edible" matter story gave me a good laugh. I wonder whether you had any interactions with Julian Schwinger or Alan Dershowitz during your time there?

LFC said...

Re Mrs. Beer's story: amusing, and very much of its time (and place, I suppose). Btw, Beer was in the Govt Dept not History, not that it really matters, either substantively (in his case) or to the humor of the story.

As Michael mentions, the Wolfson "edible matter" story is great. (I had to refresh my memory of it b/c I had forgotten the punch line.)

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

arfamo, two sentences after the sentence you quote, he answers your question

arfamo said...

AP ABD, Let me reformulate my question: Why be "an anarchist in politics" (stated on the webpage) if "we have to start with whatever we have"? I.e. why should the possibility of an a priori argument for government matter one way or the other?

Robert Paul Wolff said...
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