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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.

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Friday, August 22, 2014


As I lay in  bed in the middle of last night brooding about the horrific events in the Middle East and the militarization of civic order in Ferguson, Missouri, an idle thought occurred to me of a totally different nature.  Last year, I failed to commemorate a milestone of importance to me, if not to the rest of the world.  2013 was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of my first, and arguably my best, book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity.  This post will be devoted to a recollection of the circumstances that led to my writing that book, and the place it occupied in American scholarship at the time.  Those less fascinated then I by the minutiae of my past life are urged to surf the web for items of greater significance, which it should not be difficult to find.

In 1958, I began a three-year Instructorship in Philosophy and General Education at Harvard.  The terms of my contract called for me to tutor all of the undergraduate Philosophy majors while teaching in a large General Education course devoted to a blindingly fast survey of European history from Caesar to Napoleon.  A year later, in the Fall of 1959, I received a call from Donald Williams in the Philosophy Department.  Since the retirement of the great Clarence Irving Lewis in 1953, there had been no one to teach Philosophy 130, Kant's First Critique.  Williams wanted to know whether I would be willing to teach Phil 130.

I was stunned, and thrilled.  Philosophy 130 was an iconic course in the Department.  Lewis had taught it for decades, using an extraordinary system of weekly Summaries of the text that required endless hours of backbreaking work and conferred on even the dullest students a unique knowledge of the Critique.  Generations of graduate students believed that course to be the best they had ever taken.  I had taken it my senior year in the Spring of 1953, Lewis' last semester of teaching, and I had written my doctoral dissertation in part on the portion of the work known as The Transcendental Analytic.    Now, I would be teaching that same course, presumably in the same room, from the same podium that Lewis had occupied. 

I thought in a year I could prepare myself to do at least a creditable job.  I said that of course I would be proud to teach the course.  "Fine," replied Williams.  "Then it is settled.  You will teach Philosophy 130 next semester."

Next semester!  I went into panic overdrive, for the next six months working harder than I had ever worked before, and perhaps than I have ever worked since.   I eventually produced three ring binders of formal lecture notes on the Critique, which I used in my lectures that Spring and again a year later, when I taught the course for a second time.  [It was for the second iteration that a brilliant graduate student, Tom Nagel, enrolled, allowing me ever since to say, casually, whenever his name is mentioned, "Oh yes, he was a student of mine."]

I have several times remarked that for some obscure reason, every time I complete a lengthy piece of writing, I am seized by the fear that I shall never write anything again.  That fear had been lodged in the back of my mind since completing my doctoral dissertation in the Spring of 1957.  Therefore, in the summer of 1960, having made it successfully through Philosophy 130, I formed the plan of writing a Commentary on the central portion of the Critique, the Transcendental Analytic, drawing on my lecture notes.  This was, needless to say, a bold, even foolhardy, plan.  It was also not a plan particularly well suited to advance my career, although that thought never crossed my mind. 

At that time, the leading Kant scholar in America was Lewis White Beck, who spent his entire career, I believe, at Rochester.  There was no American philosopher then alive who had actually written a full-scale commentary on the First Critique.  The leading works in English were by two Scotsmen:  Norman Kemp Smith and H. J. Paton.  Kemp Smith was also the author of a splendid translation of the Critique into English that is still the best available.  His Commentary was not so much a book as an encyclopedia of invaluable detail, interpretation, and explication of particular passages.  Kemp Smith had embraced a hermeneutical story about the Critique known as the "patchwork theory of the Deduction," according to which the famously impenetrable and apparently internally contradictory central passage of the book, the chapter entitled "The Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding," is actually a collage of passages written by Kant at different times between 1770 and 1781 and then hastily stitched together when, in Kant's words, he was "bringing the work to completion" in the months before its publication.  Kant was known to have been rather hypochondriacal, and apparently believed in 1781 that he might not live long enough to get all his theories on paper.  [Fortunately for all of us, he managed to live another twenty-one years, during which time he poured out the Second Critique, the Third Critique, the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, the Metaphysics of Morals, and many other immortal works.]

H. J. Paton had rejected the patchwork theory, which was the brainchild of the leading German Kant scholars [most notably Hans Vaihinger].  Paton produced a two volume work, Kant's Metaphysic of Experience, in which he undertook to expound the doctrines of the Critique as seamlessly consistent.  Paton was also the author of a very important commentary on Kant's moral philosophy.  For a long time, I was actually the only person other than Paton, writing in English, to produce book-length commentaries on the two major branches of Kant's philosophy.

I thought the patchwork theory as a piece of biography was wildly implausible, so purely on historical grounds I sided with Paton.  But at the same time I thought the doctrines of the Critique did not hang together logically, and in fact every point at which, on purely logical grounds, I perceived a difficulty in the text corresponded more or less precisely with Kemp Smith's identification of "passages written at different times."  Thus, I found Kemp Smith's commentary enormously helpful, and Paton's commentary virtually no use at all.

I wrote most of a first draft of my commentary in the summer of 1960, completing it the next summer.  Since I had written the entire thing in pen, longhand, I sent the pages to my mother, a phenomenal typist and proof reader, who transformed my scrawls into an impeccable typescript.  I submitted the book to Harvard University Press at the end of 1961, and they sent it off for review to Beck and Maurice Mandelbaum, both of whom recommended publication.  I signed a contract, read the copyedited manuscript, galley proofs, and page proofs, actually produced the index myself [never again!!], and in the Spring of 1963, it appeared:  Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, copyright Harvard University Press, 1963.

What did I actually accomplish in Kant's  Theory of Mental Activity?  What follows can be classified, to steal a title from Norman Mailer, as an advertisement for myself, so take it with a grain of salt.

Pretty much everyone agrees that Kant is the greatest philosopher since Aristotle, that his greatest work is the Critique of Pure Reason, that the most important section of the Critique is the Transcendental Analytic, and the heart and soul of the Analytic is the "Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding," commonly referred to as the Transcendental Deduction [to distinguish it from the Metaphysical Deduction, but never mind, to channel Gilda Radner.]  However, strange though it is to say, nobody by 1963 had ever actually succeeded in stating flat out, step by step, from premises to conclusion,  the argument of the Deduction.  Lord knows, enough had been written about that passage, which only runs twenty-one pages in Kemp Smith's translation.  And everyone understood that Kant thought he had, in that chapter, "answered Hume," which is to say rebutted Hume's devastating sceptical critique of causal inference in Part iii of Volume I of A Treatise of Human Nature.  But if you asked a Kant scholar, innocently, "What is Kant's argument?  Can you just take me through it from his premises to his conclusion so that I can at least know what he is saying?"  you would get a long, complicated, deeply scholarly reply about alternative readings of central passages and apparent conflicts between the First and Second Edition versions and all.  No one could simply say:  "These are Kant's premises,  Here is each step of the argument.  And this is the conclusion.  And as you can see, the conclusion follows by the rules of logical inference from the premises."

That is what I did in Kant's Theory of Mental Activity.  What is more, I gave a full-scale detailed explication of the meaning of the central term in Kant's text, synthesis -- an explication that was, again for the first time, not metaphorical but literal.  I extracted that explication from the First Edition version of the Deduction and explained why Kant chose, nevertheless, to omit those passages from the Second Edition.

That is what I did back in 1963, and to the best of my knowledge, no one since has improved on my explication or demonstrated that it was wrong.

Scholarship moves on, and I suspect not too many students of Kant's philosophy read Kant's Theory of Mental Activity any more.  It has been superseded by the work of other scholars, and, what is more, it is fatally flawed as a piece of Kant scholarship:  it is clear and easy to read.

But I am inordinately proud of my first-born, and even though I am a year late, I hereby officially celebrated its half century.


Tim said...

Happy birthday, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity! I'm not a Kant scholar, but I've read quite a bit of it, and found it immensely helpful. So thank you.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you. Do you think a book would like a cupcake with a candle on it?

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Ah, the Kant summaries.... I think that what I most liked about your book was the interpretive conjecture that as no one knew who Kant was when the first edition came out, it was necessary for Kant to explain how he had arrived at his position. Hence, the layers. I also like the interpretive conjecture of The Autonomy of Reason, that each section of the Foundations is directed to a different audience each of which had one of three possible attitudes toward the right-wrong cut. Then, there is Moneybags. When you discussed a while back what you would include in your collected works, I thought that a better divide would be between those of your works in which the argument is based on a novel interpretive thesis and the others, whose more precise characterization escapes me, perhaps the more analytic pieces. Have you ever thought of writing a piece generalizing the lessons that you have learned from bringing such interpretive theses to the Critique, Foundations and Capital?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have actually thought a good deal about that sort of thing, Andrew, although I am not sure I am ready to lay it out in a generalized form. But maybe a blog post on How to Read A Text would be interesting to try.

David Gordon said...

Paton was still around when your book came out. Did he have any comment on it?

I like your Kant's Theory of Mental Activity very much, as well as The Autonomy of Reason, and also think that your book on Rawls has not gotten the attention it deserves.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Hmmm, good point about generalization. That's a way to get tossed from Wittgenstein's city, which is one of my favorite Ackermann pieces, by the way; his piece on Sellars was interesting too. Like Kant's Theory, Autonomy and Moneybags, they rest on interpretive theses; the city metaphor, and a strategy for justifying philosophical theses by showing that they have to be included in every possible descendant of the manifest image, a very clever idea, I think. In any case, perhaps something like, "Seven Things To Try While Reading Creative, Complicated and Difficult Texts"?