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Wednesday, September 2, 2015


My daily walk this morning was uneventful -- no Blue Herons, no deer, not even a rabbit.  With nothing of note to observe, I found myself musing about what trace, if any, would be left after I pass away by the writings to which I have devoted my life.  I have often joked that the world does not need mediocre philosophers any more than it needs mediocre poets, but there is a deep truth in that joke, one that I brooded on as I walked.  Not surprisingly, my thoughts turned to the work of the British analyst and therapist Donald Winnicott. 

It was Winnicott, you will recall, who introduced the psychoanalytic world to the concept of the pretty good mother.  Psychoanalysis had had a great deal to say about all the ways in which mothers and fathers could inflict crippling neuroses on their children -- by weaning them too soon, or too late, by toilet training that was excessively punitive or dangerously lenient, by a too distant and disapproving father or an overly intrusive and clinging mother.  The effect of all this was to produce a generation of men and women perpetually anxious about a role, that of parent, that had somehow managed to survive and perpetuate itself for several hundred millennia.  Winnicott suggested, on the basis of his observations, that normal mothers are naturally inclined to do pretty well what the normal baby needs, with the result that pretty good mothers can relax and assume that their pretty good mothering will suffice to raise reasonably happy and healthy children.  This stands in reassuring contrast to the impossibly demanding standard of the Tiger Mother or Helicopter Parent evident these days in the upper middle-class enclaves of Manhattan's West Side or Hyde Park or Cambridge.

The human race requires that ordinary people simply be pretty good at the various jobs on which we all depend for survival.  We do not need a constant flow of Luther Burbanks, just some folks who are pretty good farmers.  Nor do we need to be treated for our illnesses by Jonas Salks or guided through our home purchases and divorces and last wills and testaments by Oliver Wendell Holmeses.  We just need a steady supply of pretty good doctors and pretty good lawyers.  We do not even need to be led by George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns [although a little improvement in that line of work would be reassuring.]

But we really have no use for pretty good philosophers.  Philosophy that is just O.K. is like poetry that is so-so.  Leaving to one side Hallmark Greeting Cards, there is simply no good use to which one can put mediocre poetry.  And as for mediocre philosophy, beyond fortune cookies, what's the point?

Now, I think I am a pretty good philosopher.  Of course, we all tend to rate ourselves a bit on the favorable side.  Studies show that a large majority of Americans think they are unusually good drivers, but only in Lake Woebegone are all the children above average.  Still and all, I really do think I am pretty good at philosophy.  Not great, not immortal, not even top ten, just pretty good.  And although that is just fine for mothers, as Winnicott showed us [and for fathers too, I warrant], it is really not just fine for philosophers.

I did not set out to be a pretty good philosopher, sixty odd years ago.  Not at all.  I set out to become one of the immortals.  I mean, does anyone ever seriously try to write mediocre poetry?  Now that I have entered what, by even the most optimistic of projections, cannot be more than the last twenty years of my life, I know that my best work, such as it is, lies behind me.  I had some things I wanted to say and I said them pretty well.  Perhaps Marc Antony was right when he said that the good men do is oft interred with their bones.

I congratulate myself that I have been a pretty good father, a pretty good husband, a pretty good teacher.  And that is, after all, as much as can be asked of any man.  That will have to suffice.


Unknown said...

As someone who took a not totally distinguished bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Syracuse University some 55 years ago (no one in the Department suggested I consider graduate school) I can say that I have benefited both personally and professionally from my contact with some pretty good philosophers, for that’s indeed what my teachers were.

When I registered for the course in ethics as freshman, I had little idea what it was about. I did so only to meet some requirement or other and to avoid something else. The class met at 8 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturday—and I was hooked from the start. (Yes, Saturday morning classes were common in those days.)

The class was taught by William S. Hart (the same name as the cowboy hero of pre-World War II movies). I know nothing about him—he didn’t have a doctorate at the time, so I assume he was a graduate assistant teaching freshmen. But he was excellent in the class and, after the Saturday class would meet with some us at an off-campus coffee shop where we would continue discussions. After that first year, he was gone, but I was hooked on philosophy and had many classes with some pretty good philosophers. I can picture seven or eight of them, but I can recall the names of only three: Theodore Denise, Sheldon Peterfreund, and Paul Ward. But their impact on me continues to this day.

When you say that being a pretty good philosopher will “have to suffice,” I detect a note of disappointment. But as a pretty good philosopher, you’ve undoubtedly had a positive impact on countless students whose names as well as faces you couldn’t recall if your life depended on it, people who will remember you and what they learned from you long after you’re gone. I wouldn’t say that will “have to” suffice. I’d say it “should” suffice.

NotHobbes said...

It's not so long ago that I was a European truck driver, hauling loads of wet salted bull-hides between County Durham, UK, and Arzignano, Italy. The loads stank, the job stank, my life stank.
To relieve the horrendous boredom, I took a few open learning courses to keep my mind occupied. It is through one of those courses that I read 'In Defence' by R P Wolff, and I swear, if ever I've had a moment of epiphany, then that was it.
"When I place myself in the hands of another, and allow him to determine..." Wow! What a profound impact those words had on me. From hereon, I was taking charge of my life
And now, I have an MA from one of the most respected universities in the world and am currently working on a postgraduate research degree at same.
Seriously, my whole life has been transformed, because a certain Dr John Gordon of Stevenson College, said "I think you ought to read Wolff"

How many more have a story to tell like mine?

"Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it"

Thank you, for you have truly changed my world at least

Anonymous said...

I have communicated with you privately about your pretty good book, which I read 44 years ago in German as a Gastarbeiter in Germany. "Das Elend des Liberalismus" was one of the books that changed the way I looked at the world, and thus I must upgrade you, Herr Dr. Wolff, from a pretty good to a pretty damned good philosopher.

Derek said...

Let's assume that you're a pretty good philosopher, which I think is itself a pretty good assumption.

Does that mean that you haven't contributed to the world as pretty good farmers do? You make the case by analogy, that pretty good farmers contribute something but pretty good philosophers don't. But what do pretty good farmers contribute, exactly? They grow some produce that goes to local, national or international markets. They don't change the world. But they do indeed improve lives, which is pretty good; if all the pretty good farmers disappeared, we'd be in trouble.

Now let's compare that to a great farmer, a Hegelian world-historical farmer who is to farming as Plato and Descartes are to philosophy, who I presume, following the way your analogy seems to work, changes the way farming is done. Great farmers aren't great because they farm more, they're great because they wreak some substantial change in their craft. The analogy has become weird now, and that's because it was incomplete. In talking about farming you put the weight on the pretty good, in philosophy on the great.

So why not carry out the analogy fully? Pretty good farmers aren't great, pretty good philosophers aren't great, at least not in the world-historical sense of Hegel. But the pretty good matter--not because they change the face of the world, but because they make it better. Pretty good farmers nourish our bodies, pretty good philosophers nourish our minds. To say you're a pretty good philosopher is to say that you have changed lives for the better. Some of them have already commented, and there are many more out there who have not.

My teachers were pretty good philosophers, and they had a massive impact on how I see myself now as a philosopher. They won't go down in the annals of history (their books are not nearly as well known as yours!), but they did things that mattered for people who understand that, like myself. That's pretty good, I'd say. And you've done no worse than them. By any fair standard you've done better. I'll admit you're not Plato, Kant, or Marx. But there are people who would be worse off without your work. And as a claim one can make about one's own life, that's pretty good.

David Auerbach said...

I was going to call bullshit on your claim, but the four above have done a pretty good, no, great, job without me. I will add that both in farming and philosophy the great wouldn't do so well without the pretty good. And nourishment isn't such a bad metaphor in these cases. It's also worth noting that part of the adding to total sum of human happiness is doing something that is fun and engaging.
Diagnosis: I think that the sometimes curse of the pretty good is being pretty good at recognizing the distinction between the pretty good and the great (or thinking so) and chafing at it.