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Thursday, October 8, 2015


Mesnenor, Derek, and Charles Parsons have all responded to my call for comments on my lament about the decline of the book-length doctoral dissertation.  My old friend, colleague, and apartment mate Charles Parsons observes that the online Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews has, in several recent years, published reviews of as many as 400 philosophical books in a single year, which is surely more book-length philosophy than any rational person could want.  With characteristic modesty, Charles remarks that "I don't read enough of these books to make any judgment of overall quality."  Knowing him as I have for more than sixty years, I rather suspect that means he has only read one hundred and fifty of them!

Derek and mesnenor merge institutional considerations, job market pressures, and philosophical styles of work in a way that is surely correct but somewhat blurs the issue I was trying to raise.  The intense pressure to obtain an initial entry-level teaching position in the American academy is clearly driving the current emphasis on the writing and publication of journal articles, but unless my impressions are totally mistaken, the shift toward the article-length ideal of philosophical work precedes the current job frenzy. 

What interests me particularly is the notion, clearly expressed by mesnenor, that "one of the distinguishing features of the analytic tradition is the idea that you can do philosophy without paying much, if any, attention to the history of philosophy."  That does comport with the impression I have had of the attitude of those doing analytic philosophy around here ["here" being the UNC Philosophy Department.  I hope I am not doing my colleagues a disservice by saying this, and I welcome any of them who nod in at this blog to correct me.]

Why, aside from piety and an outdated notion of scholarship, should a modern twenty-first century philosopher pay attention to books written several hundred years ago, or indeed several thousand years ago?  I would hardly fault a brilliant young physicist who did not waste his time reading Newton's Principia, nor would I expect an aspiring anatomist to delve deeply into

William Harvey's classic work,  Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus .   And yet, Harvey's work appeared only forty years or so before Leviathan, and I would absolutely insist that any serious student of political theory devote a great deal more than an idle afternoon to Hobbes' great work.

Since I am, for all my radical politics, deeply conservative in these educational matters, my instinctive revulsion at mesnenor's observation about the analytic tradition makes it difficult for me to bring to consciousness my reasons for asserting with such vehemence the importance of attention to the great works of the philosophical tradition.  My initial reaction does not rise much above the horror with which hostesses of an earlier era observed a nouveau riche tradesman eating soup with a dessert spoon.  But I think I owe my readers a bit more than an appalled gasp, so let me try to explain.

A great deal of progress in the natural sciences proceeds by meticulous, painstaking work that builds on an enormous amount of previous work by fellow researchers.  At least within the confines of what Thomas Kuhn called "normal science" in his classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, this work is cumulative and progressive.  And it is valuable, even if it is not epoch-making or even Nobel Prize winning.  I have, in the past, written on this blog about some of what I have learned from the splendid books of Nick Lane about the extraordinary work now being done in molecular biology.  That work does not spring from the brow of an inspired genius.  It emerges from the often tedious, always careful laboratory research of quite literally thousands of scientists.  This cumulative, incremental, progressive character  of the science is evidenced by its complete internationalization.  It may be that philosophers in France do not [or at least did not] read what is published in America, any more than American philosophers read what is published in France.  But no such parochialism characterizes the work in the natural sciences. 

If you believe that  philosophers are engaged in an enterprise that is structurally similar to science, then it makes good sense for them to work in teams, for them to publish their results, as they get them, in journal articles, and for them to devote relatively little time to the history of their discipline, for whatever is of value in the earlier work is presumably carried forward in more recent work, in such a way that it is present in that work without allusion to earlier texts.  To be sure, someone might take a special interest in the history of the evolution of our understanding of knowledge of other minds, or our analysis of moral deliberation, just as someone might take an interest in the history of the development of molecular biology.  But no one would insist that attention to that history should be required of someone who seeks to contribute to the progress at the forefronts of molecular biology or of moral deliberation.

But I do not believe that philosophy is a science.  I do not believe that philosophical understanding proceeds piecemeal by the collaborative efforts of teams of researchers.  If I may choose an example that is uppermost in my mind, inasmuch as my Reading Group on Rawls' A Theory of Justice meets in an hour, I do not think that anything that might be of value in Rawls' work is advanced upon, or improved, or carried forward by individuals or teams of philosophers devoting their professional energies to deepening and making more precise Rawls' notion of "reflective equilibrium" or exploring, in a series of journal articles, alternatives to the gradual lifting of the veil of ignorance.

Perhaps this sounds facetious.  Indeed, I half intend it to.  But if philosophy really is a science;  if philosophy really does progress step by step through the research of individuals or teams of individuals;  then these examples are not at all facetious but perfectly sensible and plausible.

If philosophy is not science.  If even the notion of progress in philosophy is, at the very least, questionable, then what is it that philosophers are doing when they are successful?  If I can answer that question, then perhaps I can make clear why I think philosophy is better carried on in books than in journal articles.

But now I must leave for class.  My response will have to wait until tomorrow.


James Camien McGuiggan said...

Not related, but you might be interested to hear that there's something called a 'PhilosoFest' in your local university tomorrow. I can vouch for Dotson - one of the most exciting young philosophers of race - Neufeld's paper - which I've heard - and Wolf - a senior famous Analytic (but not in the scientistic sense of this post!) of whom you've no doubt heard. It'd be worth your going for Dotson alone!

Charles Pigden said...

Professor Wolff
You certainly are doing your UNC colleagues a disservice in suggesting that on the whole they are an ahistorical bunch. The UNC department contains one of the world's most distinguished Hume scholars (and a prominent meta-ethicist to boot) namely Geoff Sayre-McCord plus a famous Platonist in the person CDC Reeve. Bill Lycan is an historically informed sort of guy (he is well-informed about just about everything) with two very fine papers on G.E Moore to his credit which I use in my teaching. Thomas Hill is a Kantian, Simon Blackburn's work is often inspired by Hume, Mariska Leunissen is an Aristotle scholar and Gerald Postema lists his interests as 'history of legal and political philosophy: medieval to modern (Aquinas to Kant), Hume'. Gillian Russell is a philosophical logician, nonetheless one of her first papers addresses issues relating to the work of Hume, Kant and Bertrand Russell (I edited the collection which it appeared) and her TRUTH IN VIRTUE OF MEANING contains copious references to Kant and is to a considerable extent an extended dialogue with Quine's 'Truth by Convention' a paper published seventy years before her own book.

Of course, you CAN do good work in analytic philosophy without much knowledge of (or interest in) the history of the subject. But whatever may have been the case in the past, historical ignorance is no longer the norm. Once upon a time perhaps, analytical philosophers were on the whole an historically uninformed bunch but this is no longer true today.