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Sunday, May 7, 2017


In response to my bemused brief post about the discussion of anti-natalism that suddenly has broken out on this blog, S. Wallerstein, after some very kind words, says this: “I suspect that back when you were working as an academic philosopher, you too discussed whatever issues your academic philosopher colleagues were talking about with them.”

That got me thinking about the old days, and I realized that in fact the truth is somewhat different.  To be sure, I did engage in such discussions as a student.  Back in the middle ‘50s [the 1950’s not the 1850’s], one very hot topic, endlessly discussed in the journals, was the analytic/synthetic distinction [you had to have been there.]  Two of my professors, Morton White and Willard Van Orman Quine, published articles on the subject.  I can still recall, as a nineteen year old graduate student, staying up all night brooding about it and rushing over on a Sunday morning looking for Stanley Cavell.  I found him in the Adams House dining room having a leisurely breakfast with the poet John Hollander.  “Stanley, Stanley,” I cried, scarcely pausing to say hello, “I think I have solved the analytic synthetic problem!”  He looked down his nose at me and said languidly, “Please, not before breakfast.”  I slunk away, rebuked but not discouraged.

Not long after that I spent a wanderjahr in Europe on a traveling fellowship, neither reading nor talking about Philosophy [although I did attempt some bad faux Kierkegaardesque ruminations.]  When I got home, I wrote my doctoral dissertation, went in the army, and started my career.  Pretty soon I stopped reading the journals, and for the next fifty or sixty years pursued the thoughts in my head rather than those in the journals.  I did not go to professional meetings, save when I was asked to speak at them, and I published books that responded to Kant or Marx or Mill or the world rather than to what my colleagues were talking about.  I did not even pay very close attention to what people were writing about me, with the consequence that I was quite startled recently to learn that my little book, In Defense of Anarchism, had made a considerable impact on legal scholars and political theorists [the early reviews were all quite negative.]

I do not recommend this course to others; it is simply a description of what I have done with my life.  So if anti-natalism is all the rage, have at it.  It is probably better than trolley cars.


Chris said...

Definitely better than Trolley Cars, of which your critique some time back was sufficient!

s. wallerstein said...

Nietzsche: Ecce Homo.

Why am I so clever?

"I have never reflected on questions that are none. I have not wasted myself".

Maybe Nietzsche is not so crazy after all.

howie berman said...

Yes, yet in the case of Freud, the mainstream engaging in the real world have moved on. It might work better for philosophy however

Chris said...

Professor, did you present at conferences? I'm always told to read the latest in every journal, keep up to date on contemporary dialogues, and attend as many conferences as possible... but for the life of me I wish I could do what you say you did: read Kant and Marx, reflect, and share. The latter is ideal. The former is commoditizing academia.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Nietzsche is my favorite philosopher (besides Camus), s. Wallerstein, and Brian Leiter my favorite exegete of him. I highly recommend his book Nietzsche on Morality (2001) and his many journal articles (most are available on his SSRN page).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I presented at conferences when I was asked, but not otherwise. After I left Columbia, the invitations dried up. Finally, I decided people thought I had died, a suspicion that was confirmed when the Wikipedia page on me went up, and the first sentence read "Robert Paul Wolff was a political theorist who ..." Some kind soul went in after a while and corrected it.

Danny said...

My father has deeply held convictions about natalism. He takes it very personally, a notion of 'lazy husbands', and that people in rich countries can be coaxed into having more children. It's important to him, to break the baby strike. Reacting against this, I have experience with occasionally arguing that creating new life is, all else equal, morally questionable or objectionable. I think this position is neither plausible nor popular. Of course, almost everyone says they're glad to be alive. Almost everyone's *behavior* confirms that they're glad to be alive. Yet it is interesting, that anti-natalism is 'obviously' so absurd that any valid argument in its favor is merely an indictment of one or more of its premises. One doesn't arrive at these thoughts naturally, but I think it plausible to assert that life in itself is without a goal. I theorize that for human expansion neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin are used to make us feel good about doing stuff that promotes our existence.

But my concluding thought is that actually, you know, these are wonderful times for philosophers. With the many new technologies, and conceptions like artificial intelligence, medical intervention and gene control, we are in desperate need of a general discussion etc.

Danny said...

'one very hot topic, endlessly discussed in the journals, was the analytic/synthetic distinction [you had to have been there.]'

I'd rephrase the problem as 'empiricism'. For Kant, there is not an analytic/synthetic problem.

David Rondel said...

Dear Professor Wolff: are you familiar with Joseph Raz's "service conception" of authority? It seems to me that Raz was trying, among other things, to formulate a theory of legitimate authority that explicitly addresses the challenge raised in your Anarchism book: How can someone submit to an authority without thereby forfeiting their autonomy? Indeed, how could there ever be a de jure authority that didn't necessarily undermine the autonomy of the people subject to it?

I don't know if Raz's theory successfully answers that challenge, but it seems clear to me that it was an attempt to do just that. Do you have any thoughts about Raz's "service conception", and about its bearing on the central claims you made in In Defense of Anarchism?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am embarrassed to admit that I am not familiar with it. One more thing I need to read.

David Gordon said...

Bob Nozick usually did not pay much attention to comments on his work either.

howie b said...

Your poet friend Hollander during his years on earth was a close friend and colleague of Harold Bloom- so that makes you one degree of separation from Bloom and two from Shakespeare and maybe two from God as well!

Paul said...

Curious to know if, as a 19 year old, you were sympathetic to Quine's approach to the problem in 'Two Dogmas'.

Danny said...

'..Joseph Raz's "service conception" of authority?'

Ah -- this has been called one of the most widely-discussed and important arguments in political and legal philosophy. Famous argument for legal-political positivism. But actually, I'm not very familiar with contemporary views in jurisprudence. I think his idea is supposed to be that law is a matter of non-moral social fact. There is a sort of 'opposite' notion that morality plays a very significant role in determining the content of the law. Like if we try a thought experient here-- suppose that our dispute escalates and things start to get unpleasant, and voluntarily agree to submit the dispute to a third party (an arbitrator) for resolution. The arbitrator acts as a legitimate *authority*. So what does the arbitrator do here? The arbitrator issues an *authoritative directive*, and the key role of an authority is to mediate between actors and the reasons those actors have for doing or forbearing from some activity.

The authority does the hard work for us. We just have to do as they say. -- instead of us doing all the weighing and deliberating of reasons. From this, we can derive The Service Conception of authority. Now one may object, that authorities do not necessarily issue directives which their subjects are bound (morally speaking) to follow. But recall here, that we voluntarily submitted ourselves for arbitration. That is a 'missing ingredient', or just one example here, of a possible 'additional condition'. We might have voluntary submission to an authority, or else that might be absent. What then? Well, then there is a story, but anyways, Raz’s account of authority is supposedly highly influential and worth knowing..

David Rondel said...

Raz is well worth reading, I'd say. The Morality of Freedom in particular is a wonderful -- albeit long-- book.

Here's a sketch of what I had in mind with my earlier comment/question:

As its name suggests, Raz's service conception draws upon the idea that the role and primary normal function of legitimate authorities is to provide a service. It is grounded in two mutually reinforcing theses: (1) the dependence thesis and (2) the normal justification thesis.

The dependence thesis requires that, “all authoritative directives should be based on reasons which already independently apply to the subjects of the directives and are relevant to their action in the circumstances covered by the directive.” (Raz Morality of Freedom, p. 47) That is, authoritative directives should be based on what Raz calls dependent reasons—reasons which antecedently and independently apply to their subjects. Think of a case in which two people refer a dispute to an arbitrator. According to the dependence thesis, the arbitrator’s decision should be based on all the reasons pertinent to the dispute, reasons which already apply to the disputants. The arbitrator’s decision is not one more reason to be counted alongside the others. On the contrary, the arbitrator’s decision is meant to be based on the other reasons, to depend on them, to “sum them up and to reflect their outcome.” The service conception’s second feature is the normal justification thesis, which holds that: "The normal way to establish that a person has authority over another person involves showing that the alleged subject is likely better to comply with reasons which apply to him... if he accepts the directives of the alleged authority as authoritatively binding and tries to follow them, rather than by trying to follow the reasons which apply to him directly." (Morality of Freedom, p. 53) Raz has us consider the case of a person who accepts his friend’s advice because he fears his friend will be hurt if he does not. Raz admits that this may well be a fine reason for accepting the advice—there is much to be said for not hurting one’s friends after all—yet it is not the normal reason. “The normal reason for accepting a piece of advice is that it is likely to be sound advice. The normal reason to offer advice is the very same.” (p. 54) The legitimacy of an authority is established, then, when it can be shown that the purported subject is more likely to act in accordance with the right reasons that apply to her, if she accepts the directives of the authority as binding and tries to follow them. Roughly put, an authority is legitimate if an agent will do better by following its directives than by working out what to do on her own.

It seems to me that the service conception attempts a reply to Wolff’s Anarchist challenge by making a necessary feature of legitimate authority the thesis that an individual will do better, will conform more faithfully to the reasons that apply independently to her, by obeying its commands and trying to follow them than by working out what to do for herself, thereby generating a moral obligation to obey.

I'm not sure if this argument is successful, but there it is.

Jerry Fresia said...

" could there ever be a de jure authority that didn't necessarily undermine the autonomy of the people subject to it?

the authority of teachers in classrooms, for one, of parents with their kids, for another.....??

David Rondel said...

Absolutely right. I should have asked: "How could the state ever rightly claim de jure authority without necessarily undermining the autonomy of the people subject it it?" That, I take it, is the central challenge posed in professor Wolff's Anarchism book.