Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Friday, January 19, 2018

APOLOGIA PRO LABORE SUA [forgive the bad Latin]

I must confess I was rather surprised by the response to my brief post about my preparations for my forthcoming lectures on Marx.  Anonymous [sic] said “Bob, will there be anything genuinely original in what you have to say, as far as you know? Why trek through the thought of another fellow long dead, whose corpus has been mapped and remapped ten thousand times? Is this a showy intellectual exercise, a public tour-de-force you aim to undertake, but one that leaves everything the way it is and nothing new under the sun? What can Wolff add to Marx? Why Wolff on Marx/Kant/Freud? Why not just leave them to speak for themselves?”

Why indeed.  Why has anyone in the last 2,500 years bothered to write about Plato, considering that his first student, Aristotle, was undoubtedly his best?  Even if I think I have something of interest to say about Marx, why on earth bother when I have already written two books and a number of journal articles about his thought?

Two answers.  Make of them what you will.  First, my attempt to bring together in an integrated fashion the most sophisticated mathematical reinterpretation of Marx’s political economy and Marx’s extraordinary literary performance in Capital is, I honestly believe, quite literally unique.  I challenge anyone to cite another author who has attempted such a reading, one that seeks to read the irony into the equations.  Second, for reasons that are simply beyond my comprehension [that, just so we are clear, is an ironic utterance, okay?], not everyone interested in Marx has read my two books.  Indeed, if publishers’ reports can be trusted, almost no one has read my second book.  So perhaps videotaped lectures posted on YouTube will reach a few folks who might otherwise be unaware of what I have written.

Needless to say, you are free to watch clips from The Big Bang Theory instead.


s. wallerstein said...

Some of us, who are probably not as bright as Anonymous, depend on secondary sources for much of our knowledge.

So while the best and brightest such as Anonymous (why did his parents give him such a hard name to spell?) may just "let the great thinkers speak for themselves" (he or she reads them in the original language, I have no doubt), we smaller and often lazier minds are grateful for those who do the hard work of reading the original texts and then tell us what to think about them and what to say about them so that we can then impress young women in cocktail parties with our learning.

Jack said...

Hey! Nothing wrong with some Big Bang Theory (or the new Young Sheldon series)! But this comment seems to be nothing more than an internet troll.

TheDudeDiogenes said...


Derek said...

I do some work in the history of philosophy, and it's a question I often hear in the background (insofar as one can hear an unasked question). Why repeat what people already said a long time ago? Here's a few possible reasons, in order of increasing abstraction. Take them as you will:

1.) Some of the philosophers are hard to read. Some of the people who already interpreted them are not much better. And some of those interpreters are wrong. So it's not totally pointless for someone to take another crack at it.

2.) The history of philosophy is at least as defensible as history, insofar as it's valuable to learn from the past. If there are universal lessons in history, presumably there are some in the history of philosophy as well, and so it pays to go back to it. Doing history also teaches some of the classic Humanities skills; doing the history of philosophy presumably does so as well.

3.) Some of those long-gone philosophers can, as they say, speak to us today. Aristotle, for example, may have said things that would contribute to understanding or solving modern-day issues. Maybe not, but how would you know unless you ask? Previous commentators may not have seen what he has to say, and Aristotle wrote for his audience, meaning it might be easy to miss. So it takes somebody to go back and find what's of value in the past.

4.) History's great philosophers are, well, pretty great. More than just learning to repeat their views, it is a valuable exercise to see them at work. You can know that Marx holds that capitalism is exploitation, just like you can know that 2+2=4. But that's not the same, not even close, to encountering Marx at work, working through the reasons and concerns that present themselves to him. A philosopher of the past is not just waiting to become outdated; it may be that without them, we today would not have come to certain ideas and discoveries. To work our way into their minds is thus to see a great mind at work, to learn better what they see, and to train ourselves to be better in using our own minds.

5.) Not only may some of those philosophers 'speak to us today' insofar as what they say applies to contemporary issues. Philosophy is a process, an activity, a way of encountering a world. What a philosopher does, and what a great philosopher does well, is to be midwife (to borrow Socrates' term) to a way of understanding reality. They don't just speak to isolated issues, or teach us isolated skills. They aren't just neat to look at. They aren't a set of theories or a time period. They act as a conduit for a way of knowing the world--they bring the foundations of that world, the relevant issues, the possibilities, and the possible solutions to light. Doing the history of philosophy is, or at least can be, an encounter between worlds. The possibilities of the past can be rediscovered (and maybe discovered for the first time), altered, magnified, or suppressed. These are all options when we go into the history of philosophy, and to ignore them is our loss.

s. wallerstein said...

Finally, I don't see what could be wrong with some people talking about the books that they've read and others listening to them if they're interested.