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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

AUTUMNAL MUSINGS IN MID-WINTER

As I prepare for my first Marx lecture, I turn naturally to the Bible for passages I shall quote.  Re-reading the opening lines of the Gospel According to John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” in my head I hear the lovely Yiddish accent of the great scholar Harry Austryn Wolfson speaking about the Preexistent Logos of Neo-Platonic philosophy, and that in turn leads me to reflect how extraordinarily fortunate I was, as a young teen-ager, to sit at the feet of three great teachers:  Willard Van Orman Quine, Harry Austryn Wolfson, and Clarence Irving Lewis.  From Quine, during my very first semester as an undergraduate, I learned standards of clarity and precision that became a beacon for me as I went on to write philosophy myself.  From Wolfson, I learned what it is truly to be a scholar, and I understood that that honorific title would forever and appropriately be denied me.  From Lewis, I learned that it was possible to combine philosophical rigor and clarity with a passionate commitment to the truth.  I have spent a great deal of time and energy struggling against Harvard’s inadequate commitment to principles of justice, but I must confess, after all these years, that I got a pretty good education there two-thirds of a century ago.

16 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

The best teacher I ever had was in high school. His name was Mr. Goetz or Getz. I was 15 or 16, and teachers back then didn't have first names: they were Mr. or Mrs. or Miss.

I had him in a course in modern European history, an elective course, I believe. We began with the French revolution or maybe with the Congress of Vienna and went up to World War 2.

I learned Marxism from him. This was 1961 or 1962 and no one could teach Marxism as philosophy to study seriously back then in the U.S., so he explained it as he explained laissez-faire, social Darwinism or fascism, a series of strange (for me at age 15 or 16) doctrines which were part of European history. Except as he was explaining Marxism, first of all, I realized that it made a lot of sense and second, I sensed that Mr. Getz not only was trying to convince us that Marxism was a fairly accurate portrait of reality, but also that he more or less believed in it himself. I had nothing against that, since anything or anybody which subverted orthodoxy was fine with me at age 15 or 16. Not that I was a secret communist: merely, that I detested and found hypocritical and stupid everything and everyone around me.

I recall his classes on the Spanish Civil War. He explained the concept of polarization and then told us that if we had lived in Spain at the time, we would have had to opt for fascism or communism, there was no middle ground. He then took a vote, asking those who would vote for fascism to raise their hands. Most of the class, good anti-communists, shot up their hands. He then asked for those who would vote for communism: at first no one, not even I, raised their hands, but slowly a few brave souls raised their hands and I followed suit.

Mr. Goetz had cojones and in spite of the fact that he could have lost his job, made an effort to subvert the Cold War intellectual status quo. I'm sure that no one ever thanked him for that. I'm doing that now.

Jackson Cyril said...

Wolfson was the guy who asked a student "you do read Persian don't you"-- as per your autobio, correct? "Though we are not that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven" etc. etc.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The very same. An unforgettable man!

LFC said...

This year is an apt time to be lecturing on Marx, since 2018 marks the two hundredth anniversary of his birth.

LFC said...

As I prepare for my first Marx lecture, I turn naturally to the Bible for passages I shall quote.

I assume this ("I turn naturally") is meant ironically. If it isn't, I think I'm missing a connection here...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The allusion to the Bible is complicatedly ironic, with several layers of meaning. See my first lecture, which should be up next Wednesday or so.

Michael Llenos said...

There are really just three stories of creation in western literature that are truly thought provoking or stirring. Two are biblical and the third one is fictional:

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth..."
--Genesis (KJV)

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
--The Gospel according to John (KJV)

"There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made."
--The SILMARILLION Copyright 1977 by Christopher Reuel Tolkien

Michael Llenos said...

As far as a 4th one goes... Many years ago I marked down Plotinus' version of the creation of the universe here:

"But there was an active principal there, one set on governing itself (= the All-Soul), and it chose to aim at something more than its present: it stirred from its rest, and the Cosmos stirred with it."
--The ENNEADS Copyright Stephen MacKenna 1917

Michael Llenos said...

And for a 5th one, let us not forget the Kabbalistic Tradition of TZIMTZUM....

Michael Llenos said...

All of these creation stories have similarities in them for one divine truth. For God there exists absolute space and time, but for us finite human beings there is just relativity. St. Augustine explains that since we have have finite minds we have free will, but in God's infinite mind everything is determined. So there can be many human takes on creation to God's absolute truth about creation.

LFC said...

Then there's Goethe: "In the beginning was the Deed."

[hat tip: N.G. Onuf, World of Our Making (1989), who uses the relevant passage from Faust as an epigraph]

Warren Goldfarb said...

Wittgenstein cites the Goethe "Im Anfang war die Tat" in On Certainty, section 402.

LFC said...

@ Prof. Goldfarb:

Onuf does refer to Wittgenstein, but as far as the disciplinary lines of the academy go, Onuf isn't a philosopher, so philosophers don't have much call to read him, though the book is replete with references to philosophers. Not that I'm saying philosophers necessarily should read it, as 'World of Our Making' is mainly addressed to students of international relations, on the majority (though not all) of whom it had basically zero impact.

As for Wittgenstein, I've read only bits and a long time ago. But even if that were different, I don't think it would be advisable to say a lot about W. in the presence of one of the world's experts on him. ;)

Debra Campbell said...

As a young girl growing up in Kentucky in the 1960's-70's, I remember vividly when I first read the Communist Manifesto. I was nineteen years old and working as a secretary at the Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University. The book was given to me by a law student who had heard me complaining about how the secretaries were being treated. Upon reading it, I immediately identified with the oppressed proletariat (right after looking up what "proletariat" meant). So, I asked my father who had been born in 1904 (I came late in life to my parents), "Is Communism really as bad as what I learned in high school?" I continued, "I've just read the Communist Manifesto, and it makes sense to me." My father replied, "Well, Debi, honey, I believed in the Progressive Party back in the 30's. I worked on the WPA project that built that long retaining wall along the Columbia Parkway in Cincinnati. Many of FDR's policies that brought us out of the great depression were socialist programs. I think socialism was a good idea, I just think it got perverted by Stalin." My father had only a third grade education, having been sent to work in the coal mines in KY when he was 10 years old. At 16, he lied about his age and joined the U.S. Navy. He went around the world with the Navy, read avidly, and was entirely self-taught. Years later. when studying Marx with Allen Buchanan, at the University of Minnesota, it was nice to learn my Dad had taught me well. :)

Jerry Fresia said...

Debra: Lucky you; I can relate. My parents (factory worker and maid whose parents before them were illiterate peasants from Italy) were taken aback when I would visit them quoting Marx, which I had been introduced to at UMass, Amherst. "I thought he was the bad guy," my mother once said. After I would then pontificate for about twenty minutes as to why she was totally alienated, she who listened patiently, would respond with a single sentence, "You have to admit, we live in the freest country in the world!" End of story!! Except it wasn't. Long afterwards when I happened to have been interviewed on a local radio station following a protest action over US intervention in Central America, my mother called me, sounding quite alarmed: "You better watch out what you say. They'll throw you right in jail!" No fool, my mother. Unwavering atheist to boot.

Debra Campbell said...

Thank you, Jerry, for sharing that! As one of the first in my family to graduate from college, I often hesitate to share my humble beginnings. But my father was one of the kindest, smartest men I have ever known. So, it felt good to write a brief blurb about him. I was, indeed, lucky to have a father that thought far beyond his roots. It sounds like your Mother was a wise woman as well. We are both lucky and I do still believe we live in one of the freest countries in the world. Now, if the United States could just work on the compassion thing...#MedicareForAll #FundEducation :)