Coming Soon:

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Friday, August 14, 2020

PHILLIPS SCREWDRIVERS, IRWIN WRENCHES, AND THE WRONG WAY TO DO PHILOSOPHY

In the apartment where Susie and I live, there is a small utility room just large enough to hold a washer and dryer and some mechanical stuff. On the floor, in a corner of the room, is a toolbox with the collection of odds and ends that I have assembled over a long lifetime of making household repairs. There is a flat head screwdriver, a Phillips screwdriver, a hammer, a plastic box with little containers filled with odd washers, screws, clips, nails, and the other detritus of repair work. There are also several pairs of pliers and wrenches including one big old clunky job with the screw at the bottom of one of the handles so that you can widen or narrow the gap of the mouth. This last item, Google tells me, is an Irwin wrench. I have no idea what its inventor intended it to be used for but I use it to open bottles and cans. I drink a modest Cabernet that runs to $10 a bottle but Susie prefers Prosecco, a sort of poor woman's champagne. When the time comes to open a new bottle for her and I can't get the cork out with my hand I go get the Irwin wrench, adjust the opening, and with no trouble at all and a quite satisfying pop pull the cork out.

Tools are like that. Regardless of what they were designed to do, they can be put to other uses with a little imagination and sufficient desperation. But arguments are not tools, although students and some young aspiring philosophers seem to imagine that they are. Over the years I have quite often received a student paper or read a journal article in which the author says something on the order of "in this essay I shall use Aristotle in the beginning and John Rawls in my conclusion." I can never figure out what the author has in mind. A philosophical argument is not a home repair. It is like a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end and if the story makes sense than the argument proceeds comfortably from start to finish. Nobody in his right mind would start telling the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and halfway through say "at this point I will use a little bit of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

The only time I have encountered this kind of intellectual confusion among senior and supposedly serious academics was at a conference I attended at Columbia University in 1986 on the subject of "Immanuel Kant and the Law." At first, I was mystified as to what possible interest first rate legal theorists could have in the philosophy of Kant, but after a while it dawned on me that what I was watching was a sophisticated version of the game that my young sons played called Dungeons & Dragons. In that game, each player chooses a character as his or her representative in the game and then goes through a series of adventures designed to increase the strength of the character, which is measured by something called "hit points." The more hit points a character has, the more other characters it can conquer in encounters and the more daring the adventures it can undertake. I realized that to the legal theorists assembled for this upscale event, invoking Kant's name in a legal argument could confer considerable hit points. It was the academic equivalent of bringing an AK-47 to a knife fight.

It didn't seem to matter to these legal eagles what the structure of Kant's argument was or whether the premises on which his argument was based bore any relationship whatsoever to the legal issue they were interested in litigating. The name was enough.


Why on earth am I telling you this? Because at 3 AM I lay awake going through all of this in my mind and this is, after all, a web log or blog. Enough said.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Prosecco as a poor woman's champagne? Such a capitalist way of looking at it...

R McD said...

What you say about the attempt to use Kant's name as a weapon reminded me of my--perhaps mistaken--response to so many academic articles and presentations: E.g., "As Hegel said," with no precise reference to any of Hegel's actual words or any demonstration that what he may have said was germane to the actual argument being made. I've always wondered just how many of those references to past intellectual heroes were necessary and how many were just vague appeals to authority. Also way up there, to my mind, are all those listed eminences in the "Acknowledgements" at the front of a book.

I guess in future when I encounter such assertions I'll just say, "As Robert Paul Wolff said, "All such name claims are likely to be phony."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

R McD, worthy of Epimenides, if I may invoke an authority ...

DDA said...

As Mark Twain recently observed, most of the bon mots attributed to him or his friend Einstein are falsely so attributed.

jeffrey g kessen said...

The way things are going I doubt not that, if Trump wins in 2020 future historians of American politics will begin their hagiography with something like, "As Donald Trump said...".

Eric C said...

"But arguments are not tools, although students and some young aspiring philosophers seem to imagine that they are....
A philosophical argument is not a home repair. It is like a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end and if the story makes sense then the argument proceeds comfortably from start to finish."

Well, what if someone agrees with a general framework of philosophical argument that has been laid out by someone else and wants to build from that foundation, but disagrees with where the originator took the argument? What if, for instance, someone agrees that there is a natural right to life, health, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but argues further that this is a right to which all races of human beings, male and female alike, are entitled—and which is wholly incompatible with holding other human beings in bondage?

I fully agree with your criticism of those who wield the names of philosophers without any indications of understanding of their actual arguments. But that seems different than repurposing parts of others' arguments to suit one's own viewpoint.

Danny said...

'I have no idea what its inventor intended it to be used for'

A wrench or spanner is a tool used to provide .. nvm, file this under: Why on earth am I telling you this?

Danny said...

'At first, I was mystified as to what possible interest first rate legal theorists could have in the philosophy of Kant'

..noting that you are still mystified. Or, that is to say, you come off really sardonic about it that first rate legal theorists, in your words, would bother with the philosphy Kant. Even though Kant was the most forceful exponent of natural law theory in modern days, and the most coherent and persuasive critic of legal positivism, which, at least, he is by acclimation I suppose, and if not then who is? Really -- are legal theorists supposed to just sit down and shut up? I guess your reaction would be the same if some first rate legal scholar cites the ancient Greeks, although I am just guessing here.. that your point is not really about Kant or aboutt 'first rate legal scholars' as opposed to any other kind of scholars, first rate or otherwise, but just 'such an endlessly sardonic charade', and all these fictional fruits such as sour grapes, that come out of the groves of academe. The plantings of the academic vine, the prun ing, cutting and nurturing of the plant, University life, a natural hunting ground for the satirist or somesuch. The perennial, the trivial, the quadrivial, the advancement of knowledge, supposedly, but also, the advancement.. the loftiness of the pursuit.. don't bring up Kant with your flippant demeanor cuz he's a proto-Marxist this is serious buzness!

Charles Pigden said...

I remember seeing a remark attributed to Schopenhauer: An argument is not like a cab; you can't take it as far as you want to go and then pay it off.

Matt said...

I'm no expert on such things, but I've always thought of prosecco as "the Italian version of champagne". But, maybe it's a style of making a sparkling wine? In any case, it can be very nice, and my wife and I enjoyed a modestly priced (by Australian standards) bottle last night. Good stuff!

On Kant and the law, no doubt a lot of law professors do, and have, used him in just the way you describe, but there is a good amount of very sophisticated work these days, too. The gold standard is usually taken to be Arthur Ripstein's _Force and Freedom_. https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674035065 It's a very good book, I think, sophisticated on both the law and on Kant. Another person doing good work in this area is Jacob Weinrib, a young legal philosophy at Queens University in Canada. (I think Weinrib was a student of Ripstein's, but I'm not 100% sure on that.) I thought his paper "Sovereignty as a Right and as a Duty" was particular good. That's here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2976485 (It appeared in a volume where I also have a paper, but mine has nothing to do with Kant.) A number of Weinrib's other papers deal with Kant, but I haven't read most of them. You can find them on his SSRN page, if anyone is interested.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of tools and toolboxes, is there such a thing as "unskilled labor" when it comes to value? If capitalists insist on retaining a labor category as unskilled, we need an appropriate category for unskilled capitalists too. If you've filed for bankruptcy three times or more, you should not only get an approriate title, but also a dunce cap to go with it.

-- Dave F.

Anonymous said...

Bob offers a fuller account of the 1986 conference here:

https://robertpaulwolff.blogspot.com/2014/03/here-it-is-part-one.html

Anonymous said...

An Irwin wrench is a plumbing tool. It provides good grip on round pipes. Which I know because I paid a good portion of college fees at a UC working in maintenance. As to Prosecco -- well, you are entitled to that mistake.

Matt said...

Is "Irwin" a brand name? It sounded like a pipe wrench to me, and when I google it, I get a bunch of pipe (and other adjustable) wrenches that seem to be "Irwin brand" pipe wrenches. (I might have called this a "Monkey wrench", but wikipedia tells me that actual "monkey wrenches", though similar in style superficially, had a different design that was less easy for changing the grip, although "non-trades people" (such as myself, I guess) sometimes use the term for pipe wrenches more generally.)

Thinking a bit more about Prosecco, I'll add that, in my experience at least, it is somewhat easier to find a satisfying bottle at a lower price point than with champagne, although it's possible to spend too much without more satisfaction on both.

Anonymous said...

Geeze you guys. Prosecco is just a sparkling Italian wine, while Champagne is one that is produced in Champagne region of France. Not too complicated, even for us non-wine drinkers.

Jerry Brown said...

I learned an important lesson from this post- don't ask a philosopher about actual tools. You did get it right about home repair though- it can be an unending process, so there is not necessarily any beginning or middle or end to it.

Just in case you misplace the wrench, sometimes you can use the claw of the hammer to pry the cap off. Works on beer bottles at least for me.

Anonymous said...

I think the point of the first commenter re prosecco is that both champagne and prosecco are sparkling wines and the differences in price don't necessarily reflect differences in quality - they may be due to market demand, the perception that one is better than the other, etc. (I think much the same is true of Spanish cava).

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Was it Newton who, after he had introduced his reflecting telescope, was asked where he got his tools, and responded that he had made his tools himself and that had he had to wait for his tools would never have build anything?

Moreover, I know first hand that at least some of your own arguments have been put to uses that I don't think you had anticipated. There must be at least one dissertation out there with that sort of genealogy? Also, your piece on narrative time puts at least some of Dilthey's observations and arguments to work to explain the perspectival character of historical time? N'est pas?