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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, April 16, 2021

A MEDITATION

Before finally replying to some of the many interesting comments on my multipart Marx essay, I should like to say just a few words about why I find blogging an odd and in some ways unsatisfactory mode of communication. One of the criticisms of classical social contract theory, advanced by many commentators, is its treatment of the political community as a timeless assembly of mature and independent adults. There is some feeble effort to take account of subsequent generations, but they tend to be treated as no different from immigrants who enter the community and sign on to the commitments made in the original contract. But the truth, of course, is completely other. All of us live through a lifecycle starting with birth, moving from childhood to adulthood, then if we are fortunate to old age, and finally to death.

 

Everyone knows, even if the theory takes no account of it, that we are different as children from what we are as young adults, different as young adults from what we are in our maturity, and different again in old age. Readers of this blog have all noticed that I increasingly often make reference to my age, of which I am extremely aware, indeed in some ways obsessively so. I have spent the last 71 years in the classroom, as it were, first for five years as a student, then for 53 years as a teacher, and then for the past 13 years as a blogger, part-time teacher, YouTube lecturer, and always throughout my life as a writer.

 

As I have often remarked, I have spent most of my life in my head, but inevitably, properly, humanly, my relationship to the world around me has changed as the decades have gone by. As a young man I was energetic, enthusiastic, confrontational to authority wherever I could find it, forward-looking, and utterly wrapped up in the ideas in my head. As the years went by, and especially after I had children, I became supportive, generative, quasi-parental toward my students, for all that my published work continued to announce me as a radical, a man of the left, a critic of established authority.

 

When I was young, I scarcely noticed what was said about the books I published. I read very few of the reviews and did not have a strong sense of myself as a member of and participant in a scholarly community. My decision to resign from my Columbia professorship and move to the University of Massachusetts was, I finally came to realize, very strongly motivated by a desire to withdraw from the bustle of the Academy to a retreat where I could pursue my ideas untroubled.

 

Now that I am in my late 80s and compelled to acknowledge that my life is nearing its end, I think a great deal about those who have read my writings and have found something of value in them. It is important to me, in a way it never was before, to believe that something of what I have written will live after me.  I am eager to receive, as I do, confirmations that out there in the world somewhere are readers who have enjoyed my books, my articles, or even these blog posts. I am not quite like the Ancient Mariner who stoppeth one in three, but I am not too far off either.

 

But blogging by its structure and nature is almost completely insensitive to the natural rhythms of a human life. The posts appear as if by magic and linger on in cyberspace presumably forever. I cannot see the people to whom I imagine myself to be talking nor can they see me and, strangest of all, I cannot really tell where they are, how old they are, whether they are male or female, and who they are as people. I do not find this liberating, I find it unsettling. I would rather be sitting around a table teaching a class of 15 than posting little essays that are read perhaps by a thousand. That is why I have gone to such lengths, even taking weekly flights, to find a place where I can sit around that table yet again as I have so often in the past 66 years.

 

Well, if I am not the Ancient Mariner I am most certainly Mr. Chips.

 

 

11 comments:

tom llewellyn said...

I am a great admirer of your commitment to human values and social change. You are a national treasure. Read your blog almost every day and own 4 or 5 of your books. Hope you have at least 5 more productive years to help people who are seriously concerned with ideas.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Tom. I cannot tell you how much that means to me. I will keep plugging away as long as I can.

Tom Weir said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guy Mizrahi said...

Professor, your teaching career, books, ideas blog, videos, and exceptional character have already solidified your immortality. There's no need to second guess it. When a man commits his life to, and succeeds in, pushing the needle of human truth ever so slightly as to, even in the most simple ways, improve the world around him, he is immortal. How noble to live your life as part of the Great Conversation and to make incredible use of your time alive as to improve the debate ongoing at the Philosophical Dinner Table.

I only got into your work this summer, but I'll never forget the moment it occurred and how impactful it has since been. I was working my lifeguarding shift at the local pool (as I do in the summers) on a rainy day. It was just my coworker and I sitting alone in the office waiting for the sun to shine. I was, at the time, reading Kant for the first time and eventually used your lectures as a guide.

But that day at the pool I actually spent most of my 10-hour-stuck-inside shift binging your entire series on Marx. What a trip! Finally it all *clicked*! I went and got a new copy of Capital and went cover to cover. I felt as though I'd escaped the Platonic Cave! That I'd touched Hegel's Absolute Knowledge! That I'd transcended my own self of however long ago. I could close my eyes and see Marx sitting there, at the British Museum, writing away. That summer was just incredible, and it wouldn't have been as it was without your ideas, Professor.

You're an incredible soul, and there's no doubt in my mind you've still got a lot to share with us here on Earth.

Atanu Dey said...

Prof Wolff:

On reading this piece, I was going to write, "But, sir, your mind is as sharp as a tack" only to realize that someone beat me to it.

I am delighted to you referenced two of my favorites: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which I know by heart). I especially love Richard Burton's reading of the poem (Youtube link.)

You also referred to Goodby Mr Chips, a favorite old movie. I like the 1939 movie, starring Robert Donat.

Best wishes always.
Atanu

LFC said...

I'm somewhat reluctant to comment, as I recently said I'd be commenting here less frequently. So much for that promise!

Many, or perhaps most, human beings want to make a mark on the world in some way, want to feel that they have left something of value that will outlive them. When Prof. Wolff says it's important to him "to believe that something of what I have written will live after me," he's expressing a version of this universal, or almost universal, human aspiration.

I've written little, in terms of both volume and impact, compared to Prof. Wolff, but I certainly hope that something I've written will in some way outlive me. What person who has ever written so much as a paragraph or two -- in whatever format or medium, except perhaps a dry-as-dust accounting audit or something like that -- wouldn't hope that? (In my case, as of right now, I'd have to say the chances of anything I've written outliving me are quite minuscule, but that's irrelevant to the point here, which is that we all want to put some mark on the world because humans -- again as a broad generalization -- want to feel that their lives are, and will have been, meaningful.) Now there are various and sundry ways to leave a mark on the world, and writing of course is only one of them, but the point still stands.

LFC said...

P.s. I think Guy Mizrahi's comment alone should be enough to convince Prof. Wolff that he has left his mark.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I quite agree with LFC, and could not myself write anything half so moving as Guy, but your blog, and online lectures, have been a source of a great deal of learning, but also deep joy and meaning. Prof, your deep, profound humaneness and intelligence and wit and wisdom are evident in even your most "trivial" of posts. Thank you for sharing so much of your knowledge and yourself over the years; it truly has been a privilege.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

Dear Professor,

You are an extraordinary philosopher. I already noticed that when I watched the Kant lectures on Youtube. The blog here, which I found after a short search on the Internet, confirmed this impression. By "extraordinary" I mean the way you link the contents of philosophical theories with your own biography and with the experiences of your life.

When Heidegger was asked by a student (Gadamer) after one of his lectures what role Aristotle's life had played for Aristotle's philosophy he replied, "What can you say: he was born, he thought, and he died."

Now, one might say, this was wishful thinking on Heidegger's part for his own biography and privacy. As an anti-Semite, he might have preferred that we ignore his biography when reading his philosophy.

On the other hand, this little story points out that theorists have always been afraid that their own lives and experiences would undermine the claim of " objectivity " of their work. Even today there are some philosophers who would like to be like physicists or mathematicians.

It belongs meanwhile, (since a few months) to my routine in the morning, that I follow your thoughts with a cup of coffee in my hand and with joy and great interest. Much of it still goes through my mind during the day. I don't think I'm an exception with that.

In my experience, the only possible way to deal with trolls on the Internet is to ignore them completely. Give up the idea that these people could grab your keyboard while you write, or that they would cotaminate what you say. The well-meaning and capable people here are able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Anonymous said...

Nice post

> I cannot see the people to whom I imagine myself to be talking nor can they see me and, strangest of all, I cannot really tell where they are, how old they are, whether they are male or female, and who they are as people. I do not find this liberating, I find it unsettling.

Here is one data point: I am a male, 29-year old programmer from Switzerland who sometimes reads some of your blog posts instead of doing my job. I've taken an interest in leftist politics, which was triggered by watching chomsky videos on youtube about 5 years ago and have tried to read Kapital for a bit. The interest in philosophy can be traced back to me reading https://existentialcomics.com/. I stumbled upon your blog a few weeks ago, I think because it was recommended on /r/askphilosophy. I live in one of our bigger cities and might be an asperger.

I suspect there are as many unique backgrounds (gender, age, location, occupation, language, ethnicity...) among your readership as you have readers. God bless.

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