My Stuff

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Tuesday, May 11, 2021


Today, I shall write about something deeply personal and, for me, very important, namely what lies at the root of the work I have done during my entire professional career. I cannot tell whether this will be of interest to anyone other than myself, but I think that the way I work is actually rather odd for an academic and therefore perhaps worth spelling out in some detail.


I began my professional career 71 years ago in what was then for someone interested in philosophy a quite conventional manner. My first semester as an undergraduate at Harvard, I took Willard Van Orman Quine’s course in symbolic logic – philosophy 140 – and for the next several semesters I studied all of the mathematical logic offered at either the undergraduate or graduate level by the Philosophy Department.  This was in those days the royal world to professional success but it was not the road I took, even though I was appropriately ambitious. Instead, after earning a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree and spending a year abroad wandering about Europe, I chose to write a doctoral dissertation on the Treatise of Human Nature and the Critique of Pure Reason.


In those days, in the United States, the history of modern philosophy was not, so to speak, a great career move. There was no prominent American professor of philosophy whose field of special interest was the philosophy of David Hume and the only notable Kant scholar was Lewis White Beck, the local bigwig in the Philosophy Department of the decidedly second tier University of Rochester. If you wanted to make a name for yourself in American philosophy, formal logic or analytic philosophy was the way to go. Why then did I choose to write on so professionally unpromising a subject? And why, despite having lucked into an instructorship in philosophy and general education at Harvard, did I choose to devote my time to writing a book on Kant’s First Critique?


I can begin to offer an answer by talking about the great Southern 12 string guitarist and folksinger Leadbelly. When I was a young teenager I spent the summers at a left-wing middle-class eight week sleep away “work camp” called Shaker Village, in the Berkshires. The counselor at the camp responsible for folklore was a wonderful woman named Margot Mayo, who introduced us to the music of Leadbelly. The famous folklorist Alan Lomax had recorded Leadbelly on one of his trips through the South and I listened to the record at Shaker Village. In the liner notes, Lomax described Leadbelly, who was twice convicted of murder and twice pardoned by the governor of Texas because of his singing, as “the lead man in the toughest chain gang in the toughest prison in Texas.” That phrase stuck in my mind and became to me the definition of what it was to be big-league.


When I studied the Critique of Pure Reason with Clarence Irving Lewis in my senior year at Harvard, it was immediately clear to me that Kant was the greatest philosopher who had ever lived, that his First Critique was his greatest work, and that the passage known as the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding was the most difficult and profound passage in that work – the lead man on the toughest chain gang in the toughest prison in Texas. I was seized by the desire, no by the necessity, to plumb that passage to its depths, to understand it so clearly and completely that I could explain it in simple clear language and then to write that explanation in a way that my reader could understand. Nothing else in the world seemed important to me but that. During the time that I was writing my book, Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity, I was falling in love with a woman who would become my first wife, I was starting my first job as an instructor at Harvard, I was devoting endless hours to the campaign for nuclear disarmament, I was helping to create and then to run a new program at Harvard called Social Studies, and I was serving in the Massachusetts National Guard, but none of that touched me anything like as deeply as my engagement with, my struggle with, and my eventual triumph in my effort to understand the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason.


For the first and only time in my life, I showed the manuscript to two friends – Ingrid Stadler and Charles Parsons – before submitting it for publication. I was grateful for their comments but I did not really care what anybody else thought about what I had written. All that mattered to me was that I had told the story of Kant’s argument in a way that was, at least for me, clear, precise, coherent, and logically powerful.


As the years went by, I wrote books on anarchism, on the philosophy of education, on the philosophy of liberalism, on Kant’s ethical theory, on the formal structure of Marx’s economic theories, on the literary structure of Capital, on Afro-American studies, and always I was driven by the same need – to plunge deep into a difficult and sometimes even obscure tangle of theory, to understand it deeply and precisely, and then to explain it to my reader in a fashion that was completely devoid of jargon and made little or no reference to what other thinkers had found in the same material.


Philosophical arguments in any discipline (I have virtually no sense of disciplinary boundaries) have always seemed to me at their very best to be stories. I work in my head, not on the page. Until an argument is clear to me – until I can tell its story – I cannot write. I work by telling the story over and over again in my head to an imaginary audience, an ideal audience that will not allow me to move on with my story until what I have told up to that point is clear. Once the story is clear in my mind I can start to write. Then, characteristically, I start on page 1, tell the story for as many pages as it takes until I reached the end, have the resulting story nicely typed up, after which I submitted it to a publisher.


I do not keep up with “the literature.” I put very few footnotes in my books. I tend not to read the reviews when they come out. And I have no sense that I am part of a community of scholars collectively adding to the accumulating total of human knowledge. I am a storyteller. I would be Garrison Keillor if I could.


Let me finish with a story dating from 1986. I have in my long life been something of a therapy junkie. Including my full-scale seven year Freudian psychoanalysis during my time teaching at Columbia, I think I have had full-time or part-time therapy for 15 years! My last engagement with this practice took place during the time when my first wife and I had separated and I was struggling, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to patch up our marriage. In all my years of therapy, during which I had complained endlessly about this and that in my life, I had never actually shed a tear, not even as my first marriage was breaking up. But one day, sitting in my therapist’s office in 1986, for some reason I stopped complaining about my wife and started talking about my work. I explained that my writing and my teaching had always been an effort to show to my students or to my readers with clarity and simplicity the power and beauty of certain ideas. As I said to my therapist “I try to show these ideas so that my students or readers can see them clearly and can see how beautiful they are” I unexpectedly choked up and started to cry.


It was the clearest proof I could imagine of what has throughout my life been truly important to me.


Michael said...

A lovely reflection. Thank you!

Michael (no. 2) said...

Wikiquote is a guilty pleasure. (I mean, when used as a "highlight reel," or substitute for reading books!) This post put me in mind of some favorites from Steinbeck's page, which I figure you and your readers might appreciate; I'll just share the first three:

"We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say - and to feel - 'Yes, that's the way it is, or at least that's the way I feel it. You're not as alone as you thought.'"

"The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty."

"In every bit of honest writing in the world...there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other."

LFC said...

That you don't, or never particularly did, keep up with the literature suggests that you don't think anyone else writing on a given subject (whether it's Kant, Marx or whatever) has much that is worthwhile to say, which is a position or attitude that could be seen as, among other things, somewhat arrogant.

It's also interesting that you emerged from your education feeling that you were not part of a community of scholars engaged in some kind of collective endeavor as well as an individual one. (I think your friend Barrington Moore, whom I did not know personally, had a different view about that, but I don't have time right now to elaborate on that.)

s. wallerstein said...

How did U.S. philosophy in the 1950's end up specialized in such abstruse topics?

Was that the effect of McCarthism? I'm not saying that there was intentional repression or censorship, but at times "everybody" knows that it's not wise to mention certain topics and after a while, "everybody" conveniently forgets that they know since such knowledge has become an unconscious rule that governs behavior.

The idea is that seriously discussing certain topics, social justice, the good life, etc., topics found throughout the history of Western philosophy, almost inevitably leads to subversive conclusions and subversive conclusions were not welcome in the 1950's.

LFC said...

Not an expert on this by any means, but my sense fwiw is that the explanation was not so much political but had to do w trends internal to the field. It's not that everyone was doing logic. People were doing the traditional topics of philosophy but in particular ways influenced by a lot of specific things incl what was going on in terms of, e.g., ordinary language philosophy, etc. For some reason I have a copy of Morton White's _Toward Reunion in Philosophy_ (1956), which would give some synoptic idea of academic American and Anglophone philosophy in that period. There's also a lot of stuff available now about the history of American (academic) philosophy. Personally I am not all that interested in it, but whatever.

(P.s. And don't forget that in the 50s Rawls was writing articles that became the basis, after reworking etc etc,, of A Theory of Justice. So again, it's not like everyone was doing symbolic logic and no one was concerned about other things.)

Guy Mizrahi said...

Occasionally in your writings and lectures you reference the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel in Genesis. I remember you mentioning in your Marx lecture that you felt like Jacob-- who said “I will not let you go unless you bless me”-- when seriously tackling Capital for the first time, unwilling to let go until the book "blessed you" in some way.

What a powerful story. To not let go and to continue wrestling; until blessing, until truth, until epiphany, until the Angel has crowned you with a new name and a new beginning. And like Jacob who was renamed Israel without choice over his new title, our journeys towards blessing can never be fully understood until they are complete and we have exhausted our mental and physical abilities.

And what a beautiful thing to commit your life to. A conviction that the wrestling match with your chosen Angel is necessary and that sharing the blessing you achieved is worthwhile. Many have been blessed yet so few share their blessings. So few are willing to write their blessings down in a way others can understand or to teach them with patience to students who (like you before the blessing) are searching for a capital-t Truth.

But you did that, Professor. You wrote your blessings down and shared them after wrestling with Angels many saw (and still see) as unbeatable. Your blessings are forever recorded and undying.

David Palmeter said...


Isaiah Berlin writes about being bored in the 1930s with the analytic philosophy so prevalent in Anglophone philosophy. He left the field entirely and took up intellectual history.

David Zimmerman said...

If I may be permitted a personal note about Professor Wolff's fine book, "Kant's Theory of Mental Activity."

In 1968 I was studying for the upcoming history of philosophy prelim soon to be set by the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan, where I was labouring as a [mediocre] graduate student. Unfortunately, I contracted pneumonia, which hospitalized me in the student Health Center for about a month.

Since I was pretty sure that there would be an essay topic on Kant's First Critique, I decided to focus on Professor Wolff's book as my primary secondary source, so to speak. I remember lying in bed, reading his book as carefully as I could; taking copious notes.

My guess paid off.... An essay topic on the First Critique.... Most of my essay drawn from KTMA."

And..... I passed the history prelim.

I have been forever grateful to Professor Wolff for his passion for the First Critique and for his study of it, even without the usual scholarly apparatus.

tom llewellyn said...

This is a great glimpse of the important things in your life. You have posted thousands of interesting aspects of your life. This one may be your best.

Ahmed Fares said...

"Mysticism teaches that there is wisdom inaccessible to the intellect. You can only reach it through surrender, being nothing."
~ The Rabbi in #Netflix #RussianDoll S1E3

DJL said...

Some of this certainly resonates with my own general intellectual nous, especially the stuff about working out a problem in your mind first, though I must say I have never really felt the compulsion to then put it all down into writing. I guess that for me the real achievement is to work something out internally, as it were, and communicating the results has never been part of it (I certainly recognise the need for it, though). Further, I have always found writing hard and not particularly rewarding - the complete opposite to reading, at least for me. What I HAVE indeed enjoyed is mentally rehearsing the title and/or first paragraphs of a piece I could write; that is, I really enjoy coming up the idea or ideas underlying a paper and in fact I think I'm rather good at coming up with titles as well as writing the initial and final paragraphs - shame about the stuff in the middle!

Regarding keeping up with the literature, I wish I could ignore most of it too, but I think that it is practically impossible to do so and have an academic career nowadays (I'm a 'young' academic in my early 40s). This also pretty much depends on the subject you are researching, of course. If you are working on Kant or Marx, you can perhaps get away with paying attention to the secondary literature and just focus on the primary writings in a way that you clearly can't if you are working on Philosophy of Mind, for instance.

Adrian Bardon said...

Very well said. And, as I told you as a grad student many years ago at UMass, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity was what really got me on track in reading the Critique of Pure Reason.

Ачболд said...

Dear Professor Wolff,

Thank you!


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