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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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Wednesday, May 26, 2021


What a grand series of comments to my brief description of the course I want to teach at UNC Chapel Hill. I am especially grateful to Ahmed Fares.  That is what a philosophy blog ought to look like! I became familiar with the work of Al-Ghazali and Al-Farabi through the courses I took at Harvard almost 70 years ago with the great medievalist Harry Austryn Wolfson, but I really was not familiar with the details that Ahmed Fares lays out in his very useful comments. Hume, of course, would have been familiar with the work of the 17th century philosopher Malebranche, whose doctrine, referred to as Occasionalism, is clearly influenced by the medieval Arabic tradition.


I am reminded of something Hannah Arendt once said to me – a story I am sure I have told before. In the late 1960s I had given a talk at a Columbia University gathering in which I laid into John Stuart Mill pretty vigorously. After the talk, Arendt came up to say hello. She was pretty obviously not thrilled with my talk, but she politely asked me what I was working on then. I replied that I was writing a book on the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. “Ah,” she replied, her face breaking into a broad smile, “it is always more pleasant to spend time with Kant!”


Ahmed Fares said...

Professor Wolff,

Thank you for the kind words and you likewise.

I've now watched the first five YouTube videos on Marx, and I've learned so much from them. I'm sure I have much more to learn.

Anyway, thanks again.

Ahmed Fares said...

Malebranche, whose doctrine, referred to as Occasionalism, is clearly influenced by the medieval Arabic tradition.

Yes, that is quite clear.

If all mankind, jinn, angels, and devils combined their efforts to move or to still a single particle of the universe without His will and choice, they would be unable to. —Al-Ghazali (The Jerusalem Treatise)

Nor is this enough; it is a contradiction for all the angels and demons together to be able to move a wisp of straw. —Nicolas Malebranche (Dialogues on Metaphysics and Religion)

David Zimmerman said...

Apropos of Hannah Arendt....

I recommend the Katherina Von Trotta film biopic, starring Barbara Sukowa as the eponymous Hannah.

It focusses mainly on HA's trip to Israel for the Eichmann trial, and the awful blowback against her mainly sensible analysis in the New Yorker and then in "Eichmann in Jerusalem," a painful chapter that endures even now.

There are also some flashbacks to HA's years as a student of the vile Heidegger, which are truly painful to watch..... One wonders how a genuinely brilliant young philosopher could so deeply fall under the thrall of such a philosophical charlatan. "Being and Time" is impossible to read... even if one does not know about Heidegger's affiliation with the Nazi Party. And his later writings, e.g. on technology, are even worse.

Oy and fucking vey.

jeffrey g kessen said...

Good on you, David---a Comment after my own heart: "Oy and fucking vey". Arendt's weakness for Heidegger suggests that she really didn't have much of a philosophical head. She dismissed German analytical philosophy---Rudolph Carnap, in particular, with this: "Zis ist the fucking stuff vee ver taught in Gymnasium".

LFC said...

I think it's fair to say that Arendt is now pretty firmly in the canon of 20th-cent. political theory in Anglophone political science or government departments. (As distinct from her standing among those in philosophy departments, which I have no particular sense of.)

I've read parts of On Revolution (not an esp big fan of that book), have dipped into a few pp of Origins of Totalitarianism, and I have a nice copy of The Human Condition on the shelf but haven't read it. Also have a copy of the essay collection Between Past and Future.

I think there's no doubt that Arendt, in certain realms, was very erudite, as one might imagine someone of her intellect and training wd be, and all you have to do is flip through the footnotes of The Human Condition and see that they're packed w refs to Augustine and Aristotle and others, quotations in Latin and Greek, etc etc etc. (Erudition does not nec. mean she was right about everything, or indeed anything, and that's a separate matter. Her essay about integration and Little Rock was clearly not one of her better moments.)

The fact that she, according to j.g. kessen, dismissed German (or other) analytical philosophy seems neither here nor there, since didn't do that style of philosophy.

LFC said...

p.s. There has recently been an effort to "complicate" the usual picture of her as someone who was not much concerned w economic matters and what she called "the social question."

I'm thinking specifically of Steven Klein's article in Am. Pol. Sci. Rev., "'Fit to Enter the World,'" which people can search on if they are interested.

s. wallerstein said...

I've read Being and Times. There's something there.

As for Heidegger being a charlatan, as is claimed above, he's considered the greatest 20th century philosopher in most of South America and much of Europe. I know that in Anglophone
philosophy he's not well considered, but unless you want to claim that Anglophone taste in philosophy is somehow the only possible taste, I believe that we should conclude that there are many ways of doing philosophy and several philosophical traditions, in one of which Heidegger is seen as a great thinker.

jeffrey g kessen said...

I have no doubt that there is something to be said for Heidegger, S. Wallerstein. I've just had a hard time figuring out exactly what that "something" is in a philosophical dialect I can understand. Walter Kaufmann has a withering essay on Heidegger in his three-volume, "Discovering the Mind". Have you read that? Great "takes" on Kant and Hegel in there too.

s. wallerstein said...


Heidegger isn't a thinker I've spent all that much time with. I read Being and Time about 25 years ago and more recently the first volume of his Nietzsche lectures.

However, if I had the energy, I believe I could outline at least 10 worthwhile themes from Being and Time.

If Heidegger interests you, you might check out the late Hubert Dreyfus's lectures on him in Youtube as well as the Brian Magee interview with Dreyfus. Dreyfus, as you probably know, was a friend of Professor Wolff at Harvard and thus, has a background in analytical philosophy.

I'd recommend Rudiger Safranski's philosophy biography, Heidegger: A Master from Germany. Safranski has written excellent philosophical biographies of people like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, combining introductions to their thought with accounts of their lives. He places Heidegger within the context of German philosophy, discusses his Nazism, his relation with Arendt, his class and social background, etc.

Finally, most readers of this blog have a high opinion of Herbert Marcuse. Yet Marcuse studied with Heidegger and why would Marcuse do that if Heidegger were merely a charlatan?

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