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Wednesday, January 19, 2022


Prof. Pigden writes “I would be interested in Professor Wolff’s views on this. I think some of the work that I did before I was 35 is some of the best that I've ever done or am ever likely to do. How does he feel about his early productions?”  Well, I have never passed up an opportunity to talk about myself so I will be happy to oblige.


Probably the most important piece of philosophy I have ever written was my first book, Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity, which I completed when I was 27 and which finally appeared when I was 29. The most influential thing I have ever published was written when I was 31 and published when I was 35.  But my favorite among all my books is Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, published when I was 54.


My writing changed significantly as I grew older. Irony and humor entered it in ways that had not been present in my earlier writing. I allowed portions of myself to enter the writing in ways that expressed a more complex view of the human world.


I suppose everyone who publishes a great deal has the same experience I have had, namely that some of myfavorite pieces of writing have, in David Hume’s great phrase, fallen stillborn from the presses. Moneybags sold almost no copies at all and I cannot believe that many people have ever read it, whereas In Defense of Anarchism continues to be read and translated around the world. It defends a very simple proposition, namely that there has never been and could not be a de jure legitimate state. I am as confident now as I was when I wrote it that the argument is absolutely correct but I confess I have very little interest in revisiting it or expanding it or defending it.


In many ways, the most daring and original thing I have ever published was a journal article entitled “A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx’s Labor Theory of Value.” However, I made the mistake of publishing an article containing wall-to-wall mathematics in a political philosophy journal so almost nobody read it who could appreciate it or understand it. (However, one person perfectly suited both to understand it and to criticize it did read it, namely the brilliant mathematical Marxist John Roemer. It was he who called my attention, alas, to the fact that an important theorem I had proved had been proved two years earlier by a Spanish economist – rats!)


Well, according to Marc Antony, the evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. Since I have never been able to bring myself to believe in an afterlife (or, for that matter, pace Plato, in a forelife), I think I must content myself with the thought that I have had a pretty good run.


Jerry Brown said...

Marc Antony was mistaken. The good things a man such as Martin Luther King did has long survived him. I can think of many more examples- Abraham Lincoln. FDR. Any number of authors whose books I enjoyed in my life after they died. Even something like old movies- Paul Newman and George Kennedy and the other actors in 'Cool Hand Luke'- still a great movie as are many others.

I wouldn't place much value on what Marc Antony may or may not have said.

LFC said...

@ J. Brown

As you may or may not recall, the quote is from Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar. (I suppose it's possible that the real Marc Antony did say something like that, but I don't know.)

John Rapko said...

Perhaps posterity (if there is any that survives the current poisoning of the earth and the impending environmental collapse) will consider the professor's greatest achievement in writing to be . . . this blog. Think about it.--Although there's no compensation for the worst aspects of aging, the loss of vitality and the death of friends and family, I'd like by way of quotation to put in a few good words connecting aging with achievement: Hokusai at age 74--"At the age of 73 I finally apprehended something of the true quality of birds, animals, insects, fishes, and of the vital nature of grasses and trees. Therefore, at 80 I shall have made some progress, at 90 I shall have penetrated even further the deeper meaning of things, at 100 I shall have become truly marvelous, and at 110, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own"; and Confucius--"At 15, I set my heart on learning; at 30, I firmly took my stand; at 40, I had no delusions; at 50, I knew the mandate of Heaven; at 60, my ear was attuned; at 70, I followed my heart's desire without overstepping the boundaries of right."

Jerry Brown said...

Yes LFC- I kinda knew that. But then Shakespeare was wrong, and wrong to pin it on Marc Antony :)

But even less august people like myself build things that outlast our lifetimes but still make the world a better place. Look at some of the cathedrals in Europe built hundreds of years ago by people not all that different than me- not that I have built any cathedrals. But many of them are beautiful and continue to be so for centuries. Just as some of the things I have built will hopefully outlast me.

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

... and then there are those who have never written a book, never painted a picture or composed a sonnet, perhaps never built a house or planted a tree, and who perhaps, with increasing age, come to the conclusion that it is already a lot not to have done too much wrong. The Oblomovs and Bartlebys, the procrastinators who always look at the makers with wide eyes, sometimes admired, sometimes frightened and not infrequently perplexed.

Another Anonymous said...

Here I go again, disagreeing with the interpretation given to Marc Antony’s monologue. He stated, according to Shakespeare:

“The evil which men do lives after them. The good is often interred with their bones.”

This is an accurate statement, in the context in which it is offered. It is stating that for those men who do evil, the good that they did is often forgotten This does not refer to such people as Martin Luther King, FDR, Abraham Lincoln, etc. It refers to such people as Napoleon, who enacted laws which became the basis of other nation’s legislative acts. Ted Bundy, who worked on a suicide line and persuaded many of the callers not to commit suicide. Jim Jones, who led a suicide cult, had been the director of the Human Rights Commission in Indianapolis and spoke out against racism and the use of nuclear weapons.

Another Anonymous said...

For those interested in reading the Supreme Court’s Order denying Trump’s application for a stay of the release of documents requested by the Jan. 6 Committee, you can read it here:

The vote was 8 to 1. Justice Thomas would have granted the application. J. Kavanaugh qualified his concurrence.

LFC said...

Antony's speech is not a monologue -- those are typically delivered with the speaker alone onstage, thinking aloud to himself, in effect.

Antony is speaking to a crowd after Caesar's assassination, defending the dead Caesar against the charges that Brutus (and the other assassins) have brought against him.

I'm not taking the time to look it up right now, but the speech begins w something like:'The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.' And then of course he proceeds cleverly to remind the crowd of all the good things Caesar did, while being careful to refer to Brutus and the other assassins as "honorable men."

So "the good is oft interred with their bones," as the preface to a speech defending Caesar, carries the implication that that should not be the case: the good is oft interred with their bones but it should not be. I'm not sure whether irony is the right word here, but it's clear that the statement "the good is oft interred with their bones" is purely descriptive and not at all prescriptive.

In the case of Napoleon, I think some of the "progressive" things that he did are generally recalled and he is not viewed as simply an ambitious military genius with autocratic tendencies (though that is part of what's remembered). Julius Caesar, though, is so far removed in time that for people whose Roman history is rusty, his name probably doesn't really conjure up much in the way of either strongly negative or strongly positive associations. Shakespeare's play, by putting an eloquent defense of Caesar in Antony's mouth -- it's probably the single speech in the play that most people remember best -- has probably contributed to a somewhat less unfavorable view of him than would otherwise be the case. But that of course is just my speculation. And when it comes to the professional historiography of Rome, I don't have much sense of how Caesar has been judged by the historians.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

The most important published work of Dr. Wolff's I have read is the Massachusetts Review article "How to Read Das Kapital (vol.21, No. 4.) Marx's epistemology, irony, and the structure of Capital are elegantly tied together. If I am correct in leaping to the conclusion that Moneybags Must Be So Lucky is a more expansive and in depth reworking of the article "How to Read Das Kapital," then Moneybags gets my vote for the most important work Dr. Wolff has published.

Another Anonymous said...


You have that backwards. A monologue is a long speech delivered by one person to other characters in the play, which is what Antony is doing at Caesar’s funeral. A soliloquy is a speech delivered by a character to himself, alone by himself. See

“[I]t's clear that the statement ‘the good is oft interred with their bones’ is purely descriptive and not at all prescriptive.” What is the point of your emphasis. How die what I wrote suggest it was not descriptive?

And although the attendees at the performance of the play may not have known or remembered much of what good Caesar may have done, in terms of the plot of they play, the Romans hearing Antony’s speech would have been aware of both the good and ill which Caesar had done. Antony is saying that, despite what evil some may believe Caesar did, we must not forget the good he also did, i.e., not allow it to be interred with his bones, while the memory of his evil deeds lives on.

LFC said...

Yes I stand corrected on that (monologue/soliloquy).

The point of my emphasis is that sometimes I just like emphasis. It was not directed at you specifically.

David Palmeter said...

I read Antony’s speech as sarcasm. He follows Brutus’ explanation to the crowd as to why they killed Caesar, and immediately begins undermining Brutus:

“The noble Brutus/Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault…”

Note the “IF.” He doesn’t concede that it was so. A couple of lines later we get the first “For Brutus is an honorable man.” There are a couple of more, such as this:

“When the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.”

Antony formally acknowledges the “faults” but quickly turns them to virtues. He doesn’t see Caesar as faulted; he sees Brutus &Co. as dishonorable. He lured Brutus into giving him the opportunity to turn the crowd away from Brutus.

Though I’ve seen the play two or three times, I have no recollection of any specific performance. In my mind’s eye, Antony will always be Marlon Brando and Brutus James Mason.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

For once, I agree with you: Anthony will always be Marlon Brando and Brutus James Mason.

I saw the film when I was a child with my parents, who did not like movies for children (nor do I) and always took me to the movies with them. I see that it came out in 1953 when I was 7 and I guess we must have seen it then because my parents were big Marlon Brando fans, would not have put off seeing one and took me to several of his movies, including On the Waterfront a year later.

However, I vaguely understood what was going on and the sarcasm of Anthony's speech, which you mention, got to me even then. Brutus seemed too serious, a little boring, while Anthony was cool.

Another Anonymous said...

Many movie critics pooh-poohed the idea of Marlon Brando performing in a Shakespearean play – that he was not sophisticated enough to pull it off. But he did a masterful job, as in all of his performances: On The Waterfront; Viva Zapata; A Streetcar Named Desire; The Young Lions; Teahouse of the August Moon; The Missouri Breaks; singing and dancing in Guys and Dolls; and finally, his creative portrayal of Don Corleone in The Godfather. In my view, the greatest English speaking actor of the 20th century.

s. wallerstein said...


I don't know if Brando is the greatest English speaking actor in the 20th century because you have to reckon in the Brits, who I'm only vaguely familiar with, but with that reservation I agree with you. You left out Apocalysis Now where he played Kurtz and the great Last Tango in Paris. The versatility of his roles is impressive. Oh yes, we forgot Mutiny on the Bounty.

Another Anonymous said...

s. wallerstein,

The only British actor whose talent placed him in the same tier as Brando was Laurence Olivier, no doubt a great actor. But he did not have the versatility of Brando.

I recently learned that he had a long-term love affair with Rita Moreno. He was the love of her life. She reluctantly had an abortion at his request. As you have pointed out in some of your comments, our heroes frequently disappoint us. His personal life was a shambles, and he was not a good father, something he tearfully admitted on the stand during his son's trial for manslaughter for shooting and killing his sister's boyfriend.

LFC said...

Olivier, Richardson, and Gielgud, often mentioned together though they were different as actors, have to be right up there on any greatest-English-speaking-actor-of-the-20th-cent list. (And the category English-speaking is problematic, bc some actors whose first language wasn't English did great work in English language productions -- Ingrid Bergman is just one example that comes to mind immediately.)

The studio era in Hollywood had a lot of great actors of course. Everyone knows the famous names (Grant, Hepburn, Tracy, Bogart, Bacall, Garbo, Kirk Douglas, Sidney Poitier from a bit later etc etc) but I suspect some less famous names get overlooked except by real aficionados or film historians.

There are also, needless to say, actors who work mostly on the stage rather than screen, and the ones whose names I happen to know mostly came out of the Wash DC area theatre scene before in some cases going on to Broadway and/or Hollywood. (Likely the most famous example there is Helen Hayes but I'd have to look up her bio to say more. I know there is a DC theatre award named for her but I don't know offhand the details of her life or connection to the area.)

Another Anonymous said...


Tonight PBS broadcast the segment from Ken Burns’ documentary on the Roosevelts which covered Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms in office. It showed him after his first election doing a fireside chat urging Americans who had withdrawn their money form their banks to redeposit their funds in the banks – and Americans followed his request by the hundreds of thousands. In the first 100 days of his administration, he signed 15 major bills passed with bipartisan support providing relief to Americans suffering from the devastation of the Great Depression. He went out among the public, smiling broadly, speaking to individuals, asking them how they were doing. Letters poured into the White House by the thousands every day, thanking him for his leadership buoying up their hopes and genuine expressions of caring for their welfare. He spent every Thanksgiving at the retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, among his fellow paraplegics, who joined him for dinner as he carved the turkey.

The press respected his request that they not photograph him in a wheelchair – in every photograph he was shown standing up, as he placed his hand on a car door or table to steady himself. And always that confident, reassuring grin, saying “Depend on me, things are going to be alright.” On the anniversary of the passage of the NRA, a parade was held in NYC in which thousands upon thousands of workers from all walks of life marched down Fifth Avenue, with thousands of spectators watching on. The parade lasted all day and well into the night, and holds the record for the largest parade ever held in NYC. In his 1936 Inaugural Address, he referred to the Republicans who tried to block his legislative agenda as “royalists of the economic order.” In speech after speech. he emphasized that Americans were united, all members of one family. As the segment drew to a close, and the credits ran, I teared up at the thought of what we have lost.

LFC said...

Olivier had quite a lot of versatility if you look at the full range of his career, which it's too late in the evening to do in this comment.

Anonymous said...

other AnonymousWuthering Heights, Hamlet, Othello, The Prince and The Showgirl

Still, does not compare with Brando's mastering of different dialects and range of characters - Mexican revolutionary in Viva Zapata; working class boxer/stevedore in On The Waterfront; Japanese houseboy in Teahouse of the August Moon, German soldier in the Young Lions; Italian mobster in The Godfather; British officer in mutiny On The Bounty; Irish gunslinger in The Missouri Breaks; singing gambler in Guys and Dolls; and deranged Colonel in Apocalypse Now.

The only other actor who comes close to Brando's versatility is Daniel Day Lewis, with an honorable mention to Paul Newman.

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

... I was probably just six or seven years old and there was no television in my family, so one day my great-aunt - a manic cineaste - took me to the cinema. As I found out much later, the film "Red River" by Howard Hawks was shown. John Wayne, Montgomery Clift and the wonderful Walter Brennan were in it. I can only say that it must have been a traumatic experience for me. The images of the film and the characters have burned themselves into my memory like archetypes and I must confess that to this day with every film I watch, I still try to find this film experience of that time again.

Matt said...

On Brando, I think it's probably pointless to try to say who is "the best" actor, even in a limited frame, but he's certainly very, very, good. One of the last films he played in, Don Juan de Marco, with Johnny Depp, is a favorite. It's not a "great" film by any means, but sweet and fun, and with a bit of nice ambiguity in the end, and Brando is great at the psychiatrist treating Depp's Don Juan.

Many years ago the independent academic book store on the Penn campus had a copy of "Moneybags" on sale at its end of the year discount sale. I thought I'd pick it up, but was in a hurry, and then it was gone when I came back in a couple of days. I'm still a bit sorry about that. I hope whoever got it enjoyed it.

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein

Your discussion of seeing a movie with your parents reminded me of the first time I saw a movie. My mother took me to see Bambi in about 1943 when I would have been five. Of course, in those days there was no TV, so this was the first time I ever saw moving creatures on a screen. It was magic. However, when Bambi’s mother was killed, I was crushed—sobbing, wouldn’t stop crying. My mother’s answer was perfect: when the movie ended, we simply stayed until it started again. Lo and behold, there was Bambi’s mother, alive and well! I was consoled, and we left before she was killed again.

LFC said...

I don't recall the first movie I saw in a theater. It was probably relatively late in terms of age, for various reasons, incl that I lived abroad (in what was then called the third world) as a child before returning to the U.S.

But a couple of the earlier moviegoing experiences I recall are Patton and The Andromeda Strain (how many people remember that one?!), both of which my father took my brother and me to, also MASH.

Somewhat though not a whole lot later, Cabaret (released in early 1972, IMDb tells me).

Another Anonymous said...

My memory of the first movie I saw was rather traumatic. My father and two older siblings went to see the 1953 version of The War of The Worlds. I was five. During the scene in the movie in which the aliens’ tentacles started crawling throughout the house searching for humans, I started screaming hysterically. My older sister took me outside the theater to calm down. I believe we must have returned to the movie, because I remember the ending. (No snide remarks about the long-term psychological impact of this experience on my cognitive abilities, please.)

s. wallerstein said...

What strikes me is how styles in child raising have changed since we (AA, David P. and myself) were young. No one would take a five year old child to War of the Worlds these days. Nor for that matter to Julius Caesar. Children are carefully shielded from anything that can prove traumatic or upsetting.

I'd bet that most of us (of our generation) were spanked or slapped for minor wrong-doing by our parents and no one thought anything about that, but today a parent can be arrested for that. As a matter of fact, I believe that you can be arrested for slapping your dog these days.

If I complained about something, my father would answer "things are tough all over". If my grand-daughter complains about something, adults run to comfort her and to remedy whatever she finds wrong.

I'm not claiming that the old days were good and that the world has gone down hill nor that things have progressed on the other hand, just noting the incredible changes.

Another Anonymous said...

s. wallerstein,

I agree. I was periodically spanked (never with a belt) or had my hand slapped. I have a vague memory of even having my mouth washed out with soap. I had a strict 8:00 P.M. curfew until I was about 8, which was only relaxed when either The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan was being telecast. I do not believe in “spare the rod or spoil the child,” but a little reprimand when it is deserved does not hurt. The mantra these days is ”good job,” regardless the quality of the effort. On the one hand, it is important to boost the morale and self-esteem of young people, but if everybody is doing a good job regardless of quality, does quality suffer in the long run?

LFC said...

I don't remember ever being slapped or spanked by my parents, but I was required on one occasion to wash my mouth out with soap. I have a distinct memory of doing it though, oddly, no recollection of someone watching me to make sure I did. Maybe it was a version of discipline on the honor system. (My memory of my childhood is kind of patchy anyway.)

John Rapko said...

I'm younger than the septuagenarian (?) commentariat here, but on the issue of youthful movie traumatization, it seems that myself and everyone I know was most traumatized by those scary flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz more than any other filmed horror or violence. I recall being hit many times by 'teachers' in Texas and Mississippi, from being whacked on the hands with a ruler to bending over and getting whaled on with a large paddle. But the worst damage was done by a despised English teacher in Biloxi, who used to bang on about how the greatest American writer wasn't one of those Yankees, but was rather their native son Faulkner. That kept me from reading him for decades.

LFC said...

I'm also somewhat younger (not all that terribly much) than the septuagenarians here. Only time I was rapped by a teacher with a ruler was at a British-run school in what was then E. Pakistan, when I was in (their equivalent of) first or second grade.

LFC said...

P.s. septuagenarians and octogenarians, I shd have said.

s. wallerstein said...

I'm one of the septuagenarians and by the time I was in school, public school teachers were not permitted to hit children in New Jersey or in the South Orange-Maplewood school system at least. Kids who went to Catholic schools, I recall, were hit with a ruler.

I recall, for example, however that one grammar school-teacher scotch-taped my mouth because of my constant out of order comments, a personality trait I still retain.

No doubt that would get her fired these days and maybe jailed, but once again my father shrugged his shoulders and commented that things are tough all over.

David Palmeter said...

I wish I were still a septuagenarian! You kids have no idea how tough the 80s can be.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sooner than I care to admit, I will be able to tell you how the 90s are. I had a science teacher in eighth grade named Mrs. Segars who hit people with anything she could lay her hands on (not me, I was a goody two shoes.) The odd thing was that the kid she hit most was Robert Welch and he really liked her nonetheless. It was Bob Welch who introduced us all to drinking – his father had a bottle of Southern comfort and when his father was out one day he gave us all a taste. Yuck

Another Anonymous said...

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
Where are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
A. E. Houseman

Jerry Brown said...

If I make it to my sixties, would I be a sexagenarian? And would that imply more sex more often?

Another Anonymous said...

Yes, Jerry, that's exactly what it means.

John Rapko said...

The best description of such sex I've seen was in a comment in The Guardian a few years ago: sex in your sixties is like an intermediate Pilates class.

Jerry Brown said...

Got something to look forward to then :)

Danny said...

'Defense of Anarchism continues to be read and translated around the world. It defends a very simple proposition, namely that there has never been and could not be a de jure legitimate state. I am as confident now as I was when I wrote it that the argument is absolutely correct but I confess I have very little interest in revisiting it or expanding it or defending it.'

I cannot extract anything of practical import from the proposition. Therefore don't pay your taxes? I bet that you do, though. I'm not sure exactly what, which I suppose would have to be something widely accepted, that you take yourself to be contradicting with this jargon about 'a de jure legitimate state'. In law and government, de jure describes practices that are legally recognized, regardless of whether the practice exists in reality. No such thing as a de jure legitimate state -- what, no such thing as a state that is in accordance with law? A state that is recognized de jure by .. gee, by itself? Perhaps I am too congenitally Hobbsian to really be exercised to imagine that this talk is about. Hooray, then, for very little interest..?

LFC said...

@ Danny

Instead of posing these questions, you could probably find a summary of In Defense of Anarchism, perhaps on this blog or in RPW's autobiography, or just read the book. (I haven't, but I would certainly do so rather than waste space in a blog comment thread with snarky questions that seem designed simply to be snarky.)

Danny said...

You are disappointed in me, you want more from me. Well, you can have more of my political philosophy!

I ponder an idea that 'In the realm of standards creation, there really isn’t a single standard.' But especially, De facto standards are brought about in a variety of ways. By comparison, de jure standards can be slow to produce. This, because of the processes involved. And then, organizations that develop de jure standards are open for all interested parties to participate, given that consensus is a necessary ingredient. And, De jure standards, or standards according to law, are endorsed by a formal standards organization. The organization ratifies each standard through its official procedures and gives the standard its stamp of approval.

I tarry to ponder the notion that 'consensus is a necessary ingredient', and here, I remember describing myself up the thread as a congenital Hobbesian. This means that I might not be precisely a Hobbsian any more,
but I understand the Hobbesian perspective, and am not far from it myself. One thing about Hobbes, is that for better or for worse, it is *a* moral and political philosophy. Or I mean, it's rather comprehensive -- questions that you might not have gotten around to asking, are answered
here. When I suggest Hobbes for one of a handful of truly great political philosophers, I think I have already given plenty of reason to consider the idea. It helps if you like what he is saying, I suppose. I call myself a Kantian, but I think the political writings of Hobbes, the significance of this stuff rivals Kant.

And I still figure that it's probably true that whoever is the audience for this Anarachy stuff (& nonsense), it won't probably be people who are up to speed with Hobbes to the point of being impressed with Hobbes.

A relevant detail, is that Hobbes is famous for his early and elaborate development of what has come to be known as “social contract theory”.

And he is not just famous but is infamous for having used the social contract method to arrive at the astonishing conclusion that we ought to submit to the authority of an absolute—undivided and unlimited—sovereign power.

I can go so far as to admit that this is 'astonishing', and that therefore this stuff is maybe interesting to consider, and not just take for granted.

Why do we obey the law? Is it *immoral* to break the law? Like, if I run a red light at light-traffic intersection, in the middle of the night, such that nobody really is hurt, then is this immoral? Murder is defined in legal terms. Is it immoral to commit murder, *because* it's against the law, or do we have some other reason why it is immoral to commit murder? There are things that are perfectly legal that are, you would probably say, immoral. The government doesn't mind if you do them. It only minds if you break the law. If the law is not about morality, what is it about? Interesting questions.

There *are* interesting questions. I think also, an interesting question is whether the Ph.d is prone to overthinking things, such that you shouldn't hire too many of these clowns, but hey, go ahead, I'm just saying that my first reaction was *what is the practical import of this question?'

--my bad.

Danny said...

about my being 'snarky', maybe you could be more specific about what you are talking about. I figure I was being direct, not bad-tempered, I disapprove of being irritable, at least for the record. Maybe I'm guilty. I came across a joke about sarcasm that is sarcasm, and I love it:

Sarcasm is clever.

Charles Pigden said...

Returning to the original topic of this thread I would like to thank Professor Wolff for his post and to note that it helps put paid to Pasnau's idiotic thesis that philosophy is NOT a young person's game. Though I was middle-aged when I first read it and am now on the verge of being old it made me mad (and still makes me mad) on behalf of my younger self. What you really need ot do well in Philosophy is some good ideas and the capacity to argue for them. Plenty of young people fit this bill.

Danny said...

'What you really need ot do well in Philosophy is some good ideas and the capacity to argue for them.'

I find this rather ingenuous, to say the least, this 'working in philosophy naturally requires a certain skill set' kind of thing. Ah -- especially if you want to be successful.. ;)

Agreed, though, that plenty of young people fit this bill!

Danny said...

A bit of Schopenhauer: 'A ship without ballast is unstable and will not go straight.'

Perhaps not self-explanatory, here is a longer one:

'In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theatre before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.'

LFC said...

@ Danny

Do all philosophical arguments worth taking seriously have to have "practical import"?

LFC said...

P.s. Or narrow the question to apply only to arguments in political philosophy.

s. wallerstein said...

Do all philosophical arguments worth taking seriously have to have "practical import"?

No, starting with the first one you read in any course on political theory, Plato's Republic.

Danny said...

LFC : 'Do all philosophical arguments worth taking seriously have to have "practical import"?'

Well, you tell me. I could ask, instead, 'Do all philosophical arguments worth taking seriously have to have no 'practical import'?'

My straightforward answer to your question is that yes, it's nonsense if it has no practical import, for example, how many angels dance on the head of a pin? But I figure that when people get into theoretical discussions that have no practical import, they are having fun as long as they are in denial about what they are doing. If it's still fun, even in the face of its lack of relevance, then okay, don't stop having fun.

I see your reference to Plato, which perplexes me. I suppose maybe Plato doesn't care about the practical import of political inquiry. To me this seems absurd, it never occured to me as a sustainable position at all.

Of course, I'm not an anarchist, and I have another word or to about anarchy --

Simply the fact that law is universal means to me, that quite likely, it's paradigmatic for social and political realizations of freedom in general.

You might not incline to endorse the view that law is what makes freedom possible, but at least I figure you'd be echoing Kant and Rousseau (and even Locke).

I add this word because my endorsement of Hobbes might just sound like a sort of 'going to the dark side' thing.

s. wallerstein said...

I was the one who brought in Plato, not LFC.

Plato probably considered his political thought to have practical import, but does anyone consider it to have practical import today? Does anyone take the ideal state as outlined in the Republic or the Laws to be a goal to be strived for?

Yet we read them, not for "fun", but because they are thought-provoking, because taking ideas to the limit (a state governed by wise philosophers) is worth spending some time pondering. We understand our common sense and practical import a bit better after traveling to crazy or non-commons sensical territories for a while. For example, we understand whatever common sense morality we sustain (democracy, equality, rights for all) a bit better after spending some time in Nietzsche or even Stirner territory. So too we understand "the truths we hold to be self-evident" as not so "self-evident" after spending some time with Plato in his hierarchal ideal state.

Maybe you'll call the above "practical import", but then again, what is the practical import of listening to Beethoven or Mozart? It seems that the simplistic binary opposition between practical import and fun leaves out much of what human culture is about.

Michael said...

Isn't Nietzsche considered a pragmatist of sorts?

I don't really know the answer - I usually see him classified as an existentialist of sort (if anything at all), but the two seem quite compatible. Here's one scholar's take (just the abstract; article is behind a paywall, so I can't read it):

Nietzschean pragmatism is the view that one should believe whatever best promotes life, even things that are untrue because they fail to correspond to reality. Nietzsche expresses this view in early sections of Beyond Good and Evil. While he rejects all objective value including that of truth, his view that passions can give their objects subjective value suggests valuing beliefs that promote life. The second essay of the Untimely Meditations applies Nietzschean pragmatism to the study of history. - Neil Sinhababu (link)

I bring this up because I think of the pragmatist as allergic to the view that philosophy can lack practical import; the pragmatist wants to insist that it all has consequences that bear on our conduct in some way or another - hence, no such thing as disinterested contemplation. Not necessarily saying I agree with that, just that it's interesting and not without plausibility - and also, I would've guessed, appealing to a fan of Nietzsche. :)

Danny said...

I might even suggest, when I talk about this or that practical intent, that it is not external to inquiry as an add-on or a choice by the inquirer, but is inherent to the process of inquiry. I see science in somesuch terms, it's not scientific knowledge, just because we think it's 'true', but because it allows us to know what will happen in the future, a kind of truth that I expect of a smart dude, he knows what is going to happen next, and even, with science, something more specific -- we will control what happens. This isn't simply an obvious point about science and it's methods -- it's not above any dispute, though the question is interesting at least. I think it's rather vague to opine about something as abstractly conceived of science, that a scientific theory is a well-tested, broad explanation of a natural phenomenon. The word 'theory', well, sure, a hypothesis or educated guess. But a theory in the context of science is not simply a guess. We might agree that it is an explanation based on extensive and repeated experimentation. But think this can be still more carefully thought out.

I lean on what I take to be Kant's views, re: theoretical vs. practical reason, where practical reason is the justification for the rest, when it comes down to it, and re: when I speak of 'nonsense', it's not like Kant is averse to the term, suggesting for example that in debates about whether the 'world', this thing that is composed of all the parts of it, if you add them all together, everything that is real, how 'big' is it? Is it something that had a beginning, or does it just always exist through the never? Kant's antinomies, the first being whether the world had a beginning in time or whether it always existed, Kant concludes that in this dispute, ever disputed, the correct answer is 'both false'. You don't have to agree with Kant on this, I'm not explaining it very well and it's esoteric stuff, but such is consistent, for me, with my notion that it's silly to dispute questions that it doesn't matter what is the answer.

That took me rather 'out there', if I'm supposedly the practical dude. In any case I don't just make this stuff up so that I think it makes sense, I offer this as Kant exegesis (so that I think it makes sense).

'Plato probably considered his political thought to have practical import, but does anyone consider it to have practical import today?'

Here, again, I'm more interested in the question, you can give me your answer. I ask if it has practical import, you say 'no', you say 'why are you hung up on practical import'? I'm like, a businessman, too busy for abstract gobbledygook? Well, hey, if the idea is too kill time, if the idea is that we have nothing important to be doing, then fine, I just wonder if you can say it with a straight face. You can insist that blog threads accomplish their purpose being beng neverending and inconclusive, and okay, I'm glad we got that cleared up.

Do you speak for Wolff and his anarchy book? ;)

Danny said...

Michael said...
'Isn't Nietzsche considered a pragmatist of sorts?'

I find your quote rather vulgar. I'm a big fan of Nietzsche, but not generally of secondary sources on Nietzsche that try to extract what are his doctrines. I can understand much of Nietzsche in terms of (his) attempts to unmask motives. These attempts have deeply affected many. Philosophers, psychologists, theologians, etc. And sure, Nietzsche questioned many assumptions I'm not, in general, a big one for literal interpretation of his words. I think this too, is a bit vulgar, but I might agree, more or less, that he was probably the first person to clearly see that ethical systems were *subjective* in their foundations and were carried by the will of those who best represented these values.

That's just to go ahead and 'thumbs up to Nietzsche', as a sort of 'serious' philosophical critic a sort of 'real' skeptic -- before Nietzsche philosophy was heavily dominated by metaphysical analysis of the world, with the exceptions of empiricists. I'm trying to explain why I like him, I'm oversimplifying a greatly -- he comes up with great phrases, memorable stuff.

s. wallerstein said...


I suppose that it all depends on what you mean by "practical".

So too Nietzsche would have said that there's no such thing as "disinterested contemplation" because we (our conscious or unconscious self) is always interested, always driven by the will to power and/or other drives.

However, I don't think that Nietzsche can be classifed as a pragmatist or existentialist or as anything else. I'm fairly sure that he does not have a theory of truth as you might find in any analytic philosopher. A pragmatist, as far as I know, says that truth is what functions and Nietzsche never claims that since at times he points out that untruth functions better. However, Nietzsche at other times certainly proclaims honesty or intellectual honesty as his chief value. Remember, above all, that Nietzsche is a perspectivist: he looks at the world from different perspectives in different aphorisms. Don't try too hard to pin him down, because he's a complex being.

Enough for tonight. Good night all....

s. wallerstein said...

I hadn't read what Danny says and while I don't want to write off all the secondary sources on Nietzsche, reading him is something else. So if you interested in him, read him, don't try to fit him into a system. Nietzsche is perhaps the most complex and certainly the
most insightful human being I've ever run into. It's best to read him withou feeling the need to fit everything he says into some pre-established coherent whole. I doubt that he's coherent or even tries to be coherent, but he is insightful and brilliant and once you fall in love with him, it's hard to fall out. To keep with that metaphor, once you've fallen in love and gotten to know a woman, it's hard to say that she is X or Y or Z, although maybe you can say that she certainly isn't M or N or P. She's just she. So Nietzsche is just Nietzsche as Mozart is Mozart. Ok. Good night.

Michael said...

I've attempted a number of times to get into Nietzsche, but haven't quite been successful. Surely I'm missing out in a way - I once talked with a guy who said he had been moved to tears by Nietzsche. But when I try to read him, I often find myself wanting him to "tone it down" and speak a little more prosaically, less bombastically.

Not a dig at anyone who disagrees - it's just a personal preference, but when I read philosophy, I want the author's language to be very precise, unambiguous, "calm," "professional," "uncluttered" - not excessively or inhumanly so (as in symbolic logic), but enough to keep me from having to fret too much over metaphor and subtext and the like. (English class was not exactly my strongest!)

However - I'm not so thickheaded that I can't be impressed by the Death of God and the Eternal Return; those seem to be among the "high points" of Nietzsche's work, of which it's safe to say that the reader who isn't moved by them has little chance of connecting with philosophy in general.

Also, I'm not totally unmoved by people's aversion to classificatory labels and scholarly commentaries; I think they have their purposes (e.g. clarification, though at the risk of distortion or oversimplification), but they can also make for very dull reading and conversation.

I've got to get some sleep as well...