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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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 24, 2022


I have taught countlessly many works of philosophy, politics, sociology, economics, history, literature, and Afro-American studies since I earned my doctorate 65 years ago, but in that long time I have only engaged deeply, seriously, in a sustained fashion with four works: David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, and Karl Marx’s Capital. As I have explained in some of my YouTube postings and also, I am sure, at various times on this blog, I have never imagined that my interpretation of any of these books was the only correct interpretation or even by some objective measure better than other, competing interpretations. To use again an analogy to which I frequently recur, just as there are a number of different legitimate ways of playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto as well as countlessly many ways of mis-playing it or playing it badly, so there are always a number of competing and incompatible ways of legitimately reading a great work of philosophy as well as endlessly many ways of simply getting it wrong.


One of the reasons that I do not “keep up with the literature” on the books with which I have engaged in this manner is that once I am done struggling with a great book and finding my way to a reading that I consider satisfying and well-grounded in the text, I am in an odd way done with the book.  As the Old Testament says, I have wrestled with it and it has blessed me and that is enough.


This kind of activity bears very little relation to what is usually described as “doing research.” It would be simply absurd for an historian or a biologist or an anthropologist to say “I have said what I have to say about the French Revolution or RNA or burial rituals among the Kwakiutl and therefore I shan’t read what other historians or biologists or anthropologists have discovered about those subjects.” But it made perfect sense to me to say, at the end of my series of YouTube lectures on the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason: this is the argument I have found in the text after wrestling with it for many years and I am quite comfortable acknowledging that others may have found different arguments, competing arguments, in the same text.


I do not really know whether other philosophers conduct their engagements with great works in this way. My suspicion is that they do but are simply somewhat hesitant about saying so openly.  However, since I am near the end of my long life I want to leave behind me not only the results of my struggles with these texts but also some explanation of what I imagined myself to be doing.


As I have often remarked, my goal has always been to find in the text an argument that is simple, powerful, elegant, and beautiful, and then to show it to my students or my readers in all of its simplicity, power, elegance, and beauty so that they can appreciate these qualities for themselves.  I imagine that Jerry Fresia, who is by calling and profession an artist, will understand what I am trying to say.


s. wallerstein said...

Just to be a bit contrarian, I'll recall what Mill says in On Liberty that one knows one's own opinions better when one compares them with those of others and so if after having formed a clear opinion of what The Critique of Pure Reason is about, it would become clearer if you read posterior literature on the subject and affirmed your own opinion in your head or on paper against what the posterior literature has to say.

That at least is my own experience with thinkers whom I've familiar with. I agree with Mill on that.

David Palmeter said...

I read Hume for the first time about 20 years ago, when I was in my mid-60s. I could not--and still cannot--get over the fact that he could write such a monumental work while still in his 20s. Suffice it to say that my production, if that's the correct word, in my 20s was somewhat less than his.

Marc Susselman said...

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton:

“The answer to a bad person with a gun is elementary school children armed with their own guns.”

Jerry Fresia said...

Interesting that I should find my name in the last sentence just as I was trying to formulate a question which had to do with the concept of beauty in this context.

As for me, as a visual artist, it's about being moved when I open to the sensations before me and to the sensations aroused within me. But it is not about the horribly obvious beauty of Lake Como where I live, to take one example. It's much more a subtle, an inobvious way that visual elements hang together and when I confront that kind of experience it feels as though I have been transported or propelled into a different realm of perception, one that is magical (in the Weberian sense) and one, to borrow Jane Bennett's phrasing (who is linking enchantment and ethics, Enchantment of Modern Life) where there is a "revitalization of wonder" or where we "experience moments of pure presence, conditions of exhilaration, caught up and carried away, so that our mood is one of fullness, plenitude, or liveliness."

This "beauty" is affective as in agency and it offers an escape. Writes Bennett: "We must extend the limits of [our ] current embodiment; escape the confines of biography, culture, training, [and] expand the horizon of the conceivable....[so that we know an] enhanced capacity to identify exits, escapes, passages."

So this is what I get from your writings: sometimes it is within an entire paragraph but just as often it is within a single sentence where the structure is such and the rhythm or cadence or order of words is such that there is a co-mingling of content and form that lifts me into a space called LIBERATION.

That's the beauty I sense at times when the painting process is right and when your words, elegant in their simplicity, become more.

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

@ Marc
I must say I am at a loss for words when I read this.

You fight with yourself and the world on two fronts. One means not becoming just as bottomlessly cynical as these people. The other means to point out this shame again and again and to find the words to name it and to demand the actions to do something against it.

Marc Susselman said...


Thank you for your compliment. I know my comment regarding the Texas Attorney General was off-subject, but the mass murder in Texas yesterday has so angered me that I felt compelled to mock Mr. Paxton. Twenty-one families are grieving in Uvalde, Texas, today. Their lives have been changed for the worse forever. The family members will live with this grief forever. Because an 18-yearl old with some sort of grievance against his grandmother and society in general asserted his right under the 2nd Amendment as a member of the Texas militia to use a muzzle loaded rifle to kill 19 elementary school children and two teachers.

I woke up this morning with a headache. So, I went to our medicine closet to take some aspirin, but I had difficulty opening the bottle. I kept twisting the top cap around and around, trying to find the tamper-proof release to open the bottle so that I could extract two aspirins. As I was struggling with what should be a simple feat (easier than getting an oversize table through a doorway, ala Prof. Feller), it hit me. Remember why companies starting making tamper-proof medicine containers? Because back in the 1980s (I think that was the decade) there was a spate of child deaths attributable to their opening medicine containers and ingesting overdoses of over-the counter medicines, which killed them. The companies were sued for negligence and in order to avoid repetition of such deaths, and the ensuing litigation, they came up with tamper-proof caps on medicine containers. Now, there is nothing in the Constitution about the right to take aspirin to relieve a headache. But the right is there, implicit in the 14th Amendment protection of liberty. If a state passed a law prohibiting its citizens from buying aspirin, or from using it, the courts would surely rule that such a law was unconstitutional. Moreover, if a state or the federal government passed a law making it mandatory for pharmaceutical manufacturers to implement tamper-proof caps on their medicine containers, no one, and no court, would claim that the law violated the right of citizens of the United States to purchase non-tamper proof medicine containers, a right protected under the liberty interest of the 14th Amendment. Why would this be so? Because we want to protect our children from ingesting medicine and getting killed, and this concern overrides the liberty interest imbedded in the 14th Amendment to purchase and take aspirin as we wish, because the kids (who are no longer in their mothers’ womb) have a liberty interest too.

So, I ask, why does a right which is more expressly identified in the 2nd Amendment entail greater protection from government regulation than the right to purchase and ingest aspirin in non-tamper proof medicine containers? Why is it constitutional to require pharmaceutical manufacturers to manufacture medicine containers with tamper-proof caps, but not constitutional to require gun manufacturers to place trigger locks on the guns they manufacture (one of the requirements in the District of Columbia ordinance which was ruled unconstitutional in District of Columbia v. Heller)? Why would it be unconstitutional to prohibit the sale of AK-15’s to anyone, regardless of age, who is not a member of a state militia? Why is it constitutional to protect our kids from ingesting medicine from medicine containers that are not tamper proof, but not from crazed people with a grievance against society form buying AK-15’s so that they can hunt people, rather than deer? I’d kike to ask J. Thomas and J. Gorsuch (concerned about the right to fly a flag with a crucifix embossed on it over the Boston City Hall) this question, and Sen. Cruz, and Sen. McConnell. Don’t kids have a liberty interest, as well as a right to life, protected under the 14th Amendment? Isn’t this right sufficient to override the 18-year old’s right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment?

Marc Susselman said...

Corretion:AR-15, not AK-15.

OnThumbs said...

Long-time non-commenting reader of the blog here. I'd be curious whether Professor Wolff's reading of Charles Mills changed his view of Kant's moral philosophy (or of Kant's philosophical contributions more generally).

Howard said...

It was Professor Collins who on his blog The Sociological Eye, explained how to prevent most gun massacres as well as the peculiar culture making guns sacred objects
It is okay to vilify 'evil' people- but calling someone evil is not a real explanation and it makes us feel stronger but changes nothing.
I'm not saying with Jesus 'love your enemy' but rather 'get what's going on with them'

Michael said...

Fascinating thoughts from Jerry Fresia. ("Moments of pure presence...")

I'm not an artist, but I find it interesting to think about "how artists see" - not to say I have anything like the requisite background/ability/insight to genuinely pull it off (I'm very dense when it comes to art appreciation); but I do think I caught a glimpse of something from a couple sketching lessons in college, namely the distinction between "drawing what you see" and "drawing what you think you see."

Philosophy has by accident given me some of the vocabulary I'd need to flesh that distinction out, so I can talk and think about it in a less clumsy and groping fashion (and begin to speculate on how it relates to other things, e.g. religious/mystical experience). But I'm not quite there, and I'd like to go further.

For example, Kant, if I understand him, says that intellect and sensation are distinct but inseparable; although different, they always mutually interact and interrelate and thereby give rise to experiential knowledge. (I'm putting it in non-Kantian language, but I'm thinking e.g. of his remark that "concepts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.") So along these lines, I want to say that the key to reproducing an object in realistic sketch-work is (per impossibile) to "stop thinking," or to "suppress" the intellect - that element of cognition that involves rational expectation and interpretation - and become accustomed to "pure seeing." Draw the object as it actually presents itself to you, even if that means ignoring the voice that insists (e.g.) "faces are symmetrical, having two eyes which are congruent in figure and equidistant in opposite directions from the nose." (If the artist doesn't succeed in this, their sketches might have that distinctively "childish" look about them.)

Jerry (or any artist or aesthetic theorist), does any of this ring any bells? I'm not very experienced with art or the aesthetics literature, but I'd like to get clearer on this idea of "artistic perception" and explore it further.

Jerry Fresia said...


Yes, what you are saying makes sense to me. I'm a plein-air painter (I paint on location) so when I slip into realms of enchantment (Jane Bennett's conception, that is), I feel as though my mind and body are one, that there is a oneness or a surrender to nature which is affective and functioning as a prompt.

I also think that what the Professor describes and works to find is probably similar. The key for me is not to capture anything in particular but to be captured or to be "drunk" as Baudelaire would say and I suppose that when it comes together for the Professor - that elegance and simplification, he too may be captured as he works under the influence of "the moment." Robert Henri, a well known artist-teacher who was appointed art teacher by Emma Goldman in her Modern School in NYC said that the point behind every painting is not to produce a painting but to obtain a state of being that makes art possible. The painting is a by-product of that experience. I like to say "get to the rush and the art will follow." I suspect that when the Professor feels or sees or senses the aesthetic he describes, and its makes its presence felt, he feels a rush of sorts, a frisson.

Michael said...

Jerry, I'm curious if you've read Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception. It's been a long while since I read it - I might even be thinking of the wrong work! But I'm pretty sure this is the one I have in mind, in which Huxley (with the help of some psychedelics) becomes enraptured for a moment in the sight of something totally mundane, like the folds on his pant leg, or on some piece of fabric in any case...

Whatever it was, it stuck with me (vaguely!) as an example of those rare and fleeting occasions when the world, or reality, or existence (or whatever term one prefers), is experienced as beautiful, or astonishing, or miraculous (or whatever term one prefers): The chronically agitated and neurotic side of one's personality quiets down somehow, and one's immediate surroundings just seem endlessly satisfying somehow; whatever's simply "there" is all one could want and more. Anyway, I can't help but think that this sort of experience is at least in the vicinity of that state of being you're describing - surrendering and basking "drunkenly" in pure presence.

It's interesting that you describe your paintings as "by-products" of that state. I'd question whether Prof. Wolff would think of his writings and lectures in a similar way - in his case, I want to guess (perhaps wrongly) that there's more emphasis on being readily understood by other people, since words are a more rigid and norm-governed tool of expression than shapes and colors. For a professor, being misunderstood might consequently feel more like a personal failing, an experience of one's shortcomings. Not that such an experience would be unknown or unthinkable to the artist - all these differences are probably only differences in degree.

P.S. A cool quote from Huxley: "What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescalin, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful."

Elis said...

I read a lot about apologies, radical forgiveness, even went to rent exotic cars with a friend to meet a famous psychologist and my favorite author, and so I concluded that everyone has their own forgiveness.