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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.

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Monday, May 16, 2022


I have been absent from this site for almost a week, not because the affairs of the world have ceased to weigh upon me but because I have been obsessed by personal matters so trivial and lacking in larger significance that they seemed not worthy of mention. Still and all, a blog is a web log, hence in the first instance a record of personal thoughts and concerns, so perhaps I should just allude to what has been concerning me. 

There is no exalted way to put this. The people who run Carolina Meadows thought we had bedbugs, which would have required an enormously time-consuming, invasive, and disruptive procedure involving, among other things, raising the temperature in the apartment to 140° for four or five hours! Saturday morning a representative of the extermination company arrived and after inspecting the underside of our bed, announce that we had carpet beetles, not bedbugs! This does not quite rise to the level of a question about Vladimir Putin’s health or the future of American democracy, not to speak of a desperate national shortage of baby formula, but for several days it was all I could think about.


Meanwhile, I have been spending the time preparing in my head for the course I shall be teaching in the fall semester at UNC Chapel Hill. I love to teach and I have delivered the opening lecture of that course four or five times in my mind while lying awake in the middle of the night.  As I have mentioned, this is a new course that I have never taught before. In the fall, while I am teaching, I shall be proposing to the philosophy department that the following fall I teach a graduate course on the use and abuse of formal methods in political philosophy. This is a course I taught for the first time 45 years ago. It occurred to me that if the department agrees to this proposal, I will be a few days from my 90th birthday when that second course wraps up. 


For some reason, that realization has suddenly worked a marked change in how I think about myself.  I have been almost constantly concerned for the past six months with the limitations on my mobility and physical capacities caused by my Parkinson’s disease and this has cast a pall over everything I can do. But, I reflected, I am almost 90 years old. I am teaching, blogging, caring for my wife, making guest appearances in courses around the country – not bad for someone almost 90!


Jerry Fresia said...

Indeed. Bravo, bravo bravo!

I,at 74 have noticed a slight tremor in my right hand when I carry a coffee cup in that hand (go figure) and I am slated, not related, for carpal tunnel surgery in the fall. Small stuff. And I take heart in reading of your tribulations and motivations, your triumphs and the slings and arrows of Carolina Meadows. Should be a TV series. Surely there are enough aging boomers who would tune in!

Alas, our hour upon the stage. Grazié mille!

Eric said...

Prof Wolff, don't sell yourself short. This guy will be 99 next week, I believe.

Eric said...

All kidding aside, I read with concern a blog post of yours a few weeks back that said you and Susie are planning to travel to Paris next month. Regardless of what those who run the economy are saying to the public, people are still getting COVID, and a few are still dying from it, even though we seem to be out of the woods (at least for the moment).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Eric, I knew him at Harvard 62 years ago when he was only 37. He has not improved with age. I have some concerns also about our travel but we pretty much have to go this one last time. We will take all manner of precautions and hope that we are all right.

aaall said...

I would be more concerned about being physically present in a classroom in North Carolina (or anywhere in the US). Hope you are boosted (and wear a mask on the plane).

tom llewellyn said...

Keep up the good work! In an unrelated question, why no index in your book The Autonomy of Reason? That aside, I am very much enjoying the read!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Tom Llewellyn, I think Harper Torchbooks was just saving money at that point.

David said...

Your productivity, engagement and care are an inspiration to me as I slide into old age.

Anonymous said...

140 degrees? You mean Fahrenheit? There are international readers of this blog too, you know...

Anonymous said...

Sorry about that. Yes Fahrenheit. 🥹

Anonymous said...

Due to my initial comment being too long to publish, I will post this in two parts, both of which are numbered.


Hello Professor Wolff, it is I again, Giovanni Tamburino from Colorado. I had commented on your post about the Prisoner's dilemma some months ago sometime in January on Kant's explanation of that changes are only real due to sensibility. And that if the latter were taken away, then our concept of time would vanish. However, I cannot intuate this possibility.

For instance, my science teacher, for the last segment of our semester, is giving lectures on the evidence for the Big Bang theory. Now, in this explanation it was stated that before any expansion of the universe there was only energy, neither space nor time. And, in the Transcendental Æsthetic we find space and time to only be things of pure intuitions. In the comparison made by Kant in the introduxion, that as Copernican found the Earth's rotation to be the cause for the stars and the Sun, so is it that space and time, as change, exist only to us. This may be the very reason as to why the non-existence of space and time is impossible to us.

Currently, I am ever bewildered by Kant, for instance. There is a sexion in the Æsthetic in which, for the defence of the possibility of synthetical propositions a priori, we are given the example of lines and shapes for intuitions.

In the words of Kant:

"Consider only the proposition that two straight lines cannot not in any way
encompass a space, thus no figure being possible in that way, and seek to derive that from the concept of straight lines and the number two; but also then
that a figure is possible through three straight lines, and seek that just as well
out of these concepts."

and later:

"If there were in you no capacity to look at things a priori; if this subjective
condition with respect to the form were not simultaneously the universal
condition a priori, under which alone the object of this (external) perspective were itself possible; were the object (the triangle) something on its own
without reference to your subject; how could you say that what were necessarily in your subjective condition for constructing a triangle would also
have to pertain to the triangle on its own? For you could not add anything
new (the figure) to your concepts (of the three lines), which for that reason
would also have to correspond necessarily to the object, since this is given
before your recognition and not through it."

In a footnote by the translator we find:

"In the concept of a triangle I think of three line segments such that each end point of each is an end point of two (and only a point of two), and there is not the least suggestion of the length of any of the sides. It would be impossible to know analytical that any two sides of a triangle are greater than the third."(a)

In this arguement, it stated then that to say the proposition: "A triangle has three sides" is apodictically synthetical a priori, and not analytical, correct? For the concept "three sides" is a priori contained within Triangle, but the length is fully unknown. I believe this is in the same manner as "7+5=12." For the concept "12" is known a priori from the concepts "7" and "5." But "12" is not contained within either two numbers. Thus, what would seem analytical a priori is indeed synthetical a priori. We may certainly say that two lines meet at a point, but to concern their length forms itself on perspective, something only existent in the subject. I know this, and I know this is for defence of synthetical propositions a priori, but what ultimately does this imply?

Anonymous said...


If, I am misinterpreting any points, I soothly want to be corrected. I do not believe I have entered the "sexy part" of the Critique yet, as you stated on a comment here some years ago. Thus, I do not want to miss any of that which is indispensable. For Kant founds his ideas as equations in math, each sexion is dependent on the other. For, from sensibility forms intuition, from intuition we form space and time, therefrom is founded concepts, and from concepts thoughts, from thoughts we form understanding. If only one part were missing, the rest would be refutable.

I must confess, Professor Wolff, that I am reading the Critique for the sake of Schopenhauer. For, Schopenhauer frequently states in his introduxion that Kant is a indispensable in his philosophy. So the reader "may not waste an hour on a book he does not understand." For the sake of respect and for my astonishment of philosophy, I am reading the Critique. As you stated in your biography of Harvard, there is no doubt, that, when you had read the Critique in C.I Lewis's classroom during the 1950's you had "finally come upon a mind so powerful, so profound, so precise that I could throw myself against it with all my force, secure that it would withstand me." Nor is there any doubt I have also come across three minds so great, that without, my patron saint would eternally be Antonio Salieri. In any case, if thou canst respond, I will very much thank you.

-Giovanni Tamburino, Colorado.

(a) I apologise for using an online version of the Critique, I have recently eaten and do not wish my 1901 edition of the Critique to be greased.)

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

@ Giovanni,

just a quick note:

Isn't it the case that the Big Bang theory will always remain a "theory"? Once for intrinsic reasons, because we can no longer construct meaningful descriptions below the Planck units, and once because we can "only" produce unsuccessful refutations and no proofs?

short remark to Kant:
you wrote:"... from sensibility forms intuition, from intuition we form space and time..."

For Kant space and time are a form of intuition (Anschauung), they are therefore the glass and the intuitions are the water.

but maybe I misunderstood you

Michael said...

I got into Kant via Schopenhauer as well. :)

Giovanni, I hope you don't mind my unsolicited advice, but I get the feeling that the way you're approaching Kant is likely to result in unnecessary frustration. I'd like to offer a general remark, from one reader to another -

In my opinion, a good approach to any great philosopher is not to aim for detail and completeness, but to form a rough, patchy outline, gradually correcting and refining it. It's good practice to pause occasionally and ask yourself: "If someone asked me for a cursory description of Kant's philosophical vision, in casual conversation, what would I be able to say?" It's okay if that description leaves out many important complications and technical details - you can flesh it out as you read more.

(Here's an example of a rough first impression of Kant: "The mind 'makes' (or 'shapes') its own reality. Trying to understand reality without acknowledging the contributions of the mind is a mistake - we can do no such thing.")

It's okay not to be meticulous, especially in the beginning - I take it for granted that no one ever really "masters" a great philosopher, not even world-class scholars, so the next best outcome is simply to enjoy whatever value, insight, and stimulation you can derive from their work (or even from commentaries), on your own terms. Similarly, don't worry too much if reading a great philosopher fails to have a profound, transformative effect on you! For me, Kant hasn't been the earth-shattering revelation that Schopenhauer found him to be. I just find him to be a very intriguing (but imposing) and interesting thinker, in ways I can't necessarily articulate at this point.

Similarly, here's how someone describes Montaigne's reading habits:

"I leaf through now one book, now another," he wrote, "without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments." He could sound positively cross if he thought anyone might suspect him of careful scholarship. Once, catching himself having said that books offer consolation, he hastily added, "Actually I use them scarcely any more than those who do not know them at all." And one of his sentences starts, "We who have little contact with books..."

His rule in reading remained the one he had learned from Ovid: pursue pleasure. "If I encounter difficulties in reading," he wrote, "I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety."

s. wallerstein said...


Great reading advice. Thanks!!

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

perhaps some degree of epicurism in old age is preferable to Dillon Thomas. A certain form of ataraxia as a therapy for daily use.

One element of this would be; be a good teacher if you are able to be a good teacher, and ignore the rest.

@ micheal

Very nice, especially Montaigne

Marc Susselman said...

“We read to know that we are not alone.” C. S. Lewis

Marc Susseman said...

A well-written Opinion piece by an African-American about the atrocity in Buffalo and the mind-set of the perpetrator, and those who think like him:

David Zimmerman said...

To Achim Kriechel... on a lighter note than "going into that good night."

It is actually "Dylan" Thomas... But that is not the point of my post. "Dillon" and "Dylan" are easy to mix up.

My first encounter with this sort of confusion was amusing.

In 1962 Bob Dylan, who was just embarking on his singing career, gave a concert at the University of Michigan, where I was an undergraduate at the time. The school paper, "The Michigan Daily," ran an ad for the concert that said: "Tonight in the Michigan Union Ballroom there will be a concert featuring the folk singer Bob Dillon."

The next day the paper ran an embarrassed but clever correction: "We wish to correct our ad for the concert in the Michigan Union Ballroom last night. It actually featured the folksinger with the last name of the poet, not of the US Marshall."

I have always thought that THAT was the way to publish a correction... with style.


Marc Susselman said...


In November, 2020, I took my daughter to a Dylan concert at Hill Auditorium on the University of Michigan campus.. It was, as you would expect, a sold-out house. He performed for two hours, mostly new songs, not any of the civil-rights protest songs which endeared him to our hearts when we were young. He said not a single word to the audience – no statement about politics or Trump. At the end of the concert, he stood before the audience with his hands folded in front of his torso. He bowed his head and walked off. I was immensely happy that I and my daughter got to see a legend while he still had the ability to perform.

As a follow-up to my story on a prior post about my car break-down, I had the car towed to my mechanic on Sunday. It turned out that a tie-rod had broken, disabling the steering. Aside from our fortune of getting out of the vehicle with no injuries, the repair only cost $350.00. But it was worth having had the aggravating incident, because but for its occurrence, my wife and I would not have been offered a favor by an extremely kind and gracious African-American couple, an experience which has enriched our lives. After they left and I finally got to see the news report about the shooting in Buffalo, I said to my wife that we were lucky that they did no know about the atrocity committed by a white teenager against African-American shoppers. My wife told me that that was not correct. As she was sitting in the back seat with the male passenger, he was scrolling through his smart phone and came across the news report of the shooting. He showed it to my wife. He never uttered a word of recrimination or anger towards us.

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

oh oh, ... sure David, of course Dylan... thank you.
i should also reread my short comments before i send them.