Short Introduction (By Dr Giangiuseppe Pili) Professor Robert Paul Wolff is an American philosopher, professor of philosophy at several institutions such as the University of Massachusetts. His interests span from the history of philosophy to Marxism and Anarchy. He is an accomplished author of already classic books such as In Defense of Anarchism (1970), Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity (1962), and The Autonomy of Reason (1974). Some of Wolff’s books are translated in Italian by one of the best publishers in Italy (Einaudi) and are available on the main Italian repositories. Wolff writes in his own blog, which we kindly suggest following. Finally, we strongly suggest to watch the amazing Wolff’s lectures on Kant, Marx, Hume, and other topics already available on YouTube. I must confess that I simply found them spectacular, clear, and exceptionally enjoyable. When professor Wolff replied to me accepting to go through an interview, I was simply excited. And it is with my distinct pleasure to publish his short essay on Scuola Filosofica – which – for who doesn’t know it yet, is one of the leading philosophical blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Professor Wolff: thank you!
Professor Giangiuseppe posed a series of questions as the basis for this interview, but rather than answering them directly I would like instead to take the opportunity to reflect on what being a philosopher has meant to me ever since I took my first philosophy course seventy years ago as a sixteen year old freshman at Harvard University.
My very first course was devoted to symbolic logic, and I immediately found myself entranced by the precision and clarity of formal arguments. In the next two years I took no fewer than four courses on mathematical logic at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. But I was also studying several of the great philosophers of the western tradition, and in 1953, I took a famous course at Harvard on the Critique of Pure Reason of Immanuel Kant. I think it is fair to say that that course changed my life, although it would take me many years to understand just how it did so.
The course was taught by the grand old man of the department, a logician and epistemologist named Clarence Irving Lewis. Lewis was seventy that spring and I was nineteen. He was to me an unapproachable figure from another age, a Victorian gentleman who wore a vest and a pince-nez, and was called Mr. Lewis, rather than Clarence, even by his senior colleagues. Lewis combined a mastery of formal logic with a sense, radiating from him, that philosophy was not a delightful intellectual game but a matter of high moral seriousness. It was important, he communicated without ever saying it, to get the ideas right. They mattered. I still recall the comment he wrote on a paper I had submitted the previous semester in his course on the theory of knowledge. In the paper, I had ginned up a series of objections to the philosophy of David Hume, and in response, Lewis wrote, “I would hope that this general character of the paper is not a symptom of that type of mind, in philosophy, which can find the objection to everything but advance the solution to nothing.”
Rather than pursuing formal logic, which would have been, in those days, a good career move, I chose instead to write a doctoral dissertation on the epistemological theories of David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Instead of mounting an array of superficial objections to the views of Hume and Kant, I struggled instead to find and state as clearly as I could a deep theoretical idea that I believed united Hume and Kant, two philosophers customarily thought to hold polar opposite views. That belief – an intuition, really – became the theme of my dissertation, my first major journal article, and my first book.
I shan’t try to summarize that intuition here. Interested readers can look up the nine YouTube lectures I have posted on Kant’s Critique and the four I have posted on Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. Instead, I would like to say something about what I began to learn about myself in the course of doing this work on Hume and Kant well over half a century ago.
As I struggled with these great philosophical texts of the Western tradition, I began to realize that I view philosophical arguments as stories. The characters are the ideas, and their story is the argument that carries the story line from premise to conclusion. Great philosophers, I found, have very deep, very powerful, but ultimately very simple and elegant stories to tell. It is my task as a reader and interpreter of the text to find those stories, separate them from the mass of detail that often obscures them, and then tell the stories so that my readers or my students can grasp them, understand them, and follow them from start to finish. If I cannot tell the story clearly and simply, then I know I have not yet truly understood the text or its author, no matter how many secondary sources I have consulted or how many footnotes my writing has accumulated.
As time passed, I found myself writing on extremely controversial topics – anarchism, nuclear war, socialism, Karl Marx, tolerance, radical educational reform. I took strong, unpopular positions on an array of hot topics, and so, quite naturally, I got a reputation as a polemicist, as a radical, as a troublemaker. But the truth, all this while, was that I saw myself as a story teller, a teller of the stories of great ideas.
Then, in my middle years, thirty years ago or thereabouts, I came to an even deeper understanding of what my life’s work really is about. I had been puzzled by an odd fact about the way I work that distinguishes me from my fellow philosophers. I never show what I have written to other philosophers for comments and criticisms before publishing, and after publishing, I am unconcerned about reviews of what I have written. Now, no one who knows me would ever make the mistake of describing me as modest or self-effacing. Quite to the contrary! I am something of a loud mouth, a showboat, always speaking up, raising objections, taking public stands on matters political, economic, or educational. Why am I so unconcerned about what others think of what I have written?
It was then that I realized there is an aesthetic dimension to my philosophical work that had been present all along but that I had never brought fully to self-consciousness. The ideas that I find at the heart of a great text – of Plato’s Republic, of Hume’s Treatise, of Kant’s Critique, of Marx’s Capital – are beautiful in their elegantly simple power. My deepest desire is always to plumb the depths of a great text, to find at its core the powerful, simple idea that resided there, and then to show it in all its beauty to my readers or students so that they can appreciate it as I do. This was the story I was always trying to tell. This was why reviews did not matter to me.
Now that I am closer to ninety than to eighty, there is a certain peace in recognizing and acknowledging what I have been about these seventy years since I took that first logic course. Are other philosophers anything like me? I do not know. That must be for them to say.