Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Robert Paul Wolff On Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason

Professor Robert Paul Wolff is an anarchist in politics and Marxist in economics.

But a Professor who is devoted to anarchism and Marxism is, in my view, qualified for elucidating Immanuel Kant’s philosophical system. After all, Kant’s ideas are the basis on which the structure of Marxism and anarchism is built.

I find Wolff's lecture series on Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason very interesting and informative. In these lectures Wolff explores not only Kant’s ideas but also the range of philosophical disputes that Kant was trying to grapple with.

Kant lived in a period in which epistemology had replaced metaphysics as the world’s first philosophy. For more than two hundreds years before Kant the leading philosophers of Europe had been trying to decipher how the human mind acquires knowledge. Wolff draws a connection between Kant and the epistemological ideas of Descartes, Locke, Newton, Leibniz, and Hume.

In the time of Kant a dispute was razing across Europe between the continental rationalists like Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, and the British empiricists like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Wolff says that as Kant looked into this philosophical dispute, he dove so deep into the depths of human knowledge that he emerged from it, not as Immanuel Kant the professor of logic, but as Immanuel Kant the world’s leading philosopher.

Wolff is an admirer of Kant; in his lectures he repeatedly points out that he regards The Critique of Pure Reason as the greatest work in philosophy since Aristotle and Plato. In his view Kant is the world’s leading moral philosopher, and he claims that teaching Kant has been the greatest experience of his lifetime.

In his Inaugural Dissertation (1770), Kant has said that both the rationalists and the empiricists are right, and their differences are because they are trapped in Antinomies. According to Wolff, Kant’s intellectual universe was turned upside down in 1772 when he read the German translation of An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth by James Beattie and became acquainted with the ideas of David Hume. In this work, Beattie has made extensive use of Hume’s ideas.

Wolff lectures in a rather rambling style. Every now and then he digresses from the main topic to reminisce about his past experiences with students, colleagues, some famous philosophers, and other things. But I think these digressions are of some value as they lead to a better understanding of not only Kant’s ideas but also of how Kant is seen in the contemporaneous period.

For instance, Wolff has described his meeting (when he was a 20-year-old student of philosophy) with Bertrand Russell, who was then regarded as the world’s intellectual pope. When Russell learned that Wolff was reading Kant, he said, “You prefer fiction, do you?” Russell also asserted that he hadn’t “read Kant seriously since 1897.” Wolff says that after meeting Russell he realized that famous people are quite useless.

As of now there are nine lectures by Wolff on The Critique of Pure Reason—each lecture is of around one hour. He has not made any syllabus because he says that he plans to set the agenda for the next class on the basis of the progress that has been made in the previous class. Overall, this is turning out to be an interesting survey of Kant’s life and ideas.

Professor Wolff is well known for his work on Kant. He is the author of books like In Defense of AnarchismKant's Theory of Mental Activity, and Understanding Rawls

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