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Thursday, June 23, 2016


In a few hours, we shall take a taxi to the airport, fly to Seattle, and tomorrow board something called The Celebrity Solstice for a one-week cruise up and down the southern Alaskan shore with Susie's entire family -- two sons, two daughters-in-law, and four grandsons.  We shall make stops at Ketchikan, Skagway, and Juneau, and view several glaciers.  I shall return on July 2nd, and resume blogging, probably, on  the third.

Last night saw a sit-in in the House chamber, led by John Lewis, to protest Congress' inaction on gun control.  It was the first time in many years that I have had the slightest positive feeling about the halls of government.  Something is stirring in this country, not at all caused by Bernie but powerfully amplified by his candidacy.  I don't ask for much  -- just a slight breath of air suggesting that the wind is shifting.

Perhaps I shall not be forced to embark, in the evocative phrase used by Russian dissidents, on an inner migration.

Sarah Palin to the contrary notwithstanding, we shall not be able to see Russia from our boat deck.  I am taking the Critique for light reading during the long daylight hours.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


A year ago, as I reported at length, I taught an advanced course in the UNC Philosophy Department on the thought of Karl Marx.  The liveliest and one or the most interesting students in the class was a first year doctoral student named Matthew Duvalier McCauley.  At the end of the semester, Matthew told me that he would be forced to suspend his doctoral studies to return home to California to get a job and help to support his mother.  I offered to mentor him while he was withdrawn from formal study, and when he was settled at home and working for Whole Foods, we began our work together.  I arranged for to deliver to him copies of the Meditations, the Mondadology, the Treatise of Human Nature, and the First Critique.  As he read through the first three of these works, he wrote papers on them which I read and commented on.  [He will read the Critique and write the weekly summaries in conjunction with my videoed lectures]  During this time, Matthew applied to a number of doctoral programs on the West Coast and will continue his studies at Berkeley in the Fall semester.  Although his principal interest is in formal logic and the philosophy of mathematics, he has enthusiastically embraced the plan of reading all twenty-five of the Great Works that I put on a list of “must read” classics.

When Matthew completed his study of the Treatise, I suggested he go on to Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, inasmuch as he has several times expressed great interest in religion.  He replied that he had just read them, and asked whether I wanted him to write a paper about them.  I said that perhaps he could write a paper on his own personal engagement with religion, a suggestion he enthusiastically embraced.  With his permission, I am reproducing here the short paper he wrote, after which I will write some comments on it.

                                                  On Religion   by Matthew Duvalier McCauley

I try not to make unwarranted generalizations. But if I may be permitted a slight exaggeration, I would say that the distinctive cultural ethos of black-American families is to be religious. This is not to say that all black Americans are Christian, or even that they all believe in God. What I am saying is that you will never have a conversation with the head of a black household without hearing an “Amen” or a “thank you Jesus” or a “praise God”, nor will you listen to a family voicemail that is shorter than ten minutes and absent of Christian-themed background music and in which you do not receive a number of blessings.

            But not all black Americans are religious. Some of them arrived at the conclusion that they are too intelligent for religion – immediately after an evening of YouTube-ing such philosophical heavyweights as Joe Rogan and Sam Harris, of course. Those black Americans are the enlightened ones. I suspect that their attitude is not new and is instead an artifact of the tradition of, after every human achievement, rejecting belief in God as childish and obsolete. After the discovery of the Higgs Boson, we became too intelligent for religion; after writing the Origin of Species, we became too intelligent for religion; after the creation of the printing press, God became a childish fiction; after the invention of the chariot wheel, we became enlightened. Probably some precocious caveman fancied himself too intelligent to believe in gods when he discovered fire.

            Now, my immediate family – me, Mom, and cat – was never really that religious. I went to church a few times as a small child, but I pretty much stopped going when I was eleven. I don’t think we had any particular reason for no longer going to church. I certainly believed that there was a God. And I’m sure my mom did, too, although nowadays I have no idea what she believes. Honestly, I just think she didn’t think questions about seeking God were all that important, and so she stopped taking me to church.[1]

            Freshman year of college is when I began taking religion seriously. After having what some would call a mystical or religious experience, God became the most important thing in my life. Theology[2] became so important that I directed, to (I think) the best of my ability, everything toward the end of seeking or serving God. That was five years ago. I am going to have to skip over a lot because so much has happened since then that I do not know what to focus on.

            Nowadays, theology is still the most important thing to me, and, in certain respects, even more important than before. But my views have changed. Then, it was as obvious as anything that there was a God and that Christianity was true. Now, I’m not so sure that there is a God. My lack of confidence is not due to any philosophical objections to the idea of God or the truth of Christianity.[3] 
           I think I believe that there is a God. But my confidence in that belief is so low that I do not know whether I should call myself a doubting theist or a very religious agnostic. All I know is that, if there is a God, I want to know him and know how to think rightly about him. That is the most important thing, and the issues surrounding it are so fundamental that I try not to philosophize about anything else until I am more clear on where I stand theologically. MY thoughts about God inform my thoughts about everything else.

            Now, I cannot end this paper without acknowledging a very curious brand of theism that I encounter from time to time. More often than not I meet these theists who believe that there is a God who intervenes in world affairs – a God who feeds the birds and clothes the lilies – but do not find theology[4] interesting enough to study it. I cannot understand that. I cannot understand a mind that is 1) convinced of the existence of a God who cares about humans, and 2) not devoted to theology. This is the mind of the nominal Christian or the cultural Muslim or one of those oppressively liberal New Age harpies who characterize themselves with such vacuous descriptions as “spiritual but not religious”. They who believe in the power of God and yet do not study theology are like those sick individuals who see the necessity of a certain vaccine and yet do not take it.

            The questions of theology are either the most important questions or a waste of time – a complete waste of time, on the order of speculating about the sociology of Atlantis. I see no middle ground; the nature of the discipline implies that if it is not the most important subject, it is not important at all.

[1] Interestingly, this seems to be the attitude of nearly everyone I’ve ever met in my extended family: both my biological father and his wife, most of my aunts and uncles, and nearly all of my cousins seem to find the question of seeking God unimportant. I guess, in a way, my family is an exception to my armchair statistic about all black American families being religious.

2 I loosely define theology as the discipline concerning right thinking and relation to God. So, theology, in this sense, includes prayer and holiness, as well as reading and thinking.

3 I’ve heard very many of those arguments against God’s existence. Frankly, they just strike me as childish puzzles that people who do not have an existential foot in the question of God’s existence throw together. The brainchildren of the Saints of counterfeit charity, who feign an air of horror at the idea of hell, but can’t wait to see their own enemies destroyed; who demand God to do something about all this evil, but who would love nothing more than the opportunity to do what they know is wrong. The last thing these people want to know is the truth, and indeed, I suspect that they are all too happy that the world is exactly as God created it. Jesus had an exchange with these disingenuous fellows in John 8.

4 See my loose definition in Footnote 2.


Let me say, first of all, that is an authentic, charming, and thoughtful paper.  This and Matthew’s other papers strike me as the work of someone with a genuinely philosophical turn of mind.  And about religious faith, I think he has it exactly right.  To be religious is not to believe that certain propositions are true, or that certain entities exist.  It is to experience the world in a certain manner, one that is utterly incompatible with a non-religious experience of the world.  There cannot be disagreements between two persons, one of whom is truly religious and other of whom is genuinely not.  They may agree to coexist, and they may engage together in certain common projects, but they cannot possibly communicate.  I myself am thoroughly secular, though as should be obvious from this blog I have very great emotional sympathy with the religious experience of the world.  But it would be utterly pointless for me to argue with a believer about such things as heaven and hell or faith or election or, it goes without saying, the existence of God.

I look forward with great anticipation t Matthew’s Kant summaries.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


Professor Warren Goldfarb recently sent me an e-mail message with the following very interesting and useful comment on my argument that we should read philosophical works in their entirety.  Goldfarb is the latest in Harvard’s long line of philosophical logicians – a line that includes my classmate Charles Parsons, his doctoral dissertation director Willard Van Orman Quine, and his dissertation director Alfred North Whitehead.  Here is what Goldfarb had to say:

“Let me add something to your reasons for reading philosophical works whole, which you posted about a few days ago. 

Philosophical methodology is not a set thing.  In dealing with a philosophical issue, a great philosopher is at the same time working out the tools you can use to treat the issue, what the nature of the problem really is, and so redoing the whole nature of the enterprise.

There is no way of gleaning all that by reading excerpts.  You can't understand the real shift that Descartes was making without reading the whole of the Meditations and the Discourse, at least; or Hume without reading most of the Treatise (the interplay of skepticism and naturalism is certainly not something you can get by reading the usual excerpts).  The idea that the philosopher is reshaping the question while trying to answer it is very prominent in my area: when Frege says "arithmetic is nothing but logic" he means something very different from what Lotze meant; Carnap means something different again, although using the same language.  And of course, the interplay of methodological reshaping and the content of the philosophical question is the most important thing in all of Wittgenstein's work.”

Monday, June 20, 2016


On Thursday, Susie and I shall fly to Seattle to begin a one week family gathering cruise with her two sons and daughters in law and four grandsons.  The cruise ship will take us to such world cities as Skagway and Ketchikan.  I plan to sit on the deck sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them and watch the passing dolphins.  We return home July 2nd, just in time for the Fourth.  I shall not be blogging while afloat [though, if I had a laptop, it would I think be possible], but I shall be re-reading the Critique to prepare myself for my lectures.

Only a fool would try to predict the politics during that [or any other] period.  My principal concern, which has not yet been addressed, is whether Bernie really plans to transform his campaign into an on-going movement.  If he does, I shall be there with bells on.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


1.         I have started reading a book recommended by my sister, Barbara:  Beethoven for a Later Age, a memoir by the Tak√°cs quartet’s first violinist, Edward Dusinberre of his experiences with the quartet.  The book begins with Dusinberre’s recollections of his audition with the other three members of the quartet, all much older, all Hungarians, and all having played together for a long time.   As Dusinberre tells it, he was a very nervous twenty-four year old, fresh out of Conservatory.  His account focuses in great detail on the details of the music that had been chosen for the audition, in this case Beethoven’s Opus 59 number 3, the third Razumovsky.  As it happens, I have played this quartet [see my June 5, 2016 post], but at a very low level of technical competence.  Reading Dusinberre’s thoughts about the subtle interplay of the instruments and the musicians gives me some small sense of the chasm between my playing and theirs.  I had thought the differences were mostly technical.   The chapter is something of a revelation.

2.         Yesterday, prodded by curiosity, I did a quick check of the file drawers in which I keep materials, in chronological order, from every course, tutorial, section, and discussion group I have taught over the past sixty-one years.  I discovered that between 1960 and 1992, I taught the First Critique fourteen times – I then transferred to an Afro-American Studies Department and turned my attention to other things.  On twelve of those occasions, I used the system of required weekly Kant Summaries that I learned from my teacher and predecessor at Harvard, Clarence Irving Lewis, and twice I did not.  In late August, when I launch my videotaped lectures on the Critique, I shall of course not be able even to require that participants read the text, let alone write Kant Summaries, and once the lectures go into the Cloud via YouTube, there is no way at all to know who will be viewing them or what, if anything, they will read as an accompaniment to the viewing experience.  I plan simply to assume that viewers are reading the text as they watch.  I cannot imagine how else to teach so difficult a book.

Friday, June 17, 2016


My Preview of Coming Attractions triggered a number of interesting comments, so I am going to dedicate this post to replying to some of what has been said.  As always, I thank you for your continuing participation in this blog.  It has become, in effect, an endless seminar, with a large number of thoughtful participants, both those who comment and those who do not.

1.         S. Wallerstein asks why a Marxist like me is fascinated by Kant.  Well, Kant was my first love, which explains a part of it.  But more than that, I do not choose my intellectual associates on the basis of their compatibility with my politics.  I find Michael Oakeshott’s work fascinating and instructive, even though he is, or was, the intellectual guru of English conservatives, and I take the very greatest pleasure in reading Kierkegaard, even though I am an atheist.  I am beguiled by the beauty of clear, profound, elegantly constructed arguments.  I have strong political commitments, but at the very deepest level my response to ideas is aesthetic rather than ideological.

2.         Jerry, not only do I underline books and write marginal comments, I also cannot read a student paper without doing the same, a fact that slows me up something awful when I am grading a stack of papers.  Fortunately, I do not often have a truly rare book in my hands.  I know that one can make marginal comments to an e-text, but I find that to be a barbaric custom.  I also have an immediate sensory response to the feel and loo and smell of books.  My favorite book – for sensory and for intellectual reasons – is the Selby-Bigge edition of Hume’s Treatise.

3.         Anonymous – I was unaware of the Nietzsche passage you quote, but upon reading it, I am afraid I find it rather superficial and, dare I say it, juvenile.  I understand why Nietzsche might have been irritated by the enormous respect paid to Kant in his day, but his comments do not seem to me to rise above the level of really class schoolboy snark.

4.         S. Wallerstein again.  I love the fact that cartesiano means exceptionally clear and logical.  When I first got our Paris apartment, I decided that to improve my terrible French, I would read In Defense of Anarchism in the French edition.  To my delight, I found that in French I was cartesiano – exceptionally clear and logical.  Then it occurred to me that probably in French everyone sounds cartesianio!

5.         mesnenor suggests that one read the Objections and Replies with the Meditations.  Indeed!  There is a lovely story associated with them.  It seems that Descartes sent copies of the Meditations to all of the most important philosophers in Europe with precise instructions as to how to read them:  First one day on each of the six Meditations, resting, as is appropriate, on the seventh day.  Then spend a week re-reading and thinking about each Meditation, for a total of seven weeks in all.  Then send comments.  Descartes was very put out when comments began to arrive by return mail.  What is more, the most serious objections to Descartes’ arguments, which first-rate philosophers have managed to cough up over the last four hundred years, were to be found in those instantaneous replies!

6.         matt, it sounds to me as though you have gone way beyond what I would ever suggest!  If you studied the Critique with Bob Howell and Paul Guyer, then you had the best there is.  That is fabulous.  As for Locke’s First Treatise, I agree that it is tediously dull, but it does put the important Second Treatise in an interesting light.

7.         Tom, that is lovely about Kermit Roosevelt and the Penn connection.  I must ask Tobias about him.

Well, that will do it for now.

Thursday, June 16, 2016


I imagine it is obvious that my mind has been much absorbed with my forthcoming lecture series on Kant’s First Critique.  I have decided to write a post today explaining, as I will in my first lecture, why I think it is important to read entire great works of Philosophy rather than just the tasty bits.  This latter seems to be the approach of graduate Philosophy programs these days.  I was startled to learn, when I asked the UNC graduate students in my Marx course last year, that they were required to read journal articles but not complete works by the great philosophers.  Think of this post therefore as a preview of coming attractions, rather like what one is regaled with at the movies before the main feature comes on.  
Why read entire works of philosophy?  There are three reasons.  The first is that those of us who choose to make a career of Philosophy enter into the oldest continuous intellectual discipline in Western civilization, indeed two and a half millennia old.  I genuinely believe that those who arrogate to themselves the honorific title “philosopher” owe a duty of respect to that immensely long tradition, a duty to be fulfilled by at least acquainting oneself with the most important writings of Plato, of Aristotle, of St. Thomas, of Descartes, of Spinoza, of Leibniz, of Locke, of Berkeley, of Hume, and of Kant, as well as the other immortals of our profession.  Sneer if you will at an old man’s ramblings, but I really believe that.  To be a philosopher is something, it is a calling, not just a way to pay the bills or [when I was younger] to stay out of the army.

The second reason is that if you only read the selections from Descartes’ Meditations or Hume’s Treatise or Aristotle’s Physics that your instructor has assigned, then you are a prisoner of his or her judgment of what is philosophically important.  You may get an A, you may publish an article, you may even get a tenure-track job – all important and admirable ambitions – but you will never have a genuinely original response to the text you have dipped into, because you will simply be echoing what your instructor said or thought.  Mind you, your instructor may be a fine philosopher, but the world does not need acolytes, it needs original minds.  There may – indeed I can guarantee that there will – be portions of the text not assigned in which you find important, challenging, provocative ideas, ideas whose pursuit may make you a fine philosopher as well.

Third – and this is the deepest and most important reason – great philosophers, unlike those who write journal articles, think more deeply and in more complicated ways than even they on occasion realize and can say.  There may be important logical interactions between the parts of the text you have been assigned and other parts whose importance your instructor does not understand – indeed, that the author himself or herself does not understand.  You will never discover these connections if you read snippets.

 Here is one profoundly important example that, to the best of my knowledge, I was the first to point out:  In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant says that the pure concepts have possible or problematic, but not actual or assertoric, application to things in themselves.  His entire moral philosophy, as expounded most famously and powerfully in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, depends on this claim.  But in the First Edition version of the “Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding” in the Critique of Pure Reason, at the very deepest level of his investigations, Kant presents an analysis of concepts, on which his entire theoretical philosophy depends, that implies that pure concepts [the so-called Categories] cannot even have possible application to things in themselves.  Kant himself never realized this, but it undermines his moral philosophy.  Only someone prepared to study both Kant’s theoretical philosophy and his practical philosophy in the most profound way can discover this fact and confront it.  No one who tries to talk about Kant’s moral philosophy without a deep knowledge of his theoretical philosophy has a clue.

Well, my two minutes and twenty-four seconds are up.  I trust this will make you want to see the movie, which may run twenty-four hours or more [be sure to get plenty of popcorn before taking your seat.]