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Friday, October 31, 2014


Tim poses two questions raised by my brief post about Kant.  Here they are:

1)      why does human agency entail that I must take de jure possession of some portion of the external world, rather than de facto possession of it?

2) What does this kind of argument establish about the character of the property arrangements supposedly necessitated by the conditions of rational agency? Presumably, Kant is right that rational agency necessarily involves the private consumption/use of some portion of the external world. But isn't that different from it entailing that I should thereby acquire a private property right in the thing - which involves my right to dispose over and exchange the thing as I see fit?

The first question, I am afraid, arises simply because of the brevity with which I summarized my essay.  The full answer, which can be found there, involves Kant’s distinction between what he calls sensible and intelligible possession – what might also be called possession de facto and possession de jure.  Roughly, he thinks that the rational requirement of universality of willing entails that intelligible possession is possible only insofar as I allow to others the equal right to claim intelligible possession of some portion of the material world.  Since reason demands that I adopt as my maxim only that rule that could be a universal law for all rational agents, it follows, he argues, that I must ground my actions on intelligible possession, not mere sensible possession.  The latter is of course possible, but it is not in accord with the dictates of reason.

The second question is very interesting indeed, and raises all manner of issues.  Even though Kant died in 1804, at a time when capitalism had not yet come to the Prussia in which he lived his entire life, Kant’s political theory is an extremely abstract theoretical rationalization of capitalist social relations of production.  Just as he argued in the First Critique that there must be some system of pure mathematics knowable a priori, and simply assumed that that meant Euclidean Geometry, the mathematics with which he was familiar, so when he argued that reason requires some system of property, the only form of that social institution that he could imagine was private property of the robust sort required by capitalism. 

As Tim correctly observes, the necessity under which we stand of appropriating portions of the material world for the pursuit if our ends in turn entails that some legal institution of property is required, if we are to emerge from the pre-contractual strife of “the war of all against all,” in Hobbes’ famous phrase.  But nothing in that general requirement implies that property must be held by individuals, rather than collectives.  And it most certainly does not entail that the means of production on whose employment we all depend for our survival must or even should be privately owned.  A factory owned by the workers who labor in it is a piece of the material world whose specific use by those workers requires that they be in a position to exploit it for their collective purposes and equally exclude others from appropriating it.  It is, in that sense, their property.  But nothing in the general analysis of the concept of property dictates how a piece of property should be owned, or against whom those property rights are correctly asserted.

So all you socialist Kant-lovers out there, be reassured.  You can set The Collected Works of Immanuel Kant next to The Collected Works of Marx and Engels next to one another on your shelves, as they are on mine, without fear of contradiction.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


Some time in the late ‘60s, I gave a talk on Mill at a Columbia faculty seminar to which other scholars in the New York area were regularly invited.  After the talk, Hannah Arendt came up to say hello.  It was obvious that she had not been thrilled with the talk, but she was polite.  She asked me what I was working on at the moment and I replied that I was writing a book on Kant’s ethics [which was eventually published as The Autonomy of Reason.]  Her face lit up, and with a broad smile she said, “Ah.  It is always so much more pleasant to spend time with Kant.”

Recently, I have been worrying endlessly about the outcome of senatorial races in which neither of the candidates is anyone I would want to spend time with.  This morning, as we were watching the children with their rented sailboats at the lake in the center of the Jardin de Luxembourg, it occurred to me that it would really be much more pleasant to spend time with Kant.  So I decided to write a brief post summarizing the central thesis of my old paper, “The Completion of Kant’s Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre.”  Kant’s argument, precisely where it fails, illuminates a number of things, among which are the limitations of social contract theory, the priority of political philosophy over ethical theory, the inescapability of the truth of philosophical anarchism, and the inadequacy of the central argument in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.  I have written about these subjects before in various places, but I suspect very few people interested in them have read what I have written, so this is an easy way for someone to get the gist of my writings on the subject without plowing through several of my books and articles.  At the very least, it will be more pleasant for me to spend some more time with Kant.

Kant undertakes in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals to demonstrate the absolutely unconditional universal validity of the fundamental moral law, a law that we mortals experience as an imperative, what Kant calls The Categorical Imperative.   Kant actually tries to establish this claim three times in the Groundwork.  His first try is the argument that the purely formal conditions of consistent willing, conditions laid down by Reason, suffice to demonstrate the validity of several substantive moral laws, the famous four examples of the Categorical Imperative.  The attempt is a pretty miserable failure, a fact recognized ever since by alert readers.

His second try is to argue that there are unconditioned ends, ends that any rational agent as such must necessarily aim at, most notably humanity, which Kant describes as an end-in-itself.  If there are in fact ends in themselves then the imperative to pursue such ends must be binding on all rational agents as such.  Now there is no doubt that the assertion “Humanity is an end in itself” is one of the noblest sentences ever penned.  It has only one tiny flaw.  It is, as it stands, meaningless.

Which leaves Kant with his third try at establishing the universal validity of the Moral Law a priori, namely the argument that in what he calls a Kingdom of Ends, which is to say a political community of rational agents, the laws that such a community would enact are the embodiment or instantiations of the Categorical Imperative.  There is no doubt in my mind that this is the most interesting and promising of Kant’s three attempts to establish the universal validity of the Moral Law.

Notice one of the implications of this move by Kant.  Generally speaking, Kant is thought of as one of those ethical theorists, like John Locke, who claims that moral obligation is logically prior to the social contract, as opposed to theorists like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who seems to claim that prior to the establishing of the social contract individuals are bound by self-interest, substituting the goal of the general good for the pursuit of private interest only as a result of the contract.  But in fact it turns out that Kant is with Rousseau on this crucial question, which should perhaps not surprise us when we recall how deeply influenced by Rousseau Kant was.

Obviously, Kant must successfully demonstrate that the members of the Kingdom of Ends will, in their legislation, necessarily legislate the Moral Law as the fundamental rule binding them all as members of the community.  However, if he is to show that this law is conditional, not hypothetical, in form, he must first prove that all human beings will be under a rational command to enter into a Kingdom of Ends.  Otherwise, even the Moral Law will have the hypothetical form, “If you choose to become a member of a Kingdom of Ends [i.e., If you choose to sign the Social Contract] then as a member of the kingdom of ends you must, as a rational agent, will collectively with your fellow members the Moral Law.”  This leaves it open to the self-interested amoralist simply to decline to sign the Contract, and so not be bound by the Moral Law which from Kant’s point of view would not do at all.

An argument demonstrating that human rational agents as such stand under a command of reason to join a Kingdom of Ends is to be found nowhere in the Grundlegung, but quite to my surprise, I found such an argument in Part One of Kant’s later work, The Metaphysics of Morals, the part devoted to the theory of justice [or law].  As you might expect, even in its simplest form the argument is quite complex.  I am going to summarize it in a few sentences.  Anyone really interested in the full argument is urged to consult my essay [and of course Kant’s text itself.]

Human agency manifest itself in the realm of appearances, hence in a material world governed by cause and effect.  In pursuit of my ends, whatever they may be, I may find it necessary to appropriate some portion of the material world, which is to say I may find it necessary to take de jure possession of it and to exclude others from its use.  There is no part of the material world that is in principle unownable [Kant’s ethical theory thus rules out all forms of ecological ethics.]  Regardless of my ends and purposes, I cannot know a priori that I will not need to take ownership of something or other.  Hence I can know a priori that property must be possible.  But a system of property that allows each person under appropriate circumstances to exclude others from a portion of the material world can come into existence only through a social contract that establishes the possibility of de jure possession.  Thus, from the mere fact that I as a phenomenal creature have ends, and hence stand under hypothetical imperatives, it follows necessarily that I am obliged to enter into rational community with others and collectively with them enact morally binding laws.

This still leaves open the question whether there is some specific system of fundamental laws that all rational communities as such will enact.  Rawls tries to prove that there is, and fails, as I demonstrate at length in my book Understanding Rawls.  But once Rawls has revised his theory to incorporate the device of the Veil of Ignorance, it is clear that he has failed as well to demonstrate the necessity of engaging in the Rational Choice exercise supposedly to take place under that Veil.

Well, it was good for a bit to stop thinking about the election next Tuesday.  Hannah Arendt seems to have been right.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Have I mentioned that our little apartment here is on rue Maître Albert?  Until 1844, this very ancient one-block street bore the ominous name rue Perdue, but it was then renamed after Albertus Magnus, Albert the Great, Maître Albert, the great thirteenth century theologian who introduced Aristotle’s works into the Western European world and was the teacher of Thomas Aquinas.  That is pretty terrific, if you think about it.

At the end of our street, where it empties into Place Maubert right next to rue Frederic Sauton, there is a very popular bar with the implausible name The Long Hop.  Pretty much every evening, but especially on weekends, the Long Hop is hopping, with lots of young people seated at the tables out front drinking one of the many available draft ales and like as not speaking English.  Inside, I gather [I have never actually been inside], there are lots more young people watching one or another television screen, all of which are tuned to sports.

This morning when I walked up to Place Maubert to buy a few things at the market, I saw a little clutch of people in front of The Long Hop engaged, apparently, in filming a scene for a movie [or for an ad – I could not tell which.]  One young man held a long boom mike, a second was manning the camera, and several others were standing about assisting in some way.  A white cab drew up to a stop and out of it climbed an implausibly handsome young man casually but elegantly dressed and pretty obviously made up for the camera.  He leaned over and blew a little party horn at the cab driver while the camera recorded it all.  Then he turned, strode to the front of The Long Hop, looked up at the second or third floor with a theatrical stare, and smiled, revealing the whitest teeth I have ever seen on a living person.  Someone must have said “cut,” because he abruptly stopped, deflated, and wandered over to a chair while the others gathered in a group and consulted with one another.

They kept at it for the next six or seven hours, during which I imagine they managed to get thirty or forty seconds of usable film.

Just another day in Paris.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


I had a marvelous e-mail message explaining Ms. N's inquiry, from Thom Hawkins, who sounds like something of a renaissance character after my own heart.  If you google him, you can watch him explaining the fourth dimension in five minutes.  Here is his e-mail [with his permission]:

I assure you that the Caius inquiry was neither a hoax nor a Thurburian jest. I am the man behind the curtain who paid Ms. N, at a personal cost of three dollars, to investigate the identity of "Caius" in Kant's syllogism. A task at which she ultimately failed, but for which I awarded her high marks (well, a thumb pointed upward) for the effort. I occasionally pay surrogate researchers to dig into questions while I sleep, not only as a time management efficiency, but because they might think to look somewhere I did not. This was certainly the case here, because just as I would sooner consult a map than stop to ask for directions, I'd sooner drive two hours to consult a distant library's holdings than I would send an email to someone who might know something on the subject. Clearly, she found the more direct route.
Because you've since shown interest regarding this request, I will share its origin--a quote from Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych: ?The example of a syllogism that he had studied in Kiesewetter's logic: Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal, had throughout his whole life seemed to him right only in relation to Caius, but not to him at all.?
Ilych essentially dwells on the second premise, that man is mortal, because of its relevance to his own situation as a dying man. I thought that perhaps I was missing another perspective--a historical dimension--on this passage because I did not know the identity of Caius. Thus the connection from Tolstoy's quote to Johann Gottfried Christian Kiesewetter's Grundriss einer allgemeinen Logik nach Kantischen Grundsa?tzen and from there to Kant's The Critique of Pure Reason, where I found no more clues regarding Caius than in Ilych.
I appreciate your candid and humorous response, although I admit I'm disappointed that Caius might be nothing more than a name. Thank you also for the invitation via Ms. N to read "On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives." It strikes me that Kant would make a fine narrator for a play based on the prisoner's dilemma, or perhaps the staging could be augmented with dueling commentary by Kant and Constant as "the German philosopher" and "the French philosopher."
Thom H.


The Picasso Museum in Paris has finally reopened, years late and awash in controversy.  You can read a quite informative account of the entire affaire here.  Never mind the art.  What caught my eye in the TIMES story was the information that the Picasso family settled the enormous death duties occasioned by the artist’s great market success by turning over vast numbers of his art works to the State, which the State then used to stock the museum. 

I am not even quite sure why, but that strikes me as just plain wrong.  If the family decides to cash in on the old man’s success by selling his works on the open market, then sure, tax the bejesus out of them.  But so long as they hold onto the paintings, sculptures, and what have you for themselves, they ought not to have to pay a tax on whatever inflated price the art world places on them.  [Full disclosure:  my wife inherited from her mother a clunky plug-ugly ceramic ashtray with “Picasso” written on the bottom of it.  Apparently the damned thing is worth five thousand dollars in New York!] 

I have no idea whether this gut reaction emerges from my pre-capitalist Id or my socialist Super-ego, but it rose up in me quite spontaneously when I read the story.  I mean, if some idiot decides that the original hand-written copy of Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity is worth a million dollars, should my sons have to sell it when I kick off to pay the inheritance tax rather than keeping it around as a memento of dear old Dad?

Monday, October 27, 2014


In the 1950’s, the distinguished English scientist and novelist C. P. Snow published first a brief essay and then, in expanded form, a book decrying the baleful consequences of what he famously called The Two Cultures.  The best-known passage in the book, quoted in a Wikipedia article on the affair, runs as follows:

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

There are several things worth noting about this passage which mark it as having been written by someone educated in England.  First, while it is common for scientists and humanists to encounter one another socially in the Senior Common Room or at the High Table of an Oxford or Cambridge college, such casual encounters are a good deal less frequent in American universities.  Second, at the time Snow was writing, it was common practice for English secondary schools to sort students into a science track and a humanities/social sciences track as early as age eleven or twelve, with the result that a great many people with university degrees had had virtually no encounters with the natural sciences [a fact I discovered in London in 1954 during a brief but enjoyable liaison with a young English woman who had gone the humanities/social sciences route in school.]

One is of course reminded of the Alan Sokal send-up of literary critics, discussed on this blog last year.

Inasmuch as my writing routinely crosses many disciplinary boundaries, I find quite often that part of what I am saying is lost on my audience, a consequence of the compartmentalization Snow was decrying.  To choose only the most recent example, my post earlier this morning in response to the inquiry from a Ms. N was intended by me quite consciously as an attempt to achieve what I might call a Thurberesque authorial voice, while ostensibly speaking about the philosophy of Immanuel Kant [a fact that I telegraphed openly by my reference to the Thurber short story.]  Some of my readers, schooled in the arts of literary criticism, will have recognized this fact, while others, schooled in Philosophy, will as easily have understood and appreciated the remarks about syllogistic logic.  But will these and other readers have understood the union of the two in one post?  Will readers as well have understod that the tone of my response was designed to protect me from the possibility that the inquiry was in fact a hoax, a joke designed to trap me into a pompous scholarly reply?  I wonder.

Among my many writings, it is Moneybags Must Be So Lucky that is in this way most transgressive.  Perhaps that is why, in the words of David Hume, it “fell stillborn from the presses.”  [Does everyone who reads that last phrase understand Hume’s metaphor?]



I awoke this morning to find the following message in the in-box of my e-mail:

“Dear Mr. Wolff,

I am a personal assistant who has been tasked with finding out who Kant is referring to when he states, " Caius is a man, man is mortal; therefore, Caius is mortal." In trying to find this information, I came across your blog.

I will admit, I have not read Kant's works. I have, however, spent the last couple of hours combing through post after post after post about this particular quote from the book and cannot find a single soul who would say who they think Caius is.

In reading these many posts, I have come to the conclusion that Kant is probably referring to Pope Caius as he has been venerated by the Catholic Church as a Saint. Given that title, and the fact that Saint's are given to a quasi-immortal status, I have ascertained that this is who Kant is most likely referring to. My question for you is, do you think that my assumption is correct? or do you have a deeper insight into who he is referring to?

Any information you can share is beneficial to my search. I thank you in advance for any and all help.

Pamela N.”

Herewith my reply:

“Dear Ms. N,

Thank you very much for your inquiry concerning the identity of the person referred to as Caius by Kant in an example of a valid syllogism.  If you will permit me to say so, this strikes me as a rather odd quest on which to send a Personal Assistant.  Your inquiry reminds me of a charming old one-page short story called “Pet Department - Dog” by the great American humorist James Thurber.

I am afraid I cannot be of any assistance, as I have not a clue whether the Caius referred to by Kant is even a real person.  I think it is highly unlikely that he was referring to Pope Caius.  The argument in which the name appears is an example of what medieval philosophers called a syllogism in Barbara – referring to a mnemonic device they invented to help them remember which syllogisms are valid and which are invalid.  A syllogism is said to be valid if the conclusion follows with necessity from the premises, regardless of the truth of the premises or of the conclusion.  The following is an example of an invalid syllogism:  “Some Republicans are people who are in insane asylums.  Some people who are in insane asylums are sane.  Therefore some Republicans are sane.”  This syllogism is invalid, even though I am assured by highly respectable NEW YORK TIMES Op Ed columnists that the conclusion is true [a matter of which I have no personal experience.]

By the way, saints are not quasi-immortal.  They are mortal men and women whose exemplary lives have excused them from the unpleasantness of a stay in Purgatory.  Since they ascend directly to heaven upon their deaths and sit, as it were, at the footstool of God, they are available to intercede with The Almighty on behalf of prayerful sinners.  No one on earth knows for sure which of the dearly departed are saints, but the Roman Catholic Church has for many centuries made a pretty good living from proclaiming certain individuals to be saints, typically after ascertaining that they have been instrumental in working three authenticated miracles.  By and large, if you want to be declared a saint by The Church, it is best either to die painfully or be elected Pope.  Seventeenth century English Protestants, in an admirable show of egalitarian fervor, took to classifying as saints all those who had been elected from all eternity to be among the Saved.  In practice this meant members of their own or affiliated congregations.

I hope this was of some use.  If your duties as a Personal Assistant leave you any free time, you might try actually reading something by Kant, preferably not too long.  Perhaps I might suggest his well-known essay “On the Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives.”


Robert Paul Wolff