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Nederlog

January 9, 2015
"Philosophy" in Amsterdam, On a list of philosophical books, Charlie Hebdo
Sections
Introduction

1. On studying "philosophy" in Amsterdam
2. On a list of philosophical books
3. On "Charlie Hebdo"


Introduction:

This is a Nederlog of Friday, January 9, 2015.

This is mostly about a list of philosophical books I found on R.P. Wolff's site, preceded by brief bits of biography, and followed by an even briefer remark on Charlie Hebdo.

1. On studying "philosophy" in Amsterdam

In the next item I will be quoting and commenting on a list I found on Robert Paul Wolff's blog.

You can skip there immediately or first read the present section with some biographical details.

Who is Robert Paul Wolff? He is an American of 81, who is a professor emeritus in philosophy, and who says about himself that "
in politics I am an anarchist, in religion I am an atheist, and in economics I am a Marxist". He got educated at Harvard, where he also got some good courses in mathematical logic (in the 1950ies), and he is presently still teaching a course on Marx this year.

I have been - more or less - following his blog for a while, and he published the present list yesterday on his blog, and started this as follows:
I met my Marx class yesterday for the first time, and talked non-stop for two and a half hours!  After class, I was chatting with one of the Philosophy Department first year grad students in the course and I mentioned that there are about twenty-five books by great philosophers that every grad student should read by the time he or she gets the Ph. D.  That, along with a firm foundation in mathematical logic, would stand you in good stead for a career.
Yes, indeed - especially the mathematical logic, I should say, precisely because this is a list for students of philosophy.

In fact - as I mentioned before - I studied philosophy (or better "feelosophy") at the University of Amsterdam, where I did very well, but was nevertheless removed there, as in: cast out from the university, in 1988, briefly before taking my M.A. there, basically because I was not a marxist and also because I asked questions [1], as an invited speaker - only
questions! - that displeased my teachers (who were a bunch of very lazy very well-paid loons, degenerates and quasi-marxist quasi-philosophers).

Nobody else had been removed from a Dutch university since WW II for stating his opinions (in the form of
questions!), but it happened to me, and was also supported by the - corrupt, degenerate, sick - board of directors of the University of Amsterdam. I was also ill and invalidated, as my teachers and the board also knew - but out I went.

As to my not being a marxist: My parents were prominent marxists; three out of four of my grandparents were marxists or anarchists; my father and his father were locked up by the Nazis in concentration-camps, for resisting Nazism, that my grandfather did not survive; I was myself a marxist until age 20 (and had read more of Marx than anybody I'd ever met by that time), but I gave it up essentially because there was no one I could take seriously, in a theoretical way, in the Dutch communist party; because I had found serious problems with Marx's labor theory of value (see Ian Steedman's "Marx after Sraffa", that I discovered much later); because I was quite upset by the totalitarianism of much of the left, and especially of - claimed - marxists; and because I also did not believe the Soviet block was socialistic in any interesting sense since I had been there in 1964. (There were more reasons, but these were the most important.)

In fact, in terms of background, I was the best educated in Marxism in the University of Amsterdam that I have ever met there - but
I was thrown out of the University of Amsterdam because I was not a marxist, and asked questions, and also because I did not lie (like virtually everybody else there, indeed: No one there was a real marxist, for example, like my parents were [2]).

2. On a list of philosophical books

Now about the list that follows (in fact: 26 books). I must start with one confession:

I like the list and indeed had read nearly all of these by the time I was 23, all on my own initiative, because I only started "the academic study" of philosophy, in which I learned precisely nothing of any intellectual interest, when I was 27.

But also (and this is the confessional part, though it is not really about me) I have never met any student of philosophy - I must have seen hundreds of them, and talked with quite a few - who had read most of the list, and I do not think more than two of my professors in philosophy can be fairly suspected of having read most of the books that follow (and one was an Englishman, also educated in England).

Anyway... here is the list, which I quote and indent, with my comments, that are not indented:

1-5.  Plato, the EUTHYPHRO, APOLOGY, and CRITO [all short, pretty much a quick read], the GORGIAS [my all time favorite dialogue], the REPUBLIC, the THEATETUS, maybe the SOPHIST.  I consider this five books, not seven.  The first three are really one book.
Yes, a good selection - and I don't like Plato, though I agree he was a great philosopher and a fine writer. If you want to see why read The Republic: Parts are Monty Pythonesque (but were seriously meant).
6-7.  Aristotle, METAPHYSICS, PHYSICS, NICHOMACHEAN ETHICS. 
Also a good selection, though perhaps his CATEGORIES (a short work) should have been added.
8.   Medieval Philosophy -- I don't know.  You can't read the entire SUMMA by Aquinas, God knows.  But you need somehow to familiarize yourselves with the metaphysical debates of the Middle Ages [which includes the important Jewish and Arabic philosophers].
Not a good list. I would have put up some translation of parts of Ockham's SUMMA LOGICAE (I have several partial English ones, of some thirty or forty years ago, while the whole Summa is translated and available on the internet); Duns Scotus : A TREATISE ON GOD AS FIRST PRINCIPLE; and a selection from Thomas Aquinas: Reading all of the Summa Theologicae is too much (it was for me as well), but there are good abbreviations. (And the three writers mentioned here were quite amazing intellects.) Another good reference is to Paul Vincent Spade's "Mediaeval Logic and Philosophy".
9-10.  Descartes, DISCOURSE ON METHOD and MEDITATIONS.  With the MEDITATIONS, it is fascinating to read around in the volume of Responses that Descartes got when he sent it out to all the important philosophers in Europe [there is a funny story with that -- remind me to tell you.]  The fascinating thing is that most of the objections that four centuries of philosophers have thought up to the MEDITATIONS appear in those responses, which were written within weeks of receiving the work.
Also a good choice (and the links are generally to editions on my site). Wolff is right that most of the objections appeared very fast (and they can be found in the Dover version that I owe of the Meditations), but then these were mostly by real philosophers, much rather than by students or teachers of academic philosophy.
11.  Leibniz, MONADOLOGY
[Maybe -- Spinoza, ETHICS.  Maybe not.]
Yes - and the last link is to a translation of the Monadology with my comments. Another Leibnizian book Wolff might have mentioned is his "Nouveaux Essays".
As to Spinoza's Ethics: Wolff is quite right when he said that "
the Ethics is really impenetrable without a guide" - as I've argued several times in Nederlog, in Dutch, also with a reference to George Boole, who thought the same.
12.  Thomas Hobbes, LEVIATHAN
Yes. There are - or were - quite good and cheap editions of it, and he was a much better writer and thinker than was John Locke (I agree with William Hazlitt, who thought the same).
13-14.  John Locke, ESSAY CONCERNING THE HUMAN UNDERSTANDING, SECOND TREATISE ON CIVIL GOVERNMENT [the FIRST TREATISE is a hoot, but it is not necessary.]
Well... I never managed to finish all of Locke's Essay, mostly because of its many mistakes in reasoning, and because it seemed mostly taken, but in a worse style, from Hobbes.
15.  George Berkeley, either A TREATISE CONCERNING THE PRINCIPLES OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE or THREE DIALOGUES BETWEEN HYLAS AND PHOLINUS.  Berkeley published both of these in his middle twenties!  When I was a student, we had a game called "I am now older than *** when he wrote ***.]  Berkeley and Hume were killers.  Locke and Kant were reassuring.  There was still plenty of time.
Actually, a better reference - but probably hard to get, even in libraries - is the late 19th century edition by A.C. Fraser: "BERKELEY'S COMPLETE WORKS" in four volumes, because these are quite well done; contain an admirable introduction by Fraser; and also show what Berkeley wrote later, e.g. on the virtues of tarwater. (I like Berkeley, but don't agree with him, as indeed very few did. Fraser made a good case why.)
16-18.  David Hume, A TREATISE OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE, ENQUIRY CONCERNING THE HUMAN UNDERSTANDING, and DIALOGUES CONCERNING NATURAL RELIGION.
Yes, although I might have replaced Hume's Treatise by his Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. (My reason is that I agree with Hume that his Enquiries are better written and more clear than his Treatise, which indeed may be deeper.)
19.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, OF THE SOCIAL CONTRACT.  [When I went to Oxford in 1954 as a twenty-year old graduate student on a traveling fellowship, the Kant scholar T. D. Weldon, who, I later learned, was more or less permanently drunk, told me I had to read MILE.  It was not good advice.]
I never liked Rousseau, but that may be - in part - a matter of temperament and tastes. (In contrast, William Hazlitt, with whom I very often agree, was an enthousiast for Rousseau.)
20-22.  Immanuel Kant, CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, FOUNDATIONS OF THE METAPHYSICS OF MORALS, CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT
[I pass in silence over Hegel]
First, I must admit that I never finished a book of Kant, because the writing is atrocious, and the reasoning is full of holes. (In fact, I read German easily, but the least unclear edition of the Critique of Pure Reason that I saw was an English translation made in the 19th Century by G. Lewes. I did read most of this, but again could not convince myself of any typically Kantian point - and no, I do not think that is a fault of mine.)

Second, I am missing someone who should be mentioned here, first because his German was truly excellent; second, because he was a great admirer of Kant; and third because he wrote a quite devastating criticism of Kant: Arthur Schopen- hauer's "
Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung" ("The world as will and representation"), and also his "On the fourfold root of the principle of sufficient reason". I liked both a lot, though the first more for the German than for the philosophy, while I liked the second because it is intellectually quite worthwile.
23.  Jeremy Bentham, INTRODUCTION TO THE PRINCIPLES OF MORALS AND LEGISLATION [If you are going to study Utilitarianism, you might as well know where it came from.]
I did read a little Bentham, but since I am not a utilitarian - see the next item - and since Bentham is not an interesting or good writer, I did not read much of him.
24-25.  John Stuart Mill, UTILITARIANISM, ON LIBERTY
The last items on the list, and both are good choices, also because they are clear enough to refute.

There might have been others on the list - Lucretius, Augustine, Machiavelli, to name a few - but if the list is meant to include no more than 25 thinkers, it is a good list.

Also, Wolff stops at Mill, and circa 1860, because after Mill there are Frege, Peirce, Russell, Whitehead and the 20th Century philosophers, and these indeed are much better read in modern departments of philosophy.

3.  On Charlie Hebdo

Yesterday I had again quite a few visitors
. I suppose it was because of the murders of twelve persons in the offices of "Charlie Hebdo".

Well... you are quite welcome, of course, and I suppose you have read yesterday's brief item. Here are my two reason not to make it any longer:
There is an enormous amount about it in the daily papers and on the TV news - and I really can add nothing to it that is original and unknown.
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Notes

[1] The link - questions - is a translation of the speech that got me thrown out, and it does consist only of questions, as you can see yourself. In case you say that some of my questions sound odd or radical: I entirely agree - but the Dutch universities were in fact from 1971 till 1995 completely in the hand of the students; the students - those who had the power, at least - were mostly "communists" (at least: they pretended to be comminists, but were not, at least if my parents and grandparents were communists, which these were for decades, since the 1930ies); and the Dutch situation in the universities between 1971 and 1995 is a very sick, very strange and morally quite degenerate affair that since then almost everyone has been completely silent about.

Also, I was removed explicitly as "a fascist terrorist", which I have often asked exsuses for, both from the philosophy department and the Board of Directors, but I never got any, the last 27 years.

[2] Incidentally: While my parents did not like that I gave up marxism when I was 20, I never quarreled with them about it, and indeed they also knew that
I had seriously studied Marx.


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