Robert Paul Wolff was a visiting professor of philosophy at Williams for, I think, just one semester in the fall of 1987. I was one of his students. He changed the way I thought and wrote. And so now, almost 25 years later, I will be bringing you excerpts from his memoir in progress.

It must have been roughly at this same time that I had a small epiphany, a moment of self-understanding that helped me to make sense of the direction my life and career had taken. I was sitting at my computer desk one day in my lovely second floor book-lined study, glancing out the window to my left at Buffam Brook, which ran behind our house, musing on the odd trajectory of my career. After a quite successful start to my professional activities, I had chosen to rusticate, first in Northampton, then in Pelham. I was pretty sure that the philosophy profession had totally forgotten about me, although the periodic publishers’ royalty reports suggested that someone out there was still reading my books. I was, it seemed to me, something of a failure. I thought to myself, “Here I am, almost sixty, and yet I have no disciples, no former students who are carrying on my work. No one looks to me, as so many former students look to Van Quine and Nelson Goodman, as their mentor. Surely that is supposed to happen to successful philosophers when they reach this age” And then, I was struck by a thought that had never occurred to me before. I did not want disciples! I was actually somewhat uncomfortable on the rare occasions when a student or reader uncritically embraced my views as his or her own. I recalled that lovely ironic passage in the Preface to Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, one of my favorite philosophical texts: “But if anyone were to be so polite as to assume that I have an opinion, and if he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of adopting this opinion because he believed it to be mine, I should have to be sorry for his politeness, in that it was bestowed on so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine.”

What I wanted, what I had always wanted, was to wrestle with a great and difficult text until it yielded up its secrets to me, and to fashion and refashion it in my mind until I could exhibit its simplicity, power, and beauty. Then, in my books, or in the classroom, I would be able to share that power and beauty with others. I realized that my books were, to me, more like paintings or sculptures than like scholarly reports. That was why I had never shown what I had written to others before publishing it, and why I cared very little whether my readers agreed with me, but a great deal whether they had seen the beauty I had found in the text or in the idea. A great weight fell from my shoulders. It did not matter that I had no followers, no students who looked to me as their Teacher. I had no idea whether I would have had such a retinue, had I wanted it. Perhaps not. But since it was not something I wanted, it made no difference.

What has made no difference in your life?

Facebooktwitter
Print  •  Email