kurt's nightmare

Generally, I post once a week. Topics are randomly selected and depend mostly upon whether it's baseball season or not. Other topics will include sex, politics, old girlfriends, music, and whatever else pops into my little brain. If you'd like to read, or ignore, my blog about China: http://meidabizi.blogspot.com/

Location: Dayton, OH, Heard & McDonald Islands

I'm an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. I represent no one but myself, and barely do that. I'm here mostly by accident.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Conversation Remembered

I read in today's New York Times of the passing of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, a prominent Chicago Rabbi who I once met, if only briefly, but it reminded me of both the power of ideas and the power of conversation.

For those interested in the details, the obit can be found here (registration required):

Rabbi Wolf's obituary

I worked for several years at the faculty club (The "Quadrangle Club") at the University of Chicago. There are, indeed, several stories about this place, from meeting famous people (Nadine Gordimer, John Kenneth Galbraith, Angela Davis, Arnaldo Momigliano, Elmo Zumwalt, among others), kids at a bar mitzvah entertaining themselves by throwing rocks at passing cars, walking into the club one morning when it seemed to be hosting every African-American woman in Illinois (and possibly Indiana) over 6'3", and many others, some amusing, some disturbing.

I worked weekends, and mostly tried to ignore people and read. Mostly I read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and sometimes I got on a roll, really getting into the text (sometimes in the German, sometimes not) and thinking about stuff really hard. I was trying to write a dissertation on this thing, and I had a good job that paid me (minimally), allowed me to read a lot, fed me lunch, and gave me an opportunity to flirt with the waitresses and the occasional faculty wife. (To no avail, in all cases, except one: another story.)

One early afternoon, I was poring over the Transcendental Aesthetic, where Kant discusses his ideas about space and time (or, these days, space-time). Hard stuff, and some of the material I find most (the following is a pun for Kantians and Kantian hangers-on) counterintuitive.

At the counter, a guy yells at me "What are you reading?" I tell him, figuring he's some clown (in spite of the fact that this club really didn't really attract many clowns). He nods, and then says "Ask me any question, any question at all; I can answer it."

So I took him up on it, and asked him how the thinking self, which imposes temporal conditions for sensible impressions to be received (the form of intuition of time), discovers that it is in time, and how it situates itself within that time. (The beauty of the University of Chicago is that one can say such things without feeling self-conscious, the only fear being whether the question is well-posed or not.)

He nodded again, said it was a hard question, and couldn't answer it. (The latter being a fairly unusual answer to hear at the University.) But—and it was clear this was important—he told me to write his friend Steven Schwarzschild, a philosopher at Washington University (St. Louis) and send him both the guy's regards and my question.

We chatted a bit more, and he left. He told me his name was Jack Wolf, and that he was a Rabbi on the North side. We had a very pleasant conversation, and I took his advice and wrote Schwarzschild, who quickly replied with a very long and detailed letter, very helpful, and which also helped me discover the whole exciting world of Marburg neo-Kantians, specifically Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp. (Soon after Schwarzschild wrote, I wrote him back, he responded, and then died, relatively young. A couple of years later, I began a correspondence with another outstanding scholar, J. Michael Young, who wrote back and then, within weeks, died. also at a relatively young age. I started to think I had certain epistolary powers that I should only use for good.)

Rabbi Wolf invited me to come talk with him sometime, and, of course, I didn't. In spite of his friendliness (and what I discovered our compatible politics and, maybe, philosophical orientations), I was a bit intimidated and, naturally, a bit lazy. I regret very much not having done so; I've thought back many times about our encounter, and realize that this was someone I could learn a great deal from, both in terms of pure intellectual engagement, but also in terms of the mysterious region where ideas and reality interact.

Off and on, I've read a good bit by and about the Marburg neo-Kantians. Hermann Cohen is, to my mind, underrated, while his student Ernst Cassirer (no slouch, to be sure) is much better known. I've thought about pursuing that material in a more systematic, rigorous and scholarly way, but the Germans, French and Italians are all over it, and the whole laziness factor interferes. But I've learned much from them, and I owe it all to a ten minute conversation with Jack Wolf.

I learned one other thing, from that conversation and from the many times I've reflected upon it: the meaning, and importance, of one of the great words English has borrowed from Yiddish:


Rabbi Wolf was a Mensch.

Requiescat in pace.


Anonymous mh said...

Very nice. And I am honored (though dubious. Just for me? Ha!). Also interested in your (clearly quickly rejected) idea about using your epistolary powers for good and not evil (Ha! again).

Happy new year.

11:51 AM  
Blogger kmosser said...

I did explain this to Christine Korsgaard, and threatened to write her. She shook her head, clearly shorthand for "how did we let this guy into our graduate program?," and moved to some school in Massachusetts. Harvard, if I remember.

Epistolary powers: a complex topic in certain contexts. Beer was my kryptonite.

2:33 PM  
Blogger bmackintosh said...

What an easy question! The thinking self merely looks at his watch.

Nadine Gortimer hangs out at the University of Chicago? Was she faculty?

Kantian Hangers On? A new sub-group. Probably former "greasers."

9:06 AM  
Blogger kmosser said...

Gordimer visited UC, and wanted a cup of tea when everything was closed. I brought her one, and was happy to tell her that I wouldn't have brought one to Pik Botha. She laughed. She was short. And nice.

10:16 AM  
Blogger bmackintosh said...

I'd take Pik pver P.W.

11:06 AM  
Blogger kmosser said...

"Pik" was P.W.'s nickname.

7:49 PM  
Blogger Bazarov said...

"...meeting famous people (Nadine Gordimer, John Kenneth Galbraith, Angela Davis, Arnaldo Momigliano, Elmo Zumwalt, among others..."

Yeah, I need to read and/or get out more.

9:51 PM  
Blogger bmackintosh said...

I think you have the two confused. A common mistake.

Roelof Frederik "Pik" Botha (P.W's foreign minister)

Pieter Willem Botha (Prime Minister)

Pik was by far the more conciliatory.

I had to keep these two guys separate in my Comparative African Studies at WSU.

2:14 PM  
Blogger kmosser said...

You're right. My mistake.

I'll add it to the lengthening list.

3:03 PM  
Blogger bmackintosh said...

At least you know how to spell Gordimer correctly, unlike me.

5:16 PM  
Blogger ollyU said...

Not to mention how to use the use-mention distinction.

12:06 PM  
Blogger bmackintosh said...

Sounds like someone's read Lynne Truss.

5:51 PM  
Blogger kmosser said...

Well, someone has, but the use-mention distinction has been around a bit longer than that.

You know we could be having this conversation over beer, don't you?

2:45 PM  
Blogger bmackintosh said...

Sorry, It's been a few days since I blogged.
Beer is always good for me just name a time.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Tor Hershman said...

and the worthlessness of monologue


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