Allen Wood was born in Seattle, studied at Reed College (Portland, Oregon) and Yale University, taught at Cornell University, Yale University, Stanford University and Indiana University, Bloomington, with visiting appointments at the University of Michigan, the University of California, San Diego and Oxford University. His career has been spent teaching and writing about philosophy, especially the history of German philosophy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
What excites you about philosophy?
My description of a philosophical question is: A question where any answer you give is open to objections that cannot be refuted. Philosophical questions are in that sense unanswerable; philosophical problems are insoluble. The most hopeless answer of all is to say that you can rid yourself of the question or (as some have put it) not solve it but “dissolve” it. Philosophical questions (the ones that cannot be answered) and philosophical problems (the ones that cannot be solved) lie at the foundation of all the more superficial questions, the ones that can be answered, and of all the trivial problems, the ones that can be solved.
My interest in philosophy began with the existentialists. They were right: the human condition is absurd. You don’t pursue philosophical questions. They pursue you. If they don’t, then that’s too bad for you. Your life is meaningless as well as absurd.
What is your favorite piece of your own writing?
This will always depend on when you ask. And it will probably be the latest thing I have written, or else something I am currently writing. Today the answer is: my book Fichte’s Ethical Thought, which has just appeared. Fichte is the most unjustly neglected philosopher in the entire history of philosophy.
What do you like to do outside work?
Listen to music. My favorite composer is Brahms. Duke Ellington said: “There are only two kinds of music – good and bad.” He expected people to think he was going to say: “Classical and jazz.” But I do think that classical and jazz are the only true forms of music. Everything else offered to us as music is at best a guilty pleasure – or more often just tasteless pain.
If you could wake up tomorrow with a new talent, what would you most like it to be?
Compose great music, like Brahms or Mahler or Ellington. Or play an instrument, like Vladmir Horowitz or Louis Armstrong or Jascha Heifetz or Benny Goodman or John Coltrane. But I have never been able to do anything with music except listen to it.
If you could have a one-hour conversation with any philosopher or historical figure from any time, who would you pick and what topic would you choose?
Let me change this question, or at least interpret it: Which of all the philosophers whose writings I have studied do I think I would most have liked to have as a friend?
Answer: Moses Mendelssohn.
What is your favorite quotation?
Between two, from two of my favorite philosophers, I can’t choose, because I take them to say pretty much the same thing:
We can at least catch a glimpse beyond ourselves of an association in which one cannot work for himself without at the same time working for everyone, nor work for others without also working for oneself.
-Fichte, Some Lectures on the Scholar’s Vocation, 1794
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all.
-Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848
Find out more about Allen here.
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