Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.
NEW: A Collection of Pebbles from The Philosopher's Stone
Volume I: 2009 Now Available at box.net
Volume II: 2010 Now Available at box.net
Volume III: 2011 Now available at box.net
Volume IV: 2012 Now available at box.net

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Monday, July 28, 2014

PARISIAN EPHEMERA

1.  It is a terrible thing to outlive your time.  I went to the market on Saturday to shop for several dinners and discovered that my favorite vendors were not there -- the fish man, the man from whom I buy cuisses de canard and cailles and coquelets and a demi-lapin [sans tete].  The poissonerie in the square was also closed, and so was my reliable fruit and veggie shop.  Alas, the August vacances started this year on July 26th.  I may be reduced to taking us out to dinner.  Fortunately the tourist trade has grown so large that many restaurants stay open in August, although several of my favorites do not.

2.  Back in the '50s and '60s, when the world and I were young, we all watched the network evening news to find out what was happening.  Walter Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley [Chet Huntley and David Brinkley] were as close to official state oracles as a secular age offered.  If it wasn't on the evening news, it hadn't happened.  If Cronkite or Huntley or Brinkley said it, it was true.  Time passed, even oracles age, and cable television shouldered its way into our collective consciousness, but it was all right, because CNN was there to pick up the slack.  CNN was authoritative, reliable, and besides belonged to a man who was, or had been, married to Hanoi Jane Fonda.

Well, so much for all that.  Yesterday shortly after lunch, Susie and I went to our cafĂ© to hang out.  As we sipped our kir, we watched the live television coverage of the final stage of the Tour de France, which ends in Paris with a celebratory ride up the Champs Elysees, around L'Etoile, and back down the Champs Elysees to Place de la Concorde.  When we returned to our apartment, I turned on CNN  International [channel 109, if you are ever in Paris.]  A sprightly weather lady was reporting clear skies for the last stage of the Tour, which she chirpily reported would soon be entering Paris.  She said, in that confident authoritative voice that TV news personalities affect, that it was pretty clear whom the winner would be.  I guess so, since he had already won.

I think from now on I will get my news from Jon Stewart and The Onion.

3.   One of the old reliable Hollywood formulae is the ensemble movie of young aspiring actors, who are thrown into a movie together to see which of them catches on with the audience.  My favorite is The Breakfast Club, with Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy.  It seems that the wheel of time has come full circle, and ensemble movies are being made with collections of long-in-the-tooth former action stars, dragged out of the Old People's Home for one more special effects romp.  One of the very best is RED, with Bruce Willis, John  Malkovich, Helen Mirren and then forty-five year old Mary-Louise Parker doing a delightful turn as the "young" love interest for Willis.  [RED, incidentally, is an acronym.  It stands for "Retired -- Extremely Dangerous" which perfectly captures the way we old folks like to think of ourselves.]

All over Paris are posters announcing the local opening of Expendables 3, a tongue-in-cheek "action" flic starring, among many others, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas, and Dolph Lundgren.   I assume that each day of shooting began with a series of testosterone shots for the stars.

Now that I am eighty, I find it very comforting that Hollywood has decided to cater to my demographic.  I fully expect a series of deathbed comedies as I approach ninety.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

PRIDE GOETH BEFORE DESTRUCTION AND AN HAUGHTY SPIRIT BEFORE A FALL

No sooner had I bragged about my culinary skill than fate dealt me a blow designed to remind me that "Pride ..." [PROVERBS 16:18]  I went off to the market this morning to shop for two nights' dinners, only to discover that the poissonerie was closed and my favorite fishmonger was absent from the market as well, despite the fact that Saturday is the biggest market day of the week.  What is more, the little stand where I have been buying cailles, cuisses de canard, coquelets, and fresh lapin for years was not in the market today either.  Why?  Is it the August vacation getting a head start?

I was reduced to buying two cailles from the bucherie in the square, which I prefer not to do, and -- oh the shame of it -- three prepared brochettes of lamb.  Who knew that the gods of the cuisine read blogs?

CLINTON FATIGUE

A current Republican meme is Clinton Fatigue, the notion being pushed by right-wing commentators that Hillary Clinton's less than stellar book tour is evidence that America has tired of the Clintons.  I believe that it is very important to acknowledge truth from whatever source it issues, so I wish to confess that I have indeed been suffering from Clinton fatigue for quite some time. 

Andrew Sullivan has a useful piece reprinted on The Huffington Post that pretty much says it all.  He notes that Clinton has earned twelve million dollars in speaking fees since stepping down from the Secretaryship of State.  I do not begrudge her the money.  It would have been just fine if she had earned it by giving 6,000 talks to progressive groups at $200 a speech [no, that wouldn't do it -- she would have had to give 60,000 speeches to progressive groups at $200 a pop.  I guess that is somewhat unrealistic.  It would work out to about one hundred speeches a day, assuming she took off Sundays to attend the local Southern Baptist church with her husband.]

What hurts is that by the time she formally receives the nomination, the Republicans will have settled upon someone so horrible that practical reason will dictate that I do what I can to ensure her election.  I think it is reasonable to conclude that this is my punishment for sins unspecified in times gone by.  I fear my eighties are not going to be the romp I anticipated.

PERSONAL BEST

Some years ago, when I was still exercising on a treadmill at the Meadowmont Wellness Center rather than taking my morning walk, I remarked to my son, Tobias, that even as I ramped up the speed and angle of elevation of my treadmill day by day, I was painfully conscious of the athletic young men and women running on the treadmills next to me at breakneck speed without apparently even working up a sweat.  He replied very wisely that I must ignore them and concentrate only on achieving my own personal best.

Well, this morning I decided to circumnavigate the 5th arrondissement, a route I take on occasion for my walk.  It always takes me exactly one hour to complete the circuit, but this morning I clocked in at 58 minutes.  A personal best.

While I am recording my little triumphs for what passes for posterity in the digital age, let me report this coup:  On Thursday, Susie called a friend in the States to chat [international calls are free as part of our FranceTelecom package] and I heard her say to her friend that we were going out less often this trip "because the dinners Bob makes are better than the dinners in the restaurants."  Now admittedly we do not patronize up-scale establishments with stars and multiple crossed knives and forks in the Guide Michelin, but still, that is one of the nicest compliments I have ever received, and I thought I would pass it along.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

POLLS


Back in the early nineties, when I was living in Western Massachusetts, Gallup or someone did one of those “name recognition” polls that seem to pop up all the time.  As you might expect, in Massachusetts Teddy Kennedy scored off the charts.  By then, he had been a senator for thirty year or so and was Mr. Massachusetts.  His name recognition score was 95%, way higher than that of any other Massachusetts politician.  But I remember saying to myself, “My God, does that mean that when I am walking in Boston, every twentieth person or so I pass on the street has never heard of Teddy Kennedy?  What rock have they been living under?”

Google tells me that roughly 9% of Americans over the age of 12 use illegal drugs.  That means that when I am driving down the highway at 75 mph, passing cars coming in the other direction at 75 mph, so that we are passing each other at 150 miles per hour, roughly one in eleven of those people rushing by me uses illegal mind-altering drugs!  If I think too much about that, I just want to go back home, crawl into bed, and eat take-out.

Statistics are like that.  We look at the numbers and forget that each percentage point represents a lot of real people.  This thought crossed my mind yet again yesterday when I came upon a report of a series of Gallup polls about the religious beliefs of Americans.  You can read the details here.  The question that caught my eye was the one about how you think the Bible should be understood.  As of last May, 28% of respondents said the Bible was the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word.  [This is down 10 percent from forty years ago.]  Now, the population of the United States is estimated to be about 320 million, so if Gallup is to be believed, there are maybe one hundred million people[RW1]  living in this country [not counting little babies who can’t be held responsible quite yet for the nuttiness of their parents] who believe that the Bible should be taken as literally true, word for word.  [We have to assume that all but a tiny handful of these folks mean the Bible in English, by the way.]

What am I to make of this statistical datum?  It would be comforting, but probably wrong, to suppose that this is just a consequence of the social dynamics of poll-taking [a subject about which I have written before, with reference to a classic essay by David Riesman.]  People understand that the answer one gives to a question may not really be a statement of one’s beliefs, but may rather be an occasion for self-identification as a certain sort of American.  Thus, if Gallup were to ask a cross-section of Americans whether Barack Obama has horns, a non-negligible percentage would say yes, but that does not mean they would be genuinely surprised if they were to meet him and find that he does not.  They would understand that the question really being asked was “Do you hate Obama?” and their response to that implied question would indeed be accurate.

But I think there probably really are about one hundred million Americans who think that the Bible [in English] is the Word of God and should be taken literally, word for word.  How can this possibly be?

I brood on things like this a lot when I am not actively engaged in something more useful, and I think I have an answer.  Look, these hundred million men and women are almost certainly averagely intelligent, averagely competent people.  They get through the day, they hold down jobs, they drive, they know how to turn lights on and off, most of them are literate.  And nothing it says in the Bible interferes in any way with this quotidian functionality.

But now let us suppose that Leviticus 5:17 said “Tweets can be no longer than seventeen characters.”  Whoa!  That would call for some serious textual interpretation, because these faithful Fundamentalists know perfectly well that tweets can be 140 characters long, and save for some technologically clued-in Amish, who tend to walk the walk as well as talking the talk, they are not going to cut their tweets short at 17 characters just because the Bible says so.  The same descent into exegetical interpretation would be required if Matthew 6:17 said “Le Bron James is a lousy basketball player.”

But the great thing about the Bible is that it doesn’t say anything at all about the simple facts that simple people know.  Oh, it says Jonah was swallowed by a big fish and lived there for three days until the fish belched him up.  But few if any of those hundred million have actually seen a whale close up, and believing the Jonah story in no way interferes with their daily rounds.

I mean, when I was a boy my father wrote a high school Biology text which, among many other things, said that there are 48 chromosomes in the human cell.  I lived quite comfortably for many years with that piece of misinformation until I found out that early staining techniques had resulted in a miscount – there are actually only 46.

Of course, believing nutty things for religious reasons has real world consequences – it leads these people to support politicians who pass genuinely awful laws designed to impoverish people and blight their lives, so it matters a good deal that one hundred million Americans are Inerrantists.  But holding that belief does not make them dysfunctional in any immediately manifest fashion.

The residential and social self-segregation of American life results in my almost never meeting one of these Fundamentalists.  Even though I live in North Carolina, which is pretty benighted, I don’t get out of Chapel Hill much, and as I have often observed, in Chapel Hill you can go for quite a while without hearing a Southern accent.  So I may be all wrong.  Maybe Gallup could do a poll.

 


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A RESPONSE TO JERRY FRESIA [YET AGAIN]


The creative act is endlessly complex and mysterious, at least to me.  I think I understand what I do, but not what others do.  A great string quartet does not create music, but interpret it, which is surely different.  But I suspect jazz aficionados, of whom I am not one, would say that great jazz combos do in fact create collectively, and on occasion do so on the fly, as it were.

One aspect of my own creative act that has puzzled me for a long time is my tendency, once I have written an essay or a book, to feel that I am now finished with the subject of the writing and so turn to something quite different.  It is as though, by transforming a problem or a text or a theory into my story – since all my writing is the telling of stories – I have transmuted it into a permanent form that I must then leave alone.

After writing my first book, an explication of the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason, it would have seemed to me de trop then to write a second or a third book on the Critique.  I had wrestled with Kant until I had, I believed, forced him to yield up his argument to me, and that was that.  My second book on Kant dealt with his ethical theory, and in that case I emerged from the struggle unsatisfied.  Hence, many years later, I returned to the task I had been unable to complete and wrote “The Completion of Kant’s Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre, whose title says that I have now finished that story.

This sense that my writing transforms raw material into a finished story is present even with relatively trifling pieces.  For example, almost exactly a year ago, on July 13, 2013, I wrote a short explication de texte of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I am nobody/Who are You?”  This is a poem that speaks very directly to me, and which I chose as the epigraph of my Autobiography.  I had obviously been thinking about the poem, off and on, for many years, but once I had captured it in the little story I wrote, I was done with it, and I could not imagine returning to it to discuss it further.

I wonder whether other writers experience their act of writing in a similar manner.

NAVEL GAZING


One of the least appealing characteristics of blogging is its ephemeral nature.  Everything evanesces.  Snarks and selfies go viral and last for the lifetime of a Mayfly, while serious writing might just as well have been communicated by Native American smoke signals.  This was brought home to me by reading Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah, which deals in mesmerizing detail with writing that was painstakingly etched on clay tablets and consequently has endured for as much as five millennia.

In the past few days I have been re-reading several of the multi-part tutorials that I posted on this blog several years ago.  Despite having been written and posted seriatim, they were the crystallization of many years of reading, thinking, and teaching – intended to endure, not, like Mission Impossible assignments, to self-destruct after fifteen seconds.  I will say, without a hint of false modesty, that they stand up quite well upon re-reading.  They are all stored on box.net, and have evidently been looked at by at least some people [the essay most often consulted is The Thought of Karl Marx, which I confess pleases me.]

It would be a violation of the implicit norms of the medium for me to re-post them – rather like an anxious Assistant Professor publishing the same journal article twice in a desperate effort to pad a tenure file.  So I will simply invite my readers to follow the link at the top of the page to box.net and take a look.  Think of yourself as browsing in a second-hand bookstore.