Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.


Total Pageviews

Sunday, July 24, 2016


I started blogging regularly on June 1, 2009, although the blog was officially launched two years earlier.  Recently retired and desperate to find some way to keep myself busy, I took my son Patrick’s advice and began writing The Philosopher’s Stone.   At first, so few people visited the site that I could significantly up the number of page views just by checking it several times a day, but once I started serializing my autobiography, word got out that I was an inveterate gossip and things picked up.  As the years passed, the numerical counter offered by Google as one of their add-ons ticked over steadily, until on April 28th, 2014, almost five years later, I recorded my one millionth page view.  The site has gathered a sizable coterie of readers, some of whom comment with regularity.  I have been delighted and rather astonished to discover that I have readers on all of the populated continents.  Indeed, I even once had a troll, although with a little guidance from readers more adept at these matters than I, I managed to discourage him or her.

Some time tomorrow, twenty-five more months further on, the Google Counter will record the two millionth page view.  Over these seven years, I have put up more than 2700 posts, which works out to more than one a day, and the community of readers have made almost four times as many comments.  And all of this with no term papers to read!  No teacher could ask for more.

During the seven years, I have grown seven years older, as have all of you.  If I keep at it, in another seven years I shall be eighty nine, and there is no telling how many page views this site will have drawn [always assuming that blogging still exists seven years from now and has not been superseded by some even less natural form of communication.]

Thank you all for nodding in.


Despite the sneering tone of his comment [“(Professor Wolff) cannot bear to have readers desecrating the sanctity of his blog…”], Robert Shore raises a question of the very greatest urgency, viz which of the two major candidates poses a greater threat of nuclear war, and I should like to address that matter at some length.  Dr. Shore is quite correct that this question takes precedence over all others.  Indeed, if I may invoke the jargon of rational choice theory, it is lexicographically prior to all other questions – which is to say, if one candidate poses even the tiniest greater threat of nuclear war, that consideration alone should outweigh any benefits, however large, in other realms.  Dr. Shore says that as he lives in a safely blue state, he plans to vote Green.  But that is hardly sufficient, if he is not simply using me as the occasion for blowing off steam.  He lives next to a battleground state, and I assume that in addition to donating to the Trump campaign and publicly supporting it, he will also go on weekends to New Hampshire to campaign for Trump.  Anything less would be a confession of unseriousness in the face of what he believes to be a mortal threat to civilization.

Let me note before I begin that I do not come late to a concern for this matter.  I first took an active public stance against the threat of nuclear war and the policies of the American government that increased that threat in 1959, some fifty-seven years ago, which, if I am not mistaken, is well before many readers of this blog were born.  I argued against Henry Kissinger and Zbigniev Bzrezinski at Harvard, where I joined forces with David Riesman and Erik Erikson and many others.  I debated Herman Kahn at Jorden Hall in Boston, I wrote, I published, I spoke on the radio, I served for several years on the Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, I lectured on military strategy and foreign policy at the University of Chicago, I chaired a protest meeting at Harvard seeking to reverse America’s Cuba policy.  Struggle against the threat of nuclear war has been a part of my private and public life for nearly six decades.  As we think through this vitally important topic, let us never forget that the United States invented nuclear weapons and is the only nation ever actually to kill people with them.

Historical perspective is useful in thinking about the present presidential campaign.  Some modern powers have pursued their imperial ambitions by seizing and holding territories far from their borders.  Great Britain and France come to mind.  Others, like China and the Soviet Union, have enlarged their empires by absorbing contiguous weaker nations, exhibiting great hesitation about sending their military forces to regions not connected to the homeland by a land bridge.  The United States has pursued an imperial project that is something of a combination of these two approaches.  Its principal imperial expansion has consisted of the absorption of contiguous lands to the west and southwest of its original borders, expanding to the Pacific Ocean and the boundaries of Mexico and Canada, but it has of course also extended its empire militarily overseas as well – one thinks of the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and so forth.  The distinctive feature of American imperial expansion is that, unlike China, Russia, France, and Great Britain, Americans sought to exterminate rather than incorporate the indigenous peoples they conquered.

At the end of the Second World War, Germany and Italy were defeated and Great Britain and France, despite being part of the winning coalition of forces, began to lose their empires.  The two principal beneficiaries of the war were the Soviet Union and the United States.  The Soviet Union responded to the changed international balance of forces in characteristic fashion by incorporating territories in Eastern Europe.  The United States undertook to replace Great Britain and France as world hegemons, forging alliances with a wide array of states and stationing its troops permanently in every sector of the world not already claimed by the Soviet Union.  These efforts were of course not all successful.  The Soviet Union was several times compelled to use force to stop its Eastern European imperial appanages from breaking away, and its disastrous adventure across its southern border in Afghanistan led eventually to the collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union.  The United States, for its part, came close to destroying the cohesion and effectiveness of its military in its failed attempt to take the place of France in Southeast Asia, forcing it to bring the military draft to a close and substitute a professional army that could function effectively and without major political cost as an instrument of empire.

For a time, the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the sole unchallenged imperial power in the entire world.  As one would expect, America responded to the Eastern European vacuum created by the breakup of the Soviet Union by expanding its sphere of influence eastward, using the device of membership in NATO.  Now, we see Vladimir Putin seeking to recapture some of the territory lost in the breakup, annexing Crimea, nibbling at Ukraine, beginning to make eyes at the Baltic States.  The fall in the price of oil has put severe strains on the Russian economy and hence on Putin’s ability to pursue his ambitions for a revived Russian empire.  But he does have some arrows in his quiver.  He has been offering financial and other support to extreme right-wing European political parties, such as the National Front of Marine le Pen in France, and Russian oligarchs allied with Putin have made several hundred million dollars in loans to Donald Trump [which may perhaps explain the fulsomeness of Trump’s praise for Putin.]  And of course, Putin has at his command a sizeable nuclear arsenal, even though it does not compare with the Soviet military force in Russia’s heyday.

All of which brings me to the question with which I began:  As between a President Clinton and a President Trump, who is more likely actually to get the United States into a nuclear exchange with Russia?  For seventy years now, American presidents have embraced and implemented the American imperial project.  Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, I have watched them all, and all have pursued essentially the same project.  [We must not allow ourselves to be misled by their rhetoric, which is usually quite high minded and selfless.  Let us recall that it was not an American who coined the memorable phrase, “the white man’s burden.”]  Some presidents have been rather more belligerent, some less.  Only one, John F. Kennedy, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Clinton would clearly be rather more belligerent than Obama, rather less than George W. Bush.  She would resist Putin’s expansionist efforts, and would deploy American forces and weaponry in that resistance.  If she did not, Putin would push further.  Let me emphasize this point, as it is crucial to everything I am saying.  It is a left-wing fantasy to suppose that the United States is the source of conflict in the world, and that if it were to give up its imperial project, the world would be a peaceful multi-polar harmony.  Whatever room America leaves for Russia’s imperial expansion Russia will take.  And whatever room Russia leaves for America’s imperial expansion America will take.  And should both America and Russia, in a fit of self-abnegation, retreat from the field of imperial struggle, China and other nations will take their place.

Both Clinton and Putin, I think it is clear from the available evidence, would be as careful as possible to avoid a nuclear confrontation, but I am well aware of the dangers of miscalculation.  Clinton would not act rashly, precipitously, or without thorough consultation with the military.  Everything we know about her makes that clear.  Would she be more likely than Obama to start small wars?  Pretty clearly yes, but that is not the subject of this discourse.  It is not small wars against real or imagined enemies that risk nuclear war.  The threat comes from a miscalculation by Clinton or Putin in a confrontation involving American and Russian troops.

What then of Trump?  This is a much more difficult problem to work out, and that fact by itself is significant.  When it comes to nuclear confrontations, uncertainty is an even greater danger than belligerence.  Trump has no ideological commitments or beliefs on the basis of which we might make a prediction of his behavior, and he has no track record on these issues, nor any experience on which he could draw as president in making decisions.  He is vain, ignorant, and narcissistic, and exhibits no capacity for impulse control even when it is in his self-interest to rein in his impulses.  He is desperately in need of constant ego-reinforcement, and what is more, he is in hock financially to Putin.  I find this combination of traits and defects terrifying.

Nor can we calm our fears by telling ourselves that the civilian and uniformed leadership of the military would not permit Trump to make disastrously dangerous decisions.  That is a fantasy that ignores the realities of the bureaucratic character of American government.  A President Trump could quite well plunge us into a civilization ending nuclear exchange.

Therefore, I am for Clinton.  I look forward to hearing Robert Shore’s reports of his experiences on the campaign trail in New Hampshire working for the election of Trump.

Friday, July 22, 2016


Every so often I check in on my other blog -- Formal Methods in Political Philosophy.  Usually, I find that eight or ten or twelve people have viewed it on that day, which I consider pretty good, considering the subject matter.  I mean, it is not often that a discourse on von Neumann's proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory goes viral.  Today, more than two hundred people have checked into the blog, and judging from Google's map, most of them are coming from Russia.

What's up with that?


Emily Dickinson observes, in one of her poems, that God requires that we die in order to see Him, thereby indicating a sadistic streak in the Almighty that does not comport well with His reputation for sublime mercy.   This penchant of His for pointless cruelty is construed by the faithful as a test of our faith.  I am afraid we are often presented with analogous tests in the political realm.

The latest word on the web is that Hillary Clinton will soon announce that she has chosen the egregious Tim Kaine to be her vice-presidential running mate.  Kaine is a pro-life Catholic who supports the TPP and just a day or so ago spoke of the need to DEREGULATE the banks.  

I understand that this is intended by Clinton as a test of my resolve to work for her election as the only way of putting an end to Donald Trump's megalomaniac dreams of dictatorship.  I also understand that her decision is a cold-eyed calculation of the relative advantage of appealing to the progressives, whom she obviously thinks she has secured, as opposed to moving to the center to draw in Republicans and so-called Independents appalled by Trump.

I trust I shall be worthy of the test.  Is it too much to ask that my readers express their outrage elsewhere?  It is difficult enough to do what I know I must do, without being berated by those who offer no viable alternative way of defeating Trump.  Those fortunate enough not to live in battleground states like North Carolina are of course free to strike heroic poses and vote for Jill Stein.

Thursday, July 21, 2016


I am very distressed by some of the comments that have appeared in reaction to my comments on the election, but I cannot bring myself to respond.  It is all I can do to endure the next three months and what will follow.  As soon as Bernie announces the formation of his political action organization, I shall sign up as a monthly contributor [I can afford more than $27], and in the meantime I shall work for the election of Clinton, which is to say the defeat of Trump.  I have already had my say regarding why I consider this the proper course for me to take.

Now, I shall return to the Critique [and, yes, I am well aware that he was a racist.]  As Hannah Arendt remarked to me almost fifty years ago, "It is so much more pleasant to spend time with Kant."


For those of you still flirting with the fantasy that Donald Trump might turn out, miraculously, to be a better president than Hillary Clinton, and also for those of you simply interested in a deeper insight into Trump's character, I recommend this interview with the person who actually wrote The Art of the Deal.  It is not surprising, but it is chilling.  He must not be allowed to become president.  You can vote for the Green Party or the Libertarian Party next time around.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


Periodically, an agitated exchange breaks out in the placid comments section of this blog, usually occasioned by my remarks on politics [although sometimes the accessibility of the umlaut is sufficient to excite the commentariat.]  I should like to address two aspects of the recent kerfuffle.  Let me begin with the dispute about wisdom versus foolishness, stupidity versus intelligence [and, I might add, ignorance versus knowledgeableness.]  In a later post, I shall move on to the tendency of some people in America to vote against what others perceive to be their interests [The Thomas Frank problem.]

I distinguish sharply between the acquisition of academic credentials and the possession of either intelligence or knowledge.  It is of course true [indeed, it is what logicians used to call a miserable tautology] that people who do not have college degrees have fewer educational credentials than those who do have college degrees.  But a long lifetime of experience as a university professor equips me to say authoritatively that there is very little demonstrable connection between possessing educational credentials and being either smarter or more knowledgeable than someone not possessing them.  To be sure, getting a college degree is likely to make someone more knowledgeable about some things [although even this is less obviously true than I, as a teacher, would like to think], but I rather doubt that the total number of things known by a person with a college degree is greater or less than the total number of things known by a person without a college degree.  However, the knowledge one manages to acquire in college, along with the habits, social traits, and stigmata left by the college experience, greatly increase the probability that one will get a job with good pay and benefits and no heavy lifting.

I am the product of a family that valued book learning [my father was a high school teacher], and my entire adult life has been spent in the upper middle class of American society, where what I know and what I can do are richly rewarded.  But I am reminded of the 2010 movie Company Men in which Ben Affleck plays a successful corporate executive who is laid off and eventually is forced to take a job with his carpenter brother-in-law [Kevin Costner] laying sheetrock.  Affleck is just awful at it, despite having the full panoply of educational credentials that his brother-in-law lacks.

I am reminded of the old joke about the counter-cultural Scholastic Aptitude Test, one question on which is “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?”  All the kids from the toney up-scale schools get it wrong, but all the ghetto kids get it right.  [The correct answer is, “Yo’ mama.”]

More seriously, I call to mind the debate on the left in South Africa about whether township residents, after liberation, should be awarded educational credentials for the things they had learned quite well without the benefit of access to the nation’s rigid, highly traditional English or European oriented universities.  Black men and women who had for years run the shadow township governments of Soweto or Alexandra had acquired thereby a great deal more usable knowledge about Political Science than their white age cohorts who had studied the subject at the University of Capetown or Stellenbosch University.