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Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Ludwig Richter [himself a teacher] writes:  "Professor Wolff, I would love it if, in a future post, you would talk about what kind of teaching you do in the protected space of your classroom. You lecture, of course, but I take it that you lead discussions and encourage students to offer their interpretations of texts, and so on. Maybe you could write about that some time?"

As you will have noticed, it takes very little to get me started, so herewith an extended meditation on my teaching -- not on teaching, mind, but on my teaching.  I imagine that what I say will bear very little resemblance to what others might say about their teaching. 

 Standing in front of a group of people and talking at them is a rather inadequate technique for communicating information.  In the twelfth century, when European universities got their start, books were scarce and very expensive, so probably a professor willing to lecture was as close as most students came to a library.  Indeed, I have read that even in the nineteenth century, in rural areas of Italy where the peasants were too poor to buy books and the communities to poor to build schoolhouses and supply them with blackboards, priests would stand in a field facing a group of little boys and write in the air.  The boys had to learn to read what the priest "wrote" inverted [which calls to mind the great old line about Ginger Rogers, that she had to do everything Fred Astaire did backwards, and in heels -- but I digress.]  Today, however, even students from poor families have far better ways of accessing information.  So there is really not much point in using a classroom to pass along facts that the students could get at faster on their phones.  Fortunately, in Philosophy there is actually very little information to transmit, and what there is [Descartes' birth date, how old Kant was when he wrote The First Critique] doesn't matter very much.

So if I am not telling the students stuff, what am I doing when I stand in front of them [or sit, as I shall be doing next semester ]?  Well, my answer is rather odd, and utterly idiosyncratic.  What is more, it took me three decades of teaching before I came to understand it.

Let me start by saying that I am not trying to persuade my students of anything.  Although I frequently teach politically and ideologically charged texts [as I shall be doing next semester], it is never my aim to get my students to believe either what it says in the books I assign or what I say in my lectures.  As Kierkegaard says in the inexpressibly poignant Preface to The Philosophical Fragments, "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 upon so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine."

What I am doing in my teaching, to put it as simply as I can, is showing beautiful objects to my students in the hope that they will give to the students the same pleasure that they give me.  I conceive this effort on my part as an act of love, not of propaganda, or inculcation, or persuasion.

The beautiful objects I show to my students are ideas -- complex ideas, powerful ideas, elegant ideas.  Quite often, it costs me enormous effort and much time to clarify these ideas in my own mind, to extract them from the surroundings in which I come upon them, and then to find a way to show them forth in their simplicity and beauty.  Only then am I ready to present them to my students for contemplation, comprehension, and appreciation.  The central argument of the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason is such an idea.  So is Marx's critique of the ironic structure of capitalism.  The proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory is such an idea, as is Hume's account of our belief in the existence of the continued and independent existence of objects in space and time.

When I am successful, my students have been offered what I might call, somewhat altering Spinoza's meaning, an intellectual intuition, which is to say an immediate apprehension of an intellectual object.  I rather suspect it is what Plato had in mind when he wrote obscurely of a knowledge of the Form of the Good.

Is my interpretation of A Treatise of Human Nature or Critique of Pure Reason of Das Kapital correct?  If I am successful, the interpretation is beautiful, and like all truly beautiful objects, powerful.  Are my interpretations the only correct, or beautiful, or powerful readings of those texts?  Of course not.  Indeed, it is a distinctive mark of truly great philosophical texts, like truly great novels, that they can sustain several different and conflicting readings, just as different artists [or even the same artist at different times] can paint different pictures of the same scene, model, or subject.

How can one know whether a reading of a text is powerful or beautiful?  The fruitlessness of the question is manifest.  But I can say this:  if the reading is obscure, convoluted, not immediately graspable by an intelligent and committed reader or listener [in short, if it is by Hegel] then it is neither powerful nor beautiful and is probably not worth spending time on.

That, in a nutshell, is what I do when I teach.  I show beautiful ideas to me students in the [desperate] hope that they will find them beautiful also.  Everything else I do is filler.

Have I been successful?  It is not for me to say.  Is this, Callicles might ask, an honorable way for an old man to spend his time?  I believe so.


Chris has sent me an e-mail message asking for my views on Marx and justice, with particular attention to the question why Marx thinks that exploitation is unjust.  Since this may be of more general interest, I have decided to reply here rather than in a private response.  The simple answer to Chris's question is that in my view, Marx did not think that exploitation is unjust, but you had better settle down, because it is going to take me a while to spell this out fully. 

Marx considers the philosophy of a society to be a part of its ideological superstructure, along with its religion, law, and art, among other things.  Moral judgments are a part of the philosophy and law of a society, hence ideological and superstructural as well.  The fundamental principle of bourgeois justice is that equals be given for equals in a free and open marketplace where men [it is always men] meet one another as legal equals, none compelled by law or custom to enter into bargains with another.  The ideal capitalist, Marx argues, pays a fair price for the labor he employs.  He pays a price equivalent to the reproduction cost of that labor, which, as he and Ricardo would say, is equal to the labor value embodied in that labor.  Now, to be sure, capitalists do not play fair.  As Marx tells us in the great chapter on The Working Day, capitalists try such underhanded tricks, in their effort to extract more value from their workers, as fiddling with the clocks in the factory so as to make the workers labor for a bit longer than the contracted for ten or twelve hours.  But this is not exploitation.  This is just cheating.

Exploitation is the extraction from a factor input of more value than is contained within it.  A good deal of Volume One is devoted to discovering how capitalists manage to pull off this trick -- the secret to profit.  Marx's solution -- which, as I have explained at length elsewhere is in my opinion incorrect -- is the distinction between labor and labor power.

But what would socialism have to say about exploitation?  Is it not the case that exploitation is, from a socialist perspective, unjust?  This, Marx thinks, is a fundamentally confused question.  It is as confused as asking whether, from a bourgeois perspective, feudal laws regulating the making and selling of craft goods are unjust.  Exploitation would indeed be unjust in a socialist society, just as exploitation  is just in a bourgeois society.

But from a transhistorical rational point of view, which one is correct -- socialist morality or bourgeois morality?  That, Marx thinks, is a meaningless question.  There is no pou sto, no place to stand from which one can make objective, neutral moral judgments uninfected with the ideological perspective of any particular society.  That is precisely the fatal illusion of such covertly bourgeois ideological rationalizations as the "theory of justice" of John Rawls.

This may sound plausible, but surely it is wrong.  Marx is no bloodless observer of social reality, reporting what he finds without judgment, in the manner affected [self-deceivingly] by modern sociologists and economists.  No one has ever thundered more powerfully against bourgeois injustice than Marx!   Quite true, quite true.  But Marx is not a moralist. 

A descent into armchair psychoanalysis is called for here.  In Victorian England there was a popular parlor game called Confessions.  Each person in the gathering would be asked to state his or her favorites:  favorite color, favorite food, favorite author, favorite literary character.  There are, in the Marx's collected papers, several sheets listing Marx's responses to the game of Confessions.  His favorite trait in men?  Strength.  His favorite trait in women?  Weakness.  [I have this from the great biography, Marx's Fate, by Jerrold Siegel.  You see perhaps why I do not like Marx very much as a human being, for all that I consider him the greatest social scientist who has ever lived.]  Marx hated weakness in men, and considered the making of moral judgments as the last resort of the weak.  To say "That is morally wrong" is implicitly to say, "I am powerless to stop that, so I shall inveigh against it."   [If this makes you think of Nietzsche, you would be right.]

Marx expressed his deep loathing of capitalism not by offering moral condemnations of it -- troubling deaf heaven with his bootless cries, as it were -- but by proving rigorously, scientifically, irrefutably, that it was doomed to self-destruct. 

So, Chris, my response to your question is this:  Marx does not offer an argument that exploitation is morally unjust.  He offers a static scientific analysis of exploitation as essential to capitalism, and a dynamic scientific argument that capitalist exploitation will be replaced with socialism, in which exploitation will play no role.

And will socialism then be a just social and economic order?  Marx does not say.  There are two answers that might be inferred from his analysis of capitalism.  If you think that in a socialist society there will be no ideological superstructure, because all mystification will have been dispelled by revolution, then the answer is that a socialist society will have no need for such ideological apparatuses as moral theory, so the question will be moot.  But if you think that even in a socialist society there will be an ideological superstructure, then you can be certain that from a socialist perspective, socialism will be just, as from a bourgeois perspective capitalism is just.

Monday, September 15, 2014


After thinking about the matter and talking with some folks, I have decided not to record my Marx lectures next Spring.  It simply seems to me to be an instrusion into the protected space of the classroom, and I cannot think of any way to be sure that it would have no chilling effect whatsoever on any of the students.  So if you want to hear the lectures, you have to make your way to Caldwell Hall on the UNC Chapel Hill campus each Wednesday from 1:00 to 3:30 p.m.


From time to time, I write here about the wonders of Google and Wikipedia, which put at my fingertips in an instant a vast array of information.  The young among you may perhaps never have paused to wonder how folks survived before the Internet.  Herewith a glimpse into that past.

Sitting on my desk is a little oblong cardboard bookmark, one of the things I kept when I sorted out the family house after my father passed away in 1981.  He obtained it from the Vleigh Branch Library of the Queens Borough Public Library, a little local library that was then [and indeed still is] only a few blocks from the house in which I lived until I went off to college in 1950.  On the front of the bookmark is printed the schedule of library hours:  Monday one to nine, Tuesday and Wednesday ten to nine, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday ten to five-thirty.  On the back is the following message.  I quote it in full:

"GET THE FACTS BY PHONE ...... RE 9 - 1900

Next time you need information fast, just telephone the Queens Central Library.  Professional librarians, using a collection of 500 reference books of the handbook of statistical information type, will quickly supply the answer you need.... whether it be on business statistics, spelling, politics or sports, or as technical as "How do you convert temperature from Fahrenheit to centigrade?"

This is just one more way the Queens Public Library puts its extensive reference facilities within easy reach of the entire borough of Queens.  Make a note of the number RE 9-1900."

My immediate association is to a wonderful old 1957 Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movie, Desk Set.  Hepburn runs the reference department of a large corporation, presiding over a team of whizzes who can locate any desired tidbit of information in minutes.  Tracy is the inventor of a room-sized computer [complete with punch cards] set to replace her.  Need I tell you that Hepburn defeats the machine and wins Tracy?

There were many things that were better in those days, not the least of which was a still vibrant labor union movement.  But I have to confess that I could no longer survive without Google.  I gather that in the works these days are electronic eyeglasses that will project information before my eyes as I walk through the world.  I assume it will communicate directly with my brain, thereby obviating the tedious ritual of typing questions onto a keyboard or tapping them onto a screen. 

Of course, there is the old computer problem, Garbage in, garbage out.  Probably even my futuristic eyeglasses will not come up with "Karl Marx" when I form in my mind the question, "Who is the greatest social scientist of all time."  So I suppose there is some point in my teaching that course at UNC next semester.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Many of you will have seen the comments on MOOCs and such things by Tony Couture.  Tony is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada.  In response to my thoughts about ISIS and asymmetric warfare, he sent the following brief essay to me, which I offer here as a guest post.

                                                                    On Air Power
                                                                by Tony Couture

One of the most ominous moments of President Obama’s speech about Islamic State or ISIS on Sept. 10, 2014 was his vow to destroy them with America’s air power. Superiority in traditional air power does not necessarily translate into victory because of the new uses of social media and the ability of groups to put their messages “on air”–to make themselves visible to the world through the media despite being destroyed in person. Social media appear to be a new stage in the development or the degeneration of our species revolutionary capacities.

One narrative of the main generations of modern revolutionaries would begin with religiously-centered groups like the Puritans dissenting, and from the fight for religious freedom evolved the early radicals who invented democratic revolutions by secularizing opposition to governments
and raising the class struggle to consciousness. This first group sometimes seized power with violence and terrorized the ruling classes (guillotined them), while disciplining themselves by making revolution into a professional pursuit: it was not to be a mere coup d ├Ętat, it must be a mass
movement of liberation from arbitrary rule.

In the early 1900`s, a second generation of modern revolutionaries in Russia applied Marxism to make the scientifically planned economy and the materialist worldview essential to another paradigm of revolutionary activity. Though the mass movement to unionize and socialist government entitlement programs remain important consequences of this generation, it has been associated with genocide and mass extermination of over 100 million people for the communist cause. The second generation continues to inspire hard-nosed, scientific revolutionaries who cannot solve every problem with government through total government.

A third generation of revolutionaries added the 1960`s counter-culture, which psychologized and sexualized revolution in order to shock the traditional culture. Lenny Bruce, Herbert Marcuse, feminists, John Lennon and artists such as Rodney Dangerfield, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the New Left fall into this third paradigm of revolution as making peace, not war. The focus shifts here from an adversarial stance typical of war of ideas thinkers to an opting out to create your own new age instead, and a de-militarization of revolution into practices like demonstrations, people power and the sexual revolution.

In the 1990`s, new waves of computer-assisted agents of the information society arose and functioned to displace traditional revolutionary activities. The cybernization subsumes the previous processes
(sexualization, communization, democratization) and diverts them into pornography, security and consumer concerns. What makes them different are their cyber-skills and impersonal identities: internet advantages such as greater anonymity, more access to free information, more privacy, and more possible publicity than ever imaginable before. They have set new records of mass murder, learned to televise killing for greater effect and in defiance of civilization. Schooled in virtual violence and online games, killers like ISIS have tried to invent the atom bomb of social media strikes: beheading of a hostage or worse violence and then spreading the images through the
Internet. Filmed in English to cause maximum insult, this is nausea, revolting but not revolution. It is a Trojan Horse, fired through virtual spaces as an image of our ultimate undoing, to shake down a largely virtual civilization. If entertainment and social media have become our Achilles Heel, then beheading video bombs will continue. We should be humiliated now by our videos of “smart missiles” exploding enemies, and struck dumb as we are.

Saturday, September 13, 2014


I made a very simple dinner this evening for Susie and me.  [Yes, we eat that early, if you are taking note of when this was posted.  But then, we get up before five a.m.]  I put a yam in the oven at 425 degrees and just let it sit there for the better part of an hour.  I steamed some baby spinach.  And I pan seared a lovely piece of tune quickly over very high heat on both sides, so that it was absolutely raw inside.  The tuna was served with a dip of chopped up ginger and garlic in soy sauce.  With this I drank a moderately priced Cabernet, and Susie, as is her wont, drank Procesco.  I used no herbs or spices, no salt [of course], and certainly no butter.  The honest truth is that it was better -- tastier -- than what we can get at almost any restaurant.

The secret to delicious cooking is buying very fresh ingredients and then cooking them so that their natural flavors emerge.   The principal reason that the dinners I cook in France are better than the dinners I cook in Chapel Hill is that I can buy better ingredients in Paris -- including some, such as fresh cuissses de canard -- that are not available here.

I try to make the plate attractive when I bring it to the table, but "presentation" is not my primary concern.  Taste is.  Since Susie is insistent about wanting a green vegetable with every meal, I do my best to comply.

One of my favorite kitchen appliances is my mandolin --  a devise that allows me to slice vegetables very, very thin.  The virtue of sauteing vegetables that have been mandolined is that the thinness of the slices allows the natural sugars to emerge during the cooking process.  A single large Vidalia onion mandolined into a large pile of very thin slices will, if cooked slowly for long enough, virtually melt into a delicious mush.  Something quite similar happens to zuccini [or courgettes, as we say in France] or bok choy. 

With baroque music on the Bose radio/CD player, we have a delightful evening meal.


A few moments ago, I idly Googled myself.  [No snarking, please].  Google helpfully named eighteen other people whom those Googling me also Googled [I do not even want to talk about the depth of detail Google seems to know about me, and about you, and about everyone else on the planet.]  The first five were Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Barrington Moore, Jr., John Stuart Mill, and Patrick Wolff [my chess grandmaster son.]   That strikes me as seriously cool.  I am quite happy to hang out with those guys in cyberspace.   The next thirteen are Lewis White Beck, Andrew Kliman, Walter Savitch [a hotshot computer scientist -- how come?], Herbert Marcuse, Tobias Barrington Wolff [my brilliant law professor son], Norman Kemp Smith, Allan Bloom, Jonathan Wolff [London University political philosopher, wrote a book on Marx], Joseph Raz, Gerald Cohen, Marty Peretz, John Rawls, and Leslie Green [big deal Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford whose major book is The Authority of the Law  -- that makes sense.]

No women or persons of color, note.