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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Thursday, June 21, 2007

La Fete de la Musique de Paris

Today is the first day of summer, and for the twenty-sixth time, all of Paris will come out into the streets this evening to celebrate by making music. On every street corner, amateur rock groups will set up their loudspeakers and do their thing for little gatherings of listeners. Here and there, a solitary oboist or accordianist or violinist will serenade the night air. Down by the Seine, the toffs, all dolled up in formal wear, will assemble on a barge for a luxury music and dancing cruise up and down the river, watched from the quais by hordes of on-lookers. At noon, the early music group Ultraia, whose concerts we attend faithfully, will give a free concert in the courtyard of the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages. At eight p.m., those who can wangle the tickets will gather in the auditoreum of the splendid Musee D'Orsay to hear Kurt Mazur lead the national orchestra in a free concert of Beethoven's Fifth.

This is what the public life of a nation is supposed to be. This is what Paul and Percival Goodman and Jane Jacobs were trying to teach us in the United States when they wrote their beautiful books about what makes cities great. I have already posted my analysis of such dry subjects as comparatuve unemployment rates, but tonight here in Paris we can see and hear what makes Paris a city so much superior to New York or Chicago or San Francisco or Dallas.

It is not just this once a year festival, of course. Every time I go to the market to shop for dinner [as I will later today], I am reminded that shopping in Paris is an entertainment, a delight, an adventure, while shopping in Amherst is a chore. To be sure, one can go to Whole Foods in Amherst and endure the high prices and atmosphere of political correctness to get slightly tastier provisions. But the tuna still looks as though it had been genetically engineered in a factory. At the open air market half a block from our apartment, every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I can have the fish man slice a piece from the hind half of an enormous tuna, so fresh that it drips with blood. I can buy thirty different spices in little packets, or splendid heads of lettuce too big to fit into my knapsack, or a whole Dorade Royale which is filleted for me on the spot.

In the Place Maubert, Susie and I can sit for hours in the cafe Le Metro, nursing a tiny cup of "deca" or a kir, and enjoying the street life of a quartier hundreds of years old. At lunch time, the cafes are full of people enjoying two hour mid day meals. Incidentally, all the statistics show that French workers are actually a trifle more productive than their American counterparts, measured on an hourly basis. They simply do not believe that the purpose of life is to work oneself to death.

There is, heaven knows, a great deal very badly wrong with France, as the riots in the banlieus made painfully clear. This is a racist society, an elitist society, and when it had the chance, an imperialist nation to boot. But they do know how to live!

Tomorow -- the gardens of Paris

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

We'll Always Have Paris

Inasmuch as Susie and I are spending June at our pied-a-terre in the 5th arrondisement in Paris, it occurred to me that I ought to write some posts for my blog on the city of lights. There is a great deal to say, but obviously one must begin with food. So, here are some of my favorite restaurants, and also an account of several lovely dishes I have prepared in our little fully equipped kitchen [Susie graciously lets me do the cooking whenever we are in Paris.]

Where to begin? Perhaps I should start with restaurants within one block of our apartment at 17, rue Maitre Albert, and work out. These are all modest establishments [one crossed knife and fork, in Guide Michelin symbolism]. One of our worst dining experiences ever was at L'Ambroisie, a world-famous ritzy three star restaurant in Place des Vosges. They treated us dismissively and carelessly as the tourists we were, and cured me forever of the fantasy that I like designer food. So, if you love old-fashioned French cuisine, hearty, lovingly prepared, meant to be eaten, not photographed, this is your blog!

Just around the corner on rue des Grands Degres is Le Reminet, a very small restaurant where, if you are lucky and the weather holds, you can bag one of the three tables outside. They do wonderful things with fish, vegetables, rabbit, pork, all served quickly and graciously. With an entree [i.e., a starter -- I don't know how that term came to be used in America for the main course], a main course, and some coffee afterwards, with a glass of wine for each of us and a bottle of l'eau gazeuze [i,e, carbonated water], the bill, all included, will be less than 100 Euros. Now this is not chicken feed, but Paris is a big city, not the Western Massachusetts backwater where we live, so that is a good price.

Closer still, just at the end of the block before you turn left to go to Le Reminet [and after you spend some time looking at the neignborhood church, Notre Dame, which is just across the Seine on ile de la Cite], is Atelier Maitre Albert, a secondary restaurant of a famous chef, Guy Savoy. It is essentially a rotisserie and wine bar. The best thing on the menu is the saladier du moment [which has that name even though it is always there], with deliciously grilled chicken livers in a green salad -- marvelous. The ambiance is a bit better than the food, but especially if you are looking for someplace romantic, this is tops. A bit pricier than Reminet.

Three blocks away, in the direction of the Institut du Monde Arabe [best view ever of old Paris from the 7th floor terrace], on rue de Pontoise, is our very favorite restaurant, Le Petit Pontoise. This is a warm, friendly little place with the menu of the day on a number of chalk boards positioned around the room. The very best thing on the menu is joue de porc -- pig jowels -- a rich wine stew of pork to die for. If you are lucky enough to be there on a night when they are also featuring pommes dauphine au gratin, the combination is heavenly. The quail is another great choice. The first three times we were there, the same man was sitting all alone at a little table eating and reading. I finally got up the courage to ask, in my fractured French, who he was, and learned that he is a bouquiniste [i.e., one of those chaps who has a book stall on the left bank of the Seine]. I think he must have a special deal with them to eat there every night.

Moving another two or three streets down Boulevard Saint Germain, to the intersection of the Boulevard with rue des Deux Ponts, you come to Chez Rene, a classic old-fashioned Bistro with the best coq au vin in the world. You will probably sit at a long table with paper table cloth, next to other diners. Order a simple bottle of red wine and they will only charge you for what you drink. The coq comes in a copper tureen drenched in rich wine sauce. This is a real coq, not a twelve week old chicken force fed somewhere obscene. I guess you could order something else to start, but it is all I can do to handle the coq. I have never felt the need for dessert afterward.

If you like oysters, clams, mussels, periwinkles, and other assorted shellfish, you can pig out [if that is not a logical contradiction] with an enormous platter on heaping shaved ice, at the Bar des Huitres. You get there by going in the other direction on Boulevard St. Germain [i.e., west, not east], to the point where rue St Jacques and rue Dantes come together at a point in a little square. In the right months, you can actually have oysters standing up on the street outside. The same dining experience, but in a famous Belle Epoque establishment in Place de la Bastille, can be had at Bofinger. It is reputed to have a gorgeous ladies' room, but I wouldn't know.

Two nights ago, we stumbled across a new restaurant, just on the next street over from us [rue de Bievre], called Bistro de la B. Rue de Bievre, which backs on the building that our apartment is in, is famous for having been the location of the residence of Francois Mitterrand, President of France. That was before our time, but we are told the security really screwed up traffic on this lovely little ancient street [named after the river that once ran where the street now is.] Anyway, Bistro de la B is unusually low priced, but actually rather elegant, with very fine food and service. I had some herring in wine sauce and a Boeuf Bourguignonne, and it was really very good. They even brought a little amuse bouche to start [a freebie to whet the palette]. I am talking it up in the hope that it will survive.

OK. That merely scratches the surface, but I am getting hungry, and must repair to our kitchen to start cooking the dorade royale I bought at the open air market. With some braised leeks and little potatoes, a Sancerre blanc for Susie and a Beaume de Venise for me, we should do quite nicely. As Julia Child would say in her signature squawk, bon appetit.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Iceland, Transparency, and Language

Last Sunday, Susie and I arrived in Iceland, en route to Paris, for a three day visit with Pall Skulason and Ardur Brigitsdottir. Pall is a philosopher, and the former Rector of the University of Iceland. He and I met through a common interest in the philosophy of education, and Susie and I have spent time with Pall and Ardur in Paris and in Metz. The stopover in Iceland was arranged so that I could give a talk at the University on "The Completion of Kant's Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre." [don't ask.]


Tuesday was devoted to a sightseeing ride across the Icelandic countryside -- very bleak, very beautiful, enlivened by a visit t0 an extraordinary waterfall. It rained on and off, and the wind was at gale force, so we spent a good deal of time in the car rather than wandering about on foot.


During one drive, Pall said a series of things about the difficulty but also the virtue of trying to write philosophy in Icelandic -- things that connected up with remarks he had made about the history of Iceland and his experience of it. These remarks triggered in me a series of thoughts related to the [as yet unwritten] third volume of the trilogy I planned long ago on the thought of Karl Marx. The first two volumes have been published -- Understanding Marx, an exposition of the mathematical foundations of Marx's economic theories, and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, a reflection on the literary and philosophical significance of the first ten chapters of Das Kapital. The third volume, tentatively titled The Mystification of the Capitalist World, is intended to unite the mathematical economics and the literary analysis of the first two volumes with a socological and philosophical explication of capitalism, in order to illuminate the way in which capitalism's mystifications defeat our efforts to create a more humane and just society.


The purpose of this post is to try to put down in coherent form the thoughts triggered by Pall's extrordinarily interesting observations about Icelandic history, the Icelandic language, and the unique experience of trying to do philosophy in Icelandic. Whatever there is of interest in these remarks is owed directly to him.


All of this began the day before, during a visit to Iceland's national museum. Pall observed that Icelandic is a very ancient language pretty much unchanged by time -- a fact that he demonstrated by reading without difficulty a 9th or 10th century text exhibited at the museum. He observed that Iceland's history is transparent [his term]. Its founding can be traced to a known date in the 10th century [I may have some of this wrong, for which I ask Pall's forgiveness, but the details are not important], and since the population is very homogeneous, most Icelanders can trace their lineage back many centuries. The origins of the country do not recede into the mists of legend, as do those of France, England, or Germany. I remarked that Americans make the same claim, but that their inability to confront the fact of slavery makes their story of origins mythical and mystified. [I have explored all of this at length in Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, the book I published several years ago about my experiences as a White man in an Afro-American Studies department.]

The next day, as we drove, Pall talked about the challenges posed by his attempt to write philosophy in Icelandic. The problem is that Icelandic lacks the words for many of the key philosophical terms that play so large a role in European philosophy, especially of the past two centuries. One solution to this, which he rejects, even though most of his colleagues adopt it, is simply to bring a number of loan words into Icelandic, taking them for the most part from the German, but also from the French. Now, Icelandic, as Pall explained, is a transparent language. Because it is pure, exhibiting very little in the way of influences from other langages, and really tracing itself back to a proto-Indo-European, when a native Icelandic speaker uses an Icelandic word, he or she can see immediately and without any obscurity exactly what its roots are, and what their original meanings are [since they continue to have those meanings in modern Icelandic.]

This is, when you think about it, an extraordinary fact. If a word used for philosopical purposes is derived via a metaphor from some common root, then the Icelandic ear hears that fact immediately. Since I am the world's worst linguist, I cannot give very good examples of this, but here is one. The German word for "object" is "gegenstand." Now, gegenstand literally means "standing [over] against," which, if I am not totally mistaken, is not far from the root meanings of the Latin words from which "object" is derived.

Imagine, if you will, trying to write philosophy using only words that carry their metaphorical origins, as it were, on their sleeves. I observed that the effort, which was essentially what Pall was attempting by writing philosophy using only Icelandic words, would force you to think through exactly what you were trying to say, and it would stop you from writing something that realy was meaningless but sounded good, because it was expressed in words whose origins were obscured both from the writer and from the reader. [Something like "In the Post-Modern world, the de-centered self interogates meaning by (dis)joining ego and other."]

What does all this have to do with capitalism, exploitation, and the price of gas? Well, if Marx is right [see Moneybags], the exploitative nature of capitalist economic relations is concealed from us, for the most part, by the opacity of the wage-labor relationship and the misrepresentation of commodities as quanta of objective value. Seeing through that mystification to what is really going on, Marx thought, requires not only a critique of economic theory and an unillusioned description of the sphere of production [pace Capital chapter 10] but also a clear-eyed examination of the language with which we talk about our work, commodities, profit, and a society that rests on them.

Perhaps it requires that we try to talk about our own world, as Pall is trying to do philosophy in Icelandic, in a way that makes all the metaphors manifest, all the dissimulations apparent, and all the ideological rationalizations so transparent that they immediately lose their force. The central task, for a radical critic like me, is to speak as much as possible in that fashion, as a way of combating the dominant mystifications of the public discourse of our society.

Just a thought.