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Saturday, May 15, 2010




Our Northampton home was everything that our New York apartment had not been. It was elegantly designed, large, airy, comfortable, and beautifully decorated. As part of our renovations, we had turned the small family room and one car garage into a large, pine paneled family room with a wood-burning fire place. The kitchen was now a big country kitchen with an eating area graced by a beehive fireplace. We had fenced in the large side lot to create an area equally for our two Cairn Terriers and our children. Because the street was a dead end with only one house beyond ours, there was virtually no traffic.

There is a lovely expression that has its origins in Oxford and Cambridge. When a student is asked to leave the university, usually for disciplinary reasons, it is said that he has been rusticated. By leaving Columbia and moving to UMass and Northampton, I had in effect voluntarily been rusticated. For some years I continued to receive speaking invitations and the like, but little by little I withdrew from the public world of the larger Academy. My life came to be centered entirely on my family and the University of Massachusetts. I set myself up in the lovely third floor study, and spent as much time as I could at home, only going in to the campus for my classes or obligatory meetings. As the years passed, I felt myself dying away from the profession, and though I continued to write books which, if the publishers were right, were being read, I no longer had a powerful sense of being part of the larger conversation of American letters. Oddly enough, I did not miss it at all. My boys were now three and one, and daily becoming more delightful to spend time with. Once again, we hired a full-time housekeeper, a lovely lady named Mary McEwan who was the wife of a Protestant minister in the hill town of Plainfield. If one or another of my sons had a doctor's appointment or a dentist's appointment, I took them. In time, as they went to school, if there were teacher's conferences to attend, I was the one who showed up. I felt then, and have felt ever since, that the decision to eschew the role of New York public intellectual and instead become a teacher and father was one of the wisest decisions I have ever made.

But first things first. I had summer school to teach. I had been assigned Introduction to Philosophy with 30 students and an undergraduate/graduate course on Ethical Theory. The UMass grade sheet printout listed each student's name, class, and major. As I ran my eye down the Intro list, I saw one student listed as majoring in "Men Pe." I thought , "Hmm. Some Chinese dialect. Very recherché." At the first meeting of class, I discovered the notation meant "Men's Physical Education." I had never taught at a school where one could major in Physical education. It was clear that the State University world was not the Ivy League.

Since Philosophy, A Modern Encounter had just appeared, I decided, for the first and last
time in my career, to assign my own textbook. But it seemed to me somehow a bit scrimy to assign the book and then pocket the royalties from the sale, so I came into class with a stack of dollar bills and a roll of dimes. I said, "I make $1.10 in royalties from the sale of each copy of my text, so I am going to give each of you $1.10 back." Then I proceeded to hand out the money. No one cracked a smile. I knew this was going to be a tough room, as the stand-up comics say.

The students weren't dumb, and they did the reading. But they came from lower middle class Massachusetts families, mostly Catholic, and they had been raised not to talk back. They didn't talk back to their parents, they didn't talk back to their priest, they didn't talk back to the policeman, and they didn't talk back to the teacher. But talking back is the mother's milk of philosophy. I struggled mightily to get a discussion started, without success. One day, we had got to the chapter on the philosophy of religion, and I thought I would try something a bit different. "Look," I said, "I could prove the existence of God to you four ways, but that would really not be very interesting, so instead I would like to talk about the nature of religious experience. Has any of you ever had something you would call a religious experience?" Dead silence. "How many of you are Catholic?" Most of the hands went up. Turning to one young man, I asked, "The first time you receive Holy Communion is an important religious experience. What was it like for you?" He shrugged. "It was all right," he said. Finally, one young woman raised her hand. "I have had a religious experience," she offered. I fell on her like as a man dying of thirst falls on an oasis. "Tell us about it," I begged, 'Well," she said, "I am engaged to an Israeli boy." "Yes?" I prodded. "That is it," she said, "That is the religious experience." I gave up. "There is not enough religious experience in this room to sustain a conversation," I said. "Let us move on to the philosophy of art." The next year, as I was walking across the campus, I saw a young man who had been in the class. 'Hey, Professor Wolff," he called as we passed one another. "Great class last summer." I wanted to grab him by the scruff of the neck, and yell, "Why didn't you say something at the time?"

When the Fall semester began, I found that I was not the only new member of the department. Vere Chappell, my former colleague from Chicago, had been recruited as the new Head, replacing Bruce Aune. Vere got a raw deal, through no one's fault. He had been promised that he would be able to hire three or four new people, and I think it was that, more than anything else, that determined him to come. But no sooner had he arrived than Massachusetts went through the first of what would be a seemingly endless series of budget crises, and the plan to continue the expansion of the Amherst campus came to a screeching halt. Vere had to make do with the people he had, at least for several years.

While I was settling into my department, Cindy was doing the same, but for her, the experience was dramatically different. She had come to UMass as an adjunct, the wife of a senior professor being brought in at a good salary and the highest possible rank. Her teaching responsibilities were no different from those of any other Assistant Professor, but she felt very keenly the effect of the circumstances under which she had been hired. She was a gifted critic who began immediately to make a name for herself in the profession, but she was convinced that no accomplishments could overcome the perception that she was there merely as a courtesy to me. She once said, speaking of her situation, that how you enter a department determines forever what they think of you. I have repeated that observation to many young academics just beginning their first jobs, because I think it contains a profound truth. Cindy was forced to earn, against considerable odds, a respect that was automatically accorded to other young academics who had been recruited in the customary manner. That very first year, she published a revised version of her dissertation as a book entitled Samuel Richardson and the 18th Century Puritan Character. She also began publishing beautifully crafted essays on Jane Austen and other English and American novelists [causing me to do some hasty reading of Austen's corpus of novels so that I could talk with her about her essay as it was being written.] Eventually, her accomplishments compelled the department to promote her with tenure, but in the immortal words of Henny Youngman, she never got no respect.

The entire campus was undergoing an enormous growth spurt, with new academics flooding in. The English Department Cindy joined had well over one hundred members by the time we showed up, and I think peaked at one hundred and thirty before it began a long decline, hastened by repeated budget crises, to its present size of perhaps thirty-five. Since so many people were new, and were reaching out to establish social as well as professional connections, there were a great many dinner parties and evening gatherings, and also an uncommon amount of sleeping around and breaking up and reforming of couples [although I may simply be judging English departments by the rather stodgy manners of Philosophy departments.] I do not think my social calendar has ever been as full as it was in those early UMass years.

Our house was very well situated to facilitate our introduction into the social world of the university. Living next door to us in a large house were Bob and Sally Bagg and their five children, Teddy, Chrissy, Jonathan, Melissa, and Hazzie. Bob was a senior member of Cindy's department, and Sally was a cellist whose father had been a Professor of Music at Smith. Her mother had given the house to Bob and Sally when they married. Behind our house, on a little dead end street, lived Charles and Maurianne Adams, both literary scholars whose specialty was folklore. Bob, Sally, Charles, and Maurianne were already good friends, and they simply broadened their circle a bit to include us.

It was from Sally that we learned the true and rather wonderful back story of the purchase of our house. It seems that on Barrett Place were three members of a string quartet in which Sally played cello. They were all eager for the fourth member to join them, and they had had their eye on Mrs. Faulkner's house for some time. When the notice appeared that Saturday that the house would be going on the market on Monday, they cabled their quartet mate, who was vacationing in Europe. By the time he could cable a bid back, we had bought the house. But then nothing happened. Mrs. Faulkner went right on living there as she had since 1933. Finally, the next June, she moved out and workmen showed up to renovate the house, but still no owners appeared. By the time we did move in, everyone on the street had walked through the house to see what we had done with it. I would meet someone for the very first time who would say, "I like what you have done with the kitchen."

That first year, I taught a large lecture course on Ethics each semester, a combined undergraduate/graduate course on social philosophy, and a graduate seminar on political philosophy. This was the first time in my career that I had Teaching Assistants to meet discussion sections and grade the exams and papers. Readers of this blog might like to know what I assigned in the way of reading in the introductory course. There were five required texts: Gabriel Kolko's Wealth and Power in America, Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness [the little book the Rutgers student had pressed upon me], Lewis Feuer's collection of the The Basic Writings of Marx and Engels, Betty and Theodore Roszak's Masculine/Feminine, and Robin Morgan's Sisterhood is Powerful. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to set Marx and Rand in opposition to one another, but still under the influence of my Columbia days, I worried that Marx would annihilate Rand, so I labored mightily to make her bizarre and manifestly indefensible views as plausible as possible. To my very great chagrin, when I sampled the mid-term exams, I discovered that my students were almost all natural Randites who found Marx hard to credit.

In the seminar, I encountered for the first time the phenomenon of the Five College system. The Pioneer Valley, as the section of the Connecticut Valley is called in which Northampton and Amherst are located, is home to an extraordinary array of top of the line private liberal arts colleges. In addition to Smith in Northampton and Amherst College in Amherst, there is Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley [where, you will recall, David Truman found a soft landing after the Columbia uprising]. The year before I arrived, these schools had banded together with UMass to create a small educational experiment in South Amherst called Hampshire College. The resulting five schools were combined in the Five College Consortium, the centerpiece of which was a rule that a student at anyone of the five schools could take one or more of his or her courses at any of the other schools. The five institutions coordinated their academic schedules so that semesters began and ended together and vacations occurred in the same weeks. That first year, a young man named Peter Rachleff came over from Amherst to enroll in my political philosophy seminar. He wrote an outstanding paper analyzing Marx and Berger and Luckman [The Social Construction of Reality] on reification, and earned the only A+ in the class. Peter is now a professor of History at Macalester, in St. Paul, and I was delighted to see that he teaches, among other things, African-American History.

The Five College Consortium continues to the present day, and from a distance, it is easy to suppose that the principal beneficiary is UMass, which gets to puff itself by its association with several of the premier private colleges in the country. Seen up close, the reality is quite different. As the seventies matured, the bright young things who had flooded into UMass grew in productivity and distinction. By the end of the decade, I could flabbergast my UMass students with a little thought experiment. "Imagine," I would say to them, "that all four of the other institutions of the Five College Consortium were somehow scrunched together into one big private college. How would each department of that super college compare with the corresponding department of UMass?" Their eyes would widen when I went down the list of Humanities, Social Science, and Natural Science departments and showed them that in each case, the faculty of the UMass department were more academically or professionally distinguished than the faculty of the assembled four colleges. The students themselves sensed this imbalance. Even though the free Five Colleges bus service was quite as capable of taking UMass students to Amherst or Smith or Mt. Holyoke as it was of bringing students from those colleges to UMass, the fact was that the traffic was heavily tilted toward UMass.

From the day that I sat down in my new office, I sensed that there was something odd about my situation in the philosophy department. We were located then on the seventh floor of a tall building called Thompson Tower. The offices are arranged in a hollow square around a core containing the elevators and stairs. My office was on the southwest corner of the floor, catty-corner from the office of young Fred Feldman. I assumed that he would be at least superficially friendly, both because I was a new member of the department and, frankly, because I was now one of the people who would eventually be voting on his tenure. But his manner was distant and off-putting. He seemed to have a permanent smirk on his face, rather like the look I have come to expect on the face of the right-wing pundit William Kristol. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that it took me more than a year to realize that not everyone in the department was pleased to see me.

I learned the true back story about my offer from the man who became my closest friend in the department and eventually my ally in an internecine war that consumed all my energies, Robert J. Ackerman. Bob is a tall, broad faced man of many talents and accomplishments. He is a pianist who, for many years, entertained customers with ragtime and jazz at a number of Pioneer Valley restaurants and clubs. He started his career specializing in Greek philosophy, then turned his attention to logic and the philosophy of science, on which subjects he wrote a number of books, and eventually reinvented himself as an expert on Continental philosophy. He and I were both so prolific that each of us alone had published more books than all of our other colleagues combined.

The story was that in 1969, when I first approached Herb Heidlberger about joining the department, a group of senior members who dominated the department -- Gettier, Sleigh, Robison and Matthews, among others -- wanted to bring in two of their friends who did the same sort of narrow Chisholmite epistemology. A rump group, including Bob Ackerman, Ann and John Brentlinger, and Leonard Ehrlich, were eager to hire me. Bruce Aune went to the Dean to ask his advice, and -- these being the glory days -- the Dean said, "Why not hire all three?" Out went three offers.

It turned out that the two people whom the inner circle in the department really wanted were merely using the offers as a way to get their salaries raised at their home institutions. They declined. But I accepted, and a year later joined the department. Of course they weren't glad to see me. I was the product of a busted parlay. They did manage to hire Michael Jubien, a new Assistant Professor who arrived the same year I did. Mike fit right in, and eventually became Department Head.

But still, even if I wasn't their first choice, why didn't they want me in their department? There were two reasons, I finally discovered. The first was political -- department politics, not real politics. Ehrlich and the Brentlingers were the old timers, people whom Sleigh, Gettier, Robison, Feldman, Chappell, Matthews, and Jubien really wished would just go away and let them create a world class department of people all of whom devoted their lives to teasing out the inner meaning of "S knows that p." Bob Ackerman had sided with the old timers in the push to bring me in, so he was classed as one of the enemies. Since I was their candidate, it was obvious which side I would be on.

The second reason was far more serious, going as it did to the very heart of sectarian orthodoxy. For those reading this memoir who have not spent their professional lives as American philosophers, let me explain that there is a phrase that, when uttered about someone, is considered the ultimate death sentence, equivalent in condemnatory power to the language with which the Jewish community of Amsterdam expelled Baruch Spinoza. Philosophers are accustomed to saying that someone's work is "wrong," or "derivative" or even "confused." or -- in the case of logic -- "trivial," After all, philosophy began with the arguments between Socrates and the Sophists, and a healthy taste for verbal warfare has persisted to the present day. but if philosophers want to make it absolutely clear that someone is beyond the pale, to be shunned and reviled and ignored, they will say that what he [or she] does is not philosophy. There is no appeal from that verdict. Well, the boys [as Bob Ackerman and I took to calling the majority faction] thought that what Ackerman and the Brentlingers and Ehrlich and I did was not philosophy.


hilde said...

Thanks to Brian Leiter's blog, I just discovered your wonderful blog. Thank you for writing! What a treasure it is to find your personal, academic, and philosophical thoughts. I'm a philosopher in Denver, CO. is my site.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Delighted to have you aboard.

Königsberg walker said...

Moving to Massachusetts, did you miss your colleagues at Columbia? I could imagine life without the traffic, noise, and grime of the city, but what about philosophical conversations with Sydney and others?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Strange as it may seem, I did not miss Columbia at all. I loved Sidney, but when I walked away, I simply put those years behind me and threw myself into my new life as a father, along with the struggles in the UMass philosophy department. I have never been much enamored of philosophical conversation. I work in my head, in a rather lonely way. That is one of the reasons why I stopped going to APA meetings,

Noumena said...

I think you make a number of important points in this installment: on the relative importance of one's career and one's family, on your wife's (or ex-wife's?) observation that `how you enter a department determines forever what they think of you', and the foreshadowing at the very end about the pernicious effects on the discipline of the `not philosophy' label. Thanks very much for it!

Laurence B McCullough said...

Like others, I am very much enjoying reading your memoirs. Your concluding comment about some methods or subject areas being "not philosophy" resonates strongly. The faulty reasoning behind this politically powerful and influential, as I have witnessed and occasionally been subjected to it, goes as follows. 1. The proper scope and/or method of philosophy is X (where X nicely coincides with the speaker's work). 2. The existence of alternative conceptions of the scope and/or methods of philosophy -- in the history of philosophy or contemporaneously -- is not acknowledged. 3. Thus no warrant is offered for 1. The need for a warrant is simply ignored. 4. What you are doing is not X and is therefore no philosophy. The fact that 1 is simply taken as true, when in fact it is the conclusion of a contentious argument, makes 1 patently unphilosophical. (Whatever method of philosophy one espouses, it requires reasoned argument, unless, of course, one is a genius like Wittgenstein and exempted.) 4 therefore has no intellectual authority. Of course, if it is asserted by a senior professor over a junior faculty member or by a professor in a graduate seminar when that professor happens to be placement director or the departmental chairperson, then, of course, it has political power. Raw political power, because it lacks intellectual and therefore moral authority. In addition, the crippling conflict of interest in asserting 1 is not acknowledged, much less addressed and managed. But that would require an argument.

Andrew N. Carpenter said...

About Robert Ackerman's piano playing in the Pioneer Valley: My wife and I met at Amherst College in the mid 1980s and I think pretty sure we heard him play a couple of time when we went out on dates to a restaurant in an old barn called the Loft(now a steakhouse, not so then: