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Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I confess that I found the behavior of my new colleagues rather puzzling. These people apparently thought of themselves as analytic philosophers. Well and good. Before I turned eighteen, I had studied with Willard van Orman Quine, Nelson Goodman, and Hao Wang. I knew more logic than they did, and in my own work, I used mathematics a good deal more sophisticated than anything they knew or ever used. What on earth were they so uptight about? It took me a very long time to develop some sense of who they thought they were and what they thought they were doing. The short of it seems to have been this: Having taken over what they thought of as a somnolent department, they were intent on turning it into a world-class outpost of whatever it was that Roderick Chisholm did at Brown. John, Ann, Leonard, Bob, and I were so much dead wood, in their view, taking up places that could be better filled with real philosophers.
Something else was going on that I had never encountered before, although I understand that it is rather common in Philosophy departments around the country. These men had formed themselves into a clique, around which they gathered a favored group of the students in the graduate program. Once Fred Feldman got his hands on the administrative position of Graduate Program Director -- usually a chore shoved on some poor unsuspecting junior member of the a department -- he used that position to advance an agenda. The favored in-group of students were given such Teaching Assistantships as the department had available. Feldman counseled students against taking my courses or those of the other outsiders. He formed dissertation committees so that we would be excluded from them, especially if the committees were for the in-group of students. There was a good deal of snide, smarmy, snickering smirking about the our unphilosophical work.
At one point, I served on a committee with Gettier and Robison whose task it was to divide up the available merit money for raises. [Because this was a State university, this task was handed to the department, rather than being reserved for the Dean]. Leonard Ehrlich had just published a book on Jaspers, so I proposed that he receive a merit raise. Neither Robison nor Gettier had ever published a book, of course, but that did not stop Robison from rejecting the proposal, saying that it would have been better if Leonard had not published the book.
I found this behavior appalling, mystifying, and simply infra dignitatem. In every one of the departments of which I had previously been a member, there were of course some professors whom the students thought of as the stars and others who were regarded as of lesser distinction or even intelligence. Everyone at Harvard knew that Quine was just plain smarter than Donald Williams or John Wild [or anyone else, for that matter], but every member of the department was treated with courtesy and accorded at least pro forma respect. At Chicago, we youngsters had waged a battle against the oppressive reputation of Richard McKeon, to be sure. Still, no one was kept off dissertation committees. At Columbia, as well, those of us gathered around Ernest Nagel thought of ourselves as the new wave, but we had great respect for Justus Buchler, for Jack Randall, for Jimmy Gutmann, and the rest of the old timers. It would never have occurred to any of us at those places to say, or even think, that what they did was "not philosophy." I am afraid I reveal my elitist upbringing when I say that I thought of my colleagues as just never having learned how a gentleman or gentle lady behaves in the Academy.
As the years went by, Bob and I grew more frustrated with the party-line, lockstep behavior of the members of the majority. When we attended a department meeting to discuss a candidate for the department or a proposed change in the rules of the graduate program, there would be a lively discussion that gave every appearance of being a genuine exchange of views, but the votes were always the same. After a while, Bob took to playing a little game. At the beginning of each discussion, he would quite visibly lay a folded piece of paper on the desk. After the vote was taken, he would unfold the paper. There on it would be written the vote count. He was never wrong.
Oh, there were moments when it appeared that one or another of the boys was going to side with us on some issue, large or small. The Olympia Snowe of the department was Gareth Matthews. He sighed, he meditated, he hesitated, he weighed the pros and cons, he acknowledged the merits of our side of the debate, he confessed that he was seriously tempted to endorse our view. But always, in the end, our arguments were just not quite strong enough to win him over. In the twenty-one years that I sat in those meetings, not once did Matthews ever break from the party line. Mitch McConnell would have been impressed.
At one point, after years of frustration, Bob, Ann, John, Leonard, and I went to the then chair, Mike Jubien, to propose that we be permitted to design a Master's Program in Political Philosophy and Continental Philosophy, in order to give us some role, however secondary, in the graduate program. Mike's response was to suggest that it might be better if we left the department.
All of this gets me way ahead of my story, for at the end of that very first year on Barrett Place, something happened that had a far greater impact on my life, and the life of our family, than the small mindedness of my colleagues in philosophy. On July 11, 1972, the American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer squared off against the world chess champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland for the championship of the chess world. There were no live television feeds in those days, but public television committed itself to a series of programs in real time reporting on the match. PBS recruited Shelby Lyman to host a program in which, as each game was played, he would receive telephoned reports of the moves and put them on a chess board hanging on a wall with slots for the pieces. Lyman himself was not a very strong chess player, although he had done yeoman work for the United States Chess Federation [USCF] in promoting the game. With him in the studio, however, were some of the strongest players in America, and as each move was announced, they would analyze it, try to divine the strategy behind it, look for traps and loopholes, all the while pretty much rooting for Fischer.
I had learned chess from my father, and though it was not my favorite game -- I preferred the game of Go -- I took out my lovely wooden chess set, set up the pieces on a board in the family room, and followed along as Lyman announced the moves and the experts analyzed them. Little Patrick was four and a half then, still improving his talking [he was a late talker], but he watched me as I stared at the television set. Something clicked inside him. The next year, when he was attending the Smith College Campus School, he asked me to come to an Open House of the school, which was just down the hill from our house. I went along and followed him as he showed me his school. In one room, the teachers had set up a variety of board games on the floor -- Monopoly, checkers, Chinese checkers, and chess, among others. Patrick pulled me to the chess board and said, "Teach me that." "Well," I said, "that is a rather complicated game. How about this one?," pointing to checkers.
Patrick was adamant, so when we got home, I took out the chess board and taught him the moves. Immediately, he wanted to play a game against me. I took him through a game, which in the end I won. Patrick was very upset by that, and wanted to play again. Pretty soon, we were playing every day. At first I won all the games. Then I let him win some. Then he won some on his own, and it became a genuine contest. Several years later, I bought Patrick a copy of Bobby Fischer's book, My Sixty Favorite Games. He taught himself to read chess notation more or less at the same time that he learned to read words. In the morning, when I woke up, I would hear him in his room, playing chess, the pieces clicking as he put them down on the board.
So began a long, complex journey that ended, many years later, with Patrick becoming one of the strongest chess players in America, an International Grandmaster known throughout the entire chess world, twice the United States Champion, a second to Anand in his world championship match against Kasparov, a widely read chess journalist, and for some years in his twenties, a chess professional who supported himself over the board. That is a very long story, to which I shall return many times. One of the most fascinating and challenging conundrums I faced as a father was how to raise Patrick as a healthy, happy, normal boy, while at the same time acknowledging, supporting, and endorsing his emergence as a force in the world of international adult chess.
I have spoken about the inwardness of Patrick's nervous system as a baby. That quality manifested itself in many ways as he grew older. While still a little boy, he exhibited extraordinary powers of concentration. As a three year old, he loved those wooden PlaySkool puzzles consisting of six or eight big pieces that fit into a wooden frame to make an elephant or a flower or a dog. He would sit on the floor fitting the pieces into the frame, so absorbed that if his back was turned when I walked into the room, he would not hear me say, "Hello, Peege." [Peege was my nickname for him, derived from his initials, P. G.] Alarmed, we had his hearing tested at the world-famous Clarke School for the Deaf, which was several blocks from Barrett Place, but there was nothing wrong with his hearing. He was just concentrating.
I thought of that some years later when I took Patrick, now a boy of twelve or thirteen, to a big deal tournament in New York City featuring some of the strongest players in America. Patrick sat down to play his first game, which like all serious chess games was played under time constraints. Each player in the tournament had two hours to make the first forty moves [a time control known in the chess world as "forty and two."] Patrick had the black pieces, so his opponent made the first move and pressed the plunger, starting Patrick's clock. It was an opening move that Patrick had not seen before. He stared at the board, put his chin on his hands, and thought. And thought. And thought. An hour and a half went by, while Patrick did not move a muscle, his two hours ticking away. Finally, Patrick lifted his hand, made his first move, and went on to win the game.
What did chess mean to Patrick, to absorb so completely his attention and youthful energies? I got a clue several years later. I had taken Patrick to school with me, "to see where Daddy works," and on the way home I took the back way on Rocky Hill Road to avoid the traffic on Route 9. When we drove past the cemetery, Patrick pointed to a small mausoleum and asked what it was. "That is a place where someone is buried," I said, "and his family have put up that structure to remember him by. It is called a mausoleum. Sometimes people put statues on top of them." Patrick thought about that for several miles, and then said, in a quiet voice, "I know what would be a good mausoleum for you, Daddy." "Oh yes," I said in the calmest voice I could muster, clutching the steering wheel firmly with both hands, "and what would that be?" "Well," he said, getting rather excited, "it would be laid out like a chess board, and the white king would be turned over on its side, showing that it had been mated." After that, I ceased wondering why Patrick was playing chess.
Since I will be returning to Patrick's chess career a number of times in these memoirs, perhaps this is as good a time as any to explain a little inside baseball to those readers who are not familiar with the world of competitive chess. Chess in the United States is overseen by the U. S. Chess Federation, or USCF. The USCF organizes and authorizes tournaments and keeps careful records of how everyone does in them so that it can apply its complicated formula to the results and calculate everyone's USCF chess rating. The ratings run from a low of about 200 for absolute novices just learning the game, to as high as 2700 or even higher, for world famous players. A rating of 2000 earns you the title of "expert." [Below that, you are an A, B, C, D, etc player]. At 2200, you are awarded the title of Master, and at 2400 the title of Senior Master. Whenever two players play a game, the USCF uses a formula to calculate the probability that the winner will beat the loser, based on their ratings before the game. The bigger the gap between the two players, the more rating points the weaker player gets if he wins, but the fewer points the stronger player gets if she wins [the theory is that the stronger player figured to win anyway.] After each tournament, each player's rating is updated to reflect his or her record against the players he or she beat or lost to in the tournament. Over time and many games, a player's rating comes to reflect pretty accurately his or her strength over the board.
This is all just in America. In the world at large, chess is overseen by the F├ęderation Internationale des Eschecs, or FIDE. The same formula is used for calculating FIDE ratings, but in general your FIDE rating is somewhat lower than your USCF rating. You can only earn FIDE rating points by playing in FIDE sponsored tournaments against other players with FIDE ratings. The really strong players are the ones who have earned the title of International Master or International Grandmaster, this latter being the highest title one can earn. You cannot become either an IM or GM simply by accumulating points. You must play in a very strong tournament entered by a number of players already holding those titles, and your performance must be at a level judged [by a formula] to be of IM or GM quality. Each time you do that you "earn a norm," and after earning three IM norms or GM norms you become an IM or a GM. Once awarded by FIDE, that title is yours for life.
All of this lay far ahead of Patrick when we played our little games, and neither of us at that point knew anything about the USCF, FIDE, ratings, norms, or the rest of the arcana of the chess world.
What of little Toby, Patrick's brother? I must now confront a problem that bedevils all memoirists. In my mind, I am back in the early 1970's, when both Patrick and Toby were little boys. But I am writing these words in 2010, when I know, of course, what both of them have become. That darling tow-headed little one and a half year old boy is now forty years old. He is a brilliant law professor, the leading young civil proceduralist in the American legal profession. He is also a handsome, proud gay man who served as the Co-Chair of the Advisory Committee on LGBT issues to the Obama campaign, and is the leading voice in the country on LGBT legal issues. He has long ceased -- and here I write with just a tinge of parental regret -- to be "Toby" either to the world or to his family. He is now "Tobias," Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff of the University of Pennsylvania Law Faculty.
There is an old story about Mrs. Shapiro, who takes her two little baby boys out in the stroller for a walk. On the street in front of her apartment she runs into Mrs. Finkelstein, who coos and says, "Who have we here?" Mrs. Shapiro replies, "The one on the left is the doctor. The one on the right is the professor." I hope I am not simply channeling my inner Mrs. Shapiro when I say that I have two trophy sons.
It was not difficult to see, very early on, that Patrick was headed for distinction, but what of little Toby? He was not a precocious child, in the way that Patrick was. To be sure, since Toby learned to talk early and Patrick learned to talk late, it seemed as though they began to speak at roughly the same time. And the difference I perceived in their nervous systems in those very first weeks continued to unfold. Toby was as outgoing as Patrick was inward-looking. This was difficult for Toby, who wanted to play with his big brother but was repeatedly rebuffed. "It's not fair," Toby would protest. "Patrick won't play with me." "Sure it is, Toby," Patrick would respond. "I don't want to play with you either." [There was just a hint of Sidney Morgenbesser in Patrick, I am afraid.] Patrick could spend an entire semester in school without really getting to know the children in is class. Toby would come home the first day knowing not only the names of his classmates but the names of their brothers and sisters as well. Almost immediately, Toby formed a close friendship with little Nicky Clausen, who lived at the bottom of Barrett Place. They became inseparable, so much so that people seeing them together thought they were brother and sister.
And yet, despite the absence of any stereotypically precocious behavior, very early on, I could tell that Toby was fiercely intelligent. I used to talk a great deal to my boys, but I also listened to them. Perhaps because of my experience listening to students and reading their papers, I have become extremely sensitive to nuances of language -- to grammar, phrasing, syntax. Even as a little boy, Toby used language with a precision of word choice and syntax that I found remarkable. It was not so much what he was saying -- that was pretty much what you would expect from a three or four or five or six year old -- but just how he was saying it. Toby also exhibited, even then, a quality that now defines his adult character. It is something that the ancient Romans called gravitas. The adult Tobias has a wisdom, a balance, a sensitivity of moral sensibility that is remarkable even in a forty-year old, and was clearly apparent, at least to me, in the little boy he then was.
It was not easy being Toby in that family, what with two professorial parents and a big brother becoming a force in the chess world. Toby came up to me one day in the kitchen, looking rather crestfallen. He must have been nine or so. "What's the matter, Toby"" I asked, rather concerned by the manifest sadness on a face almost always wreathed in smiles. "Daddy," he replied, "I am the only one in the family without a national reputation."


Ann said...

You vividly depict the dual dramas in the philosophy department and your two sons' precocious development....or are there some commonalities between these two "family dramas" after all? :-)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I don't think there are real commonalities. The emotional tone in the department was one of contempt or condescension or dismissiveness for the sort of intellectual work we did' That is the real meaning of the phrase "it's not philosophy." I think I am honest and accurate in saying that contempt, or dismissiveness, or condescension never entered into the relationships in the family

The Rooster said...

Professor Woolf,

I have been reading your memoirs for months now, but it was only with that last story that I realized: I have met your son Tobias. When I was a sophomore at Columbia in 2002, he gave a guest lecture in Peter Pazzaglini's course on Contemporary Civilization. Pazzaglini introduced Tobias with the story that he once told his father that he was the only member of the family without a national reputation, "a problem he is on his way to redressing."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is absolutely correct. Peter is one of his dearest friends.

The Rooster said...

Mea Culpa!

*Wolff, not Woolf

jonathan said...

I am a halfway decent chess player (2100 and stagnant since high school--that's what changing one's passion to philosophy does), so I was familiar with Patrick, though I haven't had the pleasure of meeting him. This was a shocking revelation. I have been reading your memoirs for some time now and never made the connection that Patrick Wolff was that Patrick Wolff.
Chess players do not have fathers. They and their games simply exist.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jonathan, 2100 ain't bad. Once when Patrick was trying very hard to be kind to me, he allowed as how he thought I might be an 1800 player, but he was overestimating by about 400 points. Not only does Patrick have a father [and a mother], he has two lovely children. But I know what you mean. In the chess world, you ARE your chess rating.

Rvincent63 said...

You will forever be the proud papa! Toby and Patrick are so lucky to have you!

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

Ok this world is too small!! First I read your comments about the UMass Econ Department and now i find out you are Patrick Wolff's father!!
I'm a huge fan of chess myself, being an active player till 2001 when I realized the game in its competitive phase asked for too much nervous energy that I didn't have. But still, of course I play online:-)

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

I forgot to add, here is a very nice short documentary of a 1988 simul in which US youngsters-which included Patrick among them- took on none other than Garry Kasparov. Can you share your memories of this event?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ian, I actually posted a link to that youTube video on my blog. It is said to be the shortes game Ksparov ever lost. When Anand p-layed Kasparov for the World Championship, Patrick was one of his seconds -- worked with him for a month in Spain. Patrick wrote a book about the match.