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Sunday, May 2, 2010


Remember: Starting on Wednesday, May 5, I will be posting on my new blog, Formal Methods in Political Philosophy, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and I will be continuing my Memoirs on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The new blog can be found at

Memoir Fourth Installment

The teaching load at Columbia, as we say in the Academy, was "two and two" -- two courses in the Fall and two in the Spring. Since I had been appointed to the Graduate and Undergraduate faculties, that meant an undergraduate course and a graduate course each semester. But I was spending a very large portion of my monthly paycheck on analysis, so I took those numbers as minima rather than as maxima. In 1964-65, my records show, I taught seven courses: four at Columbia, two at Barnard, and one at City College. Thus began a career of moonlighting that would result in my teaching perhaps thirty or more extra courses beyond my mandated load.

I had a total of one hundred fifty three students in those seven courses, and, grading being what it was before the Viet Nam War induced grade inflation of the later sixties and early seventies, I gave out a total of only six grades of A or A+. My favorite student that year, and one of my very favorite graduates students from those years, was a slender, sandy-haired man named Dan Brock. Many of you know Dan, or know of him, for he went on to an extremely distinguished career, first in the Brown University Philosophy Department and now as the head of Harvard Medical School's medical ethics program. I seem to recall that Dan had actually spent some time on Wall Street before coming to Columbia as a Philosophy graduate student. Since I had been hired to cover ethics, I was covering ethics, and Dan was part of the seminar I taught on ethical theory my first semester at Columbia. His seminar paper was really two papers -- a short discussion of social statistics and their significance for ethics, and a longer discussion of moral responsibility, drawing on the writings of Hart and Nowell-Smith. My note to myself says "superb paper, best of the lot." Irena Winston did a bang-up job as official critic. There is a picture of Dan on the Harvard website. His mustache is bigger now.

I taught both an Introduction to Philosophy and a Metaphysics course at Barnard that year [Metaphysics? What on earth was I doing teaching metaphysics?] The best student in either class was a modest, unassuming young woman named Frances Kamm. Frances seems to have done pretty well for herself. She is now a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard. I recall her as a young undergraduate, but that was forty-five years ago, so she must be approaching retirement now. How strange is memory and the passage of time.

The third outstanding student from that year is a real mystery. I taught a graduate course on Political Philosophy, in which I unpacked my "Fundamental Problem of Political Philosophy" paper and set forth the argument of what became In Defense of Anarchism. There was a brilliant student in the class who is listed on my hand-written grade sheet simply as D. Hofstadter. He was far and away the best student in the class, and earned an A+. For thirty years, I have thought that student was Douglas Hofstadter, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gődel, Escher, Bach. But when I Googled him to check, it turned out that he went to Stanford. What is more, I sent him an email, and he replied that it was definitely not he. So there were apparently two brilliant D. Hofstadters at the same time. Would the real D. Hofstadter please check in?

During that first year, as I have already said, Barrington Moore called me to ask that I write an essay on tolerance so that he, Herbie Marcuse, and I could make a book for Beacon Press. Since I have published twenty-one books during the course of my career, sometimes at the rate of three or four a year, perhaps I should explain to my younger readers, who are having trouble getting their fine scholarly work published, just why it was so easy for me. [I once gave a talk at a college where I was introduced by someone who said "Professor Wolff joined the Book of the Month Club, but he misread the promotional materials and thought he was supposed to publish a book a month, not read a book a month."]

It was really all because of Sputnik. As I have already explained [Volume One, Chapter Five, blog post June 28, 2009], the Russians launched their history making orbital space vehicle on October 4, 1957, while I was doing my regular Army service at Fort Devens, MA. We were inside GI-ing the barracks at about 5 a.m. when it made its first pass over North America, but Sgt. McVicker made us fall out and watch it move sedately over ahead. Sputnik wasn't much of a satellite. It was not even two feet in diameter. But the Russians had beaten us into space, and the reaction in America was explosive. If the Russians could launch even something as small as Sputnik into space, then surely they were not far from testing a usable intercontinental ballistic missile that could be armed with a nuclear warhead, way ahead of anything the Americans could build. John F. Kennedy made this so-called "missile gap" a central issue in the 1960 presidential campaign, despite the assurances by President Dwight D. Eisenhower that our intelligence indicated no such gap. Henry Kissinger, always ready to jump on any passing bandwagon, featured the missile gap in The Necessity for Choice. After Kennedy was elected, McGeorge Bundy quietly acknowledged that there was in fact no missile gap.

One almost immediate consequence of Sputnik was the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which funneled huge amounts of money into graduate education to fight the Red menace. As will happen when enough money is poured into an institution, some of it slopped over into the budgets of university presses around the country. This upped the number of library sales for a scholarly book that a publisher could pretty well count on, and the economics of publishing then being what they were, a publisher could be confident of breaking even on a scholarly book from sales to libraries plus the usual sales to the extended family of the author. If a book actually got some good reviews and did well, the publisher would make a profit.

Pretty soon, publishers were contacting authors to ask whether they had anything in the works that could be published. You could get a contract with a manuscript, part of a manuscript, or even an idea and a table of contents. Between 1963 and 1973, I published fifteen books. Needless to say, I thought my success was a consequence of brains and hard work. The truth is, I was just plumb lucky.

My first attempt at an essay on tolerance was a flop. I read what I had written to Cindy -- one of the few times I did that -- and she confirmed that it didn't seem to have much going on. So I threw that away. Then the thought struck me that I could construe tolerance as the characteristic virtue of a liberal democracy. Immediately, I realized that I could portray courage as the characteristic virtue of a military state, loyalty as the virtue of a monarchy, and so forth. I had my story line, and the rest wrote itself. The essay became a vehicle for criticisms of liberal democratic theory that had been percolating in my mind for several years. I sent the essay off to Beacon Press, and shortly afterward had the little roundtable meeting with Moore, Marcuse, and Tovell that I have already described.

When the book came out, it looked a bit like Mao's little red book, except that it was black. In its first three years, A Critique of Pure Tolerance sold all of 4346 copies. Not bad for a scholarly work, but no barn burner either. Then in '66 a German edition appeared [Kritik der Reiner Toleranz, which made it sound even more like an insider Kant joke], and Rudi Dutschke seized on it. The book flew off the shelves in Germany, encouraging Tovell to reissue it in English in a normal format. In 1969, the new edition sold 26,100 copies. Over the next few years, that little book appeared in Swedish, Italian, French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Norwegian, and Japanese. Thanks to the dinner at Moore's house, at which I had first met Herbie, I was world famous in Poland. By the time it finally went out of print twenty-seven years later, the book had sold more than 70,000 copies in America, and I shall never know how many around the world.

Over the years, I had many other fine students, of course. Ann Davis, who has been a guest blogger here, was in one of my Barnard classes. Andrew Levine wrote his doctoral dissertation with me on political philosophy [one of the few over the decades who actually did], and went on to a brilliant career first at Madison, Wisconsin and now at College Park, Maryland. Andrew is weirdly famous in some circles for having the ability to repeat backwards what is said to him [not word for word backwards, but sound for sound backwards], and once actually appeared on television -- the Tonight Show, I think -- as Professor Backwards. But my favorite story about him concerns the first class he ever taught. It was during the exciting days of anti-Viet Nam War protests and Columbia building seizures, and Andrew was totally engaged. I ran into him as he was off to teach his first discussion section ever. He explained to me that he was eager to break down the authority structure of the classroom. He was going to ask students to call him by his first name [this is back when no one did that], and would have the students sit in a circle so that he would not be in a superior position standing in front of the class. "Andrew," I said, "these students are not stupid. They know that at the end of the semester, you are going to be the one giving them a grade. You can't pretend not to be an authority when you really are one." "No, no," he protested, "this is going to be different." Several hours later, I saw him again, and he was quite crestfallen. "They treated me like The Professor," he said sadly. "But you are the professor," I said.

Frances Schrag took the Philosophy of the State course in '67, and is now Professor Emerita from Wisconsin-Madison. I guess I just cannot get used to the fact that my students are retired! Eric Steinberg is emeritus from Brooklyn College. Paul Valliere is a Professor of Religion at Butler University, and David Olan is a Professor of Music at CUNY. Hans Bynagle, who wrote a really fine paper on obedience and autonomy, is now a senior professor at Whitworth University, and Barbara Meyerson is the Ethical Humanist Chaplain at Columbia. My notes on her say "a very intelligent paper on my moral theory. Shows genuine talent." I do hope I was not influenced by the fact she wrote about my views. I don't ordinarily much like that.

Andrzej Rapaczynski also took my course on the philosophy of the state, and actually did something that no other student in my fifty years of teaching has done. He made me change my mind. I gave a lecture setting forth a part of my critique of the justification of democratic authority, and Andrzej raised an objection. I fumbled a bit for an answer and promised to give him a full reply in the next class. But when I got home and thought through his argument, I decided he was right and I was wrong, so I rewrote the lecture and at the next class gave the same lecture over again with the emended argument. Andrjez took a doctorate at Columbia, taught at Yale while simultaneously doing a law degree at Yale Law, and ended up as a Professor of Law at Columbia. The last I saw of him, he was teaching a course at Columbia Law on property that began with Locke's theory of property. I wonder what the law students thought of that.


David Pilavin said...

Maybe I am missing something, but what role does a solitary sentence about Irena Winston smashed between two sentances devoted to Dan play in the following passage?:

My note to myself says "superb paper, best of the lot." Irena Winston did a bang-up job as official critic. There is a picture of Dan on the Harvard website."

Another question: what does the Vietnam War have to do with the inflation in grades?

raistlin7000 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
raistlin7000 said...

I was unable to find a record of Levine appearing on the show, but could your memory be confusing you with David Furher?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

1. I just like to memorialize my former students. To quote Pooh Bah from the Mikado, "it lends verisimilitude to anotherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."

2. If we failed a young man in a course, he was no longer mainaining a satisfactory record, and that made him eligible for the draft. So we stopped failing people, and all the grades escalated up.

Roberto said...


It seems to be a rare, though not exactly unique, talent :)

Quite the party trick, definitely.