Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Friday, April 30, 2010


Big News. Starting next Wednesday, I will be writing a new, second blog. This is a technical blog, called Formal Methods in Political Philosophy. I invite everyone who is interested to visit the new blogsite and become a regular. The URL for the new site is

I hope over the coming weeks and months to lay out the elements of Rational Choice Theory, Game Theory, and Collective Choice Theory, and discuss its uses and misuses in political philosophy, political theory, deterrence strategy, and the law.

Once the new blog starts, I will be posting installments of my Memoirs on this site three times a week. [I did a focus group, and discovered to my astonishment that some people actually do other things besides read what I write. Who knew?]


Younger still by half a generation were Justus Buchler, Robert Cumming, Charles Frankel, Albert Hofstadter, and Richard Taylor , all of whom save Hofstadter were in their middle to late forties when I joined the department. [I have written about Justus at the beginning of Chapter Two of Volume One of these Memoirs, but I shall repeat myself here for the sake of continuity. My apologies to faithful readers.] Justus, who was of course then chairman, was an intensely serious man embarked on an effort to spell out a full-scale totally original metaphysical theory in a series of writings. Justus was extremely intelligent, very widely read in philosophy, and in every way the very model of a modern philosophy professor. The only problem was that nobody was interested in what he had to say. He was reputed to have a disciple who had landed a slot in the Columbia School of Pharmacy, but the larger philosophical community paid him no attention. As I came to know him better, I felt that this was, in some way that I could not quite put into words, deeply unfair. Justus was, by any objective value-neutral standard, a significant figure in American philosophy. It wasn't his fault that no one wanted to read his books. He had read what the Quines and Chisholms and Goodmans had written, and could give you cogent, detailed, textually grounded criticisms of each of them. I tried to read one of his books and found it impenetrable, but lots of great philosophical works are impenetrable. I have never been able to read two pages together by Hegel, and yet look how far he went.

Bob Cumming was tall, slender, and very waspy in appearance. He was a student of the history of political philosophy and regularly co-taught a very popular course on political theory with a quite well known political scientist, David Truman, who was Dean of the College when I joined the faculty, and was subsequently elevated to the Provostship, positioning him to be the next President of the University. Bob seemed very laid back in manner, and in my naive insular fashion, I was quite surprised to discover, several years later, that he took an active role in supporting undergraduate men who resisted being drafted into the Army to fight in Viet Nam. It seemed that you didn't have to be loud-mouthed and Jewish like me to have good politics.

Charles Frankel, who was the same age as Bob Cumming, was a student of Ernest Nagel whose work centered on social philosophy and the philosophy of history. The Social Science Research Council decided to underwrite an international conference on democracy in the Developing World [as former European colonies were then called], and Charles agreed to organize it. He was half way through issuing the invitations and making the arrangements for a meeting to be held in a lavish Italian villa belonging to the Rockefeller Foundation when Lyndon Johnson tapped him to be Assistant Secretary for Cultural and Educational Affairs. On his way out the door to Washington, D. C., Charles turned the conference over to me, and I completed the planning for the affair. I flew off to Italy to spend a week sitting around a square table with scholars and diplomats from all over the world. My job was to write up a report and turn it into the SSRC after the conference had ended. My most vivid memory of the week, which was for the most part rather tedious, was sitting at the table and looking idly at Lucien Pye, seated at the adjacent side, so that I had a sort of sideways view of him. Pye, then in his mid-forties, was an MIT political scientist who even then had gained a considerable reputation in his field. He was very much a Democratic Cold Warrior, along the lines of Henry Jackson and Jack Kennedy. One day, when the conversation had moved to another part of the table, I looked over and caught him in an unguarded moment. His face revealed a deep depression that was completely at odds with his usual hail fellow well met manner. I did not know what it meant, but I was sure I had seen into his soul. On the way home from the conference, I stopped off in London to do a little antique shopping at Liberty's of London. Liberty's is of course best known for its fabrics, especially a sheer weave called Liberty Lawn, but it also had a small, rather select collection of English antiques. I found a splendid eighteenth century Georgian bureau bookcase, which I bought on the spot for 1400 pounds or so. I arranged with Turner & Davies to have it shipped back to our apartment, and called Cindy to tell her the exciting news.

Frankel resigned from the State Department two years later to protest America's accelerating involvement in the Viet Nam war, and returned to Columbia. Tragically, he and his wife were murdered in their Westchester home by a burglar in 1979.

I have almost no memory of Hofstadter, possibly because he left in '67 to join the U. C. Santa Cruz department. Albert's field was aesthetics, and he and our colleague, Richard Kuhns, published some things together.

Richard Taylor was a newcomer to the department, having arrived only a year before I. He had transferred from Brown, where, rumor was, he had married John Ladd's former wife, and felt it better to get out of Providence. Dick was living in a large apartment that looked across 116th st. to the Columbia Law School. He had a beehive installed in one of the windows [no kidding], and the bees would commute between his window and Morningside Park, half a block away. When I was offered the job, Dick wrote me quite the loveliest letter I have ever received from a colleague. He passed away seven years ago, but I think he would not have objected to my quoting part of it for this memoir.

"Dear Bob," he wrote, "I had very much hoped I would see you on your recent visit. Hylda and I wanted you and your wife to come across the street to have a drink with us... We've had some pretty long discussions in our departmental meetings about various possible people for teaching ethics and kindred subjects. Some very good men have been discussed, and rejected. When your name came up, the discussion took about six minutes and the result was unanimous and enthusiastic. You would be appreciated here, believe me." I was deeply touched, and though I had already decided to accept the offer, I felt genuinely welcomed by Dick's letter.

Richard, like Albert and myself, eventually left Columbia, in Richard's case for the University of Rochester. I have often observed that the best way to become well-known in philosophy is to write short books. Richard figured out that another surefire avenue to fame is to defend a proposition that everyone is quite sure is false. I did that, without really realizing it, when I defended anarchism, and Dick did the trick with fatalism. Forever, it seems, philosophers have been fussing over the conflict between free will and determinism. Some people have taken a strong stand for free will. Some have defended determinism and rejected the claims of free will. And Kant famously argued that properly circumscribed and understood, the two could be made compatible. But everybody agreed that, leaving aside theological dogmas about pre-destination, the one thing we know is that fatalism is wrong. The Greeks may have thought Oedipus was fated to marry his mother and kill his father, but no self-respecting analytic philosopher would be caught dead defending fatalism. So Dick wrote a book defending fatalism. Sure enough, everyone went ballistic, and his fame was made. I just offer this as a suggestion to ambitious young philosophers.

Joining these older men were a number of relatively recently tenured younger men who thought of themselves as the new generation of the department. Jim Walsh was a medievalist, a short, square light-haired man who had been stuck with the job of Graduate Program Director because he was manifestly sane. Although I do not think I ever got to know Jim well, I liked him enormously, and was delighted to have him as a colleague. The other sane younger member of the department was Richard Kuhns, whose work lay principally in Aesthetics. Dick never seemed to me to be a real philosopher, because he wasn't crazy, but he had a very distinguished career.

Art Danto was what I thought a philosopher ought to be -- quirky, quixotic, original, very bright, someone whose next remark could never be predicted. When I showed up, Arthur had a problem, and he turned to me to solve it for him. It seems that an editor at Harper Books named Fred Wieck had conceived the idea of bringing out a series of big, handsome books lavishly bound in half calf with the general title Harper Guides. There would be a Harper Guide to Art, a Harper Guide to History, a Harper Guide to Music, and so forth. Arthur had been recruited to edit the Harper Guide to Philosophy. I asked Wieck once who would ever read these books, since I could not imagine assigning one in a course. "Well," he said, giving me some insight into the deeper logic of the publishing world, "we are aiming more at the book buying than at the book reading public." Apparently Harper's sales division had ascertained that there was a gap on the shelves of Middle American living rooms waiting to be filled.

The Harper Guide to Philosophy was to consist of ten extended essays, each laying out developments on the forefronts of one or another of the main fields of philosophy. Arthur had rounded up a truly impressive team of people to do the essays. Bernard Williams had agreed to do one on ethics, Norwood Hanson had said yes to the philosophy of science, Richard Wollheim would do aesthetics, and so on. But Isaiah Berlin had just turned down the political philosophy essay, and Arthur was a little desperate. When I showed up, he asked me whether I would do it. "What is the advance?" I asked him, thinking, as I always did in those days, about how I was going to pay for the analysis. "Five hundred dollars," he replied, "payable on signing." That would cover more than a month of sessions. "I'll do it," I said, "when do you want the essay?" "Is the end of next summer too soon?" he asked. "You'll have it" I promised.

Charlie Parsons was not showing up until the following year. I think he had a fellowship or a year off.

And then there was Sidney.

Sidney Morgenbesser, when I got to Columbia, was a forty-four year burly, handsome man with a broad face and an even broader New York accent. Sidney had studied at CCNY and then at Penn under Nelson Goodman. He had also been ordained as a Rabbi after completing his studies at Jewish Theological Seminary, though he did not actually believe in God. He was ferociously brilliant, polymathically learned, witty, charming, deeply moral, a man whom it was impossible not to love. Sidney published very little in his life, but he generated ten thousand wonderful stories that are part of the folklore of philosophy, of Columbia, and of New York City. He was probably the best unpublished philosopher since Socrates. These memoirs of my Columbia days will contain many Morgenbesser stories, beyond those I have already told, although in deference to my readers, I will try not to repeat any that are already well known. The Wikipedia entry on Sidney has a lovely selection of them, which I commend to you.

This was not the first time I was meeting Sidney. In late 1949, I visited my big sister, Barbara, at Swarthmore College, where she was a student, as part of my very limited look at possible colleges for myself [once again, see Memoirs, Volume One, Chapter One -- blog post June 28, 2009]. Barbara took me along to a philosophy class being taught by a dynamic young Assistant Professor. It was Sidney.

Before I start with the Sidney stories, there is one thing I want to say that is deeply important, and has no punch line at all. Sidney was morally and politically engagé all his life, a fact that earned my total respect and admiration. But Sidney taught me something that I have carried with me ever since I learned it from him, though I suspect he never realized he was teaching it to me and to the rest of the world. Quite simply, it is that friendship is more important than ideology. Whether I agreed with Sidney or not, I felt loved by him, and that warmed me in a way that no encounter with any other philosopher has done. The very last time I saw Sidney was in the early '90s. I had been invited to speak at Columbia, and Sidney showed up. I chose to deliver a paper I had prepared a bit earlier for delivery at an academic retreat of the University of Durban-Westville, in a resort in the Drakensberg in South Africa. Sidney raised his hand after I was done and posed a series of very pointed questions that contained a major criticism of my thesis. Then he smiled and waved his hands as if to say, "Well, none of that really matters. I am just happy to see you." His mind could not allow a mistake to pass unchallenged, but his heart refused to let the matter lie there. Sidney died six years ago, and though I had not seen him in more than a decade, I felt a sharp pang of loss when I heard the news.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


Chapter Three Columbia University in the City of New York

Columbia gave us one of its rent controlled apartments, and we moved in when we got back from Europe. Five rooms, kitchen and bath for $108.50 a month, although after we had them install a new fridge, they upped that to $111.50. Even in 1964, that was a fabulous bargain. The apartment was a slum, but I was about to go into full-scale analysis, which would cost a sizable portion of my annual salary, so I grabbed it. [I only realized the apartment was a slum some years later, when I was idly watching a public television special about efforts to renovate a block in Harlem. The did a before-and-after sequence on an apartment being upgraded, and during the before segment, as the camera panned around the ratty looking apartment, I suddenly had an epiphany. "My God," I thought, "that looks just like our apartment. We live in a slum!]

There are striking similarities between the physical locations of the University of Chicago and Columbia, but also major differences. Like Chicago, Columbia is situated cheek-by-jowl with a large Black community -- the most famous Black community in America. Like Chicago, Columbia bought up real estate and managed it in an attempt to preserve a White enclave. But whereas Chicago is insular, inward-looking, isolated from downtown, Columbia bleeds into Manhattan so that it is sometimes difficult to feel where the university stops and the rest of the city begins. Not for nothing does Columbia call itself "Columbia University in the City of New York."

The bulk of the university consisted then of a rectangle oriented north-south, with Broadway on its west flank, Amsterdam Avenue to its east, 114th street to the south and 120th street to the north. The cross streets from 115th to 119th were blocked off, creating something of a campus, although it did not feel like either Harvard Yard or the Quadrangle. The heart of the university was a large grassy open area crisscrossed by walks, with the administration building, Low Library, at the north end and the real library, Butler, at the south. If you have seen Ghostbusters or the Barbra Streisand Jeff Bridges movie The Mirror Has Two Faces or countless other films, you have seen that space. It is one of the most recognizable places in Manhattan.

Columbia sits on the upper west side of Manhattan, in a community called Morningside Heights [think Annie Hall]. If you stand on either Broadway or Amsterdam and look south, you see a long straight avenue going downhill for quite a stretch. Columbia is perched almost on the highest part of the Heights. Our apartment was half a block from the university: 415 W. 115th st., apt. 51. That portion of 115th street is a single block between Amsterdam and Morningside Drive, so I was not even two blocks from my office in Philosophy Hall. Morningside Drive runs along the western edge of Morningside Park, a vertiginously steep bit of land that falls away from Morningside Heights to Harlem below. It quite effectively divides the university from the Black community. Little did I know, when I moved into our new home, what an important role that park would play in the most dramatic events of my Columbia stay.

My first priority was to get to know the group of department members who would, I confidently expected, be my colleagues for the rest of my life. Since the Academy, whatever its politics, is a deeply conservative institution, propriety dictates that I begin with the most senior of my new colleagues. When I arrived in 1964 as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young Associate Professor, there were four grand old men in the Department who collectively embodied the ethos of the Columbia that had once been. Pride of place must be given to John Herman Randall Jr., who was sixty-five. [As I write these memoirs, I am back in that time, seeing things in my mind as I experienced them. Randall and the others will always be, to me, ancient relics, distinguished, hoary, survivors of a bygone age. The fact that I am now eleven years older than Randall was then makes no impression on my memories whatsoever.]

Randall had made his name, at the age of twenty-seven, with the publication of The Making of the Modern Mind, and had an enormous, and deserved, reputation in the Columbia community. He had been one of the architects of the famous Contemporary Civilization course required of all undergraduates, Columbia's answer to the Hutchins revolution and a forerunner of General Education at Harvard. Randall's principal focus was on the Greeks, so we did not really have much in common philosophically, but he and his wife, Mercedes, very graciously invited Cindy and me to dinner shortly after we arrived, as a welcome to the department. The Randalls lived in a big pre-war apartment on Claremont, a little street squeezed between Broadway and Riverside Drive that was home to some of Columbia's most sought after rentals. When we walked into the book-lined living room, the first thing I saw on the shelves was the complete multi-volume edition of the works of Immanuel Kant. The Prussian Academy edition is the holy grail for Kant scholars, and by the time I came along, a set was fabulously expensive. I thought, "This is what academic life is supposed to be!"

During dinner, Jack and Mercedes regaled us with stories of Columbia in the old days. Mercedes explained that when you were an Assistant Professor, you had a maid who came in before breakfast and left after washing up the dinner dishes. Once you got tenure, however, you hired a full-time servant who lived in a little room behind the kitchen that had its own bathroom. She cooked, cleaned, and baby-sat, and each summer, when you went to Europe, she came along to look after the children and handle the trunks. For a brief moment, I had a glimpse of an era that would not, I was sure, come again.

Two other senior professors, Horace Friess and James Gutman, were less academically distinguished than Randall, but both had played important roles in the Ethical Culture Society, a progressive, secular spinoff of Reformed Judaism founded by Felix Adler in the 1870's. The Society, readers of the earlier portions of this memoir will recall, had been responsible for the creation of the Child Study Association, where my mother worked until her first heart attack in 1950. It was through Child Study that my parents found Shaker Village Work Camp for me, as well as Dr. Bertram Schaffner, my first psychiatrist [Memoirs, Volume One, Chapter One -- see Blog post, June 28, 2009]. Algernon Black of the Ethical Culture Society was also the founder of the Encampment for Citizenship, where my sister danced with Marshall Cohen. In coming to Columbia, I was entering a world that was complicatedly intertwined with my family.

The fourth grand old man was Ernest Nagel, a distinguished philosopher of science and the teacher or mentor of several of the younger men in the department. Nagel was really more like my adoptive uncle than a colleague. He was just nineteen days older than my father, and the two of them had known each other as undergraduates at City College, along with my uncle Bob, then a professor of Astronomy and Physics at CCNY, and Sidney Hook. I still have an old photograph of my father, my uncle, Nagel, and my grandmother gathered around a little telescope in the Catskills, where my grandmother took the children every summer.

Only slightly younger than Randall and the others was the great humanist scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller. I had encountered Paul's work on The Renaissance while preparing myself to teach Soc Sci 5 at Harvard, and, as with Alan Gewirth at Chicago, I was tremendously impressed that I was going to be able to call myself his colleague. Paul had been educated in Germany, and was then forced first to flee Germany and then Italy because of the rise of fascism, a fact that played a large role in his reaction to the events of '68.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


When I left Justus Buchler's office I caught a cab to Grand Central Station for the trip back to Boston. There was still snow on the ground as the cab drove south through Central Park. I leaned back against the seat, looked out, and thought to myself, "This is it. This is where I am going to live for the rest of my life. My career is now a success. I am an Ivy League Philosophy professor." It was fourteen years since I had taken that same train from Grand Central Station to begin my college education as a sixteen year old Freshman. I was pretty pleased with myself.

Chicago's response to the Columbia offer was extremely generous, the suspicions of the undergraduates notwithstanding. On the spot, they agreed to match the promotion and tenure and top Columbia's salary offer of $11,000 by a thousand dollars. I was genuinely flattered, but we decided to make the move to New York.

Cindy had applied for and won a fellowship from the American Association of University Women for the academic year '64-65 so that she could complete the writing of her dissertation. We put the money in our bank account [or thought we did -- see Chapter Six of Volume One], for use when we started living in New York. Meanwhile, we prepared to leave for Europe. Since Cindy was phobic about flying, we went by ocean liner -- the United States out, the France back. Our first stop was in France, where we spent a week or so. We actually had a meal at Tour D'Argent, then a three star restaurant but now demoted to one star. I ordered the quennelles and their signature dish, the pressed duck. It was quite good. We also bought some Limoges china to take with us to our New York apartment. Then it was on to London, where Cindy would spend time doing research for her doctoral dissertation. The principal venue for her research was Dr. Williams' Library, a private library located in Gordon Square containing a splendid collection of Nonconformist Protestant literature.

Gordon Square is, or was in those days, a picture book little lozenge shaped square around a tiny park, ringed by buildings on both sides. It could have served as a movie set for Peter Pan or My Fair Lady, and for all I know actually did. The librarians at Dr. Williams' were enormously helpful. If you filled out a card asking for some manuscript or volume, like as not the person who went into the bowels of the stacks to retrieve it would bring back three or four other items as well, saying "I thought you might find these useful, considering what you are looking for." One day, Cindy took out a collection of pamphlets bound together in a single volume. On the tube going home, she was leafing through it idly when suddenly she froze. "Do you know what this is?," she said urgently, pointing to one of the pamphlets. "This is a first edition of Death's Duell," which, she explained to me, was a very famous sermon preached by John Donne. "We must go back to the library and return it immediately." Back we went, so that she could hand it in. "I do not think you realize what you have just done," Cindy said portentously. "This is a first edition of a Donne sermon." "Oh yes," the librarian replied gaily, "that's all right. Until the first world war, our circulating copy of Shakespeare was a First Folio."

While Cindy did research, I amused myself by reading Pamela, Richardson's first novel, and having a go at Clarissa. I should explain that these novels are monstrously long. They make War and Peace look like a penny dreadful. I never made it all the way it through Clarissa, and I did not even attempt Sir Charles Grandison. One day, I took myself to the British Museum, and talked my way into the famous Reading Room [not then knowing that it was there that Karl Marx plotted the downfall of the capitalist order.] I filled out a slip, and forty-five minutes later a runner delivered to my desk David Hume's own copy of a Treatise of Human Nature. As I have many times made clear, I am not a religious person, but when I held that book in my hand, I did feel as though an Angel of the Lord had brushed his wings against me.

Probably the most memorable moment of our London stay, at least for me, was an outing to Trafalgar Square, where we saw A Hard Day's Night in a first run theater. I am a devout lover of baroque music, and as I have already written, I listened to Bach's B Minor Mass with Susie when I was courting her as a teenager. But I fell in love with the music in that movie, and retain to this day a special place for it in my heart.

We even had time for some antique hunting. In the town of Alresford, fifty miles southwest of London, we found what can only be described as an antiques warehouse. After spending a shaky couple of hours on a bicycle built for two, my only experience with this antique contraption, we bought a magnificent Georgian chest on chest with the original finish for fifty two pounds ten, a pittance even then. It was one of the few pieces of antique furniture that were included in my portion of the household furnishings when Cindy and I separated twenty-two years later, and it sits today in the living room of the condominium that Susie and I bought in Chapel Hill. I also had a tailor in the North End make me a suit from some tweedy woolen fabric we had found, but alas it is some decades since I have been able to fit into it.

With Cindy's research completed, it was time for us to sail home to the United States and begin our life in New York.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Cindy and I really wanted to stay in Cambridge when my visiting year at Wellesley was over, and we did everything we could think of to make that happen. Bert Dreyfus was then teaching at MIT in the Humanities Department, so I asked him to see whether he could wangle a position there for me, but it was no go. B. U. was willing to give Cindy more Freshman Comp, but that was pretty much it. I had one other possible entrée to MIT. Franklin Fisher and I knew one another from undergraduate days, and Frank was then teaching in the Economics Department at MIT after a stint in the Society of Fellows. Cindy and I had fallen into the habit of playing bridge with Frank and Ellen one night a week. Frank offered to arrange for me to give a talk, and I decided to present some of the material from my unpublished manuscript on the rhetoric of deterrence. I thought I would be speaking to philosophers, but when I got to the room, I found that the audience consisted of the smartest young economists at MIT, which is to say the smartest young economists in the world. The talk was an unmitigated disaster. At that time, I did not know any of the technical jargon associated with Game Theory [lexicographic preference orders and the like], and the audience carved me up like a Christmas turkey. Some time afterward, Frank said they had been talking it over and decided that I was actually right, even though I did not know how to put my ideas in the appropriate way. So much for MIT.

During the late winter of '63-64, I was invited to give a talk to the Columbia Philosophy Department. I proposed to give my paper on the Fundamental Problem of Political Theory, which seemed fine with them, so I went down to New York and took a cab from Grand Central to Morningside Heights. It was my first time back on the campus since that summer evening in 1955 [see Volume One, Chapter Three -- Blog post June 28, 2009]. The Philosophy Department at Columbia is located in Philosophy Hall, appropriately enough, behind a reproduction of Rodin's The Thinker. The layout of the building is rather odd, with the department offices on the seventh floor, even though that is only the fifth floor up from ground level. My talk was delivered not to a general audience but to the members of the department, who had gathered in the seminar room down the hall from the office, under a watchful photograph of former department member John Dewey. I thought things went well, although Jimmy Gutman asked some rather skeptical questions about my argument. Afterward, I took the train back to Boston.

The time has come for me to tell the story of how I was hired by Columbia University. This is all going to sound very odd to younger readers, so some words of preparation and background are called for. Back when I was a student and then a young untenured professor, there were really only ten universities in America at which one could usefully study Philosophy at the doctoral level: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Chicago, Michigan, Stanford, Berkeley, and UCLA. When one of those departments had an opening, someone would pick up the phone or drop a line to a friend at one or another of the ten schools and ask whether they had a promising young philosopher ready to start teaching. That, you will recall, is how I got the Chicago job. There were, of course, huge numbers of colleges and universities around the country even then, and most of them, especially the less prestigious among them, would actually advertise openings and invite applications. But no one at one of the top schools would have considered trying to fill a position in that manner.

In '61, after the Harvard department declined Bundy's request that they keep me on, I had done a quick survey of the top ten schools to get some idea of the lay of the land. At that time, leaving to one side a few people who had done doctoral studies overseas, every one of the tenured professors at those ten schools had a doctorate from one of the ten schools. It was a totally closed loop. What is more, there were several binary linkages. Everyone at Columbia and Chicago had a doctorate from Chicago or Columbia. Everyone at Michigan came either from Harvard or from Michigan itself. No school on the East Coast had a tenured member who had done his work on the West Coast [they were all men, by the way].

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson pressured the Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act, Title VII of which mandated the appointment of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or, as it quickly came to be known, E. E. O. C. Over time, hiring in the Academy was totally transformed. All schools, even Harvard, began to publish announcements of open positions, and job descriptions routinely described the hiring university or college as an EEOC institution. The annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association ceased to be a clubby gathering of old boys and young wannabes chatting, back-slapping, and idly listening to talks, and became a job market flooded with anxious young job seekers waiting to be called up to hotel rooms for preliminary interviews. In the old days, when a philosophy student reached the job stage, he or she [there were even then a few women, although of course virtually no one of color] would be taken in tow by the dissertation director at the Convention smoker. Circulating around the room, the professor would grab a colleague from another school by the elbow and introduce him to the student, who would then be left to make as good an impression as possible while shifting from foot to foot.

I didn't think anything of the Columbia talk -- just another speaking gig -- until suddenly one day, I was called by the Chairman, Justus Buchler, who told me he would like me to come down to discuss becoming a senior member of the department. So there it was! All the stories were true. Write a book, get it published, and land a top job. I was beside myself with delight. I was, as they say in professional baseball, moving up to the Show. As I have said, Cindy and I wanted to stay in Boston, but neither of us had had any success in generating job offers there, and we really did not want to go back to Chicago, so I told Justus that I would be right there, and took the train down again. When I got to Justus' office in Philosophy Hall, he told me that the department would like me to join them so that I could "cover ethics." Ethics? I had never taught ethics in my life. I had just published a book on Kant's First Critique. "Cover ethics?" There is in Animal Husbandry a usage for the verb "to cover," meaning roughly what a stallion does when it mounts a mare. I did not know whether Columbia wanted me to teach ethics, keep it out of sight, or impregnate it. But my employment experiences to this point had taught me that no matter what someone wanted me to teach, my only response must be, "Oh, yes sir. Thank you sir. I have always wanted to teach that, sir, but thus far no one has given me the opportunity." I did the proper thing and said I would have to think about the offer and discuss it with my wife, but I had not the slightest doubt that I was going to accept.

Once it was settled that I had been offered a senior professorship in the Columbia Philosophy Department, starting on 1 July, 1964, I delicately broached the subject of my teaching duties. "Would it be all right," I asked, "if I were to teach a course on the Critique of Pure Reason?" "Well," Justus replied, "We have hired Charles Parsons to teach Kant, but you can discuss it with him." I knew then that I had stumbled onto a funny farm. Columbia had given a senior position to a philosopher of mathematics to teach Kant, and they now had offered a senior position to a Kant scholar to teach Ethics. It took me a while to find out what was really going on.

It seems that some years earlier, there had been a terrible fight in the department over who would get a name chair that had come open. Things got so bad that the Provost stepped in and put the department in receivership, appointing the great literary scholar Marjorie Nicholson as Chair until people had simmered down. Everyone was so mortified by this that an agreement was struck among the senior members of the department. If as many as four people opposed an appointment, it would not go through. The department had been looking for an ethicist for some time, and had settled on Joel Feinberg -- hardly surprising, since Joel was one of the leading young ethicists in the country. But four people said no, and that left them without a candidate. Apparently, after my talk, at the next department meeting, Sidney Morgenbesser looked around the room and asked, in his broad, nasal New York accent, "Why don't we hire Bob?" Nobody could think of a good reason why they shouldn't hire me, so they told Justus to make the call.

O.k., that explained me. But why hire Charlie to teach Kant? That turns out to have been a consequence of the fact that Arnold Koslo got married. He and Charlie were friends, so Charlie came down from Cornell for the wedding. As I heard the story, after the ceremony, Charlie, Sidney, and Arthur Danto were standing around, when Sidney asked Charlie, "Charlie, how come you never came to teach for us?" Charlie, who had a nice appreciation of the proprieties in such matters, answered, "You never asked me." Sidney then turned to Arthur and said, "Arthur, why didn't we ever ask Charlie to teach at Columbia?" Arthur, whose wall eye made him seem somewhat North by Northwest, gazed off into the distance and said, "I don't know." Sure enough, at the next department meeting, Sidney asked his assembled colleagues, "How come we never asked Charlie to teach at Columbia?" Nobody could remember why they hadn't, or indeed whether they had ever thought about it, so they decided maybe they should. Justus made the call. Since Charlie was at that time teaching Kant, they apparently figured he might as well do that at Columbia.

All of this is, to put it mildly, outrageous, and we can be glad that Lyndon Johnson put an end to it. Still and all, Charlie was probably the smartest young philosopher in America at that time, Saul Kripke notwithstanding, so if they had had a race blind gender neutral open competition for the job, Charlie would probably have gotten it. If he thought to apply, of course.

Monday, April 26, 2010


When Christmas rolled around, Cindy and I decided to throw a party, but our apartment was small, and between us, we had accumulated a large number of friends during our Harvard years, so we hit upon the plan of dividing them up into three more or less compatible groups and inviting them for three successive nights. For each party, we would make a large bowl of eggnog, lay out cups and all, conjure up some eats, and welcome in that night's cohort. My Wellesley connections were part of the group invited for the third night, but Ellen Haring, the Philosophy Department Chair, got her wires crossed and showed up on the second night instead. I was surprised when she rang the doorbell, but I just greeted her and invited her in. I have often thought that when she got home, she might have consulted her date book, realized her mistake, and then wondered whether we gave a party every night.

I was still convinced that I needed to enter a full-scale psychoanalysis, but I could not do that until I knew where I was going to be for an extended period of years, so I compromised by again seeking once-a-week therapy. My first therapist was Dr. Max Day, who rather startled me by turning out to have read my big cover story article on Herman Kahn in The New Republic two years earlier. Day was a very sympathetic character, and helped me in an on-going way to deal with the marital problems I was having. When he had to leave town, he handed me on to a Dr. Limentani, a perfectly decent man who had the misfortune to be hard of hearing. It was really weird trying to free associate in the presence of someone who had to cup a hand behind his ear and ask me to repeat myself.

I had continued my efforts in the campaign for nuclear disarmament, and the stress of arguing with people day after day about the threat of an accidental nuclear war was beginning to take its toll on me. I talked to Limentani about my fears, and he made a valiant effort to separate what was rational about them from what might be a neurotic element. By that time I really knew what I was talking about, and I was very sensitive, as you can imagine, to the slightest suggestion that it was all in my head.

One day, I found myself in the upstairs lounge of the Harvard Freshman Union, trying to persuade a skeptical member of the Harvard faculty of the seriousness of the dangers of an accidental nuclear exchange [it may have been Brzezinski, but my memory fails me on this point]. I must have simply wigged out, because the next thing I knew, I was running down Massachusetts Avenue as fast as I could, hyperventilating. When I got home, I took a long look at myself and decided that this could not be good for me. I had been more or less permanently in a state of controlled panic about nuclear weapons for three years, with no end in sight. I decided to pull back from the stress of public speaking and endless arguing, and instead ascend into what I later learned to think of as the ideological superstructure. I turned to political theory.

I began to think really hard about the foundations of democratic theory -- about the arguments that had been advanced by one or another of the great political theorists to justify the authority claims of the democratic state. Fairly quickly, it became clear to me that I needed something very like what Kant would have called a deduction of the democratic state, which is to say an argument designed to demonstrate a priori that a legitimate democratic state is theoretically possible. Couching the problem in Kantian terms, as seemed natural to me for obvious reasons, I set out to discover the conditions of the possibility in general of a de jure legitimate democratic state.

I wrote a paper called "The Fundamental Problem of Political Theory," which I interpreted to be the task of demonstrating the legitimacy of the democratic form of government. At first, I thought such a justification could be found, so at the beginning of my paper, I announced my intention of producing the justification, only to have to admit at the end of the paper that I had thus far failed. I delivered the paper in various places, always with this letdown as a conclusion. After a while, it dawned on me that I was not really looking for and failing to find a justification for democracy. I was really demonstrating the impossibility of such a justification. I had, almost without realizing it, become an anarchist.

Needless to say,, the rest of the world did not put itself on hold while I made up my mind about democracy. On Friday, November 22nd, 1963 I was in the Widener card catalogue room looking something up. Widener has been somewhat reconfigured in recent years. In those days, when you reached the top of the broad staircase leading to the second floor, if you turned right, you entered a narrow room crammed with brown wooden file cabinets containing hundreds of card drawers, in which, arrayed alphabetically, were cards for Widener's enormous collection. Having found what you were looking for, you could either fill out a call slip with one of the stubby yellow pencils the library provided, or flash your Harvard I. D. and walk into the stacks themselves via a narrow door located to the left of the large desk area reserved for the librarians. As I was filtering through the cards in a drawer, I noticed a stir up at the desk, which was usually a model of librarial silence. Several people were gathered around a small portable radio, listening intently. I wandered over to find out what was up, and heard the news that Kennedy had just been shot while visiting Dallas. At that point it was not known whether he had survived.

I rushed home to tell Cindy, who did not have either radio or television set on and therefore had not heard the news. In those days we had a little ugly tabletop black and white tv set with enormous rabbit ears that one could rotate this way and that to catch the signal. For the entire weekend, I remained glued to the set, along with most of the rest of America. I was actually watching when the Dallas police led Lee Harvey Oswald out of the station to transfer him to another location. Jack Ruby walked up, pulled out a gun, and shot him dead, though in fact you could not actually see any of this in the crush of police and spectators.

As luck would have it, Cindy's parents were scheduled to come to town a few days later, and although it was a business trip, we would be seeing them for dinner. Once again, a little back story is called for. Jim Griffin was a self-made man. He had never finished high school, and had entered the Sears Roebuck ranks before the war, when it was still possible to do that without educational credentials. Sears, which in those days was one of America's great corporations, was organized along regional lines. Griffin rose first to be the manager of a store in Louisville, and then to be head of the Cleveland group of Sears stores, one of the largest and most important groups in the country. His progress was guided by the President of the company, who had taken Griffin under his wing. The natural next step would have been a regional vice-presidency, a position which by then called for at the very least a college degree. Griffin was passed over, but the Sears President created a new slot for him in the Chicago home office: Vice President of Public Relations.

Now Sears wanted to build a new store in Boston at a location not zoned for so large a commercial enterprise, and a zoning waiver was needed. In the Boston of that time, the way to accomplish this was for money to change hands. The go-between was a shady character referred to simply as "the Egyptian," and Jim Griffin was the bagman. The Griffins had become friendly with two brothers of Greek extraction, Tom and John Pappas, who played an important role in Boston political life, and were facilitating the payoff. The Pappas family owed its money to the importation of Greek olives and other delicacies, with the result that for several years Cindy and I received large bags of pistachio nuts each Christmas. We were invited to join the Griffins for a dinner in a fabled North End Italian restaurant, along with John and Katherine Pappas, their daughter, and an impecunious young man of impeccable Greek aristocratic extraction to whom the Pappas were trying to marry off the daughter.

Boston Democrats were divided into two camps, those allied with the Kennedys and those allied with the McCormacks. The McCormack faction had been riding high because its leader, John McCormack had ascended to the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives, but the election of Jack Kennedy had totally tilted the balance in the other direction. The Pappas brothers were part of the McCormack faction, and at dinner, there was ill-concealed glee at the assassination. That night, for the first time, I had Fettuccini Alfredo.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


The response to my question has convinced me that there will be small but interested group willing to go into the weeds with me and learn about the use and abuse of formal models in philosophy, political science, and the law. It will take me some time to set this up, figure out how to scan diagrams and things and post them in the blog, etc. But stay tuned, and I will announce when I am going to start. I think it might make sense to post entries to the blog three times a week. I imagine that some of you have lives, and cannot spend all of your time reading what I write. :)


Chapter Two A Cambridge Interlude

Cindy and I found an apartment up Concord Avenue in Cambridge, and moved in to get ready for the new academic year. In a frenzy of activity that I now realize was a therapeutic effort to repair our marriage, we stripped the wallpaper off the walls, painted the entire apartment, and settled in to what would probably only be a single year's occupancy. Cindy very much wanted to go to England the next summer to do archival research on Puritan diaries, Saints' Lives, and Autobiographies, and even with our combined salaries, that was going to be something of a reach, so I hunted about for some moonlighting to supplement my Wellesley pay. [By then I was making $8500 a year at Chicago, and Wellesley was not paying me any more than that.] I hustled around and managed to get a part-time gig at B. U. teaching political theory both at the undergraduate and graduate level. I also bagged a course at Northeastern University in an adult education division. In the end, I spent the year teaching full time at Wellesley, half time at B. U., and quarter time at Northeastern.

Once it had appeared, my Kant book didn't do too badly, as these things are judged in the Academy. The Excel spreadsheet on which I record the sales of all of my books shows that over a nine year period, from its publication in 1963 until Harvard allowed it to go out of print in 1972, it sold a total of 2226 copies, earning $4,264. That is a tiny fraction of the sales of some of my more successful books, but it may well have been a decent share of all the people in the United States seriously interested in studying Kant's First Critique. In '72, a new editor took over Harvard University Press and, in an effort to improve its bottom line, summarily consigned a long backlist of books to the trash heap. On December 12, 1972, Nanine Hutchinson wrote to me that my book was "placed with several hundred others in a mail sale, where the remaining copies found appreciative homes." In my rather irked reply, I wrote "I must say I found the tone of your letter a trifle disconcerting. I thought we were talking about a scholarly work, not a litter of kittens."

I very much wanted to find some way to keep the book in print, especially since I myself hoped periodically to teach a Kant course in which I would want to assign it. Someone told me about a reprint house called Peter B. Smith Publishers that might be interested in re-issuing it. I found the name in the phone book and called a North Shore number. Peter Smith himself answered. When I explained what I wanted, he said, rather hesitantly, "Well, we have a big backlog. It might be several years before we could get to it." Suddenly, I had one of those flashes of insight that come all too infrequently. "I don't really care about the royalties," I said. "I am willing to forego them so long as the book is available." "Oh well," he said, "in that case I think we can bring it out in three months." Harvard had destroyed the plates for the book, thereby violating clause 24 of our contract [inasmuch as they had not in fact informed me in writing of their intention to allow the book to go out of print], but Smith carefully disassembled a copy I sent him, made plates from the pages, and then reassembled and rebound my copy. The reprint, when it appeared, was identical with the original in every way save two. The hard cover was a mustardy yellow rather than a powdery blue, and the price had been substantially reduced. I just checked on and it is no longer available, but for decades after Harvard let it lapse, Peter B. Smith kept it in print, enabling generations of Kant students to read it.

Wellesley was as different from Chicago as a convent is from a schul. The Chicago students were an argumentative, rebellious lot, perfect for keeping a Philosophy class afloat. If a student walked into class late, like as not she would raise her hand as she entered and say, "I don't agree." The problem at Chicago was not getting a discussion started in class. It was getting out of the room alive once the discussion had erupted. At Wellesley, quite another ethos prevailed. The students were very smart, but they were demurely respectful. And they took notes. Everything I said that sounded even remotely important was immediately transcribed into their notebooks. They behaved a bit like a school of dolphins. On cue, they would all rise up with their pens, dive into their notebooks, and start writing. There were class periods during which I would scarcely see the whites of their eyes. I tried telling them to put their pens down and listen, but they wrote that down too. Then I tried forbidding them to take notes, but that produced a level of anxiety so high that it interfered with normal brain function, so at last I gave up and lectured to the tops of their heads. I recall one extremely quiet young woman who each day sat in the very last row of one course and never ever said a word. When I graded the midterm examinations, I was startled to discover that she was far and away the best student in the class.

There was one rule that I enforced with unbending rigor. I had heard from an old hand that Wellesley students had a tendency to come to one's office and cry. I told my classes that if anyone came to my office and cried, I would jump out of the window.

Wellesley was, and still is, a breathtakingly beautiful campus, set in a picture postcard town outside of Boston. The grounds were exquisitely laid out, and perfectly manicured. Shortly before I got there, a gorgeous new Faculty Club had been opened on the shores of a little lake. One sat on the second floor eating lunch and looking out over the lake, much as though one were at an exclusive country club. But though the physical plant was gorgeous, and the students were bright, albeit timid, the faculty was not welcoming to an outsider. No one asked me out to lunch. No one sought me out in my office for a chat. When I wandered into the faculty lounge for afternoon tea, I drank it alone, because the little clutches of old timers sitting together circled the wagons as I approached.

While I was teaching at Wellesley, Dave Dushkin contacted me from Random House and proposed that I edit a book for them. Pretty quickly, I came up with an idea for an interdisciplinary collection of readings on politics drawn from Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science, and Psychology. I called it Political Man and Social Man. At least, that is what I think the book is about. I am sitting in Chapel Hill writing this, and one copy of each of the various editions and translations of my books -- some sixty volumes or more -- is in our Paris apartment, where I took them so as to have something to fill up the book shelves. My only copy of Political Man and Social Man is there, and I shan't be back in Paris until June. It is now so long since I have looked at the book that I may be misremembering what it is about. [There is something a little odd about the fact that I can recall the details of even very minor events in my earlier life more easily than I can recall what is in some of the books I have written. When I first got in contact with Brian Leiter, to compliment him on a paper of his that my son, Tobias, had forwarded to me, he told me that he regularly had his students read a lengthy critique I had published in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy of Jon Elster's book on Karl Marx. I had totally forgotten that I had written it. When I pulled it out of a box at the top of my closet and re-read it, I was very pleasantly surprised.] According to my spreadsheet, Political Man and Social Man sold about 4300 copies during its ten year life. It actually made enough to pay for more than a year's psychoanalysis, at the rates then being charged.

Since we were living in Cambridge, my life was there rather than in Wellesley. For part of the year, I carpooled with Dave Ferry, a tall, lanky English Professor whose wife, Ann, taught in the Harvard English Department and had at one point been Cindy's teacher. Both Dave and Ann became quite eminent, Ann having the distinction of being the first woman to hold a full-time tenured position in the Harvard English Department. They had two children, and Wikipedia tells me that their son, Stephen, is now a photojournalist, but forty-seven years ago, when I was driving out to Wellesley with Dave, he was a little boy. The Ferrys wanted very much to get him into the Shady Hill School, a toney private school to which many Harvard Square types sent their kids. The school required an interview with tots applying for admission to their Kindergarten, and Dave was anxious about how little Stephen would do. The great day arrived, and Ann and Dave took him along to the interview. Afterward, Dave was beside himself with worry. Apparently the interview consisted of a series of questions, to each of which Stephen gave exactly the same answer. "Why do we carry an umbrella when it is raining?" "Because we like to." "Why do we put milk in the refrigerator?" "Because we like to." I think Stephen was admitted, and apparently, he turned out all right.