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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Saturday, March 30, 2013


Some of you may recall that in May, 2012, I wrote several posts about an exciting new opportunity for me at Bennett College, the oldest Historically Black Women's College in America.  I am sorry to report that things did not go as I had hoped, and I shall not be working at Bennett after the end of this semester.  It is a long story, and not at this time ready to be told.

Which leaves me, once again, wondering what I am going to do with myself.  The opportunity offered by The Society for Philosophy and Culture in Canada to make my out-of-print books available on as e-books has given me an idea.  I think I am going to explore the possibility of assembling several volumes of my published and unpublished papers.  There are not so many published papers as you might suppose -- maybe thirty published academic papers, a goodly number of reviews and replies to critics, and then a number of political writings, letters to the editor, and the like.  In addition, of course, there are the tutorials, mini-tutorials, and appreciations that I wrote for this blog and have archived on  And finally there are the unpublished essays and lectures that languish in a file drawer in my office.

The principal problem in putting this project together is the fact that most of these items exist only in printed form or typescript, not in electronic form.  That means a good deal of scanning and reading into an optical character recognition program or, as a last resort, retyping.  It seems to me that this should keep me out of trouble for some time to come. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013


Sales of my three e-books [Understanding Marx, Understanding Rawls, and The Poverty of Liberalism] are booming.  At latest report, a total of fourteen had been downloaded at $9.99 a pop [I have donated my royalties to the organization that is posting the books on Amazon.]  I am waiting for a call from Dancing With the Stars. 

Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, always a hot item, will be available soon, followed by Moneybags Must be So Lucky.  The thing about e-books, I think, is that they are immortal.  It is probably more trouble for Amazon to remove a title simply because it has not sold in a decade than it is to leave it there to languish.  Now if only someone could crack the problem of digitizing self-consciousness, I could be truly immortal. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Jacob T. Levy [who is, by the way, a distinguished member of the McGill faculty] observes a propos my little riff on Rambo's knife that while die-hard Randians may cultivate the fantasy of the lone heroic producer, free market proponents and libertarians generally embrace warmly the role of the division of labor in modern economies [and others as well.]  He is quite right, of course.  Indeed, they insist upon it. 

The point of my imaginary course syllabus tracing all the preconditions and filiations of Rambo's knife was to emphasize the extent to which we are all deeply embedded in and dependent upon the collective and anonymous products of prior labor and invention.  It is simply out of the question to untangle these dependencies so as to establish which of them are the result of rational bargains freely entered into.  Hence it is impossible to argue plausibly that present day individual holdings of private property are justified morally because they have arisen out of free and equal exchanges in the marketplace.

Every one of us comes into the world endowed with a material and cultural inheritance that we have not earned and can never justify.  There are no "takers" and "makers" in our society.  All of the takers are makers, and all of the makers are takers.  And quite often those who start out with, or end up with, the most stuff have worked considerably less industriously than those who start out and end up with the least.

It is this fact that constitutes the real justification for Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program slogan:  "From each according to his ability;  to each according to his need."

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


I am so stressed out about really important things over which I have no control, like income inequality and global warming and the Supreme Court's forthcoming decisions on Prop 8 and DOMA, that I have decided to deal with the stress by a time-tested technique -- denial.  Today I shall blog about something that has absolutely no connection to any of these important issues [save in the most etiolated and indirect fashion], but which has intrigued me for a long time, namely the extent to which even the simplest things we have or do are so deeply integrated into the history of the human species that it would be impossible fully to explicate even one of them without evoking an entire culture.

I shall choose as my example the humongous knife that John Rambo carries with him in First Blood, the original [and far and away the best] of the Rambo movies.  For the handful of you who are unfamiliar with it, Rambo's knife is a really scary looking object with a wide blade, a razor sharp edge, serrations on the opposite edge, and even a little receptacle in the handle with a screw top from which at one point he extracts a needle and thread to sew up a deep cut he has sustained [without anaesthesia, needless to say.]

I have often thought it would be fun, albeit very, very hard, to teach an entire college course devoted simply to tracing out every single bit of technical information and every single social relationship or cultural practice that is presupposed by the existence of that knife.  The more you think about it, the more you realize how deeply embedded that knife is in our material culture [as anthropologists call it] and in our social elations of production [in Marx's lingo.]

Let us start just with the stuff of which the knife is made.  The blade is steel, we may suppose.  Steel is made from iron combined with carbon and other elements.  A quick scan of the Wikipedia article on steel gives us some sense not only of the wide range of techniques used for making steel of different sorts but also of the history of the discovery of those techniques, going back as much as four thousand years.

So to begin with, we need iron ore, which must be smelted to extract the iron.  This in turn presupposes that we know everything that is required to find usable iron ore [how many of us, sent out into the world without directions, would have the foggiest idea where to look for iron ore, or even how to recognize it when we found it?]  Unless we plan to scrabble the ore out of the earth with our fingers and toes, we will need to know about shovels -- what they are, how to make them, how to get the wood and other materials from which they are made, how to make something in which to carry the iron ore, how to make fire, how hot a fire we need for smelting, what sort of container one uses to smelt iron ore, and so on and on.

Pretty soon, it will become obvious that no single person is going to be able to carry out every step required to produce steel, to produce the materials from which steel is made, to produce the tools and equipment used in turning iron ore into steel, to make the equipment that is required to make the equipment and tools used, and so forth.  In short, we are going to have to rely on some sort of social structure involving the division of labor and exchange of products.

And all of this, which could be extended almost indefinitely, is just what is required to produce John Rambo's knife.

The point of this exercise, of course, would be to establish definitively that no human being makes anything or does anything alone.  Even the simplest implements require for their production an elaborate network of functional differentiations, dependencies, and reciprocities that implicates an entire civilization.  No individualist fantasy -- not the John Galt nonsense of  Ayn Rand, not the quintessentially American myth of the Mountain Man, not the equally absurd Romantic myth of the lonely creative artist -- can stand against the manifest impossibility of explaining even the existence of something as simple as a knife without collaboration of all humanity.

It would be a lot of work to develop such a course, drawing as it would on so many different disciplines and bodies of specialized knowledge, but it would be a wonderful educational instrument.

Monday, March 25, 2013


UMass Press has given permission for us to do an e-book of MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, so that one will be available in due course.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Immanuel Kant's Metaphysische Anfangsgrunde der Naturwissenschaft, Or Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, was published in 1786, which is to say between the first [1781] and second [1787] editions of the First Critique.  I have always considered it very much a minor or secondary work by Kant, and after reading it once never went back to it.  When I offered this dismissive evaluation recently, my old friend Charles Parsons, perhaps the leading expert on Kant's philosophy of mathematics, called my attention to the fact that the distinguished Kant scholar Michael Friedman had written a monumental work on the Metaphysische Anfangsgrunde, and hence that I might want to rethink my opinion of it.

This got me musing about how and why we read the works of the great philosophers.  Long, long ago, when I wrote my first book, on the Transcendental Analytic of the First Critique, I observed that the distinctive mark of the truly great philosophers, it seemed to me, is that they were able to see more deeply than they could say, and refused to relinquish their grasp on that deeper insight merely to achieve surface consistency.  It was therefore always worthwhile to wrestle with them, struggling to liberate the deeper insights.  Since it is inevitably a matter of judgment what is deep and what is not, what is worthwhile and what is not, we keep returning to those great texts, generation after generation.

I mean, think about it.  Who is far and away the greatest commentator on the works of Plato who has ever lived ?  The answer is obvious:  Aristotle.  Not only is Aristotle the most brilliant philosopher who ever wrote about Plato, he actually studied with the man for twenty years!  And yet, this fact has not stopped two thousand five hundred years of philosophers from puzzling over Plato's Dialogues, poking at them, prodding them, reinterpreting them, translating them into every imaginable language.  No one would ever say to a Plato scholar who has just brought out a new book on one of the Dialogues, "Why do you bother?  Aristotle already has told us what to think about that."

As for Friedman's decision to focus on what I and at least some others have thought of as a minor part of the Kant corpus, we need only remind ourselves that in the nineteenth century, there were many serious thinkers who considered the Third Critique more important than the First!  In the eighteenth century in England, Cicero was taken seriously as a thinker, a judgment that I have always considered bizarre and absurd, even thought it was apparently shared by David Hume, who was, for my money, the greatest philosopher ever to write in English [his only competitor being Thomas Hobbes.]

There is a view that has gained some traction with young philosophers today that Philosophy is now a science, and need no more concern itself with its history than physicists need waste time reading Einstein's early papers.  I do not share that view, needless to say, but it too has its history, and crops up every few centuries.

All of which leads me to hope that after I have passed on, there will continue to be a few readers who are able to find something of value in my first book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity.

[By the way, when I spellchecked this post in Blogger before hitting "publish," it highlighted the word "philosophers," which I had mistyped as "philosopehrs."  It suggested "flyspeck" as a correction.  Do you think it was trying to tell me something?]

Saturday, March 23, 2013


My rather jejune remarks about Yugoslavian Marxists provoked Matko Soric, who actually knows something about the subject, to write the following short essay, which I am pleased to reproduce, unaltered, as a guest post.  Here is Matko Soric's brief self-description:

"Matko Soric is a PhD student at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. He wrote a book on postmodernism (The Concepts of Postmodernist Philosophy), two scientific articles (Semantic Holism and the Deconstruction of Referentiality: Derrida in an Analytical Context; Reflexivity in the Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu: Beyond Sociological Dichotomies) and a dozen of book reviews. His main areas of interest include classical German idealism and western Marxism. Currently, he is writing a PhD thesis on Milan Kangrga. An essay on Gajo Petrovi? (Gajo Petrovi?: Critical Essay) is to published this year."



                           by Matko Sorić

Gajo Petrović and Milan Kangrga were two crucial theoretical and logistical pillars of the Yugoslav magazine Praxis and the Korčula Summer School. Milan Kangrga is usually regarded to be a Hegelian Marxist with special interest in ethics, while Gajo Petrović is often looked upon as a Heideggerian Marxist with special interest in analytical philosophy. There is some truth to that, but there is also a certain paradox surrounding the two. Kangrga cannot be called an ethicist, moralist or some sort of Marxist preacher of precise normative demands, in spite of his life-long interest in ethics. Drawing upon a wide range of classical Marxist themes in a uniquely unorthodox way, Petrović developed his original philosophical position which has much more in common with classical German idealism than with Heidegger. In this text, I will try to summarize and sketch out a couple of important and internationally still unappreciated ideas of their philosophical legacy.

Some believe they were authentic dissidents with an important and original contribution to a so called open or western Marxism, similar to Rosa Luxemburg, Herbert Marcuse, Miroslav Krleža, Milovan Đilas, and partly George Orwell, Raymond Williams, Georg Lukács, Raya Dunayevskaya and Karl Korsch. Others claim they were unofficial theoretical facilitators in service of an anti-Stalinist fraction of Yugoslav bureaucratic elite with the task of vindicating and justifying the existing socialist regime. In both cases, their work remains conceptually unexplored.  

            Kangrga and Petrović started their academic career as young assistants in the wake of the II World War, at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Zagreb. Petrović wrote his dissertation on Georgi Plekhanov in 1956, while Kangrga finished his dissertation on Marx and ethics in 1961. The crucial moment in the genesis of humanist Marxism and Praxis magazine was a conference held in a Slovenian town called Bled in 1960 where the two major fractions of Yugoslav Marxists collided. Their main point of divergence was the so called theory of reflection. According to the reflection theory, developed by the early Lenin in Materialism and Empirio-criticism and reiterated by Todor Pavlov in his Theory of Reflection, human consciousness is nothing but a necessary effect of the surrounding matter without any causal autonomy. Our thoughts and knowledge are a direct consequence of crude mechanical determinism. To a contemporary reader acquainted with analytical philosophy, reflection theory might be best represented as a rudimental Soviet version of eliminative materialism or at least reductive materialism. On the other hand, a group formed around Kangrga and Petrović, inspired by Hegel and early Marx, arguing that human consciousness has a certain degree of autonomy. This group will later be known as the editorial board of the Praxis magazine. In the terminology of contemporary philosophy of mind, they could be considered Emergentists.

            The theory of reflection is one version of naïve realism or direct Referentialism that explains human knowledge as a pure reflection or mimesis of the external world. Beside this epistemological aspect, there is a much more important political aspect. If our mental states are necessary, and our actions are based on our mental states, then our actions are necessary, whatever they may be. According to the theory of reflection, human freedom does not exist, and the course of history is inevitable. Kangrga and Petrović did not believe this to be the case. They discarded the  theory of reflection as a sort of metaphysics, which has a somewhat special meaning for them.

For both Kangrga and Petrović, metaphysics is a name for any sort of perennial theory, be it of religious, philosophical, scientific, political or economic origin, that negates radical changes of human beings and their culture through time. What they call metaphysics resonates with the position Nietzsche dismissed as Platonism, Heidegger as metaphysics of presence, and Derrida as logocentrism. According to Kangrga and Petrović, reality evolves, and so does human history, which means we should never stop being engaged in the transformation of  social institutions. It should be pointed out that with the term metaphysics they do not designate only idealism: reflection theory is nothing but materialistic metaphysics, a model of the universe in which nothing essentially new can come into existence. In the discourse of Marxist humanism, metaphysics is another name for ontological, political and historical determinism.

            My basic claim in this text is that we should rename Kangrga and Petrović's position and term it “modernist humanism”. Why? They were both devoted to this fundamental metaphysical claim that Being is a process, not a state. Everything that exists is in a constant and unstoppable flux and development, especially human beings, with the important difference that while everything else changes itself uncontrollably, humans can consciously create their own destiny. This abstract notion of omnipresent change can also be found in Heraclitus, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Whitehead and James. It is important for Kangrga and Petrović because, on the one hand, they had a theoretical tool to disregard every pre-modern social formation they encountered in everyday life, and on the other hand, they could idealise the future state of the human nature.

            Just like contemporary postmodernists, Kangrga and Petrović saw human nature as a social or historical construct. There is of course a big difference: unlike postmodernism or poststructuralism, which breaks down the Hegelian axis of historical progress, they implicitly believed there to be only one and universal criteria of human development. Nonetheless, for them, the human nature remains a historical product. A fundamental distinction they sustained throughout their entire careers was the opposition between metaphysics and historical thinking (povijesno mišljenje, geschlichtliches Denken) in the case of Kangrga, and metaphysics and thought of revolution (mišljenje revolucije, das Denken der Revolution) in Petrović. Metaphysics always advocates some universal, transtemporal, unchangeable and indestructible human essence, while Kangrga and Petrović see human beings as products of their own age and culture. This dispute remains present in the contemporary nature-nurture debate, that can be seen in the naturalist evolutionary psychology of Steven Pinker and all sorts of culturalisms typical for the humanities and social sciences.

            The theory advocated by Kangrga and Petrović is one version of culturalism, if by culturalism we mean the theory that inextricably links one's existence with a wider cultural context. In the culturalist paradigm, individuals' life cannot be explained only by its intrinsic, individual properties: proper explanation must include heteronomous historical circumstances and fluctuating social surroundings. For Kangrga and Petrović, these surroundings are History (die Geschichte), material context produced and reproduced by humans. If humans create history, and history defines future generations of humans, it is plausible to say that humans create themselves. Just like Feuerbach claimed that God did not create men, but vice-versa, Kangrga and Petrović claim that history did not create men, but vice-versa. But since history is under constant change and development, so is human nature. That is why Kangrga states this, in his speculative manner: “…Man is not what he already is, he is what he is not, but can and should be, in order to be.” (Kangrga, 1989b: 229). In their justified attempt to escape from hard determinism of reflection theory, they ended up in an over idealised humanism, purged of the most important elements of a Marxist social model, elements that point out strict financial limits and material conditions of human self-creation. That is why I think we should label their theory “modernist humanism”, rather than “Marxist humanism”.

            There were a couple of attempts to reconsider the relationship of Marxism and ethics. I will mention only The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought by Cornel West, The Ethical Thought of Young Marx by Marek Frichand, Marxism and Ethics by Paul Blackledge, and Marxism and Ethics by Philip Kain. As Marek Frichand states in his valuable study, The Ethical Thought of Young Marx, there are three possible solutions: Marxism and ethics are mutually exclusive; Marxism and ethics are not mutually exclusive, and therefore Marxist ethics should be created, and finally; Marxism already possesses normative demands, so, there is no need to articulate a specific Marxist ethics. Kangrga is among those who believed that Marxism and ethics are incompatible.

According to Kangrga's interpretation, Hegel regarded ethics to be contradictory. Simply put, every ethical claim is based upon a state of affairs that should be changed and replaced by a better situation. If this better state of affairs ever occurs, ethical claim destroys itself. So, an ethical claim can exist only due to a morally corrupt state. The essence of ethics is a gap between ought and is, Kangrga claims: “Entire Hegel's analysis of the moral consciousness tries to show that moral consciousness as practice cannot and should not, in order not to contradict its essential identity, realize what it is destined for.” (Kangrga, 1989a: 64). For Kangrga, ethics should be straightforwardly assimilated into the realm of history. Instead of a philosophical search for proper ethical values, we should turn to his version of historicism, that is historical thinking, which explains moral values in the light of their social function.

            A crucial term for both Kangrga and Petrović is practice (cro. praksa; ger. Praxis ). In my opinion, the best way to understand practice is through a culturalist perspective. Simply put, practice is a process of creating culture (or history) that redefines the material context of living for the future generations. When Kangrga states that “…practice is creativity.” (Kangrga, 1989c: 80), he is pointing out a culturalist maxim about the arbitrary nature of social institutions. The realm of culture and history is not deterministically encoded in the structure of universe, but freely created by man, and therefore apt for transformation. Along those lines, Gajo Petrović defines practice as “…universal, free, creative and self-creative being.” (1986: 192). For Kangrga, the possibility of practice is rooted in spontaneity; for Petrović, it is rooted in the revolution as an underlying principle of the universe.

            Petrović calls his own theory the thought of revolution (mišljenje revolucije, das Denken der Revolution). How come? Revolution is not only a political, but an ontological concept as well. According to Petrović's process-ontology, the essence of reality is radical change. This sort of change is not a mere realization in time of pre-existing necessity, but a moment when completely new, unexpected and spontaneous state of affairs comes into being. Revolution as radical change is not predictable, not even from God’s point of view. Petrović's revolution might be compared to the notion of event in Alain Badiou or Slavoj Žižek, a radical rupture with the material or psychological past, and it is probably motivated by a Heideggerian notion of Ereignis, whose legacy both Badiou and Žižek bear on.

            Kangrga and Petrović have much in common, but there are also many differences. One is the apparent difference in style. Petrović is under the influence of analytical philosophy, so he writes in a clear, understandable, plain, simple, downright and unambiguous manner. On the other hand, Kangrga is under the influence of German idealism, especially Hegel, so his style is much more jargoned. Despite that, I believe that Kangrga had a strong intellectual influence on Petrović's thought of revolution. This effect should be explored, not just in the context of the Praxis group, but also in a wider context of left-anticommunism and western Hegelian and Heideggerian Marxism.









When I was young, a theory was put forward in aesthetic theory [not a branch of philosophy about which I ever knew much, by the way] according to which certain sensory presentations make an objective demand on the observer [I cannot now recall the precise term that was used for this phenomenon.]  For example, it was said, if a subject was presented with a line drawing of almost, but not quite, a complete circle, she would feel an objective demand to complete the circle by adding the missing segment.  A variety of examples were offered of this phenomenon, on which then was erected a theory of the objective status of judgments of beauty.  You get the idea, I trust.

I never gave much thought to the idea -- as I say, aesthetic theory was not my thing.  But I have come to realize that I experience something very like this in my own life.  I am, I must confess, an obsessive crossword puzzle solver.  I don't simply mean that I enjoy doing crossword puzzles.  I mean that when I come across a crossword puzzle, I am psychologically incapable of passing it by without doing it.  I do crossword puzzles in ink, of course, and am embarrassingly vain about my ability to complete them.

For example, all domestic airlines put a copy of their corporate magazine in the pocket of each seat, containing articles about great places to eat at one or another of the airline's hub cities and maps of their principal airports, among other things.   Usually, at the back of the magazine are a few pages of puzzles, including a crossword puzzle.  Now, these puzzles are really easy, and rather boring to do, but if I get a seat with a magazine in which the puzzle has not been attempted by a previous passenger [which happens usually only near the beginning of the month], I am incapable of stopping myself from doing it, preferably before the plane actually takes off.  I quite literally feel a burdensome obligation to do the puzzle, an obligation I would prefer not to be saddled with.  I find this behavior pathetic, but I could no more stop myself than I could stop breathing simply because the air in the cabin is stale and probably filled with flu germs.

Needless to say, I do the NY TIMES crossword puzzle every day.  Those of you who are really familiar with the TIMES puzzle will know that Will Short, now the editor of the puzzle but in the past the creator as well, arranges things so that the puzzles progress in difficulty as the week goes on.  The Monday puzzle is so easy that it takes me no more than five minutes to fill it in.  It is not really fun, and often I find myself irritated by its intrusion into an otherwise relaxed Monday morning in the Carolina Cafe with my lemon poppyseed muffin and decaf coffee.  But I am utterly incapable of simply ignoring it.  It imposes on me an objective demand.  Not until Wednesday is the puzzle any sort of challenge at all.  On Thursday, Short offers a puzzle with a gimmick in it, and that really is fun.  The Friday and Saturday puzzles are genuinely challenging, and there are even weeks -- few and far between, I am happy to say -- when I have failed to finish one of them.  [This morning, for example, I was half way through my muffin before I solved the first clue, and I had to take a break to do the two Ken Ken puzzles before returning to the crossword, but I did, I am happy to say, complete it finally.]  The Sunday puzzle, by the way, is not really very hard.  It is just enormous, so it takes a half hour or more to do.  But there have been some memorable Sunday puzzles.  My favorite is one with the title "I Surrender"  -- [The Sunday puzzles all have titles which are hints to the solution of certain  long across words.]   Each of the long across clues in this one was the same:  "back down"  [i.e., "I surrender."]  In each case, the solution was a word or phrase which meant, roughly, "to back down" or "to surrender," and the answer had to be entered first backwards and then down.  That one was, I thought, really brilliant.

What does all of this mean, other than that I am something of a dork?  I seriously doubt that it implies an objective theory of aesthetic value, but it may very well indicate something about the screwed up hard-wiring of the neurons in my brain.  Maybe I should alter my will and leave my skull to science.

Friday, March 22, 2013


I have just read online of the death at 82 of the great Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe.  Achebe virtually created the modern African novel with his first work, Things Fall Apart, and though he was never awarded the Nobel prize [a terrible failing on the part of the Nobel Literature Committee], he was widely recognized as one of the great novelists of the twentieth century.  I had a glancing personal connection with Achebe, which it is perhaps worth mentioning, with the understanding that it is, on my part, an attempt to grab on to a little piece of immortality.

In 1974-75, four years after I joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts, then Chancellor Randolph Bromery [who has, himself, recently passed away] decided to inaugurate an annual series of lectures called Chancellor's Lectures, as a way of showcasing the distinguished members of the UMass faculty.  That first year, three of us gave Chancellor's lectures -- Achebe, the great mathematician Marshall Stone, and myself.  Achebe gave an elegant and extremely controversial lecture attacking Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Seventeen years later, when I joined the Afro-American Studies Department, I discovered that my colleague, Michael Thelwell, was a very close friend of Achebe, and had in fact name his son "Chinua" after the great novelist.  In my first year in the department, I sat in on Mike's lectures on Achebe's works and read most of his novels. 

Achebe was badly injured in a car crash, and spent many years of his life paralyzed from the waist down.  He left UMass to go to Bard College, where Leon Botstein, the president [and an old friend of mine] had a cottage specially constructed for Achebe.  Some years after Achebe went to Bard, Mike took me down to Annandale-on-Hudson to see Achebe, and I had the great privilege of spending an afternoon with him.

Ever since my disastrous tea with Bertrand Russell in 1954, I have shied away from meeting famous people, but I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity, even briefly, to spend a bit of time with Achebe.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


It occurred to me this morning that this is the sixtieth anniversary of my graduation from Harvard.  Inasmuch as I did not attend my fifth, tenth, fifteenth, twenty-fifty, thirty-fifth, or fiftieth reunions, I think consistency requires that I also not attend my sixtieth.  Technically, since I was a member of the class of '54, my sixtieth is not until next year, but who's counting?  My commencement year was a time of transitions.  James Bryant Conant was stepping down as President of Harvard to become High Commissioner of Germany in the post-war occupation [I actually had a brief interview with him in Berlin while I was wandering about Europe on a traveling fellowship.]  The in-coming president, Nathan Marsh Pusey, was a member of the twenty-fifth reunion class, a very big deal.

When you get to my age, you spend a certain amount of time keeping track of whom you have outlived.  I am sorry to say that I have outlived the two best-known members of my class, Ted Kennedy and John Updike [neither of whom I knew, by the way.]

I can vividly recall the Commencement procession that June day, with the aged fiftieth reunion class of '03 preceded by the handful of superannuated relics who had managed to survive to their sixtieth.  I was quite sure that none of those stooped old men could possibly understand how the world looked to me, but contemplating this year's forthcoming Commencement ceremonies from a somewhat different vantage point, I am sublimely confident that I quite well understand the world into which the class of 2013 is being launched.

Perhaps if I make it to my seventieth I will grace the proceedings with my presence.


I was idly wandering around the web, reading the Wikipedia entries on my two sons, and I came across a fact I did not know.  There is an annual Intercollegiate Chess Match between Yale and Harvard, and the trophy is named the Wolff Cup after Patrick, who is the only grandmaster to have played for both teams, first as a Freshman and Sophomore at Yale and then as a Junior and Senior at Harvard.  I mean, how cool is that!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


The oddness of Internet handles makes it difficult to be sure, but it is my informal impression that the readership of this blog is very heavily tilted toward men.  Is that true, and if so, does anyone have an idea why?  For obvious reasons the readership tends to be drawn from the Academy, but these days there is something approaching gender equality among academics, or perhaps even a tilt toward women.  It may just be that a larger proportion of male commentators are willing to identify themselves by their real names.  I think I am right in saying that none of the overseas commentators who have chosen to identify themselves are women.

The generational spread, on the other hand, seems to be quite broad.  Obviously a blogger approaching his eightieth birthday is likely to attract some equally superannuated readers, but there certainly appear to be a goodly number of young readers, keeping in mind that like most people my age, I have a rather elastic notion of what counts as young!  I mean, I have reached the point at which my students are retiring.  Pretty soon, my students' students will be on Medicare.

Just wondering.


T. Gent has posted a long and interesting question about Rawls, the answer to which is going to take me a bit more than can fit comfortably into a comment, so I will take a few moments to reply in a post.  Here is the central part of his [? her?] question -- I urge you to read the whole comment, which is attached to the guest post by my son, Patrick:

"I was reading Rawls and an old post of yours came to my mind, where you said that once his project of providing a theorem in game theory failed, Rawls's attachment to his two principles was only comparable to faith in the Biblical word. My question is: doesn't the Difference Principle have a strong 'intuitive force'? I don't mean it in the sense in which the first principle might have intuitive force. The latter could simply be due to the 'success' of liberalism in the last few hundred years. What I mean is that if you think inequality is bad, it's prima facie a brilliant solution to allow inequality only if it benefits those that are worse off."

First let me explain the reference to the Bible.  If you read the several different texts in which Rawls developed his theory [first "Justice as Fairness," then "The Difference Principle," finally A THEORY OF JUSTICE], you find something really weird about the way in which he refers to his Two Principles [the so-called Difference Principle is the second.]   He first states the two principles in "Justice as Fairness" as the solution to a bargaining game -- it is a theorem in bargaining theory, he says, that these two principles would be unanimously chosen by parties engaged in negotiating with one another about the fundamental binding rules to guide their social interactions.  Notice that Rawls invented these principles -- neither of them, and especially the Difference Principle, had ever been stated in anything like that form in philosophical literature before.

Then Rawls realized that he was wrong -- the two principles as he had stated them are not the solution to the bargaining game he sketches.  [If you are interested in why, you can look at my 1966 Journal of Philosophy article, "A Refutation of Professor Rawls' Theorem on Justice."  I think, by the way, that he realized his original argument wouldn't work before he saw my article.]

Now, you would think that the natural thing for Rawls to do at this point would be to revise the Difference Principle, that being the principal locus of the difficulty.  But he does not do that!  Instead, he keeps identically the same wording of the principle, and says, in effect, "Now, you might think that the natural interpretation of this principle is -- [and then he gives the interpretation of the original article.]  But that cannot be so, because [and he then offers the objections that I, and we may suppose he, saw.]  So the correct interpretation of these words must be [and then he offers what is actually a new Difference Principle.]"

He talks as though he did not invent the Difference Principle in the first place, but is merely tasked with finding an appropriate interpretation of a set of words handed to us from on high.  This is exactly the mode of textual interpretation adopted by biblical commentators.  Since the Bible is the Revealed Word of God, we cannot go about re-writing it.  But since our natural reason tells us that the obvious interpretation of some Biblical passages makes them out to be utter nonsense, we must, as faithful believers, find some interpretation of the texts that is acceptable to reason while not denying the Word of God itself.  Rawls really does talk about his own theory this way all the time, and it is, if I may say so, a little creepy.  It is perhaps not surprising to learn that his very first publication, as a Princeton undergraduate, was a review for the Princeton Literary Journal of a multi-volume translation of the works of the Church Fathers.

Now let me turn to the heart of T. Gent's question, which concerns the intuitive appeal of the Difference Principle as it makes its appearance in A THEORY OF JUSTICE.  I think the Difference Principle does have a good deal of intuitive appeal.  I also think that if we take it really seriously, it pretty clearly implies some form of egalitarian socialism, for all that Rawls does not appear to have thought so himself.  But we need to keep very clearly before us just exactly what Rawls conceived himself to be doing.  Rawls comes on the scene at a time when Anglo-American ethical theory was locked in what Kant would have called an Antinomy between Intuitionism and Utilitarianism, the first descending from Kant and the second from Bentham.  Each school had devastating objections to the theses of the other school while having no plausible defense against the attacks from its opponent.  Rawls had the really brilliant idea of moving past this impossible stand-off by resurrecting the old tradition of social contract theory and wedding it to the brand-new field of Game Theory and Bargaining Theory.  The two principles were put forward as the solution to a bargaining game in which self-interested agents were conceived as being willing to take one single step beyond pure self-interest by agreeing to bind themselves to principles unanimously endorsed on the basis of rational self-interest.  I think, although I have absolutely no evidence for this, that Rawls saw himself as offering a theorem as powerful in its way as the astonishingly powerful Impossibility Theorem that Kenneth Arrow had proved in his doctoral dissertation, for which he later received the Nobel prize in Economics.  Rawls was very definitely not simply suggesting that his principles had "intuitive appeal," because in the context in which he was writing, that would simply have him on one side of the Intuitionism/Utilitarianism divide.

Now, having said all of that, how plausible is the Difference Principle simply as a rule for deciding who gets what?  That is a very large question, so I will just offer a very quick response.  The Difference Principle is, I think, not at all plausible as a rule that would appeal to rationally self-interested agents -- economic agents, as that phrase is usually interpreted in Economics and Political Theory.  However, if a society embraces the Credo that I have several times posted on this blog, then something like the Difference Principle might well be attractive to the members of such a society. 

Of course, rather than struggle through A THEORY OF JUSTICE, which is a really boring book, the members of that society might simply inscribe on their banners the slogan From All According To Their Abilities.  To All According to Their Needs.

About Nozick, by the way.  I liked Bob, and when he published ANARCHY, STATE, AND UTOPIA, he had not yet become the darling of the right wing.  So I guess I have always cut him some slack, even though I eviscerated the book in my 1978 Arizona Law Review article.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


I am old enough to recall a time when the gold standard for the accumulated knowledge of humanity was the Encyclopedia Britannica.  When Susie and I were married in the summer of 1987, one of the many things she brought to our new household was a complete set of the Britannica.  For twenty-one years, it sat on the built-in shelves of our family room, flanking the television set, and from time to time I would pull a volume down to consult it on some bit of arcana.

In 2008, when I retired and we sold the house in order to move to Chapel Hill, we decided that the Britannica would have to go, so I took the many volumes, along with some other books, to the Amherst Town Dump, where there was a shed set aside for unwanted books.  But the overlord of the shack would not accept them.  He said there was no demand for them.  I was reduced to driving about town with the entire set in the trunk of my car, surreptitiously dumping a volume at a time in public trash cans.

This morning, a question occurred to me.  How much money, I wondered, is paid to the actress who plays Flo, the Progressive Insurance lady, in the humorous ads that have proliferated on television.  This is a fact so obscure and unimportant that it could never have made it into one of the magisterial articles commissioned for the Britannica, or even for one of the lesser encyclopedias that competed with it, albeit never successfully.

So I went to my computer and asked Google.  Before I had finished typing in the question, three versions of it popped up as Google suggestions, a sure sign that I was by no means the first person to whom the question had occurred.   It turns out that Stephanie Courtney, the professional actress and comedian who plays Flo, is paid $500,000 a year for the gig.  I have to say that I think she is worth it.  After the Geico gecko, she is my favorite pitchperson, and the gecko, of course, being animated, doesn't earn a nickel. 

How on earth can I ever explain to my grandson and granddaughter that there was a time when one did not have every conceivable fact at one's fingertips [or thumb tips if one is texting]?


What It Is Like to Be a Bat

There is a confusion in the philosophy of mind concerning the possibility of offering a scientific explanation of the  nature of consciousness. As this confusion seems best embodied in Thomas Nagel's famous essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” these remarks are framed as a direct response to that question.

The confusion resides in the distinction between subjective and objective facts. An objective fact is one that can be completely described by language. A subjective fact is one that has an experiential aspect to it. Of course, it can be described by language (since language can be deployed to describe anything); however, it cannot be completely described by language because there is “something that it is like” within this fact, and therefore a complete representation requires the experience as well. (There are, no doubt, tricky philosophy-of-language issues that are raised by the above, but this simple definition will serve us for this discussion.)

Qualia are subjective facts. (Whether all subjective facts are qualia need not concern us here; the key point is that all qualia are subjective facts.) Hence, qualia cannot be completely described by language. It is easy to grasp this intuitively when we think about our everyday experience. For example, when someone describes some subjective experience, we understand that in order to grasp more fully what is being described, one must imagine oneself in that person’s experience. The description facilitates the effort, but the effort is necessary nonetheless. That we are (sometimes) successful in making this active effort is explained by the essential similarity we all share as human beings.

Now comes the confusion. It has become respectable to argue that the subjective nature of qualia suggests that a purely physicalist account of consciousness may not (or should not, or cannot) be possible. I believe this is clearly wrong. It is true that we do not at present have a physicalist account of consciousness, and may also be true that such an account is far off. (We will almost surely not have one in my lifetime, for example.) It is even possible that there will turn out to be some reason why a physicalist account may not (or should not, or cannot) be possible. But we have no reason at present to believe that a physicalist account would not be possible. Instead, we have every reason to believe that such an account should be possible, at least in principle, because we are all physical beings in the world and consciousness is a physical phenomenon.

To further clear up this confusion, let’s describe how we would determine what it is like to be a bat.

It is surely undeniable that bats have qualia. But bats, unlike people, cannot describe their qualia. And furthermore, we are enough dissimilar to a bat (e.g. we have no sense that is analogous to a bat’s sonar) that even if somehow we were presented with a description of a bat’s qualia, it seems unlikely that we could imagine ourselves into a bat’s experience. A more fundamental approach is necessary.

Before describing this fundamental approach, it may be useful to elaborate upon the normal process of imagining what another person’s qualia are like. Let’s take a simple example, like someone explaining what a meal you did not have tasted like. She might describe the tastes and compare it to other foods that you have recently eaten. You might close your eyes to eliminate competing physical sensations and then direct yourself to imagine the food. Somehow, your conscious effort might allow you to reconstruct and imagine (albeit faintly and inadequately) the relevant gastronomic qualia. At the time of this writing, we do not have anything like a complete physical description for how this process happens. But does anyone seriously doubt that it is at root a physical process? The sounds of the words hit the eardrum and are converted into signals that are processed (somehow) by the brain; the conscious faculty decides (somehow) to imagine the physical sensations conveyed by the signals; the brain (somehow) simulates the physical sensations and (somehow) conjoins those sensations to its understanding of the words, etc. Even though we cannot now provide any sort of adequate physical description of the entire process, do we have any reason to doubt that it is entirely a physical process? And furthermore, do we have any reason to believe that such a description is inherently impossible? I believe the answer to both of these questions is no.

If I am right that the last two questions are correctly answered in the negative, then it follows that we could in principle replicate scientifically what normal, human empathy approximates interpersonally all the time. Furthermore, this replication could be applied far beyond the limits of human empathy, both in terms of scope (applying to bats as well as humans) and representativeness (going far beyond what our normal imagination is capable of). Of course, there might be some scientific reason why such laboratory replication turns out to be inherently impossible. You never know what you will learn until you try: nobody living before the twentieth century would have been likely to guess the inherent physical limitations of the speed of light and the uncertainty principle, for example. Perhaps some physical limitation applies to the replication of consciousness.

But the possibility of a physical limitation of our ability to replicate qualia is completely different from the philosophical claim that “every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view.” [Nagel,, page 2] I contend that this seeming inevitability stems simply from a lack of philosophical imagination.

So now let’s describe the fundamental approach that would result in a physical theory that would meet our needs.

The first step is to develop a sufficient understanding of a bat’s brain (and associated neurological system) to create whatever qualia are desired. Let us suppose that we want to know what it is like for a bat to perceive the wall of a cave using sonar. Then we must understand the bat’s brain in sufficient detail to know precisely what physical processes are associated with “perceiving this wall under these circumstances using sonar”. In doing so, we must learn precisely where the conscious states that are associated with such perception are located, and we must identify every single relevant feature of the brain that is associated with such conscious states.

Of course, we are nowhere close to being able to do anything of the sort. It would require a body of knowledge and an empirically verified theory of bat brain physiology that is completely beyond us today. But I do not know any reason why this would be inherently impossible; it just means that our science is many, many years away from such understanding. And anyway, this is the easy part! For once we have a complete physical description of bat qualia in question, verified (however it would be verified) by experiment and theory, we must move to the second step. The qualia must be replicated in a human brain in such a way that it can be experienced by a person.

The hypothesis here is that bat brain physiology and human brain physiology are sufficiently similar that specific bat qualia can be recreated in a human brain. Of course, this may not be true: but again, we have no reason to assert with any philosophical justification that it cannot be done. The key would be to identify whatever bat stimuli are associated with specific conscious states and then reproduce those stimuli under conditions that are both theoretically justified and empirically verifiable. Under such conditions, we would have at least some reason to believe that whatever qualia would then be perceived by our human subject would represent how the qualia are perceived by the bat. Our human subject would know what it is like to be a bat.

"But wait a minute!" one might imagine our philosopher objecting. "How would we know that the qualia as experienced by the human subject would be the same as that experienced by the bat? Science is wrong all the time (indeed, that is the very point of the scientific method) so no one can know for sure that the recreated qualia in the human subject are the same as in the bat. Only the bat has unmediated access to its own qualia." Well, sure. But the special epistemological status of one's own mental states has been known since Descartes, yet the general response is not to slide into solipsism. Furthermore, we don't have to relitigate whether it is possible to have synthetic a priori knowledge to make a convincing scientific case. If we have sufficient empirical knowledge and a sufficiently justified theory to explain and predict bat qualia and the recreation of such qualia in a human subject, then we would have sufficient evidence that the qualia as experienced by the human subject would be the same as the qualia as experienced by the bat.

The question at hand was whether it is possible to provide a justified physicalist account of conscious mental states. Our answer is as follows. “In practice: not today. In theory: we have every reason to believe so and no obvious reason to think not, although we won’t know for sure until we try. Of course, since subjective facts cannot be fully described objectively, our objective, physical theory will require a subject to experience the qualia, and only that subject will have the experience. But that is just the nature of subjective facts.”

What is it like to be a bat? We don’t know today, but we have every reason to believe that it is in theory knowable. More importantly, until we learn far more than we know today we are wasting our time raising philosophical objections to the possibility of such knowledge.



One of the humbling lessons of modern science is that it is often risky to argue a priori that certain things are impossible.  Like as not, some scientist will pop up to tell you that it is not only possible, it is actual.  My favorite example is the notion of "contrast dependent terms" that was popular some while ago.  Philosophers argued that certain pairs of terms, such as left/right, up/down, and in/out are contrast dependent, so that it is logically impossible for someone to understand one of them without also understanding the other.  Then along came the great neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, who reported in one of his books a case of a woman whose brain injury had left her quite capable of understanding and using the concept "left" but completely unable to grasp the idea of "right."  Told, for example, that something she was looking for was to her right, she would turn all the way around to her left until it came into view.

Another lovely series of examples comes from the defenders of Intelligent Design, who think they are offering a brilliant and irrefutable objection to the theory of evolution when they ask, rhetorically, what possible survival value there could be to each of the minute mutational changes leading to the formation of a fully functional eye.  Surely, they say, the mutation that elongates a nerve and positions it at the edge of an organism's outer surface cannot have any value that will cause the process of natural selection to privilege it.  Only a purposeful God, aware that this is the first small step on the way to the eye, can anticipate the end product and thus carry the evolution of the eye to its completion. 

So then some brilliant evolutionary biologists do some really classy research and sure enough, they come up with a demonstration that that intermediate stage does, all by itself, confer a differential survival advantage on its organism.  The Intelligent Designers go back to the drawing boards and reconstruct their objection.  "Maybe so," they reply, "but for that step in the evolution of the eye to take place, there must have been this or that change in the expression of some gene, or in the production of some amino acid, and there is no evolutionary advantage conferred by that mutation."  So the scientists go back to their labs, do some more brilliant research, and sure enough come up with a differential survival advantage attached to just that apparently useless mutation.  And so on and on.  The Creationists never pause even for a moment to experience awe at the brilliance of the scientific research.  They just hunker down and back up and dig in their heels at the very edge of whatever point science has managed to advance to.

All of which is merely an introduction to today's guest post, a little essay written by my son, Patrick Gideon Wolff.  Before Patrick was the Managing Director of a Hedge Fund located in San Francisco;  before he was the husband of Diana Schneider and the father of my two grandchildren, Samuel Emerson Wolff and Athena Emily Wolff;  back when he was one of the most famous chess grandmasters in the world, Patrick returned to college to complete his undergraduate degree, doing Philosophy at Harvard with the likes of Jack Rawls, Bob Nozick, and Christine Korsgaard.  It appears to have stuck.

Yesterday, Patrick took time off from managing his fund's millions to send me a little essay he wrote in response to Thomas Nagel's famous journal article, "What is it like to be a Bat?"  He agreed to allow me to post it here.  I think you will be able to see quite easily the connection to my introductory remarks above.  By the way, since I am in an avuncular mood, I should note that Tom Nagel was my student back in 1960, way before he became, as it were, Thomas Nagel.  He took my course at Harvard on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.  [And yes, he did brilliantly.]


All of a sudden today, the number of visitors to this blog has doubled.  That usually means that Brian Leiter mentioned me on his blog, but I checked, and that was not the explanation.  Does anyone know who generated the traffic?

Monday, March 18, 2013


No sooner had I stumbled into a discussion on  this blog of political tendencies in Europe, a subject about which -- I hope it was clear -- I am woefully ignorant, than a financial crisis erupts in Cyprus that threatens once again the survival of the Eurozone.  [There is a long story in the NY TIMES today that starts on the front page and continues on page B6, if you are interested.]  With all its flaws, which seem to be manifold, the effort to create and sustain a pan-European economic union and something like at least a partial framework for political cooperation is one for which I have very powerful positive sentiments.  The sixty-eight years between the end of World War II and the present day is the longest sustained period of peace in the Franco-German heartland of Europe since the eighteenth century or even, depending on how you think about it, since the Middle Ages.  I have not the slightest idea how this continuing crisis of the euro is going to play out.  But I really hope that a way is found to stabilize the Eurozone financially, and that economic and political structures are established that make it impossible for Europe once again to descend into the hell of fascism and war.


As I was checking for the newly available digital versions of several of my books [I was right, Chris -- you can "borrow" THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM on Kindle, and it has the Mill essay in it], I noticed that several of my books are available used for -- wait for it -- $0.01, which is to say, for a penny.  One of the less-often mentioned virtues of a market economy is its salutary effect on swelled heads.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


The title of my post today is taken, of course, from Hannah Arendt's famous work on the 1963 trial of Adolf Eichman, Hitler's architect of the Holocaust.  In my Memoir, I tell the story of a brief encounter with Arendt in the 60's, during my time as a Columbia University philosophy professor.  I gave a lecture on John Stuart Mill at a session of a faculty seminar series at Columbia, and Arendt, whom I knew casually, attended.  My lecture was taken from an essay I had published as my contribution to a little volume called A Critique of Pure Tolerance authored by Herbert Marcuse, Barrington Moore, Jr., and myself, in which I beat up on old J. S. pretty bad.  At the end of the lecture, Arendt came up to say hello.  She was pretty clearly not too thrilled with my talk, but she asked, politely, what I was working on.  I replied that I was hard at work on a book on Kant's ethics.  When I said this she brightened visibly, smiled, and said, "Ah, yes.  It is so much better to spend time with Kant!"

I thought of her remark this morning as I was wondering what I might say today on my blog.  During the past week and more, while I have been writing my unsatisfactory three-part unfinished essay on the concept of money, interrupted by the posting of my little paper on The Color Purple, America's political clown show has continued, complete with the bizarrerie of the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, known familiarly as CPAC.  I have feelings about what has been happening politically in America, but it would be too much to say that I have thoughts, which would imply that America's politics have a formal structure adequate to support rational discourse, and about that I have serious doubts.  [Compare the well-known passage in the Parmenides (130C) where Plato has the young Socrates question whether "hair or dirt or mud or any other trivial and undignified objects" have Forms.] 

Still and all, we live in this world, and it behooves us to engage with it as it is, not -- pace the Utopian Socialists -- as we wish it were.  So I shall try to find something to say that is  "useful or agreeable to myself or others," to quote David Hume's description of those things about which we experience a sentiment of approbation. 

Well, in the course of complaining about the abysmal state of contemporary American politics, I have managed to allude to Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Barrington Moore, Jr., John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Alice Walker, Plato, Socrates, Parmenides, and David Hume.  Not a bad day's work.

Friday, March 15, 2013


Magpie writes a comment [see comments to Addendum] about a troubling piece by Yanis Veroufakis concerning the direction Europe is currently taking.  The burden of the piece is that between the two world wars, Europe descended into the hell of fascism, at least in part because of the effects of the depression, and there is reason to fear that Europe will again take that path.  Veroufakis has assembled a collection of statements that sound very much like what is now being said by supposedly sensible people in Europe, but turn out all to have actually been said by Nazis or Italian Fascists in the 30's and early 40's.  The effect is very chilling.

I am not knowledgeable enough to make any sort of reasoned guess about the degree of the danger of another descent into European fascism.  America's dark side is different from Europe's [not better or worse, just different], as we are seeing at this time.  I have some small confidence in my ability to read the American scene, but no confidence at all in my ability to read the European scene.  The one European country whose politics I have some familiarity with is France.  I am encouraged by the fact that France recently elected a progressive socialist government, at the same time that I am deeply troubled by the growth there of "fascism with a human face" in the person of Marine LePen.

It is so hard to have any impact on the direction of the American economy and society -- I cannot even imagine what I and others of like mind could do to affect what is happening in Europe.  However, this is a matter of the first importance, and I welcome comments from those with more knowledge than I.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


It occurs to me that I ought to have appended Genesis Chapter 11 to the previous post:


I was searching various file folders on my computer [never mind why], and stumbled on the five-part discussion of the Humanities that I posted just two years ago, in  March 2011.  When I re-read the fifth Part, I discovered that I included in it one of the greatest passages on education from all of American literature, the conversation between Huck and Nigger Jim from Huckleberry Finn on the French language.  It is so wonderful that I have decided to post again.  Perhaps I will keep doing this every two years as an homage to Mark Twain.  Enjoy:

Having ventured into depth psychology and other treacherous realms in search of a defense of the Humanities, I shall now return to the quotidian struggle for jobs and paychecks. Today, I wish to talk for a bit about what is happening to Humanities departments in universities. My comments will be anecdotal, and restricted by and large to this country, simply because of the limitations of my knowledge and experience. I invite my readers from other countries to tell us what is happening there.

The assault on the Humanities is almost entirely budgetary. Wealthy schools [particularly, in America, well-endowed private colleges and universities] are content to leave their Humanities departments in place, and even to underwrite their expansion and multiplication. But the budget crises that periodically afflict public institutions seem almost always to take the heaviest toll on the Humanities. The experimental sciences have for many decades now relied on government and corporate funding for most of their research, and a combination of capitalist self-interest and national defense anxiety has sufficed to keep their money pouring in.

Many of the readers of this blog will understand quite fully how all of this works, but for those of you who do not hold faculty positions at tertiary institutions, permit me a few words of explanation. A grant proposal emanating from a university-based research scientist routinely includes money for research assistants, which is to say doctoral students, who will form part of the team working in the "Principal Investigator's" laboratory. Science these days is virtually always carried on by teams, in sharp contrast to the research of Humanist scholars. [Compare the publications of the two groups. The science papers always have multiple authors, with the grant-getter's name appearing first. Only rarely do humanists publish jointly.] The grant proposal also routinely includes money for phones, travel, "research materials," and other expenses that Humanists rely on their Deans to provide.

In addition -- and this is profoundly important in the finances of a university -- funders such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes for Health permit grant applicants to include a very large overhead allowance -- a standard percentage of the dollar amount of the grant application -- ostensibly to compensate the home institution for the expenses incurred by hosting the research team. At most universities, this overhead, which can be as much as 40% added onto the total grant, is then divided up, by a standard formula, among the Principal Investigator [PI], the home department, the Dean of the Science Faculty, and the Provost or central office. The money going to the PI and to the home department funds graduate students, travel, phones, equipment, and all the other amenities of academic life.

In return for this largesse, as I have already noted, the grant applicants must search the existing databases of funders for money available to underwrite the research they wish to carry out, while creatively shaping their research proposals to fit the announced priorities of the funders. If there is money to fund a search for a vaccine for AIDS, but little or no money to fund a study of previously undiscovered flora and fauna in the Amazon rainforest, then the challenge is to persuade funders that potential breakthroughs in AIDS vaccine development lie waiting in the canopy of the Amazon jungles. A mathematician interested in the topology of connected tree-structures will shape her proposal so that it appears to promise a solution to traffic jams in big cities. And so forth.

Research scientists will tell you that they spend a great deal of their time writing grant proposals, and departments in the sciences weigh a candidate's success in securing grants very heavily when making tenure and promotion decisions.

By and large, humanists know nothing of this world of external funding, and many of them resist as a matter of principal shaping their research to fit the funding priorities of foundations, corporations, and government agencies. There is much less money available for humanistic research, and virtually none for teaching in the humanities. Over time, a class structure has evolved in the American academic world. Science doctoral students are routinely fully funded; doctoral students in the Humanities scrounge for funding, making do with partial teaching assistantships, back-breaking assignments in Freshman Composition, and jobs in fast food emporia. Science departments have travel budgets, research budgets, conference budgets, travel budgets, and multiple phone lines. Humanities Departments pay by the sheet for Xeroxing.

During the Golden Age of American higher education -- the 60's, 70's, and 80's of the last century, which is to say during a time coterminous with my own career -- the number and size of tertiary institutions expanded rapidly. First in response to the demand from returning World War II GI's funded by the GI Bill, then as a National Security response to the Cold War and the Soviet Union's early successes in space exploration. money poured into higher education. State Colleges were jumped up to campuses of the State University, and Community Colleges promoted to State College branches, all needing Humanities Departments to justify their new status. The available jobs so far exceeded the supply of scholars holding doctorates in the Humanities that graduate students were being offered full time positions even before having passed their qualifying exams. Thanks to the multiplication of campuses and money from the National Defense Education Act, some of which inevitably trickled down into university library budgets, publishers found that they could at least break even on virtually any academic title they published. A scholar in the Humanities willing and able to crank out manuscripts could get contracts and advances simply on the basis of an idea and a one page rationale. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven."

Well, Thermidor comes to all revolutions, and pretty soon the money started to dry up. At first expansion stopped. Then travel money and research assistance disappeared. Funding for graduate students dwindled, and Deans desperate to avoid firing faculty removed professorial phone lines. These cheese parings served for a while, but as we entered the new millennium, serious cuts replaced these trimmings. Poorly paid part time faculty began to replace tenure track faculty, and when that was not enough, Universities required by law to declare "financial exigency" before contemplating the firing of tenured faculty ventured into that previously forbidden territory. Doctoral programs were summarily terminated as "too expensive," and teaching loads were raised.

One of the most bizarre of the many budget cutting moves has been the merging into one of previously distinct departments of language and literature. Apparently, the corporate managers who have found soft berths for themselves as university chancellors look at the array of language departments in the Humanities faculties -- Germanic Languages and Literature, Classical Studies, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Spanish and Portuguese, and all the rest -- and decide that since they aren't English, they all belong together. This maneuver always reminds me of one of my favorite passages in the novels of Mark Twain, the famous argument between Huck and Jim about whether the Duke and the Dauphin really speak something called French. Here it is, verbatim, from Chapter 14 of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I hope you will not mind my quoting the entire passage. Huck is narrating, of course:

"I told about Louis Sixteenth that got his head cut off in France long time ago; and about his little boy the dolphin, that would a been a king, but they took and shut him up in jail, and some say he died there.

"Po' little chap."

"But some says he got out and got away, and come to America."

"Dat's good! But he'll be pooty lonesome—dey ain' no kings here, is dey, Huck?"


"Den he cain't git no situation. What he gwyne to do?"

"Well, I don't know. Some of them gets on the police, and some of them learns people how to talk French."

"Why, Huck, doan' de French people talk de same way we does?"

"NO, Jim; you couldn't understand a word they said—not a single word."

"Well, now, I be ding-busted! How do dat come?"

"I don't know; but it's so. I got some of their jabber out of a book. S'pose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy—what would you think?"

"I wouldn' think nuff'n; I'd take en bust him over de head—dat is, if he warn't white. I wouldn't 'low no nigger to call me dat."

"Shucks, it ain't calling you anything. It's only saying, do you know how to talk French?"

"Well, den, why couldn't he SAY it?"

"Why, he IS a-saying it. That's a Frenchman's WAY of saying it."

"Well, it's a blame ridicklous way, en I doan' want to hear no mo' 'bout it. Dey ain' no sense in it."

"Looky here, Jim; does a cat talk like we do?"

"No, a cat don't."

"Well, does a cow?"

"No, a cow don't, nuther."

"Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?"

"No, dey don't."

"It's natural and right for 'em to talk different from each other, ain't it?"


"And ain't it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from US?"

"Why, mos' sholy it is."

"Well, then, why ain't it natural and right for a FRENCHMAN to talk different from us? You answer me that."

"Is a cat a man, Huck?"


"Well, den, dey ain't no sense in a cat talkin' like a man. Is a cow a man?—er is a cow a cat?"

"No, she ain't either of them."

"Well, den, she ain't got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of 'em. Is a Frenchman a man?"


"WELL, den! Dad blame it, why doan' he TALK like a man? You answer me DAT!"

I see it warn't no use wasting words—you can't learn a nigger to argue. So I quit."