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Friday, August 1, 2014


Jerry Fresia asks what would be included in a 250-300 page RP Wolff Reader.  Since this is a flattering question replying to which requires me to think about myself, I was quite naturally drawn to it and devoted my early morning walk today to crafting an answer.  The question itself reminds me of those stroll-down-memory-lane concerts in which a song writer sits at a piano.  After idly playing a few chords he says, “And then I wrote,” breaking into the first eight bars of a familiar tune.  The success of the concert depends on the audience recognizing each tune as its melody is played, always a chancy business if the composer is old and the audience young.

When I started to make up a Table of Contents of The Robert Paul Wolff Memorial Reader, my first thought was of a lovely story about the famous scholar of medieval religious philosophy Harry Austryn Wolfson, with whom it was my great good fortune to study during my undergraduate years at Harvard.  Wolfson was a scholar of astonishing breadth, having mastered the languages and literatures of the Greek, Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim traditions, along with the scholarship in all of the major modern European languages.  He was born in Vilna, and even when I studied with him in 1952-53, when he was sixty-five, he still spoke with a strong accent, reminding me of my grandmother.  Wolfson was a short man, rather like The Little King in a cartoon strip of the same name that was popular when I was a boy.  It is said that when Wolfson was nearing the end of his career, he passed Nathan March Pusey, President of Harvard, while walking across Harvard Yard.  They greeted one another formally, as was then the custom, and Pusey said, “I understand that you are about to retire, Professor Wolfson.  We would be very grateful for your wisdom in finding someone to replace you.”  Wolfson, so the story goes, thought for a moment, looked up at Pusey, and said “Vell, I vill tell you, first, you vill need three people.”

When Jerry asks me what would be contained in a 250-300 page RP Wolff Reader, my first thought is, “Vell, I vill tell you, first, you vill need 600 pages.” 

Section One of the Reader will certainly consist of the first 55 pages of In Defense of Anarchism, which is actually most of that tiny book.  In Defense is the book that made me famous, and even now, almost fifty years after I wrote it, if I were to hum a few bars in many an academic lounge, someone would sing along with me. 

By rights, the next section should contain selections of my writings on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, but that is easier said than done.  Excerpting Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity would be a bit like wheeling out the Berlin Philharmonic to play a movement of a Mahler symphony – uplifting no doubt, but rather trying on an audience’s patience.  I think I would settle for my late paper, “The Completion of Kant’s Moral Philosophy in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre.”  This essay is virtually unknown, and makes, I believe, an important contribution to our understanding of Kant’s ethical theory, which has for more than two centuries fascinated and puzzled readers.

Well, that’s not so bad.  Eighty pages, more or less.  I might make Jerry’s limit yet.

After anarchism and Kant, Marx.  I think I will include all of Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.  It is, pound for pound, the best thing I have ever written, it offers the only clear explication I have ever seen of Marx’s mysterious talk of the relative and equivalent forms of value in Chapter One of Das Kapital, and the last chapter is introduced by a Jewish joke.  What is more, the whole thing only runs eighty-three pages.

This would be a good place to put several lighter pieces of which I am fond:  The first is my review of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which had the delightful effect of leading a number of gullible readers to doubt Bloom’s existence.  The second is my unpublishable report of a conference on Kant’s legal philosophy put on by Columbia Law School.  The piece is called “Why, Indeed?” and it so shocked the student editors of the Columbia Law Journal that they could not bring themselves to include it in their special issue on the conference.  The third is “The Pimple on Adonis’ Nose” – the original version, never published, not the version incorporated into a paper that I co-authored with my son, professor Tobias Barrington Wolff.  I don’t think Tobias’s stellar reputation as a scholar should be tarnished with this brush.

That gets us to two hundred pages, give or take a bit.  Pretty good.

For a change of pace, let’s throw in “Hume’s Theory of Mental Activity,” a chunk of my doctoral dissertation that has gained some recognition in the tiny world of Hume studies.  And just to show that I am not just a pretty face, how about “A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx’s Labor Theory of Value,” which contains the only original mathematical material I have ever written – not terribly difficult mathematics, to be sure, but I am inordinately proud of it.

Now a nod to my on-going support of Women’s Lib, “There’s Nobody Here but Us Persons.”  And as a token of my quarter century long involvement with South Africa, “A Lover’s Lament:  Contradictions in South African Higher Education,” a paper delivered to the education faculty of Pretoria University and never again heard from.

I think I should also like to include “Narrative Time:  On the Inherently Perspectival Structure of the Social World,” which provides a philosophical and literary critical foundation for my account of ideology.

And to wrap things up, the Credo I crafted for and published on this blog.

There, that brings us in under Jerry’s original limit.  There is lots more stuff that could have been included, but not even my mother, if she were alive, would be able to stand even this much.

Now, all we need to do is find a publisher daft enough to undertake the project.

1 comment:

Jerry Fresia said...

Sounds wonderful. Put it together as a $20 paypal thing-a-ma-jig....and I'll be first in line.

And I must say, this is the only blog....maybe the only thing I read....that gets me to laughing out loud. What a treat! Humor, irony, serious writing...grazié mille!