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Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Judging from Tony Couture's responses to my explication of ironic discourse, there may be some folks out there who still have questions about the relation between what a social theorist is saying and the language he or she chooses with which to convey it.  Now, as I mentioned, I wrote an entire short book about this subject in its relation to Capital, and anyone really interested in the subject would do well to take a look at Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, but perhaps a story from long ago will help shed a little light on the matter.

In 1961, I left my Instructorship at Harvard and took up an Assistant Professorship in at the University of Chicago.  The glory days of the Robert Hutchins era were long over, but elements of that grand educational experiment lingered on, most notably in the form of a required Freshman Year Humanities survey course and a required Sophomore Year Social Sciences survey course.  Since I had a doctorate in Philosophy and had a book about to be published on the First Critique, I was naturally assigned a section of the Social Sciences survey.  [Only those with first-hand experience of the old Chicago will understand why "naturally' here is not meant sarcastically.]  The course was taught entirely in sections, but from time to time the sections would gather for a guest lecture.  This story is about one of those occasions. 

The middle of the twentieth century was the heyday of Cultural Anthropology, when it was expected that a young Anthropologist would go off to a distant land, find himself or herself a small group of "primitive" people [which is to say, people who did not wear shoes and lacked advanced killing devices], learn their language, and spend two years or more studying their material culture, their religion, their kinship practices, and their child-rearing patterns.  The  aspiring academic would then return home, write up the notes carefully accumulated, and ever after would be known as an expert on the Trobriand Islanders or whomever.  Think Margaret Mead or Bronisŀaw Malinowski.

The guest lecture this day was given by a member of the Chicago Anthropology Department who had spent some time, accompanied by his students, pub-crawling in the Chicago neighborhood known as the Near North Side.  [The U of C was in South Side Chicago, a tad closer to downtown than the large African-American community immortalized in the great classic of Urban Sociology, Black Metropolis, by Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake.]  The speaker proceeded to describe the people and establishments his team had visited, using the typical academic language of the Cultural Anthropologist -- just as though he were reporting on a trip to the Kalahari or the Amazon Rain Forest.  The effect was bizarre and electrifying.

The students were quite familiar with the bars and nightclubs the speaker and his team had visited [as were even some of the professors], but his description sounded not at all like what they knew.  At first, I was puzzled by the lecture, but then it dawned on me [and, I hope, on the students as well] what the speaker was doing.  He was getting us to imagine how a typical research report  might sound to a member of a "tribe" being anatomized in the pages of the professional journals of Cultural Anthropology.  The objectifying scientific language cultivated by the Anthropologists was distorting and misrepresenting the cultural reality they were striving to capture.

This is not the place to expand on this insight.  All I can do is to recommend two books to those who wish to pursue it.  The first is the most famous novel by the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, perhaps the first novel to capture the felt experiences of sub-Saharan Africans from their point of view.  The second, which I have discussed at length in my tutorial on Ideological Critique, is Land Filled With Flies, by Edwin Wilmsen.

Now, very simply:  Marx seeks at one and the same time to anatomize the mystifications of capitalist society and economy and to convey what it is like to be captured by those mystifications, to experience them from the inside, as it were, so that one can understand what would be required to dispel them.  His strategy for performing this complex literary and intellectual task is irony.


Tony Couture said...

You are a great teacher, and please think of me as one of those mouthy anarchist students at the back of your Marx class, trying desperately to translate what you are saying into terms more familiar to himself. I need a lot of help, having been disabled by capitalism until I escaped into the safe space of the North American academy. It would help me to understand if I could see your interpretation in action in the classroom, and it might just take more time than I have at present. I think I can identify the parts I am having trouble with in your sum up: 1) "at one and the same time," 2) "to experience [mystifications] from the inside, as it were, so that one can understand what would be required to dispel them." Regarding 1) are you going to point to texts that appear both scientific and ironic, i.e. specific words that show exactly what you are saying, which can be found in many examples throughout the 800 page book--or just in certain key places that set up a tone or framework for interpreting the rest of the book. 2) is exactly the same as Godwin's motives in writing 6 interconnected novels (all fictional autobiographies) about the decline of aristocratic government as the moral realities of aristocratic lives (built on conquests, inequality, murders and oppression) are circulated in the print culture, leading them to know that the future of humanity depends on an overthrow of male domination, imperialism and privilege. (Godwin's theory of the novel is contained in an essay called "Essay of history and romance," included in Penguin edition of Caleb Williams.) Simply put, the consciousness-raising you appear to be describing in Marx is something usually associated with the "realism of the novel." That is why I am asking myself: IS RPW saying that Capital ought to be understood like a great novel? I am not implying that Marx is writing fiction, only that he is using fiction technique to write philosophy (same as Godwin).--Finally, please announce soon what textbook version of Capital you prefer or will use in your class. I have a Vintage Books, tr. by Ben Fowkes, version but would like to be reading along the same book as your class. I have not yet read the whole of Capital because I have always thought that Marx simply did not know how to write properly, so your interpretation seriously intrigues me. I do not know if there is an electronic version of the text, Capital, that could be used by a scholar to work with the text. Also 2) requires me to ask a question I think I said something about before: do you think of Capital as some kind of sacred text when you read it in the way you do, are we being initiated into some irony cult or can we ask questions in our clumsy pursuit of the truth?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am afraid at this point I am going to insist that you read MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY. It is less than 100 pages long, and deals with all the questions you ask. I mean, I did write it, after all, and I still think it is the best thing I have ever written.