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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Friday, October 31, 2014


Tim poses two questions raised by my brief post about Kant.  Here they are:

1)      why does human agency entail that I must take de jure possession of some portion of the external world, rather than de facto possession of it?

2) What does this kind of argument establish about the character of the property arrangements supposedly necessitated by the conditions of rational agency? Presumably, Kant is right that rational agency necessarily involves the private consumption/use of some portion of the external world. But isn't that different from it entailing that I should thereby acquire a private property right in the thing - which involves my right to dispose over and exchange the thing as I see fit?

The first question, I am afraid, arises simply because of the brevity with which I summarized my essay.  The full answer, which can be found there, involves Kant’s distinction between what he calls sensible and intelligible possession – what might also be called possession de facto and possession de jure.  Roughly, he thinks that the rational requirement of universality of willing entails that intelligible possession is possible only insofar as I allow to others the equal right to claim intelligible possession of some portion of the material world.  Since reason demands that I adopt as my maxim only that rule that could be a universal law for all rational agents, it follows, he argues, that I must ground my actions on intelligible possession, not mere sensible possession.  The latter is of course possible, but it is not in accord with the dictates of reason.

The second question is very interesting indeed, and raises all manner of issues.  Even though Kant died in 1804, at a time when capitalism had not yet come to the Prussia in which he lived his entire life, Kant’s political theory is an extremely abstract theoretical rationalization of capitalist social relations of production.  Just as he argued in the First Critique that there must be some system of pure mathematics knowable a priori, and simply assumed that that meant Euclidean Geometry, the mathematics with which he was familiar, so when he argued that reason requires some system of property, the only form of that social institution that he could imagine was private property of the robust sort required by capitalism. 

As Tim correctly observes, the necessity under which we stand of appropriating portions of the material world for the pursuit if our ends in turn entails that some legal institution of property is required, if we are to emerge from the pre-contractual strife of “the war of all against all,” in Hobbes’ famous phrase.  But nothing in that general requirement implies that property must be held by individuals, rather than collectives.  And it most certainly does not entail that the means of production on whose employment we all depend for our survival must or even should be privately owned.  A factory owned by the workers who labor in it is a piece of the material world whose specific use by those workers requires that they be in a position to exploit it for their collective purposes and equally exclude others from appropriating it.  It is, in that sense, their property.  But nothing in the general analysis of the concept of property dictates how a piece of property should be owned, or against whom those property rights are correctly asserted.

So all you socialist Kant-lovers out there, be reassured.  You can set The Collected Works of Immanuel Kant next to The Collected Works of Marx and Engels next to one another on your shelves, as they are on mine, without fear of contradiction.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


Some time in the late ‘60s, I gave a talk on Mill at a Columbia faculty seminar to which other scholars in the New York area were regularly invited.  After the talk, Hannah Arendt came up to say hello.  It was obvious that she had not been thrilled with the talk, but she was polite.  She asked me what I was working on at the moment and I replied that I was writing a book on Kant’s ethics [which was eventually published as The Autonomy of Reason.]  Her face lit up, and with a broad smile she said, “Ah.  It is always so much more pleasant to spend time with Kant.”

Recently, I have been worrying endlessly about the outcome of senatorial races in which neither of the candidates is anyone I would want to spend time with.  This morning, as we were watching the children with their rented sailboats at the lake in the center of the Jardin de Luxembourg, it occurred to me that it would really be much more pleasant to spend time with Kant.  So I decided to write a brief post summarizing the central thesis of my old paper, “The Completion of Kant’s Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre.”  Kant’s argument, precisely where it fails, illuminates a number of things, among which are the limitations of social contract theory, the priority of political philosophy over ethical theory, the inescapability of the truth of philosophical anarchism, and the inadequacy of the central argument in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.  I have written about these subjects before in various places, but I suspect very few people interested in them have read what I have written, so this is an easy way for someone to get the gist of my writings on the subject without plowing through several of my books and articles.  At the very least, it will be more pleasant for me to spend some more time with Kant.

Kant undertakes in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals to demonstrate the absolutely unconditional universal validity of the fundamental moral law, a law that we mortals experience as an imperative, what Kant calls The Categorical Imperative.   Kant actually tries to establish this claim three times in the Groundwork.  His first try is the argument that the purely formal conditions of consistent willing, conditions laid down by Reason, suffice to demonstrate the validity of several substantive moral laws, the famous four examples of the Categorical Imperative.  The attempt is a pretty miserable failure, a fact recognized ever since by alert readers.

His second try is to argue that there are unconditioned ends, ends that any rational agent as such must necessarily aim at, most notably humanity, which Kant describes as an end-in-itself.  If there are in fact ends in themselves then the imperative to pursue such ends must be binding on all rational agents as such.  Now there is no doubt that the assertion “Humanity is an end in itself” is one of the noblest sentences ever penned.  It has only one tiny flaw.  It is, as it stands, meaningless.

Which leaves Kant with his third try at establishing the universal validity of the Moral Law a priori, namely the argument that in what he calls a Kingdom of Ends, which is to say a political community of rational agents, the laws that such a community would enact are the embodiment or instantiations of the Categorical Imperative.  There is no doubt in my mind that this is the most interesting and promising of Kant’s three attempts to establish the universal validity of the Moral Law.

Notice one of the implications of this move by Kant.  Generally speaking, Kant is thought of as one of those ethical theorists, like John Locke, who claims that moral obligation is logically prior to the social contract, as opposed to theorists like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who seems to claim that prior to the establishing of the social contract individuals are bound by self-interest, substituting the goal of the general good for the pursuit of private interest only as a result of the contract.  But in fact it turns out that Kant is with Rousseau on this crucial question, which should perhaps not surprise us when we recall how deeply influenced by Rousseau Kant was.

Obviously, Kant must successfully demonstrate that the members of the Kingdom of Ends will, in their legislation, necessarily legislate the Moral Law as the fundamental rule binding them all as members of the community.  However, if he is to show that this law is conditional, not hypothetical, in form, he must first prove that all human beings will be under a rational command to enter into a Kingdom of Ends.  Otherwise, even the Moral Law will have the hypothetical form, “If you choose to become a member of a Kingdom of Ends [i.e., If you choose to sign the Social Contract] then as a member of the kingdom of ends you must, as a rational agent, will collectively with your fellow members the Moral Law.”  This leaves it open to the self-interested amoralist simply to decline to sign the Contract, and so not be bound by the Moral Law which from Kant’s point of view would not do at all.

An argument demonstrating that human rational agents as such stand under a command of reason to join a Kingdom of Ends is to be found nowhere in the Grundlegung, but quite to my surprise, I found such an argument in Part One of Kant’s later work, The Metaphysics of Morals, the part devoted to the theory of justice [or law].  As you might expect, even in its simplest form the argument is quite complex.  I am going to summarize it in a few sentences.  Anyone really interested in the full argument is urged to consult my essay [and of course Kant’s text itself.]

Human agency manifest itself in the realm of appearances, hence in a material world governed by cause and effect.  In pursuit of my ends, whatever they may be, I may find it necessary to appropriate some portion of the material world, which is to say I may find it necessary to take de jure possession of it and to exclude others from its use.  There is no part of the material world that is in principle unownable [Kant’s ethical theory thus rules out all forms of ecological ethics.]  Regardless of my ends and purposes, I cannot know a priori that I will not need to take ownership of something or other.  Hence I can know a priori that property must be possible.  But a system of property that allows each person under appropriate circumstances to exclude others from a portion of the material world can come into existence only through a social contract that establishes the possibility of de jure possession.  Thus, from the mere fact that I as a phenomenal creature have ends, and hence stand under hypothetical imperatives, it follows necessarily that I am obliged to enter into rational community with others and collectively with them enact morally binding laws.

This still leaves open the question whether there is some specific system of fundamental laws that all rational communities as such will enact.  Rawls tries to prove that there is, and fails, as I demonstrate at length in my book Understanding Rawls.  But once Rawls has revised his theory to incorporate the device of the Veil of Ignorance, it is clear that he has failed as well to demonstrate the necessity of engaging in the Rational Choice exercise supposedly to take place under that Veil.

Well, it was good for a bit to stop thinking about the election next Tuesday.  Hannah Arendt seems to have been right.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Have I mentioned that our little apartment here is on rue Maître Albert?  Until 1844, this very ancient one-block street bore the ominous name rue Perdue, but it was then renamed after Albertus Magnus, Albert the Great, Maître Albert, the great thirteenth century theologian who introduced Aristotle’s works into the Western European world and was the teacher of Thomas Aquinas.  That is pretty terrific, if you think about it.

At the end of our street, where it empties into Place Maubert right next to rue Frederic Sauton, there is a very popular bar with the implausible name The Long Hop.  Pretty much every evening, but especially on weekends, the Long Hop is hopping, with lots of young people seated at the tables out front drinking one of the many available draft ales and like as not speaking English.  Inside, I gather [I have never actually been inside], there are lots more young people watching one or another television screen, all of which are tuned to sports.

This morning when I walked up to Place Maubert to buy a few things at the market, I saw a little clutch of people in front of The Long Hop engaged, apparently, in filming a scene for a movie [or for an ad – I could not tell which.]  One young man held a long boom mike, a second was manning the camera, and several others were standing about assisting in some way.  A white cab drew up to a stop and out of it climbed an implausibly handsome young man casually but elegantly dressed and pretty obviously made up for the camera.  He leaned over and blew a little party horn at the cab driver while the camera recorded it all.  Then he turned, strode to the front of The Long Hop, looked up at the second or third floor with a theatrical stare, and smiled, revealing the whitest teeth I have ever seen on a living person.  Someone must have said “cut,” because he abruptly stopped, deflated, and wandered over to a chair while the others gathered in a group and consulted with one another.

They kept at it for the next six or seven hours, during which I imagine they managed to get thirty or forty seconds of usable film.

Just another day in Paris.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


I had a marvelous e-mail message explaining Ms. N's inquiry, from Thom Hawkins, who sounds like something of a renaissance character after my own heart.  If you google him, you can watch him explaining the fourth dimension in five minutes.  Here is his e-mail [with his permission]:

I assure you that the Caius inquiry was neither a hoax nor a Thurburian jest. I am the man behind the curtain who paid Ms. N, at a personal cost of three dollars, to investigate the identity of "Caius" in Kant's syllogism. A task at which she ultimately failed, but for which I awarded her high marks (well, a thumb pointed upward) for the effort. I occasionally pay surrogate researchers to dig into questions while I sleep, not only as a time management efficiency, but because they might think to look somewhere I did not. This was certainly the case here, because just as I would sooner consult a map than stop to ask for directions, I'd sooner drive two hours to consult a distant library's holdings than I would send an email to someone who might know something on the subject. Clearly, she found the more direct route.
Because you've since shown interest regarding this request, I will share its origin--a quote from Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych: ?The example of a syllogism that he had studied in Kiesewetter's logic: Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal, had throughout his whole life seemed to him right only in relation to Caius, but not to him at all.?
Ilych essentially dwells on the second premise, that man is mortal, because of its relevance to his own situation as a dying man. I thought that perhaps I was missing another perspective--a historical dimension--on this passage because I did not know the identity of Caius. Thus the connection from Tolstoy's quote to Johann Gottfried Christian Kiesewetter's Grundriss einer allgemeinen Logik nach Kantischen Grundsa?tzen and from there to Kant's The Critique of Pure Reason, where I found no more clues regarding Caius than in Ilych.
I appreciate your candid and humorous response, although I admit I'm disappointed that Caius might be nothing more than a name. Thank you also for the invitation via Ms. N to read "On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives." It strikes me that Kant would make a fine narrator for a play based on the prisoner's dilemma, or perhaps the staging could be augmented with dueling commentary by Kant and Constant as "the German philosopher" and "the French philosopher."
Thom H.


The Picasso Museum in Paris has finally reopened, years late and awash in controversy.  You can read a quite informative account of the entire affaire here.  Never mind the art.  What caught my eye in the TIMES story was the information that the Picasso family settled the enormous death duties occasioned by the artist’s great market success by turning over vast numbers of his art works to the State, which the State then used to stock the museum. 

I am not even quite sure why, but that strikes me as just plain wrong.  If the family decides to cash in on the old man’s success by selling his works on the open market, then sure, tax the bejesus out of them.  But so long as they hold onto the paintings, sculptures, and what have you for themselves, they ought not to have to pay a tax on whatever inflated price the art world places on them.  [Full disclosure:  my wife inherited from her mother a clunky plug-ugly ceramic ashtray with “Picasso” written on the bottom of it.  Apparently the damned thing is worth five thousand dollars in New York!] 

I have no idea whether this gut reaction emerges from my pre-capitalist Id or my socialist Super-ego, but it rose up in me quite spontaneously when I read the story.  I mean, if some idiot decides that the original hand-written copy of Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity is worth a million dollars, should my sons have to sell it when I kick off to pay the inheritance tax rather than keeping it around as a memento of dear old Dad?

Monday, October 27, 2014


In the 1950’s, the distinguished English scientist and novelist C. P. Snow published first a brief essay and then, in expanded form, a book decrying the baleful consequences of what he famously called The Two Cultures.  The best-known passage in the book, quoted in a Wikipedia article on the affair, runs as follows:

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

There are several things worth noting about this passage which mark it as having been written by someone educated in England.  First, while it is common for scientists and humanists to encounter one another socially in the Senior Common Room or at the High Table of an Oxford or Cambridge college, such casual encounters are a good deal less frequent in American universities.  Second, at the time Snow was writing, it was common practice for English secondary schools to sort students into a science track and a humanities/social sciences track as early as age eleven or twelve, with the result that a great many people with university degrees had had virtually no encounters with the natural sciences [a fact I discovered in London in 1954 during a brief but enjoyable liaison with a young English woman who had gone the humanities/social sciences route in school.]

One is of course reminded of the Alan Sokal send-up of literary critics, discussed on this blog last year.

Inasmuch as my writing routinely crosses many disciplinary boundaries, I find quite often that part of what I am saying is lost on my audience, a consequence of the compartmentalization Snow was decrying.  To choose only the most recent example, my post earlier this morning in response to the inquiry from a Ms. N was intended by me quite consciously as an attempt to achieve what I might call a Thurberesque authorial voice, while ostensibly speaking about the philosophy of Immanuel Kant [a fact that I telegraphed openly by my reference to the Thurber short story.]  Some of my readers, schooled in the arts of literary criticism, will have recognized this fact, while others, schooled in Philosophy, will as easily have understood and appreciated the remarks about syllogistic logic.  But will these and other readers have understood the union of the two in one post?  Will readers as well have understod that the tone of my response was designed to protect me from the possibility that the inquiry was in fact a hoax, a joke designed to trap me into a pompous scholarly reply?  I wonder.

Among my many writings, it is Moneybags Must Be So Lucky that is in this way most transgressive.  Perhaps that is why, in the words of David Hume, it “fell stillborn from the presses.”  [Does everyone who reads that last phrase understand Hume’s metaphor?]



I awoke this morning to find the following message in the in-box of my e-mail:

“Dear Mr. Wolff,

I am a personal assistant who has been tasked with finding out who Kant is referring to when he states, " Caius is a man, man is mortal; therefore, Caius is mortal." In trying to find this information, I came across your blog.

I will admit, I have not read Kant's works. I have, however, spent the last couple of hours combing through post after post after post about this particular quote from the book and cannot find a single soul who would say who they think Caius is.

In reading these many posts, I have come to the conclusion that Kant is probably referring to Pope Caius as he has been venerated by the Catholic Church as a Saint. Given that title, and the fact that Saint's are given to a quasi-immortal status, I have ascertained that this is who Kant is most likely referring to. My question for you is, do you think that my assumption is correct? or do you have a deeper insight into who he is referring to?

Any information you can share is beneficial to my search. I thank you in advance for any and all help.

Pamela N.”

Herewith my reply:

“Dear Ms. N,

Thank you very much for your inquiry concerning the identity of the person referred to as Caius by Kant in an example of a valid syllogism.  If you will permit me to say so, this strikes me as a rather odd quest on which to send a Personal Assistant.  Your inquiry reminds me of a charming old one-page short story called “Pet Department - Dog” by the great American humorist James Thurber.

I am afraid I cannot be of any assistance, as I have not a clue whether the Caius referred to by Kant is even a real person.  I think it is highly unlikely that he was referring to Pope Caius.  The argument in which the name appears is an example of what medieval philosophers called a syllogism in Barbara – referring to a mnemonic device they invented to help them remember which syllogisms are valid and which are invalid.  A syllogism is said to be valid if the conclusion follows with necessity from the premises, regardless of the truth of the premises or of the conclusion.  The following is an example of an invalid syllogism:  “Some Republicans are people who are in insane asylums.  Some people who are in insane asylums are sane.  Therefore some Republicans are sane.”  This syllogism is invalid, even though I am assured by highly respectable NEW YORK TIMES Op Ed columnists that the conclusion is true [a matter of which I have no personal experience.]

By the way, saints are not quasi-immortal.  They are mortal men and women whose exemplary lives have excused them from the unpleasantness of a stay in Purgatory.  Since they ascend directly to heaven upon their deaths and sit, as it were, at the footstool of God, they are available to intercede with The Almighty on behalf of prayerful sinners.  No one on earth knows for sure which of the dearly departed are saints, but the Roman Catholic Church has for many centuries made a pretty good living from proclaiming certain individuals to be saints, typically after ascertaining that they have been instrumental in working three authenticated miracles.  By and large, if you want to be declared a saint by The Church, it is best either to die painfully or be elected Pope.  Seventeenth century English Protestants, in an admirable show of egalitarian fervor, took to classifying as saints all those who had been elected from all eternity to be among the Saved.  In practice this meant members of their own or affiliated congregations.

I hope this was of some use.  If your duties as a Personal Assistant leave you any free time, you might try actually reading something by Kant, preferably not too long.  Perhaps I might suggest his well-known essay “On the Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives.”


Robert Paul Wolff

Sunday, October 26, 2014


The time changed in Paris this morning at two a.m., a week before it changes in the United States.  My morning walks, which I usually start at about 6:30 plus or minus, have occurred before the dawn has broken [although it is always easy to see one's way in The City of Lights.]  This all reminded me how far north we are here in Paris.  Paris is at 48.48 degrees latitude north, which Google Earth tells me is a good deal north of Fargo, North Dakota and farther north than the northern most point of the state of Maine.  The balmy winters here are a consequence of the Gulf Stream, which has shifted very quickly several times in recorded history and could easily shift again, dramatically altering the weather of Northern Europe.  It rarely snows in Paris, and almost never more than an inch or two, which melts quite quickly.

Chapel Hill, by the way, is on the same parallel as Majorca, Ankara, and Beijing.  When Chapel Hill gets a dusting of snow, the town closes the schools for three days.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


I am afraid that a phrase I wrote facetiously in a previous post triggered a series of comments that somewhat missed the point I was trying to make.  Since the point is actually rather important, I am going to try to spell it out at sufficient length to make it clear and avoid misunderstanding.  One of the drawbacks of communication by blog post and comment is that people tend to read quickly and not reflect on the deeper meaning of what is being said [perhaps because so often there is no deeper meaning.]  The offending passage in my previous post was this:

“The simple truth is that none of the “liberation” movements had an economically radical thrust.  In effect, their demands were variations on the same theme:  We Want In!  We demand to be and to be treated as first-class citizens, not second-class citizens, of this capitalist society – which is, after all, just another way of saying We Want To Be Exploited Just Like White Men!

Marx quite correctly judged Capitalism to be a radically revolutionary social formation, invading and transforming every corner of the society in which it grows and flourishes.  He observed Capitalism destroying the age-old division between the city and countryside.  He observed it destroying the old craft traditions and replacing them with machine production requiring nothing more than interchangeable semi-skilled laborers.  He observed Capitalism eroding the authority of the church and the throne, expanding across national borders and erasing cultural differences that in some cases were millennia old.  One hundred and fifty years after he published Capital, we can see this process of destruction still at work on a global scale.

Despite the corrosive and transformative effect of the spread of Capitalism, there remain in the contemporary world a number of institutions and practices that exhibit what we might call pre-capitalist norms and structures.  Many of the calls for change or movements to transform existing institutions and practices are, in one way or another, efforts to complete the work of Capitalism, eliminating pre-capitalist formations and perfecting, so to speak, the triumph of Capitalism.

Let me give some examples of these processes of change, which are sometimes judged politically progressive and sometimes judged politically reactionary, but which are au fond instances of the same historical process.

If we look around us, we see a number of institutions that exhibit traces, and sometimes more than traces, of pre-capitalist norms and structures.  [Now, right here, I want you to pay close attention and not jump in with clever comments to the effect that these institutions are not really free if the effects of Capitalism.  You are just going to have to trust that I do know that, and that I am trying to make a deeper point that cannot be countered with a snappy radical-sounding comment.  Really.]   Think for a moment about three such institutions:  the Church, the military, and the university.  Each of these social institutions is older than Capitalism – in some cases many millennia older.  Each has internal norms and ideals that are thoroughly pre-capitalist.  And each has, in quite different ways, been invaded and partially transformed, as it were, by Capitalism.

The Church [either the Roman Catholic Church or the various Protestant churches] is a quintessentially pre-capitalist institution whose norms are prior to, and in many respect antithetical to, Capitalism.  The Roman Catholic Church, for example, in some of its iterations, has been deeply opposed to Capitalism, especially but not exclusively in South America.  Protestant churches in the United States are notorious for fostering money-making scams and sects, but these are not capitalist in their organization and norms, for all that they are epitomes of greed.  We are instinctively offended by priests or pastors who view their pulpits as little more than cash registers, whereas we are not in the same way [please note the words “in the same way” and their meaning] offended by corporate C.E.O.’s who treat their corporations as money-making operations.  We expect a corporation to seek to make money, for all that we may disapprove of corporations as social formations.

The military, at least in America, has very considerably resisted efforts to transform it into a capitalist institution.  Its highest ranked officers make salaries no larger than those of corporate middle managers; it celebrates and honors those who exhibit courage under fire, regardless of whether those actions are in any sense economically efficient; it announces and to a quite remarkable degree abides by norms of behavior that are thoroughly pre-capitalist, for all that many of its most successful upwardly mobile middle rank officers look and sound more like MBA’s than fighting men and women.  Once again, I beg you not to respond to these lines with knee-jerk anti-military snarks.  I don’t care whether you like the Army or hate it.  I want you to look past that and see that the norms and behavior of those in the army are different [not better or worse, different] from those in a capitalist corporation.  If you are simply unable to grasp that simple fact, then go off into the woods with a copy of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft for several months and learn from Max Weber.

A fascinating case study of what I am talking about is the university, a late medieval institution whose internal norms and ideals are currently under assault by the forces of capitalist transformation.  The recruitment of corporate types as senior university administrators, the substitution of cheap labor for a tenured professoriate, the use of such metrics as FTE’s [fulltime equivalent student enrolments], the demand that professors “pull their weight” by securing external funding for research are all examples of the attempt to “put universities on a sound actuarial footing," which is to say to transform them into capitalist institutions.

Now, the point of my previous post was to call attention to the important fact that many recent social movements that have been widely understood as politically progressive or even revolutionary are in fact efforts to replace pre-capitalist practices and norms with capitalist practices and norms.  Capitalism treats those who sell their labor for wages as inputs into production, no different either in their balance sheets or in their factories and offices from other inputs such raw materials, machinery, or electricity.  Distinctions within the labor force grounded in race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or age are, from the perspective of pure capitalist calculation, market imperfections that interfere with “the efficient use of scarce resources with alternative uses,” to quote a classic definition of the subject matter of the science of Economics.  [This is so even though Capitalism has from time to time used “imperfections” to hold down wages.]

Thus, the long and successful Civil Rights Movement, perhaps the premier liberation movement of my lifetime, was never an attack on Capitalism [although many of its heroes and heroines, most especially W. E. B. DuBois, understood the connection between Socialism and genuine liberation].  The Women’s Movement, which took dead aim at the injustices and inequalities of the oldest pre-capitalist social institution, the Family, sought from the beginning the complete incorporation of women into Capitalism, by way of inclusion in the workplace and the political sphere, never the liberation of women from Capitalism.  And the same is true of the Gay Liberation Movement that has recently achieved such remarkable success.

That is what I was trying, unsuccessfully, to say in my previous post.  I hope it is all bit clearer now.

Friday, October 24, 2014


Earlier today, I received an interesting inquiry from Lex Gill, a student at McGill who is taking a course with a distinguished political theorist who recently joined the McGill Law Faculty.  Since it raises a question that may be of general interest to readers of this blog, I have decided to reply in a post rather than by private e-mail.  Ms. Gill has given me permission to use her name.  Here is her entire message:

“Dear Professor Wolff:

My name is Lex, and I'm a student in a class on legal philosophy offered by Prof. Daniel Weinstock at McGill University. I'm writing because I hope you might be able to clarify something in your writing, if you have a moment. Please don't feel under any obligation to respond - I'm sure you're quite busy and it's quite possible my question has been answered elsewhere.  A few weeks ago the class read excerpts from In Defense of Anarchism in the context of a larger conversation about law's authority. My understanding of your argument in favour of unanimous, direct democracy is that any compromise to such a model (i.e., representative democracy or majoritarianism) poses either similar logistical barriers as direct democracy does (a 'strict agency' model of representation) or fails to respect the principle of individual autonomy. 

Something that I didn't understand about this argument in favour of unanimous, direct democracy is maybe put rather crudely here:  what about the problem of a minority veto?  It seems to me that you can easily imagine a political community where an extraordinary vast majority of people share a position, but one or two individuals disagree. In exercising that right to disagree, in your model of unanimity their vote would amount to a veto.  To this end, I don't believe that a system of unanimity actually protects from the kind of marginalization that ends up being a risk in majoritarian democracies. I mean that, in the case of a majoritarian democracy, one could imagine the possibility of a permanent minority. But what about a permanent majority that is nonetheless unable to act in their own interests? What about a situation where a system of unanimity actually does nothing to protect minority interests, but rather privileges an unjust status quo?   Surely some element of the principle of autonomy includes a "freedom to" as well as a "freedom from"? I'm wondering how then, at least in an ideal model, you would accommodate for this problem? 

As I said, it could be possible that you've answered this question elsewhere or many times before, but I spoke to Prof. Weinstock and he was unsure how you would respond so he suggested I send an email.

Thank you for your time and thought on this.  Lex Gill

I am not at all busy, and I am delighted to see that something I wrote forty-nine years ago and published forty-four years ago is still being discussed intelligently.  Mr. Gill raises several important points.  Let me begin by saying that I intended unanimous direct democracy as a limiting case designed to exhibit the impossibility of a de jure legitimate state under any but the most constrained of circumstances.  It is common when making truly rigorous arguments [in logic or mathematics, say] to consider what happens in limiting cases or at the boundaries.  If I may give an example from Classical Political Economy [since that is in my mind just now], the thesis that commodities in a situation of perfect competition exchange at their labor values is true in the limiting case of a zero rate of profit.  The price equations, with π = 0, reduce to the labor value equations and the proposition is trivial.  The reason for showing this is certainly not to suggest that there ever is a zero profit rate in a functioning capitalist economy, but to make it easy to see just exactly why prices deviate from labor values save when there is, in Marx’s terms, equal organic composition of capital.

Analogously, my purpose in arguing that a unanimous direct democracy preserves the autonomy of citizens while establishing the moral bindingness of the laws of the state is to set aside for a bit the problems attendant upon representation and focus rather on the insoluble problems with majority rule or any other way of transforming the will of individual citizens into a unified legislative will of a de jure legitimate state.

That said, it happens that when I was writing In Defense of Anarchism, there was some interesting discussion going on of cases that could be subsumed under the rubric of “unanimous direct democracy.”  For example, the first version of John Rawls’ theory of justice [in his essay, “Justice as Fairness”] analyzed the circumstances under which a community of individuals would arrive at unanimous agreement on a set of principle for settling disputes concerning questions of distributive justice.  Earlier still, modern neo-classical economic theory devoted a good deal of energy examining what could be said about situations in which unanimity partial orderings could be identified under conditions of what came to be referred to as Pareto optimality.  And of course all classical social contract theory sooner or later appeals to an agreement founding a political community whose bindingness on the participants is inferred from a unanimous social contract.

Ms. Gill is of course completely correct that unanimous direct democracy would be utterly unworkable as the decision rule for a real society.  [I believe in the nineteenth century the Polish parliament, made up of nobles, operated on a rule of unanimity.  Needless to say, not much got done.]  By the way, my elaboration of a framework for Majoritarian Direct Democracy – what I called television democracy – was really meant as a bit of Swiftian satire intended to expose the anti-democratic beliefs of political theorists and commentators who pretend to be partisans of Democracy.  But if I am not mistaken, some folks in Canada actually got a grant not long after my little book appeared to try it out.  I have no idea what results they came up with.

It has been forty-four years since Harper Torchbooks published In Defense of Anarchism, all 82 pages of it, and unless I am very much mistaken, no one has laid a glove on the argument in the intervening time, so I think we can take it as an established fact that I was right.  Since it is very rarely the case in Philosophy that anyone is right, I take some pride in that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Many of you have read the first two parts of William Polk's important essay on the history of the Palestinian situation, archived on August 8, 2014 and September 1, 2014 on, accessible via the link at the top of this page.  Earlier today I received part three.  I have now read it and uploaded it to  It is I think essential reading for anyone interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  My thanks go out to Bill for the enormous labor he has put into this three-part essay.


The Batobus Jean Gabin has returned!  It was probably just making a movie on location.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Observing capitalism in its earliest stages, Marx argued correctly that it was the most revolutionary force ever unleashed on the world.  He saw that as it expanded and displaced previous social relations of production, capitalism eroded religious, ethnic, cultural, national, racial, and gender divisions, seeking always to reduce the labor force as far as possible to a homogeneous mass of workers who could be exchanged for one another readily on the factory floor or in the office.  Although he fatally over-emphasized this tendency, as I have argued in my essay “The Future of Socialism,” his insight was correct.

Sitting in a café in the Marais after a visit to the Jewish Museum here in Paris, I found myself reflecting on the way in which Marx’s insight helped me to make sense of the frustrating limitations of the dramatically successful liberation movements on which liberals have focused so much of their energy in the past fifty years or so.  For someone of my age, the social changes in America since the forties and fifties have been astonishing and exhilarating.  The Black Liberation Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and now the nascent Hispanic movement have changed the cultural and political life of America in ways that are clearly non-reversible, for all the desperate efforts of hysterical reactionaries.

But during that same period, economic inequality has steadily increased, the labor union movement has all but died, and the public discourse has moved markedly to the right on all matters economic.

The simple truth is that none of the “liberation” movements had an economically radical thrust.  In effect, their demands were variations on the same theme:  We Want In!  We demand to be and to be treated as first-class citizens, not second-class citizens, of this capitalist society – which is, after all, just another way of saying We Want To Be Exploited Just Like White Men!

Although this thrust of capitalism is universal, there are always local variations.  In nineteenth century America, for example, Capital struck a deal with white men, including immigrants.  In return for excluding Black men freed by the Civil War from the better industrial jobs, thereby reducing the threat of unemployment to White men, owners were able to hold down wages.  Black women were excluded even from such jobs as department store salesperson until after the Second World War, and in the successful drive to gain the vote for women, the White women who led the suffrage movement deliberately excluded Black women from their demands.

But generally speaking, Capital favors the inclusion of excluded sub-populations in the labor force, for the increase in the numbers of those looking for jobs keeps wages low.  It was not at all surprising that when the Supreme Court weighed the constitutionality of the consideration of race in the admissions processes of the University of Michigan, large corporations filed amicus briefs in favor of the university’s practices.

We now find ourselves at a moment when the last great liberation movement, for the LGBT community, is on a clear path to success, but there is very little evidence of a powerful groundswell of support for economic justice.  To be sure, the obscene rise in the inequality of income and wealth in America has finally become a subject of public discussion.  But at least thus far, even such brilliantly theatrical efforts as the Occupy Movement have had little or no impact on electoral politics.  We will soon see a successful effort by Hillary Clinton to secure first the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency and then the presidency itself.  I would be quite surprised if Clinton is not president for the eight years following the Obama presidency.  And yet there is not the slightest hint of anything remotely progressive about Hillary Clinton’s economic beliefs, commitments, or programs.

Liberation politics has run its course in America.  Where the demand, the energy, the drive for economic progressivism will come from, I do not know.  As for socialism, don’t get me started.

Monday, October 20, 2014


We are now just two weeks from the midterm elections, and it is becoming clear that the Democrats are likely to lose control of the Senate.  It is not a done deal, were the feckless, ne’er-do-well Democratic base to get off its collective duff and just wander over to the polls to vote, we could avoid the unpleasantness of Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader, but I am afraid the outcome universally considered most likely will in fact be the outcome that we get, so it is not too early to speculate on what it will all mean.  Herewith some idle guesses, worth roughly as much as the effort they cost me to put into words.  Treat them accordingly.

First of all, I think we can assume the day of the filibuster is over, so the Republicans will be able to pass any legislation they wish.  Getting it signed is of course another matter.  This will present the Senate Republicans with a very difficult problem.  The House Republicans will certainly wish to repeal the Affordable care Act and pass all manner of anti-abortion legislation, etc.  But in 2016, the electoral map will as unfavorable to the Senate Republicans as the 2014 map is to the Democrats, so the vulnerable Republican senators will not wish to have their fingerprints on a good deal of reactionary legislation that could come back to haunt them in 2016.  Some very interesting fights may spring up within the Republican Party.

There will be two months between the loss of the Senate and the installation of the new Senators, so there is in fact time to fill some more vacant federal judgeships.  Unfortunately [and quite incomprehensibly] Obama has been derelict in nominating candidates for District Court and Appeals Court judgeships.  The Bush White House was quite industrious in this regard, with a large staff in the White House Counsel’s Office devoted to the matter.  Under Obama, this function has been understaffed and neglected.  Why?  It beats me.  Doing that would have been a freebie.  It is an example not so much of ideological failing as sheer malfeasance.

In the wake of a loss of the Senate, Hillary Clinton will move up the announcement of her candidacy for the presidency in order to present herself as the salvation of disheartened liberals.  This will be a fraud, but it will work, and as liberals watch the efforts of a mobilized and energized Republican Party to dismantle the last tottering structures of the New Deal legacy, they will allow themselves to be conned into thinking that Clinton is in some manner a savior.  In the absence of a real liberal candidate, she will waltz into the nomination and win the 2016 Presidential race against some far right crazy put up by Republican right wingers convinced their moment has come.

The next ten years – my eighties – are going to be unusually difficult for someone of my persuasion.  But with any luck, my nineties will be more cheerful.  Since the Tigger in me is irrepressible, I shall approach my centenary with a light heart.  Of course, by then my morning walk may take me most of the day.


Sunday, October 19, 2014


I have on occasion spoken disparagingly of the quality of classical music in Paris, but last night Susie and I went to a simply lovely concert that forces me to withdraw my disapproval.  An organization of early music ensembles formed by young students and graduates of music schools in France has been putting on something called Festival Marin-Marais after the great seventeenth century viole player who was played by Gérard Depardieu in the beautiful film about Sainte-Colombe, Tous les Matins du Monde.  [In the film, Depardieu’s son plays Marin Marais as a young man.]  The festival consists of eighteen concerts, between September and November.  We went to the Temple du Foyer de l’Ȃme on the curiously named rue du Pasteur-Wagner just north of Place de la Bastille.  The concert, devoted to music of the seventeenth century, combined the efforts of two groups:  Atys, six young women, three of whom play baroque violins and three of whom play violas da gamba, and Quadrivium Consort, five young men who play natural trumpets [no valves or keys] and a variety of oddly shaped cornets.  The concert featured music by several composers of whom I had never heard, such as Johann Vierdanck and Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky.  It was a delight.  Early music is alive and well in Paris.

To get into the concert, I had not only to pay for tickets [dirt cheap – ten Euros each] but also fill out a form which asked, among other things, what instrument I play!  This got me two cards, with our names on them, which apparently will gain us entrance to the remaining concerts.  I was so delighted that as we left I dropped a fifty Euro bill in the collection basket.

Because we got there early, we were able to sit in the front row, and once again I observed something I have noticed before.  What follows is a bit of inside baseball, so those not enamored of early music can surf on over to the Huffington Post.  Baroque violins [and violas] differ from modern instruments in three notable respects.  They use gut strings, not metal strings; they use bows differently constructed; and they do not have chin rests.  The consequence of the first two differences is that they make a softer, less brilliant sound.  The absence of the chin rest makes it harder to play in the higher positions.  [In first position, the player makes use of the open strings and supports the instrument with the thumb under its neck.  To shift to higher positions, you must move the left hand up the neck, until finally, in the very highest positions, it looks as though the performer is trying to stick her finger in her right ear.  The chin rest is designed to allow the performer to clamp the violin between the chin and the shoulder and hold it so that the left hand is free to move up and down between positions.]  I watched the three women playing baroque violins, and I think I am correct that not once did they ever have to play in anything but the first position, even though the music they were playing was on occasion quite complex.  I came away thinking that with a little practice I could play that music.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


It has been pointed out to me that it is probably a bad idea to talk on my blog about my concerns regarding the course, as the students will find their way to my blog and read what I have written.  So I am going to remove my posts [including this one after a few days] and the comments and talk about something else.  You can always contact me by e-mail.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Ian Seda-Irizarry, Professor of Economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and one of a number of fine young scholars educated in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Economics Department, poses a rather technical question grounded in the approach to Marx of Louis Althusser, and follows it up with an e-mail request that I say something about my take on Althusserian Marxism.  In keeping with my long-established practice of offering my opinions on matters about which I know next to nothing, I shall strive to accommodate the request.  First let me reproduce his comment so that it is before us:

“Professor now that I read your post, and after recently reading your book on "Money Bags must be so Lucky" I wonder if it is not more precise to speak of "essence vs appearance" instead of "reality vs appearance" given that the latter implies that appearance is not true or real. My understanding is that these terms have very precise philosophical meanings, something that implies that they go beyond the mere literal sense. And well, this of course happens with other concepts that Marx deploys like the concept of "abstract"...If one doesn't understand that he is using it following Hegel's deployment then, for example, reading the German Ideology would probably not make much sense.”

When one is about to risk making a fool of oneself, confession is good for the soul, so let me explain that I have not read anything by Althusser in roughly thirty-five years.  I can date the event because it coincided with a trip I took with my two young sons to DisneyWorld in Orlando, Florida.  I brought along Althusser’s best known work, Reading Capital.  In the evenings, after a full day of rides and such, I would put my two young sons to bed in the Howard Johnson motel room and then sit under the light over the washbasin outside the bathroom reading Althusser.  I think I may be the only person in the world with a copy of Reading Capital that has a Porky Pig sticker on the cover.

Back in Amherst I attended a graduate course for a while taught by Richard Wolff, a brilliant, charismatic Althusserian Marxist who was one of the leading lights of the UMass Economics Department.  After several classes in which I got into arguments with Rick about “overdetermination” [a favorite Althusserian category], I stopped going because I feared I was simply being disruptive.

I will confess that I found Althusser obscure and unhelpful in my quest to understand Marx and stopped reading him.  This, as I have explained several times, has been my practice all my life.  When I find a text that seizes me, enlightens me, opens ideas for me, I read it with a ferocious intensity, ripping from it by main force whatever can help me in my intellectual quests.  But when I find a text that does not seize me, as indeed most do not, I cast it aside and forget about it.  I am thus deeply but very haphazardly or spottily educated.  For example, I have a modest reputation as a Kant scholar, but there are books by Kant I have not read because one look was enough to tell me that they contained nothing I really needed to know.  I make no apology for this habit of mind, and am quite happy to forego whatever recognition I might thereby sacrifice.

Althusser simply did not interest me when I read him, so I stopped.  Let me expand on this just a bit by responding to Professor Seda-Irizarry’s comment about essence and appearance versus reality and appearance, and then call up from the bowels of my memory my dispute with Rick Wolff about overdetermination.  I borrow the Appearance/Reality distinction from Plato, of course, who originated it in Western Philosophy [though the distinction must surely have been around long before Plato wrote.]  As my little book, Moneybags, makes quite clear, I understand Marx to be saying that the surface appearances of Capitalism are powerful and capable of distorting and indeed destroying our lives, for all that they exist at the level of Appearance.  I bring my book to a close with an extended analysis of Marx’s puzzling statement that “The categories of bourgeois economy … are socially valid, hence objective forms of thought” despite having just said that they are verrükt.  This is a very deep utterance by Marx and requires an elaborate explication [which I give it.]  I can see absolutely nothing to be gained by substituting “essence” for “reality” in my discussion, nothing at all.  I am afraid [and I realize that I risk giving offence here] that I am sympathetic to the scathing evaluation of Althusser offered by Leszek Kolakowski, who wrote, as quoted on Wikipedia:  I will argue that the whole of Althusser's theory is made up of the following elements: 1. common sense banalities expressed with the help of unnecessarily complicated neologisms; 2. traditional Marxist concepts that are vague and ambiguous in Marx himself (or in Engels) and which remain, after Althusser's explanation, exactly as vague and ambiguous as they were before; 3. some striking historical inexactitudes.”

My dispute with Rick Wolff about overdetermination is a good case in point.  The term “overdetermination” has two well-established meanings.  The first is from mathematics, where a system of n linear equations in m unknowns is said to be overdetermined if n>m.  An easy way to think about this is to imagine each linear equation as defining a line in a space.  Two such lines in two-dimensional space will intersect somewhere if they are linearly independent [otherwise they will be parallel and never intersect, in which case one equation is actually a scalar multiple of the other.]  Each pair of three lines in three-dimensional space will define a plane, assuming once again that no two of the lines are parallel to one another.  Each pair of planes intersect to define a line, and the intersection of all three will identify a point.  The point of intersection in each case is the solution to the set of equations – the point whose coordinates satisfy all n equations simultaneously.  When there are three lines in two-dimensional space, in general they will not meet at a single point [instead they will define a triangle, with each pair of lines intersecting at one of the vertices.]  So when three lines meet at a point in two-space, their equations do not determine a point, they overdetermine it.

The other meaning of “overdetermine’ is to be found in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.  In attempting to arrive at an interpretation of a patient’s dream, Freud would have the patient free associate to each element of the dream until the flow of associations played out, thereby discovering the meaning of the dream element in the dream.  But as Freud engaged in this therapeutic practice, he made a striking discovery.  Sometimes, the process of association would yield a completely adequate interpretation of a dream element, and yet by continuing the associations to that very same element, Freud would come upon a quite different, but also completely adequate interpretation of the element.  It was not at all the case that the first stream of associations had explained some of the aspects of the dream element while the second stream had explained other aspects, nor was it the case that both streams of association were needed to make sense of any single aspect of the dream element.  Each process of association was fully adequate to the explanation of the entire dream element.  Freud called this curious phenomenon “overdetermination.”  Althusser claimed to derive his notion of overdetermination from Freud.

In his lectures, rick Wolff seemed to me to be using the term “overdetermination” for something totally different, namely multiple determination, which is to say determination of a multiplicity of causes rather than by one cause alone. And he was invoking this of multiple determination – quite legitimately in my opinion – to counteract the tendency of some readers of Marx to think that Marx was saying something simplistic and wrong, namely that the law or religion of a society had one single simple cause, namely that it was a reflection of the social relations of production in the society, rather than being a complex phenomenon with many causes, principle among which but by no means alone, were the social relations of production.

I tried without any success whatsoever to get Rick to see that he was misusing the term “overdetermined’ when what he really meant was “multiply determined.”  After a while I gave up and stopped bothering him and his class.

Well, that is about as much as I know about Althusser.  I hope someone found it interesting.  Ian, if you see Rick, give him my regards.  He is a class act.


This post is just for people within ten years of my age, which is to say folks in their seventies and older.  The rest of you will think I have lost my mind.

Before I left the States, I called Verizon and had them unlock my cell phone so that I could use it here in Paris if need be.  I then purchased a basic 100 gigabyte one month add-on to my contract [I have only the dimmest notion of what that actually means].  Five minutes ago, I decided to try it out.  Sitting at my desk in our apartment, I called our landline in the apartment.  This involved pressing the zero until a plus sign appeared, followed by our phone number.  I pressed the green button and in two or three seconds, the phone rang in the apartment.  Susie picked it up and we spoke to one another from a distance of perhaps eight feet.  As I understand these things, my call was routed to our apartment via the United States.

This was undoubtedly the most exciting thing that has happened to me in some while.  Now, if you youngsters will stop smirking and giggling, let me just point out that when I was born, you had to pick up a big clunky handset and rotate a dial to make a call, unless it was necessary instead simply to flip the cradle several times until an operator came on who could plug a jack into the appropriate receptacle and complete your call.  Out in the sticks there were "party lines," which is to say several homes on a single wire, so that when you picked up the phone, you could hear what someone else on the same party line was saying.  It takes a village, as Hillary Clinton is fond of saying.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


This evening will be our ninth dinner in Paris.  Our first evening, we were so blasted from the trip [old folks don't do so well losing a night's sleep] that we simply stumbled over to the Café Le Metro and ordered a hamburger [for Susie] and a cheeseburger [for me.]  The table of Americans next to us sent their cheeseburgers back because one could see a hint of red in their innards.  The patron of the café, who took our order, did not believe us when we said we wanted our burgers bleu -- which is French for very rare.  He double checked to make sure we knew what we were ordering.

The next day was market day, and I bought enough food for three dinners -- Coquilles St. Jacques the first night, quail the second night, and my signature cuisses de canards the third night.  For the duck, I mandolin two sweet onions, then spread oriental five spices on the skin side of the cuisses, sear them until the skin sides are browned, reserve and push the onions around in the pan to cover them with duck fat, replace the cuisses skin side up and put the frying pan [which has a removable handle] in a very slow oven -- 275 degrees Fahrenheit [135 Centigrade] for two hours.  While they were cooking, I halved a large number of cherry tomatoes, chopped a lot of garlic, and chopped a good deal of fresh Basil, all of which, when sautéed, results in a delicious side dish.

The next night we went to our favorite restaurant, Rotisserie du Beaujolais, where Susie had a wild pigeon [Palombe] and I had magret de canard which was, to be brutally honest, not nearly as good as mine.

Since then, I have cooked skate and paupiettes Provencale.  Skate is a scary looking fish with a skin that could serve quite nicely as a bulletproof vest, but broiled in the oven with capers and butter, it turns out to be meaty and delicious.  The Paupiettes are actually rather cheaty, I feel, because they come ready made from the butcher shop, but they are so good that Susie forgives me the lapse into prepared food.

After the concert at the Cluny, we tried an Italian restaurant just across a side street from the museum.  My lasagna Bolognese was delicious, but Susie's gambas were overdone, so I am not sure we shall return.  This evening, I am making Dorade Royale fillets, with courgettes [zucchini, but it sounds much better in French] and steamed spinach.  A very simple supper.

Tomorrow night, I shall stuff a coquelet with a mixture of chopped sweet onion, prunes, and hazelnuts.

All in all, a pretty good start to our Paris stay.