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Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Chapel Hill is entirely iced in, I have prudentially bought enough food at least for today, and I have done as much of my taxes as I have the documentation for, so this might be a good time to say a bit more about the relation between social theory and language, a subject to which I have been devoting a good deal of attention in my course on Karl Marx's critique of capitalism.  Let me begin with an amusing and revealing story from more than fifty years ago.

In 1961 I left Harvard for an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago, to teach, among other things, in the big required second year undergraduate survey course on the Social Sciences [thus continuing a career of teaching things I had never formally studied.]  The course was taught in sections, but several times during the year all of the students assembled in a big lecture hall for a guest lecture.  One day, we trooped into the hall to hear a report on some research being carried out by a Professor of Anthropology and his graduate students.  Anthropology was one of the Social Sciences we "covered" in our sophomore level course -- we all taught Bronislaw Malinowski's classic 1922 work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, a study of the peoples of New Guinea.  [My colleague, David Bakan, a wonderful psychologist stumped by teaching a book about which he knew virtually nothing, devoted the entire class to a discussion of what it might be about the people of Middle Europe that would possess them to go off to the ends of the earth to study people so unlike themselves!]

The speaker that day had been leading his students on some field work in the sub-discipline of Urban Anthropology.  They had been pub crawling the up-scale bars in the part of downtown Chicago known colloquially as the Near North.  Now he was reporting on their findings, and in one of the most brilliant tours de force I have ever  witnessed, he conceived the idea of straight-facedly recounting their adventures in the standard jargon used by cultural anthropologists to describe the "primitive" peoples they have gone off to investigate.   The effect was startling.  All of the students in the lecture hall [and even many of the professors] were quite familiar with the venues being described, but in the language of cultural anthropology they were unrecognizable.  Without once breaking tone, the lecturer managed to convey the idea that standard anthropological field reports were almost certainly distortions of the lived experiences of the subjects.  The men and women of New Guinea would no more recognize themselves in the journal articles published about them than the students recognized themselves in the accounts of the bars where they spent their weekends.

All of which, oddly enough, brings me to my current concern, the reason why Marx writes economic theory in a language so utterly unlike that used by any economic theorists before or since.  As this is a blog post and not a two and a half hour lecture, let me state my thesis baldly.  Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Paul Samuelson, John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, Paul Krugman, and all the rest of their tribe write a straightforward uncomplicated prose because they all believe that capitalism is fundamentally one-dimensional, unmystified, comprehensible, and at base susceptible therefore of rational explication.  They may, of course, think that capitalism is extremely complicated, requiring sophisticated mathematical analysis and elaborate data assembly of a sort manageable only by highly trained professionals.  Some of them may write with style and grace -- Keynes certainly did, and I confess to a fondness for Ricardo's writings as well.  But for all of them, the economy is an object of study capable of being given a coherent rational account, with enough work and enough brains.

Marx does not agree.  He thinks that capitalism is thoroughly mystified -- not complicated, mystified.  He describes the ordinary exchange of commodities in the marketplace as a kind of inverted transubstantiation.  In the miracle of the Mass, the accidents of the wine and the wafer, their smell and taste and feel, remain unaltered, but their substance is, through the intermediation of God, replaced with the substance of the blood and body of Christ.  In the exchange of a coat for ten yards of linen, the accidents of the coat are replaced by the accidents of the linen, but the substance -- abstract, homogeneous, socially necessary labor, which is to say value -- remains the same.  In capitalism, people are treated like things, and things are treated like people.  This is verrΓΌckt, Marx says -- crazy, crack-brained.  [The translation as "absurd" does not capture Marx's real meaning these days, when the absurd has become a respected literary and philosophical category.]  But despite being crazy, these notions have social validity, Marx says, because only be acting as though they make sense can both workers and capitalists survive in a capitalist economy.

What is more, all of us -- even Marx and his epigones -- are captives of this crazy way of thinking.  Hence, to communicate the essential mystification of capitalism and at the same time achieve sufficient ironic distance from it to make liberation from it possible, Marx requires a language with literary resources far more complex than those employed by even the most sophisticated mathematical economists.

This is a bit of what I have been trying to teach my students in my course.  By the way, anthropologists, perhaps alone among social scientists, understand this problem.


David Auerbach said...

I think, in addition to anthropologists, literary translators, at those least translating from 14th Chinese texts (to use an example which may not be viable) or such, might also know.

Michael said...

I'm happy to hear that you're thoughts have turned to this, as this is something we in literature deal with all the time, both in texts and criticism. I am curious about why you seem to value this style in Marx, when you seem to detest it in others (say Hegel, for whom similar arguments have been made, I believe). Not that I would ever try to force someone into loving Hegel, but as someone who deals in a tradition of scholarship that is often torn between a desire to write in beyond the mystification of the everyday (taking its cue from Foucault, Althusser, Butler, etc.) and a desire to express ideas clearly and lucidly, I'm curious to pick your brain on the issue further.