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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, July 31, 2015


Bloomberg News ran a focus group in New Hampshire recently for a dozen or so Republican voters supporting or favorable to Donald Trump, and their videotaped report has stimulated a good deal of interest on the TV talk shows [I cannot seem to find a link to it -- my apologies.]  The commentators on MSNBC have been obsessing over it for the past several days, trying to understand how and why these apparently sane and decent folks can feel so positively about someone as egregiously objectionable as Trump.  [The participants' second choice, almost unanimously, was Herman Cain, by the way.]  The consensus emerging from the discussions is that a large number of Americans are fed up with "Washington insiders" and offended by political correctness and the disparaging snobbish way that the "elites" view them, and Donald Trump, billionaire and all, is their kind of guy.  The Talking Heads all nod when one of their number says this in one way or another, but they are clearly mystified.  I agree with the characterization I have just given, but odd as it may sound, I do not think those who are saying it actually understand what their words mean.  I have written about this before, but it is important, so I am going to write about it again.

Let me start with a fact that I have invoked before.  In the United States today, roughly two-thirds of all adult men and women do not have four-year college degrees -- Bachelor's Degrees, as they are called in America.  When I went off to college in 1950, only five percent of adults had college degrees.  The number has been rising more or less steadily in the sixty-five years since, so among adults in the cohort of Americans in their forties or fifties, to which most of the Focus Group participants appeared to belong, many more than two-thirds do not have college degrees.

In contrast, virtually everyone who comments on politics on Television does have a college degree, and many of them, of course, have advanced degrees.  [Rachel Maddow, for example, has a D. Phil. from Oxford, where she began her studies on a Rhodes Scholarship.]  When these folks talk on TV about elitism, they mean the snobbery of people who have Ivy League degrees rather than degrees from State Universities or lesser private institutions. 

Once again, a few facts are called for.  There are just shy of 2,500 degree-granting four year colleges and universities in America.  [Two-thirds are private, but because of the size of the big state universities, sixty percent of college students are enrolled at public institutions.]  If you can tear your eyes away from the two dozen famous elite institutions, you find maybe three hundred others that anyone has heard of who does not actually live in the town where they are located.  All of these are, by any rational criterion, elite institutions in the context of a higher educational sector with two thousand five hundred total colleges and universities.  And the graduates of the least distinguished of these two thousand five hundred are still head and shoulders, in educational credentials, above the two-thirds of Americans who do not have college degrees at all.

Because of the racial, religious, ethnic, occupational, and economic self-segregation that defines the American residential landscape, it turns out that many, if not most, of the people with college degrees know mostly, or sometimes only, people with college degrees, while most of the people without college degrees know mostly or sometimes only people without college degrees.  This is obviously true of the professional opinionaters on Television.

Now, I suggest to you that these facts are understood intuitively by the people who do not have college degrees, even if they are not understood by the people who do.  It is always the case that those at  the bottom  of any social hierarchy -- the slaves, the servants, the workers, the women, the gays and lesbians forced into the closet -- have a more clear-eyed and ironically complex understanding of the facts of power and privilege than those at the top.  This is not exactly an original observation.  Indeed, it was a staple of seventeenth and eighteenth century French comedy -- think Figaro.

So you can be sure that when the non-degreed two thirds listen to TV talk about elitism, they understand quite well that they are excluded not merely from the inner circle of those who "went" to Harvard or Yale or Princeton but from the privileged circle of those who went to any of the two thousand five hundred colleges and universities.

Is this all just a matter of pride, of amour propre?  Of course not.  It is a matter of jobs, of salaries, and of life chances.

In America today, if you do not have a college degree, you cannot even dream of being a doctor or a lawyer.  You cannot be a college professor.  You have virtually no chance of ever being admitted to a corporate management training program [please spare me the news that Bill Gates dropped out of college!]  You cannot be a high school teacher.  Indeed, you cannot be an elementary school teacher.  You cannot be an FBI agent.  In many municipalities, you cannot even be an ordinary police officer.  There are countless state, local, and federal government jobs you can never hope to get.  You can work at Walmart, but if the Walmart website is any indication, you have virtually no chance of ever being a Walmart store manager.

If you are a high paid opinionated Television commentator, you may not know any of this, and you almost certainly have not given it any thought even if you do know it.  But if you are one of the two hundred million Americans without college degrees who are listening to you bloviate, you damned well do know it, because your life chances depend on knowing it.

I think it is a fair guess that Bernie Sanders is the only person running for the presidency in either party who actually has those two-thirds of Americans on his or her mind all the time.  But at least Donald Trump beats up relentlessly on the other Republican candidates who smell like elitists [even if, like Scott Walker, they actually dropped out of college.]

There is a great old story about Jack Kennedy when he was first running for the Senate from Massachusetts as the fair-haired privileged son of his rich rum-running father.  As the story goes, he was campaigning at a factory in Southie, surrounded by workingmen. and he confessed that he had never held a regular workingman's job a day in his life.  One of the men around him called out, "Ah, Jack, you dear boy, you haven't missed a thing!"

Sometimes, those at the bottom take up one of those at the top as their hero.  That is what working-class Boston did with Jack Kennedy , and that seems to be what working-class Republicans right now are doing with Donald Trump.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


Almost a month ago, I fantasized a Bernie Sanders presidency.  My dream was that the Republicans would nominate a certified wacko, liberating Democracts to vote their hearts.  Well, Donald Trump remains at the top of the polls of Republican voters, and the Commentariat is starting to talk nervously about whether he can be dethroned.

Can Trump win the nomination?  Be still, my heart.  But Donald loses decisively in the polls to Bernie.  I figure after Bernie steals the nomination from Hillary, he selects Antonio Villaraigosa as his running mate and sweeps the Latino vote to wipe out Trump.  Bernie against Donald.  No more dynasties!

I am ready.

Sunday, July 26, 2015


A reader who identifies him or herself as One Philosopher's Musings has this to say about my critical reading of Rawls:  "Hi Robert: It simply isn't true that Rawls ever purported to derive his principles of justice from rationality alone. Throughout 'A Theory of Justice', Rawls states that although (1) the parties in the original position are to be understood as rational (in a game-theoretic sense) behind the veil of ignorance, (2) the veil of ignorance is supposed to model the sense of *justice* that people have in modern democratic societies, and that it is supposed to model a common conception of (moral) constraints that people in modern democracies can commonly recognize as reasonable constraints.
Now, you may think this is a bad philosophical move (and I might even be willing to agree with you). But, it's important to be clear on what he did and did not argue. He never purported to derive justice from rationality alone. The notion that we share a *conception* and sense of justice, and that this conception is embodied by the veil ignorance, is crucial. The argument asks (1) what is rational, given (and constrained by) (2) a particular conception of what is reasonable (i.e. fairness)."

I think this is an example of exactly the wrong way to read a philosopher.  Let me explain why.  I begin with the observation, commonplace in the field of Literary Criticism, that authors are often the worst sources of information about what they have written.  Since I began my career as a philosopher more than half a century ago extracting a reading of Kant's First Critique from the text that was in many ways at odds with what Kant said he was doing, I am comfortable with this style of interpretation.

But if not the author's own words, what then can we appeal to?  The simple answer is logic.  If my reading can answer some fundamental questions about the text in a way that makes the text internally coherent and interesting philosophically, then I take that as evidence that I am right.  Notice the qualification ”and interesting philosophically."  That is obviously a judgment call, not capable of being definitively settled by any amount of textual citation.  But that is what makes the effort philosophy, not scholarship.

Now, here are some questions to which I can give good, clear logically and mathematically coherent answers, which my musing philosophical commentator cannot answer in a plausible and interesting way:

1.  In the original journal article, "Justice as Fairness," there was no mention of the Veil of Ignorance.  Why did Rawls introduce it in the second article, "Distributive Justice" and then in his later writings?

2.  In the original article, Rawls claimed that he was sketching the proof of a theorem.  What made him give up that claim while retaining all of the elaborate architecture on which that claim was based?

3.  In the original article, the bargainers were assumed to be rationally self-interested.  There is no assumption that they share a notion of fairness by which they will be bound.  What made Rawls change?

4.  In the original article, Rawls appeals transparently to the logic of bargaining games.  There is no mention of Reflective Equilibrium.  Why the change?

5.  Why did Rawls change the "interpretation" of the Difference Principle between the original article and the book?  I put the word "interpretation" in quotes because the principle, being his invention, does not have alternative "interpretations."  It is whatever he says it is.  His problem is to prove that it would be the outcome of the bargaining game, not to provide a plausible interpretation of a principle handed to him from somewhere else.  It is not for nothing that Rawls' first publication was a review of a multi-volume translation of the works of the Church Fathers!

6. Why did Rawls introduce and keep the seemingly arbitrary and implausible assumption that the participants in the bargaining are "not envious"?

7.  Why did Rawls feel called upon to introduce the assumptions of Life Plans and an Index of Primary Goods [this latter, strictly speaking, mathematically incoherent, although Rawls seems not to have been troubled by that obvious fact]?

I repeat, I can answer every one of these questions by an appeal to logic and mathematics.  It has nothing to do at all with Rawls maturing or thinking more deeply or changing his mind.  It has everything to do with the fact that the theorem as originally formulated was invalid, and required heroic revisions to salvage.  It also has to do with the fact that Rawls obviously became so deeply invested in his increasingly baroque elaborations, qualifications, and petitio principii that he lost all ability to face the fact that he actually had no good argument for his Two Principles, at least no good argument of the sort he originally set out to find.

That is why I say what I do.


Each weekday, I go down to the back door of the condominium building in which I live to get the mail.  These days, no one ever actually writes letters anymore, so the mail consists mostly of catalogues, political appeals for money, and the occasional bill.  Yesterday, when I was sifting through the junk, I came upon a plastic wrapped magazine called Freedom, which I knew I had not subscribed to.  At first I thought it was a Libertarian journal sent to me by someone who assumed that the author of In Defense of Anarchism would be a sympathizer, but a full page adulatory photograph of L. Ron Hubbard told me that what I had in my hands was a Scientology product.  Scientology is, of course, a total crock, but oddly enough it occupies a warm place in my heart because of its association with my teenage years.  Let me explain.

As a boy, I was an avid reader of science fiction.  In those days [the late '40s], the two leading sci fi magazines were Galaxy and Astounding Science Fiction.  They were both instances of what was then called pulp fiction because they were printed not on the slick, smooth, glossy  paper used by Life, Time, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, and Fortune, but on rough, nubby cheap paper that betrayed its origin as wood pulp.  I subscribed to Astounding [for reasons long lost in the fog of time, I considered Galaxy the enemy], in whose pages I found the stories of Isaac Asimov, A. E. Van Vogt, and the other sci fi greats.

[Side comment:  In 1960, when I was a resident tutor in Winthrop House at Harvard, one of the co-authors of the Ellery Queen detective novels -- either Frederick Dannay or Manfred Lee, I don't recall which -- spoke at the annual senior dinner since his son was graduating from Winthrop House.  He said something that stuck with me because it so perfectly described me.  "No one," he observed, "is ever a science fiction fan and a mystery fan simultaneously."  And so it was!  Soon after I got to Harvard, I stopped reading sci fi and started reading mysteries.  Some sainted Harvard grad had endowed a collection of mystery fiction to be housed in Widener Library, and in the days when one could still gain access to the stacks, I wandered happily up and down the rows of books, checking out two or three mysteries at a time.  Over the years, I read my way through the complete works of Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, John Dickson Carr, Carter Dickson -- the same person, of course -- Josephine Tey, Ngaio March, Agatha Christie, and all the other greats.  I never did return to reading science fiction, although in the television era I became a Trekkie.]

Anyway, in May, 1950, my copy of Astounding arrived, and in it I found a lengthy essay by one of their lesser authors, someone named L. Ron Hubbard.  When I read the essay, I immediately recognized it for what it obviously was, a brilliantly funny send up of Freudian psychoanalysis and the then quite new science of Cybernetics.  I had a good laugh, which however died when the next issue showed up with Part Two of what now was clearly a serious exposition of a revolutionary new discipline -- Dianetics.

For a while, Dianetics flourished as a therapy scam, flourishing especially in California, the home of crackpot frauds.  But Hubbard got in trouble with the Feds for practicing medicine without a license, so in a move of great brilliance, he transformed the medically suspect Dianetics into a First Amendment protected religion, Scientology.  And the rest of that story is Tom Cruise.

Astounding Science Fiction, by the way, was the locus of my very first publication, a Letter to the Editor defending "Aristotelian logic" -- a.k.a. the Law of Contradiction -- against the animadversions of another reader entranced with The World of Null-A, a famous Van Vogt novel that appeared first in serial form in an earlier incarnation of Astounding Science Fiction.  Van Vogt was inspired by the semantic theories of Count Alfred Korzybski, but that is another story from my youth that can wait for a more propitious moment.

Needless to say, I threw out the magazine.



When I was a young teenager, I was afflicted with obsessive and terrifying fears of death, fears so great that my parents sent me into psychoanalytic therapy [something that was then quite experimental in the orthodox Freudian world.]  The therapy seems to have worked, because the fears subsided.  The odd thing about them was that when I was lying frozen in bed at night, I would comfort myself with the thought "Maybe I will die before it happens," which, it will occur to you, was irrational, unless the fears were a cover for something else, more fearful than death.  I never did find out what that something was, although I have always thought it had to do with my father [either that or my mother, right?]  The therapy kept me from following my sister to Swarthmore, which was my first choice in colleges.  In those days, therapy was a no-no, and Swarthmore told me that they would not admit me unless Harvard, the only other school to which I had applied, turned me down.  Well, getting into Harvard was not hard in those days -- my year, about 2200 applied and 1600 were admitted, of whom 1250 enrolled.  So I went off to Harvard at  the age of sixteen, and the very first course I took was Willard Van Orman Quine's Symbolic Logic.  The rest, as they say, is philosophy.

Last night, at about 2 a.m., I suddenly felt the old half-forgotten fears.  I jumped up out of bed [causing something of a fright for Susie] and distracted myself with FreeCell games until the fear went away.  What caused the fears to reappear?  My best guess is the prospect of an impending colonoscopy, which tells you everything you need to know about what a wimp I am.

This morning, quite by happenstance, I read Oliver Sacks' hauntingly beautiful NY TIMES column about his own fast approaching death from cancer.  Sacks is one year older than I and he very much doubts he will see his eighty-third birthday.  He exhibits that calm, stoic gravitas that the ancient Romans so admired.  Not in my wildest dreams do I imagine that I could ever achieve the sad, peaceful acceptance of death and celebration of life that Sacks achieves in that essay.  His death at what is now so early an age is yet one more proof, if indeed we needed it, that there is no God.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Just when I thought I was done with Rawls, at least for a time, my older son, Patrick, sent me the following message:


I really do think you should read "Justice as Fairness, a Restatement" before teaching the class. To be fair to him, he was constantly working away at his philosophy, and this book constitutes his final view of it.
I would also point out footnote 2 of paragraph 23.3, which is in part three, devoted to the original position. That footnote reads, "Here I correct a remark in Theory ... where it is said that the theory of justice is a part of the theory of rational choice. From what we have just said, this is simply a mistake, and would imply that justice as fairness is at bottom Hobbesian (as Hobbes is often interpreted) rather than Kantian. What should have been said is that the account of the parties, and of their reasoning, uses the theory of rational choice (decision), but that this theory is itself part of a political conception of justice, one that tries to give an account of reasonable principles of justice. There is no thought of deriving those principles from the concept of rationality as the sole normative concept."


Needless to say, I right away ordered the Rawls book from Amazon [it will be here today or tomorrow, even without drones doing the delivery.]  But Patrick's message raises for me a very interesting question about how one ought to read  a philosophy book.  With Patrick's permission, I am replying to him here rather than in a private e-mail message.  To give the punch line first, Rawls' statement does not alter in the slightest how I interpret A Theory of Justice.  Since that seems just pig-headed of me, let me explain.

I shall begin by talking about how to interpret the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, about which I know a very great deal.  Early in his career, in 1772, Kant encountered the devastating criticism mounted by David Hume against  the causal inferences on which the knowledge claims of classical science rested.  At roughly the same time, Kant was struggling with the problem often referred to as "free will and determinism," the apparently irresoluble conflict between the determinism of Newtonian physics and the freedom of the will that underlies all moral responsibility.  In a daring move that is the central theme of his entire philosophy, Kant chose to "limit knowledge to make place for faith."  He argued in the Critique of Pure Reason that what we all understand as the spatio-temporal world of objects in causal interaction with one another is actually a structure of judgments concerning things as they appear to us, not as they are in themselves.  [Yes, that is not a grammatical error.  The world is a structure of judgments, not of things.  You must read my first book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity if you want details.]  One of the immediate implications of Kant's account in the First Critique is that everything I do in the spatio-temporal physical world is determined by causal laws quite as rigorous and universal as those that determine the behavior of physical particles in space and time.

When Kant comes to write the first of his several great works of moral philosophy, the Groundwork  of the Metaphysics of Morals, he retreats from the insights of the deepest portions of the First Critique to his pre-philosophical Pietist understanding of the moral condition as a constant struggle within the realm of appearances between duty and inclination.  Indeed, this conception of the moral condition informs his account of the most famous single element of his Moral Philosophy, the Categorical Imperative.  We humans, he says, experience the Highest Moral Law as a Categorical Imperative, a command, because we are creatures of both the Phenomenal and the Noumenal worlds, torn between duty [the Moral Law] and inclination [desire.]  Were we angels, we would experience the Moral Law in the way that mathematicians experience the Law of Contradiction -- as a principle of reason, not as a bulwark against sinful temptation.

There is no question that Kant saw things in this way.  He says so in countless passages.  There is also not doubt that this way of looking at things completely contradicts the central doctrines of the First Critique.  What is a student of Kant's philosophy to do?  We [I, when I was writing books about Kant's philosophy] have two options.  The first option is to repeat what Kant says, with copious footnote citations, ignoring the contradictions.  This produces commentary that is completely faithful to Kant's expressed beliefs and intentions, but is utterly uninteresting.  The second option is to make a philosophical choice -- to embrace one part of what Kant says and reject what contradicts it.  This, I believe, produces what Harold Bloom in the field of literary criticism called a strong reading of a poem.  It is an inherently controversial reading of Kant, because it manifestly flies in the face of what he said on the page.  But it makes [and this is necessarily a judgment call] for a philosophically interesting reading of the text, a reading that might even command our assent.

Enter Rawls.  I believe that when Rawls began the work that eventually became A Theory of Justice, he had a really brilliant idea.  [All of this is gone into in detail in my book, Understanding Rawls.]  In an attempt to move past the deadlocked controversy between Utilitarianism and Intuitionism, he would reach back to the older Social Contract tradition and combine it with insights and methods from the then new mathematical field of Game Theory.  He would demonstrate, as a theorem in Bargaining Theory, that rationally self-interested individuals circumstanced as the parties to the Social Contract are circumstanced, would agree unanimously to adopt two concrete substantive principles to regulate their social and economic interactions.  All that it was necessary to assume, beyond bare rational self-interest, were two further premises:  The first was that once they came to agreement, appealing in their reasoning to nothing but self-interest, the individuals would henceforward abide by the principles they had agreed to [even if, on particular occasions, pure rational self-interest might lead them to violate the agreement];  the second premise, introduced for mathematical reasons that Rawls neglected to explain, was that the parties engaged in the bargaining would not be motivated by envy [this odd assumption makes Pareto partial unanimity orderings possible.]

This was a really lovely idea, a beautiful idea, as mathematicians like to say.  It is the idea that makes Rawls' work interesting, I believe.  Without it, all one has is an enormous, baroque, bloated elaboration of whatever Rawls happened to believe, tricked out in fancy language but floating in air like Swift's Island of Laputa.

Now, the fact is that the argument for the theorem does not work.  As time passed, Rawls not only tricked out the original theory with enormously baroque elaborations;  he also moved to "the Kantian interpretation" and all manner of other irrelevant things.  The statement quoted by Patrick is, it seems to me, the final straw.  " There is no thought of deriving those principles from the concept of rationality as the sole normative concept."  I can just hear Miss Piggy saying, in faux outrage, "Moi?"  Considering that deriving those principles from the concept of rationality as the sole normative concept was the whole idea of Rawls' theory, the idea with which he started and that shaped everything in its development, including the Veil of Ignorance, the Index of Primary Goods, and all the rest of that stuff, I find this statement a bit rich.

Now, as I once wrote to Jack in response to a letter he sent to me complaining about my review of Thomas Pogge's book on him, "You are the world's leading expert on what you think, so if you say that you have not moved in a more conservative direction, I must accept that."

Therefore, I take it as definitive that as he approached the end of his life, Rawls forswore everything that made his philosophical views interesting in the first place.  But just as I decline simply to repeat whatever Kant said about his philosophical views, however uninteresting that makes them, so I decline to take Rawls at his word.  I prefer to give A Theory of Justice a strong reading.  The alternative, for me, is not to bother to read it at all.



Thursday, July 23, 2015


The Trump circus has been wildly entertaining, but the election is fifteen months away, and the American public is fickle, with the attention span of a May fly, so I worry.  What will keep us amused during the long Autumn and Winter, the tedious Spring, and yet another Summer, before the votes are finally cast and counted?    I have been brooding over this problem, and believe I have hit upon a solution.

I have, in the past, observed that Hillary Clinton is the smartest, most knowledgeable, most deeply experienced Republican currently running for the Presidency.  I think she needs to announce her candidacy for the Republican nomination.  She can explain that she has been deeply distressed by the partisan feuding between the Congress and the President that has brought the normal political processes to a standstill, and that she hopes, by offering herself as a Unity candidate on both party tickets, finally to bring the nation together again.  Since she has already satisfied whatever legal requirements there are for formal candidacy for the presidency, she would be good to go for the Republican nomination immediately.

In light of her sky-high name recognition and the general ignorance and stupidity of the Republican base, she would almost certainly garner enough votes in the polling to qualify for the Republican debates.  What is more, her policies are, or were at one time, mainstream Republican.  Her domestic policies are a trifle to the right of those of Eisenhower and Nixon, and she is easily as Hawkish in foreign policy as Dole or Romney.  Her dual candidacy would be a gift of great value to the bloviating Television commentariat, which is running out of faux astonishment and comic one-liners about Trump.

To be sure, the Republican National Committee could rule Clinton unfit to bear their standard, and on those grounds ban her from the debates, but then they would have to explain why Trump meets their minimal standards of acceptability when Clinton does not.

During the General Election, she could hold televised debates with herself.  I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Susie and I will drive today to Asheville in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina for a brief three-day visit.  I shall be back blogging on Friday.  The world will just have to manage.

Monday, July 20, 2015


Max Weber [1864-1920] is, arguably, the greatest sociologist who has ever lived [yes, I include Marx in that ranking.]  He was one of the last of the great Gelehrten, scholars [usually German for some reason] who seemed to know everything there was to be known.  He made major contributions across the entire spectrum of the Sozialwissenschaften -- what today we call the Social Sciences -- but the centerpiece of his work was a deep analysis of the structure and logic of bureaucracy, which during his lifetime was coming to define and dominate social organization worldwide. 

One of Weber's most provocative [and pessimistic] ideas is the inevitable transformation of the personal authority possessed by unusually pious or strong or brilliant or courageous or daring individuals into the routine, rule-governed, quotidian authority of hereditary rulers or uniformed functionaries or caparisoned priests or elected representatives, a process that Weber called the routinization of charisma.  Men and women [and even children] follow Ghenghis Khan or Gandhi or Joan of Arc or Roland or Martin Luther King or King Arthur [assuming that he existed] because of their personal qualities, what Weber, following a long tradition, called their charisma.  These personal qualities bestow on the person, in the eyes of the followers, an immediate authority that binds them to the leader and will elicit from them heroic acts even unto death.

Usually, when the charismatic leader dies, the followers are loath simply to call it quits and drift away.   A sizeable empire may have been assembled, or lands and wealth may have been accumulated by the band of followers personally bound to the leader by his or her charisma.  A struggle breaks out over who will inherit leadership.  As time passes, and the generation of the original followers gives way to their successors, and then to theirs, customs, even laws, regulating the succession take the place of the immediate ecstatic personal appeal that elicited the loyalty of the original band of followers.  The charisma has been routinized.

Today I shall make a stab at bringing this insight of Weber to bear on the question that has been discussed or alluded to repeatedly on this blog, viz. What may we expect from a socialist society?  Bear with me.  It will take me a little time to connect it up, as trial lawyers are wont to say.

First things first.  What defines capitalism is private ownership or control of the means of production, ownership or control that excludes the vast majority of men and women from any substantive role in the decisions about what to do with those means of production and from an adequate share of what is produced.  In the earliest stages of capitalism, control derives directly from legal ownership, and the two are so intimately intertwined as to be virtually indistinguishable.  But eventually, companies are transformed into limited liability joint stock corporations, ownership of shares in which may become very widely distributed, without however a concomitant distribution of effective control.  In very few large modern corporations is legal ownership of the shares of stock concentrated in a few hands, and few major corporations are in any sense owned by those who run them. 

Collective ownership of the means of production is indeed the necessary condition for the existence of socialism, but by itself, it does not guarantee the elimination of the exploitation that is the raison d'ȇtre of capitalism.  Not even formally democratic control of the collectively owned means of production guarantees that desirable result, for -- and it is here that Weber's insight proves so valuable -- once the original revolutionary fervor has subsided and ordinary day-to-day oversight of the collectively owned means of production replaces the spontaneous, exciting creativity of those early days, the management of the people's patrimony will ineluctably become bureaucratic.  Individuals selected to occupy management positions, even at wages no better than those of ordinary workers, will find ways to feather their nests, to line their pockets, to appropriate to themselves privileges and perquisites, and to ensure that they continue in those positions.

This is not to say that nothing will have changed, not at all!  The income pyramid will have been substantially flattened, and great inherited wealth will be a thing of the past.  But that eternal vigilance which, we were told, is the price of liberty, will now be the price of socialist justice.  The struggle to penetrate the mystifications of power and wealth, to combat the routinization of effective control, will be endless.  And we shall even have to struggle to overcome the routinization and consequent emasculation of the very notion of demystification!  As now there are distinguished Professors of Economics whose considerable intelligence is devoted to concealing the truth that capitalism rests upon exploitation, then there will be distinguished Professors of Demystification Studies whose equally considerable intelligence is devoted to obfuscating the real nature of the privileges appropriated by the few in the name of socialism.

There are deep reasons why this is so, some of which I explored in my 2010 tutorial "How to Study Society."  But that it is so, I am sure.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


I have said as much as I want to say about Rawls for the time being, but before moving on to other subjects, I think I owe David Palmeter a response.  Here is what he said:
"This isn’t Rawls as I understand him. As I read him, he explicitly states that there is no right to ownership of the means of production, only a right to personal property. The means of production may be privately owned only to the extent that this can be shown to be to the benefit of the least advantaged. He also states that capitalism, including welfare capitalism, won’t meet his criteria. Only democratic socialism or a property-owning democracy will do so."

First, a confession.  It is forty years since I read A Theory of Justice, and in the intervening four decades, I have not been moved to return to it, so my memory could be a trifle hazy.  The book appeared in 1971.  In 1999, Rawls published a revised edition, which I bought recently in preparation for the study group on it that I shall be leading come the Fall semester.  In both the first edition and the revised edition, Rawls' remarks about socialism,  such as they are, appear in sections 42 and 43.  [The entire book is divided both into chapters and into numbered sections.  Sections 42 and 43 appear in Chapter V, titled "Distributive Shares."]  I did a quick comparison of the original and revised editions by comparing the lead words of each paragraph, and so far as I can tell, there were no revisions of those particular sections.

I find Rawls' discussion of socialism tone-deaf, if I may put it that way.  Let me offer an example.  In the third paragraph of section 42, he writes:  "The classical distinction [between "a private-property economy and socialism"] is that the size of the public sector under socialism (as measured by the fraction of total output produced by state-owned firms and managed either by state officials or by workers' councils) is much larger."  [Page 235 in the revised edition, page 266 in the original edition.]  Rawls then goes on to talk about the so-called free rider problem, as though that had anything at all to do with socialism.  This, and what follows, seems to me to show that Rawls did not have a clue about the nature of Marx's critique of capitalism.  He says, "questions of political economy are discussed simply to find out the practicable bearing of justice as fairness."  [p. 234/265]  Never mind that he exhibits no understanding or awareness of the role of ideological mystification.  He simply does not consider the possibility that private ownership of the means of production rests on exploitation, and hence is neither compatible with "our" intuitions about justice [whose? not mine!] nor would be chosen by rationally self-interested agents in the Original Position under the Veil of Ignorance who however knew the general laws of society. which include the fact that capitalism rests on exploitation.

In the flood of words that Rawls pours out, it is a little difficult to know what to make of what he says.  For example, on page 242/274, he writes "Which of these systems [i.e., capitalism or socialism ed.] and the many intermediate forms most fully answers to the requirements of justice cannot, I think, be determined in advance."  But three pages later [page 245/278] he writes this extraordinary passage:  "The unequal inheritance of wealth is no more inherently unjust than the unequal inheritance of intelligence.... Thus inheritance is permissible provided that the resulting in equalities are to the advantage of the least fortunate and compatible with liberty and fair equality of opportunity."   And then he calmly goes on as though that were a matter of uncertainty and relative unimportance!

I am sure Rawls moved his eyes over the pages of some works by Marx, but there is no way that he could actually have read Marx and then have written these sentences.

Now, it is obviously possible to read everything in Rawls through the lens of this passage, and conclude that, whether he knew it or not, his theory was a justification of revolutionary socialism.  There have been many odder readings of texts in the two and a half millennia of philosophy.  But why on earth bother, inasmuch as the fundamental theory [as I have demonstrated elsewhere in print] is wrong?


When I was nine or ten, my father took me to the Jamaica branch of the New York Public Library.  There I found and checked out a fat, stubby book containing all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's accounts of the doings of Sherlock Holmes -- four novels and fifty-six short stories.  I read that book from cover to cover, over and over, and the next December, for my Christmas and birthday present, my parents gave me my own copy, bound in bright red.  It was one of my most prized possessions.  As a young teen -ager, I subscribed to The Baker Street Journal, the publication of an organization of Holmes enthusiasts who styled themselves "The Baker Street Irregulars" after the group of urchins who served as Holmes' eyes and ears in the streets and alleyways of Victorian London.

At the Main Street Theater during those years, I saw many of the fourteen films in which Holmes and Watson were portrayed by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.  It took me some while, years later, to adjust to Jeremy Brett's more mannered interpretation of Holmes, and I have never come to terms with Robert Downey Jr.'s utterly wrong reading of the character and style of the great detective.

So it was with some uneasiness that I approached the latest film interpretation, that of Ian McKellen in the newly released Mr. Holmes.  McKellen, a splendid English actor now famous as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, plays an aged and quite infirm Holmes who, at 92, is suffering from memory loss.  He has for thirty years been living alone in a country house looking after his bees, looked after by a series of housekeepers.  The current holder of that thankless job, caring both for Holmes and for her young son, is played by Laura Linney, who gives a beautiful reading of the part. 

The movie is quiet, leisurely, patient -- as one must be with the very old -- and simply lovely.  McKellen, who is actually 76, does equally well as the 92 year old Holmes and as the 60 year old Holmes in a series of flashbacks to Holmes' last case, which the 92 year old is struggling to recall.  It is a bravura piece of acting from old Gandalf, and as a one-time Baker Street Irregular who has himself grown old, I recommend it to you.


It was, of course, inevitable that sooner or later, like the taped message in the old Mission Impossible episodes, Donald Trump would self-destruct, but I had so hoped that he would last at least until the first debate.  The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.  Job 1:21.

Saturday, July 18, 2015


I have just finished reading Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.    It is a short book, written in the form of a letter from Coates to his teen-age son.  Coates is a worthy heir to the legacy of James Baldwin.  It is a long time since a book has moved me so powerfully. I recommend it most strongly to all of you.

Friday, July 17, 2015


[Term coined by Freud.]  The Huffington Post announces that henceforward it will cover the presidential campaign of Donald Trump on its Entertainment page rather than on its Politics page.  It occurred to me to wonder how they can tell the difference between Trump's campaign and those of his competitors for the Republican nomination.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Wallace Stevens' reply provides a convenient opportunity to clarify the sharp difference between my vision of our society and that of Rawls, which I think Stevens captures successfully.  Here is what he says:

"So let’s grant that Rawls failed on his own terms. But let’s also agree that what we call “the economy”—the productive infrastructure, the people who work in various ways and the markets that link them in a kind of decentralized communication mechanism—should be seen in purely instrumental terms, as a device that produces stuff. Let’s further recognize that this device is a rules-based, social construct that exists only through the consent, participation and cooperation of the people that make up that society. We say good-bye to the swashbuckling capitalists braving the stormy seas of commerce, the immigrant kids who study hard, work hard and “make it” through sheer merit, and the hush-toned sanctity of PROPERTY. And what do we conclude about distribution? Equality, of the most radical kind, no? Equality, subject only to the constraint that if, and only if, (i) incentives are needed to get someone to do something; AND (ii) the performance of that something makes the least well of better off, then that someone will earn more than the least well off—but only to the extent necessary to satisfy (i).

There is grandeur in this view of life!"

Whether there is grandeur in that view of life might be disputed, but we can all agree that it offers a dramatic alternative to the dominant view in America's public discourse.  My problem with it can be found in the third sentence:  " this device [the economy] is a rules-based, social construct that exists only through the consent, participation and cooperation of the people that make up that society."  It is the words "consent" and "cooperation" at which I cavil.  The fundamental fact about capitalism is that the private ownership of the means of production gives those owners the power to compel the participation of the vast majority of people on terms dictated by the owners, not arrived at by either genuine consent or unforced cooperation.  Rawls completely fails to capture that fact about capitalist society, and for that reason, I described his philosophical theory as an ideological rationalization.

Those who control capital in this society, together with their enablers in the Economics profession, are always eager to misrepresent what goes on as cooperation based on consent, because to acknowledge the truth [as the classical economists, Smith and Ricardo, did] would threaten their hegemony.

But I am content if we can agree that Rawls' argument does not in fact work.  That, after all, is the point of philosophy.



Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Once again I encounter the utterly mystifying fact that not everyone in the world has read every word I have written.  How can this be?  Once I have written something AND PUBLISHED IT, surely everyone will have read it within a few weeks or months, no?  Sigh, well, no.  So I must repeat myself, even though I feel that I am cheating when I say on this blog something I have long since committed to print.

First of all, although I knew Jack personally, I never spoke to him about this, and after I sent him the first copy of my book about his work, he never thereafter made the slightest comment to me or to anyone else about it of which I am aware [he did acknowledge receipt of the book], so my judgments about what he was doing are based solely on my logical analysis of his argument, not on anything he said.

I have always believed that Jack secretly dreamed of proving a theorem in political philosophy as powerful and as rigorous as Kenneth Arrow's famous General Possibility Theorem, which was the subject of Arrow's doctoral dissertation and for which he eventually received the Nobel Prize in Economics.  Had Rawls' proof held up, it would indeed have been that momentous.

Now, the thing about theorems, real theorems, is that they are not culturally or historically or ethnically or religiously relative.  That is why the discipline of mathematics knows no boundaries, whereas the discipline of philosophy is very much culturally embedded [French philosophy is nothing like Anglophone philosophy.  If you tried telling French philosophers that David Lewis and Derek Parfitt were two of the most  important recent philosophers, they would look at  you as though you were crazy.]

Rawls tells us that the individuals in the Original Position [I have trouble not sniggering at that phrase -- it has nothing to do with the Kama Sutra, trust me] do not know where in history they are located.  That is part of his explanation for their adoption of an extremely conservative decision rule -- a version of what Von Neumann, in Game Theory , calls the Minimax Decision Rule.  However, they do know, Rawls says, the general truths about society and human psychology.

In my book [here I go again] I argue that it is in fact epistemologically impossible for the individuals in the Original Position to have the special combination of knowledge and ignorance required by Rawls' theory.  Very briefly, I argue that they could not know, for example, that capitalism presents its exploitation of the working class in the mystified guise of equality and justice, and yet not know that they are located at least in the middle or late nineteenth century in Europe, if not later.

It is my opinion that very early on, Rawls realized that he could not prove his theorem, but he was totally wedded to the truth of its conclusion, so in place of the elusive rigorous argument he substituted 500 pages of elaboration and a self-justifying story about Reflective Equilibrium, all of which would have been quite unnecessary had he actually managed to prove the theorem.

But, you will say, A Theory of Justice is such a rich treasure trove of interesting sketches and elaborations and comments and speculations and imaginary social descriptions, and you are reducing it all to a barebones formal argument!  You don't treat Capital that way, do you?  You don't treat the Critique of Pure Reason that way, do you?

Actually, I do.  I wrote a whole book about the central argument in the Critique, and a whole book about the logical structure of the central economic theory in Capital.  But, speaking now personally, I find the Critique and Capital inspiring and illuminating, and I do not find A Theory of Justice either.  But that is just me.  de gustibus


I will have more to say about Rawls later on today, but let me now pose one small question to those who seem not to grasp that Rawls was trying to prove a theorem:  Why do you suppose he assumed that the participants in the Original Position are not envious?   I can answer that question very easily.  He needs that assumption becaue otherwise rationally self-interested bargainers will not agree unanimously to a partial ordering of social states -- a familiar mathematical notion from Economics, associated with the name of Vilfredo Pareto, which Rawls needs.  But if you think he is just engaged in a sophisticated channeling of the zeitgeist of the age, then why would he gratuitously assume something so obviously contrary to the simplest facts of human motivation?

Think about it.  Don't just quote one of the ten million things Rawls said about his theory.  Think about it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Herewith a response to the following comment by David Parmenter:

"Rawls left open the possibility that some jobs might require higher pay to attract people, but that isn’t his default position. That’s equality. There are, though, many situations in which a higher income would be necessary. For one, my guess is that—if all compensation were equal--most readers of this blog would prefer to be philosophy professors rather than university presidents. (I know I would, although I wouldn’t be qualified to be either). Who would want to give up the classroom and the students for the trustees, the alumni, the donors, the administrative duties and all the rest that goes with being the president?

The example of the guy on the loading dock and the exec reminds me of something Galbraith wrote somewhere, to the effect that the less desirable job should pay more, not less. Both the executive and the guy on the dock presumably would prefer to be the executive and therefore an incentive should be added to attract people from the executive suite to the loading dock."

Galbraith has it exactly right [as usual], but I think your university example misses a crucial point.  For Rawls, if you take his argument seriously, as I do, the question is not what you have to offer someone to get him or her to take a job he or she does not want.  The question is how to fill key positions with people whose performance would generate enough extra output to produce what I called an "inequality surplus," to be given to the least advantaged representative individual.

There are exceptions, of course, but most of the university administrators I have known have been essentially failed academics -- people who got a Ph. D., produced one forgettable book, and then shifted into administration, ending up running universities where they could never get a tenured job on their academic merits.  They are always given courtesy appointments in a department, but no one imagines that in a fair open search they would come out on top for those professorships.

Furthermore, it has been very difficult for me to see that having those people in the positions of administrative authority, rather than someone chosen by random lottery, resulted in something that in the academic context could be considered the equivalent of an "inequality surplus."

I imagine the recruitment speech by the chair of the search committee as being something like this:  "We all understand that you aren't good enough to get a professorship in our university on your merits, but if you like being at a university, you can stay here so long as you do a creditable job as president.  Take it or leave it.  There will, of course, be no extra pay."


I have learned something about philosophy these days from this series of exchanges on Rawls, something, I confess, that has surprised me.  I grew up in a simpler time, when philosophers advanced theories about this or that and then presented arguments in defense of those theories.  We all tried, of course, to make our arguments as powerful as possible, and the great philosophers -- Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Aquinas, Kant, Leibniz, Hume and the rest -- even claimed that their arguments were definitive, necessary, irrefutable.  They weren't always right, of course;  indeed, if the truth be told, they very rarely were.  But they tried.  That was the point of the exercise, or so I learned when I was young.  Hence, when I read Rawls' work, first as a journal article and much later as a book, I understood it to be an imaginative, original, even daring attempt to prove a certain thesis, namely that what Rawls called The Two Principles were indeed the principles that rationally self-interested individuals would coordinate on under the bargaining conditions he specified.  This fact, assuming that he could actually prove it to be a fact , would , he thought, thereby be a good reason to consider those principles as the principles of social justice.  Rawls, I was quite confident, was not simply taking the opportunity to tell the world how he felt about things, nor was he, despite all the chatter about "reflective equilibrium,' merely presenting us with what an earlier era called the consensus gentium, or "agreement of the people."

But it is clear from the comments that no one sees things this way anymore.  Instead, when a major work purporting to be philosophy comes along, everyone apparently treats it either as a Rorschach ink blot calling for subjective responses or as a grab bag of taglines that can be attached to whatever one is thinking about.

I don't know what to do.  I do not want to be a bore, like the old uncle at a family party who keeps telling anyone he can collar that it was different in the old days.  But I really am too old to change, and besides, if I had known this was what philosophy was going to turn into, I might have chosen a more honest profession, like bank robbing.

Look, folks, I will say it one more time:  John Rawls presented an argument for a claim, the claim that a pair of principles are The principles of distributive justice.  His argument consisted of showing, or trying to show, that the principles would be chosen by persons in certain rather special and constrained circumstances.  He thought that if he could indeed show that persons so circumstanced would choose those principles, that would constitute a powerful reason for accepting those principles as the principles that ought to regulate the basic economic and political structure of society.  IF THAT IS NOT WHAT HE IS DOING, THEN HE IS NOT DOING PHILOSOPHY AS I UNDERSTAND IT.

Monday, July 13, 2015


My remarks about Rawls have elicited a good many lengthy comments, and I should like to spend some time responding. 

First of all, when Rawls introduced his theory in the 1958 journal article he claimed to be sketching a theorem -- not a vision of the good society, not a systematization of the attitudes of himself and others like him, not an historical or sociological or economic or even moral commentary on the world in which we live, but a theorem.  Specifically, he claimed to be presenting a theorem in Bargaining Theory [although he did not use that phrase.]  I have chosen to take him at his word.  Why?  Because the theorem he presented is a powerful and interesting theorem which, if valid [i.e., following logically from its premises] would be in my judgment important.  What is more, I find Rawls an uninteresting commentator on the passing scene.  I look for my moral and political inspiration elsewhere.  However, it is of course open to all to read any book in any way they choose, and there is no disputing about tastes, as the Latin tag has it.

Now, the thing about theorems is that they are either valid or invalid, and if valid, are so for all time.  It would be absurd to object  to the Pythagorean theorem on the grounds that Pythagoras lived a long time ago and times have changed.  [Please, no silly comments about non-Euclidean geometries.  The Pythagorean theorem is a theorem in Euclidean Geometry.  The fact that later mathematicians were unaware of the possibility of non-Euclidean spaces for several millennia is irrelevant.]

Rawls offers two versions of his theorem.  I demonstrated the invalidity of the first version in a journal article and the invalidity of the mature version of the theorem [the version that includes the so-called veil of ignorance and the revised Difference Principle] in my book, Understanding Rawls, published almost forty years ago.  I do not wish to rehash those refutations.  They are correct.

Second, with regard to Mayans and the Veil of Ignorance -- Chris is quite right.  The Veil of Ignorance is an imaginative literary device designed to illustrate Rawls' premise that the individuals in the bargaining game abstract from or ignore every fact about themselves as particular individuals -- whether they are young or old, rich or poor, male or female, extra smart or only smart enough to engage in rationally self-interested calculations, even which country they live in or which historical era they live in.  Another way to think about the same set of constraints is to imagine a judge who is charged with handing down decisions disinterestedly [which means something different from uninterestedly, by the way.]

One of the things Rawls does not actually realize is that by imposing the Veil of Ignorance he has changed the problem from one in Bargaining Theory to one in the theory of Rational Choice.  Since under the Veil of Ignorance individuals know nothing about themselves that differentiates them from others in the Game, no coherent sense can be given to the idea that they are bargaining with one another.  Any argument that is a good argument for one of them will be a good argument for all of them, and therefore all that is involved is a matter of individual rational choice.  Rawls seems genuinely not to have understood this.  Thus, a Mayan and a twenty -first century American will, behind the Veil of Ignorance, reason in exactly the same fashion.

Third, now let me come to the most interesting point raised in the comments, one with which I [but not Rawls] would agree completely.  Indeed, the point of my post was to drive this idea home dramatically by imagining little stories [always my preferred way of making formal logical points.]  To put it simply, if we take the Difference Principle seriously, and actually bring to bear what we know about people, the result would be the elimination of almost all the inequalities of income and wealth that characterize modern capitalist society.  Look, does anyone really think that if we started reducing the salaries and bonuses of corporate executives, they would pretty soon say, "That's it!  I quit!  If I can't get at least $100,000 a year, I am going to take a job on the loading dock for $40,000 for the rest of my life [a bit above the median wage for full-time workers]"?  Let's not exaggerate the painfulness of having to write memoranda and attend meetings.  One day on the loading dock and that executive would be begging for his old job even if it paid only as much as he was getting loading washer-dryers onto trucks.

Is this true of everyone?  Of course not.  There are north of three hundred million people in this country.  Every proposition that is not logically impossible is true of somebody!  But what  would the typical corporate executive do?

Rawls' Difference Principle is, if taken seriously [which is, I emphasize, not the way he takes it], the most radical proposal for revolutionary change ever advanced.  It implies not advanced Scandinavian style Welfare State liberalism, but something like a communitarian Kibbutz writ large.

By the way, none of that has anything at all to do with the validity or invalidity of the theorem he advances.  The theorem is invalid -- that is a matter of logic and mathematics.