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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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


While I think through my replies to several very interesting and important questions posed by readers in response to my invitation to ask me anything, I will just pass along a little calculation I made a few moments ago with the aid of a Consumer Price Index Calculator I found on-line. 

I started at Harvard as a Freshman in 1950.  I remember the tuition as $400 that year, but my classmate, friend, colleague, and one-time apartment mate Charles Parsons recalls it as $600, and in matters of this sort, I learned six decades ago, Charles is always right.  The CPI Calculator tells me that $600 in 1950 is the equivalent of a tad less than $6,000 today -- a ten-fold devaluation.  But Harvard's tuition this year is roughly $45,000, which is seven and a half times as much as a mere cost-of-living adjustment would explain. 

Is Harvard's education today seven and a half times better than the education I received?  I can assure you the answer is "No."

Indeed, is it as good?  I will pass on that question, but I am quite certain it is no better.

Why does Harvard charge an extra $39,000 in 2015-16?  There really is only one possible answer:  Because it can.  It gives one pause.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find -- Matthew, 7:7

Bereft of inspiration, afloat in a dead zone of the Ocean of Blog, I invited questions, and lo, they have come.

Andrew Blais [who, under my direction but without much assistance from me, wrote a fine doctoral dissertation later published as a book], asks whether my choice of comrades has been general or personal.  Early in my life, it was general: I picketed Woolworth's in Cambridge at a time when I think I did not know a single African-American; early on, I declared myself on the side of the workers, but without having ever held a real working job save as a summer Copy Boy at the New York Herald Tribune [a plum secured through the influence of my mother, who had a generation earlier worked as the secretary to the Trib's city editor.]  Later on, however, my commitments were mediated by personal connections.  Quite the most intense and long-lasting of those commitments was to the anti-apartheid cause and the transformation of the new South Africa, a quarter-century long involvement that grew out of the personal and intensely political friendships I formed during my initial visits to South Africa in 1986 and 87.  Indeed, my participation in the 1986 Harvard protest arose out of a dinner with a former student who invited me to come along.

Steven J. asks:  "Do you have any observations on the evolution of education system-at all or any levels?  Ideas from Ideal of the University became topics discussed with fellow-students and administrators at the time."

There have been at least eight major transformations of American higher education during the sixty-six years that I have been involved with that sector of society as student or professor.  Let me sketch them briefly before I offer some observations.  The first transformation has been an explosion in the size of the higher educational sector.  When I went off to college in 1950, roughly 5% of Americans twenty-five or older held undergraduate college degrees.  Today, somewhat more than35% do.  That is, all by itself, an enormous change.  It has created a society deeply divided along the line of educational credentials, with the majority [two-thirds] on the outside looking in.

The second major transformation, intimately connected with the first, has been the growth of the public higher educational sector.  Before World War II, and up until the '60s, private higher education dominated, but the multiplication of state university satellite campuses and state college systems [along with the creation of the Community College world] has radically changed both the financing and the character of higher education.  Some of the state systems, such as the one in California, are larger than the entire higher educational systems of major industrial nations.  A side-effect of this explosion, by the way, has been the nationalization of colleges and universities that were previously regional in character.  Some of the Ivy League universities and other elite institutions, which before the war were really regional in  character, have actively sought a national student body.

The third major transformation, a side-effect of the first two, has been the complete change in the admissions process.  Before the war, colleges had what could best be described as admissions requirements.  An applicant who met the requirements was pretty well assured of admission.  Even in 1949-50, when I applied to Harvard, only about 2200 young men applied, and of those roughly 1650 were admitted.  Twelve hundred fifty of us showed up to enroll the next September.  It was much easier to get into Harvard then than it is to get into UMass now.  [I actually did not want to go to Harvard because they required that one wear a tie and jacket to every meal, even breakfast, but Swarthmore, my other choice, turned me down on the grounds that I was receiving psychotherapy, so I had to go to Harvard.]  Sometime in the late '50s, the picture changed, with applications to desired schools [I avoid the judgmental "desirable"] so far outpacing available slots that an admissions policy was required.  I have written about the baleful effects of this change in a chapter  of The Ideal of the University called "The Admissions Rat Race."

The fourth major transformation, starting in the '60s as a consequence of the Civil Rights Movement, was the admission of something more than token numbers of African-Americans, and the consequent creation, in response to their protests, of sizeable numbers of programs, committees, and actual departments of Afro-American Studies [see the discussion in my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.]

The fifth major transformation, now unhappily being undone, was the establishment of faculty tenure as a norm throughout the higher educational sector.  Most academics these days do not realize that tenure has been, by and large, a post-war phenomenon.  Indeed, by a stroke of good luck that I quite naturally interpreted as evidence of my genius, I managed to live out my half century long career during the golden age of faculty employment, with tenure, sabbaticals, and two-course per semester teaching loads commonplace on major university campuses and elsewhere.  [If you think that is the historical norm, ask Immanuel Kant, who lectured as much as seventeen hours a week as a privatdozent at the University of K√∂nigsberg and was paid per student enrolled before his elevation to the Professorship of Logic and Metaphysics in 1770.]

The sixth major transformation, fueled both by the growth in higher education and by the Selective Service laws during the Viet Nam war, was a change in the motivation and character of the professoriate, which saw countless young men discover a calling as university professors, the preparation for which took them safely past the age at which they were eligible for the draft.  [I made the mistake of earning my doctorate at twenty-three, and so had to serve six months on active duty and five and a half years in the National Guard.]

A seventh major transformation was the inclusion of more than token numbers of women in the professoriate, with the well-known shock delivered by the change to the curriculum, campus culture, and norms of the Academy.  At Harvard in the '50s and '60s, brilliant young men were encouraged to go on to graduate study.  Equally or more brilliant Radcliffe students were expected to marry they Section Leaders and keep house for them.  The small but important world of elite women's colleges [the so-called Seven Sisters and their like] kept alive the deviant idea that women had brains.

And the eighth major transformation was the explosive growth in the cost of higher education, has which tens of millions of college students to burden themselves with loans that will take half a lifetime to pay off.  As we old Marxists like to say, it is no accident that the loan burden, which prohibits college graduates from pursuing low-paying politically rebellious career paths, came into being at just about the time when opposition to the Viet Nam War was threatening to breed up a generation of radicals.

As you might expect, I have welcomed some of these transformations and condemned others.  Educationally speaking, is this a better world than the one I entered in 1950?  I would say it is, if only because it is much more open and inclusive.  Are the trends positive?  Very definitely no.  I am quite convinced that in a generation, people in the Academy will look back at the second half of the twentieth century as the Golden Age of American higher education.


The story has it that once, during a battle, one of Napoleon's marshals came up to him and reported that the enemy was making a flanking maneuvre, which was clearly tactically unwise.  "What shall we do?" the marshal asked.  Napoleon is said to have replied [the provenance on this one is a trifle clouded], "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."

I offer this as an explanation for my silence concerning the circular firing squad of Bush, Rubio, Christie, and Kasich that has commenced fire in New Hampshire.


In response to my cri de coeur, Paul asks a complex and interesting question, which I shall try to address.  Here is what he has to say:

"On several occasions you've mentioned that long work has led you to conclude that there is no neutral pou sto from which, by rational deliberation alone, we can decide the appropriate principles of distributive justice on which to base a social order. As a consequence, you maintain that the most fundamental decision each of us makes in life is our choice of comrades. My own theory of justice is a not very coherent kitchen table blend of Rawls, Lomasky and some luck egalitarianism. As I approach retirement I sometimes think that I should spend some time sharpening it up but suspect that my untutored efforts would not leave me with any great satisfaction. I'm interested in your reflections on choice of comrades. Can this sort of choice be usefully placed on a spectrum which might have a Kierkegaardian choice on one end and a Benthamite calculus on the other - or does that sort of characterization of the choice miss something important? Do you think that ultimately incomplete or unsatisfying theories of justice are important guides to or constraints on the choice?"

Each of us is born into an historical, social, economic, and cultural moment that shapes who we are and how we experience the world long before we are old enough to reflect on such things thoughtfully.  As Erik Erikson writes, in a passage I am fond of quoting, "An individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history."  [Childhood and Society.]  Had I been an eleventh century Frankish serf or a first century B. C. Roman senator or a Mayan priest or a Mongol horseman, or indeed a nineteenth century British MP, not only would my beliefs be quite different, so even would be the psychodynamic organization of my personality.

But though I am aware of the extent to which I am embedded in my "one life cycle," I am also aware that I have choices that will shape my moral and political commitments.  I can choose to identify with the interests of my social and economic class, which in my case is the White educated upper middle class of late twentieth and early twenty-first century America, or I can choose to make common cause with working class American men and women of many races.  Since the interests of these two groups of people are in important ways opposed, this choice of comrades, as I have called it, has implications for my politics. 

There are times when the choices I have made place me in stark and immediate confrontation with those who have made different choices, as when I sat down in front of Memorial Hall in Cambridge, Mass. in an anti-apartheid demonstration and blocked some of my classmates from attending a fund-raising dinner during Harvard's 350th anniversary celebrations, or when I stood with students and faculty on the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg confronting police who had come to the campus to disperse us. 

I do not experience the choices I have made as guided by, or indeed even inspired by, philosophical texts I have read.  I experience these as choices of people with whom I make common cause, not as choices of doctrines with which I have some sympathy.  If I were to ask what has influenced my decision to be, as we say, a man of the left , I would be more likely to cite the inspiration of my grandfather, Barnet Wolff, who devoted his life to the Socialist Party of New York City, and [in a negative way] the example of his son, my father, who fell away from the socialism of his youth to become a loyal supporter of the Democratic Party of FDR.

As I have written, when I finally conceded defeat in my long effort to find in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant a persuasive argument for the universal validity of a fundamental moral principle on which to ground my actions, I experienced that failure as a liberation.  Odd as it may seem, I felt free to choose my comrades, to take sides, and to act, confident that although there could be many arguments calling into question the particular ways in which I implemented my commitments, there could be no argument demonstrating that I had chosen the wrong side.  That choice was a life choice, a decision as to whom I chose to be.  Kant, Kierkegaard, Bentham, Kant, even Marx could not in effect make that choice for me.

As I look back on a long life, now eighty-two years in the unfolding, I am conscious of many, many ways in which I have fallen short, but I have no doubts at all about the choice of comrades I made early in my life.  There shall be no chapter by me in an updated edition of The God That Failed.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


I have read that there are large dead zones in the world's oceans -- places where accumulations of plastic and other inert garbage have virtually killed off life, so that pretty much nothing grows there, from microorganisms to large schools of fish.  That is how I have always experienced the week between Christmas and New Year 's Day -- a spiritual, intellectual, cultural dead zone.  When I was young, this time was filled by the Eastern Division meetings of the American Philosophical Association, but I am afraid those meetings have taken on something of the character of dead zones too. 

What to do?  I have binge watched the first season of Mozart in the Jungle on my Amazon Prime, but the second season is not available until tomorrow.  I have completed my preparations for the first lecture in the Ideological Critique series, but I want to wear a sweater on camera, so I am waiting until it gets cold enough to start filming.  I have analyzed Donald Trump's chances of winning the Republican nomination in more detail than any sane person could possibly desire.  If I had enough socks, I would arrange my sock drawer.

Is there anyone out there with an unanswered question?  Like Gorgias in the Dialogue of the same name, I am in itinerant wise man who claims to be able to talk on any subject the audience may demand.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


Forty-one times two equals eighty-two, my age today.  Now begins the twenty-one day period when Susie and I are the same age.  It has been this way since we were teenagers [needless to say.]   We shall celebrate, appropriately enough, by seeing the new Michael Caine movie "Youth," after which we shall have Chinese food, a New York Jewish holiday tradition. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015


December 26th, the day each year that falls between Jesus' birthday and mine.

"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."  Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. 

Friday, December 25, 2015



Well, as  Donald Rumsfeld observed, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.  Wise advice.  After the New Year, I shall deliver my lectures with the voice I have, not the voice I want.  I shall begin, as Rumsfeld did not, with a little shlock and aw shucks, after which, full speed ahead. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


I have been having some sort of odd voice problems that make me more or less permanently hoarse.  After a course of an anti-fungal medication that does not seem to have corrected the problem, I am due to start voice therapy [not to be confused with psychoanalysis!] on January 8th.

It is possible that I shall have to postpone the recording of my lectures for a bit.  I hope not, but we shall see.  My plan had been to start the weekly lectures more or less when UNC starts its Spring semester, which is to say early in January.


Well, Brian Leiter's link to my old essay about Macros and PCs produced a flood of visits to this blog -- 2500+ in a day, rather than the usual 1000 -- and several lengthy comments.  [D. Ghirlandaio, who appears to have adopted, as a handle, the name of a famous Renaissance Italian painter, is pretty clearly angry with me, though I confess I do not quite understand why.]  But reflecting on the essay and the responses got me thinking about something that has long interested me, so I thought I would follow up with a few extended remarks about the difference between identity politics [as it is sometimes called] and old-fashioned radical politics.

Marx observed correctly that capitalism is the most revolutionary force ever loosed upon the world.  It destroyed feudalism, transformed the law, politics, and even the religion of the old order, eliminated the age-old division between the city and the countryside, ate away at the most intimate relations of the family, and, of course, produced an explosion of production and innovation.  Marx may have been overly optimistic that capitalism would substitute the cash nexus for ethnic, religious, national, and other divisions among men and women, thereby preparing the way for a naked clash between labor and capital, but he was not wrong about capitalism's tendency in this direction.

To the capitalist, unencumbered by traditional loyalties and identifications, all that matters is keeping production costs low and finding a market for output.  To the true capitalist, national borders are merely impediments to trade;  the family wage is an irrational and unacceptable obstacle to lowering the price of labor; racial or sexual obstacles in the labor market drive up wages; and any social constraints on the largest possible pool of job-seeking workers is to be resisted as a restraint on profits.

The true capitalist cannot afford to turn up his nose at a customer or an investor of a different nationality, religion, ethnicity, or race, because a competitor of a less delicate sensibility will step in and take away his business. 

To be sure, although this is the inner logic of capitalism, the reality often can be quite other.  For example, in the later nineteenth century, some white northern workers made a devil's bargain with their employers, accepting lower wages in return for the exclusion of the newly freed ex-slaves from good industrial jobs.

The real threat to capitalism has always been not women or Blacks or Jews or Catholics or foreigners in the labor market, but organized workers using their collective power to compel higher wages, better working conditions, and shorter hours, all of which threatened profits.  Thus it was that capitalists, calling on the organized military might of the state, did everything in their power to crush unions, often in bloody pitched battles.  And more recently, when affirmative action at America's universities has been challenged in the courts, multi-national corporations have filed amicus briefs defending such programs, quite correctly judging that any program that increases the availability of well-trained workers of all races and ethnicities will help to drive down wages.

For more than a century now, America has seen a series of Liberation movements -- Women's Liberation, the Civil Rights Movement, LGBT Liberation -- all of which, fundamentally, express the demand that a portion of the population excluded from full and fair participation in the labor market, be freed from the restrictions denying them jobs and wages as well as the education they need to compete successfully for those jobs.

These movements, although they use the language and evoke the emotions of revolutionary change, are in reality demands not for the overthrow of capitalism but for its perfection.  It is contrary to the inner logic of capitalism to exclude the female half of the population from the workplace, because the smaller the pool of workers, the stronger the upward pressure on wages.  From the point of the view of the industrialist, the so-called "family wage" -- a salary for industrial workers sufficient to support a wife and children -- is an irrational expense deducted from profits.  Far better a multi-worker household making essentially the same total wage but offering in return many more hours of labor.

For someone my age and of my ideological leanings, it has been fascinating to watch the ease with which the corporate world has co-opted the symbols of protest and reduced them to advertising images and gimmicks.  Time was when you could tell the politics of a young man at fifty paces by the length of his hair, when artificially amped up music devoid of aesthetic merit was the sound of protest against "the system," when body piercings were a dagger in the heart of The Establishment.  All of this was brilliantly anatomized by my old friend, Herbert Marcuse, under the provocative heading "repressive desublimation."

Despite its ephemeral nature and lack of an agenda for action, the most serious thrust at the established order in recent years has been the Occupy Movement.  Income and wealth inequality is a consequence of capitalism, not a cause, but it is the right target for the early stages of a serious movement for fundamental change.  Yesterday, a protest against Wall Street.  Today a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist as a respectable challenger to the inevitable Democratic presidential nominee.  Tomorrow, dare I hope for a modern revival and transformation of the union movement, that, in the words of the bumper sticker, gave us the weekend?


Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Prodded by my  son, Patrick, I completely re-did the state by state estimate of the delegates Trump would win if certain assumptions held true.  He then converted it all into a spreadsheet.  Here, first, are my assumptions and abbreviations:

I.  General Explanation

These estimates are keyed to the Green Papers, a detailed specification of the rules governing the several state primaries.  I omit caucuses, which take place in fifteen of the states and territories, because I do not understand the rules governing them well enough to make any  estimates.

The numbers in the Green Papers have changed since I began this effort.  Originally, they stated that 2484 delegates would be sent to the Convention in July.  Now they say there will be 2472.  I have no idea what  happened to the other twelve.  As of now, it will require 1237 votes at the Convention to choose a nominee.  The Green Papers still list 1865 as the delegates to be chosen by primaries and caucuses, which leaves 607 so-called "super-delegates."

            What is more, the rules in some states have changed since I last read them!  Sheeesh!!!  Therefore, this exercise will yield different results.

II.   Assumptions

            This exercise is not intended to produce a prediction of the outcome.  It is a calculation of the likely result given certain assumptions.  Here are the assumptions on which the calculation is based:

(a)  Fairly quickly, the race reduces to a three way contest among Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, with several other candidates remaining in the race but garnering, among them, no more than 20% of the total vote.

(b)  Trump gets a steady 35-40% of the vote.

(c)   Cruz and Rubio between them get 40-50% of the vote, with neither getting as high as 30% save in one or two states.

(d)  Few if any of the super-delegates will vote for Trump at the Convention, so if he is to get the nomination, he must win the 1237 delegates in the primaries and caucuses, which is to say 66.4% of them.

III.  Important facts

(a)  The Republican National Committee allocates 3 delegates to a state for each Congressional District [CD], plus some number of delegates-at-large.

(b)  The elected delegates are pledged to a candidate and must vote for him or her on the first ballot at the Convention.  The super-delegates are unpledged [at least in some cases!!!  But see South Carolina.]  and may vote for anyone [I think this is true, but the Green Papers are unclear.]

IV.   Abbreviations

(a)   WTA  =  Winner takes all.  The highest vote getter wins all of the delegates selected in a primary.

(b)   WTM  =  Winner takes most.   A delegate allocation system that gives some delegates to the second and even third place finishers in a primary but allocates an out-sized proportion to the candidate getting the most votes.  For example, in each CD, a state may award 2 of the delegates to the top vote getter in that CD and 1 to the second-place vote getter.  The at-large delegates may be allocated proportionally to the vote getters in the state who get 20% or more of the total vote.  [This is quite common.  Note that if Trump gets 40%, Cruz gets 25%, and Rubio gets 20%, then Trump gets 47% of the at-large delegates, because 40% is 47% of 85%.]

(c)  PROP  =  genuine proportional allocation of delegates according to the popular vote.  Very few states use this system, but New Hampshire, the first primary, does.

With all that said, here is the spreadsheet information:

StatePledged DelegatesLikely Trump% of TotalSystem
New Hampshire20735.0%PROP
South Carolina504182.0%WTM
Puero Rico20735.0%PROP
North Carolina722534.7%PROP
New York925256.5%WTM
Rhode Island16637.5%PROP
West Virginia311858.1%
New Jersey4848100.0%WTA
New Mexico21838.1%PROP
South Dakota2626100.0%WTA

Monday, December 21, 2015


My son, Patrick, who is way better at this sort of thing than I am, took my table and put it into an Excel spreadsheet, cleaning things up along the way.  Here is the result, which is clearer and more detailed than what  I posted.  The numbers are still somewhat screwed up, because of errors I made along the way, but I think the basic message remains:  Given the assumptions with which I began, Trump could win the nomination by the end of the primary/caucus process.

StateTotalLikely Trump% of Total
New Hampshire20735.0%
South Carolina453680.0%
Puero Rico201050.0%
North Carolina692333.3%
New York954749.5%
Rhode Island16743.8%
West Virginia311858.1%
New Jersey5151100.0%
New Mexico211047.6%
South Dakota2626100.0%
District of Columbia191052.6%