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Tuesday, May 31, 2016


In his greatest work, The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud introduces an extremely useful concept, “overdetermination,” that previously had found employment only in mathematics.  Using his signature therapeutic technique of free association, Freud would lead his patients to engage in spontaneous unedited verbal association to elements in the dreams they reported to him, revealing thereby repressed contents of the mind.  By this means, Freud was able to get at the unacknowledged memories, wishes, fears, and libidinal urges whose presence in the patient’s unconscious were the causes of his or her neuroses.

Because it was impossible to anticipate what associations would be triggered by a dream element [“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” he once remarked sardonically], Freud would persist until either each dream element had yielded up its associations or else the flow of associations simply had run dry.

As he conducted his clinical work, Freud made an odd and fascinating discovery.   On occasion, he found, an element in a dream would trigger a series of associations that completely explained the presence of the element in the dream, but would then continue to yield new associations that resulted in a second completely adequate explanation of the dream element.  This dream element, Freud said, was not simply determined by the materials revealed through the associations; it was overdetermined.    Its presence in the dream had two independent explanations, each one all by itself sufficient to explain that presence.

The mathematical analogue is a system of linear equations in which there are more equations than unknowns [for example a system of five equations with three unknowns.]  As those familiar with a little math know, such a system has a consistent solution only if the equations are not linearly independent.  [Louis Althusser, by the way, in his discussion of Marx’s supposed economic determinism, screws this up by using “overdetermined” to mean “multiply determined” or “determined by several cooperating causes,” a fact that I tried without success to point out to my UMass friends and colleagues Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick.]

All of which, it may perhaps surprise you to learn, brings me to my decision to resign my full professorship in the Columbia University Philosophy Department in 1971 and transfer to the University of Massachusetts, where I spent the remaining thirty-seven years of my fifty year teaching career.  As I settle comfortably into my eighties, I find, reflecting on the arc of my life, that my decision to leave Columbia was genuinely overdetermined. 

At the time, I thought I understood quite clearly why my first wife, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, and I decided to move to Western Massachusetts.  Our first choice as a place to work and live had always been Boston, but that did not work out.  Neither of us was thrilled with New York, but we both had good jobs, and we were both undergoing psychoanalysis, so we settled for Manhattan in the middle sixties.  In ‘66 we bought a summer home in the Berkshires, and then in ’68 our first son, Patrick, was born.  Upon arriving in New York in ’64, we had moved into a Columbia-owned apartment half a block from the campus that can best be described as upscale-slum.  Only in New York would a senior member of an Ivy League university department feel grateful for such digs.  We knew that we did not want to raise Patrick in a Manhattan apartment, arranging play dates, hesitating to buy him a bike, and worrying about schooling.  Then in the summer of ’69, when Cynthia was again pregnant and we were taking daily drives from our Berkshire house to nearby Northampton so that Cynthia could get a Big Mac [the only thing she could keep down with morning sickness], we happened upon a magical little street called Barrett Place where we were clearly meant to live.  Later that summer a beautiful three story brick Federal style house on Barrett Place came on the market.  Without a moment’s hesitation, we bought it the day we saw it, sold our summer home two days later and – if you can believe it – only then commenced looking for jobs in Western Massachusetts!  Two years later, we both transferred to UMass.

I was of course well aware that a move from Columba to UMass would be viewed by the academic world as déclassé.  Indeed, I even joked that whereas people had been saying “Boy, Bob Wolff must be pretty good, he is at Columbia,” now perhaps they would say “Boy, UMass must be pretty good, Bob Wolff is there.”  I also knew that at UMass I would be deprived of entrée to the Upper West Side circle of Public Intellectuals, which I was being offered in the late ‘60s.  But that was not a world I very much lusted for.  Indeed, my principal concern was that although in ’71 the teaching load at UMass, like that at Columbia, was two courses a semester, a big underfunded state university might find itself forced to go to three courses a semester.  I was willing to accept that [though it never happened in the subsequent four decades.]

So we moved into our beautiful house on Barrett Place with Patrick and now Tobias.  In time, the boys got bicycles, which they rode freely all over town.  They went to the local schools, I spent three years as Cubmaster of the Northampton Cub Scouts, I even ran for town school committee [and lost by twelve votes].  Never once did I regret leaving Columbia.

And that is a complete explanation of my decision.  But with the benefit of almost half a century of hindsight, I now realize that it is not the only complete explanation, for my decision, as Freud would have said, was overdetermined.  The best way I can explain this is by reference to a wonderful 1991 movie, Tous les Matins du Monde, which features both Gerard Depardieu and his son.  The movie centers on the life of the great 17th century viola da gamba player Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, played by the French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle [who had a small part in The Da Vinci Code.].  After Sainte-Colombe’s beautiful young wife dies, leaving him with two young little daughters, he withdraws from the world to his country estate and devotes himself entirely to perfecting his musicianship.  He has a little hut built on the grounds of the estate where, for long hours each day, he practices, experimenting with a seventh string on his instrument and inventing new phrases and techniques of playing.  He refuses an invitation to play for Louis XIV at Versailles and plays in public only for the local gentry.  When a young man comes to him asking for lessons [this is Depardieu’s son], he sends him away, saying that although the young man may have a successful career at court, he is no musician.  Sainte-Colombe does not even deign to publish the compositions he has written, considering them merely exercises.

Looking back on my life, I realize that in leaving Columbia and the center of academic life, I was in a very small way doing what Sainte-Colombe did – withdrawing from the public world with its seductions, rewards, and demands, so that I could pursue the ideas in my head wherever they might lead me, regardless of their reception by the larger world.  Now, this is of course embarrassingly self-aggrandizing, but all of us, I think, look to literature for an understanding of our own unimportant lives.  Who among us has not felt some kinship with Elizabeth Bennett or Julien Sorel or Juliet or Ivan Karamazov -- or Alexander Portnoy?  As the years passed in Western Massachusetts, I died away to the academic profession, ceasing to attend annual meetings, no longer “keeping up” with the journal literature, receiving fewer and fewer speaking invitations, until finally I became quite convinced that other philosophers thought I had died [a suspicion reinforced by Wikipedia, whose page on me, when it first appeared, began with the words “Robert Paul Wolff was …”]

I was quite content with this state of affairs, and even moved from a Philosophy Department to a Department of Afro-American Studies for the final sixteen years of my teaching career.

As I look back, I can see quite clearly that leaving Columbia in 1971 was one of the best decisions of my life.  And quite clearly, it was overdetermined.


David Auerbach said...

Now is the autumn of our content. (or *Leaving Civilization and its Contents*)

s. wallerstein said...

1971 was a good year for dropping out. Younger people may not understand that.

I dropped out of Columbia graduate school (English and Comparative Literature) in 1970. I've never looked back.

I took the road the less traveled by (as did you), although I certainly did not see it in those terms 46 years ago.

It's hard to say whether I made a good decision, since the person I am now is a result of that decision and the values that I have now are a result of that decision and thus, I judge that decision with values that I would not have if I had not made that decision.

Tom Cathcart said...

I always wondered why you left Columbia for UMass and whether you taught the famous Kant course at UMass. Now I know the answer to the first question (2 answers, actually). I will wait patiently for the answer to the second.