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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, June 3, 2016


This morning, I find myself turning over in my mind three or four things I should like to talk about.  As they seem to have nothing at all to do with one another, I have decided simply to deal with them seriatim, as it were.  Hence the title of this blog post.

First:    It has been raining heavily in Europe for days, and as a result, the Seine has risen way above its normal level.  The wide walkways and sitting areas right next to the river have been totally obliterated by the rising water, which is reported to be 6 metres{!!} above normal.  Houseboats are marooned, their gangplanks useless.  The Batobuses, including Yves Montand and Jean Gabin, are unable to carry tourists up and down the river because their landing places are swamped.  The stairways leading down from the quais to les berges [the banks of the river] are under water half way up or more.  And on my walk this morning, I saw a large rat on my street squashed by a car – I think the rising water is driving the rats out of the sewers.  Yesterday it was announced that the curators at the Louvre are moving artworks up from the lowest level for fear of flooding.  How long will this last?  Well, the Seine flows, I would estimate, at maybe 3.5 or 4 miles an hour, which means that water from the east will take one day or a bit more to travel 100 miles.  So it will take at least a week for things to get back to normal.  And more rain is forecast!  Our apartment is in a seventeenth century building half a block from the river.  Fortunately, our little apartment does not come with a storage locker on the basement level of the rest of the copropriété. 

Second:  Readers of this blog may recall some of the problems I have had with the combined TV/Internet/Telephone service I get from a company formerly called France Telecom [sort of like the late pop icon formerly known as Prince.]  This time when I arrived, I tried everything with trepidation only to find that it all worked perfectly.  Until three days ago.  Then, unaccountably, my phone went missing.  I could not get a dial tone, and when I tried calling it from my IPhone [which works so long as it has Internet access], I got a message [in French, of course] saying that it was going direct to voicemail, without ringing.  The handset is very upscale, with many buttons whose functions are totally beyond me, so I figured that I had accidentally pressed something that had screwed it up.  After several days, I decided to unplug the unit and take it along to the big phone store on the right bank that has tech support.  But before doing that, I tried it one more time – and it worked.  Why?  Beats me.  Maybe it does not like to be taken into the shop.  Maybe the phone company was just having fun with me. 

Third:  I have been brooding about the idea of a new series of videoed lectures, and the idea of a series on the Critique of Pure Reason is very attractive.  However, I feel that my Ideological Critique lectures were stiff and unappealing, whereas the Brown lecture, delivered to real people, struck me as relaxed and much more attractive.  So here is what I am thinking about:  I will offer a non-credit “reading group” next Fall in the UNC Philosophy Department on the Critique, and advertise it in the Duke department as well.  I am reasonably sure the UNC department will have no objection.  I will meet once a week for as long as it takes, and record it all on my little camcorder, unless UNC has better equipment that they are willing to allow me to use.  The real question is whether there are any students actually willing to stay with a close reading of the greatest work of philosophy ever written.  Since apparently their professors do not by and large ask them to read entire books of any sorts, and since studying the greatest work of philosophy ever written will not directly help them to get jobs, I may find that there is no interest at all.  Stay tuned.

Fourth:  Responding to yesterday’s post, Michael links to a symposium on Herbert Marcuse and asks whether I would like to comment [see the comments to that post for his lengthy quote from the symposium.]  Let me make a brief response.  To cover all of the things said in that symposium would take me far too long.  Perhaps because Marcuse was a friend of mine, I do not view him sub specie aeternitatis, as it were.  I leave that to the ages.  Certain of the things he said, principally in One-Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization, seem to me to have been simply brilliant, and as true now as they were when I read them in the sixties.  My essay, “What Good is a Liberal Education,” draws on those ideas.  If I may use a shorthand to save time and space, I have in mind the notions of surplus repression from Eros and Civilization and repressive desublimation from One-Dimensional Man.  Like all of us, Marcuse was thoroughly a person of his time and place.  He explained the excessive abstractness of One-Dimensional Man by noting that all true ideological critique must be rooted in real movements on the ground, and since he could see no such movements in the America he was looking at in the early sixties, he was forced, as he said, to retreat to abstractions.  No sooner had he written that than “the Sixties” burst on the scene.  Herbert was delighted by the upheavals, and he was especially entranced that an old academic pedant like him could become the darling of the rebellious young, in France and Germany as well as in America.  I do not think he had a theory about that.  He just thought it was delightful [rather like Noam Chomsky, after establishing himself as the leading linguistic theorist of his day, became a guru to the left.  Except that I suspect Noam takes himself more seriously than Herbert did.]




s. wallerstein said...

To say that Marcuse's analysis of 1960's American capitalism was morally wrong seems perverse to me.

Actually, if everyone had paid more attention to what Marcuse said in the 60's and less to a lot of gurus, rock stars posing as poets, and media-created revolutionaries whom it is embarrassing to remember, we might have been able to change society and to avoid capitalism becoming even worse in the 1980's when neoliberalism became hegemonic.

However, I fail to see what sin Marcuse committed in pointing out how the U.S. working class had lost its critical role, in exchange for integration in a consumer society while still being exploited and had, in addition, become complicit in genocidal wars being carried out in Viet Nam and against the Cuban Revolution.

I would also like to point out that Marcuse was very prescient in seeing, unlike most of us, that the so-called sexual revolution was only repressive desublimation and far from liberating us, would only enchain us more deeply to capitalism.

Matt said...

It's hard for me to have a clear opinion on how to evaluate this, but you might find it of some interest that the front page of the Financial Times from yesterday (June 2) had a short article on "China scholars call for more Marx and less of the west in teaching economics." Supposedly this is in part a piece of a larger backlash against "western influence" in Chinese studies, and the piece of course dryly notes the irony of calling for more Marx and less "western influence". Still interesting to see, in any case.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Maybe my time has come. Do you suppose someone would finance a visit for me to China?

Tom Cathcart said...

A bit of international detective work:

"After several days, I decided to unplug the unit and take it along to the big phone store on the right bank that has tech support. But before doing that, I tried it one more time."

Query: Had you already unplugged it when you decided to try it one more time? It seems the universal cure for problems with electronic gadgets is unplugging them for 10 seconds. Perhaps you unwittingly fixed the problem yourself.


wallyverr said...

I hope you are able to go ahead with the Kant reading group. Which translation of the Critique of Pure Reason do you recommend? And is it worth reading the Prolegomena first, as a short overview?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Tom, I actually tried that. No luck. I considered rebooting the cable box, which is the outer limit of my tech expertise, but I was terrified that if I did that it would not reboot and I would lose everything. I just think the phone did not want to be lugged over to the Right Bank!