Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Friday, October 20, 2017

ON MY WAY OUT THE DOOR

While I make final preparations for our trip tomorrow to Paris, I should like to make one or two comments about the flap over Trump’s call to the widow and family of La David Johnson, killed in Niger.  First, a piece of totally unsolicited advice for Representative Fredericka Wilson, who was in the car when the call came and heard it on speaker phone:  Stop talking!  Thanks to General Kelly, Trump has won this little battle in the court of public opinion.  The sooner you stop talking, the sooner the story goes away.  Don’t defend yourself, don’t explain, just stop talking.  Kelly has given Trump a get-out-of-jail-free card, and there is nothing you can do about it.  Trump wants to talk about you [and the NFL] to distract attention from his real problem, which is Mueller.  Don’t let him.

Second, and more important let me recur to something I have said before.  The citizen army with which America fought WW II is no more, thanks to the Viet Nam War, which almost destroyed the Army.  When the decision was made to raise the pay, improve the career opportunities, and move to an all-volunteer army, America became a full-fledged imperial power, capable of perpetual overseas military adventures without the danger of popular protest or opposition.  The exaggerated quasi-religious respect shown to “the fallen” is compensation for and acknowledgement of the fact that almost no men and women will ever serve in the military and almost no families [or indeed neighborhoods] will lose men and women in war.  The Viet Nam era campus anti-war protests were fueled by the threat of the draft [which also produced grade inflation.]  Without that threat, the campuses are silent.  The Congress has ceded war powers to the Executive, which treats the military quite rationally as an instrument of empire.

If Rachel Maddow’s suspicions are correct, these deaths were a direct consequence of the President’s decision to add Chad to the list of countries barred by his immigration ban, an incomprehensible decision that is quite probably a sheer mistake resulting from a hollowed out State Department and a complete lack of ordinary planning.


Move on.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

MORE REPORTS FROM THE OLD PEOPLE’S FRONTLINES

The lady who lives directly under us on the second floor is an elegant, interesting resident of ninety-five who has actually lived here for thirty-one years, virtually since Carolina Meadows was opened.  There are big plans to enlarge this CCRC, powerfully opposed by virtually all of the residents [it is already the largest CCRC in North Carolina], and she suggested I make an appointment with the new manager to quiz him about some things.  I did so, and today she stopped by the jigsaw puzzle table while I was hard at work on a 1000 piece monster to find out how it went.  I made my report, and then we chatted about, among other things, the food here [the subject of considerable conversation and complaint, as you might imagine].  In the course of our chat, she revealed that when she lived in Cambridge, many years ago, Julia Child was her neighbor.  They were friends, shopped at the same butcher, and she learned a good deal about complex sauces from Julia.


I mean, really.  Will wonders never cease?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A DRAMATIC PERSONAL RESOLUTION, AND IT IS NOT EVEN NEW YEAR'S EVE

For longer than I can recall, I have been in crisis mode, listening to hours of cable news every day, reading endless commentary, writing end-of-civilization posts for this blog, and generally being miserable.  I have not observed that this has made the world a better place, but it has seemed unavoidable.  On Saturday, I will go to Paris for two and a half weeks.  I have decided to go wild and have fun.  Nothing too outré.  I shall shop at the market, cook in my little kitchen, sit in the café, attend early music concerts, perhaps take a bus ride, like that.  Don't condemn me.  I have my limits.

IN CASE YOU HAVE ANY ROMANTICIZED NOTIONS OF HOW MUCH BETTER IT WAS IN THE OLD DAYS

While I was wandering around on the web, I came upon a lengthy story about a woman I had never heard of who died three days ago at the age of 105.  Marian Cannon Schlesinger was, by this account, an interesting and accomplished person.  She was married for thirty years to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., L’il Arthur as he was known around Harvard Square to distinguish him from his famous professor father, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.  Marian Cannon Schlesinger’s sister was married to the great scholar of China John Fairbank.  [This was an era when brilliant Radcliffe students, instead being encouraged to continue their studies, were expected to marry smart Harvard students and keep house for them, but that is for another blog post.]  If you spent eleven years hanging around Harvard Square, as I did, you will be interested in the gossip in the obituary.  You can read the whole thing here.  

One brief quote from Marian Schlesinger really caught my eye, since it confirmed the impression I had formed from afar.  Writing of the Kennedy White House, she said, “I had a curious feeling that great decisions were made in an almost frivolous way, like the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which from my remote perch seemed to have been run by a bunch of hubris-mad teenagers, mostly Yale boys, who dominated the Central Intelligence Agency and who looked upon the Cuban enterprise and the catastrophe rather like a Harvard-Yale game they would win next time.”  This line deserves to go into the histories of that time, if it has not already done so.

Monday, October 16, 2017

HOW IT IS DONE NOWADAYS

Idly surfing the web, I came upon this story in the Washington Post about the discovery of a so-called kilonova, the collision of two neutron stars one hundred thirty million years ago.  There are many exciting details in the story, including the news that the observations confirm a claim made by Albert Einstein a century ago about gravitational waves.  But what really caught my eye was the fact that the scholarly article announcing the discovery listed roughly 3,500 authors!  The work was a world-wide collaboration, involving not only huge multi-million dollar arrays of equipment but enough scientists to staff the STEM departments of a dozen universities.

I thought of my tea with Bertrand Russell sixty-three years ago.  He had been reported as saying that, had he to do it all over again, he would not have chosen philosophy as his field.  I asked him what he would have chosen, and he said unhesitatingly, Physics. 

This is where the forefronts of knowledge are, here and in Molecular Biology.  The era of the research team in a laboratory headed by a senior scientist has given way to an entirely new stage of scientific development, one in which thousands collaborate.


I wish I were young enough to see how this will all play out.

SIC TRANSIT

Richard Wilbur, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and one of the "Amherst Poets," died on Saturday at the age of ninety-six.  On New Year's Eve, 1954, I danced with his wife.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

WHAT'S UP

A week from today, Susie and I go to Paris, returning November 9th.  As usual, I shall continue blogging.  A week from Thursday, we dine with our friends Anne Berry and Philip Minns.  Philip runs this blog on all matters French, and I find it an indispensable aid to understanding life and politics there.  Philip worked for many years as a simultaneous translator, both for governments and for corporations, a calling that leaves me speechless with astonishment. 

I hope and expect that my Columbia talk with go up on YouTube some time before we leave for Paris.  I will be very curious to read your reactions, should you spend some time watching it.  One word of explanation for those of you who have no connection with Columbia.  At the very beginning of my remarks, I tip my hat to Bob Belknap and Carl Hovde, two friends, now both dead, who were, like myself, young members of the faculty half a century ago.  The older people at the talk will know that both became, in their day, much loved Deans of Columbia College.  I did not mention Edward Said, whom I was privileged to know, although not as well as I would have liked.  Those opening remarks were just a little inside baseball to establish my street cred with the locals.


As for the Marx lectures, I still have not found any takers willing to offer me a venue for the talks.  You will recall that I tried standing in front of my bookcases and lecturing to my desk for the Ideological Critique lecture series, but I found that so weird that I decided not to do it again.  I may be forced to return to my desk and bookcases for the Marx lectures if no one at Columbia is interested in sponsoring them.

THIS IS INTERESTING

Leonard Pitts, in this Op Ed, presents himself as a Centrist who has reluctantly concluded that the Democratic Party has to take a hard turn to the left.  When your opponents ask to sign up, it is as good omen.  Take a look.  It is worth reading.

Note, by the way, that the hard left agenda he proposes would have been thought Centrist when I was younger.  That is a good measure of just how bad things really are.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

:-)

Professor Jacob T. Levy, who occupies with distinction the opposite end of the political spectrum from my natural hangout, posts this comment on my hatchet example:  “A fine old Smithian/ market liberal/ libertarian point about the wonders of the division of labor!  ;-)” which emoticon Google tells me means a smirk but which I choose to interpret as an ironic smile.  There is, however, a deeper truth here, one that modern thinkers frequently miss.  Adam Smith was the first great Classical Political Economist.  Karl Marx, in my judgment, was the last and greatest Classical Political Economist.  They shared, with David Ricardo and other luminaries, an interest in class conflict and the conditions of economic growth, two questions that were shoved aside by the marginalist Triple Revolution of Jevons, Menger, and Walras in the 1870s.  As many commentators before me have observed, the political spectrum is shaped like a horseshoe, with the ends closer to one another than either end is to the middle.

Friday, October 13, 2017

BRIEF EXPLICATION

In my Credo, the Lone Rider and the Barn-Raising Community are intended somewhat as what Max Weber calls Ideal Types.  They are meant to capture in simple images two fundamentally different ways of viewing the world.  Obviously, it would take hundreds of pages to spell them out.

Here is an exercise I have sometimes wanted to build a course around.  Take a simple tool -- let us say a hatchet.  Now start tracing back every single thing that some previous persons did in order to make that hatchet possible.  Imagine tracing back the discovery of iron ore, the processes of smelting and forging, the elaborate and ever expanding network of practical and theoretical knowledge presupposed by the production of that hatchet.  Include the language used by the people involved to communicate with one another, to pass on the knowledge.  Think of the tools used to produce the hatchet, and the tools used to produce those tools, and so on and on.  No one ever does anything all by him or herself [never mind the social construction of reality involved in defining the gender roles invoked by the phrase "his or herself."]

YOU ARE NEVER TOO OLD TO LEARN

As I think I may have remarked somewhere, the principal problem with the sort of Continuing Care Retirement Community [CCRC] where I now live is that it is full of old people, which reminds me more often than I would like that I am going to die.  The principal benefit is that it is full with old people, many them older than I, some much older than I, thus giving me reason to believe that I will not die just yet. 

Slowly, I have been getting to know the people who live here [here being Carolina Meadows], mostly those in the building in which I live, but bit by bit those in other buildings or in what are called “villas,” small one story free-standing homes with garages and such.  For well-known demographic reasons, more of my fellow residents are old women than are old men, and some of the women are well into their nineties, or even beyond.  Almost all of us have suffered the visible insults of old age, and there are as many walkers in use here as there are bicycles on a college campus.  Some of us are bent almost double with arthritis and other physical problems, others have a marked case of “widow’s hump,” and a fair number of folks exhibit some sort of cognitive loss – forgetfulness, short term memory loss, and so forth.  People here are touchingly understanding of and accommodating of the frailties of others, routinely and without comment.

All of this made me feel, rather defensively, when I first moved in, that I did not belong, that I had no business being here, that although I am a naturally polite person [believe it or not], I really had nothing in common with the other residents.

But little by little, around the jigsaw puzzle table or the dining rooms or in the hallways, I actually began to talk with folks, and I have discovered to my great surprise and considerable pleasure that contrary to appearances and the usual “tells” by which we appraise people, many of my fellow residents are genuinely interesting people.  Most of them have college degrees [remember that only about 5% of people of my generation completed college], many have traveled to places I have never seen, and all have, during their long lives, done genuinely interesting things. [I leave entirely to one side the report that the man who occupied our apartment before we moved in was a Nobel Prize winner.]   

Several months ago, shortly after moving in, I got into a conversation with a tiny woman, bent over double by extreme arthritis, who paused to try to get a piece in the jigsaw puzzle we were then doing.  She is so crippled that she has to turn her head to one side to look up when she talks to someone.  Every instinct in me cried out that this was someone I should help across the street, but not someone I would want to talk with.  But I actually have an acute ear for language, and a turn of phrase she used struck me as lovely and genuinely intelligent.  She turns out to be a fascinating person who is, appearances aside, one of the sprightliest people I have ever met. 


Again and again, I have had experiences like this here, challenging and rebutting my lifelong habit of judging people by their academic stigmata.  It has been an eye-opener living in a CCRC.

THE FACE OF EVIL

I had a lighthearted post planned for today, and I shall get to it presently, but I must at least take notice of the sheer wanton cruelty of Trump's latest acts  -- threatening to cut off aid to Puerto Rico as that island's people face death and disaster, and deliberately attempting to destroy the health insurance markets with not the slightest concern for the millions who will be harmed by his executive order.  He is a monster. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

GENUINELY SCARY

It is manifestly clear, I think, that the House will never impeach Trump and, were they to do so, the Senate as it is now constituted could never find the 67 senators required to remove from office.  The 25th Amendment [of which Trump was apparently unaware] will not be invoked save in extremis.  But the latest reports from the White House [which leaks not like a sieve but like a water main] suggest that Trump is becoming so seriously unstable that he may actually have a certifiable breakdown requiring hospitalization.  The up side of this is that we would be relieved of a man capable of launching nuclear weapons on a whim.  The down side is that this is a man who, on the way to a breakdown, might launch nuclear weapons on a whim.  We are in very, very dangerous territory

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

WHAT'S UP

There is a good deal to say about my trip to Columbia, but since the talk will be posted on YouTube, that can wait.  A great deal more pressing is what is happening right now with the Trump presidency.  Back when it really did not seem to matter, we had a discussion on this blog about whether Trump was such a danger to initiate a nuclear war that this fact took precedence over all the doubts one had about Clinton.  I am very, very sorry to say that those of us who took the pro-Clinton side of that distasteful choice were right.  What is going on now is terrifying.  There are reports that we are in reality a good deal closer to war on the Korean Peninsula than public appearances indicate.  Trump is now openly and universally recognized to be an unstable infantile narcissist who is capable of initiating military action merely because he is infuriated by what he sees on television.  We are reduced to hoping that the generals around him are in the room when he reaches for the “nuclear football” and can wrestle him to the ground in time.  It is a bitter irony that the less success he has in promoting his hideous legislative agenda, the more angry he will become and hence the more dangerous.  There is, it seems to me, no chance whatsoever that Congress will exercise its constitutional powers and the Mueller investigation, I fear, will not produce results that absolutely compel impeachment and removal from office.  And this is not yet ten months!

Our only hope?  That Trump will be distracted by the NFL, about which he seems to care deeply.


One ray, not of hope but rather of pleasure:  The statement by the Secretary of State that Trump is a f#$%ing moron.  The endless repetition of this news snippet is like a cool breeze on a hot summer day.  I freely confess that no matter how often I hear it repeated on television, I get each time a brief frisson of pleasure.  Gather ye rosebuds where ye may, indeed.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

ONE WONDERS

In Defense of Anarchism was translated into Catalan in 2012.  Five years later, Catalonia votes for independence.  A coincidence?  :)

A RESPONSE TO RICHARD

In response to the re-posting of my Credo, Richard asks some questions:

(1) Are all human activities transformative of nature? Is the activity of knowing that, say, there are billions of galaxies transformative of those galaxies?

(2) Are all of any one person's acts of knowing completely dependent, i.e., dependent in all aspects, upon those of others?

(3) Are these things matters of choice? Is the choice of a thesis opposed to the one you have chosen the choice of an error?

By the way, the proof that I am not a robot was truly ridiculous? Is the post one which a sign is posted a sign or not?

Herewith, some quick responses:

1.  Not all human activities are transformative of nature, and of course I did not say that.  But as it happens, the activity Richard cites is indeed part of a human transformation of nature [not of the galaxies, of course.]  It is part of the collective activity we call science.

2.  Of course not, but they are far more dependent on the previous activities of others than one might at first suppose.  At the very least, they are likely to be couched in some natural language, which quite obviously is a collective human product.

3.  I am not sure what “these things” refers to.  In many cases, the answer to the question in the second sentence is, sometimes yes, sometimes no [I think – the question is not very clear.]


Finally, I have not a clue about this robot thing.  I think you have to tell Google [good luck with that!]

Monday, October 9, 2017

CREDO [I BELIEVE]

From time to time, it is appropriate to re-post what I have written before, on the principle, articulated by Kierkegaard in Either/Or, and by Plato before him in The Gorgias,  that the essence of the Ethical is repetition.  Accordingly, I re-post here my Credo, which first appeared here on November 28, 2010, and was re-posted, with elaborations, on February 25, 2014:


We human beings live in this world by thoughtfully, purposefully, intelligently transforming nature so that it will satisfy our needs and our desires. We call this activity of transforming nature "production," and it is always, everywhere, inescapably a collective human activity. Every moment that we are alive we are relying on what those before us have discovered or invented or devised. There is no technique, however primitive, that is the invention of one person alone. Like it or not, we are all in this life together. Even those giants of industry who think of themselves as self-made men are completely dependent for their empire building upon the collective knowledge and practice of the entire human species.

All of us eat grain we have not grown, fruit we have not planted, meat we have not killed or dressed. We wear clothes made of wool we have not combed and carded, spun or woven. We live in houses we have not built, take medicines we neither discovered nor produced, read books we have not written, sing songs we did not compose. Each of us is completely dependent on the inherited knowledge, skill, labor, and memory of all who have gone before us, and all who share the earth with us now.

We have a choice. We can acknowledge our interdependence, embracing it as the true human condition; or we can deny it, deluding ourselves into thinking that we are related to one another only as parties to a bargain entered into in a marketplace. We can recognize that we need one another, and owe to one another duties of generosity and loyalty. Or we can pretend to need no one save through the intermediation of the cash nexus.

I choose to embrace our interdependence. I choose to acknowledge that the food I eat, the clothes on my back, and the house in which I live are all collective human products, and that when any one of us has no food or clothing or shelter, I am diminished by that lack.

There are two images alive in America, competing for our allegiance. The first is the image of the lone horseman who rides across an empty plain, pausing only fleetingly when he comes to a settlement, a man apparently having no need of others, self-sufficient [so long as someone makes the shells he needs for his rifle or the cloth he needs for his blanket], refusing to acknowledge that he owes anything at all to the human race of which he is, nonetheless, a part.

The other is the image of the community that comes together for a barn-raising, working as a group on a task that no one man can do by himself, eating a communal meal when the day is done, returning to their homes knowing that the next time one of their number needs help, they will all turn out to provide it.

These images are simple, iconic, even primitive, but the choice they present us with remains today, when no one rides the plains any more, and only the Amish have barn-raisings. Today, as I write, there are tens of millions of Americans who cannot put a decent meal on the table in the evening for their families, scores of millions threatened with the loss of their homes. And yet, there are hundreds of thousands lavishing unneeded wealth on themselves, heedless of the suffering of their fellow Americans, on whose productivity, inventiveness, and labor they depend for the food they eat, the clothing they wear, the homes they live in, and also for the luxuries they clutch to their breasts.

The foundation of my politics is the recognition of our collective interdependence. In the complex world that we have inherited from our forebears, it is often difficult to see just how to translate that fundamental interdependence into laws or public policies, but we must always begin from the acknowledgement that we are a community of men and women who must care for one another, work with one another, and treat the needs of each as the concern of all.


If all of this must be rendered in a single expression, let it be: From each of us according to his or her ability; to each of us according to his or her need.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Back Home

I am back and rested from my trip to Columbia.  The talk was recorded and will be up some time -- I do not know when.  It was nice being back after half a century.  Meanwhile, the world is falling apart, but that is nothing new.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

REWARDS OF THE UNDEAD

Some while back, I confessed my inability to grasp America’s fascination with the undead.  Today, I received a sign.  Forty-eight years ago, desperate for funds to pay for my analysis and my wife’s analysis, I signed a contract with a commercial publisher to crank out a collection of philosophical works, all in the public domain [no permissions costs], to be called Ten Great Works of Philosophy.  The advance was $2000, half on signing and half on submission of the completed manuscript.  I did the job so fast that I submitted the manuscript before they could send me the signing check.  I think it is my most forgettable book.

Time passed, the turbulent Sixties and Seventies gave way to the Reagan Era, then the Bush disaster, then the Clinton triangulation.  Computers got faster and smaller, cellphones sprang up like weeds, social media transformed the world, I aged, moved, changed departments, retired, and still the royalty checks kept coming for Ten Great Works of Philosophy.  The checks were never large, but over the decades, close to one hundred thousand copies of this utterly negligible work were sold.  To whom?  Lord knows.  Bored travelers trapped in airports?  College students in a Philosophy course taught by a professor so clueless as to consider this a suitable text?  People reaching for the Kama Sutra and grabbing my book by mistake in their inflamed state?

Today yet another annual royalty check arrived, this one for $114.55, my take on sales of 640 copies [so it seems I make roughly 17.9 cents a copy].  This check puts me over the $9000 mark, which works out to $190 a year, so sales seem to be holding up.  I shall enter this royalty payment in my Excel spreadsheet with the forty-seven other entries.  I rather suspect this walking dead book will still be around, loitering in train stations and drug stores, long after I am dead.

OFF TO THE BIG APPLE

Tomorrow morning, before the sun is up, I shall set out for New York City to lecture at Columbia.  I have been told that the lecture will be video'd and posted on YouTube, in which case you will be able to see it.  The title, as I have reported, is "What Good is a Liberal Education?  A Radical Replies."  This will be my first gig at Columbia as a member of their Society of Senior Scholars.  What will come of this?   We shall see.  I return home Saturday noon, after which I shall report on how it all  went down.  My lecture will offer a new and unexpected answer to the title question, with roots in the work of Marx, Freud, and Marcuse.  Should be fun.

SOMETIMES TOM FRIEDMAN IS RIGHT

I am not a fan of Thomas Friedman, NY TIMES Op Ed writer, but sometimes he gets it right, and when he does, simple fairness requires that we acknowledge that.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

THIS AND THAT

On this lovely fall day in North Carolina, there is a good deal to engage our attention.  I shall leave it to others with stronger stomachs to comment on the bizarre sight of the President of the United States tossing rolls of kitchen toweling to people struggling to get drinkable water and refrigeration for medications.  Others may have words for that ugliness; I do not.

Consider the Secretary of State, fourth in line to the Presidency after Michael Pence and Paul Ryan [weep for democracy if your eyes are not dry.]  He called the President a “f#$%ing moron” in the hearing of others in government, he contradicted the President openly on matters of global life and death, such as the confrontation with North Korea, he publicly differed with the President on the multi-nation agreement with Iran about its nuclear weapons program.  But what brought him to the brink of resignation last summer was the President’s speech at a Boy Scout convention, because apparently what Rex Tillerson cares about more than North Korea, more than Iran, more than nuclear war itself, is the f&%#ing BOY SCOUTS!

Which brings to mind several stories about my uneventful membership in that colonialist institution.  Yes, I was a Boy Scout.  I earned eleven merit badges, enough to make me a Life Scout [my recollection, which may be faulty, is that it took twenty-five to make Eagle Scout.] 

First story:  during the time that I was a Boy Scout, I was also a violin pupil studying, sort of, with Mrs. Irma Zacharias.  Mrs. Zacharias was a tiny, plump, terrifying woman, originally from New Orleans.  She lived in a big pre-war apartment at 71st Street and Broadway in Manhattan with her spinster daughter, Dorothea, who gave piano lessons and was rumored to have had a fling, as a young woman, with Ira Gershwin, George’s brother.  Mrs. Zacharias’ brother, Admiral Zacharias, commanded the U. S. fleet in the Pacific during WW II, and her son, Gerald, was a Professor of Mathematics at MIT, where he spearheaded the rewriting of the secondary school math curriculum called the New Math.  I was an indifferent pupil at best, and was usually in Mrs. Zacharias’ bad graces, but things came to a head when I showed up for a weekly lesson manifestly unprepared.  When she asked why I had not practiced, I explained I had been busy with Boy Scout activities.  She was speechless with outrage and never forgave me.

Second Story:  From age nine to eleven, I spent each summer at eight week sleep away Camp Taconic in the Berkshires.  The next year, I gave Boy Scout Camp a try for two two-week stints.  It was a disaster.  The low point came after they had taught us the Scout Law, which I remember to this day:  “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”  I refused on principle to say “reverent” and almost got thrown out of the camp.

Signs of aging:  For as long as we have been married, which is coming up to be thirty years, Susie and I have been bird feeders.  In Pelham, we had a large back yard with a stand-alone feeder that drew twenty-seven different species of birds, including such lovely species as Rose Breasted Grosbeaks, Blue Birds, and even a flock of wild turkeys that showed up from time to time and paraded around before moving off into the woods. On two occasions Black Bears appeared, knocked down the bird feeder and stand with one swipe of a paw, and ate the suet.  In Meadowmont, we had a large porch and several hanging feeders that drew mostly Goldfinches, House Finches, and the occasional wandering Cardinal.  Here in Carolina Meadows, where we have no porch at all, we have managed to attach several feeders to windows with suction cups, so that we can feed the Goldfinches and the hummingbirds.  Long experience has taught us that hulled Sunflower hearts are the food of choice for local birds.  In the old days, I would go off to Amherst Farmer Supply, buy a fifty pound bag, heave it onto my shoulder and carry it to the trunk of my car.  After fifteen years or so, when I was in my late sixties, I took to buying twenty-five pound bags.  This morning I went to the Wild Bird Center for some Sunflower hearts and found the 14.5 lb bag rather heavy as I took it to my car.  I suppose in my nineties I shall be reduced to offering them bread crumbs, not too big.

Finally, a word of praise to the mayor of San Juan, who has been abused by our President for failing to praise his inadequate response to the hurricane that may end life in Puerto Rico as she has known it.


As Keith Olberman says at the end of each of his indispensable tri-weekly commentaries, “Resist!  Remove!  Peace.”

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

FACTS

According to this 2016 story in the Washington Post, only one-third to two-fifths of American households include someone who owns a gun, despite the fact that there are more guns than people in this country.  Gun owning households typically own four or five guns, and some own as many as twenty or thirty.  Since 1986, it has been illegal to buy a fully automatic weapon [one that keeps firing as long as you keep pressing the trigger], but it is legal to buy a kit that converts a semi-automatic weapon [one that fires again and again without reloading as you press the trigger again and again] to an automatic weapon, and there are YouTube videos showing you how to make the conversion.

America is not a nation.  It is a dystopian war zone.

Monday, October 2, 2017

GIVE DANA A TREAT

read This.

BREAKING A LANCE FOR PICKINESS

It seems I have now revealed my true nature.  I am that most familiar comic figure, the old fogey, the fussbudget, the picky linguistic purist seeking to sweep back sea changes in the way we talk.  Oh well, I was never a happening guy.  But before I fold my tent and creep back into the brambles of old age, let me take just a moment to explain why I care.  There really is a reason, or perhaps four reasons.

First, about “decimate.”  I don’t really care that this word has now come to be synonymous with “devastate,” which it sounds like.  It is just that the original meaning of the word is interesting, curious, a link to a history now long past, and I hate to see us simply lose that understanding.

Second, there are some words that are really useful – or rather, there are some meanings that are usefully linked to particular words – and I hate to see us lose a grasp of those meanings and the way they are differentiated from other meanings with which they are easily confused.  An example is “disinterested,” which is now routinely used as a synonym for “uninterested.”  “Disinterested” originally meant – and still does mean, as some of us use it – “neutral,” ”objective,” “not moved by personal interest.”  A judge is expected to hand down disinterested decisions, but of course a representative in the American political system is not, because he or she is elected to represent the interests of constituents.

Third, many speakers and writers, in an effort to elevate their language and sound significant, misuse words that do not actually mean what they have in mind but that sound impressive.  A good example, is “transpired,” which is now usually used as a three dollar alternative to the two-bit “happened.”  How important one sounds, asking “what transpired at the meeting?”  Well, “transpired” literally means “breathed about,” so when one asks “what transpired at the meeting?” one is actually asking not what happened at the meeting, but what news or information came out – was breathed about – at the meeting.  The distinction between what happened and what came out or was revealed is a real one, and hence ought to be reflected in our language.

Now, quite obviously, as Noam Chomsky tells us, every natural language at any stage in its evolution has within it the linguistic resources to say anything one may think. Hence linguistic drift never deprives a natural language of the capacity to express anything that could be expressed at an earlier time or in another language.  So, aside from nostalgia for one’s lost youth, why do I care?

Well, here is my fourth reason, and it may be the most important of the lot.  I believe that language gains its power not from linguistic bombast, from the piling of word on word, but from the absolute precision with which it expresses clear, coherent, logical progressions of thought.  Careless choice of one’s words robs one’s speech or writing of that power.  Let me give an analogy which I think is apposite.  When a chorus sings a composition, if the several singers are slightly, ever so slightly, off key or not in synch with one another, the sound waves they generate with their vocal cords overlap and cancel each other out.  Hence, an enormous chorus of mediocre singers, like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, instead of producing a large sound, produces instead a muddied and muffled sound that is much less loud than one might expect.  On the other hand, when fifteen or sixteen members of the Tallis Scholars sing, the perfection of their intonation causes the sound waves to reinforce one another so that the sound they produce is overwhelming, quite astonishingly so.

Language is like that, and as a connoisseur of language, I care.



Sunday, October 1, 2017

REALLY PICKY NITPICKING

When a Roman legion had performed really badly, and its commanders wished to punish it, they would line the men up and select every tenth man to be killed.  In short, they would decimate it.  That is what "decimate" means.  It does not mean that a population [or an area] has been wiped out.

Oh well.

WHY I DO WHAT I DO -- A RESPONSE TO COMMENTS ABOUT RAWLS

The comments attendant upon my remarks about Rawls’ work incline me to say something of a systematic nature about how I read a work of philosophy.  The first major works with which I engaged seriously were Hume’s Treatise and Kant’s First Critique, which together were the subject of my doctoral dissertation.  Both works are long, extremely complex, and filled with seemingly endless detail, all of which is, as one might expect, elegantly and intelligently presented.  But despite the fact that I became deeply steeped in both works and knew that detail intimately, when it came time for me to write about them, I ignored the detail, the elaborations and fine work, as it were, and instead approached both works in a quite different fashion.  I saw Hume and Kant, and then by extension other great philosophers as well, as engaged in trying to bring to the surface and articulate deep conceptual insights into complex core arguments.  My job as a commentator, I decided, was to try to dive as deeply as they had, to follow them like Gandalf wrestling with the Borlag in the caves of Moria, and to grasp those central ideas, shaking them loose from the accompanying detailed elaborations as though they were barnacles growing on the hull of a sunken ship.  Very early in my philosophical work, I realized that I experience philosophical arguments as stories, which it is my job to re-tell as simply and clearly as I can.

The greatest philosophers, I found, sometimes could see more deeply into certain ideas than they could say clearly the core of those ideas.  So it was that in my struggle with the Treatise, I concluded that to understand Hume’s most powerful arguments, it was necessary to set aside his claim that every idea is a copy of a preceding impression, and instead bring to the surface the fact that at the critical turning points in his arguments, he appealed not to ideas copied from impressions but to acts of the mind.  Hence my phrase “theory of mental activity” which I used both to describe Hume’s argument and as part of the title of my book on the Critique

Kant posed a problem of the highest order.  On the one hand, Kant presented a theory of almost unmanageable detail and complexity, in which the detailed elaboration was said by him to be central to his argument.  On the other hand, as I plunged deeper and deeper into the central portions of the Critique, it seemed clear to me that one could only articulate Kant’s enormously powerful argument by simply ignoring almost all of that fretwork and taking seriously in my reading of him certain passages that he himself said were unimportant or needed even to be omitted from the Second Edition.

Is this the right way to read a great work of philosophy?  Of course not.  Countless commentators on a great text have grappled successfully and valuably with portions of that text that I have chosen simply to ignore.  Is it a right way to read a great work of philosophy.  I believe that it is, but there is no point in arguing that as a general proposition.  In each individual case, readers must judge for themselves whether my monomaniacally focused reading of the text is valuable to them.  If it is, then in that case I have been successful.


It is in this way that I approached A Theory of Justice.  The fretwork and elaboration interested me not at all, but I saw in the book a central argument worth extracting from the text and engaging with.  Those who do not find this approach illuminating ought simply to move on.  For those whose minds work as mine does, my analysis may be enlightening.