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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A QUESTION OF TRANSLATION

As you know, I have been binge-watching a Turkish soap opera called Resurrection:Ertugrul, which features English subtitles.  In the episode I am now watching, one of the evil characters is represented as saying to the equally evil counselor to a rather naive Emir, "Only the weak nebbishes threaten, Commander Nasir."

Can anyone tell me the colloquial Turkish for "nebbish"?

THIS COULD BE THE START OF SOMETHING BIG

No need to go on at length about Doug Jones' win in yesterday's Alabama special Senate election.  The turnout in the Black community was spectacular.  I especially liked the exit poll showing that women with children under eighteen living at home went big for Jones.  This is a Lysistrata moment.

With Jones replacing Luther Strange, we only need Susan Collins to flip and the tax bill is defeated.  Collins is flippable, since her excuse for voting aye was a series of promises from McConnell that the House Republicans have made it clear they will not honor.  But wait, you say.  The Senate will slow-walk Jones' seating until the tax bill passes.  No doubt.  But consider.  There are 48 Democratic Senators [47 without Franken].  Last time I checked, there were 24 hours in the day.  If each of those Democratic princes and princesses can bestir him or herself to deliver thirty minutes of random talk a day, the Democratic bloc can stage a collective filibuster that will stop passage of the bill until Jones is seated.  Couldn't McConnell kill the filibuster with a point of order that requires only a simple majority to overrule a pro forma ruling from the chair?  Yes, but there is a good deal of evidence that McConnell is unwilling to take that extreme step, since it would consign the Republicans to impotence the next time the Democrats seize control of the Senate.

At least it is worth a try.  What is wrong with the Democrats in the Senate?  [Do not flood the comments section with answers.]

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

BACK TO WHAT REALLY INTERESTS ME

As I returned to my file drawer of unpublished writings after a day in New York having meetings at Columbia, I came across an extended discussion, written I know not how many decades ago, about the epistemological questions posed by the writing of historiographical narratives.  I had quite forgotten that I had written this, but as I read through it, I reflected that these are issues in which I have been interested for sixty years.  Over the next day or two, I am going to reconstruct some of my thoughts in one or two extended posts.  Meanwhile, I await the reports of the voting now going on in Alabama.  This could be big.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

DAY OFF

No posts tomorrow.  I shall be spending the day at Columbia University.  I shall explain when I get back.

PAST MY SELL BY DATE

For some years, there has been a fairly lengthy artiucle about me on Wikipedia.  When I looked at it today, I found it had been reduced to a single sentence.   It would appear that on October 2nd last, someone decided I had passed my sell by date.  sic transit gloria mundi.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

THE DOZENS, BRITISH STYLE

The Dozens is an African-American verbal competition in which men trade insults, each one more outrageous and exaggerated than the last, until one of the competitors gets off an insult so brilliant and over the top that the rest collapse in laughter and confess themselves beaten.  It is one example of the verbal imaginativeness and mastery of the Black community [other examples are Signifying, Loud Talking and of course Rap, as well as the musical variation, jazz riffing.]  But skill at spontaneous verbal competition is not restricted to African-Americans.  Here is a lovely British example I just came across on YouTube, courtesy of Monty Python.

YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP

Columbia University Professor of Graeco-Roman History, William Harris, 79, credibly accused of sexual harrassment of female graduate students over a thirty year period, has been severely punished by the University.  Columbia has reduced his teaching load.  That will teach him!  Here is the story in today's NY TIMES

Friday, December 8, 2017

AN HYPOTHESIS

A recent poll reveals that 71% of Alabama Republicans do not believe the many women who have accused Roy Moore of molesting them when they were girls.  This has been taken by cable news commentators as a sign of (1) excessive tribalism (2) inside the bubble thinking or (3) sheer stupidity.  I should like to offer an alternative explanation for this and many other instances of seemingly incomprehensible opinion poll results.

I begin by assuming that people generally are neither so stupid nor so ignorant as to be unable to negotiate everyday life.  Most Americans may not know quite where Syria is or what the nuclear triad is or what the difference is between a Sunni Muslim and a Shi’a Muslim, but they do know how to find their way to the grocery store and they may even be able to make spot repairs on an automotive vehicle.

So what is up?  Well, here is my thought.  It is not strictly true that 71% of Alabama Republicans think Roy Moore’s accusers are lying.  What is true is that 71% of the Alabama Republicans who agreed to respond to a pollster answered “no” when asked whether they believe Roy Moore’s accusers.  So what is the difference? you ask.  Quite a bit, I suggest.  [I am here drawing on a very interesting journal article written sixty years ago or more by David Riesman at the dawn of public opinion polling.]  When a Roy Moore supporter is asked that question by a pollster, he or she understands immediately and intuitively that what is really being asked is “Whom do you support?  Moore or Jones?”  If, as is quite possible, that person believes the women but supports Moore anyway, he or she will be perfectly well aware that saying so opens the way to accusations of sexism, immorality, a failure of religious faith, or – worst of all – being a backwoods know-nothing Southern yahoo.  The answer that springs most immediately to mind in that situation is f**k you!  But being polite, as Southerners tend to be, he or she just says “no.”


Just a thought.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

ASTROLOGICAL INTIMATIONS

I have written here in the past about the jigsaw puzzles that I have become addicted to since Susie and I moved to Carolina Meadows.  When we arrived almost six months ago, the maven of the jigsaw table was Mary Anne Clarkson, who has sadly passed away.  This morning, Susie and I finally completed our greatest challenge, an extremely difficult 1008 piece puzzle depicting the twelve signs of the Zodiak.  Here is the picture I took when we finished.

                                                                   

If you look very closely, you will see that one piece is missing.  This is not a Zen thing.  It just got lost.

SCHMUCK!

So I write a post about the BLS Statistical Abstract, and LFC delicately points out that the last  time I alluded to that treasure trove of data, he informed me that it is no longer published.  I am such a schmuck.  My apologies to one and all.  Now, if I could just find my glasses ...

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

HISTORIOGRAPHICAL MUSINGS

In his classic eighteenth century work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon identified the end of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Dark Ages as 476 a.d., the year that Romulus, the emperor of the Western Empire, was defeated by Odoacer.  [It is easy to remember the year of publication of Gibbon’s vast tome because it was the year in which David Hume died – 1776.  – a little Philosophers’ joke.]  This periodization was pretty much accepted by European historians until the early years of the 20th century, when the great Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, advanced a new and controversial thesis, namely that it was not the fall of Rome in the fifth century but the expansion of Islam in the late seventh and early eight century, allowing them to take control of Mediterranean shipping, that plunged Europe into the Dark Ages.

My first teaching job, in 1958, was an Instructorship at Harvard requiring me to co-teach a big General Education course devoted to European history from Caesar to Napoleon.  Since I knew absolutely nothing about European history [or American history, for that matter] I spent several frantic months reading 20,000 pages of European history to prepare.  Among the books I read was Pirenne’s 1937 work Mohammed and Charlemagne, in which he put forward what came to be known as the Pirenne thesis.

What struck me most powerfully about Pirenne’s bold thesis was how scanty his evidence was for it.  A scattering of sixth century references to Mediterranean trade sufficed to sustain his claim that European trade with North Africa continued well past 476 a.d.  That was coupled with a passage or two from Gregory of Tours’ sixth century pot boiler, A History of the Franks.  A complete rewriting of the history of Europe on the basis of a handful of data points!

All of which initiated what has been my lifelong fascination with the difference in explanatory models employed by historians with too much data [such as historians of the French Revolution] as contrasted with historians with too little data.

Many years after I had left Harvard, I began my deep study of the thought of Karl Marx, and this led me to the discovery of the bottomless ocean of facts and figures called The Statistical Abstract of the United States, published annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, a branch of the Department of Labor.  [Here is the official description from their website: “First published in 1878, the Statistical Abstract serves as the official federal summary of statistics and provides over 1,400 tables of benchmark measures on the demographic, housing, social, political, and economic condition of the United States.”]

I have often reflected that historians of medieval Europe would sell their souls for one page from one year of a Statistical Abstract of Burgundy or Provence or Tuscany or London from the eighth or tenth or thirteenth century.  By contrast, historians of the French Revolution or the First World War or the New Deal have so much information available to them that they are compelled to make choices in what documents they read, choices that inevitably embody theoretical presuppositions and ideological biases.

These reflections and recollections were prompted by the current discussions of the hideous tax bill now grinding its way through the Congress on its way, almost certainly, to passage before Christmas.  It is impossible, from anecdotal evidence alone, to form any accurate picture of the economic condition of Americans, just as it is impossible to learn much about the lives of ninth century Burgundian peasants from a handful of documents and some paintings and artifacts.  But the BLS gives us precise information on thousands of subjects.  Let me cite a few statistics I extracted from BLS spreadsheets in half an hour of Googling [in the old days, I would order the annual Statistical Abstract every year, but I long ago discontinued that practice.]

First of all, since I have spent my life in the Academy, some facts about educational attainment.  In 1950, the year I started my education as a Freshman at Harvard, only 6% of adult Americans 25 or older had a four year Bachelor’s degree.  So few people went to college that High Schools graduated kids twice a year, in January and in June.  Fifty-five years later, in 2015, that percentage had soared to 32.5%, which means that even after that rise, more than two-thirds of adult Americans do NOT have college degrees.  As I have observed on this blog in the past, that means that two out of every three adult Americans cannot even aspire to a job as a doctor, a lawyer, a management trainee at a large corporation, an FBI agent, a High School, Middle School, or Elementary School teacher, and in many cities, not as a police officer either.  I am not saying that two-thirds of Americans do not have those jobs; I am saying they cannot hope to have those jobs.

The data on median individual and household earnings are equally striking.  In 2014 [not much changes from year to year], median weekly earnings for workers employed full time were $668 for those with only a High School diploma or the equivalent, but $1193 for those with a B.A. or better.  As anyone knows who lives in this country and pays the bills, that is a world of difference.  Notice: these are median earnings.  That means that fully half of the just-HS workers make less than that.  The proportional gap for household income is even more striking.  Households in which the highest educational attainment of any of the workers in the household is a High School diploma had a median annual income last year of $43,331, while households in which the median income for households in which at least one person had a B.A. was $90,368!

The American people are, as a whole, considerably poorer than you might imagine from public discussions of tax code rewrites and such, and they have, as a whole, considerably less in the way of educational attainments.  The graduates of the least noteworthy among America’s two thousand BA-granting campuses are still, as a group, vastly better off than the two-thirds of Americans who have not graduated from a four year college or university at all.


Well, this is the sort of information that some idle Googling reveals, thanks to the BLS.  How Henri Pirenne, Fustel de Coulanges, Marc Bloch and their colleagues would have loved to have access to such information for the fabled Middle Ages!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

TIGGER DOES A L;ITTLE DANCE

Robert Mueller, it is reported, has issued a subpoena to Deutsche Bank for records relating to Trump's finances.  Things are looking up.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

PASSING THE TIME

To pass the time and take my mind off the horrors that unfold daily in our proto-fascist country, I have been binge-watching on Netflix a Turkish [!!] TV serial called Resurrection: Ertugrul.  I am currently watching episode 13, but never fear, it seems there are 72 of them in all.  This is apparently an enormously popular Turkish TV show, watched by an implausibly large percentage of the entire population of our NATO ally.  The show is about a small nomadic tribe of 13th century folks who make their living by herding sheep and weaving blankets.  The hero is a handsome, upstanding moderately bearded member of the tribe named Ertugrul, who is the son of the Bey, or leader, of the tribe.  The love interest is an attractive young woman named Halime who shows up in the tribe’s campgrounds with her father and young brother and quickly captures Ertugrul’s heart, to the dismay of a local beauty who has her hopes set on him.  The entire show is in Turkish, but there are English subtitles [and also subtitles available in a dozen other languages.]  The subtitles are a hoot, since they are filled with the sorts of grammatical mistakes that a rushed and not entirely fluent English speaking translator might make.

After watching three or four episodes, I got curious as to whether these characters were actually based on historical figures. Wikipedia supplied the answer.  Ertugrul and Halime were the parents of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire [that settled the question whether the two of them would end up together, robbing the series of some of its suspense, at least for me.]  This show is clearly a cultural part of Turkey’s current turn toward Islam and away from NATO and the West.

In Episode 11 or so, one of the villains, a Roman Catholic churchman and supporter of the Templars, who are contemplating another Crusade, goes to a bookstore [or so it seems to be] in Aleppo, where he encounters a distinguished elderly man with a full white beard [all the Muslims have beards except the very young men, and of course the women].  He asks the shop’s proprietor whether he has a certain book, and is told “of course.”  When he offers to buy it, the elderly chap gives it to him as a gift, and says, “I wrote it.”  As the villain is leaving with the book, he turns to his flunkey and says, “That man is Ibn Arabi.” 

A tone of awe in the villain’s voice led me to look up Ibn Arabi.  Well, as some of you doubtless know but I did not, Ibn Arabi is one of the most famous figures of all Islam, a Sufi mystic who wrote countless works and plays a central role in Muslim religious and intellectual history.  It is a bit like watching a shlock technicolor historical flick in which Charlton Heston, playing a Roman centurion, meets an old Jew in Jerusalem who says he is a follower of Jesus and his name is Peter.


Obviously everyone in Turkey knows all of this and gets a little thrill from such moments.  Great fun.

ANY FLOTSAM IN A SHIPWRECK

I have often observed that in this world I am a Tigger, not an Eeyore.  Let me offer a bit of wreckage for you to grab on to in this tsunami of bad economic news from the Senate.  You can cling to this for nine days, barely keeping your head above water.  If Roy Moore loses the Senate race in Alabama [deo volente], then a single Republican defection during the vote on the compromise emerging from the House-Senate conference will sink the tax bill.  Since the Senate version is loaded with ad hoc additions, each designed to snag a particular recalcitrant Republican senator, McConnell may not be able to carry the conference report across the finish line.

At my age, nine days of hope is not to be sneezed at.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

SICK AT HEART

I am so depressed by the cruel, destructive money grab passed last night by the Senate that I cannot even take pleasure in the Flynn guilty plea.  It would, in times like these, be comforting to believe in an avenging God.  When I recover my composure, I would like to write something about the role that norms of honor and public morality would have to play in a socialist society.  

Friday, December 1, 2017

RESPONSE TO SOME COMMENTS

First, to Matt’s report that a Google search reveals a goodly number of printed references to the article I said had been ignored.  My principal response is:  WOW!  WHO KNEW?  Well, I would, if I ever bothered to read what other people write.  I knew about John Roemer, of course, a super bright mathematically very sophisticated Marxist who wrote a reply to my article at the time [well worth reading.]  But I had no idea anyone else had noticed it.  Thank you, Matt. You have made an old man happy.


About bitcoins.  I read up on them once but know next to nothing about them.  The article linked to is great fun, and basically correct about Marx.  I recommend it.  Bitcoins raise very interesting questions about the nature of money, a subject that interested me a good deal for a while, and about which I wrote a lengthy and unsuccessful analytical paper for my files [nothing I would ever want to share.]  Early in my explorations of mathematical economics, I noticed the curious fact that in General Equilibrium systems of equations there did not seem to be any variable for money.  I pointed this out to a UMass economics graduate student who was taking the Mathematical Microeconomics course I was sitting in on, and he looked at me as though I were an idiot and said, “But of course not!”  It struck me that a super-sophisticated model of a capitalist economy with no place for money probably had a few conceptual flaws, but I knew enough to keep my mouth shut.