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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."




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Friday, October 19, 2018

GENTLY, GENTLY


As the election approaches, I am afraid, all of us are getting testy, myself more than most.  Let us all take a deep breath and remember that none of us is the enemy.  A world in which the spectrum of political opinions exhibited by the American electorate roughly matched the range of opinions expressed on this blog by myself and commentators would be my dream world.

I am off to spend several hours handing out Democratic Party cheat sheets [lists of candidates and ballot initiatives with a guide how to vote] at an early voting station.  Each of us must find his or her own way to survive these times, but whatever our disagreements with one another, you are all my comrades.

RETRO-GENETICS


As I am sure you all know, there was at one time a lively debate in the field of Biology about what was called the inheritance of acquired characteristics.  If a proto-giraffe stretched its neck to reach succulent leaves high on trees, would its offspring inherit that slightly elongated neck, until after many generations the modern giraffe had evolved.  And so forth.  Not so intensively studied is a phenomenon that I have observed in my own life, namely, parents acquiring the characteristics of their children.  I mention this because from time to time I am surprised and rather moved by the wisdom of my children, which I am quite sure they did not get from me.  Quite to the contrary, I seem to acquire some of their wisdom by a sort of reverse genetic mutation.

The most recent example of this curious phenomenon is a thoughtful and very moving email from my older son, Patrick, in response to my cry of despair in the post entitled Night Thoughts.  With his permission, I reproduce it here.

“Your Monday post, “Night Thoughts,” touched me, and I wanted to share three thoughts with you about it.

  1. As you well know, there is no such thing as the inherently legitimate state. The state can do the right thing, it can act for the greatest good, or it can behave in any other way as assessed by autonomous moral agents. But there is no form of state action or decision-making that arrogates to it the authoritative right to do X simply by nature of its being. Nor is there even any way for the state to channel the “will of the people,” since there is no such thing. (See Condorcet, Arrow, etc.) And to make things even worse, given the fundamental difference between judging “ought” versus “is” in the world, it is inevitable that reasonable, informed people (put aside for now all the unreasonable, uninformed people) can and will disagree all the time about what ought to be done. Yet, we all have to find a way to live together. Anarchism may be a useful intellectual endeavor, but anarchy is no way to live! The political life is therefore both absolutely necessary and inherently frustrating. There is not and never will be such a thing as a utopia. We will always have profound, difficult disagreements: that is the tragic fact about politics.

  1. There is a saying that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” I think this misses the point. Over short periods of time (where “short” can be an entire adult lifetime) various kinds of enlightened tyrannies can be significantly better in the outcomes it produces for the people. But eventually, power passes to the fool, the knave, or worse. When that happens, we must have strong institutions, protected rights and freedoms, and limitations on power. The strength of democracy is not that it produces the best outcomes for the people: rather, its strength is that it allows the people to survive the worst outcomes. Donald J. Trump is the poster child. I’m sure we could imagine a worse leader – although I hope we don’t ever test this hypothesis during my children’s lifetime! – but he is plenty bad. In Russia he might be Putin; in Argentina he might be Peron; in China he might be Mao. But in America we still have free elections, he is highly unpopular even during the height of the current economic cycle, and already the political tide appears to be turning. I say this not to be complacent in any way, but to reassure you that while our current president is certainly doing plenty of damage, our country’s guardrails are holding up.

  1. If you “have been sustained all these years by the belief that if only the people could be brought to see the truth, they would throw off their chains and seize liberation,” then you have been guided by too narrow a view of history. There is no single moment where the arc of human progress reaches its conclusion. The road bends and winds forever and ever, and even a single, long lifetime is not enough to know where it leads. Consider if you had been born in 1776. You would have grown up hearing stories of the Revolution. You would have come of age during the Constitutional Convention, and the first President you would have known would have been George Washington. Then, your adult lifetime would have seen both the rapid expansion of the American promise, and the systematic betrayal of its ideals. You would have railed against slavery and the annihilation of the Native Americans – both to no avail. You would have seen the degradation of American politics, to the point that the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was beaten nearly to the point of murder by the slave-owning Representative Preston Brooks. At the age of 84, you would be rightfully bemoaning the unraveling of the Union and the imminent Civil War, which would turn out to be far worse than you could have imagined. And yet, the road continued past that dark time and reached new heights that could not have been imagined at the time. We do not choose the age in which we live, and we do not know how our history will eventually be written. All we can do is continue to live it.

Do not despair. It was never that good, and it will be eventually be much better. And then it will be worse again, and then it will be better, and on and on.” 


Thursday, October 18, 2018

WHERE HAVE I BEEN HIDING


For almost ten years, I have been pouring words out non-stop, and I find that I am, at least for the moment, running dry.  I have written so much I cannot recall it all.  A week ago in our Columbia course, while lecturing on Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Todd Gitlin made reference to the mini-tutorial I had written on the book and pointed students to it.  I had totally forgotten I had written it.

So I have taken a few days off, and the comments section has more or less exploded.  Rather than try to respond to everything that has been posted by the readers of this blog, I signed up to do some time tomorrow at the early voting locality in Pittsboro, NC, handing out a blue ballot sheet guiding Democrats how to vote on such things as the ballot amendments [easy – vote No on all of them] and the non-partisan candidates for Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court [a little trickier – the answer is Anita Earls.]

Like MS, I have no patience for people who refuse to vote for the lesser evil because they are offended or bored or enchanted with the Progressive of the Moment.  This is a genuinely desperate time, and it is not at all clear that when the dust settles we will still have enough of a democracy even to be able to fight for what we believe in.  Should anyone be nursing fantasies of violent upheavals, I will remind them that our opponents have most of the guns.

Nineteen days.

Monday, October 15, 2018

AND AGAIN

Off to New York, for the seventh meeting of my course.   Back late Tuesday night.

NIGHT THOUGHTS


Inasmuch as this is my web log, or blog, I think it appropriate that I engage in some reasonably public navel gazing.  For some time now, I have been deeply, ungetoverably troubled, not to say unhappy.  I am not referring to elevated, sophisticated distress, the untergang des Abendlandes brooding we intellectuals deploy as our shtick.  I am talking about a pit-of-the-stomach lying-awake-at-night unhappiness that is momentarily lessened, but not ever dispelled, by a favorable round of polls or the victory of a Democratic Socialist primary winner in a safely Democratic seat.  

Lord knows, I have been unhappy about the way of the world at least since Jack Kennedy invaded Cuba and America embraced its nuclear weapons in a cosmic death hug.  I have seen Martin and Malcolm and Jack and Bobby killed, I have survived Nixon and Reagan and Clinton.  Trump is surely a uniquely despicable man, but at least he has not yet started a war, which sets him apart from a number of his post-1945 predecessors.  Why then, when I am sitting quietly and the facial muscles supporting my reflex smile relax, does my wife look at me and say, with concern, “You look so unhappy”?

To be sure, I am eighty-four, and the end of my life is a great deal closer than my middle years.  But my health is good, my children are flourishing, I am embarked on an exciting new venture in New York, and I am, by any reasonable measure, rich.  I mean, the only other people I know with apartments in Paris are my friends who live there.  So why so blue?  It is, as the King of Siam is wont to say in The King and I, a puzzlement.

The source of my distress is not the manifest evidence of the sheer evil of our political rulers.  I have known that for many decades.  Rather, it is the recognition that half of my fellow Americans are ready to embrace that evil when it is presented to them without the slightest simulacrum of the appearance of humanity and decency.  Hypocrisy, La Rochefoucauld observed, is the tribute vice pays to virtue.  Fascism, we might add, is not having to say you are sorry.

I have been sustained all these years by the belief that if only the people could be brought to see the truth, they would throw off their chains and seize liberation.  Why else write all those books unmasking the imperial aims of America’s “moral world leadership,” those manifestos demanding the end to voter suppression?  Why march for peace, for social justice, for Gay liberation, for women’s rights?

With luck, we will flip the House.  In 2020, we may take back the Senate and the Presidency.  But as I slip and slide into my nineties, those scores of millions will still be there, ready to embrace the next fascist poseur.

And after I am gone, as my grandchildren approach middle age, the water level will rise and the world’s billions will be displaced by changes that even then will be denied not only by the rich, who will have relocated to higher ground, but by the swamped cheering, chanting masses who elect and reelect them.

Is it any wonder I cannot sleep?

Now, when is my next canvassing appointment?



Saturday, October 13, 2018

THE RETURN OF THE IRREPRESSIBLE


I have been silent on this blog for several days while the discussion in the Comment section has once again blossomed.  In part this has been a consequence of my trip to New York, the grading of midterm papers, and a bit of fearsome weather locally.  For the most part we have just had high winds and drenching rains, but yesterday, as I was driving about doing errands, I found my way blocked by a very tall pine trip that had snapped off three or four feet above the ground and had crushed a parked car.  Something of a cautionary experience.

The principal reason for my silence is my despair at the way of the world.  I feel like a soldier hunkered down behind a building under fire from the enemy, and in that condition, I do not find myself moved to meditate on the theory of just war.  Three and a half weeks from the election, all I care about is turnout.  I do what I can canvassing, and I try not to despair.

Adding to the tumult in my life is a new rescue cat whom we acquired three weeks ago.  She is charming and playful but still too scared to let us hold her, although last night, after we turned the lights off, she hopped up on the bed and – as I lay very quietly – peered at us soulfully before hopping back down.  Progress.

Here is a picture.




A friend suggested we call her Ginsburg because she looks as though she is wearing a black robe with a white collar.  We shall see.

Monday, October 8, 2018

INTERESTING

Howard Berman, a frequent contributor to this blog, offers this link to an interesting little piece by Corey Robin.

THOUGHTS OF A PEBBLE POSSESSED OF SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS


Readers of this blog have several times heard me invoke the image of a landslide as a metaphor for revolutionary political action.  Traditional literature and historiography concerns itself with the doings of kings and queens, generals and emperors, landed aristocrats and dynastic successions.  The common people enter their accounts either for the purposes of low comedy or as a backdrop for heroic actions.  [Erich Auerbach is brilliant on this theme in his classic work of comparative literature, Mimesis.]  But modern political action requires the participation of hundreds of thousands, indeed of millions of men and women, most of whom even in the most detailed histories remain nameless.  These are the pebbles and clods of dirt and rootlets, transforming the tumbling fall of one large tree or one boulder into the landslide of my metaphor.

The door to door canvassing that I did yesterday, tiring as it was to this eighty-four year old, was no more than one tiny pebble, rolling hopefully [which is to say, full of hope] down a hillside.  Will it be part of a landslide that obliterates the always execrable Mark Walker of the NC 6th CD?  Only time will tell.

Now the most minor of actors, unlike pebbles, are self-conscious, and some even have blogs.  On their blogs, they are big voices, embracing centuries and invoking giants – Marx, Malcolm, Martin, Mao.  But loud though their voices may be, they are still only pebbles in what they hope will prove to be a landslide.

Some may find this discouraging, but I find it reassuring, even inspiring.  After all, if I really believe all that sophisticated social and political theory that I read, assign to students, and on occasion try my best to imitate in my own writings, then history ought to be made by multitudes, not by famous men [and latterly, women.] 

If you reject so minor a role as beneath your dignity as an intellectual, then you are not a pebble in a landslide.  You are merely part of the audience for a soliloquy.  And soliloquies are, after all, lonely speeches, even if it is you who are soliloquizing. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

PUTTING IN MY TIME


I am back now from a long day of door to door canvassing in Sanford, NC, at the very southern part of the 6th NC Congressional District.  What with driving there and back, it was almost six hours of grunt political work.  I hope it made some difference.  Once again, I was reminded of the difference between theorizing about politics and actually engaging in it.

And so to bed, to quote Samuel Pepys.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

DOING TIME


Well, I am signed up to canvass tomorrow from 2-5 pm in the bowels of Chatham County. One of the side benefits of political grunt work is that you get to see parts of your town or county that you would otherwise not likely visit.  When I ran for the town School Committee in Northampton, MA in 1977, I got to know the town by walking the wards with my then young son Patrick in an unsuccessful campaign [my first and only run of office.]  The town is heavily Catholic and I thought a son named Patrick might con the voters into thinking I was also, but they were too shrewd for that bit of political subterfuge.

A WELCOME VOICE IN A DIFFICULT TIME

I have become enamored of Alexandra Petri's distinctive satirical voice.  Here is her response to the Kavanaugh debacle.  She can take her place next to Swift.

GIRDING UP MY LOINS

I spent a very bad night.  It is petty and irrational of me to focus my rage and despair on Collins.  She is contemptible, but not as destructive as, say, McConnell, but there it is.  I am a small person.

The Supreme Court is lost for a generation, and at eighty-four, I have no hope of seeing light from that quarter.

So we fight.  We fight for women, we fight for the working class [yes, even for the benighted Trumpites,[ we fight for a higher minimum wage in those states where we have a majority, we fight for clean air and water, we fight for decent health care, we fight even though at best we shall merely be saving some portion of what we thought we had won, some measure of what old folks like me grew up taking for granted as the legacy of the pre-war New Deal.

And to soothe our souls, lift our spirits, and amuse the young, we shall "sit upon the ground and tell sad tales about the death" of Marx.

This morning, I shall contact the Ryan Watts campaign and volunteer for another day of canvassing.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

WEATHER FORECAST


Like many, I have been obsessed by the Kavanaugh nomination, the testimony, and the aftermath.  In this post, I am going to offer my opinion of how this will play out.  I am now quite sure that the nomination will succeed.  I predict that Murkowsky will vote no, but Collins and Flake will vote yes.  Since that will ensure the success of the nomination, Manchin and/or Heidkamp may then cast yes votes in an effort to help them in November.  Were the nomination to fail, a clean rightwing nominee would be frog marched through the Senate and confirmed before January, regardless of whether the Republicans retain control of the Senate. 

The yes vote on Kavanaugh will be a permanent stain on Collins’ legacy and the Maine voters may very possibly defeat her in 2020.  Much has been made of the importance to Trump of having Kavanaugh on the court in case a subpoena or impeachment case comes before the court, but I actually doubt that is significant.

If, as I expect, Kavanaugh is confirmed, the surge in enthusiasm on the right, much commented on in recent days, will die away, but the Left will become incandescent, and that may very well determine the outcome of the November election.  Kavanaugh will immediately take his seat on the High Court, but that, I am convinced, will not be the end of the matter.  Between now and November, and possibly beyond, more and more people will come forward to confirm the charges against him and quite possibly to level new charges as well.  This will be a continuing nightmare for the Court, and for the Republicans.

Meanwhile, in a year or two, Roe v. Wade will be overturned, and much more besides that is truly horrible will become law.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

AN APPARENTLY IRRELEVANT REMINISCENCE


This is a comment about Senator Susan Collins of Maine, although it may at first glance not seem to be.

I resigned a senior professorship in the Columbia University Philosophy Department and joined the Philosophy Department of the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1971.  Only somewhat later did I discover that the UMass department was deeply divided between a majority of members who thought of themselves as Analytic Philosophers and a small minority who did not.  Inasmuch as I had been trained at Harvard by Willard Van Orman Quine and Nelson Goodman, among others, generally considered premier Analytic Philosophers, I was rather surprised to discover that the UMass majority clique did not want me around and did not think that what I did was philosophy at all [the most damning judgment they could issue about anyone, in their eyes.]  I threw in my lot with the minority, with whom it was possible to have a serious conversation.  Over the next twenty-one years, until I decamped for the Afro-American Studies Department, those of us in the minority fought a series of departmental battles, the details of which I have described in my online autobiography.

One of the members of the majority was a man who was universally viewed as a real gentleman and a first rate philosopher, a decent, thoughtful, reasonable man completely free of the animus that, in my eyes and those of my fellow minority members, characterized the most vocal and implacable members of the majority.  When an issue arose, he would listen to our arguments and concerns attentively, ask us probing questions, nod thoughtfully at our answers, and like as not confess himself to be deeply torn and even, on occasion, genuinely on the fence.  He was, in all ways, the very model of a modern philosopher, if I may channel my inner Gilbert and Sullivan.

There was only one problem.  In twenty-one years, he never voted with us on any issue large or small.  Not once.  He hemmed, he hawed, he hesitated, he meditated, his face was a visible manifestation of his inner torment.  And yet, not once did his fair, unbiased, objective review of the facts and arguments lead him to vote for our point of view.

Perhaps unreasonably and unfairly, I grew to hate him more than I hated his openly partisan colleagues.

Monday, October 1, 2018

IF YOU'RE RIGHT, YOU'RE RIGHT


Well, I predicted it [as did everyone else.]  No matter what restrictions are placed on the FBI investigation, people will come out of the woodwork with new stories about Kavanaugh.  “But they all concern his youth and college days,” it is said.

Wait for it.  This is only Monday.

A RESPONSE TO ONE COMMENT AMONG SCORES


There has been a flood of comments on this blog [and a four or five fold increase in views, a result of Brian Leiter’s kind words and link].  I should like to respond calmly to just one, by LFC.  Here is what he or she said:

“I think all I was trying to suggest -- and probably I didn't say it very well -- is that Wolff's Freudian take on Kavanaugh is theory-influenced (or theory-laden) speculation, and that's different from the people-watching analogies he used. Maybe "hazardous" was the wrong word. I just think it's different than common-sense inference.”

I don’t agree with that distinction.  Let me explain why.  All human beings, for as long as anyone can tell, have engaged in efforts to interpret the feelings, motives, and behavior of other human beings.  These efforts, successful or not, all involve observation, memory, the forming of hypotheses, the checking of those hypotheses against new observations, the making of generalizations arising out of those efforts, and the remembering of past observations, hypotheses, and generalizations.  Some people are astonishingly good at interpreting the feelings, motives, and behavior of others.  Some are not so good at it.

In my opinion [and this is, I know, a matter of considerable debate among Philosophers of Science,] there is a continuum rather than a sharp dichotomy between what ordinary people do and what trained scientists do.  And ordinary people of any period in history tend to incorporate into their explanatory efforts what they know about the scientific discoveries of previous periods.  My examples of ordinary “people watching” were intended, perhaps unskillfully, to indicate that continuum.

In my interpretation of Kavanaugh’s testimony, I drew on my layman’s knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, derived principally from the quite limited and narrowly focused experiences of my own psychoanalysis.  I also drew on my first-hand experiences with people and my [mostly] second-hand knowledge of American Catholic social milieus.  

It might be useful here to tell once again a story from fifty years ago.  One evening in New York, I attended a very chi-chi gathering of Upper West Side intellectuals at a meeting of something called The Theater for Ideas.  The topic of the panel discussions was “The Hidden Philosophy of Psychoanalysis,” and one of the speakers was the famous psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim.  [In the audience, by the way, were, among others, William Schuman, Susan Sontag, Sander Vanocur, and Norman Mailer.  It was that sort of event.]  After Bettelheim’s talk, feisty little neocon Sidney Hook got up and said, pugnaciously, “There is nothing new in what Freud said.  Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare could do what Freud could do!”  Bettelheim replied calmly, “That is true.  Dostoyevsky could do what Freud did, and Shakespeare could do what Freud did.  But Freud taught us to do it.”

Correctly or incorrectly, I was trying to do what Dostoyevsky did and what Shakespeare did, and what Austen and Dickens and Proust and countless other novelists have done, which is to make sense of a striking and extremely memorable public self-presentation.