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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Saturday, January 19, 2019

SUFFICIENT UNTO THE DAY

Well, my plea did not produce a restored Wikipedia page, but it did produce a better photo.

Sufficient unto the day...

HE'S BAAACK


I am back, not so jetlagged in this direction, of course, and ready to resume my blogging.  As usual, the world has gotten along just about as well or badly during my absence.  But before I resume my commentary on the passing scene, I had planned to tell you all about an exciting and innovative new thing in Paris, yet one more evidence that Paris is better run than our American cities.  Except that it turns out this new thing is all over the United States, even here in the benighted Southland, and I am simply the last person on the face of the earth to hear about it.

I refer to electric scooters, run by LIME and BIRD and maybe some other companies.  They are lying or standing all over Paris on the streets, and with an app on your phone, you activate one, ride away, and drop it anywhere you wish, paying by the minute.  Every night, enterprising young men and women fan out across the city, locate the scooters using a geolocation signal sent out by the scooter, and pick them up to be recharged.  The scooter hunters are paid by the scooter, and apparently sometimes turf wars break out over who got to an abandoned scooter first.

LIME scooters came to Paris last June, just after Susie and I left, and are now ubiquitous.  All manner of folks ride by:  young people, mature folks dressed in the height of fashion, sometimes even couples on one scooter, though that looks a trifle dangerous.  So to the rent-and-drop-off electric cars and velib bicycles, add electric scooters as one more blow for eco-friendly transportation in the inner city.

I myself would not dream of trying one.  At eighty-five, I am delighted simply to be upright on two feet.  But there is something inexpressibly dashing about seeing people scoot by on their LIMEs or Birds.

Well, so much for my news.  I imagine all of you are fully aware of the electric scooter fad, and some of you perhaps have ridden them, even picked up some quick cash by free-lancing their retrieval at night.

Now, if someone could just tell me who R. Kelly is.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

A QUESTION

I am vaguely aware of what is called photoshopping, and of course I have watched innumerable movies with special effects -- Avatar, for example.  My question:  Can a frame by frame, pixel by pixel examination of such productions reveal that they are not real unaltered photographs?  For example, if a seemingly realistic video surfaced of Trump talking with Kushner about dirty dealing with Russia, could an examination of it show whether it was real?

I need answers for my fantasy life.

ON THE WAY OUT THE DOOR

A nice Op Ed in today's TIMES about what it is like to have French health care.  Worth a read to know what we are missing.  And it is massively cheaper too!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

NOBODY'S PERFECT


Tomorrow I leave for two weeks in Paris.  I found instructions, on a vagrant slip of paper, for accessing my blog in Paris.  If they work, I shall report from there.  Otherwise, I shall return late on January 18th.   What could go wrong in two weeks?

Today, I want to spend time writing about something that genuinely puzzles me.  If I were still a philosopher in good standing, I would call it an epistemological puzzle.  The puzzle takes many forms.  Let me start by putting it this way:  How do I know that Austin is the capital of Texas?  I have never been to Austin.  Aside from changing planes at Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, I have been to Texas only once.  Many years ago, I gave a talk at Trinity University in San Antonio [but that is another story.]  So how do I know?

Well, I recall that it is, and while writing this blog I checked with Google [also ascertaining that whereas Austin is the capital of Texas, the state government is headquartered in the capitol.]  What is more, I have heard Austin referred to countless times as the capital of Texas.

All right, but how do I know that a man has walked on the moon?  As it happens, on July 20, 1969, I was with my wife and our one year old son, Patrick, in a summer home we owned briefly in Worthington, MA.  We had a little black-and-white TV set with a movable antenna called “rabbit ears,” and on it I watched the film of that first moonwalk.  It was the same sort of set on which I had watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald [actually, you couldn’t see the shooting because of the crush in the courthouse, but I watched the event live.]

But there are people who say the moon walk was a hoax, that it never happened.  And for all I know, there are people who say Ruby did not shoot Oswald.  So how do I know?

Let me be clear, this is not a bit of familiar Philosophy 1 Cartesian skepticism.  I am not leading up to a dramatic cogito, ergo sum.  There are lots of things I do know, about which I have no doubt whatsoever.  For example, I know that all the streets here at my retirement community are named for trees:  pear tree, apple tree, maple, oak, and so forth.  How do I know?  Every morning, including this morning, I take a long three mile walk around the entire community, in the course of which I walk for at least a bit on every street, and I can read the street signs as I turn into or out of each street. 

I know the names and at least something about the physical appearance and personality characteristics of each of the people who live in Building 5, where Susie and I have our apartment.  I also know my sister, Barbara, my sons Patrick and Tobias, Patrick’s wife Diana and their children Samuel and Athena.  I knew my parents and my uncles and aunts and I know [or, in two cases knew] my cousins.

There is nothing remarkable about this knowledge.  For most of the two hundred thousand or so years that genetically modern humans have existed, that is the sort of knowledge people had.  First-hand knowledge, hands on knowledge, knowledge drawn from personal memories or from the reports of people one had known all one’s life.  Human communities were small and face-to-face.  A new face in town was big news, and called for some pretty intensive and sophisticated checking out.  Travelers might tell stories about fabulous monsters or people with strange customs.  Sometimes they were believed, sometimes not.

All this started to change ten thousand years ago, give or take.  By several hundred years ago things had totally changed.  People still had hands on face-to-face knowledge, just as they do today.  But there built up in people’s minds a vast, complex social and natural world about which they had no hands on face-to-face knowledge at all.  Which raises a question never put to rest:  How do I know it is not a hoax?

I return to my original question about Austin, Texas.  But now let me change the question:  How do I know that agents of the Russian government used social media to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign?  There really is no epistemological difference between this question and the question how I know that Austin is the capital of Texas, or for that matter how I know that a man walked on the moon.

Of course, to answer the original question, I can take down an atlas [if I am so retro actually to have a physical atlas] and show a sceptic the map of Texas with Austin marked as capital.  But if she says the book was written by someone who is part of a conspiracy to push the patent falsehood that Austin is the capital of Texas, or the even larger falsehood that there is a state named Texas, I do not have any hands on face-to-face knowledge to offer like my knowledge of the street names of Carolina Meadows.

And having changed the question, I can cite the contents of the indictment brought against a group of Russian agents by a grand jury guided by Robert Mueller [or at least I can do that so long as I am not challenged to prove the truth of the report that such an indictment was in fact handed up.]  But if someone claims that Mueller [is there really a person answering to that name?] is part of a deep state conspiracy to destroy Donald Trump and thereby to protect the financial interests of the corporate class who have owned and directed the American government since the end of World War II [assuming there really was a World War II], I have no hands on face-to-face knowledge with which I can successfully rebut that assertion.

Look, we all know there are climate change deniers, there are Holocaust deniers, there are walk-on-the-moon deniers.  How are they any different from Robert Mueller deniers or World War II deniers, or Austin-is-the capital-of Texas deniers?

Let us be clear.  These questions are not somehow in principle unanswerable.  Buzz Aldrin knows whether man walked on the moon.  He did it [though not first – that was his fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong.]  If I knew Buzz Aldrin, if he and I had grown up in the same village [he is three years older than I], if I had a lifetime of direct experience interacting with him and forming a judgment of his truthfulness, and if he told me he had walked on the moon, then I would know [remember, this is not a Phil 1 class on Cartesian skepticism.]

Did Russians hack into the DNC emails?  Someone knows.  Just not anyone I know, not even anyone who is known by someone I know [Kevin Bacon and degrees of separation and all that.]

So what can we do?  One possibility, which I have considered and rejected, is simply to stop thinking about anything I cannot confirm by hands on face to face experience.  Which leaves me where I am, compelled endlessly to double check what I read, to try to determine over time which reporters in the public space have turned out to be accurate, to try not to allow what I want to believe to substitute for what I have reason to believe [this is really hard], and to use such common sense as I have.

None of which is foolproof.  Let me close with a story.  My father was a New York City high school Biology teacher [later a high school principal.]  In 1938, when I was four, he and a colleague published Adventures With Living Things, a textbook that went through a number of editions.  Needless to say, I read it when I got old enough.  It was in our family a Big Deal.  When I grew up, I pretty much forgot what was in the book, except for one fact that stuck with me:  the human cell has forty-eight chromosomes.  Many years later, I came across a reference to the forty-six chromosomes in the human cell.  I called up my father and asked him, if I may paraphrase, “What the hell is going on?”  “Yes,” he said ruefully,” it is forty-six.  Early staining techniques to prepare a microscope slide were not very good, and they made the twenty-three pairs look like twenty-four.”

Nobody’s perfect.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

BERNIE AND THE BLACK VOTE

According to this piece, which accords with my memory, Bernie did slightly better with young Black voters than Clinton, but lost overwhelmingly among older Black voters -- who are a good deal more likely to vote.  I do not think that is a deal breaker against Trump, for various reasons, but it is a problem.

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES

This is a link, courtesy of David Auerbach, to a very interesting piece by a young man named Benjamin Studebaker completing a doctorate at Cambridge.  It is an argument, which I find quite persuasive, that in 2020 we should nominate Bernie [or Jeff Merkley, but that is a non-starter.]

I think Bernie can beat Trump [I also think he would have won in 2016], despite the fact that he has a serious deficit with people of color.  I have already indicated why I think he is one of only four or so people who can actually get the nomination.

He would have to up his game, I think, but perhaps he can do that.  read the piece and tell me what you think.


JUST SAYIN'

The first of my nine lectures on Kant's First Critique has now drawn 83,458 views.  That compares very favorably with the Marvel Studios Avengers official trailer, which was posted three weeks ago and has had 78 million views.  It is important in these matters to acknowledge one's limitations.  😔


ADDENDUM


After posting my New Year’s greeting, I went looking for some hard data to supplement my observations about the race now being launched for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination, and very quickly made my way to this year’s version of the Green Papers, which I used to good advantage in 2016.  You can find the relevant page here.

A quick look reveals that by the time the March 3rd primary votes have been counted, slightly more than 40% of the delegates will have been chosen, which, elementary arithmetic tells me, means that 80% of the delegates needed to win will have been chosen.  If I am right, three or four hopefuls will have scarfed up the lion’s share of that 80%, posing a prohibitive obstacle to anyone else gaining enough delegates to make it into the circle of genuine possibles.  It is not obvious to me that this is a good thing, but the numbers do not lie.

Because of the costs of competing in Texas and California, the ability to raise big money quickly from small donors will, I think, be crucial.  I assume that advantages Warren, Sanders, and O’Rourke to the detriment of Harris, but I may be wrong.  Biden?  I still don’t believe it, but I could be kidding myself.

AND AGAIN, HAPPY NEW YEAR


Here in the U. S. Eastern time zone, we are now nine hours and twenty-nine minutes into the new year.  It occurred to me to wonder on how many other January firsts I have wished my readers a happy new year, and a quick search revealed four:  2009, 2011, 2015, and 2018.  My well wishes last year contained the following passage:

“If Trump can be restrained from launching a nuclear war, I believe the prospects for the new year are good.  Mueller will indict some more members of the transition and administration, the Democrats will win the House and even, God willing, the Senate, Trump will be impeached and put on trial by the Senate, another dozen or more politicians will be outed as sexual predators, and The Philosopher's Stone, along about April Fool's Day, will pass the three million mark in total views.”

That is six predictions, three of which have come true and a fourth that could still be confirmed.  Not a bad record of armchair prognostications.  This morning, during an extremely foggy and uncharacteristically warm walk, I gave some thought to how the race for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination might play out in this new year.  [I shall get to more important matters a little later.]  A dramatic move by the DNC not much commented upon as yet will upend our settled expectations about that race.  A word of explanation.

For as long as I can remember, we politics junkies have obsessed about the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, despite their numerical irrelevance to the outcome of the nomination race, for reasons too well known to require rehearsal.  This year, the state primary schedule has been completely revised.  On March 3rd, exactly one month after the Iowa caucuses, nine states will hold primaries, including California and Texas!  What is more, voters in California, a state with a large mail-in ballot share, will start sending in their ballots at just about the time when those Iowa caucuses are occurring.

California and Texas are huge states.  They have big pots of delegates and take huge sums of money to be competitive.  Early name recognition will play a big role on March 3rd.  So you can forget about twenty candidates shaking hands with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.  By the time March 3rd is over, the field will be winnowed down to a handful of candidates.

Cui bono?  Pretty clearly, Kamala Harris in California and Beto O’Rourke in Texas.  Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders because of pre-existing name recognition and a proven ability to raise money.  Joe Biden?  I just can’t see it.  The Anita Hill disaster will come back to haunt him big time.  Most of the rest are either running for Veep or wasting their time.

If I had to predict the ticket now, a year and more before the first votes are cast, I would say some combination of the following folks in the top or second spots:  Warren, Harris, O’Rourke, and Sanders.

By this time next year, we will know a great deal more.