My Stuff

https://umass-my.sharepoint.com/:f:/g/personal/rwolff_umass_edu/EkxJV79tnlBDol82i7bXs7gBAUHadkylrmLgWbXv2nYq_A?e=UcbbW0

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Sunday, October 24, 2021

THE SUNDAY TIMES CROSSWORD PUZZLE

Spoiler alert: this is about today’s New York Times crossword puzzle so if you like doing it and have not tackled it yet do not read this blog post.

 

I solved it today but I got stuck in one part of it for some while. There was a clue for a three word space that read something like “word that can be used either before or after pack.”  I thought about that for a bit and said to myself, “pack rat, rat pack” and filled in “rat.”  Well, it turns out the correct answer is “ice,” as in” pack ice, ice pack.”  I could not think of a third three – letter possibility. Can anybody?

 

On another matter entirely, I have been plugging ahead with my rereading of the books I will assign next semester in my course at UNC on political philosophy. One third of the course will be devoted to A Theory of Justice. I am going to ask the students also to read the book I wrote about Rawls as part of that segment of the course. I published it 44 years ago and have not looked at since. Yesterday I finished reading it for the first time since it appeared and I was appalled to discover how technical it is. I am afraid I am going to have to warn the students that this will be a very hard course. On the other hand, once they get finished with that we will move on to The Racial Contract by the late Charles Mills and that will be a really boffo way to wrap up the course. What a wonderful book that is and what a great loss for Mills to die so young.

 

But then all death is a great loss. Emily Dickinson somewhere wrote a poem asking why God requires us to die in order to see Him. Since He is omnipotent, He could have arrange things differently, after all.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

A SILVER LINING, SORT OF

Things are so bad politically in the United States right now that I find it difficult getting to sleep at night. The only glimmer of hope that I see is that the possibility of an authoritarian destruction of such democracy as America has is now not the feverish dream of a few on the left but the established view of mainstream liberal commentators. That transformation has really taken a very short time as changes in mainstream opinion go.


I think it is quite likely that the Supreme Court will destroy Roe V Wade sometime in the next seven months, just in time to be a dominant theme of the midterm elections. Furthermore, everybody now seems to understand how important state government elections are.


If I can manage to keep myself alive through the 2024 election cycle, I may live either to see the death of American democracy or some version of its rebirth.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

ERIK ERIKSON

Michael talked a bit about Eric Erikson and concluded his comment with some very kind words about me so I thought I would take the occasion to tell you all the little bit I can about my experience with Erikson. The year that I started my instructorship at Harvard, 1958, was the year that David Reisman was appointed to a university professorship there. Reisman’s office was on the third floor of Emerson Hall where the Social Relations Department had its home.  He had the habit of gathering around him a group of young untenured faculty and when I published a letter in the New York Times which caught his eye, he dropped me a note and suggested that I come by. I found my way to his office and in the deferential way in which junior faculty then spoke to senior faculty I said that I hoped I was not disturbing him. He welcomed me into his office and complained that although he was just down the hall from Mr. Sociology (by whom he meant Talcott Parsons), he never talked to the great man and nobody ever came to see him. I became part of a group of antiwar pro-nuclear disarmament folks around Reisman who called themselves The Committee of Correspondence, taking their title from a group during the American Revolution. We published a newsletter (in which my student and later friend and co-teacher Todd Gitlin regularly published) and met from time to time. When Erikson joined the faculty, I think in 1960, he became part of the group and that was when I met him.

 

Erikson was an odd duck. At the age of 58 he was roughly 10 years older than Reisman and since I was then 26, they both seemed ancient to me. Erikson had a shock of white hair and as I recall sparkling blue eyes and he made quite an impression on me. I found him very distant and have no recollection of having an actual one-on-one conversation with him in the time I knew him, but the graduate students and young instructors who served as his assistants in the course he taught loved him and idolized him. It is my impression, rather than my genuine recollection, that some young folks who later became quite distinguished served as his assistants in those days. Reisman, by the way, had the quite extraordinary habit of reading and writing extended comments on each of the essays submitted by the hundreds of students who took his large lecture courses, even though it took him well into the next semester to complete the task.

 

Erikson had published Childhood and Society in 1950 and I read it, I believe, sometime during my years at Harvard. It had a very great effect on me and I have quoted from it often in all the years since. The centerpiece of the book, of course, is Erikson’s expansion of Freud’s three stages of psychosexual development in the young child – the anal, the oral, and the genital – to a total of eight stages stretching throughout life. He is one of the great theorists of what came to be called Ego Psychology. One of the things in the book that I found particularly impressive was Erikson’s report of fieldwork he had done among Native Americans in the northwestern United States which enabled him to draw contrasts and comparisons between their stages of psychosexual development and those of Europeans and Americans of European descent.

 

When I came to write my long 800 page autobiography on this blog, I chose a passage from Childhood and Society as the epigraph for it.

APOLOGIA PRO VITA SUA

Why, some may ask, do I write of my afflictions, my stumbling falls, the diminution of my physical self? Why do I not instead write of Kant, Marx, capitalism, exploitation, oppression, protests, strikes, even of Trump and Bannon, Bernie, and AOC?

 

In response I offer the great villanelle by Dylan Thomas, which has appeared in this space before.

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

PROVERBS 16:18

The Good Book tells us “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”  Sigh, in this as in much else the Bible is a source of wisdom. What follows has nothing to do with the death of Colin Powell or with what we all hope will be the eventual incarceration of Steve Bannon. Rather, it concerns a purely personal experience the effects of which have dominated my thoughts for the past four days. Those seeking high-minded left-wing commentary on the public world will have to search elsewhere today.

 

Some while ago I told the world that I have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. There is not much doctors can do for people afflicted with the disease save prescribe a medication with the tradename Sinemet, which my doctor has already done for me. But the available research literature does make it clear that the one thing the patient himself or herself can do to postpone the progress of the disease is to engage in aerobic exercise that raises the heart rate to 100 or more for at least half an hour.

 

Well, for many years my principal source of exercise has been an hour long early morning walk and some while ago I actually got a wrist heart monitor from Amazon.com which allows me to measure my heart rate (and all sorts of other things, of course, tech being what it is these days.) The physical therapist with whom I worked briefly in September counseled me to concentrate on taking longer steps and walking faster. Following her advice, I fairly quickly shortened the time it took me to do my 2 2/3 mile walk from 67 minutes to as fast as 55 minutes – an accomplishment in which I took an inordinate pride, despite the fact that even at my fastest I would on occasion be passed by a little old lady walking a dog. With the heart monitor, I learned that I was getting my heart rate up to 95 or higher after the first half of the walk and increasing that level for the second half. I was puffed up with the importance of this accomplishment and made sure, each time I returned to our apartment, to tell my wife exactly how many minutes my walk had taken and how high I had raised my heart rate. I began to think that I would live as long as the woman who used to occupy the apartment across the hall from ours and has just passed her 99th birthday.

 

Then disaster hit. On Thursday, I barreled along in my usual fashion getting my heart rate up in the 100 range but as I neared the end of my walk I began to do what neurologists call “festinating.”  This means that my steps got faster and faster and shorter and shorter despite my efforts to control them. I stumbled into the lobby of my building and half fell against the wall, squatting down and propping myself up against the wall with my hands and the top of my head. I was completely unable to stand up and finally lowered myself onto the carpet and lay there immobile. Fortunately, I must have pressed my security pendant when I lay down because in four or five minutes two of the security men at Carolina Meadows came by and hoisted me to my feet. I was able to walk to the elevator and get into our apartment, weak and shaken and quite frightened.

 

I am trying to get in touch with my neurologist – a process that always takes several days – but I think there are really only two options. Either she increases my medication, if that is indicated, or I will have to get myself what is called a recumbent exercycle (needless to say, Amazon offers several dozen options), after which instead of taking my morning walk I will sit in my study and pedal for 35 or 40 minutes, four or five days a week.

 

An unpleasant experience, to be sure, but what is the big deal? Well, I have become rather well-known around Carolina Meadows as an early morning walker and a great many people have commented on seeing me and have praised me for my persistence in my early morning walks. I have taken an inordinate pride in the reputation I have acquired, one which is enhanced by my practice of wearing shorts even in freezing weather, a fact that others comment on with wonder.

 

Clearly, putting off the hideous end stages of Parkinson’s disease takes precedence over the stroking of my ego, so I will do whatever my neurologist recommends. But I will be sad to give up my daily morning walk.

 

Pride doth indeed go before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

NEW WINE IN OLD BOTTLES

Eric linked to an article, which I read and posted an enthusiastic comment about, and I have preordered the new book by the authors of the article, which is due to be published in early November. I found the article fascinating, provocative, and informative but also intensely irritating. I thought I would spend some time today explaining something of the background to the article, why I think it is important and also why I found it irritating. Obviously the best thing you can do is read the article and/or the book when it appears, but anybody who is interested could hunt up lectures four through seven of my 10 lecture series on the subject of Ideological Critique available on YouTube.

 

This will take me a little while so settle down (or drift off to WhatsApp.)

 

The available paleontological evidence indicates that Homo Sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years, plus or minus. Until the last 6000 years or so of that period, just about all the evidence we have of the doings of human beings was what could be dug up out of the ground and inspected. Since mostly what lasts is bones and stones, scientists have had to make do with whatever they could figure out from that hard stuff about what human beings were up to. Hominids more generally appear to have developed in East Africa maybe as much as several million years ago and one way and another they migrated across the land bridge that then existed between Africa and the Middle East and from there to Europe, to central and eastern Asia, Southeast Asia, and even, maybe 15,000 years ago or maybe longer, to North, Central, and South America.

 

There is a good deal of evidence that hominids, including human beings, have had tools of various sorts for  a million years or more. There is artwork in caves and elsewhere dating back 40 or 50,000 years. At some point, Homo STheapiens (and other hominids? Who knows) developed language.

 

How did human beings live? Well, from their teeth and other evidences we can infer that they were from the beginning omnivores, eating both meat and such plant materials as fruits, nuts, and the like.

 

And that is pretty much it, as far as the evidence goes, until maybe 10,000 years ago or thereabouts. At some point, in the late 19th century, more as a reflection of their own social norms than on the basis of much in the way of evidence, anthropologists decided that for the first 190,000 years or so men hunted and women gathered, so the anthropologists started calling early human beings “hunter gatherers.”

 

Then, rather late in the history of the human race, some big things happened. The standard story is this:  roughly 10,000 years ago in an especially fertile area located between two Middle Eastern rivers (or, as they say in Greek, in Mesopotamia) people learned how to tame wild animals and they learned how to cultivate, grow, and selectively develop plants. People became farmers and shepherds. More or less at the same time, which is to say over several thousand years, people started building permanent dwellings from clay, wood, stone, and animal hides and to live in cities. We know this happened because we can dig up the remains of the cities, sometimes only the foundations of the buildings but sometimes entire dwellings.

 

This much is not disputed by Graeber and Wengrow, at least as I understand them from the article Eric linked to. But agriculture, domestication of animals, and city building were of course just the beginning. Then, in the relatively brief span of 10,000 years or so, which is scarcely the blink of an eye in the history of the human species, we get kings, queens, armies, generals, slaves, plutocrats, and even – God forgive us – philosophers.

 

The standard argument goes something like this. For the first 190,000 years or so, people had all they could do just to chase down game and scrounge up nuts and berries and stay alive. Even if we assume a functional differentiation between what women did and what men did (and that, recall, is pure speculation), there was not enough extra food to support people to spend their time practicing various crafts rather than gathering food. But with the extra food from herds of animals and fields of grain, it was possible to support people whose sole function it was to build, to spin, to weave, to carry weapons and compel people to do the bidding of those who had gotten their hands on extra food and could parcel it out. By the time human beings got around to inventing writing, maybe 6000 years ago or so, all of this was so well-established that it seemed a law of nature.

 

Now apparently (I have not been keeping up, for which I apologize) ideological defenders of the current god-awful state of affairs have been arguing that there is an inseparable link between the domestication of animals and the development of agriculture and the building of cities on the one hand and full-scale economic inequality and oppressive state authority on the other, so that you cannot have New York or Rome or Beijing or Podunk or TV or cell phones or 7 ½ billion people without Jeff Bezos and the Democratic Party.

 

Well, lately, which is to say in the last 40 years or so, all manner of interesting anthropological evidence has cropped up about people who seem to have managed in one way or another to have avoided this Hobson’s choice. Graeber and Wengrow cite a whole lot of examples of people who manage functional differentiatio in their productive activities without authoritarian social organization. They also cite a lot of interesting recent archaeological research suggesting that there must have been differences of wealth and power back in the good old hunting and gathering days. So the standard story, they suggest, is wrong. Human beings did not hunt and gather in small socially undifferentiated groups until the explosion of the Neolithic Revolution.

 

All of this, as I say, is fascinating and I look forward to reading their book. But I wish they would get rid of the geewhiz snarky tone. Edwin Wilmsen did a much better job of this in his work LAND WITHOUT FLIES, which I discussed at great length in my YouTube lectures.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

EXTRAORDINARY

I have just finished reading the comments on my brief celebration of William Shatner's journey to the edge of space.  I do honestly believe that if I were to reproduce here a picture of the famous element of the Sistine Chapel in which God reaches out a finger and gives life to Adam, the commentary would be completely focused on the question whether God had a little dirt under His fingernail.


Get a life!