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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Wednesday, December 1, 2021


Okay, I have now completed my reading of Graeber and Wengrow and in this first of several long posts I will try to pull together my thoughts on the book and summarize what I learned from it. Let me begin by making several things very clear. First of all, I am not trying to persuade anybody to read the book. God knows the world is full of good books so if you are not interested, just move along. Second, I assume it is clear that I have absolutely no professional competence to judge the accuracy of anything said in this book. In my long life, which in four weeks will encompass 88 years, I have not spent a single day doing anthropological or archaeological research (except for the time when Susie and I were visiting an ancient site in South Africa that had been excavated and, seeing a very small stone arrowhead – a microlith as I believe it would be called – half sticking out of the wall of the cave, I surreptitiously plucked it and stuck it in my pocket, thereby presumably violating all manner of laws.) So why am I writing about the book? The answer is simple: reading it was fun, just about the most fun I have had reading a book in a very long time, and I want to talk about it.


Like all really good long apparently complicated books, this one is at base fundamentally rather simple. As I see it, the authors have mobilized an enormous amount of anthropological and archaeological research in support of three fundamental claims. The first claim is that the standard story, about the pattern or course of development that led human beings from their earliest origins to a modern world dominated by national states, is wrong. The second claim is that contrary to the explicit or implied supposition in historical, anthropological, and archaeological writings that so-called “primitive” peoples were by and large unreflectively determined in their development by the more or less inevitable consequences of the development of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, the evidence shows that everywhere we look we find people 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago, 5,000 years ago, even more than that, thinking about, reflecting on, making choices with regard to how they lived, how they responded to the possibility of agriculture, whether they chose to develop state institutions or deliberately chose to reject that possibility, and in general exhibiting a degree of intelligent self-awareness about their situation that even sympathetic authors have tended to deny them. The third claim, based on these first two, is that even now, living as we do, we have more choices than we imagine and are not compelled by history, by economics, or by institutional structures simply to go on living as we have been living.


Before I begin talking about each of these ideas, let me just say that I think the authors were wrong to start out talking about Rousseau and then to end up talking about Rousseau and Montesquieu. What they say about these two authors really has nothing at all to do with the rest of their book and since what they say is in some ways clearly wrong, it has given reviewers who only know about Rousseau and such a hook on which to hang negative critiques. I was very favorably impressed both by the liveliness and charm of the exposition and by the authors’ rather winning openness about the scantiness of the archaeological or anthropological record and the necessity therefore to make a series of guesses and leaps.  The book is full of qualifying phrases, hedges, and admissions of uncertainty which one does not usually find in academic works. I rather liked that.


The first point is the most important so let me explain what is at stake here. Paleontology reveals that Homo sapiens has been on the planet for 200,000 years plus or minus. Everybody understands that that estimate can be changed any time someone digs up a femur or a skull that can be dated to an earlier time. Everybody also agrees that roughly 10,000 years ago in a variety of places human beings began to engage in systematic agriculture. I think, although I am not certain, that the general view has it that agriculture developed after the last Ice Age at least in part as a consequence of physical and climatic changes that made agriculture possible. The story that has been told – a story I learned and believed and have repeated many times in classes and in my writings – is that the hunting and gathering and foraging existence that human beings engaged in for the first 190,000 years did not produce the sort of physical surplus that would make it possible for some people not to forage or hunt or gather but to engage in other forms of activity. Once the physical surplus provided by agriculture appeared, and wherever it appeared (an important addendum), some people were able to appropriate the surplus and use their control of it both to support the activities of individuals not directly engaged in farming or hunting or gathering and also to establish what we would recognize as political control over an entire community. Combining this with the domestication of animals, we then had the building blocks for cities and then states to appear in which there were kings or princes or rulers, priests or shamans,  scribes, artists, and all the rest. In effect, the story went, once this happened there was no turning back, no alternative to armies and law courts and churches and princely residences and all the rest of human history. Eventually, maybe 6000 years ago or so, writing was invented, records were kept, and it became possible for modern researchers not merely to dig up remains and try to infer from them the social structures that had generated them but also to discover the appropriate translations of those ancient writings and to begin producing what we now think of as historical accounts.


As the authors indicate, there are two versions of this story, one optimistic, positive, and celebratory, the other sad, doleful, and depressing, depending on whether one likes or does not like the way the world is now. But both versions of the story are based on the fundamental premise that political structures, kings, emperors, bureaucracies, democratic states, or what have you are an inevitable consequence of the appearance of agriculture.


Drawing on vast quantities of anthropological and archaeological evidence assembled by huge numbers of researchers in the last 30 or 40 years, the authors argue that this story is just plain false. A great deal of the book is devoted to telling the story, derived from this research, of peoples who either considered adopting agriculture as a source of subsistence and rejected it, choosing to persist as hunters, fishers, foragers and gatherers or else chose to alternate agriculture with hunting and gathering, going back and forth from one to the other. The authors, for example, tell the stories of Native American peoples of the West Coast of the United States who were clearly, on the available evidence, in regular contact with agricultural populations but who chose to continue hunting and gathering rather than transitioning to agriculture.


Equally important is the evidence the authors put forward of large numbers of human settlements in which, prior to any evidence of agriculture, huge construction projects were carried out that involved systematic planning, the mobilization and direction of the efforts of large numbers of people, and the use of sophisticated forms of mathematical calculation and astronomical observation (think Stonehenge, for example) all without any of the usual evidences of rulership, systematic differentiations in wealth and power, or the concomitant abilities to compel the labor of large numbers of people.


These evidences, drawn by the authors from research done virtually around the world, fundamentally call into question the standard story about the development of recognizably modern political states. (Remember that the authors are anarchists and, unlike my anarchism which is for the most part conceptual and theoretical, are committed to finding nonstate and antistate ways for people to live.)


There is an enormous amount that I am simply not attempting to summarize, but this is as I see it the central argument of much of the book.


Tomorrow I will move on to talk about the second and third theses.



Tuesday, November 30, 2021


I have recorded a video on my iPhone which is too large to send as an attachment.  I want to store it in the cloud and make it available to family or friends. Can anybody explain to me in simple language how I can do that? Thank you one and all.

Sunday, November 28, 2021


Judging from the comments on this blog, I am almost the only person on this site who has a real interest in the Graeber and Wengrow book, but since I am having such fun with it (I am almost done with it now) I am going to go right on writing about it.


The book is chockablock full of fascinating accounts of things dug up (literally) by archaeologists over the past 30 or 40 years concerning the remains of human settlements from all parts of the world dating back as much as 9000 or 10,000 years. Quite often, the authors describe an excavated settlement as occupying a certain number of hectares, and since I have only the vaguest notion of how big a hectare is, I went to Google and learned that a hectare is an area equal to 10,000 m² or 1/100 of a square kilometer. Well, I know there are 640 acres in a square mile and I know roughly the relationship between a square kilometer and a square mile so I managed to figure out that there are about 2.67 acres in a hectare.  Quite often, the authors describe an ancient urban settlement as covering 200 hectares or even 400 hectares.  Which is to say, an area somewhere between two thirds of a square mile and 1 2/3 mi.². Not all that big, when you think about it.


Along about page 465, the authors spend a good deal of time talking about a very important urban settlement called Cahokia, which was located along the Mississippi River. The authors report that after A. D. 800, there was a “veritable urban explosion with its epicenter at the site of Cahokia, which was soon to become the greatest city in the Americas north of Mexico.” Its area swelled to six square miles (this revealed by the archaeological excavations, of course) with a population of 10,000 or more and another 30,000 in the surrounding areas that bore some sort of subordinate relationship to this huge city.


Six square miles with a population of 10,000 or so. Well, since I taught at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for 37 years and lived for 30 of those years either in the nearby college town of Northampton or in the tiny suburb east of Amherst called Pelham, I have a pretty good idea what life in Amherst was like between about 1971 and 2008. I checked with Wikipedia and Amherst covers roughly 26 square miles and has a population of about 40,000 (not counting the 30,000 students at UMass in North Amherst.)


So Cahokia, the largest urban settlement in the Americas north of Mexico, was at its height one fourth the size of the town of Amherst with one fourth the population. That gave me some pause. I mean, if you are an archaeologist you dig and you make do with what you have dug up. It is clear from the accounts of Graeber and Wengrow that with some imagination you can actually infer a very great deal from what you dig up, even in the absence of written records (although the authors talk a good deal about the fascinating use of knotted strings in the pre-literate period to preserve rather precise geometric and other calculations). But it does not surprise me as much as I think I am supposed to be surprised that in an urban settlement with a population one fourth that of Amherst, Massachusetts, all manner of interesting experiments in collective decision-making, and other forms of social and political organization that do not meet the customary definition of a state, might appear and fluctuate and flourish over hundreds of years.


I shall report in again with a more organized and systematic summary of the thrust of the book when I have finished the last chapters.

Friday, November 26, 2021


As I prepare once again go into a classroom and teach philosophy, I find myself asking the fundamental pedagogical question: What am I doing here?  After some reflection, I decided that I could not do better than to reproduce here the answer that I gave to Ludwig Richter some years ago.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Ludwig Richter [himself a teacher] writes:  "Professor Wolff, I would love it if, in a future post, you would talk about what kind of teaching you do in the protected space of your classroom. You lecture, of course, but I take it that you lead discussions and encourage students to offer their interpretations of texts, and so on. Maybe you could write about that some time?"

As you will have noticed, it takes very little to get me started, so herewith an extended meditation on my teaching -- not on teaching, mind, but on my teaching.  I imagine that what I say will bear very little resemblance to what others might say about their teaching. 

 Standing in front of a group of people and talking at them is a rather inadequate technique for communicating information.  In the twelfth century, when European universities got their start, books were scarce and very expensive, so probably a professor willing to lecture was as close as most students came to a library.  Indeed, I have read that even in the nineteenth century, in rural areas of Italy where the peasants were too poor to buy books and the communities to poor to build schoolhouses and supply them with blackboards, priests would stand in a field facing a group of little boys and write in the air.  The boys had to learn to read what the priest "wrote" inverted [which calls to mind the great old line about Ginger Rogers, that she had to do everything Fred Astaire did backwards, and in heels -- but I digress.]  Today, however, even students from poor families have far better ways of accessing information.  So there is really not much point in using a classroom to pass along facts that the students could get at faster on their phones.  Fortunately, in Philosophy there is actually very little information to transmit, and what there is [Descartes' birth date, how old Kant was when he wrote The First Critique] doesn't matter very much.

So if I am not telling the students stuff, what am I doing when I stand in front of them [or sit, as I shall be doing next semester ]?  Well, my answer is rather odd, and utterly idiosyncratic.  What is more, it took me three decades of teaching before I came to understand it.

Let me start by saying that I am not trying to persuade my students of anything.  Although I frequently teach politically and ideologically charged texts [as I shall be doing next semester], it is never my aim to get my students to believe either what it says in the books I assign or what I say in my lectures.  As Kierkegaard says in the inexpressibly poignant Preface to The Philosophical Fragments, "If anyone were to be so polite as to assume that I have an opinion, and if he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of adopting this opinion because he believed it to be mine, I should have to be sorry for his politeness, in that it was bestowed upon so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine."

What I am doing in my teaching, to put it as simply as I can, is showing beautiful objects to my students in the hope that they will give to the students the same pleasure that they give me.  I conceive this effort on my part as an act of love, not of propaganda, or inculcation, or persuasion.

The beautiful objects I show to my students are ideas -- complex ideas, powerful ideas, elegant ideas.  Quite often, it costs me enormous effort and much time to clarify these ideas in my own mind, to extract them from the surroundings in which I come upon them, and then to find a way to show them forth in their simplicity and beauty.  Only then am I ready to present them to my students for contemplation, comprehension, and appreciation.  The central argument of the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason is such an idea.  So is Marx's critique of the ironic structure of capitalism.  The proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory is such an idea, as is Hume's account of our belief in the existence of the continued and independent existence of objects in space and time.

When I am successful, my students have been offered what I might call, somewhat altering Spinoza's meaning, an intellectual intuition, which is to say an immediate apprehension of an intellectual object.  I rather suspect it is what Plato had in mind when he wrote obscurely of a knowledge of the Form of the Good.

Is my interpretation of A Treatise of Human Nature or Critique of Pure Reason of Das Kapital correct?  If I am successful, the interpretation is beautiful, and like all truly beautiful objects, powerful.  Are my interpretations the only correct, or beautiful, or powerful readings of those texts?  Of course not.  Indeed, it is a distinctive mark of truly great philosophical texts, like truly great novels, that they can sustain several different and conflicting readings, just as different artists [or even the same artist at different times] can paint different pictures of the same scene, model, or subject.

How can one know whether a reading of a text is powerful or beautiful?  The fruitlessness of the question is manifest.  But I can say this:  if the reading is obscure, convoluted, not immediately graspable by an intelligent and committed reader or listener [in short, if it is by Hegel] then it is neither powerful nor beautiful and is probably not worth spending time on.

That, in a nutshell, is what I do when I teach.  I show beautiful ideas to me students in the [desperate] hope that they will find them beautiful also.  Everything else I do is filler.

Have I been successful?  It is not for me to say.  Is this, Callicles might ask, an honorable way for an old man to spend his time?  I believe so.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021


As I make my way slowly through Graeber and Wengrow’s marvelous book (I am up to page 347), I am reminded of an experience I had 60 years ago at the University of Chicago. I checked and discovered that I had told the story six years ago on this blog.  Since that is a millennium in the blogosphere I will start today’s comment by repeating the story.


In 1961 I left Harvard for an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago, to teach, among other things, in the big required second year undergraduate survey course on the Social Sciences [thus continuing a career of teaching things I had never formally studied.]  The course was taught in sections, but several times during the year all of the students assembled in a big lecture hall for a guest lecture.  One day, we trooped into the hall to hear a report on some research being carried out by a Professor of Anthropology and his graduate students.  


The speaker that day had been leading his students on some field work in the sub-discipline of Urban Anthropology.  They had been pub crawling the up-scale bars in the part of downtown Chicago known colloquially as the Near North.  Now he was reporting on their findings, and in one of the most brilliant tours de force I have ever witnessed, he conceived the idea of straight-facedly recounting their adventures in the standard jargon used by cultural anthropologists to describe the "primitive" peoples they have gone off to investigate.   The effect was startling.  All of the students in the lecture hall [and even many of the professors] were quite familiar with the venues being described, but in the language of cultural anthropology they were unrecognizable.  Without once breaking tone, the lecturer managed to convey the idea that standard anthropological field reports were almost certainly distortions of the lived experiences of the subjects.  The men and women of New Guinea would no more recognize themselves in the journal articles published about them than the students recognized themselves in the accounts of the bars where they spent their weekends.


Graeber and Wengrow are, I find, extraordinarily successful in talking about the people of the countless villages, towns, cities, empires, and foraging territories whose lives have been recaptured by archaeologists in the past 50 years or so. Working with the materials excavated by countless archaeologists – tools, eating utensils, masks, ornaments and jewelry, mud huts, stone monuments, and all the rest – they imaginatively bring their owners and makers to life and enable us, the readers, to see them as real people living as much as 5000, 10,000, or 20,000 years ago. Unlike the students at the University of Chicago, who did not recognize the bars and coffee houses and restaurants they had actually visited in the descriptions of the graduate students in the anthropology department, I think that those people, long gone now, might actually recognize themselves in the accounts given of them by Graeber and Wengrow.


One of the ways in which standard archaeological accounts can mislead us is by using language that makes it sound as though a culture, and hence the thoughts and expectations and plans and beliefs of the people constituting that culture, remain essentially unchanged over periods as long as 1000 years or more. Now if you think about it, it is just plain implausible that people will get their food, reproduce, go to war, worship, have festivals, or engage in political debates more or less in the same way for a thousand years.  If they are real people, not stick figures in an anthropological classificatory system, as time passes they will argue, speculate about alternatives that might be available to them, try things out to see whether they work, talk about what it was like in the old days, and in general behave like people. No sensible person would suppose that a woman living in Paris in the year 1143 would act and think and hope and fear and love in exactly the same way as a woman living in Paris in 648 or 1954.


As I have already suggested in previous posts and will try to summarize when I have finally finished plowing through the book, Graeber and Wengrow have a quite contemporary political agenda, which they are openly pushing in this book.  But whether you are sympathetic with the agenda, which as it happens I am, or are opposed to it, the book is a delightfully lively and detailed account of the doings of endless groups of people whom I personally had never heard of before I opened its pages.


Saturday, November 20, 2021


A teenage punk skirts the law to get his hands on an AR 15 semiautomatic rifle, crosses state lines, goes to the site of a demonstration, queens it about posing as an EMT, gets into some arguments that he provokes, kills two people and wounds a third, and gets off scot free.  As a result of which he will be offered an internship in the United States House of Representatives.

There are no words ...


I have observed many times on this blog that the term “University Professor,” applying as it does to biologists, sociologists, mathematicians, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and philosophers, conceals the extraordinary differences in the activities and bodies of professional knowledge that these people engage in and acquire.  Let me give you just one example that crossed my mind as I was reading Graber and Wengrow.  Here they are talking about settlements in what came to be called the Fertile Crescent, an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The period in question is many thousands of years ago. “At the site of Jerf el-Ahmar, on the banks of the Syrian Euphrates–… the storage and processing of grain was associated less with ordinary dwellings than with subterranean lodges, entered from an opening in the roof and suffused with ritual associations.”


As I read that sentence, one of hundreds that go by as I turn the pages, I thought to myself, “how on earth do they know that the lodges were entered from an opening in the roof?” The answer is obvious, but when one reflects upon it, astonishing. They know because dozens of archaeologists and their graduate students have spent months or years painstakingly excavating this site, carefully digging away the dirt and accumulated detritus that covers the remains of the 6000 or 8000 year old buildings, ascertaining by the excavation that they were originally subterranean, that they did not have doors and windows like so many other excavated buildings, and that the only way into them was through openings revealed by careful, precise digging, digging that involved little by little brushing away dirt that had long since covered up the constructions.


There is nothing particularly unusual or remarkable about this. It is what archaeologists do – hundreds of archaeologists, year after year after year, at sites all around the world, carefully making notes and taking pictures of what they dig up and then publishing the results in journals so that other archaeologists can add the little bit of knowledge they have acquired to the enormous accumulated body that generations of archaeologists have discovered and memorialized.


This sort of activity is absolutely nothing like what a philosopher does. It is not really very much like what an historian or political scientist or sociologist or mathematician or literary critic does. It is simply astonishing to reflect on the accumulated systematic human effort that lies behind the delightful reports and speculations with which Graber and Wengrow fill their pages.


The authors, needless to say, are not merely summarizing what they have read in the thousands of books and journal articles listed in their bibliography. They are engaged in an exuberant argument against the standard story that what we call civilization began with domestic agriculture which then led inevitably to class hierarchies, structural inequalities, the state, and the other glories of the modern world. That, after all, is the point of reading the book. But it is worth pausing from time to time to think about the vast systematic undertaking of archaeology on which their argument rests