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Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, April 9, 2010


While I was plumbing the depths of Kant's philosophy and taking my Freshmen on a frantic dash through European history, I was also becoming involved in a quite different educational undertaking that had a far-reaching impact on my life and career. A number of very senior faculty at Harvard, with the enthusiastic encouragement of McGeorge Bundy, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, had been meeting for some time to plan a new interdisciplinary undergraduate major in Social Studies. It was to have a strong theoretical emphasis, grounded in the great tradition of European social thought in which Smith, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Freud, and Tocqueville were leading figures. Alexander Gerschenkron was representing Economics, Stanley Hoffmann Government, H. Stuart Hughes History, Lawrence Wylie Sociology, J. C. Pelzel Anthropology, Barrington Moore, Jr. The Russian Research Center, and Morton White had joined them from Philosophy. In 1959-60, when White went off to Princeton, he asked me to sit in for him in his absence.

The Committee met a number of times to plan the launch of the new program, and as part of our efforts to nail down the approval of the Administration, we had a pro forma luncheon with the President of Harvard, Nathan Marsh Pusey. Pusey seemed utterly uninterested in the idea of a Social Studies concentration, with the result that the conversation at lunch for the most part was conducted past him, not to or with him. Unlike the rest of us, who even then followed a rather relaxed academic dress code, Pusey appeared very formal both in dress and personal grooming. I recall thinking that he looked like a retouched photograph of himself.

During that year, the plans were completed, and with Bundy's help, the proposal secured the approval of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The idea was to cobble together existing courses from all of those departments, knitting the curriculum together with an array of Sophomore, Junior, and Senior tutorials and honors theses. Social Studies would begin with fifteen to eighteen Sophomores divided into three tutorial groups, each group to be co-taught by two faculty drawn from different departments. The only thing lacking was someone to administer the program.

Like many universities, Harvard had a habit of shoving onerous administrative duties onto the most junior faculty available. The panjundrums on the planning committee were not about to volunteer for the chore of actually recruiting students and scheduling tutorial sessions. As the only junior member of the committee, I was the natural choice. In late Spring, Bundy came to Winthrop House to have sherry and lunch with the Master and tutorial staff [even Winthrop, long known as the jock house, did what it could to keep up the English traditions.] When I walked into the Senior Common Room, where he was holding forth, Bundy looked up and said, "Ah, here is the new Head Tutor of Social Studies." As he anticipated, I was pleased and flustered. This little display of his ability to affect the fate of eager young Instructors was characteristic of Bundy, who hid a steely concentration on the exercise of power behind a genial façade of unpretentiousness and informality.

As soon as I had been tapped to run Social Studies, I began the effort to recruit the Freshmen who would enter the program in the Fall to fill the first three tutorial groups. I taught the first group jointly with Barrington Moore, Jr., a tall, thin, aristocratic political sociologist who had made his reputation with several books on Soviet politics and society. Barry came from an old, upper crust New York family - his distant ancestor was the Clement Clark Moore who wrote "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," and his grandfather had been the Commodore of the New York Yacht Club. Barry and his wife, Betty, spent the summers on their yacht off the New England coast, sailing and working. In the winter they went to Alta to ski. Barry was apparently a champion skier, and his proudest boast, ranked in his mind far above whatever academic honors he might have achieved, was that he had once been invited to join the Alta ski patrol.

Barry was a Fellow of the Harvard Russian Research Institute, not a member of a regular department. I gathered that he had on several occasions been offered a professorship in Sociology, but as the talk shows say these days, he had "issues" with the Department, and refused to accept the tenure that everyone else in Harvard Square lived and died for.

Our tutorial group met each Wednesday in my Winthrop House suite, F-25, from four to five in the afternoon. This was not tutorial for credit; each student was taking four regular courses. But Barry and I took no heed of such niceties. The reading for the first week was An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith - all of it!

One young man in the group came to see me after we had distributed the reading list, rather troubled. "How do you want us to read the Smith?" he asked. "Well," I said, "that is up to you, but if I were you, I would read it starting at the beginning and continuing to the end." "No, no," he went on, puzzled, "are we reading this for a test, or are we reading it for background?" "You are reading it because it is a brilliant and very influential book, and we think you will find it interesting." "But should I take notes?" "If you come across something interesting, and you think you might not remember it, you might make some notes. That is up to you." He went away very perturbed. I felt a certain sympathy for him. He had pretty obviously worked his head off to get into Harvard, making his parents very proud. He was prepared to do anything we asked, no matter how difficult. If I had told him to memorize the book while standing on his head, he would have had a go at it. The one thing his entire eighteen years of life had not prepared him for was a genuine educational experience of the sort that only a very rich school like Harvard could provide. In effect, the struggle to win admission to Harvard had ruined him for what it had to offer. The last time I looked, he was a defense intellectual, working at a think tank, which somehow seems appropriate.

Emmy Schräder was quite another story. Tall, beautiful, brilliant, and utterly unconventional, Emmy turned up a few years later toi-toing with Tom Mboya in Kenya. Eventually, she married a Jamaican and lived there for many years, doing fascinating work on the linguistics of Jamaican English. Now she has made herself an expert on the ancient civilizations of the Euphrates and Tigris valleys.

Barry and I fell into a teaching style that might be described as academic tag team wrestling. He would lead off, pressing the students with penetrating questions, probing to find out whether they actually understood the reading. When he tired a bit, I would jump in and pick up where he had left off, leading the discussion away from sociology and economics and into philosophy and political theory. By the end of an hour, the students would be wiped out, but Barry and I would be all pumped up and ready to go another round.

The two of us went right through the year that way, moving on from Smith to Mill's Political Economy, a selection of Marx's writings, de Tocqueville's Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, Tyler's Primitive Culture, Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, Freud's Civilization and its Discontents and New Introductory Lectures, Durkheim's Suicide, three hundred pages of Max Weber, Collingwood's Idea of History, and Whitehead's Modes of Thought. We were insane, of course. The syllabus would have taxed the talents and energies of a group of graduate students, and these five kids were barely eighteen or nineteen. It was, without a doubt, one of the greatest Sophomore courses ever offered anywhere.

Barry and I hit it off immediately, even though we were about as unlike as two people could be. I found Barry astonishingly erudite, with a breadth of learning that I knew would forever be beyond me. His theoretical understanding of the world was immensely strengthened by his Marxist conceptual framework, which was subtle, flexible, and completely undogmatic. I realized that my earlier offhand dismissal of Marx's economic theories was an expression of a shallow incomprehension, and although it would be almost twenty years before I came fully to understand the power, penetration, and scope of Das Kapital, I began that education by sitting in Winthrop F-25 and listening to Barry Moore question a little group of Sophomores.

When we got to Marx, Barry tried a little pedagogical device that I found truly inspired. He asked the students to imagine that they were very low level KGB agents who had been infiltrated into the United States and assigned the task of writing a background report on an American city -- say, Boise, Idaho. This report would then be added to countless other such documents in the files of the KGB in Moscow, and used by important agents in briefing sessions. Assuming that the KGB was an orthodox Marxist organization, how would they want the report to be arranged? An agent of the Vatican, Barry pointed out, would undoubtedly begin his or her report with a breakdown of the religious affiliations of the citizens of Boise. An American agent, given the same task for a Russian city, might start with a breakdown of the political forces and factions. But our Marxist KGB agent would undoubtedly start with a description of the forces of production [mines, factories, forests, if any, and so forth], move on to the social relations of production [petty bourgeois, capitalist, finance capitalist, and so forth], and only late in the report come to such things as religion, art, and philosophy. I thought it was a charming way of grasping the essence of Marx's method of understanding social reality.

One of Barry's closest friends was Herbert Marcuse, who was then teaching at Brandeis. Barry and Herbert had met during the war, when they both worked in Washington in Army intelligence. Barry was on the Russian desk and Herbert was on the German desk in Wild Bill Donovan's operation. These wartime friendships went very deep, and there were people on the Harvard faculty with bitterly opposed political views who nonetheless maintained warm personal relationships because of them.

One evening, Barry and Betty invited me to dinner at their lovely Cambridge home to meet Marcuse. As soon as Herbie found out that I was writing a book on Kant, our friendship was assured. There is a long European tradition of respect for philosophy as a discipline - a tradition not shared by Americans, unfortunately - and in the left intellectual world from which Marcuse came, Kant took pride of place above all other philosophers, even Plato or Aristotle or Hegel. To be a Kant scholar, I discovered, was to be offered immediate entrée to any circle of European scholars or intellectuals. Years later, when I gave a lecture on Mill at Columbia, Hannah Arendt came up afterwards to say hello. She pretty obviously hadn't thought much of the lecture, but she asked politely what I was working on at the moment. When I said I was writing a commentary on Kant's Grundlegung, she beamed and said, "Ah yes, it is so much nicer to spend time with Kant."

Almost immediately, Herbie and I got into a wild argument about the Critique, citing passages and talking Kant jargon while Barry and Betty looked on with amusement. Somehow, the dispute came around to contemporary analytic philosophy, for which Marcuse had only contempt. He made a scathing reference to "the present king of France is bald," a little example Quine used in one of his most famous essays to illustrate a point about truth and reference. The problem Quine was discussing by means of this example is actually an old and very important one, featured prominently in a number of medieval debates. I leapt to Quine's defense, and the two of us went at it pretty hot and heavy. I argued that Quine was doing a brilliant job of making an obscure and difficult matter clear. Then Marcuse stunned me by saying, "In philosophy, unclarity is a virtue."

At least, that is what I thought he said. Marcuse had a thick German accent, and I could not be absolutely certain I had heard him correctly. "Did you say that in philosophy unclarity is a virtue?" I was afraid I had stumbled into Alice in Wonderland. "Yes," Marcuse replied, with that malicious smile that I came to know quite well in later years. "You are saying that in philosophy, it is a good thing not to be clear?" I asked incredulously. "Yes," he said with an air of self-satisfaction.

For those who are familiar with Marcuse's writings, I need to explain that the conversation took place while he was writing his greatest work, One-Dimensional Man. When it was finally published three years later, I realized what he had meant by this apparently quixotic statement. In a nutshell, Marcuse believed that the surface clarity of behavioral social science was a repressive maneuver designed to rob speech of its liberatory potential [like many German intellectuals, he confused operationalism in American sociology with logical analysis in American philosophy] . This is one of the deepest insights in a complex and powerful book, but that evening, all I knew was that this charming, charismatic old man was manifestly nuts.

Marcuse had one more joke to play on me. Four years later, when I was teaching at Columbia, I got a call from Barry. He and Herbert had gone to Beacon Press with a proposal for a little book consisting of an essay Barry had written on objectivity in social science and Herbert's chapter on "repressive tolerance" that had never made it into One Dimensional Man. Arnold Tovell, the marvelously supportive editor at Beacon, told them that they would need at least three essays, so they wanted me to write something on tolerance to round out the book.

Needless to say, I was thrilled. What could possibly beat co-authoring a book with Barrington Moore, Jr. and Herbert Marcuse? They never bothered to send me their essays, and I actually had nothing to say about tolerance, but I set to work, hit on a way to tie my critique of liberalism to the concept of tolerance, and wrote an essay called "Beyond Tolerance." Then the three of us got together in Tovell's office to talk about a title for this rather slender volume. We kicked it around for a while until Marcuse, with a malicious grin, looked at me and said, "Let's call it A Critique of Pure Tolerance." I was horrified. "Herbert," I said, "we can't do that. I have just published a book on the Critique of Pure Reason. If I put my name on a book called A Critique of Pure Tolerance, I will be laughed out of the profession." But Marcuse won the day with an argument that none of us could refute. "Don't worry," he said. "Nobody will ever read it."

At first it looked as though Herbert was right. Beacon decided to try an experiment. In those days, reviewers only paid attention to hardcover books. Paperbacks were sold from racks in candy stores and at train stations. Tovell thought he could have the best of both worlds if he published the book as a paperback-sized hardcover. He figured that it would be reviewed like a hardcover but would be put in train station racks and sell like a paperback. Unfortunately, he got it backwards. Nobody reviewed it, because it wasn't a full sized book, and nobody put it in racks at train stations because it had a hard cover.

But that was not to be the end of the story. Student riots broke out in Germany and France, where Rudi Dutschke and Daniel Cohn-Bendit were bigger than the Beatles. The French and German students read translations of One-Dimensional Man and elevated Marcuse to the status of a hero of the revolution. Anything with his name on it was a sure winner. Our little volume went into translation, and immediately became a phenomenal seller in Europe. Meanwhile, students were beginning to make their moves in America, and they too fixed on Marcuse as a role model. They didn't actually understand him, but with unerring instinct, they recognized him as a soul mate. Seizing the day, Tovell brought out a new printing of Critique of Pure Tolerance, this time in a normal sized hardcover edition with a simultaneous paperback version. In the first three years of its existence, our book had sold slightly more than four thousand copies. In the first year of its new incarnation, it sold more than twenty-six thousand.

Barry, Betty, Cynthia [who laqter became my first wife], and I remained close friends for many years. In 1970, when our second son was born, Cynthia and I named him Tobias Barrington Wolff. Barry agreed to be little Toby's godfather, and gave him a toothmarked silver cup that had been in the Moore family for generations. I was actually written into Barry's will at one point as his literary executor, but when my twenty-three year marriage to Cynthia ended in 1985, Betty and Barry interpreted the break as a call to choose sides, and I lost all contact with them.


John S. Wilkins said...

That's just brilliant. I had a copy of Critique of Pure Tolerance as a 17 year old, about the same time I got a copy of One Dimensional Man, and both influenced me greatly, although I now cannot in detail recall how. I'd like to thank you for that book. It got me interested in philosophy.

Matt said...

That's a great story. I recently had a plane flight for which I needed a fairly short book to keep my occupied and finally got around to reading _A Critique of Pure Tolerance_. It's nice to know the story behind it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have long believed that the secret to success in philosophy is to write short books. That is why we read Plato more often than Aristotle, Descartes more often than Spinoza. A one week assignment -- that is the ticket.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

John, lately, under the influence of my big sister, I have been reading a fair amount of evolutionary biology, which I find fascinating. I gather that is your specialty. I am delighted that you found that little book stimulating.

John S. Wilkins said...

Then you should enjoy this book, which is written by two philosophers:

Pigliucci, Massimo, and Jonathon Kaplan. 2006. Making sense of evolution: the conceptual foundations of evolutionary biology. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Benjamin said...

Dear Professor Wolff,

Thank you so much for sharing all of these stories on your blog. I'm a rising Junior at Harvard, and a Social Studies concentrator (which required an anguishing choice between Philosophy and Social Studies, which I still question). Regardless, I'm on the Social Studies Student Advisory Committee and a Peer Concentration Councilor, so it gives me great joy to see that you are scheduled to speak at the 50th Anniversary Celebration. I hope that you'll be able to share more insights into your experiences, as these memoirs have provided me with a great deal of insight into my own educational experience. I look forward to meeting you in person!

P.S As a side note, I took a class on "Being and Time" with Professor Sean Kelly, who was a student of Dreyfus' (and now a collaborator). At one office hours, another student and I were discussing with Professor Kelly the lack of people in the Harvard Philosophy department interested in philosophical work outside of "mainstream" analytic philosophy (or some category along those lines). He mentioned the reading group that you were speaking of and told us that we should read Sam Todes' "Body and World," claiming that it was a seriously undervalued work of philosophy. So, many years later, people at Harvard are still reading Todes' work, if only in small numbers!