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Friday, April 30, 2010


Younger still by half a generation were Justus Buchler, Robert Cumming, Charles Frankel, Albert Hofstadter, and Richard Taylor , all of whom save Hofstadter were in their middle to late forties when I joined the department. [I have written about Justus at the beginning of Chapter Two of Volume One of these Memoirs, but I shall repeat myself here for the sake of continuity. My apologies to faithful readers.] Justus, who was of course then chairman, was an intensely serious man embarked on an effort to spell out a full-scale totally original metaphysical theory in a series of writings. Justus was extremely intelligent, very widely read in philosophy, and in every way the very model of a modern philosophy professor. The only problem was that nobody was interested in what he had to say. He was reputed to have a disciple who had landed a slot in the Columbia School of Pharmacy, but the larger philosophical community paid him no attention. As I came to know him better, I felt that this was, in some way that I could not quite put into words, deeply unfair. Justus was, by any objective value-neutral standard, a significant figure in American philosophy. It wasn't his fault that no one wanted to read his books. He had read what the Quines and Chisholms and Goodmans had written, and could give you cogent, detailed, textually grounded criticisms of each of them. I tried to read one of his books and found it impenetrable, but lots of great philosophical works are impenetrable. I have never been able to read two pages together by Hegel, and yet look how far he went.

Bob Cumming was tall, slender, and very waspy in appearance. He was a student of the history of political philosophy and regularly co-taught a very popular course on political theory with a quite well known political scientist, David Truman, who was Dean of the College when I joined the faculty, and was subsequently elevated to the Provostship, positioning him to be the next President of the University. Bob seemed very laid back in manner, and in my naive insular fashion, I was quite surprised to discover, several years later, that he took an active role in supporting undergraduate men who resisted being drafted into the Army to fight in Viet Nam. It seemed that you didn't have to be loud-mouthed and Jewish like me to have good politics.

Charles Frankel, who was the same age as Bob Cumming, was a student of Ernest Nagel whose work centered on social philosophy and the philosophy of history. The Social Science Research Council decided to underwrite an international conference on democracy in the Developing World [as former European colonies were then called], and Charles agreed to organize it. He was half way through issuing the invitations and making the arrangements for a meeting to be held in a lavish Italian villa belonging to the Rockefeller Foundation when Lyndon Johnson tapped him to be Assistant Secretary for Cultural and Educational Affairs. On his way out the door to Washington, D. C., Charles turned the conference over to me, and I completed the planning for the affair. I flew off to Italy to spend a week sitting around a square table with scholars and diplomats from all over the world. My job was to write up a report and turn it into the SSRC after the conference had ended. My most vivid memory of the week, which was for the most part rather tedious, was sitting at the table and looking idly at Lucien Pye, seated at the adjacent side, so that I had a sort of sideways view of him. Pye, then in his mid-forties, was an MIT political scientist who even then had gained a considerable reputation in his field. He was very much a Democratic Cold Warrior, along the lines of Henry Jackson and Jack Kennedy. One day, when the conversation had moved to another part of the table, I looked over and caught him in an unguarded moment. His face revealed a deep depression that was completely at odds with his usual hail fellow well met manner. I did not know what it meant, but I was sure I had seen into his soul. On the way home from the conference, I stopped off in London to do a little antique shopping at Liberty's of London. Liberty's is of course best known for its fabrics, especially a sheer weave called Liberty Lawn, but it also had a small, rather select collection of English antiques. I found a splendid eighteenth century Georgian bureau bookcase, which I bought on the spot for 1400 pounds or so. I arranged with Turner & Davies to have it shipped back to our apartment, and called Cindy to tell her the exciting news.

Frankel resigned from the State Department two years later to protest America's accelerating involvement in the Viet Nam war, and returned to Columbia. Tragically, he and his wife were murdered in their Westchester home by a burglar in 1979.

I have almost no memory of Hofstadter, possibly because he left in '67 to join the U. C. Santa Cruz department. Albert's field was aesthetics, and he and our colleague, Richard Kuhns, published some things together.

Richard Taylor was a newcomer to the department, having arrived only a year before I. He had transferred from Brown, where, rumor was, he had married John Ladd's former wife, and felt it better to get out of Providence. Dick was living in a large apartment that looked across 116th st. to the Columbia Law School. He had a beehive installed in one of the windows [no kidding], and the bees would commute between his window and Morningside Park, half a block away. When I was offered the job, Dick wrote me quite the loveliest letter I have ever received from a colleague. He passed away seven years ago, but I think he would not have objected to my quoting part of it for this memoir.

"Dear Bob," he wrote, "I had very much hoped I would see you on your recent visit. Hylda and I wanted you and your wife to come across the street to have a drink with us... We've had some pretty long discussions in our departmental meetings about various possible people for teaching ethics and kindred subjects. Some very good men have been discussed, and rejected. When your name came up, the discussion took about six minutes and the result was unanimous and enthusiastic. You would be appreciated here, believe me." I was deeply touched, and though I had already decided to accept the offer, I felt genuinely welcomed by Dick's letter.

Richard, like Albert and myself, eventually left Columbia, in Richard's case for the University of Rochester. I have often observed that the best way to become well-known in philosophy is to write short books. Richard figured out that another surefire avenue to fame is to defend a proposition that everyone is quite sure is false. I did that, without really realizing it, when I defended anarchism, and Dick did the trick with fatalism. Forever, it seems, philosophers have been fussing over the conflict between free will and determinism. Some people have taken a strong stand for free will. Some have defended determinism and rejected the claims of free will. And Kant famously argued that properly circumscribed and understood, the two could be made compatible. But everybody agreed that, leaving aside theological dogmas about pre-destination, the one thing we know is that fatalism is wrong. The Greeks may have thought Oedipus was fated to marry his mother and kill his father, but no self-respecting analytic philosopher would be caught dead defending fatalism. So Dick wrote a book defending fatalism. Sure enough, everyone went ballistic, and his fame was made. I just offer this as a suggestion to ambitious young philosophers.

Joining these older men were a number of relatively recently tenured younger men who thought of themselves as the new generation of the department. Jim Walsh was a medievalist, a short, square light-haired man who had been stuck with the job of Graduate Program Director because he was manifestly sane. Although I do not think I ever got to know Jim well, I liked him enormously, and was delighted to have him as a colleague. The other sane younger member of the department was Richard Kuhns, whose work lay principally in Aesthetics. Dick never seemed to me to be a real philosopher, because he wasn't crazy, but he had a very distinguished career.

Art Danto was what I thought a philosopher ought to be -- quirky, quixotic, original, very bright, someone whose next remark could never be predicted. When I showed up, Arthur had a problem, and he turned to me to solve it for him. It seems that an editor at Harper Books named Fred Wieck had conceived the idea of bringing out a series of big, handsome books lavishly bound in half calf with the general title Harper Guides. There would be a Harper Guide to Art, a Harper Guide to History, a Harper Guide to Music, and so forth. Arthur had been recruited to edit the Harper Guide to Philosophy. I asked Wieck once who would ever read these books, since I could not imagine assigning one in a course. "Well," he said, giving me some insight into the deeper logic of the publishing world, "we are aiming more at the book buying than at the book reading public." Apparently Harper's sales division had ascertained that there was a gap on the shelves of Middle American living rooms waiting to be filled.

The Harper Guide to Philosophy was to consist of ten extended essays, each laying out developments on the forefronts of one or another of the main fields of philosophy. Arthur had rounded up a truly impressive team of people to do the essays. Bernard Williams had agreed to do one on ethics, Norwood Hanson had said yes to the philosophy of science, Richard Wollheim would do aesthetics, and so on. But Isaiah Berlin had just turned down the political philosophy essay, and Arthur was a little desperate. When I showed up, he asked me whether I would do it. "What is the advance?" I asked him, thinking, as I always did in those days, about how I was going to pay for the analysis. "Five hundred dollars," he replied, "payable on signing." That would cover more than a month of sessions. "I'll do it," I said, "when do you want the essay?" "Is the end of next summer too soon?" he asked. "You'll have it" I promised.

Charlie Parsons was not showing up until the following year. I think he had a fellowship or a year off.

And then there was Sidney.

Sidney Morgenbesser, when I got to Columbia, was a forty-four year burly, handsome man with a broad face and an even broader New York accent. Sidney had studied at CCNY and then at Penn under Nelson Goodman. He had also been ordained as a Rabbi after completing his studies at Jewish Theological Seminary, though he did not actually believe in God. He was ferociously brilliant, polymathically learned, witty, charming, deeply moral, a man whom it was impossible not to love. Sidney published very little in his life, but he generated ten thousand wonderful stories that are part of the folklore of philosophy, of Columbia, and of New York City. He was probably the best unpublished philosopher since Socrates. These memoirs of my Columbia days will contain many Morgenbesser stories, beyond those I have already told, although in deference to my readers, I will try not to repeat any that are already well known. The Wikipedia entry on Sidney has a lovely selection of them, which I commend to you.

This was not the first time I was meeting Sidney. In late 1949, I visited my big sister, Barbara, at Swarthmore College, where she was a student, as part of my very limited look at possible colleges for myself [once again, see Memoirs, Volume One, Chapter One -- blog post June 28, 2009]. Barbara took me along to a philosophy class being taught by a dynamic young Assistant Professor. It was Sidney.

Before I start with the Sidney stories, there is one thing I want to say that is deeply important, and has no punch line at all. Sidney was morally and politically engagé all his life, a fact that earned my total respect and admiration. But Sidney taught me something that I have carried with me ever since I learned it from him, though I suspect he never realized he was teaching it to me and to the rest of the world. Quite simply, it is that friendship is more important than ideology. Whether I agreed with Sidney or not, I felt loved by him, and that warmed me in a way that no encounter with any other philosopher has done. The very last time I saw Sidney was in the early '90s. I had been invited to speak at Columbia, and Sidney showed up. I chose to deliver a paper I had prepared a bit earlier for delivery at an academic retreat of the University of Durban-Westville, in a resort in the Drakensberg in South Africa. Sidney raised his hand after I was done and posed a series of very pointed questions that contained a major criticism of my thesis. Then he smiled and waved his hands as if to say, "Well, none of that really matters. I am just happy to see you." His mind could not allow a mistake to pass unchallenged, but his heart refused to let the matter lie there. Sidney died six years ago, and though I had not seen him in more than a decade, I felt a sharp pang of loss when I heard the news.


The Rooster said...

Thank you for these wonderful stories! Was David Sidorsky in the department at the time?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

wait for it. he is coming up.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing all of these wonderful stories with us. And how right you are: true friendship is invaluable.

Tom Cathcart said...

Bob, I just read an early entry about the Kant group at Harvard. Small world department: Eloise's mentor is a nursing theorist named Patricia Benner; one of her mentors, in turn, is Bert Dreyfus. I met Dreyfus a few years ago through
Eloise and Patricia but had no idea he was part of the famous Kant group.
Tom Cathcart

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I learned long ago that there are really only about seventy-three people in the world. Talk about degrees of separation!

Matt said...

That's funny about various philosophers being sane or not. Near the end of Joseph Heath's nice new book on economics there's a funny story about the prevalence of crazy among philosophers that you may enjoy.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Does he happen to mention the prevelance of irrelevant among economists?

Anonymous said...

Beware of looking at one's facial expression to get a glimpse of their soul. One might just be looking at the bunion on another person's foot when one doth so engage in soul searching.

Nevertheless, a very engaging story.

Anonymous said...

I hope you won't mind if I barrage you with questions. I'm intensely curious about the history of Columbia's philosophy department.

Issac Levi once told me that the School of General Studies used to have its own philosophy department, housed elsewhere. Was there any interaction between the departments?

Someone also told me that what's now the seminar room was once Dewey's office, and I've passed that tidbit along to several other people. Is that right?

Speaking of Dewey, I would have assumed that his legacy was still palpable when you arrived but you haven't mentioned him yet. Was he a distant memory?

I'm assuming Mary Mothersill was already at Barnard. I'd enjoy hearing your reminiscences of her. I've only heard about her ferocious fights with the Columbia department towards the end of her life. I assume that things were different in the beginning.

It sounds like you encountered far less antisemitism at Columbia than at Harvard. Is that because there was less antisemitism in general in the academy a decade later? Or was it something specific about Columbia and Harvard?

I also can't help from asking an extremely mundane question about your course load. If all of the people you listed taught two graduate courses each year, how was the department able to offer enough undergraduate courses, especially if members of the department were also contributing to the core curriculum? Was there a small army of undergraduate lecturers? Or just few students interested in philosophy classes? I can only imagine the outrage when everyone was asked to teach one graduate course and three undergraduate courses...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

John, You have asked more questions than I can answer, but I will have a shot at it.

1. There were three separate faculties -- graduate, undergraduate, and General Studies, and everyone was expected to be a member of two of them.By the time I got there, I don't believe there were any people with jobs teaching philosophy solely in GS.

2. I never heard that the seminar room had been Dewey's office, though there was a picture of him on the wall. By 1964, his influence was not really anywhere to be seen.

3. Mary was there as was Sue Larson. Mary was a very impressive person, clearly a better philosopher than some of the people in the department, but when it was proposed that she teach a course in the department [by me? I am not sure], there was very strong opposition. I always thought the opposition was because she was a woman, but there was clearly history there that I did not know.

4. Columbia had a long history of anti-semitism, but by the time I arrived, even though I believe Barzun was anti-semitic, none of it affected me.

5. Almost no one in the department taught in the core curriculum. We all taught two graduate and two undergraduate courses a year, which generated enougn undergrad courses to keep the major afloat. The larger issue of the enmity between the graduate faculty of Columbia and those,like Trilling, who made the College their world, is an important story, but not mine to tell, as I was really unconnected with it.

The shift in the teaching load occurred after I left, and I had not heard about it until your comment.

Thanks for the intefest in the blog.

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