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Saturday, May 29, 2010


Volume Two, Chapter Five
The M. I. T. professorship was a major professional advancement for Cindy, of course, and she settled into her new department very quickly and happily. But the member of the family who took the most immediate advantage of our move to Belmont was Patrick. He had advanced so rapidly as a chess player that even the adult tournaments in Western Massachusetts offered no real challenge. The strongest player in the entire Pioneer Valley area was a man named David Lees, whose USCF rating of 2207 placed him just barely in the ranks of Masters. But Boston was home to a number of strong players, including a man named John Curdo, who had attained Senior Master status and regularly won local tournaments.
Garfield Road was at the top of Belmont Hill, a goodly walk from the center of town, where you could catch a bus that ran direct to Harvard Square. Many of the Belmont parents actually forbade their children to go to Harvard Square, convinced, I suppose, that they would be corrupted by the counterculture and end up drug addicts or bums, or, what was worse, Democrats. But Cindy and I were enchanted by the thought that our boys would have The Square at their disposal, and readily agreed that Patrick, at age twelve, was ready to launch out on his own. Patrick had run a paper route during his last year or so in Northampton, and since he was extremely careful with his money, he had a little nest egg that he could commit to the project of getting to know Boston.
In those days, kids could ride the T for a dime. Patrick conceived the plan of exploring Boston one stop at a time. The first day. he caught the bus to Harvard Square, paid his dime onto the T, and rode one stop to Central Square. Then he got out and walked around, seeing what Central Square had to offer. The next trip, he rode a second stop to Kendall, and did the same thing. We told him which lines he was allowed to explore, and which we wanted him to stay away from, and little by little he learned the ins and outs of Boston. Right away, he found the Boylston Chess Club, one block from the Boston Common, which was the headquarters in Boston for serious chess. One of the attractive characteristics of the chess world is that it cares only about one thing: how well do you play? Patrick may have been a twelve year old kid, but he was a serious player, and it took very little time over the board for him to establish his bona fides. Reaching out in another direction, which involved changing at Park Street Under to a trackless trolley, he discovered Newbury Street, which offered an Au Bon Pain on the top of the Prudential Center where he could get his favorite buns, and a store devoted entirely to chess books and memorabilia. Patrick had hit the big time.
Many of you may be familiar with a book called Searching for Bobby Fischer that tells the story of another chess prodigy, Josh Waitzkin. It was made into a movie with Ben Kingsley playing Bruce Pandolfini, the famous chess teacher who took little Josh under his wing. As you can imagine, I watched the movie with a very personal interest. What struck me most powerfully was how different Patrick's chess development had been from Josh's. Josh's story, I think, was typical of that of many chess prodigies. Living in New York City, the home of big time American chess, he was spotted as a little boy and taken up into a serious program of chess development at a point when Patrick was still going to the Thursday evening meetings with Dwayne Catania, or playing in weekend Swiss tournaments the strongest player in which, on a special day, was David Lees. Patrick never so much as saw a real International Master or Grandmaster until he moved to Boston, and even then, they were as scarce as white rhinos. I have always believed, contrary to what one might imagine, that his relative isolation in the early years was both emotionally healthy and also quite possibly beneficial for the evolution of his talent.
It was not until he was fourteen that Patrick became a Master, but playing in Boston and New York, his USCF rating soared. Pretty soon he as a Senior Master, and by the time he was in high school, he was regularly winning State and National Junior Championships. I think he earned his first International Master Norms while still in high school. Once he passed the milestone of Master, the USCF started to take notice of him. He was awarded a scholarship that paid for a grandmaster, Edmar Mednis, to spend some sessions with him, coaching him and promoting his development. I recall quite vividly the first meeting with Mednis, which was conducted in our guest bedroom. Mednis did not set up a chess board or talk openings and moves. Instead, he talked to Patrick about the central idea of chess, which, he said, was to search for the truth. I sat in on that first session, and I am afraid I was extremely sceptical of Mednis' New Age sounding patter. That just showed how little I understood competitive chess.
Here is what Mednis was trying to get Patrick to understand. In a Swiss style tournament of the sort Patrick was accustomed to, draws are death, because the structure of the tournament almost guarantees that someone will rack up a string of wins, if only by luck. Draws pretty much consign you to fifth or sixth place. So even very strong players competing for the prize money take chances, making a risky or unsound move in hopes of tricking their opponents into blunders in time pressure. This, Mednis was saying, is not the way to learn to play chess at the highest level. It is not "looking for the truth." Heavyweight tournaments, in which Grandmasters compete against one another, are almost never Swisses. They are invitational round robin tournaments in which each player plays each other player once. In tournaments of that sort, draws are perfectly acceptable. They are a kind of marking time. The real no no is a loss. Many times, in a high powered round robin, the player who wins has a good many draws plus several wins, but no losses. If you want to play competitively at that level, you must develop the ability to recognize when a position does not offer winning chances, and patiently play completely solid chess to guarantee a draw. if you do that -- if you look for the truth -- the winning chances will present themselves, and you will then take advantage of them to notch up a win. This was a completely new way of thinking about chess for Patrick, and it was his success in mastering it that enabled him to move steadily to the forefronts first of American chess and then of world chess.
Even though I was teaching at UMass, Cindy was teaching at MIT, and we were living in Belmont, we really thought of ourselves in those early days as returning to the Harvard Square community in which both of us had spent so many years. Shortly after the new semester started, we decided to have an elegant little dinner party for some of the people we knew at Harvard. We invited Barry and Betty Moore, Bob and Barbara Nozick, and Jack and Marnie Rawls. During my marriage to Cindy, I pretty much followed her tastes in furnishings, which had in turn been shaped by those of her parents. This meant that our home ran to English and American antiques, fine china, and silver dinner service. Before dinner, we gathered in our elegantly appointed living room for drinks and conversation. Very quickly, all of the men gathered at the north end of the room, where they stood talking seriously, and all of the women sat at the south end chatting cheerfully. I was appalled. We had just come from the Pioneer Valley, where nothing like this ever happened at a party. Somewhat belligerently, I walked to the south end and sat down with the ladies, but by every trick of body language available to them, they managed to communicate that they were not amused and that my place was with the menfolk. Since I was the host, and did not want to cast a pall over the evening, I drifted back to the men. I have a pretty good memory for conversations, but I cannot recall a single thing that was said that evening.
When the Fall semester started, I settled into a routine of commuting out to Amherst. My teaching schedule was easily arranged for two or three days, so I could work at home and spend time with my boys. From Belmont Hill, I could get directly out onto Route 2, which, after a series of traffic lights, turned into a fast drive to rte 202 and another twenty minutes or so to the University. I could make it in an hour and forty five minutes, and since I was always going counter traffic -- out of town in the morning, when everyone was flooding into Boston, and in to town when everyone was leaving -- it was usually a pretty easy commute. I was by now so alienated from the Philosophy Department that I had no inclination at all to spend time there, so I simply drove out, taught my classes, and drove home.
There was of course one small problem. During one of its recurrent budget crises, the UMass Administration had removed all of the phones from the offices of the faculty in Humanities and Social Sciences. Their intention was honorable, no doubt. They were desperately trying to avoid having to fire faculty, and I think they reflected that since they never felt the need to call us in Bartlett Hall, we could probably get on without the phones. One could always make local calls from the Department office, but if I wanted to call home, which as a long distance call was not authorized, I had to go to a phone in the basement and feed coins into it. I recall being invited to speak at Trinity University in San Antonio, Tx. As I was chatting with the members of the Philosophy Department before my talk, I mentioned that we did not have phones in our offices. They obviously saw this as an admirable evidence of monastic dedication. When I tried to explain that we really wanted phones, but the university wouldn't put them in, I could see in their eyes the nervous thought, "This man is not quite stable." It was hard to explain.
The Brandeis course I taught that Fall was really just a way for the Department to take a look at me. I found Brandeis itself a bit odd. Located in Waltham, a short drive from Belmont, it is a wealthy private University, but quite different in feel from Chicago or the Ivy League. The first thing that struck me was that seemingly every bit of masonry or stonework or ironwork had a plaque on it with the name of the donor whose gift had made it possible. Harvard and Columbia had buildings named after donors, of course, and UMass had buildings named after politicians, but Brandeis had benches named after donors, doors named after donors. I fully expected to find urinals in the men's rooms named after donors. I was not sure how I was going to like teaching there, but anything would be an improvement on the UMass Philosophy Department.
Fred Sommers pushed ahead with plans to hire me, and the department was pretty much unanimous, but early on there were indications that things might not go smoothly. The first sign was a comment from the Provost when Sommers went to him to talk about their desire to hire me. "Why do you want another Marcuse?," he asked. I was flattered by the question when Fred reported it to me -- I thought it was the greatest compliment I had ever been paid -- but I had the good sense to realize that it was not meant positively. When the appointment moved up the administrative ladder to the Provost's office, the standard next step was to convene an ad hoc committee [shades of Harvard]. Marver Bernstein, the President, put together a committee that was, to put it mildly, not likely to be sympathetic, including as it did such well-known conservative figures as Charles Fried and Sidney Hook. Bernstein at one point offered the opinion that "Wolff did some good work when he was young, but now he is burned out."
I was under great strain that Spring. My father, who was both an alcoholic and a very heavy smoker, had been going steadily downhill since my mother's death almost six years earlier. He had become seriously weakened, and finally had to be hospitalized by my uncle Anoch, who was his doctor, and was part-owner of a proprietary hospital in Queens, New York. It became clear that he could not possibly continue to live on his own in the home he and my mother had bought forty-one years earlier, so on May 3rd, I drove to New York to see my father and find a nursing home for him.
My father had behaved with very great courage and selflessness in those years after my mother's death. His stubborn decision to stay in the house alone was clearly driven by his desire not to be a burden on either Barbara or me, even though he was very overweight, and weakened by the alcohol and cigarettes. One day, he went out to sit for a while on the front stoop of the little house, as he had done so often over the years. It started to rain, and when he tried to stand up to go inside, he found that he could not. He sat for a long time in the rain, getting soaked and risking pneumonia, before he could pull himself up and get indoors. When I heard about the incident, I was horrified and terribly guilty. I knew that I had allowed him to keep any burden from falling on my shoulders, simply turning a blind eye to his obvious need.
On May 4th, I visited him in the hospital. He had a tube down his throat to permit him to breath, so he could not speak, but he was sitting up, and I knew he could understand what I was saying to him. After telling him that I had arranged for him to go to a nursing home when he was released from the hospital, I stroked his head and told him that I loved him. Then I said, "You were a better father to me than your father was to you. No man can be asked to do more than that. I will try to be a better father to my sons than you were to me." Then I kissed him. Early the next morning, he died.
The affair ended badly at Brandeis. The ad hoc committee, despite its rightward tilt, told the President that they ought to hire me. Bernstein, who was apparently unhappy with the cost of a graduate program in Philosophy for which he could see no use, thereupon summarily not only vetoed my appointment but cancelled the entire doctoral program. Coming on the heels of my father's death, the Brandeis disaster marked a low point in my life. Only later did I come to see that Bernstein's decision was a blessing. Over the years, when I have told this story, I have always concluded it by saying that it ended happily, inasmuch as several years later, Marver Bernstein was killed in a hotel fire in Tel Aviv. But I think it is not appropriate for me to write that into my memoirs. So I won't.
Barbara and I were my father's sole heirs, and we had been designated co-executors of his estate. but the task of arranging for the sale of the family house and managing the paperwork fell to me. Fortunately, Bernie Ackerman, a family friend and lawyer in the neighborhood, agreed to help me. Neither Barbara nor I wanted any of the furniture or personal effects. With her consent, I took two portraits that I had grown up with, one of my mother and one of my father, both when they were young adults. They are on the walls of my study here in Chapel Hill as I write these words. Bernie put the word out in the local synagogue that the house was for sale, and he thought it would go quickly. Since I had left home thirty-one years earlier, the neighborhood had slowly turned into an Orthodox Jewish community, and was actually designated an eruv.
While I waited for a bid to come in, I went up to the attic where I had sat after my mother's death and pawed through the accumulated boxes. There I came quite unexpectedly on a treasure trove of family letters, papers, and photographs going back generations. It seemed that my mother had been the unofficial family archivist. There were hundreds of letters between my grandfather and my grandmother from the years when he was a leader of the Socialist Party in New York City. There were more hundreds of letters between my parents during their courting years, as well as every letter that Barbara or I had ever written home. I knew that these things could not be thrown away, even though I had no idea then what to do with them, so I boxed them all up and took them back to Belmont with me.
Finally, Bernie reported that he had a buyer for the house, although not from the Orthodox Jewish community, as he had expected. The little brick row house that my parents had bought in 1940 for $5999 went for $80,000. My parents' big risky gamble had actually paid off. But the joke came at the closing. Apparently [I was not there] the new owner showed up with a suitcase full of small bills and the lawyers had to spend hours counting it to make sure it added up to $80,000. No one ever said anything, but who pays for a house in small bills?
Now that I was living in the Boston area, and wasn't writing books at a mad pace, I decided I might as well pick up some money [I do seem to have been unusually eager to amass bits of wealth, albeit never in very great amounts]. I contacted Harvard Summer School, which was always happy to exploit another academic, and in 1982, I taught two courses there. I continued to teach each summer for a total of five years -- '82 through '86. It was not particularly ennobling work, but it generated some extra income and got me out of the house. Typically, for eight weeks each summer I would drive down to Harvard Square five mornings a week and teach two one hour classes. Then the rest of the day was free. By this time, I had taught so many classes that my preparation could be limited to asking myself, as I drove the fifteen minutes into the Square, what I was going to say that day.
Those of you who have spent some time in Cambridge may be familiar with the Harvard Cooperative Society, The Coop, a large store that dominates Harvard Square. Ever since my days as an Instructor, I have each year bought a little black Coop date book, in which I record all of my appointments, class meetings, social events, and family obligations. Since these books are produced for an academic community, they begin quite naturally in the middle of the year and end in the middle of the next year. As the years have gone by, I have kept most of them, although there are some regrettable lacunae. By now, I have forty or so, stored in a box that originally held materials from a Copy Cop copy shop in Boston. As I write these memoirs, I sift through the box for the books from the period I am memorializing, checking them for names, dates, and people. When I page through the books from my UMass years, one name appears repeatedly that has not yet found its way into these memoirs, and I think the time has come to give it the attention it deserves.
Milton Cantor is now Professor Emeritus in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is a distinguished chronicler of left-wing political movements in America who has written many books, the best of which in my judgment is his 1978 study, The Divided Left. Milton is the Eeyore to my Tigger --perennially pessimistic about the present and future of progressive politics, as I am unjustifiably, irrepressibly optimistic. Rather surprisingly, Milton is also a spectacular swimmer who, for many years, taught classes at the UMass pool. Milton and I are polar opposites in another way besides our temperament. Whereas I plunge deeply into the internal bureaucratic politics of any university at which I am teaching, Milton, like many academics, views his university merely as his home base, and he looks outward rather than inward for his professional involvements.
I have known Milton for almost forty years, and he is my dearest friend. I am not a terribly outgoing person, for all that I have a cheerful demeanor and an energetic presence. As I have several times indicated, I live much of my life in my head. Ever since I was fourteen, my most intense and absorbing human connection at any time has been with the woman with whom I am romantically involved -- Susie from my fourteenth to my nineteenth years, Cindy from my twenty-third year until the time I have now reached in my story. I had good friends in high school, I suppose, but I never saw them again once I went to college. I had two good friends in college, but I have seen nothing of one of them since graduating and very little of the other. In the teaching positions I have held, I have been very friendly with my colleagues, but each time I have moved away to take a new position, I have almost immediately lost touch with those I have left behind. I am now seventy-six years old, and save for my sister, Barbara, and my sons, there are only two people who have over the years remained an important emotional presence in my life: my second wife, and Milton Cantor.
Milton has a genius for friendship that is matched, in my experience, only by that of Sidney Morgenbesser. When I first met Milton, shortly after I arrived at UMass, he began to include me in the broad circle of the friends with whom he periodically arranged lunches. My early phone conversations with Milton were a trifle puzzling because he regularly refers to people only by their first names. During one call, he told me he had had lunch in New York with Dwight and Andre. "Oh yes," I said, frantically trying to figure out who these two folks were whom I was apparently supposed to know. It took me a while to figure out that Milton was talking about the radical social critic Dwight MacDonald and Andre Schiffrin, then the editor of Pantheon Books. This was not name dropping, let me hasten to explain. It is just that Milton sees the entire world as one big Upper West Side Theater for Ideas. There is an endearing affection in Milton's relationships that in no way diminishes the intensity of his political commitments. He is the only person in the world who calls me "Bobby."
Through Milton, I met a number of Amherst College's leading lights, including his old mentor from Columbia, Henry Steel Commager. By the time I met Commager, he was already seventy, and he grew crustier as the years passed. Milton, who was then in his early forties, very much played the acolyte, although I always found Milton more interesting than Commager himself. Also part of that circle of Amherst College faculty then were the political theorist Gorge Kateb, who later went to Princeton, and Norman Birnbaum, who left Amherst to go to Georgetown. Norman had actually been the Head Section Man when I took Soc Sci 2, Sam Beer's great General Education course at Harvard. Norman was writing his doctoral dissertation on the fall of the Weimar Republic, one of the topics in the course. Beer invited Norman to give a guest lecture, and Norman seized the opportunity to present virtually his entire dissertation in fifty-three minutes. When we filed into New Lecture Hall, Norman stood up, told us to put away our pens, and then unleashed a hurricane of words. We all shrank back against our seats as the waves of sound washed over us. I do not think any of us could have repeated a thing Norman said that day, but we cheered him to the echo.
The old Reader's Digest used to have a little feature they called "The Most Unforgettable Character I have Ever Met," and Norman would have been a candidate for an entry. He was the most engagingly self-absorbed person I have ever known. One of John Kenneth Galbraith's lighter literary efforts was his little 1963 book, The McLandress Dimension. It purported to be the report of a scientific study measuring the amount of time certain well known people could go without thinking about themselves. As I recall, the person found to have the shortest McLandress factor was Charles de Gaulle. Norman certainly would have given de Gaulle a run for his money. If you ran into Norman and told him that you had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, his response would be, "Have I told you about the woman I am seeing?" My favorite Norman story comes from a dinner party given by Felix and Shulamith Oppenheim. Felix was a professor in the UMass Political Science Department. Shulamith, very much Felix's junior, had been his student. Felix's greatest claim to fame was that he was the son of the Oppenheim who, with Carl Hempel, wrote a famous article on what came to be known in the trade as The Covering Law Model of Scientific Explanation. Never mind that. It doesn't matter. Anyway, there we sat, eight or ten of us at a circular table, all chattering away simultaneously so that there was a cacophony of overlapping conversations. Suddenly, as sometimes happens, all of us paused simultaneously for breath, and there was a momentary lull. All except Norman, whose voice boomed out, "As I was walking through Red Square in Moscow the other day ..." He was absolutely mystified when we all burst out laughing.


David said...

How did you meet Bob Nozick? What is your opinion of him as a philosopher?

Matt said...

I fully expected to find urinals in the men's rooms named after donors.

About 8 or so years ago the bathrooms in the basement of the main library at Penn (where the undergraduate study center is, and the reserve desk) were remodeled. The old and rather dingy men's room was done quite nicely, with fancy urinals. Next to the urinals is a little plaque that says, "The relief you are about to experience was made possible by a donation from X". I wish I could remember the donor's name, but I found it quite a funny thing to do. And, in the law school there, you can do something they call "endowing a chair", but is perhaps more properly called "endowing a seat"- for a fairly large but not huge donation you can have your name put on one of the seats in the large lecture halls. I'm told that some donors were annoyed that they couldn't "endow" the particular seat they had sat in, as someone else had already done so.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

David, I think, but I am not sure, that I actually first met Bob Nozick at a meeting at Columbia that he attended when he was rather young. Bob was ferociously smart. He was very, very imaginative, sketching ideas rapidly, imagining possible conceptual pathways rather than trying for rigorous arguments. I thought he got seduced by the dark side -- by the attention he was paid by rightwing think tanks after he published ANARCHY, STATE, AND UTOPIA. On Wednesday, on my other blog [Formal Methods in Political Philosophy] I will post a link to the essay I wrote for the ARIZONA LAW REVIEW on that book. Take a look at it.

Matt: My son, Tobias, is a Professor at UPenn Law School. I must ask him about that. I love that story. Bigtime orchestras, I know, have endowed chairs, and I even saw, at an animal hospital to which I took my late cat, Murray, a walk on which there were paving stones donated by people in honor of their pets, with the name of the pet and the donor on it. So maybe I shouldn't be so snarky about Brandeis.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"I thought he got seduced by the dark side -- by the attention he was paid by rightwing think tanks after he published ANARCHY, STATE, AND UTOPIA."

Seduced into... doing what? Writing _Philosophical Explanations_?

It's not as though he spent the years after ASU writing hack-ish right-wing political philosophy... or any right-wing political philosophy... or any political philosophy. I never knew him, but from the written record I get just the opposite impression-- whatever attention of the sort you mention was insufficient to even hold his attention on political philosophy, to say nothing of leading him to adopt a particular line.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You may be right. Perhaps I have misjudged him. I certainly hope you are right.

Michael said...

Not sure if you'd be interested in this, but another blog (Perverse Egalitarianism)is hosting a reading group on Salomon Maimon's Essay on Transcendental Philosophy, which was written as a response/critique to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Apparently, even though it was first published in 1790, it's only just now been published in English.
Here's a link to the reading group:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Michael. If I am not mistaken, it was Maimon's translation of portions of Hume's Dialogues Concerning natural Religion, privately circulated, that made kant aware of Hume's refutaions of the proofs for the existence of God shortly before he completed the First Critique.