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Tuesday, May 25, 2010


With this installment ,I start posting longer segments. I was getting too far ahead of myself, and there is lots more to come.

That was all well and good, but I still had not written the textbook. Since I really did not want to, I kept putting it off. Finally, the summer of '74 arrived, and I realized I was going to have to take steps. There was no question of paying the money back! It had been spent long since. Clearly, I would have to turn in something. It did not have to be great. It just had to look like a book. If they decided not to publish it, that was their lookout. How long did an Intro Philosophy text have to be? I figured eight chapters: What is Philosophy?, Ethics, Social Philosophy, Political Philosophy [I thought I could get away with dividing those two, making it easier on me], Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Art. It was the beginning of July, and the book was due on Labor Day. Eight chapters, eight weeks. A chapter a week. I decided to start each chapter with a brief biography of one of the great philosophers, and then introduce the subject matter of the chapter by talking about his contribution to that branch of philosophy. I would include little snippets from the great philosophers in the body of the text, as a way of giving the students at least the flavor of the subject as I knew it. Since there was not going to be much time for library research -- never my long suit anyway -- I hired a really bright and energetic graduate student, Karen Soderlind, to be my legs.

And away I went, sitting in my lovely third floor office, hunting and pecking on the old standard typewriter. By the end of the summer I had a book. I sent the manuscript in, and breathed a sigh of relief. No one would be dunning me for the six thousand dollars. I went down to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, just across the George Washington Bridge, for a production meeting with the editorial staff. They had just published an elementary Math textbook called About Mathematics, so we decided to call my book About Philosophy. The cover would be an array of little portraits of the eight beginning-of-the-chapter figures.

To my delight and astonishment, the book was a success. Apparently, I had managed just the right tone and level of difficulty. After a while, Prentice Hall wanted a new edition. It was not as though anything new had happened in the field. Philosophy grows slowly, after all. Sometimes five hundred years go by without much change. But students were beginning to buy used copies, and Prentice Hall, like all textbook publishers, wished to discourage such outrageous behavior by bringing out new editions of its texts periodically. The years have passed, and editors at Prentice Hall have come and gone. About Philosophy is now in its tenth edition and its fifteenth Philosophy Editor. Next year, it will be thirty five, and the current editor is already making noises about an eleventh edition. It has been a steady money maker, but the truth is that to me it is something more than a cash cow. Liberated from all constraints by the circumstances in which I wrote it, About Philosophy became a statement from my heart of what I conceive philosophy to be. Like In Defense of Anarchism, it is a personal statement, not a contribution to scholarship. If students can still find their way into philosophy through its pages, I am content.

In 1971, Jack Rawls published A Theory of Justice, which soon came to be recognized as the most important contribution to political philosophy by an American in the twentieth century. Some time after it appeared, the publisher sent me a complimentary copy of the big book with the dark purplish cover. I had already published an article about the early version of Jack's theory, and I knew pretty well what I thought about the enterprise, but I said to myself, "You consider yourself a political philosopher. Pretty clearly, you need to read the whole thing." I put the volume by my side of the bed and started reading a little bit each evening before going to sleep. There seemed to be a thousand words on every page, and there were a great many pages, each one of which had the power to send me off to dreamland. I managed to get through about 130 pages and gave up. Some while later, I sucked it up and started again. This time I made it through maybe 160 pages, but I just could not keep myself going.

Finally, in the fall of 1975, I decided to offer a graduate course called "The Use and Abuse of Formal Models in Political Philosophy," a subject that had engaged me since my abortive attempt to publish my book on deterrence theory and military strategy. By this time, Bob Nozick had published his sprightly, engaging, utterly mad book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which was as easy to read as Jack's was difficult. I put together a dauntingly challenging course, in which I proposed to take my students first through Kenneth Arrow's masterful monograph, Social Choice and Individual Values, and then through much of the standard mathematical treatment of Game Theory, Games and Decisions by Duncan Luce and Howard Raiffa. Once the students had that material under their belts, I would lecture on Rawls and Nozick, showing how each of them had misused the formal materials in his book. I had a covert motive in teaching the course. I figured that if I assigned Rawls' book, I would have to read it all the way through.

I knew from long experience that if I was going to lecture on formal materials, with proofs and all, I needed to prepare elaborate formal lecture notes. No off the cuff winging it. That way lay serious classroom embarrassment. I prepared lecture notes that, by the end of the semester, filled three spring binders. I tried to keep ahead of myself, so that while I was lecturing on ordinal and cardinal preference orders, I was preparing my notes on Arrow's General Possibility Theorem, and while I was lecturing on Game Theory, I would be preparing my notes on Rawls. The plan worked, at least at first. Confronted by the knowledge that I would be walking into a classroom and lecturing on A Theory of Justice, I actually managed to read the whole thing straight through. After the opening 150 pages or so, I found it stultifyingly boring, but I persevered.

Then, on October 19th, the phone rang. I answered it, my father's voice, so soft that I could barely hear it. "Rob, it is very bad." My parents had been getting ready to go out for the evening. When my father went upstairs to get my mother, he found her lying on her bed. She had died instantly of a heart attack. It was not her first heart attack. That had been in 1950, during my Freshman year at Harvard. Born with the century in 1900, she was seventy-five.

I hurried down to Queens to be with my father, who was devastated. They had been childhood sweethearts, married for fifty-four years. I do not think he had ever even considered what he would do without her, were she to go first. I had brought my work with me, in part as a protection against the grief I was feeling. Late that night, after my father finally went to bed in that little row house he and my mother had bought thirty-five years earlier, I went up to the unfinished attic, which was lit only by a raw, uncovered light bulb. I sat on a box of old books for more than a hour, trying to master the details of the proof of L. E. J. Brouwer's Fixed Point Theorem, the essential step in von Neuman's proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory.

The funeral was held at the same funeral parlor on Queens Boulevard from which my grandmother and other family members had been buried. My sister, Barbara, came in from California. A strange thing happened at the memorial service that preceded the drive to the cemetery. It was pretty clear that everyone expected my mother to be remembered as a good wife and mother and faithful companion of my father, the intellectual, the high school principal, the brains in the couple. But I had always thought of my mother as smarter, sharper, more genuinely intellectual than my father, for all that she had never finished high school. Her skill at Scrabble was legendary; my father would not play with her, for fear of losing. Apparently, my sister had the same perception, for independently of one another, we prepared remarks remembering our mother as a genuinely smart and interesting woman in her own right, not merely as the adjunct to the Brain. Although he said nothing, I am convinced that my father's nose was seriously out of joint. My sister and I had not been at all close for years, in part because Cindy was so unwelcoming to her in our home, but on that October day in New York, we began to re-establish a warm and open connection that has persisted and strengthened to this day.

By the time I returned from the funeral, I was deep into the Game Theory lectures in my course, with the Rawls segment looming. My lecture notes were carefully organized in pen and ink, with headings and sub-headings and sub-sub-headings and important phrases, diagrams, and formulae all worked out on the page. I was taking no chances. When I started to make up my lecture notes on Rawls, I encountered a curious problem. Every time I tried to write a phrase or a key word, it came out on the page as a complete sentence. I would crumple up the sheet of paper and start again, but once again I found myself writing sentences. Finally, I panicked. "Look," I told myself, "you have to make up these lectures. If your brain wants to write sentences, then just write formal lectures and read them to the students. They won't like it, but you will get through."

On November 5, two weeks after the funeral, I began to write. I finished writing my lectures on November 29, just three weeks later. I read each lecture to my students as though I were presenting a paper at a conference. Sure enough, they were not too thrilled with being read at class after class. Then I moved on to Nozick's book, which I had no trouble reducing to carefully laid out lecture notes. Looking back on those months now, I am sure that my manic writing of the Rawls lectures was, more than anything else, a way of denying my pain at my mother's death.

The next semester, after I had settled down and come to terms with the death of my mother, I took out my spring binders of notes from the course and looked again at the Rawls lectures. It seemed to me that they constituted a short book. I had actually typed them out on the same old standard typewriter that was now my preferred tool for writing books. I found a secretarial service in downtown Northampton that would, for a fee, retype the pages on an IBM Selectric, state of the art in those days before computers. At Columbia, I had had a very good graduate student, Sandy Thatcher, who had left the program before finishing his degree and was now the Philosophy Editor at Princeton University Press. I sent him the manuscript and asked whether he thought it was a book. He said he did, and offered me a contract. On May 12, 1976, I signed the contract. After a bit of telephone brainstorming, we came up with the title Understanding Rawls. The book appeared the next year in both hard cover and paperback editions. I never read A Theory of Justice again.

Those were good years in Northampton. Our lives took on somewhat the feel of one of those old television family friendly sitcoms. I taught the boys how to ride bikes, running down Barrett Place holding on to the seat as one or the other of them pedaled madly and tried to stay upright. Once they mastered the bicycle, they would go on "explores," biking to parts of the city they have never seen. I had not the slightest fear for their safety. I recall one day walking downtown on Main Street with Cindy when around a corner came Patrick, on his bike. There he was, free, on his own, liberated from home and parents by the bicycle. Later on, as he grew a bit older, he even had a paper route.

My book lined pine paneled third floor study was an academic's heaven. It ran the length of the house from front to back, looking out both on Barrett Place and on a little patio between the family room and the new garage we had built during the renovations. To this day, I can recall the cool, sunlit Fall day, October 10, 1973, when I sat at my pedestal desk, with a tiny portable television set before me, watching the Mets beat the Reds in the fifth and final game of the playoffs for the National League Championship and listening to the spot announcements of Spiro Agnew's resignation. I knew that life had very little to offer that could be any better.

One day, I had a truly odd visitation. A member of the SUNY Buffalo Philosophy Department had called to ask whether I would be willing to meet with an exchange student visiting them from the Soviet Union. A Miss Tanya Snegirova, he said, was interested in anarchism, and wished to interview me. Of course I said I would be delighted, and in due course she found her way to my home office. She was writing her doctoral dissertation, she said, under the direction of Yuri Melville, who apparently specialized in American thought and letters. She had been assigned to study my philosophy. [I had this bizarre fantasy that Melville told five students to study Rawls, three to study Nozick, and poor Tanya was left with the gray and brown crayons.]

So we talked. She claimed to be interested in anarchism, but as she talked, I realized that "anarchism" to her was something that medieval Russian Orthodox monks had written about. Ms. Snegirova's English was quite good. Her father, she explained, was an army colonel who had arranged for her to study at a school that taught everything in English. Shades of the KGB. My books were in the library at Moscow State, it seemed, but they were under lock and key, and students needed special permission to get at them, so I pulled extra copies of a number of my books off my shelves and gave them to her to take home to Russia.

It was when I asked her about her husband that I hit pay dirt. She said that he was a sports reporter for Komsomolskaya Pravda, the Communist youth newspaper, and as a part of his job, he had actually interviewed Anatoly Karpov, the World Chess Champion. When seven year old Patrick learned that I had met the wife of a man who had interviewed Karpov, his eyes widened, and I could see that I had gained real status in the family.

In 1976, Patrick was old enough to join the Cub Scouts, and with a little urging from me, he agreed to sign up. I took him to the Jackson Street School on the day listed in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and walked up to a desk, behind which sat a lady signing kids in. When we approached, she said to me, with a meaningful look, "We really need a father to serve as Cub Master." Well, I didn't want to look bad in Patrick's eyes, so I said I would do it. For the next four years, I was the Cub Master of the Northampton Cub Scout Pack. The experience was fascinating, even though in a way I hated it. The Pack met each month in the basement of the Blessed Sacrament Church next to the high school. The real work was done by the Den Mothers, all of whom were serious Catholics. I think some of them had never actually met someone Jewish before. The planning meetings were held in our lovely Barrett Place home, where those ladies clearly felt religiously out of place.

My job as Cub Master might best be compared to that of Master of Ceremonies at a monthly party. I came on cheerful and upbeat, chivvying the boys to take part in model car races or cake bake auctions. The auctions, which were designed to raised money, presented a real challenge for me. Each year we would ask the boys to bake cakes, supposedly on their own, but of course really with major help from their parents. We would have a competition, the major goal of which was to have enough categories [biggest, smallest, tallest, shortest, ugliest, most beautiful] so that most of the boys could be declared winners. Then I would auction off the cakes.

I understood that the real goal of the auction was to make sure that each boy managed to win his own cake back, but not everyone was totally on board with that. One year, the priest from the church decided to come to the auction. He got more excited as I auctioned off the cakes, until things came to a head with one particular cake. I started the bidding at ten cents, and he threw in a bid of a quarter. The boy who had baked the cake said forty cents, and the priest came right back with fifty cents. Things went on that way, very spiritedly, until the boy bid two fifty. As the priest said two sixty in a soft voice, I saw the boy's mother shake her head at the boy. "I hear two fifty," I shouted in my best auctioneer's voice. 'Two sixty" the priest said, a little louder. "I still have two fifty," I shouted. "Two sixty" the priest almost screamed. "Sold to the highest bidder for two dollars and fifty cents," I chanted, bringing down my gavel with a bang that brooked no disagreement.

My favorite moment of the entire four years occurred during the so-called "Moving Up Ceremony," when the older boys who were ready for Boy Scouts "moved up" from Cub Scouting. The physical embodiment of this rite of passage was a pin that I presented to each boy who was moving up. As luck would have it, the Moving Up meeting occurred the same night that one of the Cub Scouts, Eddie Scagel, was due to get an award for Catholic Scouting. The award was memorialized by a Mass celebrated in the church upstairs. While the boys and the Den Mothers were attending Mass, I was downstairs setting up for the ceremony. I had conceived the idea of borrowing an archery butt from Look Park, and taping each pin to an arrow. My plan was that as each boy's name was read out, I would fire the arrow into the target with a Robin Hood flourish, after which the boy would pull the arrow from the butt and secure his pin.

I got everything ready a bit ahead of time, and went upstairs to watch the Mass. When I got there, I saw two lines of boys slowly making their way to the altar to receive the Body and the Blood of Christ. There at the end of one of the lines were Patrick and Toby. My first impulse was to rush down the aisle and grab them off the line, but then my atheist self kicked in, and I thought, "What's the difference? There is no God."

When we returned home that night, Cindy asked me how the meeting had gone. Cindy, you will recall, was a lapsed Catholic from a very seriously religious family. '" It was great," I said. "Patrick and Toby received Holy Communion." The blood drained from Cindy's face, she went as white as a sheet, and I thought she was going to faint.

In the late Spring of '77, I was driving home from campus one day listening to the local public radio station [WFCR or Five College Radio], when I heard a report that there were two at-large seats open on the Northampton School Committee for which there were no candidates in the upcoming election. Northampton has six Wards, and the School Committee has eight members -- one for each Ward and two at-large members who represent the entire city of 30,000 plus. I thought to myself, "Two seats and no candidates. I might be able to win an election like that." I announced for School Committee At-Large, but before too long, two other people stepped forward as candidates, and I was in a real race. One of the two was an old Northampton type who had been active in local politics for a long time, John Lawler. The other was a Smith College undergraduate who was a townie, a native of the city.

By this time, Charles and Maurianne Adams had sold their house to one of Cindy's young colleagues, David Paroissien, and his wife. They volunteered to be my campaign managers, and we launched a high powered campaign to win one of the two open seats. My campaign literature announced me as a veteran of the Yankee Division of the Army National Guard, Massachusetts' own, as the Cub Master of the Northampton Cub Scout Pack, as a father of two children in the public schools, and as a Professor at the State University. I thought it was probably better not to mention the anarchism, the atheism, and the incipient Marxism. We had bumper stickers, we had a radio spot that aired once, but my ace in the hole was Patrick. Since the seat was at-large, I had to campaign in every part of Northampton, which meant venturing into neighborhoods I had never visited. I took Patrick along with me as I rang doorbells and knocked on doors. I would always introduce "my son, Patrick," hoping that despite my New York Jewish accent, the voters might take me as Irish Catholic.

I think I was doing pretty well, until I got blindsided one morning by a Gazette reporter. He called me at seven a.m to ask whether I thought Smith College was doing enough for public education in the city. The question had never crossed my mind, but I thought the safe thing to say was that Smith College needed to do more. Several days later, I heard through the grapevine that a rumor was sweeping the Smith faculty that if elected, I was going to try to impose a special surtax, over and above the sizable real estate tax, on all members of the Smith College faculty. On election day, I came in third, thirty six votes behind the Smithie. I lost Ward Two, the locus of Smith College. We organized a recount that brought me within twelve votes, but it was not enough. My one venture into electoral politics was a failure. But it was not a total loss. From then on, when I walked down the street, people I had never met would say hello to me. One of them told me that I had run a good race, and maybe after I lived in town for another twenty or thirty years, I should try again.

As Patrick got better at chess, our games became rather tense. It was extremely important to Patrick to win, and he was good enough to tell when I deliberately threw a game. I tried first to limit us to one game a day, but that did not seem to drain any of the intensity out of the competition. By the time he was seven or eight, he was certainly my equal, and growing stronger daily. Luckily, I found a chess club for children run by a local tournament player named Dwayne Catania. Catania was not at all a strong player -- I think his USCF rating was about 1625 -- but he knew all about tournaments and ratings and the world of competitive chess. And he was not me. I stopped playing chess with Patrick and became his rooter, his support staff, his biggest fan, and his Daddy.

There is nothing glamorous about competitive chess, at least until you climb to the very highest level of international competition. It takes place on weekends in Holiday Inns and Best Western Motels. The tournaments at the level Patrick competed in for many years are organized on something called the Swiss System. All the entrants are listed according to their USCF ratings. Then the list is divided in half, and in the first round, the top player plays the player at the top of the second half, the second highest player plays the second player in the second half, and so forth. After the first round, there are three groups of players: those who won their first game, those who drew, and those who lost. Each group is divided and paired in the same way. In a five round Swiss, this process is repeated five times. In the last round, the two players who have won all of their previous games, if there are any, play for the tournament championship and the money prize, usually no more than a few hundred dollars. Then the USCF adjusts everyone's rating, and they all wait for the next tournament.

Patrick started out playing in scholastic tournaments -- kids in grades 1 to 6, and so forth, but he started winning those without much trouble and quickly graduated to adult tournaments in which he played as an equal against grownups. He did not like me to hover as he played, so I would drop him off and go home to wait until it was time to pick him up. If he won, he was happy, and it never occurred to him to call old Dad and tell him about the game, but if he lost, he would call, tears in his voice, and I would rush down to the motel to be with him. Very quickly, I discovered that what he needed at those moments was carbohydrates, specifically french fries. so we would make a MacDonald's run and I would drop him off back at the motel for his next game.

I have a thousand memories of those early days in Patrick's career, but one stands out. When he was ten or eleven, Patrick played a one day tournament in the little mill town of Athol, MA, on route 2 east of Amherst. It was a pretty marginal affair, but there really weren't that many tournaments in Western Mass, and Patrick was eager for any chance to raise his rating. The tournament was held in the recreation hall of the Union Twist Drill Co., a large brick structure sitting across a bridge from the center of town. There was no place to wait and nothing to do, so I found my way to a convenience store across the bridge and hung out until it was time to take Patrick home. He won at least one of his games. Years later, when he was all grown up, I reminisced about his early chess days, and reminded him of the Union Twist Drill Co. Without missing a beat, he said, "Yes, I pushed my queen's rook pawn to the eighth rank and queened it. After that it was easy to win." Like all great players, Patrick seems to have total recall of the games he has played, even in mill towns like Athol.

My alienation from the Philosophy Department led me more and more to seek teaching satisfactions elsewhere. STPEC flourished, and absorbed some of my energies, to be sure, but I really wanted to do some serious classroom teaching. In the Fall of 1976, I decided to offer a graduate course called "Classics of Critical Social Theory." I assigned Capital, Volume I, Theories of Value and Distribution Since Adam Smith, by Maurice Dobb, Freud's New Introductory Lectures and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Richard Wollheim's splendid book, Sigmund Freud, Philip Rieff's collection, Therapy and Technique, and Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia. Eighteen students signed up for the seminar, not one of whom was a doctoral student in philosophy.

I had read Volume I of Capital in preparation for the Social Studies tutorial I had taught with Barry Moore in '60-'61, but at that time I was quite unprepared to appreciate its power and subtlety, and my knowledge of economics, consisting almost entirely of a reading of Samuelson's text while on my wanderjahr [1954-55], did nothing to help me understand the theoretical issues with which Marx was grappling so brilliantly. I had, of course, taught Marx many times, but always the early Marx, the alienation shtick, "On the Jewish Question" and the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the Manifesto.

As I re-read Capital to teach it in the seminar, I had what I can, somewhat pretentiously, describe as an epiphany. I thought I could see how Marx was weaving together philosophical ideas from the Germany of his youth with the economics of the classical political economic tradition of Smith and Ricardo. I thought, too, that I could see the deeper theoretical reasons behind his choice of the extraordinary metaphorical language in which the opening chapters of Volume I are couched. On the spot, I decided that I wanted to undertake a full scale interpretation of Marx's hauptwerk that would bring into fruitful conjunction and interpenetration philosophy, history, ideology, mathematics, economics, and literary criticism. I was pretty sure that it would take me several volumes and a number of years to work it all out, but by then I had written or edited eighteen books and I was prepared to let a few years go by without another.

I did publish a handful of essays in those years, in addition to Understanding Rawls and About Philosophy. In '74, the Philosophical Forum carried "There's Nobody Here But Us Persons: The Denial of the Human Condition in the Liberal Tradition," which struck a blow for women's lib, among other things. I also wrote up my critique of Bob Nozick in an essay that appeared, of all places, in the Arizona Law Review. But the most curious thing to come from my typewriter in those years was yet another essay for the Journal of Philosophy, this one called "On Strasnick's 'Derivation' of Rawls' 'Difference' Principle." A young man named Steven Strasnick had written a doctoral dissertation in the Harvard Philosophy Department in which he claimed to be able to prove Rawls' Difference Principle by applying the methodology of Kenneth Arrow's great monograph, Social Choice and Individual Values. His dissertation committee consisted of Jack Rawls as Director and Bob Nozick and Kenneth Arrow as second readers! Strasnick got a job at Stanford on the strength of this impressive line-up, and published the heart of his proof in JPhil.

I had gone to Athens, Ohio to give a talk, and on the flight home, we got hung up over Hartford-Bradley because of weather. While we circled, I pulled out my copy of JPhil and read Strasnick's article. Something did not seem right to me about it, and by the time we finally landed, I had figured out where things had gone wrong. Essentially, the problem was that Arrow's proof assumes only ordinal preference orderings, whereas Rawls' argument presupposes cardinal utility functions. The attempt to mix these incompatible approaches produced arguments that, despite the off-putting formalism, could be seen to reduce to trivialities that proved nothing.

At first, I was mystified. I could see how Jack might have missed this. Despite all of his impressive talk about "proofs," he didn't actually know much about formal Game Theory or Collective Choice Theory, as he acknowledged in a letter to me. But Bob surely did, and Arrow had invented the stuff, for God's sake. After a while, I knew what must have happened, and in my experience, it wasn't all that unusual. The only one of the three who had read the dissertation carefully, I was willing to bet, was Rawls, and he really wasn't qualified to judge its formal validity. Bob signed off on it after skimming it because Jack said it was all right, and Arrow, an external reader, approved it after a cursory glance as a professional courtesy to a famous senior colleague.

It took me only a short time to write up my intuition in a form sufficiently rigorous to demonstrate formally that Strasnick's "derivation" was invalid. I sent it to JPhil, which published it in their December, 1976 issue. At the same time, I wrote to Rawls to tell him what I had found. He replied somewhat diffidently that there were "a four or five proofs of the Difference Principle floating around," and that was the last I heard from him on the matter.


enzo rossi said...

I particularly like your observations on Rawls. One always hears that his work was especially important because it revived normative political philosophy -- yet I often thought that TJ owed much of its initial success to the fact that it purported to base its main claims on non-normative fashionable intellectual developments of the 1950's and 60's: game/collective choice theory for Part 1 (the contractualist argument), and moral development theory (Kohlberg etc.) for Part 3 (stability & sense of justice). Part 2 contains many interesting observations but it is probably not essential to the argument.

Anyway, the curious thing is that Kohlberg's theory of the stages of moral development was largely abandoned fairly quickly (also thanks to feminist critiques), and the untenability of Rawls' claims about the status of his principles of justice in relation to collective choice theory was also exposed (by yourself and others) before too long. Yet, despite the demise of its initial propelling factors, somehow the Rawls industry carried on unscathed. Sometimes I wish I realised this before devoting so much of my PhD to criticising Rawls.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Enzo, Thank you for the interesting comments. I confess that I paid little or no attention to the materials in Part III, principally because it seemed to me to be very old fashioned psychologizing. I think Rawls had a really brilliant idea [the bargaining game] that didn't pan out. That is true for lots of first-rate philosophers, of course. We would have nothing to talk about in philosophy if we cast aside everyone whose great ideas had not panned out! But for me, the deeper question is why Rawls enunciated what at first was a really radical idea of social redistribution and then spent the rest of his life backing away from it.

Eric Schliesser said...

I am adoring your memoirs for all the gossip and insight.

Your points about Rawls are spot on. I think the Kantian turn can, in part, be explained as a way to distance himself from (and surpass) his roots in economics of the 50s and 60s.

I do have a question about your time at Chicago. Did you encounter Frank Knight? (I am trying to figure out what his role in the philosophy department.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Eric, I did not meet Knight. That was at the very end of his tenure there, and although I met several important members of the Political Science Departnment [Hans Morgenthyau, most notably], I never met the folks in Economics. Partly, that is because I was there for only two years, and partly because a good deal of my time was spent in the College teaching the survey Social Science course. Also, at the time, I knew virtually nothing about economics.

Eric Schliesser said...

Thank you for your quick response.

I thought your comments about Rawls (and Arrow) over the Strasnick dissertation priceless. However, have you looked at Rawls' Collected papers, Strasnick's JPhil article is cited. (The only "Wolff" mentioned in the papers, I think, is a certain Leibnizian.)

Did you know that Stewart Thau died a few years ago? (I was very fond of him not in the least because he hired me at SU.)

Until I read your memoirs I had no idea that Charles Parsons was Talcott Parsons' son. (Coincidentally, I just wrote a piece about Talcott P's influence on George Stigler.)

Unknown said...

Funny seeing this again after all these years. For the historical record, it was Professor Arrow who supervised my dissertation very closely and with whom I discussed all my proofs. (Professor Rawls was on leave my final year.) If I did slip something past him, it was due no doubt more to my wild hand waving and fast talking than to any inattention on his part.

In the paper (and thesis) you wrote about, I was attempting to articulate a new concept of preference priority. Ordinality restrictions then lead to a kind of dictator class emerging, one who would be justified in the Rawlsian world as the worst off class. At the time, that seemed like such an obvious result to me that its possible I might have missed some logical fallacy. Don't really know.

Of course, the other half of the ordinality result also allowed logically the dictator to represent the best off class. Who knew at the time that this was to become the guiding principle for all social policy from that time onwards. Sigh.

Anyways, academia clearly wasn't for me. Computers and I got along so much better out here in Silicon Valley. And with computers, you knew exactly where you stood. The program either worked or it didn't. Ha. Just kidding. That's not even remotely true either.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Dear Steven

Thank you for writing in. I am staggered to learn that Arrow was the dissertation director. If anyone ever publishes these memoirs [ha!], I will rewrite that part. I did some googling and gathered you had gone into computers and such -- you obviously had a good sense of where the real growth industry was. I trust you have flourished.