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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Thursday, May 27, 2010


In Fall, 1977 I again offered my seminar on Classics of Critical Social Theory. Early in that semester, I was standing outside Thompson Hall when I overheard a conversation between two Economics graduate students. By now, the location of departments had been sorted out and rearranged. All of the Humanities departments, including Philosophy, were reassigned to Bartlett Hall and South College, the latter an old building that also was the site of the offices of the three deans of Arts and Sciences. The Social Science Departments had taken over Thompson and Machmer Halls. Economics was in Thompson. The students were talking about a book by someone named Sraffa.

Now, this is going to sound strange, but it is the way I have worked all my life. I do not actually read very much, and I am incapable of skimming. When I read a serious academic book, I read it from cover to cover with very great intensity, and like as not, the reading of the book fundamentally changes the way I think about a subject. I find that experience unsettling, which is one of the reasons that I do not read a great deal. But I seem to have very sensitive antennae that tell me when I need to read a book. The reason I have never bothered to read many of Kant's minor works, for example, is that I knew, somehow, that they could not contain anything that would help me to plumb the depths of the First Critique. That is also why I had such difficulty reading all of A Theory of Justice. My instincts told me that after the opening chapters, it would all be useless elaboration and filler, and I was right. Simply by overhearing that snatch of conversation, I knew that Sraffa was someone I needed to read.

Sraffa, it turned out, was Piero Sraffa, and he had only written one book, a monograph barely one hundred pages long, called Production of Commodities By Means of Commodities. I bought a copy. I should say here that it was an evidence of my criminal ignorance that I did not already know who Sraffa was. Piero Sraffa was been born in Italy in 1893, where in time he became a friend and comrade of Antonio Gramsci. Indeed, it was Sraffa who brought to Gramsci in jail the pen and ink and paper with which Gramsci wrote the Prison Notebooks. Sraffa moved to the Cambridge University in England, where he edited the beautiful and indispensable ten volume set of the works of David Ricardo. Parenthetically, it is a scandal to Economics that Sraffa never won the Nobel Prize in Economics before his death in 1983.

When I sat down to read Sraffa's book, I discovered that it was formidably difficult. Fortunately for me, it uses nothing more advanced mathematically than elementary algebra -- the solution of simultaneous linear equations -- but it is written with a spare abstraction that gives it somewhat the tonality of Gregorian Plainsong. Sraffa frequently omits intermediate or transitional steps in his proofs, leaving it to the reader to supply them. Since I am incapable, when I am reading, of moving from one line to the next unless I understand how the second line is derived from the first, I would sometimes spend hours on a single page. When I finished the book, my entire mental framework had been transformed.

Immediately, and somewhat foolishly, I offered to teach the book to a reading group of Economics graduate students, several of whom were in my Classics of Critical Social Theory seminar. After several meetings, one of the students walked in and said, "Herb says you can prove the whole thing in a couple of lines of linear algebra." [Herb was of course Herb Gintis.] It was clear that I was going to have to learn linear algebra.

I was now in my seventh year at UMass, and I had qualified for a sabbatical. I can recall lying in bed that Fall, before getting up in the morning, thinking to myself, "I am going to be forty-five. I have published lots of books, and I guess I can go on doing that for the rest of my life, but what's the point? I have had my say. I always describe myself as a socialist, because my grandfather was a socialist, but I really don't know what that means. Maybe it is time to learn some economics."

When my Fall courses ended in mid-December, I bought myself a college linear algebra textbook and spent the intersession working through it. I got all the way through eigenvectors and eigenvalues and Perron Frobenius theorems and the like by the time the second semester started in late January. I talked to Don Katzner about sitting in on his graduate Microeconomics course, which used Henderson and Quant, a rigorous mathematical approach to the subject. I attended every class, did all the exercises, and sweated through the whole nine yards of Bordered Hessians and the rest. At the same time, I sat in on Bob Costrell's graduate Macro course, although I could never develop any real fondness for the subject. It seemed to me too much like a bunch of economists chained to the floor of Plato's Cave, developing sophisticated methods for predicting the sequence of shadows on the wall of the cave. By an extraordinarily happy accident, a brilliant young Cambridge England economist named John Eatwell was visiting the UMass Economics Department that semester, and I also sat in on his advanced graduate course on Value Theory. By the end of the semester, I had begun to master the materials I needed truly to understand and appreciate Marx's achievement in Capital.

The '70s and early '80s saw a dramatic worldwide reinterpretation of Marx's economic theories by some of the most gifted mathematical economists in the international profession. Sraffa had started the process with his 1960 monograph, but Wassily Leontieff's linear programming theories played an equally central role. There is a wonderful story about Leontieff that may well be apocryphal. It seems that when the young Russian economist invented linear programming , he went to the Soviet economic planners to show them this new analytic methodology, perfectly suited to the central planning of a large and complex economy. The officials rebuffed him, saying that Stalin had laid down an edict that since Marx had only used addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and the taking of averages in Kapital, the Soviet Union would use nothing more in planning its economy.

The first major work of reinterpretation to appear was Michio Morishima's 1973 book, Marx's Economics. This was followed by the Hungarian economist András Bródy's Proportions, Prices, and Planning and the Italian Luigi Pasinetti's Growth and Income Distribution. In 1976, the French economists Gilbert Abraham-Frois and Edmond Berrebi published their Theory of Value, Prices, and Accumulation. The next year, Pasinetti brought out a collection of his essays under the title Lectures on the Theory of Production. That same year, a young English Marxist published an extraordinary little polemic entitled Marx after Sraffa. It is the only book I have ever read that manages to be simultaneously mathematically sophisticated and furiously angry. In 1980, Pasinetti was again in print with Essays on the Theory of Joint Production, which was joined by Classical and Neo-Classical Theories of General Equilibrium by the Americans Vivian Walsh and Harvey Gram. A year later, yet another Pasinetti book appeared, this one called Structural Change and Economic Growth, and Steedman joined a number of colleagues in a collective volume of essays under the title The Value Controversy.

To read each one of these books was a formidable undertaking for me. The mathematics in them pushed me to the limits of my understanding, and much of the economic theory was new to me. I persevered, however, and over a number of years mastered all of them. As with my work on Kant, I constantly struggled to make the story of the argument clear and simple enough that I could narrate it to students who had not plunged into these books and probably never would.

As my marriage with Cindy struggled, pushing us for the last three years of the 70s into couples therapy, I worked over Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx, using the new mathematical reinterpretations to illuminate the core arguments of Capital. For once, I did what I suppose might pass as research, purchasing a thirty volume translation of the collected works and letters of Marx and Engels and reading volume after volume, in preparation for the time when I would attempt to turn my vision of Marx's project into a coherent story.

Fairly early on, my close reading of the mathematics alerted me to a problem in Marx's theoretical explanation of exploitation and the origin of profit. I began to work through an argument in my head, using only the techniques of analysis that Sraffa had employed, not yet daring to try my hand at original arguments in the language of linear algebra. By now, I was driving Patrick to Springfield one evening a week so that he could play chess at the Springfield Chess Club. The drive took about half an hour from Barrett Place, and since Patrick did not want me hanging about while he played, I would make the run down and back twice in the evening. During the return from the first run and the trip down to pick him up at the end of the evening, I would entertain myself by running over the mathematical argument in my head. Pretty soon, I had it sorted out and translated into a narrative that I could unfold in a clear, simple fashion.

This is a good place to relate a story about one of those runs, and its aftermath. As I was driving Patrick to the chess club, he started boasting about how well he could play, saying that none of the men in the club were as strong as he had become. I chided him for the braggadocio. That night, when Cindy and I were sitting in bed reading, Patrick came into our room. In those days, when something was upsetting him, his little face would get puffy, as though the tears he was not shedding had swollen his eyes and his cheeks. I asked him what was the matter, and very hesitantly, he explained that he knew he shouldn't talk in that bragging way in front of people, but thought I trusted him to know that, and that he could say things to me that he wouldn't say at the chess club. I thought about that after he went back to bed, and decided that he was right and I had been wrong. I went into his room and apologized, assuring him that I did trust him to know when and where to say things. I told him that from now on I would trust him. It was a chastening moment for me, but a deeply moving one too.

Eventually, when I had worked out my proof properly, along with some more advanced things for which I really did need the linear algebra, I put them all together in an essay called "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value," which I published in a relatively new journal, Philosophy and Public Affairs [Spring, 1981]. In that paper, I actually proved a very important theorem that demonstrated a fundamental failing of Marx's explanation of the origins of profit. I was pretty pleased with myself until John Roemer, the most mathematically sophisticated Marxist in America, pointed out in a comment to the Journal that Josep Vegara, a Professor of Economics at Barcelona, had published essentially the same theorem in 1979 in a book entitled economía política y modelos multisectoriales. I was heartbroken. Such things do not happen in Philosophy [because we so rarely prove anything]. Still and all, the theoretical elaboration that followed the statement and proof of the theorem is quite original, but I doubt that anyone has ever taken note of it. A word of advice to my readers; If you prove an exciting theorem in theoretical economics, do not publish it in a Philosophy journal.

Over the years that I taught at UMass, the school changed markedly in ways that I suspect parallel changes taking place on other state university campuses. When I arrived, UMass was not at all a prestigious place to study. Massachusetts has top of the line elite institutions, of course, like Harvard, MIT, Amherst, and Williams, but it also has a number of very strong second tier schools -- Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern University, among others. The student body of UMass when I arrived in '71 was drawn primarily from Catholic families without long traditions of higher education. Many of the students were the first members of their families to attend a four year higher educational institution, and they pretty obviously thought of what they were doing as an extension of high school. The spoke of "tests," not "exams," of "teachers," not "professors." Every Friday afternoon, students lined up in the oval in front of the Administration building to take buses back to their home towns. For many of them, UMass was the biggest town they had ever lived in. They were bright, and serious about their studies, but they were very unsophisticated. It was not uncommon for students to bring their dogs to class, something I had never seen before.

Little by little, the inflation of the cost of higher education put pressure on middle class families to consider the state university as an option, something they would not have done earlier., My first hint of this was a very funny incident in the Spring of '74. I was teaching a big Intro class in the lecture hall in Thompson, which is entered by doors at the rear. After one lecture, a student came up to the podium to ask a question. I talked with him for a bit and then excused myself, explaining that I ahd to rush to my next class in another building. I rushed up the aisle into the large hall outside the room -- and ran into the student again! As I hurried away, I thought to myself, "How on earth did he get out of the room before me?" Eventually I discovered the answer. There was a pair of identical twins in my class, Michael and Mitchell King. They were both extremely good students, easily capable of winning admission to Amherst College, but their parents could not afford to send both of them to a pricey private school at the same time, so they ended up at UMass.

You could see the change just by looking at the students as they walked across the campus. The women started wearing expensive looking clothing, the undergraduates began to drive more expensive cars than the faculty. They stopped going home on the weekends and started their weekend drinking on Thursday nights. All of this was crystallized for me by one brief moment in an undergraduate course I taught some years later, in 1988. Patrick had gone off to Australia to play in the World Junior Chess Tournament, representing the United States as its strongest player. I decided on a lark to fly out to watch him play a game. I flew Continental, which unbeknownst to me was offering a special triple frequent flyer miles promotion. I flew to LA, and changed planes for a flight to Hawaii. As I was waiting for the connecting flight, I paused at a bar to look at the television set. It was October 5th, and Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate, was debating Dan Quayle, his Republican opponent. I walked up to the bar just in time to hear Bentsen deliver what is arguable the most famous line from any televised debate: "Mr. Quayle, I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. You are no Jack Kennedy." The I was off to Honolulu, and Sidney, and the tournament. When I got home, I discovered that that one trip had given me enough frequent flier miles for a pair of tickets to Europe, but the restrictions on their use was so severe I could not figure out when we could use them. I finally said to Susie [to whom I was by then married -- more of that anon], "Look. I can't let these go to waste. Let's go to Paris for the weekend." She was down with that, so I walked into my Tuesday Thursday class on Thursday and said, "I am going to Paris for the weekend. I will see you on Tuesday." After class, a young woman came up to my desk, opened her purse, and took out a half used carnet of Metro tickets. "Her," she said, "you may need these." UMass had changed.

I have joked in these memoirs about the fact that I kept being hired either to teach something I knew very little about or to teach something that I had never made the focus of my scholarly work. First Harvard hired me fresh out of the Army to teach European history. Then Chicago hired me to teach Social Sciences. Then Columbia hired me to teach Ethics, And finally UMass didn't really want to hire me at all and was stuck with me when the real targets of their desire left them in the lurch. But of course that is not the way the world looked at things, and it was not really how I looked at things either. By the late 1970s, my career path had been a rave success story. Harvard, Chicago, tenure at Columbia, and then a voluntary move to UMass for personal reasons that were to me, if not in the eyes of the world, more than sufficient.

Cindy's career to that point had been an entirely different matter. Fired from Queens for having a baby, made a lowball offer by NYU because she was a woman and married to me, lucky to secure a position at Manhattanville where, although well treated, she had no opportunity for graduate teaching or research, and then foisted on UMass in a risky power play that could have left us owning a house for which we had no use. Cindy was fully as ambitious as I, and more than well qualified to be treated as a star in her own right, but her wry observation had proven correct: the way they view you when you walk in the door is the way they think of you ever after. Even though she now had tenure, and was secure in her professional position, she wanted just once to be sought after professionally for herself alone. In '77-'78, that opportunity seemed finally to have arrived.

As a consequence of the publication of A Feast of Words, Cindy was approached by the English Department of Syracuse University, which wanted her to join them as a senior professor. Our entire family was very happy in our Barrett Place home, and neither of us, I think it is fair to say, at that point had even thought about a move to upstate New York, but the opportunity was one that Cindy could not pass up. One might ask, as some people at the time did, why she was unwilling to stay at UMass if I was content to do so. The answer is simple, but I think important, so let me try to explain.

I had earned tenure at an Ivy League University at the age of thirty. The high point of that career move was the taxi cab ride through Central Park after Justus Buchler made me the offer. It never really got any better than that. It was perfectly pleasant teaching at Columbia, and it left me with some great stories for my memoirs forty years later, but the actual experience wasn't that different from the experience of teaching at UMass. Nevertheless ever since I walked away from Ivy League tenure thirty-nine years ago, I have been able to say to myself with not the least suggestion of sour grapes, "I had it." Not, "I could have had it," or "It isn't worth having," but simply, "I had it." That really is enough to satisfy one's ambition. Cindy had to that point never been able to say to herself, "I have had the experience of being really wanted for myself alone." The time had come.

I was prepared to commute, if that was what it took, but I thought it worth trying to generate an offer from the Syracuse Philosophy Department. At first, our parallel negotiations proceeded in a very promising fashion, and, the two of us being the house proud types that we were, we even spent a day with a real estate agent in Syracuse to see what we could find. But then things turned bitterly sour. In the end, I wrote a long, pained letter to the Chair of the Philosophy Department, Stewart Thau, explaining our decision to decline the offers. Rather than try to summarize an affair that is now hazy in my memory, I am going to reproduce here the entire letter, as I wrote it on 1 August, 1978. I apologize if this tries the patience of my readers, but I think what this letter says is important not just for the fidelity of my memoirs but also for any readers who may be facing similar career and family choices. As will be obvious from the letter, I had nothing but gratitude and good wishes for the Syracuse folks. Here is what I wrote:

"Dear Stewart, I have had a chance to consider the response of the University of
Massachusetts to your offer, and after weighing all the factors, both professional and private, I have decided to decline the offer. I do so with a very great sense of disappointment, and with the feeling that an exciting -- perhaps a unique -- opportunity has been missed. Rather than fill up a few paragraphs with polite phrases and perfunctory thanks, I should like to take some time to lay before you, as precisely as I can, the succession of events that determined my decision. In doing so, I am moved by the hope that your continuing efforts to build a nationally visible Department of the first quality will be aided by my frankness. Although this letter is addressed to you alone, I hope you will feel free to share all or part of it with any other persons to whom you wish to show it.

"When I received your first letter many months ago, I reacted very much as Maury Mandelbaum did. That is, I doubted that you could recruit philosophers of the first rank, and advised you, therefore, you will recall, to look for first-rate younger people. Subsequently, the English Department approached my wife with regard to their senior position. We had a long talk, and finally decided that in order to further her career, we would, under the right conditions, be prepared to move to Syracuse. I knew that I could always arrange for a two-day teaching schedule, and although the commute appeared difficult, it was certainly possible. As I am sure you know, much more strenuous arrangements have become common in the academic world in recent years. Despite this decision, I wrote to you to explore the question of a position for me in the Philosophy Department, doubtful though I was at that point that such a position would be attractive enough to woo me away from the University of Massachusetts.

"My wife returned from her visit to Syracuse University with glowing reports. It seemed to her that the English Department was prepared to treat her -- absolutely on her own merits -- with every bit of the honor that she has earned by her brilliant writings in English and American Literature. When Arthur Hoffman called to make a verbal offer of the position, he told her flatly and unequivocally that the initial offer would be "too low," that every portion of it was negotiable, and that he and the Department wished to demonstrate their enthusiasm for her candidacy by supporting her efforts to bargain that offer up to an appropriate level. My wife, enormously flattered and encouraged by the warmth and openness of Hoffman's statements, replied immediately, making perfectly reasonable proposals for a higher salary and a somewhat lower teaching load.

"I will tell you flatly that if Syracuse had responded in a week or ten days with a significant improvement in that offer, my wife would now be committed to join the Syracuse English Department! Instead, your Administration -- which can only mean John Prucha [ed. The Academic Vice-Chancellor] -- delayed for fully six weeks, thereby putting my wife in a position of the most intense personal and professional embarrassment. At the end of that time, Syracuse responded with a new offer that was virtually an insult, coming as it did after Hoffman's initial remarks. The timing of the new offer, about which I shall have a good deal more to say below, was so clearly keyed to my offer as to make it perfectly obvious how John Prucha and Gershon Vincow [ed. Dean and later himself Academic Vice-Chancellor] viewed my wife -- namely, as an appendage to me, rather than as a scholar in her own right.

"Meanwhile, I made my trip to Syracuse. When I set out, I thought it extremely unlikely that I would accept an offer. When I returned, I thought it almost certain that I would! My visit was an unalloyed delight (despite the inadequacies of the motel!). For the first time, it dawned on me that I had an opportunity, perhaps never again to be presented, to join in the creation of the national center for Kant studies! Your success in recruiting [Jonathan] Bennett totally changed the picture. With the retirement of Beck, Syracuse could be the one place in the United States to which students would come who wished to study the philosophy of Kant! In addition, my new interest in the philosophical foundations of Economics could be joined with Alex's [ed. Rosenberg] interests to make a strong sub-field in that specialty. My meetings with people from the Maxwell School were especially gratifying. I have on my desk now a warm letter from Manfred Stanley and Barry Glassner, indicating the sort of reception that side of my interests would get.

"This was, I think the high water mark of my enthusiasm, and my wife's, for a move to Syracuse. We expected a reply momentarily to her letter. And after my frank conversations with you, I thought it was clear and unambiguous what sort of offer would be required to recruit me. Although we did not speak that evening in the motel lobby, in precise figures, I made it clear that I simply could not even consider joining the Syracuse faculty at a salary lower than that which had been offered to Bennett. It seemed to me that you understood why that was a necessary condition for any successful venture involving the two of us and the Department, and at that point you seemed to be confident that the matter could be arranged.

Things began to go very sour when Gershon Vincow made that appalling phone call to me shortly before the actual offer was due to go out. Now, I have been in this profession for a good long time -- some twenty-one years since being awarded the doctorate -- I tell you, flat out, that never in my entire career have I been treated by any administrator in the way that Dean Vincow treated me during that call. He began by telling me that Syracuse was going to make me an offer, and then refused to tell me what the offer would be! He told me that the offer (unspecified) was final, that it could not be negotiated, that it was absolutely the best Syracuse could do. I cannot imagine what he expected me to reply to these assertions. I indicated that since he and Dr. Prucha had chosen to adopt that position, it was incumbent upon them to take fully into account the things I had said to you about the sort of offer that would attract me. In short, to be blunt, I was telling him that if the offer was to be Syracuse's final offer, then it had better be for as much money as Bennett was to make. When Prucha and Vincow chose to offer me four thousand dollars a year less than that sum, in part on the basis of erroneous information that they had gathered through some indirect means (instead of simply asking me directly!), they made it impossible for me to join the faculty of Syracuse University.

"But that part of the telephone call was less appalling than what followed. Dean Vincow now undertook to extract from me some assurance that I would reply to the offer immediately. When I explained that I would have to have time to take the offer to my Department (an offer, recall, which he was not yet ready to reveal to me), he actually asked me why I wished to do such a thing. Does the man have no knowledge or understanding of the elemental courtesies of the academic world? If he does not know how scholars behave in the big leagues, then he ought not to try to play ball anywhere but in a sandlot!

"Then, having engaged in the most egregious behavior imaginable, Dean Vincow took a step further, and pressured me to assure him that I would make my decision entirely independently from my wife. Now, reflect: from the very first, my wife and I had conducted our negotiations entirely separately. Indeed, the willingness of Syracuse to treat us as independent scholars had been one of the most attractive features of the move. At the very moment when he was insisting that I make my decision rapidly and in complete independence of my wife's decision (and this, I keep repeating, in response to an offer not yet made, whose terms he would not reveal), Dean Vincow and Provost Prucha were deliberately holding up my wife's final offer in order to "coordinate" it with mine! This last, incidentally, we have directly from Arthur Hoffman. To put the matter as bluntly as possible, Prucha and Vincow were buying a package, in their way of thinking, and they wanted to know the price of the total package before they made any offers. Well, I don't want to be treated that way, my wife doesn't want to be treated that way, and we certainly do not want to join a faculty of a university whose administration treats its professors that way.

"Meanwhile, Syracuse delayed so long that our local faculty union arrived at an agreement with the administration on a pay increase package. The University has agreed to raise my salary to the top of the scale. When the new contract is added to that, my salary as of September 1, 1979 (the starting date of the contract offered by Syracuse) will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 or a trifle more. So even if I were not offended by the behavior of the administration at Syracuse, it would require an offer equal to Bennett's to move me!

"The bitterest irony of all is that on our recent trip to Syracuse, my wife and I found a house that we immediately fell in love with. it is the only house I have seen in the past ten years that is genuinely lovelier than the house in which we live. Had John Prucha and Gerson Vincow been willing to make my wife the offer they made to a scholar at the University of Connecticut; had they been prepared, in their dealings with us, to preserve the same high standards of professional courtesy that were at every stage maintained by the members of the two Departments, I, my wife, and our two children would almost certainly be living in that house next summer.

"It should go without saying that I retain the warmest feelings for the members of your Department, and for the other Syracuse faculty whom I had the great pleasure of meetings. I am honored that your Department invited me to join their ranks, and I am sure that in years to come I shall see more of all of you. I very much hope, for the future well-being of your Department, that you are able to lead your Administration to adopt a more professional attitude toward the recruiting of senior faculty.

I hope you will convey my warmest thanks, and my regrets, to the members of the Search Committee and to the entire Department. My special thanks to you for the endless hours you put into what could, and should, have been a successful endeavour. With all best wishes,"

Shortly after this fiasco, the M. I. T. Literature Section of the Humanities Department contacted Cindy about the possibility of her joining them. It should come as no surprised that she jumped at the chance. The Humanities Department had gathered up some very distinguished people in a number of fields, Noam Chomsky being the best know. Ever since her medical school days, Cindy had had an inclination toward the sciences, though she had not pursued that inclination since leaving Harvard Medical School to return to Literature. The negotiations were protracted, but in the end produced an attractive offer that in time turned into the Class of 1922 Professorship of Literature. From then until her retirement a quarter of a century later, Cindy received the recognition and respect for which she had worked so hard and had so richly earned.

I knew that I could not continue to run STPEC from Boston, so I went in search of someone to take over its directorship. With extraordinary good fortune, I discovered a young scholar in the German Department, Sara Lennox, whose energy, politics, and commitment to students made her the perfect fit for STPEC. She agreed to take the program over, and what had been, under my rather casual management a small but reasonably successful operation quickly became a flourishing enterprise, one of the very best such programs in the entire country. As I sit here at my desk, typing these words, I am wearing a STPEC T-shirt that features a Red Star. STPEC had taken a bold step to the left. I was thrilled, and for thirty years now I have shamelessly claimed some measure of credit for Sara's success.

Once it was certain that Cindy would be going to MIT, we decided to move to the Boston area. This meant selling our house in Northampton, and buying something there. We settled on Belmont, an upscale bedroom community just west of Cambridge that has long been a community favored by Harvard professors. Selling our house was going to be difficult, despite the fact that it was one of the loveliest homes in Northampton. America was in the grips of stagflation, with interest rates as high as 13 and 14 percent.

Before we knew that we were going to be moving, I had been approached by the Yale Political Science Department to teach a course for them in the Spring. I proposed a course on Marx's Political Economy, which they agreed to. They scheduled the combined undergraduate and graduate course one day a week, on Thursdays, so that I could also participate in a bag lunch meeting of faculty in Economics and Political Science. Each Thursday in the Spring, I would drive down Interstate 90 for an hour, find a parking place, and teach my class before going to the lunch. Apparently no one had taught a course on Marx at Yale in living memory, so more than seventy students signed up, including a young man named Tony Marx who later became President of Amherst College. More than twenty years later, I finally got to meet him.

The bag lunch was a rather high toned affair. Several of Yale's most notable figures were regulars, including the extremely distinguished Political Scientist Robert Dahl and the noted Political Scientist and Economist Charles Lindblom. The general idea was that each week, one or another of the regulars would circulate in advance a paper for discussion. Also in attendance were several junior faculty, whose deferential demeanor toward Dahl and Lindblom, I am afraid, got on my nerves. I had been away from the Ivy League for almost a decade, and had become used the lack of pretence on State University campuses. One week, during our discussion, one of the junior chaps [they were all men, by the way] said to Charles Lindblom, "Well, sir, you may recall that you have written," and then proceeded to quote verbatim from memory an entire paragraph of one of Lindblom's books. I was appalled, and it seemed to me that Lindblom did not have the good grace to be embarrassed.

Among the junior acolytes was an eager young Assistant Professor of Political Science. When it came his turn to submit something for our consideration, he sent round a rather long paper. I read it through and thought that it was really rather vacuous, for all that it was smoothly written. At the lunch, he began our discussion by saying, "I have been thinking of expanding this into a book, and I would welcome your recommendations." There was a silence, and then I spoke up. 'Well," I said, "I have always believed that every good book is really the unfolding of one powerful central idea. I have read your paper, and I confess that I am unable to find a strong central idea in it. So I think perhaps it would be better if you did not try to turn it into a book." There was what I can only describe as an appalled silence, after which Lindblom spoke up in a supportive way and the rest kept the discussion going.

Several weeks later, when the semester came to an end, my Teaching Assistants, who were graduate students in Poli Sci, told me that I had been under consideration for a professorship, but had lost the offer because of my performance at the Thursday lunch. I cannot say I was devastated by the news.

That same Spring, quite unexpectedly, I was invited to give a talk to the Harvard Graduate Philosophy Club, the same organization I had chaired almost a quartet of a century earlier. I suggested two topics, one quite technical, the other a good deal lighter. They opted for the less demanding talk, and I agreed to speak. On April 9, 1980, I drove in to Harvard Square. It was my first visit to the Harvard Yard in nineteen years. Fortunately, I knew what to expect. The only faculty member who showed up was Ronnie Dworkin, who was visiting that year, I imagine. After saying hello, he allowed as how he would have to leave in the middle of the talk, which he did. Harvard was just as warm and fuzzy as it had been when I left. After the talk, the students took me to dinner, and who should show up but Jack Rawls! I thought it was odd to pass up the talk and come to the dinner, but we chatted politely. At one point I remarked on the renovations that had been carried out in Philosophy Hall since my time there. The staircase had been redone, and the second floor was now a hollow square, with faculty offices along the outer walls. Martha Nussbaum was then an Assistant Professor in the Department -- the first woman in the history of the department, I believe. I noted that on my quick tour of the upstairs I had seen a men's toilet and a women's toilet for the students, and a faculty bathroom. What facilities, I wondered, did Martha use. The world's greatest expert on distributive justice explained benignly that since her office was right across the hall from the women's toilet, it was not a problem. I did not regret having failed to secure an Assistant Professorship all those years ago.

As I have made abundantly clear in these memoirs, I was very unhappy in the Philosophy Department, where I was marginalized by Feldman and the majority clique and bored as well by the narrow and stultifying sort of philosophy being carried on by them. Once it was clear that we were moving to Belmont, I started to put out feelers in the Boston area for a teaching position. Late in the Spring I made contact with Fred Sommers, who was then Chair of the Brandeis Philosophy Department. We had lunch, and somewhat later I had lunch again, this time with several of the senior members. Things progressed in a very promising fashion, so much so that Fred arranged for me to moonlight a course there in the Fall. A bit later, he asked me to visit in the Spring of '81, and I agreed readily. I was prepared to commute back to Amherst, but with the situation in the Philosophy Department being as it was, I would have been quite happy to move on.

On August first, we closed on a house at 16 Garfield Road in Belmont Hill, the upscale section of Belmont. It was a large and perfectly serviceable home, to which, as usual we had many renovations made, but it could not hold to candle to the Barrett Place home we were leaving. On August 22nd, Gleason Movers packed us up, and the next day they loaded all of our belongings for the short trip to Boston.

In the words of Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, we were moving up to The Show.


Königsberg walker said...

I am fascinated by your memoirs, especially the honest recollections (which are so hard to find) of academic life. You've helped to illuminate, with that honesty, the difficult choices academics must make about where to work, given family, professional opportunities, and other important considerations.

After reading your latest post, I am curious: as you relate it, you moved to UMass in part because of the beautiful house in Northampton. But if you wanted a larger house than what was available in Manhattan, why not have moved, as many New Yorkers with families do, to New Jersey, CT, or Long Island? Perhaps the house would not have been quite as charming (though there are many beautiful houses in NJ), but the move to Belmont shows that may not have been an insuperable obstacle.

Moving out of the city but staying at Columbia, you could have avoided the friction and frustration, which you've described, with certain members of the UMass philosophy department who failed to appreciate your work. The decision would have brought you a larger, more spacious house to raise your family, while allowing you to stay in a Columbia department which respected you (and unlike UMass, rightly considered your work to be real philosophy). Why not that option?

Adam said...

It's been a long time since I read Rawls (in a political theory class at Yale but some years after your strange experience), but I am pretty sure that if we were choosing bathroom arrangements from behind the veil of ignorance, we would not have different bathrooms for faculty and students.

I assure you I am also interested in the more substantive issues you raise in your memoirs, but for some reason I seem only moved to comment in regard to traffic and toilets.

Aaron Garrett said...

I had a similar revelatory experience reading Sraffa (and Ricardo). But I take it you did not become a Neo-Ricardian!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

First things first. I assume the nom de plume, Konigsberg Walker, refers to Kant's famous daily walk. Nice handle.

Had I been dedicated to staying at Columbia, I think I would have explored New Jersey, etc., although what on earth Cindy would have done I do not know. But the move, as I have explained, was part of a deeper dissatisfaction with the privileges and isolation of the Ivy League, and also a disenchantment with the role of New York intellectual. And of course, I had no idea, when I made the move, what my UMass colleagues were going to be like.

Adam, I just love the idea of choosing bathroom arrangements behind a veil of ignorance. I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask Jack Rawls the question in that form! He had a nice wry sense of humor. I would like to think he would have been amused.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Aaron, courtesy of Google, I took a look at the sorts of things you are interested in. They strike me as very interesting indeed. I hope you are enjoying BU. Does the Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science still exist?

Aaron Garrett said...

Thank you, back at you.
Now that there's been a change of president at BU, things are great. We just had a Fiftieth Anniversary Philosophy of Science Colloquium with Bob Cohen, the ever-youthful John Stachel and many others. Judd Webb is still around as well. The Colloquium is now being run by my wonderful colleague Alisa Bokulich, so it should flourish for a long time.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That sounds good,Aaron. Here is a small factoid to show you what a small world it is. Bob Cohen's wife, Robin, is the sister of my wife, Susie's, first husband, Gordon Hirschhorn! When Bob had his big celebratory retirement pasrty, to which about a zillion people cdame, there was Gordon.

analyticphilosopher said...

I was wondering what your impression of Ronald Dworkin was, since you mentioned him in today's post. I recall that he had another appearance earlier in the memoirs, when the two of you were at Harvard College, and Dworkin invited CI Lewis to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa oration, an invitation Lewis modestly declined.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ronnie and I graduated from Harvard in the same year ['53], although I was a member of the class of '54. As I relate in an earlier chapter, I saw him at Oxford in the Fall of '54, when he was reading law at Magdalen on a Rhodes [I think]. Ronnie had a wry sense of humor and a rather formal manner, quite different from me in every way. I think he really felt at home at Oxford, whereas I definitely did not. I am not really familiar with his jurisprudence, but that is my fault. I don't read much, and since law has never been at the center of my interest, I have simply never undertaken to read his books.

gwern said...

> The bag lunch was a rather high toned affair. Several of Yale's most notable figures were regulars, including the extremely distinguished Political Scientist Robert Dahl and the noted Political Scientist and Economist Charles Lindblom. The general idea was that each week, one or another of the regulars would circulate in advance a paper for discussion. Also in attendance were several junior faculty, whose deferential demeanor toward Dahl and Lindblom, I am afraid, got on my nerves. I had been away from the Ivy League for almost a decade, and had become used the lack of pretence on State University campuses. One week, during our discussion, one of the junior chaps [they were all men, by the way] said to Charles Lindblom, "Well, sir, you may recall that you have written," and then proceeded to quote verbatim from memory an entire paragraph of one of Lindblom's books. I was appalled, and it seemed to me that Lindblom did not have the good grace to be embarrassed.

I don't follow why Lindblom should be embarrassed. Is it because he was contradicting himself and a student called him on it? Or was it that the student was reading his work with too much reverence, as scripture?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Qwern, It is the second. There was a smell of slavishness about the event that should have embarassed Lindblom. Students should challnge their professors, not commit their words to memory as though they were sacred texts!

Anna said...

"Students should challenge their professors"

See I understand why it's inappropriate/embarrassing to be markedly deferential to your superiors... but to actively challenge your professors? I'm going to study Philosophy at Oxford in October, and I'm terrified at the idea of challenging my tutors. After all, I'm 17 and know very little about anything, and they've been studying philosophy for years (and are much cleverer than me too).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Now look, Anna, if you want to study philosophy, you need to get some serious attitude! If you were a beginning tennis student, would you hesitate to hit the ball back over the net because your instructor plays better than you do? Don't be a sponge. Get in there and fight. We shall see whether they are that much cleverer than you! :)

Let me know how it works out.

Marinus said...

On that topic, here's a wonderful thing the lecturer in my very first philosophy course (Vanya Kovatch at Auckland teaching PHIL102 - Introduction to Ethics) did. She had reached a point in the course where she summarised and contrasted the two classical utilitarian positions of Bentham and Mill. At a stage during a lecture she asked if someone in the class saw another, different way to count together happiness. A girl, who hadn't said a thing yet in class, raised her hand and gave an alternative. The lecturer asked her name (Sarah) and then put the three options, Bentham, Mill and Sarah, on the board and compared the virtues of the three different theories of the good against each other. What so impressed me about this was how matter-of-factly the lecturer put up someone one of us, students in an introductory class, up against the heavyweights and had the ideas slug it out against each other. Bentham, Mill, Sarah. And that's exactly the way things are if you really get stuck in into philosophy: you are going to put up something to play at the same table for the same stakes as all those people they talk about in the textbooks, there's no difference in kind between what Bentham and Mill were doing and what you, in your introductory class, are doing. I for one find that tremendously exciting.

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

I recommend that you take a look at Amartya Sen's article "Sraffa, Wittgesntein, and Gramsci" to see how Piero's presence influenced Wittgentein to change his position.

Also, it would be interesting to have your take on Andrew Kliman's book "Reclaiming Marx's Capital" in which he deals with the inconsistencies attributed to Marx.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ian, I am off to Paris tomorrow, but do you have the reference to the Sen piece? Everything he writes is worth reading!

I don't know the Kliman book at all, but then, I never read anything. I will have to get hold of it. is it interesting?

KWH said...

The Sen article is in the Journal of Economic Literature 41:4 (Dec. 2003), pp. 1240-1255.

Al Cyone said...

While writing a comment for a NY Times article on pets in dorms, I Googled "Thau" and "dog" and discovered your blog.

When I was a Civil Engineering student at Syracuse in 1969, I took Stewart Thau's graduate-level Philosophy of Religion course as an elective. A frequent guest in the class was a dog named "Pierce" (rhymes with purse, after you-know-who). I got a "B" in the course and promptly changed majors.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Al [great handle], when I followed up on your comment, I was very unhappy to see that Stewart passed away two years ago. One of the truly weird things about writing one's memoirs is that as one inexorably approaches the present day, one is haunted by the feeling that as the last word is written, one will expire! As my sons would say, I must get a life once these Memoirs are concluded [which at this rate should be some time in August.] Who knows, maybe I am really a twenty-three year old novelist and this is a grand imaginary!

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