My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

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

Total Pageviews

Monday, May 3, 2010


Remember: Starting Wednesday, May 5, my new blog will appear on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, called Formal Methods in Political Philosophy. This Memoir will appear on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The new blog can be found at

When I retired and moved to Chapel Hill, NC, I discovered that two of my students from the Columbia days were now senior professors at Duke. Alexander Rosenberg, now Chair of the Duke Philosophy Department, took my Kant course as an undergraduate at CCNY [one of the many extra courses I taught up the way there], and Allan Buchanan studied with me as an undergraduate at Columbia. Needless to say, they both did splendidly. I cannot get used to the fact that they are senior professors, but then Alex assures me that he also cannot get used to the fact that he is no longer an eager, aspiring Assistant Professor.

One of my oddest student encounters happened in '67-'68, when I was spending a visiting year at Rutgers, but also moonlighting both at Hunter College and at the CUNY Graduate Center. At CUNY I was teaching a political philosophy seminar to a small group of students, during the course of which I set forth my by then pretty settled anarchist views. One of the students, Sherryl Ann Block, brought in to class a little nineteenth century pamphlet called No Treason by someone named Lysander Spooner, whom I had of course never heard of. She pressed it on me, so I took it home and read it. I was, I must confess, a trifle dismayed to find that Spooner, a lawyer with a deep suspicion of state authority, had anticipated virtually all of my arguments by a century. Anarchism has long been a subterranean counter-theme in Western political theory, and neither I nor Spooner was the first one to figure out that the state has no clothes on.

But surely the most dramatic student I encountered during my Columbia years was the radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson. Ti-Grace had studied philosophy at Penn, and had also done fashion modeling, in addition to spending time as curator of an art gallery, I believe. She came to Columbia at the suggestion of her Penn professors to do graduate study in Philosophy, arriving when I did or a year later. Ti-Grace was a tall, strikingly beautiful woman who was always exquisitely dressed and made up. This was New York, after all, and sixty blocks further south she might have blended in quite well, although I think she would have been noticed in any milieu. But the dress code at Columbia in those days was pretty much academic grunge. We all looked as though we had been colored by the crayons that are left in the box after all the good ones are gone. Ti-Grace stood out as though she was the only one in technicolor. Her special thing was to dress provocatively -- short skirts, low-cut blouses -- and then, when one of the men in the Department responded however subtly to her self-presentation, turn on him and accuse him angrily of treating her differently because she was a woman. Shortly after she arrived, she made the mistake of trying that on Sidney. Sidney was teaching a summer graduate course on metaphysics and Ti-Grace signed up. She showed up to the first class in a very low-cut blouse. Sidney gave no indication that he had noticed. Now the thing you have to know about Sidney, if you never met him, is that he had inherited from his Lower East Side Jewish background a sense of personal space quite different from what was customary in American academic society at that time. When Sidney talked to you, he stood a good deal closer than was usual, or even comfortable. If you backed up, he advanced, until you were up against a wall with Sidney talking rather loudly in your face. Anyway, at the end of the class, Sidney, Ti-Grace, and several other students got into the tiny elevator in Philosophy Hall to ride down to the main floor. As the elevator started, Sidney said to Ti-Grace in a loud voice, standing virtually face to face with her, "So? You think I didn't notice them?" looking down at her cleavage. "What do you want me to do about them?" Ti-Grace was terrorized, and never tried that on Sidney again.

In the late Fall of '67, I ran into Ti-Grace in the basement of Hamilton Hall, where you could get a check cashed. She asked me how I was [a major concession and very great compliment, incidentally, since by then she had declared on ideological grounds that she would not speak to men]. I said excitedly that my wife was pregnant with our first child, and I was very much looking forward becoming a father. Ti-Grace looked disapproving. Calling on Plato's distinction between good and bad pleasures, she said that the desire to be a parent was a debased desire, and ought not to be indulged. "Who should look after the children?" I asked. She said it should be done by professionals with no emotional attachment to the children. And if by chance they should enjoy their work? I asked. What then? They should be discouraged from becoming attached to the children, and should be rotated around before such attachments were engendered.

The last time I talked to Ti-Grace was late at night, when she called to say that she had been arrested and strip-searched and could I help her to find an attorney. I did what I could, but I think I did not run into her again.

What was it like to live in Morningside Heights in those days? The area right around Columbia had the sorts of little shops that you would expect in a academic neighborhood, and of course even then Riverside Drive was a pretty pricey place to live. But the transformation of the Upper West Side was in its early stages. The major Lincoln Center project had been started only a few years before I arrived at Columbia. Little by little, gentrification crept north from 59th street, south from 116th street, and east from Riverside drive to Central Park West, until it had all become Yuppie Heaven.

As a boy, I had been allowed to take the subway alone from Queens to Manhattan for my violin lessons with Mrs. Zacharias, whose big pre-war apartment was at 71st street just off Broadway. Up near Columbia, Broadway and Amsterdam are parallel, but as Broadway heads south, it angles over toward Amsterdam, until the two cross at 71st street. The intersection creates a little triangular park. In the 1940s, this was all safe territory, so my parents weren't being completely reckless in allowing me to travel there by myself. But when Cindy and I moved to Manhattan in 1964, this triangle had come to be known as "needle park" because it was a favorite hangout of drug addicts.

The street life even in Morningside Heights was a trifle exotic. Shortly after I arrived, I was walking with Sidney. On the corner of Broadway and 116th was a phone box long since disabled. The cord connecting the handset to the phone box had been cut, so that it just sat there useless. As Sidney and I approached the intersection, I saw a man in the phone booth. He had the handset to his mouth, and was yelling into it at the top of his lungs. Startled and a trifle unsettled, I said to Sidney, "Look at that." He looked up and said casually, "Oh, yeah. He's a shouter." Apparently New Yorkers had categories of crazies.

The signature institution of the entire area, then as now, was Zabar's. Describing Zabar's as a deli is a bit like describing Angelina Jolie as cute. It would be more accurate to say that Zabar's was the concrete materialization of the lambent spirituality of an entire sub-population of the East Coast. For a number of years, every Sunday I would routinely and ritually drive down from 115th street to 80th street and Broadway for bagels, cream cheese, and smoked salmon, which I would then carry home, like a marauding Viking sailing north to his fjord. When Cindy and I moved to Western Massachusetts seven years later, I gave serious thought to making periodic forays to Manhattan to stock up.

The clientele was as much a part of the scene as the food. In those days, you stood in line at a counter along one wall, waiting to place your order with the aproned men standing there with their razor sharp knives. During one of my visits, I saw Richard Benjamin and George Segal come in to get their Sunday supplies. The men with the knives were capable of slicing the smoked salmon on the bias paper thin. One Sunday, while I was waiting my turn, a rather over-dressed woman stepped up to the counter, and in an unsuccessful attempt at a refined accent, said "I would like a half pound of stomach lox, please." The deli man looked at her incredulously and, in a voice that could be heard on 82nd street, said, "Belly lox, lady, belly lox. It's belly lox." [The classic story, which I never myself witnessed, has it that an old guy came in and asked for some lox. "How much you want?" the counter man asked. "Just start slicing." So the counterman took a large side of smoked salmon and started slicing. After he had sliced about four pounds, the old man said, "O.K. A quarter pound from there."]


Matt said...

Have you read much Kropotkin? He's one of my favorites, but perhaps more because of his fascinating life story as much as anything.

I understand the bagel story. My wife and I moved to Philadelphia from NYC last summer, but she goes up to take riding lessons from a trainer she likes on Staten Island twice a month or so. When she goes, she or I, if I go, make a trip into Manhattan and go to H&H bagels, next to Zabars, and pick up a supply. One cannot, unfortunately, get nearly as good of bagels in Philadelphia.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good point. I always got my bagels at the place next to Zabar's, but I could not recall the name. These are the really important things. in life.

David Pilavin said...

The Morgenbesser vs. Ti-Grace story nearly made me collapse :-)

Unknown said...

Perhaps the distinguished philosophy professors would prefer that their female students wear a as not to be too distracting......... :-)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, Ann, that is not the point at all. The point is that Ti_Grace deliberately tried to provoke a response in order to respond to it angrily. The last thing she wanted was for no one to do or say anything, and simply treat her as a graduate philosophy student. No one objected to the fact that she was attractive and dressed nicely. if you cannot see the difference, then you really are not paying attention!

Jim said...

This is a comment for Matt. Matt, like you, I live in Philadelphia as well. It might please you to know that all Capogiro locations in Philadelphia now carry H&H bagels. You can even get a bag of day-olds for a reduced price. They have three locations in the city: 13th and Sansom, 20th and Sansom, and 40th and Walnut in University City.

Matt said...

Thanks Jim- I'll check it out.