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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Thursday, May 6, 2010


From time to time, the Department would ask someone to give a talk, as they had asked me. One such event stands out in my mind after all these years. Jonathan Cohen was visiting from England, and agreed to present a paper he had been working on. We all gathered in the seminar room one afternoon. As I recall, Cohen was sitting at the north end of the table, and I was slightly to his right, so that I had a pretty good view of the whole department. Sidney was at the south end, next to Tom Nagel, who by then was teaching at Princeton and had taken the train up to attend. Cohen's paper was on the justification of induction, an old and familiar topic. As he began to read his paper, Sidney started gossiping with Tom. Tom was clearly uncomfortable, especially as Sidney's whisper could be heard in the room as a sibilant background to Cohen's voice. Tom stared straight ahead at Cohen, but Sidney kept at it. Cohen finally came to the end of his paper, and when he stopped speaking, Sidney must have sensed a disturbance in the Force, because he looked up and realized it was question time. He proceeded to ask a question, even though it seemed to the rest of us that he could not have heard a word Cohen said. As soon as the words were out of Sidney's mouth, it was obvious to all of us that the question completely destroyed Cohen's argument beyond the possibility of repair. Sidney was mortally embarrassed. He reminded me of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, who, not realizing his own strength, breaks a rabbit's neck when he is petting it. "Well," Sidney said in his trademark nasal drawl, "that is such a stupid question you wouldn't even want to answer it," and he went back to whispering to Tom. The rest of us were left to cough up quasi-questions until the requisite half hour had passed and we could let Cohen go on his way.
In 1962, Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman published the second of their collections of essays on social and political topics with the general title Philosophy, Politics, and Society. Over several decades, these volumes were the locus for some of the most provocative and important work in Anglo-American philosophy. The 1962 volume contains the famous essay, "Justice as Fairness," in which Jack Rawls announced the very first version of the theory that would be given its most elaborate statement in his major book, A Theory of Justice. The essay grew out of Rawls' dissatisfaction with the endless and seemingly irresoluble debates between the proponents of formalist or deontological ethical theories on the one hand, and this or that version of utilitarianism on the other. The stalemate had very much the form of what Kant called an antinomy. Each side was skilled in demonstrating the inadequacies of the other, while neither side was successful in defending itself against those criticisms. Jack's brilliant idea was to try to break the logjam by combining an old tradition, that of the social contract, with some of the very modern work being done by economists and others in the branch of mathematics known as Game Theory, or more broadly, Bargaining Theory. After introducing his now famous two principles and announcing that he intended to exhibit them as the outcome of a process of bargaining among persons situated in something like what used to be called a state of nature, Rawls made an extraordinarily bold claim. "[t]he proposition I seek to establish is a necessary one, that is, it is intended as a theorem." I have always believed, though without direct evidence, that Rawls saw himself as undertaking something akin to what Kenneth Arrow achieved in his great monograph, Social Choice and Individual Values, published a decade earlier.
When I read Jack's essay, my mind was focused on Kant and other things, but from the very first, I was intrigued by the strength of this claim. If Jack could really make good on his claim, it would be a monumental achievement. As I turned the argument over in my mind, however, it became clear to me that the claim could not be sustained, and in fact was false as Jack had stated it. In 1966, I finally got around to writing all of this up in a paper entitled "A Refutation of Professor Rawls' Theorem on Justice," which I published that year in The Journal of Philosophy [the in-house journal of the Columbia Philosophy Department.] The very next year, in the fourth Laslett and Runciman volume, Jack published a new statement of his theory, Distributive Justice, that was dramatically different from his first attempt. The new version of the theory met all of the objections I had made, even though I thought then, and have always believed, that Jack saw the problems on his own, quite independently of my critique. I ran into him in the Smoker at the December Eastern Division APA meetings, and told him that I had recently published a refutation of his theory. His face fell. "But," I said, "your new paper on distributive justice meets all of my objections." "Oh," he said, brightening, "that's all right then."
I say that Anglo-American moral philosophy had arrived at a stalemate, but of course not everyone agreed with that estimation of the situation. Pretty much everyone did agree that old style utilitarianism -- what had come to be called act utilitarianism -- was a non-starter, for all manner of well known reasons. Everyone, that is to say, except Derek Parfitt. Derek showed up at Columbia for a year and asked whether he could sit in on my moral philosophy course. Of course, I said yes. He seemed an energetic and engaging young man. He even wanted to submit a final paper. That was a bit of a reach, but I agreed. The students actually taking the course were required to write a term paper of twenty pages or so, on pretty much any topic in moral philosophy they chose. On the last day, when the papers were due, Derek handed me a one hundred and ten page no holds barred defense of old fashioned act utilitarianism. I shrank back against the blackboard as he presented it to me, but a promise is a promise, so I read the entire thing and covered it with comments. It will come as no surprise to those who know Derek to learn that it was brilliant.
Of the four institutions at which I have spent extended periods of time in the course of my career, Columbia was the only one at which I worked exclusively in the Philosophy Department. At Harvard I had taught history and run Social Studies. At Chicago, I had taught the big Social Sciences survey course and even offered a course in the Political Science Department. At the University of Massachusetts I would start an undergraduate interdisciplinary social theory program, teach economics, and eventually spend the last sixteen years of my career in Afro-American Studies. But at Columbia, all my teaching, including my many, many courses at Barnard, City College, Hunter, and City University, was in Philosophy. Nevertheless, Cindy and I did get to know a number of the people teaching elsewhere in the University.
Carl Hovde, a tall, ironic man in the English Department, was our neighbor, living down 115th street a few doors. He and his wife, Jane, became very good friends. Carl was very much a man of the College. He had come to the English Department in 1960, and took over the Deanship of the College after the events of '68 [of which, much more below]. Carl, who passed away just last September, was a rock solid, decent man who earned the trust of students and faculty alike. He had a charming, puckish sense of humor, and was in every way exactly what I had been brought up to think a university professor ought to be. Through Carl, we met Edward Said, Steve Marcus, Walter Metzger, and many of the other bright lights of the Columbia faculty. I never got to know Ed Said well, although we had shared dinner at Carl and Jane's apartment. Steve Marcus was an odd duck. He was a rather slight man with an impressive Brunhilde of a wife. They had dinner at our home once, but I am afraid the dinner table conversation, which was no doubt scintillating, is not my principal memory of the occasion. Cindy and I were trying hard to put on the dog, with our fancy china and wedding gift silver, so I went down to an upper East Side butcher shop and got a suckling pig, which we roasted with an apple in its mouth. There were eight of us at table that evening, and it seems that one suckling pig does not actually have a great deal of meat on it, so I was forced to carve it with the greatest of care and serve it all up on the first go round. There were no seconds that night.
Both the Hovdes and the Metzgers had summer homes in the Berkshires -- the Hovdes in the town of Plainfield and the Metzgers a bit further south in Worthington. Both towns are in the Berkshire Hills west of the valley created by the Connecticut River as it flows south to Long Island Sound. The river is flanked by Amherst to the east and Northampton to the west, home of Amherst and Smith Colleges. Amherst is also the location of the main campus of the University of Massachusetts and an experimental college, Hampshire, which has become rather famous because of its alumnus, Ken Burns.
Walter sang the praises of Worthington, and both Cindy and I were powerfully attracted by the idea of a summer getaway from the heat of the city. He told us there was a small eighteenth century house on the market on Buffington Hill Road, a short distance from what passed for the center of Worthington. I had been teaching so many courses and publishing so many books that we had actually built up a little reserve, after paying our combined analysts' bills, so we decided to drive up and take a look. We were hooked, paid the $25,000 asking price, took out a mortgage at Nonotuck Savings Bank, and found ourselves the owners of a summer home.
Ever since the appearance of the little collective volume by Marcuse, Moore, and myself, I had been growing more and more concerned about the fact that I did not have a book in the works. Even though my name was now on three volumes, with a fourth under contract, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity was the only real book I had written, leaving to one side The Rhetoric of Deterrence, for which I could not get a publisher. It was my old anxiety, that I would never write again. Arnold Tovell, at Beacon Press, was feeling pretty bullish on the Critique of Pure Tolerance team, what with the success of that book and Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, so I approached him with a proposal that I put together a group of essays on politics. He agreed, and on March 31, 1967, we signed contracts for a book tentatively titled Concepts of Politics. My idea was to take my essay in the joint volume, and add to it new essays on Loyalty, Freedom, Power, and Community. The essay on loyalty would put on paper an analysis I had developed for an upper level General Education course at Harvard. The other essays would make convenient vehicles for ideas I had been thinking about for some time. Pretty quickly, I was able to finish the set of essays. But the title was a bummer. Then I recalled Marx's mordant critique of Proudhon's The Philosophy of Poverty, which he had published under the title The Poverty of Philosophy. Ever willing to steal from the masters, I called my little book The Poverty of Liberalism. Beacon brought the book out in hardcover in '68. The next year, a paperback version appeared, along with a German translation. A Japanese edition was contracted for, but never actually appeared. I was rather pleased with the book, even though it was just a collection of essays, because it staked out my claim to be a critic of liberalism from the left. During its lifetime, it sold about 30,000 copies, which, given its subject, seemed to me pretty good.
That summer of 1967 was noteworthy in another much more important way. Despite both being deep in psychoanalysis, Cindy and I decided to start a family. This was long before maternal leave, paternal leave, or anything remotely resembling them, and we knew that when the baby arrived, Cindy would have to stop teaching at least for a little while. We figured we could survive one semester of her lost salary, so we began to count months. If the baby arrived in February, Cindy could finish the Fall semester, have the baby, take the Spring semester off, and go back to teaching the following Fall. February, January, December, November, October, September, August, July, June. She would have to get pregnant in May. We told our analysts that we had decided to get Cindy pregnant in May. They both broke the analytic silence to express some doubt that we could plan things with that degree of precision, but it had never occurred to us that Cindy would fail to get pregnant the first month we stopped using birth control, so we assured them it would all go as planned. And so it did. When we walked into our new summer home in June of 1967, Cindy was in her first trimester.
We very soon discovered that pregnancy posed certain problems. Cindy suffered from morning sickness, and it seemed that the only thing she could comfortably keep down was a MacDonald's Big Mac, fries, and a coke. Almost every day, we drove the forty-five minutes from Worthington to Northampton to get lunch at MacDonald's. I had grown up in a family with a long tradition of spending summers in the country, so I was enormously enthusiastic about our decision to buy a summer home. However, I neglected to notice that when I was a kid, it was not my responsibility to look after the summer home. I just got the pleasure of visiting. Now, it was I who had to mow the rather sizeable lawn, make, or at least arrange for, the inevitable repairs, and pay the mortgage and taxes and utility bills. What is more, I was really a city mouse, not a country mouse. There was not a great deal to do in Worthington if outdoor sports were not your thing. As a boy, I had spent six summers in summer camps no more than an hour's drive from our new house, but now there were no counselors to arrange activities. Cindy and I did a good deal of decorating, but that lasts only so long. By the end of the first summer, I was beginning to have doubts about Worthington.
In the Spring of '67, the Rutgers University Philosophy Department approached me about visiting at their main New Brunswick campus for a year. I did not really want to move to New Jersey, but they offered me $20,000 a year, which at that point was about $5,000 more than Columbia was paying me. Ever mindful of the analyst bills, I accepted. Rutgers in those days had a genuinely weird class schedule. I would be teaching on Mondays and Thursdays -- early in the morning on Mondays and in the afternoons on Thursdays. One of my courses met on Mondays at 8 a.m. and on Thursdays at 4 p.m. The teaching load was three and three, but we needed the money. I also signed up to teach a course on Kant's ethics at CCNY and a seminar on political philosophy at CUNY that Fall, and another course on Kant -- this one on the Critique --at CCNY in the Spring.
My Fall schedule was a bit manic. On Mondays, I would take a bus to the Port Authority bus terminal on Manhattan's west side, and another bus to New Brunswick, arriving just in time to make it for my 8 a.m. class. [Cindy had a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule and needed the car to get to Queens College]. After teaching three classes, I would catch a bus back to the Port Authority terminal and walk to the CUNY building opposite the New York Public Library, on 42nd street. I had been assigned a small, windowless, airless inner office, which I outfitted with a collapsible cot. I would grab some lunch and lie down for an hour before teaching the graduate seminar. On Thursdays, I took the car, and drove to New Brunswick with the windows tightly rolled up to ward off the industrial stench of the New Jersey Turnpike. The two CCNY courses were squeezed into the schedule. What with my analyst appointments on the East Side, I was pretty constantly on the go. Fortunately, the Spring semester schedule was less hectic, with only one CCNY course in addition to my three Rutgers courses.
My time at Rutgers was little more than a chore, but several moments stand out in my mind. A the end of one meeting of a course that dealt with ethical theory, one of the students came up to my desk and earnestly pressed into my hand a tattered and dog-eared paperback book. If I would promise to read it, he said, he would give it to me. I felt badly taking a book from a student who had a good deal less money than I, but it was obvious that he would be crushed by my refusal. The book was The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand. I dutifully read it from cover to cover, discovering, as I anticipated, that it was terminally stupid. Rand claimed to be able to derive all the fundamental principles of what is now called libertarianism from the premise A=A. Needless to say, the proofs did not stand up to scrutiny.
A good deal more important was a conversation with one of the students in my Monday at 8, Thursday at 4 Introduction to Philosophy. For the first time in my life, I had assigned a casebook, which is to say a collection of snippets from the great philosophers, instead of assigning entire works, such as Plato Dialogues. I soldiered on, "covering" the material, until I got to a selection by Hume containing his classic critique of causal inference. This was relatively late in the semester, and I was bored out of my mind. I can say with absolute confidence that I was not doing a good job of teaching. At the end of the next class after we had done Hume, a young man came up to talk to me. He said he had been troubled by Hume. I was astonished. I had done everything in my power to drain the last vestige of power from Hume's words. I asked him how he had handled this distress. "I spoke to my priest," he said, "but he could not help me, so he told me to call the office of the Archdiocese." "What did they say?" I asked, expecting to be given some version of the party line. "A Monsignor answered. When I told him what Hume said, He answered, 'Well, some people say that, but we don't,' and he hung up the phone."
I was genuinely humbled. Despite my best efforts to guarantee that no student would walk away from my class with an original thought, David Hume had reached his hand across two centuries, grabbed that student by the scruff of the neck, and had given him a shaking that bid fair to shake him loose from a lifetime of unthinking obedience to received truth. It was the greatest testimony I have ever personally witnessed to the power of a liberal education .
While I taught my courses and waited for the baby's arrival, I edited a collection of essays on Kant's philosophy for Anchor Books. This was part of a series of little books Anchor was bringing out, all with the title subtitle A Collection of Critical Essays. Editing the book was hardly what I would call scholarship, but I got an advance -- always needed -- and had a chance to anthologize three old friends. Charles Parsons, Ingrid Stadler, and Sam Todes all had essays in the volume. I hunted about for other likely essays, and found a pretty good essay on Kant's ethics by someone named John Silber. It would be another thirteen years before our paths would cross again, with a much less happy outcome.


Andrew N. Carpenter said...

Thank you for continuing to post your memoirs.

Your anecdote about teaching Hume, captures pretty well what inspires me to teach. Imagine the power of ideas that can do that even when you were essentially going through the motions in the classroom!

Your reflections on the power of liberal education bring to mind Matthew Arnold's definition of culture, which I've always liked a a definition of education:

...a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thoughts upon our stock habits...

-- Matthew Arnold, CULTURE AND ANARCHY - Preface of 1875

The "pursuit for total perfection" doesn't move me, but I am inspired by the idea of turning powerful ideas loose against stock habits, along the lines of what happened when your Rutgers student read Hume.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think it is experiences like these that keep all of us going in the Academy.

analyticphilosopher said...

Your memoirs (and now the course page) are the first thing I read every morning. I especially enjoyed your recollections of Jack, Sydney, Tom, and Derek today. I was curious if you had any stories about Bob Nozick? I remember that he was one of Sydney's students, graduating from Columbia in '59.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I actually did not meet Bob Nozick until some time later. I have one funny story that will come up later on.

Unknown said...

The Hume story really is inspiring. I've taken the liberty to quote it on my blog, though I also had to note how proper education is being destroyed by the increasing commercialization of universities here in the UK:

b.f. said...

Regarding Professor Hovde, after columbia sds discovered in March 1967 that--without letting its philosophy department professors know--the Columbia University administration had been institutionally sponsoring Vietnam war-related weapons research for the Pentagon at the Institute for Defense Analyses [IDA] facility in Virginia, Professor Hovde refused to either read the sds research paper exposing Columbia's IDA connection or join anti-war students in protesting against the IDA affiliation prior to 1968 columbia student revolt.