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Tuesday, May 11, 2010


While I am telling Sidney stories, let me tell one more that may not have made its way into the blogosphere. A few words of explanation are required. One of Columbia's best known professors at that time was the literary scholar Lionel Trilling. Trilling was a New York Jewish boy who actually went to the high school [De Witt Clinton] at which my father taught for a while before spending his entire career at Columbia. Despite his origins, he affected a cultivated manner that, I imagine, he thought would be appropriate in an Oxford Senior Common Room. Trilling was one of a number of Columbia professors who chose to focus their energies in the College rather than the Graduate School. [That was an old rivalry for which I do not have time or space in these memoirs.] One day, Sidney went to a cocktail party, at which he spotted Trilling holding forth in his best Oxonian style. Sidney walked up and said, in a loud voice, "Ah, Lionel. Incognito ergo sum, eh?"

Now, this was pretty clearly a prepared bon mot. Sidney, like Samuel Johnson, was not above lying in bed at night crafting a witticism that he would carry about with him until an occasion arose for delivering it. As an author who does most of his writing in his head, I do not deprecate the practice. Indeed, my favorite Oscar Wilde line is one that he never actually published, and that has come down to us only because someone present on the occasion had the good sense to record it. I am referring, of course, to Wilde's immortal judgment on Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop -- "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

Once the students had been evicted from the buildings, a struggle broke out over whether they should be expelled, Both their supporters, like myself, and cool heads who sought to restore calm and repair the damage to the university, like Carl Hovde, argued for amnesty. The hardliners stood with the administration in demanding expulsion. A debate was organized on the question, at which Peter Gay took the side of the administration and I defended the students. An enormous number of students and faculty gathered to hear us [my memory says one thousand, but I cannot imagine where that would have been, and perhaps, like all political partisans, I am engaging in creative crowd enhancement.] I took my stand on the proposition that we, the faculty, and not the President and his cloud of Vice Presidents, were the university, and that we, not they, had the intellectual authority to decide who should receive a Columbia degree. "Let us issue a document to each student," I cried, " signed by the members of the faculty, stating that in our collective judgment that student has earned the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Then let Mr. Kirk issue a statement claiming that the student has been denied the degree. We shall see which document graduate schools and law schools and medical schools accept as legitimate." As you might expect, I was cheered to the echo, but I am rather glad Kirk did not take me up on my challenge. I am not as confident as I sounded that the world would have chosen academic authority over bureaucratic endorsement.

The final act of the Spring was the University Commencement. Customarily, this celebratory ritual was staged on the steps of Low Library, with the large green expanse covered with chairs for parents and friends. It is a splendid site, fully as lovely in its way as Harvard Yard, where the Harvard commencements are held. But Grayson Kirk was frightened that we would stage a demonstration in a space that was virtually impossible to close off, so he moved the proceedings to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on Amsterdam Avenue at 111th st. Even there, he was too apprehensive to deliver his customary presidential address, and his place was taken by Richard Hofstadter, who should have been with the students. The rest of us took possession of the space Kirk had abandoned, and held a counter-commencement on Low Plaza. Ours was much more fun.

While Columbia was exploding, Cindy was being fired. The semester she had taken off to bear and care for Patrick was the last semester of a three year Instructorship. The enlightened Chair of the Queens College English Department decided that a woman with a new baby could not give adequate attention to her teaching duties, and Cindy was once again on the job market. NYU had an opening, so I drove Cindy down to Washington Square and waited in the car while she went upstairs for an interview. When she came back down, she told me that the Chair of the Department had said, "Well, with your credentials, we would really have to offer you an Assistant Professorship if you were a man, but since you have to stay in the city anyway because of your husband's job, we will give you an Instructorship." Cindy was furious and turned him down on the spot. Fortunately, there was a tenure track Assistant Professorship at Manhattanville College, a Catholic women's college in Westchester, just north of the city. The nuns were delighted by the idea of a new mother on the faculty, and Cindy got the job.

This was not the first time that Cindy had encountered the prejudice against women rampant in the Academy, nor would it be the last. The Women's Movement had adopted as its slogan, "The personal is the political," and in my case this was exactly correct. I did not come to the issue of women's rights from a theoretical analysis of race, class, and gender in a capitalist society. I came to it out of anger at the way the world was treating a woman whom I loved and knew to be a brilliant scholar. I stewed about this for some time, before acting. There was nothing much I could do about the prejudice in English Departments, but I could at least try to do something about my corner of the academic world.

On September 17, 1969 I sent a letter to eleven senior members of the philosophy profession, asking them to serve as co-signers with me on a motion to be presented to the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the APA, calling for the establishment of a Standing Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession. Alice Ambrose and Morris Lazerowitz [who were husband and wife] came on board, as did Justus Buchler [whose wife taught philosophy], and Sue Larson and Mary Mothersill, both of Barnard. Maurice Mandelbaum, who along with Lewis White Beck had read my Kant manuscript for Harvard, was sympathetic, but pointed out that as the incoming APA president, if he signed he would be in the position of petitioning himself. A good point. The great Classicist Gregory Vlastos also said yes, as did Ruth Marcus, whom I knew from my Chicago days, when she was at Northwestern. Morty White was supportive, but declined to sign for fear that if the motion passed, he would be expected to serve on the committee, something he said he could not do because of writing obligations. That left Jack Rawls, who declined to sign. In retrospect, this does not surprise me. Although Jack was on his way to becoming the world's leading expert on justice, he never seemed to be there when action was needed. I was reminded of the great story [possibly apocryphal] about Karl Marx. whose mother is reputed to have said, "I wish Karl would write less about capital and make some." The motion passed, and my old student, Margaret Wilson, was elected the first Chair of the new Standing Committee.

One brief story about Margaret, to show how widespread the discrimination was. Columbia hired Margaret after she finished her degree at Harvard. I greeted her at the big reception that the department threw each Fall for its faculty, students, and all the other people in New York who considered themselves part of the Columbia philosophy family. Margaret told me that Rod Firth had offered her a terminal three year Instructorship in the Harvard Department, saying, "Of course, if you weren't a woman, we would be able to offer you an Assistant Professorship." I responded with outrage, but Margaret said, "It's all right. I didn't want to stay in Cambridge any way."

The last echo of the Columbia uprising in my life occurred the following Fall. I decided to offer an undergraduate course on the philosophy of education, and many of the students who had been active in SDS signed up. Also in the class was a Barnard student who babysat for Cindy and me from time to time. Cindy was now driving out to Manhattanville three times a week, and her teaching schedule overlapped with mine. By this time we had hired a wonderful woman, Viola Lemley, as our fulltime caregiver, but one day, when Cindy was due to go out to Westchester, Vi called in sick. Since we lived only half a block from the campus, I decided to bring Patrick to class. He was now eight months old, and was fussy from teething. I walked into class with Patrick on my shoulder and a pocket full of teething biscuits, and proceeded to lecture for fifty minutes while walking up and down, patting Patrick to soothe him. A week later, the Barnard student came to babysit, and told me that I had caused a major disruption within SDS by showing up with Patrick that day. Apparently, the students in the class had decided that I was not sufficiently radical [the left always eats its own], and planned to seize my class that day in a show of revolutionary force. But confronted by Patrick, they froze, and the plan fizzled. Despite Paul Kristeller's conviction that the students were Brown Shirts, they were really just nice middle class Jewish boys who knew that you did not make trouble for a man with a baby on his shoulder.

The Margaret Wilson story reminds me that I ought to say something about the larger community of which the Columbia Philosophy Department was the center. In a way quite different from either the Harvard or Chicago departments, the Columbia department had a number of friends who thought of us as their intellectual home, even though they had no official connection either with our department or even with Columbia University. Some were former students who had remained in New York; some were members of the Ethical Culture Society; some were simply New Yorkers with a serious and continuing interest in philosophy. They would all show up at the Fall reception, and would be greeted as old friends by those professors who had been in the department for a long time. The weirdest member of this penumbra was a tall, dark haired rather disturbed man somewhat older than I then was, who was reputed to receive a supporting subvention from his family quarterly. When he was in funds, he would show up, always wearing a long dark overcoat, and attend public philosophy talks. One day, as I was entering Philosophy Hall, he accosted me and told me excitedly that he had discovered a new and revolutionary proof for the existence of God based on the precise distances between the several planets of the Solar System. Ordinarily, when I saw him, we would talk for a bit while he told me his latest mad theories, but that morning I simply did not have time to stop. Not wanting to be rude, I said, "You are right. I was so convinced by the last proof you gave me that I have started going to schul regularly," and I rushed off upstairs. Half an hour later, I received an excited call from a student reporter for the Columbia Spectator. "A man just came into our office," he said, "and told us that he had proved the existence of God to you, and that you have accepted his proof and were now an observant Jew. Is that correct?" I was tempted, I really was, but I thought better of it and told him the truth.

One of my loveliest memories dates from the brief semester when I served as Graduate Program Director in Jim Walsh's absence. I was holding office hours one day when a vision of oriental loveliness floated into my office and introduced herself as a member of the Burmese delegation to the United Nations. She had studied philosophy in Burma, she said, and was interested to know how our program might differ from the one she had gone through. I started telling her about our requirements -- logic, ethics, epistemology, the history of philosophy. She asked at one point whether we had meditation. I allowed as how some of our students, I was sure, meditated [this was the 60's, after all], but that it was not a requirement. When I had concluded my rundown of our program, she rose to leave, pausing at the door to summarize what she had learned. "Philosophy in the United States is very like philosophy in Burma." she said. But then she added, rather sadly, "Except, of course, that you do not require meditation."

When the Philosophy Department of the University of Wisconsin Madison invited me to give the Matchette Lectures, I decided to use the occasion to lay out in some systematic order the thoughts that had been provoked in me by the Columbia uprising. Arnold Tovell agreed to publish them, and once again stealing a great author's title, I called the lectures The Ideal of the University [pace John Cardinal Newman's famous book, The Idea of a University.] The book, when completed, summarized and anatomized my experiences as a university professor over more than a decade. I did not realize when I wrote the book that it revealed the extraordinarily constrained and privileged circumstances in which I had pursued my career to that point. Harvard, Chicago, and Columbia were hardly representative of the academic scene in America as a whole. Only after moving to the University of Massachusetts was I able to get some perspective on my early career.

While in Madison, one member of the department told me a story that I feel I must repeat, even though it is secondhand, on the off chance that it has not made it into the blogosphere. The lecture hall in which I delivered the Matchette Lectures was a rather striking space. The architect had designed it with a parapet running around the wall just below the ceiling, cleverly rigged with indirect lighting to create the illusion that sunlight was pouring in through windows from outside. The legendary Cambridge philosopher of common sense G. E. Moore came to give a lecture one day, and as luck would have it was scheduled for that same room. Now, Moore had famously offered a "proof" of the existence of the external world [a hot topic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries] that consisted of holding up first his right hand, then his left, and saying, "Here is one human hand, and here is another. That is two physical objects, which proves the existence of objects in space." This time, he decided somewhat unwisely to change the example, so, pointing to the space below the ceiling, he said, "Obviously there is sunlight shining in from outside, which proves ..." He was startled when the audience burst out laughing.

Analysis or no analysis, I was still a very angry young man. I focused my fund of resentment on the fact that I had not yet been promoted to the rank of full professor. Mind you, I was barely thirty-five, but I would sit in our kitchen tied up in knots at the vast injustice of it all. When the Hunter College Philosophy Department contacted me about the possibility of joining them, I said I would do so if they gave me a promotion and a big raise. They agreed, and I was all set to jump ship, but the President of the college got wind of my activities during the Columbia building seizures and vetoed the appointment because of my politics. This was the first of three occasions on which my politics cost me a job offer, and in all three cases, I was better off for not having secured the offer. Anyway, Columbia promoted me, so as of July 1, 1969, I would be Professor of Philosophy.

That same Spring I helped to organize the first annual meeting of the Socialist Scholars Conference. For this important occasion, we had secured, as our keynote speaker, Isaac Deutscher, whom readers of this memoir have already encountered when he tangled with Zbigniev Brzezinski at lunch in Adams House, Harvard. Deutscher offered to give a talk on "Socialist Man," and for so eminent a speaker, nothing less than four commentators would do. I penciled myself into the program. When the evening arrived on which Deutscher was to launch the Society, the ballroom in a downtown New York hotel was crammed with a thousand people. Another thousand had been accommodated in a nearby space, where they could not see the great man, but could hear the proceedings. Deutscher rose and delivered a fiery peroration that could best be described as a bold theoretical step forward from 1932 to 1933. Dated though his remarks were, he was cheered to the echo. Then it was time the commentators. First to speak was Shane Mage of Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. Mage was a natural choice, having written his doctoral dissertation at Columbia several years earlier on that hoariest of all marxist chestnuts, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. After a few introductory complimentary remarks, Mage started talking about the importance of "turning on, tuning in, and dropping out," the signature line of Harvard LSD guru Timothy Leary. The audience at first looked stunned, then angry, and finally anxious, for Deutscher was becoming visibly distressed. He probably thought that he had stumbled into some petty bourgeois left deviationist sect. I had prepared some pretty standard comments on Deutscher's paper, which we had been able to read in advance, but I felt that I needed to do something to salvage the situation, so I took out my pen and hastily wrote some sentences excoriating Mage for the utter frivolity and irrelevance of his response to Deutshcer. When my turn came and I read out those sentences, the hall erupted in cheers, and Deutscher breathed a sigh of relief.

After the talk, people rushed up to congratulate me. My body was pumping adrenaline and the haze of cigarette smoke in the room was stifling. As I stepped out of the hotel, the cold air hit me, triggering a violent anxiety attack. I grabbed a cab, gave him my address, and was halfway back to Morningside Heights before I remembered that I had driven to the hotel and parked my car nearby. I told the cabbie to turn around, retrieved my car, and made it home, where I collapsed in a sweat. Cindy melted three Valium tablets in some water and sugar and got me to swallow them., I lay on the bed rigid until the pills took effect and I could relax.

Patrick was now almost a year and a half old, and Cindy and I decided to have a second child. Once again we made careful calculations, and once again Cindy got pregnant as soon as we began to try, so Patrick would have a little brother or sister whose birthday was very close to his own. In anticipation of an expanded family, we began looking about for larger and somewhat less slum-like living quarters, but even though we drove north with real estate agents into Westchester so far that we thought we were on vacation, we could find nothing that was even remotely affordable.

At the same time, I was going through a rather profound change in my conception of myself, a change that would fundamentally alter the entire remainder of my career. Over the years, a number of people have asked me why I chose to leave a tenured professorship at an Ivy League university in a great city like New York for a position on a state university campus in the rural part of Massachusetts. For the most part, I have simply said that I did not want to raise my children in a New York apartment, and there is much truth to that. But something deeper was going on, and I think the time has come for me to try to put it into words.


Matt said...

That's a good Moore story. Many years ago I'd heard a similar one and I wonder if they're versions of the same thing. In the one I'd heard, Moore was giving a talk in a large room in some big mid-western university (I vaguely recall it being told as Michigan, but can't say I feel confident about that) in a room that had fake windows, with curtains but no windows behind them, and he said, "I know there are windows in this room", to the amusement of everyone. They sound close enough that I wonder if the version I've heard isn't a variant of the one in this story. (I'd hope he'd not do the same sort of thing twice, unless he was doing for a gag!) Still, I'm fairly sympathetic to Moore's argument, and think "To Moore- to win a philosophical argument by pulling something out of one's pocket" is one of the better entries in Dennett's Philosophical Lexicon.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I bet it is the same story. I am pleased that it is not apocryphal. How often does a philosophical argument get refuted on the spot? The only other example I know is the famous Sidney Morgenbesser J. L. Austin story.

Matt said...

Is the Morgenbesser J. L. Austin story the "no two positives make a negative/yeah, right" story? The funny thing about _that_ one is that I heard a very similar story (supposedly told about a Russian linguist) when I lived in Russia, where the same "no two positives" claim is made and someone from the audience say, "da, ladna" (which is "yeah, right" in Russian and plays the same "negative" role.) I've wondered of the story merely managed to travel and get "translated", or if it were a parallel event.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is indeed the Morgenbesser story, but since I was not present at that event, I cannot attest to it. The Morgenbesser stories I tell are all first hand or very nearly so.

Adam said...

I am finding your memoirs fascinating for all sorts of reasons.
This is my first comment and perhaps a strange one, but here goes: I dislike driving and have always thought that a great advantage to living in New York would be an ability to manage without a car. So I am struck by how frequently you drove around Manhattan in the 1960s. Any comment?

David Pilavin said...

" which my father taught for a while before spending his entire career at Columbia"

I wonder what would Freud make of this ambiguity :-)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Adam, We needed the car for Cindy's teaching, and in those days one could actually drive in Manhattan. Switching the car from side to side of the street was a pain.

David, I thought some about that sentence, which was clearly ambiguous, and finally decided it was too much trouble to disambiguate. Since my father's unfulfilled dream was to get a Ph D in Biology, and since he actually got an MA at Columbia, you may be right. :)

David Pilavin said...

It is possible to disambiguate the sentence simply by moving the "before.." clause back to the middle of the sentence in the following manner:

"Trilling was a New York Jewish boy who, before spending his entire career at Columbia, actually went to the high school [De Witt Clinton] at which my father taught for a while ."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Nice, David. I will correct it in the manuscript, but leave it in the blog for others to worry about. :)

A student said...

Being about 60 years his junior, I never met Rawls, so I certainly can't give my impression of his character. Aside from a brief biographical section from a book by Thomas Pogge, I also don't know much about his life.

I've read Rawls's work, though. He was no radical: He did buy into political legitimacy, including the duty to obey the law, and even his endorsement of civil disobedience was tepid. Stylistically, I don't think there's a lick of flame - even a smoldering coal - anywhere in A Theory of Justice.

Rawls may not be the most liberal philosopher - in fact, I'd say he's not sufficiently liberal - but he was definitely and thoroughly (in his writing, agonizingly thorough) liberal. He remains, as far as the canon is concerned, the paramount figure in contemporary liberal theory, and egalitarian social justice in particular.

So I'm surprised to read that Rawls didn't sign the petition. I'm also surprised by your comment that you weren't surprised - that this decision was, more or less, consistent with his character as you knew it. In fact, given his status, I think I might even be slightly disappointed; it strikes me as uncommitted at best, probably hypocritical, and possibly unjust (it doesn't mean that he was necessarily opposed to equity in the workplace).

If you're able to, I'd love for you to expand on your comments. Anecdotes, speculation, or any other relevant points would be very interesting.

As an aside: I'm not sure the Marx analogy works the way you want it to. Based on Rawls's writing, at least, one would expect him to stand firmly for equality of the sexes. Marx, of course, took great issue with capitalism. If Marx had been an avid day trader, it would stand in stark contrast to the values he puts forth in his work, but being broke does not. Then again, I could be reading you wrong, and I'm no Marx scholar.

Unknown said...

List me as one of those who are curious about why Rawls did not sign. What were his reasons? I know that he was a fairly apolitical guy, by some standards. I've always wondered why he never really decided to become more of a public figure. Maybe you could shed some light on the mystery?

It should be noted, I think, that Rawls did an awful lot, personally, to find and encourage female talent in the discipline. The list of excellent and influential female ethical and political philosophers in the past few decades and the list of Rawls students overlap quite a bit.

So, a little more than a passing dig seems called for.

Matt said...

If Marx had been an avid day trader, it would stand in stark contrast to the values he puts forth in his work

I don't know about Marx, but Engels was not only a critic of capitalism but a capitalist most of his adult life- he continued to own and run textile mills in Manchester, and as far as I can tell (I'm not an experts, but from what I've read) he ran them in the typically capitalistic way of his day. Supposedly he said that if anyone questioned him on this he'd punch them in the face.

A student said...

"I've always wondered why he never really decided to become more of a public figure. Maybe you could shed some light on the mystery?"

Apparently, he was pretty shy, but that couldn't quite account for the petition - could it?

"Engels was not only a critic of capitalism but a capitalist most of his adult life- he continued to own and run textile mills in Manchester, and [...] he ran them in the typically capitalistic way of his day."

Aha! Now, we're talking about some serious hypocrisy!

"Supposedly he said that if anyone questioned him on this he'd punch them in the face."

Quoth Humpty Dumpty, "there's a knock-down argument for you!"

Interlocutor said...

Re Rawls, for whatever this is worth, Martha Nussbaum (who was taught by him) said:

'But Rawls happened to be a person who was very shy and very aloof, and he just couldn't—he had a speech impediment and was a very shy man—go out and be a public intellectual.

'I remember very vividly a time when Jack Rawls and I had lunch in Bartley's Burger Cottage in Cambridge, in the days when I still ate burgers, and he said to me, "You know, if you can address this general public in speaking and in writing, then you have a duty to do it." I never forgot that, and I believe that.'


Robert Paul Wolff said...

It is certainly true that Rawls' speech impediment stood in the way of his being a public figure, but it did not stop him from signing a letter! When I get to my founding of University Scholarships for South Arrican Students [see], I will tell another story to the same effect.

Unknown said...

Great, it wasn't his speech impediment. So, what was his reason? Surely, you had a conversation with him about it...Will it be in the published version of the memoirs?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I never discussed these things with Jack. I think he didn't like me, and although he twice had dinner at my house, we never ever had a serious conversation about anything.

Unknown said...

According to Pogge's biography, referred to by a previous commenter, Rawls was very active in campaigning against the 2S deferment at Harvard. He also leant his name to other causes over the years. (See links to news stories below.) So whatever the reason he didn't choose to sign this particular one, it wasnt because he was averse to lending his name to social justice issues generally.

b.f. said...

Regarding the 1968 Counter-commencement that you mention, the Columbia Student Strike Committee leader who gave a speech on behalf of the students at the counter-commencement, David Gilbert, had graduated from Columbia College as a philosophy major in 1966, has been imprisoned in New York State prisons for over 30 years since October 20, 1981 and is the author of a recently-published autobiography, "Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond (PM Press) which you might find interesting to check out. (See following link:

Tony Flood said...

Deutscher at a conference in 1969? I thought he died in '67.