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Saturday, June 5, 2010


Ann's last point, about overdetermination, raises an interesting theoretical point which it might be appropriate to say a word about here. This is a topic on which I crossed swords with Rick Wolff one semester when I audited his graduate lecture course for a while. Rick and Steve got the term "overdetermination" from Althusser, and so far as I could make out, they used it to mean that something had many causes, not merely one. But the term in fact has a quite different meaning both in mathematics and in Freud's explication of dreams. Let me take a moment to explain. When a system of linear equations has more unknowns than equations, it is in general impossible to solve the system. You can always eliminate a number of the variables, or unknowns, from the equations, by solving one equation for a selected unknown and then substituting the result into the rest of the equations. Each time you do that, you eliminate one unknown and lose one equation. For someone discussing Marx's economic theories, as Rick and I both were, this means analyzing a system of linear equations representing the production conditions in the different industries. In such a system, there will be n equations, one for each industry. Assuming that there is one quality of labor and a free labor market, there will be a single economy wide wage rate. Assuming as well that capital moves freely from industry to industry in search of the highest rate of return, a single profit rate will emerge. So all in all there will be n equations, n price variables for the n products, a wage rate and a profit rate. You can reduce the number of price variables by one by choosing some commodity [like gold, or silver] and arbitrarily setting its price equal to 1. This will then turn all the prices into what are called "relative prices," which is to say prices relative to one unit of the commodity denominated as money. The upshot is a system of n equations with n+1 variables. The system is then said to be " underdetermined by one degree of freedom." What you can then do, and this is at the heart of all Classical Political Economy, is to solve the system of equations for the relationship between the wage rate and the profit rate, showing that they are inversely related. When the wage goes up, the profit rate goes down, and vice versa. That is why Smith, Ricardo, and Marx all say that the interests of the workers and the entrepreneurs are opposed to one another.

On the other hand, if there are more equations than variables, in general the system is in internal contradiction, because more constraints are being placed on the system than there are degrees of freedom. Such a system is said to be "overdetermined." All of this is well known and not controversial.

Sigmund Freud also uses the term "overdetermined," in an apparently quite different way that turns out, upon examination, to be basically similar to the notion in mathematics or economics. In The Interpretation of Dreams, his greatest work [or so he himself thought], Freud argues that when one traces to the unconscious the sources of each of the elements of a dream, through the process of free association, one frequently finds that even after a dream element has been completely accounted for, associations reveal that there one or even several other unconscious wishes or memories are also finding expression in that dream element. The dream element, in effect, has too many explanations for its presence in the dream. It is, Freud says, overdetermined. If you think about it, it is clear that this notion of overdetermination and the mathematical/economic notion are really at base the same.

But the notion of multiple determination is totally different. To say that an event or a phenomenon has several causes, and hence is multiply determined, is to say that it cannot be completely explained without invoking all of the causes. No one of them alone is adequate to account for the event or the phenomenon.

I was bugged by this seemingly deviant and confusing usage of a term that already had a clearly defined use in both mathematics and psychoanalytic theory. When Rick started talking about overdetermination in his lectures, I raised my hand and questioned him on the matter. Now Rick is a ferociously smart man, but I simply could seem to get him to acknowledge my point. After a while, it became clear that I was getting in the way of his teaching, and I stopped attending the class. But to this day, I do not understand why he and Steve Resnick persisted in their usage.

I was still commuting from Amherst, and as 1983 turned into 1984, my marriage to Cindy moved closer and closer to a breach, but there were courses to plan, students to guide toward the degree, battles to be fought in the Department that we could hope to win. It was grand fun. I think I must have been on the phone to Bob Ackerman every day of the week. To the students, we were simply "the two Bobs." On July 15, 1984, I even took a group of AT students to Tanglewood for a classical music concert. We sat on the lawn in front of the Shed, and listened to some Beethoven. I thought the outing was an ideal imitation of the outings my father used to go on with his high school students in the forties, but if I had been a bit more sensitive, I might have noticed that they would have preferred a rock concert. Oh well.

It was during that happy time that I had a really wacky encounter with the famous zoologist Edward O. Wilson. A Canadian philosopher named Michael Ruse was visiting for a year at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology where Stephen J. Gould, Richard Lewontin, and E. O. Wilson all had their offices. I ran into Michael at the B. U. Colloquium, and hit it off with him. After we had met several times for coffee, he asked whether I would like to meet Wilson. I said sure, and Ruse set it up. It was not unlike my arranged kiss with Marilyn Harris in the eighth grade. [Readers who would like to know how that turned out can take a look at Volume One, Chapter One of these memoirs. The link is on the June 28, 2009 blog entry.] It was agreed that I would spend an afternoon in his office, which doubled as his laboratory. In advance of the rendez-vous, we exchanged gifts. I sent him, through Michael, a copy of The Poverty of Liberalism, and he sent back a copy of his latest book, Promethean Fire, co-authored by Wilson and Charles Lumsden. The volume, which sits on my shelves today, is inscribed "For Robert Paul Wolff, with warm regards, Edward O. Wilson, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard U., January 25, 1984."

We met in Wilson's office in the Museum. After the usual greetings, he showed me the centerpiece of the office, a large table on which, under a plexiglass dome, was a bustling, complex ant colony. Wilson banged the side of the table, which set the ants scurrying, and as they poured out of the anthill he pointed out the soldier ants, worker ants, and so forth. I didn't have much in the way of conversation. What can you say about an anthill, after all? So, casting about for something to say, I mused aloud, "I wonder how many ants there are in the entire colony." "Fifteen thousand," Wilson replied. "How can you be sure?" I asked. "I counted them," he said.

There are moments in life when the scales fall from your eyes and you suddenly see clearly something that has hitherto been obscured from view. This was one of those moments. I had from time to time reflected on how different the workaday lives are of people in different corners of the Academy, even though we all call ourselves "Professor." Richard Taub in the Winthrop House Senior Common Room had gone off to India to do the research for his dissertation. Karl Heider had gone to uplands New Guinea. My sister, Barbara, had spent her time in a bio lab. My notion of an expedition was a visit to the Widener Library stacks. Exploring unknown territory meant going to a level of the stacks I had not previously been on. And here was E. O. Wilson, the creator of Sociobiology, who thought nothing at all about counting fifteen thousand ants. Had anyone asked me to figure out the number of ants in an anthill, the farthest I would have gone was watching eight or ten walk by and then guesstimating the rest.

To be sure, philosophers sometimes descend to the level of the particular. Hegel, after all, attempted to demonstrate a priori that there are only seven planets. But our tendency is to go in somewhat the opposite direction. Confronted with the real world, the reflex reaction of philosophers is to ask about possible worlds. It was clear to me that although we were both professors and authors, Wilson and I led lives so utterly different that no real mutual understanding was likely. It was also clear that however much the world might think of Wilson as the tendentious, controversial author of Sociobiology, his real interest was in those ants.

When our conversation about the anthill began to drag, Wilson took me into a nearby room in which there were rows of file cabinets. He pulled out a drawer at random to show me a card on which was impaled an ant. The card identified the ant as belonging to one of the more than twenty thousand species of ants that are estimated to exist somewhere or other on the face of the earth. A second eclaircissement illuminated my mind. I had a vision of thousands of English curates and amateur entomologists, each of whom had devoted much of his or her life to searching for, identifying, catching, impaling, and thus nailing down for all time one of those ant species. Here again, I saw clearly how different my field was from Wilson's. Philosophy does not advance by the taking of thousands of tiny steps, assuming for the sake of argument that it advances at all. Instead, ages pass during which little or nothing happens, although thousands of philosophers are doing their best. Then, there is a moment of transformation -- fourth century B. C,. in Greece, or the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Western Europe. Suddenly, the subject leaps forward, changing forever the way we think. As for all those good, grey, decent souls [myself included, of course] who soldier away, trying to think new thoughts, we might just as well not have existed. Great music is like this, I think. Would anyone ever play the music of Salieri had it not been for Peter Shaffer?

But Entomology is not like that at all. Every one of those file cards was the evidence of a worthwhile piece of work, undertaken, completed, and added to our knowledge of the ant. I was properly humbled. After we parted, I reflected that Wilson probably had learned nothing at all from meeting me, but I felt that I had learned a good deal from meeting him. It might not have been good for him, but it was good for me.
Later that year, near the end of the Spring Semester, the famous German scholar Dieter Henrich came to the campus and gave a talk on Hegel. Afterwards, a group of us took him to dinner at The Lord Jeffrey Amherst Inn, located on the Amherst Common. The Lord Jeff is the closest thing Amherst has to fine dining, although in fact there have only been a few times during the thirty-seven years I spent at UMass when its food was actually any good. Henrich ordered a bottle of wine, which the waiter brought with the usual flourishes, opening it, pouring a tiny bit into Henrich's glass, and waiting for him to taste it. Henrich went through the entire ritual. He swirled it, he sniffed it, he tasted it. And then he pronounced it no good. It was the first time in my entire life that I had ever seen someone actually do that. He made some impressive sounding remarks about the hillside on which the grapes were grown, and sent the bottle back for another one. Once again, he went through the ritual, and this time pronounced it satisfactory, to our collective relief. After the waiter had gone, Henrich allowed as how that bottle really wasn't right either, but he did not want to make trouble. I didn't think much of the talk -- I have never liked Hegel -- but I was mightily impressed by the dinner.

As my marriage to Cindy developed more strains, I quite unexpectedly returned to the violin, which I had played as a boy. [See Volume One, Chapter One, at blogpost for June 28, 2009]. I had not opened the case since 1961, when Barbara Bergmann, Ann Carter and I played string quartets several times during my last year as a Harvard Instructor. I got some new strings, took a few lessons, and began practicing a bit. Cindy had studied piano as a girl and played nicely. In the Barrett Place house we actually had both an upright and a Yamaha baby grand on which the boys practiced during their brief engagements with the instrument. Perhaps as a form of therapy to try to repair our marriage, Cindy and I took to playing Handel violin sonatas together. I wasn't very good, Lord knows, but then, we weren't planning to take it on the road.

One evening, John Harbison and his wife Rose Mary came to dinner. Harbison, who is now one of America's most celebrated classical composers, had even then, in his mid-forties, acquired a considerable reputation. He and Cindy were in different Sections of the same MIT Humanities Department. Rose Mary is a concert violinist who specializes in performing contemporary music. When she heard that we had been playing a bit together, she asked to see my violin. It took her no more than a few moments to declare, in rather minatory tones, "Your bow is dead." That sounded really serious, so i went right out and splurged $300 on a new bow, which did indeed improve somewhat my tone production. I thought of myself as a real big spender. Little did I know that less than twenty years later, I would spend five thousand dollars for a Benoit Roland bow and think myself lucky for having got it at such a good price.

Encouraged by the Alternative Track and the presence in my courses of students who were genuinely interested in what I was teaching, I returned to my Marx project and brought to completion the first of the three books I had sketched in my mind -- the exposition of the evolution of Classical and Marxian political economy leading to my analysis of Marx's explanation of the origin of profit in a capitalist economy. My study of the flood of books published by a worldwide network of Marxian economists gave me a firm grasp of the theoretical foundations, but much more challenging was the task of recasting them in a narrative that a reader could follow who did not have that mathematical material at his or her command.

I conceived the idea of writing a book that would, in its central narrative, demand no more of its readers than the ability to solve little models consisting of two or three linear equations. My meditation on this formal material had led me to the conclusion that the underlying ideas were fundamentally very simple, so that if I could get them clear enough in my own mind, I could expound them using very simple and easily comprehended examples. I decided that I would put in an appendix the formal proofs of the generalizations of all the claims I made in the text. Readers capable of handling the math could look at the appendix for the proofs, while the rest of the readers could simply follow my story from chapter to chapter.

When I had completed the manuscript, which cost me a good deal of effort principally because of the Appendix, I sent it to Sandy Thatcher at Princeton, and he agreed to publish it. In 1985 it appeared under the title Understanding Marx. The title echoed that of my book on Rawls, but the two books could not have been more different. The Rawls book was really an explanation of Rawls' failure to demonstrate his central thesis. In the Marx book I argued that despite problems and confusions, Marx's central insight was and is correct: Capitalism rests on exploitation. By the time I had completed Understanding Marx, I was prepared to call myself a Marxist.
Understanding Marx sold more than 4000 copies during its lifetime, in both hard cover and paper, so perhaps it reached an audience that found it of use, but the larger project of which it is a very minor part seems to have foundered. While I was working on my book, I believed that if one of the really gifted economists around the world ever wrote a full-scale alternative Introduction to Economics that could serve not as a critique of, but as a substitute for, the Samuelson text and its imitators, we could perhaps fundamentally change the way people in the profession understand capitalism. I had in mind a text that would develop explanatory devices as visually powerful and easy to grasp as the ubiquitous supply and demand curves that every beginning student of economics learns. The idea would be to build into the pedagogy the concept of exploitation, so that instead of portraying the capitalist marketplace as a benign institution smoothly allocating scarce resources in ways that maximize consumer satisfaction and the efficient use of those resources, students would be presented with a model of exploitation and crisis. I still believe that the possibility is there, but it does not seem that any of the sophisticated mathematical Marxists has taken up the challenge. I know my limits well enough to be sure that I am not the person for the job.

In 1984, my marriage to Cindy was in serious trouble. I had started once a week therapy with a McLean Hospital based psychiatrist named Lenore Boling, and I used the sessions really just to give voice to my unhappiness with what my relationship with Cindy had become. Despite the unhappiness, I do not think I ever shed a tear in those sessions over the shambles of the marriage. One day, however, I started talking about my work. I tried to explain to Dr. Boling that in all of my writing, whether it was on Kant's First Critique or Hume's Treatise or Das Kapital, my goal always was to plumb the depths of the author's central idea and recast it in a form so simple, so clear, so transparent that I could hold it before my students or my readers and show them its beauty. As I said these words, tears started to well up in me, and I finally had to stop talking because I could not finish. It was the only time in twenty years of psychotherapy that I cried openly in a session. Ever since that day, twenty-five years ago, I have understood that it is this intellectual intuition of the transparent beauty of an idea, not the desire for status or recognition or money, that has throughout my life been the driving force behind my writing and teaching. This is why it makes little difference to me whether reviewers agree with what I say, and it is why I am made somewhat uncomfortable by praise. The intrinsic beauty of the idea is the focus of my concern. It seems that I am, after all, more capable of shedding tears for the central argument of the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding than I am for a failed marriage or even for a deceased parent. I am not at all sure that is admirable, but it is closer to the truth about myself than I have ever come before.

Despite our estrangement, Cindy and I continued virtually to the end to talk endlessly about her work. She was now working on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and by late '84 and early '85 had already begun to write what would eventually be her third book. I was if anything even less knowledgeable about poetry than about fiction, despite my youthful enjoyment of Carl Sandburg and e.e. cummings, but I read a good deal of the corpus, and guided by Cindy, began to understand the richness of Dickinson's work. As always, I read every word Cindy wrote and offered editorial suggestions. At one point when her writing had progressed pretty far along, she heard of a new book on Dickinson that had just appeared. [Emily Dickinson is of course a cottage industry, and new things were being published all the time.] Cindy was anxious that someone might have pre-empted her insights, but she was too freaked out to look at the book, so I got a copy from the library and read enough of it to be able to reassure her that her work remained entirely original and unanticipated by this latest addition to the literature on Dickinson.

In late '84, we began to argue a good deal,, and for the first time actually talked about a separation. I am not going to try to rehearse here the substance of those arguments. There was nothing in them that has not been said by countless couples countless times. Neither of us was seeing someone else, or anything like that. If I had to summarize in a sentence what went wrong, I would say that when Cindy finally achieved the recognition that she had so long deserved, it became more and more painful for her to be in a relationship that had been been built on mentoring and guidance. Finally, in February of 1985, we agreed that we would live apart, at least for a while. Very reluctantly, I accepted Cindy's demand that I move out of the house. We called the boys into the living room and told them that we were separating. It was the very worst moment of my entire life, and writing about it even now, twenty-five years and more later, I cringe with pain and shame at my failure to hold the marriage together at least until both boys had finished high school and left home.

On March 1st, I moved into a wretched apartment not far from the Garfield Road house. The apartment had ghastly yellow shag carpeting and painted plywood on the walls. It was rumored to have been a dentist's office in a former incarnation, and at night I thought I could hear the screams of patients denied novacaine. Cindy I went into couples therapy, in a last ditch effort to salvage the marriage. I think there was actually a moment when the four members of the family between us had five therapists. Meanwhile, I saw my boys as much as I could, driving them to school and home again and taking them to dinner. Patrick was by now well on his way to earning the title of International Chess Master, and his world was the world of big league chess, but Toby, who was only fifteen, found the breach a good deal harder to handle.

Sitting alone in my apartment, I began to sift through and read the boxes of family papers that I had salvaged from my father's house. I think it was for me a form of therapy, a way of rediscovering a connection with a part of my life that antedated my long relationship with Cindy. I began with the letters between my parents dating from the late teens of the twentieth century. My grandmother each summer had taken her children to the Catskills to escape the heat and the disease of New York City, while my grandfather stayed in town to work as a cigar salesman and to pursue his political career as one of the leaders of the Socialist Party in New York. My father and mother were childhood friends, because my father's mother and my mother's mother had worked together in a New York sweatshop as girls. My parents began their courtship in Circle One of the Young People's Socialist League, or YPLS. My mother was forced to leave school at sixteen because of her father's crippling stroke, which made it difficult for him to support the family. As the oldest, my mother had to go to work as a secretary. Fairly quickly, she secured the position of secretary to the City Editor of the old Herald Tribune. All of this meant that in the summers, my father was in West Shokan or Big Indian while my mother stayed in Manhattan. They wrote to each other endlessly, my father sometimes taking my mother on imaginary hikes in the Catskills and describing to her what he saw. As I began to read these letters, I came to an appreciation of how much they had loved those mountains. As I have already written [Volume One, Chapter One], when my sister and I were little, the family went back to the places where my father had gone as a boy.

Ever since the death of my father, I had had in my possession two urns. One contained the ashes of my mother, which my father had never been able to part with. The other contained my father's ashes. By a stroke of fortune, just at that time, I received a letter from Leon Botstein at Bard College, inviting me to give a lecture. I decided to use the occasion of the talk to find a resting place at long last for the ashes of my parents. On Thursday, May 2, 1985, I set out for Annandale-on-Hudson, just across the river from the Ashoken Reservoir. Early in the afternoon, I found my way to a deserted part of the reservoir, which was very low because of a long drought, and walked fifty feet across the sandy shore to the water's edge. There I sat down with the two urns and read some of my father's lyrical descriptions of the Catskills, and my mother's loving replies. I reflected on the long association of myself, my parents, and their parents with this lovely part of New York. Then, mixing the ashes of my parents, I scattered them in the Reservoir, hoping finally to take leave of them.

The ritual did not achieve the resolution I had sought of the complex feelings I still felt for my parents, for there were unanswered questions, and an imbalance in their marriage that cried out to be righted. The questions concerned my father: Why had he become an alcoholic? Why had he changed from a hard-driving, ambitious, vigorous young man to a bitter, self-defeating, resentful older man? Why had he abandoned the deep moral and political commitments of his father, and instead turned inward? The imbalance concerned my mother -- the condescending and deprecatory attitude that my father always adopted toward her because of her lack of formal education and his arrogation to himself of the role of family intellectual, despite the fact that -- as was obvious to my sister and to me -- our mother was more intelligent and intellectually livelier than our father.

For years after I scattered the ashes I was troubled and puzzled by these matters, and I longed to find some answers to my questions. Eventually, I concluded that I might achieve insight and genuine closure by writing the story of their youth, their courtship, and the early years of their marriage as they were revealed in those letters. I have written that story in an unpublished book that sits on my shelf, next to the unpublished book I have written about the love story of my grandparents, and my grandfather's career in the Socialist Party. But those stories are theirs, and this story is mine.

The attempt Cindy and I made to reconcile failed, despite the best efforts of ourselves and our teams of therapists. On June 15, 1985, Cindy came to my apartment and told me that she wanted a divorce. The twenty-eight year love affair was over that had begun when I visited Whitman Hall, on leave from Fort Devens, and saw a beautiful young woman sitting at the Bell Desk. Our marriage of true minds was at long last ended.


Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

My understanding of how they use the notion of overdetermination is a bit different from your characterization of "analyzing a system of linear equations representing the production conditions in the different industries". So, for example, they prefer the use of this concept to dialectics because dialectics has implied two oposing sides (especially when people only read Vol. 1 of Capital), as in working class vs capitalist class, etc. Also, in my understanding of their approach, the notion of overdetermination is directed against the base/superstructure metaphor that many have taken as being the backbone of Marx's way of conceiving reality in which the economic sphere dominates/determines (the Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel has done a thorough reading of all of Marx's writings -published and unpublished- and concludes that this metaphor, which thinkers like G.A. Cohen like to use, is foreign to Marx's dialectical method). Your description of linear equations describing production and how to solve them reminds me of my Sraffian days-I mean it in a good way:-)

I've always been highly suspicious of the mathematical translations of Marx, be it Morishima or Pasinetti (I'm even more suspicious of those that reference them and don't point out that those works, for example, explicitly define several concepts in ways foreign to Marx- some months ago I was refereeing an article that stated that marx was wring on the basis of some derivations Pasinetti made, and when I went to the original, Luigi Ludovico explicitly recognized he was diverging from Marx in his use of certain concepts to be able to define his system of equations).

That being said, and recognizing that they prefer overdetermination over dialecics, what would be the mathematical equivalent of dialecics? (I've seen a paper in the CJE where the author tries to draw a parallel with non-linear dynamics).

And well, our dear friend Jim Crotty has a nice paper in the 1985book edited by Resnick and Wolff, "Rethinking Marxism" (which I suspect was the last collaboration of any kind between the Resnick+Wolff camp and the Bowles and Gintis camp) in which he explains how it is problematic to view production apart from circulation in Marx's analysis of the capitalist mode of production as a whole.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ian, That is a lot to respond to. My first problem is that I don't understand what it means to "use" a concept as though it were a hammer or a saw. What is the concept?

My own attempt to think through a more successful formal modeling of Marx's concept of exploitation can be found in my article "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value," published, alas, in a Philosophy Journal. Take a look if you have nothing better to do.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed that anecdote of Dieter Henrich - hilarious! (Funnily enough, I was just reading something on Henrich's conception of subjectivity, so it was particularly surprising and all the more funny to find this in your blog.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Kristina, That is one of the things I love about this blog experience. Where else would I find someone who likes an old story about wine because she is reading about Dieter Henrich's conception of subjectivity? This has to be the classiest blog going!

Unknown said...

Professor Wolff,

i am a ph.d. in philosophy and a chess master, each achieved a long time ago.

kant is my favorite philosopher, tho, i admit, i've never read any of your books on kant.

i was writing to tell you that whatever issues you had in your marriage, when I observed Patrick at tournaments ( we had a mutual friend), I was always impressed with his easy-going, humble demeanor, which i'm sure you know, is in contradistinction to most of the players at his level. I recall him analyzing a game and answering questions from players 6 levels beneath him.

andy ( not my real name)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Andy, Thank you so much for that comment and story. When Patrick was married, I toasted him with a story about what he was like as a little boy, and I said that it mattered much more to me that he had grown to be a fine, honorable man than that he was a famous grandmaster.

tom said...

Hi Robert

enjoying your memoirs.

Can I ask you to briefly define exploitation (as in 'capitalism rests on exploitation') in a way that makes clear what's wrong with it?


Robert Paul Wolff said...

Tom, the technical definition of exploitation, as Marx uses it, is "extracting more value from an input into production than is contained within it." This is a long story, laid out in detail in my book UNDERSTANDING MARX. In brief, what is wrong with capitalist exploitation is that it holds the workers to a subsistence wage and appropriates to the owners of the capital the entire surplus generated in each cycle of production. To put it simply in non-technical terms, the workers work as hard as they can and just stay above water, while the capitalists, who do nothing but own the capital, get richer and richer and richer. [The "entrepreneurial" contribution, like the "wages of management," do not explain the endless appropriation by the capitalists of more and more wealth.]

tom said...


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