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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Friday, December 30, 2011


What Kierkegaard and Dickenson had in common was an intense arrogance that scorned the customary recognitions and awards of the literary or philosophical world.  "I am nobody" means, among other things, "No recognition of my poetry in Springfield newspapers or even Boston literary journals can possibly do justice to my poems, which exist in entirely a different aesthetic realm.  Hence I am nobody, as the authors of those recognitions estimate, and they are nobody so far as I am concerned."  So Kierkegaard rejects any suggestion that he is part of the contemporary philosophical movement, not even as "absolute trumpeter."  The ambitious, mediocre philosophers who aspire to be recognized in that fashion are so far beneath him, he feels, that it would be absurd for him to try to set himself in competition with them.  After a good day's work at the office, they go home to their comfortable homes to drink beer, sit by the fire, and read the latest issue of a philosophical journal, while he remain alone, unacknowledged, engaged with his entire being in the perilous, vertiginous contemplation of eternity. [Whenever I read the line about "absolute trumpeter," I think of Nanki Poo, the hero of Gilbert and Sullivan's finest light opera, The Mikado, who, though the son of the Mikado, has chosen to wander incognito as "second trombone in a traveling band."]
Very quickly, the mocking tone of the opening lines of the Preface turns darker, more urgent.  "It is not given to everyone to have his private tasks of meditation and reflection so happily coincident with the public interest that it becomes difficult to judge how far he serves merely himself and how far the public good," Kierkegaard writes.  "Consider the example of Archimedes, who sat unperturbed in the contemplation of his circles while Syracuse was being taken, and the beautiful words he spoke to the Roman soldier who slew him:  nolite perturbare circulos meos.  [Do not disturb my circles.]"  Contemplating the eternal, Archimedes -- and Kierkegaard, of course -- is concerned not for his life but only for the beauty and eternal truth of the object of his contemplation, which for Archimedes is the truths of mathematics, and for Kierkegaard the truths of Christianity.
Every sentence of the Preface invokes yet another image, from ancient philosophy, from contemporary literature, from Hegelian philosophy, mocking, comic, hyperbolic, all in the service of Kierkegaard's desperate effort to distinguish himself from the quotidian academic philosophizing that dominated the intellectual and literary circles around him.  "But what is my personal opinion of the matters herein discussed?," he asks.  "I could wish that no one would ask me this question; for next to knowing whether I have an opinion, nothing could very well be of less importance than the knowledge of what that opinion might be.  To have an opinion is both too much and too little for my uses.  To have an opinion presupposes a sense of ease and security in life, such as implied in having a wife and children; it is a privilege not to be enjoyed by one who must keep himself in readiness night and day, or is without assured means of support."
This passage conjures, with bitter irony, the image of a comfortable burgher who sits drinking beer with his fellow merchants after a long day at the counting house, puffing on a pipe and genially exchanging opinions about the latest article in the Allgemeine Tageblatte.  It invokes in modern dress the old Christian monastic tradition of the servant of God who eschews all worldly attachments -- home, family, children, comfort -- in order to be ready at a moment's notice for the Divine call.
Kierkegaard ends the Preface with an image taken from the late Middle Ages -- the Dance of Death.  [One can find a fascinating account of this image in the greatest work of Kierkegaard's fellow student, Jacob Burckhardt.  Those who have a taste for classic films will recognized it from the concluding scenes of Ingmar Bergman's great film, "The Seventh Seal."]  In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Black Plague afflicted Europe, killing upwards of half the people alive at the time.  Among the many visual and literary artistic responses to this horrific calamity was the image of the "dance of death" [or danse macabre], figured as a chain of mortals linked hand to hand and led in a grotesque and deadly dance by a skeleton who was Death himself.  The final passage of the Preface invokes this terrible image in one of the most powerful passages in all of Philosophy:
"I have only my life, and the instant a difficulty offers I put it in play.  Then the dance goes merrily, for my partner is the thought of Death, and is indeed a nimble dancer; every human being, on the other hand, is too heavy for me.  Therefore I pray, per deos obsecro [I abjure you by the Gods]:  Let no one invite me, for I will not dance."
Read that passage again, and think about what it says.  No one -- not Plato, with his brilliant description in the Gorgias of "whispering in a corner with a few boys," or St. Augustine in the Confessions, or Kant or Spinoza or Hegel or even, dare I say, Nietzsche -- has ever expressed with such existential intensity the soul-consuming commitment to the search for truth.
Since this is an Appreciation, and not even a mini-tutorial, I shall not try to summarize the complex argument that unfolds in the Fragments.  My purpose is only to encourage you to take the book up and read it for yourselves.  But I will sketch the central argument that Kierkegaard unfolds from the contrast between Socrates and Jesus.  The moral truth Socrates seeks to lead his pupils to is, he believes, already to be found within them.  Hence he characterizes himself [also with complex irony] as merely a midwife, who is himself barren [of truth] but can assist at the birth of truth in his pupils [and also kill malformed offspring when they appear with a sharp pointed argument].  It follows that the historical reality of Socrates is of no importance whatsoever.  Were he merely the brilliant literary creation of Plato -- indeed, were Plato himself merely the literary creation of some twelfth century monk -- nothing of any significance would have been lost.
But salvation, in the Christian story, absolutely requires that at a moment in time, the infinite became finite, thus miraculously bridging an unbridgeable chasm, and by that miracle of the Incarnation, making available to Man a Truth that could Man himself could never have plucked from his own mind.  Not too long before Kierkegaard wrote the Fragments, David Strauss had published The Life of Jesus [Das Leben Jesu], which caused a sensation through the German speaking world by bringing the new scientific techniques of historiography to bear on the Bible stories of Jesus.  In what can only be viewed as a direct reply to Strauss, Kierkegaard conjures the lovely philosophical/literary conceit of "the case of the contemporary disciple" [Section iv of the Fragments.]   We [i.e. Kierkegaard and his readers] have come upon the scene too late to have met the historical Jesus, but there were, after all, men and women who walked with Him, had the dust from His sandals fall on their feet, touched the hem of His robe, listened to the Sermon on  the Mount, and even, like Doubting Thomas, thrust their fingers into His wounds to prove that they were real.  Were these fortunate few any closer to the Savior than we who seek, 1843 years later, to reach out to Him?  No, Kierkegaard says, for it is not Jesus the man who offers salvation, but Jesus the Son of God, and there was an infinity between Him and the contemporary disciples, as there is between Him and us.
Well, I hope I have said enough to pique your curiosity, whet your interest, make it seem worthwhile to seek out and read this luminous book.  As you will have discerned from my enthusiasm, it is not necessary to be a believer to find in its pages pleasure and enlightenment.
This is my first Appreciation.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Our cat is very sick, and we spent a good deal of time at the vet, so it will be at least tomorrow before I can continue my Appreciation of the Fragments.  It is difficult to believe that two seventy-eight year olds invest so much emotion in an 8 1/2 pound cat.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I begin today a series of brief, subjective discussions of individual works that I have chosen to call "Appreciations."  These Appreciations will differ from my tutorials, mini-tutorials, and micro-tutorials in several ways.  First, they will be short [or so I intend -- once I get started, I never know how much I will have to say.]  Second, they are intended in no way at all as definitive or scholarly or even as exhibiting a modest level of expertise.  My goal is to call your attention to books that I have found interesting, provocative, or beautifully written.   By writing and posting these Appreciations, I presume on the relationship I hope I have established with you over the past several years.  I am allowing myself the flattering belief that you have acquired sufficient confidence in me to think it worth your time to read these Appreciations, and perhaps even to follow my suggestion that you explore the works for yourselves.
The maintenance of a blog has been, for me, a welcome and enjoyable continuation of my life-long commitment to teaching, which is, I now recognize, my true calling [rather than Philosophy or political action, to which I have devoted, in the course of a long life, a good deal of time and attention.] 
Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in 1813 and died a scant forty-two years later, in 1855, having in that short life produced a very large and brilliant corpus of works, many published under pseudonyms.  Although he fell deeply in love with Regina Olsen and was for a while engaged to her, he broke off the engagement and spent his entire life single.  Kierkegaard is one of the most complex literary and intellectual figures of the entire Western tradition, and I am quite incompetent to offer even a brief general characterization of his life and work that is accurate and useful.  In their intensity, inwardness, intellectual brilliance, and scholarly allusions and disquisitions, his works show him to be a powerful figure of the Romantic Movement then sweeping European letters.  As I am sure all of you know, Kierkegaard is now considered the father of the philosophical school or movement known as Existentialism.  One fact, selected from his life, is worth mentioning for its ability to astonish and impress, even though it is not centrally related to what I shall be saying.  In 1841, as a student at the University of Copenhagen, Kierkegaard attended Schelling's lectures on irony.  In the same audience were three other students:  Mikhail Bakunin, Jacob Burckhardt, and Friedrich Engels.  What I wouldn't give for a class like that!  [That reminds me -- maybe down the road, I should do an Appreciation of Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, and of Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Oh well, we shall see.]
The Philosophical Fragments were published in 1844 under the pseudonym "Johannes Climacus."  It is a very brief work, barely 93 pages long in the Swenson translation to which I shall be referring.  To understand the Fragments, it is important to know what Kierkegaard was writing against, the intellectual, religious, and cultural context of the work.  There are three elements of that context about which I must say something:  The influence in German philosophy of Hegel, the intensely subjective form of Protestant Christianity in which Kierkegaard was raised, and the bourgeois culture that by the 1840's dominated Northern Europe.  Each of these plays a central role in Kierkegaard's passionate discourse in the Fragments.
Hegel was the author of large, impressive works of philosophy, which taken together comprised a System that purported to account for, and make a place for, Everything.  His followers in the Northern European academic world were prone to multi-volume works with important titles.  The emphasis was on the objective, the "scientific" [i.e., wissenschaftlich -- a German world that does not really translate very successfully as "scientific" because it applies to Philosophy, History, and the study of society as well as to the study of nature.  "Rational and systematic" might be a better rendering.]  Kierkegaard was affronted by the empty pomposity of this style of pontificating, and with bitter irony counterpoised to it his inward, desperately private meditations on the deepest problems of the human condition.  So, for example, two years after the Fragments appeared, he published a very long, dense, serious work of philosophy to which he gave the mocking title, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments.  I rather like the idea of a 540 page "postscript" to a 93 page book.  Kierkegaard also rejected the Hegelian emphasis on universal essences, choosing instead to present a focused reflection on what it meant to exist as a single human being presented with the awful fact of impending death and the impossible hope of eternal salvation.  Hence "Existentialism" as contrasted with "Essentialism."
Like many other late sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century European thinkers, Kierkegaard was thoroughly consumed by the terrors and glimmers of hope offered by the least ecclesiastical and most individualistic forms of Protestantism.  Those of you who read my mini-tutorial on Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism will recall the anxious religiosity of serious old-fashioned Protestantism, with its emphases on sin, damnation, predestination, and the hope of salvation.  In the work before us, Kierkegaard takes the key terms and concepts of this religious faith and reinterprets them brilliantly in a series of tours de force.  The Fragments is first and foremost a meditation on Christianity -- to my atheist sensibilities, the most brilliant such meditation in the Christian tradition.  [That is one reason why I love the book so much.]
Finally, Kierkegaard was reacting to what he perceived as the soulless, smug, bourgeois religiosity of Danish society.  With a penetrating wit that reminds one of the cartoons of American caricaturist Thomas Nast, Kierkegaard mocks and lampoons the comfortable burghers of Copenhagen, with whom he contrasts himself, poor, unfashionable, awkward, utterly without redeeming social value, and yet engaged with his entire being in a struggle with faith and salvation.
The Fragments presents itself as an attempt to answer a simple question, which is posed in the first sentence of Chapter I:  "How far does the Truth admit of being learned?"  In five brief chapters, including an "Interlude" between Chapters IV and V, Kierkegaard pursues the answer by means of an extended contrast between Socrates, whom he figures as the greatest Teacher in history, and Jesus, who is uniquely the Savior.  But before he launches his investigation, he writes a three page Preface to which we must pay particular attention, inasmuch as it is, in my judgment, the most brilliant and moving three pages in the entire corpus of Western Philosophy.
The Preface opens with these words:  "The present offering is merely a piece, proprio Marte, propriis auspiciis, proprio stipendio ["on its own errand, under its own auspices, for its own sake."]  It does not make the slightest pretension to share in the philosophical movement of the day, or to fill any of the various roles customarily assigned in this connection:  transitional, intermediary, final, preparatory, participating, collaborating, volunteer follower, hero, or at any rate relative hero, or at the very least absolute trumpeter."  These words always put me in mind of the brief Emily Dickenson poem that I used as one of the epigraphs of my Autobiography:
I am nobody
who are you
are you nobody too?
Then there's a pair of us
shh don't tell
they'd banish us you know

How dismal to be somebody
how dismal like a frog
to tell your name the live long day
to an admiring bog

Well, this is going to go on a trifle longer than I anticipated.  More tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Well, it seems that I am outvoted on the issue of anonymity, so I shall withdraw my objections to the practice, and henceforth allow comments on this blog regardless of tone or content.  But before I drop the subject completely, I would like to say a bit more about it by way of explanation.  I think we may have here a generational conflict of the sort that often happens.
For much of my life, I was a tenured professor, protected both with regard to my job and my salary regardless of what views I might express.  I was awarded tenure by Columbia University in 1964, and from then until I retired in 2008, I was tenured at one university or another.  I enjoyed great freedom to teach what and as I wished, and was rewarded with steadily rising salaries.   To be sure, there were occasions on which my political opinions cost me jobs.  The Presidents of Hunter College, Brandeis University, and Boston University vetoed job offers that at the time I very much wanted to accept, because of my politics, but I still had a secure job with tenure, so it was easy for me to say that the loss was theirs rather than mine.
But I have not always been a tenured professor, though it may seem that way.  In 1951, when I stood up and argued aggressively with a senior professor in a course on Hume's Treatise, I was a seventeen year old sophomore, aware that my pugnaciousness could affect my academic career.  Later that year, I wrote a letter to the college newspaper calling on the President of the university to resign because of his stated unwillingness to hire members of the Communist Party as professors.  As a very junior Instructor, I took unpopular political positions publically, earning me the enmity of powerful and important people in the Harvard community.  Shortly thereafter, as an untenured Assistant Professor at Chicago, I joined with more senior colleagues in an attack on the University President over his support for discriminatory rental policies in college owned housing.
On these and many other occasions, my principal concern was that I be heard, and that it be known that it was I who was giving voice to the opinions.  A suggestion to express those opinions anonymously would have struck me as incomprehensible.  Indeed, that would have defeated the purpose of the expression.
These days, the public expression of one's opinions is virtually free and easily available to all.  This blog exists courtesy of Google, which charges me nothing.  Even, where I post my essays, tutorials, and other materials, is free [although there is a deluxe version that costs something.]  FaceBook and Twitter are also free, I gather, though I do not use either [limit myself to 140 characters?  Please!]
And yet, the practice of anonymous public expression seems to have metastisized into a cultural norm.  Now, I have read enough Anthropology to be aware of the great variety in cultural norms, so I think I must put this entire disagreement down to yet another old man grumpily complaining about the strange behavior of young folks.
So be it.  Comment away!

Sunday, December 25, 2011


I have said this before, and I will say it again.  When you get up the courage to come out from behind your pseudonym and identify yourself by your real name, I will allow you onto this blog, whether you agree with me or not.  But I do not like cowards, and I do not waste my time responding to them.  So come down off your high horse and tell us all whom you are.


Susie and I returned home last night at 11:30 p.m., massively jet-lagged and exhausted after a trip made much more difficult by Continental Airlines [never again!]  Jim, who tells us that his birthday is on Christmas Day, asks about our willingness to leave our cat, Christmas Eve.  By the way, Jim, I assume that you spent your entire childhood convinced, no matter what anyone said, that you did not get as many presents as you would have received had you been born in June.  I suppose young Jesus felt the same way, except of course that anytime he was born would have been Christmas.  We have a wonderful pet-sitter, Eric Bradeson, who comes in every other day, feeds her, and gives her her subcutaneous infusions because of her renal failure.  This time, despite Eric's ministrations [he actually called us in Paris to discuss the problem], Christmas Eve had lost a lot of weight, which stressed Susie and me no end.

The big political news is that Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry failed to get the 10,000 signatures required to put them on the Virginia Primary ballot.  I think this means that Gingrich is toast, not so much because of the inability to accumulate any delegates in Virgina, but because it demonstrates that he in fact has no real campaign organization.  [By comparison, the folks seeking to recall Governor Walker have alrerady paassed the 500,000 mark in signatures with plenty of time to go.]  What with Ron Paul's appalling racism, homophobia, and conspiracy mongering now getting the attention it deserves, this may in fact mean that the Republicans are stuck with their strongest candidate, Romney.  I wait to see whether this will trigger a serious third party move.

Can it be that Gingrich's campaign really was, all along, no more than an adjunct to his book tour?

I reach my seventy-eighth birthday in two days, so it will be a bit before I begin the first Appreciation, devoted to Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments.  However, I passed the time on the long flight [when I was not watching the Mia Wassikowska Michael Fassbender Jane Eyre] starting to write the Appreciation in my head. so I should be ready to go in a couple of days.

Merry Christmas all.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


The fridge is cleaned out, the bags are packed, and in a short while we shall catch a cab to Charles de Gaulle Aerogare and fly home to Chapel Hill [via Boston and Washington Dulles, of course.]  It will be  day or two before I am sufficiently un-jet-lagged to continue posting, at which point I shall launch my series of Appreciations with a discussion of Kierkegaard's brilliant short work, The Philosophical Fragments.  I must also prepare for an appearance at the Third A. A. Berle Conference at the Law School of Seattle University, but more of that anon.

a bientot.

Friday, December 23, 2011


Herewith as passage from Book II, Chapter III of Gulliver's Travels, the voyage to Brobdingnag, wherein Swift anticipates Alan Turing's famous thought experiment.  I especially like the use of "although" in the first sentence!

"The king, although he be as learned a person as any in his dominions, had been educated in the study of philosophy, and particularly mathematics; yet when he observed my shape exactly, and saw me walk erect, before I began to speak, conceived I might be a piece of clock-work (which is in that country arrived to a very great perfection) contrived by some ingenious artist. But when he heard my voice, and found what I delivered to be regular and rational, he could not conceal his astonishment. He was by no means satisfied with the relation I gave him of the manner I came into his kingdom, but thought it a story concerted between Glumdalclitch and her father, who had taught me a set of words to make me sell at a better price. Upon this imagination, he put several other questions to me, and still received rational answers: no otherwise defective than by a foreign accent, and an imperfect knowledge in the language, with some rustic phrases which I had learned at the farmer's house, and did not suit the polite style of a court."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


I have decided to begin a series of "Appreciations" of selected texts when I return home, where my books are [save, of course, for my complete set of the works of Marx and Engels in German, and my collected books on the philosophy of Kant, both of which grace my shelves here in Paris, together with one copy each of every edition and translation of every book I have published -- roughly seventy volumes in all]. I think I will start with Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments. The brief Preface to that short work is, page for page, my favorite work of philosophy in the entire Western corpus. I cannot read the last lines of it without tears coming to my eyes. I shall try to do Appreciations of all of the titles listed recently on this blog, and then perhaps some others besides. We shall see. The aim is not to produce scholarly discussions of the texts -- in many instances, I am utterly unfit to attempt such a thing -- but rather to encourage my readers to explore these works for themselves.

It was my older son, Patrick, the famous International Chess Grandmaster, who first suggested that I try my hand at a blog. It was an inspired suggestion. I have found the perfect format in which to continue my lifelong career as a teacher, while in retirement [or "en retrait," as the French say, which is to say, "In retreat"!]

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


The last two days have been consumed by practical problems that absorbed my attention. First, I had to negotiate some repairs to Susie's Segway, which had stopped working during our absence [it seems the "charger" was kaput -- very expensive repair, as is everything to a Segway]. Then, I had to order and take delivery of a new refrigerator, unpack the new one, extract the old one, install the new one, and arrange [with the assistance of the lovely lady in the hotel next door] for the old one to be picked up by the city from the front of our building. All of this in French, much of it over the phone. I learned long ago that stress takes its toll on me, and managing such things in French is, for me, very high stress indeed.

While I wasn't paying attention, Newt Gingrich has apparently started to crater. Enter Ron Paul, the only honest man in the Republican zoo, for all that he wants to return to the sixteenth century. You cannot hate a man who inveighs against American military adventures and supports legalizing marijuana, even if he does think that sick people who have neglected to buy health insurance should be left to die at the hospital door.

I have been invited to visit with the Occupy Chapel Hill folks, and will of course do so as soon as I return to America. I have also been invited by an ebulliant second year student to speak at Balliol College, Oxford, and if Susie and I can work out the combination of a direct flight to Heathrow and the Chunnel train to Paris, I hope to do so in April. At the moment, while working my way slowly through Gulliver's Travels, which continues to delight, I am starting to read the papers for a conference on law and the corporation that will be held in January at the A. A. Berle Center, in the law school of Seattle University. I am delivering my paper entitled "The Future of Socialism," and judging from the program of paper titles, which I have just received, I am afraid I am going to stand out like a skunk in a flower garden. By way of contrast, yesterday I picked up a copy of a special Le Monde supplement devoted to the thought of Karl Marx. It is hard to imagine the NY TIMES doing such a supplement to the Sunday edition. Needless to say, the one American represented in the 122 page booklet is Frederick Jameson. Oh well.

Yesterday evening, we tried a Chinese restaurant touted as one of the best in Paris. Despite the fact that we were the sole non-Orientals in the establishment, the food was not as good as can be had in Amherst, MA or Chapel Hill, NC. I have long been fascinated by the relationship between the imperial adventues of European nations and the ethnic food available in their capital cities. How surprising is it that one can get great Indian food in London, or first-rate Vietnamese food in Paris -- or, indeed, great Chinese food in New York and San Francisco?

This evening, I shall once again prepare cuisses de canard, cooked for several hours in a slow oven. Even the rainy weather cannot cast a pall over the charms of Paris.

Monday, December 19, 2011


This link [which I cannot seem to make a genuine link -- copy and paste it] will take you to a new website created by my old Harvard colleague William Polk, a distinguished progressive expert on diplomatic and international affairs. A series of working papers will be posted on the site that you may find useful.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


I have been rather taken with the idea of launching a series of what I will call Appreciations -- which is to say, not tutorials, or mini-tutorials, or even micro-tutorials, but rather subjective discussions of a number of boks that I have, over the years, found especially rewarding. There would be no suggestion of expertise on my part, simply a sharing with all of you of my appreciation of some texts. If that strikes you all as a good idea, I will undertake some of them when I return to Chapel Hill in a week's time.

Here are some of the titles that have occurred to me as candidates for the Appreciations:

Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Every-day Life
Paul Goodman, Empire City
C. I. Lewis, Mind and the World Order
Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long
e. e. cummings, Collected Poems
Plato, Gorgias
William Golding, The Inheritors
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis

What do you think?


It is a lazy Saturday afternoon here in Paris, and I have some time now to respond to a few of the comments that have been piling up on my various posts. Marinus offers some interesting thoughts about Swift, and in particular about the Fourth Book, concerning Gulliver’s travel to the land of the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms. What he says strikes me as quite plausible, but I shall hold off commenting until I have re-read it. I must say up front, however, that I am no sort of literary critic, and my opinion will be of corresponding value.

Scaling Factor asks me to say something about Christopher Hitchens, who died the day before yesterday at the age of 62, after a long struggle with cancer. I never met Hitchens, and so cannot reminisce about him as have many of the people who were his friends or colleagues. His death has occasioned a re-posting of some of his most acerbic and brilliant disquisitions, including one memorable take-down of Mother Teresa. What follows is rather a free-form meander through the undergrowth of my mind, and is offered not as a comment on Hitchens but as a bit of shameless self-revelation.

My only contact with Hitchens came some years ago when, out of the blue, I received a letter from him asking me for a copy of or reference to my review of Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind. I have already described the review on this blog, so I shan’t repeat what I said. The review, despite appearing in a rather obscure publication [the house organ of the American Association of University Professors] became something of a cult classic.

As I thought about Hitchens’ early death, a line came to mind: ”Only the good die young.” I mistakenly thought that it was a line from John Dryden’s great poem, Alexander’s Feast, written to be set to music in honor of St. Cecelia. Google informed me, to my horror, that it is actually the title of a Billy Joel hit song [I am barely marginally aware of who Billy Joel is, or was.] But this bit of failed memory put me in mind of a line that I had long cherished from Gregory of Tours’ great sixth century work, The History of the Franks. [For those who have not read Gregory lately – hem, hem – I will just note that this long, rambling, circumstantial account of the doings of the godawful fifth and sixth century Franks is our best, and in some cases only, source of information abut the Merovingian dynasty that flourished after the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire and before the advent of Charlemagne, whose coronation on Christmas Day, 800 A. D. inaugurated the relatively glorious Carolingian period and eventually bestowed on Europe the Holy Roman Empire.] The line, as I recalled it, came at the end of Gregory’s narration of the appalling doings of a particularly sadistic, brutal, amoral Frankish Count, who swashbuckled his way across one bit of Middle Europe for an unconscionably long time. Gregory, who was a Bishop and always on the lookout for evidences of God’s mercy and justice, concluded his account of this malefactor by remarking [or so I remembered it] that “he died in his bed at the age of eighty-four, and so God’s divine justice was once more proved.” What I loved was of course the notion that in a society that regularly cut people off in their twenties and thirties, an evil man dying in bed in his eighties could be construed as an example of divine retribution.

By a natural process of association, this led me to think of more recent deservers of divine punishment, like Dick Cheney, who has survived three or four heart attacks and yet still lives. “Only the good die young.” Like Hitchens, I am quite sure there is no God, but I would appreciate from time to time to see some sort of balance in nature’s allocation of long life.

Well, I thought that if I were going to blog about Gregory’s pious utterance, I ought first to find it. Naturally, The History of the Franks is online [what is not?], and I spent quite a long time speed-reading all ten books, without, alas, turning up the remembered quote.

C. Rossi asks for a tutorial on Erving Goffman. I think I will do that, after I return home, where my copies of Goffman’s books are located. It will not really be a tutorial, a term that surely implies I have something to teach. Perhaps I should start a separate series called “Appreciations,” whose purpose is simply to recommend to my readers books that I have found especially suggestive or enlightening.

As for a tutorial on W. E. B. Du Bois, I think my lengthy tutorial on Afro-American Studies has pretty well done that – available on

Which brings me finally to High Arka. For some time now, this person has been hiding behind a web-handle and posting abusive comments about me on this site. A little investigation reveals that he [it is a he] has his own web site. To this person, I say: Either come out of hiding and identify yourself, or retire to your own website and say anything you please. I think it is cowardly of you to conceal yourself, and I am not amused. So if you insist on remaining anonymous, then just go away.

Friday, December 16, 2011


A number of persons have posted comments on this blog that call for responses from me, which I hope to provide today or tomorrow. John S. Wilkins suggests that I try my hand at a satire, but I must confess that re-reading Gulliver’s Travels does not encourage me in that direction, any more than listening to Itzhak Perlman inspires in me a desire to play the violin! If there are any among you who have not read Gulliver’s Travels, or perhaps have forgotten much of the detail, as I had, let me remind you of the central conceit in the first two books. Swift very carefully works out the contrast between Gulliver and the Lilliputians on the one hand and the Brobdingagians on the other. Lemuel Gulliver is twelve times as large as a man of Lilliput, and one-twelfth the size of a man of Brobdingnag. Thus, the Lilliputians appear tiny, precious, lovely, and exquisite to Gulliver, but also small and petty. The Brobdingnagians appear large and gross and ugly to him – the pores of their skin are so large that they seem like great holes – but also as generous, great-hearted, and large-spirited. The Lilliputians, recall, are torn by a religious dispute, as violent and irreconcilable as that between Catholics and Protestants in England, over the question whether a soft-boiled egg should be cracked open at its big end or its little end. The king of the Lilliputians is six inches tall, of course. Here is how he is described in the Preamble to a Proclamation declaring the conditions under which Gulliver is to be set free:

“Golbasto Momarem Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue, most mighty Emperor of Lilliput, delight and terror of the universe, whose dominions extend five thousand BLUSTRUGS (about twelve miles in circumference) to the extremities of the globe; monarch of all monarchs, taller than the sons of men; whose feet press down to the centre, and whose head strikes against the sun; at whose nod the princes of the earth shake their knees; pleasant as the spring, comfortable as the summer, fruitful as autumn, dreadful as winter:”

There is one odd error in Swift’s text, which could be deliberate, but perhaps not. The Lilliputians are ordered by the king to provide Gulliver with 1724 times as much food each day as one of their number would consume, and Gulliver, the narrator, explains to the reader that this reflects the precision and advanced state of Lilliputian mathematics. But twelve cubed is of course 1728, not 1724. Is there a scholar of eighteenth century English literatgure out there with some wisdom on this minor matter?

Well, if I were to reproduce all of the deliciously funny satirical passages in which Swift ridicules the English monarchy, I would, I fear, be reduced to copying out the entirety of Book One.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Having finished the new John Grisham novel, and having then re-read an old one on the shelves in my Paris apartment, I was casting about for something else with which to pass the time. I toyed with the idea of improving my French by continuing to read Marx's CAPITAL in the French translation [I am at the moment on page 141] when it occurred to me that it might be fun to re-visit GULLIVER'S TRAVELS. I read it more than sixty years ago, as a boy, and though I recall a good deal of the story [who cannot?], and know in a general way that it is a biting satire of English life and politics in the 18th century, I did not have the language in my head.

Sure enough, it is available on-line, and I have now started reading it on my Paris laptop. I am only a few pages into Book One -- Gulliver has awakened to find himself tied down by the slender threads of the Liliputians -- but already, the wit and acerbity of the satire is a delight. In these absurd and dangerous times, when reality threatens to make satire impossible, it is good to return to one of the immortal masters of the genre.

At seventy-eight, I have long since put aside my youthful dreams of a just and rational society. But if I cannot change the world, I can at least in my mind expose the follies and evils that flourish these days.


In his comment on yesterday’s post, Jim reported that George Whitman, owner of the legendary Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Co., had just died at the age of ninety-eight. I checked the NY TIMES, and found the story on the front page. Today, I shall walk over [it is only a few blocks from my apartment] and see whether any sort of commemoration is planned. Rather than repeat the famous stories of the great literary figures who gathered there in the early days – Hemingway, Joyce, et al. – I thought I would tell a story or two about my experiences at the bookshop fifty-six years ago, when I was traveling around Europe as a young student on a Frederick L. Sheldon Traveling Fellowship from Harvard.

My wanderjahr, as I have recounted in Volume One of my Autobiography, started in the summer of 1954, shortly after I completed my preliminary work for the doctorate, and lasted until well into the summer of 1955, at which point I returned home to write my dissertation. After time in Oxford, Rome, Geneva, and Berlin, I made my way to Paris in April of 1955, planning to meet my undergraduate friend and fellow madrigalist Mike Jorrin, who was studying documentary film making on a Fulbright. Like many other American travelers and expatriates, I found my way to the little English language bookshop in the Left Bank, catty-corner opposite the Cathedral of Notre Dame, generally considered the geographical center of Paris.

In those days, the bookshop, which had been opened four years earlier, was called Le Mistral. It was only some years later that it took over the name “Shakespeare and Company” from Sylvia Beach, who had been running a bookshop of that name in a different location. That year the shop was being managed by a young couple from Harvard – Ted Cumming, my classmate, and his wife, Patsy Arens. [I hope I am remembering the names correctly – it was a long time ago.] Ted later died tragically at a young age, I think in a boating accident.

The quartier around the bookstore is now ground zero for tourists. The tiny ancient streets running from rue St. Jacques to Boulevard St. Michel are jammed with cheap fast food joints and shops selling schlock trinkets, but in 1955 it was the Algerian section of town, with a handful of inexpensive restaurants featuring North African food. My most vivid memory of those little restaurants is that when you wanted the check, you called out “plashta ici.” I have no idea what language “plashta” is.

I was much too poor actually to buy books, but Le Mistral was a place where one could be sure of finding some English language conversation, and inasmuch as my French then was no better than it is now, that was quite an attraction for me. Mike Jorrin did show up, and for the better part of a month, we hung out at Le Mistral. I had found a very cheap room in the Algerian House of the cite universitaire, a big dormitory complex in the 14th at the very southern most edge of Paris. Each day I would take the Metro into the center of town and make my way to Le Mistral.

Generally speaking, not much happened as the days passed, but on one occasion, I stumbled into a quite extraordinary little adventure, which has curious filiations with Woody Allen’s charming film, Midnight in Paris, starring Owen Wilson. Among the folks frequenting Le Mistral were two very attractive young English women with whom Mike and I had struck up a casual friendship. One evening, we were sitting in the chairs set out in front of the bookshop, idly looking over at Notre Dame and watching the world go by, when a fancy car pulled up and stopped. A young Frenchman hopped out, very nicely dressed, and asked the two English women if they would like to go to a party. The liked the idea, but were apprehensive about going off with a man they did not know, so the agreed on condition that Mike and I came too. [I should explain that no one looking at me would imagine I was much protection from white slavers or the like, but Mike is a tall, muscular guy – even now – and I imagine they thought he could protect them.]

Off we went, all together in the car, to a very up market apartment building, and into an elegant flat where there was indeed a party under way. For the next several hours, we danced, drank wine, and rubbed shoulders with some of Paris’ twentieth century jeunesses d’orees. At about midnight, our host drove us back to the bookstore and dropped us off. As the Metro had stopped running by then [Paris is not really a late night town], I walked south through the deserted streets all the way to the cite universitaire.

Shakespeare and Co. is one of two major English language bookstores in Paris. The other, The Village Voice, is in the 6th on rue Princesse, just off rue du Four. Truth be told, the Village Voice is a better bookstore, but Shakespeare and Co. has become part of the literary legend of Paris. I cannot recall ever meeting George Whitman back in the day [when he would have been only forty-three], but I, like generations of others, shall always be grateful to him. Requiescat in pace.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Yesterday was a day of strange weather contrasts in Paris. It started when Susie and I ventured out to the open air market, under blue skies, only to be pelted by rain as I shopped for the dinner meal. I quickly collected up some carrots, mushrooms, several onions, some tomatoes, and 300 grams of "crevettes rose," large, reddish shrimp complete with heads and eyes. Later on, when the weather seemed to have cleared definitively, we undertook a long walk to the Musee Carnavalet in the 3rd arrondissement, a museum devoted to the history of Paris. On the way, we suddenly found ourselves in a hail storm, and were forced to stop into a restaurant on the Ile St. Louis for crepes sucre and tarte Tatin.

By the time we returned home, we were somewhat battered, but unbowed. I then put together a crevette stew, incorporating the carrots, mushrooms, and onions and flavored with curry powder and some chicken buillion. I say with no tinge of false modesty that it was fantastic! One of my most successful creations.

This evening, I shall rest on my laurels and just whip up a simple dinner of fresh tuna and sauteed zucchini, washed down with a Sauterne blanc for Susie and a Gigondas for me. Having brought my Durkheim micro-tutorial to a close today, I shall turn my attention tomorrow to the next challenge. All suggestions are gratefully received.


Before I begin today’s Part of this Micro-tutorial, I must correct an appalling omission in the antepenultimate paragraph of the last Part [i.e., in the third paragraph from the end.] I omitted the words “suicide varies,” thus rendering the sentence meaningless [humph, humph, on one commented on that!] The sentence should read: “He finds that suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration of religious society, of domestic society, and of political society.” OK, now let us continue.

There are some societies, Durkheim suggests, in which social integration has been carried to such an extreme degree that individuals do not sufficiently distinguish themselves from the social order. In such cases, the individual may believe that he or she has a social obligation to commit suicide as a consequence of having failed to conform sufficiently to some social norm. Suicide becomes obligatory in these cases, Durkheim argues, and thus one can actually speak of “obligatory altruistic suicide.” For the most part, he imputes this excessive social integration to “primitive” societies, but he does remark, in a sentenced that I consider one of the most unintentionally funny in the classical sociological literature, “The readiness of the Japanese to disembowel themselves for the slightest reason is well known.” Once started, Durkheim cannot easily let the subject drop, and he actually distinguishes “three varieties” of altruistic suicide: “obligatory altruistic suicide, optional altruistic suicide, and acute altruistic suicide.” I shall spare you the details, but he does produce some interesting statistics of military as opposed to civilian suicides, showing that military men [at that time there were no military women] are very much more likely than civilians to commit suicides, and noncommissioned officers more likely than commissioned officers [wouldn’t you know?]

Finally we come to yet a third species of suicide, to which Durkheim attaches the suggestive label “anomic suicide.” His discussion is especially interesting because it was written more than a century ago, and yet reads as though it were a commentary on economic and political developments of the last decade or so.

Durkheim begins his discussion with a statement that must be read with great precision: “No human being can be happy or even exist unless his needs are sufficiently proportioned to his means.” At first, this seems to mean simply that human beings cannot long survive in a situation of such destitution that the available food and other necessaries fail to meet their basic physical needs. But it turns out that Durkheim has something quite different in mind. Recall that he is living and writing at the end of a long period, extending almost a century by 1897, of an economic expansion of produced by unfettered capitalism. As Marx suggests in the opening line of Capital, the period is characterized by a cornucopia-like outpouring of commodities. Individual human beings, Durkheim believes, are incapable of imposing upon themselves restraints on their desires. “It is not human nature,” he writes, “which can assign the variable limits necessary to our needs. They are thus unlimited so far as they depend on the individual alone.” Desires are by their nature “insatiable,” and it is a source of torment to be in the grip of insatiable desire, even when the actual quantity of goods one is consuming far exceeds what was available in an earlier time. “Thus, the more one has, the more one wants,” Durkheim observes, “since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs.”

To be in such a condition is to be without a law or constraint imposing limits on desire. It is thus to be a-nomic [i.e., literally, lacking in law. Compare the pair of terms from Kantian moral philosophy: autonomy, or giving law to oneself, and heteronomy, or having law imposed on oneself by another.] Under normal and healthy circumstances, it is society that imposes limits on appropriate desire, thus protecting us from the psychological disorientation of ever-expanding desire. But, Durkheim says in what really sounds like a cri de coeur, “[f]or a whole century, economic progress has mainly consisted freeing industrial relations from all regulation…. [G]overnment, instead of regulating economic life, has become its tool and servant. The most opposite schools, orthodox economists and extreme socialists, unite to reduce government to the role of a more or less passive intermediary among the various social functions.” [I confess I find this characterization of “extreme socialists” puzzling. I am uncertain to what Durkheim is making reference.]

“From top to bottom of the ladder, greed is aroused without knowing where to find ultimate foothold. … The longing for infinity is daily represented as a mark of moral distinction, whereas it can only appear within unregulated consciences which elevate to a rule the lack of rule from which they suffer.”

The result of this “lawlessness’ or anomie is, in its most extreme manifestations, suicide.

There is a great deal more in the book, of course, both in the elaboration of detailed statistics of rates of suicide in a wide range of social groupings and in the analysis of those statistics, but I think the thrust of the argument should be clear by now. Near the end of his discussion, Durkheim returns to the theme he enunciated in the Preface. Here, in two lengthy quotations from Book Three, is the essence of his position.

“Usually when collective tendencies or passions are spoken of, we tend to regard these expressions as metaphors or manners of speech with no real significance but a sort of average among a certain number of individual states. They are not considered as things, as forces sui generis which dominate the consciousness of single individuals. None the less, this is their nature, as is brilliantly shown by statistics of suicide.”

“Collective tendencies have an existence of their own; they are forces as real as cosmic forces [he means physical forces, forces of nature Ed.], though of another sort; they, likewise, affect the individual from without, though through other channels. The proof that the reality of collective tendencies is no less than that of cosmic forces is that this reality is demonstrated in the same way, through the uniformity of effects. When we find that the number of deaths varies little from ear to year, we explain this regularity by saying that mortality depends on the climate, the temperature, the nature of the soil, in brief on a certain number of material forces which remain constant through changing generations because independent of individuals. Since, therefore, moral acts [i.e., psychological acts Ed.] such as suicide are represented not merely with an equal but with a greater uniformity, we must likewise admit that they depend on forces external to individuals. Only, since these forces must be of a moral order and since, except for individual men, there is no other moral order of existence in the world but society, they must be social.”

Needless to say, Durkheim does not think that the agency of collective tendencies is restricted to suicide. The operation of collective tendencies, he believes, is seen throughout the sphere of social life, and hence constitutes an appropriate independent realm of phenomena worthy to be the subject of an independent scientific discipline, namely Sociology.

Is Durkheim right? I believe he is, so long as we understand his thesis in the temporally longitudinal fashion that I outlined above in Part Three of this Micro-tutorial. Indeed, the approach championed by Durkheim in Suicide is now so widely accepted that his claims have become commonplaces. There are contemporary theorists who resist this appeal to collective tendencies and invoke the models of Game Theory and Rational Choice Theory to provide individualist micro-foundations for their discussions of such societal phenomena as politics. I have had my say about these authors in a number of publications, and will not repeat here what I have said elsewhere. [See my critique of Elster, at, for one extended example.] For those who would like to see a shorter statement of essentially the same point of view, take a look at my re-posting, on September 24th of this year, of my Credo.

With that, I conclude this Micro-tutorial. I hope it has proved of interest to some readers. When I return to Chapel Hill on Christmas Eve, I shall put it up on

Monday, December 12, 2011


The central idea of Durkheim’s analysis, and indeed of much of his theoretical work, is that human beings exist in, and are in some sense the products of, a collective social order. He posits this in contradistinction to the methodologically individualist thesis that society is nothing more than the summation of the beliefs, purposes, and actions of the individuals who compose it, and that all explanation therefore must begin with propositions about individuals and move from there to conclusions about collections of individuals, or societies.

Stated thus baldly, Durkheim’s thesis seems patently false, for it is manifestly the case that if one eliminates the individuals from any situation, there does not remain something social, like the smile of the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. But if we examine individuals in a temporally longitudinal fashion, and ask of each one how she or he becomes an individual person, then Durkheim’s claim appears not merely true but obviously true. Here is what I mean.

Each person is born into an already formed social situation, in which gender roles, family structures, religious beliefs, norms, world views, economic categories, political structures, and even styles of bodily self-presentation – ways of walking, sitting, standing, and gesturing – are well established. As the infant develops, she internalizes the particular pattern of norms that characterize the society into which she has been born. Very quickly, we can tell that a child is nineteenth century English or Second Century Roman or eighteenth century Masaii or twenty-first century Chinese, and so forth. The norms, expectations, and modes of behavior that are internalized so completely form the child that there is no sense at all in which the child first grows to maturity and then chooses a social lifestyle. The child who internalizes no set of norms and modes of being is not a free spirit but what used to be called a “wolf child.” Even rebellion has its social styles and norms, so that a rebel is as easily placed in his or her social context as a docile conformist.

It is in just this sense that the social precedes the individual. To be sure, every social role, every style of being, every norm is the product of the choices and actions of previous generations of individuals [think of the way in which language, a quintessentially human activity, evolves.] But to any given individual, almost everything has been formed before he or she comes on the scene. Ask a young child what she wants to be when she grows up, and she will reply by naming some already well established social role – “I want to be a doctor, an astronaut, a revolutionary, a bus driver.”

Now, social roles are not immutable, as Durkheim well knew. Indeed, they are always changing, evolving, being transformed, sometimes by the deliberate and intentional choices of individuals, sometimes without anyone being aware of the process of transformation. But at any moment in the history of a society, one finds individuals who are embedded in a structure of social relations that has shaped them—a structure that is thus temporally and causally prior to the individual, and hence also prior in the order of explanation.

With this as his methodological background, Durkheim addresses the phenomenon of suicide, and concludes that the different modes or forms of suicide correspond to different degrees of the integration of individuals into society. He begins by examining variations in the incidence of suicide among the several religious groupings of nineteenth century Europe. He finds that there is a striking and very stable difference in the incidence of suicide among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Putting it simply, Protestants are much more likely to commit suicide than Catholics, and both are much more likely to commit suicide than Jews. Why?

First of all, Durkheim observes that “as a rule suicide increases with knowledge.” But immediately he adds that “Knowledge does not determine this progress. It is innocent; nothing is more unjust than to accuse it. … Man seeks to learn and man kills himself because of the loss of cohesion in his religious society.” Durkheim then issues a stern defense of knowledge, in a fashion that is peculiarly apposite to the anti-scientific temperament of so many Americans today:

“Far from knowledge being the source of the evil, it is its remedy, the only remedy we have. Once established beliefs have been carried away by the current of events, they cannot be artificially reestablished; only reflection can guide us in life, after this. Once the social instinct is blunted, intelligence is the only guide left to us and we have to reconstruct a conscience by its means. Dangerous as is the undertaking there can be no hesitation, for we have no choice. Let those who view anxiously and sadly the ruins of ancient beliefs, who feel all the difficulties of these critical times, not ascribe to science an evil it has not caused but rather which it tries to cure!”

Durkheim draws the following conclusion” “If religion protects man against the desire for self-destruction, it is not that it preaches the respect for his own person to him with arguments sui generis; but because it is a society. What constitutes this society is the existence of a certain number of beliefs and practices common to all the faithful, traditional and thus obligatory. The more numerous and strong these collective states of mind are, the stronger the integration of the religious community, and also the greater its preservative value. The details of dogmas and rites are secondary. The essential thing is that they be capable of supporting a sufficiently intense collective life.”

Having examined the effect of religious belief on rates of suicide, Durkheim turns to two other spheres of social integration – family life and politics –and draws analogous conclusions from his data. He finds that inversely with the degree of integration of religious society, of domestic society, and of political society. “Social man,” he concludes, “is the essence of civilized man; he is the masterpiece of existence.”

All of this, recall, is intended by Durkheim as a refutation of the methodological individualism that dominated so much of nineteenth century thought, and as a justification for the existence and autonomy of a separate intellectual discipline, Sociology, whose object of investigation is the distinctively and irreducibly social character of human existence.

Social integration protects human beings from the isolation that can provoke self-destruction, but is social integration, to whatever a degree, an unalloyed benefit for human beings? By no means, Durkheim argues. Indeed, the statistics, he claims, reveal an alternative and contrary tendency to which he gives the label “altruistic suicide.” Tomorrow we shall see what he means by that provocative term.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


The two duck legs [cuisses de canard] are seasoned with Five Spices, braised, set on a bed of sauteed onions and garlic, and put in a slow oven for two hours, so I have some time. Here is a mystery that continues to stump me: All over Paris [and, I assume, the rest of France] I can get simply wonderful bread. At the moment, I am eating a piece of baguette de froment from a Keyser outlet on rue Monge, but there are many other places where I can get crusty, light baguettes every day. I have never found anyplace in the United States that makes a good baguette. The bread at WholeFoods is godawful, as is the bread at the very upscale elegant A Southern Season in Chapel Hill. The only really good bread I have found anywhere in the United States is made by a group of young artisans on State Street in Northampton, Mass at a place called The Hungry Ghost. Their French batard is in fact the best bread I have had anywhere in the world.

Now, why is this? Is it the wheat? The oven? The water? Does anyone know? If I could reproduce a standard French baguette in America I think I could make a fortune.


I am afraid I shall not be able to post Part Three of my Micro-Tutorial on Durkheim until tomorrow. This morning, Susie will make an outing on our Segway to the Jardin des Plantes. When she walks, Susie is slowed down by her MS, but when she rides the Segway, I must trot alongside to keep up. It is a sight to see, the two of us proceeding down the quais, past the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Menagerie [Zoo] of the Jardin, until we come to the entrance.

This afternoon, we shall attend a concert of medieval music at the Musee de Cluny just a short walk from our apartment, and then, this evening, I shall be slow-cooking cuisses de canard with 5 spices.

All in all, a typical Paris day.

There is not a great deal to say about the race for the Republican presidential nomination, save that Gingrich continues to soar and the Republican establishment tears its hair in despair. I have on occasion remarked that Obama is lucky, but my son, who is wiser in these matters, says that luck has nothing to do with it. "How on earth does he contrive to seduce his opponents into defeating themselves?" I ask. He replies, "It may sound like a joke, but he is a Jedi master." I am becoming a believer. Use the force, Luke, use the force.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Suicide is divided into three Books. Durkheim’s strategy is quite straightforward. In Book One, he considers any non-social causes of suicide, and one by one dismisses them as inadequate to account for the data on the incidence of suicide that he has collected. In Book Two, he identifies three different types of socially caused suicide, which he labels “Egoistic suicide,” “Altruistic suicide,” and “Anomic suicide.” Each of these species of suicide, he argues, can only be explained by appeal to collective social causes. In Book Three, he discusses what he understands to be the general significance of what he has discovered in Book Two.

Durkheim begins Book One by exploring the claim that suicide is a consequence of insanity. He calls into question the common wisdom concerning madness, and offers some data to show that even on the assumption that some suicide is traceable to forms of insanity, such an explanation at best accounts for only a small proportion of the reported suicides. [An historico-philosophical aside: Spinoza argued that suicide could never be the act of a sane person, because all human beings are guided by rational self-love, and hence could not possibly fully understand what they are doing when they take their own lives. This strikes me as a shrewd psychological insight, whatever its larger sociological importance.]

He then asks whether suicide is in any way rooted in racial differences, or is hereditary, concludes that race is a very questionable scientific category in general, and that race and heredity are simply not satisfactory explanatory causal factors in the case of suicide. Nor, he decides, does climate explain the incidence of suicide. Seasonal variations are equally inconclusive. Surprisingly, he produces data showing that the rate of suicides actually increases as the day gets longer. I confess I would have expected the opposite. So much for “seasonal affective disorder,” or SAD, as it is now commonly referred to. Nor do the data support the hypothesis that suicide peaks when the weather first gets hot [or cold]. Durkheim concludes Book One with a discussion of imitation as a significant causal factor.

All of this is rather fun – a kind of throat-clearing as Durkheim prepares for his serious discussion in Book Two. His methodology is one with which we are all now quite familiar, but which was new and important when he was writing. To put it simply, with regard to each hypothesis, he examines statistical records to see whether there is a correlation between variations in the thing to be explained – the incidence of suicide, in this case – and concomitant variations in the proposed explanation. Excessively hot days cause people to kill themselves? Check whether the rate of suicide in a city rises as the temperature goes up and falls as things cool off. We are now so familiar with this mode of argument that it requires a little historical imagination to recall a time when it was not commonplace at all.

Durkheim’s conclusion to the last chapter of Book Two, on imitation as a cause of suicide, is worth quoting, because imitation is a mode of explanation of a social phenomenon that seems to offer a way of reducing the social to the individual. This, as we have seen, would in Durkheim’s view undermine the independence and legitimacy of the discipline of Sociology.

“[W]hat this chapter chiefly shows is the weakness of the theory that imitation is the main source of collective life. No fact is more readily transmissible by contagion than suicide, yet we have just seen that this contagiousness has no social effects. [He means that although one person may be moved to commit suicide by imitating someone else who has done so, this imitation does not alter the social statistics in any significant fashion. Ed.] If imitation is so much without social influence in this case, it cannot have more in others; the virtues ascribed to it are therefore imaginary. Within a narrow circle it may well occasion the repetition of a single thought or action, but never are its representations sufficiently deep or extensive to reach and modify the heart of society.”

And so, by eliminating a wide variety of physical and individual factors, we are brought, as Book Two opens, to the conclusion that suicide “must necessarily depend upon social causes and be in itself a collective phenomenon.” [First paragraph of Book Two.] However, Durkheim suggests, there is not a single species of socially caused suicide, but several different types – what he will go on to identify as egoistic, altruistic, and anomic suicide.

Immediately upon launching his exploration of the types of socially caused suicide, Durkheim enunciates a methodological principle that seems to me deeply flawed. I am not sure the mistake infects his conclusions, but because it is so striking, it is worth looking at for a moment. He begins by acknowledging with some regret that there simply are not useful data on the suicides of sane persons “But,” Durkheim continues, “our aim may be achieved by another method.”

“Let us reverse the order of study. Only in so far as the effective causes differ can there be different kinds of suicide. For each to have its own nature, it must also have special conditions of existence. The same antecedent or group of antecedents cannot sometimes produce one result and sometimes another, for, if so, the difference of the second from the first would itself be without cause, which would contradict the principle of causality. Every proved specific difference between causes therefore implies a similar difference between effects. Consequently, we shall be able to determine the social types of suicide by classifying them not directly by their preliminarily described characteristics, but by the causes which produce them. Without asking why they differ from one another, we will first seek the social conditions responsible for them; then group these conditions in a number of separate classes by their resemblances and differences, and we shall be sure that a specific type of suicide will correspond to each of these classes. In a word, instead of being morphological, our classification will from the start be aetiological.”

Now this is just plain wrong. It is certainly true that different effects must flow from different causes. But it does not at all follow from this that different causes must have different effects. The motion of a ball on a pool table – the observed effect – can perfectly well be the consequence of an infinite number of combinations of forces striking it -- the causes --, so long as all those combinations resolve themselves, by what we used to call the “parallelogram of forces” in high school physics, into the same vector of force. Same causes, same effects – true. Same effects, same causes – false.

Well, enough for today. Tomorrow I shall describe briefly the three types of socially caused suicides identified by Durkheim and bring this Micro-tutorial to a close.