My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

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

Total Pageviews

Saturday, April 30, 2011


While I have been grading seminar papers, visiting with my older son, and preparing to fly off to Paris, a lively discussion has taken place in the comments section of this blog about my response to Chris's question how I can be an anarchist and a Marxist. I have pretty much had my say, and I think the comments parse my views exactly correctly, so I shall not go on about what is, after all, an unimportant question [viz., what I think], but there is one small matter that I would like to say a word about. Plato was perhaps the most caustic critic of democracy in the history of Western philosophy [his only serious challenger for the title being Nietzsche], and he would never, ever suggest that Socrates complied with the sentence of death passed on him because it issued from a democratic state. I leave it to those better educated than I to offer informed observations on this matter, as in fact one commentator already has done.

There is something I wish to blog about of a quite different nature, and if I can check off all the last minute things on my To Do list, I shall post some observations later today.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


In five days, I leave this loony bin called America and fly off to France, whose government has just made it a crime for a Muslim woman to appear in public with her face covered. Is there no place in the world left where a sane person can spend a little time?


Chris asks me how I can square my anarchism with my Marxism. A number of people have asked me that over the years, so perhaps I ought to have a shot at replying. At the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton, it turns on what I mean by "anarchism" and "Marxism."

First of all, when I call myself an anarchist, I mean just exactly what I explained in my little book In Defense of Anarchism. I deny that there is or could be a de jure legitimate state. That is the sum and substance of what I call in that book my "philosophical anarchism." This is a limited claim, but not at all a trivial one. Forty years ago I debated Eugene V. Rostow, former Dean of Yale Law School, at a celebration of the centenary of the New York City Bar Association. This was in the depths of the Viet Nam War, when conscientious young men were torn between their opposition to the war and their loyalty to what they believed was a democratic government. Rostow argued that those men had a moral [not just a legal] obligation to serve in the army if drafted, because the war was approved and voted by a legislature and president chosen by the people, and hence legitimate. I argued the negative. No one at that meeting thought we were nit picking.

My Marxism, as I have many times explained, is not a form of secular religious faith, but a conviction that Marx was correct when he argued that capitalism rests essentially on the exploitation of the working class. Marx was a social scientist, among many other things, and he advanced his theses on the basis of facts and arguments. Some of his theses were correct and some were wrong. Some of his arguments were incorrect [although fewer than is generally supposed] and his assemblage of facts, although way ahead of his time, has now been folded into and in some cases corrected by the work of subsequent generations of historians and economists.

I am not a libertarian, and I consider the arguments of people like Hayek, Friedman, Nozick and others to be incorrect. The pseudo-arguments of Ayn Rand and her epigones are absurd. I can see no conflict whatsoever between philosophical anarchism and Marxian socialism. The citizens of a socialist society, were one ever to come into existence [Gott sei dank!], would have no more obligation to obey the laws of that state, merely because it was socialist, than they have now to obey the laws of the United States, merely because America is [let us grant for the sake of argument] democratic. Both groups of citizens would stand under the universal duty of judging for themselves whether what the laws command is something that on independent grounds it is good to do. There is no duty, prima facie or otherwise, to obey the law simply because it is the law.

Does this clear things up?

Monday, April 25, 2011


Haley Barbour has just announced that he will not run for the Republican nomination for President. That makes the South Carolina primary much more interesting. Who benefits? Romney? One Pharisee fewer. Rats. I was getting ready to conjure up Martin Luther King's great line about a southern governer with interposition and nullification dripping from his lips. I think it is very unfair of Barbour to deny us bloggers that moment of historical nostalgia.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


A century ago, when many Americans still used a pot-bellied wood-burning stove both for heat and for cooking, people would cluster for warmth around the stove in winter time and while away the hours by speculating on what the next baseball season might bring. This was in the depth of the winter, when the World Series was just a memory, and before Spring Training gave more hope even than the miracle of Easter for a blessed rebirth. Thus was coined the phrase "hot stove league," which refers to any group of amateur fans sitting around and chewing the fat about an upcoming competition.

[I might add, as an irrelevant aside, that in the early eighties, during the spike in energy prices, when my first wife was a new member of the Literature Section of the Humanities Department at MIT, she and I attended a dinner party at the rather large home of a member of the Section, A. R. Gurney, who has since become a very famous American playwright. Drama buffs will know, that "Pete" Gurney, as he was called, is the chronicler of WASP social mores in the American theater. The house was completely unlit, save for the room in which we sat, and was heated only by a wood-burning pot-bellied stove that served as the principal source of warmth for the entire house. It was an echo of my graduate student introduction to New England WASP culture at the Parsons family Thanksgiving dinner in Belmont, MA.]

As an inveterate politics buff, I spend way too much time speculating about future presidential campaigns, and in this unusually loony pre-nomination off-season, the temptation is irresistible. Herewith my musings about what is happening over the fields and in the woods on the Republican side of town. I apologize to my overseas readers, for whom much of this will seem utterly incomprehensible. All I can plead in self-defense is that I am sure you have your own versions of the hot stove league in Israel, Scotland, South Africa, New Zealand, or wherever else you may happen to be. Bear with me. I promise to return shortly to the contemplation of eternal truths sub specie aeternitatis.

I begin with a premise that, while not necessary a priori, is as close as one can come in this corrupt and imperfect world: Someone will get the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 2012. This is not a certainty. When all is said and done, the Republicans may decide to take a pass this cycle and allow Obama to be reelected by acclamation. Not logically impossible, at least not to a philosopher with a passport well stamped with entry visas to possible worlds, but we may, as Aristotle says in the opening pages of the Physics, assume the existence of the objects and phenomena about which we wish to reason. So, who will it be? Who will be the standard-bearer for what has become of the Grand Old Party?

At the current time, there are at least twelve men and women who have given some signs of wanting the presidency enough to compete for it. They are, in alphabetical order [I am nothing if not scrupulously fair]: Michelle Bachman, Haley Barbour, Herman Cain, Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, John Huntsman, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Donald Trump. Seven of these twelve are present or former state governors -- Barbour, Daniels, Huckabee, Huntsman, Palin, Pawlenty, and Romney. One, Santorum, is a former senator. Two are present or former members of the House of Representatives -- Bachman and Gingrich. And Two, Cain and Trump, are businessmen with no previous electoral experience. We may usefully divide this dozen into two groups. Following my predilection for Biblical allusions, familiar to readers of this blog, I shall call them the Pharisees and the Generation of Vipers.

Barbour, Daniels, Hunstman, Pawlenty, and Romney are the Pharisees -- upstanding men of the community, keepers of the conventional verities -- what in a different sort of analysis would be called "suits." These are the names usually mentioned by deep thinkers in the conservative ranks, such as George Will, who want nothing more than a safe, predictable servant of the corporate boardrooms. They differ from one another, of course, but all five are "clubable," which is to say they could comfortably be invited to a golf course or country club without any risk that they would embarrass their hosts.

Romney, having been round the track once, is widely viewed as the front-runner of the group.. Mitt Romney and John Huntsman, of course, are Mormons. Now, as an atheist, I do not usually draw distinctions among those suffering from religious faith. One mistake in that line is much like another to me. But among Born Again, Fundamentalist, Creationist, Inerrantist, Young Earth Christians, who have found a home in the ranks of the Republican Party, Mormonism is not viewed as any kind of acceptable religion, and some unknown fraction of the crazy wing of the party may refuse to support Romney or Huntsman for that reason. Barbour is a throwback, a genuine old fashioned racist segregationist of the sort that I mistakenly believed had gone into hiding. Daniels is the favorite of the inside dopesters in the GOP, though I have been unable to discern why. Pawlenty suffers from an apparently genetic lack of charisma, which resists either stimulants or implants. Huntsman, in addition to being a Mormon, made the very unwise career decision to serve honorably as this country's Ambassador to the People's Republic of China in the Obama Administration He currently scores so low in Republican popularity polls that he is completely ensconced within the margin of error.

The Generation of Vipers is truly a wicker basket of asps. Palin is the best known of the lot, and were things different, she would be a genuine threat to secure the nomination. But Palin is a quitter, and as my old friend Zina Tillona liked to observe, most people do most things the way they do most other things. I have long thought that Palin would never actually commit to and follow through with a run for the nomination, and now that she has found a way to combine big earnings and lots of media attention with not much work, she will, I am confident, take a pass on what is, after all, the very tiring business of running for president. A while back, Republican commentators were publicly musing that the presidency was really beneath her, a sure sign that they were offering her a graceful way to quit once again. So let us cross her off the list.

The natural front runner among the vipers is Mike Huckabee, a genuinely nice person with utterly poisonous views on a wide range of serious subjects. If, contrary to my expectations, there really is a Hell, Huckebee will be its most genial resident for all eternity. Were he to run, he would be a force to contend with, but he too appears to be ready to sit this one out. Two of his top aides have signed on with other Republican hopefuls, and he is an indifferent candidate when it comes to the nitty-gritty of raising money and assembling a team. Besides, the Huckebees are now, for the first time, seeing some real money, thanks to his gig as a Fox News personality. This has enabled them to build a lavish home in Florida, where it seems he really would like to spend some time. So, sadly, scratch Huckebee as well.

Santorum's expressed interest in the presidency is a mystery. It surely is not the case that anyone, not even among his former aides, has been whispering in his ear that he ought to run. The only explanation I can conjure up is that he hopes participation in the inevitable cattle call debates will remove some of the sting from his recent humiliating defeat for re-election to the Senate from Pennsylvania. Herman Cain is of course the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza [I insist I am not making this up.] To be fair, he was also the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Kansas City. His results in the polls make Huntsman look like a front runner. Forget Herman Cain.

That leaves Bachman, Gingrich, and Trump [I will refrain from the inevitable allusions to Curly, Moe, and Larry]. Michelle Bachman is an attractive, forceful, bat-shit crazy politician who is skilled at raising money and appealing to the baser instincts of an already debased electorate. She is quite effectively occupying the space left vacant by Huckebee and Palin, and will, I predict, be a player once things get started next Fall. Newt Gingrich, for reasons I have never been able to comprehend, is widely viewed by the conventional wisdom as brilliant, albeit erratic and unstable. A serial public adulterer and architect of the most humiliating Congressional defeat suffered by the Republicans in recent decades, Gingrich does not seem to me to have much going for him. I have no doubt that he will take part in the early debates, but it is doubtful that he will make any mark in the early caucuses and primaries, and he may not even have his name put on the ballot. Forget Gingrich.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. Can the worst comb over in the history of hair care actually have a chance at the Republican nomination? [If there is anyone out there who does not know what a comb over is, let me explain. Balding men will sometimes allow what hair they have on the sides or back of their head to grow excessively long and then carefully comb it over the bald places in a completely unsuccessful attempt to conceal the truth about their rapidly receding hairline. This is known as a comb over. Trump is to comb overs what QueeQueg is to a sailor with "Mom" tattooed on his arm.] Trump has three strengths that have vaulted him to the top of the early Republican polls. First, he has lots of money. [As much as he says? Who knows? But enough to sustain him through an entire nomination run, should it come to that]. Second, he is far and away the most skilled television performer among the twelve aspirants, widely known because of his television show, The Celebrity Apprentice. And third, he is completely unhindered by the slightest suggestion of hesitation or embarrassment when it is in his interest to utter manifestly, blatantly, grotesquely false and absurd statements. He is the consummate salesman. He really believes in the curative properties of the snake oil he is selling, at the moment when he is selling it.

And there you have them. One of those twelve, believe it or not, will get the Republican Party's nomination for the presidency and appear on the ballot with Barack Obama in November 2012. Which one? This is the point at which devotees of the hot stove league throw caution to the winds and go all in with their predictions. [One of the conventions of hot stove league speculation is the liberal use of tired clichés].

If the choice were being made in a smoke filled room of the sort that dominated politics in the good old days [another tired cliché], it would come down to Barbour, Daniels, Pawlenty, Huntsman, or Romney. But these days, there is a process to be gone through, and it pretty much guarantees that only one of the Pharisees will survive to the finals -- the late primaries in which a winner may emerge. Early popularity polls, of which there are a very great many, make it clear that among likely Republican Primary voters, anywhere from a quarter to a third are inclined to choose one of the Pharisees. Romney sucks up almost all of those votes, and the remainder are parceled out in tiny dribs and drabs among Barbour, Daniels, Pawlenty, and Huntsman. Romney will do adequately in Iowa, the first state to make its selection. He may well win New Hampshire, perhaps even by a wide margin, but win or lose there, he will do alright. Barbour is of course hoping for good results in South Carolina, and surely, if he cannot win there, he is finished. But he is not going anywhere. Nor can I see how Pawlenty, Daniels, or Huntsman can survive those early primaries with any credibility whatsoever, regardless of the hopes of the Beltway bloviators. [Once again, for my overseas friends, Washington D. C. is ringed by a road called The Beltway, designed to allow through traffic to avoid going into the city. It is the Conventional Wisdom that people who live in Washington and offer opinions for a living are prisoners of Inside the Beltway Conventional Wisdom. If this sounds peculiarly self-referential, that too is a characteristic conventionally attributed to prisoners of the Conventional Wisdom.]

Among the Generation of Vipers, I predict confidently that only Bachman and Trump will emerge as viable hopefuls from the first several weeks of caucuses and primaries. So, fairly quickly we will see a three way race -- Romney, Bachman, and Trump. This will create consternation and despair in the ranks of relatively rational Republicans, but there will be very little they can do about what they perceive as a slow motion train wreck.

Romney has three strikes against him, even though he will make it this far, but this is not really baseball, the "hot stove league" metaphor to the contrary notwithstanding, so three strikes may not be enough for him to be out. The first strike is his Mormonism. The second strike is his authorship of a successful health care reform program in Massachusetts that was pretty much the alpha iteration of what became the Affordable Care Act, referred to by all Republicans with a mixture of loathing and contempt as "Obamacare." I long for the presidential debate in which Obama, with a great show of courtesy, thanks Romney for test-driving health care reform in Massachusetts and proving that it could work, so that the Democrats could embrace it and take it national. Romney's third strike is that he is manifestly, patently, obviously the least authentic person in American politics. Even a dog can smell it [not, of course, the family dog whom he tied to the roof of their station wagon one year on the long drive to Maine.] But Romney will stay to the bitter end, and he will continue to collect the votes and the delegates of the portion of the Party that now supports one or another of the Pharisees.

I think it is entirely possible that Bachman, Trump, and Romney will continue to fight it out all the way to the Convention in Tampa, Florida. If Bachman or Trump wins, Obama is a shoo-in. If the powers that be engineer it for Romney, as the least bad of the three, there may well be an eruption, and even a third party, which of course, will make the election a walk in the park for the Democrats. Any two of the three might try to join forces and delegate pools and forge a ticket with either in the first position: Bachman-Trump, Trump-Bachman, Bachman-Romney, Romney-Bachman, Romney-Trump, Trump-Romney. Or the powers that be may try to foist Daniels or Pawlenty on the party in a truly brokered convention, in which case all hell will break loose.

And what will the Democrats be doing during all of this? Probably heeding Napoleon's famous advice to one of his Marshals: "When your enemy is making a mistake, do not interrupt him."


My old Winthrop House fellow tutor and friend, the distinguished foreign policy expert William Polk, copied me in on this email, and I secured his permission to post it on my blog. I think it speaks for itself.

Dear Michael,

In this morning's emails was the item attached below. It struck me particularly because of the talk we had during our meeting on "Affordable World Security" in St-Paul about our late friend, Eqbal Ahmad.

While he was a fellow of the Adlai Stevenson Institute when I was the president, Eqbal was arrested along with the Catholic priests, the Berrigans, for allegedly trying to kidnap Henry Kissinger. I was then out of town, so when I heard the news, I rushed back to Chicago. Right into an emergency meeting of the Board of Directors of the Institute.

The Board, I should point out, was made up of the elite of Liberal America, the closest colleagues of Adlai Stevenson. And I was in a curious position since Kissinger and I had been friends as well as colleagues (at Harvard). Indeed, when he was working for Nelson Rockefeller, Kissinger had asked me (on behalf of Governor Rockefeller) to become Under Secretary of State if Rockefeller were elected president. Kissinger and I had parted company (over Nixon), drew further apart and were no longer speaking (over a number of other issues), but our previous friendship was known and was then widely publicized in the press.

So when the Board asked me how I proposed to fire Eqbal, with the least possible damage to the public image of the Institute, I was in a curious position. I replied that I did not intend to fire him, saying that if the board wanted to fire Eqbal, they would have to get a new Institute president, because I would not do it. The Board was shocked. To explain my position, I pointed out that he had not even been charged, much less convicted. When they pressed the point, I offered my resignation. They were dismayed but simply withdrew from the issue and from me. In fact, I insisted that we continued to pay Eqbal's salary while he was in prison awaiting trial.

Of course, I am not a lawyer or a constitutional scholar (which President Obama claims to be), but I do care about our system of laws. As I understand it, a person is innocent unless or until proven guilty although he may be restrained if considered dangerous or likely to flee. So Eqbal was rightfully in prison but was still in that shadow zone between innocence and guilt. I believe lawyers call this "unproven." To me as a lay historian, that means "still innocent."

I paid a big price for my refusal. I lost my board's support and confidence. I had behaved "irresponsibly." Indeed, that meeting was the beginning of the end of the Institute. But, of course, I would do the same again today.

That I thought that Eqbal had behaved like an ass -- claiming that he intended only a "citizen's arrest" rather than kidnap -- as I told him when he got out of prison and returned to the Institute, was irrelevant to the issue; so was our relationship. I was not defending him (for which he had tried to thank me). What mattered was the fundamental principle. That was what I was standing for. To violate that principle, I felt and feel, was truly subversive, even treasonable.

It was almost ironic that the charge (when it was finally made) against Eqbal was dropped and he was never brought to trial. (I cannot resist saying that my Board never mentioned the case again and certainly did not credit my stand. Liberalism goes only so far!)

So I am shocked by what the President is alleged to have said regarding Bradley Manning. Manning may well be guilty, and if he is, he should go to jail. One can argue whether a higher purpose might vindicate his action, but if one feels impelled to violate the law, he should be prepared to pay for his action. His action may be vindicated by history but his motivation may be irrelevant in a court of law. Although I presume, it could be a mitigating factor in the punishment if he is indeed guilty of violating the law on release of confidential documents.

Had I felt impelled to leak the documents I had access to during my time on the Policy Planning Council, say over the Vietnam issue, i would have expected to pay the price for my action. I thoroughly disagreed with our policy on Vietnam, and I argued strenuously against it inside the government in every forum I could reach. When I failed, I resigned. Admittedly, that was not enough. I did not sway the decisions. What Dan Ellsberg did was more decisive and braver although certainly illegal. He got away with it for number of reasons of which the main one was that the political climate was right for his action. The climate is not for a similar action today. Moreover, what I have seen of the leaked documents (published by the press from Wikileaks) suggests that they are, in any case, not so germane to America's safety or morality as the Pentagon Papers; some are important, but many are just good gossip. However, this may or may not be germane.

What is germane is that Manning's guilt or innocence is for a court to decide, not for the president to declare before he is even tried, much less convicted. And Mr. Obama's act is particularly opprobrious, in my view, because Manning is slated to be tried in a military court by officers whose commander-in-chief has already pronounced his guilt. Were this a civil court and the presiding judge pronounced the verdict even before the jury had met, I think (and certainly would hope) that the case would be thrown out.

I would be curious to learn how your students judge this issue. It is, I believe, fundamental to our political and legal system.

Best regards, Bill

William R. Polk

Friday, April 22, 2011


No sooner did I post a comment comparing the current Repubican presidential hopefuls to clowns piling out of a tiny car in the circus [and thank you, Andrew Blais, for identifying the traditional music for that old-time event] than I see everyone invoking that metaphor [and pretty clearly not because of me.] I really hate to appear commonplace, but I suppose the comparison is too delicious to miss. The latest speculation, by the way, for those of you do not follow these things, is that if Romney gets the nomination, trump may run a third party campaign. If only ...

Thursday, April 21, 2011



Here is a picture from my recent South African trip -- Susie and me in the middle [Susie in the red shirt] and the staff of the UWC HIV-AIDs awareness and prevention campaign, including the director, Dr. Tania Vergnani, who is to Susie's left. I will try to post one of me with Tutu.


Yesterday, I spend some time reading Professor Vallbé's lovely formatting of my Formal Methods tutorial. [One of my guilty pleasures is reading what I myself have written. I imagine my fascination with my own words is a much sublimated expression of the infantile fascination with one's own feces, but that is a subject for another post.] I noticed, with a frisson of dismay, that in the very beginning of the tutorial, I promised to discuss a number of applications of the formal materials that I never got around to. By the time I had worked my way through the rigors of Rational Choice Theory, Game Theory, and Collective Choice Theory, I was a bit tuckered out.

Fortunately, two of the broken promises -- discussions [and eviscerations] of Robert Nozick's ebullient ANARCHY, STATE, AND UTOPIA, and Jon Elster's methodological individualist rendering of Marx -- are easily rectified, inasmuch as I have published both of them as journal articles. The Nozick essay is in the Arizona Law Journal for 1977, not someplace, I imagine, that most readers of this blog would ordinarily look for amusement. The Elster piece, which I am proud to say is admired by Brian Leiter, appeared in The Canadian Journal of Philosophy in 1990.

I have now managed to access and download both of them on-line, and will post them on shortly. My younger readers will be quite unimpressed by my ability to find and download journal articles on-line, but it actually took me a bit of doing. I am an adjunct professor at UNC Chapel Hill, inasmuch as I am teaching a graduate seminar there. But it seems that UNC, in a fit of anxiety about internet theft and such things, changes everyone's password every three months. I imagine they sent me a warning on my UNC email account, which they created automatically without bothering to tell me. Since I never use it and have no idea how to locate it, I never got the warning. Now, of course, I cannot log in to change it. It seems I must go to some obscure office somewhere on a campus I am unfamiliar with and get a new password. Fortunately, I am also an adjunct professor at Duke, because an old student of mine is now Chair of the Philosophy Department, and Duke does not engage in such nonsense as changing people's passwords. So I was able to get onto J-STOR through the Duke library system and carry out the downloads.

One odd tidbit. My vita tells me that the Nozick article appears in Volume 20 in 1978, but it seems that in fact the piece appears in volume 19 in 1977. I wonder how on earth I managed to get that wrong.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


OK, the formal methods book, formatted and prepared by Professor Vallbe, is now on Enjoy.


An Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Barcelona just sent me an email, telling me that he had taken my Formal Methods tutorial and transformed it into a book, using opensource software and one thing and another. It is just gorgeous! As soon as I finish teaching today, I am going to post it on in addition to the individual chapters, which are in my much less attractive format. What a wonderful thing the internet is! This is like one vast international collaboration. Now if we could only figure out how to take over the economy and run it as a socialist collective. :)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


I first started paying attention to presidential election campaigns in 1948, which, if I have counted correctly, is seventeen campaigns in all, including the one on which we are now embarked. In all that time, I have never seen anything as loony as what is now going on in the Republican Party. In view of the state of the economy, this ought to be a cycle in which the Republicans have a serious chance of defeating Obama, for all that he is far and away the most skillful politician and most effective campaigner currently on the political scene. It will come as no surprise that I have a low opinion of people like Romney, Pawlenty, Huntsman, Barbour, and Daniels, but they certainly, by current American standards, as "serious" candidates, and under the right conditions, which includes unstinting support from their own party, one or another of them could make a pretty decent run against Obama.

The Republicans get beside themselves with rage and loathing when they think of Obama. So what do they do? They find every way that the most imaginative satirist could dream up to keep any of those possible candidates from gaining traction in the run up to the nomination season. I feel as though I were watching the old Barnum & Bailey Three Ring Circus, in which a miniature car drives into the middle of the center ring, and then disgorges one clown after another. No sooner has one bulbous nosed slap-footed character been dispatched from the center of the spotlight by a swift kick to the keester than another pops out of the car and starts screaming, to the cheers and laughter of the crowd.

For a while Palin sucked up all the air, until she passed her buy-by date, and began to fade into Fox heaven. Romney poked his nose up, sniffed the wind, and was about the make his move when Bachman popped out of the clown car and began her special brand of crazy. That pretty much consigned Romney, Pawlenty, and crew to the side rings, where they did a few half-hearted back flips and handstands just to stay in practice. But a little Bachman goes a long way, so even she started to sound dated. Time for the heavyweights? Not a bit of it. The biggest clown of all, complete with a comb over from hell, unfolds himself from the little car and parades around the center ring, declaring to one and all that since his net worth is "many many times" that of Romney, he and no one else should get to be fired out of a cannon into the net.

Meanwhile, Obama, whatever you think of him, just stands there acting like a grown-up, heeding Napoleon's advice not to interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. I freely confess that it is all fun, but then I really liked the circus when I was a kid. Maybe the Republicans have decided to test the old maxim that "you can't beat someone with no one." At this moment, despite giving the matter a good deal of thought, I cannot figure out how any of these Bozos is going to actually secure the nomination.


Marinus Ferreira sent me a long interesting e-mail message criticizing my treatment of the Prisoner's Dilemma in Part Five of my tutorial on The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy, originally posted seriatim on my second blog, and now to be found on I should like to attempt a reply, and he has graciously given me permission to reproduce his entire e-mail message as part of that reply. Here it is:

Dear Prof Wolff,

As you posted the link to the archived form of your formal methods tutorial, you made a comment about the prisoner's dilemma in line with your dismissive appraisal of it in the tutorial. Forgive me if I bring up a tiresome topic, but I thought the appraisal was somewhat too
curt. When I was originally reading the tutorial, as you were posting it, I was surprised to see no mention about how prisoner dilemma cases show a tension between utility-maximization and Pareto-optimality. I believe investigating that tension, given as it is between two features of decision-making many people take to be bedrock parts of rationality (though neither you nor I would be in that camp, I'd wager) is sufficient reason to pay some attention to the prisoner's
dilemma. I wrote a comment on the recent post to that effect, except I got somewhat carried away (I blame the rainy weather) and what I wrote became somewhat too large for a comment on a blog post. I posted a slightly longer and dollied-up version of this on my own blog, but
since it is something I came up with in response to what you have said, I thought I would involve you in the discussion.

Contrary to your harsh evaluation, I think there is something to be said for the prisoner's dilemma as an analytic tool. Heaven knows a lot of people make ridiculous claims regarding it (for instance, I was told once that it shows that ethics is impossible), but there are at least two reasons to take it seriously, if only as an analytical device.

The first reason is that there are simply so many theoretically interesting cases which can be modeled as some variation of the PD, that is, where situations arise with the payout matrix I described above. There are traveler's dilemmas, the centipede game, the ultimatum game, etc. I'll leave it up to the reader to investigate these cases, and their link to the PD, on their own. But note that understanding any situation which can be modeled in this way is going to necessitate understanding the implications of the PD (which includes, as you stress, knowing what it doesn't entail).

Secondly, the most important reason to look at the PD (which I was surprised to see get no mention at all in the tutorial) is that it gives a very embarrassing and problematic result for the mass of people who believe that decision theory, etc., provide the gold standard for human reasoning. That is, the PD shows that utility maximization doesn't lead to Pareto-optimal situations (which was a bit of a surprise, since under similar suppositions the free market,
which is driven entirely by utility-maximization, does lead to Pareto-optimal distributions of resources – a bit more on that later in this paragraph). Utility maximization is the procedure whereby at each point you need to make a procedure you take whatever course of action has the best prospects for getting you what you want (after taking into consideration all the likely future effects of your actions), and Pareto-optimality is the idea that one situation is preferable to another if every person involved finds the first one to be at least as good as the latter. In non-wonk terms, the PD demonstrates that if everybody tries at every step to take the action with consequences they'd most prefer, they are quite likely to end up in a situation they find less preferable than one they would have reached had they acted differently. It in fact does even more, in that the situation of the two prisoners if both defect is worse for both of them, whereas it's Pareto-suboptimal if only one person reaches a situation they don't prefer. This is embarrassing and problematic to the decision theorist, because Pareto-optimality is a very low bar indeed. There are a range of terrible situations that are Pareto-optimal – for instance, a fiefdom with its range of landlords and impoverished serfs is a Pareto-optimal distribution of land, since to give any land to a serf you need to take it away from a landlord, which means that changing the distribution of land would always be against the preferences of at least one person. If utility-maximization can't even ensure reaching situations with that low level of goodness, then the decision theorist has reason to worry.

It's this feature of the PD which gives force to the tragedy of the commons (as George Hardin described in the 60s, though not as a PD). Each member of a community who tends sheep and has access to the common pasture always has the incentive to put one more sheep in the field: though this lowers the total productivity of the commons through being overloaded, the individual's gains of having the extra sheep outweigh the marginal loss to each sheep. But if everybody follows this incentive (as utility-maximization demands) then the commons will soon be exhausted and every farmer will be worse off in the end. The lesson to be learn here isn't that co-operation in such situations is impossible (as some people bizarrely claim, showing off a staggering confusion about the structure of human purposive action) but that utility-maximization – the hard-nosed pragmatism which makes the prisoner defect every time – is untenable as a general guide to action. In scenarios with PD pay-offs (and the insights of the
countless writers on this topic indicate just how many there might be) utility-maximization turns out to lead us by the nose to our downfall. And that is what we should learn from the prisoner's dilemma.

Sincerely yours,

Let me say, first of all, that the continuing occurrence of really classy responses like this one to my blog posts is a source of great satisfaction to me. From time to time, I check the comments on one or another of the political blogs I read, and they are just not in the same league with this and many other responses I have received.

My first reply to Marinus is that it had simply never occurred to me to construe the Prisoner's Dilemma as a devastating critique of rational choice theory, but I certainly like the intention. I do not think that is the intention of the great majority of authors who invoke it, at least so far as I can tell, but as Marinus seems to suggest, that is their problem, not ours.

One technical point, which is not at all unimportant, needs to be made. Maximization of expected utility is a rule widely proposed and endorsed for the making of decisions under risk -- that is to say, as I explain in my tutorial, it is intended for situations in which the totality of the possible outcomes of an action is known and also the probability of each [so that the sum of the probabilities is 1.] But Game Theory, which is the locus of the Prisoner's Dilemma, is an analysis of choice under uncertainty -- that is to say, of situations in which the totality of the possible outcomes is known, the participant's ordinal ranking of those outcomes is known, the actions available to oneself and all other participants are known, and the precise outcome associated with each set of possible strategies of the game in the normal form is known, but in which the probabilities of the occurrence of the several outcomes is not known [hence "under uncertainty."]

Now, Marinus' central point, if I understand him correctly, is that if Rational Choice Theory cannot yield a satisfactory answer to the problem of choice in so reduced and elementary a situation as is modeled by the Prisoner's Dilemma, then that fact constitutes a powerful criticism of Rational Choice Theory. But Rational Choice Theory is a theory of choice under risk, not of choice under uncertainty. So despite my sympathy for the intention of the critique, I think it misses its mark.

Marinus is exactly right that Pareto Optimality is a very weak constraint indeed. And I agree the formalization of choice situations is useful in helping us to think through what is involved in them [such as the tragedy of the Commons, etc.]

When one gets into the precise detail of Game Theory, as elaborated by von Neumann, one quickly realizes that his enormously powerful and really elegant Fundamental Theorem applies only to a very, very constrained class of cases. What is perhaps most interesting is that once one moves beyond situations of two players with strictly opposed preference orders [The Prisoner's Dilemma is an instance of a game in which the players do not have strictly opposed preference orders], then, as Thomas Schelling first showed in his brilliant book, The Strategy of Conflict, all manner of informal considerations become essential to an analysis of bargaining situations. In my irreverent critique of the Prisoner's Dilemma, I was trying to make clear some of those essential but difficult to formalize considerations.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Marinus sent me a long, very interesting email message, criticizing my dismissive attitude toward the Prisoner's Dilemma in Part Five of my tutorial on Formal Methods in Political Philosophy. I am turning that over in my mind, and will reply in a bit. But out of curiosity, I Google'd him, and found my way to an interesting thread of comments on Brian Leiter's well-known blog [] to which he had made a contribution.

Almost a year ago, Leiter started a lengthy discussion about which ten philosophers writing in English in the last third of the twentieth century will still be read a hundred years from now. I paged through a good many of the comments entered in the discussion [no, my name does not appear anywhere], and all the usual suspects showed up in the various lists -- Rawls, Quine, Davidson, Kripke, Lewis, Parfitt, etc., etc., etc., but after a while it occurred to me that virtually all the contributors were going about things the wrong way.

The first question to be asked is this: What sort of discipline do you think contemporary Anglo-American philosophy is? I think it is fair to say that there is a wide and growing belief especially among young analytic philosophers that philosophy, at long last, has graduated from being a humanistic discipline to being something very like science, with an admirable rigor, a sub-division of specializations, and a steady advance of well-confirmed discoveries. I don't myself share this view of philosophy, but then I have really been out of the game for more than a third of a century, so my opinion does not count.

If this is what you think philosophy is, then it is almost certain that in a hundred years none of the people proposed for the list will still be read seriously. Think about it. How many century-old papers in Physics or Biology or Chemistry [never mind Bio-Chemistry, a relatively new discipline] are read by practicing members of those disciplines? Maybe physicists out of piety read Einstein's annus mirabilis papers from 1905, but surely that is about the long and short of it. If analytic philosophy really has become what Kuhn called normal science, then what is being written now will be incorporated into twenty-second century philosophy, its authors all but forgotten. In Economics, whose practitioners like to flatter themselves that they are scientists because they use undergraduate math [calculus and linear algebra, with some statistics thrown in], Smith and Ricardo are honored only on Saint's Days, and even Menger, Walras, Jevons, Marshall, and Schumpeter are consigned to secondary courses on the history of the subject.

However, if you really think anyone will be reading Davidson or Lewis or Quine or Kripke or Rawls or [substitute your favorite here] in a century, it can only be because you think philosophy is, after all, a humanistic undertaking that grapples with the eternal questions of human existence and meaning, and hence flourishes by remembering its past and reading the texts that have stood the test of time.

Once you start thinking in that way, the question becomes quite complex, and it is not at all obvious who, if anyone, should be put on the list. [I say "if anyone" because looked at that way, philosophy exhibits long stretches, more than a century in many cases, during which nothing terribly memorable is written, and whether this is one of those down times remains to be seen.] I am reminded that Cicero, for example, was held in very high regard in the eighteenth century, even though today he is viewed [rightly in my opinion] as a thoroughly second-rate thinker. And I am afraid we all know what Hume said about his own Treatise, arguably the finest piece of philosophy every written in the English language.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


As I re-read and edited each chapter of my Autobiography, in preparation for posting it on, I thought again of a lesson I have learned from my many years of involvement with USSAS, with the SUMMA program, with the Scholars of the Twenty-first Century program, and with my other efforts actually to change the world in one way or another. Since I am still, in my heart of hearts, a Kant scholar, let me introduce the lesson by quoting a passage from The Transcendental Dialectic. The passage, as all philosophers reading this blog will know, appears in Kant's famous refutation of the Ontological Proof for the Existence of God:

"A hundred real thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible thalers. For as the latter signify the concept and the former the object and positing of the object, should the former contain more than the latter, my concept would not, in this case, express the whole object, and would not therefore be an adequate concept of it. My financial position is, however, affected very differently by a hundred real thalers than it is by the mere concept of them (that is, of their possibility.)" KRV A599=B628.

During my long career as a philosopher, stretching back now into the middle 1950's, I have devoted a good deal of thought to Big Questions. What is the nature of political Liberalism? Is there an a priori proof of the universal validity of The Moral Law? Can there be a de jure legitimate state? Had my tastes run to metaphysics and logic rather than to ethics and political philosophy, I might have pondered the fundamental nature of the one actual world, or even of the infinity of possible worlds.

We philosophers are much attracted to Big Questions. They seem much more important than Small Questions. If I am going to think about the nature of a hundred possible thalers, why not think about the nature of a million possible thalers? It costs no more, takes up no more space on the page, and is not one whit more difficult.

But as soon as I tried to change the world ever so little, by offering partial bursaries to a handful of poor Black South African students, I discovered that it is very difficult indeed actually to produce even the slightest real world alteration. I cannot count the hours I have spent over the past twenty-one years writing letters of appeal, rounding up signatories to those letters, xeroxing, merge printing, folding and stuffing,tr, sealing the envelopes, putting stamps on them, writing thank you letters to the donors, arranging for bank transfers to South Africa, traveling there to meet with the students and the university officials who are looking after them. And all that effort just to help perhaps fifteen hundred young people get a university education. Considering how fast I write, I would imagine I could have written five or ten more books in the time that all took. And those books could have dealt with the very largest questions I could think to ask. But as Kant so wisely says, even though a hundred real thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible thalers, the hundred real thalers have a quite different effect on my financial situation.

What do I learn from this life lesson, buttressed as it is by a quotation from my favorite philosopher? Very simply, I learn that although as a blogger and an author of political writings I can with no effort at all proclaim on the largest of questions -- the future of capitalism, the possibility of socialism, the imperial thrust of American foreign policy -- when it comes to actually trying to change the world, the most I can hope to do is to make a tiny impact, utterly unnoticed by any regional, national, or transnational measures. Because the gap between what I earnestly want and what I can realistically accomplish is so vast, I must find quotidien satisfactions sufficient to sustain me, so that I will, day after day, year after year, continue to make the effort. Not to do so would be shameful, an abdication of my humanity. But to expect triumphs, or even measurable results, would be foolish indeed.


It is now 6:23 a.m., and I have completed uploading THE USE AND ABUSE OF FORMAL MODELS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY -- A TENDENTIOUS TUTORIAL IN FIVE PARTS to I even found a lovely picture of a saddle point on the web and copied it into my tutorial. This is the second blog that I wrote while also writing my autobiography almost a year ago. It introduces you to the technical details of Rational Choice Theory, Game Theory, and Collective Choice Theory, complete with a proof of Arrow's Theorem and a semi-proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory. It also has a discussion of the Prisoner's Dilemma that will, I hope, stop you from ever mentioning that abomination again. This is the high point of my nerdiness, and I think I need to do some blog posts on movies, menus, and baroque music just to show that I am not a total geek. Feel free to download the tutorial and use it in any way you wish. [I guess I don't actually have to say that about a blog, right?]

Saturday, April 16, 2011


I have now edited and posted on my entire three volume autobiography. You are welcome to vist that site to read any or all of it.

Friday, April 15, 2011


In case anyone wonders, I have been working flat out to get my autobiography edited and posted on I am now into volume three, and moving fast. After that I will tackle the book-length tutorial on Formal Methods that I wrote as I was also writing my autobiography. Then I can go back to outraging all of you by indicating why I am pleased with the direction Obama has taken.

Interim Report

Volumes One and Two of my Autobiography are now completed and posted on I think I have so much storage space that after I have finished, I will also post each volume as a single file. Then it is on to my multipart blog on Formal Methods in Political Philosophy, which is essentially a short book. Who knows what I will do after that!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


I am almost finished with the editing and revisions to Volume One. I have a choice: I can leave each of the six chapters of Volume One as separate posts on, or I can combine them into Volume One entire, delete the separate chapters, and just post Volume One. The argument for doing the latter is that it would shorten considerably the list of things posted on What do you think?


Earlier today, I transferred to the edited and corrected version of Chapter Three of the first volume of my Autobiography. The chapter consists of selections from the 200 pages of letters I wrote home in 1954-55 during the thirteen months I wandered about Western Europe on a fellowship from Harvard. When I wrote Volume One, in late 2003, I had no expectation that anyone would ever read it [although, like all authors, I hoped], and in making my selections from the letters, I looked more for good stories and local color than for anything having to do with the philosophers I met along the way. As a consequence, I omitted several stories, from my three months in Oxford, that it occurs to me might amuse the philosophical readers of this blog, so herewith some of the things I left out of Chapter Three.

When I arrived at Oxford in September, 1954, I knew that I did not want to spend the entire year there, but I thought it might be fun to live for a term [eight weeks] in an Oxford College. That, however, proved to be impossible. To live in a college, one had to commit to an entire year. A friend from Harvard, Ronnie Dworkin [now Professor Ronald Dworkin, the leading legal philosopher in the Anglophone world,], was reading law at Magdalene College on a Rhodes, and he said it might be possible to be an "external" student of a college for just a term. hr offered to take me round to see the President, as the master of Magdalene College was called, to see whether it might be arranged. off we went to have tea in the President's lodgings, which my memory tells me was actually inside the college Quad, though that may be wrong. We sipped tea and made small talk for a bit, and then Ronnie and I stepped out into the sunlight. I asked him rather anxiously, "When do you think I will hear whether I got in?" Ronnie, who has a manner that the querulous might describe as supercilious, looked down his nose at me and said bemusedly, "But you have been admitted. Couldn't you tell?" I think I knew right then that Oxford and I were not made for one another. [Ronnie and Oxford suited one another perfectly, and for a while he was Professor of Jurisprudence there.]

The one thing I wanted to do at Oxford was to look up T. D. Weldon, who had authored a slender book on Kant's First Critique that I had found very helpful. Weldon was in fact a Fellow of Magdalene, so I figured I would not be bothering him too much. I found him seated on a chair looking rather like the Caterpillar in ALICE IN WONDERLAND. With a naive eager enthusiasm that, I now realize, was anathema to true Oxonians, I blurted out that I wanted to re-read the FIRST CRITIQUE with Kemp-Smith in one hand and Paton in the other. At that time, the two best-known commentaries on the FIRST CRITIQUE were by Norman Kemp-Smith and H. J. Paton. Kemp-Smith's was by far the better of the two -- Paton had the habit of tediously summarizing Kant as though that constituted an explanation -- but they disagreed on some central points, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it all. Weldon replied languidly, as though from a great height, that that was totally old hat. What I really wanted to do, he said, was to read Rousseau's Emile. It seems that the famously punctual Kant had been so taken by the book when it arrived that he had actually missed his famous daily walk with his servant, Lampe. I dutifully went right out and got a copy, but when I began to read it, I found myself mired in endless animadversions at swaddling and praises of breast feeding. Things were not going well for me at Oxford.

Although I was not a resident of Magdalene, I did rate a tutor. The College assigned me to a young [mid-thirties] chap named Peter Strawson. I went round to see him once, but by then I was totally turned off to the idea of actually studying anything, so I never went back. A pity. Strawson [who of course became one of the most famous English philosophers of the twentieth century] actually published an important book on the FIRST CRITIQUE, called THE BOUNDS OF SENSE, four years after I published KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY. His interpretation of Kant is the polar opposite of mine, and had I stuck it out, we might have had some interesting conversations.

Mostly, while in Oxford, I played bridge, went off to do some folk dancing in the kilt I had bought at the Edinburgh Festival, and even read some edition or other of Paul Samuelson's famous textbook, ECONOMICS, though I am happy to say it did not stick.


The first three chapters of volume one of my autobiography are now edited and posted on [click on the link above to see them.] I shall keep grinding away until all three volumes are available. Then I will tackle the Formal Methods tutorial from my other blog. I am trying to incorporate Charles Parsons' many helpful corrections, as well as some of those from other readers.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Now that I have sorted out the technicalities of, with the help of several [much younger] readers of this blog, I am able to make readily available the multi-part essays that I have been writing on a variety of topics. Three of them are already available, including the entire tutorial on Marx [click on the link at the top of the page of this blog, to find them]. I have now embarked on the very substantial task of editing my entire autobiography -- all three volumes of it -- incorporating where I can the enormously helpful comments of Charles Parsons and many others. and then posting each chapter in As I complete a volume, I will also post the entire volume as a single file, should anyone wish to download it in that form. I imagine this will take me a good long while, during which time I may be blogging less often than usual. I am not happy with the acrimonious tone of some of the exchanges of comments, to be honest, and would prefer not to get even more deeply involved with them. I prefer to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I seem to have stirred up a hornet's nest, so let me make a few things clear. My angry response was to a two word post by John C. Halesz, "Stockholm Syndrome." For those of you who do not know, the Stockholm Syndrome is the tendency of hostages and kidnap victims after a while to identify with their captors and imagine them to be friends. The comment was, and was clearly intended as, an insult, and that is exactly the way I took it. If anyone thinks that I am a captive of the political establishment in this country and have begun to identify with my captors, then I suggest he or she leave this site and find someone else to insult. I am not amused, and I do not intend to treat that sort of comment as deserving of a serious or thoughtful reply. Now let me address the serious question, whether I [or anyone sharing my political orientation] ought to engage in electoral politics and support mainstream candidates for office. That is indeed a serious question, and one deserving of an answer. I will give you my answer, but I do not for a moment suggest that it is the only answer, or that there are not other answers deserving of consideration. I was born at the end of 1933, the year in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt was first inaugurated. He died when I was eleven, before I was old enough to have organized political opinions of any sort. By the time I did [at age fourteen], it was obvious to me that the America into which I had been born, and in which I would live my life, was very different from the America I would have opted for, had anyone given me a choice. Over the years, my hopes have been raised and then dashed many times. I felt some enthusiasm for John Kennedy, until his abortive invasion of Cuba convinced me that I could not place my hopes on liberal Democrats. I sang and marched in the Civil Rights Movement, and still believe that it was one of America's most glorious moments, but it never held out the hope of a transformation of America, only of the long-delayed incorporation into the existing America of the descendants of slaves. I fought for women's liberation, and fight now for gay liberation, but neither of those movements aims at the transformation of America, only at the removal of the obstacles that stand in the way of the full incorporation into America of women and the LGBT community. What is the America in which I would like to live out the last few remaining years of my life? Easily said: an America in which several hundred million comrades link arms and march joyously into a socialist future. Will I live to see this? Of course not. As my old friend, Herbert Marcuse, observed in the YouTube clip that Michael called my attention to, we do not live in a revolutionary moment, or even in a pre-revolutionary moment. For an instant, I thought I had found my paradise in the South Africa of the liberation struggle, but the events of the last twenty-one years have disabused me of that happy fantasy. What then to do? One possibility, which I do not contemn, is to perform what Russian dissidents called an "inner migration," a mental retreat from a completely unacceptable world into a private realm of art and literature and music and philosophy. I have chosen a different path -- an engagement with a deeply imperfect world, in the hope of making it a little bit less imperfect. As Paul Newman explains to Robert Redford in THE STING, even if you win, it won't be enough, but it is all you are going to get. So I work for the reelection of Obama, and I give money to the protesting workers in Wisconsin, and give money to any number of promising left Democrats running for State Senate or the House of Representatives or the US Senate. None of them is a socialist, and even if they all win, it will not be enough, but it is all I am going to get. All I ask of others who share my political orientation is two things: First, that they reflect carefully on their choices, and be sure to consider what harms they might be choosing not to fight against if they opt out; and Second, that they accord me the same respect I accord them, and not react with insults if we make different choices.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


During the great "budget" debate, Senator Jon Kyl got up on the floor of the Senate and said that 90% of what Planned Parenthood does is to perform abortions. When it was pointed out that this was about as wrong as one could possibly be about the organization, his office, over the phone said, "his remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, does subsidize abortions." For a long time now, I have thought that Kyl was giving Jeff Sessions a run for his money as stupidest person in the Senate. With this latest effort, he may have surged ahead to an unbeatable lead.

Friday, April 8, 2011


I am trying to figure out how to store some of the lengthy multi-part essays I have posted online so that folks can access them easily. The UNC help desk told me about DropBox. Does anyone know anything about it? Is it safe? I don't need something secure -- I am happy to give the world access to the materials I store. I just want someone to be able easily to find my Autobiography, or my Formal Methods tutorial, or the Marx tutorial, etc etc. Suggestions?


First, my thanks to Michael for the link to YouTube clips of Herbert Marcuse being interviewed. When I met Herbert, I was only twenty-six, and he was sixty-four -- thirteen years younger than I am now, but at the time ancient-seeming to my young eyes. Watching the YouTube video, I realized how much I miss him. In the video he has his sober, German intellectual face on, but he was an ebullient, attractive man with an impish sense of humor [see my Autobiography for some stories.] How fortunate I was to have become his friend. One sees very few like him, alas. Now to the comment by Angus, who thinks my argument in the Teachers' College speech is not sound, although he seems sympathetic to its normative thrust. He is right that I made the argument too quickly and without spelling out all the linkages, but I do think they are there to be found. Let me make several responses. First of all, I am not claiming, nor need I, that every young person is capable of filling every position in society, merely that every normal, average young person is capable of filling one or another of the positions that in our society have been assigned favored compensation and perks. [Let us leave aside professional sports, which is an artificial enterprise not required for the reproduction of society. Very few of us are as tall as Yao Ming, or can leap as high as Michael Jordan, but all average, normal people can engage with pleasure in competitive sports, if they so desire.] The key to my argument is the fact of the sharply unequal income pyramid along which all of society's jobs are arranged. It is the scarcity of the high-wage jobs that creates the fierce competition for those favored slots, and with it the entire mythology of scarce talents, selective examination, and all the rest. Just about anybody can learn to be a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, or [especially] a corporate manager. There are still differences in temperaments and natural talents, to be sure. [My sister is a brilliant woman who, after earning a Harvard doctorate in biology, went on to a distinguished career that ended with a stint as the Ombud of the World Bank. But when she took a skills aptitude test as a young girl, the psychologist who examined her told her, "Whatever you do, do not ever become a secretary! You would be terrible at it."] My army example is apposite here. Some recruits turn out to have a talent for marksmanship, others for bomb defusing, still others for communications -- which in my time in the army meant learning how to walk up poles with a linesman's gaffs on one's ankles. But virtually all of us were capable of becoming adequately trained soldiers, who could carry out the mission of the unit. Wall Street law firms are not filled with legal geniuses, nor are hospitals staffed by brilliant diagnosticians. On average, it is adequate lawyers who defend clients and adequate doctors who care for patients. In any case, I am dead sure that the ferocious competition for scarce jobs and the virtual eroticization of test scores has nothing at all to do with supplying society with people capable of carrying its affairs forward for another generation. There is, however, one important exception to these strong assertions. When it comes to figuring out how modern technology works, you really do need a twelve year old to explain things.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Last Fall, I gave this speech at Teacher's College at Columbia University in New York City. I think it nicely complements what I have been saying about higher education.

A society is an articulated structure of roles occupied by, and functions performed by, adult men and women. Every society, in order to continue in existence, must endlessly reproduce itself by preparing the young to occupy or perform those economic, governmental, religious, medical, legal, military roles and functions, so that in time they can take the place of persons in their parents’ generation. Some of this work of social reproduction takes place in the family, some of it takes place in the workplace, some of it is carried on by formal and informal social groupings and organizations, and, especially in societies like ours, much of the work of social reproduction is assigned to the schools.

In an agricultural economy, young boys and girls learn to grow crops and tend flocks. In a hunter/gatherer economy, the young are taken along on foraging and hunting expeditions so that they can acquire the skills necessary to obtain food. In some societies, the young apprentice to carpenters, masons, wheelwrights, or silversmiths. They serve as pages to knights while they master the sword and mace. As acolytes, they learn the religious mysteries of the temple. They are articled to barristers so that they may be initiated into the arcana of the law.

Now it happens, from time to time, that a young man or woman comes along who has a special gift for one or another of the adult social roles in his or her society. Some young women take naturally to the sword; some young men have a special gift for tending to the sick. Some people have green thumbs. Others are able to craft beautiful furniture with a chisel and saw. But no society can survive if it depends on a regular supply of outstandingly talented young people. A little reflection will make it clear that every society must define its adult social and economic roles so that averagely gifted young people can fill them.

How could it be otherwise? If the food supply were to depend on the talents of outstanding agronomists, the society would likely starve before those young Luther Burbanks appeared. If the governance needed for survival absolutely required the gifts of a Thomas Jefferson or an Elizabeth Tudor, then a society would be doomed, for even if such a leader were to appear, he or she would not likely be followed by another, and another, and another. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, a Millard Fillmore or George W. Bush would appear. The legal institutions of a society must be so fashioned that lawyers of average ability can manage their essential functions. The society will of course celebrate an Oliver Wendell Holmes, should one appear, but it cannot depend on a regular supply of jurisprudential giants.

The truth of these observations is reinforced by the fact that almost every society systematically excludes large portions of its population from whole ranges of adult roles and functions. Most societies before the present day excluded women from the military, the law, medicine, government, and major portions of the economy, and some still do. Similar exclusions have regularly been imposed on groups identified by race, class, religion, or ethnicity. The effect of these exclusions is dramatically to decrease the pool from which young people will be drawn to fill adult roles, thus making it ever more unlikely that outstandingly talented boys and girls will be available. In effect, the more exclusionary a society is, the more it depends on its institutions being manageable by average talents.

In American society in recent decades, formal education has taken the place of almost every other social mechanism for preparing the young for adult life. The legal, medical, business, and military spheres have come to rely on schooling and the associated credentials and degrees to prepare young people and determine which among them shall be assigned to one or another adult role or function.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with society choosing this way of reproducing itself, although listening to lectures and taking written examinations is not always the best way to prepare for a productive role in adult society. But the process is powerfully warped and conditioned by an extraneous factor so pervasive that many of us fail even to recognize it for what it is. I refer to the steeply pyramidal structure of the rewards and privileges associated with the various roles our adult society. To state the point simply, in modern post-industrial societies, there are a relatively few really good jobs with big salaries and great benefits, and lots of mediocre jobs with small salaries and very few benefits. In a society like ours here in America, the quality of life of a young person is determined almost entirely by what sort of job he or she ends up in, and that, in turn, is very considerably determined by the quantity of education he or she obtains.

Now, the top jobs [corporate lawyer, corporate executive, doctor, engineer, etc] are scarce, and their rewards are way out of proportion to those associated with jobs lower down on the pyramid. Hence, there is a ferocious competition for the scarce slots. Since we live in a society that gives lip service to fairness, justice, and equality, those who end up in the favored positions quite naturally tell themselves – and also tell those who fail to make it – that their success is a reward for their extraordinary accomplishment. Those at the top of the pyramid, they tell themselves in self-congratulatory fashion, are the truly gifted and exquisitely trained. But as we observed above, this is cannot possibly be true. No society, not even ours, can survive if it must rely on finding an endless supply of outstanding lawyers, doctors, or CEOs to fill its top positions. The simple truth is that despite the ferocity of the competition, those in the favored roles are, by and large, only averagely competent at them . [Many years ago, a British child psychiatrist observed that nature only requires that women be “pretty good” mothers in order for their children to survive and flourish. This wise observation can be generalized to all of society’s reproductive efforts.]

Enter “metrics” – Grades, the SAT, the LSAT, the GRE, the MCAT, and all the other impressively mathematical devices for sifting and sorting young people, of allocating them to scarce positions and justifying that allocation. These measuring exercises play absolutely no role at all in preparing young people for productive adult life. Indeed, they do not even play any sort of role in preparing young people for the education that is, in turn, supposed to prepare them for productive adult life. Their sole purpose is to decide, in an ostensibly objective and neutral fashion, which small number of boys and girls will be allowed to ascend to the heights of the job pyramid.

Now, in a society that depends on sheepherding, all the young boys and girls learn to herd sheep. Some do it better than others, of course, but virtually all of them learn how to tend sheep sufficiently well to become shepherds. If someone were to propose that the boys and girls be tested every two years to determine their progress in sheepherding, he would be laughed out of the village.

But in our society, every stage from infancy to young adulthood is accompanied by batteries of “objective” [which is to say machine graded] tests, and at crucial junctures – the completion of secondary school, the transition to college, and later the transition to graduate study – success on these tests, however that is defined, is treated as an absolute precondition for advancement to the next, more exclusive, stage of education, and thus for admission to the ever more lucrative jobs.

After this system has been in place for a while, it quite naturally comes to be the case that the adults occupying the most favored social roles turn out to be the ones who performed unusually well on the various tests at each stage in their growing up. After all, since performance on the tests determines whether they are admitted to the cushy jobs, it is self-evident that those in the cushy jobs will be the ones who did well on the tests.

And now, by a flagrant bit of circular logic, society concludes that success on those tests is evidence of the outstanding ability absolutely required by the cushy jobs! This circular argument is virtually forced on us by considerations of elementary fairness. After all, if the cushy jobs do NOT require outstanding ability and accomplishment, then how can we possibly justify their cushiness and their scarcity? And if the tests do not actually identify those special few capable of performing at the heights of the economy and society, then how can we explain the fact that those at the top have all done so well on the tests?

All of this is dangerous and arrant nonsense. And it is the nonsense on which our entire educational system rests. There is very little evidence that success in pre-school, in elementary school, in high school, on SAT exams, in college, on GRE exams, and in graduate school is intimately linked with the ability actually to perform well the jobs that are won by these strings of successes. It is of course true that the senior partners of the most prestigious law firms graduated from the most prestigious law schools. How could it be otherwise? Those are the schools from which the law firm’s young associates are recruited. But has anyone ever done an objective, double-blind evaluation of the work of such lawyers and of their counterparts at less prestigious firms who graduated from less prestigious law schools? We are no better able to carry out such evaluations of the performance of lawyers, doctors, and corporate executives than we are to evaluate the performance of auto mechanics. In the end, the “evidence” of the superiority of those in the privileged positions is the fact that they accumulated all the grades, degrees, and other markers that we have chosen to use as filters in allocating scarce desirable positions to an excess of applicants.

Since all of this flies in the face of received wisdom that is as firmly entrenched in the collective mind of our society as the truth of the theory of the bodily humours once was, I want to spend a few moments elaborating on what I have just said. Suppose, to continue my example, that we wish to test the hypothesis that a high score on the LSAT, admission to one of the prestigious law schools, and academic success in one's legal education are all good predictors of one's eventual successful performance as a lawyer. How would we actually test that hypothesis?

Well, the first thing we would have to do -- this is absolutely fundamental to any scientific test -- is to define objective measures of successful legal performance that are logically independent of the LSAT scores, law school admission, and law school grades whose relationship to that success we are trying to measure. How could we do that? One thing we might do is select a group of graduates of Harvard Law School now working at prestigious New York or Washington law firms, all of whom, we may suppose, are former clerks of Federal District or Appeals Court judges or Supreme Court Justices, and count their percentage of successes in the multi-billion dollar corporate law suits they have prosecuted. Then we could collect the same figures for a comparison group of graduates of Suffolk Law School working at small low-prestige Boston law firms. If the first group has a significantly higher success rate than the second group, that might tell us something about the objective merits of the LSAT and the prestigious law schools in identifying or producing legal excellence.

There are two difficulties with assembling this body of data. The first is that on any big multi-billion dollar corporate law suit, there are hordes of lawyers on each side, so that it is really virtually impossible to identify the measurable contribution of a single lawyer. The second problem is that graduates of Suffolk Law School working at small low-prestige Boston firms don't ever get to try multi-billion dollar corporate law suits, because the corporations demand a team of lawyers from the most prestigious and expensive law firm staffed by graduates of the most prestigious law schools, all of whom, of course, have done very well indeed on the LSAT. I leave it to you to work out on your own the comparable tests that would be required to measure the relevance of SATs, GREs, MCATs, Ivy League degrees, and all the other markers by which we select young men and women for the best paying jobs.

To be sure, there are times when the pressure of circumstances impels us to look past the stigmata of educational success and reach for some reliable measure of actual competence. One story may perhaps serve to point the moral. Some years ago, the then Dean of Yale Law School, a very bright, charming man named Tony Kronman, became engaged to be married, and on the wedding day, his wife to be went to have her hair done at a local salon. There was some problem with the procedure [the story as it has come to me does not include this detail], and the bride collapsed in tears. When she called her fiancé, he came steaming into the salon and proceeded to make a considerable scene. The upshot was that the New Haven police were called and the Dean of Yale Law School was hauled off to the police station. [One can only imagine the malicious pleasure the police took in this. Had they been the recipients of a Yale education, they might even have called it schadenfreude.] When Dean Kronman was allowed his one phone call, he chose to call his colleague Owen Fiss, one of the most brilliant and respected Constitutional Law scholars in America. Kronman told Fiss where he was, and begged Fiss to get him out in time for the wedding. Fiss is reported to have replied, "Tony, I don't know what to do. Call a lawyer." There are after all some objective measures of professional competence.

Let me repeat what I have been asserting: Virtually all of the boys and girls in our society are capable of learning how to perform well-compensated jobs in a perfectly adequate fashion, and most of them could perform creditably in even the most demanding jobs, if given half a chance and the proper preparation.

I know that this is educational heresy in modern America, so let me pull together the strands of my argument with two stories from my own life. The first is an experience I had not in education, where I have spent my entire life, but on active duty in the Army, where I spent six months, more than fifty years ago. I am of the generation that faced a military draft, and I chose to satisfy my obligation by six years in the Army National Guard. The first six months of those years were spent on active duty, and the first eight weeks of that were devoted to what the Army calls Basic Training. As the name implies, this is the time during which the Army teaches young men [and now young women] to march, salute, polish their boots and make their beds, disassemble and assemble a rifle, even to shoot it a bit at targets, and generally to become soldiers. I did my Basic Training at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

On the first day of Basic, an angry, mean-looking sergeant started to yell at me and he pretty much kept on yelling for the entire eight weeks. Everything I did was wrong. I marched out of step, my salute was feeble, my fatigues were messy, my shoes were not properly shined, my bed was not made tight enough to bounce a quarter, and I did not stand up straight. He threatened to make me get up at three a.m. to GI the barracks if things were out of place, to clean the latrines with a toothbrush, and to march me until I dropped. He was not yelling only at me, of course. He said he had never seen a sorrier collection of recruits, and he doubted that any of us would make it to the end of the eight weeks.

Somehow, miraculously, and to my great relief, I made it through Basic, and so did every single one of the men in my company! What is more, virtually every man and woman in every eight week cycle in every year of the modern Army’s existence makes it through Basic. You can count on the fingers of one hand the recruits in any cycle who actually are drummed out of the Army for failing to meet its strenuous, rigorous standards.

The explanation of this astonishing record of success, so dramatically in contrast to the rather poor record of our country’s educational institutions, is two-fold. First of all, the Army, in its great wisdom, demands of its recruits only what long experience has shown they are capable of. Despite all my sergeant’s threats and harangues, all of his brow-beating and chest-thumping, the tasks in Basic are aimed roughly at the lower end of what is average for the recruits. The Army’s task is to motivate us to do what it already knows we are capable of doing, and to make us feel good about achieving what is, after all, an average performance.

The second reason for an almost perfect rate of success is that the Army holds those in charge responsible for the successful performance of the men they command. If recruits start dropping out of a Basic Training company, the Company commander will get a black mark on his record that will effectively ruin his career. That angry sergeant yelling at me will be raked over the coals by his commanding officer if I fail to do the requisite number of push-ups. The result, of course, is that those in charge do everything in their power to ensure the adequate performance of those whom they command.

My second experience, which stands in complete contrast to the first, occurred twenty years ago in South Africa, at the University of Durban-Westville, an historically Black university which I visited regularly in conjunction with a scholarship organization that I started called University Scholarships for South African Students. I was meeting with a self-assured, rather smug young White man who chaired the university’s Economics Department and taught their big first year introductory course. Data I had obtained from the Registrar showed that in the previous year, only eleven percent of the students taking the course had passed. I expressed dismay at this appalling performance, and he agreed sadly, saying that the Black students were very poorly prepared. I asked him what made him think he was a teacher, if only one in ten of his students could pass his course. He was genuinely astonished at the suggestion that he had any responsibility to help his students master the material. I suggested that if he were the head of a hospital in which ninety percent of the patients died, he would be brought up on charges as a quack, but he remained thoroughly unrepentant.

The lesson I glean from these two stories, and from a lifetime in the Academy, is very simply this: Any group of averagely intelligent young boys and girls, given the proper support, socialization, assistance, and opportunity, can prepare themselves to fill successfully one of the good jobs in American society. If a large proportion of the young people of some racial, ethnic, religious, or gendered group are failing to do this, the fault lies with the society, not with the boys and girls. Performance on so-called objective tests is neither evidence of, nor a prerequisite for, the ability to succeed in contemporary society. The boys and girls of every city, town, or village in every society in the world are capable of becoming averagely competent and productive members of their adult world. If they are failing to do so, it is the fault of the adults in the society. With attention, guidance, and with the unshakable conviction on our part that they are going to succeed, they in fact will succeed in becoming averagely successful.

Our job as educators is to prepare young people to take their place in the adult world -- all young people, not merely those who score well on SATs or get high grades or attend prestigious and expensive schools. It is not our job to weed out the unfit, nor is it our job to raise the national scores on tests designed to satisfy the ignorant prejudices of reactionary politicians. If our students fail, it is our fault, and our responsibility. In our professional lives as educators, we must act like Basic Training sergeants [without the yelling], not like the Chair of the Durban-Westville Economics Department.

What does this mean, concretely? Since, as you will have gathered by now, I am an inveterate story teller, I will end these remarks with two more stories that suggest, anecdotally, how we ought to act toward our students. The first concerns a very promising young man in the University of Massachusetts Afro-American Studies doctoral program that I ran for its first dozen years. This young man had done some extensive,, solid archival research, but was simply unable to turn it into a dissertation. I called him into my office, after several unproductive years had gone by, and told him to bring me everything he had written. He produced a hundred pages or so of alternative drafts of bits and snatches of this and that chapter. I sat him down and spent an hour or so sorting out the narrative structure of the project, dividing it into chapters and cutting it off at about the halfway mark, since what he had originally imagined was a long book, not a doctoral dissertation. When all of this was clear, I said to him: "I want you to go home right now and write page one of chapter one. When you are done, send it to me as an email attachment. I will read it and send back any comments or corrections. Tomorrow, you will send me page two, and I will respond in the same way. You will send me one page a day, every day of the week, from now until you have a complete dissertation. If you start wandering off course, I will alert you to that fact. If you are getting ahead of your story, I will slow you down. One page a day is 30 pages a month. In eight months, you will be done." And so he was. He now holds a tenure track teaching job, and is enlarging and revising his dissertation for publication as a book. That is the sort of commitment to our students that I have in mind.

The second story, with which I will end, is about one of my very favorite people, Esther Terry. When these events occurred, Esther was the Chair of the Afro-American Studies Department in which I was the Graduate Program Director. It was she who invited me to join the department in 1990. Esther was a student at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina when she and other students from Bennett and NC A & T carried out the famous Woolworth's Lunch Counter sit-in that started the modern Civil Rights Movement. She retired from UMass last year and is now Provost of Bennett.

One semester, Esther and our colleague Steve Tracy co-taught an undergraduate course on Southern Literature. I happened to wander into Esther's office just after the first class in the course had ended. While we were chatting, a young Black man knocked on the open door. "Dr. Terry," he said, "I was just in your class." "Yes," Esther said, "I know." "I am afraid I am not going to be able to take the course," he went on. "Why not?" Esther asked. "Because you have assigned a lot of books and I just don't have the money to buy them." Without missing a beat, Esther said, "Now look, young man, I want you to stay in the course. I have just had a fence put up around my house. I want you to show up this afternoon and start painting it. I will pay you, and then you will be able to buy the books." With that, she took out some money as an advance on his wages, and sent him off to by the first book they were to read in the course.

Esther is a very shy woman, and does not like me to tell that story. Indeed, if I had not been there when it happened, I would never have known about it. But she has been doing things like that for forty years, unbidden, without expecting or seeking recognition. She simply views it as a normal part of her role as teacher. She is my model for what a university professor should be, and it would make me very happy if she were to become yours as well.