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Tuesday, May 8, 2012


I offer the following ruminations for consideration and comment.

Some of you may be familiar with my essay entitled "The Future of Socialism," which I have posted on  I had intended to deliver it at a conference in Seattle in January, hosted by the A. A. Berle Center at the Seattle University Law School, and indeed I submitted the paper with some additional concluding remarks, but I fell ill and was unable to attend.  The law school's journal is now preparing a special issue of the papers from the conference, and one of the editors of the journal, who is, of course, a law student, has sent me a long series of requests, very deferentially phrased, for footnote references to various things I say in the essay.  This has created once again for me a problem with which I have struggled throughout my career.  To put it as simply as I can, I do not like footnotes, I do not write footnotes, and I resist to the death efforts to get me to supply footnotes for what I have written.  My old friend and colleague Bob Ackermann, now sadly departed, used to complain bitterly of this peculiar quirk of mine.  He and I did most of the book publishing in the UMass Philosophy Department over many years, and each time he published a book, he would moan and groan about the time-consuming business of searching among his papers and notes for the references he needed to complete the footnotes to what he had written.  Meanwhile, I would publish entire books almost completely devoid of footnotes.  I would say blithely that I did not know how to use the footnote facility in my word processing program and so had decided to do without them.  The truth is that I am, as I have so often said, not really a scholar.  I think of myself as a philosopher and in some sense as an artist.  When I have succeeded in expressing the idea in my mind as clearly and simply as I can, I consider my work done.  Nothing is gained by loading up the bottom of the page with footnotes.

Now, as some of you may be aware, law journals view footnotes in the way that devout Protestants view good works -- as evidences of election.  A typical law journal article will have hundreds of footnotes, strewn across the bottom of the page like inkblots.  Everything is footnoted.  If an author mentions that Barack Obama is the President of the United States, the journal will demand a footnote to that claim, as though it were a potential source of controversy that needed buttressing by reliable authority.  At one point in my essay, I allude to the fact that the great Russian-American economist Wassily Leontief won the Nobel Prize in Economics.  The editors requested a footnote reference. 

The truth is, of course, that if required to produce footnoted authoritative confirmation for all the statements I make in my essay, I might well die of old age before managing to comply [not entirely a hyperbolic statement, at my age.] 

The editors are being excessively polite and accommodating about all of this, and I feel terribly guilty for making their lives difficult, but I just cannot do it.  I would rather not publish than have to go through what I consider to be an exhausting and entirely unnecessary exercise.  I don't actually know the history of footnoting.  Something analogous to it has existed at least since the Middle Ages, when the Scholastics made elaborate citations of the works of Aristotle and their other predecessors in the course of their writings.  But there was so little to refer to in those days that this practice was hardly a burden.  My natural tendency is to blame this, like so much else, on the Germans.  Perhaps somone reading this rant actually knows how the modern practice of scholarly footnoting got its start, and will tell the rest of us.


fgs said...

A colleague suggests _The Footnote: A Curious History_ , by Anthony Grafton.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Marvelous. I shall check it out.

Angus said...

The best footnote I ever read[1] in a law review is footnote 11 in an article, written on the twentieth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision Celotext Copr. v. Catrett, called The Irrepressible Myth of Celotex. Footnote 11 is to the sentence "Anniversaries are times for reflection." It reads: "Cf. David J. Garrow, “Happy” Birthday, Brown v. Board of Education?: Brown's Fiftieth Anniversary and the New Critics of Supreme Court Muscularity, 90 VA. L. REV. 693, 693 (2004) (reviewing MICHAEL KLARMAN, FROM JIM CROW TO CIVIL RIGHTS: THE SUPREME COURT AND THE STRUGGLE FOR RACIAL EQUALITY (2004)); Patricia M. Wald, Summary Judgment at Sixty, 76 TEX. L. REV. 1897, 1914-17 (1998) (discussing increased use of summary judgment sixty years after the adoption of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure); Jack B. Weinstein, After Fifty Years of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure: Are The Barriers to Justice Being Raised?, 137 U. PA. L. REV. 1901, 1901 (1989) (discussing the influence of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, their current role, and proposed “reforms” for the Rules fifty years after their adoption)."

I would give you the full citation to this passage as per The Bluebook (a 3-400 page citation manual for lawyers that includes, among other nuances, different sections on the use of roman numerals when referring to British monarchs and when referring to the rest of the world's royalty), but I've forgotten the tittle and/or jot that you have to deploy when quoting a footnote, so I'd only lead you astray.

[1] The best stories always start this way.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You need a footnote to your footnote, citing authority for that claim. :) Pretty clearly, I have struck a nerve.

Bjorn said...

This reminded me of the old classic:

Anon: The Myth Behind The Legend

David Palmeter said...

When Abner Mikva was a Federal appellate court judge, he said to an audience of lawyers, "If God had meant for us to read footnotes, he would have put our eyes in our heads vertically rather than horizontally."

No, I don't have a citation.

Superfluous Man said...

Marginalia perhaps?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

David Palmeter, thanks for the comment. Unless my memory is totally misleading me, way back when Abner Mikva was an Illinois State Rep and I was teaching at the University of Chicago, I was asked to write several briefing papers for him on a variety of foreign policy and nuclear weapons issues, which I did, but unfortunatly I have never actually met him.

J.Vlasits said...

I believe that the modern academic footnote is thought to have begun with Gibbon's history, although marginalia and interlinear glosses are much older and can be found in manuscripts and most of the early printed editions. The difference, I think, is a change from *paraphrase* to citation.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Fascinating. There are things that look sort of like footnotes in Hume's TREATISE, etc., but nothing like the modern footnote. I guess footnotes presuppose the existence of libraries. Harry Wolfson, in his Spinoza course, used to talk about the differences among long, medium, and short commentary. The long commentaries were bits of text on a page surrounded by extensive quotations from previous works that bore on the topic.