My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

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

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Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Daniel Laurison, a Berkeley Sociology doctoral student doing a very interesting doctoral dissertation [judging from the write up on his department page]  calls on me to urge people to volunteer in these last few days, helping to get out the vote for the Democrats.  I could not agree more!  I have written on these pages about the fact that I would rather raise money and do other behind the scenes things than go door to door or call people cold on the phone, but in these last five days, actually persuading some people to pick themselves up and vote is the most useful thing any of us can do.  Obviously the need is greater in some states than others, but right now, the whole East Coast from Virginia north is struggling with the aftermath of the storm, and there will be literally millions of people with very good reasons not to bother to vote.  Anything any of us can do to encourage them to make the effort will pay off tenfold [leaving to one side the reward in heaven, which as an atheist I am barred from mentioning.]

We have Romney on the run.  Let's send him back to his car elevator.


Johnathan suggested I check out, which I did, discovering that this technically sophisticated blogsite, run by a Princeton Biophysicist, Sam Wang, has even rosier projections for Obama than Nate Silver or Votamatic.  Now, I have already had my say about my shameless searching out of experts who confidently predict that what I want to happen will happen [which, as I pointed out, is almost the functional definition of a religion.]  But I took a few moments to read some of the scores of comments and comments on comments that had been posted on Sam Wang's site, and once again I was powerfully struck by the wealth of intelligent, knowledgeable people out there capable of speaking more thoughtfully, with more detail, and in a more balanced and reflective manner than any of the well-known paid opinion-mongers who clog the airwaves and the Op Ed pages of the major newspapers.  This seems to be true no matter what subject you choose to Google, regardless of whether it is an arcane specialty or a matter of common interest. 

When I was young, there were three networks:  NBC, CBS, ABC, and three evening news anchors who were, so far as anyone could tell, the only three knowledgeable, reliable, non-partisan wise men in the universe [there were, needless to say, no wise, knowledgeable, reliable, non-partisan women.]   What Walter Cronkhite said was as close as a Godless nation ever got to the Word of God.

With the advent of Cable, bloviators metastasized, rather like Tribbles, especially with the suspension of the requirements that Talking Heads be either wise or non-partisan.  At the same time, the national community fractured into echo chambers, with each of us [myself included, of course] seeking out the "TV personalities" whose views most narrowly matched our own.  So we have a public world populated by Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Al Sharpton, Ed Schultz, Sean Hannity, Bill Reilly, Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks, Gail Collins, and the ever egregious Tom Friedman.

But America is better than that, if I may allow myself a patriotic moment.  On the evidence of the blogosphere, this country glories in hundreds, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of private citizens whose knowledge, wisdom, insight, and even literary style put to shame those who make their living by having opinions.

As young people like to say these days, who knew?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


As faithful readers of this blog are aware, Susie and I own a tiny ground floor studio apartment in the heart of old Paris, on rue Maitre Albert, half a block from the Seine, catty-corner from Notre Dame.  We stay there when we can, and rent it out when we are not there.  Our apartment opens onto an interior courtyard, and according to the rules of the coop [reglements du copropriete] of which our apartment is 2.7%, we have exclusive usage of one half of the interior courtyard.  The entire copropriete consists of three buildings, two of which [including ours] date back to the 17th century.

Recently, the company that manages the property [the "syndic"] has been doing some extensive work to shore up our building's foundations [cracks had started to appear not only in the interior wall of the courtyard but also in our apartment -- very alarming.]  The work began without my being aware of it, and I have returned the rent of two couples who have stayed in the apartment because of the inconvenience of having a ten foot deep hole ["three meters," my neighbor tells me] in the courtyard around which they had to tiptoe and climb.

Today, a letter arrived from the syndic informing me [if my inadequate French has deciphered it correctly] that an underground vaulted chamber [une cave voutee] has been discovered in the course of the work, necessitating a reconsideration of the project [this, after I had already paid almost a thousand Euros as my share of the costs.]  It seems that no one had the slightest idea that this chamber was down there.  Presumably, it dates back four or five hundred years!

If there is any treasure buried in it, I think my rights to the courtyard under which it sits gives me dibs on it.  On the other hand, if, as the rather unimaginative construction engineer supposes, it is an old septic tank, then I know nothing about it!

Monday, October 29, 2012


Dr. J. P. Smit, a South African philosopher with whom I have had some correspondence, has very kindly sent me a fascinating book about the negotiations leading up the release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC:  ENDGAME - Secret Talks and the End of Apartheid, by Willie Esterhuyse.  I will report on it when I have finished it.


I have always had a genial contempt for those who shop for their religion, comparing costs and benefits and opting for a faith that promises bliss without stress.  As an atheist, I take the stern view that one ought to cleave to one's ancestral faith even if it offers nothing more than predestination and eternal damnation.  But as this interminable election winds down toward its conclusion, now only a week away, I am embarrassed to find myself exhibiting a secular version of the behavior I have so long contemned.  A word of explanation. 

Some long while ago, I stumbled on Nate Silver's blog,, which had an extraordinary record of success in predicting the 2008 election, right down to the state level.  In that cycle, his only miss in fifty state predictions was Indiana, which he calculated would go for McCain but in fact was won by Obama by one percent.  Silver got his start as a sabermetrician [which is to say, someone who analyses baseball using objective data and statistics], and that quite naturally biases me in his favor.  It reveals a seriousness of purpose and a strength of character that most political commentators lack.

Silver has been predicting Obama's victory for quite some time now, with a percentage of confidence that swelled from the low sixties to the high eighties during the long Summer and early Fall of Romney's stumbling performance.  But after the disastrous first debate, the Obama line in his graph plummeted and the Romney line soared, striking into my heart and that of many others a terror that in prior ages was reserved for intimations of hellfire.

Just three days ago, I stumbled on a new guru -- Drew Linzer, an Assistant Professor at Emory University.  Linzer runs a blog called Votamatic, and his predictions for Obama are much rosier than Silver's [even though Silver's Obama line has now clawed its way back to roughly 75%.]  If Linzer is to be believed, Obama's chances are in the 90's, and his probable electoral vote count is north of 330.  Linzer is a quite respectable academic, for all his youth [he earned his doctorate only four years ago], with a fine list of publications on his cv. 

Now, I am a serious person.  I would not forsake the Baptist persuasion for Baha'i or Scientology.  But despite the minatory warnings of an ever-vigilant conscience, I find myself slipping away from Silver and migrating to Linzer.  I hope the election comes before I have consigned myself to what passes for Hell in rational atheist circles.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


An old and familiar conundrum to impress the uninitiate at parties is to ask, "In a room with twenty-three people in it, what are the odds that two of them have the same birthday?"  Everyone is always surprised that the answer is "better than fifty-fifty."   In a country of three hundred million people, what are the odds that someone has your name? The answer is obviously pretty near 100%.  My younger son, whose full name is Tobias Barrington Wolff [Barrington Moore, Jr. was his godfather], has an extremely uncommon name.  Unfortunately for him, the only other person in American, so far as we can tell, whose name is Tobias Wolff is of course a famous writer, which produced some contretemps until my Tobias became rather famous as well, although in a different line of work.  Tobias, who is a law professor, visited at Stanford Law School a while back, and who was running the Writing Program there?  Yup.  The other Tobias Wolff.  I mean, what are the odds?

I used to think that my full name, "Robert Paul Wolff," was unique in America until idly Googling myself one day [yes, I do Google myself -- make of it what you will], I came upon this entry:

"Robert Paul Wolff, of the 23000 block of Walton Avenue, Port Charlotte, was charged Wednesday with resisting an officer and driving with a suspended license."

I guess I had better steer clear of Port Charlotte.  [For those of you who, like me, have never heard of Port Charlotte, it is on the western side of lower Florida about twenty-five miles north of Fort Myers.]

Anyone doing a fullscale search of criminal records for the name "Robert Paul Wolff" would come up with an arrest for disorderly conduct in 1986 [anti-apartheid protest at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum] and "resisting an officer and driving with a suspended license" a quarter century later.  One could fabricate an interesting story from these data points about an aging leftie reduced in his golden years to petty crimes.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


One last comment on the forthcoming election.   Lord, I will be happy when this is behind us.  Unless Obama loses, in which case I must decide whether to kill myself or buy a one way ticket to Paris.

The entire campaign has been really bizarre, and I have been trying very hard to make sense of it.  I have come up with an explanation, which may have some truth in it.  I offer it simply as a sop to those of you who, like me, are way beyond obsession and into hysteria, and hence need something to calm us down.

The focus of my puzzlement has been the sudden dramatic collapse of Obama's very large lead on the occasion of the first debate.  Since all the polling suggested that the country was dramatically polarized, with an unusually small number of respondents to the polls identifying themselves as "undecided," I simply could not make sense of the dramatic reversal of fortunes as a consequence of one listless debate performance.  Had there been a large number of undecided voters, the reversals might have been comprehensible, but how could Obama virtually overnight go, in Nate Silver's excellent statistical analysis, from an 87.1% chance of victory to a 61.1% chance?  [He is back up to a 74.4% chance, thank the Lord.]

There are, it seems to me, only two possible explanations.  The first, which I do not believe at all, is that the polls either before or after the debate were cooked or incompetently conducted.  That way lies paranoia and madness.  The second, which I have decided is the only explanation that makes sense, is this:  From the beginning, the race was going to be very close.  A bad Republican primary season and some unforced Romney errors influenced inattentive voters unduly before the post-Labor Day period, yielding unrealistic poll numbers that made it look as though Obama was going to run away with the election.  The arrival of the real election season coincided with Obama's poor showing in the first debate to jolt natural Romney supporters back to the position they were destined to occupy anyway.  They were never really persuadable by the Democrats.  So, after the second and third debates more or less equalized the situation, the polls began to show pretty much the sort of tight race that it was always going to be, with Obama in a small but solid lead.

This explanation has the great advantage, I think, of comporting with the expectations of the Obama campaign team, who are, in my experience, the smartest bunch of pros modern American politics has ever seen.  From the outset, they were sure they would be facing Romney, they were convinced that he was the strongest candidate the Republicans could put forward, and they thought they would have a turnout election in which their best chance of success was a superb ground game.

There are now no more turning points, no more startling revelations, just a grinding effort to get out the vote, early if possible but otherwise on election day.  My sunny optimism, which reached its peak in my happy blog post that Obama would win and Romney would lose, has given way to a sullen, determined, gut-wrenching slog from news cycle to news cycle as I await Election Day.  My pricey bottle of Chateau neuf du Pape will remain unopened until Obama takes Ohio, or at least New Hampshire. 

In the next ten days, I will strive to find something else to blog about.


 Oh dear, I am very, very sorry for having failed to offer a thoughtful or useful response to your comments.  I apologize.  In the nature of things, that is [polluted] water under the bridge, but I pledge to do a better job should you offer a comment in the future.  As for dismissing you as a failed academic, I hope I have made it clear in my occasional blog posts that I am quite aware of how much luck there was in my happy and successful career.  I just stumbled onto the academic scene at a time when there were plenty of jobs and plenty of publishing opportunities.  I anguish for those of my students who cannot launch successful careers, despite doing fine work and deserving so much more.

Well, I bellyached, and I got my comeuppance.  My apologies.

Friday, October 26, 2012


By and large, I try to project a cheerful upbeat persona.  Nobody likes a complainer.  But every so often, my inner Eeyore wells up inside me and seeks expression.  Today is one of those days.  My mild dyspepsia has been triggered by the experience of traveling on USAirways, which is, I do believe, the worst airline in America.  I shan't bore you with the details, save to say that I made it home from Williams College a day later than planned, and then was able to complete my little trip only by running through the Philadelphia airport to make a connection for which the airline had left way too little time.

The visit to Williams went just fine.  I gave a talk to thirty or so students and faculty Tuesday evening and led a three hour seminar with twenty Philosophy seniors the next afternoon.  The students had been told to read a chapter of Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia, as well as my "bourse" on Ideological Critique and my essay "Narrative Time," both of which are posted on and  are accessible through this blog, and then to come to the seminar with questions prepared for me based on the reading.

The students are wonderful -- bright, lively, serious, engaged -- and I think they liked me [if I may echo Sally Field].  But they did not ask a single question based on what they were supposed to have read.  Instead, they all seemed troubled by my statement in my Tuesday evening talk that you must choose "which side you are on"  in politics and life, who your comrades are and who your enemies.  They clearly wanted everything to be "nice," with sensible discussion rather than bitter disagreement.  I suggested that that attitude was an expression of the comfort and security of their protected upper-middle class life.

But that is not what bugged me,  Rather it was something quite different, something that troubles me as well about the responses to this blog.  In the materials they were asked to read, both those by me and the chapter by Mannheim, there are some subtle, original, difficult ideas.  They seemed not to have even noticed those ideas, and they certainly were not sufficiently engaged with them to want to discuss them.

Now, over the years, I have written and posted here an enormous amount of conceptually complex material, much of it in one way or another original.  The simple truth is that the ideas in that material mean more to me than the political opinions I express from time to time.  Indeed, they are, I believe, my raison d'etre.  But although there have been almost 5000 comments posted here, including my own [an astonishing number -- which Google faithfully keeps track of], scarcely any of them have referenced the ideas I have articulated.  There are a good many seriously interested readers, as evidenced by their steady return to this site and by their comments, but almost no one has actually engaged with my ideas -- not with my opinions.  That is something quite different.

Returning to Williams, one of the more subtle ideas in "Narrative Time" is that the social world is inherently and uneliminably perspectival in its structure, mimicking in that characteristic the Judeo-Christian conception of the natural world.  No one mentioned that idea.  One of the central ideas of the Mannheim chapter is his claim that ideological disputes are at bottom a form of all-out war in which the aim is not merely to refute one's opponent but to humiliate and destroy him or her.  In light of the manifest eagerness of these students that everyone be "nice," one might have thought they would seize on that idea and quiz me about it, connecting it with what I had said about the necessity for choosing sides.  Not a peep.

It makes me very sad.  I could understand it if the readers of this blog [or of my written work] simply did not find anything there worth discussing.  But I am smart enough, self-confident enough, indeed arrogant enough, to be certain that that is not the case.

Meanwhile, in the presidential race ...

Sunday, October 21, 2012


On Tuesday, I will fly north to make an appearance at Williams College, which for those of you who do not know is in the very northwest most corner of Massachusetts.  I have been invited to appear as a "Public Intellectual," which I guess I am now that I have a blog.  I shall give a talk Tuesday evening and appear at a class on Wednesday.  The title of my talk is "How to continue to be political when you are as old as I am."  I figure the one thing I really know about that the Williams students do not know about is being old.

I am beyond terminally anxious about the election, so even a two day distraction is welcome.  By the time I return to Chapel Hill, the election will be less than two weeks away.  I can stand anything for two weeks, right? 

Saturday, October 20, 2012


My son, Tobias, alerted me to this interesting article about the life of Romney's oldest son, Taggert:,0
There are a good many things to be said about it [including a bit of snarking at the creepy image of Mitt and Ann as they went up to bed each evening], but what is important in it is the account of the perpetuation by the Romney clan of the myth of the self-made man -- be it father George, or son Mitt, or grandson Tagg. 

It cannot be repeated too often that no one, absolutely no one, is self-made in any plausible sense of that expression.  For the past million years or more, pre-hominids, hominids, and humans have been coming into a world they did not make and relying for life itself on the accumulated knowledge and material culture produced by their predecessors.  No one, not a cobbler, not a farmer, not a hunter-gatherer, and certainly not a business tycoon, makes himself or herself [although this does seem to be a peculiarly male fantasy.]

As the article wisely and astutely concludes by observing, the self-indulgent myth of self-creation is transmuted in the political realm into the brutal stripping away of all the collective social protections that generations of struggle have put in place to help those who need the assistance of their fellow citizens.

The thirty-five year project to destroy those protections is well under way, and should Romney be elected, they will be further destroyed.   The benighted and bigoted working class and middle class voters who cast their votes for Romney will suffer from this destruction, and they are simply too stupid to realize that simple fact.  I realize that sophisticated social theorists like myself are supposed to offer profound and subtle explanations for systematic acts of self-destruction, but sometimes, when I grow weary of the game, I cannot resists calling it stupidity when I see it.

Sixteen days.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Yesterday evening [well, actually, late yesterday afternoon] Susie and I went to the movies to see Ben Affleck's new film, Argo, also featuring John Goodman and Alan Arkin in marvelous lesser roles.  I have liked Affleck ever since he and Matt Damon made their breakout film, Good Will Hunting. I can watch forever the delicious scene in which Damon, while mopping the floor in an MIT hall, stops long enough to solve a math problem that none of the MIT undergraduates or graduate students can crack.  That scene captures the essential difference between MIT and Harvard, which is that at MIT, all that matters is sheer brains.  Affleck has not had as successful a career as his buddy, Damon, but he has done some fine work, including a lovely minor role in Shakespeare in Love.

Argo tells the apparently true story of the "exfilation" from Teheran of six Americans from the embassy who hide out in the Canadian embassy after the Iranian revolution in 1979.  Never mind the plot.  For purposes of this blog post, what matters is the brief prelude to the narration of the story in which the shameful history is recounted of the coup by MI6 and the CIA deposing Mossadegh in 1953 and the subsequent installation of Pahlavi as Shah.  I almost wept, once again, as a sepulchral voice told the bare bones of the affair over news clips of Mossadegh and Pahlavi.  Had the United States embraced Mossadegh's secular democratic regime instead of overthrowing it because it was "socialist," Iran could have been, these past thirty-odd years, an ally and friend rather than a member of the Axis of Evil.  In just the same way, Cuba could have been the Socialist paradise Castro wanted to make it had the United States poured aid into the new democratic regime instead of sending that hapless collection of exiles into the Bay of Pigs on their doomed mission.  So too could America have stepped into the void left by France's departure from Southeast Asia to help create a flourishing Viet Nam, instead of nearly destroying that country and a generation of American men in the appalling carnage of the Viet Nam War.

There is nothing secret about these events.  All of us in my generation have lived through them and their inevitable consequences.  And yet, as things stand in this country today, it would be simply impossible to introduce what I have said about them into a serious discussion of American international affairs.  The "progressive" position among "serious" people is that Viet Nam was an unfortunate but unavoidable war, that it is time to attempt a tentative opening to Cuba now that Castro has aged sufficiently to step down, and that we ought to impose crippling sanctions on Iran rather than go to war with that country.

Affleck directed Argo, and it was his choice to open the film with that recitation of what is now ancient history.  I honor him for that.  It was a courageous and honorable choice.,

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Magpie [these webnames!] offered the following comment to my brief post about hitting the 500,000 mark in visits to this blog:

"To give you something exciting to read:

BBC's Paul Mason on Prof. Manuel Castells From networked protest to 'non-capitalism' "

I followed the link and found a conversation about groups of people around the world who are not waiting for "the Revolution" but instead are opting out of capitalism, working in cooperatives, offering one another interest free loans, and so forth.  I always have mixed feelings about stories like this.  On the one hand, I am cheered by the evidence that sensible progressive people are taking matters into their own hands and are trying to build communities that are guided by something other than the dictates of The Market.  On the other hand, I know that such experiments, some of them quite elaborate, have been a constant accompaniment of the implacable advance of capitalism, in the nineteenth as well as the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and have not measurably softened the blows of capitalism nor altered its direction of evolution.  Marx spoke contemptuously of the theorists of such experiments as "Utopian Socialists," to which he contrasted his own "scientific socialism."  If I may invoke a botanical image, these small communities are like exotic flowers growing in the shade and underbrush of forests dominated by huge trees.  They are pleasant to look at, and do indeed sustain little communities of butterflies, but they are virtually invisible from the sky and make very little impact on the forests.  [This is just a feeble attempt at a metaphor -- don't go all E. O. Wilson on me and tell me about the central important of ants to the ecology of the forest!]

There have been two effective counterweapons to the depredations of capitalism in America -- labor unions and Federal legislation to enforce progressive tax rates, regulatory controls, and the like -- and not surprisingly, they have been the prime targets of right-wing reactionaries.  Neither union organizing nor legislation has stopped the evolution of international capitalism, nor can they, I believe, but both have made life for those living in capitalist America better, more humane, more adequately protected.  I have tried to write about this systematically in my essay, "The Future of Socialism," and as readers of that essay will testify, I am not optimistic.

Monday, October 15, 2012


The counter at the top of this blog tells me that people have come to this site a total of something over half a million times.  This is, of course, nothing at all for any of the popular blogs and websites, but it is one hundred times as many students as passed through my classes in half a century.  I am delighted that so many folks around the world have stopped by, and I hope they will continue to do so.  My work at Bennett College has forced me to post less often, and also to put up shorter posts -- that and the fact that I may be running out of things to say!

We are now three weeks from the election.  I am in a state of perpetual anxiety, I must confess, which will either be eased or turned into deep gloom by the outcome.  I have been trained, as a philosopher, to view things sub specie aeternitatis, but the flesh is weak.

At all events, thank you for visiting, and do come back.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Yesterday, after a ten day catastrophic collapse, Nate Silver's chart took a tiny, almost imperceptible, tick up.  Like a drowning sailor clutching at driftwood, I seize upon it and allow myself, if not hope, at least sleep.  As my son says, "I would still rather be us rather than them."  Thank the Lord for Joe Biden.  The demographics being what they are, and the craziness of the Republicans apparently incurable, I continue to believe that if we can squeak past November 6th, we may yet see a rebirth of progressive politics in America of a sort that has not been evident since the glory days of Roosevelt.  There are many Elizabeth Warrens out there, and some of them, she included, could well be elected in this cycle.

Meanwhile, I struggle with the endless challenges of Bennett College, where I can almost see my efforts having some discernible effect.

On a much, much happier note, yesterday I bought my grandson a baseball mitt, baseball bat, and big league for-real baseball, all of this in anticipation of a November trip to San Francisco to see my son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren.  Samuel is now a confirmed baseball fan, although I am not certain whether it is the game or the statistics he really loves.  Gender role typing still lives, despite the best efforts of liberated parents.  Four year old Athena wants a Cindarella costume and doll for Christmas.  My guess is that when she is the CEO of a not-for-profit international charitable organization, she will still be dressing up.

Friday, October 12, 2012


By the way, did I ever tell you about the one time I actually saw Norman Mailer?  It was at a very chi-chi Upper West Side type intellectual gathering called "The Theater for Ideas" held in a ballet studio in the Village.  I was brought along by Bob Silver, the editor of the New York Review of Books, whom I had met through Bob Heilbroner -- this was back in my Columbia days, the late Sixties.  Everyone was there -- Mailer, Susan Sontag, William Schuman, Sidney Hook, et al., for a symposium on "The Hidden Philosophy of Psychoanalysis," with Sidney Morgenbesser and Bruno Bettelheim among the speakers.  In the question period, Mailer got up -- a bantam cock in suit and vest -- and proceeded to deliver an interminable attack on his current psychiatrist, to everyone's great amusement.

Anyway, that is just me digressing, like Tristram Shandy.  The point of this post is that every so often I remember that not everyone in the literate world has read every word I have posted on this blog.  There are a few hardy souls who have read all of the instalments of my eight hundred page "Memoir," day by day as it appeared, and I imagine there may even be someone out there who stuck with me through my tutorial on The Thought of Karl Marx.  But there really is a lot of stuff that I have posted here -- more than 500,000 words of serious extended essays, leaving to one side the ephemera devoted to snarking and bitching or idle reminiscing.

If there are any folks in the cyberworld who would like a tutorial on Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, or on The Thought of Sigmund Freud, or who might enjoy essays, tutorials, mini-tutorials, and Appreciations on any of perhaps two dozen other topics, all they need do is follow the link at the top of this blog to, and rummage about.  The free version of, which I employ, used to actually tell me how many people have taken a look at each of the items posted there.  When they stopped doing that [since I do not pay them anything], more than six hundred people had accessed the Marx tutorial, and there were quite a number who had taken a look at one or another of the other items.  Very satisfying for an author.  Not quite J. D. Salinger territory, but we philosophers are used to whispering in a corner with a few boys [and girls, these days], as Callicles says in the Gorgias.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Regular readers may recall that on August 17th last, I posted a tribute to an old friend, Hugo A. Bedau, who passed away at the age of 85.  Like many scholars of an earlier era, Hugo amassed over the years a number of complete runs of philosophy journals in his fields of interest.  His widow, Constance Putnam, a scholar in her own right, has now very generously donated Hugo's complete library of philosophy journals to Bennett College.  On Tuesday, I took the last set of boxes out to Greensboro and transferred them to the Bennett College library.  Young people being what they are, I have no idea how many of them will actually consult a physical journal, as opposed to finding an article on-line, but I like to think that now and then, a young woman interested in ethical theory or political philosophy will go to the library and find there Hugo's journals, which she can pick up, hold in her hand, and page through in the old way. 

I have very powerful sensory associations with specific books and journals.  The Journal of Philosophy feels and smells very different from Mind, and neither of them is quite like Ethics, which always seemed to me physically pedestrian [even though I did publish in it at least once, if memory serves.]  One of my favorite physical books is my stubby black copy of Hume's Treatise, edited by Selby-Bigge.  The row of Oxford University Press translations of the works of Aristotle, sitting high on my shelves here in my study, breathes of England.

All of this is hideously retro, I know.  I am sure there were many late Renaissance monks, fingers stained from the ink of their endless copying chores, who looked askance at printing presses.  But then, there must have been reflective Neanderthals who scoffed at the new-fangled bows and arrows of their high-domed, gracile Cro Magnon neighbors.


My big sister, Barbara, who is not only older than I but much wiser, decided that I needed a book to read as a way of taking my mind off Obama's plummeting poll numbers, so she suggested three or four things [she is an insatiable reader], and I chose  Sam Kean's The Violinist's Thumb, and other tales of love, war, and genius, as written by our genetic code.  Faithful delivered it almost immediately, and I am now more than a hundred pages into it.

Kean is not a practicing evolutionary biologist [Barbara, who knows an enormous amount about such things, tells me that on occasion he gets the genetics wrong], but he has a magpie mind that has collected up an astonishing array of stories, gossip, scandals, and fascinating tidbits to go with his very engagingly expounded genetics.  The result is a simply delightful book, which I recommend to all of you.

One chapter in particular quite unexpectedly hit very close to home, the chapter devoted to the great early twentieth century geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan and his research assistants.  Hunt won the Nobel prize for his work, which focused on the common fruit fly, drosophila.  [Fruit flies were the perfect objects of study by early geneticists because they have unusually large chromosomes, which could be seen rather clearly with the microscopes of the day.]

What did all of this have to do with the Wolff family?  Well, my father, Walter, after graduating from C.C.N.Y. in 1923, went to Columbia [a short bus ride down Amsterdam Avenue] to do an M. A. in Biology.  He dreamed of getting a doctorate, but since he was by then married to my mother, he left school and began a career as a biology teacher in the New York City high schools.  With whom did he study at Columbia?  Yup.  Thomas Hunt Morgan.

The basement of our little house in Queens, which my father himself finished into a rec room, had an old microscope and several boxes of slides in it.  Barbara and I would peer through the monocular scope at stained slides of all manner of stuff.  In high school, first Barbara and then I studied Biology with Paul Brandwein [Dr. Paul Brandwein, as we were reminded], who had at one point been a teacher in the High School Biology Department chaired by my father.  Brandwein seized on the newly established national competition called, after its sponsor, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search [now the Intel Science Talent Search], and pushed his very best seniors into entering the competition.  Students had to take a written exam on science and do an original research project.  The forty best competitors were brought to Washington D. C. for a week, where one boy and one girl [as they were then referred to] were selected as grand national winners.  Each of them got a $2400 college scholarship, which in those days was enough to pay four years of tuition [eat your hearts out, young people!]

My sister chose to study a species of fruit fly -- drosophila melanagaster. She produced in them phenocopies -- bodily changes [eye color and such] that mimicked mutations, but were induced by shining a special light on them.  Bobs did her research in the basement, but as all of us have found, fruit flies are pesky critters with no sense of decorum, and every evening at the family dinner table a little cloud of migrants from the basement would hover over our meal.

Sure enough, Barbara was the grand national girl winner her year.  I even got into the act, because Barbara was supposed to make a presentation of her research at a New York science fair on the same day that Swarthmore had scheduled her for an on-campus interview.  So little Robby put on some presentable clothes and stood in for her, speaking knowledgeably about something he knew almost nothing about [a harbinger of my eventual career, I fear.]

I knew all of this from childhood, but until I read Kean's chapter on Hunt, I had never put it all together in my mind.  I felt, as I went through the chapter, as though I were reading our family history.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I grew up in a tiny row house in Queens.  My room, the smallest in the house, was just large enough for a bed, a little dresser, and a table next to the bed, on which sat a little radio.  At night, sometimes, I would lie in the dark and listen to the Dodgers baseball games.  I was a rabid fan, even going once or twice to Ebbets Field for a game.  I didn't know that Dixie Walker was a racist pig, just that he was a hell of an outfielder.  I would cheer as Eddie Stanky, the Walkin' Man, would foul off pitch after pitch until he drew that fourth ball.  I was true to them until I went off to college, but I never transferred my allegiance to the Red Sox.  My passion for the game just cooled [although I did ride in a nearly deserted club car of the Shore Line train from New York to Boston with Ted Williams at the other end of the car -- I did not disturb the great man, of course.]

Christmas is approaching, so so I sent an email to my daughter-in-law, Diana, to ask what the grandchildren would like for presents.  Samuel's seventh birthday is December 22nd, and having myself been born on December 27th, I know what it is like to get "one big present for both Christmas and Birthday"  --  never, I was convinced, as good as what my sister got for being born in August.  So I try to make sure that I find something for Samuel's birthday and something totally different for him for Christmas.

Well, Samuel lives with his father and mother and sister in San Francisco, and apparently, having finished with the phase in which he was fascinated by cell phones and the phase in which he was fascinated by button operated crossing lights, and having gotten over his brief fling with chess [always a questionable idea for him, since his father is a famous International Grandmaster], Samuel now decided that he is a baseball fan.

All well and good, and quintessentially American, except that it is the Giants who now play in San Francisco, so Samuel of course is a Giants fan.  He does not know that seventy years ago, when his grandfather was his age, the L. A. Dodgers played in Brooklyn, and that it just a little bit breaks his grandfather's heart that he is a Giants fan.

How sharper than a serpent's tooth ...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


In 1951 or 1952, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, the great American poet and biographer of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg, came to give a lecture.  Sandburg, who lived to be 89, was then in his seventies, and of course looked absolutely ancient to us.  He was a true poet of working people, back when America still acknowledged the existence of a working class.  He told a story that has stayed with me ever since.

It seems, Sandburg said, that there were two cockroach brothers perched on a farmer's cart riding into town one day.  The cart hit a bump in the town's main street, and the two cockroaches fell off.  One brother fell onto a heap of dung -- very heaven for a cockroach -- and waxed fat and shiny.  The other brother fell into a storm drain and nearly drowned.  Slowly, laboriously, the second brother pulled himself up out of the drain until, exhausted, emaciated, near death, he dragged himself back into the gutter.  As he looked up, he saw his brother seated happily atop the dung heap, sunning himself.  "Brother," the unhappy cockroach cried, "how have you become so fat and happy?"  The fat self-satisfied cockroach looked down at his miserable relative and said, smugly, "Brains, and hard work."

I think of this story often as I reflect on the ease and endless rewards of my career, moving from comfortable position to comfortable position, and compare it with the terrible struggles of young academics trying to gain some sort of security and time for their own scholarship in an increasingly hostile job market.  The sixties, when my career was being launched, was a time of explosive growth of higher education in America.  Spurred by the G. I. Bill and the post-war economic boom, and fed by an endless stream of young men avoiding the Viet Nam draft, colleges and universities virtually metastasized.  State universities, which had existed ever since the Land Grant Acts of the 1860's, suddenly sprouted satellite campuses.  State colleges plumped themselves up into universities, and Community Colleges became State Colleges.  There were so many new teaching positions to be filled that in the sixties and seventies graduate students were being offered tenure track positions before they had become ABD.

At the same time, the Cold War and the Sputnik scare triggered a flood of federal money into universities.  Most of it, of course, funded defense-related research or studies of parts of the world that America considered inimical to its interests [Russian Research Institutes, East Asia Programs, language programs of all sorts], but some of the money slopped over into the Humanities, and even into libraries and university presses.  For a time, commercial publishers found that they could not lose money on an academic book, since enough copies would be sold to newly flush university libraries to enable them to break even.  Those were the days when a philosopher willing to sell his soul [and who among us was not?] could get a contract on an outline, a Preface, or just an idea and a title.  The professor introducing me at one speech I gave said, "Professor Wolff joined the Book of the Month Club, but he didn't realize he was supposed to read a book a month.  He thought he was supposed to publish a book a month."  Well, we all thought we were brilliant, of course. 

Then the bubble burst.  First the good jobs disappeared.  Then even jobs we would never have deigned to notice started drying up.  Universities adopted the corporate model, and like good, sensible business leaders, started cutting salaries, destroying job security, and reducing decent, hard-working academics to the status of itinerant peddlers.  Today, two-thirds of the people teaching in higher education are contract employees without good benefits or an assured future.  Scientists do pretty well, thanks to federal support for research, but the Humanities and non-defense related Social Sciences languish.  The arts are going the way of high school bands and poetry societies.

The truth is that I fell off the cart onto a nice big dung heap, and waxed fat and happy, as any self-respecting cockroach would.  My career happened to fit neatly into the half century that will, in future generations, be looked back on as the Golden Age of the American University.  There is precious little I can do for those unfortunate enough to come after me.  But at least, I can assure them that their bad luck is not a judgment on the quality of their work.  And, of course, I can write increasingly lavish letters of recommendation in a desperate attempt to launch them into the few remaining decent teaching jobs.  I would have liked to do better by them.  They deserve it.

Monday, October 8, 2012


I have striven to keep this blog on an elevated plane, what with tutorials on the Critique of Pure Reason and Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  I mean, you can't get much more ethereal than that, right?  But every so often the pedestrian world interrupts my philosophical meditations, and this seems to be one of those moments.  So, for the next few paragraphs, I am going to complain.  This is, as I understand it, more or less standard for blogs in general.  Consider what follows evidence that I am human, all too human.

First of all, my right knee and leg hurt.  Six weeks ago, I made the bad mistake of trying a little running [or, more accurately, shambling] as part of my morning walk.  My ego had become involved in exactly how many minutes it was taking me to complete the course of slightly less than four miles, and I thought that if I did little bursts [so to speak] of trotting I could bring my time down to 57 or even 56 minutes.  Well, I did, but I also seem to have permanently irritated my aging joints, with the result that I now take many too many doses of Ibuprofen and Tylenol.  I finally gave in and made an appointment for this afternoon with a doctor.  We shall see.

At the same time, I have been dealing with a bizarre problem triggered by the efforts of the U. S. Post Office to upgrade itself.  Three weeks ago I sent out the annual fund-raising appeal for my scholarship organization, University Scholarships for South African Students.   A number of envelopes came back marked "undeliverable at this address."  Now, this is not at all unusual.  There are always a few folks who have moved or died or gone missing.  But when the envelope addressed to my sister in Washington, D.C. came back, I knew something was wrong.  It seems the P. O. now has a machine that reads the zip code electronically.  It reads from the bottom of the envelope up, and since I have a logo [a map of Africa] above the return address on my envelopes, my zip code is actually lower than the zip code of the addressee, so the machine was sending all the envelopes back.  The post office people said it would be fine if I just scratched out the return address and remailed them [no extra postage required], but then some of those envelopes also started coming back.  I had visions of my twenty-two year old organization crashing and burning because of this technodisaster, so I decided to have new envelopes printed up with the return address above the logo.  Now, I am engaged in sending out a duplicate mailing to all the folks who have not yet responded [some of the letters got through, apparently -- how?]

While this was happening, I received word from Paris that our "syndic" [the company that manages the copropriété ] has started work shoring up the building my apartment is in.  For some years Susie and I have noticed cracks in the wall in the interior courtyard that gives access to our apartment.  Well, we have renters who arrived on Saturday [old friends from my childhood, no less] to find that the interior courtyard is dug up ["to a depth of three meters," according to a neighbor who wrote me an email], and the entire area is a shambles.  I will refund their rent, needless to say, but my little Parisian getaway, the apple of my eye, is momentarily a disaster.

Confronted with all of this, I consider it really unfriendly of Obama to so completely louse up the first debate that I can no longer luxuriate in the discomfort of the Republicans.  Did the President not know that I was already struggling with a full complement of little crises?

Oh yes, did I mention that we just called in an exterminator to deal with an infestation of humongous cockroaches?  And that it has been raining for the past two days?

Would anyone like a quiet discussion of the subtleties of the Subjective Deduction in the First Edition Deduction of the Pure Concepts of  Understanding in the Analytic of Concepts of the Transcendental Analytic?


Friday, October 5, 2012


I couldn't watch the debate, and a good thing too, because everyone agrees Romney won.  But a strange thing has happened on the way to the winner's circle.  Never mind that Romney lied and shape-shifted.  At one point, apparently, he said he was going to eliminate all funding for Public Broadcasting, a long-time right-wing desideratum.  This has triggered a national outcry from lovers of Big Bird, which is to say, everyone not home schooled by religious nuts.  The next morning, Big Bird was invited to appear on all the morning cable news shows and the Internet is alive with paeans of praise to the big yellow goofball.

Sesame Street was launched in November, 1969, not long before the second birthday of my older son, Patrick.  I have countless fond memories of watching Sesame Street with him [and without him] on our old rabbit-eared black and white set [the same set on which, six years earlier, I watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald -- although, to be honest, there was such a crush in the courthouse that you couldn't actually see the shooting.]

I even once saw Big Bird, Ernie, Bert, and the other inhabitants of Sesame Street in person.   The daughter of my parents' next door neighbor got a job with PBS, and she wangled an invite for me to see a filming of the show.   The guy wearing the Big Bird suit, by the way, couldn't see a thing.  He had a little TV set inside the suit with which he oriented himself so that he could move the big cumbersome suit this way and that.  I think his eyes came about up to Big Bird's belly button.

Sesame Street, of course, was the first show to feature a gay couple -- Ernie and Bert -- although no one said anything about it.  I think the first gay couple to be given a favorable presentation in the movies were Artoo Detoo and CP3O in Star Wars.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


I go to bed early, so I was pleased to learn that the big Obama-Romney debate would begin at seven this evening.  But it turns out that it actually begins at nine, which is -- believe it or not -- past my usual bedtime.  Having nothing better to do, and having just been asked by a commentor about my opinion of Freud, I decided to re-read the tutorial I wrote some while ago on The Thought of Sigmund Freud, a tutorial that ran to many parts, and was then deposited for posterity on [accessible by following the link that the top of this blog.]  I have been re-reading it, and I say, with my characteristic modesty, that I think it is simply brilliant.  If you are seriously interested in spending several hours learning about Freud's theories, you really cannot do better, in my opinion, than read that Tutorial.

There, I said it.  I am now in full Mr Toad mode.  But if I don't say it, who on earth will?


Every so often I come upon a word, a phrase, or a usage that particularly delights me.  I then make every effort to weave it into my quotidian discourse, as a sort of garnish.  A good example is "meretricious," which a long time ago I learned originally meant "falsely alluring, like a prostitute" [meretrix is apparently Latin for prostitute.]  Isn't that just perfect?  When someone you don't like offers an argument that you consider a crock, describing his argument as meretricious is a high-brow way of calling him a whore.

As I was playing a game of on-line Sudoku this morning before it got light enough for me to take my daily walk, I thought of one of my very favorite such terminological gems.  [I am simply going to assume that you folks all know how to play Sudoku.]  I have developed the following technique for solving Soduko puzzles:  I carry on, deducing entries for as long as I am able, using every trick I have developed, including some pretty nifty ones.  Then, if I get totally stuck, I find a binary opportunity -- a square that I know is either one number or another -- and I form the hypothesis that it is the first, tracing out all the implications of that hypothesis until I either solve the puzzle or come to a contradiction.  If I hit a contradiction, I know that the original square should have been filled with the second number, not the first, so I go all the way back and insert the second number.  Usually that is sufficient to enable me to complete the puzzle.  I call this "hypthecating a number." 

I encountered the word "hypthecate" in a wonderful book called Branches Without Roots:  Genesis of the Black Working Class in the American South, 1862-1888, by the Yale economist Gerald Jaynes.  Here is the passage in which, I believe, it first appears, from page 148:

"The 1866 Alabama lien law allowed a 'lien on the crop equal to the advances made by any person(s) to any person of the state.'  There were two important implications of this law.  First, any person with a legal claim of possession to a crop would be able to receive credit by hypothecating that crop.  Second, the wording of the law allowed merchants and agents other than the employer to extend credit on the basis of a crop lien to anyone with a claim to a prospective crop."

This law, in effect, allowed share-cropping former slaves to go into debt for their food and other necessaries before the crop they were growing was actually harvested and they got their share of the proceeds.  In effect, it exchanged slavery for debt peonage.

Even if you are not as enchanted by the word as I, I strongly recommend Jaynes' book for profound historical insights into the period known as Reconstruction.

Monday, October 1, 2012


The MacArthur Foundation has just announced its "genius" grants for this year.  One of the winners is Benoit Rolland, a Boston based archetier, or maker of bows for stringed instruments.  My viola bow is a Benoit Rolland bow!  When I bought my Marten Cornelisson viola some years ago, I tried out a number of bows, and the Benoit Rolland bow made me sound markedly better -- a deeper, richer tone.  In my world, that is as good as having a torn, dirty Michael Jordan shirt from his college days [the prized possession of one of my wife's sons.] 

I feel that I have been touched with greatness.


In 1969, I and my first wife were each in a full-scale psychoanalysis and I was doing everything I could to earn enough money to pay the medical bills.  [I was actually audited by the IRS one year because they could not believe that someone with an income that low had medical bills that high.]  A paperback publisher, New American Library, contacted me about doing a book to be called Ten Great Works of Philosophy.  The idea was that I would find ten works whose translations or [in the case of David Hume] originals were in the public domain -- hence no permissions fees -- and cut and paste them into a little book together with sketchy introductions.  The editor offered a thousand on signing and a thousand on submission, which in those days was three months of analysis for the two of us.  Needless to say, I jumped at the chance.  I completed work on the book so fast that before they could pay me the thousand for signing a contract I had submitted the finished manuscript and asked for the second thousand as well.  I know you will believe me when I say that this was not my finest scholarly effort.

This afternoon, in the day's mail, arrived my royalty payment for the book from Pearson, which at some point along the way acquired Penguin, which had earlier on acquired New American Library.  Not much -- $334 -- but when I entered the sales and payments in the Excel spreadsheet that serves as a record of my book sales, I noticed that I was closing in on 200,000 sales, all of which have brought me a bit more than $20,000.  I was thirty-five when I cranked out that little number, and like the Energizer bunny it just keeps on going.  I have the creepy feeling that long after I am dust, semi-annual checks will continue to arrive for my sons, and eventually for my grandchildren.


I return in today's post to a subject  on which I have commented in the past, and which continues to interest me, namely the distribution of educational credentials in the American population, and the implications of that distribution for American politics.  As always, I shall try to make connections between my own experience and larger social trends.

My father attended Boy's High School in Manhattan, achieving a grade average of 65 [a fact which, when I discovered it as an adult, gave me a good deal of retrospective satisfaction, inasmuch as my sister and I had been under considerable pressure to get high grades.]  In 1919, when he graduated from Boy's High [after being suspended for a bit for making inflammatory political speeches], roughly 12-15% of his age cohort earned a high school diploma.  In 1923, when he earned a Bachelor's Degree from City College, only a tiny fraction of his age group [perhaps 2-3%] rose to that level of educational attainment.

By the time I graduated from Forest Hills High School in 1950, well over half of my age mates were earning high school diplomas, but when I received my Bachelor's Degree three years later, even though a generation had passed since my father's days at CCNY, it was still the case that only about one in twelve Americans twenty-five or older held a first college degree.  Everyone I knew was going to college, so it simply never occurred to me that I and my fellow college students were, in American society, very rare birds indeed.

The G. I. Bill and the explosive post-war growth of public institutions of higher education are usually credited with dramatically changing the educational landscape in America, and so they did.  By 1970, the cohort of Americans 25 to 29 years of age holding a first college degree had tripled, and by the late 1970's the number of young Americans who had completed a college degree was five times what it had been at the end of the Second World War.

The impression soon became widespread that college was the new normal.  There was obsessive public attention to the growing difficulty of gaining admission to the elite colleges and universities, but it was more or less taken for granted that everyone who had the slightest interest in doing so could get some sort of college degree.  [Once again, my personal experience throws light on the changes taking place.  When I applied to Harvard College in 1950, somewhat more than 1900 young men made application.  Of those 1900, 1650 were admitted, and 1250 actually showed up in September to enroll.  Your chances nowadays of getting into UMass Amherst are very considerably worse.]

However, a look at the statistics for 2011, the most recent available, give us a very different picture.  Briefly, 87.58% of Americans 25 and older were, in 2011, high school graduates.  Roughly 57% of that same group had some post-secondary education.  But only a bit more than 30% held Bachelor's Degrees.  This is, of course, a dramatic change from the situation when I attended college -- a six-fold increase.  But it remains true today that seven in ten adult Americans do not hold college degrees.  Note, by the way, that the 57% of adults who have had some post-secondary education include those who have taken a single course at a local Community College.

You might think that this statistic is in a way misleading, because of the unusually high percentage of older Americans who do not have a college degree, but that is not the case.  The percentage of Americans 25 to 29 holding college degrees is only 32%, barely higher than the percentage for the adult population as a whole.

Simply inverting the statistics gives us an insight into the American population that is radically at odds with the common impression created by the discourse in the public media.  Almost seven in ten adult Americans do not have a college degree, and more than four in ten have never taken so much as a single course beyond high school.  Let me repeat what I wrote earlier, in order to emphasize what I consider to be an extremely important fact about American society.  A college degree is required in America for a wide range of jobs that no one in the media would consider elite, and indeed which the people who offer commentary on talk shows would not dream of taking themselves.

You need a college degree to be a high school teacher.  You need a college degree to be an elementary school teacher.  You need a college degree to be a management trainee, to be a staff psychologist in a corporation, to be a Walmart store manager, to be an FBI agent [indeed, you pretty well need a law degree for that job].  This means that seventy percent of Americans cannot even aspire to be grade school teachers!

Think about these simple facts in relation to the two-part Meditation that I have posted in the past few days.  If we on the left are serious about working to move American society in a progressive direction, then we need to start not on college campuses but in the workplaces and even, though I cringe to say it, in the churches of this country.  We need to devise organizing methods and policy proposals the aim at the seventy percent rather than at some sub-segment of the thirty percent.

I would welcome comments from readers about how we might go about doing this.