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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 ...


P. J. Grath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hj said...

Blame the medium.

When reading blogs in general, I am usually not actively looking to engage with difficult ideas on an intellectual level. Firstly, I don't like reading long texts carefully (or repeatedly) on a backlit screen. Secondly, surfing the blogs is a pastime, indulged in when I am out of "work mode", after an often strenuous day.

I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in this.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you both for your thoughtful responses to what was, after all, just some highbrow bellyaching. As Marshall McLuhan said many years ago, the medium is the message. The point about the students being an audience is well-taken. No matter what one does, one cannot overcome that structural fact. All the performance art and "breaking the fourth wall" and the rest cannot alter the fact that they are an audience and I am the performer.

P. J. Grath said...

Back again. Re: “Narrative Time: The Inherently Perspectival Structure of the Human World”:

This paper fascinated me, and I friends in history and philosophy to it and others you have online, although a sense you have too easy a time me as a reader, since I am more than sympathetic to your way of thinking. In fact, I found myself coming to your conclusions before reaching the concluding section of the paper. That is (and I don’t think this misrepresents your conclusion), if shared social meanings constitute society, at the most basic level of reality, it would seem that disagreement could only consist of one side accepting and the other rejecting some practice or law or whatever, whereas, in fact, however much meaning we share, there are also meanings that differ from group to group—from one ethnic group and its treatment in society, for example, to another; from one generation to the next; between genders; and between different economic backgrounds (not an exhaustive list), so it is not a simple matter of disagreeing but of “experiences,” even within a unified, historically constituted society, that are not shared and, therefore, different realities.

Some examples are simple, others more complicated. (1) My husband is comfortable parking in a large parking lot between two big panel vans screening his car from sight, while I, as a woman, would drive right by that space and never consider it. We live in overlapping but distinctly different realities. (2) A woman active in anti-nuclear, anti-war work and who wanted to be taken seriously by the “big boys” found that when she learned their vocabulary, she could not voice her concerns with their words. Their reality excluded hers. (3) Native American students who collected together in their school cafeteria were seen as choosing friends on the basis of ethnicity, and administrative objection was made to their “exclusive” socializing, while white kids grouping together were not viewed by white administrators as doing the same thing. (4) In my first year of graduate school I was awarded a prestigious fellowship, of two available. A white man several years my senior was awarded the second fellowship and somehow learned (how?) that he was the committee’s second choice, which upset him greatly. Then he learned that the first choice was a woman, and he breathed a sigh of relief: it didn’t bother him to lose out to “affirmative action,” as he said this to my face. His reality, in which no woman could be his equal, was thus preserved by the new evidence. I replied that perhaps it had been “affirmative action” for both of us, since we were both well above the normal entry age for graduate school, but I doubt he heard what I was saying.

Different realities. Sometimes individuals can come to ah-ha! moments and recognize a reality different from their own. It is peripheral to your discussion of fiction and history, but I do think, in my more hopeful hours, that fiction can serve this end. What do you think? More often, it seems, we simply bump up against each other painfully, in the dark, never able to see through one another’s eyes. And yet, yes, we must stand somewhere.

I would like to have a conversation that would include the notions (2) that values can be derived from facts uncovered by science and (2) that operations of the “free market” are part of the natural, as opposed to the socially constructed world. I find it hard to fathom how anyone can hold either of these views, particularly the latter, and yet hold them they do, with exquisite disdain for those of us who see reality otherwise, i.e., as complex and multifaceted and irreducibly perspectival.

Dilthey’s characterizations of past and present bring Bergson’s work to my mind. Have you ever written on him? Never mind answering that question, unless you are inclined. I can look and find out myself.

Seth said...

Professor Wolff,

Blogging is a difficult format, at least as difficult as the lecture format you were coping with at Williams, or indeed classroom instruction. I think the key problem of engagement from your audience is what I'll call 'validation' from the lecturer.

Bloggers who 'validate' their visitors by responding politely (if sometimes necessarily very briefly) to all those who take the trouble to comment are in effect inviting engagement. They also subtly direct the conversation and defuse flame wars among commenters by offering the blog 'owner' him/herself as the proper party with whom to engage. If a student can get the teacher's attention in class, he's less likely to 'need' to engage in disruptive behavior in the back row.

It might not seem logical to you, but serious conversation cannot be entered into abruptly. Even with your professional colleagues, you can only jump directly into deep debates rapidly because of shared professional context and mutual respect. With a semi-random audience of bloggers, no such context exists apart from what you cultivate directly.

Model the dialog you want to have, and you will find yourself overwhelmed with interesting responses. You have already been successful with drawing an audience. But to draw them OUT takes active engagement.

(This is analogous to the psychoanalytic issue of establishing transference ... it takes a lot of work, and won't succeed every time.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...


What an interesting and intelligent comment! It gives me a good deal of food for thought. To put it as simply as baldly as possible, you are saying that if I want a certain kind of conversation on my blog, it is up to me to generate it by the way in which I respond to comments. That strikes me as very sensible. Thank you.


Professor Wolff,

As an admirer of both your philosophical work and your highly entertaining blog, I humbly submit that when one is confronted with both vividly expressed personal opinions as well as subtle philosophical assertions, it is the opinions, and not the assertions, that will draw the most interest and response. This is not to say they are more worthy, only that they are, as a descriptive fact, more salient to us somewhat-advanced apes. This is, in my analysis, why the aridity of much philosophical writing is, though trying, actually to the benefit of the work.

Put another way, sir, you are simply too interesting a person in your own right to ignore. Would that we all had such problems.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Needless to say, LW, I consider your analysis shrewd and profound and manifestly true. :)

formerly a wage slave said...

I can't relax when I stare at a computer screen. (Partially because I now pay exorbitant rates for an internet connection.) I cannot make anything more than a shoot-from-the-hip commment when I comment on your blog. And I haven't printed any of your good stuff and read it carefully. I haven't even carefully read the one book of yours that I own----though I hope to do so in the future. But my own case is very specific: Up until a month ago, I was living with/caring for my aged parents. In general, if I were ever to say anything serious about your ideas, I would probably not choose the medium of the Internet---unless Ihad previously worked out my thoughts in writing elsewhere......

formerly a wage slave said...

Having written one comment, another thought has bubbled to the surface.... I preface all of my remarks with two qualifiers: First, you may dismiss me as a failed academic, and that might be right. Secondly, I spent three years with my elderly parents, and was unable to do any extended writing or thinking. My view of your blog took place during that period and could be flawed for that reason. Much of my life I have looked forward to holidays and or weekends as periods when I could work out some thought or do some reading or writing. And when I can't do that, I get frustrated; so, what I am about to say may be skewed on account of a specific background. Nonetheless, the one time I did briefly attempt to engage with your tutorial on Mannheim---in an unrealistically optimistic period of optimism, given the frequent daily demands made upon me----I was put off by your pedantic response. Your response consisted (as I recall) in two things: You repeated the text back to me, and you insisted that this was really interesting--or words to that effect. Now, I understand that some things can't be spelled out briely, but at the time I felt that you had not listened to me, and that you might have re-constructed Mannheim's idea/s in such a way as to demonstrate or hint at how they connected to my mis-understanding. Of course, perhaps I was merely impatient. (I dont have the time to go back and look at my remark and your response.) Nonetheless, subject to all the caveats I've presented, that's what I recall.

Magpie said...

Dear Prof.

At the moment I'm very interested in economic issues and I've read with great interest your Critique of Keynes.

I've left a comment on it, when you have the time.


Having said all that, I certainly agree with your comments about your students' stance. In their behalf, I'd venture that perhaps they are probably too young and too busy with urgent things, to understand what is really important.

Life and experience have a way of teaching valuable lessons that academia can hardly match.

LFC said...

From the post:

"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."

What puzzles me a bit about this passage is how come you didn't bring up Mannheim in the context yourself, in effect 'quizzing' them about this rather than waiting for them to 'quiz' you. I realize you were a guest and there mainly to answer questions rather than pose them, but still...

LFC said...

"Narrative Time" looks interesting, based on a glance at the opening. I'm going to download it (and read it later).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, to be honest, I wondered whether they had actually read what was assigned. I was looking forward to some penetrating questions about all sorts of material, including the Wilmsen on Africa. Oh well.

amfortas the hippie said...

I get it.
While I am certainly no Academic, and consider myself a merely Feral Philosopher, I get it.
Be thankful, however, that a good portion of your readers take the time to respond. Homo Americanus is distinctive, in that it is a very Busy Species,lol.
Mannheim sounds interesting.On the List, it goes.
Keep it up. Yours is a valuable perspective.
Edo Dives,
Amfortas the Hippie.