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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Sunday, April 7, 2013


I have for several days been assembling every article, review, comment, and letter to the editor I have ever written as a first step in creating a multi-volume collection of my published and unpublished papers, for offer on Amazon as e-books.  [I am well aware that this is the sort of thing that serious scholars do for actually important thinkers like Marx and Freud, after the big wheels are dead, but since no one is ever going to do this for me, and I have nothing better to do, and it costs virtually nothing to produce an e-book, and there is vastly more memory storage in the cloud than will ever be used up, why not?]

This morning, I surfaced a little cache of things that I thought had gone missing, including the long, rather angry letter I wrote to Astounding Science Fiction in 1953 defending Aristotelian logic against the proponents of something they called Null-A, or non-Aristotelian Logic.  this brought back a flood of memories, which I thought I would share with you on a lazy Sunday morning.   

When I was a boy, I was an avid reader of science fiction.  In those days [i.e., the 1940's and early 50's] there were two leading monthly sci fi magazines -- Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy.  I had a subscription to Astounding Science Fiction for a number of years, and read stories by all the famous sci fi authors -- Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, L. Ron Hubbard, and the rest.  I actually was a subscriber when Hubbard published his two-part article on a new theory he called Dianetics, which was a rather fantastic fusion of Freud and the brand new subject of Cybernetics.  When I read the first part of the Dianetics article, I thought it was a brilliant satirical send-up, but the second part made it clear that Hubbard was deadly serious.  The core idea was that the human brain had vastly more computing power than was being used, because early childhood traumas [which Hubbard dubbed engrams] were clogging things up.  Hubbard proposed that by a process that sounded rather like a spoof of psychoanalysis, one could be led by Dianetic auditors to go further and further back into one's childhood, clearing out engrams as they were encountered.  Eventually one would become a "clear," with a superhuman intelligence and a brain as powerful as a computer [which in those days was pretty primitive, by the way.]

Well, very soon Dianetic Auditors started popping up, hanging out their shingles and offering for a pretty penny to assist the gullible in rooting out those pesky engrams.  Naturally, the new therapy took root fastest in California, which then, as now, was open to anything new and flashy.  The great appeal of Dianetics was that it was faster and cheaper than psychoanalysis, and did not require embarrassing discussions of one's feelings about one's mother.

Eventually, Hubbard and his epigones got into trouble for practicing medicine without a license.  His first response was to relocate to a ship far enough off the coast of California to be in international waters, where U. S. laws did not apply, but that proved unmanageable.  Then Hubbard had a flash of brilliance, the sort of idea that earns you the title of "genius."  Medicine might be regulated by state law, but not religion.  Hey, presto, the medical treatment known as Dianetics became the religion of Scientology.  As medicine, it was quackery, but as religion it fit right in, and besides, the First Amendment drew no invidious distinctions among religions.  And so, a little article in Astounding Science Fiction gave us Tom Cruise.

As I grew older, I stopped reading science fiction and started reading detective stories, to which I became, and remain to this day, addicted.  In 1960 or so, when I was a resident tutor in Winthrop House at Harvard, Frederick Dannay came to speak to the annual dinner for graduating seniors.  [At least I think it was Frederick Dannay, but it might have been Manfred Lee.  The two of them co-authored the Ellery Queen Mysteries, and one of them -- Dannay or Lee -- had a son in Winthrop House who was graduating.]  Dannay said something that stuck with me all these years, because it perfectly resonated with my own experience.  No one, he said, is ever a real fan of both science fiction and detective fiction at the same time.

Harvard's Widener Library in those days had a fabulous collection of detective stories, donated, according to the bookplates, by some generous alum who knew that Harvard students needed a break from the greats.  I read my way through Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, John Dickson Carr, Carter Dickson [John Dickson Carr's other nom du plume -- he had two lead characters, Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, so he needed two authorial names], and the rest.  That and the three weekly movie shows at the University Theater kept me sane as I delved into the arcana of Hume and Kant.

The letter to Astounding was not my first appearance in print.  That honor goes to a letter I wrote as a seventeen year old Sophomore, calling on President James Bryant Conant to step down from his high position because he had said that he would not hire a communist.  [He did say that he would not fire one if one were discovered on the Harvard faculty, which in those days was considered pretty daring.]  The letter triggered a very funny confusion of myself with an up and coming History professor named Robert Lee Wolff, a confusion that continued for ten years.  The whole story, with supporting documents, will appear eventually in the multi-volume collection.


Jacob T. Levy said...

"When I read the first part of the Dianetics article, I thought it was a brilliant satirical send-up, but the second part made it clear that Hubbard was deadly serious."

Do you think so? I've never been sure. I mean, it's clear that he wanted enough other people to take it seriously to make him rich-- but as to whether he was in on the joke or not isn't obvious to me.

"No one, he said, is ever a real fan of both science fiction and detective fiction at the same time."

An interesting thought, and I can see why it could be true. As it happens, though, I started with Asimov's Elijah Baley/ Daneel Olivaw robot-detective novels and Sherlock Holmes at just the same time. Followed the science fiction path rather than the detective path thenceforth, but at the time it didn't seem odd to me to enjoy them both. (Yes, I know that "fan" is a qualitatively different thing from "person who enjoys.")

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Boy, I don't know. His science fiction writing suggested that he had a certain intelligence, and it sure sounded like a spoof. Lord, do you suppose he started it as a satire and suddenly realized he could cash in on it? That would be so awful! But the switch to Scientology was so manifestly a dodge that maybe he was kidding all along. Thank heavens we don't have more information about Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammed! Maybe they were all con artists, although Jesus certainly paid a heavy price for telling a joke, if that was the case.

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