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Wednesday, August 20, 2014


In 1983, the incomparable Mel Brooks re-made the old Jack Benny 1942 film, To Be Or Not To Be, about a small Jewish theater troupe trying to get out of Poland when the Nazis invade.  At one point, Brooks, who plays a really rather bad actor, puffs himself up and says, "I am world famous in Poland."  Although I saw the movie thirty years ago, that line has stayed with me as the perfect expression of self-aggrandizement -- the cri de coeur of a slightly oversized frog in a very tiny pond.

Two days ago, I received an e-mail from an editor at the Journal of Philosophy, which, as some of you may know, is housed in the same building as the Columbia University Philosophy Department and is treated by the faculty, somewhat unjustly, as a house organ.  Someone in Poland asked for and received permission from JPhil to translate my old essay, "On Violence," which appeared in the journal in 1969.  The editor wanted to know where she should send my share of the permission fee.  I suggested she give it to a needy Columbia Philosophy student, if she could find one.

Then yesterday I received an e-mail from Eren Kýrmýzýaltýn [does anyone know enough Turkish to tell me whether this is a man or a woman?] requesting permission to translate into Turkish and publish the little book Barrington Moore, Herbert Marcuse and I wrote forty-nine years ago, A Critique of Pure Tolerance.  It seems that since I am the only surviving co-author, rights have reverted to me.  Naturally I said yes, on condition that they send me two copies of the book when it appears.

So, it is now established.  I am world famous in Poland.  And also in Turkey.  What is more, inasmuch as In Defense of Anarchism was recently translated into Croatian, Korean, and Malaysian, I am world-famous there as well.  However, if Google is to be trusted [as I am sure it is], I am virtually unknown in the one country where a little visibility might be an advantage to me, namely France.

There is a lesson in all this, one that I first learned in 1961.  That was the final year of my Instructorship in Philosophy and General Education at Harvard, and I very badly wanted to be kept on as an Assistant Professor [a misguided desire, and one I was later very happy not to have had fulfilled.]  McGeorge Bundy, the Harvard Dean of the Arts and Sciences Faculty, had made me Head Tutor of the new undergraduate program in Social Studies and wanted me to continue in that position, so he offered the Philosophy Department a half-Assistant Professorship for me if they would come up with the other half for my duties in the Department.  I had just finished a complete draft of my first book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, and not understanding a thing about the internal politics of the Department, though that if they were to take a look at what I had written, my chances might improve.  While all of this was up in the air, I ran into Rogers Albritton, who was then an Assistant Professor.  I explained the situation to Rogers and asked him whether he thought the senior members of the Department would like to look at my manuscript.  Rogers, who was a very serious and thoughtful person, not given to precipitous replies, turned that over in his mind for a few moments and then said, "No."

I went on to the University of Chicago, and the rest is [my] history, although of very little interest to the rest of the world.  I published my manuscript with Harvard University Press, and I think I am correct in saying that not a single one of my former teachers and then colleagues so much as glanced at it.  But there were a few people out and around in the world whom I did not know personally but who did take an interest in what I had written.

Which taught me an invaluable lesson:  In life, it is best to go where they want you, even if the thought of going there has never crossed your mind, rather than to try repeatedly and unsuccessfully to go where you initially wanted to go but where they show no interest in having you.


So, world-famous in Poland and Turkey it is.  Does anyone know whether there are direct flights to Warsaw?


David Auerbach said...

I understand the pickles are very good.

Adam said...

Do you know about this conference?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Adam, I did not know about the conference, and considering that I am perhaps the only living person who co-authored a book with Marcuse, I am surprised that I was not even notified. Oh well. As Pooh Bah says in The Mikado, "another insult, and by the feel of it, a slight one."

Unknown said...

About the Journal of Philosophy: As of a little over a year ago, its office is no longer in Philosophy Hall, although it is still on the Columbia campus. However, it seems not to be settled what will happen after the coming year.

You said that the journal is "treated by the faculty, somewhat unjustly, as a house organ." I don't know what you meant by "somewhat unjustly." Apart from that, its status as a house organ was vestigial already for much of my time at Columbia as a full editor (from 1966). I think it has totally lost what may have been left of that character since it adopted blind reviewing of manuscripts, about three years ago.

Unknown said...

There are vestiges of the Journal's "house organ" status that I forgot in my comment. It publishes the Dewey and sometimes the Woodbridge Lectures, both Columbia events. And occasional special issues can have something of a Columbia focus, as did one a few years ago in memory of Ernest Nagel.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Charles, you started your career many years ago at Cornell, as I recall, the home of the leading journal PHILOSOPHICAL REVIEW. What was its relation to the Philosophy Department?

Unknown said...

The relation of the Review to the Cornell department is more official than that of the Journal to the Columbia department. I believe that to this day the masthead says "Edited by the faculty of the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University." All current faculty members are listed as editors, although there is a rotating Editorial Board of two or three members, which does the greater part of the work. Some years ago (but long after I left) a Cornell philosopher told me that serving on the Board could count as one of one's departmental duties, to be exchanged against others such as being placement officer or director of graduate studies. In contrast the Journal is a financially independent organization with its own board of trustees. New editors are chosen by the current editors and trustees.

In one respect, however, the Review is more distant from the department then the Journal. It publishes no special issues, so that no events at Cornell are at least not visibly reflected. All issues of the Review look the same.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Charles.