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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, September 10, 2014


One of my very favorite movies is the 1984 Milos Forman version of the 1979 Peter Shaffer play Amadeus [which Wikipedia tells me was inspired by a Pushkin play!  Who knew?]  If you have crawled out from under a rock too recently to have seen it, Amadeus is the story of the tragic life of Antonio Salieri, a quite competent and legitimately celebrated composer in the 18th century court of the Emperor Joseph II who has the devastating misfortune to reside in Vienna at the same time as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  I have always identified with the central character, Salieri, who, having committed his life to music and made quite a respectable run of it, is utterly overshadowed by the truly divine music that pours seemingly effortlessly from the young, boorish lout Mozart.  [I trust no one will be so lacking in elementary literary critical skills as to imagine that it is Mozart, not Salieri, who is the focus of the play and movie.]

At one point in the movie, the young Mozart is trying to explain to the Emperor and his little circle of court composers why he wants to write an opera based on the scandalous Beaumarchais play The Marriage of Figaro.  Rather excitedly, Mozart says that in a play, if you have three or four characters speaking at once, each saying something different, the result is an incomprehensible babble.  But in an opera, one can have two, three, four, five, even six characters all singing at once, each one singing a different text, and the result is perfect harmony.  The Emperor and his coterie are clearly unimpressed, but in the end relent, thank heavens, and allow Mozart to write one of the most glorious works in the operatic repertory.

I thought of that scene yesterday as I sat in my study with a pad on my lap, beginning to map out my Marx course.  Even though it is almost four months until the first meeting, I have been brooding for some while on how to organize the course, and finally decided to try putting something on paper.  My problem is this:

Thirty-eight years ago, in the Fall of 1976, while teaching a graduate course at UMass on Classics of Critical Social Theory, I had an idea, an epiphany, an eclaircissement.  On the reading list was Volume One of Capital, a book I had last read in 1960 in preparation for the inaugural Sophomore Tutorial of Social Studies at Harvard.  As I re-read this famous, and famously difficult, book, I suddenly understood, with a flash of insight, what Marx was doing.  Translating that act of comprehension into clear, simple expository prose took me a good deal of effort over the next twelve years and involved, among other things, learning Linear Algebra, reading my way through an entire library of works on mathematical economics, plowing through endless volumes of Marx's letters and less important writings, and telling the story to myself over and over until each element of it was clear.

Although the understanding came to me in an instant, it is exceedingly complex, for Marx's thought in Capital is deeper, richer, more multi-faceted than anything I have ever studied, not excluding Kant's First Critique.  Unlike the Critique or any other great work I have read, save perhaps the Republic, Capital is a book that cannot be understood unless one attends carefully to its literary style and works out why Marx chose to write in a fashion utterly unlike that adopted by any other social scientist who has ever lived.  As I recognized in a flash and eventually was able to explain in clear, simple language, Marx believed that his complex vision of capitalist society and economy could only be captured by a language simultaneously precisely technical and thoroughgoingly ironic, for in Marx's understanding, it is capitalist society itself that has an ironic structure.  Hence, if I may speak paradoxically, I could only capture Marx's vision if I could find a way to build the irony into the equations.  This I did, I believe, in the two books and several articles I wrote between 1976 and 1988.

I have determined to communicate the entire multi-dimensional complexity of my understanding of Marx in my course next Winter and Spring.  But where do I begin?  The story is not linear, as have been so many of the theoretical stories I have told in my philosophical writings.  Every part of it requires for its comprehension a grasp of all the other parts.  Shall I begin with the political and economic situation into which Marx was born, or with Marx's own life story, or perhaps with a history of the Political Economy of Smith and Ricardo?  Or shall I begin with a lecture on the relationship between literary style and an author's conception of reality, making reference to Erich Auerbach's Mimesis.  At what point in the semester do I actually open Capital to page 1 and read aloud the deep, evocative, complex first sentence:  "The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as "an immense accumulation of commodities," its unit being a single commodity."   To steal a line from The King and I, it is a puzzlement.

Sigh.  Perhaps I should sing it.


Andrew Lionel Blais said...

What would Kant do? Asking that question is vintage you. Here is a thought. The architectonic can be seen as the logical structure that holds all of Kant's insights together or as the nutty idea that holds all of Kant's ideas together. It really doesn't matter, if what you value in Kant is the insights. What is Marx's architectonic? What are the insights? Is it a logical structure or a nutty idea?

Chris said...

Have you read Marx's mathematical notebooks?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have not read Marx's mathematical notebooks.

Tony Couture said...

I have struggled mightily to teach Marx in my radical philosophy course at UPEI, and started by using the Oxford standard Marx anthology, and in my last version (this may be related to my comic degeneration under academic and family pressures) I did the long biography of Marx by Isaiah Berlin and a part of G.A. Cohen's A Defence of Karl Marx's Theory of History (see Phil 383 in old moodle web site at UPEI, if interested). My main reason for these choices was to weave Marx into my larger story of radical philosophy better and to use plain English texts, not Marx's language-games which my students found overwhelming. I don't teach grad students, so perhaps my example is not relevant. However, let me make a bold suggestion to you, based on (you must laugh at this) some version of the Bible where they used to put Christ's words in red to make them stand out.

Would it be possible to get an electronic version of your text (Capital), and then change the fonts so that they were color-coded to indicate something like this: black font when Marx is doing economics/math; red font for sarcasm/irony/jokes; and purple font for the third type of discourse (which I am not sure you are calling a third type--is it Marx's meta-discourse or an even higher level of irony addressed perhaps only to future generations? This could also be done using very different fonts so that your text of Capital itself would be edited to "show" your argument rather than merely prove it abstractly. I have always thought that the use of Machiavelli's slogan in the Preface to Capital was a joke by Marx aimed at his friends and others in the future who would see it as a "sign" that there are many layers in this text. I also take it as a truism that the layers of any great book only become visible through rumination (multiple readings of the text, and further reflection with other readers), they are not visible on the first reading.

Jim Westrich said...

Many years ago when I taught Marxian economics I required little reading of Marx. However, Marx's *Value, Price and Profit* (You can start at Chapter 6) has the best summary of Marx ever written (by Marx!) and I did require that. I believe I learned to use that book from Prof. Wolff.

As far as Prof. Wolff's course i understand his journey through Marx would not be linear. However, I do like the history of political economy (Smith, Ricardo, etc.) approach to starting Marx. That leads to the discussing the politics and economics of Marx's time which can lead to Marx's own life which in Prof. Wolff's expert hands can lead to Marx's literary style, *Capital*, and how difficult it is to understand and critique the queer and astonishing system of Capitalism.

Jerry Fresia said...

"...for in Marx's understanding, it is capitalist society itself that has an ironic structure."

It seems to that central to your epiphany is the role that irony plays in understanding and misunderstanding the world around us. I would begin by illustrating this point by looking at any number of topical news items that the students are surely to be aware of and interested in, show how they are explained or communicated by the mainstream media and how through the ironic voice, the underlying power relationships can be laid bare.