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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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Saturday, February 28, 2015


My remarks on the subject of human capital have provoked some interesting comments and links, so it occurs to me that I ought to say  something more on what is actually a complex subject.  Let us begin with the fiction on which the ideological rationalization of capitalism is founded, namely that workers are petty capitalists who produce the commodity labor-power, which they bring to market and offer for sale, like other commodity producers, in competition with other producers of the same commodity.  Marx's anatomization of this fictio juris is exquisite, and cannot be improved upon.  The treatment of workers as producers of the commodity labor-power is of course crazy, as Marx very nicely shows us.  To think in that fashion is to suppose that the worker's body is her fixed capital and her food and clothing her circulating capital.  The problem is that a worker who notices that she is not earning the economy-wide equilibrium profit rate on her capital, "and who, like any prudent capitalist, wishes to shift to a more profitable line, will find it necessary to separate herself ("alienate herself," to use the technical legal term) from her body. And by a quite unfortunate metaphysical accident-which, however, can scarcely be blamed on capitalism itself! -she is unable to survive that particular liquidation of her investment!"  [to quote myself from my essay A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value -- see the archive at]

Economic theory, of course, cooperates in the fantasy that workers run small businesses producing the commodity labor power.  And The Law in its majesty enforces wage bargains as though they were contracts between capitalists who meet as equal participants in the free market.  But The Law is not an ass, and when a worker with more book learning than is good for him comes before the bar and requests that he be permitted to deduct on his income tax return the cost of "doing business" -- which is to say, his food, clothing, shelter, and other expenses incurred in the course of producing his commodity for the market -- the Law sniggers behind its hand and denies his request.

Enter Gary Becker, who resurrected the concept of "human capital" to take account not of the worker's body or her food and clothing but rather to incorporate into Economic Theory the important fact that in a modern capitalist economy, some categories of workers regularly earn wages significantly higher than the standard pay for semi-skilled machine operatives, as a consequence of their educational credentials and the skills supposedly thereby represented.  These workers, it is suggested, have invested in themselves by holding themselves off the labor market while they acquire further education, often at considerable expense, thereby accumulating "human capital." .  They are thus like business owners who use a portion of their profits [or take loans] to purchase more sophisticated machinery, the cost of which, amortized over the life of the machines, is a good deal less than the market value of the additional product churned out by the improved capital goods.

This modern version of the old notion of human capital allows economists to blame the low wages of unskilled workers on their own improvident failure to invest rather than consume, an interpretation of poverty that is quite comforting to those sitting atop piles of accumulated capital.

But the analytical concept of human capital has other interesting uses in our attempts to understand modern capitalism, which exhibits a segmented and highly pyramidal wage structure.  It can, for example, be deployed to make sense of the notion of relative exploitation.  High wage workers can be understood as both exploited by their employers and exploiting lower wage workers, a construal that seems to comport with our intuitive sense that corporate executives, lawyers, professors, and such like high wage employees occupy a social position more akin to the owners of capital than to hourly wage earners at the bottom of the income pyramid.

In the essay referenced earlier, I tried to build a simple mathematical model that would capture some of these ideas formally, as a substitute for the classical labor theory of value, which, as I show, is fatally flawed.

Thursday, February 26, 2015


Robert Vienneau's comment on a previous post exactly paralleled the points I am planning to make in the next lecture of my Marx course.  He writes:

"I thought Professor Wolff's discussion of the literary nature of Marx's Capital very apposite for that discussion.

Under capitalism, as far as a share holder is concerned, there is no difference, at a certain level of abstraction, in a corporation's expenditure on equipment or training for the workforce. Both are capital investments, with expected payoffs and risks (of obsolescence resulting from inventions during the life of the investment, of breakdown of equipment, of worker's changing their employment). So the phrase "human capital" captures a real illusion thrown up by capitalism.

But the phrase obscures the fact that workers laborer under the direction of others who are always trying to extract more value out of the worker. "

This is exactly right.  The entire comment is perfectly encapsulated in the phrase "a real illusion."

By the way, Robert Vienneau has a very interesting blog called "Thoughts on Economics."  It is not for the faint of heart, but he does some very interesting things there.  I recommend it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Last week, in an effort to introduce my students to the concept of ironic discourse, I began my lecture by quoting the famous opening sentence of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:  "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."  Yesterday, having obsessed as much as was humanly possible over today's lecture, I repaired to Netflix for some amusement and stumbled on the lavish BBC miniseries of P. D. James' 2011 sequel to Pride and Prejudice, called Death Comes to Pemberley.  A murder is of course de rigueur in a murder mystery [if you will forgive the pun], so not very far into the first episode, we get a nice bloody murder, the unraveling of which will presumably occupy the remainder of the series.  Since I have not yet watched so much as the entire first episode, I cannot tell you whodunnit, but the production perfectly illustrated for me a central theme of Capital, so I thought I would take this opportunity to expatiate on it a bit.

The story opens with Elizabeth and Darcy preparing for a grand ball at Pemberley, which in this production is a magnificent stately structure with endless galleries and vast expanses of perfectly cared for lawn.  We see half a dozen young women in the kitchen preparing the goodies for the meal and liveried, bewigged servants serving a light repast to Darcy, Elizabeth, and the Bennetts, and various farmers -- what in the Old South of the United States would have been called "field negroes."  Darcy and Elizabeth are presented to us as a courteous, caring master and mistress, inquiring after the health of the servants and thanking them for their service.  The production manages to convey, quickly and convincingly, the absolute inviolability of the class structure of this world, made all the more manifest by the fact that Darcy, Elizabeth, and those of their class do not ever actually do anything in the way of productive labor, save, of course, to oversee their clouds of servants.  It is just as Adam Smith represented it in The Wealth of Nations, except of course for the fact that these are, after all, Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, so clearly disapproving of them is out of the question.

Today, in my lecture, I come to the critical passage in Chapter IV at which Marx, for the very first time, introduces the phrase "surplus value."  With that, the argument is launched that arrives many pages later at Marx's central thesis:  capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working-class.  Stripped of its sometimes puzzling formal elaboration, Marx's claim is that the workers, denied immediate access to the means of production with which they could support themselves and their families, labor for wages, receiving what Marx, with bitter irony, characterizes as the full economic value of their labor, but despite that fact are forced each day to perform many hours of unpaid labor, the monetization of which is the capitalist's profit. 

This reality is plainly on view in the pre-capitalist world of Pemberley, but it is concealed today by the development of advanced corporate capitalism, and hence very smart professional economists, of whom I take Paul Krugman to be the exemplar, seem utterly incapable of understanding Marx's argument.  Even an ostensibly clued-up economist like Thomas Piketty, who makes disparaging remarks about the fiction of marginal productivity and Gary Becker's Nobel Prize winning innovation, "human capital," seems unable to penetrate the mystifications of capitalism.  Nor can I blame Piketty's failing on an unfamiliarity with Austen, inasmuch as he makes elegant use of her anatomization of the society of landed gentry in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

When I was a boy, novels like The Grapes of Wrath told the truth of capitalism.  Where is John Steinbeck when we need him?

Monday, February 23, 2015


My first book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, was what literary critics would call a "strong reading" of the Critique of Pure Reason.  I willfully ignored passages that did not comport with my deep interpretation of Kant's argument, and made much of passages that other readers might have passed over without much noticing them.  In defense of this patently unscholarly way of proceeding, I argued that great philosophers sometimes see more deeply than they can say, requiring us as readers to make daring and controversial leaps of interpretation if we are to wrest from the texts something of great value.  I freely acknowledged that readers adopting this hermenautical dictate might, indeed certainly would, arrive at utterly incompatible strong readings.  I took this not as a failing of my efforts but as a testament to the greatness of the philosopher being thus interpreted.

I have oftentimes said here that I do not like Hegel.  That prejudice, openly confessed, has provoked more comment than anything else I have ever said.  Now the reader and commentator to this blog whose Internet handle is classstruggle has posted a series of extremely long comments which, taken together, constitute, as he himself wryly remarks, a short essay on Hegel rather than a blog comment.  Clearly he [?] has delved deeply into Hegel's writings and has found there much of value, which he strives to bring to light and state in his own words.  It would be rude, indeed churlish, for me to suggest that he ought not to have spent his time that way.  I invite classstruggle, should he wish, to compose an extended essay on whatever aspects of Hegel's writings he finds most rewarding.  I would be happy to present it to my readers as a guest post.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


Susie and I went to see Selma this evening.  I wept through much of the movie and came away feeling ashamed that I had not been there.

Saturday, February 21, 2015


People who know me personally are aware that I have a number of facial tics and twitches that, as I have explained in my Autobiography, have been with me since I was five years old.  This fact makes me sensitive to, and sympathetic with, others who have analogous minor afflictions that do not rise to the level of crippling disabilities.  I reflected on this today as I was reading Paul Krugman's latest blog post.  He and most of his colleagues in the Economics profession have a language disorder that manifests itself, so far as I am able to tell, not only in their speech but also in their use of written English.  I refer, of course, to their curious inability to pronounce or write the words "Karl Marx."  It is unlikely to be an inherited trait, and it seems equally unlikely that it is a consequence of their physical surroundings, but it may very well be something in their social environment.  My tics, I am told by doctors, can only be treated by medications whose side effects would be more serious than the tics themselves.  I suspect that Krugman and his associates confront a somewhat similar dilemma.  The impact on their economic well-being of overcoming the disability would probably be enormous, although simply being able to say the words from time to time might bring some immediate relief.  My heart goes out to them.


The world of art and literature has been rocked by two blockbuster announcements.  The first is the discovery of two hitherto unknown unfinished Cezannes.  The second is the discovery of a hitherto unknown Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story -- which, when added to the Canon, makes sixty-one.  I leave it to my readers to divine which of these bits of news has set my heart to fluttering.


My obsession with preparation for my lectures combined with the frigid cold here in the Southland has numbed my brain and made me remiss in responding to some of your comments, so while I wait for it to get light enough so that I can walk without slipping and falling on the remaining icy patches, I shall attempt to make amends.

First, a quick reply to Andrew Blais a propos Quine [whose middle name, a correspondent informs me, is spelled Van Orman, not van Orman]:  Quine was, in my experience, a witty and elegant stylist, in speech as well as on the page, and I am sure he was well aware of the voice he adopted in his writings -- see, for example, the wonderful opening lines of "On What There Is."  But I do not think the indeterminacy of translation thesis is his effort to deal with the complexities of voice.  The problems of translation are, of course, a standard theme in literary studies, but it is not prudent for a monolingual idiot like me to say too much about them.

Second:  Jerry Fresia, clearly more of a Tigger even than I, invites me to view the events in Greece as the first faint suggestions of a new day dawning.  Lord, I am ever ready to see a drop of water in a glass and call it half full, so I shall acquiesce.  I must say that there has been a striking sea-change in the public discourse on matters of inequality, in the streets [the Occupy Movement] and in the halls of Academe [Piketty and all].  That is scarcely enough, but it is not nothing, and I choose with wanton disregard for evidence to see it as a rebirth of class struggle.  With regard to class struggle, I have been reflecting on the fascinating inability of ostensibly progressive Democrats to utter the words "working class."  Even Elizabeth Warren speaks endlessly of "the Middle Class," with no seeming awareness of the fact that the locution implies the existence of someone below, as well as someone above, that social position.  In America, the unmentionable position below the Middle Class has come to be identified with the Ghetto, which is to say with people NOT WHITE, and so not to be evoked when one is trying to speak inclusively.  I will know there is a new wind blowing when some aspirant to major public office stands up and declares "I speak for the Working Class."

And so we come to the matter of Hegel.  I officially thrown in the towel.  I freely confess that my inability to appreciate Hegel is a lamentable, but alas irreparable, failing on my part.  Add him to the list of twenty-five!  Praise him on Saint's Days!  Remember him in your prayers!  Acknowledge his centrality to the coming to self-awareness of Western Civilization!  But spare an old man and do not require me to read him.  The defense of Hegel offered by classstruggle in the lengthy quotation from Walter Kaufman is, I admit, completely new to me.  Hegel, Kaufman tells us, was a witty and sprightly writer who chose not to reveal that fact on the page because -- He vass German.  [I cannot help thinking of Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein.]  This apparently is the converse of the explanation that Descartes could not help writing clearly because he was French.  I had not realized that when it comes to literary style, Nationality is Destiny.  But so be it.

Finally, a brief response to LFC, who notes that Rawls does in fact mention Freud in A Theory of Justice, in a fashion that makes it clear that he had read him.  I stand corrected.  Jack was ferociously smart, and I have no doubt at all that he had read much by Freud.  I should say, by way of curious self-exculpation, that I found A Theory of Justice so stultifyingly boring after the first third or so that I actually managed to read through it only once before writing my book on it.  I am absolutely certain that this fact had not the slightest effect on the correctness of my analysis in Understanding Rawls, but if someone wants to accuse me of being no sort of scholar at all, I accept, indeed, I embrace that characterization.  Perhaps I should add that if there are any young apprentice philosophers reading this, that is no way to behave as a serious professional philosopher.  In this regard, you must reverse the old political advice and do as I say, not as I do.

Well, the rosy fingers of dawn are creeping upward in the Eastern sky, so I shall venture out into the 20 degree cold.

Friday, February 20, 2015


Marx's dominant literary trope in the opening chapters of Capital is the treatment of things as thought they were people and the treatment of people as though they were things.  By this means, he conveys the essential verrücktheit of capitalism.  The chapters I am now preparing to lecture on next Wednesday are replete with such passages.  I thought it might be fun just to record a few of them here, for your amusement.  My emphasis on this dimension of Marx's writing is part of my more general effort to make my students sensitive to some of the complexities and nuances of the human world and the literary devices available to us to capture them.  Generally speaking, philosophers write a serviceable prose with neither shadow nor echo, neither depth nor subtlety.  [Plato, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are striking exceptions.]  These concerns of mine go hand in hand, oddly enough, with my effort [on my other blog] to analyze the ways in which philosophers use putatively value-neutral logical and mathematical formalisms to conceal unacknowledged ideological presuppositions.  At any rate, here are a few of the passages I plan to call to the attention of my students in our next class.

The opening lines of Chapter II, the first of four chapters we shall be discussing:  "It is plain that commodities cannot go to market and make exchanges of their own account.  We  must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are also their owners.  Commodities are things, and therefore without power of resistance against man.   If they are wanting in docility he can use force;  in other words, he can take possession of them."  What an inspired way to launch a discussion of commodity exchange!  The image of a recalcitrant bolt of cloth, hanging back on the way to market like a rebellious child, is brilliant.  And the literary figuring of legal ownership as forced possession captures, in a phrase, the contradictions on which capitalism is erected.

In the next chapter, "We see then that commodities are in love with money..."   And later in the same chapter, Marx speaks of "prices, wooing glances cast at money by commodities."  This is simply inspired!  I love this image of commodities sitting coyly on their display tables, flirting with the money in the pockets of passing consumers.  How anyone can imagine that Marx did not know exactly what he was doing when he wrote these passages is beyond my comprehension.

The reading for this week concludes, at the end of Chapter V, with the passage from which I took the title of my book, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.  This should be a fun class to teach.  I hope it is as much fun for the students.


Medieval European philosophers had it easy.  The available books were scarce enough so that one could pretty well read them all, and new writings were few and far between.  If you were Thomas Aquinas, you could simply refer to Aristotle as " the philosopher" and your little circle of readers would get the reference.  These days, we are flooded with books, articles, blog posts, tweets, opinions, news flashes -- a barrage of information that requires some filtering mechanism simply to make it manageable.  Like everyone else, I respond by maintaining my own private Pantheon of reliable, insightful thinkers in whose writings I can be confident of finding, wisdom, wit, thoughtful reflection, and just sheer intellectual fun.  One of that very small circle of my personal gods is the great neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose books I have cherished for many years.

Yesterday, Oliver Sacks published an excruciatingly beautiful and deeply sad column in the NY TIMES in which he told us all that he has terminal liver cancer and will live only a few more months.  Sacks is just my age -- far too young to die, and far too valuable to leave us.

Emily Dickinson wrote a poem in which she raged at a God who demands that we die in order to see him.  What motive save petty envy would move an omnipotent being to snatch away our treasured few?  If there is any convincing evidence of the non-existence of God, it is the death of men and women like Oliver Sacks. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015


I hit the wrong button and deleted the comment with the link to the piece about Rawls and Marx.  I am such an idiot.  Could you repost it?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Carl asked me to include the comment I am responding to, so here it is:  "I'm happy to hear that you're thoughts have turned to this, as this is something we in literature deal with all the time, both in texts and criticism. I am curious about why you seem to value this style in Marx, when you seem to detest it in others (say Hegel, for whom similar arguments have been made, I believe). Not that I would ever try to force someone into loving Hegel, but as someone who deals in a tradition of scholarship that is often torn between a desire to write in beyond the mystification of the everyday (taking its cue from Foucault, Althusser, Butler, etc.) and a desire to express ideas clearly and lucidly, I'm curious to pick your brain on the issue further."

[See the comments on my previous post].  Yes, of course.  I pointed out to my students, but neglected to mention in my post, that the mode of interpretation I was adopting, while almost unheard of in Economics, is, as Eliza Doolittle might say, mother's milk to literary critics.  Questions such as "whose voice is it?" or "what is the relation between what an author is saying and how he or she says it?" are standard fare in literature courses.  That is why I told my students that I would be combining, in my course, economic theory with history, sociology, philosophy, and literary criticism.

But your later remarks call for me to say something methodological or systematic about how I do philosophy.  I was trained as a teenager by several of the leading analytic philosophers of the mid-twentieth century:  Willard van Orman Quine, and Nelson Goodman, when I was not yet old enough to drive, as well as rigorous logicians like C. I. Lewis and Hao Wang.  The two great philosophers who first engaged my energies were David Hume and Immanuel Kant.  Educated in that tradition, I acquired a life-long commitment to clarity, precision, and an unwillingness, if I may put it this way, to use a metaphor that I could not, if necessary, cash in with a literal explication.

At the same time, I was distressed by what seemed to me the thinness of much analytic philosophy, its tendency to confuse one-dimensionality with rigor.  To choose just one example among many, John Rawls writes A Theory of Justice without, so far as I can tell, ever having read Freud, relying on an old-fashioned moral psychology that is utterly inadequate to an understanding of human motivation.  Thus, I have striven during my entire career to embrace the insights of thinkers far from the analytic school while finding ways to render those insights in a fashion that would, if I may put it subjectively and personally, pass muster with Quine or Lewis.  If one were to go back and look at some of my earliest writings, such as the essays in The Poverty of Liberalism, one would find evidences of this effort.  My interpretation of Capital is my most sustained of these efforts.

When I read Hegel, I do not find sharp, powerful insights that can be rendered in a fashion that will pass the test of rigor and clarity that has been, for me, the touchstone of good philosophy.  Hence my rather scandalous expressions of revulsion, which should perhaps be taken simply as an old man's crotchets.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Chapel Hill is entirely iced in, I have prudentially bought enough food at least for today, and I have done as much of my taxes as I have the documentation for, so this might be a good time to say a bit more about the relation between social theory and language, a subject to which I have been devoting a good deal of attention in my course on Karl Marx's critique of capitalism.  Let me begin with an amusing and revealing story from more than fifty years ago.

In 1961 I left Harvard for an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago, to teach, among other things, in the big required second year undergraduate survey course on the Social Sciences [thus continuing a career of teaching things I had never formally studied.]  The course was taught in sections, but several times during the year all of the students assembled in a big lecture hall for a guest lecture.  One day, we trooped into the hall to hear a report on some research being carried out by a Professor of Anthropology and his graduate students.  Anthropology was one of the Social Sciences we "covered" in our sophomore level course -- we all taught Bronislaw Malinowski's classic 1922 work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, a study of the peoples of New Guinea.  [My colleague, David Bakan, a wonderful psychologist stumped by teaching a book about which he knew virtually nothing, devoted the entire class to a discussion of what it might be about the people of Middle Europe that would possess them to go off to the ends of the earth to study people so unlike themselves!]

The speaker that day had been leading his students on some field work in the sub-discipline of Urban Anthropology.  They had been pub crawling the up-scale bars in the part of downtown Chicago known colloquially as the Near North.  Now he was reporting on their findings, and in one of the most brilliant tours de force I have ever  witnessed, he conceived the idea of straight-facedly recounting their adventures in the standard jargon used by cultural anthropologists to describe the "primitive" peoples they have gone off to investigate.   The effect was startling.  All of the students in the lecture hall [and even many of the professors] were quite familiar with the venues being described, but in the language of cultural anthropology they were unrecognizable.  Without once breaking tone, the lecturer managed to convey the idea that standard anthropological field reports were almost certainly distortions of the lived experiences of the subjects.  The men and women of New Guinea would no more recognize themselves in the journal articles published about them than the students recognized themselves in the accounts of the bars where they spent their weekends.

All of which, oddly enough, brings me to my current concern, the reason why Marx writes economic theory in a language so utterly unlike that used by any economic theorists before or since.  As this is a blog post and not a two and a half hour lecture, let me state my thesis baldly.  Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Paul Samuelson, John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, Paul Krugman, and all the rest of their tribe write a straightforward uncomplicated prose because they all believe that capitalism is fundamentally one-dimensional, unmystified, comprehensible, and at base susceptible therefore of rational explication.  They may, of course, think that capitalism is extremely complicated, requiring sophisticated mathematical analysis and elaborate data assembly of a sort manageable only by highly trained professionals.  Some of them may write with style and grace -- Keynes certainly did, and I confess to a fondness for Ricardo's writings as well.  But for all of them, the economy is an object of study capable of being given a coherent rational account, with enough work and enough brains.

Marx does not agree.  He thinks that capitalism is thoroughly mystified -- not complicated, mystified.  He describes the ordinary exchange of commodities in the marketplace as a kind of inverted transubstantiation.  In the miracle of the Mass, the accidents of the wine and the wafer, their smell and taste and feel, remain unaltered, but their substance is, through the intermediation of God, replaced with the substance of the blood and body of Christ.  In the exchange of a coat for ten yards of linen, the accidents of the coat are replaced by the accidents of the linen, but the substance -- abstract, homogeneous, socially necessary labor, which is to say value -- remains the same.  In capitalism, people are treated like things, and things are treated like people.  This is verrückt, Marx says -- crazy, crack-brained.  [The translation as "absurd" does not capture Marx's real meaning these days, when the absurd has become a respected literary and philosophical category.]  But despite being crazy, these notions have social validity, Marx says, because only be acting as though they make sense can both workers and capitalists survive in a capitalist economy.

What is more, all of us -- even Marx and his epigones -- are captives of this crazy way of thinking.  Hence, to communicate the essential mystification of capitalism and at the same time achieve sufficient ironic distance from it to make liberation from it possible, Marx requires a language with literary resources far more complex than those employed by even the most sophisticated mathematical economists.

This is a bit of what I have been trying to teach my students in my course.  By the way, anthropologists, perhaps alone among social scientists, understand this problem.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Google tells me that this is my two thousand one hundred fifty-seventh post, which in all have attracted eight thousand two hundred forty six comments.  I find these numbers astonishing.  It would appear that despite trips to Paris, I have written a post an average of roughly once a day for the past six years, for a total creeping toward a million words, if I have not already surpassed that.  Surely there is no one in the entire world, with the possible exception of myself, who has read all of those posts.  I think when I hit five thousand, which will be when I am maybe ninety-six, I ought to cut down.


It was sixteen degrees when I began my morning walk at 6 a.m. today, but a brisk wind produced a wind chill that Google said was minus one.  I have never been so cold for so long in my life.  I shall stay abed in the morning from now on until the weather moderates.  There are limits to the personal heroism of an eighty-one year old man!  To keep my mind off the cold, I devoted my time on the walk to reflecting on what I have been talking about in my Marx course, and what I will be talking about next Wednesday.  I have been working very hard to get the students to think  carefully about the language that Marx employs in the opening chapters of Capital, and that, I realized as a shivered and walked, is only one example of a larger topic that has interested me for some time, namely, the relationship between what a philosopher says and how he or she says it. 

Most philosophers use a simple, serviceable prose, some more gracefully than others.  I have several times remarked on the extraordinary elegance and transparency of the Treatise of Human Nature and the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  I feel about Hume's language the way Salieri felt when he heard Mozart's music.  Descartes writes a spare, powerful prose, although I did notice that even I, when translated into French, sound like Descartes, which led me to wonder whether perhaps all philosophers sound like Descartes in French [even Hegel? -- the thought boggles the mind.]

In my experience, only a very small handful of philosophers use language deliberately to convey some aspect of their theories in ways not plainly manifest on the surface.  Let me begin this meditation with a brief example from Thomas Hobbes, one of the great stylists writing in English.  These lines are among the best known and most often quoted in all of political philosophy:

"Therefore, whatever results from a time of war, when every man is enemy to every man, also results from a time when men live with no other security but what their own strength and ingenuity provides them with. In such conditions there is no place for hard work, because there is no assurance that it will yield results; and consequently no cultivation of the earth, no navigation or use of materials that can be imported by sea, no construction of large buildings, no machines for moving things that require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no practical skills, no literature or scholarship, no society; and—worst of all—continual

fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

What Hobbes is asserting is that in the absence of a well-ordered society with a stable government, there is a breakdown of the ordinary mutual expectations and reliances that support our customary economic and social intercourse.  Larger social structures, like central or regional government, cease to function effectively to preserve public order.  Economic activity, which depends crucially on predictable and reliable behavior [the fulfilling of contracts, the paying of bills, the delivering of materials, and so forth], suffers and eventually ceases.  The fabric of society frays and then disintegrates into what Hobbes memorably calls the war of all against all.

Now look at the syntax of the paragraph.  It begins with a complex sentence employing subordinate clauses ["when every man is enemy to every man"] and other syntactic devices that communicate by their formal structure a social situation of mutual relations and subordinations.  In the second sentence, the syntax retreats to a semi-colon, which has the effect of somewhat destroying the interrelations of the different parts of the sentence.  Even this degree of syntactic coordination is then replaced by a series of parallel phrases set off by commas:  "no cultivation ..., no navigation ..., no construction ..., etc."  As the sentence continues, even these phrases grow shorter:  " no practical skills, no literature or scholarship", ending with the ominous phrase, "no society."  Finally, at the end of the paragraph, Hobbes is reduced to nothing more than a series of bare adjectives, lacking even the syntactic complexity of phrases:  " and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

The syntax is a perfect metaphor for the terrible social reality Hobbes is describing.  I venture to say there has never been a more perfect paragraph written by any philosopher with whose works I am familiar.

Let me move on to another example, this one drawn from the writings of a man who has the double distinction of being arguably the greatest philosopher who has ever lived and unarguably the greatest writer among all the philosophers, great or not:  Plato.  As many of you will guess, my example is the Middle Dialogue, the Gorgias.  I have written an extended tutorial on the Gorgias and shan't reprise it here.  Interested readers can find it in my archived essays by following the link to  Suffice it to say that the Dialogue is a series of three exchanges between Socrates and first Gorgias, then his disciple Polus, and then an excitable young man Callicles.

Most philosophical dialogues are no more than counterpoised arguments with names attached -- Philo, Demea, and  Cleanthes in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion or Hylas and Philonus in Berkeley's Three Dialogues.  But Plato accomplishes something truly astonishing.  The personalities of the three interlocutors in the Gorgias are just exactly what we would expect of people setting forth their doctrines -- Gorgias is pompous, self-assured, but basically a decent man who does not fully appreciate the harm his teaching does to unformed minds like that of Polus.  Polus in turn is eager to defend his master but not possessed either of great intellect or of Gorgias' fundamental good sense.  Callicles is excitable, brash, eager for praise, brilliant but too quick to assert paradoxical doctrines ["laws of nature," which to an Athenian of the time would sound like a flat-out contradiction.]  Furthermore, the language Plato puts in their mouths is completely distinctive and just the language that someone of that character expounding that viewpoint would use.  In this way, Plato leads us to reflect on the relation between character and doctrine, something that in another philosopher's prose comes across as flat-footed and lifeless.

I cannot let Plato go without mentioning what I consider the most poignant and beautiful line in all of Philosophy.  It is, of course, from the Gorgias.  Callicles has triumphantly announced his brilliant new doctrine -- justice is the interest of the stronger -- and he impatiently awaits the praise of those listening.  Socrates quietly undertakes to explore this novel teaching, using everyday examples of cobblers and ship builders and herdsmen.  Callicles is deflated by this banausic colloquy, and finally says, in exasperation, "Socrates, you keep saying the same thing."  And Socrates replies, "Yes, Callicles, and in the same way, too."  This is so beautiful that it makes me weep every time I read it.  Callicles is in thrall to what Kierkegaard, twenty-two hundred years later, would call the Aesthetic, a mode of existence that strives above all for novelty.  But Socrates is committed to the search for moral truth, which is eternal and never changes.  So he is content to say the same thing, over and over, and in the same way.

Can I lead my students to begin to read philosophy with greater insight into the relation between what we say and how we say it?  I hope so.



The following is a for-real news story.  I am pleased to see that the United States is actively testing the theory that any adult citizen, whether sub-normal or not, is an appropriate representative of 700,000 or so of its citizens.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) confused the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram with a mid-sized Florida city during an appearance Tuesday on CNN, the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Florida reported Wednesday.
Gosar said that if the U.S. were to pay ransom to terrorists, then "every American citizen traveling abroad becomes a subject in regard for kidnapping and then the plight of how much money has been captivated in the Boca Raton group."
On Friday, his office issued a news release making light of the gaffe, saying that the congressman "had been awake for almost 24 hours and had given many interviews that day."

Saturday, February 14, 2015


Thank you all for your kind comments.  They mean a very great  deal more to me than you might imagine.

Jerry, if you have seen the great old 1941 movie The Hustler, with Paul Newman, George C. Scott, and Jackie Gleason, I can tell you exactly how it feels when the writing is going well.  Newman plays Fast Eddie, a pool hustler who is taken under the wing of George C. Scott, a manager or promoter.  Eddie finally gets a game with the legendary Minnesota Fats [a real person], played by Gleason.  Fast Eddie is in good form as the game progresses.  Playing him, Newman moves around the table like a great cat, making shot after shot.  At one point, he says to Scott, "I can't miss."

That is what it is like sometimes as I write.  The words flow, the most unlikely but perfact associations come to mind, it feels as though the words are being dictated by something in me to which I have only the slenderest access.  I am more fully alive when I am writing like that than at any other time in my life.  Leaving to one side the result and speaking only of the subjective experience of the activity, it is how I imagine van Gogh felt when he was painting or how Mozart felt when he was composing.

This, I think, is why I do not really care very much what critics say about the books I have published.  My writing is not a performance, and it is not, lord knows, scholarship.  It is an expression, the externalization of an idea that begins life inside me and is actualized on the page.  Once I have captured the idea as I sought to, I am done with it.  That is one of reasons why I have moved from field to field so restlessly.  Kant?  I have had my say.  I don't really care what more recent scholarship has said.  Hume?  The same.  Anarchism?  I have embodied my idea in a short book.  I am not really interested in trying to persuade people that I was right.  Marx is a bit more complicated.  That has been a forty-year involvement, culminating now with the course I am teaching.

This blog has offered an opportunity to continue writing.  It has therefore quite literally been a gift of life to me.  There are times when I struggle with it, my hands as it were writhing like Garson Kanin's, but there are also times when I am moving around the table like Fast Eddie, and when those moments arrive, I am fulfilled.

Friday, February 13, 2015


I am sure we all remember the famous scene from The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion finally gain admittance to the inner sanctum of the Great Wizard, each hoping to ask there for his or her heart's desire.  They are met by a terrifying spectacle -- a large curtain, from behind which emanate clouds of smoke and the loud voice of the wizard.  As they stand there, frightened and uncertain what to do, Dorothy's Cairn Terrier, Toto, jumps out of her arms, grabs a corner of the curtain in his teeth, and pulls it back to reveal the mountebank, Frank Morgan, cranking levers and wheels and shouting into a big horn.  I evoked that scene last Wednesday when I was explaining to my students the concept of demystification, so central to the opening chapters of Capital. 

I did not think to tell them about a personal experience I had almost forty years ago of which I was reminded this morning on my early walk while musing on how to weave The Wizard of Oz into some thoughts I have been having about the experience of being a writer.  In 1977, my first wife, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, published A Feast of Words, a brilliant literary biography of Edith Wharton, and was invited to speak at a little book event [a sort of micro-mini book tour.]  On the program with her was Garson Kanin, who had just published Hollywood, a memoir of his time as an actor, writer, and director.  Kanin was married to Ruth Gordon, a very highly regarded actor and film writer.  I had the impression that Kanin felt about Gordon the way Mel Brooks feels about Anne Bancroft -- that she was the light of his life and that it was a blessed miracle that she had agreed to be his wife.

I was too nervous about the affair simply to take a seat in the audience, so I stood at the side of the room.  After Cindy spoke -- quite well, of course, I needn't have worried -- Garson Kanin was introduced.  He was a dapper little man with a lively, charming manner.  He clasped his hands behind his back casually and proceeded to tell a series of delightful stories about Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and all the famous movie folks he knew.  He appeared to the audience relaxed and entirely at ease.  But from where I was standing, I could see his hands, and throughout his talk, he wrung his hands violently, his fingers writhing like snakes in a basket.  It was obvious to me, but not to the audience, what it was costing him to project his easy, casual manner.

I take both of these stories as metaphors for my experience as a writer and teacher.  I strive to achieve a light, easy, casual style as I expound the most complex matters, seeming, I imagine, merely to be putting out words as they pop into my head -- a garrulous old man full of stories.  The truth is that out of sight, my hands are clasping and unclasping, my fingers writhing, as a search for just the right phrase.  Even when my writing goes well, as for the most part it does, I am exhausted when it is done, and I turn compulsively to solitaire games, crossword puzzles, or low-brow television to recoup my energies.

There are some writers -- and a good many philosophers -- who do their best to show the anguish, fearing, I imagine, that they will not be thought serious if it seems that what they are doing has cost them too little effort.  But I am not one of them.  My hero is David Hume, who skewers a doctrine or dismantles a tradition with such ease that if you are not paying very close attention, you may fail to notice the full power of his disarmingly charming sentences.

Now I must clasp my hands behind my back and thrash out my preparations for next Wednesday's class.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


The re-posting of my little Swiftian fantasy triggered a tsunami of comments -- well, three, but since I really do think of this blog as a conversation, that is a lot. So let me respond. First of all, to my friend Warren Goldfarb [who is, as perhaps a few of you may not know, a famous senior logician in the Philosophy Department at Harvard], what on earth is "der shmekel hack"? Google fails me on this one, but it sounds like something I ought to know about.

To James Camion McGuiggan:

What you say strikes a responsive chord in me.  There is something extremely odd about making one's living as a philosopher.  This is a rather recent development, of course, as philosophy goes -- really only in the 18th century did people start to earn their bread as philosophers.  By the way, recall that until Kant was elevated to a professorship at Königsberg, he was a privat docent, which meant that he was paid by the student.  For those of us who considered the transition from a 2-2 to a 3-3 teaching load the end of an era, it is chastening to recall that the greatest  philosopher since Aristotle lectured fourteen hours a week or more on every conceivable subject.

It is even odder that in the United States there are perhaps eight thousand people whose job description is "Professor of Philosophy."  I have not been to a convention of philosophers in a number of decades, but the last time I attended the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, I recall standing in the crowded lobby of the hotel where the meeting was taking place and thinking to myself, "This could be a meeting of the sales force of United Porta-Toilet Corporation, except that they would be better dressed."  What on earth would Socrates think of eight thousand philosophers?  Did Plato charge Aristotle tuition in the Groves of Academe?  I hope not.

By the way, I don't know about where you are, but in the United States, although the manifest function of higher education is to introduce students to the life of the mind, the latent function [to employ Robert Merton's useful distinction] is to sort too many young people into too few high paying jobs.  We are gatekeepers, essentially.

To Magpie:

Your comment reminds me of the hierarchy of characters in the great comic strip Peanuts.  Charlie Brown talks to his dog, Snoopy.  Snoopy talks to his little bird friend, Woodstock, in language that is printed in very small letters.  Woodstock talks to his even littler bird friends, but Woodstock is so small that what he says is represented simply as a series of tiny exclamation marks, which presumably are comprehensible to the tiny birds.  Well, when I was young, Quine talked to people like Charles Parsons and Hao Wang and Burton Dreben and Hartley Rogers [or, later  on Warren Goldfarb], who in turn talked to folks like me, but in characters too small to be read by the likes of Quine, and all of us little birds talked to one another in equally small characters, understandable by ourselves but probably heard only as high-pitched squeaks by Quine.

Still and all, life was fun among us baby birds.  I still recall all of us going out for a collective Chinese meal, whose cost we shared equally, and trying to eat faster than Hubert Dreyfus, who, thin though he was, wielded chopsticks with deadly speed and accuracy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Andrew Sullivan has decided to stop blogging.  He is leaving his widely read blog, The Daily Dish, and perhaps closing it down [I could not tell from the announcement.]  This news put me in mind of a post I wrote two years ago.  I thought I would commemorate his leaving the blogosphere by reposting it.  Here it is:


Readers of this blog, I am sure, will be familiar with the great eighteenth century satire of English politics and culture by Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels. Lemuel Gulliver, the hero of Swift's novel, takes four voyages: to Lilliput, to Brobdignag, to Laputa, and to the land of the houyhnhnms and yahoos. Let us imagine, if we may, that an account has just been discovered of a fifth voyage, to a curious land called Blog. Blog, Gulliver tells us, is a land composed entirely of mirrors, which endlessly reflect the doings of the inhabitants. [Needless to say, I do not in my most self-referential fantasies compare myself to the incomparable Swift, although I did for a brief moment ascend to the heights of satire in my review of Allen Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, but bear with me. I shall connect up, as the trial lawyers say.]

In Blog, the sole product of the endless labors of the inhabitants is opinions, on matters political, economic, religious, cultural, and even athletic. For a long time, the Bloggians, or Bloggers as they are sometimes called, offer their products to one another in a pre-capitalist frenzy of gift exchange, rather in the manner of the South Sea Islanders described by Margaret Mead. But then, an enterprising Blogger conceives the idea of charging for her opinions. The other bloggers are taken by this innovation, and soon each blogger goes forth into the town square carrying a little change maker, rather like those that bus conductors once wore. When someone wishes to hear an opinion on some matter, he must place a coin in the appropriate slot, whereupon the opinion is divulged. Each opinionator keeps careful track of how many coins are deposited, and wears a sign on which the number is displayed. The most popular opinion-producers receive thousands of coins, and enter into agreements with other leading opinion-makers to share their opinions on a reciprocal basis with inquiring minds. Some of the most successful inhabitants of Blog do not even themselves formulate opinions, content to recycle the products of other opinionators. At the outskirts of the town square are a few would-be opinionators who cannot find anyone to offer even one coin for their opinions. These pathetic aspirants continue to offer their opinions freely, hoping against hope that their opinions will some day be sufficiently in demand to allow them to charge a few coins for them. Because Blog is composed entirely of mirrors, it is difficult to tell which opinions are original and which are merely reflections of other opinions. Eventually, the distinction itself evaporates, and originality gives way to repetition.

What has inspired in me this Swiftian fantasy? The answer , in a name, is Andrew Sullivan. As some of you may know, Andrew Sullivan is a Gay Catholic conservative English opinionator who used to be on the staff of The Atlantic Monthly. His blog, The Daily Dish, was featured on the Atlantic website for a while, until Sullivan left that site and signed up with The Daily Beast, an entirely web-based e-zine. I have been reading The Daily Dish regularly for several years, principally because it is a convenient way of keeping track of conservative opinion on matters political. Sullivan's religious anxieties and cultural predilections [he is, among other things, obsessed with beards] are, I find, rather a bore, but at certain important moments he has performed a genuinely valuable service, for example by reproducing verbatim the texting from the streets during the Iranian protests a year and more ago. He is also deeply concerned with the campaign for the legitimation of same-sex marriage, which of course concerns me greatly, and has himself recently entered into marriage with his long-time partner. The Daily Dish, like many of the major blogs, devotes most of its space to the recycling of things written elsewhere, which gives to it somewhat the air of a hall of mirrors [hence my fantasy]. It is extremely successful, claiming more than a million readers, and again like other major blogs, employs a staff, which in Sullivan's case numbers five or six.

Now Sullivan has decided to cut loose from The Daily Beast, not for yet another host site but rather to strike out on his own as an independent operation. There are essentially three ways for such efforts to generate income: ads, donations, and subscriptions. Sullivan has opted for subscriptions. Shortly, he will require those who wish to continue to read his blog to pay a subscription fee of $19.99 a year. [The precise details are somewhat obscure to me, and involve keeping RSS feeds free, whatever they are, but satire has long played fast and loose with the complexities of reality, and I plead poetic license.]

I shall not pay, even if it means that I am denied access to The Daily Dish.

Why on earth not? In my comfortable upper middle class life, twenty dollars is a negligible fee. It is, to choose just one example, the amount I tipped an airport employee on Christmas Eve who met Susie and me at the airplane door as we returned from Europe, pushed Susie in a wheel chair on the long walk to immigration, waited with us for our luggage, saw us through customs, and finally delivered Susie to a taxi rank where we caught a cab home to Chapel Hill. Twenty dollars is a good deal less than I spend in one week for the lemon poppy seed muffin and coffee that I eat while doing the NY TIMES crossword puzzle each morning. It is not the money.

My decision not to pay was immediate and unreflective, and it has taken me a bit of thought to figure out why I was offended by the demand that I pay to read Sullivan's blog. I have been reading books for seventy years, and it has never seemed inappropriate that I be asked to pay for the books I read. I regularly pay to attend concerts [although Susie and I make full use of the countless free concerts offered in out of the way churches in the higher numbered arrondissements of Paris.] I have even paid to hear lectures, and of course I have on countless occasions been paid to give them, even though they are, when all is said and done, nothing but compendia of my opinions. After all, Sullivan must live. So why this instinctive revulsion at the demand that I pay him for the right to read his opinions?

The answer, I think, is this: The blogosphere is, or purports to be, a global village. Through its intermediation, each of us encounters and forms some sort of relationship with countless others passing through the village square. Were I in a real village, could I imagine, save in a Swiftian satire, an encounter like this? "Good morning, Bob, what do you think of the UNC football game last evening?" "Well, Emily, put a quarter in my change purse and I will tell you." "Fine, here is my quarter. For fifty cents, I will tell you my reaction to the Fiscal Cliff negotiations."

Perhaps those of us not living on the pensions earned in a lifetime of work need to find a real job before we decide to blog.

Monday, February 9, 2015


I am back from the West Coast after a quick trip made a good deal more uncertain than I would have liked by weather delays that threatened to louse up my connections, but in the end worked out all right.  You are going to have to bear with me while I tell you several stories about my grandchildren.   Those who are way too serious to put up with a grandfather's qvelling can pass the time reading the Grundrisse until I have reverted to my customary role as a high-domed commentator on the deeper meaning of contemporary capitalism.

The high point of the visit was of course the time I spent playing "duets" with Samuel, who at nine has just started studying the violin.  He has a three-quarter size loaner  on which he has learned to play the open strings [G, D, A, and E for those who are not familiar with the instrument.]  He was fascinated by my viola, which is a great deal bigger, and tried it out [while my heart stood still, fearful that he might drop it.]  His teacher has given him some little duets in which his part consists simply of open string notes.  I played the other part [which his teacher plays, I assume] on my viola.  The bizarre thing is that it sounded really nice -- like genuine music.  This is a phenomenon I noticed when I was taking lessons.  When my viola teacher [a really good professional violist] played a duet with me, it made me sound worlds better.  Now this may not seem like much, but let me assure you, it does not get much better for a grandfather!  In August, I am hosting an eighty-fifth birthday party for my big sister, Barbara, at the home of my son and daughter-in law.  By then, Samuel will be playing notes and all, and we can play some real duets.  Once his teacher decides that he is ready for a full-size violin, I am going to buy him a student instrument as a delayed ninth birthday present.

Samuel actually spent much of his time sitting on the floor playing out and analyzing a Karpov-Kasparov chess game with his father [who is, of course, a famous International Grandmaster.]  I was astonished to discover that Samuel is completely conversant with algebraic chess notation and understands what his father is saying when Patrick reels off a series of moves by way of illustrating a possible line in the game [something I am quite incapable of, by the way.]  Now, Samuel is a rabid SF Giants baseball fan, and he carries everywhere a stuffed panda called "pandabal" after Pedro Sandoval, until recently a member of the Giants team.  I have to tell you, it is a trifle disorienting to see a boy hugging a stuffed panda and saying, "but what about e5 d4 c2?"

The single most extraordinary moment of my short visit, however, involved little six and a half year old Athena, who is short for her age and therefore seems even younger than she is.  I was sitting alone in the living room when Athena came in carrying a colored case. She opened it and took out a rectangle of soft fuzzy cloth printed to look like a one hundred dollar bill.  We had a discussion about it -- I told her not to spend it all at once, and so forth.  Then she ran out to get her "wallet," from which she took some real money.  She started counting it, and I watched as she privately counted on her fingers to add a five to the twenty and three ones.  Finally, she informed me that she had forty-five dollars!  "Where did you get it?" I asked.  "From grandma and my allowance." 

Well, what are grandpas for?  I reached into my pocket and took out a twenty dollar bill, which I offered to her.  Athena pursed her lips and very quietly said "no."  "Why not?" I asked, astonished.  Very quietly, she said, "It wouldn't be fair to my brother."  I told her to call Samuel, and gave him a twenty also.

I do not think I have ever been prouder of anyone in my life than I was of Athena when she said, "It wouldn't be fair to my brother."  I mean, I am a moral philosopher by trade, and I do not recall a sentence in the writings of Immanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill more beautiful than those seven words.

Now, as I was saying about Das Kapital.  

Friday, February 6, 2015


In an hour I shall leave for the airport for a quick trip to San Francisco, where I shall have the extraordinary pleasure of playing my viola with my grandson, who is just starting to study the violin.  If I live long enough and he studies hard enough, the moment may come when we can play real duets together.  It doesn't get any better for a grandfather!

Yesterday was bizarre, thanks to Reddit.  Instead of the customary one thousand to twelve hundred daily visits to this blog, Google recorded 24,810 visits.  I would not have though there were that many people in the entire world who are interested in a list of the twenty-five books of Philosophy one ought to read before getting the doctorate.

I read some of the comments on Reddit, and for any of those 24,810 who are still hanging around, I should like to clarify four points.

First, I omitted works of twentieth century analytic philosophy because I assume that graduate students will get all the advice they need about those works from the courses they are taking and the professors they are studying with.  It should go without saying that someone who studied with Willard van Orman Quine and Nelson Goodman before he was old enough to drive would want contemporary graduate students to familiarize themselves with the twentieth and twenty-first century analytic literature.

Second, I ended the list more or less with the eighteenth century because after Kant things explode in western philosophy and there is no longer a single tradition on which everyone can agree.

Third, I omitted Hegel because I don't like him.  It is my list, and I get to leave off it anyone I can't stand reading.

Finally, why just twenty-five?  Why not fifty?  Because I thought that if I listed twenty-five books, some of which any graduate student in philosophy would almost certainly have read, there was just a chance that some industrious student might be inspired to tackle the rest.  But if I listed fifty titles, a graduate student would glance at it, mutter "as if ..," and forget the whole idea.

I shall return late Sunday night, so I should be back at this blog on Monday.  Don't get into too much trouble while I am away.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


As I have several times observed on this blog, there have been times in the history of the human race when religion may have been a net plus for society.  I think, quite naturally, of the sixth century anno domine when, as Gregory of Tours tells us in his indispensable History of the Franks, the bloody-mindedness of the upper classes in Northern Europe was somewhat moderated by the influence of the local priesthood.  [Of course, since Gregory was a Bishop, his account may be suspect, but as we have no other, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.]

However, this is not one of those times.  The sheer evil being inflicted on innocent victims by true believers of one sort or another is not in the slightest made up for by the engaging cheeriness of the current Pope.  I am moved to write, of course, by the latest atrocity committed and advertised by ISIL, but in far-reachingness of effects, if not in immediate brutality, that act is matched by the efforts of religious Muslims, religious Christians, religious Jews, and religious Hindus to inflict misery on those not sharing their particular form of nonsense.

I would like to think that the act of ISIl is an evidence not of strength but of weakness, a desperate attempt to recapture the attention of a world public inured to mere beheadings, but that may well be groundless wishful thinking by a constitutional optimist.

Voltaire, where are you when we need you?


I got up in the middle of the night, as I do every night [all us old guys do] and after eating a few grapes, checked my blog, which generally draws maybe 1000-1200 hits in twenty-four hours.  Ten thousand eight hundred and thirty seven people had visited this blog since seven p.m. last evening!  Does anyone know what on earth is going on?  It wasn't a mention by Brian Leiter -- I looked.

I feel as though I was having a nice, quiet chat with a few like-minded friends when my living-room become ground zero for a flash mob.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


In a little while, I shall go to UNC to give the second of two classes on the mathematical reconstruction of the classical Political Economy tradition to which Marx was reacting in Capital.  Then, after returning from a weekend in San Francisco, where I will play very, very elementary violin-viola duets with my grandson, Samuel, who has just starting "taking violin," I will, on February 11th, five weeks after beginning the course, finally turn the cover of Capital to the first page and read the famous opening words:  "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.  Our analysis must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity."  [Marx is quoting himself!]

Thus will I inaugurate five hours of intense dissection of Chapter One, grounded in, among other things, a literary analysis of ironic discourse and its relationship to the distinction between appearance and reality.  The students, having been guided for several weeks by my book, Understanding Marx, will now read Moneybags Must Be So Lucky as they tackle the baffling and highly inflected language of the first several hundred pages of Capital.

Only the Critique of Pure Reason has demanded as much from me as Capital does.  It is now fifty-five years since I first taught the Critique and I do not think I have poured so much of myself into a course since then.  I can only hope that the students are finding the course as rewarding to take as I am finding it to teach.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


One of the unpredictable things about blogging is which posts trigger the largest number of fascinating comments.  I find the comments about my vaccination musings riveting, and full of information that is news to me [I don't get  out all that much.]  Is it sheer accident which discrete elements in our world come to be identified as salient by the free-floating suspicion of "them" that is obviously out there?  Or is there something about vaccination, flourine, and pasteurization?  I am reminded of the great Sterling Hayden character, Brig. General Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, who rages to Peter Sellars about the attempt to defile "our vital bodily fluids."

Jim Westrich is right, we need some good sociology done on this -- unless it already has been done.


There has been a good deal of puzzlement expressed on Television about the widespread anti-vaccination sentiment on the political right.  I have a theory about it, but inasmuch as I have never actually had a conversation with someone who so much as voiced doubts about the procedure, my theory is purely speculative.  Indeed, if you were inclined to snark, you might say it is philosophical.

I begin, as I so often do, with the wise saying by Freud that in an analysis, if there is any topic that the patient finds it unacceptable to discuss, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that topic.  [I have been unsuccessful in my search for the text, and when I Googled it, I came up with my own blog!!]

In America today, it is no longer forbidden to talk about previously unmentionable parts of the body, or about previously unmentionable sex acts, or about the excretory functions of the human body, or about religion, or about money in politics [although you are not supposed to name names], or even about inequality of wealth and income.  But it is absolutely unacceptable to talk about class.  Not surprisingly, therefore, most of the public discourse is covertly about class.

In the United States, there are sharp differences in taste, behavior, and life chances that everyone knows about and immediately recognizes, but which no one is willing to label as distinctions of class.  All of us are aware of these differences  -- in tastes in drinks, food, restaurants, amusements, and television shows, in clothing and makeup, differences in speech patterns, in relations between men and women.  We are also aware individually, but less so collectively, of the sharp differences in life chances facing different segments of the society.  As I have often observed, two-thirds of the adult population in America  do not have college degrees.  This large majority of Americans  cannot aspire to be doctors or lawyers or college professors, or corporate management trainees, or high school teachers, or FBI agents, or elementary school teachers, or Walmart store managers. 

The vast majority of these folks are, and aware that they are, lower class, looked down on subtly or not so subtly by television commentators and other opinion makers.  They are also more or less excluded from the benefits of such economic growth as has taken place in America in the last several decades.  Not surprisingly, they are resentful and angry, and their resentment and anger is focused more on the insults of class than on the raw numbers of wage stagnation and real income loss.

I am convinced that the rejection of vaccination is one more instance of this anger against class disadvantage.  It goes along with the widespread belief that White people are under assault, that religion is under assault, that traditional values are under assault, and that the people who are doing the assailing are the same snooty, stuck-up, college graduate know-it-alls who laugh at people who doubt global warming and believe the biblical stories of creation.

There is really no point trying to counteract this rejection of medical science with facts or arguments, because although the rejectionists may not be Ivy League graduates, they are not stupid, and about the fundamental question, "Am I being disrespected?," they are in fact right.

So what on earth is up with the upscale college educated New Age vaccination rejectionists, who do not fit this profile at all?  I am not entirely sure, so I shall leave that for another day.