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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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Sunday, August 30, 2015


Scott Walker, Governor of a state that shares Lake Superior with Canada, was asked by a mischievous reporter whether he thought the United States should build a wall on the Canadian border.  Walker got that constipated look on his face that he thinks signals deep thought and said that the question deserved serious consideration

Chris Christie, the fat bully floundering in single digit land in the Republican presidential race, suggested that undocumented Hispanic immigrants should be kept track of the way Federal Express keeps track of packages -- presumably with bar codes tattooed on their arms.

I think it is time to reverse Clint Eastwood's decline into senility and prop him up as the sane alternative to the current crop of clowns.  There are worse things than talking to an empty chair.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


One of the less appealing characteristics of the blogosphere is its ephemeral nature.  Posted today, out of mind tomorrow.   Had Abraham Lincoln blogged the Gettysberg Address, his famous disclaimer, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here," might have been literally true.

There is nothing to be gained from fighting the zeitgeist, but I am going to make a prediction about Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential campaign, and I invite you to recall it in twelve months' time in order to judge whether I am correct.

Here it is:  If Donald Trump is nominated by the Republican Party next July [no longer an Alternative World impossibility], I predict that he will move sharply and unapologetically to the center of the political spectrum, rediscovering his Pro-Choice inner self, embracing the undocumented eleven million, calling for higher taxes on financial types, and leaving Hillary Clinton no room to move to her right.

Why do I make this apparently implausible prediction?  Because Trump is a deal-maker with absolutely no ideological convictions whatsoever.  When he was wheeling and dealing in New York City, which is a Democratic town, he was a Pro-Choice Democrat in favor of universal health care -- whatever it took to get his foot in the door and make his deals.  Now that he is running for the Republican nomination, he is the scourge of the undocumented, ready to round them up and throw them out of the country with their citizen children.

My first father-in-law was a bush-league version of this sort of business man -- a chameleon who was a Vice-President of Sears, Roebuck, Chair of the Catholic Boy Scouts of America and a Knight of Malta, and yet could chat with David Riesman at  my wedding reception as though he had been a Harvard Square leftie all his life.

Trump is a hollow man without convictions or even prejudices, but he is no fool, and he will immediately discern where the votes lie.

Just wait. You'll see.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


Bernie Sanders is not on track to win the Democratic Primary race for the Presidential nomination.  He will win a good many delegates, he will compel Clinton to talk substantively about topics she would rather slide around, he will warm the hearts of all good lefties, but he will simply not pile up enough delegates to win the nomination. 

It is not entirely clear that Bernie Sanders really desperately wants to win the Democratic nomination.  Now mind, I do not hold this against him.   Quite to the contrary.  Wanting desperately to be president is not a particularly admirable character trait.  It is a character trait that has been shared by some of the most despicable people in American public life.  But be that as it may, I am not sure Bernie has this particular fire in his belly.  Still and all, let us suppose that he really does want to be president.  As things now stand, he is not going to be.

What can be done?  I have been brooding about this, and I have a possible solution.  It partakes liberally of fairy dust, but those of us on the left have for some time now been resigned to  believing in the political version of pots of gold at the end of rainbows, so bear with me.

Bernie Sanders needs somehow to persuade Elizabeth Warren to be his running mate on an insurgent ticket.  If, mirabile dictu, he were able to accomplish this feat, he would have a good chance of snatching the nomination -- if I may borrow a phrase from Charlton Heston -- from Hillary Clinton's cold dead hand.  Think of it as the New England two-step, the revenge of the Northeast corridor.

Bernie already has the progressives and the young, but he does not have the African-Americans or the women.  With Warren by his side, he could peel off large chunks of the unmarried women's vote and quite possibly a share of the Black and Hispanic vote as well.  At the very least, he would have a shot.

Would Warren do it?  Good question.  She would rather not, pretty clearly.  But if Clinton looks weak and there is real danger of a Republican victory, she might be persuaded.  They would be a powerhouse team on the stump.  Warren would dismantle whatever doffus the Republicans nominated for the number two spot.  And if Bernie started to look like a possible winner, I suspect a number of Clinton supporters would switch, so long as they  could believe that a Sanders presidency would be followed by a Warren run.
Just thinking

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Why do Republican voters like Donald J. Trump?  That is the question of the moment in the blogosphere.  The polling data suggest that substantive policy is not the answer.  With a phenomenon of this magnitude, there are clearly several correct answers.  Let me call attention to one answer that has cropped up in the discussion of the Trump phenomenon.  It is, I find, both plausible and especially disturbing.

Trump's rambling free-form public speeches give people permission to say openly things they have long wanted to say but feel they have been bullied into not saying -- things like "nigger" and "spic" and "anchor baby" and "illegal rapist drug-dealing Mexicans."  Trump has liberated, in millions of Americans, ugly, hateful, despicable sentiments that have been bottled up and forcibly suppressed.  It feels good to them to bring those sentiments into the sunlight, to hear a rich man say them unapologetically. 

What would Jesus say, were he to return to earth and walk once more among us as a natural man?  When I ask myself that question [as I often do], I am reminded once again of Matthew, Chapter 23, verse 27:  "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness."  That is a remarkably accurate description of many of the good White Christian folk who flock to Trump's gatherings and cheer him to the echo.

Will Trump win the Republican nomination?  I suspect not.  If he does, he will guarantee a Democratic victory.  If he does not, he will so damage the successful nominee that the same result is all but certain.  But that is not the end of it.  Freud and the Sixties to the contrary notwithstanding, there is much to be said for repression.  The sentiments whose expression Trump is legitimating deserve to be repressed, they ought to be repressed, and no good can come from exposing them to the light, for although real sunlight may indeed be an effective disinfectant, metaphorical sunlight does not have that cleansing property.

There are fifty-five million registered Republicans in the United States.  Let us suppose roughly 30% of them support Trump, as recent polls suggest, which is to say more than sixteen million adult Americans.   That is a whole lot of whited sepulchres out there filled with uncleanness and dead men's bones!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


This very troubling long article in the latest New Yorker about Trump and his supporters is worth taking the time to read.  Trump has lifted up a large rock, and slugs of all sorts are crawling out into the sunlight.


Americans are not stupid.  Many of them are ignorant, some are bigoted, most are inattentive to public affairs, but they are not stupid.  They are quite as good as Germans, Chinese, Bulgarians, Brazilians, or Vietnamese at sizing people up and reading their self-presentations and body language.  If we abstract from such arcana as policies and just concentrate on how people respond to those seeking a party's presidential nomination, we can, I suggest, gain some understanding of the polls with which we are inundated.

Why is Trump trouncing all of his opponents by double digits in polls of Republican voters these days?  Well, lean back, veg out, turn off the higher functions of your intellect, and just watch him on the tube.  He is clearly having fun!  He loves being on the podium, draws energy from the crowds, jokes, laughs, sneers in turn.  He is playful, he cannot get enough of it.  Once on stage, he does not want to leave.  He is having  fun.  And everyone who watches him can feel it.

What about his rivals?  Jeb Bush is diffident, uncomfortable, ruminative.  His body and his voice both say that he would really rather be elsewhere.  He acts frustrated with reporters' questions.  Trump says he is a low energy guy, and Trump is right.  We can all feel it.  Jeb does not act as though he is having fun.

Scott Walker acts as though he has never had fun his entire life.  Just glance at his face as you are on the way to the refrigerator for a power drink.  He is morose, discomfited, a real Eeyore.  Cruz is stuck-up, the annoying kid in the class who thinks he is smarter than everyone else.  Christie is a fat bully.  Fiorina is a scold.  Paul is petulant.  Santorum is the repressed prig who pretends never to have masturbated.   And Jindal is just weird.

These are not political judgments or ideological evaluations.  They are gut reactions  -- the sort we all have every day when we meet people.  This is how the public sizes up candidates, and I have to say, their reactions are pretty shrewd.  [The fact that they are also politically disastrous is a subject for another post.]

What about the Democrats?  Clinton is irritated.  She is irritated by reporters' gotcha questions that ignore her carefully crafted policy papers.  She is irritated by the hoofaraw surrounding her e-mails when she knows that her motives are as pure as the driven snow.  She is irritated that she must work for a nomination that was hers for the asking six months ago.  In front of a crowd, her body and face say that she is doing her duty.  She smiles a lot and gives full-throated laughs from time to time, but she is clearly not having fun.  She never seems to want to stay on the podium just a little while longer, and then a little while longer still.  She is utterly unlike her husband, who never saw a group of people he did not want to rub up against and charm.

Bernie is angry.  It is a righteous anger, a policy-driven anger, but it is anger nonetheless.  He is the only candidate in either party who actually cares more about his policies than he does about getting elected.  He is the most earnest candidate to have come along since Adlai Stevenson.  Bernie probably could have fun if the world were ever what it ought to be, but right now there is no time for having fun.  Be serious!  his body language says.

Joe Biden is always having fun.  Put him in front of a crowd and his face lights up.  If he could patent that and sell it to Clinton, it would be worth every penny she has raised from her rich friends.  She would win in a landslide.

Which of these folks would be a good president?  Ah well, that is quite another matter.  When it comes to answering that question, I do not have quite so much faith in the Great American Public.




Monday, August 24, 2015


Tomorrow Susie and I will celebrate our twenty-eighth wedding anniversary.  I will take her to dinner at  a lovely upscale Durham, NC restaurant on West Main Street called Revolution [you can't make this stuff up.]  At dinner this evening, we were reminiscing about our first dates, in 1948 and 1949, when we were students at Forest Hills High School in Queens.

Our very first date [a story I tell in my Autobiography] was a movie outing.  I took Susie to the Thalia Theater in Manhattan, an early art movie theater, to see a revival of César, the third in a pre-war film trilogy made by the great French director Marcel Pagnol.  [For musical buffs, the entire trilogy -- Marius, Fanny, César -- was turned into the Broadway show Most Happy Fella.]  At about the same time, I started taking Susie to performances of the newly formed Bach Aria Group, which performed arias from the Bach cantatas at venues such as the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan.  It was there that I first heard Bernard Greenhouse, the marvelous cellist who was later a mainstay of the Beaux Arts trio [with the inimitable pixie Menahem Pressler on piano.]  The violinist was Maurice Wilk, the very best student of my violin teacher, Mrs. Irma Zaccharias,

Somewhat later, I took Susie on a big date to the Cherry Lane Theater in the Village, where we watched a performance of T. S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes with the curtain raiser Desire Caught By The Tail by Picasso.  We even went to the Davenport Free Theater , a weird and wonderful place in Manhattan where one could watch terrible performances absolutely free.

But our fanciest date was in the summer of '52, when I was working as a Copy Boy at the New York Herald Tribune.  I took Susie to the Blue Angel, a New York cabaret named after the dive in the famous Marlene Dietrich film.  The cover charge was five dollars per person -- a fortune -- but the show was quite memorable.  There were three acts -- Orson Bean, who opened, Josh White, and Eartha Kitt.  Josh White and Eartha Kitt were spectacular, of course, but I still remember Orson Bean's opening joke.  He came out, took the microphone rather diffidently, and said, "Hello.  My name is Orson bean, Harvard 48 ... Yale nothing."  It got a big laugh.

I wonder sometimes.  Do young people today go on dates like that?


I am no sort of scholar, as I have observed many times on this blog.  Perhaps that is why I stand in awe of the scholars I have been privileged to meet.  My first encounter with a world-class scholar was as a sophomore at Harvard, back in 1952, sixty-three years ago.  I sat for a semester in Harry Austryn Wolfson's great course on Spinoza's Ethics.  We all knew that none of us would ever be, could ever be, a scholar like Wolfson, but simply to sit in his presence was a blessing -- rather like listening to Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach Suites for unaccompanied cello.

Nine years later, when I left my Harvard Instructorship to take up an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago, I was powerfully impressed by the fact that one of my new colleagues would be Alan Gewirth, whom the philosophical world new as a moral and political philosopher, but who was, to me, the editor of the edition of Marsilius of Padua's Defensor Pacis that I had read during my half year on an SSRC post-doctoral fellowship.  Three years later still, when I moved to a tenured Associate Professorship at Columbia, it was not Ernest Nagel or John Herman Randall or Arthur Danto or Sidney Morgenbesser whose presence in my new department impressed me, but Paul Kristeller. 

Paul was a German scholar of the Renaissance thirty years my senior.  Among his great achievements was the Iter Italicum, a catalogue of early manuscripts that he painstakingly assembled during his years in Italy by going from castle to castle, monastery to monastery, and to the Vatican archives as well, recording what he had found.  It was the sort of laborious act of scholarship that earned one fame and honor back in the days before the Internet.  It was a source of great sadness to me that during the '68 Columbia student uprising, because we took up opposite sides in that dispute, Paul stopped talking to me.  When the two of us rode up to the seventh floor of Philosophy Hall in the building's tiny elevator, Paul would turn his face away from me in a physical act of rejection.

In those days, one could even gain scholarly recognition by doing something that a computer now accomplishes with a few simple commands.  One philosopher, whose name escapes me, made a name for himself by laboriously cranking out a concordance to the works of Spinoza -- useful, to be sure, but now the sort of task one would assign to an undergraduate for extra credit.

These random thoughts, which engaged me during my walk this morning, were prompted by the latest exchange in the comments section of this blog.  I posted a response to Sheryl Mitchell in which I attributed to Hillary Clinton the tone-deaf remark "All lives matter" as a response to the Black Lives Matter protestors at one of her campaign events.  At 4:42 p.m. yesterday, Matt Austern questioned my attribution.  Sixty-eight minutes later, someone writing under the pseudonym "Lounger" popped up with a link to an NPR  story confirming my memory.

Young people these days are so accustomed to these sorts of things that they cannot understand why old folks like me continued to be astonished by them.  What would Harry Wolfson, Alan Gewirth, and Paul Kristeller think, if they were still with us?

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Sheryl Mitchell asks the following question:  "I am very interested in your thoughts on the recent conflict between the Sander's campaign and some black activist groups. Today's Times characterised this as a difference between a race-based and class-based analysis of American society. As a Sanders fan, Marxist, and former head of an Afro-American studies department, you would seem to be uniquely well-placed to comment on this. What is your take?"

One correction:  I was the Graduate Program Director of the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for twelve years, but never the head of the department.  That said, what is my take?

I have some things to say of an unorganized nature, and I will be happy to share them, but I want to resist offering a full-scale theoretical response, which would suggest that my insight is deeper and my knowledge broader than is the fact. 

First of all, I am not surprised that Bernie was blind-sided.  He clearly initially believed that since his very detailed policy proposals would, if anything, disproportionally benefit people of color, inasmuch as they have been disproportionally disadvantaged by American capitalism, and since he put himself personally on the line during the Civil Rights Movement, Black activists would recognize these facts and support rather than confront him.  He was wrong to assume that, as he very quickly realized, but I find it entirely understandable and -- in my personal opinion -- not at all reprehensible.

I think he knows that it is essential for him to embrace the Black Lives Matter activists in ways they can acknowledge and welcome, rather than acting hurt that they do not recognize his lifelong commitment to racial justice.  Speaking [or writing] as someone even older than Bernie, I can tell you that it is often hard for old warriors to be confronted by young fired up activists who seem to have been born yesterday.  Saying, somewhat defensively, "I marched and rode in the '60's" -- which is to say before the parents of the people confronting him were born -- is never going to get a respectful hearing.  I have the same problem all the time talking to philosophy students whose grandparents I might have taught in college.

By comparison, Hillary Clinton's initial response to the activists -- "all lives matter" -- was tone-deaf.  The cry "Black lives matter!" is not by implication a statement that white lives do not matter.  It is a dramatic assertion that Black men and women are being slaughtered by the police in this country and it has got to stop now.  Those saying it are announcing that they are no longer willing in any way to accept or be complicit in the injustice being inflicted specifically on Black people in America.

But obviously there is a great deal more to say.  I have on a number of occasions written on this blog about the distinctive intersection of race and class in American history -- an intersection that one does not find in the same way in European nations [despite the English exploitation and brutalization of the Irish peasantry.]   Slavery was not some unfortunate peccadillo on the way to the realization of the American dream.  It was the central fact about the development of the American economy for the first two hundred and fifty years, and the particular structural deformations and social evils consequent upon it remain a defining element of the American "story" to the present day.  It is understandable that socialist theorists schooled on the story of the rise of capitalism in Europe should try to assimilate the fact of American slavery to that story without in any essential way altering the outlines of the story, but it is in my judgment a mistake.  Since I have written a book about this [Autobiography of an Ex-White Man University of Rochester Press, 2005] I will not repeat here what I said there.

It is a fact about contemporary American politics that Bill Clinton, and by extension Hillary Clinton, enjoys phenomenal and very emotional approval in the Black community -- never mind whether that approval is justified.  Bernie needs a substantial portion of the community behind him if he is to have any chance of mounting a serious challenge to Clinton for the nomination, and I do not know whether he has the slightest chance of getting it.

On any substantive issue of policy you can name, Sanders would be at least as good as Clinton from the point of view of Black activists and on many he would clearly be better, but nobody ever votes on the basis of rational self-interest except the rich, and even they are quite capable of failing to recognize their Savior when he appears, as the monied hatred of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 30's demonstrates.




Saturday, August 22, 2015


Those of you have watched a number of Donald Trump's free form rants, as I have, will know that a good deal of his time at the podium is devoted to bragging.  There are three brags that crop up again and again as he wanders across the political landscape, like Pierre at the Battle of Borodino.  Trump tells us proudly that he is very rich, that he is very smart, and -- apparently as evidence of his smarts -- that he went to THE WHARTON SCHOOL OF BUSINESS.  [I put those last words in caps because that is how Trump pronounces them.]

When I first heard Trump trumpet his credentials as a graduate of the Wharton School, I winced in sympathetic embarrassment.  There is nothing more pathetic than someone reaching for the scraps and shards of educational respectability.  It puts one in mind of the character in Kim [is my memory accurate here?] who lists himself as "B. A. Oxon. failed."

Now the simple fact is that Trump began his undergraduate career at Fordham, a perfectly respectable institution ranked sixty-eighth in the latest list of American universities.  He transferred to Wharton after two years and earned a B. A.  -- not, be it noted, an MBA -- at that institution, which is actually ranked third in business schools behind Stanford and Harvard.

I am waiting for a debate moderator to ask Trump"  "If you are so smart, why did you go to the business school ranked third, rather than to the one ranked first or second?"  That is the sort of thing that ought to make no difference at all save to a blowhard braggart like Trump.


The sheer ugliness and viciousness of the assault on the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment have caught even me by surprise.  There is not much point in expatiating on their evil.  Anyone who shares the hysteria about "anchor babies" is invited to seek out another blog.  But as I took my morning walk today, I found myself wondering just how the mouthpieces for this latest nativist outburst imagine their "revisions" to Section One would actually play out.

Certain questions would need to be settled first.  Would the denial of citizenship to those whose parents are not themselves citizens be retrospective or prospective?  That is to say, do Trump and his mimics propose to strip citizenship from those already born in the United States to "illegals" or simply to deny that citizenship henceforward?  I rather suspect they mean to take presumptive citizenship away from those who, until now, have been considered citizens, but if so, unto what generation?  Suppose a young man of eighteen presents himself to register to vote.  He carries with him his birth certificate, which until now would be sufficient to establish his citizenship.  Do Trump and company wish to demand that he also produce the birth certificates of his mother and father, or their naturalization papers?  Of his grandparents?

The unspoken assumption in this frenzy of nativism is that "anchor babies" carry their offensive status about on their persons, in the form, we might imagine, of Hispanic accents and brown skin.  But clearly the law must be applied evenhandedly.  So if the son or daughter of Scott Walker or Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum comes to the Office of Elections to register to vote, presumably he or she also will be asked for proof of parent's citizenship in addition to a birth certificate, as will the sons and daughters of all the hate filled idiots cheering Trump on at his rallies.

Do you suppose they understand that?

Ah, but that is just the sort of silly clever question [as the British say] that an over-educated radical like me would ask with a smug look of condescension.  We all understand what is going on here.  The idea is simply to get rid of them, the other, the interlopers who are stealing our God-fearing White Christian country.

Trump wants to round up all the "illegals" and deport them.  Cool heads point out how much it would cost to deport eleven million people.  But that vastly understates the problem.  It would be necessary [with the protections of due process -- another part of that pesky Section One] to check the citizenship status of every single person in the United States, not just those with suspiciously Hispanic-sounding names or those whose skin tone raises alarm bells.  Presumably the revision of the Fourteenth Amendment would apply to Irish illegals and German illegals and Canadian illegals as well was to Mexican or Guatemalan or Brazilian illegals.

Indeed, who would do the checking, inasmuch as every  one of the government officials would also have to be checked for the new citizenship status.

This may be what Trump has in mind when he says he will create millions of jobs.

Friday, August 21, 2015


I return to my fantasy that Bernie Sanders becomes the next president of the United States.  Cut me some slack.  Life is very hard for a Tigger with my ideological preferences in today's world.  The only way to preserve my sanity is to retreat from time to time into the privacy of my own mind and wonder "What if?"

How could Sanders win the nomination against what still seems to be the Clinton juggernaut?  Well, suppose that the e-mail server problem [of which more anon] metastasizes, as increasingly it seems that it may.  This could certainly carry Bernie to victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, thereby at a minimum prolonging Clinton's seemingly inevitable victory.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump might sweep Iowa, New Hampshire, and the Nevada caucuses. creating the genuine possibility of a Trump nomination.

Once it looks as though Trump may win the Republican nomination, Democratic voters hesitant to see Sanders go up against Jeb Bush or Scott Walker or Marco Rubio will begin to follow their hearts to the Sanders campaign.

If Trump does in fact secure the nomination, there may be a full-scale revolt the following week at the Democratic Convention, with delegates pledged to Clinton, but unhappy with a weakened and scandal-ridden candidate, bolting to Sanders, thereby creating a genuine crisis in the Convention and resulting in the nomination of Sanders, who would then go up against the only Republican he could actually beat -- Donald Trump.

An alternative scenario calls for the Republicans, terrified of such a turn of events, driving Trump from the party into a third party bid, which once again would convince Sanders lovers that he could actually win, even against what passes for a rational Republican.

There is my midnight waking dream.  Call it my own personal exercise in Possible Worlds Political Philosophy.

Now to this business of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server.  Thus far, all discussion has focused on the question whether classified e-mails turned up on the server.  My personal uninformed guess is that when all the investigations are concluded, it will turn out that no significant classified e-mails were sent or received using that server.  But that, in my opinion, does not settle the matter at all.  Let me conjure for you an entirely fictional scenario -- what lawyers call a "hypothetical" and physicists call a "gedankenexperiment" and philosophers these days call "doing philosophy."

magine that shortly after her marriage in 2010, when Hillary Clinton was still Secretary of State, Chelsea Clinton had became pregnant.  Suppose that the pregnancy was medically complicated, and that there was a real danger that Chelsea would lose the baby and even perhaps die.  Suppose Chelsea's doctors had told her that since she had chosen to carry the baby to term, it was medically essential that she remove all threat of stress from her life and live very cautiously and protectively until the baby was born.  At this point, let us further suppose, Hillary Clinton receives, on her private non-State Department server, an e-mail message from a very close personal friend telling her that Chelsea's husband is having an affair.  Clinton and the friend exchange a series of e-mails discussing this problem and trying to figure out how to keep Chelsea from finding out at least until after the birth of her child.  None of this, notice, in any way concerns Clinton's official duties as Secretary of State.

Now suppose that a foreign government with whom Clinton is actively engaged in delicate negotiations hacks into her less secure private server and discovers these e-mails.  During one of those breaks at official high level negotiations during which the parties talk privately and try reach an accommodation, Clinton's opposite party takes her aside and tells her that he knows of Chelsea's situation and the affair.  He intimates that unless Clinton yields in the negotiations a little more than she might otherwise be prepared to do, the fact of the affair will find its way to Chelsea's ears, with possibly catastrophic medical consequences.

This is clearly an intolerable situation.  It, or something like it, is entirely possible for any person in a position as sensitive as that of Secretary of State.  As Francis Bacon observed [in a less gender-liberated time], "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief."  One can perhaps understand why the Roman Catholic Church demands celibacy of its functionaries.

Rather more seriously, it strikes me as breathtakingly irresponsible and foolhardy for Hillary Clinton to have used a private server for her non-State Department e-mails.  [And please let us not be taken in by Clinton's girlish fluttery claim that she knows nothing about those complicated things called servers -- "I don't know nothin' about birthin' babies, Miz Scarlet."  She is  smart as a whip, superbly educated, and surrounded by experts of all sorts who could have advised her, had she chosen to ask.]

Clinton may win the nomination after all, and if she does, I will vote for her, because the alternative would be even more awful by a considerable measure.  But she really is a terrible candidate.




Thursday, August 20, 2015


To the same post, "Old Men Forget," Wallace Stevens offers the following comment:

"I wonder whether any of those artists and academics are still around." Indeed. The regime has not been kind to independent academic inquiry and thought, or to free creative expression, although in those early days, and given how bad the previous regime was, you can understand their initial enthusiasm. I never supported the embargo and I think that the Castro regime was ridiculously demonised. There are lots worse places--Iraq under Saddam, when he was a US ally against Iran, for just one example. But still. The good things that the regime did in health and education were transformative, but really no more "progressive" than what any middle of the road liberal democratic (or even 1960s Republican) government would have done. And the rest of it, I think the Cuban people could have done without.

I ask only one question:  Suppose, when Castro and his comrades overthrew the Batista regime, that the United States government had responded not by assembling a ragtag collection of die-hards for an invasion, but instead had offered the new government massive aid and support for their professed aim of turning Cuba into a socialist paradise.  What would Cuba look like today?

Impossible, of course.  It was the Cold War.  The United States was totally committed to undermining and if necessary overthrowing every government that embraced socialist ideals.  But suppose we had done precisely that.  And suppose we had combined that with a program of vigorous economic and political support for every progressive government in Latin America.

In those circumstances, what would have been the fate of "independent academic inquiry and thought" or "free creative expression."  I simply do not know, but I would give a great deal to have watched that scenario play out, as they say in the War College.


My ruminative post, "Old Men Forget," has elicited two interesting comments of a very different sort, and I should like to respond to each of them in turn.  Here is the first, by Jack Samuel:

"Recently I've come across two different articles in which the author speculates about the effect of McCarthyism on the development of analytic philosophy in the latter half of the 20th century, in particular the hegemony of Rawlsian liberalism in political philosophy and more generally on the ``scientistic'' or ``realist'' pretensions of M&E, language, and mind. As a radical who went on to read Marx, wrote against liberalism and in defense of socialism and anarchism, and eventually left philosophy for Africana Studies, I would be interested in your thoughts on the matter."

This reply to Samuel will combine some story-telling [as you would by now expect of me] with a smidgen of actual DATA  -- real live facts, a rarity on this blog.  Data first:  In 1961, I took up an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago [see, even when I try to cite facts, I have trouble doing it without telling a story.]  One of the many fascinating people I met there was an engaging little man who was a very big deal in the field of Anthropology -- Sol Tax.  Tax had been awarded a grant from the Wenner-Gren foundation [which apparently was the go-to source of money  for anthropologists] to study the political leanings of American academics.  He hired me to make up and send out the actual questionnaires, and then to tabulate the results [these are the DATA.]  The results were fascinating, albeit pretty much what one would have predicted.  The Humanities were more liberal than the Social Sciences, which in turn were more liberal than the Natural Sciences.   Within the Social Sciences, Sociologists were more liberal than Political Scientists.  Within the Natural Scientists, pure Mathematicians were more liberal than experimental Physicists.  The most conservative scientists were the Engineers.  Philosophers, within the Humanities, were pretty liberal.

At about this time, a fascinating series of disciplinary splits were emerging across the Humanities and the Social Sciences, and if you stood back a bit from the detail of the fights, you could see quite striking cross-disciplinary similarities.  In Literary Criticism, the New Criticism, focused on the details of the text, was feuding with older, broader approaches to literature that -- in the eyes of the New Critics -- lacked rigor.  [Fair warning:  this account is subjective and impressionistic, and is offered for what interest it may hold with no claim to scholarly soundness.]  In Sociology, new rigorous studies based on questionnaires carefully tabulated and subjected to multiple regressions feuded with the older scholarly traditions of Weber, Mannheim, Sombart and their American acolytes [such as the famous father of my graduate school apartment mate, Talcott Parsons.]  In Political Science, the split between the new and the old actually led to formal divisions at some universities between Political Science and Political Theory.  In Economics, of course, the mathematicians all but took over the field, although here and there Institutionalists and even Political Economists clung to their Chairs.  And in Philosophy, sure enough, Analytic Philosophy, in its marriage with Mathematical Logic, engaged in a running battle with Metaphysicians, Ontologists, and -- as the sixties turned into the Seventies, Existentialists and Phenomenologists.

Once the Viet Name War was in full flower, and the campuses were erupting in protest, the annual meetings of the several professional associations [The Modern Language Association, the American Sociological Association, the American Political Science Association, and the American Philosophical Association] became battlegrounds on which the national fight over the war was fought.  Motions were introduced condemning the war and supporting students who chose to resist the draft.

The fascinating thing was that in association after association, the methodological split between the old, broader, more humane approach to the discipline and the new rigorous approach paralleled the political division between those attacking the government and those supporting it.  T o put it as simply and formulaically as possible, the loosey-goosy oldtimers were antiwar, and the tight-assed new breed were pro-government.

Except in Philosophy!  The same methodological split could be seen, but people on one side or the other did not line up in any predictable way when it came to the war.  One of the most rigorous of the logicians and analytic philosophers, Hillary Putnam, was even said to have lived for a while in a Maoist commune.

Why this deviation from a national tendency?  I have no idea.  [Notice that this is an old story  in Philosophy.  Plato as a flaming reactionary, ideological speaking, and the Sophists, reviled for two and a half millennia thanks to the bad-mouthing they got in Plato's Dialogues, were actually the4 liberals of ancient Greece, as Eric Havelock demonstrated in his classic work, The Liberal Temper min Greek Politics.  There did not seem to be anything inherently conservative in the methodology of Analytic Philosophy.

This is a very large subject , to which I have in one way or another devoted a great  deal of my life.  I have always conceived myself as an analytic philosopher, if for no other reason because I was introduced to philosophy as a sixteen year old Freshman by Willard Van Orman Quine and Nelson Goodman.  My lifetime goal, starting with my first book on the Critique of Pure Reason, has been to demonstrate that the deepest and most complex insights of thinkers like Kant and Marx can be expounded with a blinding clarity that achieves total rigor while losing not a smidgeon of the depth of those insights.  I view the work of so-called Analytic Marxists like Gerald Cohen and Jan Elster as failed attempts to do something of that sort, in which surface neatness of ideas is mistaken for genuine rigor of reasoning.

As for Rawls, that is another matter, on which I have written an article, a book, and too many blog posts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day
. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King,
Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry V, Act iv, Scene 3

The rapprochement between Washington and Havana has stirred half-forgotten memories, and like the aged men who waited all those years earlier to go into battle with Prince Hal at Agincourt, I remember with advantages the little deeds I did more than half a century ago. 

On April 17, 1961, a band of Cuban exiles, longing for the return of the defeated dictator Batista, and funded by the CIA in one of its less successful attempts to overthrow a progressive government, were unleashed by the newly elected John Kennedy in the misbegotten Bay of Pigs invasion.  Three days later, it was all over and the survivors slunk back to Miami to begin their long, vastly more successful and lucrative effort to warp domestic American politics.

The failed invasion forced me, and others like me, to face the fact that we were not Democrats, for Jack Kennedy was a Democrat --  not even liberal Democrats, for Jack Kennedy was a liberal Democrat --  but something else.  Some of my colleagues at Harvard in those days had read Marx and knew that they were Socialists, but the best I could do was to call myself a Radical -- anything to make clear that I did not, I could not, continue to support the Harvard graduate whose election I had greeted with such elation.

Six days after the collapse of the Bay of Pigs CIA fiasco, a group of us put on a Cuba Protest Rally at Harvard.  We met in Emerson D, the large lecture room at the back of the first floor of the Philosophy Building where Raphael Demos had for so many decades taught "Phil 1."  The three co-sponsors of the rally were H. Stuart Hughes, Nadav Safran, and myself.  I served at the podium as chair.  The class act of the three of us was clearly Hughes, a senior member of the Harvard History department, grandson of Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, and later co-director with baby doctor Benjamin Spock of SANE, the leading anti-nuclear weapons peace organization of that era.  Safran was a Middle Eastern scholar, later implicated in and much tarnished by the CIA's covert funding of academic meetings and publications which they hoped would promote pro-American Cold War policies.  [Those who are really clued up on Cold War gossip will recall the scandal surrounding the CIA's underwriting of the journal of opinion Encounter.]

Although we drew a pretty good crowd to the rally, we were overshadowed that same night by a throng of raucous students outraged at Harvard's announced intention henceforward to print diplomas in English rather than the traditional Latin.

It being Harvard, the new president's alma mater, our rally hit the newspapers, and some time later I received a batch of cablegrams from young Cuban poets, musicians, and academics thanking me for my support.  It was one of my finest hours in a life that has, for the most part, been quiet and uneventful.

Susie has expressed a desire to visit Cuba [because her parents once did, long before the Revolution].  I wonder whether any of those artists and academics are still around.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


I have been preoccupied these past few days with personal medical issues that have drawn my attention away from the political scene, so it was with some surprise, indeed astonishment, that I discovered that while I had, as it were, been away, the Republican Party had taken a large step toward self-immolation.  I refer, of course, to the burgeoning support, among contenders for the Republican nomination, for repeal of that portion of the Fourteenth Amendment that grants automatic citizenship to anyone born in the United States.

For those whose knowledge of the Constitution, like mine, is sketchy at best, here is the relevant text:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The aim is to deny citizenship to Hispanic children of undocumented [or indeed documented but not naturalized] residents.

It was Donald Trump who brought this idea to prominence by advancing it during his helicopter interview with MSNBC's Chuck Todd, and one by one, other contenders for the nomination have been getting on board.  Short of calling for concentration camps and instant mass deportations, it is difficult to think of a proposal better calculated to depress the Hispanic Republican vote below the dismal 23% of the 2012 election.  This will, I should imagine, strengthen the already widespread paranoid belief that Trump is actually a modern-day Manchurian candidate, foisted on the Republicans by crafty Clinton operatives to drive them mad and guarantee Hillary's election.

On the other hand, as one commentator to a different blog suggested, Trump may actually  have been aiming at Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which says, among other things, "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, .... shall not be questioned...."

I imagine that the next target of Republican hopefuls will be the Nineteenth Amendment.

Monday, August 17, 2015


Like all serious bloggers, I have been struggling to comprehend the Trump phenomenon.  This afternoon, as I was reflecting on the reports of the Iowa State Fair -- the life size sculpture of a cow in  butter, the porkchops on a stick, the rides for kids in the Trump helicopter -- it suddenly struck me where I had encountered Donald Trump before.  He is the real-life embodiment of the fictional character Eliphaz in Paul Goodman's wonderful 1959 novel Empire City.  Eliphaz is the literary embodiment of the art of the deal, a man capable of trading the dinner table out from under his family as they are enjoying supper, an entrepreneur who, when love swells in his heart as he looks at his son framed in the dying sunlight streaming through the window of their Central Park West apartment, inches closer to catch a look at the price tag.  For Eliphaz, as Goodman "explains," there is only exchange value, no use value.

That is Donald Trump to perfection.  It is utterly fruitless to try to extract from Trump a "program."  He will say anything, literally anything, to close the deal, and like all good salesmen, he forgets what he has promised the moment the contract is signed.  In novels, such characters get their comeuppance before the last  page is turned.  we shall see whether the great American public is a discerning reader.

Sunday, August 16, 2015


Yesterday afternoon, Susie and I set out for the local art film house to see a movie.  Our choice was Rickie and the Flash, Meryl Streep's latest, or Irrational Man, Woody Allen's latest.   Despite the fact that neither of us is, to put it gently, a fan of rock music, we chose to pass on Allen's latest attempt to explain to himself why he never became a Philosophy professor and try the Streep vehicle. 

It was the right choice.  There really is absolutely nothing that Meryl Streep cannot do, and do brilliantly.  The movie itself is a trifle, seemingly written by a committee of politically correct hacks, but Streep is off the charts wonderful as the aging leader of a little rock band that plays nights at a roadhouse, while she tries to make ends meet by working days as a checkout lady at a supermarket.  Rickie, as she styles herself, has long since abandoned her husband [the admirable Kevin Kline in a very muted performance] and three children in Indianapolis to follow her musical dream on the West Coast.  In a feel-good hokey dénoument, she returns briefly to the gated community in which her husband lives with his second [African-American] wife, pulls her suicidal daughter out of a depression, and in a thoroughly predictable conclusion, wheels in her band [The Flash] to play at her son's wedding [the non-gay one]. 

As I say, I do not care for the music, but it is a delight to watch Streep give another virtuoso performance.  Can this really be the same woman who played Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wore Prada and Karen Blixen in Out of Africa?

Friday, August 14, 2015


While eating my lunch today, I channel-surfed, as is my wont, and stumbled on the splendid 1999 movie version of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park made by the Canadian director Patricia Rozema, with none other than Harold Pinter playing Sir Bertram.  Rozema was influenced in her interpretation  by Edward Said's fascinating essay on the novel.  Some years ago, I gave a talk on the subject at the Washington D.C. branch of the Osher Life Long Institute, by invitation of my sister, who regularly teaches advanced courses in the OLLI program on molecular biology and evolutionary genetics.

In the Spring, I shall once again be teaching at UNC in the Philosophy Department.  This time my theme is Ideological Critique, and I plan to do a segment in the course on the Austen novel, the movie, and the Said essay as a case study in ideological critique.  I am proud to say that I knew Ed Said during my years at Columbia, though less well than I would have liked. 

I shall actually show the movie in class -- the first time in my entire teaching career that I have done such a thing.  In my odd way, I think it is cheating to show a movie in class, because it relieves me of the necessity of preparing for that two hours or so.  The students will probably be quite pleased, although I am sure they would prefer something a bit trendier.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


I am aware that I have certain obligations as a blogger, one of which is to have and express an opinion on whatever is agitating the blogosphere at the moment.  Even though I am a philosophical blogger, and hence am permitted to view the world sub specie aeternitatis, there are some eruptions that, like solar storms, so disrupt communications that attention must be paid.  Donald Trump qualifies as such an eruption.

The commentary in cyberspace on Trump has been quite shrewd, penetrating, and even insightful, and I do not wish to repeat what has been said elsewhere [even though repeating what has been said elsewhere is the raison d'ȇtre of the Internet]  but one thought has occurred to me that seems not to have been explored.  I figure I can fulfill my obligations, before returning to the eternal verities, by saying a bit about it here.  Those of you who are thoroughly sick of Trump-talk may repair to YouTube and listen to the incomparable Paul O'Dette playing the Archlute.

Let us assume, as did not seem likely until quite recently, that Trump actually stays in the race for the Republican nomination long enough to accumulate some delegates in actual caucuses and primaries.  Let us also assume, as seems quite likely, that by the time Iowa and New Hampshire are behind us, the field of seventeen will have shrunk to maybe six or so, no more.  There are four possibilities:  Trump may win a majority of the available delegates and thus lock up the nomination -- not probable at all;  Trump may snag enough delegates that the front-runner -- call him Bush -- cannot accumulate a majority before the Convention, but is close enough that a few backroom deals will put him over the top -- a genuine possibility, but unlikely;  Trump may accumulate enough delegates to be in second place, even though the front runner comes to the convention with the nomination sewed up -- the likeliest possibility, in my judgment;  or Trump may actually win very few delegates, so that by the time of the Convention he is no more than a footnote to history.

If either the second or third possibility is the actual state of play on July 17th in Cleveland, Ohio [the eve of the Republican Convention], the Party is going to have to figure out what to do with Trump, and so far as I can see, all the available alternatives are formulae for disaster.

The Party could allow Trump's name to be placed in nomination and permit him to speak -- accepting the nomination, as it were -- but if that happens, his speech is sure to completely overshadow the coronation of Bush [assuming that Bush is in fact the last man standing, which seems probable.]  It was bad enough having Clint Eastwood speaking to an empty chair.  An appearance by The Donald would trigger chaos.

The Party could stiff Trump as they did Ron Paul in 2012, finagle the rules to strip him of some of his delegates [as they did with Paul], and deny him the opportunity to speak.  That, I am pretty confident, would cause Trump to bolt and declare a third-party candidacy, which would guarantee a Democratic victory on Election Day.

The Party could try to buy Trump off with a brief appearance on one of those nights when no one is watching, but I think we all know how that would play out.  Trump would draw the biggest audience  of the entire Convention, and once he got on the podium, nothing short of turning off the lights and the microphone would stop him from turning the place upside down.

I am morally certain that all of this has long since occurred to the Republican bigwigs, but my guess is that they are hoping against hope that Trump either fizzles or else gets bored and goes away.  Not likely, I would guess.  If you can just wait eleven months, things should be quite interesting.  I shall, of course, be blogging about Immanuel Kant's Third Critique.




Out of idle curiosity, I clicked on the link to spam in the comments column on my Blogger, and discovered all sort s of interesting legitimate comments that should never have been consigned to a spam file.  Does any one have a clue how Google decides what is and what is not spam?  Is there something I can do?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


I am a philosopher by profession.  That means that my entire modus operandi is words.  I do not do much of anything or know much of anything qua philosopher.  Qua, by the way, is a term of art for us philosophers.  It means roughly "insofar as' or "in the role of."  For example, if I were to put a hippopotamus in a sling, raise it up with a freight helicopter, and then release the sling, the hippopotamus would fall to earth with a great big splat!  But it would not fall to earth qua hippopotamus.  That is to say, its being a hippopotamus would not be the reason for it to fall.  If it were, upon examination, to turn out to have been a small obese elephant that had lost its trunk, it would have fallen just as fast and made just as big a splat.  It would in fact be qua physical object that it had fallen.  [On the other hand, if I saw it marking its territory on a river bank by spraying feces, it would be qua hippopotamus that it did so, because that is how hippos mark their territory, unlike other territorial male animals that mark their territory with urine.  I have actually seen a hippo doing this in Africa.]

Which brings me to the subject of this post: disappointing words.  I am a writer [more so, perhaps, even than a philosopher, though I leave that to others to judge.]  I like words and I am constantly looking for words that do a good job for me.  egregious is such a word.  I really like it, and use it whenever I can.  eleemosynary is another nifty word, though I have less call for it than I do for egregious.  I am also very fond of meretricious, whose original meaning was "falsely alluring like a prostitute, " from  the Latin meretrix, which means "prostitute."

But some words are deeply disappointing, because despite their delicious sonority, they turn out, when one checks, not to mean anything like what one wants them to mean.  Recently, as I was composing what I hoped would be an elegantly derogatory characterization of the egregious David Brooks, I bethought me to describe him as crepuscular.  I had never actually used crepuscular before, but it sounded as though it ought to mean "extraordinarily stupid."  When I looked it up on Google, I was dismayed to find that it actually means "of, resembling, or relating to twilight."  Well, that certainly was not what I had in mind.  [I suppose I could have used it to suggest  that Brooks is dim-witted, but that is really a reach.]

I had the same experience a few days ago with effulgent, which I wanted to use as a synonym for lubricious [which means "Sexually stimulating; salacious" and by extension "Having a slippery or smooth quality."]  But effulgent turns out to mean "shining brightly; radiant" which is fine, but not what I had in mind at all.

There is clearly only one solution for this unpleasant state of affairs, and that is to adopt the guiding principle enunciated by Humpty-Dumpty in his colloquy with Alice:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master-that's all."