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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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."

Total Pageviews

Sunday, August 21, 2016


I have several times observed on this blog that the rise of modern social science can be viewed as a series of brilliant attempts by imaginative thinkers to wrest interesting and important insights from materials considered at the time to be beneath the notice of serious scholars.  The first example of this phenomenon is the development of economic theory by Adam Smith and others in the eighteenth century.  The “higgling and jiggling of the market place,” as Smith called the bargaining over the price of commodities, was widely thought to be infra dignitate, but Smith and his successors, most notably Ricardo and then Marx, wrested from this unpromising material theories of great power, beauty, and world historical significance.  E. B. Tylor transmuted the popular reports of seventeenth and eighteenth century South Sea travelers into the discipline of Anthropology.  Freud made dreams, jokes and slips of the tongue a highway to the unconscious.  And literary scholars, long restricting themselves to the elevated genres of poetry and tragedy, descended into popular culture to find profundity and beauty in the novels that served as light amusement for the middle classes.

With all of these inspiring exempla, I feel that I ought to be able to find Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in the daily reports of the current political campaign, or at least – as Esther Terry, my friend and former Chair of the W. E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies, would have put it – to make Chicken Salad out of chicken shit. 

But I do not have the greatness of spirit that allowed Smith, Tylor, Durkheim, Freud and so many others to transmute the commonplace into the ennobled.  This political cycle, I fear, is making me stupid.  Day after day, I listen to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – and Joe Scarborough and Mika Bzrezinski and Chuck Todd and all the other commentators and surrogates and opinion makers – and my mind turns to sludge.  Each morning, as I walk, I try out in my head themes for a daily blog post, striving for insight, for depth, or at least for wit, and like as not I come up short.  The election is too important to ignore, but too debased to inspire.

This morning, I carried out elaborate mental numerical calculations in aid of a hopeful revision of Sam Wang’s rather discouraging discussion, but by the time I had returned home, my elaborate bandwagon and parade of facts and figures had dwindled to “just a horse and a cart on Mulberry Street.”

This too shall pass, as in fact it does not say in the Good Book.


howie b said...

Martin Seligman (I believe) as an experiment placed a rat in cool water then raised the temperature so slowly the rat never realized it was boiling to death.
The exposure of our political culture to the gutter of Fox and the Republicans have creeped on us that many people can't discern how odious Trump is and how out of bounds.
So behavioral psychology offers a picture, though highly reductionist and partial

s. wallerstein said...

You've mastered one of the most intellectually challenging disciplines, philosophy, specializing in Kant, one of the most intellectually challenging philosophers in the Western tradition. At the same time you have admirable sense of commitment to society as a whole, in this case, to the electoral process.

However, someone schooled in Kant and Marx cannot expect public discourse to live up to their standards with regards to reasoning, critical thinking or even intellectual honesty. I would wager that if Bernie had won the nomination, little by little the lack of intellectual rigorousness in his campaign discourse would have begun to get on your nerves too, although your sincere commitment to socialism would probably have kept you from expressing that openly.

Maybe it's lucky that we on the non-Stalinist left find ourselves in power so infrequently that we have no opportunities to become disillusioned with our own failings.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Three thoughts. (1) Do you think of Kant as having elevated some infra dignitate into the critical edifice? (2) Who do you think of as the true or truest descendants of Kant? (3) How is it that the manifold of consciousness being the states of an object in the world complicates the final version of his argument? Is it because that makes it difficult to understand how there can be a common, intersubjective world?

Ed Barreras said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Barreras said...

Professor Wolff, it's endearing to me that the likes of Scarborough and Chuck Todd can leave you so bereft. Please don't try wading into the dregs of the "alt-right", the movement Trump has belonged to unofficially up until this week, when the hiring of that Breitbart scum made it official. It's pure Neo-Nazi white nationalism, loudly proclaimed and there for all to see. Like you I am very pessimistic about the state of the world. No doubt this too shall pass, but not likely any time soon.

Jerry Fresia said...

I think you did it; chicken salad for sure.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Jerry.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

A quick answer to tour three questions, Andrew. First, no, Kant was not one of those who elevated matters beneath considereation to philosophical importance. Second, my choice would be Clarence Irving Lewis, but that is in part filial piety, since he was my teacher. See his classic work, MIND AND THE WORLD ORDER, one of the best pieces of philosophy written by an American. Third, this is a complex question to which I shall devote a good deal of attention in my lectures, but yes, the problem of a common intersubjective world is part of it, especially in relation to his ethical theory. Stay tuned.

Tom Cathcart said...

Here's an elevating insight: On vacation in Maine, rereading The Brothers Karamazov, I'm dumbstruck by the similarity of Trump to Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the father. Dostoyevsky captures the essence of buffoonery. If, as the cliche goes, Dostoyevsky wrote about the unconscious as if it were conscious, here's a good look at our boy's psyche.

s. wallerstein said...

One difference between Trump and Fyodor Karamazov is that Trump appears to have total hegemony over his family, while all the Karamazov brothers, in one form or another, rebel against their father. Maybe that's the difference between a family imagined by a genius with a fertile imagination, Dostoyevsky, and the reality of a family guided by money, social-climbing, superficiality, and the need to appear on television. Still, it is interesting how Trump manages to keep all his children so submissive. Of course the promise of a big inheritance often transforms rebels into lambs, but even so the Trump offspring are especially submissive and unimaginative.

Given that kids who grow up with a lot of money have more opportunities than most to see all the diverse options that life offers those with a bit of cash in their bank account, their almost North Korean-like spouting of obedience, docility and total devotion to the great leader, Trump, is even more noteworthy.