My Stuff

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, December 31, 2017


I wrote too quickly, and mesnenor offered a more accurate account of “chattel slavery,” but the situation was actually more complicated even than he or she indicates.  In the English Common Law [and elsewhere] a distinction was drawn between chattels movable and chattels immovable or real.  Furniture, clothing, jewelry, cattle, etc. were chattels movable; land was chattels immovable.  [Hence in French, meuble is furniture and immeuble is real estate.]  When a man of property died, his chattels movable were the first parts of his estate to be sold off to pay his debts, thus protecting the land.  You would think that slaves would be chattels movable, but if they were sold off first with the furniture, the widow would be left with land and no one to work it, so in a series of court cases in the American colonies that defied logic, slaves were declared chattels real or immovable, thus safeguarding the heirs.  The best detailed account of this can be found in a fascinating book called Southern Slavery and the Law, by Thomas Morris.  [At least, I found it fascinating.  I got it put on the list of Fifty Major Works of Afro-American Studies that we required all doctoral students to read and write papers on in the first year Major Works seminar, but the students hated it and it was dropped from the list.]

Saturday, December 30, 2017


My Black Studies book is now converted from WordPerfect to WORD and has been uploaded to, available via the link on this page.  Who knows?  Maybe someone will read it.


Professor Pigden has written a long and eloquent response to my cri de Coeur of six days ago [“A Question for Christmas Eve.”]  I agree with virtually everything he says, and yet I am not content to adopt the voice he articulates for us.  In explaining why, I encounter a problem that, I suspect, afflicts many writers who have grown long in the tooth:  I went into all of this in a book I published a dozen years ago, and so feel that there is no need to go into it again, and yet that book sold almost no copies and therefore, so far as the reading public is concerned, does not exist.  The book, which dealt with my experiences in the University of Massachusetts Department of Afro-American Studies, is called Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, an homage to a novel by James Weldon Johnson well-known in Black American circles.

Rather than rewrite here the two chapters in which I dealt with this question, I am going simply to reproduce the joke with which I begin the first of those chapters.  Then I will be able in a few words to complete my response to Professor Pigden.  Here is the joke:

“Sam Shapiro’s daughter comes home from college at the end of her Junior year and announces at the dinner table that she is to be married in two weeks time.  Mrs. Shapiro goes into panic overdrive and starts to plan a modest wedding for three hundred.  Her last words to Mr. Shapiro, before taking over the den as headquarters for the planning operation, are “You are going to need a new suit.”

Mr. Shapiro sighs, and goes to see Schneider the Tailor.
“Schneider, I need a new suit, and there’s no time for fittings.  My daughter, Tiffany, is getting married in two weeks time.  It’s got to be a real fancy suit.”

“Mazel tov!   Not to worry.  I will make you such a suit, your own relatives won’t know you.”

Schneider measures Mr. Shapiro up one side and down the other, all the while assuring him that there is nothing to worry about.  “Just come back the morning of the wedding,” he tells Mr. Shapiro, “wearing your good shirt, your good underwear, and your good shoes.  The suit will look like it was born on you.”

Two weeks later, not having spoken more than ten words to Mrs. Shapiro or Tiffany in the interim, Mr. Shapiro goes back to Schneider the Tailor, with his shirt, his shoes, and underwear all just waiting to be graced by the perfect suit.  Schneider whisks out the suit with an air of triumph, and tells Mr. Shapiro to try it on.

Mr. Shapiro slips on the trousers, and his face falls.  The pants are a disaster.  The right leg is three inches too long, and slops over his shoe.  The left leg is four inches too short, revealing a quite unappealing ankle.  And the waist is too big, so that the pants sag dangerously low on the Shapiro midsection.  Mr. Shapiro lets out a cry of anguish, and turns on Schneider.  “Schneider, you idiot!” he yells.  “What have you done?”

“Now, now” Schneider croons, “don’t worry.  Just extend your right leg to make it a bit longer.  Now hike up your left hip, so that the leg pulls up.  And if you will remember to keep your stomach pushed out, the pants fit perfectly.”

Mr. Shapiro is beside himself, but the wedding is in one hour, and there is nothing for it but to make the best of a bad situation.  He extends and hikes and pushes, and the pants more or less cover his lower half without falling down.

Now Mr. Shapiro slips on the jacket, and this is an even worse disaster, if that can be imagined. One sleeve is too long, the other is too short, and there is a bunch of cloth over his right shoulder blade that has no discoverable function at all.  Schneider the Tailor guides him through another series of contortions - one arm down, the other arm up, the shoulder hiked to fill the extra cloth, and finally, clammy with anxiety, Mr. Shapiro steps into the sunlight and makes his way carefully down the street toward Temple Beth Israel.

As he walks, concentrating fiercely on his left leg, his right leg, his left arm, his right arm, his stomach, and his shoulder, a nicely dressed stranger approaches him on the street and says, “Excuse me, but could you tell me the name of your tailor?”

“My tailor!  My tailor!” shouts Mr. Shapiro.  “Why do you want to know the name of that scoundrel?”

“Well,” says the stranger, “I figure any tailor who can cut a suit to fit a man shaped like you must be a genius with the needle!”

Mr. Shapiro is America.  His new suit – Schneider’s folly – is the story White people have been telling about this country for the past four centuries.  In recent times, textbooks have tinkered with the story, pushing a leg out here, hunching up a shoulder there, trying to make the story fit the facts of the American experience, but the suit never really fits.  The only thing to do, at long last, is to give the story to Good Will and write a new one that really fits the facts.”

In the rest of the chapter, I examine in detail the successive editions of the three most successful and widely respected college American History texts of the 20th century, showing how they adjust to the times by tinkering with their account of the American experience.  But it is Schneider’s Wedding Suit all over again.  In the next chapter, I tell the real story of America, as I learned it from my colleagues in the Afro-American Studies Department and from the countless books I read about Black history.

America is not, was not, and never has been a country founded on the Idea of Freedom, imperfectly realized at first and then, through struggle, little by little brought into greater conformity with its founding ideal.  America was, from Colonial days, a Settler State built from the 17th century onward on unfree labor.  By a complex process taking more than a century, that unfreedom was codified as racially defined chattel slavery.  As the saying has it in this digital age, slavery was a feature of America, not a bug, and today, a century and a half after the official end of slavery, racial inequality remains a feature of American society, not a bug.  It is, like the inequality of women, a foundational structural arrangement for creating and perpetuating inequality.

The problem I tried, however ineptly, to articulate in that Christmas Eve post, is that with the exception of most Black and some few female intellectuals, no one who speaks in the public sphere shares this view, and would find it alien and even incomprehensible if confronted with it.  How then can I speak so as to be true to my understanding of the facts and also relevant to the conversation?

Friday, December 29, 2017


For me, the last eight days of the year are a special circle of Dante's Inferno.  Not only are they an endless three-day weekend, when nothing is open and even the mail is disrupted, it is also a time when one's favorite TV hosts are on vacation and the scrubs are suited up.  In addition, there is nothing to watch but wall-to-wall retrospectives of the year's news, which I have already absorbed, digested, excreted, and tried to forget.  The days are short, the nights are long, the sun is low in the sky even when it is up, and worst of all, you are supposed to be chuckling and cheerful and happy.  SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, does not begin to capture it.

In the midst of all this gloom, an obscure Republican operative, recruited to flesh out an MSNBC panel, made an observation that brought a warm glow to my heart and momentarily lifted me out of the Slough of Despond.  Talking about the probability that 2018 would see a Democratic electoral wave, he said, "the Democrats cannot wait to vote."

"My God," I thought, "that is exactly right.!  We are not just prepared to voted, or likely to vote, we cannot wait to vote."  All across America there are millions of people who are eager to cast a ballot against Trump and the Republicans.  I have never seen this kind of energy on the left..

This is going to be a good year.  Now, can we just dispense with New Year's Eve and get back to regular order?


Qvelling is what a Jewish mother does when her son gets into an Ivy League school or her daughter earns a Ph. D.  Well ...

This morning I received my very first email message from a grandchild, my just turned twelve year old grandson Samuel Emerson Wolff, who wrote to thank me for the fancy chess set I gave him.  It was a very well-composed, mature email message, written on his new laptop.  His father assured me that the chess set was Samuel's idea, not something pushed by dad, who is, of course, a famous grandmaster [another example of qvelling.]

Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local" [he meant "are"].  Well, in the end, all of life is local, and this email takes precedence in my mind even over the Doug Jones victory.  I look forward to playing Samuel on the new set.  He will probably win, but that is just fine with me.  When Patrick was Samuel's age, he was a Master.

Thursday, December 28, 2017


I thank you all for your kind birthday greetings.  Blogging about my birthday was a transparent request for congratulations, of course, but I am shameless in that regard.  I was struck once again by how extraordinary the web is, for all that we take it for granted.  Jerry Fresia, an old and valued commentator, lives, he says, in a small town in Northern Italy.  S. Wallerstein, perhaps the most prolific commentator, lives in Chile.  Other participants in our on-going conversation live in Australia, England, and all over the United States.  It is impossible to imagine an event that would bring us all into the same room, and yet we quite easily and casually converse with one another daily.

Surviving another year has left me quite chipper.  This morning, as I took my 6 a.m. walk in sub-freezing weather, I reflected on the electoral victories we have won this past year and the many, many more I believe we will win in 2018.  I am old enough to recall the Sixties [which, strictly speaking, happened as much in the early Seventies], and the breadth and depth of progressive mobilization now far exceeds what I recall then.  This is a deeply divided country, but we are the majority, damn it.  If we come out and vote, we can once again transform America.

I have now watched 76 episodes of Resurrection: Ertugrul, which I thought was the end of the series.  I was all set to blog about what I have learned from it about Islam, Turkey, and the like, but then I noticed that there are another 110 episodes in a Second Series!  Even for someone as compulsive as I, there are limits.  Perhaps I should read a book.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Today is my eighty-fourth birthday.  Yesterday I had an MRI on my spine and brain.  If the test confirms that I have a spine and a brain, then I shall continue to fight for justice and equality for a good many more years.  I have decided, provisionally, to slow down when I hit one hundred, but that could change if the times call for it.

Let me take this opportunity to thank all of you who have followed this blog for the past nine years, either commenting or lurking [as I believe the current cant has it].  You have all kept me young in spirit, if not in years.


Monday, December 25, 2017


We have spent eleven and a half months decrying the Trump disaster, mocking him, expressing our contempt for him and all those who bow to him.  Now we approach the year of revenge.  Already, the victories in Virginia and Alabama and many other less well-publicized races have set the scene.  For the first time in memory, virtually every House Republican seat will be actively contested.  Howard Dean’s Fifty State Strategy has been revived and launched.  There is good reason to believe that at least two more indictments or guilty pleas are imminent in the Mueller investigation.  Why?  Because in the numerical court docket of sealed indictments, there were four listed between those of Manafort and his son, and only two of them – Papadopoulos and Flynn – have been unsealed.  The generic Democrat/Republican polls average a 13 point advantage for Democrats, well over the 8% or so required to overcome the gerrymandering and wasted-vote concentrations that favor Republicans.

In this dead zone of days between Christmas and New Year, filled with endless bowl games, playoff games, godawful feel good movie revivals and fatuous Year-in-Review TV specials, let us gird up our loins and prepare for battle.  This is one we can win.

Sunday, December 24, 2017


On this day before Christmas, I should like to try to come to terms with a problem that has been troubling me for almost a year: how to speak and write about Donald Trump in a manner that expresses my dismay at his fascistic tendencies and the harm he is inflicting on America’s political institutions and culture while at the same time remaining true to the critical stance I have adopted toward this country for the last sixty years of my life.

Let me begin to explain what I mean with one simple example.  Increasingly in recent months, mainstream political commentators on cable news programs like MSNBC and CNN have stripped away their cautious professionally neutral language and spoken openly about Trump’s flagrant violation of the norms and traditions of American public life.  They appeal to their viewers urgently to defend America’s long tradition as a City Upon a Hill, as a nation born of a faith in freedom, as a society that has since its birth sought to perfect the democratic vision of the Founding Fathers.  I applaud the willingness of even Republican commentators to condemn Trump as a fascist, and I hope against hope that their voices will encourage millions of Americans to vote against him and his Republican toadies.

BUT:  I do not believe that America is a City Upon a Hill.  I do not believe that America is a nation born of a faith in freedom, nor do I believe that America has, since its birth sought to perfect a democratic vision.  I have written an entire book arguing that this story of America, articulated in the most influential college American History texts of the twentieth century, is a myth completely in contradiction to the historical truth. Were I to try to utter the condemnations of Trump in the words used by an ever greater chorus of public commentators and intellectuals, those words would stick in my craw, choking me.

And yet, I know quite well that at this moment it is urgently necessary to forge as broad a coalition as possible in opposition to Trump and his enablers.  I doubt that such a coalition can be encouraged with complex, nuanced criticisms, challenging the unquestioned faith of those I seek to mobilize in an America that I believe is a fantasy.

Another example:  Terrified of the Mueller investigation, Trump has launched an all-out assault on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an assault that is countered by those same cable news commentators who speak and write in glowing terms of the professionalism, honor, independence, and incorruptibility of career FBI agents.   I have great hopes for the Mueller probe, and I view any attempt by Trump to fire Mueller a threat to American democracy.

BUT:  I am quite old enough to remember J. Edgar Hoover, the Red Scares, the attack on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the persecution of progressives, and all the other horrors of these noble professionals.  How can I vocally defend Mueller against Trump without saying things I know to be false?

A third example:  I view Trump’s foreign policy, insofar as he actually has one, as a dangerous embrace of dictators and tyrants and a threat to peace.  But every time I hear America described as “the leader of the Free World” and a “champion for democracy” I must struggle with an involuntary urge to throw up.  Old as I am, I cannot keep in my mind the list of the democratically chosen governments that America has in my lifetime overthrown or tried to overthrow, starting with the Mossadegh government in Iran when I just was nineteen years old.  I first protested publically against one such effort – the bay of Pigs fiasco – fifty-seven years ago.   And yet, I really do think that Trump’s chaotic and authoritarian foreign policy is even worse than what has preceded it in the post-World War II world.

So my question for all of you is this:  How can I, and others like me, at one and the same time join in a politically effective assault on Trump while remaining true to our admittedly unpopular and contrarian view of America?

Friday, December 22, 2017


Today is the twelfth birthday of my grandson, Samuel Emerson Wolff.  We are separated by seventy-two years.  My father's father and I were separated by fifty-four years.   I have a very powerful sense today of the passage of time and the arc of life. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017


Professor Todd Gitlin of Columbia University is one of the finest voices in America on the left.  A former president of SDS, the author of fifteen books, and, I am proud to say, my student fifty-seven years ago, he is an important leader of the Resistance.  He just sent me the following, which I reproduce here with his permission.

As the UN General Assembly readied to vote on a resolution condemning the United States for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (it passed, 128 to 9), Trump’s Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, is reported by the Times to have written to the members of the General Assembly as follows: “As you consider your vote, I want you to know that the president and U.S. take this vote personally.”


Nothing new, in one sense. Of course Donald Trump takes everything personally: a branded steak and a bottle of water, an Arnold Schwarzenegger rating, the height of a rival and the size of his rivals’ genitals, the weight of a beauty contestant, a football player’s posture, ad infinitum. But now, fancying that he has ascended to a truly royal realm, the Brander-in-Chief has gone yet one further: He is treating foreign policy as a personal plaything. It is back to the Shakespearean days when the king of France was known as “our cousin France.” Then it was understood that nations were the personal properties of their rulers. In and of themselves, they constituted the public domain. They were the sole active agents of history, and everyone else was a subject—subject, ultimately, to their will. To insult a nation was to insult the monarch, and vice versa.

In 2005, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not yet President of Turkey but only Prime Minister, the Turkish state made it a crime (Turkish Penal Code Article 301) to “insult Turkishness.”   Under this law, the novelist Orhan Pamuk, among many others, was prosecuted. Trump’s desired world is one in which disagreeing with American foreign policy is insulting Americanness—which is insulting Trump—which is lèse-majesté. His majesty will not be trifled with. Who do the petty rulers of these little piss-ass countries think they are? Do they brand hotels? Are their names stamped onto the sides of beef? Donald Trump ran to become CEO of America. He now holds himself to be, in his sole person, the American brand. He is the august Hirer and Firer. He is, as Garry Wills wonderfully put it, Big Rocket Man. He was elected to reign. Since January 20, 2017, there are no longer civil servants; they are "his" servants,  to carry out his whims and tweet his praises. In command performances, Cabinet members assemble  in the throne room to pay homage. Welcome to the wide and wonderful world of His Excellency Donald Trump, Making America Royal Again.


For some time now, one of the evil characters [the wife of Ertugrul’s brother] has been complaining, if the subtitles are to be believed, about “that ominous girl” [Halime, Erturgrul’s beloved and, historically, the mother of the first ruler of the Ottoman Empire].  This has mystified me, because that simply isn’t an adjective one would use in English to describe a person.  So, learning from my wise and faithful commentators, I first asked Google for the Turkish translation of “ominous.”  Back came “ugursuz” [never mind the diacritical marks.]  Then I asked Google what the English is for “ugursuz” and up popped “sinister,” which makes perfectly good sense.  [All of this reminds me of Mark Twain’s delightful essay, “The Awful German Language,” which I read as a boy.]  Now, of course, “sinister” is from the Latin for “left,” the opposite of “righteous” or “filled with rectitude,” so I guess a Turkish translation of an English newspaper story about the sinister acts of Donald Trump might make him out to be left-handed.


I have returned to Resurrection: Ertugrul.  Things are getting interesting in Episode 49 [don't start!]  The subtitles continue to delight.  The bad guy, who is the blood brother of the Shah, father of the hero, is pushing the hero's brother for the slot of next shah.  The subtitles repeatedly have him referring to this sturdy young warrior as "my niece."  Apparently, there is something about Turkish that mixes up "niece" and "nephew" in translation.  Either that or this is Turkey's #metoo moment.


Today is the Winter Solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year.  What we now call Christmas, the mythical anniversary of the birth of Jesus, was originally and more sensibly a celebration of the return of the Sun and hence of the rebirth of life.  It is only appropriate that atheists like myself should on this day be compelled to suffer the rejoicing of thieves and murderers masquerading as Republicans, drunk with joy at their success in stealing from the poor to give to the rich.  What an appalling country this is. 

And yes, that one vote victory in Virginia has turned into a tie, to be decided by a drawing of straws or a pulling of slips from a hat.  I suppose when someone has dumped garbage on your head, it is only to be expected that you should at that very moment also slip on a banana peel.

I am going to retreat into my binge watching and continue the countdown to my birthday.  Even Tiggers have the right, now and then, to give a middle finger to the universe.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


Look, either I have to find some way to get through the day or I can just give up and kill myself.  One of my coping mechanisms is to watch snippets of The Big Bang Theory on YouTube.  This is one of my favorites.  Each of us must find his or her way to stay sane.

By the way, I am now on Episode 48 of Resurrection: Ertrugul.


Because we have, quite properly, been focused on the disaster called Trump, we, or at least I, have been less attentive to the harm threatened by the Republican Party.  It is time, however, to think about how to undo the calamitous harm that the Republicans have done to America with the tax bill they are in the process of passing.  This legislation is the fulfilment of desires Republicans have harbored for more several generations.  As someone wryly observed, Paul Ryan has been dreaming of this moment since he first read Atlas Shrugged.

Most attention has been directed to the increase this bill will bring about in America’s already extraordinary inequality in the distribution of income and wealth [the latter being far more unequally distributed than the former] and to the assault on health insurance contained in the legislation.  But we must not lose sight of the longer term consequences, which are intentional and truly disastrous.  The bill will dramatically increase the yearly deficit and therefore the national debt.  Republicans mouth assurances that the loss of revenue will be made up by increased economic growth, but they do not really believe that and in fact would be disappointed if it were to turn out to be true.

The real purpose of increasing the debt is to create a justification for doing what Republicans have wanted to do since the nineteen thirties:  dismantle the entire social democratic welfare state.  Their dream is to be “forced” to privatize Social Security, end Medicaid, diminish and then end Medicare, and in general return America to where it was during the Great Depression.

Can they be stopped?  Never mind our dreams of socialism.  Can we hang onto such protections as eighty years of struggle have secured for the poor and for those genuinely in the middle class [which is to say, households with annual income of fifty to sixty thousand, not one hundred to two hundred thousand]? 

There really is only one answer to that question, and it isn’t revolution.  I mean, let’s get real.  The answer is the vote.  We need at an absolute minimum to take back and then hold onto the House.  We need to fight as hard as we can to take back the Senate [allowing us to block more Gorsuches before it is too late].  Then we need to take the Presidency, and start undoing some of the damage.  I realize that this is not an intellectually interesting answer, one that allows us to cite recherché social theorists or talk about Marx [my personal favorite pastime].  It is about as much fun as flossing or counting calories.  But it is our only chance.

The wind is blowing in our direction.  When you win an unwinnable Senate seat in Alabama and take a Virginia House of Delegates seat in a recount by one vote, you know this is your time.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Good grief.  “Election officials in Newport News said Tuesday that Shelly Simonds beat incumbent Republican Del. David Yancey by 1 vote. The recounted votes still must be certified by a court Wednesday, although officials expected that no ballots would be challenged.”  This makes the Virginia House 50/50, with two recounts to go.  I really do think this is our year.


For six months or more, I have suffered a curious loss of feeling in the soles of my feet and a diminution in feeling as far up as my ankles.  After enough blood was drawn to satisfy a phlebomatist and sophisticated tests were performed on my extremities, my doctor pronounced that I was suffering from idiopathic neuropathy.  That sounded pretty serious, so I looked it up.  It means, roughly, that there is something wrong with my nerves, my body is doing it to me, and they haven't a clue what is wrong.

Meanwhile, forty-five years ago I was diagnosed with asymptomatic sarcoidosis, which cleared up after a few years [according to chest x-rays], so the day after Christmas, I will have an MRI of my spine and brain to see whether there is anything wrong that is sarcoid related.  I already know I am spineless.  Perhaps the MRI will reveal that I am also brainless.

I am so grateful to be living near a world class medicial center.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Jerry Fresia’s recent contribution to the comments about Trump raised in my mind once again a question about which I have brooded on and off for many years.  To put it as pretentiously as I can, How do we know anything about the world?  I do not have in mind Descartes-style doubts of the cogito, ergo sum variety.  I mean more mundane matters.  Let me explain.

I know that a portion of Eggbeaters [whites only eggs in a cardboard container] in a frying pan on my electric stove takes some while to start to cook.  I know that because I make an Eggbeater omelet every morning for breakfast [along with half an orange and a piece of multi-grain toast with nothing on it.]  But how do I know that Betsy DeVos is the U. S. Secretary of Education?  Indeed, how do I know that there is a Department of Education with a Secretary?  Hell, how do I know there is a United States with a government in which there are Cabinet Secretaries?  I have never visited the Department of Education, although I have [I think] been to Washington, D.C.  I have certainly never met or even seen in person someone purporting to be Betsy DeVos, and if I had, I would have had no way of ascertaining directly that she [or he  -- who knows?] is the Secretary of Education.  I have actually met someone whom I was told was the head of a Department of Education, but that was in South Africa [or so I was told – it might have been Nebraska for all I knew.]

I am being silly, right?  Facetious.  But not really.  My point is that some of what I think I know I know on the basis of direct experience, like where the bathroom is in my apartment.  But almost everything I know about the world I learned by reading about it or hearing someone on television talking about it or hearing about it from someone I do not know personally and for whose trustworthiness therefore I cannot really testify.  There have been times and places [or so I have read] in which most of what people knew they knew by way of personal experience:  which plants are edible and which are not, how much work it takes to fell a tree, when it is wise to plant a field of wheat, how to skin a seal.  But this is not one of those times and places and I am not one of those people.  I am entirely reliant for almost all of my knowledge of the world on a vast accumulation of what other people say.

One of the pieces to which Jerry links reports tests that show that the quantity of data supposedly obtained from the DNC could not have been the result of a hack because the time in which it was said to have been hacked is too short for that size file.  The authors of the piece, who report having performed a series of tests, say that only a direct download from the DNC computers could have done the job.  Hence, they conclude, the DNC site was not hacked by Russians [or anyone else, presumably.]

This is fascinating, although I do not quite see how it undermines the claim that the Russians mucked about with our election.  But never mind that.  Just as I have no direct knowledge at all of the people who claim that the DNC was hacked, so I have no direct knowledge of the people who wrote that article.  Nor, I take it, does Jerry or anyone else reading this blog.

So, what is one to believe?  Is it possible that an organ of the government could simply be lying to us?  Presumably yes.  After all, look at the lies about WMD in Iraq.  But were there WMD in Iraq, after all?  Indeed, is there an Iraq?  Are there any nuclear weapons at all in the world, or is that just a fireside story to scare little children?  I was alive when the United States nuclear bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Rather, I was alive when it is said that the United States did.  I also sat in front of an old black and white TV set with rabbit ears and watched Ruby shoot Oswald.  Or at least, that is what I am told I saw.  But then, I also sat in front of a [different] black and white set with rabbit ears and watched a man walk on the moon.  And we all know what some people think about that claim.

George Orwell [Eric Blair] wrote a chilling book about a state whose government undermines the distinction between truth and fiction.  It doesn’t really matter whether there was really a George Orwell, because the chilling lessons of that book remain even if it turns out that it was typed by monkeys banging randomly on typewriters.  But could our grasp of the world be threatened by a deliberate effort to mislead us about even the most elementary political facts?

Well, someone just all but disappeared me from Wikipedia.  One more edit and I will vanish from The Cloud as though I had never existed.  It gives one pause.

Saturday, December 16, 2017


The Editorial Board of USA TODAY has been basking in the praise it has received for writing, “A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush.”  I am all for condemnations of Trump, but when I read that editorial opinion, I found a thought coming unbidden to my mind. 

There will be toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library when it gets built.  Someone will have the job of cleaning them.  In Chicago, where the library will be located, I believe, that person will almost certainly be a Black man or woman, getting about as little pay as the law currently allows in Illinois.  If George W. Bush wears shoes that will take a shine, he may choose to have them shined, in which case that job, in Texas, will probably be done by a Latino man or woman.  There are tens of millions of men and women in America who are doing these and similar jobs for very little money.  They are decent, hard-working men and women who would, I am sure, like a raise, and my guess is that many of them take a certain pride in doing well the jobs they have.  The much-praised one-liner from USA TODAY clearly implies that only a low-type person would have one of those jobs, and Trump is not even that low – he is lower.  No one, after all, would think to write, “A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to perform brain surgery on Barack Obama or write a legal brief for George W. Bush.”

If we want to craft a progressive politics for the future, we might start right there.


In the Senate, Republican hold-outs caved, the appalling "tax" bill will pass, and House Republicans are preparing the way for an all-out assault on Mueller.  Meanwhile, popular opposition to Trump builds, and in eleven months, the Democrats will probably take control of the House and even, if everything falls into line, the Senate.  It feels as though we are approaching a crisis shortly after the new year.

Trump and the Republicans have done grave damage to the well-being of working-class Americans, but some at least of that danage can be repaired if the Democrats can retake control of the government.  

The ground level surge in progressive activism gives me some cause for hope, but I cannot deny that this country is very close to fascism.

As I approach my eighty-fourth birthday, now only eleven days away, it takes all of my energy to maintain hope and defeat despair.  

Thursday, December 14, 2017


William Kristol, whom I have hated for years [a hatred he inherited from his father and mother] made the following very interesting observation on an MSNBC talk show regarding the Alabama election.  As anyone knows who was watching the vote tallies, there were more write-in votes than Doug Jones' margin of victory -- somewhat more than 20,000 in all.  But there were no other races on the ballot.  That means that more than twenty thousand people went to the trouble of going to the polls simply in order not to vote for either Moore or Jones  Pretty clearly these were Republicans.  So they were so deeply opposed to Moore that, while unable to vote for a Democrat, they felt compelled to go out and not vote for Moore rather than just staying home.


Wednesday, December 13, 2017


As you know, I have been binge-watching a Turkish soap opera called Resurrection:Ertugrul, which features English subtitles.  In the episode I am now watching, one of the evil characters is represented as saying to the equally evil counselor to a rather naive Emir, "Only the weak nebbishes threaten, Commander Nasir."

Can anyone tell me the colloquial Turkish for "nebbish"?


No need to go on at length about Doug Jones' win in yesterday's Alabama special Senate election.  The turnout in the Black community was spectacular.  I especially liked the exit poll showing that women with children under eighteen living at home went big for Jones.  This is a Lysistrata moment.

With Jones replacing Luther Strange, we only need Susan Collins to flip and the tax bill is defeated.  Collins is flippable, since her excuse for voting aye was a series of promises from McConnell that the House Republicans have made it clear they will not honor.  But wait, you say.  The Senate will slow-walk Jones' seating until the tax bill passes.  No doubt.  But consider.  There are 48 Democratic Senators [47 without Franken].  Last time I checked, there were 24 hours in the day.  If each of those Democratic princes and princesses can bestir him or herself to deliver thirty minutes of random talk a day, the Democratic bloc can stage a collective filibuster that will stop passage of the bill until Jones is seated.  Couldn't McConnell kill the filibuster with a point of order that requires only a simple majority to overrule a pro forma ruling from the chair?  Yes, but there is a good deal of evidence that McConnell is unwilling to take that extreme step, since it would consign the Republicans to impotence the next time the Democrats seize control of the Senate.

At least it is worth a try.  What is wrong with the Democrats in the Senate?  [Do not flood the comments section with answers.]

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


As I returned to my file drawer of unpublished writings after a day in New York having meetings at Columbia, I came across an extended discussion, written I know not how many decades ago, about the epistemological questions posed by the writing of historiographical narratives.  I had quite forgotten that I had written this, but as I read through it, I reflected that these are issues in which I have been interested for sixty years.  Over the next day or two, I am going to reconstruct some of my thoughts in one or two extended posts.  Meanwhile, I await the reports of the voting now going on in Alabama.  This could be big.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


No posts tomorrow.  I shall be spending the day at Columbia University.  I shall explain when I get back.


For some years, there has been a fairly lengthy artiucle about me on Wikipedia.  When I looked at it today, I found it had been reduced to a single sentence.   It would appear that on October 2nd last, someone decided I had passed my sell by date.  sic transit gloria mundi.

Saturday, December 9, 2017


The Dozens is an African-American verbal competition in which men trade insults, each one more outrageous and exaggerated than the last, until one of the competitors gets off an insult so brilliant and over the top that the rest collapse in laughter and confess themselves beaten.  It is one example of the verbal imaginativeness and mastery of the Black community [other examples are Signifying, Loud Talking and of course Rap, as well as the musical variation, jazz riffing.]  But skill at spontaneous verbal competition is not restricted to African-Americans.  Here is a lovely British example I just came across on YouTube, courtesy of Monty Python.


Columbia University Professor of Graeco-Roman History, William Harris, 79, credibly accused of sexual harrassment of female graduate students over a thirty year period, has been severely punished by the University.  Columbia has reduced his teaching load.  That will teach him!  Here is the story in today's NY TIMES

Friday, December 8, 2017


A recent poll reveals that 71% of Alabama Republicans do not believe the many women who have accused Roy Moore of molesting them when they were girls.  This has been taken by cable news commentators as a sign of (1) excessive tribalism (2) inside the bubble thinking or (3) sheer stupidity.  I should like to offer an alternative explanation for this and many other instances of seemingly incomprehensible opinion poll results.

I begin by assuming that people generally are neither so stupid nor so ignorant as to be unable to negotiate everyday life.  Most Americans may not know quite where Syria is or what the nuclear triad is or what the difference is between a Sunni Muslim and a Shi’a Muslim, but they do know how to find their way to the grocery store and they may even be able to make spot repairs on an automotive vehicle.

So what is up?  Well, here is my thought.  It is not strictly true that 71% of Alabama Republicans think Roy Moore’s accusers are lying.  What is true is that 71% of the Alabama Republicans who agreed to respond to a pollster answered “no” when asked whether they believe Roy Moore’s accusers.  So what is the difference? you ask.  Quite a bit, I suggest.  [I am here drawing on a very interesting journal article written sixty years ago or more by David Riesman at the dawn of public opinion polling.]  When a Roy Moore supporter is asked that question by a pollster, he or she understands immediately and intuitively that what is really being asked is “Whom do you support?  Moore or Jones?”  If, as is quite possible, that person believes the women but supports Moore anyway, he or she will be perfectly well aware that saying so opens the way to accusations of sexism, immorality, a failure of religious faith, or – worst of all – being a backwoods know-nothing Southern yahoo.  The answer that springs most immediately to mind in that situation is f**k you!  But being polite, as Southerners tend to be, he or she just says “no.”

Just a thought.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


I have written here in the past about the jigsaw puzzles that I have become addicted to since Susie and I moved to Carolina Meadows.  When we arrived almost six months ago, the maven of the jigsaw table was Mary Anne Clarkson, who has sadly passed away.  This morning, Susie and I finally completed our greatest challenge, an extremely difficult 1008 piece puzzle depicting the twelve signs of the Zodiak.  Here is the picture I took when we finished.


If you look very closely, you will see that one piece is missing.  This is not a Zen thing.  It just got lost.


So I write a post about the BLS Statistical Abstract, and LFC delicately points out that the last  time I alluded to that treasure trove of data, he informed me that it is no longer published.  I am such a schmuck.  My apologies to one and all.  Now, if I could just find my glasses ...

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


In his classic eighteenth century work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon identified the end of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Dark Ages as 476 a.d., the year that Romulus, the emperor of the Western Empire, was defeated by Odoacer.  [It is easy to remember the year of publication of Gibbon’s vast tome because it was the year in which David Hume died – 1776.  – a little Philosophers’ joke.]  This periodization was pretty much accepted by European historians until the early years of the 20th century, when the great Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, advanced a new and controversial thesis, namely that it was not the fall of Rome in the fifth century but the expansion of Islam in the late seventh and early eight century, allowing them to take control of Mediterranean shipping, that plunged Europe into the Dark Ages.

My first teaching job, in 1958, was an Instructorship at Harvard requiring me to co-teach a big General Education course devoted to European history from Caesar to Napoleon.  Since I knew absolutely nothing about European history [or American history, for that matter] I spent several frantic months reading 20,000 pages of European history to prepare.  Among the books I read was Pirenne’s 1937 work Mohammed and Charlemagne, in which he put forward what came to be known as the Pirenne thesis.

What struck me most powerfully about Pirenne’s bold thesis was how scanty his evidence was for it.  A scattering of sixth century references to Mediterranean trade sufficed to sustain his claim that European trade with North Africa continued well past 476 a.d.  That was coupled with a passage or two from Gregory of Tours’ sixth century pot boiler, A History of the Franks.  A complete rewriting of the history of Europe on the basis of a handful of data points!

All of which initiated what has been my lifelong fascination with the difference in explanatory models employed by historians with too much data [such as historians of the French Revolution] as contrasted with historians with too little data.

Many years after I had left Harvard, I began my deep study of the thought of Karl Marx, and this led me to the discovery of the bottomless ocean of facts and figures called The Statistical Abstract of the United States, published annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, a branch of the Department of Labor.  [Here is the official description from their website: “First published in 1878, the Statistical Abstract serves as the official federal summary of statistics and provides over 1,400 tables of benchmark measures on the demographic, housing, social, political, and economic condition of the United States.”]

I have often reflected that historians of medieval Europe would sell their souls for one page from one year of a Statistical Abstract of Burgundy or Provence or Tuscany or London from the eighth or tenth or thirteenth century.  By contrast, historians of the French Revolution or the First World War or the New Deal have so much information available to them that they are compelled to make choices in what documents they read, choices that inevitably embody theoretical presuppositions and ideological biases.

These reflections and recollections were prompted by the current discussions of the hideous tax bill now grinding its way through the Congress on its way, almost certainly, to passage before Christmas.  It is impossible, from anecdotal evidence alone, to form any accurate picture of the economic condition of Americans, just as it is impossible to learn much about the lives of ninth century Burgundian peasants from a handful of documents and some paintings and artifacts.  But the BLS gives us precise information on thousands of subjects.  Let me cite a few statistics I extracted from BLS spreadsheets in half an hour of Googling [in the old days, I would order the annual Statistical Abstract every year, but I long ago discontinued that practice.]

First of all, since I have spent my life in the Academy, some facts about educational attainment.  In 1950, the year I started my education as a Freshman at Harvard, only 6% of adult Americans 25 or older had a four year Bachelor’s degree.  So few people went to college that High Schools graduated kids twice a year, in January and in June.  Fifty-five years later, in 2015, that percentage had soared to 32.5%, which means that even after that rise, more than two-thirds of adult Americans do NOT have college degrees.  As I have observed on this blog in the past, that means that two out of every three adult Americans cannot even aspire to a job as a doctor, a lawyer, a management trainee at a large corporation, an FBI agent, a High School, Middle School, or Elementary School teacher, and in many cities, not as a police officer either.  I am not saying that two-thirds of Americans do not have those jobs; I am saying they cannot hope to have those jobs.

The data on median individual and household earnings are equally striking.  In 2014 [not much changes from year to year], median weekly earnings for workers employed full time were $668 for those with only a High School diploma or the equivalent, but $1193 for those with a B.A. or better.  As anyone knows who lives in this country and pays the bills, that is a world of difference.  Notice: these are median earnings.  That means that fully half of the just-HS workers make less than that.  The proportional gap for household income is even more striking.  Households in which the highest educational attainment of any of the workers in the household is a High School diploma had a median annual income last year of $43,331, while households in which the median income for households in which at least one person had a B.A. was $90,368!

The American people are, as a whole, considerably poorer than you might imagine from public discussions of tax code rewrites and such, and they have, as a whole, considerably less in the way of educational attainments.  The graduates of the least noteworthy among America’s two thousand BA-granting campuses are still, as a group, vastly better off than the two-thirds of Americans who have not graduated from a four year college or university at all.

Well, this is the sort of information that some idle Googling reveals, thanks to the BLS.  How Henri Pirenne, Fustel de Coulanges, Marc Bloch and their colleagues would have loved to have access to such information for the fabled Middle Ages!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


Robert Mueller, it is reported, has issued a subpoena to Deutsche Bank for records relating to Trump's finances.  Things are looking up.

Sunday, December 3, 2017


To pass the time and take my mind off the horrors that unfold daily in our proto-fascist country, I have been binge-watching on Netflix a Turkish [!!] TV serial called Resurrection: Ertugrul.  I am currently watching episode 13, but never fear, it seems there are 72 of them in all.  This is apparently an enormously popular Turkish TV show, watched by an implausibly large percentage of the entire population of our NATO ally.  The show is about a small nomadic tribe of 13th century folks who make their living by herding sheep and weaving blankets.  The hero is a handsome, upstanding moderately bearded member of the tribe named Ertugrul, who is the son of the Bey, or leader, of the tribe.  The love interest is an attractive young woman named Halime who shows up in the tribe’s campgrounds with her father and young brother and quickly captures Ertugrul’s heart, to the dismay of a local beauty who has her hopes set on him.  The entire show is in Turkish, but there are English subtitles [and also subtitles available in a dozen other languages.]  The subtitles are a hoot, since they are filled with the sorts of grammatical mistakes that a rushed and not entirely fluent English speaking translator might make.

After watching three or four episodes, I got curious as to whether these characters were actually based on historical figures. Wikipedia supplied the answer.  Ertugrul and Halime were the parents of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire [that settled the question whether the two of them would end up together, robbing the series of some of its suspense, at least for me.]  This show is clearly a cultural part of Turkey’s current turn toward Islam and away from NATO and the West.

In Episode 11 or so, one of the villains, a Roman Catholic churchman and supporter of the Templars, who are contemplating another Crusade, goes to a bookstore [or so it seems to be] in Aleppo, where he encounters a distinguished elderly man with a full white beard [all the Muslims have beards except the very young men, and of course the women].  He asks the shop’s proprietor whether he has a certain book, and is told “of course.”  When he offers to buy it, the elderly chap gives it to him as a gift, and says, “I wrote it.”  As the villain is leaving with the book, he turns to his flunkey and says, “That man is Ibn Arabi.” 

A tone of awe in the villain’s voice led me to look up Ibn Arabi.  Well, as some of you doubtless know but I did not, Ibn Arabi is one of the most famous figures of all Islam, a Sufi mystic who wrote countless works and plays a central role in Muslim religious and intellectual history.  It is a bit like watching a shlock technicolor historical flick in which Charlton Heston, playing a Roman centurion, meets an old Jew in Jerusalem who says he is a follower of Jesus and his name is Peter.

Obviously everyone in Turkey knows all of this and gets a little thrill from such moments.  Great fun.


I have often observed that in this world I am a Tigger, not an Eeyore.  Let me offer a bit of wreckage for you to grab on to in this tsunami of bad economic news from the Senate.  You can cling to this for nine days, barely keeping your head above water.  If Roy Moore loses the Senate race in Alabama [deo volente], then a single Republican defection during the vote on the compromise emerging from the House-Senate conference will sink the tax bill.  Since the Senate version is loaded with ad hoc additions, each designed to snag a particular recalcitrant Republican senator, McConnell may not be able to carry the conference report across the finish line.

At my age, nine days of hope is not to be sneezed at.

Saturday, December 2, 2017


I am so depressed by the cruel, destructive money grab passed last night by the Senate that I cannot even take pleasure in the Flynn guilty plea.  It would, in times like these, be comforting to believe in an avenging God.  When I recover my composure, I would like to write something about the role that norms of honor and public morality would have to play in a socialist society.  

Friday, December 1, 2017


First, to Matt’s report that a Google search reveals a goodly number of printed references to the article I said had been ignored.  My principal response is:  WOW!  WHO KNEW?  Well, I would, if I ever bothered to read what other people write.  I knew about John Roemer, of course, a super bright mathematically very sophisticated Marxist who wrote a reply to my article at the time [well worth reading.]  But I had no idea anyone else had noticed it.  Thank you, Matt. You have made an old man happy.

About bitcoins.  I read up on them once but know next to nothing about them.  The article linked to is great fun, and basically correct about Marx.  I recommend it.  Bitcoins raise very interesting questions about the nature of money, a subject that interested me a good deal for a while, and about which I wrote a lengthy and unsuccessful analytical paper for my files [nothing I would ever want to share.]  Early in my explorations of mathematical economics, I noticed the curious fact that in General Equilibrium systems of equations there did not seem to be any variable for money.  I pointed this out to a UMass economics graduate student who was taking the Mathematical Microeconomics course I was sitting in on, and he looked at me as though I were an idiot and said, “But of course not!”  It struck me that a super-sophisticated model of a capitalist economy with no place for money probably had a few conceptual flaws, but I knew enough to keep my mouth shut.

Thursday, November 30, 2017


As I continued my excavation of my file drawer of unpublished papers, I came upon a 6,500 essay entitled “Exploitation and Surplus Labor,” which I had quite forgotten writing.  It is clearly a working paper that led to my 1981 journal article, “A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx’s Labor Theory of Value,” which is archived in, accessible via a link at the top of this blog.  The 1981 journal article, which I have just re-read, is, I think, the technically most advanced thing I have every written about Marx, and I flatter myself that it is entirely original and even, dare I say it, important.  But I made the tactical mistake of publishing it in Philosophy and Public Affairs.  That journal was read principally by philosophers, most of whom were not equipped to understand the long stretches of linear algebra that I employ in making my argument.  As a result [or so I like to tell myself] it has received no attention at all by serious students of the thought of Marx.  The working paper has no math in it at all to speak of but it explores many of the same themes and ideas.

I don’t suppose there is anything I can do to thrust my journal article into modern discussions of Marx.  Should anyone want to read it, it lies ready in    As for the working paper, I scanned and converted it without success, but as a .pdf file it is easily readable.  I have uploaded the .pdf file to box under the title “Marx Working Paper,” and if anyone wishes to read it, I would be very interested in reactions or comments.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


I           The Unresolved Problem of the Grundlegung

            The announced aim of Kant's moral philosophy, as stated most clearly and unambiguously in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, is to discover unconditionally valid principles of practical reason. Kant conceives his task as falling into three parts, exactly corresponding to the three Sections of the Foundations. First, he must identify and state the Moral Law, the highest principle of practical reason, by which all rational agents, merely in virtue of being rational agents, are bound.  Secondly, he must demonstrate that the Highest Moral Principle can be derived, entirely a priori, from a conceptual analysis of Practical Reason. Finally, in light of the teaching of the First Critique, Kant must connect up his conclusions concerning the principles guiding the choices of rational agents with our experience of ourselves as causally determined beings in the realm of appearance.

            In sum, then, the Foundations attempts to identify and state the principle governing the actions of rational agents; to derive that principle from an a priori analysis of rational agency, thereby proving that all rational agents, simply in virtue of their rational agency, necessarily act out of respect for that principle; and to demonstrate that we, as conditioned beings in the realm of appearance, must act as though we know ourselves to be rational agents, even though such knowledge is, strictly speaking, unavailable to us.

            It is, of course, a matter of considerable controversy whether Kant succeeds in achieving all three, or indeed any, of these goals. The first is the least controversial, for it merely involves showing that Kant and his audience of North Prussian Pietists share a belief in a particularly rigoristic formalism. The achievement of the third goal, involving as it does the entire complex metaphysical and epistemological theoretical structure of the First Critique, is best left to one side in a discussion such as this. But the second of Kant's undertakings warrants our closest attention, for it is here that we find the greatest controversy arising among students of Kant's moral philosophy.

            The controversy surrounding Kant's derivation of the Categorical Imperative concerns not the validity of the derivation but its significance. Many students of Kant's philosophy, and more broadly many students of moral and political philosophy, will readily grant that some principle of formal consistency of willing can be derived a priori from an analysis of agency and rationality as such.   What makes Kant's moral theory so controversial, especially in regard to his second undertaking, is the extraordinary claim that the purely a priori formal principle of consistency in willing is sufficient to identify, from among the host of possible moral rules, just those which reason commands, and which therefore constitute the substance of morality.

            Kant actually tries three times in the Foundations to establish the universal validity of unconditional moral principles. The first attempt is the famous four examples of the Categorical Imperative.  Kant's arguments against suicide and self-indulgent laziness are hopelessly inadequate. Both make explicit and utterly unjustified appeal to the supposed objective natural purpose of some human capacity or psychological tendency. The argument concerning ungenerosity is rather interesting, but it is ultimately inadequate. For a variety of reasons, most scholarly and philosophical attention has focused on the second argument, concerning false promising.

            The standard reconstruction of the false promising example, with which I entirely agree, is to construe promising as a social practice defined by a system of implicit, but clearly understood, rules, among which rather prominently featured is a rule against false promising. On this view, when I utter the words "I promise" in the appropriate social context, I am implicitly endorsing, or committing myself to, or willing, in Kant's language, the entire system of rules that constitute the practice of promising. But it takes only a little reflection to recognize that the injunction against false promising is not actually a categorical substantive moral command. Rather, it is hypothetical in form. What Kant's argument, suitably reconstructed, demonstrates is that false promising is incompatible with the practice of promise-making, from which it follows that we must, in all consistency, choose either not to endorse, participate in, and commit ourselves to the practice of promising or else choose not to make false promises. But there is nothing in Kant's argument to dissuade us from forswearing the institution of promising altogether. The crucial point is that Kant has no plausible a priori argument in support of the claim that a rational agent will necessarily enter into the practice of promising, or more generally into whatever overarching practice is implicit in the truthful use of language, from which the obligation in particular to participate in the practice of promise-making might be derived. In effect, Kant is at this point in his exposition unwittingly assuming that the agents of whom he is speaking have some minimal commitment to honorable social interaction with which, as he quite rightly argues, false promising is logically incompatible. To the thorough reprobate who simply rejects such a commitment, however, Kant has no valid objection.

            Thus, Kant's first two attempts to extract substantive moral principles from his purely formal analysis of rational willing fail because of two fundamental problems: First, his failure to demonstrate that rational agents have a standing, unconditional obligation to enter into, or participate in, rule-governed social practices in the context of which the notion of contradictory willing can be fleshed out and given substance; and Second, his failure to identify obligatory ends, adoption of which follows necessarily from the mere fact of being a rational agent, and the existence of which would, in a different but equivalent way, provide substantial content for the purely formal principle of consistency in willing. Kant's third attempt in the Foundations is directed precisely at compensating for both of these failures - namely, his invocation of the social contract tradition of political theory under the guise of what he calls a "Realm of Ends."

       By "realm" I understand the systematic union of different rational beings through common laws. Because laws determine ends with regard to their universal validity, if we abstract from the personal difference of rational beings and thus from all content of their private ends, we can think of a whole of all ends in systematic connection, a whole of rational beings as ends in themselves as well as of the particular ends that each may set for himself. This is a realm of ends, which is possible on the aforesaid principles. For all rational beings stand under the law that each of them should treat himself and all others never merely as means but in every case also as an end in himself. Thus there arises a systematic union of rational beings through common objective laws. This is a realm that may be called a realm of ends (certainly only an ideal), because what these laws have in view is just the relation of these beings to each other as ends and means.
A rational being belongs to the realm of ends as a member when he gives universal laws in it while also himself subject to these laws. He belongs to it as sovereign when he, as legislating, is subject to the will of no other. The rational being must regard himself always as legislative in a realm of ends possible through the freedom of the will, whether he belongs to it as member or as sovereign. He cannot maintain the latter position merely through the maxims of his will but only when he is a completely independent being without need and with power adequate to his will.

       Morality, therefore, consists in the relation of every action to that legislation through which alone a realm of ends is possible. It must be able to arise from his will, whose principle then is to take no action according to any maxim which would be inconsistent with its being a universal law and thus to act only so that the will through its maxims could regard itself at the same time as universally lawgiving.

            This language is, of course, a direct echo of Rousseau's characterization of the republic brought into existence by the social contract. It specifies the procedure by which a collection of self-interested individuals can transform themselves into a republic by entering into the mutual agreement referred to as a social contract.

            At the close of the Foundations, despite Kant's introduction of the evocative notion of humanity as an end in itself, and his invocation of a Rousseauean conception of a republic regulated by a social contract, we are left with the two problems outlined earlier: First, how to demonstrate that rational agents as such must, in all consistency, enter into collective agreements that establish structures of social practices in the context of which substantial meaning can be given to the notion of contradictory willing; and Second, how to demonstrate that rational agents who have thus constituted themselves a realm of ends or republic will, qua rational, arrive at a single universal, necessary, and therefore objective set of substantive laws as the content of their collective rational willing.

            Kant's most successful attempt to solve these two problems appears not in the Foundations but in the Metaphysics o f Morals for which the earlier work is intended as a foundation or groundwork. Before turning to that text, however, it might be worth pausing for a moment to observe the relationship between the unresolved problems just stated and the work of the most prominent contemporary political theorist, John Rawls. In his widely read work, A Theory of Justice, Rawls undertakes to demonstrate that rationally self-interested individuals, placed in a situation designed to mimic that of noumenal agents, will necessarily choose to commit themselves to a set of general principles regulating the basic structure of any society of which they may be members. By virtue of the conditions of deliberation - characterized fancifully by Rawls as consisting in a "veil of ignorance" - the choices made by these individuals will be universal and necessary, hence objective, and will at the same time be sufficiently specific to yield substantive social imperatives.

            Rawls' treatment differs fundamentally from that of Kant, of course, inasmuch as Rawls posits rationally self-interested, which is to say in Kant's language heteronymous, individuals.  Nevertheless, as Rawls has refined and revised his theory, he has moved more and more in the direction of a Kantian reinterpretation of his central ideas. Rawls' theory is a good deal more technically sophisticated than Kant's, involving as it does notions drawn from modern neo-classical economic theory and the branch of mathematics known as Game Theory. But, not surprisingly, Kant's theory is a great deal more profound than Rawls', for whereas Rawls posits a society of rationally self-interested agents, thereby giving up entirely any attempt to identify unconditional principles of morality, Kant holds firm to the idea of rational agents as such, abstracting even from their self-interest, and appealing only to what can be derived from their character as agents, which is to say from the fact that they possess practical reason.

II.        The Resolution of the Problem in the Rechtslehre

            It is in Part I of the Metaphysics of Morals, the "Theory of Right" or "Theory of Justice" [Rechtslehre] that Kant finally mounts a full-scale frontal assault on the problems left unresolved at the end of the Foundations. This fact - assuming for a moment that my reading of the situation is correct - has a very interesting significance. Contrary to Kant's own conception of the relationship between his moral and political theory, it would appear that they are not separate and co-equal branches of the Metaphysics of Morals. Rather, they are a single integrated theory, in which the central thesis of the political theory is required to complete the argument of the moral theory. In this regard, it is suggestive to compare Kant both with Rousseau, who influenced him, and with Rawls, whom he in turn influenced.

            Kant begins the Rechtslehre by introducing the concept of justice. In a section entitled "What is Justice?" he writes:
       The concept of justice, insofar as it relates to an obligation corresponding to it (that is, the moral concept of justice), applies [only under the following conditions]. First, it applies only to the external and - what is more - practical relationship of one person to another in which their actions can exert an influence on each other (directly or indirectly). Second, the concept applies only to the relationship of a will to another person's will, not to his wishes or desires (or even just his needs), which are the concern of acts of benevolence and charity. Third, the concept of justice does not take into consideration the matter of the will, that is, the end that a person intends to accomplish by means of the object that he wills; for example, we do not ask whether someone who buys wares from me for his own business will profit from the transaction. Instead, in applying the concept of justice we take into consideration only the form of the relationship between the wills insofar as they are regarded as free, and whether the action of one of them can be conjoined with the freedom of the other in accordance with a universal law.
       Justice is therefore the aggregate of those conditions under which the will of one person can be conjoined with the will of another in accordance with a universal law of freedom.

Thus, as Kant states two paragraphs later, "the universal law of justice is: act externally in such a way that the free use of your will is compatible with the freedom of everyone according to a universal law."

            Kant glosses this, almost immediately, as follows:

[T]he concept of justice can be held to consist immediately of the possibility of the conjunction of universal reciprocal coercion with the freedom of everyone. Just as justice in general has as its object only what is external in actions, so strict justice, inasmuch as it contains no ethical elements, requires no determining grounds of the will besides those that are purely external, for only then is it pure and not confused with any prescriptions of virtue.

            There are a number of problems in Kant's doctrine here, arising principally from his insistence on speaking as though the distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal [or the internal and the external, as he puts it here] can actually be drawn within experience. All such claims, implicit or otherwise, are, of course, strictly incompatible with the teaching of the First Critique.  The real difficulty for my present purposes is the fact that this conception of justice as justified universal reciprocal coercion does not provide the unconditional a priori substantive content for moral principles for which we are searching.

            The problem, very simply, is that despite the appearance of Kant's formulation, which is cast in categorical language, the injunction is still hypothetical. IF you choose to coerce others, THEN you yourself must submit to a like coercion. Note, by the way, that it is as yet unclear how narrowly this injunction constrains us, even should we choose to coerce. It would appear that there is a very wide range of reciprocal coercions compatible with the injunction, including some that Kant would presumably not find attractive. For example, would his principle be compatible with a system of laws that authorizes blood feuds and duels?

            But even if Kant can demonstrate that a group of individuals, by committing themselves to the fundamental principle of justice, thereby so severely constrain their subsequent legislative choices that only a single system of laws is compatible with that principle, that system will still have a merely hypothetical status, for it will command only those who have chosen to enter into the social contract. What Kant needs - what he has needed from the very start - is an argument designed to show that failure to enter a social contract can only issue from an internal contradiction in willing. In short, Kant must show that a rational agent as such necessarily seeks to enter into a social contract, and does so as soon as possible.

            To return for a moment to the failed example of false promising from the Foundations, if Kant could show that the institution of promising is required by the fundamental principle of justice [not, one would imagine, too difficult a task], and if Kant could also show that a rational agent as such necessarily enters a social contract, then he could conclude that rational agents as such are not only, in all consistency, required by mere reason alone to keep such promises as they make, but that they are also required, by the dictates of a priori reason, to adopt the practice of promise-making. He then really could conclude, as he wishes to, that false promising is an example of contradictory willing all the way down.

            I do not believe that Kant accomplishes these extraordinary tasks. If I did, I would, in all consistency, forthwith embrace his ethical theory. But I think I can show that he makes an extremely imaginative stab at the second of them in the Rechtslehre, where, as I shall suggest, he advances an argument designed to show that we have an unconditional obligation to enter a social contract.

            The key to his argument is the concept of property.
An object is mine de jure (meum juris) if I am so bound to it that anyone else who uses it without my consent thereby injures me. The subjective condition of the possibility of the use of an object is possession.
       An external thing is mine, however, only if I can assume that it is still possible for me to be injured by someone else's use of the thing even when it is not in my possession. Consequently, there would be a self-contradiction in the concept of possession if it did not have two meanings, namely sensible possession and intelligible possession- Sensible possession means the physical possession of an object, whereas intelligible possession means the purely de jure possession of the same object.

Kant goes on to discuss the distinction between sensible and intelligible possession in ways that are thoroughly problematic, involving as they seem to the legitimacy of a distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal within experience. We can leave that difficulty aside for our purposes, for it is of course the concept of intelligible possession, or possession de jure, that is relevant. Almost immediately, Kant states what he calls the Juridical Postulate of Practical Reason, which asserts that "it must be possible to have any and every external object of my will as my property."  In other words, as Kant explains, "a maxim according to which, if it were made into a law, an object of will would have to be in itself (objectively) ownerless (res nullius) conflicts with Law and justice.”

            Before analyzing how Kant justifies this postulate, and uses it to accomplish his fundamental aim in his moral theory, it is worth pausing to remind ourselves just what is being claimed here, for a great deal of contemporary importance is at stake. It is not too much to say that Kant is here laying the groundwork for the refutation of all manner of environmentalist and ecological doctrines, as well as a number of nationalist doctrines based upon a conception of the objectively privileged territory, homeland, or place of a people. Kant himself, of course, is looking backward, not forward. His intention is to destroy the last vestiges of feudalism, and lay the groundwork for a thoroughly rational commodification of natural objects.

            What the principle says is that anything can, in principle, be someone's possession. There is nothing unownable. It does not follow, needless to say, that everything is actually owned; only that there is nothing - no tree, no river, no plot of land, no species of animal or plant, no planet, no solar system - that by its nature resists ownership, that is such that it cannot be the rightful possession of some individual or group of individuals. And possession here implies rightful use of the possessed thing, by the owner, in pursuit of the owner's purposes, and also alienation or legal transfer of the possession of the possessed thing to another rational agent.

            Needless to say, this conception flies in the face of the pre-capitalist traditions against which Kant is arguing. To suggest that the Earl of Northumberland owns Northumberland, and can sell it to the King of France, should he choose, is fundamentally to undermine the notion of hereditary family possession implied in the familiar allusion to the Earl as simply "Northumberland," as in one of Shakespeare's plays. Donald Trump, on the other hand, can perfectly well sell the Trump Shuttle to Delta, should he find himself a bit short of cash.

            In a more modern vein, any suggestion that the human race stands in a symbiotic, or fiduciary, or other moral relationship to nature is completely incompatible with Kant's Postulate. Equally incompatible, of course, is any form of religious or quasi-religious privileging of species or things other than the human species or other species of rational agents, should they exist. In the coin of Kant's Realm of Ends, the principle "Treat humanity always as an end, and never simply as a means" is inscribed on the obverse. On the reverse, however, is found the correlative principle, "Anything else may be treated as a means only."

            Kant now offers an extremely strong interpretation of the concept of intelligible possession. "A thing is externally mine," he says, "if it is such that any prevention of my use of it would constitute an injury to me even if it is not in my possession (that is, I am not the holder of the object)." What Kant is speaking of here, as he indicates immediately, is intelligible possession, or de jure possession. The language might lead us to conclude that Kant is deliberately trying to construct a justification for the most thoroughgoingly unregulated period of capitalist expansion, but that would be a trifle hasty, I think. Kant's Postulate is perfectly compatible with positive legislation to constrain the ways in which property owners deal with their property - zoning laws, and so forth. What the Postulate says is that all such laws must be acts of a legislature constituted by a social contract. They cannot be deduced, independently of legitimate legislation, from the nature of the objects themselves. It is not that an owner must be allowed to do with his or her property whatever he or she wills, but that such freedom must at least be possible, in order for there to be de jure possession.

            Having defined the concept of de jure possession, Kant immediately makes what is for him, by this late stage in the unfolding of his system, an entirely predictable move. He asks for a deduction of the concept of purely de jure possession of an external object [what he calls, parenthetically, possessio noumenon). That is to say, he seeks to show that the concept finds legitimate employment, indeed must find legitimate employment, within the realm of experience.

            Put as simply and clearly as I am able, Kant's argument for the possibility of de jure possession is this: Since I am a phenomenal being - since I am, in other words, a rational agent that manifests its agency in the realm of appearance - my will at least potentially requires the cooperation of nature for the fulfillment of its purposes, whatever they may turn out to be. Even if I adopt the extreme stoicism of an Epictetus, seeking only virtue and not the powers or pleasures of the world, nevertheless I shall find myself compelled to employ some portions of nature as means to my ends.

But the laws of nature are such that I can use a portion of nature as a means to my ends only by appropriating it, and thereby excluding others from a like appropriation of those same portions. In short, for the accomplishment of what I will, for the enactment of my maxims, I require property.

            Were I an incorporeal being, not manifesting my agency in space and time, I might have neither the need for, nor indeed the possibility of, property. Imagine, for example, that I were merely a noumenal rational agent whose acts consisted in the contemplation of pure ideas or the endless elaboration of the relationships among abstract logical constructs.  In that case, my appropriation of modus ponens or the law of the excluded middle would in no way exclude others, for the contemplation of a timeless truth of logic does not require that others be denied its use or enjoyment. But because we are phenomenal beings whose agency is manifested in space and time, my appropriation at least potentially excludes you.

            Kant's argument thus far can be summarized in a series of conditionals, preceded by a declarative assertion that comes as close as he thinks possible to the flat claim that I am a rational agent. The argument looks like this:

1.         Insofar as I act, I must assume, though I cannot know it, that I am a rational agent, which is to say, that I am free. [This is the conclusion of the Third Section of the Foundations.]

2.         If I am a rational agent, then willing an end, I necessarily will the means. [This, Kant has persuasively argued in the Second Section of the Foundations, is analytic.]

3.         If I will the means to the fulfillment of my ends, then, as a phenomenal being - one whose agency is manifested in the realm of appearance - I must legitimately appropriate, which is to say take de jure possession of - portions of the spatiotemporal realm as means.

4.         If I must take de jure possession of some portion of the spatio-temporal realm as means, then it must be possible for me to do so. What is more, there must be, in principle, no portion of the natural world that it is not possible for me to possess, inasmuch as there is nothing in the nature of willing as such that places limits on what might, according to the laws of nature, serve as means to my ends.

            From all of which it follows that de jure possession must be possible.

The question remains, however: How is de jure possession possible? What is required for such legitimate possession to be actual?  Locke, of course, had begged this question in the Second Treatise of Government by simply asserting the right of property as a truth revealed by the natural light of reason. But Kant, correctly in my view, recognizes that this is a radically unsatisfactory grounding for the right of property. Instead, like both Hobbes and Rousseau before him, Kant grounds the right to property in a prior mutual agreement, or social contract, among all those who, in the pursuit of their ends, may come into conflict with one another in the appropriation of portions of nature.

            Legitimate ownership involves the exclusion of others from the use and enjoyment of a portion of nature, an exclusion that may be instituted by force if necessary. Such a use of force, Kant argues, if in all consistency universalized, entails mutual constraints among all the members of a society - where society here can be understood quite simply as the totality of persons who, in the pursuit of their ends, are likely to interfere with one another. So Kant concludes that the possibility of property entails the existence of a social contract.

            And now Kant concludes his argument in a strikingly bold and imaginative fashion. The central text is §8 of the First Chapter of the First Part of the Rechtslehre. Here it is in its entirety:

       When I declare (by word or deed), "I will that an external thing shall be mine," I thereby declare it obligatory for everyone else to refrain from the object of my will. This is an obligation that no one would have apart from this juridical act of mine. Included in this claim, however, is an acknowledgment of being reciprocally bound to everyone else to a similar and equal restraint with respect to what is theirs. The obligation involved here comes from a universal rule of the external juridical relationship [that is, says the translator, the civil society]. Consequently, I am not bound to leave what is another's untouched if everyone else does not in turn guarantee to
me with regard to what is mine that he will act in accordance with exactly the same principle. This guarantee does not require a special juridical act, but is already contained in the concept of being externally bound to a duty on account of the universality, and hence also the reciprocity, of an obligation coming from a universal rule.

       Now, with respect to an external and contingent possession, a unilateral Will cannot serve as a coercive law for everyone, since that would be a violation of freedom in accordance with universal laws. Therefore, only a Will binding everyone else - that is, a collective, universal (common), and powerful Will - is the kind of Will that can provide the guarantee required. The condition of being subject to general external (that is, public) legislation that is backed by power is the civil society. Accordingly, a thing can be externally yours or mine only in a civil society.

[And now, Kant concludes with a dramatic flourish:]

       Conclusion: If it must be de jure possible to have an external object as one's own, then the subject must also be allowed to compel everyone else with whom he comes into conflict over the question of whether such an object is his to enter, together with him, a society under a civil constitution.

            The conclusion of the argument prior to this point, you will recall, was that de jure possession must be possible, or, as Kant puts it in the text before us, "it must be de jure possible to have an external object as one's own." Combining this with the conclusion of the argument just quoted, we can now conclude that it must be allowed to compel others to enter with one into a society under a civil constitution. Since this necessity is universal, it of course follows that others have an equal right to compel me to enter civil society.

            We can now see that in the text of the Rechtslehre, Kant finally provides what was missing from the argument of the Foundations, namely a demonstration that such obligations as faithful promising are not hypothetically, but are rather categorically, imperative.

            Kant's argument is open to criticism at every stage, of course, though it is nonetheless, in my estimation, extremely interesting. Before sketching some of those criticisms, let me call attention once again to an implication of the argument that goes directly counter to the most common impression concerning Kant's ethical theory. Kant is generally viewed as a rigorist, an objectivist, a universalist, a theorist who claims to be able to demonstrate a priori the universal validity of very powerful moral principles that are binding on all agents regardless of their nature or circumstances. And this impression is quite correct. But readers of Kant almost always draw the natural conclusion that he believes these moral principles to be binding on us even in the absence of a legitimately established state. In the familiar language of liberal political theory, Kant is seen as siding with Locke on the question whether the moral law is binding on agents in a state of nature. But it should now be clear that Kant's argument actually entails the opposite conclusion. The procedural obligation to enter into a social contract is certainly binding upon agents in a state of nature, but the moral principles enacted into law by the Legislature of a state thus established are binding only after, and on the condition of, the establishment of the legitimate state.

            Kant clearly does not intend this consequence of his moral theory. Quite to the contrary. But his failure to provide a satisfactory theory of obligatory ends forces anyone wishing to embrace his moral theory to rely upon the legislation of the legitimate state as the only source of morally binding substantive principles of practical reason.

            And this leads us ineluctably to the question sketched above, whether a legitimately established state, based upon a unanimous social contract and committed to embodying the fundamental principle of justice in its laws, is thereby constrained to a single structure of justice that thus constitutes the objective, universal, unconditionally binding system of principles of practical reason?  This, I take it, is essentially the question originally posed by John Rawls in the earlier versions of his theory, before he drained it of its force and interest by an endless series of ad hoc adjustments, concessions, baroque elaborations, and qualifications.

            If the answer to the question is yes - if, let us say, a legitimately established republic of rational agents in search of principles compatible with the fundamental postulate of justice must necessarily come upon and agree to Rawls' Two Principles of Justice - then by combining Kant's argument and Rawls', we would have a very powerful defense indeed of a universal system of moral principles. The argument, in a nutshell, would go like this:

1.         Rationality as such entails consistent willing.
2.         Consistent willing, for a phenomenally appearing agent, entails the possibility of property.
3.         The possibility of property entails the necessity of establishing a state through a social contract.
4.         A legitimate state composed of rational agents will necessarily enact one and only one set of fundamental principles of justice, namely the Two Principles of Justice.
5.         Therefore, we are all, as phenomenally appearing rational agents, obligated universally and unconditionally to form legitimately grounded political communities with those with whom we come into contact, and in those communities to enact the Two Principles of Justice as the fundamental laws governing our interactions.

            There are three stages in this argument: the derivation of the requirement of consistent willing from an analysis of what it is to be an agent; the deduction of the necessity of entering a social contract from an analysis of the preconditions of property; and the demonstration that reason dictates one and only one system of principles as the content of a legitimate state.

            My own view is that the first stage in the argument, which as I have indicated we find in the pivotal portion of the Second Section of the Foundations, is essentially sound. To be an agent is to be moved by reasons, and the logic of reasons requires consistency of willing. What counts as a good reason for me necessarily counts as a good reason for any agent in relevantly similar circumstances.

            The third stage of the argument, I am convinced, is mistaken. Neither Rawls nor anyone else has, to my knowledge, made a convincing case for the claim that free and equal rational agents must, insofar as they are rational, coordinate on a single system of substantive principles regulating their interactions with one another.

            It is the second stage that I find especially interesting, in part, I confess, because I have managed to make it clear to myself only recently. Can the material circumstances of human existence - our spatio-temporality, our dependence for the pursuit of our ends on inanimate nature - ground an argument that we have a standing procedural obligation to attempt rational community with those agents with whom we interact?  Can we, as Kant
claims, compel such rational community?

            I think we can conclude immediately that we cannot compel others to enter with us in a social contract, for the essence of such an agreement is that it represents mutual willing, and that implies that it is voluntary. But am I required, simply by the constraints of rational consistency, to seek such community with others, or is it consistent with my status as an agent to adopt nothing more than an instrumental stance vis-a-vis those with whom I interact? Is this, after all, the real content of the injunction to treat humanity as an end and not simply as a means?

            I honestly don't know. My pre-philosophical inclination is to believe that the answer is yes, that there is something about construing myself as a rational agent that requires me, in all consistency, to attempt to achieve rational community with others whom I consider to be agents as well - though I do not consider myself bound, should they reject that attempt, to treat them as I would have agreed to treat and be treated, had we actually achieved rational community. But at this point, I do not see an argument that can make that conclusion plausible.