Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Sunday, April 9, 2017


I posed a large and unanswerable question and then abruptly left town.  The result was a lengthy, thoughtful, extremely interesting discussion, enlivened by personal reflections on Chile, India, China, and the international agreements regulating a trans-Atlantic flight.  Clearly, I should leave town more often.

I posed the question in part as a reaction to a quotation from Noam Chomsky concerning U. S. and NATO installation of anti-ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe, and in part because I find myself again and again puzzled when I think about international affairs.  It is, of course, always open to me to respond to any international situation simply by asking where my preferences and sentiments lie, but when I ask what I ought to think, what is the right course of action or point of view, I come up against the same problem, which is that I cannot imagine what my standpoint ought to be.

For example, what ought I to think about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians it holds in bondage?  [And simply asking the question that way is wildly prejudicial, but never mind.]  Here are four possible answers:  (1) we should accept the current facts on the ground as established reality and proceed to reason from there;  (2)  we should take as our starting point the borders established at the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war;  (3)  we should take as our starting point the political arrangements that existed before the 1947 Partition of Palestine;  (4)  We should take as our starting point the borders of the Kingdom of Israel and Judea between 1050 and 930 BCE.  There are committed partisans of all four responses.  The third and fourth, you will say, are fanciful, whereas the first and second need to be taken seriously.  But why?   Ought we to accept as legitimate the borders drawn in the Middle East by European diplomats when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled by the Treaty of Sèvres?  Why?  And so on and on.

The source of our befuddlement, as I see it, is this:  All of us in one way or another function intellectually with some version of what political philosophers call social contract theory [save for anarchists, but that is the null hypothesis so far as these questions are concerned.]  That is to say, we understand political legitimacy to be grounded in a unanimous collective agreement binding on all those who have entered into it [and their descendants, but let us leave that problem to one side for the moment.]  The original social contract theorists were quite clear that sovereigns [i.e. kings] were in a state of nature with respect to one another inasmuch as they had not entered into a social contract, and as Hobbes so evocatively expressed it, in the absence of a social contract we are left with the war of all against all.

Modern versions of social contract theory, like that of Rawls, leave us with the same problem, the work of people like Tom Pogge notwithstanding.  So, to put it simply, there is no answer to the question I posed.  I do not mean there is no way of enforcing an answer.  I mean that there is no answer.  The matter is what mathematicians would call undetermined.

Now, about those Tar Heels.


s. wallerstein said...

I don't quite understand what mathematicians mean by "undetermined", but as for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned, I'd vote for your alternative 2.


Because there are people living there, Palestinians, who want their own state and I tend to think that if people sharing a common culture, language and territory, want to form a separate state, why not let them do so?

I reason exactly the same way about the Mapuche Native-Americans in the south of Chile, who like the Palestinians, share a common culture, language and territory and who also want their own state, if what radical Mapuche activists say is true. As I said in the previous thread, that would depend on a plebiscite among all Mapuches to see if they really want their own state or if the demand for an independent state is only a fantasy of radicalized groups. However, they vote for independence, why not let them have it, as long as non-Mapuches (and even Mapuches) in the area who want to leave are duly compensated for their property?

I personally have no special nationalist identification, but if others want to form a state based on a national identification, why not grant their wishes?

Unknown said...

I’m glad to hear there is no answer because I couldn’t find one.

It seems to me, though, that the question of who decides precedes the question of what is decided. To achieve a defensible state of the world order we must first put in place a procedure for answering that question.

Hobbes’s war of all against all between sovereigns no doubt reflected the realities of his time. But things have changed and in fact there are many “social contracts” operating among governments in the world today--the UN with its many agencies, e.g., the International Civil Aviation Organization; the OECD, the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF, the ILO etc.

To be sure, these institutions are not competent to answer the question of what a defensible world order might be. None has the power to impose a solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem. Governments have not established an all-powerful international Leviathan.

What that solution should be, however, is for me a second order question. The primary question, as I see it, is who or what decides? What institutional framework is required? A Leviathan? I don’t think so.

howie berman said...

;About what to do with Israel: peace with the Palestinians must wait until the world is safe for Jews as a whole whether world wide or in the Middle East. Ben Gurion loathed the idea of hoarding the West Bank as did Sharon. The religious right, namely the settlers, who I call Jewish Jihadis commandeered the Zionist movement from the people who did all the work, represented by Labor and the Kibbutz movement. The Jewish Jihadis see Israel as a theological fact, rather than a desperate grab at solving the so called Jewish problem. Peace with the Palestinians (who I recognize as a sovereign people, as do many of my Jewish friends, some who'd you'd never suspect of that position), must await stabilization in the middle east (even a Barak would never give up a buffer like the Golan or the West Bank with the chaos in Syria and Iraq plus the shadow of Iran) or a new world order. This new world order would protect all peoples including Jews and Palestinians, wherever they are or wherever they belong. This statement has a strong, realistic or local side and a utopian or weak side. Israel was created with the new world order with America as hegemon- it was America which tried to cement the status of that order and the fact on the ground of Israel with the Oslo accords. The failure of Oslo was a large and symbolic blow to any consolidation of a new order following the collapse of the cold war.
A new world order or some kind of tacit understanding that has a place for Jews and Muslims and Christians in Israel/Palestine and muslims and christians in Europe and America is necessary for my conflict the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to be resolved.
Maybe I should await for the Messiah to show up or just for the situation on the ground to deteriorate or crumble. We're headed for some kind of unstable multipolarity with no clear social contract, which if I understand history correctly (which others might better than me) the Israeli/Palestinian problem will be the least of our worries
If Israel was a dream and history a nightmare I pick waking up to a saner dream

Matt said...

but if others want to form a state based on a national identification, why not grant their wishes?

Unfortunately, this turns out to be very hard to do in practice, because no territory is such that it's claimed all and only by the group that wants to be on its own. So, there will be people in the new territory that don't want to be there. This is itself a big part of the reason (but not the only one!) why there have been no "clean" or peaceful self-determination movements. Philosophers have written on this, but most have ignored the practical difficulties. You can find some good discussion on the difficulties in "forced migration studies" and other interdisciplinary approaches, but I make an effort to bring some of the difficulty to light in this paper, for those interested:

Even the difficulties I discuss in this paper really only scratch the surface of the actual practical problems.

Unknown said...

Sorry I missed your question when you posed it. A fascinating exercise.

The Austro-Hungarian, later Czechoslovakian (after 1919), still later American (after 1939) Jewish Political Scientist Karl Deutsch in his "Nationalism and Its Alternatives" describes a nation as “a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors.” A bit pessimistic perhaps, but Deutsch’s biography alone gives some credence to the claim. From such crooked timber are we to make a straight “appropriate, or right, or justifiable, or progressive, or suitable, or defensible shape of the world order”? You set tough questions, Professor.

Whatever the theoretical objections to such an attempt, the only natural experiment I know that tried to respond to your question was in Paris after World War I, admirably described in the book "Paris 1919" by the Canadian Historian Margaret MacMillan who is a direct relative of David Lloyd George, one of the conveners and prime movers of the Paris conference. (One of the especially poignant episodes of MacMillan’s account of the conference is the recurring sight of Nguyễn Sinh Cung—later Ho Chi Minh—trying to get a hearing among the powerful for his Jeffersonian vision for the claims of the many poor Vietnamese over those of the few French Planters in Viet Nam. He never got a hearing, although events of 1953 and 1975, along with the deaths of millions of Vietnamese may be said to have vindicated him.) The principle used by the conference was the seemingly reasonable “national self-determination of peoples” proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson (whose acceptance of certain “peoples” in his home country was alas limited). This was the last fetid breath of the optimistic 19th century view that science in the service of men of good will could solve the problems of social life.

The 19th Century French Historian Ernest Renan, unlike Deutsch, saw the nation as a “daily plebiscite” to achieve the "moral conscience” that constitutes the nation. Renan had his problems with peoples and proposed a hierarchy of types (much like Aristotle's) for those who could rule (Europeans) and those who could labor (Asians, Africans). The problem for the Paris conference was identifying “peoples.” Today’s news shows that the conference’s attempts in Syria, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Czechoslavakia, Palestine, and elsewhere fell short of its vision. McMillan has an interesting anecdote of one of the many committees of the conference going to Eastern Europe to draw the natural boundaries of the various peoples. They ask a farmer who would soon find himself “Polish” what nationality he was; he responded “I am a Catholic from this place.”

It seems that we are on a leaky ship at sea and trying to repair the leak while keeping the ship afloat.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

What a splendid answer! I hoped that if I asked a broad enough question I would end up learning a geat deal that I did not know, and that hope has been fulfilled.

s. wallerstein said...


I'll read your paper later when I have more time. Thanks.

Of course the rights of the minority who do not want to participate in the new state are important, and I did mention above that they should be compensated economically for their property if they want to leave. However, the issue of minority rights is undoubtedly more complex than that.

Jerry Brown said...

I am glad you said there is no answer because I spent a lot of time writing a few answers that even I realized were no answer. What should be, and what is, and how what is now is actually determined are very different.

These things always seem to end up needing military type force. I am still trying to understand the US civil war. In that case there was a large group that decided they wanted their own country with their own law. Abraham Lincoln said No- that is not going to happen. Five hundred thousand dead and vast areas levelled and Lincoln prevailed.

Should the Confederacy have been granted the right of their own state? I say no on the "should" part but am happy I wasn't around then to back it up. Would I say no if slavery was not so morally abhorrent and if that wasn't an issue? Don't know.

LFC said...

@Charles Rossi

The problem for the Paris conference was identifying “peoples.”

And even when they could be identified, they were often intermingled to such an extent that drawing geographical lines of separation between "peoples" was not feasible, which is one reason why most of the new states that emerged after WW1 had had a previous existence "as subsidiary [e.g., administrative or provincial] units" of the former empires.[*] And "national minorities" were protected under the League of Nations, a measure/scheme that would have been unnecessary had it been possible to draw neat lines around ethno-national groups and give each its own independent state (which it wasn't).

[*] R. Jackson, The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States (Oxford U.P., 2000; pb., 2003), p.324.

LFC said...

p.s. thanks to Matt for the ref. to his piece. (Haven't read it yet.)

Ch. 3 of M. Mazower, No Enchanted Palace (Princeton UP, 2009) is relevant here, e.g. for some of the history of the discussions of population transfers; he argues among other things that the UN, at least in its early years, "abandoned the League [of Nation's] commitment, however faltering, to protecting minorities, without willing an effective alternative." (p.148)

Unknown said...


Thanks for clarifying my remarks and for the reference. I don't know the book, but I'll get it. Thanks again.

Danny said...

'All of us in one way or another function intellectually with some version of what political philosophers call social contract theory [save for anarchists, but that is the null hypothesis so far as these questions are concerned.]'

Well, this is an easy question for me, at least -- I'd agree that I have a duty to enter into a civil condition governed by a social contract.

'Modern versions of social contract theory, like that of Rawls, leave us with the .. problem .. to put it simply, there is no answer to the question I posed. I do not mean there is no way of enforcing an answer. I mean that there is no answer. The matter is what mathematicians would call undetermined.'

This is loosely stated, maybe. Because, you do not mean that there is no answer! It seems like actually an easy question, at least in theory. We could require universal democratic decision making for particular laws, and there you go. This is good in theory, if not in practice. Beyond that notion, I'd add that my view is similar to the social contract theory of Hobbes in a few important respects. The social contract is not a historical document and does not involve a historical act. The current state must be understood, regardless of its origin, to embody the social contact. The social contract is a rational justification for state power.

Maybe I need to go the extra mile, here, and tease out the point that the social contract is not voluntary. Social contract is not based on any actual consent such as a voluntary choice to form a civil society along with others. Maybe we don't agree with Hobbes about everything, and I might not agree with the way that Hobbes bases his argument on the individual benefit for each party to the contract. Either way, though, it seems to me that one can still say that each human being as a rational being already contains the basis for rational agreement to the state.