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Monday, July 24, 2017


When I was a young man, words poured from my pen like a torrent of water from a fire hose.  I published my first book in 1963.  By the time I left Columbia, eight years later, my thirteenth book was in press.  The flood slowed to a stream, and then a trickle, as the years went by.  Books on Kant’s ethics, on John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, several edited books, then the long, deep investigation of the thought of Karl Marx, which yielded two books and a series of long articles.  In 1992, I transferred to Afro-American Studies, and other than a memoir of that extraordinary experience, the periodic editions of a textbook, and two volumes about my parents and grandparents never intended for publication, my pen fell silent.  For eight wonderful years I even made a serious study of the viola and played string quartets with three friends, until retirement brought that to a close.

Through the many years of silence, words had accumulated unheeded in my mind, and when I launched this blog on the last day of June in 2009, a dam broke.  Over the next few years, I wrote on-line a three volume autobiography, a book about the use of formal methods in political philosophy, and countless “tutorials,” some of them twenty or thirty thousand words long.  In all, I wrote more than 500,000 words, the equivalent of six or seven books.  And all the while, silently, for the most part unnoticed, I grew older, until, when I looked up from the keyboard, it seemed I was eighty-three years old.

Slowly, my blog acquired a small, rather distinguished circle of regular readers and commentators, a grand unending seminar in which I was as much tutee as tutor.  Somehow, after a lifetime of teaching and writing, I had found the ideal intellectual community, an international friendship of minds and voices which, or so it seemed, would sustain me for the rest of my life.

And then Trump happened.  At first, I found words to express my dismay and horror, words to encourage others to take action, to resist, words to articulate some understanding of the sheer evil that Trump and his entourage visited thoughtlessly, carelessly, on any too weak to defend themselves.  But little by little, the words grew banal, feeble, inconsequent.  The words that had been my life stilled.

Trump has made me stupid.


s. wallerstein said...

Trump hasn't made you stupid.

Trump is stupid.

Inevitably, talking about stupid people, in this case Trump, dulls the mind more than talking about bright people, say, Marx.

In general, politics (electoral politics) is fairly repetitive. One says the same thing again and again. It dulls the mind in the long run.

I know that you have a stronger sense of duty than I do and feel obliged to denounce Trump again and again.

However, I was wondering about France and specifically Paris. I've always been fascinated by the French and by Paris (I was there once over 40 years ago) and if you bought a second home there, you probably are fascinated by Paris too.

Could you talk about what Paris means to you? I imagine that what Paris means to you has evolved over the years. In my case, that would help me clarify what Paris means to me. I would bet that many other readers see Paris as more than just one more big city.

Paul Kern said...

I also dissent from the notion that Trump has made you stupid. Ultimately, Trump just isn't that interesting despite the need to oppose him at every turn.

On another matter, I recently read Richard King's terrific book, "Arendt and America" and on p.283 he references the critical responses to her essay on "Civil Disobedience". Among those included were Eugene Rostow, Ronald Dworkin and yourself. King doesn't provide any references to these essays so I was wondering if you could provide a citation for you essay and perhaps discuss the topic one of these days.


Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good grief, I do not know what is being referred to. I wrote a serious critique of Arendt for a New School journal. The piece was called, as I recall, "Notes for a Materialist Analysis of the Public and the Private Realms." Could it have been an reference to that, do you suppose?

Paul Kern said...

I don't know. He does reference Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's biography of Arendt p. 427-430 but I don't have access to that book.

Paul Kern said...

The Arendt essay appeared in the New Yorker in September of 1970. The essay you reference appears to have been published in 1982 in the Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 9, no. 1.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I just re-read my Arendt critique, which is archived at, via this blog, and I do not think that can be what is being referred to [on the other hand, it is a pretty good piece, and worth a look. :) ]

Paul Kern said...

Thanks, I'll check it out!!

Anonymous said...

If you believe Nietzsche that philosophers are creators of value, then I imagine that the Trump presidency would give any philosopher pause--if the intention is to go beyond interpreting the world and to change it.

howie b said...

Dear S Wallerstein

Let me begin with a proviso that what do I, or any one for that matter know about Trump.
If we define intelligence as adaptation to his environment and success as doing whatever, the f he wants, that is remaining in power, and going on with his spectacle, then Trump is intelligent, maybe even very. He is shrewd and knows how to manipulate people and the rules, perhaps masterly.
He is not a philosopher like professor wolfe nor is he constructive in any way, other than perhaps entertainment value- and further, a certain constellation of events favored his ascent.
Just like certain predators among wildlife, say a tiger, are adapted to catching prey in the jungle, so is this Trump adapted to manipulate others and the system in late 20th and early 21st century America.
It is obvious that, in our sense, he is not really that smart, but underestimating the man, won't help us in the struggle and survive the stark challenges he opposes.
He has taken the country hostage in a manner of speaking. This is a hostage crisis of mammoth proportions, and who knows how it will end

Anonymous said...

It seems to me, if philosophers are creators of value, that they would proceed cautiously before pronouncing any single value judgment, preferring instead to establish the philosophical justification for their judgments--or at least argue that no justification is necessary. But this is not what we see at all, except in exceptional cases. Whatever philosophical training enters into their judgments is nowhere in sight. Perhaps the effort is unsustainable. But one would like to see the effort.

howie b said...

He poses challenges. He opposes democracy and mankind

s. wallerstein said...

Howie B.,

I have no doubt that Trump has adapted well to the capitalist system. He seems motivated almost entirely by greed (and lust). There's not much to analyze there, is it? No creativity. No new ideas. No synthesis of older ideas. No criticism of the status quo. No innovation.

Intelligence, as I see it, seems to involve an element of creativity, of the ability to step back and criticize the given, of the ability to analyze the world and others with a few more variables than the two that Trump seems to manipulate: money and sex.

Now, is he dangerous? Yes, just as a mad or vicious dog is dangerous, but spending all our time analyzing the motives of a vicious dog does not seem particularly worthwhile to me.

howie b said...

I can live with your understanding.
I think whatever abilities he possesses are solely instrumental and performative. Until he made it to office I wasn't sure whether he was a psychopath or just very narcissistic
The people who are his constituency share the worldview he articulates, but your average schmuck wouldn't pull off his con- he is a highly skilled psychopath and performer, who is a complete nihilist,
He's not creative or self analytical or thoughtful just as you say

s. wallerstein said...

Howie B.,

Let's suppose there are two men who just meet, Bill and Jim.

Bill is curious about Jim's opinions on politics and on life in general, wants to get to know Jim on an "I-thou" basis and wants to play Beethoven piano sonata no. 29 for Jim, which he has just mastered after months of practice.

Jim's only interest in Bill is to snatch his cell-phone when he sees that Bill is not paying attention to his phone.

Let's suppose that every time Jim meets someone, he waits until the person's attention is elsewhere and then snatches his cell phone.

For me, Jim is Trump. He is cunning, he knows how to make money (the cell phone business), but I see no sign that he is especially intelligent. You could train a dog to snatch people's cell phones.

howie b said...

S. Wallerstein

Got your point. He's like Chauncy in Being There but not just simple but a psychopath or evil, take your pick. Do you think Trump is like Reagan in that it's all an act and impossible to read what's under the hood? I think he's rather obvious, but a major sociological theorist labelled Trump as charismatic, not to people like you and me, but for those who think he speaks for them. He's a black swan but surely it's no pure roll of the dice that he's the head of the country.

s. wallerstein said...

Howie B.,

I wasn't in the U.S. during the Reagan years and there was no internet back then, so I have very little sense of Reagan as a person.

As to people for whom Trump speaks, I have family and friends in the U.S., but not one of them voted for Trump. Most voted for Hillary, at least two voted for Jill Stein. Some supported Hillary in the primaries, others supported Sanders. Since I haven't been in the U.S. for over 8 years now, I have no personal contact with Trump supporters, so I'll not hazard any theories about them.

howie b said...

My main point is that charisma is considered a type of intelligence, as is high Machiavellianism.
Just from the standpoint of sociology/psychology.
These points come from the literature, I am no expert of course, I'm just trying to figure him out.
There are examples of historical figures possessed of those traits, many more admirable than others and I just try my best to bracket out my extreme distaste for the man and what he stands for.
Far from trying to sway you from your own assessment, you are thoughtful, can you imagine thinking of Trump as charismatic in a way and does it sound reasonable that Machiavellianism demands a certain level of cognitive strength- someone like Iago comes to mind-
these are just ideas I came about that appeal to me, and I think that psychology and sociology can help us make sense of unusual people like Trump- (the social theorist who blogged on Trump's charisma labelled him as quite unusual.

s. wallerstein said...

I don't see charisma as an attribute of intelligence, but you can define "intelligence" as you like. I don't doubt that Trump is charismatic for some (not for me), but I long ago realized that people who are charismatic for others may bore me or turn me off completely.

As for Machiavellianism, I don't see Trump as Machiavellian. I see people like Kissinger or Putin as Machiavellian: people who calculate their political moves well, without moralizing. Any good political leader is a bit Machiavellian: for example, Obama.

When I say that Machiavellians calculate their political moves well without moralizing, I don't mean that they don't use moralizing to move the masses or to confuse their opponents, just that standard moral considerations, especially the rules against lying, don't influence them much. They may have another "moral" goal: the good of the nation, defeating a dangerous enemy, etc. It all depends on what we mean by "moral goals".

Trump, as I see him, is too childish, impulsive, fickle, narcissistic, ignorant of international politics to be Machiavellian. Compare him to Kissinger, for example.
That Trump lies a lot doesn't make him Machiavellian.

howie b said...

Good points, S. Wallerstein.
This guy Randall Collins a sociological theorist at Penn wrote a few posts, counterintuitive about charisma and Trump as a charismatic- his ideas see charisma as a kind of self presentation in Goffmann's sense. See his blog the sociological eye- not to everyone's taste, but you might get something from it
You're certainly right about his calculations being rather obvious- his is a naked power grab, brutal which takes some getting used to
Isn't this whole Russian gambit a real conniving thing to pull off?
I'll let things stand here for now
we've beaten this Trump thing to death- the whole point of Professor Wolff's post being exactly the dragging down effect Trump has on our discourse

Anonymous said...

Oh, Bob, we don't think you're stupid. We think you are just fine.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for telling me this. I believe what you have said. You have been seeming quite stupid for a long time but that is a case with almost the entire academia. I remember, you and much of the "leftist" academia even predicted that Hillary (of The Clinton Foundation fame) would win.

Unknown said...

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