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Monday, November 5, 2018


Thirty-six hours from now, the shape of the 2018 election will be clear:  a Blue Wave, a nail-biter, or a disaster.  I will spend several hours tomorrow as a poll greeter, handing out sample blue ballots to voters as they enter the polls to vote, but aside from that, there is nothing for me to do but wait.  This seems like a good time, therefore, to talk about something rather personal that has nothing at all to do with politics, viz, why when I lecture I tell so many stories and make so many references to novels, television shows, and other seemingly unserious matters.  Some students like this about me, some don’t, but they all notice it and comment about it either in class or on end of semester student evaluations.  Why do I do it?

There is a simple answer, of course:  because I like to.  I am a natural story teller, a sort of wannabe philosophical Garrison Keillor.  But there is also a very much deeper and more important reason [wouldn’t you know?], one that goes to the heart of everything I have done for my entire life.  This strikes me as a good time to explain.

As I have often remarked, I have a visceral negative reaction to writers who seem to me to strive to make simple ideas as obscure and complicated as possible.  Hegel strikes me that way.  So does Judith Butler, to mention a more recent example.  I have spent my career struggling to grapple with complicated ideas and make them as simple as I can without losing any of their power or complexity.  That is what I did in my very first book on the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason, and it is what I strove to do with the famously difficult first chapter of Capital in my little book of lectures, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.  The urge I feel to do this is aesthetic as well as intellectual.  I am always trying to take a difficult idea and puzzle over it until it is perfectly transparent to me, at which point I experience it as beautiful.  Then, in my teaching or writing, I hold it up to students or readers and show them how beautiful it is.  That is what I was doing when, for my students at UMass, I went through John von Neumann’s elegant proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory, even offering a proof of L. E. J. Brouwer’s Fixed Point Theorem, on which von Neumann’s proof rests.

Now, I experience arguments as stories, each having a natural beginning, development section, and end.  And since what interests me is the logical structure of the story, it does not matter to me whether the story is high art of the sort that Literary Critics concern themselves with, or a soap opera, which would be beneath their notice.  It is the structure that interests me.  So it is that only half facetiously, I sometimes compare Tolstoy’s great novel, War and Peace, to the soap opera The Young and the Restless, which Susie and I watched faithfully for the first twenty years of our marriage.  That is also why, when I am explaining to a doctoral student how to write a doctoral dissertation, I compare it to Jack and the Beanstalk.

The besetting intellectual sin of students of high social theory, and of their professors as well, is to wrap themselves in the jargon of the trade and deploy it as though it were fashionable clothing or body piercing, marking them as serious thinkers.  I hate that, I am phobic about it, and my response is to tell stories about simple events and personal experiences.  Though they often do not realize it, these simple stories have the same logical structure as the high-toned jargon-laden theories they are mouthing.  By telling my stories, I am trying to get them to see the structure of the arguments stripped of its jargon.

That is why I tell stories.  Also, of course, I like to.


s. wallerstein said...

I like your stories.

I don't trust abstract ideas much. In fact, maybe I'm more interested in philosophers than in philosophy. The philosophers whom I most enjoy is Nietzsche, not because of his ideas which at times are horrid and at other times incredibly insightful, but because Nietzsche, the person, fascinates me. I'm not sure why.

Someone who is all abstract reasoning like Kant or Leibnitz or Hegel horrifies me a bit. I ask myself why kind of person sees the world so abstractly and I don't feel good about that kind of person.

s. wallerstein said...

I forgot to point out in my above comment, although it is probably obvious to all of you, that Nietzsche is constantly talking about himself.

Anonymous said...

We're hard-wired to enjoy stories, according to Prof Alex Rosenberg in, "How History Gets Things Wrong." Rosenberg says that historical narrative explanation is almost always wrong. Since the overwhelming tendency is to interpret "narrative" to mean any story whatsoever, even after the terms are defined, I'll make an attempt to clarify them.

A historical narrative explanation in Rosenberg's sense is a narrative in which 1) the (folk) theory of mind (an account of the beliefs, desired and intentions) of the historical actors in the story plays an ineliminable role in the story; and 2) there is no alternative explanation in which the theory of mind of the historical actors plays no role or is otherwise replaced with a scientific account of the relevant neurophysiology of the historical actors under consideration. [Rosenberg's focus on narrative historical explanation in this sense--assuming he agrees--is the reason why history professors in universities won't recognize themselves. Rosenberg is taking aim at popular history and the kind of historical narrative used to justify access to resources.]

Rosenberg holds that the folk theory of mind works well enough in small groups of individuals over short time-spans, but it rapidly breaks down beyond this. Also, there is no known scientific theory that will improve upon or replace the folk theory with a valid predictive theory (or a valid interpretative theory, depending on your philosophical assumptions about social science).

For some, dismissing historical narrative as a Ptolemaic theory (which at least did predict the motion of the planets, without being a good explanatory theory) will seem like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Not for me, however.

MS said...

Like the children of Lake Wobegon, all of your students are above average. (Oh, how I miss Garrison - and I do not believe he was a sexual harasser.)

howard b said...

The advice of Aristotle was to keep things just as simple as the facts warrant.
I think you have good company

howard b said...

Dear S Wallerstein. I enjoy stories too as well as Professor Wolff's stories. Abstract stories can qualify as simple. Take F=MA, very simple. Things I learned long ago in High School stuck with me because of their simplicity. The danger with abstraction is losing contact with the real world. Abstract ideas can help us penetrate to the essential

MS said...

Yes, but some things are not amenable to simplification – e.g., Einstein’s theories of Special and General Relativity, Bell’s Theorem, particle entanglement, and the theory of parallel universes.

Anonymous said...

Not only aren't they amenable to simplification, they aren't stories with characters. Neither is the equation "F = ma" a story.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Anonymous, Alex Rosenberg was my student long ago. A small world.

s. wallerstein said...

When I say that I don't trust abstract ideas much, I'm not referring to scientific theories, about which I know nothing and which don't interest me at all.

I mean that I distrust abstract ideas about us, human beings, our history and our society, which is incredibly complex, much too complex to be summed up in a theory. Now I'm not claiming that some theories or ideas aren't more accurate than others, but simply that no one theory can ever do justice to the complexity and ambiguity of us human beings.

I've meet so many Marxists, not Professor Wolff nor Leiter, who thought that society was something that you could study like mathematics, that there was perfectly correct Marxist or Marxist-Leninist analysis of reality just as there are correct answers to math problems. The mainstream economists are worse, and the mainstream sociologists often tell you stuff in big words that anyone who walks or drives around the city could tell you in much simpler terms.

Finally, I learn more from someone with a certain degree of self-knowledge or self-awareness who tells stories about themself, even if they lie a little. Now there are moments when abstraction is necessary to convey certain realities (through a glass darkly), but as Nietzsche says, "I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity."

Anonymous said...

> " does not matter to me whether the story is high art..."

Recently when I was watching the movie Blazing Saddles for the 100th time, it occured to me for the first time that the movie alternated between high art and low brow comedy. The timing of course was impeccable in either mode, but if the director, Mel Brooks, was to have been asked to switch from high to low to low high, he could've easily done it without affecting the story arc since it was the underlying message he was going for and not the vehicle delivering that message. Which reminds me of Prof. Wolff's:

> " It is the structure that interests me."

David Palmeter said...

Getting back to the gritty world of politics, here's a link to a short piece in The New Yorker by Roger Angell, now 98, a candidate for the title of Greatest Sports Writer of the 20th Century:

LFC said...

Skimming through this biographical interview with Rosenberg (link below -- he mentions Wolff briefly), it's easy to see that he's a smart person who's had an interesting life. That said, his new book strikes me -- based on what I can gather about it without having read it, which admittedly is not a whole lot -- as misguided.

Howard Berman said...

Both the special and general theories of relativity can be summarized by mathematical formulas- to my likings that's a simplification- the reality they describe may seem complex, but that's just anthropomorphizing

Anonymous said...

Prof Wolff, I enjoy your stories because I know that there is an analytical backdrop as well. Both of these are necessary to inch "closer to truth".

I distrust those who only tell "stories" as a primary conduit of knowledge. Nietzsche's comments are, of course, ironic here as he understood the his contemporary "systems" quite well.
Regards, Fergus

Michael S said...

In the spirit of fiddling whilst...

I share the visceral aversion to jargon-riddled bullshit, verbosity concealing shallowness, etc. (And like to punch the usual punchbags: derrida, cavell, zizek and the rest (though I have got things from the prior two, but anyway)).

But I do have one question. A while ago - if my memory is correct - you (Prof. Wolff) mentioned that you had never read Hegel (If I'm wrong about this, then nevermind).

This is the thought-equivalent of an earworm, for me - a puzzling incongruity that returns to me now and again. How could you write with authority on Kant and not read Hegel? How could any professional philosopher, with sufficient years, tenured, not even attempt it? Et cetera. In some cases, one has to draw the line ('turn one's back', i think was how Bernard Williams put it). Having glanced over a few pages of Butler, I guess that's how i justify not bothering with her. And one can't read everything.

But in this case, it puzzles me for two reasons. One, the obvious connection between Kant and Hegel. Two, despite the above-mentioned common aversion, and despite approaching Hegel with deep, deep scepticism and a readiness to jump ship two pages in, I have read the Phenomenology, and found it exhilarating (as exhilarating as philosophy can be, which is pretty exhilarating). I have no idea why he wrote the way he did (in my opinion, lots of the time, extremely peculiarly, almost to the point of inviting suspicion of deep disturbances bubbling up through the text), at the sentence-level; and I'm sure I didn't understand at least 20%. But (to mention just one feature) the form-content interplay/dissolution; the showing-not-telling of progress, or thought, or life, or the mind (or whatever), of which there are very few able proponents in philosophy (however the term is understood) (the obvious candidates including Plato, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein); these are (literally) exceptional.

Like Adorno and Iris Murdoch, I have a love-hate relationship with Hegel: There is lots in Hegel I do not like - the all-encompassing static totality foremost - but (whilst acknowledging that there are virtues to clear simple patient prose), in contrast to the scientistic stolidity of most academic philosophy from the early 20th century onwards, his writing is, in one sense, wondrous.

Not that my own tastes matter. I guess I'm trying to explain why I find it puzzling - because you are not (like many (though not all or perhaps most) academics I have known) a charlatan; you care about getting it right. I think Cavell said (extremely paraphrasing) he didn't want to read Wittgenstein's On Certainty because there was already too much in the Investigations; and although I can't imagine myself being in this situation, I sort of get what he's saying. But I don't get it when I wonder why you haven't read Hegel. (And, to repeat, if you have, then nevermind, and at least i spent 10 minutes not wondering at the fate of the race).

Michael S said...

Actually, Kierkegaard is a better example. Love-hate relationship with Hegel. Not aiming at transparency. And (to momentarily ape the often tedious academic-philosopher-questioner's tack of crowbaring problems into purported contradictions) someone you've quoted with approval. (5 more minutes)

LFC said...

Wolff never said he hadn't read Hegel. He said he didn't like Hegel. (Would be odd to say that if he'd never read a line of Hegel, obviously.)

LFC said...

p.s. I've never read Hegel myself, except for brief snippets, usu. when quoted by others. (I have read Murdoch, first some of the novels, then Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, which is rambling and repetitive, though there are some interesting things in it.)

MS said...


Thank you for your link to Roger Angell’s paean to the joys and importance of voting. It was poignant in its way. Especially his reference to looking at the voting numbers after each election, reading the total for the candidate he voted for, and thinking, “That last vote, that vote was mine.” I also enjoyed his use of the word “arrant,” a word one does not often see these days. (Curious, I looked him up on Wikipedia. It turns out that his step-father was E.B. White, which would explain his care about writing well, and his father was Ernest Angell, president of the ACLU from 1950 to 1969.)

As I was reading his essay, I exulted in reading his denunciation of Trump, feeling a sense of camaraderie that here was a prominent writer highlighting in The New Yorker all the characteristics of Il Duce that the readers of this blog all see so clearly about Il Duce. Then I thought, how can it be that we see these things so clearly, yet there are so many others out there, with similar DNA to ours, with synapses and neurons similar to ours, who don’t see what we see so clearly? What does this human variability say about the aspiration that mankind can reach consensus on what truth is, what the best form of government is, what is and what is not morally correct? Hopefully, by tomorrow morning, some corrective phenomenon will have occurred to obstruct Il Duce’s steady campaign to turn our country into a fascist state; but still, all those others out there who don’t see, apparently can’t see, what we see will still be out there.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Just to be clear, I have read the PHENOMENOLOGY and the PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY. But I have never found anything in Hegel that illuminated Kant, or the world for that matter, and I take his observations on Africa personally.

Michael S said...

I might well be remembering it wrong - but in a post a while ago, I think, Prof. Wolff had said he'd never read him.

Murdoch's MGM is an odd book, isn't it? It is definitely rambling and repetitive. But also chock full of big and little insights. I believe Murdoch's dementia prevented her from finishing it too her satisfaction (or that might have been someone's theory about it). But I also feel like there's no way to really finish a book like that, which seems to want to (to pick up one of her themes) be both total and not total, to cover all philosophy, literature, theology, to be both a personal and philosophical guide, and so on. Could just be me, but reading it, I almost get a sense of the mental strain involved in writing a book like that. (I find some of her articles clearer but less satisfying. Fire and the Sun is good. For a writer, I find Murdoch's (and she of course has her own theories about style and so on) philosophical writing style is very ordinary. A bit like she's going out of her way to make a point that philosophy is not fiction etc.)

Michael S said...

My apologies Prof. Wolff - poor memory // unconscious deliberate misreading.

Michael S said...

Searching the posts, I think it must have been combining in my mind:

"My antipathy is not the outcome of a deep and sustained engagement with Hegel's writings." (Saturday, February 25, 2017)


[regarding Taylor's book on Hegel] "Well, it does appear that I read it, or at least tried. The opening pages are covered with underlinings and lengthy marginal comments, only a few of which, I fear, can be reproduced on a blog that draws little children and the faint of heart. But my comments peter out on page 148, the first page of a chapter perhaps significantly titled "Self-Consciousness." Since Taylor thought Hegel worth a book of this heft, I am forced to concede that there must be something to him, but I am damned if I can figure out what, so I will content myself with suggesting that those who are interested should seek out Taylor's book." (Thursday, November 24, 2016). And I think assuming you therefore hadn't read the original.

And clearly neither means not reading him at all. Wouldn't want to post false personal claims on here, but there's no delete option. Not that you need my permission, but i'd rather the above were deleted, Prof. Wolff, if that's within your power.

MS said...

Also, I love your stories, despite all the name-dropping (as the kids these days call it). Thanks for all you do for us, dear comrade.

MS said...

I'm sorry, but it appears that someone submitted the above comment, which I did not write, under my initials.

I do love your stories, and do not mind your name dropping. I am prone to doing the same.

Now I am wondering what other scandalous comments which I have not written have been submitted under my initials. I disclaim all of them!