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Monday, December 24, 2018


It is December 24th, and to most Americans, that means Christmas Eve, but to me it means three days until my birthday.  It is quiet here and sunny, so this seems like a good time to get something off my chest that has been bothering me for seventy-five years.

The simple fact is that I never got as many presents as my big sister, Barbara, who was born in August.  She would have a birthday party in the summer and get lots of presents, and then four months later, she would get Christmas presents too.  Not me.  Oh, my parents would say that I was getting an extra-big present for Christmas plus my birthday, but I was not fooled.  I could tell.

Now, my parents are gone, all my uncles and aunts are gone, my cousins couldn’t care less, and I haven’t had a real birthday party since I threw one for myself in 2003 to commemorate my seventieth.

I still remember one birthday present, my all time favorite.  I must have been twelve or so.  My father had taken me to the Jamaica branch of the New York Public Library, and I had checked out a book containing all sixty of the Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels.  I read it with delight and the next December, as my combined Christmas/birthday present, I got my very own copy.  It was fat and stubby with a red cover, and I adored it.  I read it over and over until I knew the stories almost by heart – The Red-headed League, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson, the Jezrail bullet, Mycroft and the Diogenes Club, Mrs. Hudson, and of course Irene Adler, the only woman Holmes ever loved.  The fascinating thing about the Holmes stories is how non-violent they are.  Indeed, there are even stories in which no actual crime is committed.  Quite different from the modern genre, in which it seems murders pop up every few pages.

I even joined The Baker Street Irregulars when it was formed in 1946, an organization of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, among whom were numbered some distinguished literary figures of the Thirties and Forties.  Four times a year I received the Baker Street Journal, filled with faux scholarly articles on Holmesian minutiae.  Like all religious cults, the Irregulars were organized around a founding myth, in this case the shared pretense that Holmes was real.

My grandson, Samuel suffers from the same affliction.  His birthday was Saturday, three days before Christmas, and wouldn’t you know it, his sister was born in August.  I am always meticulously careful to get Samuel two presents at this time of year.  No extra-big single present from me!  Samuel has expressed an interest in Philosophy [he has just turned thirteen], and last year, I gave him an autographed copy of In Defense of Anarchism, so that years from now, perhaps after I have died, he will know who his grandfather was.  This year I gave him a copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.  His father says he was delighted.  [His father also said he was explaining to Samuel Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, but I am not sure exactly what that means.]

Russell’s History was the first serious book of philosophy I read.  I think I was fourteen or fifteen.  I had read Irwin Edman’s two chatty books, Philosopher’s Holiday and Philosopher’s Quest, but I did not consider either of them very serious.  It was a trifle startling many years later to join the Columbia Philosophy Department and discover that Edman had been a member.  After reading Russell’s History I read his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy when I was fifteen or so, not too long before going to Harvard and launching my college education with W. V. O. Quine’s logic course.

Well, the sun is up, the stock market is open, and I am going to get a birthday haircut, always something of an indulgence since there is not much hair to cut.


Nice Nihilist said...

I always liked Russell's History of Western Philosophy, partly because Russell is so matter of factly bigoted in the way the British can be: down to the bone.

Anonymous said...

Happy birthday, Professor

Nice Nihilist said...

Of course I exaggerate. (I'm not about to let soggy academic earnestness ruin a joke.) Scholars have called Russell's History unreliable and worse. Still it too was one of the first philosophy books I read as a boy. Happy holidays!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have told the story of what he said to me when I remarked on something in it.

s. wallerstein said...

I read The Story of Philosophy by Will and Ariel Durant when I was 16, and the first philosopher that the book led me to read was Schopenhauer: the teenage years were not fun for me. I then read some dialogues of Plato.

So your 85th birthday is Thursday, December 27? We'll have to think up some way to celebrate it online. Maybe a reader who is more creative than me about those kinds of things has a good idea.

Michael Llenos said...

Professor Wolff,
Happy Birthday! I started to buy Dover Thrift Editions, several years ago, since they were so cheap and of good quality. Andrew Carnegie's autobiography was one of the books I purchased, which made me realize that American businessmen could be both rich and likeable. Carnegie lived between 1835 to 1919 at the age of 83. By Thursday you should have outlived him by well over a year if you compare both separate time periods. Just by seeing some of your videos, it looks like you could outlive Andrew Carnegie by another 85 years. So perhaps "Money Bags will never be as Lucky" as Professor Wolff afterall.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Michael! And thank you for your contributions to the conversation on the blog.

Happy Holidays.

Nice Nihilist said...

From your Autobiography, Volume One, Chapter Three. Russell dismissed Kant’s moral theory as fiction and your interest in it, as opposed to logic. I can’t say that I care much for the manifest image myself, not from my uncomfortable vantage point. But Russell wasn’t helpful. A better rejoinder would have been to tell Russell that Sheffer was bonkers.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

I always find it somewhat odd that people who were born on or around Christmas often convey some bitterness that they were shortchanged in the gift department. I was actually born on Christmas day and never once held such a perception. Born into a devout Protestant family, I believed that my birthday was a sign of importance and exclusivity (perhaps even divine) that set me apart from the rather base and pedestrian tradition of gift giving and reception. Don't get me wrong -- I loved receiving gifts. But the amount or lack thereof never bothered me. By the time I turned 15, after some prolonged emotional and intellectual struggle, I had become a full-blown atheist. Christmas gifts lost any religious meaning (if indeed they ever had an iota of religiosity associated with them) and I could not care less if I received any or none. My wife and I do not exchange gifts, primarily because we would rather use the capital to do something we can both benefit from (travel, home improvement, charity, etc.). The annual holidays can be tough on a wide variety of people for a multiplicity of reasons. For me, it means I am another year older. Hence the best gift is that I am still alive (for now) and the world has not been destroyed (yet). My goal is that that particular trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

-- Jim

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jim, I felt no bitterness. The post was intended as whimsical, rather in the style of the Lake Woebegone reports.