Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

TWO THINGS, GRRR!!


It is a beautiful end of June evening here in North Carolina and I have been in a foul mood all day long. There are couple of things I want to get off my chest and I think my blog is the perfect place to do it.

First of all: I am appalled by the childish behavior of so many of my fellow Americans who, in the presence of an existential medical threat, simply cannot keep themselves from going to bars and beauty salons and beaches and restaurants. These are not people who desperately need to get back to work in order to feed themselves and their families. These are just people who are bored and selfish and thoughtless and thoroughly self-indulgent. If they were only endangering their own lives, I would be inclined to say “go ahead and die.” But they are endangering me and my wife and my sons and daughter-in-law and grandchildren and my sister and my friends. A country populated by such people is not a place that I can admire or to which I owe allegiance.

That was the first thing I wanted to get off my chest.

Second: I am outraged that the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the United States, informed that someone is putting a bounty on the heads of the soldiers he commands, does not think it worth doing something about. Perhaps I care so much about this because 60 years ago I did a little not at all heroic service in the Army National Guard. But the thought that a commander would be told that someone had put a bounty on the heads of his soldiers and then did nothing about it is to me inexcusable and unforgivable. Oh, I am well aware that the Taliban who are being paid by the Russians are the modern day version of the force that the United States brought into existence for the purpose of fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. This is hardly a secret. All one need do is watch the Rambo movies – the third one, I think. I am not interested in who is right and who is wrong in a part of the world that I have never visited and know relatively little about. But it makes me furious that a commander would not think it worth his while to protect the lives of his own soldiers.

On the other hand, dinner was pleasant this evening and the desert was good.

Monday, June 29, 2020

DOWN MEMORY LANE


I suppose Shakespeare, from time to time, fussed and fretted over his quills, trying to get them sharpened in just the right way so that he could write his immortal sonnets. And no doubt Plato, from time to time, encountered a resistant tablet. Well, I spent this morning on a lengthy phone call with a Dragon tech expert trying to get my voice recognition program to work. He was very patient with me and talked me through an endless series of revisions until finally he managed to make it work. So here I am now, once again dictating rather than doing my traditional hunt and peck.

It is difficult to know which medical, economic, or political horror to comment on – there are so many. I do genuinely believe that Trump is going down the tubes and is likely going to take the Republican Senate majority with him. Like everyone else, I am terrified each time I say that, knowing what happened in 2016. But this really does feel different. Now if we can just persuade Joe Biden to stay in his basement until November 3 we may be all right.

Earlier today, I received an email message from a professor in Texas who assigns my essay, “Beyond Tolerance,” in a course he teaches. He wondered whether perhaps I would be willing to write something in the form of an update for his students next fall. Since I published the essay 55 years ago and probably have not read it in 50 years, I thought I should take a look at it before I had a go.  Several things struck me immediately. First, there is no evidence in the essay that women are part of the human race. That was rather embarrassing. Second, there is almost no evidence that race played an important role in American politics. That too was rather embarrassing. Perhaps the best thing I could do is write an essay attacking my essay.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

RESPONSES TO TWO COMMENTS


Opaque asks, “What is the most influential force contributing to the dominance of STEM funding? Is it a historically enacted policy? Is it just the most marketable aspect of any university in today's higher education industry? Who does it appeal to and where do the expected returns come from? Immigrant and middle class families with bourgeoise values hoping their kids will make more money than they did? Or is it an international force of "new money" coming from students overseas hoping to get an American education? Why STEM in particular?”

An interesting series of questions. I am not sure I can answer all of them, but I can offer the following remarks based on my observations over the past 60 years or so. So far as I can see, there are three reasons why the STEM fields command the attention of university administrations. First, the STEM fields bring in outside grant money which, especially when it comes from the federal government, brings with it very large sums of overhead money which then go into the general university coffers. This is, by and large, soft money, which is to say money that can be used in a variety of different ways. The second reason is that there is a constant demand in the corporate world for graduates of the STEM fields. The third reason is that more and more, professors in the STEM fields have monetized their laboratory discoveries by forming companies to profit from them, and universities have been quite successful in compelling the professors to share their profits with their home institutions.

Let me tell you one lovely story about how things work in the other direction on occasion. For a long time, MIT turned out engineers who went on to get good jobs in corporate America. But about 50 years ago, the MIT administration realized it had a problem. Their graduates would do quite well in their new jobs, rising through the ranks, until about 10 years in they ran into a stone wall because when they became eligible to ascend from the engineering specialties to management, their lack of polish acquired in the humanities and social sciences made them less attractive candidates than their counterparts from schools like Harvard or Princeton or Yale. So MIT decided that it would buy itself some humanists and social scientists and require engineering students to spend little time getting culture. Being MIT, when it went looking for an economist it chose Paul Samuelson, and when it went looking for a linguist, it chose Noam Chomsky. I know about this because my first wife, a literary scholar, got a job teaching at MIT. I guess it worked, because to this day, MIT requires its undergraduates to spend little time a outside the laboratory.

Jerry Fresia remarks:  “Republicans have to be thinking...if Trump dropped out and we Repubs nominated a halfway sane "moderate"....Sleepy (I prefer "Creepy") Joe would suddenly be in trouble, given his baggage and his charisma-challenged campaign ability.”

That occurred to me also, but then I reflected, if Trump drops out it will be extremely important to him that whomever the Republicans choose to replace him should fail because if that replacement were to win the election, it would brand Trump as the loser. I will make a little bet: if Trump drops out, claiming that the election is rigged or whatever, he will do whatever he can to take his followers with him, telling them not to vote in a rigged election. If he were to do that, even Joe Biden, with all his faults, would win.

Friday, June 26, 2020

DARK THOUGHTS ON A SUNNY DAY


I sit here, safe and isolated, brooding about the world, about the devastation that the virus is causing, about police murder of black men and women, about the millions of Americans being driven even further into poverty, and since I spent my entire life in the Academy, my thoughts turn to the future of higher education. I am terribly fearful that this virus will accelerate trends that have been long evident and extremely distressing.

The discussions about the prospects for higher education, of which there have been many, tend to focus almost entirely on a handful of elite institutions with large endowments. But the most damaging effects of the virus will be felt in the hundreds, or even thousands, of institutions lower down in the pecking order, private colleges that depend almost entirely upon tuition and state university campuses that, although ostensibly publicly supported, in fact get most of their funds from other sources.

What do I foresee? A large number of small private colleges will simply go under, unable to survive even a semester or two without the tuition flows on which they depend. State university campuses, pressed for funds, will start firing tenured faculty in the humanities and perhaps also in those branches of the social sciences that are unable to raise significant grant funds. The long-standing rush to replace full-time faculty with adjuncts will accelerate and senior professors will either be forced out of their jobs or required to take early retirement. Independent humanities departments will be amalgamated into a single humanities division providing introductory survey courses and little else. Graduate programs will be closed, journals will fold, and the glory days – those four decades or so after World War II – will only be a memory, rather like the days of silent films in Hollywood.

Even the elite universities with a billion-dollar endowments will face problems. Columbia has recently embarked on a multibillion-dollar expansion campaign to build a new campus devoted to the hard sciences. The humanities and social sciences, the fond memories of which prompt alumni to make large donations, depend very heavily on the fully 30% of their student body who come from overseas. In the last 50 years or so, these elite schools have raised their tuition five or 10 times as rapidly as the rate of inflation, relying on the willingness of parents to go deeply into debt in order to shoehorn their young sons and daughters into the stratosphere of the gilded jobs in the American corporate world.

The problems facing the United States are now so great that the future of higher education must rank low on the order of our priorities, but as someone who has spent 70 years as a student and professor in higher education, these prospects saddened me.

On the other hand, there are glimmers of good news. Several extremely left-wing candidates won Democratic primaries in which they defeated establishment members of the House of Representatives. And this morning, on Morning Joe, the thought was first bruited about that perhaps Trump, confronting sinking poll numbers, would choose not to run again. I am, I realize, clutching at straws, but that is the way with drowning men.

Monday, June 22, 2020

SCARY BIT OF SCIENCE

If you are a college or university professor, you might want to look at this.   It really raises doubts about whether an on-campus fall semester can happen.

IF YOU HAVE NOTHING BETTER TO DO

I have now finished reading my 1989 Amherst talk onto my computer, courtesy of Dragon.  It runs to 8000 words, a trifle much for a blog post, so I shall post it on box.net and give you a taste of it here,  These are the opening two pages:

Ideology and Oppression at Amherst College
By
Robert Paul Wolff

To be delivered at
Amherst College
April 13, 1989


Yesterday evening, Mitch Snyder offered you a religious message of individual redemption and exemplary action, a counsel of withdrawal from the secular world and salvation through faith and works. He spoke in the long Judeo – Christian tradition of prophetic jeremiads and ascetic condemnation of the things of the flesh. You may not have noticed that this was his message, because it was couched in the language of social protest, but a little reflection will show you, I think, that is what it was.

This evening I will offer you a different message – a secular message of social analysis and collective action. You must decide which of these messages, if either, will find a welcome in your hearts and minds.

Those of you who gathered here last night, and have come back tonight, are – if I may just once use a religious rather than a secular metaphor - most likely the saving remnant of the Amherst College community. As is so often the fate of those of us who proclaim a doctrine of social change, I am, I fear, preaching to the converted. Nevertheless, I offer these remarks to you in the hope that they will enlighten you, embolden you, perhaps reassure you in the moral and social conviction that have brought you to this event.

The topic of this five – year series of fora, sponsored by The Student Trustee Advisory Committee On Student Life At Amherst College, is oppression. The specific focus of the second forum in the series is ideological oppression, under the title: Intolerance: The Steamrolling Of Individual Expression.

First things first. There is no oppression at Amherst College. Closemindedness, no doubt. Bigotry, without any question. A studied unwillingness to listen to political, moral, or religious opinions with which one disagrees, most certainly. Why should Amherst College be strikingly different from the rest of the United States, or from the rest of the Pioneer Valley for that matter? But oppression? I think the college security office would not be amused if I were to ask how many students had been tortured or murdered in recent months for their political opinions, how many will be detained without charge in local prisons as a result of their commitment to the elementary forms of democracy.

No doubt, students at Amherst College who hold unpopular opinions risk – unpopularity. Since one’s political and moral beliefs are, in some sense, one’s inner self, one’s truest essence, it is only fitting that young men and women who embrace unpopular positions should be unpopular. There is nothing morally or politically admirable about a Willie Lomanesque desire to be well-liked. Those who have been raised in a world which grades its kindergarten boys and girls on working and playing well with others may perhaps be made nervous by the prospect of being rejected by their playmates – or classmates – merely for the deviance of their politics, despite their nice manners and an endless willingness to be accommodating. Nevertheless, as I shall suggest presently, an easy, comfortable, tolerant aura of good feeling is almost certainly the social manifestation of ideological distortion and concealment. Beware the siren lure of popularity!

It is I suppose conceivable that students at Amherst College have received lower grades for taking the position in an examination or term essay different from that held by the professor. I tend to doubt that such violations of elementary academic freedom happen often. In my experience, professors are so delighted to come across a student who has strong, individually arrived at opinions, however unpopular – indeed however absurd – that they tend to grade higher than the objective merit of the student's work warrants out of sheer gratitude.

Nevertheless, something must be afoot. The student committee organizing this affair says, in its letter of invitation to me:

“We believe that the ideological conformity we want to uncover is fundamental to systems of oppression. Conversely, it’s unmasking is crucial to the understanding and hence the breakdown of oppression. Ideological conformity represses individualism and stymies self – examination. It breeds complacency and self – deception. If we are to work towards eliminating oppression we must understand its many guises and tools when we lock ourselves into one system of ideas. When one pervasive ideology takes hold of us – a lot of us – we surrender individuality, the questioning that is crucial to maintaining freedom and fairness.”

They go on:

“Amherst College is dominated by a mainstream that sees itself as liberal. However, this belief has become an oppressive attitude. Somehow, the naming has become the end. So – called liberalism does not function past its name, as evidenced by the mainstream’s denial of the legitimacy of alternative systems of belief. This is largely manifested in student social life, but we believe that, to some extent, it has its roots in the classroom.”

These words are assuredly well meant – the product of an earnest and wholly admirable desire to think more independently. What is more, I detect in them, or at least hope that I detect, a desire to move to the left, a desire that is always and everywhere to be encouraged whenever it manifests itself. But these words, and the mindset they exemplify, require some criticism and examination, before we can actually begin the process they call for. In fact, they express a view of the relationship between thought and reality which is, in my judgment, almost the exact opposite of the truth. So, if you will bear with me, I shall attempt a few moments of textual criticism, as a preface to the body of my remarks.

INTERIM REPORT

I am hard at work reading into my computer a lengthy speech I gave at Amherst College thirty-one years ago, using my new voice recognition program.  At one point, I quote an early passage from Marx.  Dragon is doing an heroic job.  It got Lake Woebegone right, but it crashed and burned on "Hegelians," rendering it as "hack aliens."

On the other hand, maybe the Dragon program was written by a closet Marxist.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

YOU TAKE WHAT YOU CAN GET

It isn't much, but the picture and reports of thousands of empty seats at Trump's Tulsa rally yesterday, and the video of workmen disassembling the outdoor speakers' platform for the non-existent overflow crowds made it easier for me to go to sleep last night.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

LIT CRIT


Readers of this blog will, I think, agree that I am an enthusiastic fan of the more sophisticated reaches of literary criticism. Among the many terms that I have taken from that field is “intertextuality,” which is to say, a reference in one work of literature to another work of literature. Google tells us that “the term was coined in the late 1960s by Julia Kristeva, who combined ideas from Bakhtin on the social context of language with Saussure's positing of the systematic features of language.”  

For example, Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus, is in its title and also in its content an intertextual reference to a classic figure of Greek mythology. James Joyce’s most famous novel, Ulysses, is even more directly an intertextual reference to Homer’s great work. One finds intertextuality in many places, of course, including the movies. One of my favorite examples is the 1993 movie Sleepless in Seattle in which Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell watch again and again the great old romantic movie An Affair to Remember from 1957, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. The ending of the Meg Ryan movie revisits and revises the scene in the earlier film in which Deborah Kerr, rushing to meet Cary Grant at the top of the Empire State building, is struck by a car and crippled.

My very favorite example of intertextuality, surprising as this may be, comes from a quite different field of creative effort, namely television commercials. As I am sure you will know, the Geico ads featuring a talking gecko were such a great hit that other insurance companies felt it necessary to up their game. Progressive Insurance hired an actress, Stephanie Courtney, to play a Progressive saleswoman, Flo. Flo’s great success led Progressive to branch out and hire a young male actor named Jim Cashman to play an eager, rather nerdy salesman named Jamie. In one of the Progressive ads featuring Jamie, he is seen training a group of Progressive salespeople to sing a sales jingle. Jamie is cruelly demanding and insistent, interrupting them in mid phrase to criticize them and demand that they sing the ditty more precisely. When I saw that ad, I was stunned. It was, I thought, the most brilliant piece of intertextuality I had ever encountered. A little back explanation is required here.

One of Progressive Insurance’s competitors, Farmers Insurance, hired a well-known character actor named J. K. Simmons, casting him as the director of a museum of famous and odd Farmers cases. The series of ads with Simmons all have the same tagline: “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” What possible connection can this have to the Progressive ad?

Well, J. K. Simmons won an Oscar as best supporting actor for the movie Whiplash, in which he plays a sadistic and demanding musical conductor who drives the main character, a young aspiring drummer, to more precise performance. The Progressive ad was a graceful and witty homage not to the Farmers advertisement but to the actor who performed in it.

I do not think James Joyce or Mary Shelley could have done better.



Friday, June 19, 2020

AN HISTORIC GROUNDBREAKING POST


I don’t actually have anything to say today but nonetheless this is an historic post because I am dictating it into my headphone set to Dragon voice recognition software which is transforming it impeccably into written text in my word document. Having acquired this new software and having learned to use it I feel compelled to write even though I have nothing to say. Perhaps this is how the early scribes felt when the first typewriters were invented. While I am here, I will express my pleasure that Amy Klobuchar has taken herself out of contention for the vice presidential nomination. By the way, Dragon thinks that I said Amy Claude Bouchard. Oh well, nothing is perfect.

IF YOU HAVE A MINUTE AND 31 SECONDS

Watch this.  Scroll down to the Rex Chapman clip.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

LIFE'S LITTLE PLEASURES


When you get to be eight-six, there are not many opportunities to feel young, so you have to make the most of those that crop up.  Now that we are in virtual lockdown here in my retirement community, the dining rooms are closed and we order dinner each day from a limited menu, with deliveries to our door at anywhere between 4 and 5 in the evening.  The main course comes in a plastic container whose top is often rather difficult to open.  Each evening, shortly after the food is delivered, our doorbell rings.  It is Addie, who lives on our floor, asking for help with opening the container.  Addie is a charming, sprightly lady who will turn 98 in September.  She views me as the young man across the hall to whom she can turn for assistance.

I love it.

IDLE OBSERVATION

I think we can all agree that when you schedule a high profile speech at West Point, for which purpose you require an entire graduation class to return so as to serve as your audience, and all anyone can recall of  the event is how you took a sip of water and walked down a ramp, you are off your game.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT


In 2005, I published Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, a book about my experiences during my sixteen years as a member of the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and what those years taught me about America.  In the third chapter there appear the following paragraphs.  They might help readers to understand more fully the protests now roiling American cities.


“Needless to say, any individual slave was not likely to be whipped very often.  Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, in a widely discussed and much criticized book, [Time on the Cross 1974] report that on one plantation whose owner, Bennet Barrow, kept careful records of his two hundred slaves, about half the slaves were not whipped at all during a two year period, and overall there were 0.7 whippings per slave per year.  Since a number of readers have actually concluded from this bit of data that things weren’t so bad in the Old South, I tried a little thought experiment in an effort to imagine what effect whippings might have had on a slave.

Down the road from the University of Massachusetts is Amherst College, a famous private liberal arts institution that has on several occasions been ranked the best college in America.  It has a faculty of two hundred – just about as large as the slave population on Barrow’s plantation.  Suppose a whipping post were set up in front of the Robert Frost Library in the central college common.  And suppose that on an average of once every four or five days, an Amherst College professor were stripped to the waist, man or woman, and whipped at that post until the blood ran for some infraction of college rules or simply for failing to grade papers on time.  Now, as a member of the faculty, I would presumably be intelligent enough and educated enough to be able to calculate that my chances of being whipped were only 0.7 per year, and I would also have noticed that if I was extremely careful, and never talked back to the Dean or the President, I might never be whipped at all.  Nevertheless, I think it is reasonable to suppose that the steady progression of brutal public whippings would have, how shall we say, a chilling effect on me.

Such a fantasy seems absurd, of course, but that is just another way of saying that we White people don’t really think of the slaves as people like ourselves, regardless of the political correctness of our sentiments.  Whipping slaves is terrible, cruel, inhuman, but it is something that happens to other people, whereas whipping professors, bizarre though that may sound, is something that might happen to me.”

FAILED AGAIN


I am afraid I completely failed to make clear the point of my little story about looking into investing in rental real estate.  The comments indicate that it was read as an account of a personal moral struggle about what to do with some extra money, but that was not at all what I was writing about.  I was trying to illustrate and explain, by a homely unassuming example, Marx’s deep insight into the ideological mystifications of capitalism, and thereby to explain why the neo-Ricardian physical quantities model of a capitalist economy is inadequate.  I could have ascended into the philosophical stratosphere and talked impressively about false consciousness and rationalization and objectification and a class for itself as opposed to a class in itself, which would have made everyone feel that something of high seriousness was being interrogated but would have left everyone as ignorant as before.  Instead, I told a story about an experience in which I was drawn slowly to give up my normal human response to a house or apartment building and instead began to think as a capitalist.

Oh well.  One can but try.

A RESPONSE TO JERRY FRESIA AND MATT

Jerry asks:  “You say that you rejected the stock market because investment would be too risky. Why wouldn't contributing to the exploitation of labor or worse perhaps, gaining materially from the exploitation of labor be a reason for not investing?”  

Two reasons for saying what I did:  First, I was trying not to pontificate and sound self-important; Second, because I was aware that any participation in capitalist investment implicates one in the entire system, not just running a sweat shop, as it were.  Indeed, that is very much the point of the extended example.

Matt asks:  “How do you see the (very pleasant, I may add) Paris apartment, rented out not unlike an Airbnb (even if somewhat less efficiently? In the same way? Or differently? If differently, why? And, what, if anything, would this tell us?”  

I struggle not to treat my apartment merely as an investment property.  That means not charging the most I could, freely refunding a deposit at the last minute even though the little agreement I drafted says there will be a charge for last minute cancellations, advertising only in the NYRB and Harvard Magazine, and so forth.  My goal is to break even, so that owning the apartment is not a drain on my personal finances.  I think of the homes I have owned in much the same way.  Leaving to one side the Paris apartment, I have bought, lived in, and sold five homes in my life, four houses and a condo.  I have made money on two, lost money on two, and broken even on one.  All in all, I think I am financially even.  But this is my life, not a portfolio.  It makes more sense to me to ask, In which have I been happiest?  [or perhaps, in which did I do my best work?]  

ECONOMIC-PHILOSOPHIC MANUSCRIPT OF 1978 AS IT WERE CONCLUSION


An example, for purposes of clarification.  Several years ago, I found that I had accumulated a savings account large enough so as to raise questions about how best to deal with it.  After rejecting the stock market [to risky, and at that time quite stagnant] and long-term savings accounts [too great a sacrifice of liquidity for a very small increase in return] I decided to look seriously into local rental real estate.  At first, when I was shown available properties by local realtors, my attention was focused on the properties as homes, places to live.  I found myself trying to decide whether I would like to move into one of the apartments I was being shown.  My senses, my self as a living person, were engaged.  At the same time, I gave a great deal of thought to the role of landlord.  Would I be comfortable evicting tenants for non-payment of rent?  Could I handle the necessary repairs [or find someone to do them for me?]  Did I like the thought of renting rooms?

Slowly, it was brought home to me that all such considerations were strictly irrelevant, indeed badly misleading.  I began to evaluate an investment property purely as a flow of income against which were charged operating expenses.  Not merely the familiar costs [heat, taxes, utilities] but also the probable vacancy factor and the interest from security deposits were factored into the calculations.  The asking price for a property was, I realized, simply irrelevant.  What mattered was a rule-of-thumb multiple of total rentals.  As I learned to calculate the probable return on my investment, it became fully clear to me, for the first time, that everything turned on how heavily leveraged the purchase could be made – how little of my own money had to be invested, in short.  Taking into account tax deductions, capital gains, depreciation [which, by the bye, explained why it was unprofitable to own a property for seven years], I was able, at last, to perceive a property not as a converted fourteen room Victorian-style frame house, or as a five-year old fourteen-apartment  two-story flat-roofed building on a rather seedy street, but simply as a relatively safe a6% return on a $10,000 investment, or as a risky 20% return on an $8,000 investment.

            Let me repeat: I came, eventually, to perceive these dwelling-places in this abstract manner.  I saw them as investments.   The figures on my scratch pad became more real to me than the physical buildings themselves or the people living in them.

            Now – I am quite aware that in this personal anecdote, I have not even touched upon the distinctive characteristic of capitalism, namely wage-labor and commodity production.  But the implications of the story are clear enough, and can be extended and generalized without great difficulty.  Let us list some of those implications:
(1) A necessary precondition for the transformation of my savings into investment capital was an alteration in my apprehension of the physical and social world, an alteration that involved perceptions as well as concepts.  To say merely that I performed a different calculation would be to miss the point of the story entirely.
(2)  A second necessary precondition for my adoption of the role of real estate investor was that I come to focus my attention single-mindedly on the percentage return on invested capital.  Fractions of a percentage took on, for me, a reality that had previously been reserved for such aspects of real estate as usability of living space, friendliness of neighbourhood, or attractiveness of the grounds.  I had to learn that it was not I would live in these dwelling-places, but my money.  And capital, with admirable Spartan hardihood, disdains sensory distractions from its role as self-expanding value.         
(3)  Equally necessary, of course, though I have, by my subjective and anecdotal style, tended to ignore it, was the existence of a market in real estate, a regular and predictable demand for rental apartments, a tax structure, a banking system with funds seeking gainful employment, and so on and on.

            All of that, and much, much more, is required before I can even contemplate “investing” my savings – required, that is, in order for my unspent income [the reward for my abstinence, needless to say] to become capital.  [Oh yes, in the end, I opted for the relatively less lucrative safety of tax free municipal bonds.  I am, in matters of real world finance, a timid entrepreneur].

            Let these few remarks be suitably extended and generalized.  Marx is clearly correct in the Grundrisse, and oddly, perversely, the obscurantist philosophical jargon in which he expresses his musings captures well the combination of subjective and objective transformations – psychological and institutional – through which goods become commodities.  Exchange value as such emerges, and finally capital per se, self-expanding value, comes to dominate the senses, the consciousness, the administrative decisions, the very a priori principles of rational choice themselves, of bourgeois capitalist society.  It is as mad to suppose that one could have capitalism without those transformations, as it is to suppose – that a feudal manor could be run on the principles of a modern agribusiness, with no ill effects to the local religion or the idyllic communal bonds between lord and peasant.

            The physical quantities model of a capitalist economy is thus an inadequate model.  Its critique of Marx’s value theory is wrong.  The movement from physical quantities to values, and from values to profits, is not a detour, a meaningless mathematical excursion, because in the real world of capitalism, market prices, interest rates, and wages, are not mere accounting devices derivable from the technical coefficients of production.  Deep and far-reaching

[at this point the manuscript breaks off.]

Monday, June 15, 2020

ECONOMIC-PHILOSOPHIC MANUSCRIPT OF 1978 AS IT WERE PART III


III. The Meretricious Charms of Physical Quantities

            It is tempting – particularly if one is English – to make the sign of the Wiener Kries and exorcise these metaphysical spirits.  Look to the facts, and leave the philosophy for Germans, or academic Frenchmen!  Commodities are physical objects.  They are produced by physical processes, in which definite quantities of physical substances are combined by the labour of real individuals in specifiable ways.  An economy is a set, or system, of such processes – the sum total of them, in fact, no more nor less.  Performing a useful and permissible abstraction, for the purpose of bringing within manageable control a very wide variety of productive activities, we may represent a single industry by means of a list, or array, or vector showing the quantities of various physical substances that must be combined with a specified number of hours of labour in order to produce a single unity of the physical good, the commodity, that is the product of that industry.  So much iron, so much coal, so much rubber, so much glass, and so many hours of labour, to produce one automobile.  An entire economy is represented by a matrix of technical coefficients.  With the proper maneuvers, we may now introduce a system of prices, a wage, and a profit rate— Or, if our tastes incline us in that direction, we may calculate the quantities of labour, both direct and indirect, that are required for the production of a unit of each of the commodities produced [and consumed] in the system.

            As we all know, it is the custom to posit a system of n equations in n+2 unknowns – namely, the n prices, the wage, and the profit rate.  One of the prices is arbitrarily selected as standard of value, and we are then able to represent a system of relative prices in which there is one degree of freedom.  Fix either the wage or the rate of profit [or, for that matter, one of the (n+1) relative prices] and the system is determinate.  It is then a relatively simple matter to exhibit the inverse relationship between wages and profits, to prove unsettling theorems concerning switches from techniques with lower to techniques with higher capital/labour ratios, and back again, and even to demonstrate, under suitable conditions of joint production and with appropriate definitions, the possibility of a positive rate of profit conjoined to a negative rate of surplus value.  To be sure.  Very elegant, very compact, amusing perhaps, unexpected no doubt, and requiring for exposition and explanation only the most scientific of prose.  But what is the significance?

            Steedman’s thesis, stripped of its polemical elaborations, can be stated simply thus: value magnitudes, defined as quantities of embodied labour, can only be derived from the matrix of technical coefficients.  Prices, wage level, and profit level can be derived either from values, by means of a series of transformations, or directly from physical quantities by solution of the suitable system of simultaneous equations.  Since the values are derived from the physical quantities, there cannot be contained in the former any information not already contained in the latter.  [The entire series of causes is contained entirely in the immediate causes, etc etc].  Hence, value calculations are otiose; not meaningless, merely superfluous.  To be sure, we may – indeed we must – investigate the historical, social, technological, ideological, philosophical, and psychological causes for the states of affairs summarized in the matrix of technical coefficients.  But no such investigation can do more than explain what is already contained in that matrix.  And no labour theory of value, manifestly, will be of any use in accounting for the technical coefficients.

Thus much for the preconditions of the model.  Analogous conclusions can be drawn concerning its application.  From the structure of the system of equations, it follows that the pivotal indeterminacy is the degree of freedom relating the profit rate to the wage rate.  [We shall return much later to the question whether some one of the (n-1) relative prices might, in some manner, be determined exogenously].  Wages and profits are treated as a division [exhaustive in combination] of the net national product.  [If one selects some appropriate socially determined level of subsistence and incorporates it into the technical coefficients of production, then the share of net national income going to wages will, in some sense, be a luxury wage.  Maximum profit, π = Π, then corresponds to subsistence for the workers.]  The precise proportionality of the division, so far as the model indicates, is determined exogenously: by class warfare in the streets, by class struggle in the bargaining room, or on the picket line, by democratic vote of the electorate, by dictatorial fiat, whatever.

            Put to one side the mathematics, which is beguiling in its elegant complexity.  Consider simply the procedure of selecting one of the commodities arbitrarily as standard of value, and setting its price equal to unity.  In such a model, there is not, in the full sense, money.  Oh, there is money of account, in a manner of speaking.  If the kth commodity has been chosen as standard of value, then everything has its k-price, the workers earn their k-wage, the profit rate is so much of a unit of k per unit of k invested, etc.  But money as value incarnate does not exist in the system.  Indeed, strictly speaking, so long as gold and silver enter into production processes as physical inputs, even they cannot serve adequately as money in the full requisite sense.  [It is not clear whether Marx himself understood this, although the Grundrissse suggests that he did].

            Capital as such – self-expanding value, money that has been freed from all natural encumbrances and can finally realize its true, insane [verrückt] destiny, which is to beget more money ad infinitum – does not exist in the physical quantities model.  The “metaphysical” objectification of exchange relationships, productive activities, and technical relations in money is an essential fact of capitalism.  It is not one of the historical, psychological, or political background conditions of that matrix of technical coefficients “to which, of course, much study must be devoted.”  Nor is it one of a number of arrangements that can be conjoined to the self-same matrix – as though a society were a modular construction of prefabricated units!  Capitalism requires commodity production, and wage labour, which presuppose money.  Money [exchange value per se] must be divorced entirely from any physical form, from any use value, from any particular system of production.  It must be available, promiscuously, instantaneously, unencumbered by religious, historical, cultural, linguistic, or geographical constraints.  The obsession with gold is a passing phase, a last clutching at the security blanket of economic infancy.  Only those whose minds have not transcended their senses require, from time to time, the sensory reassurance of clinking coins.  The true inhabitants of our brave new world can make do entirely with credits and debits in disembodied accounts.


Sunday, June 14, 2020

REQUEST FOR TECH ADVICE

I want to get a voice recognition software package so that I can read onto my computer some of the things I am finding in my stacks of folders.  Dragon seems to be the industry standard.  Any suggestions, experience, expertise?

ECONOMIC-PHILOSOPHIC MANUSCRIPT OF 1978 AS IT WERE PART II


II. A Meditation upon two passages in Capital

            1.  “Eine Ware scheint auf den ersten Blick ein selbstverständliches, triviales Ding.  Ihre Analyse ergibt, das sie ein sehr vertrachtes Ding ist, voll metaphysicher Spitzfindigkeit und theologischer Mucken.” [MEW, v. 23 p 85]

            “A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing.  But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”  [Fowkes translation. P. 163]

            2.  “Wenn ich sage, Rocke, Stiefel usw. beziehen sich auf Leinwand als die allgemeine Verkörperung abstrakter menschlicher Arbeit, so springt die Verrücktheit dieses Ausdrucks ins Auge.  Aber wenn die Produzenten von Rock, Steifel usw. diese Waren auf Leinwand – oder auf Gold und Silber, was nichts an der Sache ändert – als allgemeine Äquivalent beziehen, erscheint ihnen die Beziehung ihrer Privatarbeiten zu der gesellschaftlichen Gesamtarbeit in dieser verrückten Form.”  [MEW, v. 21, p. 90]

            “If I state that coasts or boots stand in a relation to linen because the latter is the universal incarnation of abstract human labor, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident.  Nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots bring these commodities into a relation with linen, or with gold and silver (and this makes no difference here), as the universal equivalent, the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society appears to them in exactly this absurd form.”  [Fowkes translation, p. 169]

[These two passages appear in the famous fourth section of the first chapter of Capital, the section entitled “the Fetishism of the commodity and its secret.”  The first passage opens the section’ the second appears slightly less than half way through.]  A commodity, Marx says, appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing.  But its analysis – to which the preceding three sections of the chapter have been devoted – reveals it to be a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.  The opening statement is an assertion of the most enormous complexity, provocative in the extreme.  “For the utopian socialists require a sign, and the classical political economists seek after wisdom.  But Marx preaches the commodity mystified, [which is] unto the utopian socialists a stumbling block and unto the neo-classicals foolishness. [Corinthians 1: 22-23, with slight emendations.]  To the Enlightenment, religion is superstition.  Écrasez l’infame!  To believe is to be mistaken, misled, in error.  To be enlightened is to be disabused of one’s belief, to be relieved of it, to put it aside as one of the things of humanity’s childhood.  In place of religion, we offer the history of religion, the sociology of religion, the psychology of religion.  Does Malinowski believe the superstitions of the Trobrianders?  As well ask whether Bullfinch sacrifices to Apollo!

            A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing.  A coat is a piece of woolen goods, cut, shaped, and sewn so as to serve as a protection against the elements – or as a proclamation of majesty.  It is, or so it appears, a physical object, coming to be and passing away in time, occupying for a time a succession of regions of space, and having such a configuration of its material elements as to produce a particular array of physico-chemical responses in the sense-organs of normal human bodies.  And yet, Marx assures us, its analysis reveals that it abounds in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.  It is, no less than the Eucharist, a being whose accidents have persisted while its substance has changed.  Only it is not the body of Christ that has been exchanged for the substance of the bread; rather, it is the labour of the baker!  Or more precisely, a quantum of abstract socially necessary labour of which the baker’s concrete, particular labour is but the most imperfect copy.

Now, the holy wafer really is just a cracker.  And though it requires the labour of a Voltaire to strip from it its holy shroud, still it is just a cracker.  The rest is superstition, with which we can once for all dispense.  Just so is the tree merely a tree, a doll merely a doll, the rock merely a rock, and all the other fetishes of primitive religion merely the physical objects they manifestly reveal themselves to be under scientific scrutiny.

            So the commodity, too, is a fetish. Marx seems to tell us.  And we scientists will recognize it for what it is – a cracker, a coat, a bolt of cloth, no more.  The classical economists may imagine a commodity to be congealed labour, in some pathetic imitation of the theology of their childhood.  But we will see corn and iron, spindles and coats, for what they are.

            Marx is being sarcastic, therefore, in the opening lines of this section.  He is mocking Smith and Ricardo, much as the Philosophes mocked the Church and its apologists.  And yet, perversely, with what any good enlightenment debunker would consider a most reactionary persistence, Marx continues to speak of the commodity in just those mystified, fetishized terms that he has apparently condemned!  For two thousand pages, through all three volumes of Capital – and for two thousand more in the Theories of Surplus Value, Marx speaks the language of congealed labour.  He manipulates quanta of value, defines their ratios and relationships, and puzzles over the mysterious divergence of manifest, observable prices from the true, underlying, real value relationships hidden from mortal eyes.  It is a performance, one might think, to rekindle faith in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception.

Does Marx truly believe that linen [or gold, it matters not here] is the universal incarnation of abstract human labour?  Verrückt, he says – which our translation renders “absurd,” but which might, more colloquially,  be translated as “crazy,” “cracked,” “deranged.”  Why does Marx deliberately adopt a mode of speech which he himself ridicules as verrückt?

The bread and wine of the Eucharist appear at first sight extremely obvious, trivial things.  But the teachings of Mother Church reveal them to be strange things, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.  Even so.  A commodity appears to be an extremely obvious, trivial thing.  But analysis reveals that a commodity is not an object at all.  It is, in the strictest sense of our words, a system of social relationships of production and distribution that necessarily appear to us as a physical object.  This physical stuff before me, shaped and colored and arranged as it is in space and time, is no more capable of being, all by itself, a coat – if by the term “coat” we mean to imply “a coat qua commodity´-- than that man with his stripes on his sleeve and the bit of metal pinned to his tunic is capable, by himself, of being a sergeant-major!  Just as the poor, verrückte man who acts out the shreds and tatters of his familiar social role in the midst of catastrophe is a stock comic figure of literature, so we might imagine a mad pair of boots desperately seeking to effect its customary commodity exchange in the marketless desert of a subsistence economy!

I repeat, a commodity is a system of social relationships of production and distribution that necessarily appears to us as a physical object.  A further step: exchange value is a system of wage labour and commodity production that necessarily appears to us as money capital.  Commodities present themselves to us as objects even to scientists – nay, even to political economists!  The objectification of the subjective is a necessary condition of capitalism.  The sociologist of religion need not believe in the transubstantiation of the host.  But the political economist must believe in the reality of the commodity.  “When producers of coats and boots bring their commodities into relation with linen … as the universal equivalent, the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society appears to them [necessarily] in exactly this absurd form.”

The labour theory of value is a system of ironic discourse.  It expresses the complexity of the object of investigation, and also the ambivalence of the subject of discourse, the speaker.  The labour theory of value is the necessary and appropriate misrepresentation of the social and economic reality that is its object.


Saturday, June 13, 2020

ECONOMIC-PHILOSOPHIC MANUSCRIPT OF 1978, AS IT WERE PART I


[This hand-written manuscript appears to have been prompted by Ian Steedman’s 1977 book, Marx After Sraffa.  I recall reading the book when it appeared, but I have no recollection of having written the manuscript.  I found it in a folder with a stack of other unfiled materials.  It is presented here exactly as it was written, without corrections or emendations.]


Preliminary Notes for a Critique of the
Physical Quantities Model of Reproduction

I.  An apparently irrelevant digression on irony
            Paul Samuelson tells jokes.  Even Immanuel Kant tries a turn of wit from time to time.  But neither of them is thereby an ironist.  Wherein lies the difference?  Kant’s discourse [and, by and large, that of “scientists” – such as Aristotle, Ricardo, etc.] presupposes that the object of discourse [nature, the mind, society, the economy] is universally and unambiguously what it is [even though, pace Kant, its structure may be mind-imposed], so that straightforward declarative sentences suffice to describe it.  There is only one audience for these descriptions [though it may, as in the case of Kant or Aristotle, be a small and select audience], and the utterances are susceptible of only one correct interpretation.  It is, by some of these “scientists,” supposed that there is a correspondence between the formal structure of the discourse, as exhibited in Logic or Mathematics, and the formal [and necessary] structure of the object of discourse; and that there is, as well, a correspondence of an a posteriori sort between the content of the discourse and the matter, or particularity, or individuality, of the object of discourse.  Hence the doctrine of the Critique of Pure Reason, or the Metaphysics, or the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.  From the assumptions here summarized, it follows that although graceful turns of phrase and literary figures may find their way into a work of science – or, alternatively, although scientific writers may permit themselves expressions of scorn, of anger, of sarcasm, or resentment --- ironic communication as such will have no place there.
           
            Plato and Kierkegaard [and, as we shall, in good time, see Marx] are, by contrast, ironists. They communicate by means of discourse that posits multiple audiences at different levels of enlightenment, those at the higher aware of those at the lower.  This complex structure of speech, they believed, is required by the complex structure of the object of discourse, by the internal complexity of the subject or speaker, and by the necessity that knowledge-claims capture the relation between those two complexities in the structure of the discourse itself.  When Socrates says, “I am ignorant,” he speaks, to be sure to several audiences [two in the dialogues, but also a third, namely we who read the dialogues].  But in that utterance, he also, at the same time, expresses his inner nature.  He gives voice to [but does not assert the existence of] the divided character of his self.  A part of him is arrogant, confident that he is wiser than his fellow Athenians, sure of the truth of the exhilarating accolade of the Delphic oracle; another part of him is uncertain, weighed down with an awareness of inadequacy, truly doubtful that he knows anything; and yet another part of him [it is understood that I use the language of “parts” metaphorically] is wearily wise, sadly aware – as in the pathetic scene with Crito – that he will go to his grave without having communicated the full measure of his insight to those who – in the bitterest of all ironies – style themselves his disciples.

All of these are truly Socrates.  One is lower, another is higher, but all are truly Socrates.  None is merely a mask, a pose, a role, a suit of clothes donned for tactical purposes public appearances, and doffed when alone or among friends.  Irony is the mode of discourse by which the inner complexity is fully and correctly expressed.  Were Socrates to explain himself as I have just done, he would, by so doing, deny the reality of the lower elements in his soul, just as he would be denying the truth of the superficial interpretation of his utterance.  By adopting as his voice one of the elements of his soul, he would thereby be asserting – whether he wished to or not – that he was [fully, essentially] that part, and that the other parts were not real, or were not really himself, or were, perhaps, merely himself as he once had been.

Nor could Socrates have achieved full and precise expression of his true nature by the devices of indirect discourse, parenthetical asides, [or, as we know them now, footnotes], or parodic bits of self-deprecating humour.  At best, he might thereby have demonstrated that he was Jewish, rather than pagan.  All such measures constitute hedges, attempts to identify one voice as the true voice and to deny to the other voices any epistemological legitimacy at all.  Or else, they are embarrassed attempts to evade acknowledgement of those portions of oneself of which one is ashamed.  It is, after all, one thing to say “I love you,” and quite another to say, casually [or heatedly, as the case may be], “I was thinking last night that I love you,” or “I find it hard to tell you that I love you,” or “Even though it sounds sentimental, I would like you to know that I love you.”  Just so.  Nothing would do for Socrates, save the simple sentence, “I am ignorant,” said, however, in full awareness of its ironic complexity.

            Irony, when it is used seriously and not frivolously, thus carries ontological and epistemological presuppositions.  To employ irony as one’s most serious mode of discourse is implicitly to assert that the object of discourse is layered, complex, internally related to itself and divided in itself according to higher and lower, or more and less real; To employ irony is also implicitly to assert that the subject of discourse, the speaker, is similarly internally complex; and to employ irony is to claim that only by such a mode of speech can the complexity of the speaker, the structure of the object, and the relations between the two, be given precisely adequate expression.  The truth – the essential truth – about the object and the subject cannot in any other way be stated.  In particular, the truth cannot be decomposed into a succession of unironic component declarative statements and then reassembled by means of the additional assertion that these are the elements, and that their relationship is – ironic. As though “ironic” were a codeword for a set of instructions – “this bit of knowledge is sent to you partially broken down – assembly instructions included.”

Friday, June 12, 2020

STARTING TOMORROW

In 1977, Ian Steedman published Marx After Sraffa, an oddly angry work of mathematical economics essentially beating up on English Marxists who clung to the Labor Theory of Value after it had, in his view, been mathematically proven to be unnecessary and simply a quasi-religious fetish.  In 1978 or 1979 I wrote, by hand, a five thousand word response for my own edification without any thought of publishing it.

I had totally forgotten that I had written it, but when I was searching piles of files for my doctoral diploma and my Honorable Discharge from the Army National Guard, I came across it and have spent the last two days laboriously typing it into my computer.  Starting tomorrow, I shall post it here in three parts of unequal length.

JUNETEENTH


As everyone knows by now, Trump has scheduled his first rally in months on Juneteenth in Tulsa, the site of a horrific massacre ninety-nine years ago.  The term “Juneteenth,” previously familiar only in the Black community and among American historians and literary critics, has been repeated endlessly on cable news, but no one, to my knowledge, has taken a moment to explain its origin and meaning.  It is most often described as a celebration of the end of slavery, but that is not quite right.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War, in September, 1863, to take effect January 1, 1864.  The Proclamation did not end slavery.  It declared free the slaves in the states that had joined the rebellion, but not those in states that had sided with the Union.  This was not a purely cosmetic declaration.  It had the effect of freeing those slaves who had escaped from the Confederacy and made their way to the Union lines, a change in status that was important at the time.

This was of course at a time when communication was a good deal more primitive, and when almost all of the slaves had been denied the education necessary to enable them to read.  Texas was far away from the center of the United States, and news of the Emancipation Proclamation was not announced to slaves in Texas until June 19, 1865, two months after the end of the Civil War.  The Proclamation had the effect of freeing the Texas slaves.  The 13th Amendment, banning all slavery, was not finally ratified until six months later.  June 19th became a Black celebration, and was referred to as Juneteenth.   The word was used as the title of a posthumous novel extracted from 2000 pages by Ralph Ellison left at his death.

FREE AT LAST, FREE AT LAST

Yesterday, Carolina Meadows entered Phase Two.  For the first time in eleven weeks,  Susie and I were permitted to leave the campus, as it is called, for a reason other than a doctor's appointment.  I ordered Chinese take out from Hunam Garden and when we went to pick it up, it was placed in the trunk of our car while we sat safely inside.  Snicker if you will.  I felt liberated.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

SOMETHING TO KEEP YOU BUSY WHILE I TYPE

A while back, I was asked to contribute to an Italian philosophy blog.  Here is what I wrote.  Oh, by the way, I found my Honorable Discharge from the Army National Guard.  In six years, I made it all the way to corporal.  That is the good news.  The bad news is that according to the accompanying document, in 1963 I was three inches taller and twenty pounds lighter.  Oh well.  Here is the post for the Italian blog:



Professor Giangiuseppe posed a series of questions as the basis for this interview, but rather than answering them directly I would like instead to take the opportunity to reflect on what being a philosopher has meant to me ever since I took my first philosophy course seventy years ago as a sixteen year old freshman at Harvard University. 

My very first course was devoted to symbolic logic, and I immediately found myself entranced by the precision and clarity of formal arguments.  In the next two years I took no fewer than four courses on mathematical logic at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  But I was also studying several of the great philosophers of the western tradition, and in 1953, I took a famous course at Harvard on the Critique of Pure Reason of Immanuel Kant.  I think it is fair to say that that course changed my life, although it would take me many years to understand just how it did so.

The course was taught by the grand old man of the department, a logician and epistemologist named Clarence Irving Lewis.  Lewis was seventy that spring and I was nineteen.  He was to me an unapproachable figure from another age, a Victorian gentleman who wore a vest and a pince-nez, and was called Mr. Lewis, rather than Clarence, even by his senior colleagues.  Lewis combined a mastery of formal logic with a sense, radiating from him, that philosophy was not a delightful intellectual game but a matter of high moral seriousness.  It was important, he communicated without ever saying it, to get the ideas right.  They mattered.  I still recall the comment he wrote on a paper I had submitted the previous semester in his course on the theory of knowledge.  In the paper, I had ginned up a series of objections to the philosophy of David Hume, and in response, Lewis wrote, “I would hope that this general character of the paper is not a symptom of that type of mind, in philosophy, which can find the objection to everything but advance the solution to nothing.”

Rather than pursuing formal logic, which would have been, in those days, a good career move, I chose instead to write a doctoral dissertation on the epistemological theories of David Hume and Immanuel Kant.  Instead of mounting an array of superficial objections to the views of Hume and Kant, I struggled instead to find and state as clearly as I could a deep theoretical idea that I believed united Hume and Kant, two philosophers customarily thought to hold polar opposite views.  That belief – an intuition, really – became the theme of my dissertation, my first major journal article, and my first book.

I shan’t try to summarize that intuition here.  Interested readers can look up the nine YouTube lectures I have posted on Kant’s Critique and the four I have posted on Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature.  Instead, I would like to say something about what I began to learn about myself in the course of doing this work on Hume and Kant well over half a century ago.

As I struggled with these great philosophical texts of the Western tradition, I began to realize that I view philosophical arguments as stories.  The characters are the ideas, and their story is the argument that carries the story line from premise to conclusion.  Great philosophers, I found, have very deep, very powerful, but ultimately very simple and elegant stories to tell.  It is my task as a reader and interpreter of the text to find those stories, separate them from the mass of detail that often obscures them, and then tell the stories so that my readers or my students can grasp them, understand them, and follow them from start to finish.  If I cannot tell the story clearly and simply, then I know I have not yet truly understood the text or its author, no matter how many secondary sources I have consulted or how many footnotes my writing has accumulated.

As time passed, I found myself writing on extremely controversial topics – anarchism, nuclear war, socialism, Karl Marx, tolerance, radical educational reform.  I took strong, unpopular positions on an array of hot topics, and so, quite naturally, I got a reputation as a polemicist, as a radical, as a troublemaker.  But the truth, all this while, was that I saw myself as a story teller, a teller of the stories of great ideas.

Then, in my middle years, thirty years ago or thereabouts, I came to an even deeper understanding of what my life’s work really is about.  I had been puzzled by an odd fact about the way I work that distinguishes me from my fellow philosophers.  I never show what I have written to other philosophers for comments and criticisms before publishing, and after publishing, I am unconcerned about reviews of what I have written.  Now, no one who knows me would ever make the mistake of describing me as modest or self-effacing.  Quite to the contrary!  I am something of a loud mouth, a showboat, always speaking up, raising objections, taking public stands on matters political, economic, or educational.  Why am I so unconcerned about what others think of what I have written?

It was then that I realized there is an aesthetic dimension to my philosophical work that had been present all along but that I had never brought fully to self-consciousness.  The ideas that I find at the heart of a great text – of Plato’s Republic, of Hume’s Treatise, of Kant’s Critique, of Marx’s Capital – are beautiful in their elegantly simple power.  My deepest desire is always to plumb the depths of a great text, to find at its core the powerful, simple idea that resided there, and then to show it in all its beauty to my readers or students so that they can appreciate it as I do.  This was the story I was always trying to tell.  This was why reviews did not matter to me. 

Now that I am closer to ninety than to eighty, there is a certain peace in recognizing and acknowledging what I have been about these seventy years since I took that first logic course.  Are other philosophers anything like me?  I do not know.  That must be for them to say.






PASSING THE TIME


Not having a sock drawer, I decided to spend some of the endless free time that now stretches before me sorting through a number of piles of manila folders and loose papers stacked on the shelves of my study, materials that did not make it into file cabinets when Susie and I moved into Carolina Meadows three years ago.  My initial hope was that I would turn up two ancient documents that had gone missing: my doctoral diploma and my Honorable Discharge from the National Guard.  I have found the first thus far and not the second. But along the way I turned up a number of typescripts and manuscripts, things I wrote for my own edification thirty years ago and more and had long since forgotten.  One is a hand-written document roughly 5,000 words long bearing the imposing title “Preliminary Notes for a Critique of the Physical Quantities Model of Reproduction.”  I like to think of it as my own personal Economic-Philosophic Manuscript of 1988 (or thereabouts).  I am going to spend today entering it into my computer, after which I will post it on this blog.  I figure the real world will get along without me quite well until I am done.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

A SOOTHING BALM FROM AN UNEXPECTED SOURCE

These are hard times, when we all  need to seek comfort where we can.  YouTube clips from Young Sheldon are pleasant, but after a while they pall.  I have just spent a restorative hour reading the text of the amicus brief filed by the retired judge recruited by the sitting federal judge in the Flynn case to advise him on the Government's astonishing filing withdrawing its case against Michael Flynn for lying to FBI agents, a charge to which Flynn has twice pled guilty under oath in open court.

In light of an ongoing pandemic, a cratering economy, and nation-wide protests of the murder of George Floyd, this is very much a matter of marginal, arcane interest at best.  But as our institutions seem to buckle and threaten to give way to naked fascism, it is comforting to see the full force of legal reasoning, complete with endless footnotes and case citations, brought to bear to crush the patently corrupt efforts of Bill Barr to get Flynn off.

You can find the text here.  I commend it to you.

This is very much a mi

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

THIS BUSINESS ABOUT THE RUSSIANS


From time to time in the comments section of this blog doubts are raised about whether the Russians undertook to meddle in the 2016 election in an effort to help Trump get elected.  These doubts are frequently expressed in a way that suggests that those who think the answer is “yes” are dupes of American propaganda, always a cruel insult to those who like to think of themselves as unusually clued in.  Today, I should like to address both the manifest doubt and the latent judgmental rebuke that accompanies it.  Keep in mind that I do not read, write, or speak Russian, so my discussion will perforce proceed at a rather high degree of abstraction, not a problem for someone who has spent his life as a philosopher.

There are four questions that I need to address:

1.         Would the Russians do such a thing if they had reason to and could?
2.         Do they have reason to?
3.         Could they?
4.         Why should I care?

Let me tackle the first question not directly but rather, as Hume says in the Treatise, by “beat(ing) about all the neghbouring fields, without any certain view or design, in hopes (my) good fortune will at last guide (me) to what (I) search for.”  [Book I, Part III, section II.]

Would the American government meddle in the election of another country in an effort to aid a candidate it favors?  The question answers itself.  A country that has thought nothing of overthrowing by force foreign governments it dislikes would, I am confident, not hesitate to resort to what is menacingly labeled cyberwarfare.  Would Great Britain?  Would France?  Would China?  In the interest of brevity, I shall refrain from citing chapter and verse and simply reply “Yes.” 

Well, if America, Great Britain, France, and China would employ cyberwarfare to influence the internal politics of another nation, would Russia, alone among these global powers, refrain, perhaps out of a deep and abiding respect for the sanctity of the ballot box?  I am going to take a giant leap here and say “No.”  They would not refrain.

So, Russia would, if it had reason to.

But why would they?   What is it to them whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or Donald Trump or Joe Biden is President?  Here I must speculate.  I can see two reasons why they would prefer Trump to either Clinton or Biden.  First, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has been encroaching in Eastern Europe on what was for a long time an uncontested Soviet sphere of influence.  I infer, without direct knowledge, that the Russian government does not like that fact.  Hillary Clinton clearly supported that policy more urgently than Donald Trump appeared to, and Joe Biden does as well.  Second, the Russian government, I believe without direct knowledge, wishes to be quits with the economic sanctions that restrict the international movement of the money of Russian oligarchs, and in this regard as well they have good reason to suppose Trump would be more amenable to lifting the sanctions than either Clinton or Biden.

But could they?  Clearly the Americans have the technical skill to pull off such an intrusion, and so, I think, do the French, the British, and the Chinese.  The Russians?  To be sure, they write great novels and make lovely nested dolls, but are they smart enough to master the ins and outs of twenty-first century technology?  Well, I am, for family reasons, prejudiced on this matter.  Recall that my older son, Patrick, was a chess prodigy who grew up to be a famous International Chess Grandmaster.  At our dinner table, the names Mikhail Tal, Boris Spassky, and Gary Kasparov were uttered reverentially in hushed tones.  I have no doubt that somewhere in their vast land the Russians could find techies up to the job of hacking the American election.

So Russia would if they had reason to, they did have reason to, and they could.  I conclude that they did indeed try, who knows with what success, and will try again.

But why should I care?  What is it to me that Russia tries to influence our elections to re-elect Trump?  At this point I must speak personally.  Each of you must do the same.  There are a number of very big changes that I would like to see in American economy, society and government.  I shall not detail them; I assume readers of this blog would have little difficulty making a list.  Now, given the broad, deep, systemic changes I desire, I can see only two ways to accomplish them: by violent revolution or by government action.  I don’t put much faith in violent revolution.  For one thing, the wrong subset of the population has all the guns.  So, frustrating and depressing as it may, seem, that leaves government action.  Considering the people who now hold local, state, and federal office, the only way to get the government action I want is to elect different people to those local, state, and federal offices.

Now, if I thought the Russians wanted America to change into the sort of country I could be proud to call my own, then I might welcome a little foreign cyberhelp.  But I don’t think that is what the Russians want.  So I don’t want the Russians trying to hack our elections.  Is this my number one concern?  Of course not.  My number one concern is getting all those sluggards who claim to support the right policies off their asses and out to vote.  My number two concern is the broad, deep, insidious efforts by our All American vote suppressors to block the good people who want to vote from doing so.  But some ways down my enemies list is the Russian government trying to muck about in our elections.

That is why I care.