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Tuesday, August 4, 2020


Unable to find anything printable to say about Jonathan Swann's remarkable and appalling interview with Pres. Trump, I allowed my mind to wander and into it popped one of my favorite lines from the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. It is the great moment in act two when Pooh Bah and his confederates, having given the Mikado an elaborate and entirely false account of their execution of a 2nd trombone player in a traveling band, discover that the person they have claimed to execute is the son of the Mikado, for which act they face hideous death. The others reproach Pooh Bah for his over the top description of the imaginary execution and Pooh Bah replies, in an effort to justify himself, that it was " merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." I don't know why I love this line so much. Perhaps it is because it strikes me as a fairly accurate description of a good deal of the contemporary philosophy I have read.

But since my mind is endlessly restless, it then recalled a truly appalling moment in a course I taught at UNC Chapel Hill six or seven years ago. The doctoral program in public policy requires all of its students to take a seminar on Moral Dimensions of Public Policy, a course that had for many years been taught by a senior member of the UNC philosophy department. But because this notable had a grant and was on leave, I was recruited to take his place. The experience was in general delightful. The students, unlike most philosophy department graduate students, had gone out into the world after graduating from college and held extremely interesting jobs in various aspects of public policy before returning to their doctorates, so they were not only bright, they also had a variety of interesting experiences on which they could draw in our classroom conversation. 

One day, as I was going on about something or other – I cannot now recall what – I made a reference by way of illustration of the point I was elaborating to one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. From their facial reactions I could tell that my reference was falling flat so I took a moment to poll the young people sitting around the table and I discovered, to my horror, that not a single one of them had ever heard of Gilbert and Sullivan. I could have handled it if they confessed that they could not sing half a dozen of the songs or recount the plots of the plays. I mean, young people have their limitations. But not a single one of them had so much as heard of Gilbert and Sullivan.

I think it was at that moment that I first realized I had definitively passed my sell – by date. Sometimes it is hard growing old.


Warren Goldfarb said...

I had the same blank reaction from my students when I mentioned Cole Porter.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh, I am afraid, Warren, we are past our time. But then, I could not tell you a single thing, beyond their names, about Beyonce and Kanye West. Which makes me a total dork.

s. wallerstein said...

My mother was a huge fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, so I grew listening to all their operettas. I know many of their songs by heart. She was 100% anglophile, so naturally, I learned "For he is an Englishman", which was her favorite. My favorite is
"he's got a little list, he's got a little list and there's none of them be missed". That song could be updated for the Trump era by someone more creative than myself.

Howie said...

But did they know Ratman and Little Hans and Shreber?

Anonymous said...

And they can't enjoy the references to G&S in Frasier:

Michael said...

"Camus can do, but Sartre is smart-re!" - Me, teaching PHIL 101, quoting a Jay Sherman line from a classic (i.e. mid-'90s or so) episode of The Simpsons.

Needless to did not manage to shake anyone from their mid-lecture coma.

Speaking of (and speaking of your being unimpressed with contemporary philosophy), I used to be acquainted with a guy, whose background was linguistics rather than philosophy, who just happened to remark one day, "Philosophy hasn't been interesting since Sartre." I wasn't sure how to respond; I'm hardly the best person to speak, since I'm forever in catch-up mode, and most of my studies don't go past the early 20th century.

I guess the question is, what might a philosophy student be most notably missing out on, if he or she never/rarely got around to looking past the early- or mid-20th century?

LFC said...

@ Warren Goldfarb

So the next class session you could have brought in the CD "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook" or "Ella F. Best of the Song Books", thereby increasing your students' cultural literacy (to not coin a phrase) and giving them the pleasure of hearing e.g. "Miss Otis Regrets," "Love for Sale," "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." Her rendition of the last of these is esp. good. I'm listening to it right now!! (Thought my ancient CD player was broken but apparently there's still some life in it.)

P.s. I like Gilbert & Sullivan just fine as well (esp Pinafore), but for students, presumably most of whom (?) were brought up in the U.S., not to have *heard* of Cole Porter is, like, criminal.

LFC said...

Ella's rendition of "Miss Otis Regrets," accompanied only by a piano (and an unobtrusive one at that), is also just about perfect.

marcel proust said...

In my early 60s, I have a good friend in his early 80s. When young, he was a Shakespeare scholar and he remains a Shakespeare idolater. Several years ago, we (my wife and I invited) his wife and him for dinner and to view the delightful (very spare) Stratford Festival 1982 production of the Mikado. From his reaction, I think he may have heard of G&S but it had never occurred to him to bother with their oeuvre. I was stunned, thinking they were as much a part of elite culture as Shakespeare & Mozart.* Clearly, G&S is as much an acquired taste as, say, Shakespeare (or Hegel).

*This is not to imply that he is pretentious or a snob. He loves the Yankees and baseball and based on evidence from our readings aloud, takes as much pleasure in Shakespeare's bawdier passages as he does in S's high prose.

jeffrey g kessen said...

Still remember sitting in a philosophy class on Kripke in the late 80's---talk about a mid-lecture slumber (previous ingestion of a quaalude notwithstanding). The Professor got round to discussing Warren Goldfarb's review of Kripke's book on Wittgenstein. Rousing it was, galvanizing, inspiriting even. This Goldfarb fellow seemed to nail all of Kripke's mistakes spot on---just after the manner of my own private critique! Sadly, however, the lecture pivoted abruptly into a fulsome defense of Crispen Wright's review of the book. Such are the hazards of a Community College education.....Just to be serious for a moment. Really respect all of Warren Goldfarb's work in defense of gay rights.

s. wallerstein said...


I'm not a philosopher and I don't know much about analytic philosophy, but in continental philosophy at least Sartre is, I believe, the last philosopher with an explicit system that explains "almost everything", Being and Nothingness, a system like that of Heidegger or Hegel or Spinoza.

I myself am not a systems-lover, so I'd say that Foucault, who doesn't have an explicit system, is as interesting as Sartre and for me at least more relevant in 2020.

DDA said...

The Ella rendition of Miss Otis is great. Oddly enough, the first version I ever heard was this one: Miss Otis , which is very good too. Ella's Harold Arlen Songbook is particularly superb I think.
By which I free associate to this: There's a superior Sherlock Holmes "continuation" series by Laurie King one of which (Island of the Mad) is set in Venice at the time that Cole Porter was in residence there and he and his household play a role in the plot; it presents a very sympathetic portrait of his white marriage.

LFC said...


Thanks for the link to that Josh White version of Miss Otis, which I've just listened to. It's *very* different from Ella's version, which just goes to show how malleable (in the good sense of the word) songs are...

jrapko said...

A couple of points: (a) In the Guardian John Crace has an account of the recent Trump interview that is every bit as delightful as was his weekly accounts of Keir Starmer skewering Boris Johnson at Prime Minister's Questions. (b) Also, on what students haven't heard of: (i) A four years ago I was teaching two composition classes at a major university. Not one out of the 37 students had heard of James Joyce; (ii) A couple of years ago I asked students in several classes, and not one had heard of something called 'Mack the Knife'.--Beat that.

Peter W Belenky said...

About thirty years ago, the parents from my son's school class accompanied our children to a weekend at a camp in the mountains. One night, after the younger set had gone to sleep, a father brought out a guitar and a songbook and started playing old folk songs in various languages, Wobbly songs, and German Communist songs from the Spanish civil war. I knew them all and sang with him but we were alone. Then he put that book away and brought out one of Bob Dylan's songs. All of the other parents joined in, and I was completely unfamiliar with them. Then I knew that the "generation gap" of the sixties was not between parents and children but between those who were born a couple of years apart in the 1940s.

We knew all of the G&S operettas, too.

Danny said...

well yes Gilbert and Sullivan refers to the Victorian-era theatrical partnership, so thisthis is rather P.G. Wodehouse. I wouldn't actually mind -- escape has somehow gotten a bad rap.

Matt said...

To lower the cultural level a bit, the worst case I ever had like this was trying to refer to an episode of "Quince: ME" to students in a philosophy of law recitation. This was, I think, in 2003, and Quincy had been off the air for more years than my students had been alive. Still, because I believe that people should respect the classics, I tried to explain the reference and why it was both topical and funny. Alas, this was one of the most complete pedagogical failures I have ever experienced.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I draw a total blank when contemporary cultural icons show up in The NY Times mini crossword.

DDA said...

OK, I couldn't help myself. There are many version of Miss Otis out there. Some are shitty (Nat King Cole's for example), some just OK (Carmen McRae for some reason) and then there are these three:
miss otis 3
<a href="”>miss otis 2</a>

DDA said...

Sorry, cut and paste messed up the formatting. Here they are:

miss otis 1

miss otis 2

miss otis 3