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Monday, August 2, 2021


Last evening Susie and I went out to dinner at a local restaurant in Carrboro which has a lovely outdoor covered eating space. We had a very tasty dinner that was to a considerable extent ruined for me by the music constantly playing in the background which made it almost impossible to have a conversation at the dinner table. After asking the waitress to have the music turned down (which she did, to her credit) I asked at the front desk, when we left, why they had music at all. The answer, which did not make much sense, was that they had not had complaints.


My experience of nightspots is rather limited, to put it tactfully, but it is my impression from the movies and television I have seen that young people like to go to places that are so noisy that it is impossible to hear what the person next to you is saying. I am mystified by this preference as I find it quite literally painful to be in a place with so much background noise that I cannot hear what others are saying. It is for this reason that I hate cocktail parties and other such events.


I reflected that I have never been to a restaurant in Paris where there was music playing while people dined. What is more, restaurants there seem to be constructed in such a fashion as to deaden rather than amplify the noise so that even when tables are placed quite close together it is possible to have a conversation.


I am obviously in the minority on this one so I have no hope of ever changing anybody’s behavior but I would be curious to learn what the attraction is of this sort of background noise.


Astute readers will discern that I am trying hard to distract myself from the godawful news in the world by searching desperately for trivial matters to comment on. I believe the standard reference here is to the quartet playing on the deck of the Titanic.


I cannot properly form a coherent idea of the human suffering created when 1,500,000 families are evicted from their homes. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk compete for bragging rights, doing something that a monkey did 60 years ago. They and their fellow billionaires could keep all those men and women and children in their homes for an amount of money that would scarcely put a dent in their fortunes. As I struggle with Parkinson’s Disease and the unavoidable burdens of aging, more and more I am saddened and angered by the sheer unnecessary misery human beings inflict on one another in countless ways. And for what? Life is all over so quickly.


Sixteen months ago, on April 13, 2020, I posted a righteous protest against David Palmeter’s practice of using the undo button in FreeCell on his way to achieving a 99% win rate in that online card game. Well, 2489 FreeCell games ago I adopted David’s practice and I have not lost since. Sometimes the game is easy and takes me less than three minutes to win. Sometimes I win in less than two minutes. And sometimes, after completely undoing the game and going back to the beginning several times I win an exhausting 22 minute marathon effort. Because I only had a 97% win rate when I started, it will take me forever to drag myself up to the 99% mark but I am now at 98.4% and if I live long enough I may actually see 99% when I check the statistics.


Consider this my humble and long-delayed acknowledgment of David’s superior wisdom in these matters.

Friday, July 30, 2021


I have been appalled, angered, mystified, and frustrated by the belligerent refusal of so many Americans – even healthcare workers – to get vaccinated. Their behavior puts me in mind of the fire insurance marks or plaques that were posted on insured buildings in the 18th and 19th centuries in England, America, and elsewhere. These plaques, which are now collector’s items, once played a very important role. Their function was to tell private fire companies which houses had paid insurance with them and ought therefore to be protected when fire broke out. It is literally the case that a horse-drawn fire engine would ride out during a fire and pass by burning buildings until the firefighters came to a building exhibiting a plaque of their company.


The idiots declaring their independence by refusing to get vaccinated or wear masks quite comfortably and unthinkingly expect hospitals to admit them and care for them should they contract the virus.


I quite understand that it is morally unacceptable for me to wish that hospitals would turn them away when they show up needing admittance to an intensive care unit and expensive high-tech medical care for the disease they have wantonly refused to protect themselves against. But still, but still.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021


Next spring semester, starting in early January, I will be teaching an advanced undergraduate course in the UNC philosophy department. The title of the course is “Advanced Political Philosophy” but apparently that is a placeholder into which I can put anything I choose. I have decided to teach a very traditional course with a twist.


The course will be divided into three roughly equal parts and the theme of the entire course will be the theory of the social contract and what has become of it as it has evolved. In the first portion of the course, we will read Locke’s Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government, and then Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract, after which we will read my little book In Defense of Anarchism.


In the second part of the course, we will read portions of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, focusing on his effort to resolve the conflict between utilitarianism and intuitionism by reviving social contract theory in a modern form. Then we will read most of my little book Understanding Rawls.


In the third part of the course, we will read The Racial Contract by Charles Mills, a devastating ideological deconstruction of the social contract tradition in Western political theory. Mills does not particularly concentrate on the United States in that book so after we have read it, we will conclude the course by reading chapters two and three of my book Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.


The course is scheduled to meet Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:30 AM to 10:45 AM and if I can still climb the steep stairs to the second floor of Caldwell Hall [I will be 88], I will give it my best shot.  The UNC Chapel Hill philosophy department has been extremely welcoming to me since Susie and I moved down here 13 years ago and I am looking forward to returning to their classroom.


Several of you mocked me for describing the Republican Party as a full on fascist party. Lord, how I hope you are right! How I hope that I am just reliving the nightmares of my youth, aWolff crying wolf. 

I have been binge watching Downton Abbey, and at one point in the last series, Neville Chamberlain shows up to dinner, having been conned into it by the splendid character played by Maggie Smith. Needless to say, a cold hand closed about my heart when he entered.


If the Republicans retake control of the House of Representatives in 2022, as is, I think we must admit, likely, it would not terribly surprised me if Trump demands that the Republican majority name him Speaker, something clearly allowed by the Constitution. He would then immediately initiate impeachment proceedings against Biden and Harris since he would be next in line for the presidency. That effort would go no place, of course, but would guarantee turmoil and chaos until the 2024 election.


The only thing I can think to do is to give money here and there to the campaigns of Democratic candidates from now until 2024.


Who knows? I may turn out to be a foolish old man. I certainly hope so.

Monday, July 26, 2021


30 years ago, in the fall semester of 1991, I taught a graduate seminar at the University of Massachusetts on the subject of ideological critique to a lively, engaged, very bright group of students. Not long after the seminar began, one of the students in a discussion made an offhand reference to "racism, sexism, and classism." The words rolled off her tongue easily and she clearly expected no objection to them but a very bright German student, Mecke Nagel (now a senior professor at SUNY Cortland), spoke up and objected, saying that she was opposed to racism and sexism but not to classism.  The students were stunned into silence. They had never encountered anybody who objected to that formulation and they did not know what to say.

I was enchanted and decided to write something briefly about the subject of racism to distribute to the students before the next class. While sorting out my books brought home from Paris, I came across a copy of the 2600 word essay that I wrote and distributed. It occurred to me that some of you might be interested in reading it so here it is, dictated into my computer with my Dragon Naturally Speaking Program.

I will develop my analysis in reference to the term “racism” and leave it to you to think through analogous analyses for other terms. My aim here, as throughout the course, is twofold: to get you to think historically, and to get you to think more complicatedly. I want you to learn to bring to bear on highly charged, politically highly inflected matters the care, precision, and analytical skill that you learn to use when writing about arcane matters of epistemology, metaphysics, logic, or language.


We start with the state of affairs that existed in late medieval Europe or in ancient Greece and Rome, or in the United States before the Civil War, or in South Africa today. A number of different legal statuses are explicitly defined by statutory or customary law, to which are attached differential benefits and burdens. In the 12th century, in what is now France, if you are a member of the regular clergy (i.e., A member of an order that lives by a rule – is “regular” – such as the Benedictines), legal questions concerning your property or damages you are accused of having inflicted on another, and so forth, are heard in an ecclesiastical court. If you are a peer of the realm, such matters will be heard by one of the courts of the provincial Estate. If you are a   freedmen, your case will be heard in the court presided over by the Lord who rules the domain in which you live. If you are unfree – a serf, i.e. “servile” – you will not have the right to have your cause weighed by a court of law. The taxes you owe, the military service you owe, the labor services you must tender, whether you may marry and whom, and many other things as well, will be determined by your legal status. Similarly, in classical Greece and Rome or antebellum United States, such matters will be determined by whether you are slave or free. In the United States, but not in Greece or Rome, all those who are slaves are thought of as belonging to a single race of the human species – although that is a concept that is not in fact as old as the institution of slavery even in the United States. In South Africa, there is a legal system of racial classification on which rests the rights of individuals to reside, own property, vote, marry, travel, hold jobs, and so forth.


The absolutely crucial thing to get clear at the start is that, at this point in the historical development of what will eventually become the concept of racism, we are talking about legal statuses, not feelings, attitudes, theories, prejudices, or unacknowledged limitations of perception. In South Africa, for example each year there are 100 or more court cases in which individuals are officially reclassified from one racial group to another. (It is also the case, on occasion, that members of the same immediate family are assigned to different racial categories.) Now there is, of course, a tricky theoretical question whether such legal statuses re descriptive or ascriptive, and my own view is that they are ascriptive.  Briefly, what is at issue is the question whether the law describes someone’s status – discovering it, when operating correctly or making a mistake when not – or alternatively ascribes a status to an individual by means of a legal procedure. On the ascriptive  interpretation for example, the statement that A killed B is, or purports to be descriptive, but the statement that A is a murderer is ascriptive. On this view, there is no meaning to the question, “is A really a murderer, even though the courts have failed to find him guilty?” any more than there is to the question, romantic though it might sound, “Are A and  B really married, even though they have never gone through a marriage ceremony?”


Accompanying the differential legal statuses may be some rationale or justification that appeals to supposed innate differences among individuals assigned to different statuses – such as a theory of racial, ethnic, religious, or gender differences. For example, medieval Muslim law treats “people of the book” – i.e. Jews and Christians – differently from infidels, on the ground, supposedly, that Jews and Christians acknowledge portions of the revelation that Muslims claim to have come from Allah. And the Greeks deprecated “barbarians” – i.e., those who did not speak Greek, and hence sounded, to the Greeks as though they were saying “bar bar bar.” But in a system of legally ascribed statuses, how one is treated is a function of one’s legal status, regardless of what others feel or think about one.


The first step in any liberation struggle is, inevitably, the attempt to remove the legal disabilities and instead establish it as a matter of law that the group seeking liberation has the most preferred legal status, and also, usually, the associated attempt to reduce all legal statuses to a single one. So, the elimination of ecclesiastical courts and aristocratic privileges, along with the elimination of serfdom, results in the single category of citizen (which, at any given historical moment, may or may not include everyone in the society, of course). Once again, although the rationale for such a legal change may be the rejection of some theory of racial superiority, the change consists in the alteration in legal status, not in the success in persuading everyone to reject the theory that justified the old system of differential statuses.


All of this is obvious and well-known. I emphasize it because I want to suggest that all subsequent elaborations and developments of the notion of racism are parasitic on this original notion of legal statuses.


Immediately, of course, it is discovered that the elimination of the legal disabilities does not bring about everything that the liberated group has been seeking. A former slave in Alabama may be legally permitted to own land, grow crops, hire laborers, and sell his produce, but he cannot find a white man to sell him land, etc. “No Irish need apply.” “Coloreds to the back of the bus.” There is no question in anyone’s mind that differential discriminatory decisions are being made on the basis of race, even though Negroes and whites have in law the same right to own land, enter into contracts, and so forth. Now, what is needed is not the removal of laws but laws positively designed to force people to stop these differential practices. And beyond that, of course, are needed penalties to enforce the laws, and law enforcement officials ready and able to carry out the enforcement.


Before, an employer could not hire a slave even if she wanted to, for wage labor is a legally enforceable contract, and slaves have no standing in a court of law to make and enforce contracts. How she feels about “Nigras” is irrelevant. She may have the warmest of feelings for them. Nor do questions of social pressure and such arise. She is no more legally allowed to hire a slave than an employer today is permitted to hire an alien without a green card (though of course they do – and so did employers hire slaves in the old South, but that is neither here nor there.)


The natural thing to say about the situation at this point is that it is one of virtual slavery (see Proudhon’s famous remark that property is theft, or the coining of the marvelously powerful phrase, “wage slavery,” the force of which is now lost on those for whom slavery is not even a memory.) In other words, it seems natural to say that these discriminatory practices, designed to single out just exactly those who, under the old regime, suffered from the ascription of differential legal status, are no different from or in effect the same as the old system of legal slavery. To some extent, this way of speaking is simply campaign rhetoric, but it is also designed to force people whose attention has been focused on the legal issues to recognize that extralegal or post-legal ways have been found to perpetuate the disabilities that were originally legally imposed. But of course such a way of speaking involves a shift in the original meaning of the term.


Now, we see a series of further shifts. Even after laws are passed, and even to some extent enforced, one sees two patterns of events or sets of phenomena to which the name “racism” becomes attached. First of all, and very distressingly (it is important to remember this – one must never forget the high hopes with which those fighting against the disadvantaged status of some group greet the first elimination of differential legal statuses and then the imposition of laws requiring equal treatment of persons who are equal before the law) it happens again and again that patterns of differential treatment continue, even in the face of laws against such treatment, because people in positions to make decisions – bank managers granting mortgage loans, landlords renting apartments, employers hiring workers and then promoting those who have been hired, college admissions officers, etc. continue to make differential judgments because of their private attitudes toward racial differences, either independently of or in contravention of the law. At this point, in the absence of the legal justification of differential legal statuses, these individuals justify such behavior to themselves or others by appeal to evaluative stereotypes or even some more general theory of innate racial differences.


Even more difficult to deal with, conceptually, are two further forms of differential treatment, neither of which involves a conscious act of discriminatory judgment on the part of any individual. First of all, people in positions of decision-making may make judgments that they themselves believed to be objective and unaffected by considerations of race, but which others, looking at them, can see to be based on systematic misperceptions – biases – that shape their evaluations. Calling such behavior “racist,” and calling those who exhibit it “racist,” can be understood  in either of two ways not always distinguished: either it is a way of saying that these people unconsciously, subconsciously, or in a self deceiving manner, actually hold the sorts of beliefs that would, in those consciously holding them, issue in differential treatment of people on the basis of race; or, something quite different, it is a way of saying that it is as though these people held such views or attitudes, even though they do not, and hence that they are no better than, or have the same effect as, someone enforcing a legal system of differential statuses. Secondly, practices of discriminatory treatment may become encoded in, built into, the administrative and bureaucratic procedures of an institution such as a law court, an army, a college, or a corporation, in such a way that discriminatory treatment is reproduced even when none of the individuals administering the institution hold, either consciously or unconsciously, discriminatory beliefs. To take a familiar example, colleges may administered admissions procedure based heavily on SAT scores, which scores in turn reflect the degree to which those taking them have had middle-class experiences (by way of the sorts of “A is to B as C is to X” examples they use, etc.), with the consequences that the admissions officers make choices biased toward middle-class applicants regardless of whether they themselves have, consciously or otherwise, a bias toward middle-class applicants. This last pattern of institutional behavior comes to be dubbed “institutional racism.”


Now, clearly there are very great differences between legal differentiation of statuses and institutional racism (whatever anyone may think about the relative degree of harm each inflicts). To refer to them all as racism is, once again, either a polemical device, or else – and this is where things get important and interesting – it implies the claim that there is some essence, which we label racism, the presence of which manifests itself in different ways, but the nature of which is unchanged, and which is the same essence in the South African system of legally defined racial categories, in the antebellum legal system of slavery, in the virulent hatred of lynch mobs, in the deliberate law evading practices of redlining insurance companies, and in the admissions practices of a college whose admissions officers are trying, unsuccessfully, to overcome the built-in bias of their own admissions regulations. Now, this may in fact be true, but it is at least worth pointing out that the very same people who forcefully reject “essentialism” in general are prone to employ such terms as “racism” in ways that make sense only if one supposes that the word names some such essence.


There is one last stage in this progressive development, the roots and implications of which are rather curious and surprising. The accusation of racism is, of course, an example of the sort of ideological critique that Mannheim analyzes. The accusation of racism makes no sense in the South African context. To accuse someone in South Africa of treating people differently on the basis of race has about the same force as the accusation in this country that voters are treated differently according to whether they are registered or not. The obvious answer is, but of course! It is the law! To accuse someone with a “no Irish need apply” sign in his front window of discriminating against the Irish is fatuous. To accuse someone of racism who claims to be hiring on the basis of merit is to attack her integrity, her honesty, and thereby to show her up to be something other than what she claims to be. When accusations of racism are combined with the notion of institutional racism, and the unstated premises is invoked of a secret essence present in the same form and virulence in all cases whether acknowledged or not, then one has indeed a very powerful polemical weapon.


Many people who are extremely eager not to have what they consider to be the morally or politically wrong views develop a hypersensitivity to this sort of ideological attack, fearful that they will discover themselves to have been guilty of harboring, unbeknownst to themselves, the hidden virus of the essence, racism.


Well, where does this leave us? I suggest, at the very least, that it shows us some of the complexities in the concept of racism, which is used these days as though it were the name of a familiar vegetable or well-known rock star. Think now of the compound word “racism, sexism, and classism” that I called into question in the last class. At the very least it should be obvious that the historical development of the concept of sexism is different from that of racism, that both are different from the more recent development of the notion of classism (whatever that is – I must say I am not really sure). To use that formula is, whether one wants to or not, to buy into the claim that these are the names of three essences that may or may not work in people, institutions, in utterances, or in attitudes, presence of which makes the people, institutions, practices, or attitudes in some way reprehensible. If you do not endorse this appeal to an essence that can meaningfully be said to reside in or characterize a person, an institution, practice, and an attitude, then you have the task, before using the terms again of thinking through what you mean by them and what you intend to presuppose when you invoke them.


This is just the sort of activity Orwell was trying to get us to engage in.  It is also the reason for spending most of the semester on substantive materials rather than on abstract theorizing. I am going to try to stop you each time you idly fall into a lazy use of such language as “racism,” when talking about a novel or an ethnographical study or an account of the politics or culture of Iraq or Saudi Arabia or the Maghrib.

Sunday, July 25, 2021


As usual, a good deal happened while I was away: the terrible flash floods in Germany, the raging fires on the West Coast, the assassination of the president of Haiti, the disastrous spread of the Delta variant of the virus. But judging from what I have heard watching CNN international, something else less dramatic happened as well. It seems finally to have become part of the common wisdom that the Republican Party is now a full on fascist movement. For someone my age, that statement has an odd sound to it. I grew up accustomed to think of fascism as something that happened in Italy (where the term was coined, drawing on an old Roman word), in Spain, in Hungary, and of course in Germany. Lynching, racial segregation, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, military repression of working-class organizations, McCarthyism – these were what we had to contend with in America. But not fascism. Not a major political party openly committed to seizing power illegally, not merely suppressing the vote but ignoring it, denying it, all in the name of white supremacy.


It is difficult for someone who has spent his entire life publicly attacking the weaknesses and failings of the American political system now to find himself desperately defending “American democracy” against a fascist threat, but however ego-dystonic this may feel, there is no contradiction in it, I am convinced. Virtually everything I want to see happen in this country requires mobilizing scores of millions of men and women to use the power of the vote. Permanently destroy that power and there is nothing left for me to hope for.


I have spent some time reading the American Constitution in an attempt to figure out what could happen in 2024 to foist Trump on us again. The following is an entirely conceivable sequence of events with that outcome. Suppose that Biden runs again, this time against Ron DeSantis. Suppose that the result is roughly the same: Biden wins an enormous popular majority and a modest electoral vote majority, a crucial portion of which consists of the electoral votes from three or four midwestern states or southern states controlled by Republican legislatures. Suppose that in those three or four states the state legislatures, against tradition, against the vote, and even perhaps against state laws, sends to the Congress electoral votes committed to Trump, who has not even been a declared candidate. Since no person under these circumstances would have a majority of the vote, the Constitution says that the House must choose from among the three persons with the most electoral votes, each House delegation voting as a unit. Since the Republicans control a majority of the state delegations, they could vote to choose Trump as president. If the decision were appealed to the Supreme Court, the court would look to the Constitution and find that the process had been entirely in keeping with the explicit specifications of that document. At this point, American democracy with all its flaws comes to an end.


What would happen if this nightmare scenario, not at all impossible, were actually to come to pass? I do not really know the answer to that. Would California and New York and Virginia and Washington State and all the other democratic states accept the outcome? Would Biden, still president for another 14 days, accept the outcome? Would the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff accept the outcome?


You can see why I have lost some sleep over this. No kidding.

Saturday, July 24, 2021


I am home again and there is a great deal to say about the terrible things happening in the world, but let me begin with a comic episode from our Paris stay. This visit was spent by Susie and me packing up personal belongings and getting ready to sell the apartment. We have a buyer, but these things take time and it will probably be the end of September before the closing takes place. One of my biggest tasks was doing something with the books I have been displaying on the shelves of the apartment for these past 17 years. The guidebooks, the pocket dictionaries, the Michelin guides, the enormous numbers of volumes of schlock fiction – they all stay. But that left the complete set of the works of Marx and Engels in German, more than 40 thick heavy volumes in all, plus some books on Kant’s philosophy that I had not yet brought home, and one copy each of every translation and edition of every book I have published – roughly 70 volumes in all.


Because of my Parkinson’s, merely getting them down off the shelves in preparation for packing them was a large job, but I managed it and by 10 days ago there were large piles of books in the middle of the apartment waiting to be packed. A wonderful man, Yves Liverset, who has over the years made repairs in the apartment, agreed to help and on July 15 he showed up with some boxes and tape and set to work. The boxes, it said on the side, were each 30 cm x 30 cm x 60 cm in size and all of the books fit snugly into four of them, which Yves taped up securely. Two days later, just a week ago, he came to take them to the post office.  Yves had come in a tiny electric car – one of the free cars that Paris makes available and which apparently one signs up for using one’s cell phone.  He parked outside our coop building, carried  the heavy boxes out two at a time on a little two wheel roller, and put them in the back of the car. They just barely fit and in fact because the hatch was not securely closed the car would not start. Traffic built up behind us on the one lane one-way street and finally, in exasperation, the blocked drivers got out and pushed us to the end of the little street and off to the side so that they could get by. Then finally the car started and off we went to the post office, which was only four or five blocks away.


Yves brought in the four boxes and explained what we wanted to do. By now it was about 9:30 in the morning.  It turned out that the post office has a 20 kg limit on boxes that can be sent by post and each of our four boxes weighed in at a little bit more. So we had to cut open the boxes and keep removing books one at a time until each box registered a bit below the 20 kg limit. An enormously helpful young woman working at the post office, who ended up spending hours with us, brought out four small shipping boxes which we filled with the overflow books. Then it came time for the paperwork. One of my Parkinson’s symptoms is a condition called micrographia. To put it simply, I can no longer write anything that is legible so Yves had to do all the writing. Each of the eight boxes required an elaborate shipping label and an equally elaborate customs label so Yves had to copy out my Paris address and my American address 16 times! Finally, at about noon, the job was done. There they sat, four big boxes and four small boxes ready to go. The cost? €1000! This was, needless to say, a great deal more than I paid for the books in the first place but I considered it cheap at the price to get them safely back to the United States.


I figured it would take three weeks, four weeks, three months before the book finally arrived. I would be rested from my trip and eager to see them by the time they showed up.



I think we must really raise a glass to the French Postal Service. I have already put 45 volumes of Marx and Engels on shelves here in my office and when I have recovered some measure of energy I will figure out what to do with the copies of the books I have written. By the way, my books tend to be short and rather small and I think all 70 copies, including the various additions of my textbook ABOUT PHILOSOPHY, will take up about half the space occupied by the Marx and Engels, if that.


With the arrival of the books the reality that we have sold the apartment washed over me and I felt very sad. We will not always have Paris, but we had it for 17 years and that is something.


Monday, June 28, 2021


Tomorrow, after two years, Susie and I will return to Paris. It turns out we do not need a PCR test to get into Paris but we will need an antigen test to get back into the United States, always assuming that something does not change while we are there.  We return in three weeks, on July 20. I am already ordering in my mind the dishes I shall have at our favorite restaurants.


As I think I have mentioned, we will be selling the apartment to a couple who formerly rented it and since they are buying it furnished and intend to rent it out themselves, we will be able to go back to essentially the same pied-à-terre (only without the 40 volume set of the works of Marx and Engels in German, which I shall ship home.) We have owned the apartment for 17 years and in that time we have been to Paris 35 times or more. We will not go to museums and tourist attractions, although we will probably have lunch at the Musée d’Orsay.


I am afraid my long early morning walks are a thing of the past.  But they are inscribed in my memory and I can see each of the streets as clearly as if I were on them.  For reasons that are beyond my comprehension, sometimes I can get on my blog when I am in Paris and sometimes I cannot, so I do not know whether I will be posting from there. If I am unable to, then I will be back in touch with you all when I return.


The political news from France is no better than it is here and since I am unable to do much about the world from either location, I plan simply to take a vacation from anxiety and enjoy Paris one more time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021


The comments on my recent posts have prompted me to say something about the meaning of the phrase “institutional racism” and its synonym “structural racism.” These phrases were introduced into discussions of public policy to capture the fact that there are some bureaucratic or institutional or structural features of a society that systematically disadvantage certain groups – racial or gender or ethnic or otherwise – entirely independently of the conscious or unconscious beliefs, attitudes, and intentions of individuals who occupy defined positions in social structures and institutions. This notion can be traced back at least as far as Marx’s analysis of capitalism and probably farther still.


The idea is that in a bureaucratic system facially neutral rules which are administered in a consciously and deliberately neutral fashion can sometimes, despite this apparent neutrality, operate to produce results which in other circumstances might be produced by the deliberate discriminatory intentions of biased individuals.


Let me give three examples, two from my own personal experience, the third an extremely important case about which I wrote at some length in my book Autobiography of an Ex White Man. In 1992, I was appointed codirector of a little Institute at the University of Massachusetts and managed to raise almost $1 million for a program I designed. The program was intended to help minority high school students in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts to come to the University. The Massachusetts Board of Education had laid down a number of admissions requirements for students coming to the University, one of which was that they were to have completed four years of high school mathematics. There were a number of high schools in Springfield, one of which was in the predominantly black and Latino neighborhood of the city. Many years earlier, teachers concerned about the lack of mathematics preparation of middle school students entering this high school had decided to divide the first year mathematics course into two parts and teach it in the freshman and sophomore high school years. This was done out of a genuine concern for the education of the students and in time became simply a routine part of the curriculum in that high school. Students eager to attend the University of Massachusetts 20 miles to the north dutifully took four years of math, but when they came to apply for admission, they discovered that their four years, which they had successfully completed, only counted as three and therefore they were not eligible for admission. I discovered that a very good support organization for Hispanic students on the UMass campus had begun the practice of offering a summer school course in fourth year high school mathematics so that students from that high school could be offered provisional admission to the University conditional upon their completing this required fourth-year in the summer before they were due to enter. Everybody involved in this process at both the high school and the university level was enthusiastically in support of the educational ambitions of the students but what had begun in years past as a positive accommodation to the needs of a group of underprepared middle school students had become a structural impediment to the higher education ambitions of that same group of students. The actions of the on-campus student support office was thus what has come to be called “affirmative action,” meaning by this phrase not a relaxation of the standards but an affirmative accommodation to a structural disadvantage that had come to be built into the educational system.


I became aware of my second example several years later when I took over the newly established program in Afro-American Studies at UMass. In those days, and perhaps  to this day for all I know, the Mellon Foundation offered a large number of very attractive fellowships for students applying to graduate study in the Arts and Sciences. Since I was perpetually in search of money to support our graduate students, I became very excited when I learned of these fellowships and was puzzled that none of our graduate students had won one of them. When I investigated a little further, I discovered why. The Mellon Foundation, purely for bureaucratic reasons, required that applicants for the fellowships take the Graduate Record Exam when it was given in September rather than what it was given in December. At elite colleges and universities which routinely sent students on for graduate study, it was customary for promising students to be spotted in the junior or even sophomore year and to be encouraged to think about postgraduate study. Their advisors tended to know about the Mellon fellowships and counseled their students to take the GRE in September. But at second and third tier schools and also in the historically black colleges and universities this structure of support tended to be absent and it was not until the senior year that students doing quite well would be encouraged to apply for doctoral programs. By the time that encouragement occurred, the September GRE had already been given so the students took the December GRE, which meant that they were ineligible for the Mellon fellowships. When I learned all of this, I called the Mellon Foundation. The person to whom I spoke assured me – and I believed her – that the Foundation was eager to have African-American students apply but she was completely ignorant of the reason why students from historically black schools almost never did. I tried to persuade her that the Mellon Foundation should affirmatively reach out to those schools and urge them to have their promising students take the September GRE’s but she seemed to think that that would somehow violate the principle of neutrality with which they operated.


My third example is quite important and has very broad implications for the economic disadvantages experienced by African-American families. In order to illustrate it, I constructed an elaborate hypothetical numerical example which I laid out in detail in my book and which I will not try to repeat here. As everybody I am sure knows, black household income is significantly lower than white household income, even correcting for level of educational attainment, but the gap has been narrowing in recent decades and we can hope that it will continue to do so. The gap between the wealth of black families and white families is absolutely astonishing and is so much greater than the income gap as to be seemingly incomprehensible. Shades of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, it is all too easy to blame this gap on the social dysfunction of black families or on the absence of strong character or whatever. Here is a somewhat different explanation of at least some of that gap which points to the effect of what I have been calling institutional or structural racism.


Particularly in the lower economic half of American Society, the principal unit of family wealth is the equity in a privately owned home. In a family which has owned its home for several decades, this can amount to some hundreds of thousands of dollars. Three quarters of a century ago or more, the American government adopted deliberate tax policies aimed at encouraging private home ownership. The Federal Housing Authority guaranteed home mortgage loans. The Internal Revenue Service permitted families to deduct both the interest on a home mortgage loan and the state and local real estate taxes from federal income tax returns, a deduction that dramatically reduced the amount of tax families owed. In the early days after World War II, the FHA in its published guidelines overtly and deliberately discriminated against black families seeking to own homes, with the result that relatively few of them were able to buy homes like the white families with equivalent incomes. Eventually, many decades ago now, this discriminatory policy was abolished and it has been easy for those unsympathetic to the economic problems of black families to point to this fact as evidence that it is no longer the case that there is any discrimination built into the housing market. (Let me forestall the obvious comments at this point by saying that I am not at all denying the existence to this day of deliberate, overt, blatantly racist discrimination against black families seeking to own homes. I am trying to explain how even in the absence of such attitudes something that can be called structural racism or institutional racism can become built into a bureaucratic system.)


In the example that I constructed in my book, I followed two men, one black and one white, who came out of the Army in 1945 each with a small nest egg of $500. I then asked what the result would be over 30 or 40 years in the wealth of the two men as they married, got jobs paying exactly the same wage, had two children each and lived their lives. It was quite easy to show that the white family, by virtue of having been able to buy a house, ended up 30 or 40 years later with considerable wealth in the form of equity in the house, equity which they could access through home loans or remortgaging to underwrite their children’s college education. The black family, earning exactly the same income but paying rent and therefore unable to accumulate equity, was quite unable to underwrite their children’s educational ambitions. Forty years later, ignorant and thoughtless observers trying to understand why the white children had college educations and good careers and the black children did not would appeal to all sorts of fanciful theories about black family values and deferred gratification and whether or not the mothers listened to Mozart while they were pregnant whereas the real explanation was the natural consequence, a generation and a half later of deliberately discriminatory institutional practices that had long since been eliminated but whose structural consequences persisted.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021


One of the anonymati asks for a simple explanation of Critical Race Theory in a thousand words or less! Well, fortunately, there is an excellent entry on the subject in Wikipedia which will save me a great many words. What is now called critical race theory has its distant origins in the work of the Frankfurt School. As I would have explained to my students if Columbia had agreed to let me teach the course I proposed, the work of the Frankfurt School was, among other things, an effort to unite the insights of Marx and Freud. At the same time, the failure of genuine socialist revolutions to materialize in the first half of the 20th century led many European scholars to try to understand the non-economic, bureaucratic or institutional or “structural” determinants of political developments in mature, or as we old unrepentant lefties used to say, late capitalism. They thought that what came to be called “economic determinism” could not adequately account for the world they saw developing around them.


As the work of European scholars made its way to America, notably in the work of W. E. B. DuBois (who studied for a while with Max Weber), it underwent a series of changes to take account of the effect of race in American history, economy, and politics – a subject about which Marx had little or nothing of any interest to say.


Marx himself had understood that the personal tastes, biases, interests, or desires of individual capitalists had very little to do with the overall shape of the development of capitalist economies, but he did not adequately appreciate the institutional or bureaucratic constraints that shaped economic developments.


Putting all this together in the American context led to the development of the notion of institutional racism, a concept absolutely essential to an understanding of American society which all Republicans and a great many Democrats find it impossible to grasp. As I spent many pages in my little book Autobiography of an Ex White Man discussing this subject, I will not repeat myself here.


All of this was imported into legal theory at a time of considerable ferment in that field by, among others, Derrick Bell, during the time that he was a professor of law at Harvard.


If you now go to the Wikipedia article, which can be found here, you should be able to get a pretty rich and complex understanding of the development of the field called Critical Race Theory.

Saturday, June 19, 2021


But what about that swivel chair? Socialism may be all very well and good, very high-minded and all of that, but can it produce the goods? Let us be clear: when I talk about socialism I am not referring to a romantic return to an earlier time when we all kept chickens and used outhouses and sang folksongs and wore sandals and lived in little cottages with candles while we read poetry to one another and searched our inner selves. I am asking whether there is some way to move beyond the current advanced stage in the development of private ownership of the means of production in order to achieve genuine economic equality and collective democratic decisions about how to invest the surplus generated by our productive efforts.  As I pointed out in the first post of this little series, there are already developments within capitalism that are preparing the way for movement beyond. The divorce of legal ownership from day-to-day management is already well advanced. We are all mesmerized by Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates – more of them in a moment. But for the most part, the functional operation of a modern capitalist economy has been separated from the legal ownership of capital.


It is quite obvious that democratically elected governments are capable of doing an efficient job of deploying capital for collectively agreed upon purposes. Private entrepreneurs may be selling seats in space capsules at fancy prices, but let us not forget that the first people to walk on the moon were government employees. Higher education in the United States is an odd mixture of private and public enterprise, but in many advanced capitalist countries the great universities are public institutions and it is really only the Catholic Church that clings to private higher education for otherworldly reasons. The cars we drive are made for profit by private corporations, but both in the United States and abroad the roads on which they drive are made and maintained by governments.


Private ownership of the means of production distorts what is made and consumed in ways that are personally profitable but socially undesirable. As I have observed before, because it is possible to get rich producing inexpensive well-made well-designed clothing, even the poor look good when they go from job to job trying to make enough to pay the rent. But for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with social welfare, expensive housing is profitable to produce while well-designed, well-made inexpensive housing is not.  Hence the rich are comfortably housed and the poor are not, even though these days when the two mix and mingle on public streets it may be difficult to tell one from the other. Why is public housing so poorly designed? Would it not be possible for government to produce well-designed housing? This is really two questions masquerading as one. Is it possible and is it politically acceptable in a capitalist economy? I will simply offer my opinion, which is that it is possible but that for political reasons public housing must be a blight on the landscape.


What about innovation? Are we really going to leave it to bureaucrats to pick and choose which ideas for new products on the production lines are to be funded? Is the world of the socialist future to become one vast bleak landscape of motor vehicle registry offices? Even sandals and candles and outhouses would be better than that!


Well, let us be honest about this. These days, ambitious innovative types who want to start a new company do not often acquire the capital by cheese paring, as in the old self-congratulatory early capitalist fairytales. They go to banks or equity funds.  Some way would have to be designed to capitalize lenders with public funds.  And to encourage socially valuable greed, which is to say entrepreneurial innovation, the terms would have to be such that successful innovators could become reasonably rich.  The problem is not that successful innovators become rich – and of course with taxation we can limit just how rich they become. The problem is what Piketty calls patrimonial capitalism, which is to say the ever greater accumulation of inherited wealth.


Will innovators sit on their hands if we deny them the opportunity to leave what they make to their children? I think the answer is no but quite obviously I cannot be certain about that. That is one of the as yet unanswered questions that a transition to socialism would have to confront.


But what about that swivel chair? Well, if it is made by craftspeople in a small privately owned and managed company, all well and good. If it is made by a huge international Corporation like IKEA, then that may be government owned. I seriously doubt that the chair would swivel less well if that were the case.


I have just scratched the surface but before I close I want to emphasize once again the central organizing idea behind this speculative post. If we want to know what socialism will look like, we must first ask what changes are already taking place within capitalism. To that we must add that the direction of further development will be determined not by armchair speculators like myself but by the collective decision-making of democratically chosen representatives. Does that pose problems? You bet it does! Are those problems greater than the problems we now have and live with in a capitalist economy? I do not think so, but then, I only have one vote.



Thursday, June 17, 2021


A reader of this blog sent me the following message:


“Obviously, you are highly committed to socialism.  What, however, seems to be the perennial problem is that despite 150 years of socialist thought and practice, it’s not at all clear how it would actually work.  We all know what communism is, having seen it in the Soviet Union, the Eastern European satellite states, China, etc.  We all know what social democracy as practiced in Western Europe is, i.e., capitalism with a political commitment to a fair degree of redistribution.


But what would a socialist economy and polity look like?  One hears vague phrases like “economic democracy” and “community control” but never any reasonably precise description of how it would function.


As I look across my room at the new swivel chair I recently purchased I see chrome, leather, plastic and thread brought together, as well as the shipping and financial transactions that were associated with my purchase and the underlying legal framework for such transactions.  I don’t want to fetishize the “miracle of the marketplace,” but well, the chair is there, and I don’t see what the process would be under socialism that would produce the same result.


Am I missing something?  It doesn’t feel like I am asking for too much from proponents of a political and economic system.”


It certainly does not seem like too much to ask, so instead of replying by email I promised I would try to say something useful on this blog. But I warned not to expect too much because I have nothing more than suggestions to offer, certainly not a blueprint or even a coherent plan of action.


Let me begin by reminding everyone of how little Marx himself had to say about the subject. As I have several times noted, he wrote more than 5000 pages of detailed analysis of capitalism as he observed it, principally in England, but scarcely as much as 100 pages about socialism. Besides describing socialism as collective ownership of the means of production, he said almost nothing about how a socialist economy and society would function. There is a reason for that, of course. Marx believed, correctly in my judgment, that fundamental changes in the organization of an economy come about as a consequence not of command decisions by a government or ruling clique but rather internally as a consequence of the decisions of large numbers of individuals engaged in various aspects of that economy. We all recall his striking metaphor – the new order developing in the womb of the old.


It is for this reason that every time I try to address this important question I start by describing the major changes I see taking place within contemporary capitalism rather than by following the practice of those thinkers whom Marx described dismissively as Utopian Socialists.


Capitalism has changed dramatically in the more than century and a half since Marx published volume one of Capital. Aside from the explosion in productivity which makes our world as different from that of Marx as his world was from that of Adam Smith, I can see at least four fundamental developments internal to capitalism whose significance we must try to understand before we can even begin to answer my reader’s pointed question.


First, the internationalization of capitalism that was already underway in Marx’s day has now been brought virtually to completion, as any of us here in the United States can tell simply by reading the tags on the things we buy and discovering how many of them were made in China. This is not simply a matter of imports and exports. The production process itself of individual goods has been internationalized so that, for example, it is impossible these days to purchase a car every part of which has been made in the same country.


Second, as I have frequently observed, the ownership of privately owned capital has been to an extraordinary extent divorced from day to day management of its use in production, through the introduction of the limited liability joint stock corporation, and the public sale and trading of shares of stock on markets widely accessible to investors who have no functional relationship to the private corporations of which they are in theory partial owners.


Third, modern governments around the world play important roles day – to – day in the private corporate economy, shaping it through fiscal and monetary policies, saving it from its moments of self-destruction, bending it to the service of politically determined ends, all without invading or violating the fundamental private ownership of the means of production that is the core fact about capitalism.


Fourth, the private ownership of capital results in a steady irresistible accumulation of privately held wealth that dwarfs even the enormous budgets of modern imperial states. Because this wealth is passed on from generation to generation – because it is, as the French say, patrimonial – certain individuals and families become incomprehensibly rich, rich as it used to be said beyond the dreams of avarice.  This wealth is the financial representation of the cumulative product of the labor of billions of men and women who, however, have no more control now than they did in Marx’s day over how that product will be used.


But what of my readers new swivel chair? Will it still be available in a socialist economy or will we just sit around on tree stumps eating peaches and cream? More tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021


I think I mentioned that Susie and I are going to Paris at the end of this month and that we have decided to sell our apartment. Happily for us, a former renter is buying it and she plans to let us rent it from time to time, even though I warned her that I would be bringing home my complete 40 volume set of the works of Marx and Engels in German. For the past week or so I have been absorbed in assembling all of the documents I need for the Parisian notaire.  A notaire in France is, as I understand these things, a lawyer who handles various legal and financial transactions but is not certified to argue in court. For that you need an avocat.


As I have been fussing with files of documents going back to when we purchased the apartment in 2004, I was struck again by the effect that aging has on me. Physically, of course, I am not the man I once was and even when I was I was not that hot, but that is not what I find most striking. Rather, it is the fact that although my mind is as clear as it ever was it just takes me a lot longer to do things and I can no longer do many things at the same time, as I once could.


I think back to the seven years I spent at Columbia University from 1964 to 1971. I was 30 when I started there and 37 when I left. During those seven years, in addition to carrying the not very heavy Columbia teaching load and other duties, I also taught summer school three times, I taught extra courses during term time at City College (twice), Barnard, City University, and Hunter College, I co-authored one little book, wrote four others, edited eight books, and in the latter years shared in the caring for two little boys, all while going to an analyst on the Upper East Side three or four times a week. The weird thing is that I do not recall feeling pressured or burdened by all of this.


Meanwhile, I find myself brooding constantly about the incipient fascism I see growing up around me in the land of the free and the home of the brave. I will try to say something about that in the next few days even though there is obviously next to nothing I can do about it.

Sunday, June 13, 2021


As I have on various occasions observed, when it comes to changing the world it takes a great deal of effort to make even a very small change and an enormous amount of effort to make a slightly larger change. But when it comes to thinking about the world, it is no more difficult to think about everything than it is to think about just something. Consequently, philosophers tend to think about everything.

This morning as I was taking my walk at 7:15 my mind turned, as it does from time to time, to Lorenz curves and Gini coefficients. A Lorenz curve is a graphical device that can be used to represent visually the unequal distribution of income in a society. The Gini coefficient or index associated with a Lorenz curve is a numerical summation of the information portrayed in the curve. You can find a simple Wikipedia explanation of the matter here.  A Gini index ranges between zero for a society of perfectly equality and 1 for a society of perfect inequality (which is to say a society in which nobody gets anything except for one person, who gets everything.)  The larger the Gini index, the more unequal the society.


The Gini index of the American economy has risen dramatically since the 1970s, indicating a marked increase in income inequality. The Gini index of the United States is currently estimated as a bit more than .41. By comparison, the Gini indices of France and Germany are slightly above .31. Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are even less unequal than that.


I have often observed, I do not know how many times on this blog, that since I went to college in 1950, the proportion of adult Americans with a college degree has risen from 5% to roughly 33%. Fully 60% of young Americans now enroll in college, only 55% of those making it all the way to the degree (55% of 60% is 33%, of course.) So the striking increase in the proportion of the population with advanced education has gone hand-in-hand with increased income inequality. That simple observation should put paid to the fantasy that education is the solution of which inequality is the problem.


I am all in favor of eliminating the racial, ethnic, and income inequalities in the distribution of higher education in the United States (slightly more women than men have college degrees so gender inequality is not a problem), and I have in my small way done what I could to advance the elimination of those inequalities but if every quantifiable subset of the American population exhibited the same rate of successful higher educational attainment, it would do absolutely nothing to reduce the overall inequality in the distribution of income.


It was at about this point in my perambulatory musings that I stopped thinking about everything and started focusing on where my feet were going, something that is required of those of us who have Parkinson’s.

Thursday, June 10, 2021


As I was preparing to write another blog post, I received the sad news of the passing of my French cousin, André Zarembowitch.  This is a matter of importance only to myself and of course to his family in Paris but I would like to take a few moments to say something about André.  The Zarembowitch clan came to Paris from Sulwaki, a small town in northeast Poland, in the latter part of the 19th century, moving as I understand  it to escape a famine. My great grandfather, Abram Zarembowitch, decided to leave Paris and emigrate to the United States with his wife and one-year-old son Barnet.  An unsympathetic immigration official at Castle Garden in New York changed the name to Wolff, and with that name change the American branch of the family lost touch with their Parisian relatives. After my father’s death, during a trip that Susie and I took to Paris, I looked through the Paris phone book and found a listing for André and Jacqueline Zarembowitch.  Once we had our Paris apartment, I got up the courage to write to them and during our next visit invited them to our apartment. It turned out that my great grandfather and André’s grandfather had been brothers so that we were indeed related. My Paris cousins were both retired science professors living in the 13th arrondissement. Our meeting began with a bit of tension because my cousins, it turned out, were both people of the left and they were fearful that their new American relatives were Reaganites, but when it turned out that I was if anything farther to the left than they, we became good friends. Over a period of years, when we went to Paris we would have dinner with André and Jacqueline.  As I recall, I only put my foot in my mouth once when I asked rather ignorantly whether they had graduated from the Sorbonne. With exquisite grace, they indicated that they had both gone to one of les grandes écoles, as the elite institutions of higher education are called in France.


It was through André that I learned that 30 of my relatives died in Auschwitz, a fact that had been completely lost to my parents and perhaps even to my grandparents.


André was a sweet, humorous, charming man and Susie and I will miss him. He was 89 years old, two years older than I.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021


After I deleted 15 or 20 of the same identical post by Caillo Lisa and realized that there were maybe 50 more, one attached to each of the posts I have put up in the past several months, I just gave up. Does anybody know how I can block this kind of thing without deleting each one laboriously?

Tuesday, June 8, 2021


All human beings live through a lifecycle – we are born, grow slowly to maturity, spend a long time as mature adults, then grow old, and die. During the early years, we consume goods and services that we do not produce. During the long middle years, we produce more than we consume, and in old age either we cease producing once more or else produce at a low level.


In human beings, it is the women who have the children. The men provide the sperm, talk trash, and puff their egos. There are obviously three possibilities. If on average each woman has two children (actually 2.01 children, but never mind), then the population will over the generations reproduce itself at a stable level. If each woman on average produces more than two children then the population will grow. If each woman on average produces fewer than two children then the population will shrink. These are not cultural facts or ideological musings or historical conjunctions, they are just biology and arithmetic.


A little while ago, I referenced a startling New York Times story which noted that because in China women produce on average roughly only 1.7 children, the enormous Chinese population of 1.4 billion souls is on track to shrink by the end of the 21st century to roughly 740 million. Notice by the way that 740 million is not some kind of point of stability. If the fertility rate in China remains 1.7, the population will continue to shrink as the decades go by. Indeed, bizarre though it may seem, other things being left to one side (more of this in a moment) a country with a 1.7 fertility rate will eventually cease to exist. Think about it. When the last 20 people – 10 women and 10 men – occupy what was once a country of 1.4 billion, if those 10 women have a fertility rate of 1.7 then in the next generation there will only be 17 Chinese.  In the next generation that number will drop to 15, and so on until the last child buries his or her parents and wanders off into the sunset.


The population of the United States has been growing pretty steadily since I was born (and also, of course, before I was born.) But the fertility rate has been falling.  In 1958, the fertility rate was 3.582. By 1972, it had fallen to 2.132, just barely replacement level. Currently, I was startled to discover when I went searching the web, the US fertility rate is 1.781, just slightly above that of China.


It is interesting to break out the US figures by race and ethnicity. White Americans have a fertility rate of 1.601, markedly below that of the Chinese.  Black Americans are doing rather better with a fertility rate of 1.775, still well below replacement. The Hispanic rate is 1.94, close but no cigar. Asian Americans are at 1.51.


Children consume without producing, just as old people produce without consuming, but generally speaking in modern society children consume less per capita than old people so an aging shrinking population can put a severe strain on an economy. What to do?


Assuming that modern science will not figure out a way to get men pregnant, and in the face of what seems to be a broad international tendency for women to have fewer children, the only answer, at least in the short run, is for a country like the United States to get people to move here, especially young people of childbearing age.


In short, immigration is not the problem, it is the solution.

Monday, June 7, 2021


Since the comments section has turned briefly to the subject of Gilbert Ryle, I thought I would just note that the very first philosophy journal article I ever published was a 2 1/2 page note criticizing Ryle's treatment of something called "agitations" in his book Concept of Mind.  The note appeared in 1954, when I was just 20 years old, and was taken from my undergraduate honors thesis. It appeared in a well-known English philosophy journal called MIND, which was edited by Ryle himself. Ryle apparently was quite supportive of young philosophers and had no hesitation publishing things critical of what he had written. Somebody named Corbett responded with a comment and I got to write a 1 1/2 page reply, so there I was, barely old enough to vote with two publications to my credit. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

Sunday, June 6, 2021


Late yesterday evening, Danny posted this comment: “But also, online harassment has been a huge topic of discussion right here in domestic America over the past few years, and indeed, I think of 'those who need more information on a given topic but don't want to be caught seeking out that information', and it occurs to me that most people actually fall into this group without realizing it. How would you feel if every single question of yours was tied to your real-life identity? Online anonymity isn't just for those who are up to no good. Or maybe put it as a question, do I *believe*, that the internet should not be anonymous? I think it's a very interesting topic to debate.”


It is indeed an interesting topic so let me talk about it for a bit. First of all, let us remember that for the overwhelming preponderance of the 200,000 years or so that human beings have existed, communication has been almost entirely face-to-face. To be sure, once writing was invented and became commonplace, it was possible to send anonymous communications – clay tablets without an identifying mark, papyrus unsigned, or after a while books published pseudonymously. And then there are ransom notes, death threats, shy love letters, that sort of thing. But that is not what we are talking about here.  It is the technology of digital communication, the Internet and the cloud, that raises the question in interesting ways.


Let us distinguish between asking a question or seeking information anonymously and making a positive or negative comment anonymously. The first, it seems to me, is entirely acceptable, but the second in my judgment is not, save in very special circumstances. Now mind, I do not have to put myself out there in a blog. It is my choice to do so because I am eager to communicate with people who might be interested in my opinions. If I cannot stand having somebody snark at me, I can just stop blogging. If I dislike disagreement, that is my problem, not the problem of the people who disagree with me. Nevertheless, I feel a certain disdain for folks who want to hide their identity while taking pot shots at those who express opinions and put their names on them.


I do not think I have made an anonymous comment in my life, at least not on purpose. Even when I have been asked to serve as a reader of a manuscript for a journal or book publisher, I have insisted that my name be revealed so that the author knows who is making the comments, especially when they are negative. Now, to be sure, I received a tenured professorship when I was 30 so for the last 57 years my income has been assured, but I started expressing my negative opinions about powerful people when I was 17 and it never occurred to me to conceal my identity for fear that I would suffer retribution. Indeed, even after I had tenure, I lost professorships three times because of my expressed political opinions. Nevertheless, in this world I am one of the privileged and I am well aware that I have been unusually protected from retaliation in my expression of unpopular opinions. If a reader of my blog were to write to me privately and explain why he or she was unwilling to risk coming out from behind the veil of anonymity on this blog, I would of course be understanding and accepting. But that is not the sort of thing we are talking about here.


One of the things that I find particularly striking is that digital communication, which feels anonymous, is in fact no more privae that broadcasting one’s opinions with a shortwave radio. To an extraordinary extent, the anonymity is a delusion.


Well, those are my first thoughts on the subject. I would be interested in what all you have to say. 

Saturday, June 5, 2021


Good to hear from Tom Weir, a UMass philosophy student in the first half of the 1970s. Tom, as I recall in one of my courses you wrote an impassioned discussion of the problem of the distribution of wealth around the world. It sounds to me as though you put your philosophy education to good use. Thank you for checking in.

Thursday, June 3, 2021


Of brave souls who post snarky comments anonymously and then think that they have been daringly edgy. So, whoever it is who made the crack about "pearl clutching," why don't you come out from behind your mask, tell us who you are and what you do and what your history is, and then present us with your analysis, which I will put up as a guest post on this blog, opening it to comment and criticism. If you are willing to do that, then I will take you seriously and respond. Otherwise, get lost. 


It was already 70° when I started my morning walk today at 7 AM so instead of wearing my usual longsleeved turtleneck shirt, I put on a tatty old black T-shirt that I have had for 30 years and more. On the front is emblazoned a red star around which are inscribed the words SOCIAL THOUGHT AND POLITICAL ECONOMY. The shirt commemorates an undergraduate interdisciplinary program that I created at the University of Massachusetts when I joined the faculty there in 1971. UMass, which is big on acronyms, dubbed the program for purposes of its computer records as STPEC, which almost immediately came to be pronounced “stepick.”  

STPEC was intended by me as a left-wing version of SOCIAL STUDIES, the Harvard undergraduate interdisciplinary major of which I was the first head tutor in 1960 – 61. It was launched on a shoestring in 1973. It grew and flourished, most especially after I turned it over to Sara Lennox in 1980 when I moved to Boston so that my first wife could take up a professorship at MIT.  In two years, if my Parkinson’s will permit, I will travel to Amherst to take part in the 50th anniversary celebration. Should theweather be mild enough, I may wear that old T-shirt


I have told the story of the creation of STPEC at some length in my autobiography and will not undertake to repeat myself here but there is one feature of the program of which I am especially proud and I thought I would take just a moment to talk about it.


As originally conceived, students in the program were to take a combination of courses drawn from the social sciences and humanities capped by a senior year two-semester seminar taught jointly by two faculty members drawn from different departments (thus guaranteeing that it would be “interdisciplinary.”) The first Senior Seminar was taught by myself and my friend and colleague William Connolly from Political Science. Excited by the opportunity, Bill and I went a little bit over the top and it was a very demanding seminar. Word got back to the juniors in the program who came to me rather nervously to say that they did not feel they were prepared for a seminar of this sort and wondered whether there was something I could arrange that would give them the background they needed. I responded by creating a junior year seminar. Several years later, that junior seminar was taught by Tracy Strong, whom I had recruited for the purpose from Mount Holyoke College. Tracy taught a rather demanding junior seminar and the sophomores in the program, hearing about it, came to me and said they did not think they were ready for such an experience. Once again I responded, this time by creating and teaching a new philosophy department course called Introduction to Social Philosophy.


Thus was born a tradition carried on by Sara Lennox, a tradition that I think may be unique in American higher education, of developing a major not by consulting the wishes and wisdom of professors but by responding to the needs and demands of students. It has been a long time since I have been in touch with the STPEC program, but I very much hope that it has, all these years later, retained this character.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021


What follows is an exercise in armchair speculation. My speculation concerns the Joe Manchin problem. To keep this short I am going to assume that my blog readers understand what I mean by this phrase.


Let us begin by recognizing how extraordinary it is that Joe Manchin is in the Senate at all. He represents West Virginia, which went for Trump in 2020 by just under 40 points. If he were not in the Senate, the brilliant extraordinary victories of John Ossoff and Raphael Warnock would not have given the Democrats the control of the Senate that they now enjoy. So let us keep that in mind. There is no point beating up on poor Joe because he is not Bernie Sanders.  If he were even a moderate Democrat, he would not be a senator at all. The only question worth asking, it seems to me, is this: assuming that Joe Biden has a strategy for getting Manchin to agree in at least some cases to abrogate the filibuster, what is it?


There seem to me to be essentially three answers to my question and I really have no idea which one is correct. The first answer, which I passionately hope is wrong, is that Joe Biden is caught in a time warp and actually thinks that if he reaches out repeatedly to Republican senators and relies on his life of experience in that body, he can bring enough of them around so that he does not need to abrogate the filibuster.  If Biden believes that, we are all screwed, but his behavior thus far does not seem to suggest that he is genuinely in the grip of that fantasy.


The second answer, for which I think there is some significant evidence, is that Biden believes he can lead the Democrats to victory in 2022 and again in 2024 by delivering enough bread-and-butter legislation to win over large numbers of independents and moderate Republicans, thereby overcoming the voting obstacles that Republican legislatures are now putting in place to enable them to retain power with minority support in the electorate.  This is not a stupid belief on his part but I fear that it is wrong and I am apprehensive that that may be what explains his behavior with regard to Manchin.


The third answer is that he is playing a deep, complicated long game that goes something like this: he makes a great show of trying to work across the aisle on things like infrastructure, giving Manchin every opportunity to see such a strategy fail, patiently losing a series of legislative fights in the Senate, such as the inability to get 10 senators to agree to the establishment of a January 6 commission, until finally Manchin becomes exasperated with his good Republican friends, at which point Biden asks Manchin to agree to abrogate the filibuster for the voting rights and protection act, arguing that it is needed to preserve the possibility of the sort of bipartisan legislative work that Manchin cherishes.


If this is what Biden is doing – if the third answer is correct – then I think that may be our best chance to avoid the destruction of democracy that I fear.


As I say, I have absolutely no idea what is going on in Biden’s mind. I am convinced that he is not a fool. If the correct answer is the second then I am dismayed, because I fear that even success in passing extremely popular bread-and-butter legislation may not be enough to counteract the attempts now being made by the Republicans to dramatically suppress the Democratic vote. If the third answer is correct, then we can only wait and hope that his elaborate game with Manchin is successful.


In the meantime, the only thing that I and others like me can actually do as opposed to say is to give money and offer other forms of concrete support to local efforts to elect or reelect Democratic members of the House and Senate.