My Stuff

https://umass-my.sharepoint.com/:f:/g/personal/rwolff_umass_edu/EkxJV79tnlBDol82i7bXs7gBAUHadkylrmLgWbXv2nYq_A?e=UcbbW0

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Friday, December 31, 2021

THE ANCIENT MARINER

It is just past 3 o’clock in the afternoon on the very last day of the year. The sun is shining, it is 69° here in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the Omicron variant is raging uncontrolled throughout this part of the country as well as every other part. I have just learned that surgery my wife was scheduled to have a week from today to alleviate the great pain she is suffering from a torn rotator cuff in her right shoulder has been postponed, along with all other elective surgeries, because of the pressure the virus is putting on the local hospital system. She and I are again hunkered down, not going to local supermarkets or local restaurants and not seeing people who do not live in this protected continuing care retirement community or CCRC.  Rather than beweep my outcast state, as Shakespeare put it, I thought to spend a little time expanding on a very lovely and important idea that I had years ago in response to the arguments of John Rawls. But a certain innate caution led me to check whether I had talked about the idea before on this blog. Well, of course I have, most recently less than three months ago! In fact, thanks to one of the utilities provided by Google, I was able to find that I had explained at length on July 12, 2015, again on September 24, 2017, then again a year and half later on January 30, 2019 and finally on October 11, 2020. I even made reference to the idea without expanding on it, as I say, on September 28, 2021.

 

For faithful readers who will recall these events, I am of course talking about my analysis of what I call the Inequality Surplus, as it plays a role in the foundation of Rawls’s theory of justice.

 

I believe my analysis is actually rather important and I have never seen any coherent and persuasive response to my exposition of it, but I live in horror of turning into an ancient mariner who stoppeth one of three, so I must content myself merely with alluding to my oft repeated analysis.

 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

NUMERICAL CALCULATIONS

My son, Tobias, pointed out to that me my 88th birthday has the following numerical peculiarity:   Aside from the age of two, this is the only birthday I will have that is equal to a prime cubed times the next prime in the numerical sequence (2 cubed, or 8, times 11).   The next one is 3 cubed, or 27,  times 29, which is 783, and since these are not Old Testament times, it is extremely unlikely that I will live to see that birthday.

Monday, December 27, 2021

TWO QUICK REPLIES TO JERRY FRESIA

Jerry, I am very pleased that you found the Charles Mills book worthwhile.  Charles had a quite successful career, of course, but I have never thought that his work received in the philosophical community quite the recognition that it deserved.  


As for counting ants, I have always thought Wilson was having his fun with me but it is a lovely story and allowed me to make a point that I think is important about the differences in the sorts of things that academics do.


Here are some odd personal conjunctions. My big sister, Barbara, was a graduate student at Harvard in biology at the same time as Wilson and she knew him slightly. Everybody was of course enamored of Stephen Jay Gould,who was teaching there at that time and nobody thought much of Wilson.  The other big name in the field in those days and Gould's collaborator was Richard Lewontin, who graduated from Forest Hills High School a year before Barbara did and three years before I did.When I looked him up on Wikipedia to check, I discovered that he died six months ago.


Well, enough necrology.  Onward to 89!

ANOTHER NOTABLE DEATH

This seems to be a time when famous people whose lives have briefly intersected with mine are dying. First Desmond Tutu, now the famous biologist E. O. Wilson. Since today is my 88th birthday, I am more than usually aware of my mortality and consequently more affected that I might otherwise be by the announcement of these deaths. Let me take cognizance of Wilson’s passing by quoting from my Autobiography the account of my meeting with him.

 

“A Canadian philosopher, Michael Ruse, asked whether I would like to meet E. O. Wilson.  I said sure, and Ruse set it up.  It was agreed that I would spend an afternoon in his office, which doubled as his laboratory.  In advance of the rendezvous, we exchanged gifts.  I sent him, through Michael, a copy of The Poverty of Liberalism, and he sent back a copy of his latest book, Promethean Fire, co-authored by Wilson and Charles Lumsden.  The volume, which sits on my shelves today, is inscribed "For Robert Paul Wolff, with warm regards, Edward O. Wilson, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard U., January 25, 1984."

            We met in Wilson's office in the Museum.  After the usual greetings, he showed me the centerpiece of the office, a large table on which, under a Plexiglas dome, was a bustling, complex ant colony.  Wilson banged the side of the table, which set the ants scurrying, and as they poured out of the anthill he pointed out the soldier ants, worker ants, and so forth.  I didn't have much in the way of conversation.  What can you say about an anthill, after all?  So, casting about for something to say, I mused aloud, "I wonder how many ants there are in the entire colony."  "Fifteen thousand," Wilson replied.  "How can you be sure?" I asked.  "I counted them," he said.

 

            There are moments in life when the scales fall from your eyes and you suddenly see clearly something that has hitherto been obscured from view.  This was one of those moments.  I had from time to time reflected on how different the workaday lives are of people in different corners of the Academy, even though we all call ourselves "Professor."   Here was E. O. Wilson, the creator of Sociobiology, who thought nothing at all about counting fifteen thousand ants.  Had anyone asked me to figure out the number of ants in an anthill, the farthest I would have gone was watching eight or ten walk by and then guesstimating the rest.

            To be sure, philosophers sometimes descend to the level of the particular.  But our tendency is to go in somewhat the opposite direction.  Confronted with the real world, the reflex reaction of philosophers is to ask about possible worlds.  It was clear to me that although we were both professors and authors, Wilson and I led lives so utterly different that no real mutual understanding was likely.  It was also clear that however much the world might think of Wilson as the tendentious, controversial author of Sociobiology, his real interest was in those ants.

 

            When our conversation about the anthill began to drag, Wilson took me into a nearby room in which there were rows of file cabinets.  He pulled out a drawer at random to show me a card on which was impaled an ant.  The card identified the ant as belonging to one of the more than twenty thousand species of ants that are estimated to exist somewhere or other on the face of the earth.  A second ├ęclaircissement illuminated my mind.  I had a vision of thousands of English curates and amateur entomologists, each of whom had devoted much of his or her life to searching for, identifying, catching, impaling, and thus nailing down for all time one of those ant species.  Here again, I saw clearly how different my field was from Wilson's.  Philosophy does not advance by the taking of thousands of tiny steps, assuming for the sake of argument that it advances at all.  Instead, ages pass during which little or nothing happens, although thousands of philosophers are doing their best.  Then, there is a moment of transformation -- fourth century B. C,. in Greece, or the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Western Europe.  Suddenly, the subject leaps forward, changing forever the way we think.  But Entomology is not like that at all.  Every one of those file cards was the evidence of a worthwhile piece of work, undertaken, completed, and added to our knowledge of the ant.  I was properly humbled.  After we parted, I reflected that Wilson probably had learned nothing at all from meeting me, but I felt that I had learned a good deal from meeting him."

Sunday, December 26, 2021

A GIANT HAS LEFT US

I have just had the sad news that Desmond Tutu has died at the age of 90. Desmond Tutu was one of the truly great human beings of the past hundred years and it will be a long while before the world sees the likes of him again. I had the great good fortune to meet Tutu twice, for the first time in 1990 and for the second time in 2011. Rather than cobbling together a tribute from Wikipedia and similar sources, let me honor him in my own personal way by telling the stories once again of my two meetings with him. Unlike the other famous people I have met, such as Bertrand Russell or Henry Kissinger, my meetings with Tutu had a profound and continuing effect on my life.

 

I met Tutu for the first time in 1990. I had taken over the job of unpaid Executive Director of an anti-apartheid organization of Harvard and Radcliffe alums trying (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to get Harvard to divest itself of investments in companies doing business in South Africa. I managed to get Tutu elected to the Board of Overseers, foolishly imagining that the Harvard administration would be shamed by his presence into adopting at long last a moral stance against apartheid. (Instead, Harvard simply change the rules for electing Overseers so that that sort of thing would not happen again.) In February 1990 Tutu came to Cambridge to attend a meeting of the Board and I drove in from Western Massachusetts to meet him for the very first time. I spent an hour with him in his hotel room. It was days before Nelson Mandela was due to be released from prison, a fact that was public knowledge by then, and Tutu spoke movingly about the need for reinvestment in the new South Africa. I went home and thought about what he had said. It was clear to me that the old anti-apartheid struggle had entered a new phase and that divestment was no longer what was needed. On my initial trips to South Africa in 1986 and 1987 I had met Mala Singh, chair of the philosophy department at the historically black university of Durban Westville. Mala had written to me about the problems graduate students at the University were having in getting funding and I had raised some money from the American philosophical community, using the fundraising computer skills that I had developed as the Executive Director of the Harvard Radcliffe organization.

 

It occurred to me that perhaps I could make a contribution to the new South Africa by creating a little charitable organization, staffed and run by me, to raise money for poor young black men and women in South Africa who had gained the right to attend historically black universities there by getting through the impossibly difficult school leaving examinations of the South African secondary school system, but who were unable to matriculate because they did not have the money up front for tuition fees. So I created University Scholarships for South African Students and for the next 23 years I ran it, managing in all of that time to help maybe 1600 young black men and women in South Africa to attend universities. My meeting with Tutu and the effect that his words had on me resulted in an effort that I pursued for fully a quarter of my lifetime.

 

By 2011 I was working with students at the University of the Western Cape, and as a way of thanking me for the bits of money I had brought to the University, the Vice Chancellor (who is, in the South African system, the person who runs the University) decided to give me an honorary degree. Susie and I flew off to Durban and on the day of the commencement I sat on the platform with the other honorary degree recipients. In South African University commencements, the Chancellor, some bigwig who has an honorary title at the University, sits on a raised chair in the middle of the platform, wearing a soft doctoral hat. As each student’s name is read out, he or she walks across the platform and kneels before the Chancellor, who “caps” the degree recipient, tapping him or her on the head with the hat and in that way officially conferring the degree.

 

When it was my turn to receive my honorary degree, my name was read out and I walked across the platform and knelt before the Chancellor, who was Desmond Tutu! He capped me, in that way conferring the degree upon me. It was the greatest moment of my academic life.

 

I am quite sure Tutu did not recall having seen me 21 years earlier in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I was simply one of the millions of men and women whose lives had been changed by that great man.

 

 He will be missed.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

SECOND TRY

Something has gone weirdly wrong. When I try to copy the entire poem and paste it into my blog, the opening lines are omitted and I cannot get them in.  I am afraid it will just have to stand in truncated form.  My apologies to John Donne and to all of you.


I guess my Christmas present turns out to be a lump of coal.

AN INAPPOSITE VERSE ON CHRISTMAS DAY

 Good Friday 1613     Riding Westward

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is't, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I'almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc'd with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag'd, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish'd thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom'd us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They'are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look'st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know mee, and I'll turne my face.


Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

BRAVO

 I am profoundly impressed by the responses to my previous post, for two reasons:


First, because they confirmed my suspicion that you folks could riff on anything, even a miserable tautology,


And second, because, contrary to my deepest fears, you all genuinely have a sense of humor.


Bravo and Merry Christmas.

A PHILOSOPHICAL EXPERIMENT ON THE SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR

Ayn Rand claimed to base her “philosophy” on the Principle of Identity.  From this, she said, all else could be derived.  I have always been rather enchanted by this wacky claim. Say what you will, it is certainly economical. I think about her sometimes when I post a brief thought or emotional musing which then generates, by some mystery, 50 or 60 comments on the most disparate subjects, none of which, I would have thought, had much of anything to do with what was in my mind when I wrote the post.

 

Well, the world is slowing to a crawl as it does each year when the Christmas holidays loom so I thought I would try as an experiment to see whether I could replicate Rand’s success. Here then is my thought for today.

 

A is A

 

Have at it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI

Yesterday, the folks in the building in which Susie and I live had a Christmas party and dinner. Although I can scarcely play anymore, I took out my beautiful viola and played a few Christmas carols for the party. I have very fond memories of my viola playing days, about which I have written in past years on this blog.

 

I just learned that the man who made my viola, luthier Marten Cornelissen, died six days ago at the age of 85. He lived in Northampton, Massachusetts and I visited him once after I had bought the viola that he made. I told him how much I loved it and observed that the A on the G string had a particularly resonant sound. He nodded and said that he had noticed that when he made the viola. My bow was made by Benoit Roland, whose shop is in Boston and is a quite famous bow maker (or archetier, as the French say). At one point in his career he was awarded a MacArthur genius grant.

 

The viola and bow were of course much too good for me. When I brought it to show to my teacher, a professional violist, she tried it out a bit and then said “Well, now you have no excuses.”

 

It has been 13 ½ years since I played the viola regularly. The eight years that I studied the viola and played regularly in an amateur string quartet – 2000 to 2008, roughly speaking – were a wonderful interlude. I had studied the violin as a boy and actually was the concertmaster of my high school orchestra, although that is more a comment on how bad the orchestra was than on my playing. But then, with only a few brief intervals, I put my violin away for half a century.  When I returned to musicmaking, I took up the viola because although there are usually quite enough violinists around the violists are scarce. When I listen to a Mozart or Beethoven quartet now, I recall having played it but cannot imagine how I did. To check my memory, I look at my music, which sits on my bookshelves, and there sure enough are all the markings and fingerings that indicate that I really did once play the quartet.

Monday, December 20, 2021

PRE-CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS

While the omicron variant has been spreading exponentially and Joe Manchin has been giving the Democrats heartburn, I have been busy, like Diogenes rolling his tub up and down the road, arranging on my shelves a chronological display of all the books I have published with all of their variants – hardcover, softcover, new editions, translations, and the like. That did not take me very long, so I thought I would say a few words about the Manchin debacle.

 

I am not angry with Manchin, any more than I am angry with the omicron variant or with Parkinson’s disease or with my ancient and reliable printer, which has just unaccountably stopped functioning.  Manchin, coming from a state that voted for Trump by something like 37 points, gave the Democrats control of the Senate. So all of the federal judges that Biden has appointed – more than any president in the first year since Reagan – and the infrastructure bill and all the other things that have been accomplished this first year are due to his willingness to vote with the Democrats. The people I am angry with are all the lazy Democrats in Maine and North Carolina who could not be bothered to come out to vote and thereby unseat Susan Collins or Thom Tillis. The people I am angry with are all the poor people who voted for Republicans, the women of reproductive age who voted for Republicans, the diabetes sufferers paying thousands of dollars for insulin who voted for Republicans, in short, the tens of millions of people in this country who persistently vote against their own interest because of prejudice or  white anxiety or evangelical stupidity.

 

In five days it will be Christmas so I must ask what I can hope for, other than a piece of coal in my stocking. Here are my hopes: I hope that the virus peaks in January and declines rapidly to manageable levels; I hope that the inflation is short-lived; I hope that when the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade women will rise up in anger in red states when they discover that laws banning abortion have been sitting on the books just waiting for that overturning; I hope that the Democrats hold the house and pick up two more seats in the Senate; I hope that in 2023 the District of Columbia becomes a state and provides two more Democratic senators; I hope that Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have mild cases of the virus and recover completely; and I hope the Tiger miraculously recovers his full capacity and takes the golf world by storm.

 

But if that is too much to hope for, then I will just hope that I am still here a year from now griping and blogging and hoping.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

I NEED HELP

I am trying to arrange a shelf with all the books I have published in all of their various editions and translations in chronological order and I have run into a problem. I know what these three books are translations of, because it says so right there on the cover, but I have not a clue what languages they are in. Can anybody help?










Saturday, December 18, 2021

EASY COME, EASY GO

As I have been reporting, I was scheduled to teach an advanced undergraduate course at UNC Chapel Hill this spring, starting January 11. Several days ago, my wife and I had a serious talk about the dangers this posed. UNC does not require students to be vaccinated, although it does require them to wear masks, and professors are not even permitted to ask students whether they have been vaccinated. It seemed to me inevitable that I would  be presented with the risk of a breakthrough Omicron infection, something that the odds say would not for the most part be dangerous for someone fully vaccinated and boosted. But I will be 88 in nine days, my wife will be 89 in a month, and both of us have medical conditions that in some form or other compromise our ability to fight off infections. So I contacted the very supportive and helpful Chair and Associate Chair of the Philosophy Department and asked whether I could teach virtually by zoom. Well, it seems that is not possible. I would have had to request permission months ago and even then it is questionable whether it would have been granted. So I will not be teaching this spring.

 

Needless to say, at the rate the new variant is spreading, I think it is quite likely that by middle or end of January UNC will have gone to virtual teaching, but alas that will be too late for me. So now I need to find something else to keep me busy this spring. My first thought was to arrange on my shelves in chronological order of publication all the books I have published with the various editions and translations included. It is, I am aware, the sort of thing Mister Toad would do but my options are limited, after all. So I started this morning and the first thing I discovered was that I had a Turkish translation that I had completely forgotten about of the little book that Barrington Moore, Herbert Marcuse, and I published in 1965. That was fun.

 

This task will not take me very long so I am open to suggestions.

Friday, December 17, 2021

WHO KNEW?

I just followed two links provided by Eric in a comment and saw video of myself from 35 years ago talking about the efforts that a number of us made to get Harvard to divest. [I had never seen either clip before.]  I was pointed to the links by my sister, who sent me an email telling me that my mouth when I spoke then looks just like my son, Patrick's, mouth when he speaks – he is as it happens exactly the same age now as I was then.  If you trouble to follow the links, you will find me speaking quite confidently about the effect that Archbishop Desmond Tutu's election to the Board of Overseers will have on Harvard's behavior.


I was absolutely correct. Stung by the election of Tutu, Harvard changed the rules for electing protest candidates to the Board of Overseers so that nothing like that would never happen again.  Harvard was completely true to form, of course. Having done absolutely nothing to support the struggle against apartheid, they then gave Nelson Mandela an honorary degree after he was released from prison.


God, I hate them

YOU GOT TO HAND IT TO THE OLD GUY

I have on a number of occasions spoken of my good friend Milton Cantor although not recently on this blog. Milton is a retired history professor at the University of Massachusetts. I met him shortly after I transferred there from Columbia in 1971 and I think of him to this day as my best friend, although in recent years we have had very little contact. Milton is 95, by the way. I had a lovely conversation with him yesterday on the phone – he was very much his old self. What was his major complaint at 95? That he could not get into the Frost Library at Amherst College to check some footnotes.


God love him! There is no one like him.

A REPLY TO A COMMENT

Yesterday, Markus Rutsche posted a thoughtful response to one of my remarks about Rawls, and I think it calls for something in the form of an extended reply. Here is what he wrote:

 

“In my view, too much is missed about what is good and interesting in Rawls when one focuses too much on the contractualist argument from the original position. The more Hegelian – that is to say, the socially and historically conscious – Rawls that comes to light especially (but not only) in his later writings, in my view, is Rawls at his very best.”

This is a perfect example of something about which I have often written, namely the fact that the writings of any interesting philosopher are capable of many alternative and not necessarily contradictory interpretations, determined by the philosophical interests and concerns of the person offering the interpretation. I am interested in the deep structure of arguments as they are found beneath the surface of powerful philosophical texts. That is what I was searching for in my very first book, which was devoted to an interpretation of the first half of the Critique of Pure Reason.  It is what motivated me in my second book on Kant, The Autonomy of Reason. It is also what guided me in my work on the writings of Karl Marx.

 

I first encountered Rawls’s thought in his early journal article “Justice As Fairness.” What I found interesting was Rawls’s attempt to overcome the conflict between the two dominant schools of moral philosophy in his day – Utilitarianism and Intuitionism – by reviving the nearly dormant tradition of the social contract and combining it in an imaginative way with the new discipline of Game Theory. The book I wrote criticizing Rawls – Understanding Rawls – focused entirely on that argument as it came to be revised, first in another article – “Distributive Justice” – and then in his major work A Theory of Justice.

 

I was not much interested in the extraordinary elaborations with which Rawls fleshed out his rather spare argument. Indeed, in private conversations and more recently in blog posts but not in print, I took to referring to those elaborations as the philosophical equivalent of what in the world of movies is called a “fat suit,” which is to say the all – over costume and makeup that an actor wears to look fat before the cameras.

 

Needless to say, I am in a very small minority in this regard. I think it is fair to say that the entire intellectual world shares Markus Rutsche’s interest in what he calls the “socially and historically conscious Rawls.”  That is fine with me. I am quite used to being in the minority on philosophical as well as political matters. All my life I have pursued the ideas that attract me with little or no concern for their popularity, and since a blog is, after all a web log, which is to say a jotting down of one’s personal thoughts, I have no hesitation about continuing in that fashion in my declining years.

 

But fair is fair. I suspect the intellectual world agrees with Dr. Rutsche (who, by the bye) wrote his doctoral dissertation on Rawls.

 

 

Thursday, December 16, 2021

A REPLY TO A QUESTION

In a blog comment written two days ago, Eric asks:


“I have to ask a question about In Defense of Anarchism that continues to annoy me. How do social contract theorists, past and present, justify obliging future generations to honor the agreements made by a government's founding generation when those future generations have not themselves had the opportunity to choose to accept or reject the agreements? Even if a majority of the founding generation accepts the contract, with the passage of enough time the whole population will have grown so large by the addition of new members that the founding population could no longer be accepted as a majority by itself. In a footnote on p 41 of the 1998 paperback edition you mention "tacit or quasi-contracts ... which are invoked to explain the obligation of succeeding generations." I don't see how any such contracts could hold force. At least not in a society that purports to treat each individual citizen as his or her own decision-maker, who is not bound by obligations on his or her parents etc. (If a father commits a crime, should the son be punished for it?)”

 

He adds in a puckish parenthetical aside, “(Since you're going to be 88 in less than a fortnight, I figure I need to get this question in now.)”

 

The appropriate response to this is simply “good question!” Locke in effect argues that when a young man (I do not think he is much concerned about young women) reaches maturity, he can choose to emigrate if he is not prepared tacitly or implicitly to sign on to the social contract. To which, at least these days, one would respond “Good luck with that.  Where are you suggesting he to go?” The simple answer is that classical social contract theorists never satisfactorily answered this obvious question. That is not in my view the most fundamental problem with social contract theory but it is pretty much a killer all by itself.

 

Notice that in John Rawls’s modern version of social contract theory this problem does not arise. Rawls seeks to defend his two principles, at least in the original and fundamental version of his theory before it goes all sappy, by claiming that the principles would be chosen by rationally self-interested agents situated in what he calls the Original Position, and these persons are in effect outside of time. Since I wrote a whole book showing that his argument is wrong, I shall not repeat myself here, but suffice it to say that the problem of subsequent generations as it arises in the original versions of social contract theory is not for him a pressing issue. Rawls, by the way – giving credit where credit is due – recognizes in a way that other social philosophers have not that there is a serious question of what the present generation owes to future generations – a question that he appropriately puts in the form of a conundrum about what the proper social savings rate ought to be.

 

Well, that is my reply as a still youthful 87-year-old. Lord knows what I will say in 12 days when I have passed my 88th birthday.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

I SAW IT ON TV

I watched the hearings of the select committee that led to a vote to refer Mark Meadows to the HAtouse for a vote of criminal contempt. It was full of mesmerizing information, some of which led me to revise my view of those events. Here is my take, for what it is worth.

 

It is quite clear that there was a well thought through, carefully planned strategy for stealing the election. The most fascinating tidbit of information that has come out recently, all but lost in the attention given to Fox News hosts calling Meadows, was that Chuck Grassley, the president pro tem of the Senate at that point, said on the day before January 6 that he expected Mike Pence not to be at the Senate the next day and that he therefore would be presiding. In other words, the plan was to have Mike Pence absent himself and allow Grassley to refuse to accept the Biden electors from a variety of states so that the entire matter could be thrown into the House of Representatives where the 26 states with majority Republican delegations could give the presidency to Trump.  (So much, by the way, for Joe Biden’s fantasy that he can “work” with the good old Republican senators with whom he had such a wonderful relationship when he was in the Senate.) The second most fascinating tidbit is the report that the Secret Service detail wanted to rush Pence from the Capitol to keep him safe and that Pence refused because he was afraid that the head of the detail was in cahoots with Trump and would do him some harm. Just think about that for a moment.

 

What is also clear from the details cited by members of the Committee is that the coup plotters, leaving to one side Trump himself, had absolutely no desire to see the march on the Capitol turn violent. Republicans in the Capitol, Fox News hosts, even Don Jr. for God’s sake, frantically texted Meadows trying to get him to have Trump call off the rioters. These people, who are alas not stupid, understood that a violent riot would be a disaster for theTrump plan, as in fact it has. I think it is pretty clear that had the rioters succeeded in breaking into the House chamber when members were there and if they had harmed or killed some of the members of Congress, the Capitol police and the Secret Service would have started firing, dozens or scores of the rioters would have been killed, and the rest would have turned and fled, stumbling over one another, crushing some of them to death, and producing a massive rout.

 

The problem, of course, was that Trump, who is evil but not terribly bright, was so delighted by the television images of the riot that he sat there transfixed and ignored the quite sensible advice from his advisers and family to call it off.

 

If I understand the situation correctly (and I may be totally wrong about this), a successful prosecution of Trump and his allies on the grounds that they provoked and caused the violent riot requires a demonstration in court that it was their intention that the demonstrators turn violent. The text messages released yesterday by the Committee seem pretty clearly to show that that was not their intention and that actually they were horrified by how things turned out because they thought it would work against their attempt to carry out a coup.

 

Which leaves us with the question: could they all be indicted, prosecuted, and found guilty of sedition? If the answer is no, then pretty clearly the sedition laws should be stricken from the books.

 

The threat to American democracy (such as it is) is not that the next time the rioters will bring weapons. The threat is that state legislatures will arbitrarily choose to send Trump electors to the Congress regardless of the outcome of the 2024 vote.

 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

ELEMENTARY ENGLISH

There are Americans with only the most fragile grasp of their native language who, when they hear the opening lines of Richard III’s famous soliloquy:

 

“Now is the winter of our discontent 

Made glorious summer by this son of York”

 

persist in misunderstanding it as asserting that this is now the winter of our discontent.

 

I think of this every time I encounter the Supreme Court’s misconstrual of the Second Amendment

Saturday, December 11, 2021

DOING MY DUTY AS A BLOGGER

As Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, it is tough to make predictions, especially about the future. Nevertheless, I have a certain obligation as a blogger so here goes:

 

First, I predict that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe V Wade in the Mississippi case, handing down its decision sometime in the Spring of next year.

 

Second, (this is not exactly a prediction) as soon as that happens, laws banning abortions now sitting on the books in many states will go into effect, almost all of them if not all of them in red states.

 

Third, once this happens the midterm elections will be entirely about abortion and the Republicans will be behind the eight ball. Antiabortion activists who have been voting Republican for decades will either not bother to come out, their dream having been realized, or else will drift back the Democrats. Meanwhile, scores of millions of women will immediately find themselves deprived of a right that they have had entire lives, a right that many of them have exercised and that they all count on. They will be up in arms.

 

This is the only way that the Democrats can hang onto the House and Senate, and I think there is a good chance they will.

 

Alternatively, we may be living in the last dying days of what passes for democracy in America.

 

In a fortnight I will be 88 years old and I suffer from Parkinson’s disease. You will perhaps understand why I cling to the first alternative so desperately.

Friday, December 10, 2021

GERRYMANDERING

In 1812, Elbridge Gerry, then Governor of Massachusetts, signed into law a bill creating a bizarrely implausible voting district in Boston that was immediately compared to a salamander, thus giving us for all time the indispensable word “gerrymandering.” But grotesque voter underrepresentation does not require the drawing of bizarre district lines. Let me go through a simple hypothetical example to show you why.

 

Currently, Congressional Districts have about 730,000 residents. Imagine, just for the sake of illustration, a state with 7.3 million residents and therefore 10 Congressional Districts. Let us suppose that the state has 5 million eligible voters and that the state, which is in the form of a perfect rectangle, is divided into 10 exactly equal square districts. Suppose further, that the population of the state is distributed evenly across its territory, with each district having exactly 500,000 eligible voters. Suppose also that this is a narrowly Republican state in which 52% of the voters vote for Republican candidates faithfully and 48% vote for Democratic candidates equally faithfully. In addition, just to make the mathematics easy, assume that all eligible voters actually vote. Finally, suppose that the 5 million eligible voters are distributed evenly among the 10 districts so that each Democratic voter has a Republican neighbor and each Republican voter (save for a few) has a Democratic neighbor, with the 500,000 eligible voters in each district split exactly between 260,000 Republicans (i.e., 52%) and 240,000 Democrats (i.e. 48%.)

 

In this case when an election is held, Republicans win all 10 seats, each by a 4% margin, and the 2,400,000 Democratic voters have no representation at all in Congress. This consequence is not a result of partisan gerrymandering. The districts are drawn mathematically without regard to the political preferences of their residents. This is an example of what is usually called “first past the post” voting in which all that matters to secure a win is getting more votes than your opponent.

 

Now let us suppose that a strange redistribution of the population takes place. For some obscure reason, all 240,000 Democrats in the First District decide to pick up and move to other districts, with exactly one ninth of them going to each of the nine districts. Meanwhile, 240,000 Republicans, drawn equally from all nine districts, move to the First District.

 

The next time an election is held, the Republicans win District One by a vote of 100% to 0% – all the Democrats have left and have been replaced by an equal number of Republicans. In the other nine districts, there are a total of 2,400,000 Democrats equally split among the nine districts, but there are now only 2,100,000 Republicans in those nine districts (evenly distributed) because the other 500,000 all live in District One. The result? All nine districts go Democratic and the Democrats, with only 48% of the vote total, have won 90% of the seats.  In this case, the Republicans are suffering from what Harvard law professor Lani Guinier many years ago called “wasted votes.”

 

Gerrymandering by state legislatures certainly distorts the results in congressional (as well as in state) elections. But the real reason why Democrats are underrepresented in Congress is that so many of their voters have chosen to move to already solidly Democratic states. If several million California Democrats would, as an act of political self-sacrifice, move to states like Texas (as in fact some of them have been doing for many years now) it would dramatically change the results of elections.

 

Why am I writing about this today? Because last night at about one a.m. I woke up and spent the next hour thinking about the subject.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

YOU MUST READ THIS.

Here is the link.   The 2024 election will almost certainly be the last one I see, assuming I live that long. I may just hang on long enough to witness the end of anything resembling democracy in America. In the aftermath, I wonder whether Joe Biden will spend his time reading biographies of Neville Chamberlain.

Monday, December 6, 2021

THIS AND THAT

Good news. My little book, In Defense of Anarchism, is about to be translated into Arabic. With the available translations – Swedish, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Croatian, Korean, Malaysian, and simplified Chinese – this should make the book available to perhaps half the people in the world or more. I have done my part – I wrote the damn thing. Now it is up to the world to read it.

 

My thanks to DJL for a long comment on my brief post about the language abilities of Paleolithic humans. The comment illustrates the virtues of actually knowing something about what you are talking about.

 

When I become too depressed about the terrible things happening right now in the world – as I have been lately – I seek refuge in thinking at length about terrible things that will not happen until after I am dead. These days I guess this qualifies me as an optimist. But in brooding as in marketing it is important to find one’s niche. Since everybody worries about climate change, I have had to go looking for something else to worry about and I have found it in declining fertility rates. I have talked about this recently in this space but for some reason the relentlessness of the development captures my fancy, so quite often I lie in bed at night explaining it to an imaginary audience that has not yet heard about it.

 

China is a good example of the long-run problems of a fertility rate well below replacement. China has something like 1.4 billion people and it has been on a manic growth spurt for several decades very much focused on infrastructure. I have read that there are entire cities in China with no occupants, constructed in anticipation of a growing population. But China has a reported fertility rate of 1.7 and there are suggestions that the true figure is a good deal smaller, which apparently means that by the year 2100 China’s population will have shrunk to little more than 800 million or fewer. What is more, the shrinkage will be accompanied by progressive aging of the population so that a smaller and smaller proportion of the population will be productively engaged in supporting the rest. China permits little or no immigration but the economic complications resulting from a steadily shrinking population are going to challenge that policy.

 

As I noted in earlier posts, all of Western Europe along with much of East Asia and of course the United States have very low fertility rates. Meanwhile, the fertility rate of the other giant country, India, is comfortably above replacement so that the Indian population continues to grow and there are a number of countries, particularly in Africa, where the current fertility rate is so high that populations are ballooning.

 

If you put all this together with the effects of climate change, which will force large numbers of people to vacate areas that come to be underwater, the second half of the 21st century is going to see pressures for population migration that will strain or destroy the political stability of a number of countries, including the United States.

 

The fertility rate of white Americans is now so low – a bit above 1.6 – that in the recent decennial census, the absolute number of white Americans fell for the first time in America’s history. Not the proportion of white Americans but the absolute number. Because the decline of the fertility rate below replacement in all segments of the American population is a relatively recent development, it will take a while before it becomes manifestly obvious but it is relentless and I rather suspect irreversible, even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe V Wade, as it pretty obviously will.

 

There, isn’t that more fun than obsessing about a 15-year-old boy whose parents buy him a semiautomatic pistol as a Christmas present so that he can kill his schoolmates?

 

 

Sunday, December 5, 2021

DON'T BLAME ME, BLAME THAT GUY

Several people made very interesting observations about my offhand characterization of the implications of Noam Chomsky's work on language. I know from nothing about this subject and if I misunderstood Chomsky, it is on me, not on him. But if I got him correctly and you simply disagree with him, do not look to me to defend his views. I would not know how to begin. As a lifelong anarchist, I am simply slavishly appealing to his authority.  I figure I could do worse.

DUMB AND DUMBER

Achim Kriechel makes reference to the great cave paintings in southwestern France. He brought to mind one of my most appalling missed opportunities. In December 1954 I was driving my tiny motorcycle south from France on my way to Rome. I spent the night in Perigueux, a mere 50 km west of Lascaux where at that time the famous Paleolithic cave paintings were still open to the public. Despite the fact that I had spent endless hours in high school visiting the Museum of Natural History on the upper West side of Manhattan to stare at the displays of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal skulls, I failed to make a brief side trip to see the cave paintings. Years later, when I returned to France, they had been closed to the public in order to preserve them. Talk about stupid!

Friday, December 3, 2021

A QUICK RESPONSE TO SOME COMMMENTS

A number of the comments to my posts on Graeber and Wengrow have been quite helpful, particularly that of DJL  I want to respond to S. Wallerstein’s rather puckish remark:Did the hunter gatherers sitting around the fire discussing the fine points of political theory include the women or were they washing the dishes? “

 

I neglected to point out that the authors devote a great deal of time in their book precisely to talking about the role of women as it is reflected in the archaeological evidence. They call attention to the many societies in which women have played significant or even dominant roles. This is inferred both from the artistic representations of men and women that are revealed by the archaeological digs and also by the burial practices (if you are an archaeologist, you obviously make do with what you have, but as an amateur in the area I confess I find it a little odd to read so much about what people put in graves, but maybe that is just me).

 

Another interesting fact revealed by the bones dug up is that there is a good deal of evidence that people tens of thousands of years ago took care of members of their community who were injured rather than leaving them to die, as most animals do. How do we know that? Well, the archaeologists and paleontologists find the bones of people who have suffered fractures of their legs or arms which have healed. This can only mean that during the healing process, which might be weeks long or even longer, they were fed and cared for by their fellows. This is just one example among many of the sorts of inferences one can draw from the available remains – inferences that I for one would not have thought to make.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

GRAEBER AND WENGROW, PART TWO

On to the second point, concerning the sophistication, reflection, and self-conscious deliberation concerning social, economic, and political arrangements engaged in by the various peoples discussed by Graeber and Wengrow.  This is a subject to which I devoted a good deal of time in 6 of the 10 lectures I gave for YouTube on Ideological Critique.

 

Let me begin with something the authors do not talk about but which is essential to keep in mind in thinking about this subject. So far as we know, Homo sapiens is the only species with language (what about the Neanderthal? Who knows?).  In their 2016 book, Berwick and Chomsky speculate that the human linguistic ability must be the result of a very simple genetic mutation, probably taking place in some human person 80,000 or 100,000 years ago. If Chomsky’s analysis of language is correct, and I am simply going to assume that it is, then all human languages have fundamentally the same deep structure, however different they may seem to be on the surface. From this it follows that whatever cognitive capacities the possession of language confers upon some human beings, it must in the same way confer those capacities on all human beings. What is more, in some fundamental way anything that can be said in some language can be said in any other language. There are no such things as primitive languages and sophisticated languages. Hence, logical argumentation, inferences from observation, ironic discourse, comedy, religious speculation, political argumentation – all must be possible in any language that any human being has ever spoken or ever will speak.  If this seems implausible, reflect on the fact that missionary Christians have successfully translated the Bible into every language they have encountered in their proselytizing efforts.

 

The implication of this is staggering when you think about it but at the same time trivially obvious. Hunter gatherers sitting around the fire making stone tools, or cutting up a tasty piece of Eland with a sharp edged flint knife, would be chatting, gossiping, joking, arguing about where the best place was to look for pinenuts or fruit, worrying about the children, looking after the old folks, and debating the best way to make collective decisions for their community. Some of them would be quickwitted, some slow to get a point.  They would speak in complete sentences with subordinate clauses and with adverbial phrases, they would make logical inferences and of course they would make logical mistakes. In short, they would be people.  (I am reminded of the achingly beautiful sentence with which W. E. B. Du Bois concludes the preface to his greatest work, Black Reconstruction in America 1860 – 1880: “I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings, realizing that this attitude will from the first seriously curtail my audience.”)

 

Most of the time, this is not the way we think or talk about so-called “primitive” people. It is however very often the way in which anthropologists who have learned the languages of “primitive” people and have spent time living with them talk about them.  Graeber and Wengrow spend hundreds of pages giving us the most detailed accounts of the doings of large numbers of people living in preindustrial societies in order to show us that they have a sophisticated self understanding of their social, cultural, religious, and political situation and therefore engage, or surely must have engaged, in deliberations and discussions of their situation, not merely mindlessly going through routines of their lives and having the structure of their social gatherings formulated, as it were, behind their backs.

 

Those of us who spend our lives in university settings reading (and writing) books have a fatal tendency to imagine that those who have not read the books cannot possibly have as reflective or self-aware an understanding of their situation as we who have. But of course that is nonsense.  Simply to say it is to reveal its absurdity. If 19th-century British workers who left what school they had at the age of eight or ten to work in the mines or mills could nevertheless spend time in workers’clubs debating the finer points of socialism, as in fact they did, then why could not hunter gatherers 50,000 years ago engage in similar debates about their economic and political situation (without, of course, the benefit of Marx?) 

 

I think this is the most attractive feature of this lively and challenging book. I was constantly brought up short by the realization of my own ingrained prejudicial presuppositions, despite having given those YouTube lectures and thought much about this subject. 

DISASTER AND OPPORTUNITY

Well, I think the odds are that next June or thereabouts the Supreme Court will overturn Roe. I was moved and deeply pleased by Associate Justice Sotomayor's comment about the stench of those proceedings and the loss it will produce of any faith in the objectivity of the court.  This is going to impose an impossible burden on the women of America, an unconscionable burden. The decision, coming when it will, will also create an extraordinary opportunity for the Democratic Party in the midterm elections.  I genuinely believe that this may actually make it possible for the Democrats, against all the odds, to win the midterms.


We shall see.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

GRAEBER AND WENGROW, PART ONE

Okay, I have now completed my reading of Graeber and Wengrow and in this first of several long posts I will try to pull together my thoughts on the book and summarize what I learned from it. Let me begin by making several things very clear. First of all, I am not trying to persuade anybody to read the book. God knows the world is full of good books so if you are not interested, just move along. Second, I assume it is clear that I have absolutely no professional competence to judge the accuracy of anything said in this book. In my long life, which in four weeks will encompass 88 years, I have not spent a single day doing anthropological or archaeological research (except for the time when Susie and I were visiting an ancient site in South Africa that had been excavated and, seeing a very small stone arrowhead – a microlith as I believe it would be called – half sticking out of the wall of the cave, I surreptitiously plucked it and stuck it in my pocket, thereby presumably violating all manner of laws.) So why am I writing about the book? The answer is simple: reading it was fun, just about the most fun I have had reading a book in a very long time, and I want to talk about it.

 

Like all really good long apparently complicated books, this one is at base fundamentally rather simple. As I see it, the authors have mobilized an enormous amount of anthropological and archaeological research in support of three fundamental claims. The first claim is that the standard story, about the pattern or course of development that led human beings from their earliest origins to a modern world dominated by national states, is wrong. The second claim is that contrary to the explicit or implied supposition in historical, anthropological, and archaeological writings that so-called “primitive” peoples were by and large unreflectively determined in their development by the more or less inevitable consequences of the development of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, the evidence shows that everywhere we look we find people 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago, 5,000 years ago, even more than that, thinking about, reflecting on, making choices with regard to how they lived, how they responded to the possibility of agriculture, whether they chose to develop state institutions or deliberately chose to reject that possibility, and in general exhibiting a degree of intelligent self-awareness about their situation that even sympathetic authors have tended to deny them. The third claim, based on these first two, is that even now, living as we do, we have more choices than we imagine and are not compelled by history, by economics, or by institutional structures simply to go on living as we have been living.

 

Before I begin talking about each of these ideas, let me just say that I think the authors were wrong to start out talking about Rousseau and then to end up talking about Rousseau and Montesquieu. What they say about these two authors really has nothing at all to do with the rest of their book and since what they say is in some ways clearly wrong, it has given reviewers who only know about Rousseau and such a hook on which to hang negative critiques. I was very favorably impressed both by the liveliness and charm of the exposition and by the authors’ rather winning openness about the scantiness of the archaeological or anthropological record and the necessity therefore to make a series of guesses and leaps.  The book is full of qualifying phrases, hedges, and admissions of uncertainty which one does not usually find in academic works. I rather liked that.

 

The first point is the most important so let me explain what is at stake here. Paleontology reveals that Homo sapiens has been on the planet for 200,000 years plus or minus. Everybody understands that that estimate can be changed any time someone digs up a femur or a skull that can be dated to an earlier time. Everybody also agrees that roughly 10,000 years ago in a variety of places human beings began to engage in systematic agriculture. I think, although I am not certain, that the general view has it that agriculture developed after the last Ice Age at least in part as a consequence of physical and climatic changes that made agriculture possible. The story that has been told – a story I learned and believed and have repeated many times in classes and in my writings – is that the hunting and gathering and foraging existence that human beings engaged in for the first 190,000 years did not produce the sort of physical surplus that would make it possible for some people not to forage or hunt or gather but to engage in other forms of activity. Once the physical surplus provided by agriculture appeared, and wherever it appeared (an important addendum), some people were able to appropriate the surplus and use their control of it both to support the activities of individuals not directly engaged in farming or hunting or gathering and also to establish what we would recognize as political control over an entire community. Combining this with the domestication of animals, we then had the building blocks for cities and then states to appear in which there were kings or princes or rulers, priests or shamans,  scribes, artists, and all the rest. In effect, the story went, once this happened there was no turning back, no alternative to armies and law courts and churches and princely residences and all the rest of human history. Eventually, maybe 6000 years ago or so, writing was invented, records were kept, and it became possible for modern researchers not merely to dig up remains and try to infer from them the social structures that had generated them but also to discover the appropriate translations of those ancient writings and to begin producing what we now think of as historical accounts.

 

As the authors indicate, there are two versions of this story, one optimistic, positive, and celebratory, the other sad, doleful, and depressing, depending on whether one likes or does not like the way the world is now. But both versions of the story are based on the fundamental premise that political structures, kings, emperors, bureaucracies, democratic states, or what have you are an inevitable consequence of the appearance of agriculture.

 

Drawing on vast quantities of anthropological and archaeological evidence assembled by huge numbers of researchers in the last 30 or 40 years, the authors argue that this story is just plain false. A great deal of the book is devoted to telling the story, derived from this research, of peoples who either considered adopting agriculture as a source of subsistence and rejected it, choosing to persist as hunters, fishers, foragers and gatherers or else chose to alternate agriculture with hunting and gathering, going back and forth from one to the other. The authors, for example, tell the stories of Native American peoples of the West Coast of the United States who were clearly, on the available evidence, in regular contact with agricultural populations but who chose to continue hunting and gathering rather than transitioning to agriculture.

 

Equally important is the evidence the authors put forward of large numbers of human settlements in which, prior to any evidence of agriculture, huge construction projects were carried out that involved systematic planning, the mobilization and direction of the efforts of large numbers of people, and the use of sophisticated forms of mathematical calculation and astronomical observation (think Stonehenge, for example) all without any of the usual evidences of rulership, systematic differentiations in wealth and power, or the concomitant abilities to compel the labor of large numbers of people.

 

These evidences, drawn by the authors from research done virtually around the world, fundamentally call into question the standard story about the development of recognizably modern political states. (Remember that the authors are anarchists and, unlike my anarchism which is for the most part conceptual and theoretical, are committed to finding nonstate and antistate ways for people to live.)

 

There is an enormous amount that I am simply not attempting to summarize, but this is as I see it the central argument of much of the book.

 

Tomorrow I will move on to talk about the second and third theses.