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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

THE OLD GUY ASKS FOR SOME TECH HELP

I have recorded a video on my iPhone which is too large to send as an attachment.  I want to store it in the cloud and make it available to family or friends. Can anybody explain to me in simple language how I can do that? Thank you one and all.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

PRESSING ON, UNDETERRED

Judging from the comments on this blog, I am almost the only person on this site who has a real interest in the Graeber and Wengrow book, but since I am having such fun with it (I am almost done with it now) I am going to go right on writing about it.

 

The book is chockablock full of fascinating accounts of things dug up (literally) by archaeologists over the past 30 or 40 years concerning the remains of human settlements from all parts of the world dating back as much as 9000 or 10,000 years. Quite often, the authors describe an excavated settlement as occupying a certain number of hectares, and since I have only the vaguest notion of how big a hectare is, I went to Google and learned that a hectare is an area equal to 10,000 m² or 1/100 of a square kilometer. Well, I know there are 640 acres in a square mile and I know roughly the relationship between a square kilometer and a square mile so I managed to figure out that there are about 2.67 acres in a hectare.  Quite often, the authors describe an ancient urban settlement as covering 200 hectares or even 400 hectares.  Which is to say, an area somewhere between two thirds of a square mile and 1 2/3 mi.². Not all that big, when you think about it.

 

Along about page 465, the authors spend a good deal of time talking about a very important urban settlement called Cahokia, which was located along the Mississippi River. The authors report that after A. D. 800, there was a “veritable urban explosion with its epicenter at the site of Cahokia, which was soon to become the greatest city in the Americas north of Mexico.” Its area swelled to six square miles (this revealed by the archaeological excavations, of course) with a population of 10,000 or more and another 30,000 in the surrounding areas that bore some sort of subordinate relationship to this huge city.

 

Six square miles with a population of 10,000 or so. Well, since I taught at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for 37 years and lived for 30 of those years either in the nearby college town of Northampton or in the tiny suburb east of Amherst called Pelham, I have a pretty good idea what life in Amherst was like between about 1971 and 2008. I checked with Wikipedia and Amherst covers roughly 26 square miles and has a population of about 40,000 (not counting the 30,000 students at UMass in North Amherst.)

 

So Cahokia, the largest urban settlement in the Americas north of Mexico, was at its height one fourth the size of the town of Amherst with one fourth the population. That gave me some pause. I mean, if you are an archaeologist you dig and you make do with what you have dug up. It is clear from the accounts of Graeber and Wengrow that with some imagination you can actually infer a very great deal from what you dig up, even in the absence of written records (although the authors talk a good deal about the fascinating use of knotted strings in the pre-literate period to preserve rather precise geometric and other calculations). But it does not surprise me as much as I think I am supposed to be surprised that in an urban settlement with a population one fourth that of Amherst, Massachusetts, all manner of interesting experiments in collective decision-making, and other forms of social and political organization that do not meet the customary definition of a state, might appear and fluctuate and flourish over hundreds of years.

 

I shall report in again with a more organized and systematic summary of the thrust of the book when I have finished the last chapters.

Friday, November 26, 2021

GOLDEN OLDIES

As I prepare once again go into a classroom and teach philosophy, I find myself asking the fundamental pedagogical question: What am I doing here?  After some reflection, I decided that I could not do better than to reproduce here the answer that I gave to Ludwig Richter some years ago.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

HOW DO I TEACH? A REPLY TO LUDWIG RICHTER


Ludwig Richter [himself a teacher] writes:  "Professor Wolff, I would love it if, in a future post, you would talk about what kind of teaching you do in the protected space of your classroom. You lecture, of course, but I take it that you lead discussions and encourage students to offer their interpretations of texts, and so on. Maybe you could write about that some time?"

As you will have noticed, it takes very little to get me started, so herewith an extended meditation on my teaching -- not on teaching, mind, but on my teaching.  I imagine that what I say will bear very little resemblance to what others might say about their teaching. 

 Standing in front of a group of people and talking at them is a rather inadequate technique for communicating information.  In the twelfth century, when European universities got their start, books were scarce and very expensive, so probably a professor willing to lecture was as close as most students came to a library.  Indeed, I have read that even in the nineteenth century, in rural areas of Italy where the peasants were too poor to buy books and the communities to poor to build schoolhouses and supply them with blackboards, priests would stand in a field facing a group of little boys and write in the air.  The boys had to learn to read what the priest "wrote" inverted [which calls to mind the great old line about Ginger Rogers, that she had to do everything Fred Astaire did backwards, and in heels -- but I digress.]  Today, however, even students from poor families have far better ways of accessing information.  So there is really not much point in using a classroom to pass along facts that the students could get at faster on their phones.  Fortunately, in Philosophy there is actually very little information to transmit, and what there is [Descartes' birth date, how old Kant was when he wrote The First Critique] doesn't matter very much.

So if I am not telling the students stuff, what am I doing when I stand in front of them [or sit, as I shall be doing next semester ]?  Well, my answer is rather odd, and utterly idiosyncratic.  What is more, it took me three decades of teaching before I came to understand it.

Let me start by saying that I am not trying to persuade my students of anything.  Although I frequently teach politically and ideologically charged texts [as I shall be doing next semester], it is never my aim to get my students to believe either what it says in the books I assign or what I say in my lectures.  As Kierkegaard says in the inexpressibly poignant Preface to The Philosophical Fragments, "If anyone were to be so polite as to assume that I have an opinion, and if he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of adopting this opinion because he believed it to be mine, I should have to be sorry for his politeness, in that it was bestowed upon so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine."

What I am doing in my teaching, to put it as simply as I can, is showing beautiful objects to my students in the hope that they will give to the students the same pleasure that they give me.  I conceive this effort on my part as an act of love, not of propaganda, or inculcation, or persuasion.

The beautiful objects I show to my students are ideas -- complex ideas, powerful ideas, elegant ideas.  Quite often, it costs me enormous effort and much time to clarify these ideas in my own mind, to extract them from the surroundings in which I come upon them, and then to find a way to show them forth in their simplicity and beauty.  Only then am I ready to present them to my students for contemplation, comprehension, and appreciation.  The central argument of the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason is such an idea.  So is Marx's critique of the ironic structure of capitalism.  The proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory is such an idea, as is Hume's account of our belief in the existence of the continued and independent existence of objects in space and time.

When I am successful, my students have been offered what I might call, somewhat altering Spinoza's meaning, an intellectual intuition, which is to say an immediate apprehension of an intellectual object.  I rather suspect it is what Plato had in mind when he wrote obscurely of a knowledge of the Form of the Good.

Is my interpretation of A Treatise of Human Nature or Critique of Pure Reason of Das Kapital correct?  If I am successful, the interpretation is beautiful, and like all truly beautiful objects, powerful.  Are my interpretations the only correct, or beautiful, or powerful readings of those texts?  Of course not.  Indeed, it is a distinctive mark of truly great philosophical texts, like truly great novels, that they can sustain several different and conflicting readings, just as different artists [or even the same artist at different times] can paint different pictures of the same scene, model, or subject.

How can one know whether a reading of a text is powerful or beautiful?  The fruitlessness of the question is manifest.  But I can say this:  if the reading is obscure, convoluted, not immediately graspable by an intelligent and committed reader or listener [in short, if it is by Hegel] then it is neither powerful nor beautiful and is probably not worth spending time on.

That, in a nutshell, is what I do when I teach.  I show beautiful ideas to me students in the [desperate] hope that they will find them beautiful also.  Everything else I do is filler.

Have I been successful?  It is not for me to say.  Is this, Callicles might ask, an honorable way for an old man to spend his time?  I believe so.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

GRABER AND WENGROW YET AGAIN

As I make my way slowly through Graeber and Wengrow’s marvelous book (I am up to page 347), I am reminded of an experience I had 60 years ago at the University of Chicago. I checked and discovered that I had told the story six years ago on this blog.  Since that is a millennium in the blogosphere I will start today’s comment by repeating the story.

 

In 1961 I left Harvard for an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago, to teach, among other things, in the big required second year undergraduate survey course on the Social Sciences [thus continuing a career of teaching things I had never formally studied.]  The course was taught in sections, but several times during the year all of the students assembled in a big lecture hall for a guest lecture.  One day, we trooped into the hall to hear a report on some research being carried out by a Professor of Anthropology and his graduate students.  

 

The speaker that day had been leading his students on some field work in the sub-discipline of Urban Anthropology.  They had been pub crawling the up-scale bars in the part of downtown Chicago known colloquially as the Near North.  Now he was reporting on their findings, and in one of the most brilliant tours de force I have ever witnessed, he conceived the idea of straight-facedly recounting their adventures in the standard jargon used by cultural anthropologists to describe the "primitive" peoples they have gone off to investigate.   The effect was startling.  All of the students in the lecture hall [and even many of the professors] were quite familiar with the venues being described, but in the language of cultural anthropology they were unrecognizable.  Without once breaking tone, the lecturer managed to convey the idea that standard anthropological field reports were almost certainly distortions of the lived experiences of the subjects.  The men and women of New Guinea would no more recognize themselves in the journal articles published about them than the students recognized themselves in the accounts of the bars where they spent their weekends.

 

Graeber and Wengrow are, I find, extraordinarily successful in talking about the people of the countless villages, towns, cities, empires, and foraging territories whose lives have been recaptured by archaeologists in the past 50 years or so. Working with the materials excavated by countless archaeologists – tools, eating utensils, masks, ornaments and jewelry, mud huts, stone monuments, and all the rest – they imaginatively bring their owners and makers to life and enable us, the readers, to see them as real people living as much as 5000, 10,000, or 20,000 years ago. Unlike the students at the University of Chicago, who did not recognize the bars and coffee houses and restaurants they had actually visited in the descriptions of the graduate students in the anthropology department, I think that those people, long gone now, might actually recognize themselves in the accounts given of them by Graeber and Wengrow.

 

One of the ways in which standard archaeological accounts can mislead us is by using language that makes it sound as though a culture, and hence the thoughts and expectations and plans and beliefs of the people constituting that culture, remain essentially unchanged over periods as long as 1000 years or more. Now if you think about it, it is just plain implausible that people will get their food, reproduce, go to war, worship, have festivals, or engage in political debates more or less in the same way for a thousand years.  If they are real people, not stick figures in an anthropological classificatory system, as time passes they will argue, speculate about alternatives that might be available to them, try things out to see whether they work, talk about what it was like in the old days, and in general behave like people. No sensible person would suppose that a woman living in Paris in the year 1143 would act and think and hope and fear and love in exactly the same way as a woman living in Paris in 648 or 1954.

 

As I have already suggested in previous posts and will try to summarize when I have finally finished plowing through the book, Graeber and Wengrow have a quite contemporary political agenda, which they are openly pushing in this book.  But whether you are sympathetic with the agenda, which as it happens I am, or are opposed to it, the book is a delightfully lively and detailed account of the doings of endless groups of people whom I personally had never heard of before I opened its pages.

 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

WHY I RETREAT INTO ARCHEOLOGICAL ARCANA

A teenage punk skirts the law to get his hands on an AR 15 semiautomatic rifle, crosses state lines, goes to the site of a demonstration, queens it about posing as an EMT, gets into some arguments that he provokes, kills two people and wounds a third, and gets off scot free.  As a result of which he will be offered an internship in the United States House of Representatives.


There are no words ...

IDLES THOUGHT WHILE READING

I have observed many times on this blog that the term “University Professor,” applying as it does to biologists, sociologists, mathematicians, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and philosophers, conceals the extraordinary differences in the activities and bodies of professional knowledge that these people engage in and acquire.  Let me give you just one example that crossed my mind as I was reading Graber and Wengrow.  Here they are talking about settlements in what came to be called the Fertile Crescent, an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The period in question is many thousands of years ago. “At the site of Jerf el-Ahmar, on the banks of the Syrian Euphrates–… the storage and processing of grain was associated less with ordinary dwellings than with subterranean lodges, entered from an opening in the roof and suffused with ritual associations.”

 

As I read that sentence, one of hundreds that go by as I turn the pages, I thought to myself, “how on earth do they know that the lodges were entered from an opening in the roof?” The answer is obvious, but when one reflects upon it, astonishing. They know because dozens of archaeologists and their graduate students have spent months or years painstakingly excavating this site, carefully digging away the dirt and accumulated detritus that covers the remains of the 6000 or 8000 year old buildings, ascertaining by the excavation that they were originally subterranean, that they did not have doors and windows like so many other excavated buildings, and that the only way into them was through openings revealed by careful, precise digging, digging that involved little by little brushing away dirt that had long since covered up the constructions.

 

There is nothing particularly unusual or remarkable about this. It is what archaeologists do – hundreds of archaeologists, year after year after year, at sites all around the world, carefully making notes and taking pictures of what they dig up and then publishing the results in journals so that other archaeologists can add the little bit of knowledge they have acquired to the enormous accumulated body that generations of archaeologists have discovered and memorialized.

 

This sort of activity is absolutely nothing like what a philosopher does. It is not really very much like what an historian or political scientist or sociologist or mathematician or literary critic does. It is simply astonishing to reflect on the accumulated systematic human effort that lies behind the delightful reports and speculations with which Graber and Wengrow fill their pages.

 

The authors, needless to say, are not merely summarizing what they have read in the thousands of books and journal articles listed in their bibliography. They are engaged in an exuberant argument against the standard story that what we call civilization began with domestic agriculture which then led inevitably to class hierarchies, structural inequalities, the state, and the other glories of the modern world. That, after all, is the point of reading the book. But it is worth pausing from time to time to think about the vast systematic undertaking of archaeology on which their argument rests 

Friday, November 19, 2021

SHEER FUN

I continue to find the Graber and Wengrow book delightful. Anthropologists know so many fascinating facts about groups of people I have never heard of, and just about any social arrangement you can imagine turns out to have been instantiated many times. Let me give just one example among many. On page 219, writing about societies in which women rather than men ruled, the authors say “even strong Queens like Elizabeth I of England, the Dowager Empress of China, or Ranavalona I of Madagascar are…”

 

This is simply delicious. We all have heard of Queen Elizabeth I and we can easily imagine that there was a Dowager Empress of China even though we cannot actually identify her or say which century she ruled in. But Ranavalona I of Madagascar? The authors throw these names at us in a slyly malicious fashion, in effect daring us to reveal our ignorance by blurting out “Who?”

 

Perhaps my delight simply reflects the characteristic failing of philosophers, who, although they may be very smart in a rather narrow way, typically do not know much of anything. In this book it is all tricked out with 93 pages of notes and a bibliography that stretches another 62 pages. And to think that the authors are anarchists!

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

A RESPONSE TO SOME COMMENTS

The responses to my interim book report have persuaded me that it might be worth spending a few minutes expanding on this notion of the intelligence of supposedly “primitive” peoples. Especially among people like us (by which I mean formally highly educated people who place great store by book learning), the term “intelligence” is so freighted with evaluative significance that it requires a genuine effort to step back from a consideration of SAT scores and academic performances and think about intelligence in a broader and more interesting fashion.

 

It takes a good deal of thought and knowledge to fix a car engine or to select just the right piece of wood from which to make the body of a fine violin or to decide when and on which side of the hill to plant a crop, but save when we are being self-consciously condescending, folks like us do not have that sort of activity in mind when we talk about intelligence.

 

For the last 2500 years or so in Western philosophy, one of the most valued marks of intelligence has been the capacity to use and to understand ironic discourse. That is what lies at the heart of many of Plato’s dialogues, as well as the writings of Kierkegaard, to name only two of my favorite philosophers. So let us talk about irony for a bit.

 

Irony rests on the distinction between appearance and reality, a central idea in Western thought for the last 2 ½ millennia. Ironic discourse presupposes the existence of a double audience – a real audience, to whom the ironic remark is actually directed and an apparent audience which mistakenly believes that it is the true recipient of the remark. The speaker in ironic discourse knows that there are two audiences and says something which is intended to be understood by the real audience and misunderstood by the apparent audience. What is more, the speaker relies upon the real audience to know about the existence of the apparent audience and to know that the apparent audience is mistakingly interpreting the utterance. Thus, the ironic utterance is a kind of private joke between the speaker and the real audience at the expense of the apparent audience.

 

Rather than citing a classic example from a Platonic dialogue, let me give you the example I invented to explain this notion in a college philosophy textbook that I wrote almost half a century ago. For reasons that will become obvious, the editors got nervous after the example appeared in the first edition and had me substitute a less provocative example for subsequent editions. Here is the original example that I thought up.

 

A young man and young woman are having a hot affair, something they must keep secret from the young woman’s parents, who are very religious Protestants who would be horrified at the thought that their unmarried daughter was sexually active. One evening, the young man comes to the young woman’s home to take her out, ostensibly to a church social but actually to his apartment for sex. The mother is waiting for him at the door and as they leave, she says to her daughter “Now young lady, be home by 10 PM and be a good girl, do you hear?” “Yes, mama.” the daughter replies. The couple go off to the young man’s home and make passionate love until it is time for him to bring her home. The mother is waiting at the door when they arrive and asks the daughter, “Were you a good girl?” “Oh yes,” the young man replies for her, “she was good. She was very good.”

 

The young man’s reply is an ironic utterance, misunderstood by the mother who thinks that it is directed at her and is an assurance that they have behaved themselves properly, but correctly understood by the young woman as praise for her sexual prowess. It is a private joke between the young man and the young woman at the expense of the mother.

 

Irony requires a complex and completely conscious self-awareness of social situations, their meanings, and the various ways in which they can be understood and misunderstood. It is arguably one of the most sophisticated modes of discourse and a mark of mature deliberate conscious self-awareness. In my YouTube lectures on Ideological Critique, I spent some time talking about two examples of ironic discourse engaged in by individuals whom white Westerners mistakenly considered na├»ve or unintelligent or lacking in the sophistication acquired at Oxford or Yale. The first example came from Edwin Wilmsen’s fine book Land Filled with Flies. The second came from Henry Lewis Gates’s book, The Signifying Monkey. Gates mocks his sophisticated former literature professors at Yale University by showing that West African peoples had a complex elaborated self-conscious literary theory that the slaves brought with them to the New World and that took up residence in the various forms of verbal play and their musical analogues that are called “signifyin’.”

 

Graber and Wengrow, in their effort to refute the claim that domesticated agriculture is the necessary precondition for the development of city life, political structures, and a variety of other marks of cultural sophistication, offer many examples from the anthropological literature of peoples who either deliberately reject agriculture as a way of getting their food or else routinely go back and forth between agriculture and foraging, all the while exhibiting playfully self-aware attitudes toward rulership that, in the the authors' view, demonstrates a thoughtful self-conscious awareness of the significance of rulership and its benefits and drawbacks.

 

Now, necessarily these examples come from the relatively recent past although they are supplemented by archaeological evidence of societies dating back 10 or 15,000 years whose remains suggest similar sorts self-awareness. The principal purpose of the authors, as I understand it, in presenting this mass of evidence is to demonstrate that even today we have options and choices and are not locked into the present political structure of developed states by some law of social evolution. But along the way, their evidence also supports the hypothesis that human beings 10,000, 50,000, or 100,000 years ago possessed a conscious self-awareness which, although they do not make this point, would support the belief that those people were among other things capable of ironic discourse.

 

Now, it strikes us as odd to think of a small group of Homo Sapiens 100,000 years ago sitting around the fire speaking ironically. But that is probably because we have never met people in the year 100,000 BC. I remind you that it struck men who had recently been slaveowners equally odd in the years of Reconstruction to imagine a group of black men sitting in a state legislature passing laws.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

BOOK REPORT

I have only read the first 150 pages of the Graber and Wengrow book, but I am having such fun with it that I thought I would say something about what I have learned of it thus far. First of all, I always enjoy reading anthropologists because they know lots of interesting stuff about people I have never heard of. In addition, this book is sprightly, charming, provocative, and an all-around good read. What I am going to say is based only on that first hundred fifty pages and I would imagine that there will be lots more in the remaining 400 that I am not now anticipating.

 

The goal of the book, as I understand it, is to rebut the standard story of human development that has been put forward by anthropologists, economists, and others and that is used repeatedly to ridicule the hopes of those, like modern-day anarchists, who believe there are alternative and better ways for human beings to live their lives even now in a world of 7 ½ billion souls dominated by late capitalism (as we used rather optimistically to describe the present state of affairs back in the 50s and 60s).

 

The standard story, I freely confess, is one that I learned and have been repeating in lectures, blogs, and YouTube videos for quite a long time now, although not with the reactionary implications put forward by the folks the authors want to argue against. For me personally an exciting aspect of the book is that it calls into question something I thought I knew and was quite confident about.

 

The standard story goes something like this: human beings have been around for 200,000 years, plus or minus, and for the first 190,000 of those years, more or less, they got their living by doing what anthropologists have come to call foraging. They hunted for wild animals, they collected nuts and fruits and berries, and they lived in relatively small groups without, so far as anyone could tell, stable political organizations and arrangements or what today we would call class structure. Then, roughly 10,000 years ago, near the end of the Neolithic era, three big things happened that totally changed human affairs and rather rapidly produced the world in which we live now. Those three things were, first the development of agriculture, second (but not necessarily in this order) the domestication of wild animals, and third the construction of substantial permanent residential settlements – cities.

 

This triple revolution took place, so far as the archaeologists could tell, first in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now roughly Iraq, but then in many other places around the world.

 

Anthropologists speculated (they did not have direct evidence for this, of course) that the increase in available food supplies resulting from formal agriculture and the domestication of animals resulted in a surplus which, when seized by certain members of the community, enabled those persons to control the society by using a portion of the surplus to support soldiers, using another portion to support priests, using yet another portion to support judges, and even taking a little bit left over to support philosophers who would explain elegantly that this was all for the best in the best of all possible worlds. After this, there came writing, empires, large-scale wars, and all the other benefits of civilization.

 

One of the central goals of the book is to pull together large amounts of archaeological and anthropological evidence to show that this story is simply false. The human story turns out to be a great deal more complicated than the standard story suggests. How so?

 

Well, first of all, all over the world there are the remains of large complex structures – monoliths, amphitheaters, etc. – which were erected by human groups at a time when those groups were not engaging, so far as the evidence shows, in agriculture or the domestication of animals. The structures are so big that they clearly required a coordinated effort for long periods of time of large numbers of people, people who were nevertheless supporting themselves by foraging and hunting. The implication is clear: foraging peoples were able to support themselves for extended periods of time when they were engaged in these construction projects and not simply foraging, and, equally important, there is no reason to believe that the coordination of labor required was enforced by a class of soldiers being supported by the surplus generated by agriculture or the domestication of animals.

 

Secondly, and this is in its way even more surprising, there are even today (which is to say in the last 500 hundred years) examples of people who spend part of the year organized politically under the sway of rulers who exercise coercive power and the rest of the year hunting and gathering completely independently of these people who during part of the year function as their rulers! This is, when you think about it, truly astonishing.

 

It turns out there are lots of examples of organized well-functioning societies in which people deliberately choose whether or not to submit to rulers during part of the year and even rotate the functions of rulership. What is more, there are societies in which being a ruler does not bring with it greater wealth and in which greater wealth does not bring with it the opportunity to be a ruler.

 

So the standard story we tell ourselves about how things are and why they are that way and whether they can be different is simply not supported by the anthropological evidence.

 

The book starts with an extended riff on a subject that was not new to me and to which I devoted several of my YouTube lectures on ideological critique, namely the fact that so-called “primitive” or “inferior” people are as intellectually active, complex, and self-reflective as the supposedly great minds of Western civilization. The authors extend this not simply to Native Americans or African slaves or supposed foragers of the Kalahari Desert, but backwards in time over the entire 200,000 years of the career of Homo Sapiens. It is initially shocking to hear it claimed but on reflection obvious that men and women 100,000 years ago were as self-aware, intelligent, thoughtful, and deliberative about their living arrangements and social organization as the authors of the American Constitution. After all, Lysenko to the contrary notwithstanding, intelligence is not an acquired characteristic, so Stone Age men and women must have been just as intelligent, or as dimwitted, as 21st century men and women are.

 

Well so much for an interim report on a lovely book. When I read another 150 pages I will nod in again on the subject.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

A FUN READ

At the suggestion of someone on this blog, I cannot now remember whom, I ordered The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow.  It arrived yesterday and I started reading it this morning. With masses of footnotes and an extensive bibliography it runs well over 600 pages and I am only 35 pages into it, but I am enjoying it enormously and look forward to plowing through the whole thing in the coming days and weeks. The authors start right out by scoffing at, ridiculing, calling into question (to put it politely) the standard story of human development that I have been telling my students and writing about and lecturing on YouTube about for decades. Since the authors are anarchists (or I should say is or was, since David Graeber just passed away) and they are by trade anthropologists and archaeologists, fields in which I claim absolutely no expertise whatsoever, it is just fun to read their systematic dismantling of orthodoxies that have dominated our understanding of the development of human beings for as long as I can recall. When I get another hundred or two hundred pages into the book I will report on it at greater length but I already feel comfortable recommending it to any of you who are looking for a good read.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

THE BENEFIT OF READING THE OLD MASTERS

Rereading the classic texts of modern political theory in preparation for the course I am teaching in the spring has had the unexpected effect of clarifying for me what is going on in the United States at the moment. I have been unhelpfully obsessed with the behavior of prominent political figures of all stripes and characters and have spent a good deal of time worrying about what will happen in the 2024 presidential election. I have tended to couch my concerns in the form of an anxiety about the future of American democracy, always remembering as a faithful member of the left to add the qualifying phrase “such as it is.” But rereading Jean-Jacques Rousseau reminded me that in democratic theory the people are the sovereign.  And it is more clear now than it has been in many decades that the American people – not their elected representatives or their spokespersons or, to use a term that has come into vogue since I stopped paying attention, their influencers – are not now by any stretch of the imagination the collective sovereign of a democratic polity. I still care desperately what happens because there are as many degrees of undemocracy as there are levels of hell in Dante’s Inferno and I much prefer the undemocracy to which we still cling to that of Russia or Nazi Germany or, for that matter, China.

 

The fatal flaw of the classic texts of social contract theory is not that they are unable to respond to the devastating criticisms that I mounted against them in a little book 52 years ago. Their fatal flaw is that they have less to do with what goes on in 21st century nations then does an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

 

In light of all this, there is nothing for it but to adopt a thoroughly transactional attitude toward contemporary American politics, using it if one can to accomplish ends that one has decided are good but not deluding oneself that any of this has anything to do with legitimacy, liberation, or – in the immortal words of Superman – Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

Monday, November 1, 2021

CHARLES MILLS, ONCE AGAIN

I have now finished my rereading of The Racial Contract, and I am more than ever convinced of its brilliance. It is, I genuinely believe, the most important (and yes, that does mean the best) work of political philosophy in the English language in the past century. It has one great virtue that is very rare in political philosophy or indeed in any philosophy: it is true. For obvious professional reasons, philosophers tend not to treat truth as an important criterion of excellence but I am old enough and crotchety enough to think that it matters.


And yes, S. Wallerstein to the contrary notwithstanding, it is a book principally about European and American political theory of the past four centuries, not a book especially about America.  I will be very curious to see how it is received by my students at UNC Chapel Hill next semester.


By the way, I learned that UNC professors are not only not permitted to require that students be vaccinated, they are not even permitted to ask whether they have been vaccinated.  The recent much reported breakthrough infections of prominent people who have been spending time around the unvaccinated have given me pause about the wisdom of teaching in person. I suspect I will be permitted to teach virtually by zoom if I wish, but I really did not enjoy the five sessions of my seminar that I did on zoom in 2020 after the pandemic hit and I am hesitant to take that step.

WHAT'S UP?

Thanks to Google's various blogging functionalities, I can keep track of how many people visit this site each day – or more precisely, how many visits there are, which is of course not the same thing. I average somewhere between 1100 and 1500 a day. For the last several days I have been pressing 10,000.


What 's up?