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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, May 20, 2022

TRANSLATION

Marc asked for a translation. Here is my feeble effort:


Dear Sir, I have just come from examining a bit your work: it is pretty silly; we do not need silly American thinkers (we already have enough problems with our own thinkers, influenced by the Americans); you can read or reread Tocqueville (and Marx) and leave this country, please, best regards Jean-Pierre Joffrin 


As I say, somewhat less charming in English. Oh well, he gets his wish. We have sold our apartment and our visit in early June may well be our last. In any event, I seem to have made almost no impression on French philosophers so he need not worry.

TROLLS ARE MORE CHARMING IN FRENCH

 I woke up this morning to find the following email message in my inbox:


Cher Monsieur, je viens juste d'examiner un peu votre travail : c'est (assez) nul ; nous n'avons pas besoin de penseurs américains nuls (nous avons déjà assez de problèmes avec nos penseurs, influencés par les américains) ; vous pouvez lire ou relire Tocqueville (et Marx) et quitter ce pays, merci, bien cordialement, Jean-Pierre Joffrin

Susie and I leave for our last trip to Paris two weeks from today. Not everyone in that lovely city is eagerly awaiting our return!
...

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

AN INTERESTING IDEA

I was idly watching a cable news panel discussion about the Buffalo grocery store massacre when one of the panel members said something that I had either forgotten or else never knew, namely that the California ban on carrying weapons openly was passed while Reagan was governor in response to the appearance of a group of Black Panthers openly and legally carrying weapons at the state capitol.  It got me to thinking…

SOOTHING THOUGHTS ON A SUNNY DAY

Yesterday was primary day here in North Carolina and at about 11 o’clock in the morning Susie and I set out to vote. We left Carolina Meadows by the south exit, turned left on Whippoorwill Lane, then right on Farrington, right again on Lystra Road, until we reached the North Chatham Elementary School.  It was a brilliant sunny day already in the 80s, and when we pulled into a handicap parking place, a cheerful, helpful man offered to let us vote from our cars. As his assistant went off to get the ballots, we chatted. He said it had been pretty busy – already perhaps 175 people – and he expected three or four hundred before the day was done.  He told me he is a retired forester who worked in Duke Forest for 35 years. It was as peaceful a scene has one could possibly imagine. There were no picketers standing just outside the limit line, no self-appointed poll judges there to harass Black voters.

 

Chatham County is one of 100 counties in North Carolina and I imagine there may be as many as 50,000 or 100,000 polling places nationwide.  The experience briefly gave me hope that representative democracy, such as it is, may survive here in the United States.

 

There were only four races on the ballot – three local races for Chatham County officials, about which I had no opinion, and a highly contested race for a Democratic nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Richard Burr.  Susie and I voted for Cheri Beasley, formerly the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. The last report I saw, she had 85% of the vote so perhaps it was not absolutely necessary that we got out to vote, but I am glad we did.

Monday, May 16, 2022

REFUSING TO GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

I have been absent from this site for almost a week, not because the affairs of the world have ceased to weigh upon me but because I have been obsessed by personal matters so trivial and lacking in larger significance that they seemed not worthy of mention. Still and all, a blog is a web log, hence in the first instance a record of personal thoughts and concerns, so perhaps I should just allude to what has been concerning me. 


There is no exalted way to put this. The people who run Carolina Meadows thought we had bedbugs, which would have required an enormously time-consuming, invasive, and disruptive procedure involving, among other things, raising the temperature in the apartment to 140° for four or five hours! Saturday morning a representative of the extermination company arrived and after inspecting the underside of our bed, announce that we had carpet beetles, not bedbugs! This does not quite rise to the level of a question about Vladimir Putin’s health or the future of American democracy, not to speak of a desperate national shortage of baby formula, but for several days it was all I could think about.

 

Meanwhile, I have been spending the time preparing in my head for the course I shall be teaching in the fall semester at UNC Chapel Hill. I love to teach and I have delivered the opening lecture of that course four or five times in my mind while lying awake in the middle of the night.  As I have mentioned, this is a new course that I have never taught before. In the fall, while I am teaching, I shall be proposing to the philosophy department that the following fall I teach a graduate course on the use and abuse of formal methods in political philosophy. This is a course I taught for the first time 45 years ago. It occurred to me that if the department agrees to this proposal, I will be a few days from my 90th birthday when that second course wraps up. 

 

For some reason, that realization has suddenly worked a marked change in how I think about myself.  I have been almost constantly concerned for the past six months with the limitations on my mobility and physical capacities caused by my Parkinson’s disease and this has cast a pall over everything I can do. But, I reflected, I am almost 90 years old. I am teaching, blogging, caring for my wife, making guest appearances in courses around the country – not bad for someone almost 90!

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

 All right. There will be time to debate the meaning of the Supreme Court ruling that is coming down next month. Now we need to do everything we can to fight, and that means voting, donating money to progressive candidates at every level, and if we are able, getting out and campaigning. If we can possibly hold the House and the Senate for the Democrats, that will be an enormous step forward.  I am fairly flush financially so I have been donating to a number of different candidates and groups. Remember, nothing any of us does will, all by itself, make a measurable difference but what we all do can make all the difference.Do not waste time worrying about precisely which candidate is best or most in need of help. Just do something!

Monday, May 9, 2022

BUCKET LIST

Forty-five years ago, I began an intensive study of the economic theories of Karl Marx to which I devoted much of the next 15 years. I was moved by a vision or insight into Marx’s theories that involved me in learning advanced linear algebra, reading a good deal of mathematical economics, studying economic history, and bringing to bear the insights of literary criticism that I had picked up more from my marriage to a distinguished literary scholar than from formal study. The result was a complex integrated reading of volume 1 of Capital that found expression in two books and a number of lengthy journal articles. The core of that reading is the conviction that Marx chose the extraordinary language he uses in the first seven or eight chapters of volume 1 of Capital in an attempt to fuse his formal analysis of capitalist economics with a philosophical understanding of the mystifications of capitalist institutions and practices.

 

In the four decades and more since that time, I have on several occasions devoted some or all of a course to Marx’s theories, but I have never actually laid out my full-scale interpretation of Marx. It is my impression, not based on any systematic far-reaching survey of the literature, needless to say, that no one else has ever sought to combine mathematical economics and literary theory in this fashion in order to understand Capital.

 

I figure once in my life I should lay the whole thing out before a class and see what kind of response I get.  Well, I am 88 and as they say, not getting any younger, so I have decided that that is exactly what I am going to do in the course I will start teaching on August 15.

 

I have played Beethoven’s Opus 59 quartets, I have owned an apartment in Paris, I have been on a safari to Botswana, I have been arrested in an anti-apartheid demonstration. This pretty much completes my bucket list.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH, DEAR FRIENDS

I believe the complete overturning of Roe v. Wade, which will take place at the end of June, has the power to completely change the midterm elections and give the Democrats the possibility of holding the House and adding to their slender control of the Senate. Some commentators are suggesting that the short attention span of the American public will make this leaked draft decision a seven-day wonder, but that, I think, misunderstands what is actually going to happen.

 

The next two months will no doubt be absorbed with talk about inflation, the Ukraine war, and then the House January 6 committee hearings (which will start while Susie and I are in Paris, alas.)

 

But then at the end of June the Supreme Court will hand down its decision on Roe and at that moment, literally immediately, abortion will become illegal in more than a dozen states and will pretty much become illegal in the next month or so after that in another dozen states. Nobody, I predict, will be talking about anything else.

 

The secret to victory in midterm elections is and always has been turnout. If the immediate loss of access to abortion does not trigger an outpouring of anti-Republican votes, then we might as well just go into hiding and wait for full-scale fascism to take over this benighted country.

 

I was so uncontrollably angry last night that when Elizabeth Warren appeared on MSNBC and told viewers to donate to Jessica Cisneros to defeat the antiabortion Democrat Henry Cuellar in Texas, I got out of bed, went to my desk, and donated $500.

 

This is it, folks. We have the votes in this country to change things if we just can be bothered to come out and cast those votes.  Between now and election day that means donating money and – for those who are able – volunteering to work for candidates. My Parkinson’s stops me from walking the wards and my micrographia even makes it impossible for me to work on mailings but I have money so I will give it and I have a tiny megaphone in this blog so I will use it to encourage my readers, such as they may be, to throw themselves into the fight.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

HARD TIMES

Four months ago, I offered the opinion that the Democrats’ only chance in the midterms was for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe V Wade and here we are. I have no idea whether this single issue can counteract the effect of inflation, pandemic fatigue, the end of support for poor families, and the structural advantages of the Republican Party, but it is our only shot so I will hope. Biden is obviously constitutionally opposed to the radical step of enlarging the Court but he may be forced to endorse that proposal if he wants to avoid a wipeout in November and defeat two years from now.

 

Sunday and yesterday, I reread the two books I wrote on the thought of Karl Marx as preparation for my teaching next semester. I say without the slightest hint of false modesty that I believe they are both first rate. However, I had not reread Understanding Marx in a good many years, and I am afraid I had forgotten that it is actually rather demanding, despite the fact that I was able to conduct the exposition without using anything more than elementary high school algebra. The course I shall start teaching on August 15 is going to be more difficult than I realized and I shall have to warn the students of that on the first day. 

 

Will this be the last course I ever teach? I just do not know. I have proposed a graduate course for the Fall of 2023 – The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy – but it remains to be seen whether my Parkinson’s will allow me to teach it, should the department approve the proposal.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

A LONG ANSWER TO A SHORT QUESTION

Marco Aurelio Denegri comments, “I am curious about the tools from the mathematical sciences that have been most useful to you in exploring Marx's thought. What are books that survey these applications?”

 

The simple answer would be Linear Algebra, followed by a list of titles, but there is a good deal more to be said about the subject and it might be of interest to some of you for me to elaborate.

 

Modern economic theory began in France in the 18th century with the work of a small group of scholars called Physiocrats who put forward a tabular analysis of the French agricultural economy that emphasized the fact that the inputs into any cycle of production – the seed, tools, fertilizer, and so forth – are the outputs of previous cycles of production, so that reproduction rather than production is the proper analytical concept to be employed. This important and foundational idea was taken up by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and other classical political economists in a series of books that constituted the core of economic theory up through the beginning of the 1870s.

 

It was first Smith and then Ricardo who developed the idea that the natural price or “value” of a commodity brought to market is determined by the amount of labor directly and indirectly required for its production. Hence the phrase “labor theory of natural price” or “labor theory of value,” which captured in summary form their central analytical insight into the newly developing capitalist economy.  Although their work was powerful and sophisticated, Smith, Ricardo, and the other classical political economists used virtually no mathematics in the exposition of their theories.

 

In the 1870s, three economic theorists – Stanley Jevons, Leon Walras, and Carl Menger – more or less independently of one another introduced into economic theory the notion of marginal product, expounding their theories with the use of calculus. This so-called “triple revolution” completely transformed academic economic theory and quickly gave rise to the characteristic mathematical analyses of capitalist economies with which any student of modern economics is familiar.

 

Somewhat obscured from view by the flashy mathematics of the new economic theories was the fact that the classical economists and the new economists, the so-called neoclassicals, asked fundamentally different questions about capitalist economies and in their analyses furthermore adopted alternative and opposed simplifications for purposes of analysis. The classical political economists sought answers to three fundamental questions: first, what is the source of economic wealth (hence the full title of Adam Smith’s great work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations)?; second, in what way is economic wealth divided among the three great classes of society, the landed gentry, the entrepreneurs, and the workers?; And third, what factors promote or place obstacles in the path of economic growth? The neoclassical economists, in contrast, sought to understand, in the famous characterization of economic theory put forward by Lionel Robbins, the efficient allocation of scarce resources with alternative uses.

 

In addition to asking different questions, the classical economists and the neoclassical economists adopted opposite simplifications to assist them in their analyses. The classical economists assumed that each commodity had only one established mode of production. From time to time, new techniques or modes of production would be introduced by entrepreneurs of an experimental turn of mind and these would either win out and become the new established mode or prove unprofitable and die away. This was of course not strictly speaking true. At any given time there were probably several established alternative modes of production for a given commodity – involving different productive techniques and different combinations of inputs – but the classical economists made the simplifying assumption that there was only one established technique for each commodity.

 

The neoclassicals made the opposite simplifying assumption. They assumed that there were in fact an infinite number of alternative ways of producing a given commodity, involving different combinations of inputs, the quantity of each one being capable of being varied by very small increments. This assumption permitted them to use the powerful mathematical tool of the calculus and so one eventually got the standard analyses of marginal product and marginal cost that fill modern economics texts and bedevil poor business students with incipient math phobia.

 

In the 1960s and 70s and 80s, a number of quite gifted mathematical economists around the world took a new look at the classical school of political economy, using modern mathematical techniques to analyze and test the truth of the propositions advanced by Ricardo, Marx and the others. They found that the appropriate tool for translating the theories of the classicals into rigorous mathematical form is not calculus but rather linear algebra. The reason, quite simply, is that if each commodity has a single mode of production, then an entire economy can be represented by a system of linear equations, each of which relates quantities of inputs of a given commodity to the quantity of its output.

 

This formal reconsideration of the classical school began with the work of the great Italian–English economist Piero Sraffa, who not insignificantly was the general editor of the magnificent 10 volume edition of the works of David Ricardo.  Sraffa himself in his seminal monograph Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, published in 1960, did not in fact make use of linear algebra but the economists inspired by his work did.

 

Michio Morishima in Japan, Luigi Pasinetti and Pierangelo Garegnani in Italy, Gilbert Abraham-Frois and Edward Berrebi in France, and Andras Brody in Hungary, among others recast the central ideas of Ricardo and Marx in mathematical form and demonstrated that many of the most important claims that they had advanced in their works could in fact be given rigorous mathematical demonstrations.

 

That, as briefly and simply as I can state it, is the answer to Marco Aurelio Denegri’s question.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION

Because my relationship to the Critique is so different from my relationship to Capital, I should like to go a bit more deeply into the matter in the hope that some of you will find it of interest. Kant first.

 

I first studied the Critique in the spring of 1953 when I was a 19-year-old senior at Harvard. As I have said here before, the course I took with Clarence Irving Lewis on the Critique was the greatest educational experience of my life. Four years earlier, as a teenager spending the summer at an eight week sleep–away “work camp” for the children of upper-middle-class lefties, I had encountered the music of Huddie Ledbetter, or Leadbelly as he was known. Alan Lomax, the great folklorist who had recorded Leadbelly and brought his music to the White world, reported that Leadbelly had twice been convicted of murder in Texas and twice reprieved by a governor who heard him sing. Lomax described Leadbelly in this way in the liner notes: “In the Texas pen he was the number one man in the number one gang on the number one farm in the state.” This description stuck with me as the essence of what it was to be big-league, and when I encountered the Deduction of the Pure Concept of Understanding in the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason, I recognized it immediately as the hardest passage in the greatest book by the greatest philosopher who had ever lived – the number one man in the number one gang on the number one farm in Texas. I was called to wrestle with it, like Jacob with the angel, and not to let it go until it blessed me.

 

Forty years later, when I reviewed Robert Howell’s splendid book, Kant’s Transcendental Deduction, I began with that quote from Lomax.  Howell had spent 20 years grappling with the second edition Deduction and had produced a deep, complex, magnificent interpretation of the text. It was an interpretation that was completely incompatible with and totally at right angles to my reading, but it was the product of the same sort of committed engagement and I praised it to the skies. 

 

I did not find Plato or Aristotle or Leibniz or Descartes or Locke or Hobbes or Rousseau all that difficult to understand, and while I confess that I was mystified by Hegel, it was pretty clear to me that that was his problem and not mine. But Kant was different. Did I think that what Kant said was true? I cannot recall that the question ever occurred to me. The Critique was to philosophy what the B Minor Mass was to music, and I was compelled to engage with it until I understood it. This was, by the way, not a particularly good career choice in the late 1950s, for all that it might have become so 20 or 30 years further on. Logic was the royal road to success in philosophy in those days and in my earlier undergraduate years at Harvard I had gone as deeply into it as the available courses would allow. But logic did not bless me, if I may continue my Genesis metaphor. (One of the oddities of my career is that although my first book was well received and has continued to be so, in none of the four philosophy department jobs that I got – at Harvard, Chicago, Columbia, and UMass – was I actually hired to teach Kant or, for that matter, the history of philosophy.)

 

My relationship to the thought of Karl Marx has been completely different. Although I came from a socialist family, as I have often remarked on this blog, I did not read much by Marx when I was a young man and in fact taught only several of the early writings for the first 20 years or so of my career. I read volume 1 of Capital in 1960 in preparation for the sophomore tutorial that Barrington Moore and I co-taught during the first year of the Social Studies program at Harvard, but I read it rapidly and was unimpressed by it. It was not until 1977, when I decided to offer a graduate seminar on Classics of Critical Social Theory and assigned Capital that I read the book seriously. It was then that I launched on the years of study that led to my two books on Marx – Understanding Marx and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.

 

Almost immediately, I realized that Marx had done something utterly unique in social theory and indeed perhaps in all of intellectual work. He had found a way to combine philosophy, economic theory, economic history, institutional theory, and literary art seamlessly so as to capture the mystified structure of capitalism. I brought to the text the discoveries of a group of brilliant mathematical economists around the world who had undertaken a re-examination of the classical and Marxian political economy with the use of modern mathematical techniques.

 

Did I think that what Marx said was true? You are damned right I did! Oh, not all of it, not by a longshot. Marx is the greatest social theorist who has ever lived and written but he was not a prophet or seer. He was wrong about all sorts of things, as every great social theorist inevitably is, but about his central claim he was completely correct: that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.

Friday, April 29, 2022

A RESPONSE TO DAVID ZIMMERMAN

In response to my latest post, David Zimmerman asks “Your two intellectual mentors, Kant and Marx, agreed about virtually nothing, transcendental rationalist vs. historical materialist, arch-universal-moralist vs. deep sceptic about the very idea of morality as an animating idea in our lives, and so on down the line, I think.  So, how do you find it possible to avoid cognitive dissonance in finding inspiration in such contradicting ideas?”

 

An interesting question, in response to which I can perhaps make clearer the nature of my engagement with those texts. I do not find inspiration reading The Critique of Pure Reason, and I am not even quite sure that I would describe myself as finding inspiration in reading Capital, although perhaps I come closer in that case. Rather, in both books I find deep, complex, powerful ideas that seize me and demand that I come to understand them in such a way that I can make them clear and simple and beautiful to myself and to my readers or students. It may sound odd to describe my response to these texts as aesthetic but there is a powerful element of that present.

 

When I first read the Critique and particularly the Transcendental Analytic, I felt that I was in the presence of the most powerful mind I have ever encountered. I needed to struggle with the text, to compel it to give up its secret to me, to replace its contradictions and unclarities with a pure, simple argument that began with a premise that seemed virtually undeniable and arrived at an extraordinary and powerful conclusion.

 

My engagement with Capital was different and more complex because it is, I believe, a more powerful and complex text than the Critique.  I needed not only to make its central argument clear and coherent to me, but also to explain to myself why Marx was compelled to write the opening chapters in the extraordinary fashion that he chose. When I read the book for the second time in 1976, I had what I can only describe as an éclaircissement, an intuition, a revelation, the working out of which took me most of the next decade.

 

My struggles with these two texts were the two most exciting, demanding, and rewarding intellectual experiences of my life. I think one could describe this as finding inspiration in them but not in the sense of being inspired by them to act in a certain way or to adopt certain principles.  In each case when my struggle was concluded, I had something that I found beautiful and deeply satisfying. Perhaps that is why I was not interested really in responding to critics or engaging with readers who have found other things in those texts.

 

Does any of this makes sense? I hope so.

COUCH MUSINGS

I had an interesting email the day before yesterday from someone who had watched some of my YouTube videos on the Critique of Pure Reason while also struggling with the book and wanted to know whether I thought Kant would agree with my reconstruction of his argument. I told him I had been thinking about that for the past 60 years and did not really know the answer. But it raises an interesting and important question: in what circumstances, if any, are you as the reader in a better position to judge the structure and meaning of an argument in a text than the author of the text himself or herself?  The question comes up all the time, of course, in courses on literature and it is not uncommon for a critic to deny that the novelist is the best judge of the novel. My mind went to one of my favorite moments from the first year of the new doctoral program in Afro-American Studies at UMass – it would have been in the spring semester of 1997. Here is my description of that moment, excerpted from my autobiography:

 

“The assignment one day was Margaret Walker's novel, Jubilee, which chronicles the life of a young woman born into slavery, liberated at the end of the Civil War, and then struggling to make a life for herself during Reconstruction and in the terrible aftermath of Jim Crow.  One of the students asked whether the novel could be read as a work of feminist literature.  Mike Thelwell said that it certainly could not be so read.  John Bracey, who knew a great deal about feminism, then launched into a lengthy and extremely interesting rebuttal to Mike, distinguishing a number of different schools of feminist thought, and suggesting that the novel might be read as feminist by one or another of those schools, but not by yet a third or fourth.  Mike Thelwell, who disliked feminist literary theory as much as he disliked every other school of literary theory, stood fast, insisting that there was no way that the novel could be construed as feminist.

The next class period, the students came in, having read a new book and having prepared a new paper.  As soon as we were convened, Mike began to speak in his characteristically courteous and somewhat orotund fashion.;  "You will recall," he said, "that my esteemed colleague, Professor Bracey, and I had a disagreement when last we met about whether Margaret Walker's novel, Jubilee, could be construed as a feminist work.  I said that it could not, and Professor Bracey mistakenly argued that it could.  I was quite persuaded that I was correct, but I did not wish to leave my judgment thus unsubstantiated, so after the class ended, I went home and I called Miss Walker.  We had a very pleasant conversation, during which I asked her whether her novel could be construed as feminist, and she assured me that it could not."

John exploded at this, saying that every literary critic knew the author was the last person you wanted to ask about the proper interpretation of a piece of fiction, and pointing out that a collection of Mitchell's short stories had been published by a feminist press [a fact of which everyone in the room save John was, of course, ignorant.]  At that point, the rest of us intervened and suggested that we start discussing the book assigned for that day.  But I am very much afraid that the students came away from the experience thinking that in graduate school, when one had a disagreement about the meaning of a text, the normal thing to do was to call up the author, with whom one was, of course, good friends.”

 

But that still leaves us with the question whether a philosophical text can present a central argument that the author is unaware of or unprepared to acknowledge, and in the case of Kant, furthermore, it would unfortunately be impossible to call him up and ask. 

 

All my life, I have been convinced that the answer to the question is “yes” in the case of great philosophers but “no” with respect to the rest of us. Why do I believe that? My reason is this. I think that great thinkers, when they are struggling with questions of great complexity and importance, sometimes see more deeply into an issue than they can say. Seized by this powerful insight, they are unwilling to relinquish it for a less profound but more clearly and easily explainable superficial argument, and so they cling to the insight and preserve it in some form in their writing, even while they may refuse to acknowledge the fully revolutionary character of what they have managed dimly to grasp. It is for we who come after them to grapple with their texts, to wrestle with them all night and not release them until we have been blessed by them, as the Good Book says.

 

In cases like this, of which there are a number but not a great number, it is inevitable that different readers struggling with the text will reconstruct that text in different and incompatible ways so that, just as there are a number of different legitimate ways of performing the same great violin concerto or string quartet, so there are number of legitimate ways of reading a great text.

 

Of course, it is possible that this is merely what the psychoanalysts call rationalization. I recall one day on the analytic couch that I was talking about this very subject and my struggle to find and explicate the argument in the Critique of Pure Reason.  My analyst noted that although I claimed that Kant was the greatest philosopher who ever lived and that the Critique was his greatest work, I was also saying that without my interpretation of it, no one would truly understand what it was saying.  Could this possibly have anything to do with my ambivalent feelings about my father?  Well, I have had two intellectual father–figures in my life, Kant and Marx, and with regard to each of them I have claimed to be able to find and to state clearly a great argument that they placed in their greatest works but were unable to expound with the clarity that I brought to the subject.

 

My analyst may have had a point.

 

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

worth reading

I just found this on Daily Kos, a site I read faithfully. I have no idea whether it is correct, needless to say, but I found it fascinating.  I think it is worth a look.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

RATS

 So now there is speculation that Putin has Parkinson's disease after a video appeared of him apparently with a hand tremor. If he is going to come down with that disease, I may have to give it up.

MORE MEMORIES

Fritz Poebel is just enough younger than I am so that his childhood memories are of the Cold War while mine are of World War II. As part of our contribution to the war effort when I was in elementary school we were called on to collect the tinfoil from the inside of cigarette packs and make it into big balls which we brought in to donate to the boys in uniform. I never found out exactly what you could make in the way of war material out of those balls of tinfoil but I did my duty and brought them in.

 

The most dramatic impact of the war on my elementary school was the system of crossing guards and other chores that the older kids did for the little ones. In my school, we had an elaborate system of boy’s ranks and girl’s ranks. There was a boy four-star general who wore a little armband with four stars on it, a girl four-star general (my big sister, Barbara, her year naturally) all the way down to noncommissioned officers. Paul Pavlides was the four-star boy general my last year before moving up to high school.  He was a very high status kid because his father was a waiter at the Stork Club and he was the best handball player in addition. None of us had ever been anywhere near a nightclub, needless to say, but one day he brought in a great big glossy menu from the Stork Club – it must have been 3 feet tall – and we were all enormously impressed.  Rafael Villalba was the boy three-star general and I was the boy two-star general -- not bad, of course, but not as good as my big sister, which was the story of my life in those days.

MEMORIES

It is one of the pleasures of old age to look back over the years and recall what one was doing 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 years ago. This morning, as I lay in bed at about 4:30 AM trying to snatch a few more moments of rest before getting up, I found myself reflecting that this is almost to the day 30 years since Esther Terry invited me to join the W. E. B. Dubois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts and thereby changed my life.

 

Fifty years ago at this time I was preparing to launch a new undergraduate interdisciplinary major at the University of Massachusetts to which I gave the name Social Thought and Political Economy, or STPEC (“stepick”), as the UMass computer renamed it. In the fall, I shall travel to Amherst one last time to join in the half-century celebration of that program, which still exists and flourishes in the Pioneer Valley.

 

This fall, it will be 60 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis, through which the world lived while I was teaching at the University of Chicago. I had for some while been deeply engaged in the campaign for nuclear disarmament and was terrified by what was unfolding in the Caribbean. At one point, I received a call from Marc Raskin (Jaimie’s father), who was the in-house critic on the staff of McGeorge Bundy, Kennedys National Security Advisor. Marc asked me what I was doing about the crisis. I replied that I had loaded up our VW bug with dried food and a Geiger counter and had reservations on flights to Mexico and Canada, depending on which way the wind was blowing. He was quite disapproving of my self-protective measures and suggested I should be doing more. I asked what he was doing, since he was actually in a position to have some effect. He leaned close to the phone (or so it seemed to me) and said in a soft voice, “we are trying to reach the Pope.” I recall thinking to myself that if that was the best that the office of the National Security Advisor could do, then we were all screwed.

 

Seventy years ago, I was a sophomore at Harvard, taking Willard Van Orman Quine’s graduate seminar in mathematical logic and Harry Austryn Wolfson’s course on the philosophy of Spinoza.

 

Eighty years ago (though I confess I have very little memory of it) I was in 3A at PS 117 in Jamaica, New York. I should explain that in New York City in those days children entered public school twice a year, in September and in January, depending on when they were born.  They graduated 12 years later in June or December. If you were, like me, a December baby this meant that you would have to wait six months before going to college but since only 5% of young people went on to college, it hardly mattered. If you entered high school in January, as I did, and were one of the handful aiming for college, you had to accelerate and get out in 3 ½ years to avoid losing six months. Both I and my wife, Susie, who was then my girlfriend and who was born in January, did just that so that in the fall of 1950 I could start at Harvard and she at Connecticut College for Women.

 

Later this morning, I have one more gig, in an undergraduate Afro-American Studies course at the University of Alabama.  I shall spare them my superannuated maunderings.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

SEVERAL THINGS

There are several matters of great importance on which I should like to comment, but first let me try to clear up this matter of the reductio ad absurdum argument. A reductio is, strictly speaking, a logical argument that proves a proposition by assuming the negation of the proposition and deriving from it a contradiction. One then invokes the law of the excluded middle to conclude that the original proposition has been demonstrated. For example (I get this from Wikipedia), one proves that there is no smallest positive rational number by assuming the negative – that there is a smallest positive rational number – and then dividing that by two, thereby arriving at a smaller positive rational number. The term is also used to apply to arguments in which one assumes the negative of a proposition and then derives silly or foolish or patently unbelievable conclusions which, however, are not contradictory.  Nothing in Marc Susselman’s argument about evolution strikes me as having the form of a reductio in an interesting sense.

 

Now on to matters of greater importance.  The three subjects that have dominated the news for some time now are the Covid pandemic, the January 6 insurrection, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Like other news junkies, I spend a great deal of time each day reading or listening to the latest news with regard to these three crises, and although I am no kind of expert on any one of them, I have developed opinions about the second and third that it might be of some interest to share with the readers of this blog.  I will discuss the second today and try to say something about the third tomorrow.

 

Let me begin with the January 6 affair. Like everyone else, I watched it unfold in real time, as the saying goes.  Even though there had been months of reporting about the efforts of Trump and his supporters to challenge the results of the election in several different states, it was perhaps natural at first to imagine that the assault on the Capitol on January 6 was the culmination and indeed the centerpiece of those efforts. A great deal of effort has been expended trying to blame Trump for the violence, and there is no doubt that he welcomed it and enjoyed it, but it does not seem to me that his heated rhetoric in the speech at the Ellipse constitutes much in the way of evidence of legal liability, since that kind of language is so common in political discourse.

 

What really fascinated me were text messages that were revealed to have been sent by people like Sean Hannity begging Mark Meadows to get Trump to call the violence off since it was screwing up the plan. Eventually we learned that there was in fact a serious, coherent, marginally plausible plan grounded in the Constitution to overcome the result of the election. As we all now know, the plan, which had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol, had three parts: first, to have a number of key states send alternative slates of Trump electors to Congress; second, to have Mike Pence decide to set aside the competing slates from those states as contradictory, leaving no candidate with a majority of the electoral votes; and third, in accordance with the specifications of the Constitution, thereby to throw the election into the House of Representatives where, each state voting as a unit, Trump would be re-elected president.

 

This was not a crazy plan, for all that it would have meant the end of constitutional democracy in America. It depended, so far as I can see, on three things: first, that the Vice President would go along with the plan; second, that the entire Republican majority in the Senate would vote to support the Vice President’s action, thereby producing a standoff between the Senate and the House leading to the vote by states in the House; and third, that the Supreme Court would decline to step in and sort the matter out, on the quite defensible ground that the Constitution left the matter to the action of the House.  The violence in the Capitol was, if anything, counterproductive, or so it seems to me. It made it less likely, rather than more, that the Vice President would go along with the plan and that the entire Republican Senate bloc would vote for it.

 

I think we are about to get a more detailed and circumstantial account of the entire business from the House committee than we ever could have hoped for. So far as I can see, the only element in the entire plot that clearly breaks some laws is the written assertions by the alternate electors of six of the seven relevant states that they were “duly elected.” I hope each of those individuals gets the book thrown at him or her, along with all the co-conspirators who put them up to it. But I do not think there is much hope that Trump himself will be hauled into court on the matter.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

WELL, THAT WAS FUN, LET'S TRY IT AGAIN

Six weeks ago, on March 3, I asked whether anybody would like me to appear as a visitor in a course or before a group of students. Within 48 hours I had four takers, and I have now appeared in an undergraduate course at Laurentian University in Canada, at an adult education gathering in Eugene, Oregon, at a philosophy club at a community college in Connecticut, and in a graduate course at Georgia State University. Four delightful experiences, each one completely different from the other three. We are now close to the end of the spring semester so this may be a poor time to offer my services yet again, but here I am ready to put on my headset and talk via zoom with students anywhere in the world.

 

Along the way, I had an invitation to appear at the Oxford Union, but unfortunately that 10 minute gig would have required me to appear in person so I had to turn it down.

 

Susie and I go to Paris on June 3, returning June 18, so that stretch it out, but other than that I am available.

Monday, April 18, 2022

IT IS HARD BEING TIGGER

 A reader just sent me a lovely email about the review I wrote 11 years ago of Newt Gingrich's doctoral dissertation.  I reread what I had written then and it was sprightlier, more cheerful, than what I have been writing lately. 


Sixty years ago I was a very angry young man, constantly fighting about the threat of nuclear weapons and all the injustices of the world.  It took many years and great effort for me to achieve a certain ironic distance and to let that become a part of my writing. Now, in my waning years, I am again consumed with anger at the evils of the world.  But as I explained in my response to a question from one of the students at Georgia State during my zoom meeting with them last Thursday, we have no choice but to keep fighting.  I must allow myself to be comforted by the fact that my world is not being blown up by incoming cruise missiles.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

BUT I REPEAT MYSELF

Two things that I have said before. One needs to be expanded, the other simply needs to be repeated. Expansion first.

 

Twice in the past several years I have made very brief references to the Netflix miniseries The Queens Gambit. In the seventh and last episode, you will recall, Beth Harmon goes to Moscow to play in an interzonal tournament. Big-league international chess is run by the Federation Internationale des Echecs, or FIDE.  FIDE divides the world into zones – the United States and Russia are so big in the chess world that they are their own zones. When an interzonal tournament is held, by custom (and perhaps by rule, I am not sure) the reigning US champion is invited to represent the United States. That is why Beth is there. The entire last episode is devoted to her game against Borgov, the world champion, who is Russian. The great former world champion, Gary Kasparov, served as an advisor to the producers of the show and instead of making up a game for Beth to play and win against Borgov, Kasparov chose a real game, played by the US champion in the 1993 interzonal against a powerful Ukrainian Grandmaster named Ivanchuk.  The original game was a draw with the US champion playing black but analyzing the game with the aid of a chess program, Kasparov found a dramatic winning move for white.  So in the show, Beth plays white, makes the move, and wins the game. The original 1993 game was, as I say, played by the US champion, who that year was my 25-year-old son, Patrick. Needless to say, I taught him everything he knew about chess, at least until he was seven years old. Then he got too good for me so I just served as his booster and chauffeur as he went to tournaments in western Massachusetts.

 

Second, this business of battlefield tactical nukes. The Ukrainians just sank the Moskva, described as the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. It is thought that they used a cruise missile for the job. A cruise missile is a fearsome weapon that carries a thousand pounds of high explosive. A 3KT “tactical nuke” is thus the explosive equivalent of 6000 cruise missiles. Not 6 or 60 or 600 but 6000. Think about that for a moment. Are there even 6000 cruise missiles in the world? I doubt it. Only twice have nuclear weapons been used in war, both times by the United States against Japan. Those weapons were rated at 12 to 15 KT, which is to say four or five times the size of a “tactical nuclear weapon.” There is no conceivable battlefield situation in which one could rationally use a weapon with explosive magnitude of 3KT. If a nuclear weapon rated at three KT had been used against the Moskva, not only would it have vaporized the ship, it probably would have created a tidal wave that sank the entire Russian fleet and flooded the mainland. People who speak jauntily about “tactical nukes” have no idea what they are talking about. They need to stop.

Friday, April 15, 2022

PASSING THE TIME

Yesterday I made the last of the visits that I arranged by zoom to take the place of the course I could not teach at UNC. No two of the visits were similar and all were delightful. I started by making an appearance in an undergraduate course at Laurentian University in Canada. Then I spent time with senior citizens in an education – in – retirement program in Eugene, Oregon. On Monday of this week, I joined a small group of undergraduates in a philosophy club at a community college just south and west of Hartford, Connecticut. And yesterday, I spent two hours teaching a session of a graduate philosophy/law course at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

 

North, South, East, and West, all without leaving my study here at Carolina Meadows.

 

Meanwhile, Kentucky effectively ends all abortions, and more than half of the states prepare to do the same. If this does not provoke a landslide of political opposition in the upcoming midterm elections, then we are sunk.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

TIME PASSES

Each of us, through the accident of when and where we are born, marks different moments as turning points in our political or spiritual lives. For some, it is the assassination of Julius Caesar, for others, Luther’s nailing of 95 theses to a church door. For my grandfather, it was the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks – he sided with the Mensheviks and so I grew up in a strongly socialist but anti-communist home. Some marked the Moscow show trials as their turning point, for others it was the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact. For the Sunnyside Progressive School, which I attended from the time I was two until the early summer of 1940, when my parents moved to a new house in Kew Gardens Hills, it was Stalin’s murder of Trotsky in Mexico on August 21, 1940 – just too late to force me to take sides.

 

My own personal turning point was April 18, 1961. I went to bed the night of the 17th thinking of myself as a left liberal and woke up the next morning to discover that the newly elected liberal president, John F. Kennedy, had just launched a failed invasion of Cuba. I and the other young faculty and graduate students at Harvard who had formed a little group called The New Left Club of Cambridge realized that we could no longer identify ourselves as liberals. I began to call myself a Radical, but I had no idea what that meant save that I was not any longer a supporter of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. It took me another 15 years and more to decide that I was a Marxist and to know in some detail what that meant.

 

Those of us who are politically engagé place great store by these moments and imagine that they are somehow unique in history, but of course they are not. This Sunday it will be 61 years since that botched invasion. How much more hopeful I was then that I am now, despite everything

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

HE SAYS IT BETTER THAN I CAN

Take a look at this by Phil Green.  It is absolutely spot on. Well done, Phil.

Monday, April 11, 2022

ANOTHER INSULT, AND BY THE FEEL OF IT A LIGHT ONE (QUOTING POOH BAH IN THE MIKADO)

Longtime readers of this blog will call that eight years ago I wrote an extended review of Thomas Picketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-firstt Century, the review eventually running some 9000 words. I considered the book important and I learned a great deal from it. Drawing on a vast amount of statistical data assembled by himself and his colleague Emmanuel Saez, Piketty advanced two important and troubling theses about the structure and development of capitalism. The first was that the dramatic decline in economic inequality in the three decades or so after the Second World War (the period referred to by the French as les trentes glorieuses) was not the new normal of mature capitalism but a temporary dip, caused by the depression and the war, an anomaly already being replaced by the onward march of inequality.  The second was that because of the relationship between the rate of growth and the profit rate in capitalism (i.e. r>g), hereditary wealth inequality – what Piketty called patrimonial capitalism – would only get worse as time went on.  Despite his pro forma dismissal of Karl Marx, Piketty’s analysis struck me as an important and valuable contribution to a Marxist critique of mature capitalism.

 

Well, maybe it is something in the drinking water, I don’t know, but Piketty seems to have gone all warm and fuzzy about capitalism, particularly American capitalism. In a two-part interview excerpted in the magazine section of yesterday’s New York Times, he more or less takes it all back, to the evident surprise of the interviewer.

 

The last question of the two page interview has the interviewer, David Marchese, asking “you know, I do find it hard to wrap my head around the idea that after 40 years of worsening inequality you – the inequality guy - Mr. r>g – are publishing a book saying we’re on the right track historically. It’s sort of cold comfort to know we’re more equal today than we were 100 or 200 years ago. Really give me a reason to feel as optimistic as you do.” I will not quote Piketty’s answer. It sounds like a Biden flack trying to persuade a Bernie supporter to stay on board until the next election.

 

Sigh. Where is Herbert Marcuse when you need him?

 

 

 

 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

GETTING AROUND

While I rode my exercycle this morning, which is a reasonably stressful but otherwise quite boring half hour, I amused myself by trying to remember all the places I have visited in my life. I was able to come up with only 30 of the 50 states, although I may have missed a few. I do not count states that I am nominally in when I am changing planes in an airport. (Far and away my most memorable such airport moment occurred on October 5, 1988. I was on my way to Australia to watch my son Patrick play a chess game and I changed planes in Los Angeles. As I walked through the airport, I passed a bar that had a TV set on and stopped to watch a little bit of the Bentsen – Quayle vice presidential debate. I was just in time to see the famous moment when Bentsen said “I knew John F. Kennedy. John F. Kennedy was my friend. You are no John F. Kennedy, Senator.”) Thirty or thirty-five states strikes me as very low for someone of my age. I do not really know the United States first hand very well.

 

When it comes to foreign countries, the numbers are even more strikingly tilted. I have never been to any part of South America and the closest I have come to Central America was a birdwatching trip to Trinidad with Susie. I have been to Paris more than 40 times – maybe as many as 50 – but I have never been anywhere in Asia or to Russia or to India. My only visit to the near East or Middle East was three days spent in Israel and Susie and I made a detour on our way to Paris. I have been to Dubrovnik twice, to Vienna once, to Italy a number of times, and of course to England, Wales, and Scotland, but never to Ireland.

 

The place I most regret never having seen is China. There was a time when I might have managed to arrange a speaking tour of some sort but at my age such exertions are out of the question.

 

I imagine many readers of this blog have traveled much more widely. I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s famous remark, “I have traveled widely in Concord.” (Thoreau was of course a native of Concord!)

 

Which leaves sub-Saharan Africa, which I have travelled to more than 40 times, mostly but not exclusively to South Africa during the 23 years that I ran my scholarship organization there. It is odd how parochial I am in some respects.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

ADDENDUM

One of the weird things about a population with a fertility rate below replacement – which is to say 2.1 – is that there is no natural point at which the decline in population stops. Although it will of course take a long time, a population with a fertility rate below 2.1 will eventually cease to exist. At the moment, the world fertility rate is estimated to be roughly 2.4 with all 10 of the countries with the highest fertility rate being in sub-Saharan Africa, but the fertility rate has halved in the past three quarters of a century and it continues to go down. At some point, several centuries in the future, the people of the world will be faced with the question whether they want the human race simply to go out of style. Even for the youngest reader of this blog, several centuries is very far in the future, but it is not long in historical time. 

Friday, April 8, 2022

HOW DO I LOVE THEE? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS.

There are so many terrible things happening simultaneously that it is difficult to keep track of them all. Last night, as I lay in bed musing on the hideousness of it all, I hit on a generational device for sorting through the bad stuff. There are the things I will, with any luck, live long enough to see, the things that my sons will live long enough to see, and the things that my grandchildren will live long enough to see.

 

Let us suppose I make it for another six years to the age of 94, long enough to see the outcome of the 2008 presidential election (assuming presidential elections have not been canceled before then.) My sons, Patrick and Tobias, are now 54 and 52 so they will be 96 in the middle and late 2060s. My grandson Samuel is 16 and my granddaughter Athena is 13, so they will be 96 as the 22nd century dawns. What is the bad stuff that I, my sons, and my grandchildren will likely be dealing with? Me first.

 

The immediate pressing question, which I may live long enough to see answered, is whether Republicans will succeed in killing representative democracy in the next six years. They are certainly going to try – indeed, they are doing everything they can right now to undermine such democracy as America has. They are desperate because they are fighting a losing demographic battle. Their core supporters are dying out and they can count on a shrinking portion of the electorate. In the past 22 years, including the 2000 election, the Republicans have won the popular vote in the presidential election only once – in 2004. They have, to be sure, won the presidency three times in the last seven tries, thanks to the bizarre rules governing American elections, but their base is shrinking and if they do not kill democracy soon, they are dead meat.

 

It is a near certainty that the Republicans will lose the popular vote by many millions in 2024. I think it is also very likely that they will lose the electoral vote that year, but whether they will succeed in stealing the election is an open question. This year’s midterm elections, which I have a good chance of living long enough to see, will be extraordinarily difficult for the Democrats but they have an ace in the hole: the Supreme Court. The High Court will very likely overturn Roe V Wade in the next two months. If they do so, it is entirely possible that this act of self-destructive cruelty will trigger a tsunami of women’s votes that will hold the Senate and conceivably even hold the House for the Democrats. I have expressed my hopes in this regard in this space before so there is no need to do so again. We shall see.

 

If the Republicans lose the 2004 presidential election and then attempt to steal it by having Republican-controlled state legislatures send lists of phony electors to the House, and if after everything plays out, Trump or some other Republican mini me is declared the President in manifest contradiction to the plain outcome of the vote, I think a number of large Democratic states may simply refuse to accept the theft and then we are in totally uncharted waters. I hope, as the Parkinson’s takes me down or I succumb mercifully to some other life ending event, that I do not go to my grave knowing that I have lived just long enough to see the death of American democracy. There is precious little I can do, of course, save to donate money and speak out but I will do what I can and hope.

 

Forty-two years from now, when Patrick is 96 and Tobias is 94, the effects of global warming will have long since started to transform the human world. Rising seas will permanently flood Florida’s luxury ocean front properties and drive scores of millions from Bangladesh, as well as compelling New York to build seawalls â la Hollandaise.  Weather patterns will have changed sufficiently to shift dramatically the portions of the globe that can serve as breadbaskets to the world, with consequences beyond my capacity to project. The richer nations will be better able to adjust to these changes, as will the rich even in the poorer nations, but the impact on hundreds of millions if not billions of people will be dramatic and mostly negative, I imagine.

 

By the time Samuel and Athena have reached their middle 90s, all of the problems of climate change will be exacerbated by the dramatic shrinkage of populations around the world. China, which currently has more than 1.4 billion citizens, will have shrunk to 700 million or fewer and a number of other countries, including those of Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and many others will have seen dramatic declines in their populations, which will also be aging, thus reducing the proportion of the population capable of working to produce the goods and services required by the total population. The United States will experience less shrinkage than many other countries because it has welcomed so many immigrants to its shores, but inasmuch as the white sub-portion of the American population has already started to shrink in absolute numbers, according to the 2020 Census, the internal political upheavals caused by the shift in the composition of the population will be enormous and rather difficult to predict.

 

Well, that is about as far as I had gotten when I finally drifted off to sleep. All in all, it is a pity that I am not showing any signs of dementia.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

D'OH

Every so often, something perfectly obvious that has never occurred to me before strikes me and I experience what I can only describe as a Homer Simpson moment. I can still recall lying on the analytic couch 56 years ago or so talking about I cannot recall what, when it suddenly occurred to me for the very first time in my life that New England was named after England, that New York was named after York, and of course that New Orleans was named after Orleans.

 

Last night, I was lying in bed awake at 2 AM explaining to some imaginary audience why the rank of Captain in the Navy is the equivalent of Colonel in the Army (you may well ask why I felt called upon to explain that at 2 AM. I have no idea.)  As part of my explanation, I rehearsed the organizational structure of the Army, something I learned 65 years ago when I went off to Fort Dix to do the active-duty portion of my National Guard service.

 

As I explained (to nobody at all) that several regiments could be put together to form a brigade, it suddenly struck me why the commander of a brigade is called a Brigadier General. But how to explain that the next ranks up are, in order, Major General, Lieutenant General, and General? And then I realized that the Lieutenant General is the assistant to the General and stands in for the General when the General is not available. The Lieutenant General takes the place of the General – he is a place holder, a lieu tenant. 

 

With that, I was able to go back to sleep. It only took me 65 years to figure this out. I thought I would tell you and save you some time.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI

I just went through some complicated online process to apply for the position I will hold next semester when I am teaching at UNC Chapel Hill.  The form identified the position I was applying for as "Visiting Assistant Professor."


I think I may have passed what they call in grocery stores the "sell – by date."

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

THE OLD CURMUDGEON RELENTS

LFC and John Rapko have given me the Sally Field moment that we all secretly crave. Forget about my threat to ban comments. Even Marc Susselman aka AA is welcome here, though please Marc, in moderation.

SPOT QUIZ

In 1977, my first wife, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, published A Feast of Words, a literary biography of Edith Wharton. The Publisher, Oxford University Press, arranged for her to do a little tour of book clubs and such to advertise the book. Naturally, I went along. At one stop, she appeared on the program with Garson Kanin, a well-known movie director and producer and the husband of the famous actress Ruth Gordon. Kanin had published a memoir of his time in Hollywood.

 

I was too nervous just to sit and listen, so I stood by the side of the room during the event.  When it came time for Kanin to speak, he stood up in front of the audience with his hands behind his back and told a series of amusing stories about famous actors and actresses. He seemed to be enjoying himself considerably, and the audience responded in kind. So far as they could tell, he was completely relaxed but from where I stood, I could see that his hands were not clasped lightly behind him. Instead, they twisted and writhed like snakes trapped in a box. I marveled at his ability to maintain a casual, offhand, relaxed demeanor while he was obviously tied up in knots of tension.

 

One question spot quiz: why am I telling you this story from 45 years ago?

Monday, April 4, 2022

FAREWELL TO ALL THAT

I have decided to try blogging without comments.  During the 13 years that I have been blogging, there have been a total of 38,572 comments, if Google is to be believed. That is a lot of comments.  I have enjoyed a great many of them, but in recent months I have grown weary of the comments section being dominated by a few people who seem in many cases only tangentially interested in what I am saying.

 

There are a dozen or so people who seem to have gotten to know one another rather well through the intermediation of the comments section on this blog, and I do not wish to deprive them of the pleasure of continuing to communicate with one another, so I will hold open the comments section for another few days and they can, if they wish, use the comments section to exchange email addresses with one another. Then, in a few days, I will turn off the comments entirely.

 

I will still be available, of course. My email address is listed right at the top of the first page of the blog and anyone who wishes to communicate directly with me is welcome to do so, as in fact many of you have done over the years.

LECTURE PREP

Next week, as I mentioned, I shall make a guest appearance in a graduate philosophy/law school course at Georgia State. The topic for that day is Charles Mills’s book, The Racial Contract. I thought I would start by reading a brief passage that I find especially powerful and then take off from that on a riff that goes in various directions. Here is the passage, from pages 17-18:

 

“The Racial Contract requires its own peculiar moral and empirical epistemology, its norms and procedures for determining what counts as moral and factual knowledge of the world. … There is an understanding about what counts as a correct, objective interpretation of the world, and for agreeing to this view, one is (“contractually”) granted full cognitive standing in the polity, the official epistemic community.

But for the Racial Contract, things are necessarily more complicated. The requirements of “objective” cognition, factual and moral, in a racial polity are in a sense more demanding in that officially sanctioned reality is divergent from actual reality. So here, it could be said one has an agreement to misinterpret the world. One has to learn to see the world wrongly, but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority, whether religious or secular.

 

Thus in effect, on matters related to race, the racial contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.

 

This is an extraordinary passage, a brilliant passage. It is, in a way, the central passage of the entire book.  It echoes the magnificent  passage in the section of chapter 1 of Capital entitled “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof” in which Marx first describes as absurd the central thesis of bourgeois economics and then says that such forms of thought express “with social validity” the production of commodities.

 

Just as one can unpack all of Capital from that brief passage, so I believe one can unpack Charles Mills’s book from the brief passage quoted above.

 

We shall see.

 

Saturday, April 2, 2022

FIRST STEPS

While I work up a response to the two comments on yesterday's post, I do want to express my pleasure at the success finally of a group of Amazon workers in establishing a union. That is a splendid first step. Let us hope there are many more like it

Friday, April 1, 2022

STEP ONE

Your responses have been an embarrassment of riches – so many questions and suggestions for further blog posts! I shall certainly read Ray Geuss’s book when it comes out, and then I can comment on it as seems appropriate. I will also try to say something about C. I. Lewis, the professor who influenced me most deeply in ways that I tried to capture in my autobiography. But today, I will try my hand at responding to Fritz Poebel’s request that I address the subject of reparations.  This is for me an unusually difficult subject to get my head around so these comments may not be as polished and coherent as I would like.

 

Human beings live by collectively (although not necessarily voluntarily) laboring to transform nature so that it can meet our needs and satisfy our desires.  In capitalist economic systems like those that now organize virtually every country in the world (including China, of course, regardless of its nominal allegiance to something it calls “communism”), there are two structures of systematic inequality. The first, which is essential to capitalism, is the exploitation of labor by the owners of capital, exploitation that results in ever greater inequalities of wealth and income. The second, which is I believe not essential to capitalism but nevertheless is found almost everywhere, is the relative inequality of exploitation that make some subgroups of the population – women, persons of color, and so forth – even worse off than those groups that are favored in the system of exploitation.

 

Capitalists by and large are inclined to be equal opportunity exploiters, although they are of course happy to use the biases, prejudices, and resentments of white men to serve their interests. The demand that women or persons of color be paid the same exploitative wage as white men, that women and persons of color be given the same educational and employment opportunities as white men and be advanced in the hierarchy of jobs equally as are white men, does not fundamentally threaten the ability of capital to exploit labor. That is why one frequently finds large wealthy powerful corporations filing amicus briefs in support of such things as affirmative action programs at universities. Indeed, the demand by women to be given equal opportunity in the labor market serves the interests of capital by bringing more members of households into the workforce and correspondingly making it possible to reduce the wages of those employed by capital. When two adult members of a household enter the workforce full-time, the pressure is taken off employers to pay a “family wage” to an employed man.

 

Does any of this imply that there is no point in fighting for women’s liberation, black liberation, gay liberation, and in general for the removal of all of the differential disadvantages that have come to be built in the American economic and social system? Good God, no! Of course not! Those struggles, to which I have in small ways contributed over the course of my life, are worthwhile on their own terms. Beyond that, I believe they are essential in any larger effort to confront the underlying structure of exploitation as a whole.

 

All of which amounts to no more than a clearing of my throat before I address the subject of reparations.  The owners of capital would like nothing better than to have everyone believe that the demand for reparations is a fight between exploited white workers and the even more greatly exploited black workers. That was the great genius in the “occupy Wall Street” movement. By casting the struggle as a fight of the 99% against the 1%, it made clear that the real enemy was capital, not white workers.  (Never mind the percentages.) What is needed is not to take away some of what white families have and give it to black families, but to take away some of what rich families have and give it differentially both to black families and to white families but in a way that equalizes their well-being across racial boundaries. 

 

Well, that is just an elementary beginning. Now I must get a haircut to prepare myself for my upcoming zoom appearances. There is no need for me to appear as both old and shaggy!

 

 

Thursday, March 31, 2022

A FIFST RESPONSE

The response to my invitation was extremely gratifying. Let me begin with the easiest responses. John Williams writes “I am interested in what you have to say about G.A. Cohen and analytic Marxism more generally.” As it happens, 32 years ago I published a lengthy critique of a book by Jan Elster in which in some considerable detail I came to terms with “analytical Marxism.” If you follow the link at the top of the page (which is, I am afraid, not clickable but has to be copied and pasted – my apologies), you will find a very large repository of my writings, among which is something that is simply identified there as the “Elster paper.”  Elsewhere – it will take me a while to find it – I have published a detailed critique of one argument by G. A. Cohen. I hope that will satisfy your curiosity.

 

A number of you asked for my opinions about things I either have not read or do not have opinions about and I am afraid I cannot help you there. For example, although I studied Spinoza 70 years ago with a great scholar, Harry Austryn Wolfson, I have never written about his works and really have nothing to say about them. Rather more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that I have spent almost no time reading or thinking about Wittgenstein, a fact that is very much to my discredit, I should think. Sorry about that.

 

The same thing is true about Dick Rorty.  I knew him back in the day and found him quite unimpressive. I was genuinely surprised when he became a really big deal. I do not think I have actually ever read anything by him so once again chalk that up to my inadequacy, not his.

 

My favorite comment was by Achim Kriechel.  Back when I was able to take long walks, one of my favorite early-morning routes in Paris took me along Boulevard Saint Germain past Café Flore and Deux Magots, opposite Brasserie Lipp.  It was always early in the morning when I walked there and the waiters were just setting the tables and chairs out. I do not think I ever stopped for coffee but that little spot is burned into my memory.

 

Enough for the moment. Tomorrow I will start to address some of the serious questions which I have something resembling answers.

YET ANOHER DEVASTATING LOSS

I thank all of you who responded to my last post and I shall try to answer some of the requests and questions soon. However, in the middle of the night when I got up (as I do every night) I got the terrible news that my dear friend Milton Cantor had passed away last Saturday, and that is what fills my mind. Milton was 96 years old and as I think I mentioned on this blog, the last time I spoke to him his principal concern was that he could not get into the Amherst College library to check footnotes!


I love Milton very dearly. I have long thought of him as my best friend even though we have seen each other rarely since I retired and moved away from Western Massachusetts. As I have said here before, Milton had a rare gift for friendship and for many years, reaching back half a century, he took me into his heart and surrounded me with love.


Milton was a good man, an old-fashioned lefty and a fine scholar. 


God, there have been so many terrible losses lately.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

LET'S TRY SOMETHING NEW

As faithful readers of this blog know, I have struggled for some time with the unusual character of the format. Over the past several years, this blog has drawn to it a small circle of consistent commentators whose exchanges, sometimes extending to 50 or 60 or more comments in a thread, are at best only tangentially related to what I have originally posted.

 

I enjoy teaching, which is to say explaining complex ideas, and my recent experience visiting first a class in Canada and then an adult education gathering in Oregon, persuades me that I still have some things to say. So I am going to try something new on this blog. Instead of posting a comment and waiting, more often than not with disappointment, to a response from the usual suspects, I have decided to invite readers – most especially those who do not usually comment – to suggest subjects they would be interested in having me write about. If I get requests, I will sift through them, looking for those about which I have something useful to say, and will then post my replies.

 

This will not, of course, stop the dozen or so usual commentators from entering into arguments with one another about subjects unrelated to my posts, but it will give me a sense that I am speaking through this blog to people who are interested in what I might have to say about the topics suggested.

 

Over the course of my long life, I have written about a more than usually broad array of subjects, venturing into more than half a dozen academic specialties – philosophy, history, politics, economics, sociology, literature, psychology, Afro-American studies, among others – and I hope that if I do receive some questions they will span an equally broad spectrum of subjects.

 

So the floor is yours. What would someone like to hear me talk about?