My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Monday, May 30, 2022


Just short of six years ago, in August 2016, I began what became a series of nine lectures on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Through the courtesy of the UNC Chapel Hill Philosophy Department, the lectures were delivered in a large lecture room in Caldwell Hall. They were filmed by a young graduate student, Alexander Campbell, who managed the technologically tricky task of posting them on YouTube. Alex, who successfully defended his fine doctoral dissertation last spring, subsequently recorded and posted several more series of lectures that I gave in the same venue.


A few moments ago, the YouTube counter of views for that first lecture passed 200,000, and I thought I would take a moment to memorialize the event. It must of course be put in context: when I looked earlier this morning, Michael Sandel’s first lecture on justice at Harvard had racked up 4.5 million views. But 200,000 views of a lecture on the First Critique is nothing to be sneezed at. As with all such series of YouTube lectures, the number of views declines precipitously as one moves through the series. The ninth lecture in the series has been viewed 15,701 times, which I suspect means that more than 14,000 people have watched all nine lectures.


Now, I have offered a course on the Critique more than ten times in my half century long career. I imagine that I have taught that great book to a total of 200 or 300 students since I first lectured on it at Harvard in the spring of 1960. But 14,000? 

Judging from the emails I have received over the years, those lectures have been watched in their entirety by people all over the world – by senior professors, by graduate students, by undergraduates, and quite often by people not in the Academy who simply wanted to know something about Kant.


As I prepare once more to go into the classroom and teach, I am sadly aware that this may be, if not the last, then very nearly the last course I shall teach in person. But 10 years, 20 years, indeed perhaps even 50 years from now, my series of nine lectures on the first half of the First Critique will still be available on YouTube or some successor to it and, I can hope, will still be attracting viewers interested in Kant’s philosophy.


Not immortality, surely. But not nothing, all the same.



Saturday, May 28, 2022


Eight, nine, ten-year-old children trapped in a classroom with a crazed 18-year-old armed with an assault rifle. Children desperately calling 911 asking for them to send the police. Behind the locked door, nineteen armed police officers standing about for 45 minutes. Their commander decides it would be too dangerous to attempt to get into the room and stop the slaughter.


I think if I were the father or grandfather of one of those murdered children, I would make it my life’s work to kill the 19 police officers.

Thursday, May 26, 2022


My intuition was correct that Jerry Fresia would understand what I was trying inadequately to express. Clearly his experience as an artist is different from mine as a philosopher but at some deeper level I think we are quite similar. There are a number of texts of course that achieve this integration and transcendence, and not at all surprisingly I find some of them in the Dialogues of Plato.  But the single text that seems to me the most perfect expression of what I am trying to capture is the two and a half page preface to Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments.  That is a truly astonishing text, so inward, so intense, so perfectly clear and powerful, going on from image to image, metaphor to metaphor, unrelenting, without so much as the relief of an explanatory sub phrase. Kierkegaard must have been in a fugue state when he wrote it.  It is I think pound for pound, word for word, the greatest piece of philosophical writing I have ever read.


As for Charles Mills’s observations about Kant, they do not at all change my interpretation of the text but it goes without saying that they have a powerful effect on my judgment of Kant as a human being. Kant was a casual stone cold racist, there is no way around that fact. So in his graceful manner was David Hume. Can we excuse them on the ground that they were writing in the 18th century? Well, it is striking that that quite insignificant contemporary thinker, James Beattie, who accidentally served as the vital conduit of Hume’s critique of causal inference to Kant, was in fact not a racist but rather quite liberated in his view of the illegitimacy of slavery.


As I have on various occasions observed, Karl Marx, the great theorist of exploitation, was himself in a variety of ways an exploiter of those around him.


I am glad I did not have the opportunity to meet any of these great thinkers.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022


I have taught countlessly many works of philosophy, politics, sociology, economics, history, literature, and Afro-American studies since I earned my doctorate 65 years ago, but in that long time I have only engaged deeply, seriously, in a sustained fashion with four works: David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, and Karl Marx’s Capital. As I have explained in some of my YouTube postings and also, I am sure, at various times on this blog, I have never imagined that my interpretation of any of these books was the only correct interpretation or even by some objective measure better than other, competing interpretations. To use again an analogy to which I frequently recur, just as there are a number of different legitimate ways of playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto as well as countlessly many ways of mis-playing it or playing it badly, so there are always a number of competing and incompatible ways of legitimately reading a great work of philosophy as well as endlessly many ways of simply getting it wrong.


One of the reasons that I do not “keep up with the literature” on the books with which I have engaged in this manner is that once I am done struggling with a great book and finding my way to a reading that I consider satisfying and well-grounded in the text, I am in an odd way done with the book.  As the Old Testament says, I have wrestled with it and it has blessed me and that is enough.


This kind of activity bears very little relation to what is usually described as “doing research.” It would be simply absurd for an historian or a biologist or an anthropologist to say “I have said what I have to say about the French Revolution or RNA or burial rituals among the Kwakiutl and therefore I shan’t read what other historians or biologists or anthropologists have discovered about those subjects.” But it made perfect sense to me to say, at the end of my series of YouTube lectures on the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason: this is the argument I have found in the text after wrestling with it for many years and I am quite comfortable acknowledging that others may have found different arguments, competing arguments, in the same text.


I do not really know whether other philosophers conduct their engagements with great works in this way. My suspicion is that they do but are simply somewhat hesitant about saying so openly.  However, since I am near the end of my long life I want to leave behind me not only the results of my struggles with these texts but also some explanation of what I imagined myself to be doing.


As I have often remarked, my goal has always been to find in the text an argument that is simple, powerful, elegant, and beautiful, and then to show it to my students or my readers in all of its simplicity, power, elegance, and beauty so that they can appreciate these qualities for themselves.  I imagine that Jerry Fresia, who is by calling and profession an artist, will understand what I am trying to say.

Monday, May 23, 2022


A senior moment is a momentary mental lapse of the sort that people in my age bracket experience all too often. Forgetting where one put the car keys, blanking on the name of someone one has known for years, that sort of thing. It may be, but need not be, a distressing evidence of the onset of dementia. A charming cinematic example is Eli Wallach, in Holiday, who goes out for a walk, forgets where his house is, and has to be guided back by Kate Winslet. 


I have for years been troubled by one particular kind of senior moment – totally blanking on a name. I think I have perhaps mentioned that there was a time when I simply could not bring to mind the name of the great operatic soprano, Kathleen Battle. I knew that she had recorded a splendid collection of Baroque arias for soprano and trumpet with Wynton Marsalis. I could visualize her, I could play over in my head in all their musical complexity a number of the arias she sings on the CD, but I simply could not remember her name. I thought if I remembered the initials K. B. that would help, but then I could not remember the initials!  Recently, I was telling over in my mind a story about an experience I had in 1964 when I arrived at Columbia University to take up a professorship there. I could recall in the most minute detail every aspect of the story except for the name of the person involved – Arthur Danto. 


Generally speaking, my memory is pretty good. I can remember my landline telephone number, my cell phone telephone number, my wife’s cell phone telephone number, our telephone number in Pelham, Massachusetts, my credit card number, my Social Security number, my wife’s Social Security number, the telephone number of my parents’ house where I live from the time I was six until I was sixteen.  I can even remember the National Guard identification number I was assigned when I went off to Fort Dix in 1957 – NG 21268121. But I am constantly blanking on names.


Usually I can use my computer in one way or another to cough up the name, either by going to Google or else by searching the 800 page autobiography that I wrote and posted online. One of the oddities of my senior moments is that when I set off to the computer to track down a name, frequently as I am about use the computer to find it, it pops into my head.


I figure there must be some place in the brain where names – but not all this other stuff – get recorded. Otherwise, it would make no sense to me that my senior moments are so precisely defined in their character. There must be a neurologist out there reading this blog – does anybody have an idea what the explanation is?

Sunday, May 22, 2022


Thank you, Stephen Darling, for the accurate translation. Taking all in all, I think we can say that he finds me lame, silly, trifling, otiose, insignificant, uninteresting, trivial, simply not worth paying attention to.  Which calls to mind Pooh-Bah’s remark in The Mikado when he is handed a small bag of coins as a bribe: “another insult, and by the feel of it, a light one.”


I was never big in France. Now, Croatia, that is another matter…  Or as the head of the little traveling acting troupe says of himself, in the wonderful old movie To Be or Not to Be, I am “world-famous in Poland”

Friday, May 20, 2022


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.


 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


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…


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


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


 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


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


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


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


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.