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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, October 31, 2022


If everyone in America were to do politically what I have done, we would be in good shape. It is remarkable how little comfort that gives me.  For a little bit the outpouring of jokes on this blog was a comfort, but alas that soon evaporates.  I shall teach later on today.  Even matter no longer holds as much attraction as it once did.

By the way, having my students watch my posted YouTube videos on Freud rather than lecturing on Freud did not work out as well as I had hoped. A caution to those of you who may try something like that.

As I might have anticipated, it took only an hour or two for the right wing conspiracy nuts to conjure up a bizarre story about Paul Pelosi and the man who attacked him.  

The news is not all bad. I just learned this morning that Mark Zuckerberg's holdings in Facebook stock have lost about $78 billion lately.  I am beginning to think there is a decent chance that the Democrats will pick up several seats in the Senate. If they can; against all the odds, hang on to the House perhaps I will be able to deal more successfully with my Parkinson's disease (and do not imagine these two things are unconnected!)

Friday, October 28, 2022


Marc asks a good question, an important question, and I will answer it later, but right now I simply want to react to the news about Nancy Pelosi's husband.  As many of you will have heard, a right wing conspiracy nut broke into the Pelosi house in San Francisco looking for the Speaker (who was in fact inWashington), tied up her husband, struck his head several times with a hammer, and was taken into custody.  Mr. Pelosi is now in surgery. The assailant's social media site is full of references to right-wing conspiracy theories, of course.

Despite my best effort to maintain my equanimity, I am simply beside myself with anxiety, frustrated anger, and incipient depression.  I do not have anything witty or clever to say about this.


I am not sure when this paper was written but the internal evidence suggests that it must have been perhaps 55 years ago more.


Robert Paul Wolff


In recent years, two issues of social policy and morality have come to the fore in the United States, each of which poses in a vexing and controversial way the question whether it makes any sense to speak of a social as opposed to an individual injustice. The first issue is the disadvantaged position of American Blacks; the second is the disadvantaged position of women. No one, of course, disputes the claim that Blacks have been systematically oppressed in the past, and I do not think one needs to prove that significant discrimination operates against Blacks today. It is equally obvious that white women have been, and still are, discriminated against both in law and in fact, though for rather complicated emotional reasons it seems more difficult to get certain white men to acknowledge that fact, Black women, needless to say, have suffered, and continue to suffer, a double discrimination.

There is a very broad moral consensus in America that discrimination on the basis of color or sex is wrong. But there is no consensus at all on the nature of the legal or political steps that ought to be taken to eliminate such discrimination and to correct or counteract its effects, Several years ago, the disagreement focused on the emotionally charged demand by certain Black groups ·for "reparations" from white society, reparations to compensate Blacks for past wrongs, Today., the policy of "affirmative action" in employment and advancement triggers the same powerful feelings and raises the same difficult questions of principles and policy.

I propose to explore what I see as the central conceptual or philosophical problem in these disputes over reparations and affirmative action. I am not by philosophical persuasion a utopian optimist. I do not believe that all or even most genuine social conflicts arise out of conceptual misunderstandings, or that once the philosophical unclarities have been removed, men and women of good will must naturally settle upon a single harmonious social policy, Quite to the contrary, I suspect that social harmony is often achieved only by concealing from some segment of society the true shape of conflicting interests and that social progress often requires an intensification of conflict rather than its resolution. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that there is some value in clarifying the principles to which we appeal in making our judgments of social morality. If we cannot thereby win over our opponents, we may at least be able to strengthen our allies.

I begin, then, with a very common sort of philosophical difficulty, namely that a certain way of talking about social problems seems to me both perfectly appropriate and oddly confused. We are all familiar, particularly since the second world war, with attributions of collective guilt, assertions of collective suffering, claims of collective rights or collective duties. Whether we agree with any particular statement of this sort, at least we think we understand what it means. It is said, for example, that the Jews as a people have suffered greatly throughout history, particularly in this century. It is said, too, that the Germans as a nation are morally responsible for the Holocaust. So also, American whites are collectively accused of the sufferings of the Afro-Americans, and American society is described as racist. Western society generally is condemned as sexist, and some institutions, such as corporate .business and education, are said to support and condone sexism.

Does this way of talking make any sense? Never mind whether each particular charge is true -- do any of the charges mean anything? What can it possibly mean to say that an entire nation, or people, or sex, or race is responsible for, or has suffered, or deserves reparations for an injustice?

Traditionally, two totally opposed answers have been given to these and related questions. The taglines usually associated with the two positions are methodological collectivism, or idealism, and methodological individualism. The collectivist or idealist answer is that human groups-- ethnic collectivities, or religious groups, or states -- can develop a unity and being which is more than the sum of the individuals in the group. Properties can then be attributed to the group, which may not be attributable to any individual in the group or to the individuals taken merely in the aggregate. So we can speak of such a true or real group as suffering, acting, bearing responsibility, having rights or duties, and so forth. A classic statement of this view is found in Emile Durkheim's defense of Sociology as a science distinct from the psychology of the individual. "Indubitably for sociology to be possible," Durkheim wrote, "it must above- all have an object all its own. It must take cognizance of a reality which is not in the domain of the other sciences. But if no reality exists outside of individual consciousness, it wholly lacks any material of its own. In that case, the only possible subject of observation is the mental states of the individual, since nothing else exists... There can be no sociology unless societies exist, and ... societies cannot exist if there are only individuals."[1] Durkheim then
launches on a three-hundred page exploration of the social statistics of suicide in order to demonstrate that "collective tendencies" are at work in society, manifesting a regularity as strict as that of natural phenomena and governed by laws which cannot be reduced to the laws of individual consciousness. Here is the summary of his argument:

Collective tendencies have an existence of their own; they are forces as real as cosmic forces, though of another sort; they, likewise, affect the individual from without, though through other channels. The proof that the reality of collective tendencies is no less; than that of cosmic forces is that this reality is demonstrated in the same way, by the uniformity of effect .. , When we find that the number of deaths varies little from rear to year, we explain this regularity by saying that mortality depends on the climate, the temperature, the nature of the soil, in brief on a certain number of material forces which remain constant through changing generations because independent of individuals. Since, therefore, moral acts such as suicide are reproduced not merely with an equal but with a greater uniformity, we must likewise admit that they depend on forces external to individuals. Only, since these forces must be of a moral order and since, except for individual men, there is no other moral order of existence in the world but society, they must be social.[2]

This position is anathema to the methodological individualist, who insists that collective tendencies cannot have an existence of their own. To the individualist, Durkheim's position is a metaphysical absurdity. Since society is merely an aggregate of individuals, all acts of justice and injustice, all rights and duties, all sufferings and enjoyments, are individual acts, rights, duties, sufferings, or enjoyments. If an action is unjust, then it must be unjust to someone in particular -- and if it is an action, then it must have been done by someone in particular. Manifestly, all suffering is someone’s suffering, all joy someone's joy and only an individual agent can have a right or a duty.

To be sure, groups or aggregates of individuals can act, suffer, exercise rights and fulfill duties. But all collective action is a mere aggregation of individual actions, all suffering a summation of private miseries, all collective responsibility in the end the responsibility of particular individuals for things they have individually done, refrained from doing, or failed to do.

Therefore, those who speak of Black suffering are merely using a shorthand way of referring to this Black woman's suffering, that Black man's suffering, and so forth. There is no such thing as The Black, nor is the injustice suffered by Blacks different in kind from that suffered by any person who is deprived of his rights, or treated unequally, or denied the opportunity to satisfy his human needs and realize his human potential. By the same token, assertions of white racism in America are merely summary ways of asserting that this white American is a racist, that that white American is a racist, and so forth. On the methodologically individualist view, than, all injustices are individual injustices. There is no such thing as a social injustice per se.

I am not by nature a mugwump, but on this issue, I find myself evenly balanced on the fence between the two sides. More precisely, my moral and political sympathies are with those who charge collective responsibility and claim collective suffering, but my philosophical reason tells me that the individualist is right. Durkheim's "collective tendencies" seem to me no better than superstitions. Still, the collectivist has his finger on an important truth, however badly he may have expressed it. We need not accept Durkheim's "collective tendencies" governed by "cosmic forces" to agree that in some sense talk about society, about collective guilt or suffering, and about social injustice is meaningful. What we must do is to analyze such judgments more carefully, in order to discover exactly what it is that we mean to say when we employ them.

Despite my unwillingness to endorse Durkheim's philosophical position, I shall nonetheless follow his lead by reflecting for a bit on the use and meaning of the social statistics by which we so often strive to describe our collective condition.


             In small, face-to-face situations, our conception of social reality is grounded in the immediate data of perception and feeling. I know each of the persons in my family directly, and I know too the relationship of each to each, and of each to all. As I enlarge the scope of my attention, individuals begin to blur into a mass. Because I am unable to hold in my mind the burgeoning complexity of human interrelationships, I begin to categorize individuals, to interact with them in their character as occupiers of social roles or as possessors of social characteristics. The particularizing individuality of each person drains away, and the complicated network of relationships becomes opaque. Eventually, I am forced in my thinking about the countless individuals who comprise my social world either to rely upon a scattering of isolated examples which may be quite atypical of the whole, or else to organize my comprehension of social reality by the use of some different system of concepts. It is at this point that students of society appeal to numerical representations of the social world. Gradually, I find myself developing a conception of society which may be literally impossible for me to grasp in any way other than through the use of social statistics.

            I am aware of the United States as a nation of 210 million persons in which the birth rate is declining to the replacement level. And yet, among my friends, there has been this past year a brisk increase in births. No collection of individual experiences, however distributed, could suffice to tell me that the birth rate was falling rather than rising, and it goes without saying that I could never form a reasonable estimate of its actual numerical level merely by aggregating my personal observations. The facts of the distribution of wealth and income, the relations between income and race or income and sex, the average level of educational attainment for members of different religious groups, the connection between the stability of the family and the incidence of juvenile delinquency -- virtually everything one would want to know about a society can be cognized only statistically.

As our statistical grasp of society improves, we turn our attention to second-order facts which are totally devoid of affective or perceptual content, such as changes in rates of change of statistical indicators (an accelerating balance of payments gap, or a declining gap between the mean income of Black and white heads of families). Once we have learned to comprehend social reality in this manner, we begin to form moral judgments about the statistical facts -- judgments which are independent of our moral evaluations of the individual cases that go to make up those statistical facts.

For example: In addition to judging that it is bad for people to be out of work or hungry or illiterate, we consider it a distinct social evil -- and an indication of a special sort of social injustice -- that a disproportionately large percentage of Black Americans are poor or hungry or uneducated. When social statistics reveal a skew along racial or sexual lines in employment or income, we judge that skew in and of itself to constitute a social injustice. Many of us begin to argue that the pattern of social statistics constitutes some justification for a reallocation of social resources so as to eliminate the imbalance, quite independently of any grounds for eliminating differences in income in general.

The methodological individualist rejects all such reasonings. He argues that a sexual or racial skew in the social statistics must be a consequence of widespread racial or sexual discrimination of the individual sort. That is to say, it must be a consequence of the fact that this employer here, that landlord there, in hiring or promoting or renting discriminated against this particular Black or that particular woman. The statistics are no more than summary numerical representations of large numbers of distinct, individual cases. If discrimination is stamped out, the figures will reflect the fact, either by disclosing no skew at all along racial or sexual lines, or else by exhibiting only such patterns as cannot be attributed to discrimination and treated as evidence of the existence of injustice.

A great deal of injustice can of course be eliminated in this way. When my wife was a graduate student at Harvard, the English Department did not give teaching assistantships to women. Not until many years later did she discover that it was that simple policy of discrimination, and not any failing on her part, that explained why she was never offered an assistantship.  But our experience in education, employment, and other fields suggests that the mere elimination of any further acts of discrimination may not, by itself, be enough to wipe out the effects of past injustices, Men and women may suffer today the burdens of discrimination practiced in the past against themselves, against their parents, or even against their more distant ancestors.

It would seem that complete social justice requires positive measures to eliminate these derivative or indirect consequences of injustice , Surely it is unfair to .ignore the historical conditions which give a middle-class white child so great an advantage over a Black slum child, The social statistics would seem to reveal two sorts of genuine injustices: those committed in the present against individuals, and those committed in the past, whose consequences appear in the statistics now. Thus, in addition to the elimination of further discrimination and the correction of particular acts of injustice committed in the recent past, we would appear to have an obligation to make some sort of restitution or reparation for the generations of past injustices whose consequences reveal themselves in the present. In short, the statistics reveal that entire groups in America have suffered injustices, and it is natural to conclude that policies of affirmative action or reparation be adopted, going beyond the mere correction of individual abuses, to adjust the social reality -- to eliminate the skew in the statistics, as it were.

But now a very curious problem arises to complicate our analysis and cast doubt on the conclusion to which I have just rather tentatively come. We have been talking as though America were easily and obviously decomposable into a small number of readily recognizable social groups, the identities of which are reflected in our social statistics. But in a nation of more than two hundred million people, there is an enormous number of different ways in which we may divide the population for purposes of collecting statistics. We are accustomed to using indices of sex, race, age, income, occupation, and religion to define social groups, but in fact, any finite group of entities has an indefinitely large number of characteristics in common, and there is
no end to the ways in which we may subdivide the population.

This fact would make no difference if there were only a small number of traits which could be correlated significantly with low income, or unemployment, or poor educational attainment. But there is no reason to assume that such is the case. If we adopt a sociological perspective, so to speak, rather than a moral perspective, then we must suppose that social or physical causes can be found for every social fact, not merely for those about which we have special moral concerns. To make this point clearer, let us compare two hypothetical cases: on the one hand, a young Black school drop-out from Harlem who shuns such social welfare programs as are offered in his community, shuttling back and forth between relief and low-paid unskilled jobs -- and on the other hand, a white middle-class boy from a stable home and neighborhood whose lack of ambition and college-orientation consign him to a postman's job at a salary far below that of his lawyer father. The white youth ends up much better than the Black youth, of course. But he has suffered -- if that is the correct word -- a significant downward mobility. We are all accustomed to say that such a Black youth is a victim of his history, of his neighborhood, even of a culture of poverty and despair into which he was born. And so he probably was. We suspect that the same youth, born into a different family with much greater opportunities, both material and cultural, would seize the chances available to him and become instead a much higher-paid member of the professional middle class. And so indeed he might. But exactly the same sorts of assertions and suspicions are justified in regard to the middle-class white youth. His attitude toward education, work, and status can also be traced to the influence of his family, his neighborhood, and his cultural background. He is no more responsible for the aspects of his environment that caused him to underuse his opportunities than the Black youth is for the totality of conditions that blocked him from seizing even such chances as society offered. And yet, though I and many other people consider the Black youth's career to be a clear case of social injustice, very rarely if ever do we form the analogous judgment about the countless cases or failed opportunities or downward mobility which resemble that of our young white lawyer's son.

We may conclude that the white youth is not to be blamed for what happened to him economically. We may also conclude that his fate is in some sense unfair. But it would be very strange indeed to indict society for what happened to him -- to demand that laws be passed to compensate him for the burdens imposed upon him by his parents or his grandparents. Even if we could collect social statistics showing that young middle-class whites of a certain religion, or geographical area, or family style and pattern of child-rearing showed a markedly higher rate of downward social mobility than the national average, it would seem very odd to label that fact a social injustice, and to call for a policy of affirmative action for children from families with ego-diffused mothers and sado-masochist1c fathers. And yet, it does not seem strange at all to indict society for what happened to the Black youth, and to the thousands like him whose separate lives make up the familiarly skewed social statistics. Wherein lies the difference?

One obvious difference, I suppose, is that the threads of social causation in the case of Blacks lead back to the actual, overt acts of brutality and injustice visited upon their fore-fathers by slave traders, slave owners, employers, and governments. The downward mobility of the white youth may very well be traceable to no such instances of injustice, but merely to factors over which he has no control, and for which he should not be made to suffer.

But that distinction is relevant only to the question of who should pay for the damages, not to the question of who has a right to such payment. The real reason, I think, for the difference in our moral evaluations of the two cases, is that Blacks form a social group which appears to have real, rather than merely nominal or statistical, existence. What is more, Blacks (and women) have been treated unjustly as a group in American society, whereas no such group injustice has operated in the statistically isolatable case of "children of ego-diffused mothers and sado-masochistic fathers''. In short, we come back to Durkheim's notion of the objective reality of social groups. We shall have to probe into the nature of social groups and collective tendencies.


            Let us begin with the familiar facts about relative rates of unemployment among Black and white workers. We assume that the especially high rate of Black unemployment is unjust. But to whom is it unjust? An absurd question; it is obviously unjust to Blacks. But to which Blacks? Presumably not to those Blacks who have jobs. They may very well be suffering on-the-job discrimination in salary or promotion, but they are by hypothesis not suffering an unjust deprivation of the right to work. Obviously, the injustice reflected in the unemployment figures is suffered by unemployed Blacks. But does that statement make any sense? Suppose that an able young Black man with a good high school education is refused membership in a building trades union because he is Black, while another young man, white, with the same qualifications is admitted to the union. Clearly, the Black has been treated unfairly. The union has failed to obey
the fundamental principle of formal or procedural justice, which is to treat as identical all cases which are identical in the relevant respect. Since color of skin is not relevant to the activities of
the union and its members, the admissions procedures of the union should be colorblind.

So we may agree that this Black man has suffered an injustice. But the injustice he has suffered is not the injustice we were originally discussing. What he has suffered is the denial of a job, not the disparity in unemployment between Blacks and whites in America. To be sure, the. single incident in which he was the victim is one of a great number of incidents whose cumulative effect is that statistical gap, but a state of affairs may be the consequence of a number of injustices without being in and of itself an injustice. It would, .after all, be very peculiar to· say that an American woman who lost her baby through inadequate obstetrical care had experienced a disparity between the rates of infant mortality in America and Sweden, or that a flourishing new business was experiencing a rise in the Gross National Product.

Suppose that the white applicant next in line after the Black at the union office is the son of an old personal enemy of the union official, who, out of spite, refuses to accept the young man's application. This too is an injustice, formally indistinguishable from the previous case. An individual has been treated as different from the general run of applicants although he is, in the relevant respects, identical. If anyone took the trouble to collect statistics on admission to unions of sons of enemies of admitting secretaries (as in fact people collected statistics on admission to unions of sons of union members), we would presumably discover a significant disparity between the percentage of admissions in that class as compared to the percentage of admissions among other applicants. How then, if at all, does the case of the Black man differ from the case of the white man who suffers the consequences of his father's feuds?

The white man, we have supposed, is treated unjustly because of his particular relationship to the admitting secretary, He thereby becomes an instance of the general category, "Men denied admission to unions because of personal differences between their fathers and members of the union." But the admitting secretary is not motivated by that fact. He is motivated merely by his personal feelings for the applicant's father. The Black man, on the other hand, is denied admission solely because he possesses a certain characteristic which the admitting secretary thinks of as defining a social group. In that sense, the motive for the· unjust act is general rather than particular, and the injustice is visited on the victim qua instance of -- rather than qua individual. The secretary, we might say, is not rejecting this Black man; he is rejecting a Black man. Now, the nation-wide statistics for Black and white employment, and the disparity between the percentage of Blacks in the work force and the percentage of Blacks in the union, are both summary representations (we may for the moment suppose) of the consequences of large numbers of individual acts, all of which were initiated by the same generalized motive. Over and over again, an admitting secretary rejects applicants merely because they are Black. Since he makes no distinction in his action between one Black man and another, he is in effect rejecting the entire group of Black men. In this sense, he and the union might be said to be inflicting an injustice on Blacks as a group, rather than merely on a group of Blacks.

We begin to see that the reality of a social group inheres in men’s beliefs and attitudes rather than in the characteristics which define the group. In this respect, there is a fundamental difference between natural and social reality.

Nature consists of objects and events which we classify and categorize in keeping with our various purposes. Aristotle to the contrary notwithstanding, there are no real kinds, no objective distinctions between essential and accidental attributes on which one could base a theory of real as opposed to merely nominal species. Matters are quite different and a good deal more complicated when we come to the social world. There the groups or types of categories into which we imagine things to fall are both more real and less real than in the physical world. In order to see how this is so, we must remind ourselves that society is not really an independent entity at all, though we all think of it as though it were.

Society is a collective human product, or perhaps more accurately, a collective human projection. It is a mutual illusion, a folie a tous. Men conceive of their social world as a system of objectively existing roles (lawyer, fireman, mother) and institutions (church, corporation, government) and patterns of inter-personal behavior (deference, domination, intimacy) into which they fit themselves and in terms of which they live their lives. In reality, these roles and institutions and patterns are merely the summation of their own expectations and habits.

In one sense, social roles and groups are even less real than natural species, for they are mere human projections, while at least in the natural world the individual members which we group together are real enough. But in another sense, those same social roles are more real than natural species, for we consciously adjust our behavior to them, and thus make them real. This objectification of subjective categories takes place in two ways: first of all, we treat as similar a number of individuals among whom we might otherwise differentiate -- so I adopt standardized forms of behavior toward all students, or bus drivers, or policemen; and secondly, we adjust our behavior to conform to the categories into which the rest of society classifies us. Adults treat all teen-agers as alike, and teen-agers begin to think of themselves as united by their age. Employers treat all Black workers as identical -- .and Black workers define themselves as socially united by their color. There is, in principle, no set of characteristics that must be construed as defining a real social group, nor any set of characteristics that cannot become the basis for such a definition. In our society, skin color serves as the basis for social grouping, though as with all social classifications based on physical traits, the socially accepted criteria for applying the so-called color terms differ wildly from natural perceptual criteria. Whether a person is "Black" or "white", that is to say, has very little to do with the actual color of his skin. But there have been societies in which skin color, while nonetheless a fact of nature, was not taken up into the collective social conception of reality as a defining mark of membership in a socially significant group.

Sex, like skin color, is an objective natural fact, but it too does not define objectively necessary social groupings. Just as a color-blind society could function in which skin color differences existed but were not made the basis of social classification, so too societies could exist in which differences of sex, age, or size, of athletic ability, of strength, or of intelligence, either did or did not form the basis of social classification.

It is not my purpose to argue against all social classification -- an impossibility, in my judgment -- nor to propose that some bases be rejected and others adopted. I wish only to emphasize that social grouping is a collective human act, based perhaps on some objective physical distinction, but never reducible to or deducible from that distinction. To a very considerable extent, each of us construes himself as others define him, so that my answer to the question, "Who am I?" is itself very much a social, rather than an individual, product.

When a great many individual acts of injustice originate in what I have called a generalized motive -- that is to say, when individuals are treated unjustly again and again because of their membership in some social group rather than because of anything peculiar to them as individuals·-- the result is more than merely an aggregate of particular injustices. The victims come to think of themselves in the way that they have been thought of by others. A disadvantageous definition of social identity is inflicted on them, and they internalize it, adjusting their behavior and their self-images to fit. In the academic world, for example, women
are encouraged to believe that they will be rewarded, with jobs, raises, or promotions, entirely on the basis of merit. When they encounter rejection as a consequence of what is after all blatant discrimination, they often find it extremely difficult to reject this negative judgment on themselves as a true measure of their worth. Thus, at Harvard University, Radcliffe students are completely docile in the presence of Harvard's massive, overt, and unchanging sexual discrimination, despite the fact that the selection procedures for women at Radcliffe produce an undergraduate population more talented, on average, than its Harvard counterpart.

The patterns of unjust treatment crystallize into institutions, sometimes even into legal statuses. The injustices of one time or place are felt indirectly at other times and places, so that we can after all speak of a social group as having a continuing identity over generations.

When such a state of affairs exists -- as it does, for example, in the United States with regard to Black men and women -- then it is both meaningful and true to say that the injustices inflicted in one century continue to be suffered in another century. Individual Blacks may be said to participate in the suffering inflicted upon Blacks collectively by the institutionalized practices of white society. In this sense, there is something which we may speak of as a distinctively social injustice, independently of the many individual injustices suffered in a society.

Three observations need to be made about social injustice:

[l] Not all injustice is of this collective nature. Hence, even a society which eliminated social injustices might still have a problem of other sorts of injustice.

[2] Once the processes of social injustice become institutionalized, they may be perpetuated despite the fact that many particular individuals feel nothing like a generalized motive of discrimination. But this point should not be made too much of -- social injustice arises out of collective or generalized discriminatory motives, and it flourishes on such motives. Where they genuinely disappear, it becomes a great deal easier to eliminate the injustice itself.

[3] Active participation in an institution which embodies or fosters social injustice imposes upon the participant a share of the responsibility for the injustice, whether he· desires that injustice or not. For example, academic communities cooperate in the widespread discrimination against women in our society. The negative self-image internalized by women academics subjectively complements the objective impediments to their careers. Male academics frequently keep the pattern of discrimination alive by their contemptuous and dismissive attitude toward female candidates or colleagues, but even those men who do not share the attitudes share some of the responsibility insofar. as they cooperate in the institutional arrangements which create and maintain the injustices.

Thus, the answer to our question about the reality of social groups, to paraphrase Pirandello, is: Real you are if you think you are. Or, somewhat more prosaically, a group of persons are a genuine social group if they are treated as such by the rest of society -- through the-adoption of "generalized motives" -- and if they perceive themselves as such and adjust their behavior accordingly.


            We now are in a position to attempt an answer to our original question: What is social injustice, and in what way does it differ from a mere aggregate of individual injustices?

I suggest that social injustice is injustice visited upon a real social group because of its group characteristics. Such injustice strengthens the social definition of the group as a group, and leads thereby very frequently to such destructive consequences as the internalization of negative self-images by members of the victim group. Insofar as the group identity is rooted in a common position in the social relationships of production and distribution, it will be powerfully reinforced by institutional arrangements which serve the interests of the dominant groups.

The elimination of social injustices is a task that cannot be reduced to the elimination of large numbers of individual injustices. Some way must be found to alter the social definition
of reality itself, so that negative and destructive group identities cease to be elements in the psychic self-determination of members of the victim groups. This is one of the principal purposes of what is now called affirmative action. But collective acts may be required to alter collectively oppressive practices. An individual's identification with a group must not be a means either of his oppression by others nor of his oppression of others.

We can see a certain paradox, or dialectical truth, in this analysis. One of the social injustices visited upon Blacks and women in America is society's definition of them as an inferior group. Ideally, Black men and women, and women in general, ought to be able to think of themselves as persons, not in the first instance as Black or female. But the first step in the destruction of that socially-imposed self-definition may be a reversal of it -- what Nietzsche called a transvaluation of values -- through an increased consciousness of. blackness or womanhood, through a positive concentration on the myths, history, and defining characteristics of group identity, through an intensification of the group identity. Perhaps, only through a voluntary acceptance, reversal, and celebration of the group identity can it finally be overcome and allowed to dissolve.

As a philosopher, my concerns are always partly methodological, so I shall conclude, by returning to my opening remarks about the dispute between the collectivist, or idealist, conception of social reality and the individualist insistence on the unreality of anything save individuals. If my analysis is correct, then in this case, as in so many others, the liberal individualist undermines


(At this point the rest of the original manuscript seems to have been lost)


[1] Emile Durkheim, Suicide, transl. by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson, 1951 (Glencoe, I11. Free Press). P. 38. Italics in the original.

[2] Ibid., p. 309


I asked whether anyone knows a good joke and by God you do! I particularly like the one about the chicken and the egg, but they were all welcome.  Thank you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022


Susie and I voted today. That is it. I cannot stand anymore listening to television commentary and worrying about the outcome. I gave a lot of money, I raised a lot more, I blogged, I anguished, and Lord knows I have lost sleep and I just cannot do it anymore. So I will wait 13 more days, stay up all night on the eighth, and see how it comes out.


Does anybody know a good joke?

Tuesday, October 25, 2022





The Agenda for the ‘Nineties


 Robert Paul Wolff


The Journal of Social Philosophy

January, 1989

As the new editor of the Journal of Social Philosophy, Peter French has invited a number of us to 'attempt to identify some of the major topics or issues or questions to which those working in social, political, moral, or legal theory ought to be addressing themselves in the next decade.' He does not ask us to suggest answers to these questions, merely to identify the questions. Surely this is, to quote Kant, 'a task which is rather an amusement than a labour.[1] In that spirit, let me try to identify the three theoretical problems whose solution, or at least clarification, constitutes the agenda for social philosophers for the nineties and some considerable time beyond.

Generally speaking, social philosophy, or social theory [I make no distinction between the two], does not exhibit a path of unbroken advance. Quite to the contrary, the level of sophistication and insight of social philosophers seems to me to have reached a peak roughly half a century ago, and, save in one crucially important area, to have declined since. Hence, at least part of the task confronting social philosophers in the coming decades is to recover what was achieved by Max Weber, Karl Mannheim, Herbert Marcuse, and their fellow theorists. The exception, as I shall argue shortly, is the dramatic rediscovery of Karl Marx as an important economic theorist, thanks to the modern analytic reinterpretation of classical and Marxian political economy during the sixties, seventies, and early eighties.

1.      The Problem of the Union of Marx and Freud

Let us begin, then, with the problem which the social theorists of the Frankfort school recognized to be the major intellectual challenge of early twentieth century social theory, and to which they devoted their principal energies: the working out, to put it emblematically, of a rapprochement between Marx and Freud.

The singular power of Marx's critique of early capitalism lay in its attempt to unite a moral and psychological critique of the destructive effects of capitalism on the individual - the theory of alienation and false consciousness - with a systematic analysis of the institutional structure and workings of the capitalist economy as a whole, all in the service of demonstrating both that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class and that it is internally unstable and therefore progressively more likely to be replaced by a humane and rational socialism.

There was, of course, a long European tradition of critical analysis of the conditions of individual human fulfillment, starting with Plato and continuing in full strength in the writings of the utopian socialists. There was also a newer tradition - but by Marx's day certainly a century old - of analytic critique of the workings of a capitalist market economy. What made Marx's work unique, and immensely powerful, was the attempt to unite these two in what might somewhat cavalierly be called the Geisteswissenschaftlich version of a 'unified field theory' of the individual and society.

Marx's theory of capitalist economic institutions and practices was on the forefronts of the economic theorizing of his day, although as a consequence of the three-pronged marginalist revolution of Jevons, Menger, and Walras in the decade after the publication of CAPITAL, this fact was obscured until about thirty years ago. But his theory of unalienated human nature, however inspiring and insightful, was merely one more bit of armchair psychologizing. Marx cannot be said to have been more of a theorist of the human condition than Plato, Hobbes, Shakespeare, or Nietzsche - although that is, of course, heady company in which to be placed.

It remained for Freud to put the theory of human personality on a sound scientific basis, and to inaugurate a process of progressively deeper understanding of the formations and deformations of the human psyche that continues to the present day. It is of no consequence that Freud's theories were tentative, limited, to some extent constrained by cultural, sexual, and perhaps class biases, and applicable, in the form in which he articulated them, only to a fraction of the men and women even of his own turn-of-the-century Vienna. Analogous limitations must be placed on the truth claims of all important advances of knowledge. What matters is that with Freud, we move be- yond armchair psychologizing to an irreversible advance in our understanding of human personality.

During the same period of time - roughly the first third of this century - students of economy and society, mostly in Europe, were advancing and refining, but also seriously challenging, Marx's analysis of capitalism. We can identify four developments which, in one way or another, called Marx's theories into question. These were, First, the manifest willingness of the working classes of France and Germany to go to war against one another in the trenches of World War One, in clear contradiction to what any social critic thinking along Marxian lines could see were their true class interests. Second, the failure of the Great Depression - surely the terminal crisis predicted by Marx if anything could be! - to bring about socialist revolutions in the advanced industrial capitalist nations, Third, the growing evidence that capitalism was providing an improving standard of living for the great mass of workers~ and Finally, the unanticipated, and inexplicable, appearance, in the economically least advanced country in Europe, of a regime that pronounced itself Marxist, and proclaimed that it had instituted socialism in one country.

Accompanying these four developments was a fifth, not particularly in contradiction with Marx's analysis of capitalism, but in its enormity crying out for understanding: the rise of Naziism from the ashes of Weimar Germany.

By the late thirties, progressive social theorists had available to them an increasingly sophisticated understanding of human psychopathology and a flawed, but nonetheless .powerful, critique of the economic, political, and legal institutions and practices of capitalism, but no way of relating these two bodies of knowledge and insight to one another. Naziism, which at one and the same time presented itself as an economic and political system [identified with 'socialism'!] and as a monstrous outbreak of criminal pathology, cried out for a unified analysis grounded both in a theory of late capitalism and in a theory of human personality.

A number of the members of the Institute for Social Research - Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse - self-consciously undertook to fuse the Marxian and Freudian traditions into a unified analysis of Naziism in particular and late capitalism in general. The result was some of the most exciting, original, and powerful social theory ever written. THE AUTHORITARIAN PERSONALITY, ESCAPE FROM FREEDOM, EROS AND CIVILIZA- TION, ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN, together with such works as IDEOLOGY AND UTOPIA and BEHEMOTH, achieved a new level of sophistication, breadth, power, and insight in social theory, a level that has not again been reached.

The first task facing social theory in the next decade, then, is to recover what that generation of thinkers understood, and to carry their work forward. In this effort, it will be necessary to rely both on the enormous advances that have been made in the psychoanalytic and social analysis of personality formation, and on the fullscale reconstruction of Marxian economic theory now under way [see below]. What must be thoroughly eschewed is psychologizing that is 'philosophical' in the bad sense - speculative, ideological, not based on clinical experience. Equally to be avoided is an emphasis on cultural critique to the exclusion of economic and institutional analysis. Too much of what passes these days for radical social theory consists of the sort of Kulturkritik with which Bruno Bauer and his compatriots would have felt right at home. Novels, films, popular culture, and the grotesqueries of 'post-modernism' are not the place to look for insight into what Marx called the laws of motion of capitalism.

What contribution can philosophers make to this effort? For the most part, I consider this question ill-conceived. There can be no division of labor that leaves professional philosophers with purely philosophical questions nicely dissected out of the body politic. But there are complex methodological and epistemological issues complexly interwoven into the attempt to understand the relationship between the institutional and the individual, and thoughtful, knowledgeable philosophers can surely help to think them through.

Finally, why a union of Marx and Freud, rather than [say] Jung and Parsons, or Ricardo and Foucault? Because Freud and Marx stand head and shoulders above all the other theorists of the past century and a half, and because their work places at the center of its investigations the mystifications, self-deceptions, false consciousness, and ideological misrepresentations which are the defining mark of the social in human experience.

2.      The Problem of Up-Dating Marx

The second major problem, to which an enormous amount of highly creative intellectual energy is now being devoted, is the full-scale re-thinking of Marx's critique of capitalism so as to make it directly and usefully applicable to the social and economic realities of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This is an effort that must proceed on a number of different fronts, theoretical, empirical, and historical, involving the labors of thinkers in, at the very least, Economics, Sociology, History, Political Science, and Philosophy.

Marx was, first and foremost, a political economist, a theoretical economist seeking to identify the statics and dynamics of the capitalist economic system as it was developing in his day. His work was, quite self-consciously, at one and the same time the completion of the classical system laid down by the Physiocrats, Smith, and Ricardo and the creation of a new theoretical system, both through the posing of new questions and by the introduction of new theoretical concepts.[2]

Like the other theoretical economists of the first half of the nineteenth century, Marx lacked the mathematical techniques for articulating the formal relationships that constituted the heart of his economic theory. Consequently, it was possible for early critics mistakenly to impute elementary internal inconsistencies to his theories, particularly as regards the relationship between the doctrines of Volumes One and Three of CAPITAL.

Furthermore, the success of marginalism after the eighteen seventies put the entire classical tradition into eclipse. Not only Marx, but also Ricardo, Mill, Smith and the other classical political economists ceased to be read as marginalism established itself as the theoretical orthodoxy of western economics. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was possible for so brilliant an economist as Paul Samuelson to scoff at Marx as an 'autodidact' and a 'minor post-Ricardian.'

But the inadequacies of marginalism, manifested in its inability to explain the persistant catastrophic unemployment of the Great Depression, together with the application of new techniques of mathematical analysis to the internal interconnections of the sectors of a developed capitalist economy, gave birth to a rediscovery of Marx that has, in the past three decades, transformed the theoretical landscape. Beginning with Wassily Leontiev's use of techniques of linear analysis in his 'input-output' model of a capitalist economy, and followed by the [apparently quite independent] working-out of a similar ·1inear model by Piero Sraffa, mathematical economists around the world have rediscovered in the classical school of Ricardo and Marx a formally sound alternative to the orthodox marginalist model. Michio Morishima, Andras Brody, Luigi Pasinetti, Pierangelo Garegnani, John Roemer, Stephen Marglin and scores of other economists from a dozen countries have elaborated a theoretical model that is beginning to rival marginalism not only in fundamental analytic power but also in the complexity and diversity of its detail.[3]

Leaving to one side the mathematics, the key to the difference between marginalism and modern Marxism [if I may thus label the new model] is the nature of the questions it asks about capitalism. Marginalism construes Economics as 'the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.’[4] In other words, it looks at the economy from the point of view of a capitalist trying to make a profit by choosing the right way to employ his capital. Marginalism wants to know how the individual capitalist can maximize his profits, how the individual consumer can maximize his or her satisfaction, and what the systemic consequences will be of the interactions among large numbers of similarly motivated choices by a society of capitalists and consumers. For the marginalist, neither economic growth nor the society-wide shape of the distribution of the social product is a matter of direct or central concern, although marginalists will undertake, in a limited way, to infer conclusions about those matters from their model.

The classical economists conceive Economics quite differently. For them, it is primarily the study of the way in which a society endlessly engaged in reproducing itself divides up the social product, cycle after cycle, among the several great classes of men and women that make up the social whole, and secondarily the study of the way that this social division either promotes or impedes economic growth.

If one reflects on the nature of the economic problems that have confronted the world in the post-World War II period, it is not surprising that an economic theory centered on problems of distribution and growth should have generated such wide interest. Nor ought we to be surprised that interest has waned in a model, however sophisticated, that takes concepts of equilibrium and efficient selection of alternative investment strategies as central.

Powerful as Marx's theories are as an instrument for analysing and criticizing capitalism, there is obviously an enormous gap between any theory, however successful, of mid-nineteenth century capitalism, and the reality of the late twentieth-century world economy. In order to simplify matters somewhat and organize what is really an enormous subject, we can identify three species of inadequacy which Marxian economic theory exhibits, each of which calls for major theoretical work in the years ahead.

First, and simplest, is Marx's failure to incorporate what he himself identified as his major theoretical contribution into the formal structure of his own model. According to Marx, the key to understanding the functioning of capitalism, and to demonstrating that capitalist profits rest on the exploitation of the working class, is the distinction between productive labor, or the purposeful activity of transforming nature so as to make it into commodities capable of being sold for a profit in the marketplace, and labor-power, or the worker's capacity for productive labor. The worker sells his or her labor-power to the capitalist, who then undertakes, in the workplace, to extract from that labor-power as much productive labor as he possibly can. The secret to the origin of profit, according to Marx, lies in the gap between the quantity of past labor embodied in, or required to produce, that labor-power, and the larger quantity of living labor that the capitalist extracts from the labor-power when he puts it to work in his factory. Put somewhat less abstractly, profit results from the fact that workers create more new value than they consume to keep themselves alive and working for yet another day. The capitalist appropriates the difference, and gets rich.

Marx was not able to see, but we, with modern analytic techniques can now prove rigorously, that this account of the origin of profit actually makes no use at all of the labor/labor-power distinction on which, or so he thought, his entire theory was based. The first task for modern Marxists, therefore, is to complete Marx's own theoretical enterprise by successfully building the labor/labor-power distinction into a formal model of capitalism in an illuminating and theoretically significant way.

This task is currently being carried out by several of the best Marxist economists in the United States, among them Samuel Bowles of the University of Massachusetts and Ed Nell of the New School for Social Research. Bowles, Nell, and others have figured out how to make an analytic connection between the theory of the origin of profit on the one hand, and Marx's brilliantly vivid, but largely anecdotal accounts of the power struggle within the factory on the other,

The second inadequacy of Marx's economic theory - an inadequacy shared by all of the classical theory of his day and the marginalist and neo-classical theory that followed - is its failure to incorporate into its model of the functioning of captalism any account of three essential institutional components of capitalist society: the capitalist firm, the working-class family, and the state. The state, the firm, and the family are obviously essential components of any adequate model of a capitalist economy, but none of them is provided with a theoretical analysis by Marx, or by any of his predecessors or marginalist successors.

Marx, like the laisser-faire theorists, posited a state that was no more than a night-watchman, or alternatively, a committee of the bourgeoisie. Marx entirely failed to foresee the central role of the state as a fiscal and monetary force in late capitalism. In recent years, a number of Marxist economists have attempted to incorporate some conception of the state as an independent center of decision and action into their theory of capitalism, most notably James O'Connor.[5] Clearly, a great deal more needs to be done in the coming decades.

The family poses an entirely different set of theoretical and -empirical problems. As Marx recognizes, the family is the locus of the reproduction of labor-power. Hence, its role is essential to the continued operation of a capitalist economy. But despite his bitter and penetrating observations on bourgeois family life in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, and the moving accounts of the effects of capitalism on women and children in CAPITAL and in Engels' THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN ENGLAND, there is no theoretical space in Marx's model of capitalism for the family as a complex unit within which potentially exploitative transfers of value take place. Marx was not simply personally insensitive to the position of women [as painfully captured by Jerrold Seigel in his brilliant biography, MARX'S FATE.[6]] His model of capitalist exploitation does not allow for an analysis of the exploitation of women by men within the family. A number of Marxist feminists, among them Nancy Folbre, have in recent years begun the complex task of reconstructing Marxian theory in order to make room for a theoretical analysis of the exploitation of women.[7]

Finally, there is a pressing need for some theoretical analysis along Marxian lines of the capitalist firm. In the past century and more, the firm has been transformed from a small privately owned operation functioning essentially as the extension of the will of the entrepreneur into an enormous bureaucratic entity with inner dynamics and organizational imperatives that bear only a glancing relationship to the simple profit maximatization posited by Marx, the classicals, and the neo-classicals alike. John Kenneth Galbraith, Herbert Simon, and other non-Marxist economists have done valuable work on the modern firm, although little headway has been made in incorporating what are essentially historical and anecdotal accounts of the firm into a theory of price formation and profit. But Marxist economists have only begun the job of theorizing about the firm. Notable, along these lines, is Stephen Marglin's classic essay.[8]

But more difficult even than correcting internal inadequacies in Marx's theory. or broadening it to incorporate elements of the capitalist economy which he ignored, despite the fact that they existed in his day, is the task of transforming Marxian political economy to take account of the enormous changes in capitalism since the middle of the nineteenth century.

Let me mention just four of these changes, by way of indicating the sorts of theoretical and conceptual tasks that lie ahead for Marxian theorists.

Most striking. surely, is the reversal of the trend toward polarization between rich and poor, capitalist and worker, which Marx observed and which he thought to be one of the central tendencies of capitalist development. In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was entirely plausible to claim, as Marx did, that capitalism was destroying traditional crafts, erasing the distinction between skilled and unskilled labor. driving small businesses to the wall, proletarianizing the peasantry, capitalizing the landed aristocracy, and progressively transforming bourgois society into two homogeneous and opposed classes.

But the past century has, quite to the contrary, seen the creation and preservation of a highly pyramidal structure of inequality of income and wealth, in which there are not two homogeneous classes but a hierarchy of strata or class fragments defined by the inequality of their shares in wages and salaries rather than merely by the inequality in their ownership of the means of production. The shares of national income going to the different deciles, or income tenths, in the United States, for example, has not changed notably in the past eighty years, save for a slow erosion in the share going to the poorest tenth, and a small increase in the share going to the richest tenth.

As a consequence, it begins to make sense to talk not only about capital's exploitation of labor, but also about salaried workers' exploitation of wage laborers, and union laborers' exploitation of the non-unionized. A number of Marxist economists have begun to analyze the phenomenon of relative exploitation, but there is a good deal more work that needs to be done.[9]

The second major development in the past century is the evolution of the financial system, and the emergence of forms of money which were unknown in Marx's day. Money remains a problem for economists, both orthodox and Marxist. Marx himself set forth a quantity theory of money that would sound comfortable coming from the mouth of Milton Friedman. Although he recognized, more perhaps than any other classical economist, the central conceptual and theoretical role of money ~ such in a capitalist economy, his own theory never gets beyond a commodity theory of money [i.e., money=gold as a reproducible commodity). Recent Marxist theorists have been no more successful in their efforts to understand the nature of money. Monetary theorists like Suzanne de Brunhof can advance very little beyond an explication of Marx's own texts.

Marginalists and modern general equilibrium theorists, of course, make no place at all for money as such in their models, a fact which rather puzzled me when I first encountered them. Ironically, the linear reproduction models of Leontief, Sraffa, et al. make no place for money either. The formal implication of their analyses is that money is merely accidental to the operations of a capitalist economy, a proposition which Marx would have insisted was absurd. Nevertheless, insisting is no substitute for theorizing, and an adequate Marxist understanding of money still waits to be advanced.

The third dramatic change in capitalism between Marx's day and ours is the through-going internationalization of the world capitalist economy. Marx foresaw this, of course, predicted it and insisted upon its inevitability. But the process was barely begun in his own day, and we need, today, a full-scale Marxist theory of the international economy. The most interesting attempts in this direction are the many works in recent years devoted to the relationship between the capitalist nations and the primary-producing nations of the so-called Third World.[10]

The internationalization of capitalism requires not only a re-thinking of the relationship of national economies to the world economy, but also a reanalysis of the structure of exploitation within individual countries. It is by now a commonplace that all of us in the affluent First World, workers and capitalists alike, enjoy the standard of living we do in part because we - all of us - exploit the working classes of the primary-producing Third World nations. The gap between the standard of living of First and Third World workers - greater by far than the gap between the well-off and the less-well-off within the First World - poses moral as well as conceptual questions about the appropriateness of the term 'exploitation' as a description of the relationship between rich and poor in the developed nations.

Finally, contemporary Marxist theorists must come to terms with the manifest fact that the conditions of existence of workers in the bourgeois capitalist nations have improved dramatically in the past century, contrary to the confident predictions of Marx and Engels. Sophisticated discourses about 'relative immiseration' and 'repressive desublimation' cannot conceal the fact that both the daily work and the real [i.e., material] rewards of the great mass of working people have improved greatly since Marx wrote, Stripped of all its theoretical trappings, CAPITAL is a book about the manifest human misery of early capitalism. When Marx and Engels cry out, 'The Proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains!,' they do not have in mind workers who have achieved home ownership, some measure of old age security, at least partial medical insurance, and the possibility of sending their children to the local Community College.

Those of us, like myself, who believe that the concept of exploitation remains the central theoretical tool for understanding capitalism are under a heavy obligation either to justify the moral baggage carried by that term in contemporary capitalism or else to stop using it.

It will be noted that I have not included, in my list of changes re- quiring theoretical rethinking, the appearance on the world scene of a number of major and minor national economies proclaiming themselves Marxist, socialist, or communist. None of them bears any more relation to what Marx had in mind than modern Christianity does to the pronouncements of Jesus. Indeed, the economies of the Soviet Union, China, and the other nations of the so-called Socialist Bloc merely serve as a negative confirmation of Marx's unwavering conviction that socialism could only emerge as an inner development out of the late stages of the playing out of the logic of capitalism.

3.      Methodological Individualism and the Theory of Society

The third major task facing social theory in the coming decade is at once the most intractable and the philosophically most interesting: the working out of the ontological status of society, as an object of investigation, that preserves the immensely valuable insights of the great continental tradition of social theory while conforming to the dictates of a conceptually coherent methodological individualism. Put somewhat more epigrammatically, we might think of this as the task of making Marx lie down with Mill.

For the first two thousand years and more of western philosophy, the admissible elements of a defensible ontology - leaving to one side God - were nature and the individual. Some, like Hobbes, might undertake to reduce the latter to the former, while others - Berkeley comes to mind - could be construed as absorbing the former into the latter. But even as late as the end of the eighteenth century, society does not figure as an independent category of being - a kind of thing sui generis, not to be reduced to, or explained in terms of, either nature or the individual.

A century later, all that has changed. Philosophy - like social theory, art history, anthropology, and history - has discovered society as an autonomous object of theoretical investigation. The most dramatic proclamation of the ontological autonomy of the social occurs in the writings of Emile Durkheim, for whom the existence of an autonomous realm of social facts is the necessary precondition for the existence of Sociology as a genuine discipline.

Each individual drinks, sleeps, eats, reasons, and it is to society's interest that these functions be exercised in an orderly manner. If, then, all these facts are counted as 'social' facts, sociology would have no subject matter exclusively its own, and its domain would be confused with that of biology and psychology. But in reality there is in every society a certain group of phenomena which may be differentiated from those studied by the other natural sciences… Here, then, is a category of facts with very distinctive characteristics: it consists of ways of acting, thinking, and feeling, external to the individual, and endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him••• [T]heir source is not in the individual, their substratum can be no other than society, either the political society as a whole or some one of the partial groups it includes…[11]

Collective tendencies have an existence of their own~ they are forces as real as cosmic forces, though of an- other sort~ they, likewise, affect the individual from without, though through other channels. The proof that the reality of collective tendencies is no less than that of cosmic forces is that this reality is demonstrated in the same way, by the uniformity of effects…[12]

Durkheim's language is in fact ambiguous with respect to the actual independent existence of a collective unconscious as the bearer of these collective tendencies, but his insistence on the non-reducibility of the social to the psychological [or, needless to say, to the physical] poses in a strong form the fundamental epistemological and methodological problem for social philosophers.

The problem can be put in this way: can we give an explication of social phenomena which rigorously avoids the positing, either implicitly or explicitly, in an ontologically queer manner such entities as collective mind, Geist, History, Capital, The Proletariat, etc., while at the same time preserving all that is legitimate and important about society and social phenomena in the tradition of social theory growing out of Marx, Durkheim, Tonnies, Weber, and their successors? Can we make sense of mystification without reducing it to individual illusion, ideology without reducing it to individual false consciousness? Can we find a way of expressing Mannheim's insights into the social roots of knowledge that does not commit us to the existence of the collective unconscious to which he refers in IDEOLOGY AND UTOPIA?[13]

The most sophisticated recent attempt to bring the insights of the Franco-German tradition within the methodological purview of analytic philosophy is Jon Elster's important book, MAKING SENSE OF MARX.[14] Elster opens with an admirably clear statement of the methodological principle involved, and much of the more than five hundred pages that follow is devoted to detailed explications and critiques of passages in Marx's writings which ap- pear, at least at first reading, to violate the individualist precept. Here is Elster's preliminary statement:

By [methodological individualism] I mean the doctrine that all social phenomena - their structure and their change - are in principle explicable in ways that involve only individuals - their properties, their goals, their beliefs and their actions. Methodological individualism thus conceived is a form of reductionism.[15]

The key to Elster's approach is modern rational choice theory, in particular Game Theory [or at least the concepts and rhetoric of Game Theory - there is no attempt actually to construct formally correct models of games or to invoke the theorems, such as they are, of Game Theory.] Elster exhibits considerable imagination and flair in his deployment of the notion of unintended consequences. His particular target is functional explanation, embodying as it does the assumption - illegitimate to a methodological individualist - of teleology not grounded in the intentions or purposes of individuals.

While Elster does yeoman service in demonstrating how far it is possible go in the explication of group phenomena with nothing but the tools of individual rational choice theory, he complete fails, in my judgment, to capture what is distinctive about the social. By reducing mystification, and the opacity of social phenomena, to one or another species of intellectual error or ignorance, he allows to slip away precisely those features of collective life which are definitive of our experience of the social.

Of course, Elster might quite legitimately reply that it is easy enough to reject his explications and insist that something 'more' remains to be captured. It is a good deal harder to say exactly what that something more is, and how his explications have missed it. Perhaps any fully satisfactory philosophical account of the category of mystification will leave us vaguely dissatisfied precisely by virtue of having dispelled the mystery. Nevertheless, I suggest that a fully adequate unpacking of the social remains one of the most pressing tasks of social philosophy in the coming decades.

Well, there it is, a budget of problems, tasks, and unanswered questions that should do quite nicely to keep social philosophers busy until the end of the second milennium. One might make two observations my selection of problems: First, they are all just various ways of saying that we must think about Marx, and second, they seem to require much more than a passing acquaintance with a variety of theoretical and empirical materials not ordinarily considered to lie within the borders of Philosophy.

Both of these observations are quite correct. I am convinced now, as I have been for some years, that Marx is the most original social theorist ever to have lived, and that we cannot do better than to carry forward the complex, many-sided enterprise he began almost one hundred fifty years ago. Since Marx himself was a thinker of enormous breadth, for whom disciplinary boundaries simply did not exist, we must, in our effort to advance his insights, be equally universal in the range of our learning, at least to the best of our ability [for few among us will come close to matching his scope, let alone his power, as a thinker].

With luck, and Peter French's careful guidance, the pages of this journal will be filled, in the years to come, with essays and reviews that seek, one way or another, to come to grips with the problems I have outlined here.

[1] KrV., Axxi. Kant is there referring to the task of providing a complete analysis of the derivative concepts of the system of the Critical Philosophy - he has a rather heroic and Germanic notion of what counts as an amusement!

[2] Needless to say, these characterizations of Marx's thought, like any that might be given, are highly controversial, and open to powerful criticisms from a variety of points of view. My justification for the account of Marx adumbrated in this essay can be found in two books: UNDERSTANDING MARX, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1984 and MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA., 1988.

[3] See, among many other works, Wassily Leontief, THE STRUCTURE OF AMERICAN ECONOMY 1919-1929, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA., 1941, Piero Sraffa, PRODUCTION OF COMMODITIES BY MEANS OF COMMODITIES, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1960, Michio Morishima, MARX'S ECONOMICS, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; 1973, Luigi Pasinetti, LECTURES ON THE THEORY OF PRODUCTION, Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 1977, Andras Brody, PROPORTIONS, PRICES, AND PLANNING, American Elsevier, New York, NY, 1970, John Roemer, A GENERAL TIIEORY OF EXPLOITATION AND CLASS, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1982, and Stephen Marglin, GROWTH, DISTRIBUTION, AND PRICES, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1984.

[4] Lionel Robbins, AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE AND SIGNIFICANCE OF ECONOMIC SCIENCE, MacMillan, London, 1932, p. 16

[5] See James O’Connor, THE FISCAL CRISIS OF THE STATE, St Martin’s Press, NY, 1973.

[6] Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1978.

[7] Cf. Nancy Folbre, ‘Explitation comes home: a critique of the Marxian theory of family labour,’ CAMBRIDGE JOURNAL OF ECONOMICS, Volume 6, Number 4 [December, 1982], pp. 317-329.

[8] Stephen Marglin, ‘What do bosses do? The origins and functions of hierarchy in capitalist production,' REVIEW OF RADICAL POLITICAL ECONOMICS, Part 1, Volume 6, pp. 60-112, Part 2, Volume 7, pp. 20-37.

[9] For an extremely suggestive formal treatment, see Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, 'The Marxian theory of value and heterogeneous labour: a critique and reformulation,' CAMBRIDGE JOURNAL OF ECONOMICS, Volume 1 [1977], pp. 173-192.

[10] See, for example, Samir Amin, UNEQUAL DEVELOPMENT, trans. by Brian Pearce, Monthly Review Press, NY, NY, 1976.

[11] Emile Durkheim, THE RULES OF SOCIOLOGICAL METHOD, eighth edition, trans. by Sarah A. Solovay and John Mueller, ed. by George E. G. Catlin, Glencoe, Ill., The Free Press, 1938, pp. 1-3.

[12] Emile Durkheim, SUICIDE, trans. by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson, Glencoe, Ill., The Free Press, 19S1, p. 309.


[13] Cf. Karl Mannheim, IDEOLOGY AND UTOPIA, trans. by Louis Wirth and Edward Shils, Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York, 1936, p. 31. But seep. 48: 'there is no such thing as a 'folk mind' and groups as wholes are as incapable of self-clarification as they are of thinking.' Mannheim is perhaps the most complex and rewarding student of this central methodological problem.

[14] Jon Elster, MAKING SENSE OF MARX, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985.

[15] Ibid., p. 5.