I just discovered that when I hit 90 my life expectancy will be another 4.6 years. I think I need a somewhat longer term game plan.
Thursday, April 27, 2023
The past 10 days have been a busy time for me. A week ago Monday I delivered my zoom lecture on the game theoretic analysis of the central argument in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. The next day, I made a zoom appearance in a course at NC State for tech seniors who had read my book The Ideal of the University. Then on Saturday, I appeared by zoom in the 50th anniversary celebration at the University of Massachusetts of a program I started there in 1972 called Social Thought and Political Economy. On Monday I taught again, giving the last of my series of lectures on the use and abuse of formal methods in political philosophy, and then on Tuesday I wrote a new preface for the Arabic translation of In Defense of Anarchism.
Now my calendar is clear and I am available if anyone has an interest in having me drop into their university for a zoom visit. Since my Parkinson’s continues to get worse, I do not think I can easily travel, but my cognitive faculties seem reasonably intact and I do love to teach.
Another $100 has been pledged in my matching campaign so I will send off $200 to the DLCC. So many terrible things have been happening in the United States recently that it takes all of my Tigger instincts to keep from getting depressed, but there are good signs as well as bad and I shall keep fighting as long as I am able.
Tuesday, April 25, 2023
I recall reading, a long time ago, that English has an unusually large number of words, the consequence as I recall of its being the fusion of a Germanic language – Anglo-Saxon – and a Latinate language – early French. This, I believe, was offered as the explanation for the richness of Shakespeare’s language. This fact about English contributes to the difficulty of the online word game Wordle, hosted by the New York Times. For those who are unfamiliar with the game, you are required to guess a five letter word in six tries (proper names, plurals, and gerunds not permitted.) If your guess contains a letter in the hidden word the letter lights up in orange and if it is in the correct place as well it lights up in green.
To see why the richness of English poses problems, suppose you have somehow guessed the word “round” on your second try, and suppose further that the o, the u, the n, and the d all light up green. You might think you were on your way to an easy win but there are actually seven remaining words possible and only four guesses left. The seven words are bound, found, hound, mound, pound, sound, and wound. What to do? Well, as your third try you can type in “swamp.” That contains four of the possible letters. If one of them lights up you can solve the puzzle in four tries – a pretty good result. If none of them light up try “beach.” Now you can solve the puzzle on the fifth try. This avoids the condescending “whew,” which the WORDLE bot offers as a consolation for those solving the puzzle in six tries.
Last night, I found myself at 3 AM half awake and thinking obsessively of all five letter words that end in “irth.” Since I was doing all this in my head I included five and six letter words that sounded as though they were spelled this way. So I came up with birth, dearth, earth, girth, mirth, and worth. Still unable to go back to sleep, I started thinking up book titles using these words. Here are some of what I came up with:
The Birth of Earth: a pictorial history of the origin of the solar system for readers of all ages.
The Birth of Mirth: the development of humor in ancient Greece.
The Mirth of Birth: jokes told by doulas.
The Mirth of Girth: fat jokes from old vaudeville routines
The Birth of Dearth: socioeconomic causes of poverty.
The Dearth of Birth: low fertility rates in Europe and China.
The Worth of Girth: obesity as an emblem of social status in premodern societies.
At this point I fell back into a fretful sleep.
Monday, April 24, 2023
Sunday, April 23, 2023
Yesterday, thanks to the miracle of zoom, I was able to attend the celebration at the University of Massachusetts commemorating the 50th anniversary of a program I started there in 1972 – 73, called Social Thought and Political Economy, or as the UMass computer immediately rendered it, STPEC. STPEC began as an edgy left-wing version of the Social Studies program I headed up at Harvard in 1960 – 61 during its first year and my last year as an instructor there. Over the past half-century, close to 2000 young men and women have majored in STPEC at UMass, and it is a first rate program now emphasizing community activism as well as campus study.
I particularly wanted to appear at the commemoration of the program because I wanted to tell the folks there that in one particular respect it is quite unlike the other undergraduate interdisciplinary programs with which I have been familiar, such as the Contemporary Civilization program at Columbia, which began in 1919 and continues to this day, or the old Hutchins University of Chicago program, in the last iteration of which I taught during my three years there. At Columbia, Chicago, and Harvard, faculty got together and decided what students ought to study and then offered it to them to take it or leave it. But at UMass, something rather different happened.
My original idea was to have students take courses drawn from a variety of departments and then top that off with a senior year seminar jointly taught by two professors from different departments (thus institutionalizing the interdisciplinary character of the program.) After several years, there were enough juniors about to be seniors in the program, so I got together with William Connolly, a bright professor in the political science department, and the next year, in 1976- 77, we taught the first STPEC senior seminar.
Bill and I were having a great time teaching a very demanding senior seminar when some students came to see me in my office. They were juniors in the program who had been talking to the seniors in our seminar and they told me that they did not think the courses they had been taking prepared them for that kind of demanding senior capstone course. Was there something I could do to prepare them better for the senior seminar? Well, I thought about it for a bit and went to the Provost to ask for a little bit of money. I used it to buy the time of a hotshot young political science professor at Mount Holyoke College named Tracey Strong, who was delighted to have the opportunity to teach a course on the classic texts of social theory.
Tracey devised a very demanding course and after he started teaching it, some students came to see me. They were sophomores in the STPEC program and they had been talking to the juniors taking the junior seminar. They did not think that their introductory level courses in various departments had prepared them for that kind of seminar and they wanted to know whether there was something I could do about it. After thinking about it for a bit I created a new course in the Philosophy Department at the introductory level called Introduction to Social Philosophy.
This was the only instance I had ever seen in which the curricular structure of an undergraduate program was determined not by what the faculty thought the students should study, but by what the students told the faculty they needed and wanted.
In 1980, my first wife, who was a professor in the UMass English department, was offered a professorship at MIT so we moved from Northampton to Belmont and I started commuting back three days a week to UMass. Now, as I am sure many of you know, being a senior professor at a university is not a very demanding job so I had no trouble satisfying my departmental requirements on parts of three days a week but I could not very well run the STPEC program that way, so I looked around for someone to take over from me. I found a wonderful young woman in the German department named Sara Lennox who was about to get tenure and was very excited by the thought of running this program rather than teaching German for the rest of her life. Sara, who was of course at the celebration meeting, then ran STPEC for 31 years, preserving the tradition of student input into the shape and direction of the program and making it an enormous success.
As I told those who were gathered at yesterday’s meeting, like all people of my age I am happy to take credit for everything I did half a century ago if it has turned out well, as in this case it clearly has. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to see what has become of one of my favorite bits of academic creativity and I am enormously grateful to whoever invented zoom for the opportunity.
Friday, April 21, 2023
Thursday, April 20, 2023
Forty-nine years ago, shortly after I joined the UMass faculty, Prentice Hall asked me to write a philosophy textbook. My wife at the time, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, had won an AAUW fellowship to take a year off from teaching in order to write a book on Edith Wharton. Although she worked very hard that year, it was clear that she needed another semester to finish the manuscript. I agreed to do the textbook for Prentice Hall if they would give me an advance large enough to permit her to take the semester off from teaching, and they agreed. One year later I turned in the manuscript to Prentice Hall, and in 1976 the book came out. (Her book, A Feast of Words, was a brilliant success and has become a classic study of Wharton's fictions.) My textbook has now gone into eleven editions and still is being used somewhere in American higher education. I recently got a six month royalty check for $2603, and I think it is time to do another matching fund exercise for the benefit of the DLCC.
We are at a critical moment in the evolution and/or demise of democracy in America. The Dobbs decision, the endless series of mass shootings and racially encoded murders, the descent of the Republican Party into a cult, all suggest that what passes for democracy in America is coming apart. Simultaneously, there seem to be spontaneous mobilizations all over the country of men and women, some quite young, who are eager to use their votes to counter the ugliness of contemporary American life.
For all the reasons that have been discussed on this blog site in the past, the most effective way for us to make our little bits of money count is to funnel them into local and state level elections.
Therefore, once again, I am announcing a matching fund campaign for the DLCC. I will match each dollar that you contribute to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee with two dollars of my own, up to a total of $1000 from you matched with $2000 from me. That is just a drop in the bucket, of course, but it is not nothing and it is the most we can do.
Let me know what you donate and I will match at 2 for 1.
Monday, April 17, 2023
I am told that if you can sign into any zoom account you should be okay. I have no idea what that means but give it a try. The lectures are being recorded so maybe I will be able to post them in some form. It was not this complicated when I started teaching in 1955😇
Sunday, April 16, 2023
Thursday, April 13, 2023
The Tennessee Three restore my faith in the power of the southern Black church, Rupert Murdoch and Fox look to be going down in the Dominion suit, Trump is caught showing classified maps to his Mar-a-Lago fans, Alvin Bragg makes Jim Jordan look like a fool -- it is not the Second Coming, but I will take it.
I have been preparing to lecture this Monday on John Rawls' A Theory of Justice. I will provide the link if anybody wants to join the zoom call. Lord, I like to teach.
Meanwhile, I struggle with my Parkinson's and try to look after my wife as best I can. A week from Saturday, if the arrangements can be made, I will make a zoom appearance at the 50th anniversary of the STPEC program I started at the University of Massachusetts. The parents of the students now in the program were either not yet born what is going to kindergarten when I created the Social Thought and Political Economy program all those years ago.
Thursday, April 6, 2023
I sit here at my desk completing my preparations for my Monday lecture, in which I will finish up my exposition of the fundamental theorem of Game Theory and then discuss some of its applications, before turning in my final lecture to a full-scale formal analysis of the central argument of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice. I anticipate this weekend the arrival of my son, Patrick, with my grandson, Samuel, for a brief visit during their tour of colleges and universities as part of Samuel's preparation for next year's applications. I am following with enjoyment the seemingly ever more rapid development of the variety of legal cases against Donald Trump and look forward to the time when he will be under indictment in three or four separate jurisdictions. Despite the constraints upon me imposed by my Parkinson's disease, I feel alive, engaged, fully myself.
And yet, in a few years – perhaps more, perhaps less – I shall no longer exist, I shall be dead for all time. I have been aware of this all my life, of course. When I was a teenager the prospect of my death frightened and obsessed me, but for 70 years or so I was able, as it were, to put it out of my mind.
It is all very well to repeat Dylan Thomas villanelles to myself, but beautiful as they may be, they are in fact no comfort. As Emily Dickinson observed in one of her poems, it was rather odd of God to arrange things so that we must die to meet Him.
Wednesday, April 5, 2023
Democrats took control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court for the first time in 15 years, and the election was not even close. Once again, we see the enormous political impact of the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe V Wade. That Supreme Court decision negatively affected half of all the people in the United States as well as those in the other half who actually care about their wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters. We may well be witnessing the death of a modern Republican Party.
Meanwhile, I am delighted that the case brought by Dist. Atty. Bragg will not have its next court date until December. Long before that time, Trump will be indicted in Georgia and at least once by the Atty. Gen. of the United States and maybe twice. Trump's out-of-control reaction to the events yesterday raise at least the possibility that he will eventually be sanctioned by the judge.
But in my mind, all this fades into insignificance when compared with my preparations for my next lecture on Game Theory. I am teaching by zoom seven or eight UNC philosophy students and although the sessions are being recorded, I do not know whether there is any way to make them available to a wider audience. No matter. The pleasure I derive from clarifying these complex logical and mathematical issues in my mind and explaining them to the students is very great.
Meanwhile, a few moments ago, I replied to a philosopher in Mumbai, India who has written a futuristic novel called 2084, parts of which are inspired by my writings. When I was a boy, I read with great pleasure a book by Charles Erskine Scott Wood called Heavenly Discourses. Wood, a late 19th century early 20th centuryAmerican radical, imagines a heaven in which Plato and Rousseau and Hobbes and Mill and Aquinas and others meet and debate the great issues. The Internet has provided an earthly analog for lesser lights like myself.
Monday, April 3, 2023
Sunday, April 2, 2023
I will give another lecture via zoom tomorrow on game theory. The lecture will begin at 2 o'clock and as soon as I have a link I will post it. Tomorrow I get to the heart of things, with the mathematical prerequisites for a two-person zero-sum game. It should be pretty exciting, if you like that sort of thing, as I very much do.