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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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Friday, June 30, 2023


I find the decisions handed down by the Supreme Court to be injurious to my mental health and I have decided that the only thing I can do is to explain at length my reactions to them. What I say will obviously have no effect on the world but maybe I will feel better when I am finished.


Let me begin with the simpler of the two decisions, that concerning the website designer. Forget about the fact that she has not yet actually designed any websites – that is irrelevant. 

Consider the following series of cases, designed to approach the issue slowly. Suppose that a devout Catholic decides to open a bookstore called The St. Thomas Aquinas Bookstore in which he proposes to stock and sell only books by Catholic authors on Catholic topics. Can anyone attempt to take him to court on the grounds that he does not carry books on fishing or baseball or books on Islam? Of course not. He has a perfect right to open a bookstore that sells books only by Catholic authors on Catholic topics. Does he have a right to refuse to sell a book to a customer who is not Catholic? Of course not. If it offends him to sell books to people who are not Catholic, then he does not have to open a bookstore, but if he does, then he is required by well-established laws to sell books to any customers who wish to buy them, regardless of whether those customers believe that the religious doctrine set forth in those books are true.  By the same token, he can if he wishes open a shop that only sells Yankees memorabilia (like the “bookstore” in downtown Chapel Hill that only sells Tar Heels memorabilia.) But he does not have the right to refuse to sell his wares to a Red Sox fan.


Suppose a painter decides to open a business that offers to paint portraits of customers in Orthodox Jewish garb. When a customer enters the shop and asks to have his portrait painted, the salesman shows him a variety of possible Orthodox Jewish outfits and asks which of them he wishes the portrait artist to use in painting his portrait. Does the customer have the right to demand that his portrait be painted in the garb of a Catholic saint? Obviously not. That is not what the owner of the shop is offering. Does the painter have a right to refuse to paint a portrait of a customer who is not Jewish? Clearly not. He has a right to insist that any portrait he paint portray the subject of the portrait in Orthodox Jewish garb because that is the nature of the business he has decided to run. But if a customer is content to have his portrait painted in Orthodox Jewish garb even though he is not himself Jewish, then so long as the painter is offering his services to the public, he does not have a right to choose which customers he will accept.  If the painter holds that it is inconsistent with his religious faith to paint the non-Jew in Orthodox Jewish garb, then the he should not open a shop that offers to paint customers in that garb. No one can compel him to paint portraits of non-Jews in Orthodox religious outfits – indeed, no one can compel him to paint portraits at all. But if he starts a business that is open to the public, then he has no right refuse to serve certain customers on the grounds that doing so violates his religious freedom.


Suppose a web designer decides to open a business offering to design websites for people who are getting married. Can she specify that she will only design websites that are appropriate for the weddings of a man and a woman? Certainly. If a gay couple asked her to design a website for them, adjusting the design so that it is appropriate for the wedding of a man and a man, does she have a right to refuse? Of course, she has as much right to refuse to do that as the bookshop owner of the St. Thomas Aquinas Bookshop has to refuse to carry books that are not about Catholicism by Catholics. But suppose that the gay couple agree to have the web designer design for their wedding a website appropriate for the wedding of a man and a woman.  Never mind why they want that, suppose they agree.  Does the web designer have the right to refuse on the grounds that it violates religious freedom? No. She has a right not to open a business but if she chooses to open a business and offer a certain service, she has an obligation to offer to any customer who is willing to pay her price.





Wednesday, June 28, 2023


I have been absent from this blog for the last several days because, like the rest of the world, I have been watching the TV coverage of the series of events unfolding in Russia. Because the events started on a weekend, the usual top-tier commentators were not available for the cable news shows, so they called upon their second tier, third tier, fourth tier, and fifth tier commentators. I listened to retired diplomats, retired generals, retired generals, retired Soviet experts, retired Russian experts, and they all had exactly the same thing to say: “I do not know.” Nobody seemed to have any idea what was going on and they still do not. When I was a boy, living in Kew Gardens Hills in New York City, people my parents’ age would ask softly and somewhat secretly, when something happened in the larger world, “is it good for the Jews?” The question asked over and over again these past several days was, “is it good for Ukraine?” Well, everybody agreed it was not bad for Ukraine but nobody really knew whether it was good for Ukraine.


On another matter, totally unrelated, when I was not listening to this deep commentary on Russia and Ukraine, I was hearing over and over again the just leaked audio of Trump at Bedminster rustling papers and showing them – or not as the case may be – to the people working on Mark Meadows’ memoirs.  The text of that audio is included in the document indicting Trump but neither the document supposedly being shown by Trump nor the event itself is actually part of one of the 37 counts of the indictment.  The point of including it is that Trump at one point says of the document that it is classified and that he could have declassified it when he was president but now that he no longer is president he cannot do so. This demonstrates conclusively, first that Trump knew that he had not been reelected and second that he knew the rules governing the declassification of documents, two facts which it is essential to establish in the Mar-a-Lago documents case.  This is a fairly simple point, but for some reason most of the commentators seem completely unable to grasp it.


I had a lovely visit on Monday with a summer school class at St. John’s University in Rochester, New York that is using my textbook, About Philosophy. The chair of the department, Tim Madigan, is past president of the Bertrand Russell society, and he wanted to hear my story about the time I met Russell so I shall talk to him tomorrow. In the fall, when classes start again, I shall do a zoom visit with Harvard undergraduates majoring in Social Studies.  I reflected that if I had met an 89-year-old graduate of Harvard when I was an undergraduate there he would have been someone who was born during the Civil War!


It is quite lovely today in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Perhaps when the weather is not so fine I shall try to say something about the fact that the United States is now seriously flirting with authoritarian fascism. Even though I have been a strong and very vocal critic of American domestic and foreign policy for 70 years, I confess that until now I had not really feared that America might go the way of Germany or Spain or Italy, or any of the other countries that descended into authoritarian rule.

Friday, June 23, 2023


I have just reread an article I published in 1989 called "Absolute Fruit and Abstract Labor; Remarks on Marx's Use of the Concept of Inversion."  It appeared in a collective volume called KNOWLEDGE AND POLITICS: Case Studies in the Relationship Between Epistemology and Political Philosophy, edited by Marcelo Dascal and Ora Gruengard.  Some portions are identical with materials in my little book Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, which appeared the previous year, but a good deal of it is original to this essay and has appeared nowhere else. If you have a serious interest in the relationship of Marx's thought to that of Hegel and also in the complex mystified ideologically encoded character of capitalist social reality, I recommend it to you.

Thursday, June 22, 2023


Playing with my iPhone, I discovered that on it I can listen to news clips from the various cable news channels. The picture is rather small but the sound is splendid. Who knew? I thought I would share this information with others of my generation. Do you suppose young people know about this?

Wednesday, June 21, 2023


I am genuinely puzzled about something, and I should like to appeal to the collective wisdom of the readership of this blog for help. It concerns the amount of time it will take before the documents case actually goes to trial. Television commentators who have experience with the courts seem to agree that even if the judge plays by the rules, it is unlikely that the case will go to trial before the election, which is now a bit more than 16 months away. They all mention the necessity of the lawyers getting security clearances and they mention the various motions that the defense can bring up to slow things down and then they wave their hands and say “so it will not go to trial until the election.” I just do not understand that. I can see how these various delays and delaying tactics could push off the trial date six months or eight months or 10 months or even a year, which would postpone it until after the Republican Convention in July of next year. But is there anybody reading this who actually has experience with the federal courts or knows about them who can explain to me what sequence of steps could result in a 16 month postponement?

Tuesday, June 20, 2023


Judge Aileen Cannon has set August 14 as the date for Trump's classified documents trial  That is August 14, 2023, not August 14, 2024. She has set an earlier date for motions in the case.  The trial date is not three months before the election, it is one year and three months before the election! It is five months before the Iowa caucuses. I suspect Trump will not be able to appear on August 14. He will probably be in Fulton County, Georgia being charged in that case. But unless something happens that is not now foreseeable, he will be tried and convicted in Florida before the primaries even begin. This is an astonishing turn of events and completely changes all of our speculations about how the next year and a half will go down.

I shall lay in a large supply of popcorn.

Sunday, June 18, 2023


I think that everyone who has commented in the previous series on Rawls is approaching his work in the wrong way, but since I have written an entire book on the subject I will simply leave it at that.

Saturday, June 17, 2023


Since Trump was indicted in the Mar a Lago documents case, I have been trying to imagine what sort of defense Trump’s lawyers can present.  The prosecution will call witnesses, enter documents into evidence, enter audio and video recordings into evidence, and in general present formally the case with which we are now quite familiar. Eventually, the prosecution will rest and it will be the turn of the defense.


Trump’s defense, such as it is, seems to be that the Presidential Records Act gives him the legal right to take and keep any documents that he came in contact with during his presidency. But since that is the exact opposite of what the Act actually says, it would not go well for the Defense if they were to present as a witness a supposed expert on government legislation who allow attempted to argue for that claim.


Then what? Trump can argue that he did not understand the Presidential Records Act and mistakenly thought that authorized his behavior with the documents. He can argue that he did not realize there were still documents at Mar-A-Lago after his employees responded to the government subpoena. He can argue that as former president he had an absolute right to do with the document anything he chose to do.


But the only way in which any of these claims can be entered into the trial is for Trump to take the stand and assert them and that would open him up to cross examination, which would be a disaster!


I think it is entirely possible that Trump’s lawyers will simply rest after the prosecution finishes presenting its case. That, after all, is what Trump’s lawyers did in the E. Jean Carroll civil case.


It will be interesting.


 I shall take a look at some of the discussions of The Color Purple.  Thank you for the references.

Friday, June 16, 2023


My first wife, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, wrote her doctoral dissertation in the Harvard English department on the novels of Samuel Richardson, a major 18th-century English writer and often thought of, somewhat inaccurately, as the first English novelist (Fun fact: my 1948 edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum lists many minor Italian heretics but only one novel by an Englishman, namely Richardson’s Pamela.  I think the editors figured that if they banned the first English novel the others were more or less included.) Richardson wrote three massive novels, all of them in the format known as “epistolary.” That is to say, the novels consist of letters exchanged between characters in the novel without a narrative commentary or thread connecting them.  Literary scholars have devoted a fair amount of attention to Richardson and other early epistolary novelists and I imagine it would be hard to take a college course on the history of the novel without some mention being made of this form of fiction.


After I joined the Afro-American Studies department at the University of Massachusetts, I read a good many books that I had more or less ignored in my previous 58 years, among them the famous novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel. The first line is direct discourse, after which there are 92 letters, some addressed by the main character, Celie, to God, some exchanged between Celie and her sister, Nettie.


Alice Walker’s choice of the epistolary form is so striking and so in contrast to the typical forms adopted by modern novelists, that it cries out for explanation. Why did she choose this antique form? What is its function, what does it tell us about Walker’s literary purposes? Since the letters written by Nettie are so noticeably different from those written by Celie, what is Walker trying to tell us by this authorial choice?


I think I know the answer to these questions and I have set them forth in a short essay which you can find archived in my location, if you are interested. But more interesting even than the answers to these questions is the fact that I could not find a single journal article or other literary analysis of Walker’s novel that addressed them. I am not a literary scholar but I was married to one for 24 years so, as I like to say, I learned something about the literary critical profession through pillow talk.  I think it is virtually certain that if a prominent white male novelist chose to write an epistolary novel, the academic commentary would be full of speculation about the significance of this choice.


Folks these days are constantly arguing about institutional racism, unconscious racism, institutional sexism, unconscious sexism, and so forth. Since the examples given are upsetting and controversial, the arguments tend to proceed at a very heated level. It is sometimes worth stepping back from these fights and taking a look at an example that is, precisely because it is not so freighted with manifest injustices, capable of being analyzed quietly.


As I indicated in my little paper, Walker, in my opinion, had several very interesting and important purposes in choosing the epistolary form and in deploying it as she did.  I think it is manifestly obvious that the choice was deliberate, that she knew exactly what she was doing, and that the choice expresses a deliberate and very controversial attack on or counterpoint to the standard interpretations of the Harlem Renaissance and its importance in African-American culture.

Thursday, June 15, 2023


On many occasions on this blog and elsewhere, I have observed that during my entire life what really matters to me has been thinking through complex ideas until they are clear and simple so that I can show them to my readers and to my students in their simplicity and beauty. Now that I am in the last phase of my life, I find that I wish to return to this activity. I do not really enjoy commenting on politics. I have no special insight into it, I merely gossip about it and speculate about it and fret about it. So I have decided that for the next while, at least, I shall leave the political realm to unfold in whatever way it chooses, and go back to some of the ideas that have given me pleasure over the course of my life. If those of you who have taken to reading this blog enjoy following me in this quest, I shall be pleased. If not, I apologize for taking my leave for a bit from the public world.


The first philosophical idea of this sort with which I engaged came to me more or less unbidden in the late spring of 1953, when I was finishing my undergraduate education at Harvard. In those days, students seeking an honors degree were required to take a written general examination at the end of their last semester. One of the questions on the exam that year was a pretty standard compare– and–contrast question about the epistemological theories of David Hume and Immanuel Kant. I had studied the Treatise of Human Nature the previous year in Henry Aiken’s course, and had just completed C. I. Lewis’s great course on the Critique of Pure Reason so I chose that question. As I began to write my answer it occurred to me that Hume’s account in the Treatise of the origins of our belief in causal inference and in the independent existence of objects was not, as it was common to suppose in those days, the polar opposite of the view put forward by Kant, but that in fact Hume and Kant set forth strikingly similar views on the matter. Two years later, I devoted my doctoral dissertation to exploring this insight. In April 1957 I submitted a dissertation entitled “The Theory of Mental Activity in the Treatise of Human Nature and the Critique of Pure Reason.” Eventually the portion of the dissertation devoted to the thought of David Hume was published as a journal article in the Philosophical Review and the portion devoted to the thought of Kant, much elaborated and developed during my two semesters of teaching Lewis’s old Kant course in the Harvard philosophy department, became my first book.


The standard view of the relation between Hume and Kant was of course that Hume raised devastating skeptical doubts about empirical knowledge which Kant then felt called upon to respond to. Kant famously said that it was Hume who had awakened him from his dogmatic slumbers. Kant claims – to put it is simply as I can – that the mind brings to its sensory experience a system of categories which it imposes on its sensations, thereby producing knowledge in the form of judgments that can be known to be true independently of, or prior to, our sensory engagement with the world. Hume, by contrast, describes our experiences consisting solely of sensations or as he calls them “impressions” and of the copies of those impressions, which he calls “ideas.”


But Hume almost immediately discovers that he cannot explain any of the phenomena that he wishes to make sense of unless he imputes to the mind certain “propensities” to develop habits or “dispositions” of various sorts. And it occurred to me, as I was writing my answer on the examination, that the propensities to develop certain sorts of dispositions were, structurally speaking, almost identical with what Kant called Categories.


This was the idea that I developed in my dissertation and later on in the published article about Hume’s epistemological theories.  Wherein then lies the difference between the positions adopted by Hume and by Kant? The answer turns out to be the role played in Kant’s philosophy by the premise of the unity of consciousness.


There was a very great deal more to be said about the subject, of course, but it was this simple idea, that occurred to me while I was writing my senior honors general examination, that served as the source and foundation of my work both on Hume’s Treatise and on Kant’s First Critique.



Wednesday, June 14, 2023


I have been so obsessed with the doings in Miami that I have entirely neglected a larger scheduling problem. Trump now faces the certainty of two criminal trials and one civil trial and the very great probability of two additional criminal trials. In October, the Trump organization goes on trial in New York in a civil case brought by the state attorney general, Latitia James. Next March, Trump goes on trial in a criminal case brought by Alvin Bragg. At some point yet to be determined, he will go on trial in the criminal trial in Miami in which he has just been indicted. It is now virtually certain that he will be indicted in Georgia in the case being brought against him and others by the Fulton County Atty. Gen. And I think it is also virtually certain that sooner rather than later he will be indicted in DC in the most serious case of all concerning the effort to overthrow the American government by reversing the result of the 2020 presidential election.


I confess it had not occurred to me that this situation creates enormous scheduling problems. A criminal defendant cannot be in two courts at once. Someone is going to have to give way in the coming year or year and a half.  


As many commentators have observed, Trump’s principal defense is to get himself reelected as president and then pardon himself or squelch the cases before they have been completed. In life you must find pleasure where you can, and this promises, in the words of WS Gilbert, to be “a source of innocent merriment.”

Tuesday, June 13, 2023


Last week I had a lovely two hour zoom conversation with Dr. Nicole Newendorp, one of the senior people who run Social Studies at Harvard.  I am the last surviving member of the original committee that set up Social Studies 63 years ago and the purpose of this conversation was to add my memories of those early days to their historical archive.


At one point she observed that the books we assigned to the first groups of sophomores in 1960 are for the most part still on the list of books assigned in the first half of what is now a course, Social Studies 10. When she asked what books I would add, I responded facetiously “well, I might suggest some of my own.” But after the conversation, I thought about it a bit and wrote to her suggesting that they add two books:  Black Reconstruction by W. E. B. DuBois, and Charles Mills’ very important short book The Racial Contract.


After my facetious remark, I did mention to her chapters 2 and 3 of my book Autobiography of an Ex White Man.  Yesterday I reread those two chapters, very possibly for the first time since I published the book in 2005. I say without the slightest hint of false modesty that I am very pleased with what I said there and I am rather sorry that the book got virtually no attention when it was published.

If things keep going in this way, I suppose I shall soon be posting memories of the red diaper preschool I attended 85 years ago in Sunnyside, Queens New York.

Monday, June 12, 2023


When somebody mentions Immanuel Kant or Karl Marx or David Hume, my mind immediately goes to their deepest arguments, with which I have spent much of my life. But when someone mentions Noam Chomsky or Herbert Marcuse or Willard Van Orman Quine or Richard Rorty, my mind goes to my stories of personal interactions with them.  Thus it is that when someone mentioned Hubert Dreyfus, I immediately started to think of all my stories about Bert when we were graduate students together.

It was Dreyfus, for example, who forced me to learn how to use chopsticks skillfully. A group of us at Harvard in the middle 1950s would from time to time go out to eat together at a new restaurant called Joyce Chen. We would order a number of dishes and share around, splitting the check equally among us at the end. Although Bert was the smallest and slenderest of the group, he ate a great deal very fast and so I learned that if I did not develop my chopstick skills I would not get my fair share. 

It was also Bert, indirectly, through whom I met my first wife. I was in the Army at Fort Devens and Bert had gone to Paris to study with Merlau-Ponty.   Bert's girlfriend at that point was a Radcliffe student, Adair Moffat, who lived in Whitman Hall. I caught a lift from Fort Devens one day into Cambridge to visit with her just to have someone to talk to who was not in uniform. When I got to Whitman, I went to the bell desk to let her know I had arrived and there was a lovely young woman sitting there waiting for her date. I was very taken with her and decided to ask her out (later I discovered there was a considerable discussion among the Radcliffe students about their obligation to be nice to the boys in uniform.) One thing led to another, and five years later we were married.

One of the important lessons I learned from Sidney Morgenbesser at Columbia and Milton Cantor at UMass was that when all is said and done, friendship is more important than ideology. Somehow, as I approach my 90th year, that lesson has stayed with me.

Saturday, June 10, 2023


Why have the average number of visits to this blog tripled in the last four or five days?  Does it have anything to do with the fact that Brian Leiter is stepping back from his blog a bit?


They obviously have Trump and this poor sucker, Nauta, dead to rights. It is all so petty, so corrupt, so much below the dignity of a former president. I am reminded of the next to last chapter of the three volume trilogy Lord of the Rings.   Saruman and Grima Wormtongue, having been reduced from their high positions, come to the Shire as wandering mountebanks, doing cheap tricks to terrify the hobbits.  Frodo and his companions return and drive them out.

In a purely random process, the worst possible judge has been chosen to hear the case. I am not sure that is such a bad thing. If she does anything even slightly unjudicial In the months leading up to the actual trial, I think she will probably get sanctioned by appeals court judges and even removed from the case.

In the two months before the Georgia case comes to indictments, I think it is quite possible that Jack Smith will bring charges in the January 6 case. I really hope I live long enough to see how this plays out.

Friday, June 9, 2023


And so it starts. I think it is now likely that by Labor Day, Trump will have been indicted four times – in New York, in Fulton County, Georgia, in Florida, and in DC. Regardless of how those trials go and when they occur, Trump will win enough of the Republican primaries to be nominated for the presidency. Republicans will then be faced with an impossible choice: whether to get behind an indicted and/or convicted candidate, or to change the rules at the last moment to remove him as candidate (which they can do) and then have him tell all of his supporters not to vote for Republicans.

This is not the time to demonstrate our moral and political commitments by promoting and voting for third-party presidential candidates. It is the time to put forward at the state and local level as many progressive candidates as we can find.  A sizable minority of adults in this country are deeply committed to hateful racist, sexist policies and attitudes to which they will remain committed regardless of how successful we are in defeating the Republican Party. I do not have all that many years left to fight but I will use them as best I can and I hope the rest of you will as well.

Thursday, June 8, 2023


My apologies for having been absent from this blog for so long. I finally bit the bullet and asked Marc Susselman not to post any longer. I then deleted a number of his recent comments. That plus a bout of sciatica (I always seem to come down with such commonplace ailments) kept me from posting.

A reader contacted me to point out that Cornell West is thinking of making a run for the presidency. I like Cornell, but this is an ego trip, not a serious contribution to the political realm. If he really wants to make a difference, why doesn't he run for the House or for some state office?  The answer is obvious. He does not really want to do the work and make a difference, he just wants to make a statement and capture some attention.

I raised what I consider an interesting and complicated question with my last serious post and it produced some thoughtful responses before the comments section was kidnapped and turned into a rather childish series of abusive posts. Later today or tomorrow I will return to that question that I raised and try to carry the conversation a bit further.

Meanwhile, like everyone else in this country I wait for Trump to get indicted, I hunker down indoors in order to avoid the god-awful air pollution coming from out-of-control Canadian fires, I read about terrible train wrecks in India and the Republican party's cruel attacks on a handful of trans kids, And I try desperately to keep my spirits up.

It is not easy being Tigger!