Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."




Total Pageviews

Saturday, May 26, 2018

PAYING ONE'S DEBTS


Over a long life, I have accumulated debts to many persons.  To Willard Van Orman Quine, I owe an immutable grasp of the distinction between use and mention, which he hammered into my head in 1950 when I was a sixteen year old college freshman.  To Benoit Roland, the great Franco-American achetier, I owe the magnificent viola bow that now, alas, sits unused in its case in my study.  To Humphrey Bogart, I owe the immortal phrase, “We’ll always have Paris.”  But to none do I owe so great a debt as I do to Sergei Brin, the co-founder of Google.

Brin is the savior of persons my age, those of us who suffer from what we delicately call “senior moments” so as not to have to confront the possibility of incipient dementia.  Many times each day Brin guides me, whether it is to the actress whose name I have forgotten, to the capital of California, which has slipped my mind, or to the name of the man whose refusal to obey Richard Nixon led to the elevation of the egregious Robert Bork.

I was reminded yet again of this debt earlier today.  Having taught my last Plato class, I turned my attention to preparations for the lecture I shall give three weeks from now in Belgium in commemoration of the bicentennial of Marx’s birth.  My theme will be the deep explanation for the extraordinary language of the opening chapters of Capital, and this morning I began locating and marking the passages I wish to read out.  Quite the most striking of these are the passages in which Marx compares ordinary marketplace commodity exchange to the Catholic miracle of transubstantiation, the focus of the ritual of the mass.  I was quite sure Marx had drawn that comparison but I could not put my finger on the passage.  Increasingly frustrated, I turned to Google.  I entered “Karl Marx transubstantiation” and in less than twenty seconds I had the passages, right where I had left them, in Chapter Three, section 2.

Everyone knows a great many things that are not, at any given moment, being held in consciousness – one’s social security number, mailing address, cellphone number, the name of one’s last pet, the names of one’s children or parents.  We know these things and can access that knowledge as needed, but we do not walk about repeating them aloud endlessly, rather like the Laputians of Gulliver’s third voyage.  Since it takes me very little longer to find things on Google than to recall them to mind, I have often thought that I should consider everything on Google simply a part of my own mind.  Looked at that way, I am quite impressively learned.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

THE HALF TIME SHOW


I think the time has come to step back from the daily frenzy of news and form some judgment of where things stand in the investigation of Trump, his campaign, and his administration.  Mueller and his team are investigating four possible violations of law:  a criminal conspiracy by Trump and his campaign to seek, abet, and receive illegal foreign assistance in the 2016 presidential campaign;  criminal efforts by Trump and his administration to obstruct the lawful investigation of that conspiracy; criminal efforts by Trump and his family to use the office of the presidency for personal enrichment; and criminal efforts by Trump and his family to solicit foreign monies in return for specific official policy decisions of the United States.  What do we now know about these investigations?

1.         The criminal conspiracy is established by facts now public.  The Russian government offered assistance of various sorts.  Trump’s son welcomed the offer.  The Russians provided the assistance. Trump publicly asked the Russians to provide additional assistance.  The Russians did so.  That by itself is enough to establish a conspiracy.  In addition, the Trump campaign altered the Republican platform to conform to Russian interests.  As President, Trump sought to shape official American sanctions policy to favor Russian interests, and for many months refused to enforce new sanctions voted overwhelmingly by the Congress and signed into law by Trump.

All of that is on the record.

2.         The criminal effort to obstruct the investigation into the conspiracy has been confirmed by Trump’s public statements, first to Lester Holt on national television, then to Russian government officials in the Oval Office, on national Russian television.

3.         There is a good deal of suggestive evidence of the efforts by Trump and his family to use the presidency for personal enrichment but until bank records are made public the evidence is not decisive.

4.         There is a good deal of evidence, as yet not decisive, that Trump has sought to shape official U. S. policy in return for monies paid to Trump, to his company, and to his son-in-law.

That is what we now know, beyond doubt.  In the vernacular current on cable news, Trump, his campaign, and his administration are guilty of collusion and obstruction at the very least.  What will happen in the future?  The future is notoriously difficult to predict in politics, so what follows are my speculations and gut instincts and should be considered as such.

1.         Prior to the 2018 election, the Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress will do nothing to sanction Trump in any way, regardless of what further evidence emerges, up to and including video and audio evidence of Trump explicitly stating that he has engaged in a conspiracy, obstructed justice, enriched himself by the presidency, and sold US policy to foreign bidders.

2.         If the Democrats take control of the House in the 2018 elections and impeach Trump, he will be tried in the Senate with the Chief Justice presiding, and he will be found not guilty, regardless of the evidence presented.  There is no way in the world that enough Republican senators will vote for conviction to bring the number to the constitutionally required two-thirds.  Even though some may be tempted to swap out Trump for Pence, they will be fearful that an ousted Trump and an aroused phalanx of Trump supporters will cost them their seats in 2020.  Trump will treat the failure to convict as a vote of confidence and will run for re-election in 2020 as an insurgent man of the people.  He will be difficult, but not impossible, to beat, unless the Democrats run a centrist, in which case Trump will be re-elected.

3.         If the Democrats take the House in November 2018, there will be two months between the election and the swearing in of the new House.  During that time, Trump will abruptly emerge as a progressive Democrat.  In return for not being impeached, he will offer to support stabilization and expansion of the Affordable Care Act, legalization of abortion on demand, imposition of a $15 an hour minimum wage, re-establishment of Obama era clean air regulations, increased taxes on the rich, nomination of liberal judges, and anything else the Democrats want.  He will sign a DACA bill, drop his demand for a border wall, and do anything else Chuck Schumer wants.  The Democrats will then be faced with a terrible choice:  Either to pursue an impeachment process doomed to failure in the Senate and pin all their hopes on 2020, or take everything they want as public policy in return for legitimating and normalizing Trump.

That, in a nutshell, is where we are at, in my view.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

MILESTONES


Philip Roth died yesterday.  He was nine months older than I am, very much a writer of my generation.  Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J. D. Salinger were all older, already established by the time I was old enough to read novels other than Sherlock Homes.  I am not a serious reader of novels, and I think I only read two of Roth’s books, Portnoy’s Complaint and a curious novella called The Breast, but his death at the age of eighty-five reminds me once again of my own mortality.  As a young teenage high school student, the writers who meant the most to me were Steinbeck, e. e. cummings, Carl Sandburg, and Bertrand Russell. 

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Monday, May 21, 2018

HAVE PEN, WILL TRAVEL


Like one of the old Greek sophists, I go to any city state that will have me and talk on anything I am asked about.  My first publication was in the Harvard Crimson, my second in Astounding Science Fiction.  Over the years, my words have appeared in many settings, but this morning is a first.  I have been asked to contribute to a comic book.  A scholar at UPenn is soliciting one sentence statements about Herbert Marcuse for a comic book on him to be introduced by Angela Davis [I am not making this up.]  Naturally, I agreed.  There seem to be thirty or more others.  Here is my sentence:

“Herbert Marcuse, the imposing presence who teased me, just after I had published my first book on Kant’s Critique, by proposing to Barrington Moore and me A Critique of Pure Tolerance as the title of our little volume, reassuring me when I objected that “No one will ever read it,” the Germanic philosopher who sat on the floor with my three year old son twirling a toy globe to show him the countries of the world, the world-historical presence who was that rarest of beings in the exalted realm of high theory and kulturkritik, a good friend.”

Sunday, May 20, 2018

STRANGE TIMES


This a strange time politically.  It feels oddly unsettled, fractured, uncertain.  The report of a second meeting with Don Jr., this one with representatives of countries other than Russia, gives the feeling of an investigation that is metastasizing.  Recent Democratic Party primaries suggest that at the moment the party is moving to the left, which I welcome, despite the risk it poses in the November elections.  Inasmuch as turnout is everything in the midterms, this may be a conjuncture when the left can make real gains.

Meanwhile, as I prepare for my last Plato class, I am struck again and again by how extraordinary it is that the Gorgias, one of the most topically current of Plato’s dialogues, was written two thousand four hundred years ago.

As soon as the course is ended, I must prepare my Marx lecture for Brussels [or actually Gent – the location has been moved.]  Like Gorgias himself, I will travel to any city state where there are a few gathered to hear me orate.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

ARM CHAIR SPECULATION


I assume readers of this blog are aware of the main outlines of the unfolding negotiations between North Korea and the Trump Administration, leading to North Korea’s abrupt cancellation of a projected meeting with South Korea and threatened cancellation of the Kim-Trump summit.  Prominent in North Korea’s announcement was a direct attack, by name, on John Bolton, Trump’s new National Security Advisor.  Bolton had gone on TV not merely to lay out the demand that North Korea completely give up its nuclear weapons, but also to explicitly reference the Libyan example as America’s model for North Korea.  Inasmuch as Ghaddafi ended up being shot dead in a drainage ditch some years after giving up his nuclear weapons, Kim not surprisingly expressed discomfort with that model.

John Bolton is a thoroughly despicable human being, but he is far and away the smartest, most knowledgeable, most experienced member of Trump’s administration.  I suggest that it is an absolute certainty that Bolton made that statement as a deliberate effort to scuttle what he patently considers Trump’s wrong-headed decision to seek out and agree to one-on-one talks with Kim.

It should be interesting to see how this plays out.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018