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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Monday, September 18, 2017


My elegaic remarks about my books elicited a lovely array of responses.  Clearly, as I would have suspected, I am not alone.  When I retired and moved from a house to an apartment, I went through something of the thinning out process that David Auerbach describes.  I was about to get rid of one book until I noticed that it was a presentation copy from the author.  Whoops!  I hung on to it.

Carl, my son, Tobias Barrington Wolff, was indeed named for Barrington Moore.  Barry was his godfather, a fact that led to one of my favorite stories about Tobias when he was very little and still Toby.  His mother and I took him and his big brother, Patrick, to see Barry and Betty Moore at their Cambridge home.  When we got there, we discovered that Barry's closest friend, Herbert Marcuse, was staying with them.  Herbert had recently lost his wife and was rather lonely.  Barry had no idea at all what to do with a three year old [he had no children.]  All he could think to do by way of play was to talk German to to little Toby!  But Herbert was in his element.  He sat down on the floor, took a globe off a desk, and spun it around, pointing to one country after another.  Little Toby was enthralled.  When it came time to leave, we took the children out to the big old Chevy wagon parked at the curb.  Barry and Herbert came out to say goodbye.  As he was climbing into the back seat to be put in his car seat, Toby turned, looked up, waved his hand, and said "Bye, Herbie."  Marcuse was charmed.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


When I went off to Harvard in 1950, my parents and I had an agreement.  They would pay the tuition [$600] and the room and board [roughly the same, depending on which House you ended up in], and I would earn my pocket money by doing odd jobs.  I baby sat [and read Anatole France’s Penguin Island one evening], scrubbed floors, and twice a year inventoried the Robert Hall clothing store [a fabulous job that paid $1.25 an hour.]  I even sold hot dogs one Saturday at a Harvard football game, but since the concession was under the stands, I never actually saw a play.  I wanted to go down to New London to Connecticut College for Women to see Susie as often as I could, so I had precious little to spend on anything else. As a consequence, I never actually bought books in college.  I read them in Lamont Library and took notes.  One of the few books I acquired as an undergraduate was a handsome copy, two volumes in one, of Harry Austryn Wolfson’s magisterial work The Philosophy of Spinoza.  I read it in the library while taking his course my sophomore year, but that year I won the Detur Book Prize for getting good grades and chose Wolfson’s book as my reward.  Years later, I received a fund raising appeal from Harvard to support the Detur Fund, and even though I routinely threw away Harvard's endless appeals, I thought I owed them something and sent along a hundred dollars to the fund.  One result of this undergraduate poverty was that when I started to actually buy books, I grew quite fond of them.

By now, as you will imagine, I have acquired a goodly number of books.  Nothing like so many as some scholars, but enough to fill many running feet of floor to ceiling bookshelves. 

Here is a photo of one stretch of those shelves, to the left and behind my desk in my study.  This morning, I pushed back from my desk and swiveled to look idly at the shelves, and my eye fell on a three volume translation of a minor nineteenth century French novel, Les Mystères de Paris, by Eugene Sue.  This is one of the relatively few books in my collection that I have never actually read.  I bought it because Marx and Engels, in their hilarious juvenile work, The Holy Family, spend a good deal of time tearing it to pieces, and I thought I ought to own it.

Then I began to run my eyes over the shelves to spend some time visiting with old friends.  My favorite book of the entire collection is the stubby fat black-bound edition of Hume’s Treatise with Selby-Bigge’s indispensable and exhaustive notes.  I have a sensuous relationship with books, an antique passion that young people probably cannot comprehend.  The paper of Selby-Bigge’s Treatise is a light cream color with a slightly nubby feel to it.  I am an inveterate marginal commentator of the books I read and the pages of the Treatise absorb just enough of the ink to blur what I write ever so slightly.  My copy has been read and re-read, covered with red and black and blue underlinings and comments, until the binding has fallen off.  My first copy of the Kemp Smith translation of the Critique was a graduation present from my two undergraduate friends and fellow madrigalists, Richard Eder and Michael Jorrin, inscribed “Each even line from Dick, each odd line from Mike.”  When it too fell apart, I had it professionally re-bound, which preserved it but made it hard to open, so I bought a second copy.  When that fell apart, I replaced it with a paperback version, which survives intact.  The original copy is a living record of my struggles with that immortal work.  There are places where I have raised a mystified marginal doubt in one ink, next to which, in different ink, is written “Oh yes, I see now.”  After all these years, I have no idea either what my original puzzlement was or what the later enlightenment consisted in.

And so they march on, shelf after shelf.  Some are presentation copies, such as Barrington Moore’s great work, The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.  Others are beaten up second hand copies that I found in the recesses of bookstores, like my very own copy of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which, according to the flyleaf notation, I bought in January, 1959.  The Index is the Catholic Church’s official list of books the faithful are not to read.  It is a fascinating document, heavily loaded up with obscure works of deviant theology in Italian that the Vatican priests would have known about.  The only English novel I could find listed is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, I assume on the theory that if you list the first one, it follows recursively that all the others are included.  My copy came with a paperclipped page of addenda that did not make the edition.  The first item on that list is “Sartre, Jean Paul, Opera Omnia,” which pretty well takes care of him.

These are my friends, my oldest and best friends.  I do not visit them very often, but they are with me always and I know that should I grow lonely, they await me, quite forgiving of my lack of attention.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


While I try to think of something consequential to say, let me get a few vagrant thoughts off my mind and into cyberspace.

First:  In these terrible times, it is extremely important to take any pleasures life offers where and when they are offered.  Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Attorney-General of the United States, is arguably the most despicable person in America -- not the most evil, not the one first in line for eternal damnation, just the most despicable.  It is now reported that immediately upon the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, Donald Trump exploded and cursed out Sessions, calling him an idiot and suggesting that he resign.  Sessions later said it was the worst public humiliation of his life.  Now that isn't much, I admit, but God, it is something!  We must be thankful for small favors.  As William Kristol said when he first met Sarah Palin, it made a little thrill run up my leg.

Second:  I pose the following question as a general conundrum, suitable for debate on this blog.  Suppose it turns out that the 800,000 Dreamers can be saved from harassment and deportation at the price of an appropriation to build Trump's useless, worthless boondoggle, THE WALL.  Taking into consideration, on one side, the very real value of protecting the dreamers, and on the other side, the very real political danger of giving Trump any victories at all, should the Democrats take the deal?

Third:  Can anyone offer concrete, factual reasons for me to believe that Serena Williams will return from motherhood to play competitive tennis again?

Finally:  Can anyone explain to me the seemingly limitless TV fascination with The Undead?

Friday, September 15, 2017


Having taken my stroll down memory lane, let me now address the substance of the Institute for Policy Studies paper that provoked the memories.  The paper, 30 pages in all, is called THE ROAD TO ZERO WEALTH:  How the Racial Divide is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class.  The paper is a statistical analysis of the extraordinary racial inequality in household wealth, far more extreme than the better known racial inequality in household income, on which I commented several days ago.

The statistics are astounding.  Median household wealth, which is to say the value of possessions minus debt, is measured in two ways:  with or without so-called durable goods such as furniture and cars.  Median household wealth of white households [measured in 2013 dollars] is $134,000 with durable goods, $116,000 without.  Median household wealth for black households is $11,000 with durable goods, just $1,700 without!  Nor is education the great equalizer.  The median white household headed by someone with a high school diploma has $64,200 in wealth.  By contrast, the median black household headed by someone with a college degree has only $37,600 in wealth [$32,600 for an Hispanic family headed by a college graduate.]

The authors show that median household wealth for Black and Hispanic families has been declining for thirty years.  Employing straight line projections [which I consider somewhat questionable], they conclude that a generation in the future, as America becomes a majority non-white country, median household wealth for non-whites will approach zero.

This is what is known, in other contexts, as structural racism.  Charles Murray and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to the contrary notwithstanding, the gap between white and non-white wealth is not traceable to personal failings, to cultural inadequacies, to a lack of educational credentials, or to drugs in the hood.

What does explain the astonishing disparities?  The authors of the study say very little about that, a fact that I found disappointing.  However, they do allude to one of the causal factors, namely the disparity in home ownership, and I think we can elaborate on that.

For most American households, home ownership is the principal way of accumulating wealth.  This is a very familiar fact, but it is worth spelling it out a bit.  Typically, a family buys a house by paying a down payment of as much as 20% of the purchase price, but more often 10% or even less, and then slowly buys the house – “pays off the mortgage” – over twenty or thirty years.  Each monthly payment consists of two portions:  the interest owing on the remaining principal, and a payment, very small at first, on the owed principal.  The mortgage is structured so that each monthly payment is the same, but over time, as principal owing is paid off, less and less of the payment goes for interest, more for principal, until, at the end of the term of the mortgage, the household owns the house outright.  A home mortgage is, in effect, a form of forced savings.  Households that rent do not, of course, accumulate any ownership at all.  After thirty years, the home owning family has a very large nest egg.  The renting family has nothing.

The equity in the house, as the paid off portion of the mortgage is called, can be used as collateral for a “homeowner’s loan.”  The household also can refinance the mortgage, in effect taking out its accumulated principal and starting over.  In hard times, should the homeowner lose his or her job [or, more often, their jobs], the equity in the home is a cushion.  Technically, of course, when a homeowner refinances, he or she is going into debt, but the interest rates on mortgage loans are extremely low, whereas the interest charges on credit card or other consumer debt are punitively high.

Starting at the end of World War II, the Federal government adopted a variety of policies designed to encourage home ownership, with great success.  The Federal Housing Authority [FHA] deliberately and openly discriminated against black households, making it very much more difficult for a Black man or woman to get a mortgage loan.  This policy, which continued for more than a generation, had extremely long term differential effects on the ability of white and black households to accumulate wealth.  The impact of this discrimination reached across generations, because white families, by refinancing their mortgages, could free up capital for their children to make the down payments on home purchases whereas black families could not [I work out an elaborate example in my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.]

This is just one of a number of structural disadvantages that help to explain the huge wealth differences between White and non-White households.  Rectifying this multi-generational structural discrimination cannot be accomplished by interracial sensitivity training or Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.  It requires carefully thought out structural changes designed not merely to correct the racially encoded disadvantages going forward but also to carry out redistributions of wealth and income.  It goes without saying that the place to start this redistribution is at the top, not at the bottom.

Thursday, September 14, 2017


Obsessive readers of this blog will have noted David Palmeter’s comment, four days ago, about disparities between Whites and Blacks in wealth, far greater than the disparities in income, and my approving reply.  The next day, I came across a link to an extremely interesting research paper on that topic published by the Institute for Policy Studies, or IPS.  I shall write something about that paper, at which point I shall provide a link, but first, I want to reminisce for a while about my connections with the two founders of IPS, Marcus Raskin and the late Richard Barnet, both whom were my friends.

I got to know Dick Barnet during the later ‘50s, during my Instructorship at Harvard, through our shared commitment to the cause of nuclear disarmament.  Dick was a fellow at Harvard’s Russian Research Institute [the academic home of Barrington Moore, Jr., with whom I co-taught a Social Studies tutorial seminar during the ’60-’61 academic year.]  Dick published a very useful little book, Who Wants Disarmament? In 1961.  It was through Dick that I was introduced to a fundamental and important truth of the world of public affairs, a truth that can be summarized by Gertrude Stein’s famous observation about Oakland, CA, “there is no there there.”  It happened like this.

In those days, there was an annual meeting called the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, named after the town in Nova Scotia where it was first held in 1957.  In ’60, I think it was, Walt Rostow, later LBJ’s National Security Advisor, returned from a Pugwash Conference and gave several TV interviews on the nuclear disarmament discussions there, which I watched.  Rostow was invited to give a closed door briefing on the proceedings for a select group of distinguished Harvard experts at the Russian Research Institute, and Dick managed to get me in.  I was very excited, believing that at last I would find out how the experts talked about nuclear weapons and Soviet-American relations in private when they were among the cognoscenti.  It was an impressive gathering.  All of Harvard’s big names in Soviet Studies were there, including Alex Inkeles, Adam Ulam, and Zbigniev Bzrezinski.  As I listened to the discussion, I was dismayed to discover that when these big wigs were talking privately to one another, they uttered exactly the same ridiculous ideological hogwash that they put out to the press and public.  There was no esoteric doctrine, no there there.  They really thought that way!  Admittedly, I was young [twenty-six], but it was an eye-opener that I have never forgotten.

The next Spring, after Jack Kennedy’s election, Dick went to the Disarmament Agency in Washington.  In August of ’61, after my Instructorship ended, I made a first visit to D.C., to see Dick and several other people I knew who had left Harvard for the new Administration.  Dick introduced me to Marcus Raskin, a young man my age from Chicago whom McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, had hired as his assistant.  Marc, who was located in the Old Executive Office Building, was supposed to be Bundy’s in-house critic from the left, raising doubts about the policies he was pushing to Kennedy [such as the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.]  Marc’s secretary was a rich, well-connected young woman named Diane DeVegh, rumored to be Kennedy’s mistress, who had been placed there to be nearby should the President have need of her services.  Fourteen months later, I was teaching at the University of Chicago, where, among other things, I offered a course in the Political Science Department on Military Strategy and Foreign Policy.  I was at that point very deep into the whole business of the threat of nuclear war, and I was terrified.  When the crisis hit, I loaded up my VW bug with a Geiger Counter and dried food, and made plane reservations for my wife and myself on flights to Canada and Mexico so that we could make an immediate escape north or south, depending on which way the prevailing winds were blowing.  Marc called me from his office to ask what I was doing to help avert a war.  I told him about my escape plans, and he was sternly disapproving, saying that I had an obligation to do whatever I could to work for peace.  I responded by asking him what he was doing, keeping in mind that he sat at the elbow of the chief national security advisor of the President.  He said in a soft voice, as though he were leaning into the phone and shielding his voice so as not to be overheard, “We are trying to reach the Pope.”  At that point, I got really, really scared.

The next year, Marc and Dick started IPS, and it exists to this day.  

Monday, September 11, 2017


Back when I was a lad, the notion of a gestalt was hot in moral philosophy.  [I associate the term with Franz Brentano.  Is that right?]  As opposed to the associationism of Hume and his followers, who viewed perceptions as agglomerations of separable atomic individual sensations, gestalt theory taught, roughly, that certain perceptual presentations made seemingly objective demands on us.  For example, it was said, when presented with a line drawing of most of a circle, with a small arc or segment omitted, one experiences a demand that the circle be completed.  This fact showed something or other about the objectivity of moral judgments [I may be misremembering this – it has been sixty years, and I was never much impressed with the argument in the first place.]

Which brings me to jigsaw puzzles.  The Continuing Care Retirement Community where Susie and I now live has six apartment buildings, each with twenty-seven apartments, and in addition several hundred little one-story dwellings rather grandly called “villas” [use and mention, as Quine pounded into our heads.]  We live in Building 5.  On the first floor of building 5 is a lobby, in the lobby is a table, and on the table at any given time is a jigsaw puzzle of between 500 and 1000 pieces.  Residents stop by the table to chat, to gossip, and, if they are so moved, to try to put a piece or two in the puzzle.  I have never done jigsaw puzzles; my tipple, as I have mentioned, is crossword puzzles.  But the damned things exercise a demand on me that would warm a gestalt theorist’s heart.  Susie seems to be similarly afflicted, and we have quickly become known in the building as relentless puzzlers.  It is not uncommon for me to say to Susie, “I am going downstairs to do the puzzle” [we live on the third floor,] and like as not she will join me.  The only other thing in the world that exercises that sort of objective pull on me is an apple pie.  I feel it to be a sin to leave an apple pie only partly eaten.

We are now in the very last throes of a 750 piece puzzle, and there is serious trouble.  We are down to seven remaining pieces, none of which fits comfortably into the remaining spaces.  Clearly, somewhere, there are some wrong pieces, but I have not yet managed to find them.  The maven of the puzzles, a woman a bit older than myself who has lived in our building for eleven years, says one must simply move on, but I return to the table again and again, trying to spot the misplaced pieces that can be swapped out for those remaining.  It just seems wrong to leave the puzzle uncompleted.

Maybe there is something to gestalt theory.


When I began blogging eight years ago, I was quite unprepared for the Internet’s insatiable craving for content.  I was accustomed to sitting quietly in my study, unhurried and unharried, writing another book.  Only when a book was completed would I venture into the public square to publish what I had written.  Because I had all but died to the world, no longer attending professional meetings or giving invited talks, I felt no pressure to produce.

In 2009, my pen had been silent for almost two decades, save for a short book about my experiences in UMass’s Afro-American Studies Department, the endless new editions of a textbook written in the ‘70s, and the unpublished first volume of my autobiography.  But with the announcement of The Philosopher’s Stone, I launched into a frenzy of writing on all manner of things, posting my words for all to read virtually as they were written.  Over the next two or three years, I wrote about Marx and I wrote about Freud.  I wrote about Kant, and I wrote about Hume.  I wrote about Kierkegaard, about Mannheim, about Durkheim, about Erich Auerbach, about Emily Dickinson.  I wrote on line an entire book about Rational Choice Theory, Game Theory, and Collective Choice Theory.  I even wrote about myself, completing and posting daily the second and third volumes of my autobiography. 

When I looked up from my keypad, I discovered that I had unwittingly become committed to an endless production of daily short essays, asides, and animadversions at the passing scene.  If I failed to post something for two or three days, I would get worried messages from friends and family:  “Are you all right?”

I am reminded of Kierkegaard’s ironic and mocking remark in the Preface to The Philosophical Fragments, a work to which I return repeatedly:  “It is not given to everyone to have his private tasks of meditation and reflection so happily coincident with the public interest that it becomes difficult to judge how far he serves merely himself and how far the public good.”

For most of my life, words have flowed from me almost unbidden.  I leave it to others to judge whether they emanate from a bubbling spring or a suppurating wound.  But lately, the endless horrors of the world threaten to make me run dry.  Oh, I imagine I shall continue to blog.  After all, I seem to have no difficulty finding something to say about the fact that I have nothing to say.  But the joy threatens to leave me.  In my earlier days, it was different.  As Wordsworth said of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven.”

Perhaps I should say something about jigsaw puzzles.