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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Sunday, December 10, 2017

PAST MY SELL BY DATE

For some years, there has been a fairly lengthy artiucle about me on Wikipedia.  When I looked at it today, I found it had been reduced to a single sentence.   It would appear that on October 2nd last, someone decided I had passed my sell by date.  sic transit gloria mundi.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

THE DOZENS, BRITISH STYLE

The Dozens is an African-American verbal competition in which men trade insults, each one more outrageous and exaggerated than the last, until one of the competitors gets off an insult so brilliant and over the top that the rest collapse in laughter and confess themselves beaten.  It is one example of the verbal imaginativeness and mastery of the Black community [other examples are Signifying, Loud Talking and of course Rap, as well as the musical variation, jazz riffing.]  But skill at spontaneous verbal competition is not restricted to African-Americans.  Here is a lovely British example I just came across on YouTube, courtesy of Monty Python.

YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP

Columbia University Professor of Graeco-Roman History, William Harris, 79, credibly accused of sexual harrassment of female graduate students over a thirty year period, has been severely punished by the University.  Columbia has reduced his teaching load.  That will teach him!  Here is the story in today's NY TIMES

Friday, December 8, 2017

AN HYPOTHESIS

A recent poll reveals that 71% of Alabama Republicans do not believe the many women who have accused Roy Moore of molesting them when they were girls.  This has been taken by cable news commentators as a sign of (1) excessive tribalism (2) inside the bubble thinking or (3) sheer stupidity.  I should like to offer an alternative explanation for this and many other instances of seemingly incomprehensible opinion poll results.

I begin by assuming that people generally are neither so stupid nor so ignorant as to be unable to negotiate everyday life.  Most Americans may not know quite where Syria is or what the nuclear triad is or what the difference is between a Sunni Muslim and a Shi’a Muslim, but they do know how to find their way to the grocery store and they may even be able to make spot repairs on an automotive vehicle.

So what is up?  Well, here is my thought.  It is not strictly true that 71% of Alabama Republicans think Roy Moore’s accusers are lying.  What is true is that 71% of the Alabama Republicans who agreed to respond to a pollster answered “no” when asked whether they believe Roy Moore’s accusers.  So what is the difference? you ask.  Quite a bit, I suggest.  [I am here drawing on a very interesting journal article written sixty years ago or more by David Riesman at the dawn of public opinion polling.]  When a Roy Moore supporter is asked that question by a pollster, he or she understands immediately and intuitively that what is really being asked is “Whom do you support?  Moore or Jones?”  If, as is quite possible, that person believes the women but supports Moore anyway, he or she will be perfectly well aware that saying so opens the way to accusations of sexism, immorality, a failure of religious faith, or – worst of all – being a backwoods know-nothing Southern yahoo.  The answer that springs most immediately to mind in that situation is f**k you!  But being polite, as Southerners tend to be, he or she just says “no.”


Just a thought.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

ASTROLOGICAL INTIMATIONS

I have written here in the past about the jigsaw puzzles that I have become addicted to since Susie and I moved to Carolina Meadows.  When we arrived almost six months ago, the maven of the jigsaw table was Mary Anne Clarkson, who has sadly passed away.  This morning, Susie and I finally completed our greatest challenge, an extremely difficult 1008 piece puzzle depicting the twelve signs of the Zodiak.  Here is the picture I took when we finished.

                                                                   

If you look very closely, you will see that one piece is missing.  This is not a Zen thing.  It just got lost.

SCHMUCK!

So I write a post about the BLS Statistical Abstract, and LFC delicately points out that the last  time I alluded to that treasure trove of data, he informed me that it is no longer published.  I am such a schmuck.  My apologies to one and all.  Now, if I could just find my glasses ...

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

HISTORIOGRAPHICAL MUSINGS

In his classic eighteenth century work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon identified the end of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Dark Ages as 476 a.d., the year that Romulus, the emperor of the Western Empire, was defeated by Odoacer.  [It is easy to remember the year of publication of Gibbon’s vast tome because it was the year in which David Hume died – 1776.  – a little Philosophers’ joke.]  This periodization was pretty much accepted by European historians until the early years of the 20th century, when the great Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, advanced a new and controversial thesis, namely that it was not the fall of Rome in the fifth century but the expansion of Islam in the late seventh and early eight century, allowing them to take control of Mediterranean shipping, that plunged Europe into the Dark Ages.

My first teaching job, in 1958, was an Instructorship at Harvard requiring me to co-teach a big General Education course devoted to European history from Caesar to Napoleon.  Since I knew absolutely nothing about European history [or American history, for that matter] I spent several frantic months reading 20,000 pages of European history to prepare.  Among the books I read was Pirenne’s 1937 work Mohammed and Charlemagne, in which he put forward what came to be known as the Pirenne thesis.

What struck me most powerfully about Pirenne’s bold thesis was how scanty his evidence was for it.  A scattering of sixth century references to Mediterranean trade sufficed to sustain his claim that European trade with North Africa continued well past 476 a.d.  That was coupled with a passage or two from Gregory of Tours’ sixth century pot boiler, A History of the Franks.  A complete rewriting of the history of Europe on the basis of a handful of data points!

All of which initiated what has been my lifelong fascination with the difference in explanatory models employed by historians with too much data [such as historians of the French Revolution] as contrasted with historians with too little data.

Many years after I had left Harvard, I began my deep study of the thought of Karl Marx, and this led me to the discovery of the bottomless ocean of facts and figures called The Statistical Abstract of the United States, published annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, a branch of the Department of Labor.  [Here is the official description from their website: “First published in 1878, the Statistical Abstract serves as the official federal summary of statistics and provides over 1,400 tables of benchmark measures on the demographic, housing, social, political, and economic condition of the United States.”]

I have often reflected that historians of medieval Europe would sell their souls for one page from one year of a Statistical Abstract of Burgundy or Provence or Tuscany or London from the eighth or tenth or thirteenth century.  By contrast, historians of the French Revolution or the First World War or the New Deal have so much information available to them that they are compelled to make choices in what documents they read, choices that inevitably embody theoretical presuppositions and ideological biases.

These reflections and recollections were prompted by the current discussions of the hideous tax bill now grinding its way through the Congress on its way, almost certainly, to passage before Christmas.  It is impossible, from anecdotal evidence alone, to form any accurate picture of the economic condition of Americans, just as it is impossible to learn much about the lives of ninth century Burgundian peasants from a handful of documents and some paintings and artifacts.  But the BLS gives us precise information on thousands of subjects.  Let me cite a few statistics I extracted from BLS spreadsheets in half an hour of Googling [in the old days, I would order the annual Statistical Abstract every year, but I long ago discontinued that practice.]

First of all, since I have spent my life in the Academy, some facts about educational attainment.  In 1950, the year I started my education as a Freshman at Harvard, only 6% of adult Americans 25 or older had a four year Bachelor’s degree.  So few people went to college that High Schools graduated kids twice a year, in January and in June.  Fifty-five years later, in 2015, that percentage had soared to 32.5%, which means that even after that rise, more than two-thirds of adult Americans do NOT have college degrees.  As I have observed on this blog in the past, that means that two out of every three adult Americans cannot even aspire to a job as a doctor, a lawyer, a management trainee at a large corporation, an FBI agent, a High School, Middle School, or Elementary School teacher, and in many cities, not as a police officer either.  I am not saying that two-thirds of Americans do not have those jobs; I am saying they cannot hope to have those jobs.

The data on median individual and household earnings are equally striking.  In 2014 [not much changes from year to year], median weekly earnings for workers employed full time were $668 for those with only a High School diploma or the equivalent, but $1193 for those with a B.A. or better.  As anyone knows who lives in this country and pays the bills, that is a world of difference.  Notice: these are median earnings.  That means that fully half of the just-HS workers make less than that.  The proportional gap for household income is even more striking.  Households in which the highest educational attainment of any of the workers in the household is a High School diploma had a median annual income last year of $43,331, while households in which the median income for households in which at least one person had a B.A. was $90,368!

The American people are, as a whole, considerably poorer than you might imagine from public discussions of tax code rewrites and such, and they have, as a whole, considerably less in the way of educational attainments.  The graduates of the least noteworthy among America’s two thousand BA-granting campuses are still, as a group, vastly better off than the two-thirds of Americans who have not graduated from a four year college or university at all.


Well, this is the sort of information that some idle Googling reveals, thanks to the BLS.  How Henri Pirenne, Fustel de Coulanges, Marc Bloch and their colleagues would have loved to have access to such information for the fabled Middle Ages!