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Friday, August 1, 2014


Jerry Fresia asks what would be included in a 250-300 page RP Wolff Reader.  Since this is a flattering question replying to which requires me to think about myself, I was quite naturally drawn to it and devoted my early morning walk today to crafting an answer.  The question itself reminds me of those stroll-down-memory-lane concerts in which a song writer sits at a piano.  After idly playing a few chords he says, “And then I wrote,” breaking into the first eight bars of a familiar tune.  The success of the concert depends on the audience recognizing each tune as its melody is played, always a chancy business if the composer is old and the audience young.

When I started to make up a Table of Contents of The Robert Paul Wolff Memorial Reader, my first thought was of a lovely story about the famous scholar of medieval religious philosophy Harry Austryn Wolfson, with whom it was my great good fortune to study during my undergraduate years at Harvard.  Wolfson was a scholar of astonishing breadth, having mastered the languages and literatures of the Greek, Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim traditions, along with the scholarship in all of the major modern European languages.  He was born in Vilna, and even when I studied with him in 1952-53, when he was sixty-five, he still spoke with a strong accent, reminding me of my grandmother.  Wolfson was a short man, rather like The Little King in a cartoon strip of the same name that was popular when I was a boy.  It is said that when Wolfson was nearing the end of his career, he passed Nathan March Pusey, President of Harvard, while walking across Harvard Yard.  They greeted one another formally, as was then the custom, and Pusey said, “I understand that you are about to retire, Professor Wolfson.  We would be very grateful for your wisdom in finding someone to replace you.”  Wolfson, so the story goes, thought for a moment, looked up at Pusey, and said “Vell, I vill tell you, first, you vill need three people.”

When Jerry asks me what would be contained in a 250-300 page RP Wolff Reader, my first thought is, “Vell, I vill tell you, first, you vill need 600 pages.” 

Section One of the Reader will certainly consist of the first 55 pages of In Defense of Anarchism, which is actually most of that tiny book.  In Defense is the book that made me famous, and even now, almost fifty years after I wrote it, if I were to hum a few bars in many an academic lounge, someone would sing along with me. 

By rights, the next section should contain selections of my writings on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, but that is easier said than done.  Excerpting Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity would be a bit like wheeling out the Berlin Philharmonic to play a movement of a Mahler symphony – uplifting no doubt, but rather trying on an audience’s patience.  I think I would settle for my late paper, “The Completion of Kant’s Moral Philosophy in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre.”  This essay is virtually unknown, and makes, I believe, an important contribution to our understanding of Kant’s ethical theory, which has for more than two centuries fascinated and puzzled readers.

Well, that’s not so bad.  Eighty pages, more or less.  I might make Jerry’s limit yet.

After anarchism and Kant, Marx.  I think I will include all of Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.  It is, pound for pound, the best thing I have ever written, it offers the only clear explication I have ever seen of Marx’s mysterious talk of the relative and equivalent forms of value in Chapter One of Das Kapital, and the last chapter is introduced by a Jewish joke.  What is more, the whole thing only runs eighty-three pages.

This would be a good place to put several lighter pieces of which I am fond:  The first is my review of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which had the delightful effect of leading a number of gullible readers to doubt Bloom’s existence.  The second is my unpublishable report of a conference on Kant’s legal philosophy put on by Columbia Law School.  The piece is called “Why, Indeed?” and it so shocked the student editors of the Columbia Law Journal that they could not bring themselves to include it in their special issue on the conference.  The third is “The Pimple on Adonis’ Nose” – the original version, never published, not the version incorporated into a paper that I co-authored with my son, professor Tobias Barrington Wolff.  I don’t think Tobias’s stellar reputation as a scholar should be tarnished with this brush.

That gets us to two hundred pages, give or take a bit.  Pretty good.

For a change of pace, let’s throw in “Hume’s Theory of Mental Activity,” a chunk of my doctoral dissertation that has gained some recognition in the tiny world of Hume studies.  And just to show that I am not just a pretty face, how about “A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx’s Labor Theory of Value,” which contains the only original mathematical material I have ever written – not terribly difficult mathematics, to be sure, but I am inordinately proud of it.

Now a nod to my on-going support of Women’s Lib, “There’s Nobody Here but Us Persons.”  And as a token of my quarter century long involvement with South Africa, “A Lover’s Lament:  Contradictions in South African Higher Education,” a paper delivered to the education faculty of Pretoria University and never again heard from.

I think I should also like to include “Narrative Time:  On the Inherently Perspectival Structure of the Social World,” which provides a philosophical and literary critical foundation for my account of ideology.

And to wrap things up, the Credo I crafted for and published on this blog.

There, that brings us in under Jerry’s original limit.  There is lots more stuff that could have been included, but not even my mother, if she were alive, would be able to stand even this much.

Now, all we need to do is find a publisher daft enough to undertake the project.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


I have often quoted a line from Freud that I have never been able actually to find in his writings, leading me to wonder whether I made it up.  It goes something like this [assuming he really wrote it]:  "If there is one subject that the patient will not permit to be discussed in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that one subject."  Usually I quote this line when I am talking about progressive, intelligent, thoughtful Jewish writers who have an ineradicable blind spot about Israel.  But Freud's observation [I persist in my belief that he actually said it] has other applications as well.  This thought occurred to me as I was reading Paul Krugman's blog earlier today.

Krugman is everything that one could want in a progressive liberal.  He is wicked smart, witty, very broadly read and educated, on the progressive side of every social issue, seriously concerned about economic inequality, a bulldog when it comes to harrying his less enlightened colleagues in the Economics profession, and, I would imagine, fun to spend some time with.

There is really only one subject that he cannot ever bring himself to talk about, despite the fact that you would think it was staring him in the face every moment of his professional life:  CAPITALISM

Now if you have read Krugman at all, you might suppose that I am totally, comically wrong.  I mean, he talks about capitalism every day of his life, right?  But not really, if you think about it for a moment.  He talks about growth rates, interest rates, unemployment rates, Phillips Curves, quantity easing, and inventory levels.  He talks about the evils of austerity hawks, the inability of conservative economists to admit that they have been wrong for five years, about the failure of inflation to develop, and endlessly many other things.  But he never actually talks about capitalism.  He treats capitalism in roughly the way fish treat water or birds treat air -- as the medium in which they swim or fly, omnipresent, inevitable, necessary.

Krugman is a smart man, and I would bet that he has read Das Kapital [although he probably has not read Marx's doctoral dissertation, which I actually have.]  So if I ever met him and had a chance to engage him in a serious discussion, I am willing to bet that he would be completely unfazed and unimpressed were I to bring up Marx's claim that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.  I am not sure what he would say.  [I really hope he would not start talking about workers earning their marginal product -- he is smarter than  that.]  But he would have something smooth and even thought out to counter.  Nevertheless, I am dead certain that he feels no need whatsoever to work up a sophisticated knowledgeable defense of capitalism, any more than a sentient fish would feel the need to offer a rationale for water.

Maybe Krugman wouldn't be so much fun to spend time with.


1.  Parisians have a great revolutionary tradition.  They regularly engage in huge manifestations, name little city squares after Communist war heroes, and currently have a Socialist government.  Nevertheless, Parisians never jaywalk.  They stand docilely at street corners, waiting patiently for the little red standing man to change to the little green walking man in the pedestrian signals before venturing across the street.

2.  Young French women are always better looking than the young French men they are with.  By contrast, young Italian men are always better looking than the young Italian women they are with.  Young Swedes are all good looking.

3.  Every morning when I take my walk along the Seine I see a river boat pushing a long barge up or down the river.  It is named the DeVinci [not the Da Vinci.  the French call Michelangelo "Michelange."]  I think it is cool to name a tugboat after the immortal Leonardo.

4.  Judging from my informal survey, the French cigarette of choice is the e-cigarette.  They are everywhere.  However, the French Health Minister is planning to ban them in bars and restaurants, while also moving to compel cigarette companies to make their packaging bland and unattractive, apparently convinced that young French men and women will find smoking less appealing if the Marlboro packs are no longer bright red.

5.  HUGANDYOU, the little upscale boutique across the street, is closed for the August vacances.   If Matt's comment from a week ago is right, a lot of people will have to get their drugs or launder their money somewhere else.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


I have on numerous occasions remarked that when I come to Paris, the voice in my head that has, all my life, told me that I was not working hard enough falls still.  That was indeed once so, but it seems no longer to be true.  Earlier today, Susie asked me what had happened.  I thought about it for a bit and decided that the fault lies squarely with the Internet.  In the old days, when we came to Paris, I was for the entire time essentially incommunicado.  Oh, if it was necessary, I could place a long-distance overseas call [always a  bit complicated with my PhoneCard, what with an eleven digit Pin Number and all], but I felt that the world was unaware of me, and so I could relax.  I feel the same way as soon as I arrive at an airport terminal to catch a plane, which is one of the reasons I like to travel.  Since there is nothing I can do while waiting for the plane, I can relax.  This was also one of the principal attractions of the safari we took last April.  In the Okavango Delta, one is really out of touch.

But now, the world is wired, and I feel myself obligated to stay in touch.  Being unable for  the first two weeks of our stay to make the wireless connection in my apartment work was hell.  I was not relieved, I was frantic.

The same can be said for running a blog.  In the past, each time I finished a book, I felt a sense of relief that lasted for at least a week.  In effect, I could say to the voice in my head, "There!  I've done what you asked.  Now go away and leave me alone."  But a blog, if I may steal a phrase from an earlier period in Gestalt Theory, presents an Objective Demand, rather like a partially completed circle asking to be finished.  No matter how many hundreds of thousands of words I write for this blog, I feel each day the demand to write something new, striking, interesting, original.  If I may paraphrase Ecclesiastes, 12:12, "And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many blogs there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

Thank God I have not figured out how to unlock my IPhone!

Monday, July 28, 2014


It is said that during the depths of the Stalin era in the Soviet Union, liberal intellectuals performed an “inner migration.”  Forbidden to emigrate, they traveled inward, to a world of literature and music and a democratic politics that existed only in their minds or in conversations with trusted friends.

Faced with the prospect of a Clinton presidency that could extend until my ninetieth birthday, I have been going on my own inner migrations to a world where what I believe in deeply has at least some chance of coming to pass.  This morning as I walked, I spent some time imagining an Elizabeth Warren run for the 2016 presidency.  I was encouraged in this retreat from reality by a conversation with a good friend for whose political wisdom I have great respect.  He said that he is not entirely convinced Clinton will run, but remarked that Warren would have difficulty being elected.  Thus provoked, I asked myself under what conditions Elizabeth Warren could win the nomination, even against Clinton, and then win in a general election.  I concluded that this would be possible [this is in my private fantasy world, remember] if four conditions could be met.  In what remains of this blog post, I shall sketch those conditions and explain my thinking.  I invite those who share my despair to join me on this inner migration.

Let us begin by assuming that Clinton will in fact run.  If she does not, I actually believe Warren would be the favorite to get the nomination, but even on inner migrations it is well to stay in touch with reality.  My first condition is that Clinton once again run a technically bad campaign for the nomination – not the criminally incompetent campaign she ran in 2008, but a campaign beset by some at least of the same problems.  In 2008, you will recall, she was the odds-on favorite for the nomination, and as the season began, the polls all showed her winning handily.  But Clinton ran an inexcusably bad campaign, headlined by her chief strategist, Marx Penn, whose sheer incompetence should have been grounds for exile from American politics.  The Clinton campaign was riven by internal feuds, which Clinton herself did nothing to resolve, and it completely failed to comprehend the threat posed by Obama’s technically picture perfect ground game until it was too late to recover.  Clinton, encouraged by Mark Penn, put all her chips on a series of big wins on Super Tuesday.  Penn was literally unaware of the fact that the California primary was not a winner-take-all race, and assumed that a win by Clinton in the vote totals would put all of California’s delegates in her pocket.  No one in the Clinton camp, it would seem, knew that Texas runs a series of caucuses as well as a primary, so that Obama could come out of Texas with more delegates despite having lost the primary.  And so on.  Clinton raised tons of money, but did not spend it on a state-of-the-art ground game, as Obama did.

If Clinton has learned from her mistakes and mounts a first-class ground game in 2016, I think no one can beat her.  But there is at least some reason to think that she will not learn from her mistakes; indeed, if it is true, as my old friend Zina Tillona liked to say, that most people do most things the way they do most other things, then Clinton may well repeat her mistakes, and that could give Warren the opening she needs.

The second condition for a Warren presidency is that she needs to start right now, or rather in no more than three or four months, to put together a first-class operation on the ground nation-wide, well before she has any reason to believe that Clinton is going to give her an opening.  Creating that kind of campaign structure takes lots of money, which she can, I believe, raise, and it means recruiting the best young techie experts to assemble the machine.

Let me emphasize the necessity of a very long running start.  If Warren announces for the nomination and puts in some serious effort organizing Iowa, I believe she will actually have a very good chance of winning Iowa, and winning New Hampshire shortly thereafter.  I sense a deep hunger in the liberal Democratic base for a candidate they can love, and Clinton is not that candidate, whereas Warren most definitely is.  But it is impossible to assemble a serious national campaign structure AFTER Iowa and New Hampshire.  When the thunderbolt strikes and Warren suddenly becomes a viable candidate in the eyes of the mainstream media, that campaign structure of paid professionals in regional offices in thirty or forty states has to be up and running, the doors wide open to receive and put to use the volunteers who will come flooding in.  That is what made the Obama campaign a success.  Which means that Warren must decide now unambiguously that she wants to BE president, not simply that she wants to run for president.

If Warren succeeds, against the odds, in securing the nomination, she ought to select Clinton as her running mate.  The downside of this is of course that even a number of women may be hesitant about voting for an all-female ticket, regardless of what they tell pollsters, and I assume there will be a great many men who will balk at supporting such a ticket.  The upside is that the Clinton machine, whatever its strengths, would be working for the ticket, not against it [as I assume it would, however covertly, of Clinton were defeated a second time and were left out in the cold.]

The third condition for a Warren presidency is that the Republicans finally nominate someone they really love, a far right candidate such as Rand Paul or Ted Cruz.  If that happens, Warren-Clinton could win in a landslide.  On the other hand, if the rational fragment of the party again prevailed and got the nomination for Jeb Bush, Warren could have a hard time winning, from the leftish position she occupies, although Clinton would I think defeat Bush.  I actually think this time around the Republicans are going to go with their hearts, and if they do, they will get swamped.

Well, that is as far into my inner migration I got before my walk ended in Place Maubert and I walked up rue Monge to buy a baguette and a briochette au sucre for Susie.  For a few brief minutes, I could believe that my eighties will not be a political wasteland.


1.  It is a terrible thing to outlive your time.  I went to the market on Saturday to shop for several dinners and discovered that my favorite vendors were not there -- the fish man, the man from whom I buy cuisses de canard and cailles and coquelets and a demi-lapin [sans tete].  The poissonerie in the square was also closed, and so was my reliable fruit and veggie shop.  Alas, the August vacances started this year on July 26th.  I may be reduced to taking us out to dinner.  Fortunately the tourist trade has grown so large that many restaurants stay open in August, although several of my favorites do not.

2.  Back in the '50s and '60s, when the world and I were young, we all watched the network evening news to find out what was happening.  Walter Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley [Chet Huntley and David Brinkley] were as close to official state oracles as a secular age offered.  If it wasn't on the evening news, it hadn't happened.  If Cronkite or Huntley or Brinkley said it, it was true.  Time passed, even oracles age, and cable television shouldered its way into our collective consciousness, but it was all right, because CNN was there to pick up the slack.  CNN was authoritative, reliable, and besides belonged to a man who was, or had been, married to Hanoi Jane Fonda.

Well, so much for all that.  Yesterday shortly after lunch, Susie and I went to our cafĂ© to hang out.  As we sipped our kir, we watched the live television coverage of the final stage of the Tour de France, which ends in Paris with a celebratory ride up the Champs Elysees, around L'Etoile, and back down the Champs Elysees to Place de la Concorde.  When we returned to our apartment, I turned on CNN  International [channel 109, if you are ever in Paris.]  A sprightly weather lady was reporting clear skies for the last stage of the Tour, which she chirpily reported would soon be entering Paris.  She said, in that confident authoritative voice that TV news personalities affect, that it was pretty clear whom the winner would be.  I guess so, since he had already won.

I think from now on I will get my news from Jon Stewart and The Onion.

3.   One of the old reliable Hollywood formulae is the ensemble movie of young aspiring actors, who are thrown into a movie together to see which of them catches on with the audience.  My favorite is The Breakfast Club, with Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy.  It seems that the wheel of time has come full circle, and ensemble movies are being made with collections of long-in-the-tooth former action stars, dragged out of the Old People's Home for one more special effects romp.  One of the very best is RED, with Bruce Willis, John  Malkovich, Helen Mirren and then forty-five year old Mary-Louise Parker doing a delightful turn as the "young" love interest for Willis.  [RED, incidentally, is an acronym.  It stands for "Retired -- Extremely Dangerous" which perfectly captures the way we old folks like to think of ourselves.]

All over Paris are posters announcing the local opening of Expendables 3, a tongue-in-cheek "action" flic starring, among many others, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas, and Dolph Lundgren.   I assume that each day of shooting began with a series of testosterone shots for the stars.

Now that I am eighty, I find it very comforting that Hollywood has decided to cater to my demographic.  I fully expect a series of deathbed comedies as I approach ninety.

Saturday, July 26, 2014


No sooner had I bragged about my culinary skill than fate dealt me a blow designed to remind me that "Pride ..." [PROVERBS 16:18]  I went off to the market this morning to shop for two nights' dinners, only to discover that the poissonerie was closed and my favorite fishmonger was absent from the market as well, despite the fact that Saturday is the biggest market day of the week.  What is more, the little stand where I have been buying cailles, cuisses de canard, coquelets, and fresh lapin for years was not in the market today either.  Why?  Is it the August vacation getting a head start?

I was reduced to buying two cailles from the bucherie in the square, which I prefer not to do, and -- oh the shame of it -- three prepared brochettes of lamb.  Who knew that the gods of the cuisine read blogs?