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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.
NEW: A Collection of Pebbles from The Philosopher's Stone
Volume I: 2009 Now Available at box.net
Volume II: 2010 Now Available at box.net
Volume III: 2011 Now available at box.net
Volume IV: 2012 Now available at box.net

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Monday, October 20, 2014

THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME


We are now just two weeks from the midterm elections, and it is becoming clear that the Democrats are likely to lose control of the Senate.  It is not a done deal, were the feckless, ne’er-do-well Democratic base to get off its collective duff and just wander over to the polls to vote, we could avoid the unpleasantness of Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader, but I am afraid the outcome universally considered most likely will in fact be the outcome that we get, so it is not too early to speculate on what it will all mean.  Herewith some idle guesses, worth roughly as much as the effort they cost me to put into words.  Treat them accordingly.

First of all, I think we can assume the day of the filibuster is over, so the Republicans will be able to pass any legislation they wish.  Getting it signed is of course another matter.  This will present the Senate Republicans with a very difficult problem.  The House Republicans will certainly wish to repeal the Affordable care Act and pass all manner of anti-abortion legislation, etc.  But in 2016, the electoral map will as unfavorable to the Senate Republicans as the 2014 map is to the Democrats, so the vulnerable Republican senators will not wish to have their fingerprints on a good deal of reactionary legislation that could come back to haunt them in 2016.  Some very interesting fights may spring up within the Republican Party.

There will be two months between the loss of the Senate and the installation of the new Senators, so there is in fact time to fill some more vacant federal judgeships.  Unfortunately [and quite incomprehensibly] Obama has been derelict in nominating candidates for District Court and Appeals Court judgeships.  The Bush White House was quite industrious in this regard, with a large staff in the White House Counsel’s Office devoted to the matter.  Under Obama, this function has been understaffed and neglected.  Why?  It beats me.  Doing that would have been a freebie.  It is an example not so much of ideological failing as sheer malfeasance.

In the wake of a loss of the Senate, Hillary Clinton will move up the announcement of her candidacy for the presidency in order to present herself as the salvation of disheartened liberals.  This will be a fraud, but it will work, and as liberals watch the efforts of a mobilized and energized Republican Party to dismantle the last tottering structures of the New Deal legacy, they will allow themselves to be conned into thinking that Clinton is in some manner a savior.  In the absence of a real liberal candidate, she will waltz into the nomination and win the 2016 Presidential race against some far right crazy put up by Republican right wingers convinced their moment has come.

The next ten years – my eighties – are going to be unusually difficult for someone of my persuasion.  But with any luck, my nineties will be more cheerful.  Since the Tigger in me is irrepressible, I shall approach my centenary with a light heart.  Of course, by then my morning walk may take me most of the day.

 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

I TAKE IT ALL BACK


I have on occasion spoken disparagingly of the quality of classical music in Paris, but last night Susie and I went to a simply lovely concert that forces me to withdraw my disapproval.  An organization of early music ensembles formed by young students and graduates of music schools in France has been putting on something called Festival Marin-Marais after the great seventeenth century viole player who was played by Gérard Depardieu in the beautiful film about Sainte-Colombe, Tous les Matins du Monde.  [In the film, Depardieu’s son plays Marin Marais as a young man.]  The festival consists of eighteen concerts, between September and November.  We went to the Temple du Foyer de l’Ȃme on the curiously named rue du Pasteur-Wagner just north of Place de la Bastille.  The concert, devoted to music of the seventeenth century, combined the efforts of two groups:  Atys, six young women, three of whom play baroque violins and three of whom play violas da gamba, and Quadrivium Consort, five young men who play natural trumpets [no valves or keys] and a variety of oddly shaped cornets.  The concert featured music by several composers of whom I had never heard, such as Johann Vierdanck and Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky.  It was a delight.  Early music is alive and well in Paris.

To get into the concert, I had not only to pay for tickets [dirt cheap – ten Euros each] but also fill out a form which asked, among other things, what instrument I play!  This got me two cards, with our names on them, which apparently will gain us entrance to the remaining concerts.  I was so delighted that as we left I dropped a fifty Euro bill in the collection basket.

Because we got there early, we were able to sit in the front row, and once again I observed something I have noticed before.  What follows is a bit of inside baseball, so those not enamored of early music can surf on over to the Huffington Post.  Baroque violins [and violas] differ from modern instruments in three notable respects.  They use gut strings, not metal strings; they use bows differently constructed; and they do not have chin rests.  The consequence of the first two differences is that they make a softer, less brilliant sound.  The absence of the chin rest makes it harder to play in the higher positions.  [In first position, the player makes use of the open strings and supports the instrument with the thumb under its neck.  To shift to higher positions, you must move the left hand up the neck, until finally, in the very highest positions, it looks as though the performer is trying to stick her finger in her right ear.  The chin rest is designed to allow the performer to clamp the violin between the chin and the shoulder and hold it so that the left hand is free to move up and down between positions.]  I watched the three women playing baroque violins, and I think I am correct that not once did they ever have to play in anything but the first position, even though the music they were playing was on occasion quite complex.  I came away thinking that with a little practice I could play that music.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

WHOOPS

It has been pointed out to me that it is probably a bad idea to talk on my blog about my concerns regarding the course, as the students will find their way to my blog and read what I have written.  So I am going to remove my posts [including this one after a few days] and the comments and talk about something else.  You can always contact me by e-mail.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

ALTHUSSER AND PORKY PIG


Ian Seda-Irizarry, Professor of Economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and one of a number of fine young scholars educated in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Economics Department, poses a rather technical question grounded in the approach to Marx of Louis Althusser, and follows it up with an e-mail request that I say something about my take on Althusserian Marxism.  In keeping with my long-established practice of offering my opinions on matters about which I know next to nothing, I shall strive to accommodate the request.  First let me reproduce his comment so that it is before us:

“Professor now that I read your post, and after recently reading your book on "Money Bags must be so Lucky" I wonder if it is not more precise to speak of "essence vs appearance" instead of "reality vs appearance" given that the latter implies that appearance is not true or real. My understanding is that these terms have very precise philosophical meanings, something that implies that they go beyond the mere literal sense. And well, this of course happens with other concepts that Marx deploys like the concept of "abstract"...If one doesn't understand that he is using it following Hegel's deployment then, for example, reading the German Ideology would probably not make much sense.”

When one is about to risk making a fool of oneself, confession is good for the soul, so let me explain that I have not read anything by Althusser in roughly thirty-five years.  I can date the event because it coincided with a trip I took with my two young sons to DisneyWorld in Orlando, Florida.  I brought along Althusser’s best known work, Reading Capital.  In the evenings, after a full day of rides and such, I would put my two young sons to bed in the Howard Johnson motel room and then sit under the light over the washbasin outside the bathroom reading Althusser.  I think I may be the only person in the world with a copy of Reading Capital that has a Porky Pig sticker on the cover.

Back in Amherst I attended a graduate course for a while taught by Richard Wolff, a brilliant, charismatic Althusserian Marxist who was one of the leading lights of the UMass Economics Department.  After several classes in which I got into arguments with Rick about “overdetermination” [a favorite Althusserian category], I stopped going because I feared I was simply being disruptive.

I will confess that I found Althusser obscure and unhelpful in my quest to understand Marx and stopped reading him.  This, as I have explained several times, has been my practice all my life.  When I find a text that seizes me, enlightens me, opens ideas for me, I read it with a ferocious intensity, ripping from it by main force whatever can help me in my intellectual quests.  But when I find a text that does not seize me, as indeed most do not, I cast it aside and forget about it.  I am thus deeply but very haphazardly or spottily educated.  For example, I have a modest reputation as a Kant scholar, but there are books by Kant I have not read because one look was enough to tell me that they contained nothing I really needed to know.  I make no apology for this habit of mind, and am quite happy to forego whatever recognition I might thereby sacrifice.

Althusser simply did not interest me when I read him, so I stopped.  Let me expand on this just a bit by responding to Professor Seda-Irizarry’s comment about essence and appearance versus reality and appearance, and then call up from the bowels of my memory my dispute with Rick Wolff about overdetermination.  I borrow the Appearance/Reality distinction from Plato, of course, who originated it in Western Philosophy [though the distinction must surely have been around long before Plato wrote.]  As my little book, Moneybags, makes quite clear, I understand Marx to be saying that the surface appearances of Capitalism are powerful and capable of distorting and indeed destroying our lives, for all that they exist at the level of Appearance.  I bring my book to a close with an extended analysis of Marx’s puzzling statement that “The categories of bourgeois economy … are socially valid, hence objective forms of thought” despite having just said that they are verrükt.  This is a very deep utterance by Marx and requires an elaborate explication [which I give it.]  I can see absolutely nothing to be gained by substituting “essence” for “reality” in my discussion, nothing at all.  I am afraid [and I realize that I risk giving offence here] that I am sympathetic to the scathing evaluation of Althusser offered by Leszek Kolakowski, who wrote, as quoted on Wikipedia:  I will argue that the whole of Althusser's theory is made up of the following elements: 1. common sense banalities expressed with the help of unnecessarily complicated neologisms; 2. traditional Marxist concepts that are vague and ambiguous in Marx himself (or in Engels) and which remain, after Althusser's explanation, exactly as vague and ambiguous as they were before; 3. some striking historical inexactitudes.”

My dispute with Rick Wolff about overdetermination is a good case in point.  The term “overdetermination” has two well-established meanings.  The first is from mathematics, where a system of n linear equations in m unknowns is said to be overdetermined if n>m.  An easy way to think about this is to imagine each linear equation as defining a line in a space.  Two such lines in two-dimensional space will intersect somewhere if they are linearly independent [otherwise they will be parallel and never intersect, in which case one equation is actually a scalar multiple of the other.]  Each pair of three lines in three-dimensional space will define a plane, assuming once again that no two of the lines are parallel to one another.  Each pair of planes intersect to define a line, and the intersection of all three will identify a point.  The point of intersection in each case is the solution to the set of equations – the point whose coordinates satisfy all n equations simultaneously.  When there are three lines in two-dimensional space, in general they will not meet at a single point [instead they will define a triangle, with each pair of lines intersecting at one of the vertices.]  So when three lines meet at a point in two-space, their equations do not determine a point, they overdetermine it.

The other meaning of “overdetermine’ is to be found in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.  In attempting to arrive at an interpretation of a patient’s dream, Freud would have the patient free associate to each element of the dream until the flow of associations played out, thereby discovering the meaning of the dream element in the dream.  But as Freud engaged in this therapeutic practice, he made a striking discovery.  Sometimes, the process of association would yield a completely adequate interpretation of a dream element, and yet by continuing the associations to that very same element, Freud would come upon a quite different, but also completely adequate interpretation of the element.  It was not at all the case that the first stream of associations had explained some of the aspects of the dream element while the second stream had explained other aspects, nor was it the case that both streams of association were needed to make sense of any single aspect of the dream element.  Each process of association was fully adequate to the explanation of the entire dream element.  Freud called this curious phenomenon “overdetermination.”  Althusser claimed to derive his notion of overdetermination from Freud.

In his lectures, rick Wolff seemed to me to be using the term “overdetermination” for something totally different, namely multiple determination, which is to say determination of a multiplicity of causes rather than by one cause alone. And he was invoking this of multiple determination – quite legitimately in my opinion – to counteract the tendency of some readers of Marx to think that Marx was saying something simplistic and wrong, namely that the law or religion of a society had one single simple cause, namely that it was a reflection of the social relations of production in the society, rather than being a complex phenomenon with many causes, principle among which but by no means alone, were the social relations of production.

I tried without any success whatsoever to get Rick to see that he was misusing the term “overdetermined’ when what he really meant was “multiply determined.”  After a while I gave up and stopped bothering him and his class.

Well, that is about as much as I know about Althusser.  I hope someone found it interesting.  Ian, if you see Rick, give him my regards.  He is a class act.

DIGITAL EXCITEMENT

This post is just for people within ten years of my age, which is to say folks in their seventies and older.  The rest of you will think I have lost my mind.

Before I left the States, I called Verizon and had them unlock my cell phone so that I could use it here in Paris if need be.  I then purchased a basic 100 gigabyte one month add-on to my contract [I have only the dimmest notion of what that actually means].  Five minutes ago, I decided to try it out.  Sitting at my desk in our apartment, I called our landline in the apartment.  This involved pressing the zero until a plus sign appeared, followed by our phone number.  I pressed the green button and in two or three seconds, the phone rang in the apartment.  Susie picked it up and we spoke to one another from a distance of perhaps eight feet.  As I understand these things, my call was routed to our apartment via the United States.

This was undoubtedly the most exciting thing that has happened to me in some while.  Now, if you youngsters will stop smirking and giggling, let me just point out that when I was born, you had to pick up a big clunky handset and rotate a dial to make a call, unless it was necessary instead simply to flip the cradle several times until an operator came on who could plug a jack into the appropriate receptacle and complete your call.  Out in the sticks there were "party lines," which is to say several homes on a single wire, so that when you picked up the phone, you could hear what someone else on the same party line was saying.  It takes a village, as Hillary Clinton is fond of saying.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

WHAT'S FOR DINNER?

This evening will be our ninth dinner in Paris.  Our first evening, we were so blasted from the trip [old folks don't do so well losing a night's sleep] that we simply stumbled over to the Café Le Metro and ordered a hamburger [for Susie] and a cheeseburger [for me.]  The table of Americans next to us sent their cheeseburgers back because one could see a hint of red in their innards.  The patron of the café, who took our order, did not believe us when we said we wanted our burgers bleu -- which is French for very rare.  He double checked to make sure we knew what we were ordering.

The next day was market day, and I bought enough food for three dinners -- Coquilles St. Jacques the first night, quail the second night, and my signature cuisses de canards the third night.  For the duck, I mandolin two sweet onions, then spread oriental five spices on the skin side of the cuisses, sear them until the skin sides are browned, reserve and push the onions around in the pan to cover them with duck fat, replace the cuisses skin side up and put the frying pan [which has a removable handle] in a very slow oven -- 275 degrees Fahrenheit [135 Centigrade] for two hours.  While they were cooking, I halved a large number of cherry tomatoes, chopped a lot of garlic, and chopped a good deal of fresh Basil, all of which, when sautéed, results in a delicious side dish.

The next night we went to our favorite restaurant, Rotisserie du Beaujolais, where Susie had a wild pigeon [Palombe] and I had magret de canard which was, to be brutally honest, not nearly as good as mine.

Since then, I have cooked skate and paupiettes Provencale.  Skate is a scary looking fish with a skin that could serve quite nicely as a bulletproof vest, but broiled in the oven with capers and butter, it turns out to be meaty and delicious.  The Paupiettes are actually rather cheaty, I feel, because they come ready made from the butcher shop, but they are so good that Susie forgives me the lapse into prepared food.

After the concert at the Cluny, we tried an Italian restaurant just across a side street from the museum.  My lasagna Bolognese was delicious, but Susie's gambas were overdone, so I am not sure we shall return.  This evening, I am making Dorade Royale fillets, with courgettes [zucchini, but it sounds much better in French] and steamed spinach.  A very simple supper.

Tomorrow night, I shall stuff a coquelet with a mixture of chopped sweet onion, prunes, and hazelnuts.

All in all, a pretty good start to our Paris stay.

THE OLD WAYS ARE BEST


Two evenings ago, Susie and I went to a lovely early music concert at Cluny, the Museum of the Middle Ages, several blocks from our apartment.  A group of five women named De Caelis sang motets and plainsong from England of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries.  The music was quite glorious.  The last number on the program was a five part composition, in English, written six years ago.  The music was complex and interesting, although not up to the compositions from the late Middle Ages, but the text was banal – sections were called “Purify,” “Teleology,” “Change,” and such.  As I listened, I was reminded of weddings I have attended between upscale college educated couples.  The two young people, as like as not, have chosen to write their own vows, which they recite to one another in place of the traditional wedding ceremony.  Their vows are heartfelt, earnest, and utterly banal.  They strive for poetry but achieve only the most mechanic of prose. 

Invariably, I find myself thinking how much wiser the couple would have been to opt for the traditional language:  Dearly Beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God – and in the face of this company – to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is commended to be honorable among all men; and therefore – is not by any – to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly – but reverently, discreetly, advisedly and solemnly. Into this holy estate these two persons present now come to be joined. If any person can show just cause why they may not be joined together – let them speak now or forever hold their peace.  And so forth.

I don’t care whether you believe in God [which I do not], that is genuinely beautiful language.  What is more, it is the traditional language, and inasmuch as the fundamental purpose of a wedding is to situate a couple within the multi-generational traditions of which they become a part through the ceremony, writing one’s own language is about as sensible as the decision by the U.S. Air Force Academy, when it opened in Colorado Springs, to invent some “traditions” which it presented solemnly to the very class of cadets who arrived in 1955.