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Tuesday, March 31, 2015


A well-constructed course of lectures should have a shape, an arc, a narrative that unfolds as the semester goes by.  Creating that narrative takes thought and sometimes a good deal of work.  The course I am now giving at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has such a structure, and creating it has cost me considerable effort.  Indeed, when I look back over the sixty years during which I have been teaching, I realize that only twice before have I worked this hard to prepare and teach a course.  The first such effort was in the Spring Semester of 1960 at Harvard, when for the first of what would be many times I taught Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.  I still have the formal lecture notes I prepared then, in three binders.  Over the next two summers, I turned those lecture notes into my first book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity.  The second effort came fifteen years later, by which time I was teaching at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  I decided to offer a graduate course on a variety of rather forbidding formal materials, under the title "The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy."  I worked up a rigorous exposition of John von Neumann's great Fundamental Theorem in his new branch of Mathematics, Game Theory, complete with a proof of L. E. J. Brouwer's Fixed Point Theorem, on which von Neumann relies, followed by an equally rigorous exposition of Kenneth Arrow's General Possibility Theorem, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Economics.  I followed that with formal critiques of Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia and John Rawls' A Theory of Justice.  The lectures I wrote and delivered on Rawls became, shortly thereafter, Understanding Rawls.  The critique of Nozick appeared in the Arizona Law Journal [for reasons that now escape me.]

My present effort, offered in the Philosophy Department, bears the title "Karl Marx's Critique of Capitalism."  The UNC semester is fifteen weeks long, so I must give fifteen two and a half hour lectures.   The rather oddly configured room in which I lecture is blessed with a large screen on which I can project the outlines, quotations, and equations that I have prepared at home and loaded onto my laptop computer.  Twenty students are enrolled in the course -- six Philosophy Department graduate students, two graduate students from other departments, and twelve advanced undergraduates -- and several folks are auditing as well.  My goal in the course has been to integrate work I have done over forty years into a single unified reading of Volume I of Capital.  In addition to that great text, the students are asked to read the early unpublished manuscript on Alienated Labor, the Communist Manifesto, and my two books on Marx's theories, Understanding Marx and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.  They are also asked to look at my 1981 essay "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value," the math in which is too hard for me to require it.  For the final lecture, they will read my essay "The Future of Socialism."

The course has unfolded in three stages plus a coda.  The first three lectures were an introduction to Marx the man, to the economic and political situation in which Europe found itself when Marx was young, and to the two early writings -- the essay on alienated labor and the Manifesto.  This first stage was followed by a series of nine lectures, in which the students were called upon to grapple first with the mathematics of the classical tradition of Political Economy, then with the rich, complex, mystifying and mystified opening chapters of Capital, then with enough Literary Theory to enable them to understand my reading of those chapters, then with the remainder of the first part of Capital, up through the great Chapter X on "The Working Day," and then once again with the math, this time integrated with the literary theory, all in the service of the original interpretation of Capital that I have worked out over the course of my life.  The thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth lectures will deal seriatim with the remaining 450 pages of Capital, which are extraordinarily rich in insights, details, and analyses.  I will give the first of those three lectures tomorrow.  Finally, at the last meeting of the course, on April 22nd, we shall reflect on our journey together and take a look forward with my essay on the rather bleak future of socialism.

This is the first real I have given in a Philosophy Department in twenty-three years, and for all I know it may be the last.  I am enjoying it enormously.  I hope some of the students are too.

Monday, March 30, 2015


I do not refer to the Final Four.  As most of you are no doubt aware, the Indiana Legislature has passed and Governor Mike Pence has signed a "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" patently intended to make it legal for private businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers on supposedly religious grounds.  To the surprise of these troglodytes, the world has reacted sharply, negatively, and effectively.  Pence, by the way, is apparently jockeying for a VP nomination.

As it happens, my son, Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff, argued just such a case before the New Mexico Supreme Court and won.  Unfortunately, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to the contrary notwithstanding, parents do not inherit the acquired characteristics of their children, so I am unable to write knowledgeably about the matter.

I simply note with approval that Charles Barkley [who explained during some Elite Eight commentary that he is "only six eight"] has called for this weekend's Final Four to be moved away from Indianapolis.  He is a class act!


I have suddenly begun receiving dozens of messages from FaceBook informing me that a post has tagged me [do I have that right?]  I think this flurry was triggered by my scandalous comments about Israel, but the "messages" in the e-mails are a string of question marks, because my e-mail provider does not recognize Hebrew letters.  When I go to FaceBook [which I virtually never frequent] and click on the "translate" utility, somewhat garbled references to Post-Modernism come back, but that has nothing to do with what I wrote.

The foolish residents of the town of Babel have a lot to answer for.

Saturday, March 28, 2015


Back in 2010, while I was writing and posting my serial Autobiography, I  created a second blog on which, over a period of several months, I wrote and posted a short book called FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.  It was a reasonably chewy technical book with proofs of a variety of important theorems [not original with me, of course!], including Kenneth Arrow's famous General Possibility Theorem for which he won the Nobel Prize.  The little book included my animadversions against the much misunderstood Prisoner's Dilemma, a summary of my formal critique of Rawls' theory, and a good deal else.

Google tells me that in the last five years, there have been a total of 42,129 visits to the Formal Methods blog, which is not bad when you consider the subject matter.  From time to time I check it, and it still gets ten, fifteen, twenty, even twenty-five hits a day.  I figure out there in the world are a couple of professors who send their students to it for some quick background on technical stuff.

Until yesterday.  Yesterday there were 228 visits to that five year old series of mathematical posts!

What on earth is going on?  Is there some Bulgarian mathematical version of REDDIT that gave me a shout out?  If anyone can enlighten me, I woud appreciate it.  Who knows?  In the immortal words of Mel Brooks, I may be "world famous in Poland."

Friday, March 27, 2015


Well, having made a fool of myself by making an off-hand remark about Israeli marriage law without knowing what I was talking about, I shall now once more put my foot in my mouth by offering a speculation about Iran, about which I know even less.  [By the way, a correspondent who knows whereof she speaks informs me that Jews in Israel can only marry other Jews in Israel in an Orthodox ceremony, compelling Israeli Jews who are unwilling to go through such a ceremony to travel outside the country to be married elsewhere, whereupon that foreign marriage is recognized by Israeli law.  That is totally different from what I wrote, but it does strike me as being of the same order of horribleness.]

There has been a great deal of discussion in recent days about the supposed contradictions in the Administration's policy regarding Iran.  The contradictions are said to be these:  In Iraq, we are fighting alongside Iran against  ISIL;  in Yemen we are opposed to the recent overthrow of the Yemeni government, which is supported by Iran, so we are in effect fighting against Iran;  in Syria, we are fighting with Iran against ISIL and against Iran in its support of the Assad regime; all the while we are attempting to negotiate an agreement with Iran regarding Iran's nuclear program, which if accomplished would relieve Iran of the crippling economic sanctions under which it has been laboring for some years.  Taking all in all, it is said, our actions may very well have the effect of strengthening Iran's position in  the region, despite the fact that Iran is our enemy, whom we ought in all ways to be attempting to weaken.

Let us leave to one side the fact that this sounds very much like the elaborate maneuverings of the ancien régime in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  I should like to ask some questions designed at least to begin a conversation about the unexamined presuppositions of American Middle East policy.  I ask questions because I do not know enough to hazard answers;  but I ask the questions nevertheless because I am dissatisfied with those unexamined presuppositions.

First, why would it be so unacceptable for Iran to develop nuclear weapons as to justify our launching a war to stop them?  Now, I have all my adult life been unalterably opposed to the existence, threat of use, and use of nuclear weapons, and I was working hard, publicly, to oppose their existence and use before most of the readers of this blog were born, so I cede pride of place to no one when it comes to a commitment to nuclear disarmament.  I was opposed to the development of the American nuclear arsenal and to the development of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.  I was opposed to the development of nuclear  weapons by France, Great Britain, China, Pakistan, and India.  I am opposed to Israel's current possession of a sizable nuclear arsenal, and I am opposed to the attempts by North Korea and Iran to develop nuclear weapons.  But I was not in favor of invading India or Pakistan or China or France or Great  Britain or Israel to stop them from developing nuclear weapons, and I do not see any reason to consider Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons different from the successful efforts by Israel.

It is said that it would destabilize the region were Iran to develop nuclear weapons.  Did Israel's development of nuclear weapons destabilize the region?  Not noticeably.  Did the development of nuclear weapons by Pakistan and India destabilize that region?  Very definitely.  Did we contemplate invasion?  Of course not.

Iran, it is said, seeks greater influence in the Middle East.  Every nation in the world seeks greater influence in its region, or, as in the case of the so-called Great Powers, in the world as a whole.  That is the nature of realpolitik, as pursued by every nation with the military and economic power to play the great game.  All nations, including the United States, claim to be pursuing the highest ideals selflessly, and none of them is doing anything of the sort.

Here is my central question:  Why should we not choose to make a self-interested alliance with Iran, rather than with Saudi Arabia or Israel or Egypt?  Is there something we can gain by such an alliance that would adequately compensate us for what it might cost us?  If so, why should we not consider it?

Would this threaten the existence of Israel?  It is difficult to see how, considering that at the present moment Israel is the only nation in the region capable of threatening a potential enemy with nuclear obliteration.  But could we not make the protection of Israel a non-negotiable condition of an alliance with Iran that would enable Iran to expand its influence?

In 1953, John Foster Duller and his brother Allan, under orders from President Eisenhower, engineered a coup that deposed Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected secular Prime Minister of Iran [the casus belli being Mossadegh's decision to nationalize Iran's oil resources.]  I think we all know how that finally turned out.

So, I ask again:  Would it be in the self-interest of the United States to form an alliance with Iran?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


I hope to communicate today to my students an idea that they may find rather difficult to grasp, or so I fear.  Perhaps if I have a go at explaining it here, the effort will help me to clarify my exposition.  Let me say, by way of setting the scene, that today I shall try to bring together into a single integrated account the four strains of argument I have been developing in my course:  Marx's economic analysis of capitalism, Marx's historical account of the development of capitalism, the modern mathematical formalization of the classical and Marxian tradition of Political Economy, and my literary critical explanation of the extraordinary language of the first six or seven chapters of Capital.  The reading assigned for today is my 1981 essay, "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value."  That essay, which so far as I can determine, in David Hume's words, fell stillborn from the presses, is a rather difficult read for philosophers, containing as it does a good deal of linear algebra.  [Linear Algebra, which is mother's milk to economists, is actually quite elementary undergraduate math for a math major, but as C. P. Snow observed many decades ago, we live in a society of two cultures, and philosophers whose intellectual sophistication knows no bounds confront a page of mathematics as though it were Linear B.]

The idea, in a sentence, is this:  The narrative accompanying a mathematical model frequently contains a good deal of information that finds no formal representation in the model, and it is a mistake to think that the deductions from the model constitute a proof or endorsement of those elements present only in the narrative.  In the case of Marx's theory, the distinction between labor power and labor, which Marx claims is the key to understanding the origin of profit in a capitalist system, actually finds no representation in  the formalism implicit in Marx's argument and made explicit by the modern mathematical formalization of that argument.  The goal of my essay is two-fold:  First, to demonstrate that the labor/labor-power distinction plays no formal role in Marx's argument, and that all of his results can be reproduced for any arbitrarily chosen commodity as "substance of value;"  and Second, to find an alternative formalization of what I believe to be Marx's correct analysis and critique of capitalism.

There are a number of examples of this sort of mismatch between a formal argument and the accompanying narrative.  My favorite is the narrative that has grown up around the so-called Prisoner's Dilemma.  I shan't reproduce here my analysis of that familiar example, from Game Theory, of a two-person non-zero-sum game in which each player has two pure strategies.  Those who are interested will find it in the book-length tutorial I wrote on The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy, archived at  Other examples, considerably more important at one time in U. S. military affairs, are the mismatches between the narratives of deterrence and nuclear war and the game theoretic analyses accompanying them.  [To be found in my unpublished book, The Rhetoric of Deterrence, also archived.]

If one prefers a more light-hearted example, one can consider the practice adopted by some Grade School teachers of drawing circles as happy faces and squares as Sponge Bob Square Pants when introducing little children to Geometry.  Sooner or later, the children must learn that the mathematical properties of a circle are independent of whether a happy or sad face is drawn in it.



Tuesday, March 24, 2015


No sooner had I returned from Paris, jet-lagged to deliver a difficult two and a half hour lecture on the mathematics of Marx's labor theory of value than March Madness hit.  I am sure my American readers will understand that as a resident of Chapel Hill, I am required by city ordinances to be a fan of the UNC Chapel Hill basketball team, and to root, secondarily, for Duke in all circumstances in which they are not playing UNC.  This, plus two weeks of accumulated mail, has kept me from my principal responsibility, viz. this blog.  Herewith a first effort to catch up.  K. Reader posted the following comment to my Parable of the Butcher and the Analytic Philosopher: 

"I am an avid reader of your blog. As a non-native speaker I am fascinated by your use of "he" and "she". Are there any rules?  I like the fact that the butcher is "she" and the philosopher "he" - at least in this post."

There are no rules, but perhaps I can tell a story to explain my own practice.  Forty years ago, I was running a small interdisciplinary left-wing undergraduate major that I had started called Social Thought and Political Economy.  I created a Freshman/Sophomore course called "Introduction to Social Theory" as a general background for students interested in the major.  One day, as I was lecturing, some students challenged my constant and exclusive use of the masculine pronoun.  I thought about their criticism, and decided they were right.  What to do?  I could, of course, studiously avoid the singular for the plural ["If people choose to disobey the law, they may risk prosecution" rather than "If a person chooses to disobey the law, he may risk prosecution."]  But that is clumsy.  And I am constitutionally unable to use the singular in the first part of a sentence and the plural in the second part ["If a person chooses to disobey the law, they may risk prosecution."]  So, after some reflection, I decided simply to alternate masculine and feminine pronouns unless the subject dictated one or the other [I did not refer to Marx as "she" half the time.]  This is not hard once you get used to it, and it solved the problem nicely.  Over time, I have backed off from rigid alternation, but I continue to mix them up.  The butcher in my parable just came out female.  It could as easily have been the other way about.