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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Thursday, January 29, 2015

SELF-JUSTIFYING POSTSCRIPT

In the Fall of 1951 [yes, really sixty-four years ago -- that is not a typo] I took Willard van Orman Quine's graduate Math 280 course at Harvard, "Mathematical Logic."  We used as a text his book by the same name.  One of the other undergraduates in the course was Ralph Krause, a very smart young man.  Ralph found an error in the book and called it to Quine's attention.  Quine was very grateful, and corrected it in the next edition with a footnote acknowledgement to Krause.

Now, when it comes to all things formal, I am not fit to carry Quine's briefcase, and that is not modesty or hyperbole, just the plain truth.  So I figure, if it can happen to Quine ...

EGG ON MY FACE

I published Understanding Marx thirty-one years ago.  In the intervening three decades, although I have of course looked at the book from time to time, I have never read it with the care I am now giving it as I prepare my lectures on it for my Marx course.  Last Wednesday and next Wednesday, I am covering the first three chapters, roughly half of the book, dealing with the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo.  Last week, while carefully re-reading the chapter on Smith, I discovered a mistake.  It is a small mistake, which is in fact corrected in the next paragraph, so it has no impact on the argument.  But it is a flat out mistake.  Having quoted Smith as stating that it takes Diana one day to catch a deer while it takes Orion two days to catch a beaver, I go on to say that when they meet in a clearing in the woods after two weeks of hunting, Diana is carrying five deer and Orion is carrying ten beaver.  Aaaarrrggghhh!!!!  I think it just seemed intuitively obvious to me that deer are harder to catch than beaver  [but what do I know?].  In the next paragraph, I say that after some bargaining, they agree to exchange two deer for one beaver [which is correct].  Thus is born the Labor Theory of Value.

I challenged the class to tell me where I had gone wrong, and after a few minutes one of the students correctly identified the error.  O.K.  Cute.  Shows the Professor has humility, right?

Sigh.  Today, I have been working on my lecture on Ricardo's version of the Labor Theory of Value [embodied labor and all that good stuff], preparing to go through a rather more complicated example of the calculation of prices, for which purposes I must invoke the dreaded quadratic formula of high school algebra fame.  [You all recall it, no doubt:  "x equals minus b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus four ac, all over 2a."  Sound familiar?] 

The example is designed to illustrate Ricardo's important claim that the wage and the profit rate are independent of commodity prices, a claim that is in fact true for the special case that Marx later dubbed "equal organic composition of capital."  The algebraic manipulations, although conceptually elementary, are actually a trifle complex, since one carries along terms with the wage rate, w, in them that then miraculously drop out at the end.

In my book, I did what all serious economists and mathematicians do -- I left out half of the steps, relying on the reader to supply them.  And since I wrote the book three decades ago, I had of course long since forgotten those steps.  But it occurred to me that if I were going to stand up before a class and teach this stuff, I had better reconstruct them, in case some alert student asked me to fill in the gaps.

Out came a pad and a pen, and I began.  Things did not go well, and I finally discovered that in my book, I had neglected to factor out 90 from one side of the equation when I factored it out of the other side.  Now, this is not a total disaster, because the solution I got for the equation is in fact correct.  It is merely an editing error, right?

Once, I can smile and get away with this sort of thing.  But twice?  I live in terror of what I shall find when I get to the mathematical examples of Marx's theory in the next chapter.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

LIEBENBERG YET AGAIN


Last Sunday, I posted an omnium gatherum that included a response to Carl's friend, who had commented to Carl about my post on The Origin of Science by Louis Liebenberg.  This morning Carl posted a follow-up comment, also from his friend.  [I find the social structure of the Internet a trifle odd, but then I am very old.]  I am afraid I have brought on this exchange by the unclarity of my original report of Liebenberg's book, which has an extremely misleading title.  Since I find Liebenberg's central point fascinating, I am going to try again to explain it.  It has, let me say right up front, virtually nothing to do with the origin of modern science, so far as I can tell [hence the inappropriateness of the title.]

Some long time ago -- maybe half a million years, maybe only two or three hundred thousand years, I am not sure -- animals of the genus homo ranging across the East African savanna developed really big brains.  These brains were [and are] way larger than one would expect in mammals of their size.  The random mutations that produced these enlarged brains must have had significant survival value in order to take hold and become characteristic of late hominids, including of course homo sapiens sapiens, which is to say us.  Leibenberg observes that these big brains are required for scientific reasoning [and also for writing iambic pentameter, although Liebenberg does not seem to notice that], but since what we identify as advanced human culture came along way after the brains got big, that fact can have played no part in the evolution of the big brains, teleological explanations being definitely unacceptable.

Now Liebenberg is pretty clearly a novice on the subject  of the history and philosophy of science, but he is a world-class expert on the people who practice a hunter-gatherer existence in the Kalahari desert today -- people sometimes referred to as the Zhu.  When the Zhu hunt, they engage in what is called persistence tracking.  They do not lie in wait and attack animals, or charge them and shoot them with bows and arrows.  Instead they run an animal down, tracking it for eight, ten, twelve hours or more in the great heat of the desert, until the animal grows exhausted and simply lies down, at which point it can be killed.

Persistence tracking requires an enormous amount of very detailed knowledge, not only of the general habits of each species of game, but also of the most minute variations in the tracks they leave in sand or on hard clay or in brush.  Since the hunters are pursuing one particular animal, trying to exhaust it, they must be able to identify its tracks in the midst of many other overlapping tracks of the same or other species.

Furthermore [and this is Liebenberg's big boffo point], it often happens that the hunters lose the track -- the animal may run over rocky terrain, for example.  When this happens, the very most skilled hunters [not all Zhu are alike in their hunting skills] have the ability to form hypotheses about where the animal has gone, based both on general knowledge and on their reading of subtle signs.  They quite consciously identify with the animal, asking themselves, "where would I go if I were that kudu?"  Liebenberg calls this "speculative tracking."  Clearly, the ability to engage in successful speculative tracking will greatly improve the chances of making a kill, and hence of being able to survive.

Thus far, I think Liebenberg has a good deal on his side.  Now he makes his big [and very debatable] leap.  The intellectual capabilities called for by speculative tracking, he argues, which quite plausibly appeared several hundred thousand years ago, are fundamentally the same at some very basic and general level as the techniques of reasoning employed by modern scientists.  The big brains were, so to speak, ready at hand when social, historical, economic and other factors combined to produce the rise of modern science.  In effect, he says, the early hominid hunter gatherers engaging in speculative persistence tracking were proto-scientists.

If you begin with the established fact of the emergence of big-brained hominids several hundred thousand years ago and ask what specific survival skills those big brains made possible for those hominids, Liebenberg's hypothesis has a certain plausibility.

Does any of that make sense?

 

 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

BACK TO THE CLASSROOM

My Marx course takes a sharp turn tomorrow, from the free-wheeling excitement of the Manifesto to the details of the dismal science.  For the next five hours [two classes], I shall be talking about the modern mathematical interpretation of classical Political Economy, from the Physiocrats, through Adam Smith, to David Ricardo.  The students are to read the first three chapters of my book Understanding Marx, in which I expound and interpret that mathematical reinterpretation using nothing more than high school algebra.   I have prepared a series of charts and tables and equations which I shall attempt to project onto a big TV screen in the classroom, using a USB cable and control already there.  Since it has been almost a quarter of a century since I did serious teaching, all of this technology is totally new to me, but I shall rely on my students to guide me.

Three weeks from now, the course will take another abrupt turn as we finally open Capital to the first page and tackle the famous, and famously mysterious, first chapter.  With that chapter, to which I plan to devote two entire two and a half hour classes, I ask them to read my little book, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.

I have no idea what the students are making of this very strange course, but I am enjoying teaching it more than I have enjoyed any teaching experience in at least forty years, and maybe as much as fifty-four years [when I first taught the Critique of Pure Reason.]

Wish me luck!

Monday, January 26, 2015

FASCINATING STUFF I NEVER KNEW

A little backgound is called for.  My family history suggests that I am at risk for heart attack or stroke.  My father's  father [the socialist] died of a stroke, my mother's father suffered a debilitating stroke, and my mother died of a heart attack.  All of this is compounded by the fact that a good many years ago, I suffered a transient ischemic attack [or TIA, as it is called in the trade], a short-lived mini-stroke.  [Readers are free to invoke this fact as explanation for my bizarre beliefs, although I was assured that I recovered competely.]  Accordingly, I watch my diet, eat very little salt, exercise, and take various medications designed to lower my blood pressure and cholesterol level.  In addition, like millions of other Americans, I take daily what I still refer to as a "baby aspirin," which is to say an 81 mg. tablet.

This morning, I checked in on the UPSHOT, a NYTIMES column for the statistically obsessed.  There, I found a fascinating column about medical statistics, which introduced me to the concept of Number Needed to Treat, or NNT.  This is the minimum number of persons taking some medication required statistically to account for one cure or disease prevention.  Apparently, doctors now know stuff like this, as a result of keeping elaborate records.

The NNT for a baby aspirin is 2000!   Here is what the UPSHOT reports:

"According to clinical trials, if about 2,000 people follow these guidelines over a two-year period, one additional first heart attack will be prevented.  That doesn’t mean the 1,999 other people have heart attacks. The fact is, on average about 3.6 of them would have a first heart attack regardless of whether they took the aspirin. Even more important, 1,995.4 people would never have a heart attack whether or not they took aspirin. Only one person is actually affected by aspirin. If he takes it, the number of people who remain heart attack-free rises to 1996.4. If he doesn’t, the number remains 1995.4. But for 1,999 of the 2,000 people, aspirin doesn’t make any difference at all."

Needless to say, there is no way of knowing who that single individual is.

I have to say, this gives me pause, although I will continue to take the aspirin, of course.  I mean, with my luck, I might just be that one person.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

CATCHING UP


I have been so wrapped up in preparing the next lecture for my course on Karl Marx's Critique of Capitalism that I have allowed a number of comments to go by without proper responses.  Perhaps a Sunday morning, now that the crossword puzzle and double crostic are out of the way, is a suitable time to catch up.

I have a special treat for my UNC students, by the way.  They get to watch an octogenarian attempt to employ modern technology.  It seems that the classroom in which I teach is equipped with whatever device it is that allows me to project prepared images of one sort or another onto a screen.  I have been creating these on my home computer and transferring them by way of a flash drive to the laptop I plan to take to Paris.  I will take the computer with me to class and, with the assistance of some of the students, connect it to the device.  All of this will produce yawns in my readers, but this is the first time I have attempted this, and I am enormously impressed with myself.

Herewith some responses:

To Andrew Blais, who asks, "Aren't your comrades a result of your socialization and other extra deductive causal factors? "I'm with the rabbit whompers like my father and my father's father...." Why, then, is it a matter of choice?"  Yes, absolutely, but that is the human condition.  There are countless examples of people who have made life commitments very different from what their social location might have led us to expect, but enough probing usually exposes causes and reasons for those choices.  That is the human condition.  There is no escape from it, not into pure reason, not into an Original Position.

To Carl, who wrote:  "I showed this post to a friend who's a philosopher of science. He notes that the more commonly cited Cognition in the Wild (http://hci.ucsd.edu/hutchins/citw.html) advances the same thesis, and comments, "The big problem for the view is why, if scientific reasoning is 'fundamentally identical' to tracking cognition that has been part of the human cognitive endowment for 100k years, did modern science only arise in Europe in the 1500s?"  I think Liebenberg's response [and mine] would be that the fundamental structure of scientific reasoning has been a part of human intellectual capabilities for 100,000 years, but social, religious, economic and other factors explain why the distinctive explosion of knowledge that we identify with modern science is a very recent development.  The ancient Greeks thought "scientifically," as do all other peoples of whom we have any knowledge.  If you look at what sorts of thought processes Kalahari trackers go through, you will recognize them as the common possession of all human groups, though manifested in many different ways.

Again to Carl, who remarked, a propos my post on Deflate-gate, "The argument for disqualifying the Patriots is not that they won because they cheated. The argument is that they should be disqualified because they cheated."  I know that.  I was just snarking at the TV commentators who talked as though the inflation of the ball had anything at all to do with the outcome of the game.  Besides, I am a Patriots fan.

Jerry Fresia responds to my rendering of the wind-up of my last Marx lecture:  "Thanks for the summary. This is quite a course! I love the parallels you are drawing. I can't remember: what level are the students? What has been the reaction thus far? I suspect a few heads are exploding."  The course has seven graduate students in it and twelve undergraduates, almost all of whom are Juniors or Seniors.  I really am not sure yet what the reaction of the students is.  I suffer from a life-long character defect -- I cannot stop talking.  I warned the students about this on the first day, and told them that if they waited until I fell silent before making a comment or asking a question they would never get a word in edgewise, but so far the tsunami of words coming out of my mouth has all but swamped them.

As Porky Pig used to say, "Tha tha tha that's all folks."  Keep the comments coming.

THE WEALTH EFFECT

I have on many occasions made reference to my Paris apartment, the most economically daring purchase I have ever made and far and away the most rewarding.  Now that North Carlina has turned back from its purplish trend to become one of the most appallingly red states in the Union, I think I could not bear life if I did not have the chance to escape to Paris periodically.

Our apartment in Paris is tiny.  It is a tad more than 31 square meters, which is to say roughly 330 square feet, a bit more than one-fifth the size of our condo here.  [It is a tribute to our marriage that Susie and I can spend five weeks there at a time without filing for divorce.] 

Because the apartment is in a prime location, it is, per square meter, fabulously expensive.  From time to time I check the postings in the windows of real estate offices and calculate in my head the amount in dollars that our apartment would be worth, and I then experience what is called by economists "the wealth effect," which is to say the illusion one has of being in funds when an illiquid asset one has no intention of selling goes up in price.

Those of you with a special interest in the Eurozone may be aware that in the last several months the value of the Euro has plummeted against the dollar.  Last July, one Euro was going for about $1.35.  This morning, it was going for $1.12. 

How should I react to this news?  On the one hand, I have "lost" a bundle because, although the Euro value of the apartment has not declined, the dollar equivalent has taken a beating.  On the other hand, when we go to Paris in March for a brief visit during UNC Chapel Hill's Spring Break, everything we buy will be a good deal cheaper, and that is real money, not notional money.

So, should I be feeling richer and splurge on an extra glass of wine at dinner out, or should I be feeling poorer and eat in more often, substituting a cheap fish like Dorade for a pricier fish like Dorade Royale?

Inquiring minds want to know.