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Monday, November 30, 2015


I have on several occasions made reference to the fact that only 35% or so of Americans twenty -five and older have four year college degrees.   The discussion in the public space about the resentment of Republican base voters at what they [correctly] perceive as elitist condescension towards them focuses on the difference between elite colleges and universities -- the Ivy League, et al. -- and the rest of the two thousand four year colleges and universities in America, ignoring the fact that for two-thirds of adult Americans, Ball State or the satellite branches of the State University of Missouri are equally "elite."

But it occurred to me that the gap between the public discourse and reality is probably a good deal larger than that, so I did a little Googling to check, coming up with a useful link to the always reliable U. S. Census Bureau.

The percentage of the population twenty-five or older with college degrees has been rising steadily since I went to Harvard in 1950, at which time it was roughly five percent.  Now it is, I think, reasonable to assume that relatively few people get college degrees after the age of twenty -five.  There are some, of course, but when we are talking about percentages of a population of three hundred million and more, they do not much alter the overall statistics.  It follows that from the percentage of those twenty-five or older twenty years ago, we can infer the percentage forty-five or older today, and so forth.  [I trust this is obvious.]  What do we find when we consult the table?

Only 23.3% of Americans forty-five or older have college degrees -- not one in four.  More than three-fourths do not, and therefore are and always have been excluded from the very wide range of good jobs that require a college degree:  doctor, lawyer, professor, corporate executive, FBI agent, high school teacher, elementary school teacher, Walmart store manager, and so forth.  By the way, the figure for White Americans forty-five or older is 24.2%, less than a percentage point more.

I think these few statistics, all by themselves, tell us a good deal about the reasons for the deep anger and resentment of so large a portion of the Republican base.


I had a strange dream last night.  The house I was living in suddenly developed huge cracks in the walls as though it had been through an earthquake.  When I awoke, I was thinking about the serious possibility that Donald Trump would win the Republican Presidential nomination.  As Bob Dylan did not say, you don't need a psychoanalyst to know which way the Id is blowing.

Sunday, November 29, 2015


Magpie asks whether I am fluent in German.  As I explained in my reply, I am and always have been linguistically challenged [to use the current euphemism for cognitive deficits.]   I studied French in High School, and although I was in love with my teacher [as was every other teenage boy in the class], even that erotic impetus was inadequate to enable me to achieve any mastery.  I took a year of College German, aware that the doctorate would require a "reading knowledge" of two languages, and there was in fact a time, fifty years ago, when I managed to work my way through several serious volumes of Kant scholarship in German.  But on one of the few occasions when I actually attempted to order a meal in German [on the train from Paris to Vienna in 1959], I mistakenly asked for the menu instead of the karte, and got the set meal delivered to my table.  [It was all right.  The set meal was wiener schnitzel, which is probably what I would have ordered had I thought about it.]

But, you will protest, how on earth can you present yourself to the world as a Kant scholar, a Marx scholar, a Mannheim scholar, if you cannot read German?  How indeed?  The answer is rather complicated, as self-justifications tend to be, so bear with me.

First let me say that I am no sort of scholar at all, and have never pretended to be, save when I have been attempting to curry favor with Herbert Marcuse or Hannah Arendt.  I have on several occasions in my long career committed what I would be happy to consider acts of scholarship, but they have never risen much above what one might expect from a reasonably good undergraduate.  My greatest scholarly achievement, made possible by an interlibrary loan arranged by Harvard's Houghton Library, was to establish that the 1772 German edition of James Beattie's Essay on the Nature and Immutability of the Truth read by Kant was made from the original 1770 edition, and not from the 1771 second edition, and therefore did indeed contain the passage from Hume's Treatise that "awoke [Kant] from [his] dogmatic slumbers."  [See the Prolegomena.  You can look me up in the Journal of the History of Ideas for 1960.]

As a boy, not yet nineteen, I learned what real scholarship is by attending Harry Austryn Wolfson's lectures on the philosophy of Spinoza.  Wolfson was one of the great scholars of his time, a jewel in Harvard's crown, a master of two millennia of philosophical and theological literature in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and all of the modern European languages.  I would consider myself to have blasphemed were I to suggest that I in any way inhabited that empyrean realm.

To count oneself a Kant scholar, one must at the very least read all of Kant's writings in the original, the published and the unpublished [the nachlass, the Opus Postumum, the letters], together with all the major and most of the minor commentaries.   Nor, I might add, can one count oneself a scholar of Plato or Aristotle without a firm grasp of classical Greek, or of Descartes without Latin and French, or of Kierkegaard without Danish and German. 

But if that is to me forever terra incognita, what on earth have I been doing all my life?

Well, the answer is this.  If you want to know what Kant really said, read him in the German, and then read the commentaries in whatever language they are written in.  But if when you are done, you still cannot for the life of you figure out what on earth Kant meant;  if you cannot say what the argument is of the central portion of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft; if you cannot state clearly and simply the premises of the argument, the conclusion, and by what sequence of arguments Kant moves from the first to the second, then I may be able to help you.  Indeed, I flatter myself that I was the first student of Kant's philosophy ever actually to accomplish that seemingly simple but actually quite difficult task.  How can this be?  The answer is rather deep.  I have alluded to it on several occasions on this blog.  Let  me try to spell it out. 

Truly great philosophers do not write philosophy the way the rest of us do.  They do not string together sequences of sentences, fussily making sure that they never contradict themselves, tidying up the surface of their discourse, footnoting their sources, making it all neat and properly publishable in a peer reviewed journal.  Great philosophers wrestle with a problem as Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord, refusing to let go until it bless them.  They have and pursue deep, unified, and ultimately simple intuitions that they believe hold the key to the resolution of the problem, and they care less about maintaining surface neatness than they do about being true to the original conceptual intuition. 

It is no good searching their minor works or their unpublished papers for clues to what they meant.  There is nothing for it but to dive into the morass of ideas after them, like Gandalf descending into the depths of the Caves of Moria to do battle with the Balrog.  The goal is not, as Kierkegaard mockingly says, "the howling madness of the higher lunacy, recognizable by such symptoms as convulsive shouting; a constant reiteration of the words 'era,' 'epoch,' 'era and epoch,' 'the System.' "  The goal is the Holy Grail of all philosophical thinking:  a clear, coherent, simple argument whose strengths and weaknesses can be grasped by reason.

Now, the intuitions of a great  philosopher are often at odds with one another, a fact that the philosopher himself or herself may not fully recognize.  So we as students of their works must make choices.  We must take risks.  We must gamble our time and energy and devotion in the hope that we, like Jacob, will be blessed.  And like any gamble, there is no certainty on which cards to place our money.  If we are truly seized by the text, we will be guided by our own philosophical concerns as well as by our understanding of the concerns of Kant or Marx or Plato or Hume.  So two of us may descend into the depths of the cave and emerge with differing and incompatible understandings.  That is not a sign of failure.  It is the inevitable and unavoidable consequence of real philosophical work.

What have I been doing all my life?  I have been wrestling with the Angel of the Lord, whether He present himself as Immanuel Kant or David Hume or Karl Marx.  I have been seeking the clear, coherent arguments that will succeed in capturing the deep intuitions that drove those great thinkers in their work.  And then, emerging from the depths, I have struggled to present those arguments to my students or readers so simply, so quietly, with so little jargon or mystery, that they can enjoy their beauty as I do.

So Magpie, no, I am not fluent in German.  Nor am I fluent in French, Latin, Greek, Arabic, or any other language save English.  But if my life has seen some successes together with the inevitable failures, then here and there in my voluminous writings are objects of real beauty  -- arguments mined from some of the great texts of our tradition that bring clarity and understanding to us all.

Friday, November 27, 2015


In my on-going effort to find some way to present my thoughts on Ideological Critique, it occurred to me that perhaps I could deliver a series of lectures from my study and post them on YouTube.  I would need a good video camera and a lapel mike so that the audio is clear.  Above is a photo of one corner of my study, taken from my desk [which in this tiny study is only seven or eight feet away.]  The "podium" is a music stand, and the ladder to the right is used to access the top shelves, which hold the complete works of Marx and Engels [English edition -- the German is in the Paris apartment] and lots of extra copies of the books I have published.

If I had the energy, perhaps with each posted lecture I could also write and post on my blog a formal version of the lecture [not a transcription] for the folks who would prefer to read rather than listen.

If any of this proves feasible, I hope to launch the lecture series next January.  I will consider the series to have gone viral if half a dozen people watch it.  Hey, I have taught courses with that few students!


OK.  Let me see whether I have this right.  We must all hope against hope that hordes of shoppers flood the stores and buy heaps of stuff they do not need and did not know they wanted with money they do not have so that some of the millions of men and women who cannot find work will be hired for poverty wages to sell it to them and thereby perhaps be able to feed themselves and their children.  And this system is what  makes this the greatest country in the history of the world.


Thursday, November 26, 2015


I keep reading opinion pieces [by Nate Silver, among many others] explaining why Donald Trump cannot get the Republican nomination.  I have several times put up posts explaining how I think that awful eventually could come to pass.  There is obviously no point in my arguing about a future I cannot influence.  I propose to wait until after the South Carolina primary, which will take place on Saturday, February 20, 2016, a little more than twelve weeks from now.  The next morning [for us early to bed types] we will know whether my analysis makes sense.

Wait for it.


Many commentators have written well and forcefully about the incipient fascism now gripping the Republican Party and the nation at large.  Take a look at Harold Meyerson's piece today in the Washington Post.  [The Post informs me that I have "read my limit of free articles" in the Post for this month and since I refuse to pay for the privilege, I cannot go back and copy the URL for a link in this post.]   Other authors have drawn suggestive comparisons between Trump and Francisco Franco or have called to mind the many shameful episodes in American history when the country succumbed to xenophobic lawlessness. 

I have become more and more persuaded that there are dangers here that in their potential for genuine harm outweigh the understandable and pleasurable schadenfreude we on the Left experience at the prospect of a Trump candidacy.  I have no idea what Trump actually believes, and quite possibly neither does he.  But then, I have no idea what Hitler really believed.  It is worth recalling that Nazism did not begin with a proposal for the Final Solution.  It swept through Weimar Germany, arguably the most sophisticated and intellectually advanced European country at that time, fueled by the resentment of the German people at the punitive provisions of the Versailles Treaty and their longing for lebensraum.  The resentments giving life to Trump's assault on American legal and moral norms are different, of course, but the sentiments are quite similar. 

Could Trump defeat Clinton in the general election?  Not as things now stand.  The polls are quite reassuring.  But imagine a Paris-like attack somewhere in America in September or October 2016. 

What is to be done?, to echo someone to whom I do not often look for inspiration.  We need to speak out, although that will have little or no impact on those whose thinly veiled fascist leanings are given legitimacy by Trump's campaign.  Beyond that, I fear that when the Primary season is done, if Trump has indeed captured the nomination [as I have argued, in a recent post, he well might], we will have no choice but to do everything we can, individually and collectively, to ensure a Clinton victory.  America can survive yet one more President in thrall to Wall Street.  I am not so sanguine that it can survive full-grown nativist fascism.