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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Friday, July 21, 2017

DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU

Well, folks, here we go.  The Washington Post reports that Trump's team of lawyers are now discussing the scope of the President's power to pardon, including even whether he can pardon himself.  And it isn't even August!  So much for the Impressionists.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A CULTURAL MORNING

Susie and I went to the Musée d’Orsay this morning, the grand museum fashioned out of what was once a train station.  I am not much for museums, I confess, but this one has a special place in my heart, in part because it was there, several years ago, that we heard an exquisite performance of Allegrhi’s Miserere by the Tallis Singers, one of the truly great experiences of my life.  The d’Orsay’s collection of Impressionist paintings is of course world famous.  Surrounded by masses of tourists [Paris has overcome its terrorist attacks and is again the premier destination in the world for tourists], I took these IPhone shots of a pair of famous paintings by Renoir.  I am not sure you can see it in my amateurish pictures, but the treatment of the dresses by Renoir is breathtaking.


Dance in the City:



Dance in the Country



Wednesday, July 19, 2017

AROUND THE FIFTH

While I was taking my morning walk [along the circumference of the 5th arrondissement], I reflected on several very significant recent developments in American domestic politics.  [I shall reserve to a later post my responses to the wealth of interesting comments about morality and international affairs.]  I refer first to the revelations regarding the meeting between Kushner, Trump jr., and Manafort and an ever expanding roster of characters, and second the collapse of the efforts of Senate Republicans to do something, anything, about the Affordable Care Act.

The daily revelations about the meeting make it more and more likely that there was a sustained, extensive, conscious, deliberate attempt by Trump himself and his closest advisors to work hand in glove with agents of the Russian government to defeat Hilary Clinton, in return for which assistance Trump would deliver a lifting of economic sanctions and other desiderata of the Putin government.  You may adopt any evaluative stance toward this effort you wish, but it is becoming more and more implausible to deny that it occurred.  Since Clinton was an historically awful candidate, she would no doubt have contrived to lose the election all on her own, but pretty clearly laws were broken, and Robert Mueller will, I should imagine, prosecute a number of the members of Trump’s family, unless, as I expect, Trump intervenes and issues a raft of plenary pardons.  I rather doubt there could be revelations sufficiently awful to prod the Republican House to vote a bill of impeachment.  We shall have to wait and see.

The failure of Senate health care initiatives is splendid news, for two reasons.  First, it stops the Congress and President from doing terrible, terrible harm to tens of millions of people.  Second, it establishes the political truth that health care is now indeed the third rail of modern American politics, as Social Security once was.  [For the youthful among you, when subways powered by electricity were introduced, the trains ran on a pair of parallel rails through which no electricity flowed.  The power was delivered by a third rail.  You could jump down onto the tracks and touch the first two rails with impunity, so long as you got back up before the next subway train ran over you, but if, when doing so, you touched the third rail, you got electrocuted.]  The third rail became first a metaphor and then a cliché for a legally established right or program it was political death to touch.

The Democrats, even those suicidally bent on resurrecting the Clintonian Democratic Leadership Council’s Third Way, have taken notice of the spontaneous upswelling of resistance to the Republican efforts to repeal the ACA and seem collectively to possess the wit to make opposition to those efforts the centerpiece of their 2018 campaign.  By one of those bizarre turns that makes politics so hard to predict, in the midst of this ground level resistance, Single Payer seems to be gaining support.


By the way, merely flying to Paris seems to have made it possible for me to squelch the tendency to view American politics as the natural center of the universe.  Very liberating.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

INTIMATIONS OF IMMORTALITY

This will be an extended post, beginning with the personal and grandparental and ending in an extraordinary and really unforgivable bit if self-congratulation perhaps justifying an intervention or clinical help.  I apologize for this in advance, but have decided that the confessional has a place on the web.  Put it down, if you wish, to my advancing age.

My granddaughter Athena will be nine on the first of August, and I asked her mother for suggestions for appropriate presents.  Apparently on a recent family trip to Tokyo, Athena bought a little treasure box and has now begun a collection of objets d’art.  Could I find in Paris an appropriate addition to the collection?   I had not a clue, but went on a ramble in our Place Maubert neighborhood and ended up some while later in front of a shop at the end of our street called Avanti Musica which is stocked with all manner of little knick-knacks.  There I found what I hope will be the perfect gift, a decorated miniature treasure chest cum music box with a dancing ballerina.

Buying presents for my grandchildren is difficult because their doting parents have given them virtually everything that is both age appropriate and available.  Last December, faced with the same problem for Samuel, who was turning eleven, I decided that instead of asking his mother and father for guidance, I would give him a present that no one else in the world could give to him:  a copy of In Defense of Anarchism, inscribed by the author.  Now, I may be self-absorbed, but I am not yet totally dotty.  I had no thought that Samuel would welcome this present or even look at it.  But I wanted him to have some physical evidence that his grandfather was not just the old guy back East.  Perhaps in future years, even after I had passed away, he would be moved to read it.  I had the fantasy, I confess, that in nine or ten years, when he was in college, he would take a course in which the book was assigned, and could bring in his copy to show the professor.

When you have spent your entire adult life writing books and have arrived at the age of eighty-three, perhaps it is natural to wonder what it all amounts to.  Will anything you have written survive your death?  Is it all fated to blow away like autumn leaves?  I found myself thinking that perhaps this one little book, no more than an extended essay, would somehow manage to live, that it might even become, in a small and subsidiary way, a part of the canon of works in the Western tradition of political theory.

The works that have acquired that relative immortality are, in at least one way, quite similar:  although each book was written at a particular moment in reaction to a particular constellation of contemporary texts, it rises above that situational embeddedness by setting forth an argument that lays claim to universality.  No one anymore reads John Locke’s First Treatise on Civil Government, which, for those of you who have always wondered, is a devastating attack on Sir Robert Filmer’s defense of the divine right of kings.  At the time, Filmer’s position was widely held, but it very quickly was overtaken by history.  Locke’s Second Treatise, on the other hand, although manifestly a work of the late seventeenth century, is read to this day by every serious student of political theory.  The same is true of Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract and Mill’s On Liberty

Because of the peculiar circumstances under which In Defense of Anarchism was written, it contains almost no references to contemporary philosophical debates.  It is virtually devoid of scholarly footnotes and addresses a single fundamental philosophical question sub specie aeternitatis.  It could have been written two hundred years ago, not fifty-two, or indeed one hundred years from now.


Will it live?  I would like to think so.  In the nature of the case, I shan’t be around to find out, but perhaps eighty years from now, Samuel’s grandson will tell his old grandfather about a little book he has just read in college, and Samuel will take out a present from his grandfather and offer it to the young man for show and tell.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

ENFIN!

Went to airport to fly to JFK, on the way to Paris.  After clearing security, had leisurely snack at 42nd Street Oyster House.  Strolled to gate.  Discovered flight to JFK was cancelled.  Panic.  Re-routed to direct London flight, then flight to Paris.  Major agita.  This would mean going through Heathrow, the world’s worst airport.  Got to Paris, went to baggage claim.  Waited.  Last bag came off flight.  Not ours.  More panic.  Went to baggage office.  Told by distracted young woman that our bags would arrive from Philadelphia.  Philadelphia?  What on earth were our bags doing in Philadelphia?  Took taxi to apartment, unencumbered by luggage.  Good news, everything worked.  Bad news, computer was in luggage.  Called.  Was told luggage would be delivered the next day.  Gave voice at other end the building code.  Was called next day, told luggage would arrive between one and five in the afternoon.  Waited.  Got a call.  Luggage would be delivered between five and nine p.m.  Got cranky.  Meanwhile, jets flew low overhead in Bastille Day display for Trump.  Considered emigrating to Canada.  Luggage arrived at 7:30.  Walked to Brasserie Balzar.  Assigned to table 37, my favorite.  Had a dozen snails.  Equanimity restored.  Bonjour Paris!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

ILLUSIONS WITH REGARD TO THE MORAL STANDING OF NATIONS

I have sufficiently recovered from the shock of discovering that Donald J. Trump is following me to Paris so that I can, in the quiet of my comfortable office, make a stab at clarifying what I wrote about morality and state actions.  This exercise has helped me to come to a clearer realization that the point of view I was trying to articulate is nothing more than an elaboration or extension of the position I set forth more than half a century ago in my little tract, In Defense of Anarchism.  Say what you will, at least I am consistent.

Moral judgments, strictly understood, are appropriately made concerning the actions, intentions [and perhaps the characters] of persons.  Corporations are not persons [the United States Supreme Court to the contrary notwithstanding], armies are not persons, churches are not persons, fraternal organizations are not persons, animals are not persons [I exempt dogs from this judgment, of course], the environment is not a person, and most importantly for this discussion nation states are not persons.  Strictly speaking, no nation acts, and therefore it makes no sense, again strictly speaking, to judge that a nation’s acts have been moral or immoral, right or wrong, justified or unjustified.  People act, often claiming to act in the name of a nation, or by virtue of a position held in the government of a nation.  Almost impenetrable and unchallengeable mystifications conspire to make it seem as though nations or corporations or armies or churches are persons or possess personhood, that they, not the persons who occupy positions in them, act and can be judged to have acted rightly or wrongly.  But that appearance is always an illusion.

It makes perfectly good sense to make moral judgments about the actions of individuals, even those individuals who claim to have institutional authority by virtue of election, appointment, nomination and confirmation, divine election, or some other procedure supposedly conferring upon them rights not possessed by persons simpliciter, but those claim are always false.  Such persons may have what I called long ago de facto legitimate authority, but they never, ever have de jure legitimate authority.  That is to say, they may make those claims and succeed in getting them accepted by those against whom or with regard to whom they make the claims.  That can be described as conferring on them de facto legitimate authority.  But all such claims are always false, a fact which I try to express by the statement that no individual ever has de jure legitimate authority.

When a warplane belonging to the United States drops bombs on a battlefield area, destroying a field hospital, it is common to say that the United States has destroyed a field hospital.  People then argue about whether this act by the United States was morally justified or morally unjustified.  That is always a mystified and misleading way to speak.  The men and women flying the plane dropped the bombs, and they are morally responsible for doing so.  The men and women who ordered them to drop the bombs are morally responsible for issuing those orders.  The high command who ordered the bombing campaign are morally responsible for ordering that campaign.  The civilian individuals “in the chain of command” are morally responsible, as are all the individuals in the national administration who participated in the decision, including even the low level staffers who simply held the chairs for the big brass who sat at the table in the Situation Room.  The men and women who voted for the elected officials bear some moral responsibility.  And, most difficult of all to comprehend and acknowledge, so too do all the individual men and women who, by accepting the false claims of legitimate authority advanced by those claiming to possess authority by virtue of some process of election or appointment, strengthen those false claims and make it more likely that orders issued from on high will be obeyed all the way down to the men and women in the airplanes who actually press the buttons that cause the bombs to be dropped.

Almost four centuries ago, John Locke argued that the kings and queens of Europe were in a state of nature with one another because there was no social contract of nations analogous to the social contract of individuals about which he was writing.  This, and countless other writings over several millennia, have encouraged us to think of nations as super-persons, as it were, as unitary agents capable of making decisions and acting in ways that can be judged morally.  That is an illusion.  It was false when Locke wrote and it is false today.  America does not act, Google does not act, the Navy does not act, the Roman Catholic Church does not act, the NFL does not act, Ben and Jerry’s does not act [although of course Ben does and so does Jerry.]


If all this is true, as in fact it is, what then should each of us as an individual agent do?  Ah well, that is the real question, of course, but before we can address it, first we must clear away the illusions and mystifications of the state.  Then perhaps, as Portnoy’s analyst suggests in the very last line of the novel, we can begin.

THE FICKLE FINGER OF FATE

At three p.m. today the taxi comes to take us to the airport.  Before then, I hope to write a reply to Jerry Fresia and others.  But this morning, I have learned truly disastrous news.  DONALD J. TRUMP IS GOING TO PARIS TODAY!!!!   As I was taught long ago by old Marxists, there are no accidents in history.  Obviously Trump is doing this to torture me.  I must think deeply and divine the true world-historical meaning of this conjuncture.

RATS.