Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Saturday, December 16, 2017


The Editorial Board of USA TODAY has been basking in the praise it has received for writing, “A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush.”  I am all for condemnations of Trump, but when I read that editorial opinion, I found a thought coming unbidden to my mind. 

There will be toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library when it gets built.  Someone will have the job of cleaning them.  In Chicago, where the library will be located, I believe, that person will almost certainly be a Black man or woman, getting about as little pay as the law currently allows in Illinois.  If George W. Bush wears shoes that will take a shine, he may choose to have them shined, in which case that job, in Texas, will probably be done by a Latino man or woman.  There are tens of millions of men and women in America who are doing these and similar jobs for very little money.  They are decent, hard-working men and women who would, I am sure, like a raise, and my guess is that many of them take a certain pride in doing well the jobs they have.  The much-praised one-liner from USA TODAY clearly implies that only a low-type person would have one of those jobs, and Trump is not even that low – he is lower.  No one, after all, would think to write, “A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to perform brain surgery on Barack Obama or write a legal brief for George W. Bush.”

If we want to craft a progressive politics for the future, we might start right there.


In the Senate, Republican hold-outs caved, the appalling "tax" bill will pass, and House Republicans are preparing the way for an all-out assault on Mueller.  Meanwhile, popular opposition to Trump builds, and in eleven months, the Democrats will probably take control of the House and even, if everything falls into line, the Senate.  It feels as though we are approaching a crisis shortly after the new year.

Trump and the Republicans have done grave damage to the well-being of working-class Americans, but some at least of that danage can be repaired if the Democrats can retake control of the government.  

The ground level surge in progressive activism gives me some cause for hope, but I cannot deny that this country is very close to fascism.

As I approach my eighty-fourth birthday, now only eleven days away, it takes all of my energy to maintain hope and defeat despair.  

Thursday, December 14, 2017


William Kristol, whom I have hated for years [a hatred he inherited from his father and mother] made the following very interesting observation on an MSNBC talk show regarding the Alabama election.  As anyone knows who was watching the vote tallies, there were more write-in votes than Doug Jones' margin of victory -- somewhat more than 20,000 in all.  But there were no other races on the ballot.  That means that more than twenty thousand people went to the trouble of going to the polls simply in order not to vote for either Moore or Jones  Pretty clearly these were Republicans.  So they were so deeply opposed to Moore that, while unable to vote for a Democrat, they felt compelled to go out and not vote for Moore rather than just staying home.


Wednesday, December 13, 2017


As you know, I have been binge-watching a Turkish soap opera called Resurrection:Ertugrul, which features English subtitles.  In the episode I am now watching, one of the evil characters is represented as saying to the equally evil counselor to a rather naive Emir, "Only the weak nebbishes threaten, Commander Nasir."

Can anyone tell me the colloquial Turkish for "nebbish"?


No need to go on at length about Doug Jones' win in yesterday's Alabama special Senate election.  The turnout in the Black community was spectacular.  I especially liked the exit poll showing that women with children under eighteen living at home went big for Jones.  This is a Lysistrata moment.

With Jones replacing Luther Strange, we only need Susan Collins to flip and the tax bill is defeated.  Collins is flippable, since her excuse for voting aye was a series of promises from McConnell that the House Republicans have made it clear they will not honor.  But wait, you say.  The Senate will slow-walk Jones' seating until the tax bill passes.  No doubt.  But consider.  There are 48 Democratic Senators [47 without Franken].  Last time I checked, there were 24 hours in the day.  If each of those Democratic princes and princesses can bestir him or herself to deliver thirty minutes of random talk a day, the Democratic bloc can stage a collective filibuster that will stop passage of the bill until Jones is seated.  Couldn't McConnell kill the filibuster with a point of order that requires only a simple majority to overrule a pro forma ruling from the chair?  Yes, but there is a good deal of evidence that McConnell is unwilling to take that extreme step, since it would consign the Republicans to impotence the next time the Democrats seize control of the Senate.

At least it is worth a try.  What is wrong with the Democrats in the Senate?  [Do not flood the comments section with answers.]

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


As I returned to my file drawer of unpublished writings after a day in New York having meetings at Columbia, I came across an extended discussion, written I know not how many decades ago, about the epistemological questions posed by the writing of historiographical narratives.  I had quite forgotten that I had written this, but as I read through it, I reflected that these are issues in which I have been interested for sixty years.  Over the next day or two, I am going to reconstruct some of my thoughts in one or two extended posts.  Meanwhile, I await the reports of the voting now going on in Alabama.  This could be big.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


No posts tomorrow.  I shall be spending the day at Columbia University.  I shall explain when I get back.


For some years, there has been a fairly lengthy artiucle about me on Wikipedia.  When I looked at it today, I found it had been reduced to a single sentence.   It would appear that on October 2nd last, someone decided I had passed my sell by date.  sic transit gloria mundi.

Saturday, December 9, 2017


The Dozens is an African-American verbal competition in which men trade insults, each one more outrageous and exaggerated than the last, until one of the competitors gets off an insult so brilliant and over the top that the rest collapse in laughter and confess themselves beaten.  It is one example of the verbal imaginativeness and mastery of the Black community [other examples are Signifying, Loud Talking and of course Rap, as well as the musical variation, jazz riffing.]  But skill at spontaneous verbal competition is not restricted to African-Americans.  Here is a lovely British example I just came across on YouTube, courtesy of Monty Python.


Columbia University Professor of Graeco-Roman History, William Harris, 79, credibly accused of sexual harrassment of female graduate students over a thirty year period, has been severely punished by the University.  Columbia has reduced his teaching load.  That will teach him!  Here is the story in today's NY TIMES

Friday, December 8, 2017


A recent poll reveals that 71% of Alabama Republicans do not believe the many women who have accused Roy Moore of molesting them when they were girls.  This has been taken by cable news commentators as a sign of (1) excessive tribalism (2) inside the bubble thinking or (3) sheer stupidity.  I should like to offer an alternative explanation for this and many other instances of seemingly incomprehensible opinion poll results.

I begin by assuming that people generally are neither so stupid nor so ignorant as to be unable to negotiate everyday life.  Most Americans may not know quite where Syria is or what the nuclear triad is or what the difference is between a Sunni Muslim and a Shi’a Muslim, but they do know how to find their way to the grocery store and they may even be able to make spot repairs on an automotive vehicle.

So what is up?  Well, here is my thought.  It is not strictly true that 71% of Alabama Republicans think Roy Moore’s accusers are lying.  What is true is that 71% of the Alabama Republicans who agreed to respond to a pollster answered “no” when asked whether they believe Roy Moore’s accusers.  So what is the difference? you ask.  Quite a bit, I suggest.  [I am here drawing on a very interesting journal article written sixty years ago or more by David Riesman at the dawn of public opinion polling.]  When a Roy Moore supporter is asked that question by a pollster, he or she understands immediately and intuitively that what is really being asked is “Whom do you support?  Moore or Jones?”  If, as is quite possible, that person believes the women but supports Moore anyway, he or she will be perfectly well aware that saying so opens the way to accusations of sexism, immorality, a failure of religious faith, or – worst of all – being a backwoods know-nothing Southern yahoo.  The answer that springs most immediately to mind in that situation is f**k you!  But being polite, as Southerners tend to be, he or she just says “no.”

Just a thought.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


I have written here in the past about the jigsaw puzzles that I have become addicted to since Susie and I moved to Carolina Meadows.  When we arrived almost six months ago, the maven of the jigsaw table was Mary Anne Clarkson, who has sadly passed away.  This morning, Susie and I finally completed our greatest challenge, an extremely difficult 1008 piece puzzle depicting the twelve signs of the Zodiak.  Here is the picture I took when we finished.


If you look very closely, you will see that one piece is missing.  This is not a Zen thing.  It just got lost.


So I write a post about the BLS Statistical Abstract, and LFC delicately points out that the last  time I alluded to that treasure trove of data, he informed me that it is no longer published.  I am such a schmuck.  My apologies to one and all.  Now, if I could just find my glasses ...

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


In his classic eighteenth century work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon identified the end of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Dark Ages as 476 a.d., the year that Romulus, the emperor of the Western Empire, was defeated by Odoacer.  [It is easy to remember the year of publication of Gibbon’s vast tome because it was the year in which David Hume died – 1776.  – a little Philosophers’ joke.]  This periodization was pretty much accepted by European historians until the early years of the 20th century, when the great Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, advanced a new and controversial thesis, namely that it was not the fall of Rome in the fifth century but the expansion of Islam in the late seventh and early eight century, allowing them to take control of Mediterranean shipping, that plunged Europe into the Dark Ages.

My first teaching job, in 1958, was an Instructorship at Harvard requiring me to co-teach a big General Education course devoted to European history from Caesar to Napoleon.  Since I knew absolutely nothing about European history [or American history, for that matter] I spent several frantic months reading 20,000 pages of European history to prepare.  Among the books I read was Pirenne’s 1937 work Mohammed and Charlemagne, in which he put forward what came to be known as the Pirenne thesis.

What struck me most powerfully about Pirenne’s bold thesis was how scanty his evidence was for it.  A scattering of sixth century references to Mediterranean trade sufficed to sustain his claim that European trade with North Africa continued well past 476 a.d.  That was coupled with a passage or two from Gregory of Tours’ sixth century pot boiler, A History of the Franks.  A complete rewriting of the history of Europe on the basis of a handful of data points!

All of which initiated what has been my lifelong fascination with the difference in explanatory models employed by historians with too much data [such as historians of the French Revolution] as contrasted with historians with too little data.

Many years after I had left Harvard, I began my deep study of the thought of Karl Marx, and this led me to the discovery of the bottomless ocean of facts and figures called The Statistical Abstract of the United States, published annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, a branch of the Department of Labor.  [Here is the official description from their website: “First published in 1878, the Statistical Abstract serves as the official federal summary of statistics and provides over 1,400 tables of benchmark measures on the demographic, housing, social, political, and economic condition of the United States.”]

I have often reflected that historians of medieval Europe would sell their souls for one page from one year of a Statistical Abstract of Burgundy or Provence or Tuscany or London from the eighth or tenth or thirteenth century.  By contrast, historians of the French Revolution or the First World War or the New Deal have so much information available to them that they are compelled to make choices in what documents they read, choices that inevitably embody theoretical presuppositions and ideological biases.

These reflections and recollections were prompted by the current discussions of the hideous tax bill now grinding its way through the Congress on its way, almost certainly, to passage before Christmas.  It is impossible, from anecdotal evidence alone, to form any accurate picture of the economic condition of Americans, just as it is impossible to learn much about the lives of ninth century Burgundian peasants from a handful of documents and some paintings and artifacts.  But the BLS gives us precise information on thousands of subjects.  Let me cite a few statistics I extracted from BLS spreadsheets in half an hour of Googling [in the old days, I would order the annual Statistical Abstract every year, but I long ago discontinued that practice.]

First of all, since I have spent my life in the Academy, some facts about educational attainment.  In 1950, the year I started my education as a Freshman at Harvard, only 6% of adult Americans 25 or older had a four year Bachelor’s degree.  So few people went to college that High Schools graduated kids twice a year, in January and in June.  Fifty-five years later, in 2015, that percentage had soared to 32.5%, which means that even after that rise, more than two-thirds of adult Americans do NOT have college degrees.  As I have observed on this blog in the past, that means that two out of every three adult Americans cannot even aspire to a job as a doctor, a lawyer, a management trainee at a large corporation, an FBI agent, a High School, Middle School, or Elementary School teacher, and in many cities, not as a police officer either.  I am not saying that two-thirds of Americans do not have those jobs; I am saying they cannot hope to have those jobs.

The data on median individual and household earnings are equally striking.  In 2014 [not much changes from year to year], median weekly earnings for workers employed full time were $668 for those with only a High School diploma or the equivalent, but $1193 for those with a B.A. or better.  As anyone knows who lives in this country and pays the bills, that is a world of difference.  Notice: these are median earnings.  That means that fully half of the just-HS workers make less than that.  The proportional gap for household income is even more striking.  Households in which the highest educational attainment of any of the workers in the household is a High School diploma had a median annual income last year of $43,331, while households in which the median income for households in which at least one person had a B.A. was $90,368!

The American people are, as a whole, considerably poorer than you might imagine from public discussions of tax code rewrites and such, and they have, as a whole, considerably less in the way of educational attainments.  The graduates of the least noteworthy among America’s two thousand BA-granting campuses are still, as a group, vastly better off than the two-thirds of Americans who have not graduated from a four year college or university at all.

Well, this is the sort of information that some idle Googling reveals, thanks to the BLS.  How Henri Pirenne, Fustel de Coulanges, Marc Bloch and their colleagues would have loved to have access to such information for the fabled Middle Ages!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


Robert Mueller, it is reported, has issued a subpoena to Deutsche Bank for records relating to Trump's finances.  Things are looking up.

Sunday, December 3, 2017


To pass the time and take my mind off the horrors that unfold daily in our proto-fascist country, I have been binge-watching on Netflix a Turkish [!!] TV serial called Resurrection: Ertugrul.  I am currently watching episode 13, but never fear, it seems there are 72 of them in all.  This is apparently an enormously popular Turkish TV show, watched by an implausibly large percentage of the entire population of our NATO ally.  The show is about a small nomadic tribe of 13th century folks who make their living by herding sheep and weaving blankets.  The hero is a handsome, upstanding moderately bearded member of the tribe named Ertugrul, who is the son of the Bey, or leader, of the tribe.  The love interest is an attractive young woman named Halime who shows up in the tribe’s campgrounds with her father and young brother and quickly captures Ertugrul’s heart, to the dismay of a local beauty who has her hopes set on him.  The entire show is in Turkish, but there are English subtitles [and also subtitles available in a dozen other languages.]  The subtitles are a hoot, since they are filled with the sorts of grammatical mistakes that a rushed and not entirely fluent English speaking translator might make.

After watching three or four episodes, I got curious as to whether these characters were actually based on historical figures. Wikipedia supplied the answer.  Ertugrul and Halime were the parents of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire [that settled the question whether the two of them would end up together, robbing the series of some of its suspense, at least for me.]  This show is clearly a cultural part of Turkey’s current turn toward Islam and away from NATO and the West.

In Episode 11 or so, one of the villains, a Roman Catholic churchman and supporter of the Templars, who are contemplating another Crusade, goes to a bookstore [or so it seems to be] in Aleppo, where he encounters a distinguished elderly man with a full white beard [all the Muslims have beards except the very young men, and of course the women].  He asks the shop’s proprietor whether he has a certain book, and is told “of course.”  When he offers to buy it, the elderly chap gives it to him as a gift, and says, “I wrote it.”  As the villain is leaving with the book, he turns to his flunkey and says, “That man is Ibn Arabi.” 

A tone of awe in the villain’s voice led me to look up Ibn Arabi.  Well, as some of you doubtless know but I did not, Ibn Arabi is one of the most famous figures of all Islam, a Sufi mystic who wrote countless works and plays a central role in Muslim religious and intellectual history.  It is a bit like watching a shlock technicolor historical flick in which Charlton Heston, playing a Roman centurion, meets an old Jew in Jerusalem who says he is a follower of Jesus and his name is Peter.

Obviously everyone in Turkey knows all of this and gets a little thrill from such moments.  Great fun.


I have often observed that in this world I am a Tigger, not an Eeyore.  Let me offer a bit of wreckage for you to grab on to in this tsunami of bad economic news from the Senate.  You can cling to this for nine days, barely keeping your head above water.  If Roy Moore loses the Senate race in Alabama [deo volente], then a single Republican defection during the vote on the compromise emerging from the House-Senate conference will sink the tax bill.  Since the Senate version is loaded with ad hoc additions, each designed to snag a particular recalcitrant Republican senator, McConnell may not be able to carry the conference report across the finish line.

At my age, nine days of hope is not to be sneezed at.

Saturday, December 2, 2017


I am so depressed by the cruel, destructive money grab passed last night by the Senate that I cannot even take pleasure in the Flynn guilty plea.  It would, in times like these, be comforting to believe in an avenging God.  When I recover my composure, I would like to write something about the role that norms of honor and public morality would have to play in a socialist society.  

Friday, December 1, 2017


First, to Matt’s report that a Google search reveals a goodly number of printed references to the article I said had been ignored.  My principal response is:  WOW!  WHO KNEW?  Well, I would, if I ever bothered to read what other people write.  I knew about John Roemer, of course, a super bright mathematically very sophisticated Marxist who wrote a reply to my article at the time [well worth reading.]  But I had no idea anyone else had noticed it.  Thank you, Matt. You have made an old man happy.

About bitcoins.  I read up on them once but know next to nothing about them.  The article linked to is great fun, and basically correct about Marx.  I recommend it.  Bitcoins raise very interesting questions about the nature of money, a subject that interested me a good deal for a while, and about which I wrote a lengthy and unsuccessful analytical paper for my files [nothing I would ever want to share.]  Early in my explorations of mathematical economics, I noticed the curious fact that in General Equilibrium systems of equations there did not seem to be any variable for money.  I pointed this out to a UMass economics graduate student who was taking the Mathematical Microeconomics course I was sitting in on, and he looked at me as though I were an idiot and said, “But of course not!”  It struck me that a super-sophisticated model of a capitalist economy with no place for money probably had a few conceptual flaws, but I knew enough to keep my mouth shut.

Thursday, November 30, 2017


As I continued my excavation of my file drawer of unpublished papers, I came upon a 6,500 essay entitled “Exploitation and Surplus Labor,” which I had quite forgotten writing.  It is clearly a working paper that led to my 1981 journal article, “A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx’s Labor Theory of Value,” which is archived in, accessible via a link at the top of this blog.  The 1981 journal article, which I have just re-read, is, I think, the technically most advanced thing I have every written about Marx, and I flatter myself that it is entirely original and even, dare I say it, important.  But I made the tactical mistake of publishing it in Philosophy and Public Affairs.  That journal was read principally by philosophers, most of whom were not equipped to understand the long stretches of linear algebra that I employ in making my argument.  As a result [or so I like to tell myself] it has received no attention at all by serious students of the thought of Marx.  The working paper has no math in it at all to speak of but it explores many of the same themes and ideas.

I don’t suppose there is anything I can do to thrust my journal article into modern discussions of Marx.  Should anyone want to read it, it lies ready in    As for the working paper, I scanned and converted it without success, but as a .pdf file it is easily readable.  I have uploaded the .pdf file to box under the title “Marx Working Paper,” and if anyone wishes to read it, I would be very interested in reactions or comments.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


I           The Unresolved Problem of the Grundlegung

            The announced aim of Kant's moral philosophy, as stated most clearly and unambiguously in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, is to discover unconditionally valid principles of practical reason. Kant conceives his task as falling into three parts, exactly corresponding to the three Sections of the Foundations. First, he must identify and state the Moral Law, the highest principle of practical reason, by which all rational agents, merely in virtue of being rational agents, are bound.  Secondly, he must demonstrate that the Highest Moral Principle can be derived, entirely a priori, from a conceptual analysis of Practical Reason. Finally, in light of the teaching of the First Critique, Kant must connect up his conclusions concerning the principles guiding the choices of rational agents with our experience of ourselves as causally determined beings in the realm of appearance.

            In sum, then, the Foundations attempts to identify and state the principle governing the actions of rational agents; to derive that principle from an a priori analysis of rational agency, thereby proving that all rational agents, simply in virtue of their rational agency, necessarily act out of respect for that principle; and to demonstrate that we, as conditioned beings in the realm of appearance, must act as though we know ourselves to be rational agents, even though such knowledge is, strictly speaking, unavailable to us.

            It is, of course, a matter of considerable controversy whether Kant succeeds in achieving all three, or indeed any, of these goals. The first is the least controversial, for it merely involves showing that Kant and his audience of North Prussian Pietists share a belief in a particularly rigoristic formalism. The achievement of the third goal, involving as it does the entire complex metaphysical and epistemological theoretical structure of the First Critique, is best left to one side in a discussion such as this. But the second of Kant's undertakings warrants our closest attention, for it is here that we find the greatest controversy arising among students of Kant's moral philosophy.

            The controversy surrounding Kant's derivation of the Categorical Imperative concerns not the validity of the derivation but its significance. Many students of Kant's philosophy, and more broadly many students of moral and political philosophy, will readily grant that some principle of formal consistency of willing can be derived a priori from an analysis of agency and rationality as such.   What makes Kant's moral theory so controversial, especially in regard to his second undertaking, is the extraordinary claim that the purely a priori formal principle of consistency in willing is sufficient to identify, from among the host of possible moral rules, just those which reason commands, and which therefore constitute the substance of morality.

            Kant actually tries three times in the Foundations to establish the universal validity of unconditional moral principles. The first attempt is the famous four examples of the Categorical Imperative.  Kant's arguments against suicide and self-indulgent laziness are hopelessly inadequate. Both make explicit and utterly unjustified appeal to the supposed objective natural purpose of some human capacity or psychological tendency. The argument concerning ungenerosity is rather interesting, but it is ultimately inadequate. For a variety of reasons, most scholarly and philosophical attention has focused on the second argument, concerning false promising.

            The standard reconstruction of the false promising example, with which I entirely agree, is to construe promising as a social practice defined by a system of implicit, but clearly understood, rules, among which rather prominently featured is a rule against false promising. On this view, when I utter the words "I promise" in the appropriate social context, I am implicitly endorsing, or committing myself to, or willing, in Kant's language, the entire system of rules that constitute the practice of promising. But it takes only a little reflection to recognize that the injunction against false promising is not actually a categorical substantive moral command. Rather, it is hypothetical in form. What Kant's argument, suitably reconstructed, demonstrates is that false promising is incompatible with the practice of promise-making, from which it follows that we must, in all consistency, choose either not to endorse, participate in, and commit ourselves to the practice of promising or else choose not to make false promises. But there is nothing in Kant's argument to dissuade us from forswearing the institution of promising altogether. The crucial point is that Kant has no plausible a priori argument in support of the claim that a rational agent will necessarily enter into the practice of promising, or more generally into whatever overarching practice is implicit in the truthful use of language, from which the obligation in particular to participate in the practice of promise-making might be derived. In effect, Kant is at this point in his exposition unwittingly assuming that the agents of whom he is speaking have some minimal commitment to honorable social interaction with which, as he quite rightly argues, false promising is logically incompatible. To the thorough reprobate who simply rejects such a commitment, however, Kant has no valid objection.

            Thus, Kant's first two attempts to extract substantive moral principles from his purely formal analysis of rational willing fail because of two fundamental problems: First, his failure to demonstrate that rational agents have a standing, unconditional obligation to enter into, or participate in, rule-governed social practices in the context of which the notion of contradictory willing can be fleshed out and given substance; and Second, his failure to identify obligatory ends, adoption of which follows necessarily from the mere fact of being a rational agent, and the existence of which would, in a different but equivalent way, provide substantial content for the purely formal principle of consistency in willing. Kant's third attempt in the Foundations is directed precisely at compensating for both of these failures - namely, his invocation of the social contract tradition of political theory under the guise of what he calls a "Realm of Ends."

       By "realm" I understand the systematic union of different rational beings through common laws. Because laws determine ends with regard to their universal validity, if we abstract from the personal difference of rational beings and thus from all content of their private ends, we can think of a whole of all ends in systematic connection, a whole of rational beings as ends in themselves as well as of the particular ends that each may set for himself. This is a realm of ends, which is possible on the aforesaid principles. For all rational beings stand under the law that each of them should treat himself and all others never merely as means but in every case also as an end in himself. Thus there arises a systematic union of rational beings through common objective laws. This is a realm that may be called a realm of ends (certainly only an ideal), because what these laws have in view is just the relation of these beings to each other as ends and means.
A rational being belongs to the realm of ends as a member when he gives universal laws in it while also himself subject to these laws. He belongs to it as sovereign when he, as legislating, is subject to the will of no other. The rational being must regard himself always as legislative in a realm of ends possible through the freedom of the will, whether he belongs to it as member or as sovereign. He cannot maintain the latter position merely through the maxims of his will but only when he is a completely independent being without need and with power adequate to his will.

       Morality, therefore, consists in the relation of every action to that legislation through which alone a realm of ends is possible. It must be able to arise from his will, whose principle then is to take no action according to any maxim which would be inconsistent with its being a universal law and thus to act only so that the will through its maxims could regard itself at the same time as universally lawgiving.

            This language is, of course, a direct echo of Rousseau's characterization of the republic brought into existence by the social contract. It specifies the procedure by which a collection of self-interested individuals can transform themselves into a republic by entering into the mutual agreement referred to as a social contract.

            At the close of the Foundations, despite Kant's introduction of the evocative notion of humanity as an end in itself, and his invocation of a Rousseauean conception of a republic regulated by a social contract, we are left with the two problems outlined earlier: First, how to demonstrate that rational agents as such must, in all consistency, enter into collective agreements that establish structures of social practices in the context of which substantial meaning can be given to the notion of contradictory willing; and Second, how to demonstrate that rational agents who have thus constituted themselves a realm of ends or republic will, qua rational, arrive at a single universal, necessary, and therefore objective set of substantive laws as the content of their collective rational willing.

            Kant's most successful attempt to solve these two problems appears not in the Foundations but in the Metaphysics o f Morals for which the earlier work is intended as a foundation or groundwork. Before turning to that text, however, it might be worth pausing for a moment to observe the relationship between the unresolved problems just stated and the work of the most prominent contemporary political theorist, John Rawls. In his widely read work, A Theory of Justice, Rawls undertakes to demonstrate that rationally self-interested individuals, placed in a situation designed to mimic that of noumenal agents, will necessarily choose to commit themselves to a set of general principles regulating the basic structure of any society of which they may be members. By virtue of the conditions of deliberation - characterized fancifully by Rawls as consisting in a "veil of ignorance" - the choices made by these individuals will be universal and necessary, hence objective, and will at the same time be sufficiently specific to yield substantive social imperatives.

            Rawls' treatment differs fundamentally from that of Kant, of course, inasmuch as Rawls posits rationally self-interested, which is to say in Kant's language heteronymous, individuals.  Nevertheless, as Rawls has refined and revised his theory, he has moved more and more in the direction of a Kantian reinterpretation of his central ideas. Rawls' theory is a good deal more technically sophisticated than Kant's, involving as it does notions drawn from modern neo-classical economic theory and the branch of mathematics known as Game Theory. But, not surprisingly, Kant's theory is a great deal more profound than Rawls', for whereas Rawls posits a society of rationally self-interested agents, thereby giving up entirely any attempt to identify unconditional principles of morality, Kant holds firm to the idea of rational agents as such, abstracting even from their self-interest, and appealing only to what can be derived from their character as agents, which is to say from the fact that they possess practical reason.

II.        The Resolution of the Problem in the Rechtslehre

            It is in Part I of the Metaphysics of Morals, the "Theory of Right" or "Theory of Justice" [Rechtslehre] that Kant finally mounts a full-scale frontal assault on the problems left unresolved at the end of the Foundations. This fact - assuming for a moment that my reading of the situation is correct - has a very interesting significance. Contrary to Kant's own conception of the relationship between his moral and political theory, it would appear that they are not separate and co-equal branches of the Metaphysics of Morals. Rather, they are a single integrated theory, in which the central thesis of the political theory is required to complete the argument of the moral theory. In this regard, it is suggestive to compare Kant both with Rousseau, who influenced him, and with Rawls, whom he in turn influenced.

            Kant begins the Rechtslehre by introducing the concept of justice. In a section entitled "What is Justice?" he writes:
       The concept of justice, insofar as it relates to an obligation corresponding to it (that is, the moral concept of justice), applies [only under the following conditions]. First, it applies only to the external and - what is more - practical relationship of one person to another in which their actions can exert an influence on each other (directly or indirectly). Second, the concept applies only to the relationship of a will to another person's will, not to his wishes or desires (or even just his needs), which are the concern of acts of benevolence and charity. Third, the concept of justice does not take into consideration the matter of the will, that is, the end that a person intends to accomplish by means of the object that he wills; for example, we do not ask whether someone who buys wares from me for his own business will profit from the transaction. Instead, in applying the concept of justice we take into consideration only the form of the relationship between the wills insofar as they are regarded as free, and whether the action of one of them can be conjoined with the freedom of the other in accordance with a universal law.
       Justice is therefore the aggregate of those conditions under which the will of one person can be conjoined with the will of another in accordance with a universal law of freedom.

Thus, as Kant states two paragraphs later, "the universal law of justice is: act externally in such a way that the free use of your will is compatible with the freedom of everyone according to a universal law."

            Kant glosses this, almost immediately, as follows:

[T]he concept of justice can be held to consist immediately of the possibility of the conjunction of universal reciprocal coercion with the freedom of everyone. Just as justice in general has as its object only what is external in actions, so strict justice, inasmuch as it contains no ethical elements, requires no determining grounds of the will besides those that are purely external, for only then is it pure and not confused with any prescriptions of virtue.

            There are a number of problems in Kant's doctrine here, arising principally from his insistence on speaking as though the distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal [or the internal and the external, as he puts it here] can actually be drawn within experience. All such claims, implicit or otherwise, are, of course, strictly incompatible with the teaching of the First Critique.  The real difficulty for my present purposes is the fact that this conception of justice as justified universal reciprocal coercion does not provide the unconditional a priori substantive content for moral principles for which we are searching.

            The problem, very simply, is that despite the appearance of Kant's formulation, which is cast in categorical language, the injunction is still hypothetical. IF you choose to coerce others, THEN you yourself must submit to a like coercion. Note, by the way, that it is as yet unclear how narrowly this injunction constrains us, even should we choose to coerce. It would appear that there is a very wide range of reciprocal coercions compatible with the injunction, including some that Kant would presumably not find attractive. For example, would his principle be compatible with a system of laws that authorizes blood feuds and duels?

            But even if Kant can demonstrate that a group of individuals, by committing themselves to the fundamental principle of justice, thereby so severely constrain their subsequent legislative choices that only a single system of laws is compatible with that principle, that system will still have a merely hypothetical status, for it will command only those who have chosen to enter into the social contract. What Kant needs - what he has needed from the very start - is an argument designed to show that failure to enter a social contract can only issue from an internal contradiction in willing. In short, Kant must show that a rational agent as such necessarily seeks to enter into a social contract, and does so as soon as possible.

            To return for a moment to the failed example of false promising from the Foundations, if Kant could show that the institution of promising is required by the fundamental principle of justice [not, one would imagine, too difficult a task], and if Kant could also show that a rational agent as such necessarily enters a social contract, then he could conclude that rational agents as such are not only, in all consistency, required by mere reason alone to keep such promises as they make, but that they are also required, by the dictates of a priori reason, to adopt the practice of promise-making. He then really could conclude, as he wishes to, that false promising is an example of contradictory willing all the way down.

            I do not believe that Kant accomplishes these extraordinary tasks. If I did, I would, in all consistency, forthwith embrace his ethical theory. But I think I can show that he makes an extremely imaginative stab at the second of them in the Rechtslehre, where, as I shall suggest, he advances an argument designed to show that we have an unconditional obligation to enter a social contract.

            The key to his argument is the concept of property.
An object is mine de jure (meum juris) if I am so bound to it that anyone else who uses it without my consent thereby injures me. The subjective condition of the possibility of the use of an object is possession.
       An external thing is mine, however, only if I can assume that it is still possible for me to be injured by someone else's use of the thing even when it is not in my possession. Consequently, there would be a self-contradiction in the concept of possession if it did not have two meanings, namely sensible possession and intelligible possession- Sensible possession means the physical possession of an object, whereas intelligible possession means the purely de jure possession of the same object.

Kant goes on to discuss the distinction between sensible and intelligible possession in ways that are thoroughly problematic, involving as they seem to the legitimacy of a distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal within experience. We can leave that difficulty aside for our purposes, for it is of course the concept of intelligible possession, or possession de jure, that is relevant. Almost immediately, Kant states what he calls the Juridical Postulate of Practical Reason, which asserts that "it must be possible to have any and every external object of my will as my property."  In other words, as Kant explains, "a maxim according to which, if it were made into a law, an object of will would have to be in itself (objectively) ownerless (res nullius) conflicts with Law and justice.”

            Before analyzing how Kant justifies this postulate, and uses it to accomplish his fundamental aim in his moral theory, it is worth pausing to remind ourselves just what is being claimed here, for a great deal of contemporary importance is at stake. It is not too much to say that Kant is here laying the groundwork for the refutation of all manner of environmentalist and ecological doctrines, as well as a number of nationalist doctrines based upon a conception of the objectively privileged territory, homeland, or place of a people. Kant himself, of course, is looking backward, not forward. His intention is to destroy the last vestiges of feudalism, and lay the groundwork for a thoroughly rational commodification of natural objects.

            What the principle says is that anything can, in principle, be someone's possession. There is nothing unownable. It does not follow, needless to say, that everything is actually owned; only that there is nothing - no tree, no river, no plot of land, no species of animal or plant, no planet, no solar system - that by its nature resists ownership, that is such that it cannot be the rightful possession of some individual or group of individuals. And possession here implies rightful use of the possessed thing, by the owner, in pursuit of the owner's purposes, and also alienation or legal transfer of the possession of the possessed thing to another rational agent.

            Needless to say, this conception flies in the face of the pre-capitalist traditions against which Kant is arguing. To suggest that the Earl of Northumberland owns Northumberland, and can sell it to the King of France, should he choose, is fundamentally to undermine the notion of hereditary family possession implied in the familiar allusion to the Earl as simply "Northumberland," as in one of Shakespeare's plays. Donald Trump, on the other hand, can perfectly well sell the Trump Shuttle to Delta, should he find himself a bit short of cash.

            In a more modern vein, any suggestion that the human race stands in a symbiotic, or fiduciary, or other moral relationship to nature is completely incompatible with Kant's Postulate. Equally incompatible, of course, is any form of religious or quasi-religious privileging of species or things other than the human species or other species of rational agents, should they exist. In the coin of Kant's Realm of Ends, the principle "Treat humanity always as an end, and never simply as a means" is inscribed on the obverse. On the reverse, however, is found the correlative principle, "Anything else may be treated as a means only."

            Kant now offers an extremely strong interpretation of the concept of intelligible possession. "A thing is externally mine," he says, "if it is such that any prevention of my use of it would constitute an injury to me even if it is not in my possession (that is, I am not the holder of the object)." What Kant is speaking of here, as he indicates immediately, is intelligible possession, or de jure possession. The language might lead us to conclude that Kant is deliberately trying to construct a justification for the most thoroughgoingly unregulated period of capitalist expansion, but that would be a trifle hasty, I think. Kant's Postulate is perfectly compatible with positive legislation to constrain the ways in which property owners deal with their property - zoning laws, and so forth. What the Postulate says is that all such laws must be acts of a legislature constituted by a social contract. They cannot be deduced, independently of legitimate legislation, from the nature of the objects themselves. It is not that an owner must be allowed to do with his or her property whatever he or she wills, but that such freedom must at least be possible, in order for there to be de jure possession.

            Having defined the concept of de jure possession, Kant immediately makes what is for him, by this late stage in the unfolding of his system, an entirely predictable move. He asks for a deduction of the concept of purely de jure possession of an external object [what he calls, parenthetically, possessio noumenon). That is to say, he seeks to show that the concept finds legitimate employment, indeed must find legitimate employment, within the realm of experience.

            Put as simply and clearly as I am able, Kant's argument for the possibility of de jure possession is this: Since I am a phenomenal being - since I am, in other words, a rational agent that manifests its agency in the realm of appearance - my will at least potentially requires the cooperation of nature for the fulfillment of its purposes, whatever they may turn out to be. Even if I adopt the extreme stoicism of an Epictetus, seeking only virtue and not the powers or pleasures of the world, nevertheless I shall find myself compelled to employ some portions of nature as means to my ends.

But the laws of nature are such that I can use a portion of nature as a means to my ends only by appropriating it, and thereby excluding others from a like appropriation of those same portions. In short, for the accomplishment of what I will, for the enactment of my maxims, I require property.

            Were I an incorporeal being, not manifesting my agency in space and time, I might have neither the need for, nor indeed the possibility of, property. Imagine, for example, that I were merely a noumenal rational agent whose acts consisted in the contemplation of pure ideas or the endless elaboration of the relationships among abstract logical constructs.  In that case, my appropriation of modus ponens or the law of the excluded middle would in no way exclude others, for the contemplation of a timeless truth of logic does not require that others be denied its use or enjoyment. But because we are phenomenal beings whose agency is manifested in space and time, my appropriation at least potentially excludes you.

            Kant's argument thus far can be summarized in a series of conditionals, preceded by a declarative assertion that comes as close as he thinks possible to the flat claim that I am a rational agent. The argument looks like this:

1.         Insofar as I act, I must assume, though I cannot know it, that I am a rational agent, which is to say, that I am free. [This is the conclusion of the Third Section of the Foundations.]

2.         If I am a rational agent, then willing an end, I necessarily will the means. [This, Kant has persuasively argued in the Second Section of the Foundations, is analytic.]

3.         If I will the means to the fulfillment of my ends, then, as a phenomenal being - one whose agency is manifested in the realm of appearance - I must legitimately appropriate, which is to say take de jure possession of - portions of the spatiotemporal realm as means.

4.         If I must take de jure possession of some portion of the spatio-temporal realm as means, then it must be possible for me to do so. What is more, there must be, in principle, no portion of the natural world that it is not possible for me to possess, inasmuch as there is nothing in the nature of willing as such that places limits on what might, according to the laws of nature, serve as means to my ends.

            From all of which it follows that de jure possession must be possible.

The question remains, however: How is de jure possession possible? What is required for such legitimate possession to be actual?  Locke, of course, had begged this question in the Second Treatise of Government by simply asserting the right of property as a truth revealed by the natural light of reason. But Kant, correctly in my view, recognizes that this is a radically unsatisfactory grounding for the right of property. Instead, like both Hobbes and Rousseau before him, Kant grounds the right to property in a prior mutual agreement, or social contract, among all those who, in the pursuit of their ends, may come into conflict with one another in the appropriation of portions of nature.

            Legitimate ownership involves the exclusion of others from the use and enjoyment of a portion of nature, an exclusion that may be instituted by force if necessary. Such a use of force, Kant argues, if in all consistency universalized, entails mutual constraints among all the members of a society - where society here can be understood quite simply as the totality of persons who, in the pursuit of their ends, are likely to interfere with one another. So Kant concludes that the possibility of property entails the existence of a social contract.

            And now Kant concludes his argument in a strikingly bold and imaginative fashion. The central text is §8 of the First Chapter of the First Part of the Rechtslehre. Here it is in its entirety:

       When I declare (by word or deed), "I will that an external thing shall be mine," I thereby declare it obligatory for everyone else to refrain from the object of my will. This is an obligation that no one would have apart from this juridical act of mine. Included in this claim, however, is an acknowledgment of being reciprocally bound to everyone else to a similar and equal restraint with respect to what is theirs. The obligation involved here comes from a universal rule of the external juridical relationship [that is, says the translator, the civil society]. Consequently, I am not bound to leave what is another's untouched if everyone else does not in turn guarantee to
me with regard to what is mine that he will act in accordance with exactly the same principle. This guarantee does not require a special juridical act, but is already contained in the concept of being externally bound to a duty on account of the universality, and hence also the reciprocity, of an obligation coming from a universal rule.

       Now, with respect to an external and contingent possession, a unilateral Will cannot serve as a coercive law for everyone, since that would be a violation of freedom in accordance with universal laws. Therefore, only a Will binding everyone else - that is, a collective, universal (common), and powerful Will - is the kind of Will that can provide the guarantee required. The condition of being subject to general external (that is, public) legislation that is backed by power is the civil society. Accordingly, a thing can be externally yours or mine only in a civil society.

[And now, Kant concludes with a dramatic flourish:]

       Conclusion: If it must be de jure possible to have an external object as one's own, then the subject must also be allowed to compel everyone else with whom he comes into conflict over the question of whether such an object is his to enter, together with him, a society under a civil constitution.

            The conclusion of the argument prior to this point, you will recall, was that de jure possession must be possible, or, as Kant puts it in the text before us, "it must be de jure possible to have an external object as one's own." Combining this with the conclusion of the argument just quoted, we can now conclude that it must be allowed to compel others to enter with one into a society under a civil constitution. Since this necessity is universal, it of course follows that others have an equal right to compel me to enter civil society.

            We can now see that in the text of the Rechtslehre, Kant finally provides what was missing from the argument of the Foundations, namely a demonstration that such obligations as faithful promising are not hypothetically, but are rather categorically, imperative.

            Kant's argument is open to criticism at every stage, of course, though it is nonetheless, in my estimation, extremely interesting. Before sketching some of those criticisms, let me call attention once again to an implication of the argument that goes directly counter to the most common impression concerning Kant's ethical theory. Kant is generally viewed as a rigorist, an objectivist, a universalist, a theorist who claims to be able to demonstrate a priori the universal validity of very powerful moral principles that are binding on all agents regardless of their nature or circumstances. And this impression is quite correct. But readers of Kant almost always draw the natural conclusion that he believes these moral principles to be binding on us even in the absence of a legitimately established state. In the familiar language of liberal political theory, Kant is seen as siding with Locke on the question whether the moral law is binding on agents in a state of nature. But it should now be clear that Kant's argument actually entails the opposite conclusion. The procedural obligation to enter into a social contract is certainly binding upon agents in a state of nature, but the moral principles enacted into law by the Legislature of a state thus established are binding only after, and on the condition of, the establishment of the legitimate state.

            Kant clearly does not intend this consequence of his moral theory. Quite to the contrary. But his failure to provide a satisfactory theory of obligatory ends forces anyone wishing to embrace his moral theory to rely upon the legislation of the legitimate state as the only source of morally binding substantive principles of practical reason.

            And this leads us ineluctably to the question sketched above, whether a legitimately established state, based upon a unanimous social contract and committed to embodying the fundamental principle of justice in its laws, is thereby constrained to a single structure of justice that thus constitutes the objective, universal, unconditionally binding system of principles of practical reason?  This, I take it, is essentially the question originally posed by John Rawls in the earlier versions of his theory, before he drained it of its force and interest by an endless series of ad hoc adjustments, concessions, baroque elaborations, and qualifications.

            If the answer to the question is yes - if, let us say, a legitimately established republic of rational agents in search of principles compatible with the fundamental postulate of justice must necessarily come upon and agree to Rawls' Two Principles of Justice - then by combining Kant's argument and Rawls', we would have a very powerful defense indeed of a universal system of moral principles. The argument, in a nutshell, would go like this:

1.         Rationality as such entails consistent willing.
2.         Consistent willing, for a phenomenally appearing agent, entails the possibility of property.
3.         The possibility of property entails the necessity of establishing a state through a social contract.
4.         A legitimate state composed of rational agents will necessarily enact one and only one set of fundamental principles of justice, namely the Two Principles of Justice.
5.         Therefore, we are all, as phenomenally appearing rational agents, obligated universally and unconditionally to form legitimately grounded political communities with those with whom we come into contact, and in those communities to enact the Two Principles of Justice as the fundamental laws governing our interactions.

            There are three stages in this argument: the derivation of the requirement of consistent willing from an analysis of what it is to be an agent; the deduction of the necessity of entering a social contract from an analysis of the preconditions of property; and the demonstration that reason dictates one and only one system of principles as the content of a legitimate state.

            My own view is that the first stage in the argument, which as I have indicated we find in the pivotal portion of the Second Section of the Foundations, is essentially sound. To be an agent is to be moved by reasons, and the logic of reasons requires consistency of willing. What counts as a good reason for me necessarily counts as a good reason for any agent in relevantly similar circumstances.

            The third stage of the argument, I am convinced, is mistaken. Neither Rawls nor anyone else has, to my knowledge, made a convincing case for the claim that free and equal rational agents must, insofar as they are rational, coordinate on a single system of substantive principles regulating their interactions with one another.

            It is the second stage that I find especially interesting, in part, I confess, because I have managed to make it clear to myself only recently. Can the material circumstances of human existence - our spatio-temporality, our dependence for the pursuit of our ends on inanimate nature - ground an argument that we have a standing procedural obligation to attempt rational community with those agents with whom we interact?  Can we, as Kant
claims, compel such rational community?

            I think we can conclude immediately that we cannot compel others to enter with us in a social contract, for the essence of such an agreement is that it represents mutual willing, and that implies that it is voluntary. But am I required, simply by the constraints of rational consistency, to seek such community with others, or is it consistent with my status as an agent to adopt nothing more than an instrumental stance vis-a-vis those with whom I interact? Is this, after all, the real content of the injunction to treat humanity as an end and not simply as a means?

            I honestly don't know. My pre-philosophical inclination is to believe that the answer is yes, that there is something about construing myself as a rational agent that requires me, in all consistency, to attempt to achieve rational community with others whom I consider to be agents as well - though I do not consider myself bound, should they reject that attempt, to treat them as I would have agreed to treat and be treated, had we actually achieved rational community. But at this point, I do not see an argument that can make that conclusion plausible.


In the past few days, I have posted here an exchange between two people named R. Wolff about the proper interpretation of the theories of Karl Marx.  That was of interest, I hope, to the readers of this blog for whom Marx is an important figure.  I should like now to post something even longer that will, I also hope, be of interest to readers of this blog for whom Kant is a major figure.  Some words of explanation are called for.

I began my career as a student of Kant's philosophy.  Eventually I published two original books about Kant's thought [and several edited books, but they do not count.]  The first dealt with the arguments of the Critique of Pure Reason.  The second was a commentary on the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  

I found in the First Critique what I believed to be a coherent, connected argument for Kant's central thesis, namely that the validity of the Causal Maxim can be derived from the premise: "The 'I Think' attaches to all my representations."  In my own mind, if not that of my readers, my first book on Kant was thus a success.

But I struggled for years to find an argument in the Groundwork that could be construed, however generously, as a coherent defense of the claim that the Moral Law is unconditionally binding on all rational agents as such.  In the end, therefore, I thought of my second book as a failure.

Many years later, while reading a work I had always considered one of Kant's lesser productions, namely the Metaphysics of Morals, I more or less stumbled on an argument by Kant that I believed finally went a long way to completing the unsatisfactory argument of the Groundwork.  By this point [the late 1990s] I had long since stopped publishing in Philosophy journals or in other ways participating in the social life of the profession.  I had even transferred to an Afro-American Studies Department where I was happily running a doctoral program in that field.  So I wrote up what I had found and put it away in my file drawer of unpublished essays.  Some while later, I was invited to contribute an original essay to a volume to be called Autonomy and Community: Readings in Contemporary Social Philosophy, edited by Jane Keller and Sidney Axinn.  The volume was published by the State University of New York Press in 1998 and, so far as I know, was read by virtually no one.

Which is, in a way, unfortunate, because I think my essay was a really significant contribution to the scholarship on Kant's moral philosophy.

So I am going to post it here on my blog.  Who knows?  Maybe someone will finally read it.

Monday, November 27, 2017


And here is Rick Wolff's response.  Note, the discrepancy in dates is probably my later error.

July 22, 1978

Dear Bob,

Very seriously, we appreciate the evident time and energy and care contributed to the letter you sent to us last month. It "engages" our work in a manner directly useful in working out our formulations toward greater precision and clarity. We only wish other graduate students and faculty would do likewise; that would, of course, help us enormously.

This letter addresses itself to the first and longer portion of your letter, that pertaining to our usage of the Althusserian term, "overdetermination." I hope that before too long, we will have some thoughts down on paper regarding the second portion. I believe that it would be best to begin by specifying what exact points in your letter and in Freud serve me in replying to your letter; the following list should, then, serve as reference points in the argument developed below.

1. First paragraph, 5th and 6th lines: the two sciences business is not secondary or in any way non-essential to our whole formulation. Your bracketing of that epistemological/methodological position will, I intend to show, reappear as a constant problem within your arguments over the interpretation of "overdetermination."

2. Second paragraph, page 2: I do not agree at all with your rendering of Freud's meaning by the term "overdetermination': Thus I will follow a very different, opposed view of Freud’s meaning along a chain of reasoning eventuating in further disagreements over Althusser's intent in developing the term “overdetermination"; over what a psychoanalysis does for a patient, and, perhaps most importantly, over what I understand to be Marx's particular method of socio-economic analysis which, I believe, may be usefully and accurately designated by the summary term, "overdetermination."

*(My references to Freud are still taken - as in our paper - from the Brill/modern Library edition of Works)

3. The opening pages of the chapter on "The Dream Work," and especially pages 323-4, distinguish most importantly between the elements" of the "dream content" and the "dream thoughts" which are ascertained, as Freud puts it, after the dream has occurred by means of psychoanalytically guided free association. The "elements" are nodal points of interaction ("meeting" says Freud) among the ascertained dream thoughts. I will argue that [it is?] just this point you have missed or misinterpreted in your letter.

4. Freud, page 341: “it is left to the interpretation of the dream to restore the coherence which the dream-work (condensation, displacement, censorship, etc.) has destroyed."  To be frustratingly brief, my reading of Freud rules out any notion that one or another or any sequentially considered set of dream thoughts could explain, let alone cause, a particular dream content or any of its constituent elements. What is crucial is the "meeting" of any 'n' dream thoughts in so particular a manner as to precipitate - in a constructed interpretation - a correspondingly particular nodal point or element of actual dream content. One dream thought thus could not possibly serve to explain why one and not the other of its (the dream thought s) elements surfaces within the dream content as an element of it. As I read them, neither Freud nor Althusser operate with a notion of overdetermination as articulated in your second paragraph, page two, i.e., several individually sufficient explanations.

To get at this point in a different way, consider that any dream content is first "ascertained" or remembered by the patient - certainly a process involving some selectivity based in turn upon some generally defined mental orientation of the patient. Similarly, dream thoughts are ascertained by the subsequent speech -of the patient - a process involving again the general mental orientation of the patient and the conditions obtaining during the interval between dream and speech. What we have, then, to deal with are fragments of dreams and fragments of thoughts elicited after and about those dreams. Confronting this fragmentary collection of mental events, Freud proposes to link dream elements to dream thoughts in a precise manner which is not at all that presented in your cited paragraph on page 2. It is a manner that assumes multiple causality (or explanatory variables)—but goes well beyond multiplicity to put the emphasis on the interaction between, the "meeting,” the relationships among dream thoughts that produce or explain a dream element or elements. Freud specifically says that several elements of dream thoughts appear in a dream while others do not; thus, again, that one dream thought can not explain either the dream in toto or the presence within it of some and not other elements of the dream thoughts.

To interpret a dream, to “explain” it, then, involves a complex interaction between patient and psychoanalyst involving several levels of selectivity. The patient selectively rem-embers dream content and selectively articulates dream thoughts: The psychoanalyst selectively elicits and encourages the articulations and probably also the remembrances of the patient. Together, patient and doctor construct, according to Freud's proposed method, an interpretation of dreams, i.e. together they construct a “coherent” dream content. (I do not take seriously Freud's idea that interpretation “restores” coherence, since there is no way to demonstrate or prove some original coherence.

NOW, there are no doubt several or-perhaps many different “coherent” dream contents, i.e. interpretations, that a patient with or without an analyst might construct along the lines of Freud's proposed method. Presumably, an analyst can either minimize or maximize the degree to which the analyst’s own preferred construction is impressed upon the patient in the course of the patient’s own effort at the construction of a coherence. At least formally, I believe psychoanalysis aims at facilitating the patient's construction of a coherent dream content so as to make the patient aware of his/her own manner of thinking (in the broadest possible sense). This is how I understand Freud: constructing a coherent dream content out of fragmentary dream elements and dream thoughts involves principles of selectivity (what remembered, what is freely associated in speech, what is thought “important" among remembrances and articulations of dream thoughts) and a methodological principle, namely, linking dream contents to dream thoughts via overdetermination.

All this is preface to what, I think, really matters here. Althusser is interested in Freud's methodological principle for two reasons. The first and less important lies in its usefulness to combat the crude and reductionist economic materialism that has become so pervasive among many elements in the Marxian tradition. The more important reason lies in its usefulness in permitting Althusser to formulate his notion of the distinctiveness of Marxian science. Thus, for Althusser, social events are like dream contents in their immediate lack of “coherence.” Historically considered conditions and developments within the ideological and political, as well as economic, realms of social life are like dream thoughts. The interaction, then, of these realms overdetermines social events giving history a “coherence” much as interpretation gives “coherence” to dreams. But, of course, no one realm can by itself give “coherence” (shades of the rejected economism).

However, Althusser goes well beyond Freud; it is only the latter's general idea he absorbs. As you quite rightly noted, Althusser makes reciprocity among socially causal realms or variables or forces central to his argument. He goes even further to insist that each realm within the social totality is completely constituted by as well as constitutive of every other designated realm. Thus Althusser's overdetermination is a very significantly modified, extended, and, I believe, deepened version of Freud's formulation vis a vis dreams.
Now to the punch-line of all this: Althusser is most interested in the fact that, in general, several "coherences" are constructible in either dream interpretation or social analysis. The patient who with the analyst eventually constructs a complex interaction of dream thoughts so as to produce a "coherent" dream content gains from this process an insight into the basic methods of his/her own mental processes: basic concepts, anxieties, fears, needs, etc. The fruit of the analysis of the dream, its interpretation, is not some restored coherence, but rather self-consciousness about ones own mental processes, i.e, thinking broadly considered. A different patient, confronting quite similar dreams contents and/or thoughts might well produce a quite different construction expressing correspondingly different mental processes.

In the social-analytical area [arena?], Althusser identifies Marxism as, simultaneously and necessarily, a particular way of thinking about society (a social science) and a correspondingly particular construction of what the "coherence" of any place and time in history is. Operating within such a Marxism, Althusser –identifies coherences and their constitutive sciences other than Marxism and offers a Marxian scientific explanation for why and how these alternative sciences exist, i.e. their overdetermination.

Given all this, I hope the following brief responses to certain particular points you raised will not be too unclear. Yes, Althusser's argument that Marxism approaches the explanation (bringing “coherence” to) of any social event via overdetermination asserts that the latter comprises an epistemological/methodological foundation of distinctively Marxian science. Your concern with completeness I do not understand. Neither the Interpretation of dreams nor of social events can ever be complete because the constituent elements of the process of interpretation are always changing, because the object of interpretation is always altered (enhanced) self-consciousness which in turn works actions which react back upon the thinking process and so on. Completeness would imply something like Freud's notion of restoring coherence, which Althusser rejects for reasons I indicated above as my own as well.

In any case, Althusser certainly does support the notion that two or more well-developed (never complete) sciences can and do offer alternative coherent explanations for events. They do this operating out of different conceptual frameworks or processes of thinking (including what is "seen” and "selected" among infinitely fragmentary givens). 

The important distinction between a cause and an explanation is a huge issue of central importance. We agree on that. Let me here simply say that Althusser uses overdetermination as a method of explaining, all causes and effects including the causes and effects of using overdetermination as a method for social theory. At the same time, Althusser insists unwaveringly that a final distinction always remains between an event (cause or effect) and the various human explanations offered by it. (Here is perhaps a faint thread linking Marx back to Kant).

As to your idea of Althusser being interested in some parallel notion to free association, I very much doubt it. The effort to draw such parallels lies rather with Althusser's theoretical opponents within the Marxian-tradition, i.e. the Frankfurt school's “critical” theorists and most evidently in the work of Habermas on knowledge vis-a-vis human interests.

Althusser insists that sciences deal with alternatively constructed meanings orr coherences, that between all of these and “the real totality” there verneine [?] both a gap and a fundamental, ceaseless-mutual determination: changing sciences (knowledges, understandings) are a constituent element of the totality-they seek to grasp and thus the changes in the real impact upon knowledges of the real and vice versa. Althusser’s concept of Marx's dialectics focuses on the argument that overdetermination implies/defines contradiction. But this letter will never stop other than abruptly, given the many points you raised explicitly and implicitly in your letter. Know much of what I've written here must appear at best too dense. Well, we might continue to exchange thoughts. Certainly I will go much further in specifying our meaning in the term over-determination in future writings thanks to your letter and the reflections it has stimulated. I very much hope this letter is of interest to you.