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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, August 18, 2017

A THOUGHT

Some natural law must be operating here of which I am unaware.  On many occasions I have written and posted lengthy discussions running to several thousands of words which have occasioned at most a languid comment or two.  Two days ago I posted thirty-three words with an embedded link, thereby provoking one of the longest and most interesting threads of comment in the history of this blog.  Perhaps if I just posted “So?” the comments space would overflow.

Out of the wealth of ideas finding expression in those comments, let me single out just one, the free marketplace of ideas, for some discussion.  The metaphor of a free market of ideas raises all manner of problems, and it might be fun to explore some of them for a bit.  The notion underlying the metaphor is of course that in a real marketplace, where goods and services are offered for sale, consumers, who are presumed to be excellent judges of their own pleasures and pains, very quickly learn which commodities yield a pleasure commensurate with their price and which do not.  Consumers’ unconstrained purchasing choices, which when aggregated with the choices of others constitute some level of effective demand, determine the prices at which the commodities sell, and hence the profits made by their producers.  Commodities sought by consumers establish themselves in the market; those shunned are unprofitable and are soon withdrawn. 

By analogy, we are asked to believe, opinions compete for acceptance in the way that goods and services compete for buyers.  Hence the familiar expression, “I’ll buy that,” meaning “I will accept that as true.”  Good ideas compete with bad ideas, with the good ideas gaining wider and wider acceptance as the bad ideas, like Betamax, are driven from the intellectual marketplace.

There are so many things wrong with this analogy that it is truly difficult to understand why it has gained such currency [itself an interesting metaphor, by the way.]  Consideration of a proposition is nothing like consumption of a commodity, and the conclusion that the proposition is true is nothing like the experience that the commodity yields pleasure [although a deep exploration of the psychological links between the oral incorporation of food and the intellectual acceptance of an idea might actually be interesting.]

Let me focus on just one problem.  In the modern world, consumers are presented with a completely unmanageable multiplicity of commodities whose safety, purity, and reliability it is beyond their ability to assess.  No one [save Rand Paul perhaps] seriously claims that the invisible hand of the free market can be relied on quickly, and with acceptable safety, to weed out faulty or poisonous products by the unfettered workings of competition.  Hence we rely on the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, to maintain product safety and purity standards enforceable by law. 

If one takes the metaphor of the free marketplace of ideas seriously, the clear implication is that the government ought to institute a Facts and Theories Administration, or FTA, whose responsibility it would be to regulate the dissemination of ideas, enforcing standards of evidentiary solidity and conceptual purity to protect us from dangerous ideas that are potentially fatal to our intellectual well-being.

Hmm.  That is not exactly what the folks have in mind who push the notion of the free market of ideas.


I am an absolutist when it comes to freedom of expression, because long experience has taught me that in this society, it is more than likely going to be my ideas that are squelched, my voice silenced, when limits are placed on what can be said in the public sphere.  But what would I say in the socialist society of my dreams?  Ah well, that is a post for another day.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

YOU REALLY HAVE TO WATCH THIS

Those of you who followed the link in my previous post to the chilling VICE video featuring an interview with Charlottesville protest organizer Christopher Cantwell really have to watch this.  I am speechless.

CHARLOTTESVILLE


Despite their seeming unimportance in the larger scheme of things, the events in Charlottesville may well prove a seminal moment in recent American public life, for at least three reasons.  First, Trump’s clearly expressed sympathy with the neo-Nazi demonstrators is an indelible stain on his presidency that may have significant consequences.  Second, the decision of the neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers to go unmasked, lit by their own torches, and eager to be interviewed on television personalizes them and makes it increasingly difficult for apologists and temporizers to claim, as Trump did, that there were “many good people” in their ranks.  Third, the neo-Nazis were openly and vocally anti-Jewish, not merely anti-Black, and that rather old-fashioned obsession puts a number of people in Trump’s administration, including his son-in-law and daughter, in a rather difficult position, to put it as delicately as I can.

A news outlet called Vice produced a more than 20 minute report on the affair, including a brilliant interview with one of its organizers, Christopher Cantwell.  I understand that there is ferocious competition for your attention, but I strongly urge you to watch this lengthy report.  Don’t miss Cantwell’s little exchange with the interviewer at roughly 3:40 – 4:00.  You can be sure that Jared and Ivanka have seen that.  I would love to be a fly on the wall when Ivanka asks her daddy whether this is one of the good people there to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

There is a great deal to be said about the so called alt-right, its emergence into the sunlight, its integration into the Republican Party, the cowardly timidity of Republicans in continuing to support Trump, and the question whether this will provoke defections from the White House staff.  Others with bigger megaphones than mine have been shouting about this for six days now.  I should like to make just one point that has not, so far as I know, been a part of the commentary.

The alt-right, it is said over and over again, is fueled by hatred and anger.  What struck me most forcefully about the interview with Cantwell was that he did not seem consumed with anger.  He seemed cheerful, happy, pleased with himself and with how the protest unfolded.  He was having a very good time.  I was reminded of the films I have seen of the Hitlerjugend, their eyes glowing, their faces lit with happiness.  To be sure, they had hatred in their hearts, but it was, if I may put it this way, a cheerful hatred, an intense pleasure at expressing openly, in accord with their fellows, their contempt for inferior humans, for Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists, foreigners – for anyone not blond and blue-eyed [like Hitler or Goering or Goebbels, hem hem.]

The mostly young men marching in Charlottesville with Nazi paraphernalia were clearly on a high, exultant, happy, pleased with themselves and with what they were doing.


That is worth thinking about.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A QUICK RESPONSE TO TWO COMMENTS

My post on the Charlottesville event has elicited two comments, both of which, in different ways, are I believe misguided.  Here are the two comments:

Frank said... Professor Wolff, Does your critique extend to white racists who are not within any positions of power (social, economic, or political)? If so, I'm wondering how one could square the view of white supremacy for the power it provides white people with the fact that many of the people holding up Nazi symbols and whatnot in Charlottesville likely do not hold any position of power or privilege in this society.
Anonymous said...
"The Africans were not seized, brought to the Americas and enslaved because they were thought to be inferior. Quite to the contrary, they were enslaved because they were thought to be good workers, and hence well worth their price and the cost of their upkeep."  What an odd assertion. To be sure, the motivation to enslave was not black inferiority, any more than a farmer's motivation to employ a mule is the inferiority of the beast. But the status of the mule as beast is the cause of its employment by the farmer, just as the perception of blacks as something inferior was the cause of their enslavement. Blacks were enslaved because they were thought to be inferior (your strange "quite to the contrary" notwithstanding).

To Frank, I respond:  You are mistaken.  All of the people “holding up Nazi symbols and whatnot in Charlottesville” hold a position of power and privilege in this society, one that is, I would imagine, desperately important to them, and which they feel is threatened.  What position of power and privilege?  They are White.  That fact by itself, regardless of their education, wealth, or position in the economy, confers on them in America a position superior to that of Black people.  You think not?  When was the last time a White father had to have “the talk” with his White son?  It is precisely their lack of status and position and wealth in White society that makes it so desperately important to them to be superior to any Black man [or woman – that raises other issues as well] in America.

To Anonymous:  You are simply wrong.  The West Africans sold into slavery were not selected to be sold by the local Black bigwigs because they were perceived as inferior.  They were captives in local wars or were otherwise vulnerable.  Some were in fact local nobles who had been captured.  Hence such names as “Prince” given to male slaves by the American owners.  The American slave owners tried to enslave Native Americans but for various reasons that did not work well.  They also did their best to enslave indentured English servants, but there was sufficient protection by the English Common Law to make that unfeasible.  The White characterization of the slaves as inferior was an ex post rationalization, not an ex ante reason for or cause of their enslavement.


CHARLOTTESVILLE

The events next door in Virginia have brought a certain amount of clarity to the issue of race in America.  It might be useful to remind ourselves of some facts that, although well known, are often forgotten.  Africans were brought to this continent against their will for one reason, and one reason alone:  to serve as a controllable source of labor for Europeans seeking their fortune in the New World.  The legal institution of chattel slavery developed slowly during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  New World slavery was unlike traditional European and Asian slavery first in being hereditary, and then, over time, in being racial in its definition.  The Africans were not seized, brought to the Americas and enslaved because they were thought to be inferior.  Quite to the contrary, they were enslaved because they were thought to be good workers, and hence well worth their price and the cost of their upkeep. 

The slave owners did not hate their slaves, any more than they hated their mules or horses.  Because some of the slaves were used as servants – cooks, nurses, nannies, footmen, hairdressers, and handmaidens – the slave owners lived in very close proximity to at least some of their slaves, and on occasion they developed a fondness for them.  The male slave owners were often sexually attracted to their female slaves and forced themselves on them, thereby cheaply increasing the size of their slave holdings.

The slave owners drove their slaves mercilessly in the fields and beat them cruelly at will for the slightest disobedience, but they were by and large extremely careful not to kill them or maim them in ways that interfered with their work, because the slaves were expensive pieces of property, and a man would no more hang his slave on a tree by the neck than he would kill a recalcitrant mule.

All of this changed once the slaves were freed.  The slave owners could be easy and intimate with their slaves because there was a legally enforced absolute divide between the legal status of a white man and the legal status of a slave.  After liberation, the Whites were perpetually terrified of “uppity negroes,” of the divide being bridged, of Black men and women behaving as though they were the equals of White men and women.  What we now call segregation was the result:  separation of Whites and Blacks and domination of Blacks by Whites, maintained by law, by custom, and by force.

North America was a White Supremacist society from the early seventeenth century until the founding of the United States in the late eighteenth century.  The United States was then a de jure White Supremicist state – what is in other contexts called a White Settler state – for the first three quarters of a century of its existence, and then a de facto White Supremicist state for at least an additional century or so.  White Supremacy has been formally illegal and socially in question for only the past fifty years or so.

Hatred has fundamentally very little to do with White Supremacy.  White Supremacy is a policy of domination and economic superiority of Whites in a multi-racial society.  African-Americans are not worried about whether White people want to be friends.  Most of the African-Americans I know have quite enough friends, thank you very much.  African-Americans demand legal, economic, and political equality.  And that terrifies many Whites, who do not want to give up the superior legal, political, and economic position in American society that they acquired through being born White.

For all of these reasons, the Charlottesville events have been usefully clarifying.  It is not at all surprising that there is a very large and enthusiastic audience for Trump’s racism.  Anyone familiar with the history of this society both before and after the founding of the United States would expect as much. 


In the words of the old union song, Which side are you on?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

WHAT THERE IS

There has been a good deal of chatter online lately about the future prospects of the Democratic Party, focusing principally on the growing conflict between progressive and centrist groups and tendencies.  Not at all surprisingly, the Clinton forces, heirs to the Democratic leadership Council, have been badmouthing the Bernie supporters, who in turn have been dissing the Clintonite Establishment.  A cottage industry of Kamala Harris supporters has sprung up, hearts beat faster whenever Elizabeth Warren surfaces, Joe Biden has dipped his aging toe in the water, and meanwhile an astonishing increase in the number of local Democrats interested in public service has hopes for 2018 rising.  All of this is just what any observer of American politics would predict.

I would like to offer my amateur opinion about all of this, taking care to make clear that I am no sort of expert on the subject at all.  I have never run for any public office more exalted than School Committee [ran third in a three way race for two seats, lost on a recount by twelve votes], I have never worked for any political campaign beyond knocking on doors and entering data, and the closest I have ever come to big league politics was attending a lunch in Shutesbury, MA with a small circle of equally inexperienced lefties to discuss with Sam Bowles his chances for running for the 1st Congressional District when Silvio Conte retired [Sam decided against it, and the seat was won by John Olver, who held it for many years until he was redistricted.]  With those caveats, let me plunge in.

First, I think we should focus on 2018 and leave 2020 to the professionals and the wannabes for the time being.  The political situation is extremely unsettled, it is at this point an open question whether Trump will serve out his term, and the 2018 off year elections offer very exciting chances for those of us on the left.  For reasons I will lay out, I think this is an ideal time for an extremely forceful left-wing political push, even though I think the somewhat longer term prospects for left politics are questionable if not dim.  Let me explain.

Off year elections are determined by turnout.  Only a third of eligible voters actually bother to go to the polls in the off years.  Hence, voter enthusiasm is all.  Two things have given the left an enormous advantage in the competition for off year turnout.  The first, of course, is Trump himself whose appeal beyond a small base is dwindling, and who inspires loathing across a wide swath of the remainder of the electorate.  The second factor is health care.  Never mind the facts, the history, the details.  The American people have gotten it into their heads that the Republicans want to take away their health care.  Without giving the matter very much serious thought, they have come round to the conviction that health care is a natural human right.  Lefties have been saying that forever, alienating the chattering classes, appearing uncontrollably radical, losing elections.  All of a sudden, it seems that everyone agrees. 

MEDICARE FOR ALL.  That is a platform we can run on in 2018, it is a platform we can win on.  Never mind that there is not the slightest chance in the world of anything remotely like that being enacted.  A tidal wave of Democratic wins in 2018 would produce a usable majority in the House and a miniscule majority in the Senate.  Radical health care reform might pass a Democratically controlled House but it could never win fifty-one votes in the Senate, let along 60 votes to break a filibuster.  It doesn’t matter.  An anti-Trump pro-Health Care platform in 2018 could dramatically alter the political complexion of Congress.

If we actually took back the House and even the Senate, would it be enough?  I am reminded of the wise words spoken by a sobered up Paul Newman to a young, inexperienced Robert Redford in The Sting.  Redford wants Newman to teach him the Big Con so that he can get back at gangster Robert Shaw, who had Redford’s buddy Luther killed.  Newman agrees, but cautions him:  When it is all done, even if you take Shaw down, it won’t be enough, but it is all you are going to get, so you have to be willing to take it and walk away.


This is our moment on the left.  With Trump as the enemy and health care as the issue, we can win big.  Even if we do, it will not be enough, but it is what there is, and we will have to be willing to take it.

SMALL DIFFERENCE

The polite, mannerly, country club racism of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is at base indistinguishable from the Alt-Right White Supremicist Neo-Nazism on display in Charlottesville, VA yesterday, save that the perpetrators of the Charlottesville violence run the risk of being arrested, whereas Sessions is the Attorney-General of the United States.  Let me say that again.  Sessions is the Attorney-General of the United States.  This is an appalling country.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

SAME OLE SAME OLE

Those among you who live in the United States have probably seen reports of the confrontation in Charlottesville, VA between white supremicists and members of the Ku Klux Klan on one side and protesters against them on the other.  There has been a good deal of commentary to the effect that Trump’s presidency is empowering and legitimating the racists, and of course that is true.   But it is useful to remember that the American colonies were built on slave labor [as well as other forms of unfree labor] and lying at the heart of the United States is structural racism that persists to the present day.  Indeed, one of the reasons why America, alone among advanced capitalist nations, has never had a strong, successful socialist movement [my grandfather’s efforts to the contrary notwithstanding] is that after the slaves were freed, and four million men and women well prepared for industrial, agricultural, and craft labor entered the free labor market, white labor unions struck a devil’s bargain with employers accepting lower wages in return for an exclusion of the Black workers from the workplace.  Even such low wage jobs as department store sales clerk were for a long time closed to Black women, and the reason why Black Pullman Sleeping Car porters were often leaders in the Black community is that those service jobs were the best available to Black men, and hence drew the smartest and ablest men from the Black population.

The election of a Black president aroused, and right-wing media legitimated, already widespread deep seated racial prejudice.  Progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders need to embrace Black members of the working class, along with White workers who are prepared or can be brought to make common cause with them.  Identity politics is not in conflict with class politics.  In the United States, they are inseparable.


These are depressing times.

INTERESTING

This report is worth reading.  The war fever being stoked by Trump is not matched by any change in U. S. military actions or preparations.   Also,  "Hey Man"'s observation is entirely correct.  Supposedly sober types like General Mattis speak casually of the genocidal destruction of the entire population of North Korea as though it were simply a technical matter.

Meanwhile, it appears Trump will offer Joe Manchin a cabinet job, allowing the newly declared Republican governor of West Virginia to appoint a Republican replacement, after which the Senate can pass their horrendous health care bill.  This is monstrously bad news.

Friday, August 11, 2017

AND SO IT HAS COME TO THIS

The lives of millions of South Koreans, North Koreans, Japanese, and Americans depend on the ruler of North Korea being more rational than the President of the United States.  Can no one rid us of this narcissistic uncontrolled child?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE [PERSONAL]

The down side of living in a retirement home [or CCRC, as we like to say] is that everyone is old.  The up side is that everyone is old [and still alive.]  Yesterday, while Susie and I were doing our bit on the communal 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle in the lobby of our building, a sprightly, pulled together lady walked up and introduced herself as a long time resident of the building.  She allowed as how she is ninety-nine!  I began to reevaluate my chances of living to see a turn to the left in American politics.

MEAN-SPIRITED OBSERVATION

When Black people were dying of drug overdoses, it was a criminal justice problem, and the solution was to put in jail ever Black man the police could nail with a joint.  Now that White people are dying of drug overdoses, it is a public health problem, and the solution is counseling and medical treatment.

SHAGGY DOG STORY

The little dog followed me home again this morning, so after Susie and I once more drove him home, I decided it was time to act.  Google tells me that the big gated house [4992 sq. ft. !] is owned by a Duke hospital surgeon.  I wrote the good doctor a letter explaining that much as I enjoy my quality time with his dog, I cannot keep driving him home, so unless he is confident that the dog can get home on his own [it is a male – my mistake], I think he should take steps [the doctor, not the dog, although Mike may be right that the dog has the upper hand in all of this.]  I shall be sorry to see him go.  

SAD TIDINGS

I was deeply saddened to read that F. Lee Bailey, the famous defense attorney, is nearly broke and working over a hair salon.  Why do I care? you might ask.  Because F. Lee Bailey was one of my classmates at Harvard in the early '50s.   I never knew Bailey, of course. Nor did I know Ted Kennedy or John Updike, also my classmates.  [I did actually know Wally Gilbert, who went on to win a Nobel Prize.]  Bailey never graduated.  He left after two years to join the Air Force  [it was during the Korean War.]  All of this was more than sixty-five years ago, and I could probably get away with claiming that I knew them all, but to quote Richard Nixon, "that would be wrong."

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A FURTHER RESPONSE

My remarks about North Korea prompted a number of interesting comments.  Let me address just one relatively minor but important issue.  At the height of the cold war between Russia and America, there was a very great deal of serious concern among the American military about the possibility that a Russian nuclear attack would, in several different ways, disrupt communications and the chain of command.  What would happen, American military planners asked, if Congress was “taken out” by a Soviet strike, making it impossible for even a select committee of the Senate to sign off on the use of nuclear weapons?  Mightn’t a Soviet attack disrupt communications between the President and the Joint Chiefs, or between the central military high command and the Commanders of nuclear submarines on patrol under the waters of the Atlantic or Pacific?  Would it prove impossible for the soldiers stationed in hardened ICBM silos in the Dakotas to double check a command to fire their missiles?  Would it be unfeasible to reprogram missiles to new targets after an attack?

These and many other questions were debated in think tanks, but the answers were hardly academic.  Software and hardware had to be designed to implement whatever strategic response the President and top military planners decided in advance in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.

In the end, certainty was given priority over flexibility, and systems were designed and put in place to ensure: first, that only the President had the authority and capability to order the use of nuclear weapons; and second, that once a Presidential order was issued it would be conveyed without intermediation or delay to the military personnel charged with carrying it out.

As a consequence, if Trump were to order a nuclear strike, there would be no period of debate, delay, reconsideration, and double checking before the order was carried out.  Kelly, McMaster, and Mattis would not be able to slow walk the order while Trump was calmed down, flattered, reassured about the size of his hands, and propped up in front of an ego-confirming crowd of supporters.  We could of course hope that if Trump demanded the nuclear codes, someone would offer him a dud phone into which he could shout orders like a crazy street person yelling into an unconnected handset in a street corner booth.  We could hope, but nothing in the system in existence offers much reason for confidence.

One other matter of great importance about which I will say only a word or two.  As part of an interesting exchange in the comments section, LFC writes:  “The definition of 'existential threat,' as with the definition of any threat, should take into account what can reasonably be known with a high degree of confidence about intentions, not simply capabilities. Thus, for example, far from the UK and France posing an existential threat to every country in the world as the post says, the UK and France do not pose an existential threat to any country since there is no evidence at all that the UK and French governments, or really any conceivable UK and French govts, intend a first use of their nuclear weapons. (Indeed I'd guess that UK and French nuclear doctrines explicitly renounce or abjure first use, though I'd have to check on that.)

To say that every nuclear armed country by definition poses an existential threat to every other country is like saying that anyone who chooses to carry a gun in a place where that is legal poses an existential threat to everyone who does not carry a gun. That's not the case; it depends on the intentions, and the mental condition, of the gun carrier.”

I am afraid in my haste I did not make myself clear.  The term “existential threat” was meant to convey not the likelihood of the threat being actualized but the magnitude of the threat and the impossibility of defending against it.  Of course one must use what information one has when estimating the likelihood of a threat being actualized.  The point is that a single madman in a President’s chair can, in a world of conventional weapons, start a world war, which is terrible indeed.  But a single madman in the President’s chair of a nuclear armed nation can start a civilization ending war, which is to say that such a person poses an existential threat.  Do France and Great Britain have mad rulers?  No.  Could they?  Well, America does.



MORE ON NORTH KOREA

I need to say more about the North Korean crisis, not because I know any more, but simply because it is far and away the most serious threat now confronting the world.  Let me repeat what I said yesterday.  Every nation armed with deliverable nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to every other nation in the world, because nuclear weapons cannot be defended against.  I wrote and spoke and argued and protested about this almost sixty years ago as a young man, and nothing has changed.  Russia poses an existential threat to every nation in the world.  The United States poses an existential threat to every nation in the world.  China, Great Britain, France and Israel pose existential threats to every nation in the world.  Pakistan and India pose regional threats [I do not know whether they possess intercontinental ballistic missiles or long range bombers or nuclear submarines].  When North Korea succeeds in weaponizing usable long range missiles, it too will pose an existential threat to every nation in the world.

Nuclear weapons cannot be defended against.  The only thing any nation can do is to try to deter nuclear armed nations from attacking it.  Any nuclear armed nation whose government and military forces fall into the hands of a suicidal or irrational, hence undeterrable, ruler can at any moment launch a nuclear attack even if the cost is that ruler’s own destruction.

For reasons that I shan’t trouble you with now, the command and control structure of America’s nuclear forces is deliberately and intentionally designed to make it very difficult to delay or countermand a presidential order to launch a nuclear attack.

It is within the realm of possibility that Donald Trump, obsessed with negative press coverage and ill-tempered because rain is interrupting his golf, could from his vacation retreat issue an order to attack North Korea with nuclear weapons.  If he does that, it is extremely unlikely that the trio of generals around him will intercede to reverse or simply “mislay” that order.


It is my armchair guess that Donald Trump does not care at all about the lives that such an attack would cost, American lives as well as North Korean, South Korean, and Japanese lives.  My guess is that he cares about nothing save whether he looks big and important and powerful on television, in social media, and in the tabloid press.  This is the second biggest crisis since World War II [the biggest was the Cuban Missile Crisis, brought to us by young, handsome, well-educated charismatic John Fitzgerald Kennedy.]

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

THIS IS SERIOUS

We are at a very dangerous moment in the world.  Let me be clear.  It would be better if North Korea did not have nuclear weapons.  It would also be better if the United States, Russia, Pakistan, India, France, the United Kingdom, China, Israel, and Iran did not have nuclear weapons.  But they do [save for Iran, apparently], and there is no reliable defense against nuclear weapons, which means that mutual deterrence is our only hope for a world not devastated by them.  There is nothing special about North Korea.  It is just one more nation, the seventh by my count, that has chosen to invest money and effort in the old technology of deliverable nuclear weapons.

What can we do about North Korea?  The same thing we can do about Israel or France or Russia, and the same thing they can do about us:  we can make it clear that we do not challenge North Korea’s existence, and will respond to a nuclear attack with a nuclear response.  This is called Mutual Assured Destruction, appropriately referred to as MAD. 

Is there any way to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons?  Inasmuch as I do not speak or read Korean [although one of my books has been translated into that language] and have never been, I believe, within a thousand miles of that nation, I have not a clue, but I would guess not, since if they were to do so, the United States might very well undertake to overthrow the ruling government.


At this moment, we are dependent on a trio of generals to manage and control the impulsive narcissistic child in the White House.  That summarizes pretty succinctly the miserable state to which we have fallen.

TEMPTATION

My new morning walk takes me, after a series of little streets in Carolina Meadows, out onto Whippoorwill Lane, a country road most of which, after the Farrington Mill intersection, is a long secluded dead end   The entire walk, to the end of Whippoorwill and home again, is roughly 3.6 miles, a bit shorter than my old walk, but quite pleasant nonetheless.  Near the end of Whippoorwill, I walk past a grand house [grand for this neighborhood] with a pair of gated driveways, guarded by a large Great Dane who cannot, I trust, get through the gates.  The Great Dane has siblings, a little calico cat and a small black cheerful dog of mixed ancestry who once trotted across the street to say hello.

Yesterday, I walked earlier than usual, starting at about 5:15 a.m.  When I passed the big house, the little black dog came over again to say hello.  I scratched her behind the ears, petted her, and told her how lovely she is.   Then I continued on my way.  The little black dog followed along, wagging her tail.  I thought, “Well, she will stop after fifty feet and go back,” but she kept on right to the end of Whippoorwill Lane.  Then she turned as I did and walked back with me to her house.

But she did not stop when we had reached her home.  She kept right on trotting beside me.  I tried telling her to go home, but she just took this as more attention and wagged her tail even more vigorously.  She followed me past the corn field, past the riding stables, all the way to the intersection with Farrington Mill.  By this time I was getting worried.  Although she is well fed and obviously a house dog, not a stray dog, she has no collar, no i.d. tag. 

She followed me to the entrance to Carolina Meadows, she followed me as I turned from street to street, she followed me into my building, she followed me onto the elevator, she followed me off the elevator, and she followed me right into my apartment, delighting and astonishing Susie.  We gave her some water and took her back down to our car, which she hopped into as though she had done it a hundred times.  Then we drove back to the gated house, pushed her out of the car, and drove away very fast.


This morning it started to rain before I reached the gated house and I turned back.  The flesh is weak, and tomorrow, if she follows me home again, I cannot be certain that I will do the right thing and take her home.  I mean, they can’t be very nice to her if she is so ready to follow me home, right?

Monday, August 7, 2017

BOYHOOD MEMORIES

David Auerbach’s amusing summary of a sci-fi story published sixty-three years ago in Galaxy took me on a trip down memory lane.  My second venture into print [the first was a letter to the Harvard Crimson] was a fervent defence of Aristotle, published in Galaxy’s principal competition, Astounding Science Fiction. As a boy, I was an avid reader of science fiction. In the 40’s and 50’s, the leading sci fi publications were two stubby little monthly magazines with nubby pages called Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction. All the big names appeared there, including L. Ron Hubbard, who announced the birth of his new psychological therapy, Dianetics, in a pair of what were at least supposedly non-fiction articles. (Trouble with the law for practicing medicine without a license led Hubbard to transform Dianetics into the religion of Scientology, protected by the First Amendment.) One of the oddities of the sci fi world in those days was the popularity of something called Non-Aristotelian logic. There was even a famous novel by the great sci fi writer A.E. van Vogt, which, if memory serves, appeared originally as a serial in a predecessor to Astounding Science Fiction. All of this was connected in some mysterious manner with the then fashionable theories of Count Alfred Korzybski, which went by the name “General Semantics.”

By 1953, I was a serious student of Mathematical Logic, and the casual slandering of Aristotle by those entranced by many-valued logics and other arcana offended my deeply conservative soul. The result was this letter to Astounding Science Fiction.


To the Editor:

I am a student of Logic and Philosophy at Harvard University. I have been reading and enjoying science fiction for many years, now, and generally have no complaints or criticisms to make. For some time, however, I have read with increasing annoyance the many editorials, and the like, on so-called “Aristotelian Logic,” and the proposed Null-A logics. Your editorial of April, ‘53, seems to provide as good an opportunity as any to get a few simple facts straight, so that we can dispense with this nonsense about non-Aristotelian logic.

Your editorial, in effect, says that while all human action is governed by, and completely describable in the framework of, an Aristotelian Logic, human thought is capable of “grays and shadings and tones,” which it is even possible to communicate to other human beings. You then go on to make the error, apparently indigenous to science fiction, of asserting that these “grays and shadings” are characterised and governed by a multivalued logic. I do not know just what the fascination of multi-valued logics is to the modern scientist and science-fiction writer, but their misuse and incorrect application is perhaps the most common modern error. Since most of your stories are chemically, physically, and biologically correct wherever possible, I think we ought to set the record straight for logic.

First let me say unequivocally that not one of the conditions mentioned by you in this or any other article, nor any of the conditions ever described or alluded to in your magazine or any other magazine, can be characterised by anything but two-valued Aristotelian Logic! Furthermore, probably 99% of the errors can be traced to one fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and claims of two-valued logic.

Let us consider the old situation of the three buckets of water, filled respectively with hot, lukewarm, and cold water. Now, it is said, this is a situation in which we need three values to describe the situation, for it is not a true-false, on-off, hot-cold set-up, but a yes-maybe-no, hot-medium-cold one. That this point of view is subscribed to by you can be seen from the passage in which you say of Aristotelian logic that it “insisted that everything in the world was either pure white or pure black,” and later, that “his every act must necessarily be on a yes-or-no basis.”

In other words, you seem to think that Aristotle was unaware of greys, or lukewarm water, or of indecision. You also seem to think that he, and Aristotelian logicians, wish to restrict the world to what in ordinary language are called “opposites.” Your view, however, is the result of the most elementary misreading of Aristotle and the logicians. In fact, it is so simple a mistake that I am afraid it will almost come as an anti-climax. To state it as simply as possible, no one ever claimed that water was either hot or cold. They either claimed that it was hot or not-hot. And by not-hot is meant anything but hot, including lukewarm. Similarly, no one has ever claimed that things are either black or white. They have claimed only that they are either black or not-black, where not-black may include any shade of grey, green, chartreuse or purple you like. It may even include those things which are not any colour at all, like sounds or tastes – there, incidentally, would have been a more convincing argument for three-valued logics, although it would have been equally incorrect.

As for your shadings of human thought, the same applies. Just as the existence of thousands of alternative actions in a given situation does not change the fact that any given one of them is either done or not-done, so too the existence of even a continuous shade of feelings and states-of mind does not change the fact that for any given one of them, a person either feels or not-feels it.

Perhaps one of the sources of your error is the failure to notice that the values, truth and falsehood, are applied by logicians to sentences, not to situations. Thus, one may have a description sentence for each of a thousand possible events, each one stating that that event has taken place, but once those sentences have been composed, it is absolutely and unequivocally true that each one is either true or false. The shading comes not in the “values” but in the situations described by those sentences, and Aristotelian logic is as alive to such facts of life as modern science fiction.

In short, the solution to the “problem” stated at the end of your editorial is that it doesn’t exist. Our actions and feelings are equally shaded, and equally characterisable completely within old-fashioned Aristotelian Logic. As for why that fact is so, the best answer I have seen to date can be found in Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” but that is another, and vastly more complicated, question – Robert Wolff.

LIKE HE SAID

Having finished my walk and morning coffee, I was reluctantly girding up my loins for battle with the abusive but not inconsiderable Professor Egmont Kakarot-Handtke of Stuttgart when I read the delicious response of F. Lengyal, who reveals himself to be none other than I. M. Flaud.  I am most grateful for the assistance.  Now I can turn my thoughts to a lighter post inspired by several other comments.

By the way, one of the themes lately touched upon in the comments section of this blog is the perennial question of the purpose, function, or justification of Philosophy.  It is, I think, rather odd that this question has never exercised me in the slightest.  Having identified myself as a philosopher before I was old enough to drive, I somewhat illogically concluded that anything I was interested in was philosophy, including Game Theory, Freudian theories of personality, the economics of Marx, and nuclear deterrence theory.

If I were pressed to say what it is that I imagine myself to be doing as a Professor of Philosophy, I would reply that I grapple with deep, powerful, beautiful ideas and turn them over in my mind until they are transparently clear to me, at which point I show them to others, either in a lecture or in print, so that they too can see how beautiful they are.  That is what I was doing in my first book on Kant's First Critique, in my two books on Marx, in my early essay on Hume's Treatise, and in many other writings as well.  Is this, as Callicles pointedly asks in the Gorgias, an appropriate way for a mature adult to spend his or her time?  I leave it to others to answer.  However, I can report, after a long life devoted to such activity, that I have found it deeply satisfying, and not obviously harmful to others.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

A COMMENT ON THE COMMENTS

I was more or less ignorant of economics until the late 1970s [notice that I have learned from previous comments about the proper use of the apostrophe], despite having read my way through some edition or other of Samuelson's textbook during the fall of 1954, while on my European wanderjahr.  Once I began serious study of micro, macro, and other arcana of the Social Sciences, I became puzzled by something and stopped an Economics Department graduate student one day for enlightenment.  "I have noticed something odd," I said to this budding wunderkind.  "There doesn't seem to be any variable for profit in the general equilibrium models.  What am I missing?"  'Of course not," he answered, obviously convinced that he was speaking to an idiot.

I was too embarrassed to ask why not, so I brooded on this for a while, and finally decided that I wasn't cut out for that discipline.  When I began reading the mathematical reconstructions of the Political Economy of Smith, Ricardo, and Marx, I was pleased to see that each of the equations had a little Greek letter pi, which stood for the profit rate.

Eventually, I came to understand that the centerpiece of Marx's economic theory is his claim that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class, from whom profit is extracted by capitalists in the form of surplus labor value.  Despite my theoretical criticisms of the concept of surplus value, I clung tightly to the notion of exploitation as the source of profit, inasmuch as it seemed to me to be the deepest and most fundamentally true idea I had encountered in my long autodidactic study.

How could the manifestly brilliant men [mostly] in the discipline of academic economics have missed a truth that struck me as virtually self-evident?  I reminded myself of Upton Sinclair's oft-quoted observation:  "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"


Friday, August 4, 2017

POSSIBILITIES

As the summer heat continues, my thoughts turn to the fall, when I shall begin to visit Columbia University.  On October 6th, I deliver my inaugural address, so to speak, at the Heyman Center for the Humanities.  I have just reconnected with an old student of mine who is now a very senior professor at Columbia Law School.  In looking to see what he teaches, I noticed that Joseph Raz teaches one semester a year in the Law School.  Wouldn't it be fun to meet him and maybe do something together!  My former student, Andrjez Rapaczynski, is the only student I have ever had whose unanswerable question during a lecture forced me to rewrite a lecture and deliver it a second time.  Needless to say, he earned an A+.  Andrzej did a doctorate in philosophy before getting his law degree.  My favorite story about him is that when he started teaching at the law school, he was assigned a course on property, a standard law school subject.  Instead of talking about leases and property transfers and whatever, he lectured on Locke's theory of property!  I am looking forward to seeing him again when I start going to Morningside Heights.

MY PARIS KITCHEN

Here is a picture of my Paris kitchen.  The kettle is on the stove.  The dishwasher is under the sink to the right.  The fridge is under the counter to the left of the stove.  The microwave/oven is under the counter to the right of the sink.  There is also a washer/dryer in the closet opposite the stove.  There is a Nespresso machine on the counter to the left of the stove.


ELBOW ROOM

Parisians have a conception of public and private space that differs markedly from that of Americans, and the difference is, for me, one of the special charms of Paris.  Let me begin with some matters of fact and law.  Susie and I bought our Paris apartment in the spring of 2004.  It was listed as a “Loft, rue de Maître Albert” [odd, considering that it is on the ground floor], with a “surface” of 32.58 square meters.  For those of you a trifle out of practice with the metric system, that is 339.32 square feet.  By comparison, the apartment we have just moved into in the Carolina Meadows retirement home is 1607 square feet, which is to say roughly five times as large.  Our Paris apartment is truly a pied-à-terre if your feet are not too big.  Lest you imagine that we bought the smallest apartment available, I will just note that in our little copropriété or co-op, there are next door to us in the courtyard two smaller apartments which together have exactly the same square meterage as we do!

 The precision is essential to a Parisian.  “Surface” includes only that part of the floor space in which one can stand up erect, so in those charming top-floor apartments under the gambrel roofs of Paris, the bits of floor under the sloping roof which are only good for shoes or perhaps a cat box do not count when the apartment is advertised.  Indeed, if one buys an apartment and then discovers that the floor space, or “surface” is less than advertised, one has the right in law to demand a proportionate refund of the purchase price.

The obsession with precision in floor space manifests itself in many ways.  We pay quarterly co-op dues and also, of course, periodic assessments for whatever repairs and such must be made to the buildings.  Our dues are precisely apportioned according to our floor space, as measured in ten-thousandths of the total, or tantiemmes.  Our apartment has 277 tantiemmes, which is to say 2.77% of the total floor space of all fifteen apartments in the co-op, and so we pay 2.77% of any dues and assessments.

Our apartment’s tininess is by no means unusual.  When we were in Paris two weeks ago, we were invited for drinks and snacks to the apartment of a charming American ex-pat with whom we struck up a friendship in the local café as a consequence of her delightful dog, Apollon.  Joan lives, not for two or three weeks at a time, but year-round, in a seventh floor apartment [sixth floor by the French system of counting] with Apollon and two cats, Mozart and Clara [for Clara Schuman].  She has a view of the towers of Nôtre Dame [a signal selling point].  Her apartment is roughly half a square meter smaller than ours.

How do Parisians survive in such constrained quarters?  The answer is that they spend a great deal of their time in the ubiquitous bustling, exciting public spaces that are the distinctive charm of Paris.  Half a block from our apartment is Place Maubert, a lively constantly active space dominated by Le Metro, our local café.   Susie and I go the Le Metro every day, sometimes several times a day.  A single espresso or kir gives us the unquestioned right to sit for as many hours as we desire, watching the huge tour buses negotiate the narrow side streets, observing our fellow patrons, saying hello to the waiters we have come to know and like [such as Samy, who juggles trays of drinks and dinners like a juggler at the Cirque de Soleil], and checking on the condition of the local street person who has staked out ownership of one small bit of sidewalk.
The French protect their public spaces, cleaning them, improving them, renovating them, maintaining them.  In the spring and summer, at lunch time, the open air cafés are jammed with people eating, gossiping, relaxing.  The French workers, by the way, are quite as productive as American workers, but they cherish and protect their time to enjoy the social life of the streets.

Susie and I do not spend long periods in our apartment.  I think a month is the longest we have stayed.  But we do not feel cramped or oppressed in 339.32 square feet, and I think we could spend much longer before we began to need more space.  Our kitchen, in which I have prepared duck, rabbit, quail, tuna, swordfish, dorade royale, coquilles St. Jacques, and countless other dinners, is probably no more than 40 square feet, including the stove, fridge, microwave/oven and dishwasher, and yet I am happier there than anywhere else on earth.

One of the oddities of the real estate market is that with very few exceptions, the only factors determining price are location and square meterage.  A shell and a beautifully renovated apartment in the same location with the same square meterage will list for roughly the same price.  Fortunately for us, real estate values where we live have been rising slowly but steadily for the past four hundred years, and will probably keep doing so for another four hundred years.


I can’t wait to get back.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

I WONDER

Donald Trump does not act like a man who is in bed with Vladimir Putin, in cahoots with him, nor does he act like a man who owes Putin money.  Trump acts like a man who is afraid of Putin.  What is he afraid of?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

MATHEMATICS IN ECONOMICS

I have for several days wanted to return to writing about Paris in response to the thunderous demand [well, actually one comment and two emails, but I have very acute hearing].  However, before I do, let me say just a word about mathematics and economics, which has been the subject of several very interesting lengthy comments.

I think it is a mistake to ask whether economists should use mathematics.  That is like asking whether an electrician should use a Philips screwdriver.  The obvious reply is, For what?  The really interesting foundational questions in economics can never be answered by introducing more sophisticated mathematical techniques, fun though they are.  Before all else, one must decide what questions economics should be trying to answer.

The watershed transformation in economic theory is usually identified as the so-called Triple Revolution, or Marginalist Revolution, of the 1870’s, which is to say the work done independently and more or less simultaneously by Jevons in England, Walras in France, and Menger in Austria.  This complete transformation in academic economics was characterized by the introduction of the Differential Calculus, which made it possible to prove all manner of nifty theorems about consumer choice and price determination in a capitalist market.

It is easy and natural to suppose that the marginalist revolution was all about using more sophisticated mathematics, but that is, in my opinion, a complete mistake.  What actually happened in the 1870’s is that economists by and large stopped asking one set of questions and started asking a different set of questions.

There are two possible explanations for the decision of academic economists to change the questions they asked.  The first is that the new mathematical tools were so powerful, so flashy, such sheer fun that any really smart person interested in economics would naturally gravitate to them.  The second is that the old questions were rather uncomfortable, inasmuch as the answers clearly indicated that there was something seriously rotten about the state of things in nineteenth century capitalist Europe.

What were the old questions that economists asked before the 1870’s, and what were the new questions they started to ask afterward?  There were two questions that the old economists asked.  They were asked by Adam Smith, they were asked by David Ricardo, and they were asked by Karl Marx.  They were also asked by all the lesser lights who, together with the leading lights, defined the field known as Political Economy.  The first question was: How is the annual output of a nation divided among the three great classes of society, the Landowners, the Entrepreneurs, and the Workers?  The second question was: What are the conditions of economic growth, and what are the obstacles to growth?  The answers changed over time, of course, and in the work of Marx were profoundly complicated by the introduction of the notions of mystification, false consciousness, and ideological rationalization, but the questions remained the same.

The new economists asked completely different questions, and when they even tried to answer the old questions, their answers, tricked out in fancy math, were transparently ideological rationalizations.  The best summary statement of the new questions can be found in a classic 1932 work by Lord Lionel Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science [notice the term “science.”]  “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”

Compare this question with the first question of the classical Political Economists.  The classical question presupposes that society is divided economically into classes and thus virtually compels us to recognize that the interests of the classes are antagonistic to one another, inasmuch as what is appropriated each year by one class is thereby unavailable to be appropriated by the other classes.  The new question of “Economic Science” presents the subject as a purely technical study of alternative inputs into production, the goal being to maximize efficiency.

For a variety of historical reasons, it appeared for quite some time that the old Political Economy was just a gentlemanly reflection on the human condition while the new Economics was SCIENCE complete with differential equations and such like.  But in the 1960’s. ‘70’s, and ‘80’s a number of clued up lefty mathematical economists recast the old story in nice, shiny equations, so that it became clear what the real difference between the two traditions was.

There is nothing wrong with mathematics in economics.  As I said, what matters is For What?




Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"CURIOSER AND CURIOSER," CRIED ALICE

Those of you obsessed, as I am, with the Trump disaster will have read the new Washington Post story leaked from unnamed sources that Trump, on the plane back from Europe, personally dictated the false cover story his son, Don Jr., put out to the effect that the meeting with the Russians was about adoption policy.  I leave it to others to speculate about what Robert Mueller will make of this.  I am fascinated by something different:  there were only a small number of people on that plane.  The story is "multiply sourced."  Who on earth is leaking, and why?