Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.
NEW: A Collection of Pebbles from The Philosopher's Stone
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Volume II: 2010 Now Available at box.net
Volume III: 2011 Now available at box.net
Volume IV: 2012 Now available at box.net

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

LIEBENBERG YET AGAIN


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does any of that make sense?

 

 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

BACK TO THE CLASSROOM

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

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

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

Wish me luck!

Monday, January 26, 2015

FASCINATING STUFF I NEVER KNEW

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

CATCHING UP


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

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

Herewith some responses:

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

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

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

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

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

THE WEALTH EFFECT

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inquiring minds want to know. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A MUST READ

Just today I stumbled on a wonderful blog maintained by Art Goldhammer, who is among many other things the translator of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  You can find it here under the title French Politics.  Take a look at it.  I think you will find it as interesting as I do.  I plan to check it every day.

Friday, January 23, 2015

LECTURING ON THE MANIFESTO


The irresistible temptation when lecturing on the Communist Manifesto, a temptation to which, I am afraid, I succumbed, is simply to read aloud from the text, page after page, line after thrilling line.  "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."  ""For exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, [the bourgeoisie] has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."  As the transformations wrought by the bourgeoisie spread throughout society, "all that is solid melts into air."  "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers."  "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.  Working men of all countries, unite!"

And, of course, that chilling opening line:  "A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of communism."

What is there left to say after quoting these and countless other passages?  

Having turned the last page of the text in my lecture, I returned to the opening words.  Here, reproduced somewhat as I delivered it, is the commentary I offered.

"A spectre is haunting Europe."  Marx was right.  There was indeed a spectre haunting Europe, but it was not the spectre of communism.  It was, rather, the spectre of capitalism, for in 1848, capitalism had scarcely begun its world-historical mission of uprooting and transforming world society.  Even in England, where capitalism was most fully launched, there were still profound transformations yet to come.  In France, capitalism had begun to take root, in Marx's Prussia, barely at all, and in Eastern and Southern Europe it was still entirely in the future. With the benefit of one hundred sixty-seven years of hindsight, we can see how much more work lay before capitalism in its historic assault on traditional feudal society.

Marx knew this, as some of his statements in the Manifesto make clear, but he was beguiled by the popular uprisings in France and elsewhere, and willed himself to believe that the next stage of history was in the wings. 

The failure of the uprisings also compelled Marx to completely reverse his understanding of the relationship between feudal and capitalist society [or bourgeois society, as Marx repeatedly labels it in the Manifesto, revealing thereby how shallow his understanding still was of what was being wrought by capitalism.]  Previously, Marx had viewed Feudal society as mystified and bourgeois society as naked, raw, unmystified, with the exploitation in plain view for all to see.  But after '48, Marx came to view Feudal society as relatively less mystified.  Indeed, the mystification of capitalism was so complete that its most gifted theoreticians were utterly incapable of recognizing it at all.

The devastating failure of those uprisings forced Marx to reconsider everything he had so optimistically concluded.  By 1859, we see him, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, articulating for the first time one of the most important insights of those post-Manifesto years.  This passage from the Preface announces an entirely new theory of historical change:

"No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself."

As one who began his long career as a Kant scholar, in an effort to understand the nineteen years that separate the appearance of the Manifesto from the publication of Volume One of CAPITAL, I find it useful to look back to the period in Kant's career between 1770 and 1781.  In 1770, Kant was elevated to a professorship at the University of Kรถnigsberg.  As part of the formal ceremony installing him in his new position, he delivered a public address, now known as the Inaugural Dissertation of 1770.  In this Dissertation, Kant announced a bold new philosophical position that broke decisively with the version of Leibnizean philosophy on which he had been raised.  Kant believed himself to have arrived at a thoroughly satisfactory compromise of the competing claims of metaphysics and natural science.  Shortly thereafter, in a letter to his friend Marcus Herz, who had served as the official Respondent to the Dissertation, Kant announced that he would very soon publish a "Critique of Reason."  But then, in 1772, Kant encountered David Hume's crushing critique of causal inference.  Perhaps alone in the world, Kant understood how deep Hume's scepticism cut.

A personal and private word, by way of interpolation.  The medium of Kant's encounter with Hume was a 1772 translation of a wretched little English book called On the Nature and Immutability of the Truth, by one James Beattie.  Beattie's book was an attack on those he called "sceptics," among whom, by the bye, he included Descartes.  Beattie's arguments were hardly worthy of attention, but to the eternal benefit of Philosophy, he quoted at length from the books he attacked, including Hume's early anonymously published work, A Treatise of Human Nature, the greatest work of philosophy ever written in English.  Hume, who was a modest, unassuming man but very vain of his literary reputation, was stung by Beattie's criticisms.  In a new edition of his Enquiries, he inserted a disclaimer, disavowing the Treatise as a work of his youth.  [I wept when I read those words for the first time.]  Beattie, whose book was a rave success and went through annual editions for six years, rather grandly replied, "Fine, I shall delete all the passages quoted from the Treatise."  As a dissertation writing graduate student, I undertook to ascertain whether the German translation read by Kant was made from the first edition, which contained the crucial passages from Book One, Part Three of the Treatise in which the sceptical arguments were set forth, or from later editions from which Beattie had removed them.  I was astonished to find that Harvard's Widener Library did not possess a copy of the German version of the Essay on Truth [I was only twenty-two, and still thought that Widener contained every book ever written], but Harvard graciously obtained a microfilm of it from Vienna, and I was able to demonstrate that the edition read by Kant did indeed contain the most important passages.  I presented this as an Appendix to my dissertation which was subsequently published in the Journal of the History of Ideas.  Inasmuch as it is the only genuine scholarship I have done in my entire life, I am inordinately proud of it.

But back to Kant.  Confronted by Hume's arguments, Kant set aside plans for a Critique of Reason, and embarked on deep and intense investigations.  Like Gandalf the Grey, who plunged into the depths of the caves of Moria in a death struggle with the Balrog, to emerge victorious but transfigured as Gandalf the White, so Kant plunged into the philosophical depths and emerged, nine years later, grasping in his hand the Critique of Pure Reason, the greatest philosophical work ever written in any language.

This is how I understand what Marx went through after 1848.  The defeat of the popular uprisings was for him what Hume's sceptical critique was for Kant, and like Kant, by the time he emerged from his intense investigations, his understanding of capitalism was completely transformed.

During those nineteen years, Marx read every work of economic theory on which he could lay his hands, be it in English, French, Italian, Spanish, or Latin.  if we in this course are to understand the progress of Marx's thought, we must therefore follow him into the bowels of Classical Political Economy.  That is why, next week, we shall for a time set aside Marx's writings and devote ourselves to an exploration of the central works of that classical tradition, as they came to be understood by a world-wide network of brilliant mathematical economists in the 1960's and 70's, and as I have set them forth using only elementary mathematics in the next assigned reading, chapters I-III of my book Understanding Marx.

Until next Wednesday.