The eminent political philosopher Jonathan Wolff is interviewed here. [HT Jacob Levy; Jason Stanley.] After an autobiographical introduction he is invited to discuss five books "by thinkers who have shaped the field." Wolff mentions Hobbes's Leviathan, Marx's Early Writings, Rawls's A Theory of Justice, Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and Cohen's If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? The interview is a lovely mixture of autobiography, biography (especially of Cohen), and enthusiasm for the issues. I thought it was especially good on what makes Nozick's Anarchy so memorable. Even so, I offer critical observations because Wolff's comments reveal non-trivial systematic problems with political philosophy (as practiced by some of the very best in the field).
- In discussing Leviathan, Wolff exhibits an absurd pride in not having really read parts 3-4. This is connected to a remarkable oversight: the lack of mention of religion (and political theology) as a key/central issue for Hobbes's project. (Leviathan is oddly relevant!) I am not picking on his lack of scholarly literacy or his lack of shame -- so common among certain kind of analytical philosophers of his generation, including the silly idea that Hobbes "is an analytical philosopher," [it's silly because Hobbes takes rhetoric very seriously whereas analytical philosophers, a few noble ones excepted, tend not to]* -- in not having read fully a book he discusses at length (not exactly the model of virtue in a Dean of Humanities)! Rather, it reveals how narrow his conception of political philosophy really is and almost certainly reveals a tacit commitment, once popular, to the idea that religion is a thing of the past. I am not saying that one should only focus on religion within political philosophy, but the more modern books mentioned (by Rawls, Nozick, Cohen) that 'shaped' the field are not very profound on the challenges and opportunities posed by religion to political philosophy. This lacuna -- and it is a considerable given the events of, say, the last thirty years --, suggests something has gone very wrong in the field. [This is not to deny that "Rawls took religion very seriously," but in Wolff's hands Rawls's significance is explicitly not on political theology.]
- Wolff is reported as saying (while commenting on Leviathan's famous cover) "I can’t think of another political philosopher who’s chosen an illustration themselves for their position." I found this an odd lapse in his memory because several of JJ Rousseau's books have (complex) illustrutations/engravings as book covers that comment or even guide the reader's interpretations and are mentioned in the text (see here [see also this paper on the Emile [HT Michael Kochin]).
- Wolff writes about Marx: "Marx finds, in the Wealth of Nations, a whole range of criticisms of capitalism that sound just like Marx. So, for example, Adam Smith argues that the natural rate of wages is the minimum wage — what it costs to keep the worker and his family alive for the day." I think Wolff misremembers his Marx here (and confuses some key concepts in Smith). To be clear it's true that Smith anticipates much of Marx's criticisms of capitalism (see this excellent book by Spencer Pack). But it is not true that for Smith the natural rate is (generally) the minimum wage nor does Marx say this (I am not a Marx expert, so maybe he says it somewhere); rather for Smith wages will only fall to subsistence wages if there is little economic/production growth alongside population growth--something that Marx recognizes (but Wolff not). By contrast, the natural rate is the counterfactual price of a good absent barriers to trade in factors--something that Marx recognizes (and Wolff not). For Smith this price is not a subsistence wage, but rather one that prevails when there is no famine. Marx understands this about Smith, but disagrees; he argues that within an extensive division of labor the worker lacks the bargaining power to (a) benefit from when the market prices are above the natural price (something extremely common) because (b) the capitalist can redirect capital far more easily than the worker can. (Both (a-b) are compatible with Smith's analysis, by the way.) Moreover, Marx thinks that (c) wages are very sticky. (This is not really Smith's position.) Where Marx and Smith differ in Marx's analysis is (to simplify) that Smith thinks wages can be kept above subsistence rates during times of economic growth whereas Marx thinks this is rarely the case (and even if it can be done only at the expensive of the worker relative to capital interests).
- On reading Rawls Theory of Justice. "You can read a page and not think very much of it and then ten years later come back to it, having thought about the issue yourself, and see Rawls has completely understood the issue, set out all the possibilities, and shown why only one of them is right." I think this is almost right, but it also misses a key feature of Rawls. For, Rawls does not explicitly set out all the possibilities, although he has undoubtedly discerned all of them. He sets out important possibilities and these turn out to have set the agenda for subsequent readers. But to recognize that he is aware he does not set out all the possibities you have to read Rawls's footnotes. For a notable example, see p. 314 n 16 of TJ. In the note Rawls cites both Arrow and Knight, focusing on their (limited) agreement and ignoring the deeper disagreement. As Rawls adds (in his own footnote): “in both cases see the footnotes!” That is to say, Rawls knows the possibility space is broader than he presents and he allows the diligent reader to recover that. (I leave aside here what purpose this may serve.)
- Finally, It is striking that Wolff mentions no women, no non-white person, and no pre-early modern person. Perhaps, he is right sociologically that "the three leading political philosophers of the contemporary era are Rawls, Nozick, and Cohen," but that is really an artifact of the cold war. I love Hobbes and Rawls, but if we think of issues that ought to dominate political philosophy (religion, gender equality, global and racial injustices, mass human extinction, toleration, technology, military-prison industrial complex, ideology, etc.), I can think of more important political philosophers (in the contemporary era, say, MacKinnon, Fanon, Arendt, Foucault),+ not the least of which are Plato (and Aristotle) or Al-Farabi.