Robert Paul Wolff

Robert Paul Wolff
W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies
University of Massachusetts, Amherst


bald man with white mustache

Robert Paul Wolff (born December 27, 1933) is an American political philosopher and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Wolff has written widely on topics in political philosophy such as Marxism, tolerance (against liberalism and in favor of anarchism), political justification, and democracy.

After the renewal of interest in normative political philosophy in the Anglo-American world after the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, Wolff made pointed criticisms of this work from a roughly Marxist perspective. In 1977, Wolff published Understanding Rawls: A Critique and Reconstruction of A Theory of Justice, which takes aim at the extent to which Rawls’s theory is cued to existing practice, convention and status quo social science. Insofar as A Theory of Justice forecloses critiques of capitalist social relations, private property and the market economy, Wolff concluded that Rawls’s project amounted to a form of apology for the status quo, as according to Wolff, markets and capitalist social relations are founded on exploitation and injustice, and Rawls did not give arguments to defend his theory from these charges.

Wolff extended his advocacy of radical participatory democracy to university governance in The Ideal of the University (Boston: Beacon, 1969), in which he argues against rising marketization and external encroachment and that universities should be primarily governed by faculty and students. In addition, Wolff was a strong supporter of the students who occupied the Low Library at Columbia University in 1968.

Within his profession, Wolff is better known for his work on Kant, particularly his books Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity: A Commentary on the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason and The Autonomy of Reason: A Commentary on Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. He is also a noted commentator on the works of Karl Marx. His works include Understanding Marx: A Reconstruction and Critique of Capital and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: On the Structure of Capital, an analysis of the rhetorical and literary techniques employed by Marx in Das Kapital. His textbook About Philosophy is used widely in introductory college philosophy courses.