Robert Paul Wolff was born to a Jewish American family in New York City. His great-grandfather, Wolf Zarembovitch, emigrated from Eastern Europe to the USA, where the family name was changed to Wolff. He earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University and became an instructor there in Philosophy and General Education. He then joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, and became Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University from 1964 to 1971. In his late '30s, he left Columbia and the world of the Upper West Side intellectual and moved with his wife and children to the relative academic wilderness of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He wrote influential books on philosophy, politics, public life, and education. He has specialized in the study of Immanuel Kant, writing Kant's Theory of Mental Activity: A Commentary on the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason (1962) and The Autonomy of Reason: A Commentary on Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1974). His 1970 book In Defense of Anarchism was widely read and received praise from all sides of the political spectrum. In The Ideal of the University (1969), Prof. Wolff argued that universities should be primarily governed by their faculty and students. He also is a noted commentator on the works of Karl Marx, with works including Understanding Marx: A Reconstruction and Critique of Capital (1985) and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: On the Structure of Capital (1988). His 1976 textbook About Philosophy is used widely in introductory college philosophy courses.
Prof. Wolff is also distinguished as a white man who transitioned from the philosophy department to the department of Afro-American studies at UMass, which is chronicled and discussed in his Autobiography of an Ex-White Man: Learning a New Master Narrative for America (2005).
He became Professor Emeritus at UMass in 2008 and currently divides his time between Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Paris, France. He maintains a popular blog, The Philosopher's Stone, in which he writes about both philosophy and political issues.