It is a commonplace of soap operas, Romance novels, and pop psychology that one never entirely gets over one’s first love. I fell in love with Susie in the Fall of 1948 as a fourteen year old high school sophomore, and although it took me another thirty-nine years to persuade her to marry me, I carried the memory of that young love in my heart for all the intervening years.
At about the same time that I fell for Susie, I first heard the music of the great Black folk singer, Huddie Ledbetter. Leadbelly, as he was known, was a hard-driving man, twice convicted of murder and twice reprieved by governors who heard him sing. During his prison time in brutal Southern chain gangs, Leadbelly would work under the blazing sun all day, and then play for the prisoners and guards at night. Alan Lomax, who with his father first introduced Leadbelly to White audiences, had this to say about him:
“Leadbelly, himself, was like the gray goose, indomitable, tougher than life, itself. In the Texas pen he was the number one man in the number one gang on the number one farm in the state.”
That description became for me the epitome of what it was to be big league.
In college, I had a brief fling with mathematical logic and a romance with David Hume, but it was when I met Immanuel Kant in 1953 as a nineteen year old senior that I lost my heart forever. After I had encountered the Critique of Pure Reason in the classroom of Clarence Irving Lewis, Alan Lomax’s description of Leadbelly became firmly associated in my mind with the passage in the Critique known as the Transcendental Deduction of the Categories -- more formally, “The Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding”. It seemed obvious to me that that short section of the Critique was the most important passage in the hardest book by the greatest philosopher who ever lived -- the number one man in the number one gang on the number one farm in Texas. To engage with that passage, to wrestle with it like Jacob with the angel, to force it to yield up its true meaning, was for me then, and has been for me during my entire career, the ultimate challenge for a student of philosophy.
I met that challenge, I am firmly convinced, in my first book, Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity, completed in the early Fall of 1961 and published two years later. I told my psychoanalyst, Terry Cloyd Rogers, that Kant was for me the powerful, thoroughly admirable father that I felt my own father had not been. He observed quietly that although Kant figured in my mind as the ideal father figure, in fact what I was really saying in my book was that he needed me and my interpretation of him to make what he had in mind clear to the world. It was only two years after publishing that book that I wrote In Defense of Anarchism, the central thesis of which, psychologically speaking, is of course that there are no legitimate fathers.
But my love affair with Kant did not end there. Having settled accounts with Kant’s theoretical philosophy, I turned to his moral philosophy. When I began that engagement, I was convinced that there must somewhere be a rigorous argument, knowable a priori, that establishes the universal validity of the fundamental principle of morality. I wrestled with Kant for ten years, publishing thirteen books on a variety of subjects along the way, but finally in 1973 I threw in the towel. In The Autonomy of Reason, a commentary on Kant’s Grundlegung, I confessed myself unable to find in Kant’s writings any argument establishing the unconditional bindingness of the Categorical Imperative. Still convinced that he was the number one man in the number one gang on the number one farm in Texas, I concluded that if Kant had been unable to find the argument, it did not exist, and I gave up the search.
It was not long afterward that I began my relationship with Marx. That relationship has been rewarding, in the way that mature affairs frequently are, but I am afraid that no one, not even Marx, can displace Kant in my heart.