Today, I shall write about something deeply personal and, for me, very important, namely what lies at the root of the work I have done during my entire professional career. I cannot tell whether this will be of interest to anyone other than myself, but I think that the way I work is actually rather odd for an academic and therefore perhaps worth spelling out in some detail.
I began my professional career 71 years ago in what was then for someone interested in philosophy a quite conventional manner. My first semester as an undergraduate at Harvard, I took Willard Van Orman Quine’s course in symbolic logic – philosophy 140 – and for the next several semesters I studied all of the mathematical logic offered at either the undergraduate or graduate level by the Philosophy Department. This was in those days the royal world to professional success but it was not the road I took, even though I was appropriately ambitious. Instead, after earning a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree and spending a year abroad wandering about Europe, I chose to write a doctoral dissertation on the Treatise of Human Nature and the Critique of Pure Reason.
In those days, in the United States, the history of modern philosophy was not, so to speak, a great career move. There was no prominent American professor of philosophy whose field of special interest was the philosophy of David Hume and the only notable Kant scholar was Lewis White Beck, the local bigwig in the Philosophy Department of the decidedly second tier University of Rochester. If you wanted to make a name for yourself in American philosophy, formal logic or analytic philosophy was the way to go. Why then did I choose to write on so professionally unpromising a subject? And why, despite having lucked into an instructorship in philosophy and general education at Harvard, did I choose to devote my time to writing a book on Kant’s First Critique?
I can begin to offer an answer by talking about the great Southern 12 string guitarist and folksinger Leadbelly. When I was a young teenager I spent the summers at a left-wing middle-class eight week sleep away “work camp” called Shaker Village, in the Berkshires. The counselor at the camp responsible for folklore was a wonderful woman named Margot Mayo, who introduced us to the music of Leadbelly. The famous folklorist Alan Lomax had recorded Leadbelly on one of his trips through the South and I listened to the record at Shaker Village. In the liner notes, Lomax described Leadbelly, who was twice convicted of murder and twice pardoned by the governor of Texas because of his singing, as “the lead man in the toughest chain gang in the toughest prison in Texas.” That phrase stuck in my mind and became to me the definition of what it was to be big-league.
When I studied the Critique of Pure Reason with Clarence Irving Lewis in my senior year at Harvard, it was immediately clear to me that Kant was the greatest philosopher who had ever lived, that his First Critique was his greatest work, and that the passage known as the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding was the most difficult and profound passage in that work – the lead man on the toughest chain gang in the toughest prison in Texas. I was seized by the desire, no by the necessity, to plumb that passage to its depths, to understand it so clearly and completely that I could explain it in simple clear language and then to write that explanation in a way that my reader could understand. Nothing else in the world seemed important to me but that. During the time that I was writing my book, Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity, I was falling in love with a woman who would become my first wife, I was starting my first job as an instructor at Harvard, I was devoting endless hours to the campaign for nuclear disarmament, I was helping to create and then to run a new program at Harvard called Social Studies, and I was serving in the Massachusetts National Guard, but none of that touched me anything like as deeply as my engagement with, my struggle with, and my eventual triumph in my effort to understand the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason.
For the first and only time in my life, I showed the manuscript to two friends – Ingrid Stadler and Charles Parsons – before submitting it for publication. I was grateful for their comments but I did not really care what anybody else thought about what I had written. All that mattered to me was that I had told the story of Kant’s argument in a way that was, at least for me, clear, precise, coherent, and logically powerful.
As the years went by, I wrote books on anarchism, on the philosophy of education, on the philosophy of liberalism, on Kant’s ethical theory, on the formal structure of Marx’s economic theories, on the literary structure of Capital, on Afro-American studies, and always I was driven by the same need – to plunge deep into a difficult and sometimes even obscure tangle of theory, to understand it deeply and precisely, and then to explain it to my reader in a fashion that was completely devoid of jargon and made little or no reference to what other thinkers had found in the same material.
Philosophical arguments in any discipline (I have virtually no sense of disciplinary boundaries) have always seemed to me at their very best to be stories. I work in my head, not on the page. Until an argument is clear to me – until I can tell its story – I cannot write. I work by telling the story over and over again in my head to an imaginary audience, an ideal audience that will not allow me to move on with my story until what I have told up to that point is clear. Once the story is clear in my mind I can start to write. Then, characteristically, I start on page 1, tell the story for as many pages as it takes until I reached the end, have the resulting story nicely typed up, after which I submitted it to a publisher.
I do not keep up with “the literature.” I put very few footnotes in my books. I tend not to read the reviews when they come out. And I have no sense that I am part of a community of scholars collectively adding to the accumulating total of human knowledge. I am a storyteller. I would be Garrison Keillor if I could.
Let me finish with a story dating from 1986. I have in my long life been something of a therapy junkie. Including my full-scale seven year Freudian psychoanalysis during my time teaching at Columbia, I think I have had full-time or part-time therapy for 15 years! My last engagement with this practice took place during the time when my first wife and I had separated and I was struggling, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to patch up our marriage. In all my years of therapy, during which I had complained endlessly about this and that in my life, I had never actually shed a tear, not even as my first marriage was breaking up. But one day, sitting in my therapist’s office in 1986, for some reason I stopped complaining about my wife and started talking about my work. I explained that my writing and my teaching had always been an effort to show to my students or to my readers with clarity and simplicity the power and beauty of certain ideas. As I said to my therapist “I try to show these ideas so that my students or readers can see them clearly and can see how beautiful they are” I unexpectedly choked up and started to cry.
It was the clearest proof I could imagine of what has throughout my life been truly important to me.