Because my relationship to the Critique is so different from my relationship to Capital, I should like to go a bit more deeply into the matter in the hope that some of you will find it of interest. Kant first.
I first studied the Critique in the spring of 1953 when I was a 19-year-old senior at Harvard. As I have said here before, the course I took with Clarence Irving Lewis on the Critique was the greatest educational experience of my life. Four years earlier, as a teenager spending the summer at an eight week sleep–away “work camp” for the children of upper-middle-class lefties, I had encountered the music of Huddie Ledbetter, or Leadbelly as he was known. Alan Lomax, the great folklorist who had recorded Leadbelly and brought his music to the White world, reported that Leadbelly had twice been convicted of murder in Texas and twice reprieved by a governor who heard him sing. Lomax described Leadbelly in this way in the liner notes: “In the Texas pen he was the number one man in the number one gang on the number one farm in the state.” This description stuck with me as the essence of what it was to be big-league, and when I encountered the Deduction of the Pure Concept of Understanding in the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason, I recognized it immediately as the hardest passage in the greatest book by the greatest philosopher who had ever lived – the number one man in the number one gang on the number one farm in Texas. I was called to wrestle with it, like Jacob with the angel, and not to let it go until it blessed me.
Forty years later, when I reviewed Robert Howell’s splendid book, Kant’s Transcendental Deduction, I began with that quote from Lomax. Howell had spent 20 years grappling with the second edition Deduction and had produced a deep, complex, magnificent interpretation of the text. It was an interpretation that was completely incompatible with and totally at right angles to my reading, but it was the product of the same sort of committed engagement and I praised it to the skies.
I did not find Plato or Aristotle or Leibniz or Descartes or Locke or Hobbes or Rousseau all that difficult to understand, and while I confess that I was mystified by Hegel, it was pretty clear to me that that was his problem and not mine. But Kant was different. Did I think that what Kant said was true? I cannot recall that the question ever occurred to me. The Critique was to philosophy what the B Minor Mass was to music, and I was compelled to engage with it until I understood it. This was, by the way, not a particularly good career choice in the late 1950s, for all that it might have become so 20 or 30 years further on. Logic was the royal road to success in philosophy in those days and in my earlier undergraduate years at Harvard I had gone as deeply into it as the available courses would allow. But logic did not bless me, if I may continue my Genesis metaphor. (One of the oddities of my career is that although my first book was well received and has continued to be so, in none of the four philosophy department jobs that I got – at Harvard, Chicago, Columbia, and UMass – was I actually hired to teach Kant or, for that matter, the history of philosophy.)
My relationship to the thought of Karl Marx has been completely different. Although I came from a socialist family, as I have often remarked on this blog, I did not read much by Marx when I was a young man and in fact taught only several of the early writings for the first 20 years or so of my career. I read volume 1 of Capital in 1960 in preparation for the sophomore tutorial that Barrington Moore and I co-taught during the first year of the Social Studies program at Harvard, but I read it rapidly and was unimpressed by it. It was not until 1977, when I decided to offer a graduate seminar on Classics of Critical Social Theory and assigned Capital that I read the book seriously. It was then that I launched on the years of study that led to my two books on Marx – Understanding Marx and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.
Almost immediately, I realized that Marx had done something utterly unique in social theory and indeed perhaps in all of intellectual work. He had found a way to combine philosophy, economic theory, economic history, institutional theory, and literary art seamlessly so as to capture the mystified structure of capitalism. I brought to the text the discoveries of a group of brilliant mathematical economists around the world who had undertaken a re-examination of the classical and Marxian political economy with the use of modern mathematical techniques.
Did I think that what Marx said was true? You are damned right I did! Oh, not all of it, not by a longshot. Marx is the greatest social theorist who has ever lived and written but he was not a prophet or seer. He was wrong about all sorts of things, as every great social theorist inevitably is, but about his central claim he was completely correct: that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.