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In Memory of

Max Wilson

Professor of  Philosophy

(Morgan State University)

Chair, Department of Philosophy

(Howard University)

friend and mentor





A Search for Self

My Intellectual Sojourn with Max Wilson

By Rudolph Lewis


I first met Dr. Max Wilson in the mid 1960s as a Morgan sophomore student in the required "Knowledge and Values" course. I was about eighteen then. It was after the death of Martin King and the Riots of '68 and a failed marriage that I met him again, incidentally. Maybe it was a spring afternoon -- Amin Sharif and I were walking up Park Avenue. We were into Buddhism then, chanting Nam Nyo Renge Kho. We were searching for enlightenment. The revolution had failed and Nixon reigned supreme and the war in Vietnam was still on.

Dr. Wilson was on his front steps sunning and we stopped and chatted for awhile. He might have been bored and thus must have found us amusing. In any event, I was impressed by  his seeming attention to our spill and his interest in this Eastern philosophy/religion. He asked me to keep in touch with him and I really wanted to do that. I thought later after I got home that he could, maybe, help me to overcome my difficulties with college and college professors.

I dropped out in early spring semester 1968 to join the black consciousness revolution that was taking place. I joined the local SNCC group headed by Bob Moore. I worked with Moore and then Walter Lively. But all of that passed and I got as much as I could get from them. I got a job with Local 1199 and then I married to the executive secretary in the local office. That bliss lasted about six months and we were at each other's throats and were unable to get pass jealousy and harsh words. And so I moved out and later got a job as a pot washer and porter at Maryland General. It was during this period early on that I met Dr. Wilson again.

I remained as a porter/potwasher at Maryland General for a couple of years (1974-1976). But I made the best of it. It was somewhat of a comedown for me. For I was a shirt-and-tie man for two years (1971-1973) with 1199, representing a thousand workers, driving around town in a rental car and an expense account. One would have thought I had the world in my hands and as suddenly as I got the job, I quit and I had only gotten married months before.

Of course, this placed a heavy strain on my new wife. And, of course, I had not reached the stage in which I would discuss such issues with her beforehand. I was about twenty-five then and she was about the same age.

In any event, I sensed I needed Dr. Wilson. He was a philosopher and thus I assumed he possessed wisdom, though in the academic sense, he was just a teacher of courses in European philosophy. But my problems at bottom were ones of ethics and values. I was no longer as cocksure about the rightness of things as I had been previously.

Like many of my generation, the religion of our youth was a turn-off and didn't set well with our liberal education. But I had been steeped in the religious environment of my grandparents as a child and was baptized when I was twelve. So a religious sensibility was with me despite my conscious rejection of it and the traditional church. Thus, I seemed to have reasoned, Nicherin Shoshu Buddhism was a midway point between religion and philosophy. The Buddhist organizers claimed that theirs was not a religion, but a way of life. Then there came Dr. Wilson, the professional philosopher. Was he a God-sent?

I had no real loyalty to Buddhism. I was in it because a friend, Sharif, invited me. And I was meeting women there who also took my mind away from my various personal problems and political disappointments. By some means, I discovered Morgan had a new educational program, University Without Walls. Though I dropped out twice at Morgan. I thought this program might be one that would work for me and in that it required an educational advisor, there was a place and a means for me to reestablish a close relationship with Max Wilson. He agreed to be my advisor and so I enrolled in the program. I was still washing pots at Maryland General Hospital. Of course, at no point during my employment at the Hospital did I view myself as merely a potwasher or a porter, though I was treated as that, and worse.

During a union walkout at Maryland General Hospital, I met and began to date Astrid Garatun, a Norwegian nurse who was also in the union.. We encouraged each other in furthering our education. Maybe she too was God-sent in that I was able to get beyond the doldrums of a failed marriage. I introduced her to Dr. Wilson, with whom she was mightily impressed -- he a university professor, cosmopolitan. He had lived in Europe and studied at the University of Berlin, then with a German wife and two sons by her.

Astrid and I remained friends for about five years and then drifted apart, especially after I finished my undergraduate work at the University of Maryland. She also completed her nursing degree at Baltimore City College. 

Both of us were long out of the practice of concerted study. I lost track of her in the late 70s and early 80s. Astrid was very helpful in the program that Dr. Wilson planned for me. He wanted to broaden my horizons on the cultural front. She accompanied me on a number of cultural trips to New York.

In addition her alien culture (its history, music, art, folklore) became another chance to study. Dr. Wilson encouraged me to know the European arts -- the symphony, opera, ballet; the museums in Baltimore and New York. Though I wanted to study philosophy, he directed my study of philosophy through literature. He wanted me to first look at Russian literature (19th century primarily -- Tolstoy, Lermotov, Dostoevsky, and others), its history, art, music, and then philosophy.

The plan was to take each European country in turn and then lastly look at the writings of its philosophers. A secondary approach was to look at sex writers -- Joyce, Lawrence, Gide, Stein, and Henry Miller. After we completed such a study, we would then look at the black writers.

Photo right: two of my sisters (Celestine and Deborah), niece (Monica), Astrid, and bearded me in  the background

One summer Wilson went off to France and left me the task of discarding stacks and stacks of newspapers, magazines, and journals. The plan was that I would go through the material and cut out those articles I thought most important. When he returned I had several boxes of clippings waiting for him. The range of them were great -- all the sciences, the arts, and social sciences. I wondered what he was going to do with all of this material. Later, I figured that he didn't really want them at all. His plan actually was to broaden and deepen my knowledge of not only recent political events but on a great range of subjects and topics. I kept boxes of those clippings for over a decade. In that I moved about a lot, I sent them home to Virginia. I put them to the flames about two decades later when I was at home for an extended stay. I however kept up the practice of keeping clippings and pasting them in scrap books. I still have a few of them from those days stacked away in boxes.

The most wrenching of the exercises I underwent was the keeping of a diary. I must have filled at least nineteen volumes -- much of it contained my innermost thoughts and intimate activities involving my conflicts with my wife. It was mostly the vomit of sexual guilt and anxiety. I eventually tore them up and destroyed them, afraid someday someone might discover them and read them. I tried to read them once and became sickened by the effort. I also began to learn something about my own writing -- my lack of skills. I became self-conscious about my writing. Then Dr. Wilson advise me to move up to journal writing. Instead of responding to my feelings and anxiety, he wanted me to respond to what I encountered on an intellectual level -- my readings, my encounters with art and artistic performances.

The relationship between Wilson and me had gone beyond a professional one. We had become friends. He invited me into his home and treated me almost as if I were a son or a member of his family. He fed me at his table and invited me to his parties at his home. We had extensive talks on numerous subjects, including his native Haiti and his having to flee his home because of the political repression of Papa Doc Duvalier and later his son Baby Doc. Dr. Wilson expressed his disdain for noirisme or "blackism" and warned me of its dangers. We accomplished a lot in those two years, though I never finished Morgan's University Without Walls. But he thought I was ready for the university classroom.

The summer of 1976 I was coming to the end of my rope at Maryland General. I had been fired then rehired, then disciplined and in the process I had worked at three places within the institution as a means of escaping job conflicts. For my peers knew that I was out of place. Dr. Wilson also knew that I needed a change. He enrolled me at the University of Maryland, College Park, and assisted me in obtaining a scholarship. I quit my job at the hospital and enrolled as a full-time student, with the intent of majoring in comparative literature, which was then part of the English Department. I earned my bachelor's degree by the summer of 1978 in English.

To receive that degree I had to go to summer school and take a French course. Dr. Wilson arranged a place for me to live that summer with the Meijers, a Jewish family that lived just off upper 16th Street near Silver Spring, an area sometimes called the Platinum Coast. The Meijers put me up for the summer and allowed me to live with them until the late fall when I began the graduate program in English. It was quite an interesting experience for I gained an intimate sense of the dread that fleeing Jews had of Hitler and his dominance in Europe and Madame Meijer's indignation toward Germans who allowed the monstrosity of the Holocaust.

During this period, I was dating a fellow undergraduate, Jennifer Blackman. We were both in the class of Dr. Donna Hamilton, studying Shakespeare. We continue to see each other off and on while I was in graduate school. For a while we lived together, almost as man and wife, a dog and everything.

I remained in the English graduate program three years. I assisted the chairman, Dr. John Howard, the first year. Among my duties was managing the departmental newsletter. The next two years I was a teaching assistant and taught freshman writing.

That laid the groundwork for teaching jobs at the university after I graduated and also probably prepared the way for my plan to go to Zaire to teach and learn French and to deal with my romance with Africa. While in the English Department I got to know Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes (now a well-known novelist) and Dr. Joyce Joyce, former Chair of the African-American Studies program at Temple University and nemesis of Molefi Asante.

Actually, it was through a friend of Joyce that I got the idea of going to Zaire through the Peace Corps.I received my masters in English in 1981. I put aside further study. A doctorate was not in my mind. I had then been studying for five years straight, working at best part time. I was impoverished. But I got a part-time job on campus that following summer and in the fall I got an adjunct position at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC).

Photo right: At Dr. Wilson's house with my master's certificate.

I lost track of Jennifer after I received my graduate degree, especially after I went off to Zaire with the Peace Corps. I stayed in Africa ten weeks. It just didn't work out as I planned. Without a job or money or opportunity, I returned home to Virginia and remained there until the fall. I did not take my medicine and began to feel the effects of malaria. At first I thought I had pulled a muscle when I noted swelling behind me knee and on my upper thigh. I went to the doctor and was told that my glands were swollen. I had picked up an accent and the local country doctor thought I was African and frightened me by telling me I had Hodgkin's disease and probably had only five years to live. I immediately took the Aralen and my glands became normal again. I returned to Washington and UDC that fall.

A full-time teaching position at the University of Northeast Louisiana in Monroe, Louisiana,  opened and was brought to my attention. I talked by the phone to the chair of the department. They arranged a flight down for the interview. It was a very interesting trip. I had a dinner of catfish with the dean before I caught the flight back to Washington.

I discussed the trip with several professors on my return. They encouraged me to take the position. Dr. Wilson tried to dissuade me. But mind  was set on adventure.

From my part-time teaching positions, I had saved over a thousand dollars since I had returned from Zaire. I bought an orange Vokswagen for less than my savings. I took the position in Monroe. I drove the 1200 miles with Mississippi fear on my mind. But I got over that with a lay over in Meridian. I stayed in Monroe a year at NLU, another two years in New Orleans, teaching at the University of New Orleans and another year in Baton Rouge enrolled in a doctoral program. I got tired of Louisiana and returned to Baltimore, after a three-month stay in Virginia.

Dr. Wilson was ill on my return to Baltimore. His hair had turned white. He told me he was dying. I thought it was an hyperbole. He wanted me to embrace him. I did and that was the last time I saw him. I was not invited to his funeral. He told me to stay in contact with his wife. But I did not. I have no idea what was done with his body, whether he was interred or cremated. He remains however ever in my heart. He set me on my present course. I am ever in his debt. Without his love and guidance, I do not know where I would be today.

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Max William Wilson,1924-1988 . Born Port-u-Prince, Haiti, January 23, 1924. Married 1959. Children 2 sons.

Educational Experience

Philosophy. B.A. Wesleyan University, 1946; MA, 1947; Yale 1947. 

Fellow University of Pennsylvania, 1948-1949. 

Rockefeller & Humboldt Foundation, fellow, 1948-1949 & 1956-1957. 

Rockefeller Foundation grant University of Mexico, summer 1949. 

University Heidelberg, 1956. Ph.D. Free University Berlin, 1959.

Professional Experience

Philosophy. Ecole Normale Supérieure, University of Haiti, 1950-1956 & 1959-1961.

Assistant Professor, Mayagüez College College University, Puerto Rico, 1961-1964

Associate Professor, American International College, 1964-1966.

Professor. Morgan State College, 1967-1980; Graduate School, 1980-1981

Chairman Philosophy, Howard University, 1981- 1988

Concurrent Positions

Lecturer, various secondary schools, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1950-1956

Institute Philosophy Science Fellow, council philosophy student, Stanford University, summer 1967, Eastern division American Philosophy Association


Pierce Society

Philosophy Science Association

Humanist Association

American Fellow Religious Humanists

History of Science Society

Society of  Philosophy Study of Dialectical Materialism

American Philosophical Association

History and Philosophy Association

Special Topics

Philosophy of Language (Modern languages); physics and biology; history and philosophy of science


Ueber das kriterium der Verifizierbarkeit, Free University Berlin, 1959;

Notes sur un volontarisme Cartésien, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 8/54;

On the verifiability of fiction statements, proceedings International Congress philosophy University Mexico, 1964;

Metaphysics, fiction and scientific enquiry, Proceedings International Congress, Philosophy, Vienna, 1968

Notes suz l’histoire des Idees en Haiti: le developpement du positivisme dans les sciences et la vie politique haitienes au cours de la seconde moitie du 19e siecle, 6/77 & Filosofia y realidad Latino Americana, 6/77, Proceedings 9th InterAmerican Congress Pholosphy, Caracas, Venezuela

Actualite du positivisme d’Auguste comte en Amerique Latine, 2nd Colloquium on Comte, Society International Positiviste, Maison Auguste Comte, UNESCO, Paris, 6/78

Le Pragmatisme de William James, Les nouvelles, Ed Debresse Paris, France, (in print)

Address: 1507 Park Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21217

Sources: Directory of American Scholars, 1969, 1978, 1982

posted 9 December 2005 (revised)

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Max Wilson 1924-1988

Jean-Joseph Max Wilson, born on January 23, 1924 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, died on April 24, 1988 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Max Wilson was born to an old and distinguished Haitian family, and his early education was solidly grounded in French culture. He studied science and the history of law at the University of Haiti. The First Inter-American Congress of Philosophy, held in Port-au-Prince in 1944, opened opportunities for his study of philosophy in the United States with a grant from the Societe Hatienne d’Etudes Scientifiques. His BA, with honors and High Distinction, was from Wesleyan University and his MA from Wesleyan and Yale University.

He did doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania (Rockefeller Foundation and Harrison fellowships), and then in West Germany, as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow, first at the University of Heildelberg (under George Gadamer) and the Free University of Berlin (under Wilhelm Weischede;). His Berlin dissertation, a critical study of A.J. Ayers brand of logical positivism, was published in 1959 as Ober das Krtiterium der Verifizierbarkeit (Ernst Reuter Gesellschaft).

Further studies included work under Samuel Ramos at the National Free University of Mexico, and programs at Stanford University and the University of Paris

Max Wilson’s teaching career covered several positions in his native country including the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Haiti, Ecole Normale Superieure. He stood for intellectual integrity in Haiti, and though he left it in 1961 he always bore his homeland in his heart.

Max Wilson taught (in Spanish) at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus, 1961-1964, and then on the mainland of the United States at American International College. A naturalized citizen of the United states, he was a co-founder of the black Caucus of the American Philosophical Association.

He is best known in the United States for his affiliation with Morgan State University in Baltimore (1967-1980) and Howard University in Washington (from 1980 until his death). He served Howard as Chair of its department of Philosophy and was Graduate Professor of Philosophy. Throughout his teaching career Max Wilson insisted on intellectual discipline while he listened with his heart.

Max Wilson’s research centered on epistemology and philosophy of science. He argued for a flexible notion of belief-formation that might be given shape with myth. A succinct statement of his thesis, published in East Germany as one of his guest lectures at the Humboldt University (“Myth, Belief, and Scientific Theory: Toward a Structural Approach to Human Development,” Berlin, 1988) appeared in English shortly before his death.

In recent years he had worked in the history of ideas, tracing how the Positivism of Auguste Comte came to permeate enlightened political thinking in late nineteenth-century Haiti (“Auguste Comte et l”Amerique Latine: L’Influence du Positivisme en Haiti a la Seconde Moitie du 19me Siecle,” Paris, 1988) and on the concept of the Atlantic mind, an approach in which he was inspired by the French poet Saint-John Perse (“Saint-John Perse: Poete Philosophe ou Philosophe Poete?’, Washington, 1987). He could be found working on these projects in the national libraries in Paris, Washington, and Berlin. Many of Max Wilson’s publications are to be found in the proceedings of international meetings, especially the Inter-American Congress of Philosophy and the world Congresses of Philosophy. He was an avid supporter of cross-cultural dialogue.

Member of the American Philosophical Association, North American Society for Social Philosophy, and other philosophical societies, max Wilson was also a member of the American Association for the Advancement of science, American Society for the History of science, Latin American Association, St. John Perse Association and the Auguste Comte Association.

Supplementing his early education in language, literature, and history by extensive travels, max Wilson retained a lifelong interest in these cultural fields. He understood philosophy, teaching, and professional life as cultural commitments. Cultured, gregarious, articulate, he was a man of the Americas, a man of the Atlantic world, a man of the world. He contributed to intercultural understanding between north Americas and Latin Americans, between French-speaking and Spanish-speaking philosophers, between American thinkers and Europeans, and between East Europeans and Westerners.

Max Wilson was a striking figure: a tall, fluent, dynamic man, full of life. His laughter was exuberant, his smile generous, his heart loving. He is survived by two brothers, Arnold and Robert; by two sons, Jean-Phillippe and Peter; and by his wife of 30 years, Dr. Renate Wilson.

Source: Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 62, No. 2. (Nov., 1988), pp. 318-319.

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Not Gone With the Wind Voices of Slavery—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—9 February 2003—Unchained Memories, an HBO documentary that makes its debut tomorrow night, provides a powerful answer to that question. It gives us, through the faces and voices of African-American actors, an introduction to a vast undertaking that took place in the 1930's: the collection and preservation of the testimonies of thousands of aged former slaves in an archive known as the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers' Project. This archive unlocked the brutal secrets of slavery by using the voices of average slaves as the key, exposing the everyday life of the slave community. Rosa Starke, a slave from South Carolina, for example, told of how class divisions among the slaves were quite pronounced:

''Dere was just two classes to de white folks, buckra slave owners and poor white folks dat didn't own no slaves. Dere was more classes 'mongst de slaves. De fust class was de house servants. Dese was de butler, de maids, de nurses, chambermaids, and de cooks. De nex' class was de carriage drivers and de gardeners, de carpenters, de barber and de stable men. Then come de nex' class, de wheelwright, wagoners, blacksmiths and slave foremen. De nex' class I members was de cow men and de niggers dat have care of de dogs. All dese have good houses and never have to work hard or git a beatin'. Then come de cradlers of de wheat, de threshers and de millers of de corn and de wheat, and de feeders of de cotton gin. De lowest class was de common field niggers.''NYTimes

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.

She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.WashingtonPost

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America.

This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World 

Reviewed by Mimi Sheller

The slave revolution that two hundred years ago created the state of Haiti alarmed and excited public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic. Its repercussions ranged from the world commodity markets to the imagination of poets, from the council chambers of the great powers to slave quarters in Virginia and Brazil and most points in between. Sharing attention with such tumultuous events as the French Revolution and the Napoleonic War, Haiti's fifteen-year struggle for racial equality, slave emancipation, and colonial independence challenged notions about racial hierarchy that were gaining legitimacy in an Atlantic world dominated by Europeans and the slave trade. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World explores the multifarious influence—from economic to ideological to psychological—that a revolt on a small Caribbean island had on the continents surrounding it.

Fifteen international scholars, including eminent historians David Brion Davis, Seymour Drescher, and Robin Blackburn, explicate such diverse ramifications as the spawning of slave resistance and the stimulation of slavery's expansion, the opening of economic frontiers, and the formation of black and white diasporas. Seeking to disentangle the effects of the Haitian Revolutionfrom those of the French Revolution, they demonstrate that its impact was ambiguous, complex, and contradictory.Publisher, University of South Carolina Press

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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