The occasion of this post is my recent discovery of a wonderful book by John Kaag entitled American Philosophy, a Love Story. Before I get to any criticism of the work, I should commit myself beyond the adjective ‘wonderful,’ and say that I think it is indeed truly excellent and worthwhile, but worth a great deal more to those who are interested in the genealogy of the ideas that drive our modern world. The rest of you may just get a kick out of the love story.
I don’t recall ever meeting Mr. Kaag but suspect from this one account that he is the sort of intellectual personality whose self-concerns give solipsism a bad name and worse, an earnest academic and thus, and to a large degree, the enemy of the good in pursuit of the perfect. However, having known and associated with academics for most of my life as a bookseller, I understand that whatever my opinion of his work may be, it would be irrelevant to his cosmos. Never-the-less, I think he is better than all of that. Somehow he has managed to stumble on the philosopher’s stone despite an apparently wholehearted attempt to bury himself alive in the private minutia of his profession, all while avoiding the sort of mundane commitments to love, life, and honor that the rest of us cling to day by day. However the trick was done, whether it was a bequest to him from secretly loving parents, or of revelation, I give him great credit for that.
Philosophy was first hijacked as a profession and later re-sold in the black market of academia by Socrates about four centuries before Christ, and that theft then changed the world as profoundly as any religion. Stating it thus would be blasphemy in many circles, but my only wish is to recognize the facts. Christianity and the rigors of its specific philosophy dominated the history of the Western World for two thousand years. Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and many other faiths prevailed over the rest. Yet the quest of truth by Socrates is the basis for our modern life—however good or bad you may believe our present to be. The teachings of Jesus may motivate a doctor to use his medicines, but the medicines themselves are his to use via a gift of inquiry from Socrates.
Since 400 BC, academia has been the infection point for the ideas behind our science, arts, and the metaphysics by which we live. Importantly, it was the platonism of the Hellenic age, based on those teachings of Socrates, that made all things possible. Aristotle and his realization of entelechy is still the basis (or anti-basis) of modern philosophy. But before I go off the deep end with that, let me swim ashore here to reaffirm my goal in this essay. We all live by our ‘philosophies,’ whether we recognize them or not. The plural is used because most of us do not have a coherent idea of what our specific philosophy might be. In my specific neighborhood a majority might attest to some form of Christianity. Well, and good. But Christianity, in any of its many forms, is attributable to that host of philosophies through which it has been thinly strained for the last two millennia. And here we are. Wherever that it.
Importantly, appropriately, most people see their own philosophy in life through the lens of their avowed religious beliefs. This has a lot to do with being lazy (or too busy with matters of consequence). Our religions are usually a gift from our parents and much like the mythical Christmas fruitcake, these are passed from one generation to the next without much inspection, much less the devouring. If the fruitcake was good enough for mom and dad, it’s good enough for me. But for at least six days a week, keep it in the closet. It doesn’t have to be seen.
In practice, the philosophy most of us live day by day by is a practical understanding of what works; and given the accumulation of leisure time made possible by technology, when you overlay that empirical sense with a modern attention to what feels good you have the actual operating system for the average man or woman. And because the science by which we survive—that is the basis of the technology and medicine which allows us to live—begins with the Socratic method, we still owe a debt to the old Greek. You may want to do good, but your ability to do so is based in large part on the ideas born in Athens.
If the report of their first meeting by Diogenes Laertius is true, the walking stick that Socrates used to bar the way of Xenophon in order to stop and question him, is to me one of the sacred tools of history. With that one act, the philosopher has forever made his case for his beliefs. If the story is merely allegory, it is true enough to our reality to believe. It is Xenophon, the man of action—soldier, historian, philosopher and student of Socrates—who makes the practical case for philosophy even then. While Plato is imagining ideal Republics unworthy of mere human beings, Xenophon contemplates the birth of the Persian Empire and the practical rule of Cyrus. While Socrates is being tried and executed in Athens for his teachings (and as noted by others, not unlike the trial and execution of Jesus), Xenophon is afoot in the midst of a catastrophe, making good on his understanding of reality. And it is certain that the Hellenism spread by Alexander’s conquests were much influenced by his mentor Mr. Aristotle.
But how is this of concern to American Philosophy, a Love Story? Sadly, not at all. Which is part of my point.
On a hill in northern New Hampshire, Harvard philosophy professor William Ernest Hocking built a library and filled it with the books of his profession. Better still, he personally knew many of the great thinkers of his age. His vantage from there was not just the White Mountains, but the entire landscape of human thought brought up to that moment. He had the wisdom, or sharp eye, to collect not only first editions but often signed copies or copies annotated by other philosophers in their own course of study. Understandably, the books he chose for this project were most influenced by his own mentors at Harvard, William James, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce, the men who had conjured up ‘pragmatism,’ a somewhat coherent philosophy that valued practical consequences over all else. How those consequences were to be judged ‘practical’ is another matter, but lets leave that there. Importantly, as a baby boomer, this was one of the drum-beats of thought throughout my own age, as in, if it feels good, do it.
To get a further sense of that, it would appear most of the key influences of my age can be traced to that particular clique of thinkers, including their fascination with spiritualism, eastern philosophy, and socialism. In other words, they have a lot to answer for. But that is the history of it. And knowing it makes it far easier to deal with.
Mr. Hocking lived a long and interesting life but he died in 1966. And as any booklover knows, a library left unattended is dying. John Kaag gathers and draws those threads together in an entertaining and enlightening way as he relates his own personal journey through that library and attempts to save it and himself as best he can.
American philosophy, at least as I understand it, is a practical application of ideas. That entelechy, that rap sheet, is pretty clear. All the utopian communities from which the threads of our not so ideal commonwealth are woven, from the Puritan settlement at Plymouth and Roger Williams reestablishment at Providence, through Shakers and Quakers, Methodists and Mormons, from New Harmony to Thoreau’s cabin in the woods, are an exposition and exhibition of the practical application of philosophy. Does it work? And here we are.
The center of his story, other than Kaag’s own emotional awakening, is a tale of that great and now lost library, West Wind, assembled by William Ernest Hocking on that hill. As a bookman at heart, I cried at the inevitable resolution. I suppose the author’s presentation should at least be credited with that visceral response too, but I cry at movies as well, and this is a far graver matter. In this regard the book is akin to some newly discovered writings by Julius Caesar giving his account of having burned the great Library of Alexandria. Yes. I knew nothing of the Hocking library before reading this book and now the portrait of this fabulous intellectual wealth and its so recent demise has rattled me. I credit John Kaag for this entirely (both the discovery and the rattling). Given the swath of philosophy that is covered here and often present in original editions the loss is incalculable.
But Mr. Kaag might have more simply entitled his work, Philosophy, a Love Story, because in point of fact a presentation of those most American ideals which imbue our national philosophy with a distinct color are almost entirely missing. Though the unique idealism of Emerson and Peirce are presented (though in Peirce’s case, not well), Thoreau (though frequently mentioned in passing) is actually given short shrift, all the while Kant is extensively repackaged to be palatable to my American prejudices. Dante and Hobbes and Descartes and Hegel, Jane Addams and Lydia Maria Child and even Gabriel Marcel are given their due along with the German idealism of Friedrich Schelling, while Jonathan Edwards and Rousseau get barely a mention and Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, William Wollaston, James Madison, Bronson Alcott, Josiah Warren, James Wilson, Lysander Spooner, William Graham Sumner, Benjamin Tucker, and a hundred others who have contributed to a distinctly American philosophy and were in some cases well and personally known to William Hocking and his mentors Josiah Royce, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce, et al., are missing or barely noted. Were they simply not in the library that is at the heart of this story? And if not, isn’t that an important and telling omission on the part of Mr. Hocking?
This is where the intellectual hijack—the academic hijack—occurs. The great non-academic philosophers and their freer thought are much ignored while the particular strain of German philosophy and its peculiar values are emphasized. That is, in and of itself, just fine, but it has little to do with ‘American’ philosophy, however much it might have influenced William Hocking or William James, et al. They are, frankly, late comers to the party of American philosophy and their influence is especially Harvard bound, however much my generation took license from their thought. The importance of the Transcendentalists is certainly key, but what of that is elemental to a peculiarly American way of thinking? No clue is given.
My greater cavil with the book is really this. Pragmatically speaking, isn’t any account of ‘American’ philosophy a story of contribution in practice? Benjamin Franklin was reprinted and read as widely as Thomas Jefferson, but neither rate a mention here. Abraham Lincoln (unmentioned) defined the heart of American philosophy as well as Walt Whitman, but in fewer words. And then there is the greater ellipsis in the tale—the religious philosophers of the reformation. America was, from its founding, an avowedly religious republic. We were, from the start, a Protestant nation built upon the principles of the reformation. The secular religions of progressive Harvard have always been very uncomfortable with that fact. The golden mean is closer to the golden rule than Kant is to American philosophy.
Was this an editor’s idea to make the book more saleable?
Sadly, it is never actually explained why the library could not have been restored and preserved by Harvard itself—with their gaudy endowment barely touched as a consequence. Given the intellectual weight of the Pragmatists, this cache should have appeared to them like the crown jewels. But no. That is not the real estate investment that is the Harvard of our time. It is to be expected that elsewhere, in our age of library management, with budgets dedicated to multimedia and community outreach, that the books themselves should receive little interest, but wouldn’t those Icons of modern progressivism, Dewey and James, Royce and Hocking have some publicity value for any politically correct library administration?
And I am left to wonder at one particular omission in the book itself. After all that cataloguing and evaluation of the contents, is there an actual bibliography of the titles and authors present? Wouldn’t that alone be a gem?
Besides being a good writer, Mr. Kaag is clearly an intelligent and sensitive soul of wide education—certainly more so now than before his journey. But why are the personal details of his life particularly important to this adventure? I am not sure I understand. I see possibilities, but his personal reveries, strewn throughout the book, do not actually add up. They amount to an interlacing effort to give his struggles some importance by tangent relationship. And in the process, he opens up windows on numerous other lives that I find more interesting. That is not to put him down personally, just to say that he has not made his own case.
Perhaps the book was originally twice as long and some pseudo-intellectual at Farrar, Straus, the publisher, thought it was too long, but I suspect not, or not entirely. The particularly Harvard slant toward the German philosophers is a giveaway, I think. But there is no need to venture there now.
However, the philosopher’s stone here is the overriding subject itself. The alchemy of the idea that thought—i.e., philosophy, is important in itself. So you’d think, right? But in modern public discourse, discussion of philosophy is generally verboten. Even the Germans. It’s tiresome. Bread and circuses is the order of the hour. Unfortunately there is more philosophy in a Raymond Chandler novel than you will get out of Congress, or most schools, or over the typical dinner table for that matter. In fact, our times have grown pitifully short on works that place philosophy at the center of anything. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Mann, Conrad, Orwell, Waugh, Lewis, Joyce, Huxley, Rand, Tolkien, all wrote philosophical novels that captured the imagination. Where are they now?