American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag


I cannot possibly recount all the important bits I want to remember about this book and it is even less plausible for me to give an overall accounting of the book. The NYT review does the latter admirably and I will just record a few of my favorite ideas.

While teaching philosophy at UMass-Lowell, John Kaag happened on the private library of John Ernest Hocking who taught philosophy at Harvard for forty years, beginning in 1914. The library had many priceless books: Rene Descartes' Discourse on the Method (First English Edition 1649), John Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1690), Immanuel Kant's Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Riga: 1781) to name a few. What made some of these books especially wonderful was that they had been owned by other eminent philosophers; imagine finding a book with margin notes by William James. When Kaag came upon it, the free-standing library on the Hocking estate was unheated and used only by critters that ate those priceless pages. Kaag began visiting this library in its remote location in New Hampshire often and surreptitiously, "cheating" on his wife as their relationship deteriorated. He fell in love with the library and eventually with a colleague who began to visit the library with him to save the books.

Kaag begins the book with a personal exploration relating to a talk given by William James in April 1895 to the Harvard Young Men's Christian Association on the topic "Is Life Worth Living?" The Christian young men presumably had accepted the "Yes!" taught to them, but James, often a despondent fellow, could only come up with "Maybe." Kaag says, "On the one hand, we cling to the hope that our world is both rational and meaningful; on the other, we may eventually come to see that it is neither." Kaag says that "For American philosophers like James, determining life's worth is, in a very real sense, up to us. Our wills remain the decisive factor in making meaning in a world that continually threatens it. Our past does not have to control us." As James worked on The Varieties of Religious Experience he was seeking "experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they must consider the divine." As Kaag says, "In other words, he was searching for some indication that each of us was not, despite evidence to the contrary, inconsolably alone in an uncaring universe."

One day Kaag began work in the library by reading from Descartes' work Dissertation de Methodo

It is the heart and soul of rationalism, arguably the most important claim of modern philosophy–"Cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am). American philosophers working in the nineteenth century were a diverse group of thinkers, but they found common ground in their critique of this seemingly innocuous statement. 

Descartes is credited with being the first to put humans' ability to reason at the forefront of philosophy. Some of the shortcomings of relying on our ability to be rational are found in the book I wrote about by Russell Shorto, Descartes' Bones (our "rationality" is often not too rational). And more important, those early American philosophers "pointed out that in its search for order, the Cogito argument had relinquished a question that was supposed to remain central: What makes life significant?"

Here's another passage I want to remember:

In [Alfred North} Whitehead's system, the world doesn't consist of discrete billiard ball-like objects that knock against one another. Instead, parts of the universe live and move together, and have their being in a logic of events in which individuals freely participate. The task of philosophy was not to secure an individual's solitary existence, divorced from all other beings, but to affirm a shared life in a common place. The experience of this shared life was not unlike James's appeal to the "varieties of religious experience" that temporarily quelled the fear of existential isolation.

Kaag describes Jane Addams and her work with Hull House with such respect that I would like to read more about her work.

Kaag describes philosophy today this way:

Analytic philosophers tend to understand philosophy as the task of parsing arguments, breaking down complex and confusing phenomena by analyzing their constituent parts. Like scientists at a laboratory bench, these thinkers dissect human experience in order to see how it ticks. Of course, this dissection often results in the distortion or destruction of the experience itself, but many analytic philosophers don't seem to care. They scrutinize for a living.

He doesn't pull his punches, does he? What a wonderful book this is.

John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, 272 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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