As the wars of religion scarred the land around him, Michel de Montaigne “retired” to his country estate 1571 to begin work on his Essais. “I myself am the subject of my book,” Montaigne gently chides the reader, “it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain.” You don’t even have to open the book to appreciate the deep irony of Montaigne’s self-deprecating preface. You would just have to look up upon entering Montaigne’s study to see lines from Virgil, Plutarch, Epicurus, and other sources of inspiration carved into the broad wood beams. This is not the voice of one “retiree,” but the wisdom of the ages surging through a tender-minded Frenchman.
American Philosophy: A Love Story is replete with quotations from Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Josiah Royce, Henry David Thoreau, and other figures from the “Golden Age of American Philosophy.” Like Montaigne, the philosopher John Kaag seems to have been collecting these little bits of wisdom for the day when he finally turned towards himself as the subject of his writing. The precipitating events are a crumbling marriage and a loss of enthusiasm for his day to day tasks as a young philosopher. He is rescued from a spiral of melancholy by a kindly old man in an out of the way New Hampshire bakery who points him in the direction of “West Wind,” the estate of the former Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. In Hocking’s library Kaag finds first editions of Kant and Hobbes and books on religion with William James’ notes scribbled into the margins. But like Montaigne he also reconnects with the past as a source of wisdom and inspiration.
American Philosophy: A Love Story is both a memoir and a creative reconstruction of our indigenous philosophical tradition (which we learn is more worldly than it is often given credit for). Through the library of Hocking, an exceptional figure of the 19th and 20th century, Kaag floats between the philosophical, the historical, and the personal. We traded emails over these three levels, the role of place in philosophy, and what it means to write about the self as a professional philosopher.
John Kaag is a professor of philosophy of UMass-Lowell, the author Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism: The Philosophy of Ella Lyman Cabot and Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition, but more importantly he was my TA when I was a young philosophy major at the University of Oregon.
Michael Schapira: We have a few intersecting biographical lines, so I thought I’d start in Eugene, Oregon, where you were my TA in Logic. I was a latecomer to philosophy, so I had no sense that the philosophy degree I was getting there was a little unusual. At that point the two strongest traditions in the department were American Philosophy and Continental Philosophy, both of which remain pretty marginal in most departments in American universities. That I took a seminar on Schopenhauer as a junior or met Josiah Royce and Charles Sanders Peirce in a Logic class (two figures we meet again in your book) seemed normal to me at the time, but most other majors didn’t share this experience. When I meet other philosophy teachers I suspect that these formative experiences have a stronger influence on how we teach the discipline than we’d like to admit. It’s probably too general a question, but could you speak briefly to how the unusual intellectual make-up of the department at Oregon shaped your approach to philosophy?
John Kaag: Sure thing. As a teenager, I came to philosophy through European existentialism. The radical freedom and a realism (always bordering on pessimism) drew me, like so many disaffected young men and women, straight into the philosophical fold. I was at Penn State at that point, another department that encouraged students to temper Sartre and Nietzsche with the gentler, humanistic, community-oriented tradition of classical American philosophy, the train of thought that you see coming through in American Philosophy: A Love Story. When I looked for graduate schools, I was on the hunt for a similar department and found one in Oregon. I continue to shuttle between existentialism and American philosophy; my next book with FSG, Hiking with Nietzsche: A Family Affair, continues the autobiographical story begun in American Philosophy, but with an Nietzshean twist: I will explore what this father of existentialism might say about the contemporary institutions of family and the modern experience of love.
By the way, one more thing about Oregon: I am afraid to say that I think even Oregon is on the verge of giving up their American roots (I’m not even sure if they teach James and Peirce anymore), which I find rather disturbing. But I’m very grateful that I was able to pursue these thinkers while I was there, and hope American Philosophy can do a small part in preserving a unique strain of philosophy that balances freedom and togetherness.
William James famously divided philosophers into the tough- and tender-minded, saying that philosophical inquiry had as much to do with temperament as arguments. To the undergrads our graduate instructors seemed to split into these two categories. You struck me as tender-minded (along with Brent Crouch, who taught Philosophy of Religion and the department website says is now coaching the University of Portland volleyball team), but most seemed tough-minded, which is the mindset most grad schools encourage. Do you put any store in James’ distinction, and do you see part of this story as recovering your tender-minded sensibilities after the dark, post-grad school period in which the book begins?
James is after something particular in that distinction: the difference between scientific analysis (the tough-minded) and romantic holism (the tender-minded). I guess you have me pegged: I’m a romantic, but not in the colloquial sense of the term. At heart, I’m drawn to idealism of a certain stripe, to the belief that ideas are as real (or even more real) than material realities, that the world shouldn’t be understood in a strictly mechanistic fashion, that what it is to be human is to confront and experience the enduring mysteries of freedom, love, friendship, and (I know it’s unfashionable in our secular culture) the divine. I’m not suggesting that I have anything particularly deep to say about these mysteries other than the fact that they are worth spending a life exploring.
The other intersecting biographical line is that I’m from New Hampshire and grew up around some of the landscapes and personalities (like the AAA mechanic) that you describe in the book. But before turning there I wanted to ask you one more question about Oregon. The landscape of the northeast is really important for the period of American philosophy that concerns you, centering in Boston but radiating north to New England and the Adirondacks and south to New York and Philadelphia. As you note, the presence of the tradition haunts this landscape. How decisive was it for you, beyond having access to all of this new material in archives, to practice philosophy in the east as opposed to the west? Before finding West Wind had the role of place ever had an effect on the questions that interested you?
That’s a wonderful question. I thought very hard about going to graduate school in the Northeast, but I pointedly choose to go west, to Oregon. In truth, many American thinkers followed the German idealist Hegel in thinking that philosophy would find a suitable home in the western reaches of America. The east was obviously boring to thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson. It represented tradition and convention. It still does in many ways. So I went toward the Pacific—which is where the Transcendentalists and even pragmatists of New England directed most of their listeners: that’s where the freedom and possibility was.
That being said, I’d promised my mother that I would come back to the Northeast after I finished, and I am glad I did. I think that philosophy is an embodied human activity, something that really matters in the lives of people and their communities. Therefore, philosophy is also necessarily situated, in-place—it emerges from a particular time and locale for particular purposes. I think that understanding a particular philosophical position means that you try your best to understand the particular geographical and cultural space it emerges from. In this case, I think it helped that I was immersed in New England—with all of its spiritual undertones, Calvinist strictures, obsessions with origins and burial rites—when I wrote American Philosophy: A Love Story. It’s a story well suited to the history of New England, but America more generally—one that asks how to make home in a very precarious world.
William Ernest Hocking stood at the center of an international network of thinkers who, as you suggest, were engaged in returning philosophy to questions of immediate, existential importance. He is involved in the development of pragmatism, in contact with phenomenologists and then existentialists in Europe, and by the end of his life had established correspondences with presidents and other leading figures in the United States (like a northern version of Thomas Merton). Through Hocking’s library you effectively show that 19th and early 20th century American philosophy is not insular, but very catholic in its influences. I asked earlier about what inhabiting the landscape of the Northeast did for your understanding of the American philosophical tradition. Did inhabiting the library give you a better sense of the worldly importance of this tradition?
It was actually only in visiting the library that I came to terms with the full reach of the American philosophical tradition. The library at West Wind was an artifact of American philosophy’s international range. Hocking carefully collected the non-Western texts that his more famous teachers—William James and Josiah Royce—used in their later writings. These books, with priceless marginalia from James especially, led me to believe that American philosophy at it best is not strictly “American,” or rather is most ideally American when it is willing to look beyond its borders.
In the first half of the 20th century, Hocking himself was, as you say, pivotal in bridging the longstanding divide between non-Western and Anglo-American philosophy. Much of today’s emphasis on cross-cultural philosophical approaches can be traced to Hocking’s on-going engagement with scholars in Hinduism and Buddhism (like D.T. Suzuki, who helped to bring Zen to America). Hocking rivaled John Dewey in being the most international American philosopher of the century. In 1936 Hocking gave the Hibbert Lectures at Oxford, arguing that what we really need to do in religion is get over all of our sectarian bullshit and see the possibility of a universal religion. It is pretty forward looking thinking—the kind we need today, I think.
American Philosophy is about a lot of things, and I hope my earlier questions don’t give the sense that it is an over-intellectualized work (it’s quite the opposite).
Thanks, I hope not—it isn’t written for other philosophers at all. It is written for the philosopher hiding out in every general reader.
Yes, that’s pretty obvious. But one thing I think it is really about is how we spend our time, which is a little more specific than the “how should we live” question of philosophers. This is a really chaotic period in your life, both in terms of relationships and in terms of the desperate first steps towards an academic career. We could imagine a lot of time in transit, or attention being split between teaching, reading in libraries, applying for jobs, conferences, and funding, and of course alternating between trying to mend your marriage and avoiding this. Even though these are the normal occupations of your way of life, it’s clearly not how you’d like to spend your time. It is only in the library that you seem to gain, or re-gain, the density of experience that allows you to feel like you are spending your time well. What do you make of that observation?
Again, I think you are spot-on. This is a philosophical memoir, or a memoir of a philosopher, but it is still a memoir—the plot is a paring down of actual life, to, as you say, its most important or meaningful moments. Hopefully these moments are ones that a reader can understand or find instructive or significant on their own terms. The time I spent at West Wind represented a pivot in my dealings with others and my understanding of myself, and, yes, everything else, the everyday affairs, sort of fades into the background. One thing that I am trying to think about right now in Hiking with Nietzsche is the difficulty of making the daily grind of human existence not only bearable, but meaningful and even sacred. It is not an easy task, and not one that I take up in American Philosophy, but as I’ve made a home with Carol and Becca, I am slowly coming to understand how important it is.
The book reminded me of a passage in Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy where the main character enters his friend’s library and picks up a book about the Spanish Civil War off the shelf. Nearly 100 pages later we emerge, only then realizing that this long interval was just someone sitting on the floor reading a book. What was it about the reading experience in West Wind that gave it a special character that you couldn’t get pouring over similar works in an archive? How had many of these normal activities become part of a day when you were again spending time in a way you saw valuable?
The library at West Wind taught me many things, but perhaps most importantly that one’s orientation to life is just as important—maybe more important—than what one actually accomplishes. That was a breakthrough for me. I think that there are certain places where this realization is more readily accessible. Widener Library is shot through with anxiety and ambition. It’s palpable. This library in the White Mountains of New Hampshire was different. It was possible just to sit, to read, to be nowhere else. I am sure that the fact that it was situated directly on ancient granite, far from the hustle and bustle of modern life, helped me slow down and realize how deeply personal philosophy could be.
I’d read most at the Hocking library before—but usually for the express purpose of using them for papers or study. Reading at West Wind had nothing to do with professional philosophy, and everything to do with philosophy as a way of life. Plus, it is different reading a first edition from the 17th century that you just pried out of hiding from behind a French door: the idea of a philosophical corpus makes more sense. It is a body of work that can actually touch us deeply.
It also must be noted that this question of how you spent your time is a highly edited one in the book. We don’t, for example, hear much about trying to find a job in the Hobbesian war of all PhDs against all PhDs that you describe. I imagine this took up quite a bit of your time and your emotional energy. I wanted to share something from Lars Iyer, a (now former) philosophy professor who channeled his professional struggles into a very funny trilogy of novels:
I did have some modest hopes as a philosopher — that I could make a meaningful contribution to my field…You have to learn to write in an appropriate way, and to tailor your essays for journals and book publishers. If you want to succeed, it is best to identify with a certain position, or a school of thinkers, or perhaps one particular thinker. Would-be philosophy lecturers strap on the exoskeleton of one great thinker or another, and stride about the philosophical landscape. You make a name for yourself as a Kantian, say, or a Husserlian, as something —ian, at any rate, forgetting for the moment that you’ve only really borrowed your strength…The danger is that you end up like those Žižek calls ‘poor idiot professors’, writing on this and then that … At the end of your struggle for an academic job, it’s a mediocrity that you see in the mirror.
I think Iyer is on to something very important here. In 1903 William James wrote the “PhD Octopus” where he sets his steady sights on the discipline of professional philosophy. He lived at a time when philosophy was just beginning to make its final assent (and I am afraid “final” is the operative word here) into the penthouse of the ivory tower. At the same time, titles (like the PhD) came to have what was, according to James, an absurd importance. The idea that one can only be a lover of wisdom if she or he has studied for a decade is ridiculous.
From the time of Aristophanes and Socrates, philosophy has been accused of being up in the clouds, completely out of touch with the reality of human beings, but in the rise of Anglo-American, analytic philosophy in the second half of the 20th century, philosophy was quite pointedly not interested in human affairs. The more arcane, the better—that seemed to be the motto for many epistemologists and metaphysicians in the 20th century. But people, average people, smart average people, don’t care that much about the minutiae or about the infighting of academic philosophy—they want to hear how philosophy might help them live more meaningful, self-critical, moral, beautiful lives. American Philosophy: A Love Story was my first attempt to really speak directly to that existential thirst. I teach introduction to philosophy, by choice, every semester. I know that young people harbor the same questions that bothered William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson—deep, difficult questions about why we are alive. One of the joys and duties of teaching philosophy is to face these questions squarely with your students and readers.
This book was clearly stretching yourself as a writer (e.g. moving towards the memoir form). Do you think it had anything to do with the train of thinking that Lars describes?
Yes, absolutely. Professional philosophy deters one from writing books like American Philosophy: A Love Story. That is why I waited until being promoted to full professor before I began publishing this type of work. When I finally got around to it, it was almost too late. Graduate school beats the style out of many good authors. My editor at FSG, Ileene Smith, was unbelievably patient with me as I cultivated, or rediscovered, some semblance of a voice. I scrapped the first draft of the book and rewrote it from beginning to end—twice. She would have been completely justified in cutting me loose, but she didn’t, and for that I will always be grateful.
There is a wide range of voices in your memoir—philosophers, poets, educators, novelists—so I’ll leave the scope of this question as broad as possible. What is your approach to philosophical memoir or autobiography?
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure, but I know that most readers (and reviewers) think that it is bridging a number of different genres: memoir, romance novel, philosophical argument, self-help, literary criticism, the story of a successful but ongoing treasure hunt. I think its best understood as philosophy, which originally, and at different times at its history, encompassed all of these different forms. That modern readers have a hard time remembering that, I think, is pretty sad, at least for the discipline of philosophy.
Western philosophy, at least initially, was bound up with the ability to give an account of one’s life in the face of an individual’s inevitable and rapid decline. It was, I shit you not, about the willingness to love and die for the chance of self-knowledge (this is what the love of wisdom originally meant). That’s some romance with wisdom. Philosophy was meant to help us understand—rationally and emotively—why our lives, so seemingly ephemeral and fleeting, aren’t a complete waste of time. And philosophy, in the Western tradition, has historically been a grand and ongoing treasure hunt—that is why Alford North Whitehead said, echoing Plato, that wonder initiates philosophy and once philosophy runs its course, the wonder remains.
Michael Schapira is an Interviews editor at Full Stop and teaches Philosophy at Hofstra University.