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American Philosophy: A Love Story Hardcover – October 11, 2016
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One of NPR's Best Books of 2016
A New York Times Editor's Choice
“The further you go on in the book, and the more of Kaag’s skillful miniatures you take in, the deeper it becomes. You realize he is also making an unconventional argument for who was right, and who was wrong, in the classical tradition of American philosophy from about 1830 to 1930, in Transcendentalism and Pragmatism and Idealism and beyond. It is an argument strikingly suited to our time . . . American Philosophy succeeds, not as a textbook or survey, but a spirited lover’s quarrel with the individualism and solipsism in our national thought.” ―Mark Greif, The New York Times Book Review
“John Kaag hits the sweet spot between intellectual history and personal memoir in this transcendently wonderful love song to philosophy . . . this is the most enthralling book of intellectual history I've read since David Edmonds' and John Eidinow'sWittgenstein's Poker . . . With its lucid, winning blend of autobiography, biography, and serious philosophical reflection, American Philosophy provides a magnificently accessible introduction to fundamental ideas about freedom and what makes life significant. It's an exhilarating read.” ―Heller McAlpin, NPR
“[Kaag] is as an admirably approachable teacher of the figures whose works he is cataloguing. He elucidates obscure philosophical matters. His history of American philosophy is lucid and compelling.” ―Priscilla Gilman, The Boston Globe
“Elegant . . . Describing these books enables Mr. Kaag to take us on a brisk tour from Hobbes and Locke to Kant and Coleridge and, most important, to rediscover the pragmatist work of American thinkers intent on mitigating the force of modern alienation.” ―Randal Fuller, The Wall Street Journal
"For anyone with a love of books, intellectual history, or just a good story of romance, Kaag delivers a treat . . . Kaag draws our attention to how philosophy can attempt, in Royce's words, to mend our broken world. If philosophy should be woven into the conduct of life, as the Transcendentalists argued, then Kaag's book is an example of how that might look." ―Scott Bartlett, Philosopher's Magazine
"Not since Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have I read such a mesmerizing confluence of personal experience and formal thought." ―Robert Richardson, William James Studies
“In his deeper portraits, Kaag’s sketches of philosophy as lived experiences are among the book’s best achievements . . . I wanted to return to Royce and James, to find out more about Cabot, to read The Meaning of God after finishing the book. Maybe it will even do its part to slow the much feared dwindling of philosophy majors.” ―Kenyon Gradert, Open Letters Monthly
“Offers a unique combination of memoir and the history of American philosophy that is a joy to read. Kaag ably presents both subjects in a way that keeps readers engaged as he shows the value of developing a personal philosophy that can help individuals find meaning, or at least some guidance, in their lives.” ―Library Journal
“Philosophy not as mere academic concepts but as lived experience.” ―Booklist
“A compelling hybrid combining memoir, a dramatic narrative about saving an endangered rare book collection, and the intellectual history of philosophy . . . Throughout the book, the author deftly intertwines the narrative threads in a story perfect for book lovers and soul searchers alike. Kaag's lively prose, acute self-examination, unfolding romance, and instructive history of philosophy as a discipline make for a surprisingly absorbing book.”―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"There is a strange daylight magic in this book. It is part memoir and part flyover of American Philosophy, which, says Kaag, “from Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century to Cornel West in this one, is about the possibilities of rebirth and renewal.” The book is also clearly and beautifully written. I picked it up for a quick look and couldn’t put it down. Not since Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have I read such a mesmerizing confluence of personal experience and formal thought." ―Robert Richardson, author of Henry David Thoreau: The Life of A Mind
"John Kaag is the closest thing we have to William James: a breathtakingly good prose stylist; philosophically and psychologically courageous, inventive and inspiring; ruthlessly honest; unsparing about the difficulties of love, intimacy and experience; and above all, human, in the most valuable and moral sense of the word."―Clancy Martin
"John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story is one of the most entertaining guides to philosophical inquiry to come along in decades. Stumbling on the library of a long-forgotten Harvard professor abandoned on the great man’s country estate, John Kaag examines the trove and finds himself communing with the likes of William James, Josiah Royce, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ideas may be Kaag’s first love, but they bring him a flesh-and-blood Beatrice in this open-hearted account of a young man’s second chance at a sentimental education."―Megan Marshall Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life
“Is life worth living?” This is the age-old but forever timely question at the center of this remarkable and daring memoir. Part history of American philosophy, part personal narrative, American Philosophy: A Love Story, takes us deeply into that 'epic love affair with wisdom' that is philosophy, but it does so through the wonderfully intimate lens of the author himself, a young and accomplished philosopher who has summoned the nerve to expose his flaws, his failures, his deepest doubts about it all, a rare act of creative courage and generosity that leads us to where the heart of true philosophy lies: to a deep and abiding sense of wonder. This is an absolutely stellar memoir." ―Andre Dubus III
About the Author
John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is the author of Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism and Thinking Through the Imagination. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other publications. He lives outside Boston with his wife and daughter.
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John Kaag manages adroitly to weave much together. Yes, the book brings us in contact with some of the giants of American philosophy: Emerson, William James, Charles Peirce, and Josiah Royce. And from them we get doses of insight and wisdom aplenty. At the center of this book, however, are others. The private library of the once-famous Harvard philosopher Ernest Hocking is the setting for the story, as the author fondly works his way through the book collection and discovers, in the process, the fascinating lives of Hocking and his wife, Agnes. Making appearances in this book are such well-known figures as Robert Frost, Pearl S. Buck, and Gabriel Marcel. They, along with Hocking and other classic American philosophers, grappled with the meaning of life, with what makes a life significant. We follow Kaag as he elucidates their perspectives with careful fluency, attentive of strengths but cognizant of stumbles. He ends up trying to bridge the best of pragmatism and existentialism, a worthy endeavor. While Sartre often came up short, as Kaag notes, in the human dimension of solidarity (at least in his early work), Simone de Beauvoir faired much better, especially in her “The Ethics of Ambiguity.”
One other strand needs to be noted. In this book, Kaag’s own life stands revealed, in a manner that is never cloying or disruptive. Like the philosophers with whom he spends his time, he is oftentimes a man adrift, searching, unwilling to settle for clichéd thought and existence. He is a person of parts, present but not obtrusive. We come to appreciate his journey and rejoice in its, if not final, then present path.
This book will be of interest to anyone thinking about the essential problems of philosophy and life.
Kaag had earned his PhD and in 2008 was half-heartedly engaged in a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard. His long-absent father had just died and his marriage was crumbling. Kaag felt the force of doubts about the value of life that William James had addressed at Harvard in an 1895 lecture, "Is Life Worth Living?" Through a series of accidents, Kaag finds ways to keep going. He finds himself in a large, musty library in the New Hampshire mountains on an estate that belonged to the American philosopher William Ernst Hocking (1873 -- 1966) and was still owned by his family. Hocking was well-known during his lifetime but is little studied today. He was an idealist -- a philosopher who emphasizes the spiritual, mind-dependent character of reality -- influenced heavily by his teacher at Harvard, Josiah Royce I fell in love early with Kaag's book when I found out it was about Hocking. I have read Hocking's most famous book, "The Meaning of God in Human Experience" and reviewed it here on Amazon.The Meaning of God in Human Experience: A Philosophic Study of Religion (Classic Reprint)
Kaag wins the trust of the Hocking family and begins a long project cataloguing the books in the philosopher's library, including many rare first editions. He is enamored to see first editions of Descartes, Hobbes, and Kant, but the books owned by the American philosophers whom Kaag has studied, frequently with their handwritten marginalia, win his heart. In the course of his project, Kaag firms up his resolve to get a divorce. He also begins a relationship with a colleague, a philosophical student of Kant, Carol, who assists him in his cataloguing. Over time, the two philosophers fall in love and marry.
As the story progresses over three-years, Kaag gradually works out his feelings of guilt, anger, and helplessness over his father and his failed marriage. He also comes to rethink the philosophers he has studied and to understand better what he finds of value in the philosophical enterprise. Kaag discusses many philosophers in the book but the focus is on the great American philosophers, Emerson, Thoreau, James Peirce, Royce, Hocking and on the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel who learned from them in many ways. Kaag states his guiding theme and what he learns from his endeavors at the outset of the book.
"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. The risk that life is wholly meaningless is real, but so too is the reward: the ever-present chance to be largely responsible for its worth. The appropriate response to our existential situation is not, at least for James, utter despair or suicide, but rather the repeated, ardent, yearning attempt to make good on life's tenuous possibilities. And the possibilities are out there, often in the most unlikely places."
Kaag's blossoming love flows together with the lessons he derives from the American philosophers with their independence, freedom, iconoclasm, and gradually developing sense of community to offset an earlier rugged individualism. In succeeding chapters, he offers short, pointed summaries of some of the thoughts of the philosophers, combining it with reflections on their lives. Biography is an important part of philosophy. Thus, Thoreau, for example, never married, was awkward with women (he suffered a rejection from a woman who had earlier rejected his brother) and is best-known for his short, solitary stay at Walden Pond. Several chapters are named for and develop philosophical texts. Thus, "The Will to Believe" examines James' famous essay on religious faith in the light of his relationship with a young woman. "Evolutionary Love" is the title of an essay by Charles Peirce which, for Kaag, celebrates Peirce's unconventional scandal-ridden second marriage to a woman of uncertain origin and the end of his first unhappy marriage. " Philosophy of Loyalty" is the title of a book by the American idealist philosopher Josiah Royce written at the time of the death of a beloved son. And an earlier chapter "Divine Madness" alludes to Plato and his discussion of love and madness in the "Phaedrus". Kaag finds the works of these philosophers rooted in their life experiences. He sees these thinkers as celebrating the value of love and freedom, as opposed to scientific determinism and solipsistic individualism, in giving life meaning.
This book movingly combines personal experience and change with reflection on what makes life valuable -- which is Kaag's understanding of the nature of philosophical thinking. I was glad to read Kaag discussing philosophers I have read and thought about. But the book may be read with pleasure by those without a background in philosophy. The book is a tribute to the power of love and of thought in the search to live a meaningful life in the face of sorrow and difficulty.
Reviews are often personal, and this book makes it all the more true. So I'll stop writing. James, Hegel, Royce, Agnes and William Hocking, John Kaag. Thank you for the experience and the book to reread.