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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
“Kaag’s accounts are accurate, engaging and scrupulous. They show profound learning. They’re also genuinely entertaining, recapturing lost details of thinkers’ personal lives without sensationalism. 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. He writes with refreshing clarity, humility, and a welcome absence of jargon. We learn a lot about the human beings behind the famous tomes . . . a lovely, intelligent, edifying, and admirable book, and Kaag an immensely likeable guide.” ―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
"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 . . . Kaag inherits the pragmatists’ superb pedagogical talent for translating complex ideas into language available to a wide audience . . . American Philosophy will prod readers to further explore these thinkers’ lives and ideas. 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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
One way is to take the book’s subtitle seriously. The book is “a love story.”
It is first of all then a “story,” a narrative, a story rather than a philosophical argument that progresses logically. Typically, the author moves toward a vignette about one of the founders or sources of American philosophy/pragmatism in response to an otherwise chance encounter. Thus, for example, Kaag’s struggle to change a flat tire evokes a brief reflection on Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance, a small marble bust that he chances to see leads to a discussion of Dante, and seeing a mountain outside a window transitions to a discussion of the pioneering feminist Lydia Maria Child. In addition, the author will occasionally insert seemingly random historical footnotes, such as the fact that Emerson’s cousin built James’ house in Cambridge. Taken as a whole, these vignettes, or short stories if you will, are entertaining, well written, and serve to show the many intellectual sources and personal connections between the luminaries of American philosophy.
So the book is primarily a story. But it is also a “love” story. In the words of the song made famous by Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?”
Two things I think. First, interwoven in his narratives and history about American philosophy, we have autobiographical snippets concerning Kaag’s family history and his divorce and budding romance with his soon-to-be second wife. In these instances, love is “romantic” love or perhaps the love we exhibit, for good or ill, toward one’s family. But secondly, we remember that in Greek “love” also means Eros, or a compelling passion, and certainly Kaag displays a compelling passion for philosophy. Hardly anything that happens in his life escapes being correlated in some way with a quote or incident in the life or work of a famous philosopher. And surely, one purpose of the book must be to spark interest and evoke a similar passion among the general audience he seeks to reach. (Whether a general audience not already interested in philosophy will be interested in the luminaries of American philosophy, not to mention Kaag’s memoir, is another question.)
Why three rather than five stars? I can overlook the fact that many of the vignettes are not as complete or focused as they could be because that’s not unusual for a narrative survey covering so much material. I can also accept that the book’s atmospherics—filled as it is with a musty library, Stickley furniture and Adirondack chairs, and the close-knit members of the Boston Brahmin class—seems very insular. What is less acceptable is that the author makes an implied promise to the reader that is left unfulfilled. On several occasions, Kaag suggests that philosophy should help us “make sense of life” or “work through the trials of experience.” Indeed, the book is suggestively structured, not very convincingly, into the (religious) categories of Hell, Purgatory, and Redemption (but no Sin?) and opens with William James’ famous address and question “Is Life Worth Living?” Somewhere in the rambling narrative, that central question is lost or becomes obscure and on finishing the book I had to admit that it did not provide insight into either whether life is worth living or provide much aid toward working through the trials of experience. (On this score at least, James’ essay provides much more aid than the simple “maybe” answer that Kaag misleadingly reports as being James’ conclusion.)
Bottom line: For those with a prior interest in the sources of American philosophy or pragmatism, the book is fun, entertaining, and often informative about persons and events long forgotten. But in the end reading it is a bit like eating potato chips: its tastes good initially but ultimately it’s not very nourishing. Encouraged by Kaag’s initial reference to James’ question whether life is worth living, I expected to read a book in philosophy but instead I got a love story. Thus my initial enthusiasm for the book diminished the more I read.
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
So I read John Kaag's little book on Americn philosophy and 'love'. There were things I did not like about this book in the early going, but at...Read more