American Philosophy: A Love Story, by John Kaag

November 12, 2016 at 2:42 am (Book review, books)

7313ca66553a2c23f91be7c2e861807c  This is a rather unusual book – at least, for this reader it was. A lively yet  dense traversal of the history of American philosophy is interwoven with the story of a sense of personal inadequacy brought on by the failure of a marriage. But our hero’s quest culminates in the excavation and salvation of a precious collection of books.  At the same time that this intellectual quest is playing out, our hero – John Kaag by name – is falling in love with a fellow researcher.

Redemption on two fronts!

The philosophers Kaag writes about were deep thinkers and, at times, profound pessimists. They thought a great deal about questions such as the meaning of life; often their response to  these inquiries was bleak. Preeminent among these is  William James, older brother brother of the novelist Henry and a famed philosopher and psychologist in his own right:

James knew something the faithful often miss: that believing in life’s worth, for many people, is a recurring struggle.

Kaag goes on to tell us that in the 1870s, James deliberately overdoes on chloral hydrate “for the fun of it.” He wrote Henry that he wanted to see how close he could get to death without actually dying. Around this time, he would have been in his thirties.

Yet just  few pages later, the author hastens to reassure us:

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.

Kaag adds that “the possibilities are out there, often in the most unlikely places.”

Well, gosh, do tell – and quickly, please.

And he does.

For Kaag, in the short term, those possibilities lie in the exploration of the library of the Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. The library is located at West Wind, the Hocking estate located in a remote area of rural New Hampshire. This aging and sadly neglected edifice is filled with priceless volumes – first editions of seminal works in philosophy, classics containing marginalia by William James and others.

A tremendous amount of food for thought, the collection had also for some time served as food for various insects and vermin. In addition, mouse droppings were frequently found. In other words, the library was in desperate need of rescuing.  Kaag plunges in with a will. He clearly loves his subject. And he just as clearly needs to be distracted from his personal problems. The work of examining and cataloguing numerous volumes provides the scaffolding for the story of American philosophy that Kaag  sets about constructing.

The cast of characters in this book is large. Some of the names were familiar; others not, at least not to me. It was a pleasure to encounter Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and to have a chance to view them in the context of the history of philosophy. Charles Sanders Peirce and Josiah Royce were names unknown to me; I was glad to make their acquaintance. To my surprise and pleasure, May Sarton and Pearl Buck also figure in this story. (I remember from my early days at the library a slender volume by Sarton that we cat lovers cherished: The Fur Person.)

The presence of Dante in this narrative both intrigued and enlightened this reader. The Divine Comedy was though to contained the summit of human wisdom – so much so that in the 1860s, it was installed as the central text in Harvard’s intellectual firmament. The poet James Russell Lowell proclaimed it to be “‘…a diary of the human soul in its journey upwards from error through repentance to atonement with God.'”

Kaag elucidates:

Personal salvation wasn’t just a single triumphant moment of beatific insight, as some of the Transcendentalists had  suggested. Moments of insight do occasionally happen, but Dante’s point is that the real trick to salvation is that there is no trick to salvation. It’s just work, plain and not at all simple. Salvation is revealed in the long road of freedom and love.

Then there were the eye glazing moments during which I felt that the discipline being described was the secular version of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This was nowhere more true than when Kaag was enlarging on the subject of analytic philosophy:

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.

Don’t know about you, but this sort of thing makes me want to run out to the nearest bar for a short beer (or not so short). But then, just a few pages on, you get this:

The beautiful soul was worth sacrificing everything for. Everything! Socrates stands before his neighbors and says the unthinkable–that there is something worse than death: living an ugly, wicked, boring life. This is not the stuff of Kant’s “pure reason.” It’s the stuff of personal vision, insight, and a foolhardy courage to speak the truth.

And finally, there’s this quotation from Hocking:

“The lover widens his experience as the non-lover cannot. He adds to the mass of his idea-world, and acquires thereby enhanced power to appreciate all things.”

(Oh – and speaking of love, there’s a most intriguing revelation concerning William James. I refer you to a New York Times article entitled “The Geography of Religious Experience” by Christopher Shaw.)

I could go on to expand on subjects such as pragmatism and determinism, but really, it would be just too darn hard – for me, anyway, and possibly for you too, Dear Reader. Instead, I’ll note this strange and fascinating phenomenon from history that Kaag shares with his readers toward the end of the book:

In the medieval era it was not uncommon to bury the bones of the dead in buildings–for example, in the floors and walls of chapels across  the British Isles. It is believed that these remains not only served as safeguards against demons but also had a more practical function: They were good for the acoustics. The songs of the living, reverberating through these dead remains, could escape the earthen walls and begin their ascent.

(In 2005, while we were visiting the ruins of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, our guide explained to us at one point that we were standing in the room in which the monks offered up their chants in praise of God. “I like to think,” she added, “that these walls are impregnated with their song.”)

I’m interested in the relationship between philosophy and religion. I sometimes think that for some people, philosophical thought is a substitute for religious belief. But from what I’ve gathered, from this book at least, one does not preclude the other.

I’ve only skimmed the surface in this write-up. Though getting through this book requires some perseverance, it is well worth it. Highly recommended.


William James 1842-1910

William James 1842-1910

Charles Sanders Peirce 1839-1914

Charles Sanders Peirce 1839-1914

William Ernest Hocking 1873-1966

William Ernest Hocking 1873-1966

Josiah Royce 1855-1916

Josiah Royce 1855-1916

William James and Josiah Royce, 1910

William James and Josiah Royce, 1910

by Marie Leon, bromide print, early 1900s

Henry James and William James, early 1900s










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