In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Memories and Portraits: Explorations in American Thought
  • Richard A. S. Hall
Howard G. Callaway. Memories and Portraits: Explorations in American Thought. New Castle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010 (223 pages including index)

In Memories we have what I take to be a new genre in letters—a hybrid of philosophical reflections, history, geography, and autobiography. It is a memoir made up of these elements, memories recollected in tranquility. Memories is in the form of a multilayered travelogue. Its fundamental layer is a geographic journey. And emerging from and superimposed [End Page 534] on it is an adventure of the mind, an intellectual pilgrimage, a quest for both some philosophical and self-understanding. Callaway's book is a literary fugue of sorts, artfully interweaving multiple themes in a seamless contrapuntal web.

His modus operandi is contextual—throughout he demonstrates how ideas emerge from or are inspired by particular environments. And the need to put philosophical ideas in their larger historical and cultural context so as to fully understand them is, as will be illustrated below, a facet of his philosophical method. Another of its facets is fallibilism, a deep commitment to subjecting all theories and concepts (in any field) to incessant scrutiny, testing, correction, and clarification. This suggests that a totality of knowledge of the world or the absolute truth about things is a pair of ideals impossible of realization and approachable at best asymptotically. If his method is contextualist and fallibilist, then his metaphysics is pluralistic. In his view reality is not reducible to just one single substance or principle but instead is constituted irreducibly of many different kinds of things or principles. He is thus implacably opposed to any form of ontological monism—what James designates a "block-universe"—and Hegelian absolutism. Callaway conceives of the world as a Jamesian multiverse. Contextualism, fallibilism, and pluralism, then, are the themes brought to the fore in his book and which emerge from his travels at home and abroad.

Callaway relates that it was by participating in informal conversations in Philadelphia's streets and cafes during the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War that he was prompted to undertake the serious study of philosophy. In particular it was conversations on the great social and political issues of the day in which disagreements were rife. He believed that the methods and insights of philosophy would enable him to mediate intelligently between the opposing sides in such disputes. His philosophical journey began with the world of politics and society which would continue to inform his philosophical reflections. He is especially insightful with respect to how philosophy and society exist in a reciprocal relationship. On the one hand he understands how seemingly arcane issues in metaphysics and epistemology have social implications: "the issue of pluralism vs. unrestricted holism is at least partly a question of how the sciences and scholarly disciplines—and society more generally—may be organized" (164). On the other, he realizes that social relations in various fields of inquiry affect, either positively or negatively, their methods of investigation and the possibility of evaluating the institutional practices and linguistic structures underlying them.

While sojourning in Europe Callaway became an associate of Willard Van Orman Quine. His book is especially valuable in describing some of their conversations. However, Callaway's collegial relationship with Quine did not prevent him from becoming a critic of some aspects of Quine's philosophy, in particular the latter's position on the [End Page 535] indeterminacy of meaning and reference; he contends that meanings can be determined empirically. Furthermore, he points out that Quine's "epistemology naturalized" neglects to provide "a compelling naturalistic account of the normative in methodological contexts" (187). His critique of Quine would cause friction between himself and Quine and some others of his philosophical colleagues.

Callaway identifies, and identifies with, some salient and defining characteristics of the American mind. One is a commitment to the ongoing social project of achieving social unity without compromising or erasing cultural differences, an ideal epitomized in the motto of the national seal: e pluribus unum. The integration of diverse ethnic, religious, and cultural groups—not their assimilation in some established and privileged social system...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 534-537
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.