- Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American Culture
Douglas R. Anderson's Philosophy Americana reads like a series of rescue attempts: an attempt to rescue academic teaching from institutional and bureaucratic logic; to rescue philosophers such as Bugbee and Royce from their pragmatist critics; to rescue the pragmatists themselves from their would-be champions among the postmodernists; to (in a related move) save Emerson from Cavell; to save country music from the charge that it is either politically retrograde or an experiential dead-end; and to save Kerouac and the Beats from the charge of nihilism or its more enjoyable cousin, hedonism. Anderson connects his chapters through a common theme: the centrality of failure and loss to American culture and the need to both be at home in/with it and to move beyond its self-limiting aspects. Though this rubric may provide us with a clue as to Anderson's temperament as a writer it does not finally provide an adequate frame for the book, which reads more like a book of related essays than an integrated treatise on American philosophy or culture.
I should begin with what is most admirable about Anderson's book. First, it is an impassioned defense of teaching. Anderson explains on the first pages of his book that he is terribly worried about the status of teaching in American culture (not without reason, we might agree): "We have established a hierarchical structure that buries teachers beneath principals, department chairpersons, superintendents, local school boards, state school boards, college vice presidents, and state and federal mandates" (2). Chapter 2 is an ingenious counterpoint to this hierarchical structure, in the form of a celebration of Josiah Royce as a pragmatist teacher from whom we could learn much about how to live as "wanderers" in the academy. Though it seems at first hyperbolic when Anderson claims that "the life of teaching in America is becoming a life of 'quiet desperation'" (2) Anderson backs up this claim convincingly in Chapters 10 and 11. Chapter 10 is a passionate and fascinating outline of the educational vision of pragmatism's "wandering scholar" Thomas Davidson. Anderson [End Page 411] describes Davidson's establishment of Glenmore summer school and Breadwinners' College under the belief that "the new education is education for freedom, or intelligent cooperation" and that "democracy cannot long be sustained. . .by an ignorant demos" (159). Davidson is read here as a precursor to John Dewey. Davidson's educational experiments are contrasted with the current state of affairs in Chapter 11. "A managerial or 'corporate' style or mood has settled on the education industry," Anderson writes. "Love and gambling seem to have taken a back seat to law and order" (175). Anderson discusses the value of "love and gambling" to teaching via the concept of "agape" as that concept is outlined in C.S. Peirce's "Evolutionary Love." "Agape, insofar as it approaches its ideal of unconditionality, gives us the courage to risk failure" (172). "It is this risk," Anderson writes, "that lends profundity to American optimism. . . . We gamble our ideals in our actions" (169). Anderson's metaphor for this quintessentially pragmatist idea is the poker table, and here I must register some skepticism. The poker table, after all, is a meritocracy whereas American culture most certainly is not. When Anderson describes "failure to gamble" as a choice that "stunts the possibility of our growth" and in which we "resign ourselves to . . . comforts and amusements" (169) one feels compelled to answer that for many Americans risk carries with it the real possibility of social death. One could presume that Anderson takes as given the need for social and institutional conditions that protect and encourage risk takers. Nonetheless, this is one of a number of instances in Philosophy Americana where one feels that Anderson's book would have benefited from a much more specifically attuned form of cultural hearing.
Anderson does engage in some fascinating and necessary cultural criticism. Chapter five explores the ways in which "regional resentment and classism" has blinded intellectuals to the relevance of...