- Anti-Intellectualism’s Not Dead: Romano, Lysaker, and American Philosophy
Carlin Romano’s provocatively titled America the Philosophical is an attempt to challenge the entrenched stereotype that the United States is an anti-intellectual, un-philosophical nation. He accuses purveyors of this view (e.g., Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason) of cherry-picking, and elaborates a long list of highly philosophical American cultural items. This culminates in his claim that “America in the early twenty-first century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, nineteenth-century Germany or any other place one can name over the past three millennia” (Romano 8).
In an unrelated article published a year earlier (“Essaying America: A Declaration of Independence”), John Lysaker scrutinizes the very term “American philosophy.” He does not ask whether America is a particularly philosophical place (let alone the most philosophical ever), or if its culture is truly characterized by anti-intellectualism (these are taken as givens); he considers, rather, if “American philosophy” is a conjunct that makes any sense whatsoever. He argues that the meaning of “America” is starkly incompatible with the meaning of “philosophy.” This claim requires commitments about the meanings of the two terms involved. “America,” for Lysaker, refers to “empire,” to “a globally operative, often dominant force, which often operates through violence or its threat” (Lysaker 542). He gives a rough definition of philosophy as “the formation of belief, value, and policy through dialogue and inquiry” (543). Given the dissonant character of these two terms, he concludes that “American philosophy” is an oxymoron akin to “antiphilosophy philosophy” (543). [End Page 49]
Two distinct but related questions confront us with these two works: (1) Is America a philosophical place?, and (2) Can we talk about such a thing as “American philosophy?” (I leave to one side here the claim that it is the “most philosophical” place in the history of the world and with it the obvious and problematic invocation of American exceptionalism). Romano says yes to both questions, implicitly to the second and explicitly—emphatically—to the first. Lysaker says no to both, but his answer to the second must be carefully qualified. He does not deny that philosophy has sometimes occurred in the United States or that some philosophers have held or hold American citizenship; his argument is that, aside from naming a particular location, “American philosophy” is an inappropriate juxtaposition.
I want to argue here for Lysaker and against Romano. I will address the first question first, and attempt to answer it empirically using both Jacoby’s work and some additional observations on American popular culture. This analysis will give us some orientation in answering the second question (in the negative). With regard to the first question, I maintain that the United States does in fact represent a decidedly anti-intellectual and un-philosophical culture. All of Romano’s positive examples to the contrary are chosen from a very narrow and circumscribed area of intellectual activity in the United States; he accuses scholars like Jacoby of misplaced emphasis even as her examples are taken from broad cultural trends while his are gleaned from very specific and relatively esoteric places. That philosophical or intellectual inquiry does sometimes occur in the United States does not go very far in showing that it is a philosophically inclined country. In other words: it does sometimes rain in the desert, though one would hardly call the desert a rainy place. It is clear that Romano does not mean “philosophy” in a specific academic sense—tenured professors discussing questions of ontology or Husserl interpretation—and he might thus take issue with my understanding of the words “intellectual” and “philosophical.” This is especially evident in his chapter on Isocrates—“A Man, Not a Typo” (Romano 535–60). But, for my argument to stand, we need not necessarily conceive of philosophy in a narrowly academic way. Lysaker’s extremely broad and inclusive definition will suffice. The point is not that most Americans are not philosophy professors, but that American culture...