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  • American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag
  • Robert W. King
American Philosophy: A Love Story John Kaag. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

In previous works such as Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition (Fordham UP, 2014) and Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism: The Philosophy of Ella Lyman Cabot (Lexington Books, 2013), John Kaag firmly established his "street cred" as a scholar and interpreter of American philosophy. His name will also be familiar to readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, and sundry other publications as he endeavors to impact a larger audience, off campus, to serve as a public intellectual, one we need now more than ever—Richard Hofstadter's 1964 Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is all too relevant as challenges cloud our democratic vistas.

An ambitious work, American Philosophy: A Love Story, reflects Kaag's desire to be "writing for a more general audience," a broader audience, both on and off campus (244). In the book's opening chapter, he guides us from the Harvard campus to West Wind, the New Hampshire summer estate and retreat, well off campus, built by William Ernst Hocking (1873–1966), who studied under James, Royce, Santayana, and George Herbert Palmer, eventually succeeding Royce on Harvard's philosophy faculty. The Hocking library, a majestic Georgian two-story granite edifice nestled in the New Hampshire countryside, contained thousands of books, mostly philosophy, from the libraries of James, Royce, Peirce, and Palmer, among others, and becomes the central centrifugal starting point for Kaag's narrative strands—deft portraits of philosophers such as Peirce, Hume, and Addams; scrutiny of European and Asian influences on pragmatism; and autobiographical accounts of divorce, courtship, and romance—the "Love Story" of the title.

For Kaag, "American philosophy—from Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century straight through to Cornel West in this one—is about the possibilities of rebirth and renewal," a "wishful thinking" of sorts: "Living this way requires a kind of attentive optimism that I wasn't sure many of us were capable of anymore" (67–68). The prologue and epilogue that frame the main narrative suggest the high stakes for philosophers engaged with William James's basic question and challenge, "Is life worth living?" The book's three main sections suggest an affirmative trajectory of rebirth and renewal—from "Hell" to "Purgatory" and finally "Redemption." It is John Kaag's journey, and along the way, via the dusty tomes on the Hocking library shelves, he is persuaded that "American philosophy had inherited an idealism and a sympathy for human feeling that made life slightly more bearable" (141)—an [End Page 123] understatement, as we learn by the time we reach the closing "Acknowledgments" and an evocative, Jamesian claim that "[z]est, the particular, peculiar thrill of experience, is the ultimate source of existential value" (245).

"Buoyant" may be the operative term for Kaag's survey of American pragmatism and its influences. Surveying the riches of the library's now-musty neglected holdings that endured for decades the New England climate and critters, a particular volume, critical to the history of American philosophy, is pulled off the shelf and catalyzes a rumination of several pages on its significance. A 1644 first edition of Descartes's Dissertatio de Methodo prompts a summary of Descartes's project and the pragmatist opposition—Descartes "said absolutely nothing about the value of the world outside his own immediate subjective life." Pluralistic freedom, the varieties of human experience, trump the quest for "a single absolute truth" (85).

Hocking's collection included first editions of most of Kant's works, leading to an account of Kant's influence on Emerson and Transcendentalism (102ff.), while William James's annotated copy of his friend Paul Carus's Buddhism and Its Christian Critics (1897) (31ff.) offered insights on James's perspective on salvation. Hocking's copy of Royce's Lectures on Modern Idealism (164) leads to an account of German Idealism's influence on American philosophy, a lively portrait of Royce as teacher and scholar, and an evocation of the intellectual milieu of Cambridge at the turn of the century (165–74). An October dip in a chilly pond leads to...


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