'America the Philosophical': Deep thinking in the land of the free
In his lively book "America the Philosophical," book critic Carlin Romano makes the case that America has a philosophical tradition equal to that of the Old World, though our philosophy comes from deep thinkers outside the halls of academe.
Special to The Seattle Times
'America the Philosophical'
by Carlin Romano
Knopf, 672 pp., $35
The United States, we all know, is a peculiarly unphilosophical country. Americans don't like abstract theorizing or deep introspection; we are a nation of doers, not thinkers like those effete Europeans.
Rubbish, says Carlin Romano in his stimulating new book "America the Philosophical."
Romano, critic-at-large for the Chronicle of Higher Education and The Philadelphia Inquirer's book critic for 25 years, argues that the United States not only has a philosophic tradition the equal of any in the Old World, but that philosophic habits — questioning, storytelling, and above all arguing about basic questions of life — are spread throughout U.S. society more widely than anywhere else.
How can this be, when most Americans would be hard-pressed to pick even the most renowned U.S. philosophers — Willard Van Orman Quine, Arthur Danto, Stanley Cavell — out of a lineup? Romano contends that most of the truly exciting philosophy in America is done outside university philosophy departments, which he depicts as sterile preserves of bloodless analytic philosophers, "logic-choppers" more concerned with abstruse disputes over language and methodology than anything recognizable or relevant to average people. (After quoting one such philosopher as saying "There is a real sense in which users of the word 'know' are blind to the semantic workings of their language," Romano adds tartly: "That is, we the people needed analytic epistemologists to explain to us how to use the word 'know,' as well as what it means.")
So forget them. Romano is much more interested in legal thinkers such as federal judge Richard Posner, sociologists such as Robert Coles, and essayist-provacateurs such as Susan Sontag and Francis Fukuyama. It's in these folks, he says, that the great American philosophical tradition — broad-minded, empirical but not dogmatic, arguing through narrative — runs strong.
Though Romano gracefully surveys the historical context of American philosophy, from the Puritans to Dewey, much of "America the Philosophical" consists of brief but insightful profiles of (more or less) contemporary thinkers. Here's Sontag, extolling experience over interpretation, barhopping in Seoul and fighting with the phone company. Here's Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose life incarnates his theories of cosmopolitanism and identity. Here's mathematician Robert Kaplan, author of a book on nothingness, discussing an ancient Mesopotamian clay tablet that recorded this exchange between a father and son:
"Where did you go?"
"Then why are you late?"
Kaplan says with a sigh, "You realize that 5,000 years are like an evening gone."
As one might surmise from these examples, Romano casts a wide net in his search for America the Philosophical, and he sometimes catches some mighty peculiar fish. One could make a case for Bill Moyers, perhaps, as a vector of philosophical ideas, if not himself a philosopher. But suggesting that the endless yammering of cable-TV chat shows somehow contributes to an overall ecosystem of philosophical argument is a bit much.
A few more quibbles: Romano's interviews, many (judging from the time span they cover) apparently re-purposed from previous work, sometimes seem a bit dated. Either that, or Romano's been gathering string for this book for decades. His attempt to claim the ancient Greek Isocrates (a different Greek philosopher from Socrates — "a man, not a typo," Romano writes) as a forerunner of American pragmatism is provocative but seems out of place. And he can't resist wordplay even when he really ought to: In his discussion of TV chatfests he quips: "The syllogism was out, Shill-igism in."
Nonetheless, this weighty yet exuberant book succeeds in filling one's mind with the excitement of ideas duking it out, and — against expectations — makes a plausible case for America as a place where philosophy is so woven into everyday life that it's all but invisible.
Drew DeSilver is a business reporter
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