Review: American Philosophy: A Love Story

John Kaag’s latest work, American Philosophy: A Love Story, masterfully leads readers through a compelling personal narrative intertwined with an introduction to American philosophical thought.

This combination memoir and history begins in the backwoods of New Hampshire. On an escape to a small philosophy conference, Kaag, a philosophy professor at UMass Lowell, stumbles into the decaying library of long-deceased Harvard philosopher William Hocking in the town of Chocorua. Followed by the ghosts of his failing marriage and recently deceased alcoholic father, Kaag throws himself into the depths of the library as the Hocking family struggles to prop up the collapsing estate. In befriending Hocking’s granddaughters, he commits to cataloging the massive library, which is composed of numerous first editions and signed copies from American philosophers ranging from Emerson to Twain to Whitman.

A central theme of Kaag’s American Philosophy is that higher education has lost its vital connection to discipline and self-reliance. As he explores his own feelings of meaninglessness through pragmatist writers, Kaag asserts that modern Americans need philosophy more now than ever. He laments that philosophy has turned from dinner table discussion to conversations exclusively between academic and abstract professors in stuffy libraries. While modern advances have given us more leisure time than ever, there are more distractions to take our minds away from internal struggle. Kaag writes that there is “no shortage of things designed to distract us from our own angst: small talk and Facebook and college classes and dates and holiday get-togethers and jobs and money and marriage and stuff.” This lack of discipline can only lead to a shared existential dread.

From here, Kaag explores salvation through thinkers William James and Charles Peirce. As he begins to dig himself out of his personal hell of depression and a crumbling marriage, he accepts pragmatists’ claims that there is no trick to salvation, only hard work. He cannot see much of this hard work and self-reliance in the way people live today.

Kaag also considers how philosophy has developed from Hocking’s time, and especially the early 20th century. American philosophers of that period were often criticized for lacking historical context in their work. From the hallowed halls of European thinkers, Americans looked uncultured in comparison with the philosophers that came before them. Kaag uncovers a musty corner of Hocking’s library that proves otherwise. Annotated copies of ancient and modern philosophers cover dozens of shelves, showing that Hocking had the knowledge necessary to explore and critique the history of philosophy on a high level. Kaag goes on to criticize contemporary philosophers for their ahistorical approach, which often produces philosophical theories “that have no bearing on any time or place.”

Kaag skillfully incorporates these major works of philosophy into his personal narrative. He seems to be hopelessly lost in interpreting the works of these philosophers and in grasping how their words apply to his life. The 10,000 volumes accumulated in Hocking’s library seem to separate him from the world around him. Hocking’s granddaughters attempt to befriend Kaag, but they never see into his vision for the library or his desperation to identify a meaning in existence.

Carol Hay, a fellow philosophy professor at UMass, pulls Kaag out of the whirlwind of depression. The Kantian feminist provides the warmth and purpose that Kaag has been searching for. She helps Kaag see that “philosophy shouldn’t stem from the theories of others or from a collection of convenient facts, but from a careful evaluation of the widest range of experience.” Hay also provides a cheesy yet heart-warming ending to tie up the narrative. Kaag slowly realizes his love for her and, after many days and nights spent in the Hocking library, the two philosophers marry and start a family. One cannot fault Kaag’s narrative for the genuine happiness that he uses to turn away from his spiralling depression.

At the end, Kaag turns to why people consider philosophy in the first place. Where his own attempts to describe his journey are incomplete, he references Alfred North Whitehead’s comment borrowed from Plato: “Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.” American Philosophy: A Love Story provides an exceedingly accessible introduction to both intellectual freedom and life’s significance that feeds the wonder of philosophy.