The Washington Post today published my review of Carlin Romano’s America the Philosophical. Although I didn’t find the book all that satisfying, I do appreciate his effort to consider how intellectual life in America exceeds the boundaries that we try to set for it in academia.


Carlin Romano has a story to tell about philosophy and about America. Romano, a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chronicle of Higher Education, relates how philosophy long ago took the wrong path by seeking ultimate Truth, and how this quest has led academic philosophers to become increasingly detached from the concerns of just about everybody else. While philosophy pursued purity, American culture in the last century became ever messier — more heterogeneous, dynamic and difficult to categorize. Then, as the white, Protestant, elite culture broke down and diverse groups found their ways into universities and media networks, some philosophers and most of the culture abandoned the quest for Truth and focused on expanding the circles of inquiry and discussion.

Romano spends just a fraction of this long book articulating the outlines of this story. Academic, analytic philosophy became ever more technical in the decades after World War II as professors sought to be helpmates to scientists by spelling out how objective truths could be guaranteed. That the language of these philosophers became increasingly divorced from everyday discourse was supposed to be a sign of the field’s sophistication. For Romano, though, it’s really a sign of the narrowing of philosophical vision and the abandonment of its public role.

A current of more public-minded philosophy, though, plays a heroic role in Romano’s saga. Pragmatism, which emerged as the 19th century turned into the 20th, spoke in a language that had cultural (rather than merely professional) resonance. The pragmatists had arguments about Truth, to be sure, but they were arguments that showed why the pursuit of the big T should be replaced by an understanding of what was “good in the way of belief.” That’s a phrase made famous by William James, who, as Romano notes, developed a philosophy that “suited the American predilection for practical thinking.” James was fond of giving credit to his colleague Charles Sanders Peirce, who underscored that the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action. Peirce and James viewed thinking not as a more or less accurate reflection of the world but as a tool for coping with the world.

John Dewey most famously took up the pragmatist call to action, building on his professional work in philosophy to contribute to political and educational reforms. Dewey confronted human problems, not just academic ones, and his thinking and his sympathies were expansive. Romano quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes’s joke that Dewey wrote as God would have spoken — if God were inarticulate.

The hero of Romano’s tale is Richard Rorty, who combined Dewey’s energetic connection of philosophy to society with James’s capacity for graceful writing. Rorty was especially important for professional analytic philosophy because he understood it as an insider yet rejected its narrowness of spirit and empty precision. Rorty (who, I should note, was my teacher) breathed new life into pragmatism. He thought of philosophy as a conversation in which we discovered things about ourselves and others rather than as an arbiter between the “really real” and the illusory. He hoped that our conversations might lead us to build on those elements of our moral, aesthetic and political lives that we most prized. He hoped that discussion would lead to habits of action that were in accord with our best selves.

Much of Romano’s book is made up of his takes on a variety of participants in our literary, scientific, political and popular culture as what Romano describes as “the white male domination of discourse” gives way to interventions by African Americans, women, Native Americans and others, but otherwise there’s no apparent rhyme or reason for the philosophers he chooses to discuss. Perhaps he reviewed their books over the years; he surely has interviewed several of them. Psychiatrists, literary critics, political theorists, linguists, mathematicians and a neurologist all receive (brief) consideration. There is even a chapter on “casual wisemen,” such as Hugh Heffner. What makes these figures “philosophical?” It seems it’s just that they have published books.

The treatment of these dozens of writers is haphazard. Susan Sontag gets several pages of inquiring prose, while Hannah Arendt warrants only a brief discussion of biographers’ views of her love affair with her teacher Martin Heidegger. Some authors are treated directly, others through secondary sources. Romano makes no effort to put these figures in dialogue with one another but instead offers an uneven compendium of summaries with occasional commentary. America might have a big, messy culture, but that doesn’t mean a book about the culture should mirror its disorganization.

Toward the end of the volume, Romano says this is all in the spirit of Isocrates, a contemporary of Plato’s who did not pursue Truth with a capital T. Isocrates, like the American pragmatists centuries later, was more interested in encouraging participation in the process of thinking than he was in picking the winner of the game of thought. I’m not sure why Romano thinks he needs an ancient Greek ancestor for American messiness, except insofar as it gives him ammunition to use against those who, like the great political philosopher John Rawls, still pursued the philosophical justification of truths. Rawls, Romano awkwardly notes at the end of his book, failed because “he didn’t convince most Americans.” This is an odd criterion to introduce as a conversation-stopper more than 500 pages into the book.

I doubt that “America the Philosophical” will convince most Americans of anything in particular, but I don’t think it fails on that account. Many readers will learn many things from this big, messy book, despite the fact that it does not have much in the way of coherent argument or compelling narrative. Romano does offer a series of often intelligent reflections on a diverse group of American writers. That doesn’t make his work or our country philosophical, but it does remind us of books we might turn to as we continue our conversations.

cross-posted with the Washington Post

Some Summer Works

Just after Wesleyan’s Commencement, professors Lori Gruen (Philosophy and FGSS) and Kari Weil (COL) hosted another group of scholars whose multi-week residency is sponsored by the Animal Studies Institute. This field has been taking off internationally, and Wesleyan has been recognized as a place where some of the most interesting scholarship is being produced. Lori and Kari have recently co-edited an issue of Hypatia, on the theme of “feminists encountering animals,” which is based on a conference they put together at Wes a few years ago. There has been an online forum responding to the journal here.

I learned today that Ellen Thomas, research professor of Earth and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan, has been awarded the Maurice Ewing Medal from the American Geophysical Union. Prof. Marty Gilmore wrote to let us know that the award recognizes “significant original contributions to the scientific understanding of the processes in the ocean; for the advancement of oceanographic engineering, technology, and instrumentation; and for outstanding service to the marine sciences.” Bravo!

Recently we went to Jacob’s Pillow, one of this country’s great modern dance venues, to see Hari Krishnan perform. Hari, a beloved Wes dance prof, gave one of the standout performances in From the Horse’s Mouth, a celebration of male dancers. The director of the Pillow expressed her admiration for the Wes dance tradition and for Pam Tatge’s efforts in presenting first-rate work all year long. Check out who the CFA has coming this month.

Speaking of performances, I was delighted to learn that recent graduate Samantha Joy Pearlman ’11 is bringing her great senior thesis show, Devotedly, Sincerely Yours: The Story of the USO to the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. I loved the performance I saw on campus, and I am betting the work just keeps getting better. You can help make that happen here.

Who said summer was a quiet time? And I didn’t even tell you about some of those Wesleyan Spirits singing at Nantucket…



UPDATE on the international scene:

Professor Jack Carr let me know that he and fellow theater professor Yuri Kordonski collaborated on the Russian premiere of Yuri’s adaptation of Crime & Punishment at the Volkhonka Theater in Yekaterinburg, Russia. He’s a spot from Russian TV:

And professor Joel Pfister wrote to tell me that our colleague J. Kehaulani Kauanui was part of a panel at the United Nations on how indigenous media helps preserve cultures and challenge stereotypes. Kehaulani’s program on WESU can be heard around the world!

Provost Keeps the Music (and Words) Flowing

Rob Rosenthal, Andrus Professor of Sociology and Provost, is a reluctant administrator. That’s often the best kind. When I asked him to help out by joining the university’s leadership group a couple of years ago, he was hesitant, in part because he was well into a book project. He and his son, Sam Rosenthal, were working with Pete Seeger to bring out a collection of the songwriter/activist’s papers. No problem, I bluffed, plenty of people bring out books while holding high level administrative jobs.

Well, the Rosenthals have done it! Working closely with the Seegers, they have just brought out Pete Seeger: In His Own Words.

Pete Seeger has been passionately involved — with words, music, and activism — in most of the progressive political movements of the last half century. Rob and Sam are musicians themselves, and Rob has devoted much of his scholarly career to understanding the intersections of music and politics, performance and social change. We’re all looking forward to the Shasha Seminar this year on music and public life, which will surely tap into Wesleyan’s deep, vibrant musical culture.

Congratulations to the Seegers and Rosenthals on the new book! Keep the music (and words) flowing!


Jane Addams, Education and the “Snare of Preparation”

Recently I’ve been reading early 20th century essays by Jane Addams, the dynamic activist, social reformer and anti-war crusader. Addams is best known as one of the founders of Hull House, a vital educational community center for civic engagement and neighborhood improvement in Chicago. Addams was a powerful force for democratic change in America, and she was also committed to the idea that education would serve democracy by allowing us to become more understanding of alternative points of view as we worked with one another.

One of the great experts on Jane Addams is Louise W. Knight ’72, whose two intellectual biographies I have found enormously helpful. Addams’ father rejected her wish to attend Smith College, where she had hoped to participate in the liberal arts education of her day. So, following intellectual success at seminary, she continued her education herself by studying some of the great works Western Culture has to offer. She also studied the industrial changes of her time, including the dramatic increases in extreme poverty and extreme wealth as the 19th century turned into the 20th (sound familiar?). But at some point she began to wonder if she was forever preparing herself for action instead of taking action. Had her education become a delaying tactic for dealing with the world?

She relates that, when confronted with the horror of poverty in East London, what came to her mind was De Quincey’s inability to issue a warning to a couple he saw in immediate danger until he recalled the exact words from the Iliad of a warning delivered by Achilles. Addams, instead of reacting to the grave situation before her eyes, found herself thinking of de Quincey’s inability to react to a situation before his eyes. Education – knowing the Iliad, knowing de Quincy – had become an impediment to action. Were we “lumbering our minds with literature” instead of reacting to the “vital situation spread before our eyes”? This is what Tolstoy had labeled the “snare of preparation.” Addams became convinced

[t]hat the contemporary education of young women had developed too exclusively the power of acquiring knowledge and of merely receiving impressions; that somewhere in the process of “being educated” they had lost that simple and almost automatic response to the human appeal, that old healthful reaction resulting in activity from the mere presence of suffering or of helplessness; that they are so sheltered and pampered they have no chance even to make “the great refusal.”

We often talk about Wesleyan as an “engaged university” and the importance of avoiding this “snare of preparation.” We don’t want only to “lumber our minds” with books and articles, wesbites and blogs. We want our education to prepare us for life – not to help us avoid living.

Liberal education today should prepare students for life, and Wesleyan has been increasingly focused on doing a better job of helping them transition from campus to life after graduation. Whether students do this through activism or internships, service learning or “intellectual cross-training,” they learn to make their education feed into what they will be doing in the world.

This is pragmatic liberal arts education. To talk of pragmatism doesn’t mean that we stop reading great books, absorbing powerful art, or learning languages. After all, what I’ve written here depends on reading Addams and knowing something about de Quincey, Homer, and others. We should feel no threat to our studies when asked what we shall do with what we study. There are so many possibilities! The sphere of possible action wasn’t limited to industrialism at the beginning of our century, and it sure isn’t limited to finance or digital media entrepreneurship today.

One of the founders of American pragmatism, C.S. Peirce, wrote that the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action. William James emphasized that we had to take action in the broadest sense, “every sort of fit reaction…brought by the vicissitudes of life.” With Jane Addams in mind, we might say that the whole function of education is to produce habits of action, fit reactions, that contribute to our individual and social good.

cross-posted with

Happy 4th of July!

I’ve been so impressed by the consistent links between education and freedom that run through American intellectual history. As we celebrate America’s birthday, let me share just two. The first is from Frederick Douglass, the great orator, and activist. Douglass often described the epiphany he experienced as a young slave: the realization that the path from slavery to freedom was through education. His master’s wife had been teaching him to read, and when the slaveholder discovered this, he was outraged. Nothing good will come of educating a slave, he exclaimed. The boy only needs to heed his master’s commands! Douglass overheard this. The direct pathway to freedom is education, and education is based in literacy because when you can read you have the independence to learn on your own. This “new and special revelation” was a turning point for Douglass, as he puts it, the “first anti-slavery speech” that made a difference to him.

“Very well,” thought I. “Knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.” I instinctively assented to the proposition, and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.

This is a Jeffersonian moment in Douglass’s life, and in American history, even if Jefferson himself didn’t believe that a black man like Douglass could experience such a moment. The fact that America paid tribute to liberty and equality while brutally enslaving millions outraged Douglass, and that kind of outrage helped fuel the abolitionist movement before the Civil War.

The second example comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who feared that colleges were places that encouraged too much conformity and not enough inspiration. One must, Emerson insists, be an inventor to study well. He readily admits that guidance to the best books is a great service, but this service can turn into corruption if they teach subservience to the material – if they teach dependence.

Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, — to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.

Emerson here is radicalizing the notions of university education that Jefferson developed when founding the University of Virginia. The enemy for the founding father was rote learning; the plague was to be trained for a destiny that had already been chosen for you. Emerson builds on Jefferson in calling for institutions of advanced learning to inspire, to transform through creativity.

Education as the direct pathway from slavery to freedom… Education as the awakening of creativity ….. We might say learning leads to independence. Happy 4th!