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

Thinking Photography with Diane Arbus and Errol Morris

My review of Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus and Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography appeared in today’s Washington Post. I’ve been teaching and writing about photography for several years, and at Wesleyan have found colleagues especially knowledgeable about the medium and its history. Jennifer Tucker writes about images and science, especially in the Victorian period, Andy Szegedy-Maszak is eloquent on photographs and our knowledge of the ancient world, and Claire Rogan does a marvelous job of making Wesleyan’s own photo collection come alive in exhibitions and catalogues. My interest in photography began as part of my study of how people make sense of the past, and in my new book, Memory, Trauma and HistoryI have included essays that examine how photographs change the ways we think about recollection and knowledge.

Each spring since coming to Wesleyan I’ve taught a course called The Past on Film that deals mostly with how some classic movies teach us about core issues in the philosophy of history. This year I am planning to integrate some discussions of photographs into the course, as I did when I first started teaching the class.

Here’s the review:


Diane Arbus made arresting, absorbing photographs of dwarfs, twins, giants, nudists and carnies. “I really believe,” she said, “there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” Together with other artists expanding the boundaries of photography in the 1960s, she altered the way we understand portraiture and thus the way we see people. She was criticized, most notably by Susan Sontag, for providing the cheap thrills of gazing at freaks. She was applauded by casual viewers, collectors and her fellow artists for turning the idea of the outsider into a compelling investigation of the possibilities and limits of representing otherness — of picturing people with whom connections are never simple, always frayed. The images stopped us in our tracks and stayed in our minds.

In “An Emergency in Slow Motion,” William Todd Schultz rushes toward Arbus convinced of the viability of psychobiography, of using general research findings in psychology to make sense of individual lives. He has written on madness and creativity, and on Truman Capote; in this book he discusses Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain, to name just some of the troubled stars who grab his attention. He professes modesty, talking of truth as a direction, not a destination, and of not being able to resolve the mysteries that are part of any complex personality. His goal “is to make sense of Diane Arbus’s psychological life . . . the subjective origins of the pictures themselves.”

Alas, “An Emergency in Slow Motion” doesn’t provide a convincing account of the subjective origins of the pictures because Schultz gives no indication that he has looked closely at them or done the basic research about how they were made. The book is handicapped by having no illustrations whatsoever — perhaps he couldn’t get permissions from the famously controlling Arbus estate. His descriptions of the important images or the process of making them are vague and uninformed. Schultz simply relies on the comprehensive exhibition catalogue “Revelations,” Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography and a handful of supplementary sources. Aside from a few interviews, he seems to have done almost no primary historical research and little reading in the history of photography.

Schultz does use a wide range of psychological theories. As if they were varieties of pasta, he throws them against the Arbus “case” to see what might stick. At times this is so trite as to be comical: “There’s a personality dimension Arbus was unusually high in, a so-called ‘artist type.’ ” He tells us she was high in “O,” which means she was “open to experience.” He tells us that Arbus’s picture-taking “was very psychological.” “What is it about these pictures? Like Plath’s ‘Ariel’ poems, they are decidedly not nice.” Right.

The perfect antidote to Schultz’s uninformed banalities about Arbus’s pictures is Errol Morris’s detailed explorations of photography’s connection to the real world. Morris is a great documentary filmmaker who has expanded the limits of that genre, and in recent years he has been blogging about photography for the New York Times. The chapters of “Believing Is Seeing” are taken from those blog posts, which show the author doggedly investigating entrenched assumptions about photographers and their pictures. Can one tell if Roger Fenton moved cannonballs around for dramatic effect in his pictures from the Crimean War? Was Sabrina Harman really smiling over a dead body in Abu Ghraib, or was it a “just say cheese” smile? Did Walker Evans add his own alarm clock to a documentary picture of a fireplace?

Facts matter to Morris, as he proves by doing basic detective work. He engages in archival research, he interviews experts, and he presses skeptically against theories and assumptions. He prides himself on “a combination of the prurient with the pedantic,” and the mixture works just as well in this book as it does in his films. Facts matter in the way that photographs matter: They tell us something but never reveal the whole story.

Photographs edit reality; they conceal even as they reveal. But Morris doesn’t rest at this level of generality. He wants to determine how this picture edits a particular reality, how that photographer tends to conceal certain aspects of reality in order to highlight others. Morris asks whether a photograph can document reality, function as propaganda and also be art. His answer is a resounding yes. The mysteries of photography stem in part from its never being able to tell the whole truth but almost always having something to say about the ways things were.

Morris tells us that his questions about the relationship between images and reality began with photographs of his father, who died when Errol was 3 years old. He has no memories of his father, but he does have images. In the chapter on documentary photography, Morris comments movingly on an Arthur Rothstein Depression-era photo of a father and his two sons seeking shelter in a dust storm. By interviewing a historian who tracked down one of the boys years later, Morris understands how the picture came to define how one of the sons viewed himself and his family. A photograph “brings time forward, but also compresses it, collapses it into one moment.” It is a moment that is found in the image but lost to the present: “Eternally trapped in the present, we are doomed to perpetually walk ‘in front’ of the past.” Photographs remind us of what cannot be seen anymore.

Morris’s book is beautifully designed, underscoring that visual evidence has its own texture, its own feel. Like Arbus, Morris knows that photographs gratify some of our deep cravings, but also that they also never fully satisfy. A photograph “partially takes us outside ourselves” and “gives us a glimpse . . . of something real.” This is a key part of what Arbus and Morris are both after.

Photography’s preservation of traces of the past offers the possibility that “we too can be saved from oblivion by an image that reaches beyond our lives.” By paying such close and caring attention to traces of the past, Morris greatly increases the possibility of their living on. He shows us what it means to do the hard work of saving memories from oblivion.