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

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