Book Review: American Philosophy, A Love Story

American philosophyOn the road to assist in the organization of a conference on William James, professor John Kaag stopped along the way for a cup of coffee. Telling a local what his job was, this man told him that there was a house nearby that had once belonged to William Ernest Hocking, and that it contained a library. Intrigued, Kaag had a look, and embarked on a journey that would change his life. (, Amazon UK)

Kaag was a specialist in this period of American philosophy, of which Hocking was an important figure. And this library turned out to be a collection of thousands of books, a mother lode of key texts of philosophy, including signed first editions by not only the great names of America – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost – but all the philosophers of the period, from Charles Sanders Pierce to William James. There were not just books by Americans; there were also first editions of essential books by Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, and others.

Kaag tells this tale as if it were a novel, but with him as the protagonist. As Thoreau says in the early pages of Walden, “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not
talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”

Kaag opens with a brief discussion of William James’s lecture, Is Live Worth Living?, and shows that he had been pondering this thought himself. After the death of his father – a distant alcoholic – and during the end of his failing marriage, Kaag has more questions than answers, to which even a professor of philosophy cannot reply. He presents the book as an epic tale taking him on a hero’s journey, with three sections: Hell, Purgatory, and Redemption.

Early on, in a marriage that isn’t working, he starts cheating on his wife; not with another woman, but with the books in this library, as he sets out to catalog them, and hopefully ensure that the collection will be accepted somewhere that the books can all remain together. He later sells his wedding ring, then tells his wife he wants a divorce, but finds love, in the end.

The majority of this book is discussions the various books he discovered in this collection, and the philosophers behind them. This book is a bit of a Trojan horse; in telling this story of books, he also gives an interesting overview of American philosophy, and of its European roots. He talks of Emerson and James, of Pierce and Royce, and many others. As he meanders through this library, the story of the originality of American philosophy becomes clear.

But redemption eventually comes, in the name of a married colleague, Carol, with whom he falls in love, and eventually marries. She, a Kant specialist, becomes interested in the library as well, and the two of them continue this obsessive journey to catalog the books, and discover the many minor philosophers, notable several women whose books were stashed away in the attic.

I have a long interest in this subject. I’ve been a reader of Thoreau and Emerson for several decades, and William James for a bit less. This book presents some of their basic ideas, but humanizes them, showing the relationships between these authors and others of their time, as well as their influences from Europe and Asia. One could not hope for a better introduction into the many-headed area of American philosophy.

This is a brief book – 235 pages, plus notes and index – and I read it in a day. It’s an intellectual page-turner, both through the explanations of American philosophers, and through Kaag’s own journey to redemption. As Kaag says early in the book, paraphrasing James, “The task of life is to transcend the past, to never remain where one starts, to find a place of one’s own.” At the end of the book, it seems that he has done just that.