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American Philosophy

American Philosophy

A Love Story

John Kaag

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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The epic wisdom contained in a lost library helps the author turn his life around

John Kaag is a dispirited young philosopher at sea in his marriage and his career when he stumbles upon West Wind, a ruin of an estate in the hinterlands of New Hampshire that belonged to the eminent Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. Hocking was one of the last true giants of American philosophy and a direct intellectual descendent of William James, the father of American philosophy and psychology, with whom Kaag feels a deep kinship. It is James’s question “Is life worth living?” that guides this remarkable book.

The books Kaag discovers in the Hocking library are crawling with insects and full of mold. But he resolves to restore them, as he immediately recognizes their importance. Not only does the library at West Wind contain handwritten notes from Whitman and inscriptions from Frost, but there are startlingly rare first editions of Hobbes, Descartes, and Kant. As Kaag begins to catalog and read through these priceless volumes, he embarks on a thrilling journey that leads him to the life-affirming tenets of American philosophy—self-reliance, pragmatism, and transcendence—and to a brilliant young Kantian who joins him in the restoration of the Hocking books.

Part intellectual history, part memoir, American Philosophy is ultimately about love, freedom, and the role that wisdom can play in turning one’s life around.

EXCERPT


IN A DARK WOOD, A LIBRARY


 


I spent my spring at Holden with James. Then the tourists descended on Harvard Yard—gawking, photo oping, jabbering, ridiculous tourists. In hindsight I know they’re...

Reviews

Praise for American Philosophy

One of NPR's Best Books of 2016

A New York Times Editor's Choice

“Kaag’s accounts are accurate, engaging and scrupulous. They show profound learning. They’re also genuinely entertaining, recapturing lost details of thinkers’ personal lives without sensationalism. The further you go on in the book, and the more of Kaag’s skillful miniatures you take in, the deeper it becomes. You realize he is also making an unconventional argument for who was right, and who was wrong, in the classical tradition of American philosophy from about 1830 to 1930, in Transcendentalism and Pragmatism and Idealism and beyond. It is an argument strikingly suited to our time . . . American Philosophy succeeds, not as a textbook or survey, but a spirited lover’s quarrel with the individualism and solipsism in our national thought.” —Mark Greif, The New York Times Book Review

“John Kaag hits the sweet spot between intellectual history and personal memoir in this transcendently wonderful love song to philosophy . . . this is the most enthralling book of intellectual history I've read since David Edmonds' and John Eidinow'sWittgenstein's Poker . . . With its lucid, winning blend of autobiography, biography, and serious philosophical reflection, American Philosophy provides a magnificently accessible introduction to fundamental ideas about freedom and what makes life significant. It's an exhilarating read.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR

“[Kaag] is as an admirably approachable teacher of the figures whose works he is cataloguing. He elucidates obscure philosophical matters. His history of American philosophy is lucid and compelling. He writes with refreshing clarity, humility, and a welcome absence of jargon. We learn a lot about the human beings behind the famous tomes . . . a lovely, intelligent, edifying, and admirable book, and Kaag an immensely likeable guide.” —Priscilla Gilman, The Boston Globe

“Elegant . . . Describing these books enables Mr. Kaag to take us on a brisk tour from Hobbes and Locke to Kant and Coleridge and, most important, to rediscover the pragmatist work of American thinkers intent on mitigating the force of modern alienation.” —Randal Fuller, The Wall Street Journal

"Not since Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have I read such a mesmerizing confluence of personal experience and formal thought." —Robert Richardson, William James Studies

“In his deeper portraits, Kaag’s sketches of philosophy as lived experiences are among the book’s best achievements . . . Kaag inherits the pragmatists’ superb pedagogical talent for translating complex ideas into language available to a wide audience . . . American Philosophy will prod readers to further explore these thinkers’ lives and ideas. I wanted to return to Royce and James, to find out more about Cabot, to read The Meaning of God after finishing the book. Maybe it will even do its part to slow the much feared dwindling of philosophy majors.” —Kenyon Gradert, Open Letters Monthly

“Offers a unique combination of memoir and the history of American philosophy that is a joy to read. Kaag ably presents both subjects in a way that keeps readers engaged as he shows the value of developing a personal philosophy that can help individuals find meaning, or at least some guidance, in their lives.” —Library Journal

“Philosophy not as mere academic concepts but as lived experience.” —Booklist

“A compelling hybrid combining memoir, a dramatic narrative about saving an endangered rare book collection, and the intellectual history of philosophy . . . Throughout the book, the author deftly intertwines the narrative threads in a story perfect for book lovers and soul searchers alike. Kaag's lively prose, acute self-examination, unfolding romance, and instructive history of philosophy as a discipline make for a surprisingly absorbing book.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"There is a strange daylight magic in this book. It is part memoir and part flyover of American Philosophy, which, says Kaag, “from Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century to Cornel West in this one, is about the possibilities of rebirth and renewal.” The book is also clearly and beautifully written. I picked it up for a quick look and couldn’t put it down. Not since Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have I read such a mesmerizing confluence of personal experience and formal thought." —Robert Richardson, author of Henry David Thoreau: The Life of A Mind
"John Kaag is the closest thing we have to William James: a breathtakingly good prose stylist; philosophically and psychologically courageous, inventive and inspiring; ruthlessly honest; unsparing about the difficulties of love, intimacy and experience; and above all, human, in the most valuable and moral sense of the word."—Clancy Martin

"John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story is one of the most entertaining guides to philosophical inquiry to come along in decades. Stumbling on the library of a long-forgotten Harvard professor abandoned on the great man’s country estate, John Kaag examines the trove and finds himself communing with the likes of William James, Josiah Royce, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ideas may be Kaag’s first love, but they bring him a flesh-and-blood Beatrice in this open-hearted account of a young man’s second chance at a sentimental education."—Megan Marshall Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

“Is life worth living?” This is the age-old but forever timely question at the center of this remarkable and daring memoir. Part history of American philosophy, part personal narrative, American Philosophy: A Love Story, takes us deeply into that 'epic love affair with wisdom' that is philosophy, but it does so through the wonderfully intimate lens of the author himself, a young and accomplished philosopher who has summoned the nerve to expose his flaws, his failures, his deepest doubts about it all, a rare act of creative courage and generosity that leads us to where the heart of true philosophy lies: to a deep and abiding sense of wonder. This is an absolutely stellar memoir." —Andre Dubus III

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

John Kaag

John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is the author of Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism and Thinking Through the Imagination. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other publications. He lives outside Boston with his wife and daughter.

John Kaag

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John Kaag

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Meet the Author

April 27, 2017

Meet John Kaag as he reads from his new book American Philosophy.

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