Winner of the John Dewey Prize
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.
“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
“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
Reviews from Goodreads
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...