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America, the New Athens?

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This is not an easy picture to accept, either within our borders or without. To promote America at home as the world’s preeminent philosophical culture is to clash with almost every cliché of American intellectual history. To exalt it overseas is not only revisionary, but offensive, sure to be received as one more example of American cultural jingoism and imperialism. Moreover, it appears to ignore significant evidence for the traditional image of America the Unphilosophical. Consider some.


In the world of American politics, philosophers play almost no part. A few who did, such as drive-time radio jock and former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, shed their togas fairly early for bare-knuckled politics. Some, like neo-conservative icon Leo Strauss, get counted as players only on an extended trickle-down theory, because critics insist that they’re beyond-the-grave influences on contemporary figures such as Bush-era neocons.


Elsewhere in the world, by contrast, philosophers more directly influence and enter politics, sometimes dominating it. In Italy, philosopher Massimo Cacciari, twice the mayor of Venice, looms large on the political scene, and philosopher, novelist and journalist Umberto Eco serves as cultural touchstone of the nation. In England, philosopher Roger Scruton, who played consultant to Margaret Thatcher, still loudly voices Tory concerns. In France, the likes of Bernard-Henri Levy, Alain Finkielkraut and Alain Badiou follow in the media-provocateur footsteps of Sartre and Foucault. 


Is America more philosophical than these lands? Comparisons to America often seem embarrassing rather supportive of the U.S. as a powerhouse philosophical culture. And attention to rival educational systems further challenges the notion of America the Philosophical.


In the United States, philosophy remains, despite its image as a bedrock of the Western humanistic tradition, a subject required of almost no one before college, a major whose popularity is often thought eclipsed by business and computer-studies options. In the early 1990s, City College of New York came close to eliminating its philosophy department altogether as insufficiently ‘‘vocational,’’ and philosophy departments remain under siege wherever bean counters gather. While pro-philosophy counterexamples exist in the world of education—for instance, the healthy support given the subject by committed philanthropists such as George Soros, Laurance Rockefeller and Sir John Templeton—philosophy largely lives hand to mouth. By contrast, in France, all high school students study philosophy and take a nationwide exam in it, forever familiarizing them with the basics. As for Germany, the country in which philosophy has traditionally enjoyed its greatest academic prestige, it even names Intercity trains for philosophers: On a clear or unclear day, you can see the “Hannah Arendt” or “Theodor Adorno” pull out of Frankfurt.


Finally, the views of some of our own intellectuals and authors threaten to drive the last nail into the coffin of America the Philosophical. Richard Feynman, the feisty Nobel Laureate in Physics, regularly attacked philosophy as “low-level baloney” and derided philosophers for always “making stupid remarks” about science. Books trumpeting the low intellectual quality of American culture now constitute a genre of their own.


In Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, Charles Pierce argued that we live in the land of his title, in “the best country ever in which to peddle complete public lunacy.” In Unscientific America: How Scientific Iliteracy Threatens Our Future, authors Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum warned that America is “home to a populace that, to an alarming extent, ignores scientific advances or outright rejects scientific principles,” as well as a culture that “all too often questions the value of intellect and even glorifies dumbness.”


All these misgivings provide a sorry counterimage to any picture of a New Athens flourishing between the Atlantic and Pacific. Could it be that the only philosophy books right for Americans are Tom Morris’ Philosophy for Dummies and Jay Stevenson’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Philosophy? How can America the Philosophical make sense?


It does, I submit, if one emulates what philosophers ideally do—subject preconceptions to ongoing analysis, and use one’s imagination. The traditional clichés get it wrong. Examples that run counter to the vision of America the Philosophical prop up the clichés because they imply a musty view of philosophy. They depend too much on activities christened “philosophy” according to antiquated academic criteria, and pay too little mind to what honest intellectuals recognize as philosophy today.


For whether one prefers the view of Habermas, Germany’s foremost philosopher, that truth issues only from deliberation conducted under maximum conditions of openness and freedom, or the view of Rorty, America’s most important recent philosopher, that better conceptual vocabularies rather than firmer truths should be our aim, it’s plain that America’s philosophical landscape—pluralistic, quantitatively huge, all potential criticisms available—provides a more conducive arena, or agora, than any other. If we take the best contemporary thinkers at their word and think of philosophy as an ever-expanding practice of persuasion, rather than a cut-and-dried discipline that hunts down eternal verities, America the Philosophical—a far larger entity than the roughly 11,000 members of the American Philosophical Association—not only looks more likely, but clearly outstrips any rival as the paramount philosophical culture.


Some evidence of that comes in the very cultural areas that naysayers mock. Just as the United Kingdom has its independent philosophical writers, so America still produces descendants of Will Durant, whose The Story of Philosophy (1926) sold millions of copies, launched Simon & Schuster as a publishing power, and introduced more Americans to philosophy than any other work.


More recently, Christopher Phillips, an ethnically Greek graduate of the College of William and Mary (Class of `81), transformed his student love of conversations about Socrates into “Symposium” gatherings around the country that he called “Socrates Cafes.” They caught on. And three books that followed—Socrates Café, Six Questions of Socrates and Socrates in Love—drew the praise of no less than Robert Coles, who found in them “ancient wisdom in all its complexity brought vividly to life.”


At the same time, no fewer than three U.S. publishers—Open Court, Wiley-Blackwell and the University of Kentucky Press—regularly tap into a bustling market with series that connect philosophy to popular culture, knocking out, at an amazing pace, titles such as Facebook and Philosophy and Twilight and Philosophy. All contain freshly written essays, mainly by professional philosophers who double as rabid enthusiasts of the pop-culture subject in play. They’ve proved extremely popular. According to David Ramsay Steele, Open Court’s editorial director, his all-time best-seller in the series, The Simpsons and Philosophy, has sold more than 500,000 copies.


In fact, philosophy books and objects that don’t abandon their down-to-earth American sense of humor—or even flaunt it—often turn into hits. In 2007, two middle-aged Harvard alumni who became pals as philosophy undergrads, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, co-wrote a book, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, on their shared enthusiasm for “philogags,” jokes that make a philosophical point. Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington followed the next year, and Heidegger and a Hippo Walk through Those Pearly Gates in 2009. More than a few people were laughing—and learning.


The same people, possibly, who bought Foucault and Kierkegaard dolls from The Unemployed Philosophers Guild (www.philosophersguild.com), or who submitted questions to www.askphilosophers.org, a website on which philosophers answer queries “about love, nothingness, and everything else.”  When the New York Times added a philosophy blog called “The Stone” to its menu in 2010, the site, edited by New School philosopher Simon Critchley, drew thousands of comments and six-million page views.


America’s formidable strength as a philosophical culture, in short, deserves long overdue recognition. In the early years of the 21st century, America is to philosophy what Italy is to art, or Norway to skiing: a perfectly designed environment for the practice.


Carlin Romano, Critic-at-Large of The Chronicle of Higher Education and Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Ursinus Collge, is the author of America the Philosophical (Alfred. A. Knopf), from which this essay is adapted.


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