Adapted from the Introduction from America the Philosophical by Carlin Romano. Reprinted by arrangement with Knopf Doubleday. Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
America the Philosophical? It sounds like Canada the Exhibitionist or France the Unassuming: a mental miscue, a delusional academic tic. Everyone knows that Americans don’t take philosophy seriously, don’t pay any attention to it, and couldn’t name a contemporary academic philosopher if their passports depended on it. As historian Richard Hofstadter drily observed in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), “In the United States the play of the mind is perhaps the only form of play that is not looked upon with the most tender indulgence.”
But if the title phenomenon of Hofstadter’s classic indeed boasts “a long, historical background,” the peculiar attitude directed at philosophy in America is more quizzical than hostile, closer to good-humored wariness than contempt. Philosophy doesn’t threaten or bother the practical on-the-go American. The American middle manager confronted with a devoted philosophy type is most likely to yank out the old cliché, “What are you going to do, open a philosophy store?”, and leave it at that. If, of course, the information has been accurately downloaded. Tell your seatmate on a short-haul flight that you’re “in philosophy” and the reply is likely to be, “Oh, that’s great. My niece is in psychology too.”
The infrequent philosophy blips on America’s media screens suggest that philosophy doesn’t register on the American psyche with the gravitas professors in the field deem warranted. Occasional mentions drive that impression only deeper.
When a wrestler named Nick Baines declared, upon entering the University of Northern Iowa to get his B.A., that he planned to become a professor of philosophy, the Des Moines Register treated him as an oddity. Local philosophers, historically wiser, noted the traditional lore that Plato, ne Aristocles, actually pulled a similar career move—he adopted his better-known name, which meant “broad shoulders,” while competing in the Isthmian Games. And when the University of Chicago, in October, 2011, simultaneously hosted a conference on British philosophical giant Bernard Williams and another on the hit reality show Jersey Shore, guess which one got the front-page New York Times coverage?
Summing up the American media mindset, it seems, was a publicity release from a New York publishing house, hyping a two-book deal with Dennis Rodman, America’s faded, body-pierced, ex-basketball badboy. It offered a sweeping historical perspective on its previously unheralded new thinker in ascending font:
Does America take philosophy seriously? One might as well ask whether America takes monarchy seriously. Joking about philosophy in the United States, or just ignoring it, comes with the territory. Hardboiled, concrete-minded descendants of everyone from the Pilgrims to the slaves to the boat people, we pick it up along the way, like mistrusting politicians.
It’s the way we’re supposed to think about a discipline described by journalist Ambrose Bierce as “a route of many roads, leading from nowhere to nothing.”
Tocqueville, that touchstone for all synoptic thinking about America, thought the peculiar attitude of its residents toward philosophy so obvious that he began the second volume of Democracy in America by noting it: “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.”
Even Tocqueville, however, nodded. For all his general insight into the fledgling United States, he saw American thought through the prism of European assumptions. His belief that “in most of the operations of the mind each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding” was false then, and is even more false now. Tocqueville’s misstep came in using the word “only.” He should have written that each American “also” appeals “to the individual effort of his own understanding.”
For the surprising little secret of our ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily i-Podded, i-Padded and i-Phoned society is that America in the early 21st century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, 19th-century Germany or any other place one can name. The openness of its dialogue, the quantity of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions, the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone, the resistance to false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Net communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: all corroborate that fact.
To exalt America as the world’s philosophical culture par excellence is not just to argue that American philosophers have occasionally swayed everyday society, though a few examples are worth repeating. Emerson, we know, spurred American intellectual independence, and John Dewey co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union, with huge consequences for the republic. We recognize that William James catalyzed psychology into a full-fledged discipline, and that Alain Locke helped spark the Harlem Renaissance that began the explosion of black artistic self-expression in the 20th century. Closer to the present, the theory of justice of John Rawls, the economics-accented jurisprudence of Richard Posner, the “end-of-art-history” musings of aesthetician and critic Arthur Danto, affect politics, judicial reasoning and curatorial practice, respectively.
America the Philosophical means more than that.
It is similarly more than the boom in so-called “applied ethics,” which over the past 30 years has seen American philosophers taking jobs in corporations, hospitals, prisons and other places outside the academy to bring fresh thinking to the moral dilemmas of those institutions. It is more than the effort of individual academic philosophers, such as gay social critic Richard Mohr, or complicated feminist figures such as Martha Nussbaum, to draw attention to terrain traditionally bypassed by the discipline’s establishment, and to extend their philosophical work to activism on issues, as Nussbaum has done in regard to poor women in India.
Finally, America the Philosophical is more than a phenomenon it encompasses, but to which it cannot be reduced: the transformation by which America has become a net exporter rather than importer of professional academic philosophy, an intellectual bank whose bottom line is in the black. The development is not new. As far back as the mid-1980s, The Economist observed that “British philosophy now consists of sophisticated commentary on the bright ideas of Americans.” In Germany, leading philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas direct their theorizing toward ideas developed by the American pragmatists. In France, Jacques Bouveresse, best-known for his maverick promotion of Anglo-American analytic philosophy in the land of sometimes murky “masters of thought,” was elected to the prestigious philosophy chair at the College de France. In Scandinavia, in Southeast Asia, in South America, professors evoke the names of American giants—Rorty, Danto, Quine, Rawls, Nussbaum—as they once did those of the French, English and Germans.
No, more than all that, acquiesing to America the Philosophical requires seeing America in the new millennium as directly, ebulliently and ordinarily philosophical in a way that remains unappreciated by philosophers, media and the general public alike. It is to see Americans as almost uniquely able, given their rude independence of mind, to pierce through the chief metaphorical scam of moribund yet still breathing Socratic philosophy: the “justification language-game” of academic epistemologists that purports to tell the rest of us the precise meaning of concepts (e.g., “knowledge”) by reasoning through a pocketful of examples. It is to see the United States as the exemplar of a new paradigm of philosophy—albeit one with roots in the pragmatically accented view of the ancient Greek thinker Isocrates (436 B.C.-338 B.C.)—suited to the 21st century.