America Is Not As Dumb As You Might Think According to Carlin Romano's 'America the Philosophical'

Carlin Romano makes the case that the contemporary United States is the smartest place ever. Seriously.

America the Philosophical

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 688 pages
Author: Carlin Romano
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardback
Publication date: 2012-05

In the opening pages of America the Philosophical Carlin Romano rehearses claims by such illustrious observers of the American cultural scene as Alexis de Tocqueville, claims that inform the virtually unassailable belief (perhaps the better term is prejudice) that the American people are and always have been a decidedly non-intellectual bunch, a citizenry obsessed with business, commerce, getting ahead, accumulating ever more stuff at the expense of the pursuits of the mind. Americans, so this belief goes, are doers, not thinkers and that view of the American people is as commonplace inside the United States as outside of it. Indeed, it might even be the most widespread and entrenched belief about America and its culture.

Romano, though, simply does not believe that America has been given enough credit for the vast, energetic, and often deeply original intellectual undertaking that has unfolded from its very start to the present day. Moreover, America is the most “philosophical” nation to have ever existed according to Romano:

"For the surprising little secret of our ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily iPodded, iPadded and iPhoned society is that America in the twenty-first 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, Cartesian France, nineteenth-century Germany or any other place one can name over the last three millennia."

It’s a bold proclamation, for sure, and Romano delivers it with panache and a good dose of humor. But he’s quite serious, indeed fervent in his conviction. Over the course of the nearly 700 hundred pages that comprise the volume he makes a strong case for the vibrancy, if not supremacy, of American intellectual life.

Here, though, it should be noted that Romano’s use of the term “philosophical” is pretty fuzzy. By “philosophical” he does not mean something along the lines of systematic study of the nature of existence, for example, or positing of fundamental ethical questions that entails a specialized technical vocabulary. Or at least that’s not all philosophy is. More broadly, philosophy is—as Romano notes in a chapter on the ancient Greek thinker Isocrates—“an imprecise form of ‘civilized discourse’ or ‘public deliberation’”. Given this distinction, the volume might more accurately be titled something like “America the Intellectual” or even “America the Not-So-Stupid, After All”. It also allows Romano to cast a very wide net: literary critics, political commentators, psychologists, legal authorities—all are part of the diverse haul.

Romano’s rather broad definition of philosophy is not underhanded, however; it’s an attempt to reorient philosophy toward a broader understanding of its nature and aims. If the guiding light of this version of philosophy is the ancient Greek thinker Isocrates, whose approach to the life of the mind Romano extols over the course of several chapters toward the end of the volume, the bête noir is the much more celebrated and well-known Socrates, whom Romano believes promoted a narrow, exclusionary version of philosophy that serves to alienate it from the basic concerns about how to live that are of primary concern to most people—especially a people, like contemporary Americans who, according to Romano, live in an age and place of unparalleled freedom and opportunity to determine their own values and beliefs.

In addition to Socrates, the villains are the dust-shufflers of the academy, the logic-choppers who go about their intellectual business with very little or no interest in the relationship of philosophy to the big questions of a human life: what is justice or what is the collective good, for example? Not that all academic philosophers belong to this cursed tribe. Some academic stars—Richard Rorty, for example, or John Rawls—deserve their acclaim, both within in and outside the environs of the academic world. And indeed, one of the charms of America the Philosophical is Romano’s boisterous and generally populist insistence that philosophy belongs to the people as a whole rather than a mandarin class of intellectuals.

That being said, there is no pretense of being unbiased here. Romano has his favorites and doesn’t hesitate to make his contempt for the less-favored clear. Noam Chomsky, for example, is a sloppy, dogmatic thinker whose writings often employ the full arsenal of rhetorical tricks: “Chomsky’s analytical methods when it came to politics remained consistent from year to year, a triumph of doublespeak”. That’s one of the kinder comments concerning the linguist / political commentator and curiously dismissive since Chomsky would seem, whatever one thinks of his politics, to precisely embody the fervent engagement with the “real world” that Romano generally promotes as healthy for philosophy.

More generally, America the Philosophical wants to be both an encyclopedic cataloguing of American intellectual history and a running commentary on it. Those are not, of course, mutually exclusive aims, but it’s a lot for one book to handle and, in this case, far too much. Romano’s approach is to offer profiles of prominent American thinkers, their intellectual programs, and what he feels is their admirable (or, as the case may be, execrable) contribution to the larger culture, but the parameters are so wide that one can’t help but wonder if there is any principle of selection at work other than whatever happened to interest Romano during the composition of the book.

This leads to a more concrete criticism: the organization of the book is, frankly, a mess. There's no underlying structure and, taken altogether, it simply careers from one thinker to the next with no sense of coherence. But it’s not clear that really any organizational method could provide coherence for a volume that gives equal time to Hugh Hefner and Harold Bloom. To be fair, this kind of inclusivity reflects what Romano feels is the true breadth and unlikely range of American intellectualism. It’s everywhere in the culture, even in the unlikely pages of its pornographic periodicals.

This may be true, but it makes for some exhausting work for the reader, as if he or she is wading through waist-deep water with no end in sight. Romano’s spry prose sometimes makes the travelling a bit easier but more often than not it’s swamped by a compulsion to include the most mundane and wholly irrelevant details about its subjects (the ethnicity of this or that person’s spouse or partner, for example), odd anecdotes, page-long tangents, and so on. The aim, it seems, is to give human faces to sometimes abstruse subject matter—to remind the reader that people make philosophy, not the other way around—but the volume would have greatly benefited from a lot of tough editing.

Still, for readers who are skeptical of the notion that American has produced serious thinkers and thinking, America the Philosophical should go a long way toward convincing them otherwise. And for readers who don’t need any convincing in the matter, the book should be a welcome if at times wearisome ally.

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