“America the Philosophical” by Carlin Romano

July 21, 2012

Carlin Romano has a story to tell about philosophy and about America. Romano, a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chronicle of Higher Education, relates how philosophy long ago took the wrong path by seeking ultimate Truth, and how this quest has led academic philosophers to become increasingly detached from the concerns of just about everybody else. While philosophy pursued purity, American culture in the last century became ever messier — more heterogeneous, dynamic and difficult to categorize. Then, as the white, Protestant, elite culture broke down and diverse groups found their ways into universities and media networks, some philosophers and most of the culture abandoned the quest for Truth and focused on expanding the circles of inquiry and discussion.

Romano spends just a fraction of this long book articulating the outlines of this story. Academic, analytic philosophy became ever more technical in the decades after World War II as professors sought to be helpmates to scientists by spelling out how objective truths could be guaranteed. That the language of these philosophers became increasingly divorced from everyday discourse was supposed to be a sign of the field’s sophistication. For Romano, though, it’s really a sign of the narrowing of philosophical vision and the abandonment of its public role.

A current of more public-minded philosophy, though, plays a heroic role in Romano’s saga. Pragmatism, which emerged as the 19th century turned into the 20th, spoke in a language that had cultural (rather than merely professional) resonance. The pragmatists had arguments about Truth, to be sure, but they were arguments that showed why the pursuit of the big T should be replaced by an understanding of what was “good in the way of belief.” That’s a phrase made famous by William James, who, as Romano notes, developed a philosophy that “suited the American predilection for practical thinking.” James was fond of giving credit to his colleague Charles Sanders Peirce, who underscored that the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action. Peirce and James viewed thinking not as a more or less accurate reflection of the world but as a tool for coping with the world.

John Dewey most famously took up the pragmatist call to action, building on his professional work in philosophy to contribute to political and educational reforms. Dewey confronted human problems, not just academic ones, and his thinking and his sympathies were expansive. Romano quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes’s joke that Dewey wrote as God would have spoken — if God were inarticulate.

The hero of Romano’s tale is Richard Rorty, who combined Dewey’s energetic connection of philosophy to society with James’s capacity for graceful writing. Rorty was especially important for professional analytic philosophy because he understood it as an insider yet rejected its narrowness of spirit and empty precision. Rorty (who, I should note, was my teacher) breathed new life into pragmatism. He thought of philosophy as a conversation in which we discovered things about ourselves and others rather than as an arbiter between the “really real” and the illusory. He hoped that our conversations might lead us to build on those elements of our moral, aesthetic and political lives that we most prized. He hoped that discussion would lead to habits of action that were in accord with our best selves.


'America: the Philosophical' by Carlin Romano (Knopf )

Much of Romano’s book is made up of his takes on a variety of participants in our literary, scientific, political and popular culture as what Romano describes as “the white male domination of discourse” gives way to interventions by African Americans, women, Native Americans and others, but otherwise there’s no apparent rhyme or reason for the philosphers he chooses to discuss. Perhaps he reviewed their books over the years; he surely has interviewed several of them. Psychiatrists, literary critics, political theorists, linguists, mathematicians and a neurologist all receive (brief) consideration. There is even a chapter on “casual wisemen,” such as Hugh Heffner. What makes these figures “philosophical?” It seems it’s just that they have published books.

The treatment of these dozens of writers is haphazard. Susan Sontag gets several pages of inquiring prose, while Hannah Arendt warrants only a brief discussion of biographers’ views of her love affair with her teacher Martin Heidegger. Some authors are treated directly, others through secondary sources. Romano makes no effort to put these figures in dialogue with one another but instead offers an uneven compendium of summaries with occasional commentary. America might have a big, messy culture, but that doesn’t mean a book about the culture should mirror its disorganization.

Toward the end of the volume, Romano says this is all in the spirit of Isocrates, a contemporary of Plato’s who did not pursue Truth with a capital T. Isocrates, like the American pragmatists centuries later, was more interested in encouraging participation in the process of thinking than he was in picking the winner of the game of thought. I’m not sure why Romano thinks he needs an ancient Greek ancestor for American messiness, except insofar as it gives him ammunition to use against those who, like the great political philosopher John Rawls, still pursued the philosophical justification of truths. Rawls, Romano awkwardly notes at the end of his book, failed because “he didn’t convince most Americans.” This is an odd criterion to introduce as a conversation-stopper more than 500 pages into the book.

I doubt that “America the Philosophical” will convince most Americans of anything in particular, but I don’t think it fails on that account. Many readers will learn many things from this big, messy book, despite the fact that it does not have much in the way of coherent argument or compelling narrative. Romano does offer a series of often intelligent reflections on a diverse group of American writers. That doesn’t make his work or our country philosophical, but it does remind us of books we might turn to as we continue our conversations.

bookworld@washpost.com

Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of “Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”

AMERICA THE PHILOSOPHICAL

By Carlin Romano

Knopf. 672 pp. $35

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