American Philosophy by John Kaag

You Can’t Force It: Doug Anderson on American Philosophy

Douglas Anderson, Professor and the Department Chair at the University of North Texas, was one of the critics for John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story Author Meets Critics session at Eastern APA and here, Doug shares his thoughts on the book.

Doug, can you tell me about the paper you presented at Eastern APA? 

I began with a recounting of the times I had been to the library years prior to John. I had studied a good bit of Hocking as an undergrad and learned of the library from two mentors–John E. Smith of Yale and John McDermott from Texas A&M. For my money, they remain the two best scholars of American philosophy from Edwards to pragmatism. Unlike so many now, they do not read selective writings but read them all in an historical context. They knew what was going on not just what was said. Hocking was himself in that vein. So much of what is now called “American philosophy” has been co-opted for discussions of language, logic, and truth (I do realize that Ayer’s book has truth prior!) that most of the richness of the tradition has been lost. This is one reason John’s book is important as a kind of antidote. In any case, Richard Hocking (the son) and I became friends by mail and phone and I visited the library several times–trying unsuccessfully to do what John actually accomplished–saving the books. So, I know the library and that brings John’s book to life for me in ways not possible for others–at least not yet; the library is still there! I also recalled John’s presence in his first philosophy class with me at Penn State when he was a raw fresh-person!

I focused on a few specific passages that I found thematically interesting. One was the idea that American philosophy, in Emerson’s hands, is about inspiration and creativity. That is very clearly true of the tradition and certainly of the 19th century–perhaps elements in Peirce and Royce avoided this, but they too are inspirational in just those essays others might like to dismiss as “not philosophy”—“Evolutionary Love” for example. It is a much more Greek way of understanding philosophy as a way of life and not merely as a tedious profession. I also talked about the line John heard from Jennifer, one of the Hocking daughters—“You can’t force it”–when he was learning to use a scythe. This down to earth lesson occurs again and again throughout the book and sometimes I think John doesn’t even notice. It also applies to the writing of the book. In writing an argumentative essay, you can “force” it–there’s a generic recipe or blueprint at hand for that. But telling this story from the experiences out to the thought is a much different way of writing. And of course, marriage cannot be forced either.

I wanted readers to note the import of the women in the text–most of the so-called “philosophers” are men, but note how the women affect John’s world: his wives past and present, Dante’s Beatrice, Agnes Hocking and Shady Side, Jane Addams, May Sarton, and Pearl Buck. John learns a lot from them along the way and, in usual western academy fashion, almost unnoticed. I think it’s important to notice because this also takes us back to the way of “philosophy” in its origins–as a human endeavor to sort out some mode of eudaemonia in our everyday worlds. It’s also interesting that the women become most important towards the end as if in some way they are more important for the ending.

Finally, I’m glad John ended with “The Mystery of Being” and not with “The Task of Salvation.” One lesson of the book may be that there is no salvation–of books or souls–we’re all terminal. And yet we move on, sometimes inspired, to make wherever we are better.

John makes fun of a little antique shop–what I, being from New Hampshire, call a “junk shop.” He calls them “sad little shops…selling off their pasts, entrusting their memories to strangers.” As one who haunts these junk shops, I reminded John that they are often local hangouts with coffee, and local gossip–fun places! But I also wanted to point out that he too is an antiquer, saving these old books from rat droppings, filing through Hocking’s memories in the library. In a way Hocking has now entrusted those memories to John, and I take that to be a good thing. It may be the only sort of immortality any of us gets.

The book is a drama of our experiences in the midst of an historical/philosophical conversation. Philosophy seems to me more alive when dramatic than when narrative. I don’t care at all whether folks think this a “philosophy proper.” I long ago tired of the professional game of owning “real philosophy”–it’s a good book and worth the time to read. There are not so many books like that.

If one becomes interested in American philosophy, this book is loaded with points of take-off for others to write about. Hocking and China–Latin American philosophy, Husserl through an American’s eyes, re-thinking the importance of Henry Bugbee, finding out for those who do not know what Addams and Sarton and Cabot and others said!  And much much more! Whiteheadians would have a field day in the library!

How did the session go? 

I must say I lost interest in the APA many years ago, but this was of interest to me.  John is a former student and a good friend, and it’s a damn fine book. We three old friends had fun in a bar talking about things we care about. And we had a gentle guest. I play a lot of music and I’m as happy to sing for an audience of one as for 2,000 folks–and I’ve done both. We had fun!

Mike contested John’s apparent claim that philosophy–in the American version–is salvific. But that was in many ways a contention outside the text. I do find it interesting (and accurate) that this question points to the fact that our professional philosophy is primarily about contesting! I worry that it also becomes pretentious. It is not a book of contention–sympathy maybe, or empathy.

What are your top tips for authors and critics when they meet in sessions such as these?  

Read, relax, have a great conversation.  Only “contend” if it’s called for.  It’s always better to try to understand or grasp first–and that’s harder–contending is relatively easy actually.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Too many things. I have several books finished but have been too busy to get them to presses. The first will be in Spanish and will explore the history of pragmatism and its relations to arts, music, and cultural border-life along the lines of Gloria Anzaldúa’s work. Another is a kind of dialogical reading of the letters between James and Peirce. It’s quite a piece of correspondence!

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Douglas Anderson is a Professor and the Department Chair at the University of North Texas.  His research focus is American philosophy; history of philosophy; Peirce; and philosophy of culture.  He is the author of many books including Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American Culture, Conversations on Peirce: Reals and Ideals, Strands of System: The Philosophy of Charles Peirce, and Creativity and the Philosophy of C.S. Peirce.

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