John Kaag is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is the author of American Philosophy: A Love Story, which was named an NYT Editor’s Choice and NPR Best Book of 2016.
I missed out on chairing John’s Author-Meets-Critic session at APA Eastern in January 2018, and so I asked him to talk about the session and his book here.
John, congratulations on your book American Philosophy: A Love Story! For those who couldn’t make it to your Author Meets Critic session at Eastern APA, can you give an overview of it?
Sure thing. American Philosophy: A Love Story is a story of a lost library, a lost American intellectual tradition and a lost person–and their simultaneous recovery. The lost person is me, for better and worse. The book is set at West Wind, a ruin of an estate in the hinterlands of New Hampshire that belonged to the eminent Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. Hocking was one of the last true giants of American philosophy and a direct intellectual descendant of William James, the father of American philosophy and psychology. It is James’s question “Is life worth living?” that guides this the book, I guess. The books at the Hocking library are crawling with insects and full of mold, but they were—are—really valuable. And as I start to catalogue and read through the tomes, with my colleague Carol Hay, we begin a sort of journey that leads (at least me) to the tenets of American philosophy―self-reliance, pragmatism, and transcendence―and leads me through a divorce and re-marriage (with Carol). It is not your typical philosophy book. Part intellectual history, part memoir, American Philosophy is supposed to be about love, freedom, and the role that wisdom can play in turning one’s life around.
It focuses on William James, Josiah Royce, A.N. Whitehead (when he was in America), George Santayana, John Dewey, Jane Addams, and W.E.B. DuBois, who dominated the intellectual life of 19th and early 20th century America. The book is about reviving many of these forgotten thinkers, to remind today’s readers (philosophers and non-philosopher alike) that these writers had remarkable insights about the nature of truth, reality, but also, and this is often overlooked, into what makes life worth living. And these are lessons that resonate particularly today, when solipsism and individualism threaten to reign supreme.
What do you think were the most interesting points that the critics raised in the session?
So my two commentators were Mike Ventimiglia, of Sacred Heart University, and Doug Anderson, of University of North Texas. I have known both of them for a long time, so I thought the author meets critic would be cake walk. It wasn’t. In the book, I make the tacit claim that philosophy can help a person through the difficult moments of life. What Mike suggested, in short is that, philosophy had next to nothing to do with my transformation from a near-suicidal philosopher to a relatively well adjusted (okay, sort-of-well-adjust) person. He pointed out that perhaps philosophy was better at asking hard existential questions than answering them in life-affirming ways. I think he might be right. I have to think about it more. Doug approached the book through the eyes of a person who had the misfortune of watching philosophy jeopardize its own existential relevance in the 20th century. Doug is no fan of analytic philosophy—actually, he is just no fan of pretension—and the discipline is, from his point of view, shot through with it. He’d like to see philosophers stop worrying about the minutiae quite so much and address the ways that individuals and communities might thoughtfully flourish in the 21st century, in an age that seems hell-bent on destroying itself. Also, just be nice. He took the author meets critics session as an opportunity to express these thoughts which I find very important.
What was your take on the discussions with the audience? What topics were raised, and what are your reflections on them?
Frankly, the session was on the first day of the conference, the conference that basically got snowed out. Virtually no one came. Josh Felix, a grad student from SUNY Binghampton, was the only attendant and so we had a nice chat in the hotel bar. I’ll be honest: Josh was worried about finishing his doctorate and about getting a job. He was interested in American philosophy, and knew a good deal about it, but it is not sexy in the mainstream ways, so he has reason for concern. So we talked a lot about that. Not about the book, but about life and one’s hopes and prospects. I hope he finishes his dissertation. I certainly think he could and could be a good teacher.
What would you have liked for participants to take away from your session?
I guess what I would have liked the session to take away was that philosophy could be geared to a general audience, that philosophy, as the ancients understood it, as Hadot understands it, was always geared to a thoughtful public that might change everyday life. That is what I think our culture and our discipline needs to return to.
What are your top tips for authors and critics when they meet in sessions such as these?
Be honest. Don’t try to summarize your book or be too smart. Just explain the motivations for writing the book and why it actually matters, not in a disciplinary sense, but in a deeply human sense. Everyone in the room will be interested if you do that, otherwise, they might wonder why you wrote it in the first place.
What intrigues you most about American philosophy?
American philosophy had a conception of freedom that was tempered with togetherness—community of one form or another—and I think that is very important today. I also am very interested in thinking about the way that philosophy intersects with what C.S. Peirce might call “the conduct of life.” When Thoreau suggested in Walden that his writing will be deeply personal, it is a reminder, that a writer can, to very good effect, insert the “I” into his or her writing, that writing and reading philosophy can be the process of personal transformation.
How does it fit in with your larger research project?
My larger research projects usually center on 19th century philosophy—American and European. But really, I am interested in getting people outside the discipline to consider the allure of thinking rigorously and living deeply. I don’t particularly care how they do it—whether it is through sport or music or hiking or painting—I just want to do my small part in returning the humanities to their initial function: as a means of sincerely criticizing culture and enriching everyday existence.
How do you relate your work to other well-known philosophies?
I think Plato and the Stoics both understood philosophy as a form of very serious self-help. I think my books—like American Philosophy: A Love Story and Hiking with Nietzsche (out later this year) aim to do that, even if the way they “help” is really a demonstration about how NOT to live. Some of the less flattering moments in these philosophy-cum-memoirs, that I’ve been doing, and hope to keep doing, take on a certain confessional quality. Think Augustine, Montaigne, Hume (at certain points), Nietzsche, and William James. These are my inspirations at least when it comes to leaving myself on the page.
What directions would you like to take your work in the future?
I have a book in the final stage with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux called, Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are. It is about “hiking with Nietzsche” into adulthood, asking what a childless philosopher can tell us about adulthood, responsibility, parenthood, and love—also suicide, depression, alcoholism, anorexia, and wanting to flee the responsibility of adult life. It is, in my mother’s words, “the dark side of American Philosophy: A Love Story.” She is right, but I like to think about it as a type of realism that might ground the occasional ebullience of the American philosophical canon.
Who has influenced this work the most?
Carol Hay, my partner and a fellow philosopher at UMass Lowell. Doug Anderson, my closest and best teacher. Ileene Smith, my editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and Markus Hoffman, my agent, really pushed me to write without the jargon that defined my writing as an academic philosopher. Clancy Martin, my friend and fellow author at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, shepherded my first piece about the Hocking Library to Harper’s and helped enormously from beginning to end.
Why did you feel the need to write this work?
When you get tenure, you are supposed to take risks. When you become promoted beyond that, and your job is very secure, you are supposed, I take it, to take very big risks. This is my attempt to push myself well beyond the comfortable confines of university publishing.
Which of your insights or conclusions do you find most exciting?
I think that American philosophy is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in mainstream philosophy, and I think that the book tries to explain what the tradition can mean beyond the epistemic upshots of James or Peirce; the tradition is really about living freely and meaningfully in wider communities—like Emerson’s “Circles”—and those who have read the book seem to get that message quite clearly.
How have readers responded?
Well, I think. Most are, thankfully, not academic philosophers, and they say that they were surprised that philosophy could be so accessible and meaningful.
What advice do you have for others seeking to produce such a work?
The book is a “trade book” meaning that it is published for a general audience. I would suggest authors who are interested in doing this sort of work find their voice in a few popular articles—like the NYT Stone or in the Chronicle of Higher Education or in Harper’s—and then get in touch with agents with a pitch. It is not impossible. Far from it. But it is not easy either. Alternatively, they would contact someone who already has published a trade book or popular articles and ask them to shepherd a piece or proposal to an agent. Shepherding is my term for NOT COLD SUBMITTING something…find a friend (or a stranger) who is willing to edit the piece or proposal and who already knows an editor. Editors are much more open to references than cold submissions. I think that academics need to help each other in this way, and I would like to think that most of us are open to helping, if asked. To be clear, this is not nepotism—it is just helping each other get our feet in some very tight doors.
What writing tips do you have?
Keep doing it. If you feel bored or anxiety-wracked, write another type of writing—fiction, songs, poetry, history—almost all philosophers are, deep down, good writers. Some of us have had the good writing beaten out of us, but it is possible to re-cultivate that, I think.
Did you encounter any problems getting yourself published and, if so, how did you overcome them?
Yes, of course. I submitted 100 op-eds before one was published. And 6 different proposals before one was picked up by an agent.
What effect do you hope your work will have?
Open up trade publishing to philosophy. Make readers believe in the love of wisdom—I know, it is horribly idealistic. But I think that is the joy of our profession. Or one of them.
How has your work influenced your teaching?
It is my teaching that has really influenced my writing. I now tend to write the way I teach—the same type of vignettes, jokes, stories, personal histories, and content. It took me a long time to realize that this was possible.
What writing practices, methods, or routines do you use, and which have been the most helpful?
Carol and I have a five year-old, so there is no such thing as a writing routine for me. Thankfully, I write in my head pretty well, so if I get stuck in traffic or a really boring meeting, that is what I am doing. The temptation, one that I have had to curtail, is to write (in my head) when I should really be present to others. That, I can tell you, is something I would discourage.
What else would you like to do with your research, if you could do anything?
I think I am going to write a book about philosophers’ approach to the end of life. Something like the “Violet Hour” but in the same voice as these first two memoir-like books. I am also in the process working on a book called “American Blood” which traces a single American family from the inception of the country to the present day, with all the philosophical intersections that happen to the family along the way. A book about Rousseau and raising a child, maybe. A book called “Maybe” that addresses directly the question “Is life worth living.” A book called “Glad to the Brink of Fear,” which addresses the possibility of finding meaning in ordinary experience. Lot of things. Easier said than done.
What’s next for you?
I am writing Norton’s Introduction to Philosophy textbook, called Think Again. It is a real marathon of a project—a huge project that I am just about half-way done. Which is to say, not at all close to being done. Really have to buckle down and do that next.
Where would you like to go to do research in the future, if you could go anywhere?
Just home, I think. We purchased a very old farmhouse near Walden Pond. I have the inclination to go somewhere remote, to “get away from it,” in order to write, but I think this is a dangerous and misguided impulse. I did a brief interview with W.S. Merwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who has lived out most of his life in Hawaii. That is “away from it” but it is also “home,” his home. So too with Thoreau’s Walden. So I would like to make a home somewhere in the “wild apple” (partially cultivated, I guess) region of the world—and I would like to keep on writing. As long as I can.