John Kaag is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of American Philosophy: A Love Story (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2016) which was named an NYT Editor’s Choice, a 2016 Best Book of the year by NPR, and in 2018, it was awarded The John Dewey Foundation Prize for the best book in the History of American Philosophy, broadly conceived. His research focuses on 19th century philosophy—American and Continental—but most of his writing these days is geared to a general audience and takes up a wide range of philosophical issues.
What excites you about philosophy?
The chance to teach students with virtually no philosophical training to be just a bit more reflective, to think and live in meaningful ways, to give an account of their lives that can comfort and compel them in times of crisis. Yes, I know—it is incredibly idealistic, but isn’t maintaining this idealism one of the perks of the job? I think so. This isn’t just Pollyanna optimism. One of the tricks of grappling with existential questions—the questions that the sciences will never be able to answer—is realizing how inadequate most conventional solutions are. The first step of being a young philosopher is often being disaffected, depressed, cynical, nihilistic—I think that one of the jobs that we have, a job that I will never tire of, is letting students explore this risk against the backdrop of genuine care.
What excites me about the discipline of philosophy right now is the resurgent sense that philosophy can matter in the public sphere. It can still effect change in politics and society at large, at a time when thinking and reading is quickly becoming a subversive act. My friend Clancy Martin said, and I think this is right, that here have been times in the history of philosophy when philosophers have had to stake a great deal on their thoughts. And I think we are entering this type of period. I hope that I can join a host of thinkers, writers, and activists who have taken this sort of risk.
What is the point of writing?
A friend, also a philosopher, had the answer: “to help someone else.”
What are you working on right now?
Right now I am writing articles in the lead up to the publishing of Hiking With Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, which is to be published with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in September. It is the sequel to American Philosophy: A Love Story. Half-memoir, half-intellectual history, it’s about trying to walk with Nietzsche into adulthood: asking what can the childless hermit of Sils-Maria teach us about parenting, about love, about not settling for mediocrity, about fighting the complacency of middle age?
The book is about two philosophical journeys to Sils-Maria, where Nietzsche summered: one when I was nineteen (and intent on exploring the ascetic ideal by climbing and fasting) and one seventeen years later (with my partner and child). Not surprisingly, the lessons learned in this eternal return are very different. When I was young the Übermensch meant going higher, working harder, risking more. In the second case, the task of self-overcoming was replaced not by something “harder,” but much more difficult: Nietzsche’s challenge to “become what you are.”
Name a trait, skill or characteristic that you have that others may not know about.
I guess I should get used to talking about it since it’s all over Hiking With Nietzsche. I struggled with a severe eating disorder—the upshot of anxiety and depression—for about twenty years. Since I think that such compulsions never really go away, I guess I still am working through it.
One of the advantages of growing older and more “distinguished” in a profession is that we have the chance to say what is really on our mind, to be vulnerable in ways that are nearly impossible in our youth. Of course, many people think this is just self-sabotage, but I think about it as being honest about ourself and with others.
Which books have changed your life? In what ways?
I love even to see the domestic animals reassert their native rights–any evidence that they have not wholly lost their original wild habits and vigor; as when my neighbor’s cow breaks out of her pasture early in the spring and boldly swims the river, a cold, gray tide, twenty-five or thirty rods wide, swollen by the melted snow. It is the buffalo crossing the Mississippi. This exploit confers some dignity on the herd in my eyes–already dignified. The seeds of instinct are preserved under the thick hides of cattle and horses, like seeds in the bowels of the earth, an indefinite period.
What would your childhood self say if someone told you that you would grow up to be a philosopher?
“Well, at least you’re not a total disappointment.” No, really, I wanted to do this since I visited Walden for the first time when I was fifteen. I said to my teacher, who was the chaperone on the trip: “What can I do for a living and still read Thoreau?” He said, “be a philosophy professor.” That was it. Of course, most philosophy professors don’t read or teach Thoreau. A true shame, I think.
What time of day are you most productive and creative?
In the very early mornings. When I can’t sleep, which is pretty often.
What are your goals and aspirations outside work?
Be a decent father and partner.
You’re stuck on a desert island and you can only have one recreational activity. What is it?
Do I get to take someone else?
Which three items would you take to a desert island other than food and water?
Carol Hay, our daughter Becca, and a sea-worthy vessel.
What’s your top tip or advice for APA members reading this?
If you feel boxed in by the discipline of philosophy, reach out. Reach out to authors you respect and admire, to mentors who seem to have gotten around the disciplinary boundaries you find so annoying, to editors who are trying to counteract the forces that flatten out the discipline. Ask for help and for editorial connections. When I started reaching out, I discovered that there are a huge number of brilliant, generous people who were waiting—wanting—some sort of contact.
And don’t forget what got you into philosophy in the first place. It was probably an inspiring teacher or gripping book. Are we helping junior scholars and graduate students become these teachers and write these books? I very much hope so.
This section of the APA Blog is designed to get to know our fellow philosophers a little better. We’re including profiles of APA members that spotlight what captures their interest not only inside the office, but also outside of it. We’d love for you to be a part of it, so please contact us via the interview nomination form here to nominate yourself or a friend.