Michael Ventimiglia, Associate Professor at Sacred Heart University, was one of the critics for John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story Author Meets Critics session at Eastern APA and has shared his comments on the book below.
I don’t remember the exact time or place–it was somewhere on the main campus of the Pennsylvania State University—when a person I assumed to be the child of another faculty member introduced himself to me.
“Hi. I’m John.”
“I’m a student of Professor Anderson’s.”
Okay. Student, not offspring. I did recall that Prof. Anderson often taught classes in the local grammar school. I weighed my competing hypotheses.
“I’m taking American Philosophy with Professor Anderson.”
“Well, that settles that,” I thought.
I don’t remember taking him very seriously, and I was silently relieved when he reported, many years later, that I was, in fact, reasonably kind to him, that I had managed to hide my superficiality and my skepticism.
I suppose I’m making up somewhat for that kindness now with this embarrassing story, but, more importantly, I have learned over and over in the subsequent years how dead wrong I was to not take him seriously. Unserious people say one thing and do another. Unserious people play with ideas like toys, indulging in intellectual world-craft, manipulating concepts like pieces in a child’s game. Unserious people do not abandon themselves to multiyear-long projects for no other reason than to preserve an intellectual legacy. Unserious people do not test ideas by drawing out their consequences in flesh and blood, in hours and days. Unserious people do not, as a rule, write serious books, a book like the one we are here to discuss today, a book that, like the John Kaag of some twenty years ago, is perhaps easy to underestimate because its surface is pleasant and engaging (pleasant and engaging enough to attract an extraordinarily wide popular audience for a work of philosophy) though beneath the surface there are disruptive passions, painful ambivalences and palpable doubts. It is my honor to be here to think with and about John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story.
“Is life worth living?” This is the central question of the book, and though the book is in good part a masterful synthesis of fascinating vignettes from the history of American academics, it is, of course, not an academic question, at least not in the pejorative sense. It is the most practical question. It is a question nobody wants to ask, or, I suppose, nobody should want, in earnest, to ask. To ask the question, to truly ask the question, is the painful admission that one does not know the answer. “No,” must be a live possibility. It is to contemplate the possibility that nothing may be better than this something. It is the existential question, literally.
It is, as John vulnerably and honestly and reminds us, an admission of soul-sickness.
Notice that our question is not identical to the question “What is the meaning of life?” a question that can have any number of answers that are compatible with a “yes” or even a “no” to our primary question. This isn’t, directly, a question about the purpose of life. This is simply the question, “Should I continue to exist?” But while the existential question is not identical to a question about the meaning of life, the latter is clearly relevant to the former. It is meaning that often makes life worth living. And so John turns to philosophy. Or, at least, John seems to turn to philosophy. John seems to choose what we might call the “philosophical strategy” to help him find meaning and, perhaps, thereby answer the existential question, if only tentatively and temporarily. John’s palpable and insatiable hunger for philosophical ideas can be understood as the attempt to find something to grab, something to hold onto, something to convince him to eliminate one answer to the existential question. And so one way to consider John’s book is as a case study in the strategy of using philosophy to answer the existential question.
The question I would like to consider in these few minutes here today, gleaning what wisdom I can from John’s experience and erudition, is “Is this a good strategy?” After all, the question that John’s book raises for the reader is not exactly “Is life worth living?” The reader is not seduced into existential despair. But the book does raise the question of whether or not philosophy is a particularly wise strategy for answering the existential question. Is philosophy a good strategy for finding meaning or purpose? If one is in existential despair, in particular, is philosophy a wise thing to do?
It is easy to understand why philosophy could indeed be relevant and appropriate to the existential question. And the very existence of works of philosophy that are responses to the existential question is of course a point in its favor. We know that John in particular sought out philosophy in youth in response to loss.
My mother was right: My father was gone. But his absence remained. I now understand that it eventually drove me to philosophy, to study the writings of men who worked at figuring everything out, who could tell me the meaning of life, who could help me make sense of my place in a difficult world. At least at first, to philosophize was to compensate for something, someone I’d lost. I was, unsurprisingly, drawn to the fathers of American philosophy…hoping they would explain themselves and the world to me.
To the extent that philosophy can help situate us, help us place ourselves in a cosmos or world, or even inspire us to create meaning in an otherwise meaningless world, philosophy can provide—for a certain type of person—the sort of significance that does make life worth living.
If meaning makes life worth living, and if philosophy can provide the sort of meaning John’s youthful self hoped it would, then philosophy does indeed seem like a reasonable strategy for addressing the existential question.
And if John and William James are right to suggest that an appropriate response to our existential situation is “the repeated, ardent, yearning attempt to make good on life’s tenuous possibilities,” then we are wise to acknowledge the potential of philosophy to multiply those possibilities. Philosophy provides the tools to dismantle and discard ideas and values that circumscribe the possible. Philosophy frees us, ever so minutely, from our pasts—our fates as inscribed by our personal and cultural biases. The power of philosophy is that it can create both negative space and positive alternatives–new visions, wider horizons, bolder ends. And when we philosophize, we feel some ownership in this process. To attempt to philosophize is, one would like to think, the attempt to be accountable, somewhat, for one’s world, one’s values, ultimately, one’s actions.
But of course the fact that some people find value in philosophy as a method for answering the existential question may say as much about them as the method. We might presume that there are other strategies for battling existential despair, perhaps far superior, which might not lend themselves so neatly to the written word. We might presume that there are answers to our question which are not recorded by writers, written in books and made explicit for us to contemplate. Philosophy is, after all, performed by philosophers. Echoing Nietzsche, we are wise to consider that the history of philosophy might be as much the history of a certain type of person as it is the distilled wisdom of our collective humanity.
Let us turn, then, to John’s journey with a healthy skepticism about the philosophical strategy. John shares this skepticism, and I would like to highlight some of the explicit and implicit ways this is communicated.
We might start by noting that it is at least an open question as to whether or not John’s despair was augmented, or even caused, by his youthful turn to philosophy. One wonders if the existential question, in earnest, preceded or followed this turn. This is an empirical question, of course, one to which, perhaps, John could speak. But the hypothesis is not unreasonable. Is it possible that the “philosophical strategy” is such a spectacularly poor approach to the existential question that it might be the very sort of activity which invites it?
While we hope that philosophy may be useful for constructing a world view in which the present has significance forward and backward, in which the present is given depth though the context of broader ends and purposes, it is of course a primary danger of philosophy that it does not give meaning or purpose, but it destroys them. Philosophy is notoriously better at creating doubt than meaning, notoriously more persuasive when dismantling than constructing. Philosophy is an excellent solvent for precisely the sort of world views that might make life worth living. I would almost have to wonder if one had truly encountered philosophy if one had not, for some time at least, sat in complete and utter despair about one’s purpose, one’s meaning, about what, if anything, could be known or considered trustworthy.
But let us turn back to John’s experience and his journey. Here are a few of John’s specific observations about philosophers.
“As a rule,” John writes, “philosophers don’t hug.” Let’s think about that. Parents hug, children hug, lovers hug, reconciled enemies hug, football players hug, musicians hug, boxers hug. Philosophers don’t hug.
Philosophers don’t laugh, or, more accurately, philosophers have a difficult time with true laughter–“the kind that plants itself in the pit of your stomach and grows into something life-affirming. For the average philosopher who’s used to controlling each and every mental sensation, it’s a strange sensation. You’re laughing—you just can’t help yourself.“ Babies laugh, old folks laugh, the wealthy laugh, the poor laugh, vicars laugh, villains laugh. Philosophers don’t laugh, or, at least, they struggle to truly laugh.
All philosophers, John playfully guesses, were picked on as kids. Philosophy as the sort of escapism that Gabriel Marcel alludes to, a retreat from a cruel world that is largely out of one’s control.
One wonders if there is a more concise and elegant refutation of the philosophical life than the claim that philosophers are bullied kids grown old who neither hug nor laugh. To hug, truly, is to affirm unqualifiedly. It is to vulnerably offer oneself to the here and now of another. It is to accept and be grateful for a good that is contingent, that cannot be secured, that can be taken away. It is to declare the present to be good. To hug is to choose presence over perspective.
To laugh, truly, is to display the limits of one’s wit for all to witness. To laugh heartily is to performatively acknowledge that something or someone has tickled one’s mental or emotional horizons. To allow oneself laugher is to allow oneself, again, to lose control, to lose perspective. It to allow oneself to be immersed in the here and now and declare it good. Not good insofar, not “good in such a way and not good in another.” Just good.
I have, in truth, witnessed John both hug and laugh—perhaps he was not acting qua philosopher—but his playful observations resonate enough to point to a potential larger problem with the philosophical strategy for answering the existential question. Philosophy requires perspective. It requires distance. To do philosophy requires that one withdraw somewhat from life, that one detach in order to observe, that one attempt to eliminate the idiosyncratic and personal, i.e. oneself. But to live well requires that we do, often if not always, lose perspective, that we do surrender ourselves to the here and now. To live well requires that we abandon ourselves, at times, unqualifiedly to presence. Philosophy requires that we seek to attain the disinterested posture that is appropriate to rigorous thought. But life is not truly lived by disinterested parties.
The comments John offers are anecdotal, and my generalization and explanations perhaps somewhat rash. But they are consistent, I believe, with the extent to which philosophy did or did not play a role in the fragile, hard won salvation John does seem to achieve temporarily by the end of the book.
It is not coincidence, I would suggest, that the themes of the final part of John’s book are ideas that are largely in tension with the philosophical enterprise as it has traditionally been understood: loyalty, mystery, participation (not the Platonic kind), the here and now, and, yes, femininity. As John realizes, quoting Gabriel Marcel, that “life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be experienced,” he turns to Carol Hay, in the concrete. Not love, as a something to be defined or understood, but love—here and now—as something to be experienced, as something leaving one immersed and vulnerable. Love, of this person, under those stars, right now. As John works toward earning a “maybe” to his existential question, the book becomes decidedly less philosophical, decidedly more concrete and about his immediate present.
What ultimately brought John to his maybe, I’d like to suggest, was not primarily philosophy, but persons, places, and things–persons, places and things that cannot be truly valued until one loses perspective. To fall in love with someone, we must lose perspective, we must overestimate them. To travel to New Hampshire and sleep in rat feces so that bug infested collections of paper can be organized and made available to a handful of others is to lose perspective. And it is this loss of perspective–which cannot be had from the perch of philosophy–that makes life most meaningful.
Philosophical perspective and lived immersion, though perhaps both layers of a good life, are in tension. We cannot be in two places at once. Perhaps, in the spirit of Charles Peirce, who claimed that reason declares its impotence in matters of the heart, we might consider the possibility that philosophy points beyond itself, that perhaps philosophy primes us for life, that–though it may broaden our sense of the possible and potentially enrich the present–it is not the present. It is possible that a life of questions and half-answers is a half-life, a life that is not wise.
Thoreau left the village with its laws of convention for the wildness of philosophy. And from the wildness he gained a perspective on the village that could not have been achieved from within it. But Thoreau, did, after all, return from the woods. It is our hearts, not our minds, that touch the earth.
John’s book is indeed a redemption story, but, unlike most redemption stories, it does not end with any assurance that salvation will be attained. We can say that perhaps the book gestures towards it, that it begs you to look for your Carol, your moonlit nights, the first editions of your own life. It is a tentative salvation, teetering in an uncertain world. We are always tempted to retreat. The two birds in the final section breaks, the reader may have noticed, never do offer themselves fully to each other. They remain skeptical, poised for solitary flight. They say to each other “maybe.” But in this maybe they seem to find some peace.
Maybe. This is John and William James’ answer to the question, “Is life worth living?”
Is philosophy a wise strategy for answering this question? Here, too, John seems to gesture towards an answer. Maybe.
Michael Ventimiglia is an Associate Professor at Sacred Heart University. He plays piano and rides motorcycles, but never at the same time. His research focus is American philosophy, most recently about philosophical perspectives on the yearly Burning Man event in Black Rock Desert, Navada.