American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag

American Philosophy: A Love Story BY John Kaag. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. . $26.
The cover of American Philosophy: A Love Story

“I ate my breakfast—the same banana and toast I’d eaten for a decade,” John Kaag writes in American Philosophy: A Love Story, “and wondered how philosophy had managed to lose its personal character.” In search of an answer, Kaag retreats to the library of William Ernest Hocking, a nearly forgotten American pragmatist who left behind a mind-boggling treasure trove of books after his death. The once grand, now rotting, library at his estate in the woods of New Hampshire held first editions of Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Locke, and Jane Addams; author-annotated copies of pragmatist classics by William James, C.S. Peirce, and Josiah Royce; and a collection of the earliest English translations of Eastern thought. It had been buried by time and geography, surviving half a century of neglect and New England climate extremes.

“Hocking collected them for one reason,” Kaag writes: “He was in search of the origins of American philosophy.” The young philosophy professor spends countless days and nights camped out in the library cataloging its contents, partially out of scholastic interest, partially to escape the aftershocks of his crumbling marriage. He gradually falls in love with another professor in his department who comes along to help. While making his way through Hocking’s library, Kaag reflects on his own past. The book shuttles between lavish explication of the lives and thought of early American pragmatists, and fragments of Kaag’s private revelations about his life and relationships. In both narratives, the philosophical problem of solipsism eclipses all other questions.

Solipsism is the belief that the self is the only thing that we can be sure exists. It’s Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am”—but what about the rest of you? The question of how we should act in light of this belief is one of those eternal issues for philosophers, both in their work and their thought-obsessed lives. The young Bertrand Russell, for instance, in a famous flash of solipsistic, self-centered inspiration on his afternoon bicycle ride, decided that he no longer loved his wife and that he would leave her.

“Man is not by nature a solipsist, confined to his own consciousness and his own interests,” Hocking, our prolific collector, declared in 1937. “He is by nature an active agent in an active world, and a personal agent in a world of persons and things.” Whether that can be applied to all members of mankind is debatable. It could quite easily be applied to Hocking himself, judging by the philosopher’s life as laid out by Kaag—a life of overseas concerns, of charity, of teaching. It might seem odd, though, that solipsism should have been such a major worry for a man so aware of, and concerned with, the world.

Or it might not. Hocking's solutions to the problem of solipsism tended toward new forms of religion and society. Kaag, the quiet, retiring academic who’s written a book that explores American philosophy largely through the story that led to his second marriage, believes it can be worked through by way of love. “Loyalty was the animating spirit of love,” he writes. “In the face of calamity, [it] enters the scene, and though it might not save the day, it can make the day so much more bearable.” He takes inspiration from Charles Sanders Peirce’s conception of “evolutionary love.” Pierce saw love, in opposition to Darwinian self-interest, as the ability to give up one’s self for the sake of another. He thought it had the potential to make one okay, maybe even happy, with nothing more than the possibility of a world of many minds. “Love … recognizing germs of loveliness [even] in the hateful, gradually warms into life,” he wrote, “and makes it lovely.” In love, Kaag believes, we find salvation from solipsism because it is the ultimate phenomenological experience of the mind of another.

The stark difference in Kaag and Hocking’s approaches may well be explained by the wide temporal gap between them—a lot’s changed in the last century. In Hocking’s day, one engaged with other minds by speaking with other people in person, by going off and arguing with William James and C.S. Peirce, by having them annotate their books for you as a preliminary to discussion, and by formulating grand schemes for the future of humanity. In Kaag’s day (and our own), the world of other minds is largely the world of the Internet and social media, with all of the uncertain, disembodied interactions that technology facilitates. In an aside about David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water,” Kaag writes that the novelist, who wrote about a modern entertainment that isolates and kills, helped him understand that the “choice of togetherness beckons even, and most importantly, when we feel the most cut off.” In Hocking’s day, one felt that human interaction was disorganized and haphazard. In ours, we lack human interaction at all.

“For most of my life,” Kaag writes, he had looked to Descartes and Hobbes to explain human behavior. “Relationships were, at best, functional: ingenious ways of coping with individual frailties and neuroses. … It wasn’t that I had malevolent intentions when it came to others; I’d just never cared much about them.” In the rare instances where he writes about how his first marriage fell apart, he only refers to his former partner as “my wife” or “my ex-wife” before she quickly and unceremoniously disappears to North Dakota. Until the start of his new romance, he lives one of those “lives of quiet desperation”; after, he moves on to a life of quiet satisfaction. “I should have hated Carol,” he reflects while introducing his tenure-track competitor and future wife. But as she starts cataloguing the library with him, he imagines her as the Beatrice to his Dante, while reminding himself that “Carol wasn’t a figment of my imagination.” One night, as they’re about to fall asleep on the floor of the library, she comments, “It’s pretty spooky up here.” Kaag is surprised by his compassionate reaction: “If I were Hobbesian about the whole trip,” he writes, “I wouldn’t care how spooky it was for her. But somehow I did care.”

In moments like this, Kaag’s tone rings a bit hollow. Though he laments the loss of philosophy’s “personal character,” he remains a modern philosopher. He’s detached and hyper-analytical, lost in the world of the res cogitans, of pure thinking. At times throughout the book, Kaag sounds a little robotic. But love inspired him to try to change, and that’s admirable. He wants to be a part of the world, and the ideas that emerge from it begin to mean more to him and, as his readers, to us. In struggling with one such idea, the Hegelian dialectic, he writes, “It took destroying my life—and partially reconstructing it—for the lesson to come home.” In this context, the structure of the book makes sense. The fragments of his life fall together in the grand design of a body of thought. For Kaag today, finally, ideas take on the importance of delineating despair and happiness, of marking the difference between a bad life and a good one.

Andrew Fedorov is a writer, most often found in New York and sometimes found walking across countries.