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America the Philosophical by Carlin Romano

America the Philosophical (2012)

by Carlin Romano

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No doubt the very title of 'America the Philosophical' is one that will raise eyebrows and earn mocking comments. It is a contradiction, one which directly goes against a commonly held national image - or national stereotype. One might as well speak of Britannia the Gourmand or Canada the Tropical. National cliches aside, this is a very exciting and guaranteed controversial book which sincerely believes in the intellectual traditions of America.

The trope of America being 'mob-like' and 'anti-intellectual' is one long established. Plato's Republic said democracy could very easily degenerate into mob rule. Tocqueville in the 19th century noted the almost total lack of interest of Americans in philosophical problems, and Richard Hofstadter is a famous chronicler of its anti-intellectualism, citing the entrenched snares of religion as a major detriment to any intellectual foundation.

The first Big Idea is that America, with its 'unique', or exceptional, emphasis and cherished freedom of the press and freedom of speech, allows literally all major ideas and philosophies and schools of thought to practice here.

The second idea is that there is a strong undercurrent of pragmatism in American philosophy which allows it to be integrated into areas of modern social discussion.

After this, Romano goes into an extended long-term discussion of major American philosophical trends. First with the usual suspects - the Enlightenment predecessors of the founding fathers, the first buds of the 19th century - Emerson, Dewey, Santayana, and then to the modern Ivy League linguistic and logical traditions of Quine, Rorty, Chomsky, and so forth.

After this, he goes all over the place. Political philosophy (Arendt, Rand, Nozick), feminism (Friedan, Paglia, Nussbaum), literary criticism (Bloom), journalism (Moyers), and an encompassing section on 'identity' philosophy, which is a uniquely American upbringing - race (Delany, Appiah), gender, sexuality, and so forth. Romano even covers 'pop philosophy', covers such religious gurus as the Bhagwan, Robert Fulghum, and the epicurean Hugh Hefner.

An astonishing collection of biographical essays and interviews - Camille Paglia admitting she would have 'made a fortune as a dominatrix', and Harold Bloom, sage of New Haven, issuing dictums on Milton and Gnostic philosophy.

It would be foolhardy to classify all of these discordant views under one broad label. But somehow Romano does it.

A lot of what he includes under the broad 'philosophical' umbrella has a more direct connection to social issues and 'practical' or 'pragmatic' underpinnings. He draws the very beginnings of this philosophical tradition to neither Socrates nor Plato nor Aristotle, but to Isocrates, an obscure rhetoritician and pre-Socratic who believed in the practical applications of abstract ideas. And this is where the uniquely American philosophical tradition comes in.

Philosophy here is integrated with daily life, says Romano. See Arendt on the vita activa. Emerson on self-reliance. The identity philosophers contribute to our ideas of race, of feminism, of social justice and legislation. The literary critics comment on our ideas, on our thoughts. The journalists observe. Everyone from Cornel West to Noam Chomsky, from Rorty to Paglia, from Hefner to William James, has directly contributed in a physical way to the ideas behind American life and understanding. Emerson began independence and self-reliance. James begat the ACLU. One tradition which sprung up here from whole cloth is the philosophy and analysis of the Internet. Pragmatic is our philosophy. Think, and then do.

And despite the cottage industry which has sprung up around America's paranoia about decline, there still exists considerable influence - 'soft power' on the rest of the world. In the 19th century, Americans discussed the ideas of the classics, the Germans, and the French. Now, in the world's universities, they discuss ours.

The book ends with a rather hagiographic section on President Obama, citing his direct philosophical readings and influence from Nietzsche, Reinhold Niebuhr on the ethics of power, Emerson, and Max Weber. Romano posits that he is the most intellectually independent and unique philosopher since Woodrow Wilson, positing a new system of intellectual influence on politics, and "attempting to change the world through ideas". No doubt the Right will find this part sickening.

No doubt this book will incite a lot of heated discussion. There is the ugly remark that philosophers should 'get real jobs', that identity philosophy is a waste of time (some of the other people in the book might think that~), and so forth. While some may doubt that America is uniquely paramount in its cherishing of the tradition public debate and the exchange of the market of ideas, his positive and uniquely optimistic view of American intellectualism is one that will remain and endure. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679434704, Hardcover)

   A bold, insightful book that rejects the myth of America the Unphilosophical, arguing that America today towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece or any other place one can name.
   With verve and keen intelligence, Carlin Romano—Pulitzer Prize finalist, award-winning book critic, and professor of philosophy—takes on the widely held belief that ours is an anti–intellectual society. Instead, while providing a richly reported overview of American thought, Romano argues that ordinary Americans see through phony philosophical justifications faster than anyone else, and that the best of our thinkers abandon artificial academic debates for fresh intellectual enterprises, such as cyberphilosophy. Along the way, Romano seeks to topple philosophy’s most fiercely admired hero, Socrates, asserting that it is Isocrates, the nearly forgotten Greek philosopher who rejected certainty, whom Americans should honor as their intellectual ancestor. 
   America the Philosophical introduces readers to a nation whose existence most still doubt: a dynamic, deeply stimulating network of people and places drawn together by shared excitement about ideas. From the annual conference of the American Philosophical Association, where scholars tack wiseguy notes addressed to Spinoza on a public bulletin board, to the eruption of philosophy blogs where participants discuss everything from pedagogy to the philosophy of science to the nature of agency and free will, Romano reveals a world where public debate and intellectual engagement never stop. And readers meet the men and women whose ideas have helped shape American life over the previous few centuries, from well-known historical figures like William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to modern cultural critics who deserve to be seen as thinkers (Kenneth Burke, Edward Said), to the iconoclastic African American, women, Native American, and gay mavericks (Cornel West, Susan Sontag, Anne Waters, Richard Mohr) who have broadened the boundaries of American philosophy. 
   Smart and provocative, America the Philosophical is a rebellious tour de force that both celebrates our country’s unparalleled intellectual energy and promises to bury some of our most hidebound cultural clichés.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:01 -0400)

A bold, insightful book that rejects the myth of America the Unphilosophical, arguing that America today towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece or any other place one can name.… (more)

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