Mark Greif in The New York Times gave me the slogan for American Philosophy: A Love Story: “[A] spirited lovers quarrel with the individualism and solipsism in our national thought.” That’s the most generous review I’ve ever received. I believe this. I was surprised that, after a decade of studying the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James, I still didn’t fully understand them. Socrates said that philosophy is preparation for death. This library, at a place called West Wind, became my temporary home — a sanctuary, really — for more than two years. How did writing it, then, change you? The idea that you could fully divorce thought from lived experience runs counter to just about every single philosopher of the 19th century, including Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Emerson, Thoreau, James, Bergson, Peirce, and Royce. I, for the most part, avoided talking about my ex-wife and Carol’s ex-husband. The draft I handed to Ileene Smith, my editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in 2014 was unsalvageable. I get that criticism. NPR nominated it as one of the Best Books of 2016, it was listed as a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and in April 2017 it was one of the top 10 nonfiction audiobooks on Audible.com. Cleary PhD is a philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love. No, that would be strange, but the American thinkers who inspired and taught Hocking did. Even when you don’t reveal everything — or even that much — it makes a writer confront what doesn’t go on the page. Then I came across a private, largely abandoned, library in the heart of the White Mountains, which was chock-full of American philosophy — from Emerson to Whitman to William James — and my life started, very slowly, turning around. “Judge an idea by its fruits, not its roots” — that is a pragmatic idea and one that should guide policy, I think. What sort of immediate, and long-term, consequences do our actions point to? ¤
Skye C. Hocking had cached many of William James’s own book collections at West Wind, especially the ones that James used in writing The Varieties of Religious Experience, but also hundreds of first editions from the 17th and 18th centuries, including Hobbes, Locke, and Descartes. Your book was published in October 2016 and is in its fourth printing — who is reading all those books? How can the American philosophers help us deal with, or at least better understand, today’s political situation? I’ll try: it’s called Hiking with Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are. Kaag found the library full of mouse droppings and rotting books, including extremely rare first editions of Descartes and Kant with handwritten notes from Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and William James. What is important about narrative? Sure. That was a surprise for me. This reminds me of Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote: “What an odd thing a diary is: the things you omit are more important than those you put in.” You’ve already mentioned a major event that was left out. My mother and brother are not professional philosophers. Augustine undoubtedly intended readers to reach a similar conclusion, but I think the upshot of philosophical narrative is more important than simply arriving at a discrete belief. In Augustine’s Confessions, a thinker wrestles with trauma and doubt and arrives at a philosophically informed conclusion: a belief in God. But it’s not. OCTOBER 3, 2017
LIBRARIES ARE OFTEN seen as places of wonder, mystery, and excitement. Or maybe you just grow out of the book only to realize that another one is about the begin. In that book she manages to be honest about enduring sadness without being cloying or narcissistic. I despise “takedown memoirs” that leave only the author standing. In turning back to American philosophy, we need to remember that there are writers and scholars who never abandoned the canon. These women: They are the love — or loves — in American Philosophy: A Love Story. Can you say more about your next book about Nietzsche? How did you remember it? Philosophy should have a certain capaciousness that I fear risks being lost. If disciplinary philosophy is going to survive another century in the academy, I believe that there has to be some sort of outreach to the growing number of individuals with no formal philosophical training. And then there were the granddaughters of William Ernest Hocking who graciously invited me into their home and taught me so much about philosophy and myself. I was impressed by the level of detail in the story. Yes, philosophers still avoid what is known as the “biographical fallacy,” which is the supposed mistake of interpreting a thinker’s philosophy by an analysis of their life. On a very basic level, working though the book gave me a pointed sense of my limits as writer. I think it is less than 140 characters. I stayed at the Nietzsche-Haus for weeks, hiking the same trails that Nietzsche hiked while he wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This way of doing philosophy, however, has been largely lost in the 20th century as analytic philosophy — which trades on being able to give and critique objective arguments — gained momentum. Or at least it shouldn’t be. The book has been criticized as being a “philosopher’s memoir,” that is, as being too esoteric and not grounded enough in real life. I remember her words so clearly: “Try to write it again.” It was probably the first time that anyone, outside of my English teacher mother, had encouraged me to start from scratch. I know that sounds hokey, but sometimes honest things are. Sometimes, when you finish a memoir, you realize that you’ve omitted parts of yourself. While Kaag’s previous two books were also about American philosophy — one on Charles Sanders Peirce and imagination, the other an introduction to Ella Lyman Cabot’s philosophy — this is his first memoir-style book. My father died, my first marriage was a shambles, and I tried to commit suicide — that didn’t go in the book. This is the case no matter what you write, but memoir is a special kind of self-exposure. I emailed with Kaag about how his discovery helped him to figure out that life was worth living. Nevertheless, such an approach is controversial since others say that a philosopher’s personal life is irrelevant to their ideas. He’s right, but I also like to think about it as spring training for the rest of your life. The trip did not go particularly well. A bit of humility and a great deal of admiration for the hundreds of truly talented writers working, and savagely editing, today. Tell me more about the person who gets saved in American Philosophy: A Love Story. Seventeen years later, I went back to Sils Maria with Carol and Becca to revisit Nietzsche and to see what he might have to say about adulthood. I hope to give it another shot in my next book. It is the dynamism of narrative that I find most appealing. Philip Kitcher’s recent work on climate change in The Seasons Alter is a perfect example of taking a pragmatic-philosophical approach to environmental science. I was writing a thesis on genius, insanity, and the ascetic ideal. It is about getting the sense that change, development, and growth can occur in the life of a thinker. ¤
SKYE C. The book was about your personal journey through American philosophy and love. That is part of the fun of writing and reading. Philosophy and life are very hard, and I don’t want to sugarcoat things. It is the next chapter in the story. I’d always thought that American philosophy was about that most American, and most misunderstood, of ideals: freedom. He was trying to get a grip on himself. We spent the better part of a year at the library trying to save the books from mold and each other from marriages that deserved to die. American Philosophy: A Love Story is also about two divorces and a remarriage. Writing the book forced me to acknowledge what I was leaving out, both of my personal history and certain strains of philosophy, and to ask, perhaps for the first time, why I was keeping mum about so many things. I was afraid, and am still afraid, of writing about the real nastiness of depression and anxiety. He wasn’t the first to trespass upon the library, however, nor to recognize its importance. It will come out with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in August 2018. That’s what I am dealing with in my next book about Nietzsche. Writers like Bob Richardson, Annie Dillard, John McDermott, Henry Bugbee, and Doug Anderson have written beautiful, insightful books about, or inspired by, American philosophy for decades. In reviving the tradition, we should be careful not to remake the philosophical wheel. My time at West Wind is vivid because it is still with me; it is one of my fondest and most jarring memories. The library at West Wind was also the place where I really met Carol Hay, a fellow philosopher, who became a dear friend, and is now the mother of our daughter Becca. I wanted to explain how philosophy could inform a human life or, in my case, save one. Philosophy wasn’t merely an academic exercise for these thinkers; it was a way of thinking through the difficult, often tragic, business of living. I think writing is working yourself out over the page. They showed me that life didn’t have to be, in Hobbes’s words, “nasty, brutish, and short.” The two threads of the book are what I take to be the abiding themes of American Transcendentalism and pragmatism: freedom (think Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”) and love (such as another of Emerson’s essays “Compensation”). Why do you think personal narratives are important in philosophy? I leave that question partially unanswered. These books hopefully take readers through certain philosophical paces — that is the teacher in me — and also give them a sense of having a companion in misery when they need one. When I was 19 I went, by myself, to Sils Maria in Switzerland, where Friedrich Nietzsche spent many summers. Who do you hope will read it and what impact do you hope it will have? Those are two main things that came out of writing the book. So, Hobbes helped you find happiness? I think “robotic” was the word. John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story credits a library with all these things, as well as for being the backdrop for an existential crisis, the end of a marriage, the spark of new love, and contracting Lyme disease. Thoreau and James would be going absolutely wild right now. Beauvoir is so very right about this. But I am not so worried about it. I think that American philosophy is enjoying a renaissance for many reasons. I try to follow my grandmother’s instructions: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
There are moments in the book when I let the reader fill in gaps about my relationship with Carol. In 2009, I was a complete mess. I came into philosophy, as most teenagers do, through European existentialism. In Emerson’s words, life is set in a grand system of “give and take” — and you are never “free” of that. Freedom is always tempered or constrained by togetherness. He wrote, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string […] Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” It was, I thought, about radical self-assertion. The book is about my two interpretations of Nietzsche and about hiking with Europe’s philosopher-poet into parenthood. My mother, and first reader, calls it the “dark side of American Philosophy: A Love Story,” and she’s probably right. It was like that. Classical American Philosophy (the writings of James and Emerson) was written for philosophers as well as the general public. To ignore them would be a strange act of ingratitude. We should be mindful of them. James was also a polymath and was more than willing to dive into other academic disciplines. Some of these thinkers — especially Nietzsche, Thoreau, and James — demonstrated the connection between life and philosophy using narrative and autobiography. What’s the key message of American Philosophy: A Love Story in 140 characters? But when I started reading the books in the Hocking library, especially the idealism and religious writings of a host of thinkers, I came to a slightly different impression. They are intelligent, caring people with busy lives, who want to live meaningfully. I can see why Nietzsche wrote 18 autobiographical essays by the time he reached middle age. S. I loved how you wove together your philosophical discoveries, the ideas and lives of the American philosophers, with your personal story — including your relationship with Carol, who ought to have been your academic arch-nemesis, since you were both striving for the same tenured professorship. There are certain times of life, and of love, that happen in ellipsis. Wittgenstein was right when he said, “Whereof one cannot speak of, thereof one must be silent.”
What surprised you most along the way — either in the discovery of the library or in writing the book? American philosophers, like James, give us a good model of how we can do this without watering down our thinking too much. Can you say more about the parts that you omitted? Did you keep a diary? A heroin addict stole 400 of the books worth more than $250,000, and succeeded in selling some of them before the FBI tracked him down. The book traces Kaag’s discovery of a largely forgotten library owned by a largely forgotten Harvard philosopher, William Ernest Hocking, on a remote estate in a dark wood in New Hampshire. These are the people I would like to read this book and my next, Hiking With Nietzsche. As Louis Menand describes in The Metaphysical Club, American thinkers responded to the Civil War by rejecting ideology and fanaticism in all its forms. It might not be the best conclusion, but what is beautiful and edifying about the narrative is that it provides what C. Pragmatism, especially, was formed as a reaction to being carried away by ideas without considering their dire consequences. Oh, and every single classical American philosophy was, in one way or another, committed to the scientific method — a careful, fallible methodology that does not take particular truths at face value, but unflinchingly pursues the facts and not the “alternative facts.”
What does the future hold for American philosophy in general? What actually happened between us? I reviewed Daphne Merkin’s This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression after publishing American Philosophy: A Love Story. You remember your first kiss, right? If you read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” you will understand how that misconception arose. In fact, he envisions pragmatism as a corridor that connects the various fields of the natural sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. Emerson insisted that “Self-Reliance” should be read along with the sister essay “Compensation,” which says that no matter how free an action is, it always has consequences; it is always set in a wider social, political, and cosmic order. I’d like to think that these books might convince readers to give philosophy a second chance, to believe that this love of wisdom could help shape their lives and make death a little less frightening. Peirce once called a “moving picture of thought.” Every page is the unfolding of thought over time and the reader gets to follow along. I think that this sort of interdisciplinary approach could keep philosophy alive and revitalize the philosophical roots of many other disciplines. Nietzsche once wrote that: “In the philosopher […] there is nothing whatever impersonal,” and you talk about how Gabriel Marcel was interested in the intersection of philosophy and life. CLEARY: Why did you write this book? JOHN KAAG: Philosophy often gets pooh-poohed as the most useless of subjects — impractical, impersonal, intentionally arcane. It was once owned by William Ernest Hocking, a titan of American philosophy at Harvard in the first half of the 20th century and one of the last students of William James. Yes, I wrote about West Wind in an informal way over the years; but honestly, the detail — the sense of being “right there” at the library with Carol, and with the books — is probably a function of the significance of the experience. I have no quarrel with analysis, but only with the idea that this is the only way, or the best way, of being a philosopher. I had a very distinct picture of what being an Übermensch involved: rugged climbing, fasting, and exerting myself. Most of Emerson’s writings were lectures for audiences around New England. I wish I could have done that, but I didn’t have the guts to try. I didn’t want to write one of those.