America the…Philosophical?

Today the San Francisco Chronicle ran a version of my take on Carlin Romano’s new book, America the Philosophical. For whatever reason – the piece sat in their inventory for a bit and had to run in a smaller, Monday hole, or maybe it was too harsh – they lopped off about 150 words, in many ways pulling the piece’s teeth. Here’s a link to the published version. And below is the raw copy.

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This isn’t a joke. “America in the early twenty-first century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, nineteenth-century Germany or any other place one can name over the past three millennia.”

Thus speaks Carlin Romano in “America the Philosophical,” his sprawling attempt at counterintuitive intellectual assertion. Rallying against ubiquitous arguments that America is the land of the vulgar and home of the lowbrow, Romano draws on several registers of American intellectual life to argue that the country is a hothouse of results-oriented philosophy. “America the Philosophical” is ambitious in concept and in scope. At 672 pages the book is even ambitious in size, which may be its most unimpeachable feature. What “America the Philosophical” ultimately proves is that sometimes ambition is really just arrogance unrestrained.

Which isn’t to say that Romano is entirely uninteresting. Let’s quickly extract the essential from the excess.

At its most potent, “America the Philosophical” argues against the subgenre of books that decry our national ignorance – Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason” is the best-known recent example, but a more challenging interlocutor for Romano would be Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in America.” Against such lamentations, Romano writes that American philosophy is an “ever-expanding practice of persuasion” and “democratic decision making.” Romano locates evidence of America’s philosophical dynamism in everything from first amendment debates to our 24 hours news channels, and he discuses a herd of people – from B.F. Skinner to Hugh Hefner – that fall outside of philosophy, academically defined. The academy is key here, because Romano loathes Anglo-American academic philosophy. He dismisses metaphysics and sterile “logic chopping” in favor of the centrality of pragmatism to America. This can’t be surprising since pragmatism, as formulated by C.S. Pierce, William James, John Dewey, and Jane Addams (all of whom get name checked in the book) is widely agreed to be the country’s most lasting contribution to philosophical discourse.

Romano casts Richard Rorty, the most distinguished and readable heir to the pragmatist tradition, and Isocrates, a nearly forgotten contemporary of Plato, as heroes. For Romano, Rorty and Isocrates shared a suspicion of epistemology and a belief that “development of judgment trumps acquisition of knowledge,” sensibilities illustrative of  “America the Philosophical.” An efficient discussion of America, Isocrates and Rorty would have been an engaging polemic, a book posing questions that can’t help but antagonize prevailing habits of thought. But Romano didn’t write that book.

Instead, Romano errs on the side of hollow gigantism.

The bulk of “America the Philosophical” consists of a summary of American writers from the last few decades.  Romano writes that much of “American the Philosophical” grows out of his own “multipronged approach to the subject as a longtime literary critic and cultural correspondent for a newspaper” and that “ I report [his emphasis] on the assumption that facts often persuade faster than arguments.” That’s a nice line, but Romano shows time and again that he doesn’t understand which facts are important. He prefers composing sham dialectics between gossip and condescension.

The discussion of Hannah Arendt is emblematic of Romano’s cavalier approach. Romano forgoes serious engagement with Arendt’s work to trot out the tired narrative of her forgiveness of Heidegger’s Nazi associations. Arendt’s work on political violence and civil society is insightful. She was a brilliant thinker, but none of this comes through in Romano’s discussion. Also, Arendt was German.

Two out of the three men that receive what passes for sustained attention in Romano’s discussion of “gays” – Wittgenstein, an Austrian, and Foucault, a Frenchman – don’t seem to qualify as the center of gravity when it comes to “America” the philosophical. More importantly, Romano patly dismisses Foucault’s pioneering work on power and human sexuality because of the latter’s S & M proclivities.

Such superficial drive-bys are the rule: the book is primarily a composite of brief, fluffy personality profiles. With the exception of Rorty, Isocrates, and the political philosopher John Rawls, Romano merely flirts with the people he writes about. Romano roughly summarizes the dead and dying white men that police academic philosophy. Romano swiftly profiles insurgent philosophers categorized bluntly as “Gays,” “Women,” “African Americans” etc.  Romano, ever ecumenical, then revs himself up arguing that journalists, literary critics, psychologists, and many others deserve consideration as philosophers. Two responses immediately suggest themselves: “Yes” and “so?”

Who would disagree that that nation contains smart people doing smart things, which is Romano’s ultimate take-away. The more important and debatable question is whether or not Americans on balance comport themselves with sensitivity to argument and intellectual engagement. And can a collection of flimsy vignettes provoke thoughtfulness? Romano wants the answer to be yes, but redefining an elite niche to include more elite niches isn’t the same as supporting a broad claim about a chaotic democracy.

Expansion seems unnecessary, so let’s be brief: I read 700 pages, and what little I learned I don’t trust. It’s hard to be philosophical about that.

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