Guest column by Carlin Romano
“America the Philosophical?” It sounds like “Canada the Exhibitionist” — a mental miscue. Everyone knows Americans don’t take philosophy seriously, don’t pay any attention to it and couldn’t name a contemporary academic philosopher if their passports depended on it. As historian Richard Hofstadter dryly observed in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, “In the United States the play of the mind is perhaps the only form of play that is not looked upon with the most tender indulgence.”
But if the title phenomenon of Hofstadter’s classic indeed boasts “a long, historical background,” the peculiar attitude directed at philosophy in America is more quizzical than hostile, closer to good-humored wariness than contempt. Philosophy doesn’t threaten or bother the practical on-the-go American. The American middle manager confronted with a devoted philosophy type is most likely to yank out the old cliché, “What are you going to do, open a philosophy store?” and leave it at that. If, of course, the information has been accurately downloaded. Tell your seatmate on a short-haul flight that you’re “in philosophy,” and the reply is likely to be: “Oh, that’s great. My niece is in psychology, too.”
The infrequent philosophy blips on America’s medial screens suggest that philosophy doesn’t register on the American psyche with the gravitas professors in the field deem warranted. Occasional mentions drive that impression only deeper.
When a wrestler named Nick Baines declared, upon entering the University of Northern Iowa to get his bachelor’s degree, that he planned to become a professor of philosophy, the Des Moines Register treated him as an oddity to be closely watched. And when the University of Chicago, in October 2011, simultaneously hosted a conference on British philosophical giant Bernard Williams and another on the hit reality show “Jersey Shore,” guess which one got the front-page New York Times coverage?
Summing up the American media mindset, it seems, was a publicity release from a New York publishing house, hyping a two-book deal with Dennis Rodman, America’s faded, body-pierced, ex-basketball bad boy. It offered a sweeping historical perspective on its previously unheralded new thinker in ascending font:
Does America take philosophy seriously? One might as well ask whether America takes monarchy seriously. Joking about philosophy in the United States, or just ignoring it, comes with the territory. Hard-boiled, concrete-minded descendants of everyone from the Pilgrims to the slaves to the boat people, we pick it up along the way, like mistrusting politicians. It’s the way we’re supposed to think about a discipline described by journalist Ambrose Bierce as “a route of many roads, leading from nowhere to nothing.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, that touchstone for all synoptic thinking about America, thought the peculiar attitude of its residents toward philosophy so obvious that he began the second volume of Democracy in America by noting, “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.”
Even he, however, nodded. For all his general insight into the fledgling U.S., he saw American thought through the prism of European assumptions. His belief that “in most of the operations of the mind each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding” was false then — and is even more false now. Tocqueville’s misstep came in using the word “only.” He should have written that each American “also” appeals “to the individual effort of his own understanding.”
For the surprising little secret of our ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily iPodded, iPadded and iPhoned society is that America in the early 21st-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, 19th-century Germany or any other place one can name. The openness of its dialogue, the quantity of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions, the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone, the resistance to false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Net communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: All corroborate that fact.
To exalt America as the world’s philosophical culture par excellence is not just to argue that American philosophers such as Emerson and James occasionally drove everyday society in a decisive direction. It is similarly more than the boom in so-called “applied ethics,” which during the past 30 years has seen American philosophers taking jobs in hospitals, prisons and other places outside the academy to bring fresh thinking to the moral dilemmas of those institutions. Finally, “America the Philosophical” is more than a phenomenon it encompasses, but to which it cannot be reduced: the transformation by which America has become a net exporter rather than importer of professional academic philosophy. In Europe, in Southeast Asia, in South America, professors evoke the names of American giants — Rorty, Danto, Quine, Rawls, Nussbaum — as they once did those of the French, English and Germans.
No, more than all that, acquiescing to “America the Philosophical” requires seeing America in the new millennium as directly, ebulliently and ordinarily philosophical in a way that remains unappreciated by philosophers, media and the general public alike. It is to see Americans as almost uniquely able, given their rude independence of mind, to pierce through phony justifications for one world view or another. It is to see the U.S. as the exemplar of a new paradigm of philosophy — albeit one with roots in the pragmatically accented view of the ancient Greek thinker Isocrates (436 BCE–338 BCE) — suited to the 21st century.
That is not an easy picture to accept, either within our borders or without. To promote America at home as the world’s preeminent philosophical culture is to clash with almost every cliché of American intellectual history. To exalt it overseas is not only revisionary, but offensive, sure to be received as one more example of American cultural jingoism and imperialism.
To claim, then, that America is to philosophy what Italy is to art, or Norway to skiing — a perfectly designed environment for the practice — requires a sizable book in which the evidence can be set out and explained. That’s why I wrote America the Philosophical.
Carlin Romano, critic-at-large of The Chronicle of Higher Education and professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College, is author of America the Philosophical (Alfred. A. Knopf), from which this column is adapted.