In 2008, a young University of Massachusetts Lowell philosophy professor named John Kaag set out on a fateful road trip. He was driving to Chocorua, N.H., to help organize a conference on William James, who had owned a home in the nearby White Mountains. Stopping for coffee in town, he admitted to a 93-year-old local what he did for a living.
This old man had grown up on the estate of another philosophy professor, William Ernest Hocking, a once powerful and wealthy pillar of Harvard in the early 20th century. On Hocking’s property still stood his private library, a custom-built free-standing pile. Kaag, invited to look in, instantly recognized the early publications of the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, on whom Kaag had written his doctoral dissertation — books inscribed by Peirce himself. He found William James’s reading in preparation for “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” with James’s marginalia and annotations. He found signed gift copies from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, which had ended up in Hocking’s hands. Then there were the masterpieces of European philosophy since the 17th century: Descartes’s “Discourse on Method” in a first edition; the first English translation of Hobbes’s “De Cive”; and first editions of significant works by Kant. The books were moldering under inches of dust in an unheated, uncooled limbo.
All this would be a wonderful event in the life of any professor, especially one as gifted and skilled as Kaag in the history of 19th-century philosophy. (One of his previous works concerns Ella Lyman Cabot, “one of the few women of classical American philosophy.”) It would not seem to make for a popular book. But Kaag used the discovery of the library as an excuse to transform his own life... (nyt, continues)Robert Richardson:
There is a strange daylight magic in this book. It is part memoir and part flyover of American philosophy, which, says Kaag, “from Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century . . . to Cornel West in this one, is about the possibilities of rebirth and renewal” (66). The book is also clearly and beautifully written. I picked it up for a quick look and couldn’t put it down. Not since Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have I read such a mesmerizing confluence of personal experience and formal thought. A young philosophy professor dangling at the end of a failed marriage, depressed and not at all sure life is worth living, stumbles upon a magnificent abandoned stone library deep in the New Hampshire woods. The lost library is crammed with old rare incredibly valuable books — all the classics of American philosophy and its German, English, and French antecedents. As the narrator struggles with his life (and with the problem of what to do about this hidden treasure) so he struggles with the main lines of American thought from Transcendentalism to Pragmatism and beyond. A female colleague, a Kantian, joins him in his strange mission and in the string of personal experiences that follow, the narrator takes us back and forth from learning to love until he can answer the question is life worth living with a sly “it depends on the liver” (8) and a modestly rapturous “maybe” (235).
Kaag’s notion of philosophy is not technical or academic in the usual ways. Heidegger once started a class on Aristotle with a disdainful dismissal of the biographical. Of Aristotle’s life he said “He was born. He thought. He died.” 1 Heidegger had more reason than most to avoid biographical illumination, but his low view of the subject is fairly common in some quarters. Not, however, with John Kaag, who writes “Royce’s lectures on German Idealism began where all philosophy does, in biography” (166). That is to say, in life. And if philosophy couldn’t help us lead better lives, most of us wouldn’t care two pins for it. American Philosophy: A Love Story is saturated with William James’s thought and life. Even so, Kaag is, I think it fair to say, a Roycean; he is drawn more to a life with others — to community — than to individualism, however splendid. But he gives equal time to Emerson, Thoreau, James, Hocking, and so many others (Descartes, Hobbes, T.H Huxley, etc., etc.) that I would advise a beginning student to read this book rather than those of Father Copleston or Will[iam James] Durant for an overview of American thought. And beyond overview, Kaag has many new things for us, the relationship between Emerson and Henry Lee, that between William James and Pauline Goldmark, and that between Ernest Hocking and Pearl Buck. There is a fresh bit on Royce’s last words, another on the origins of Shady Hill School, a reappraisal of Jane Addams and much, much more.
American Philosophy: a Love Story is then a brightly written, thoroughly accessible, sometimes moving account of a young life in philosophy. (It is also an adventure story about the discovery of the lost library of Ernest Hocking.) Kaag teaches courage, risk-taking and above all reading. He would, I think, agree with the comment attributed to Borges that “you are not what you write, but what you have read.” And his book goes on my shelf with other books in which philosophy lives, with Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James, Margaret Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, Richard Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children, Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine and Simone de Beavoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.
Kaag leaves us with what Goethe, Emerson, and William James all agreed on. In the beginning was not the word, but the deed, the act. The way forward is not twelve steps, or ten or three. It’s just one. Don’t sleep on it, sit on it, stand on it, or take it for a trial spin. Take the step, You have to do what you can, and you have to do it right now.
WILLIAM JAMES STUDIES VOL. 13 • NO. 1 • SPRING 2017