Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
America The Philosophical by Carlin Romano
Peter Caws argues that America The Philosophical is a misnomer (at best).
There’s a patriotic song all Americans know called ‘America the Beautiful’. It celebrates spacious skies and purple mountains, self-sacrificial heroes and dreams of alabaster cities. It was written a century ago by Katharine Lee Bates after she had seen the view from the Rockies. One newspaper reviewer said, “we intend no derogation to Miss Katharine Lee Bates when we say that she is a good minor poet” (New York Times, 24th March, 1912).
We know that Carlin Romano was thinking about ‘America the Beautiful’ when he wrote America the Philosophical, because he concludes his introductory chapter with its final words, after advancing the view that “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” (p.6). This is his major, or positive, thesis. He realizes that many people take quite the opposite view, and acknowledges books with titles like Idiot America and The Age of American Unreason, but concludes the chapter by protesting that “our country is not ‘Idiot America,’ but ‘Isocratic America’ – a place where the battle between dogma and doggedness in seeking answers never ends, from sea to shining sea” (p.13).
I’ll come back to that rather surprising ‘Isocratic’; but for the moment I am almost tempted to borrow the language of Miss Bates’ critic, and say I intend no derogation to Professor Romano when I say that he is a good minor populariser. But no – I do intend some derogation to him, because he himself intends massive derogation to the real profession of philosophy, as distinct from the general intellectual thought-processes he has decided to baptise as ‘philosophy’. Lively as his exposition can be, it is spoilt by a pervasive belittlement directed at those who have taken philosophy on as a technical speciality – starting as far back as Socrates, but now represented for Romano mainly by the academics who belong to the American Philosophical Association – that “eleven-thousand-member black hole in American media and public life known as the ‘philosophy profession’” (p.184), who practise a “metaphorical scam of desiccated, moribund, yet still breathing Socratic philosophy” (p.8). (At the same time he is a paid-up member of the APA. Make of that what you will.) Romano’s minor, or negative, thesis, is that the epistemological and linguistic focus of technical philosophy is now marginal to the genuine philosophical concern of the amorphous market-place of ideas he calls America the Philosophical.
The posse rides out: L-R: Aristotle, Plato, Socrates
Having invented the appellation ‘America the Philosophical’, he seeks to objectify it by repetition, as if it were something the rest of us had been overlooking all these years. I think Romano wants to use the label to claim American superiority in the patriotic tradition of Miss Bates, although I’m not sure what Rocky Mountain vision inspired it. It wouldn’t be difficult to construct a counter-claim for any of the major European intellectual communities, whose press and popular cultures are easily a match for America’s.
That said, the way in which Romano sets out what America has to offer philosophically is full of vigour and bravado. The book is rich in reportorial and anecdotal detail – he is widely (if unevenly) read, and takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through the history and contemporary landscape of philosophy and of intellectual life generally in the United States. Part of the unevenness of the result derives from the contingent nature of some of the details – for example, the 190 people he was able to interview for the project (evidently over a considerable period, considering how many of them are now dead) are a motley crowd. It contains many of the major players, but also leaves out many more, and it’s swollen with heavyweights from other disciplines as well as a raft of media and pop-cultural figures. This makes the central part of the book an opinionated plum pudding: in effect, Romano puts in his thumb and pulls out B.F. Skinner, Irving Howe, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Hugh Hefner, Bill Moyers, Susan Sontag – the list could go on – and says, “What a good boy am I!” as he perfunctorily hands out virtual marks: this is good, that disappointing. Yet each vignette is a quick summary and endorsement or dismissal, never a sustained exposition or argument, and is always a vehicle for his own commentary and critique. All these people, as well as various groups – including homosexuals, African-Americans, and inhabitants of cyberspace – are enlisted by Romano into the ranks of America the Philosophical, their works exhibits in his case for its dominance. But, to do them justice, few of them – and they are an impressive lot – would want to make this claim for themselves. Thus the major, positive, thesis of the book falls because of the irrelevance of most of the evidence for it.
As for the minor, negative, thesis, it depends mainly on a kind of derisive rhetoric, as for example in his scorn for “the habit of professor-packed philosophy departments to ‘rationally reconstruct’ American thinkers into skeletons made of their theses and arguments” (p.73). Yet in spite of Romano’s conviction that all is well in America the Philosophical without much help from its philosophical specialists, he keeps undermining his own case by appealing to them anyway. For instance, Richard Rorty, an exemplary product of the academic system, and a long-time member of the APA, is credited with having almost single-handedly slain the Socratic beast: “His broad-minded, internal perspective on the obsessions of his colleagues ended a two-millennium limitation of philosophy to the narrow, bad-faith search for eternal, objective truths” (p.20). This is a wildly overstated claim, and a grotesque misrepresentation of the history of philosophy, ancient and recent. It represents the kind of careless hyperbole Romano seems not to be able to help using. Rorty was, it is true, a rebel against a recent anglophone view of philosophy as linguistic analysis (after getting tenure at Princeton he remarked to me conspiratorially that now he was going to tell them what they could do with their analytic philosophy). But while at the end of his career he was more comfortable in other departments, he was nevertheless a thoroughly committed academic and a thoroughly serious philosopher. I didn’t always agree with him – we got our doctorates from Yale in the same year and kept in touch – but we belonged to the same profession, and that did not change. [See also ‘Richard Rorty: A Brief Life’ in this issue – Ed.]
Romano does pay adequate and respectful attention to the fathers of typically American philosophy, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. However, Peirce wanted to be an academic, and James and Dewey were such – James in psychology, it is true, although the divisions between the disciplines were less marked in his day. Romano is far less generous to his contemporaries. His linked treatments of John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum are cases in point. Rawls he considers a failure – albeit a “magnificent” one – because he could not persuade his countrymen of the validity of his basic criteria of justice: “the intricate academic sophistication of his system perhaps did not count for much in the complicated real world of American life” (p.593). Nussbaum, he suggests, was just too professorial: “if she hoped to win general readers, she needed to abandon the professional dialect of her books, and get imaginatively connected with American, as opposed to philosophy department, English” (p.417) – but that was apparently partly Rawls’ fault too: “Nussbaum paid a price for emulating the bloodless style of her former teacher and colleague Rawls, for Rawlsian abstraction had its limits in an America that demanded facts, vitamins, fireworks and color in its thinky prose. That price was to remain queen of a limited demesne: the minor state known as the Republic of the American Philosophical Association” (p.418). Quite apart from the arrogant condescension of these last remarks, they serve as well as any to refute, all by themselves, Romano’s major thesis – for if his America were as philosophical as he maintains, it would not demand “facts, vitamins, fireworks and color in its thinky prose” but would be able to follow the argument in its more austere form.
As to Isocrates – “a man, not a typo” – it is hard to see quite what Romano hopes to accomplish by setting him up against Plato’s Socrates, apart from fulfilling his own desire to score one against the overwhelming judgment of philosophical tradition, and so, perhaps, to “achieve escape velocity from the nethersphere of secondary academics through bold books” (p.431) – the sort of thing he evidently aspires to. “We have no adjective ‘Isocratic’,” he says, and then adds “Until now” – a bit of rather smug ambition.
I have no quarrel with his judgment of Isocrates (436-338 BCE) as a philosopher rather than as a mere rhetorician – it’s just that Isocrates hasn’t generated the interest and loyalty that Socrates has enjoyed for 2,400 years. Perhaps the problem was that there was no Iplato to turn Isocrates into the commanding figure he might have become, because Socrates is not and never was just Socrates. When Plato says in his Second Letter that there will never be any written work of his own, but that what are called his are the work of “a Socrates grown beautiful and young,” he is constructing a figure of almost mythical proportions against whom Isocrates didn’t have a chance. Yet what Romano doesn’t seem to realise is that the long historic adherence to Socrates doesn’t depend on the myth or the ‘eternal truths’, but on the Socratic pattern of persistent inquiry and argument that has inspired and continues to inspire philosophical work everywhere. In his insistence that philosophical America wants facts and fireworks, he misses the point that underlying all these vivid activities, the old philosophical questions continually pose themselves. He also overlooks what I take to be the two main drives towards a commitment to philosophy: the conviction that it is of all things in the world the most worth pursuing, and the desire to engage in it with others – which in the profession means with colleagues, and above all, with students. Admittedly academic philosophy has in its day suffered from some of the pride and parochialism at which Romano takes aim, but it has known this for years without his help, so that Romano’s whole argument, besides being a long exercise in hyperbole, is essentially out of date. Even the American Philosophical Association is far more diverse and accommodating than it used to be. This anachronistic slippage, due no doubt to the long time that must have elapsed from conception to publication, marks the whole book.
One last and in a way touching point. Precisely this prolongation has pushed the book into the Obama administration, and allows Romano a coda on Obama as ‘philosopher-in-chief’. I too think that the election of a President of Obama’s humanity and learning represents a giant step forward in the history of the United States. But his philosophical leadership – if that is what it is – has been running up against unprecedented hostility and misunderstanding. If America really were as philosophical as Romano represents it this would not be the case. His vision of America the Philosophical has a very long way to go.
© Prof. Peter Caws 2014
Peter Caws is University Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at The George Washington University, Washington DC.
• America the Philosophical, Carlin Romano, Vintage, 2012, 672 pages, ISBN 978-0345804709